The Death of the Marlboro Man

He was a real cowboy who worked every day of his life and was a lot bigger than even Marlboro made him out to be.

A world big enough to hold a rattlesnake and a purty woman is big enough for all kinds of people.
–An old-time cowboy saying

I NEVER REALIZED THAT THE Marlboro cowboy was real until I read last May that he had drowned on a bucking bronco. Drowned … incredible … drowned on a nervous young colt in a newly-dug stock tank on the Bill Flowers Ranch near Old Glory, in the starkly beautiful Marlboro country north of Sweetwater. No one knows exactly how it happened; as usual, Carl (Bigun) Bradley was alone at the time.

Bigun and his daddy, Carl (Banty) Bradley, had just sold the colt to Bill Flowers, but Flowers’ foreman couldn’t handle him. Bigun saddled the horse late that afternoon, cinching the flank rope tight as he could so the horse would feel pain every time he bucked, then he rode off toward what they call Cemetery Pasture.

Bigun was 36 and for as long as anyone could remember his workday started before sunup and ended after sundown, never varying except for the two days he took off to get married, and the few times he was off in South Dakota doing a Marlboro commercial; it was seven days a week, week after week, it was the repetition as well as the work that kept him at it. But this particular day, for no particular reason, Glenda Bradley was worried. She telephoned Susann Flowers at ranch headquarters just after dark.

“You know how cowboys are,” Susann Flowers told Glenda. “You gotta hit them in the head to get them off their horse. He’ll be in in a while.” Nevertheless, Bill Flowers and his foreman would take a pickup out to Cemetery Pasture and see about Bigun. “I’ll call you back,” Susann told Glenda.

The Flowers were not only Bigun’s employers, they were his friends, and Glenda’s too, a couple about their own age. Bill Flowers was a famous rodeo roper and heir to old Pee Wee Flowers’ four-ranch spread of 80,000 acres. Bill was a real cowboy, too, but not in the way Bigun was—Bigun was a working cowboy, the son of a working cowboy, the grandson of a working cowboy, all of them born and raised on the same tenant ranch outside of Knox City, simple men working for wages and living their unrelenting existence in a world that could go mad without them knowing or even caring. Bill Flowers and Bigun Bradley had rode together when Bigun was wagon boss of the Four Sixes (6666) Ranch near Guthrie—”neighboring” they call it, helping out when there is branding or gathering to be done—there was one stretch, Bill recalled, when they were out 41 days, miles from the nearest asphalt or bathtub or woman or child or roof or television set. But there was always this difference—Bill Flowers was rich, he could quit anytime and go back to running his own ranch and rodeoing. Bigun Bradley never had time for the rodeo. And he didn’t live long enough to own his own spread.

Bill Flowers and his foreman found nothing in Cemetery Pasture, but returning to the ranch house late that night they saw something in the headlights that sent cold chills up their boots—a horse’s leg and part of a saddle blanket protruding from the muddy water near the edge of the new stock tank.

“Get the rope,” Bill yelled, jumping from the pickup before it had even stopped rolling. But they had made a mistake that Bigun Bradley would never make: they had forgotten their rope.

About midnight, Bill and Susann Flowers drove over to Glenda’s house and told her they had found the horse. There was no trace of Bigun, except his lip ice, gloves and a package of Kools. Sheriff Marvin Crawford and other volunteers had come over from Aspermont, and the dragging operation had begun. The Flowers drove Glenda and her 18-month-old son, Carl Kent Bradley, back to the ranch house where they would wait out the night.

“It was the longest night ever,” Susann Flowers would say later. “We kept hoping that maybe he had been bucked and was unconscious somewhere out there. Almost the same thing had happened to my daddy’s foreman in Pecos—they found his body in the Pecos River. We never knew what happened.”

Working in the lights of a circle of pickup trucks and a fire truck beacon, the cowboys told stories and speculated. There were three possibilities: Bigun could have been bucked off; the horse could have spooked and charged into the water, taking Bigun with him; or Bigun could have deliberately rode the bronco into the tank. “Some people think every horse will swim, but every horse won’t swim,” Sheriff Crawford said. “I’ve rode horses up to drink tubs…you get a bronco around water, the cinches tight up, they’re liable as not to turn and pitch. You get a horse in water, most of them will swim right across, but they’s a few’ll just turn on their sides and go straight to the bottom.”

“Bigun has been known to ride ‘em into water,” another cowboy recollected. “I seen him one time after a big rain take his chestnut right into the Little Wichita, trying to get the cattle to follow him.”

Back at the ranch house, George Humphrey, an oldtime cowboy who managed the Four Sixes for 40 years (Bigun left the 6’s when George retired four years ago), told stories to the gathering of women and children. How in the old days when cattle were cheap the best way to subdue an old mossy horn was to shoot it through the thick part of the horns, aiming for dead center so that the pain would calm the steer and make it manageable. “What if you misshot?” Glenda Bradley asked, laughing the nervous schoolgirl laugh that was maintaining her. “You’d kill the animal,” George Humphrey said. “Cattle was cheap and it was an advantage to get rid of these outlaws at any price. They spoiled

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