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.

to ride drag…you know, back at the end, hollering and yelling and pushing horses. It was just dusty as the dickens. I was trying to smoke those Marlboros—I thought that’s what I oughta smoke—but they were burning me up—I’d take one puff and throw it way. That’s when Bigun came riding back. He didn’t say a word. He just took a pack of Kools out and offered me one.”

Joe Thigpen takes another cigarette and shakes his head. Hard to believe. Hard to believe that a man who knew so much about horses could be killed by one. “It’s something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind,” he says.

It doesn’t take long to tour the Old Glory community, but the tour is fascinating. Seated in a flat, green valley of windmills and skeleton mesquites that have been poisoned because they take too much water from the land, Old Glory is an abandoned cotton gin, a general store and post office, and a scattering of quaint old homes. One of the homes is the old Raynor Court House which sits now like a feudal castle on a high mound. It looks like the house in the movie Giant I think as I drift below on the farm road from Aspermont, and it turns out they modeled the movie set after the Raynor Court House. An old couple whose name I didn’t catch live there now. No one ever goes up there, they told me at the general store.

The Germans who settled here called the spot New Brandenburg until World War I when, in a fit of patriotism, they decided the name sounded too un-American and asked the oldest woman in town, Mrs. Weinke, what they should do about it. She told them to change it to Old Glory, and that’s what it’s been ever since.

I’M IN THE PASSENGER SIDE OF a station wagon with Susann Flowers and her two young boys. Bill Flowers has been off since before daylight, buying cattle in a market that is on the verge of Nixonian panic, and Susann is showing me the ranch. We drive through Cemetery Pasture, where the old German cemetery is preserved by a fence—judging from the grave stones, an unusual number of children died here in the late 1800’s, a time of epidemic, perhaps—and now we slow down near the stock tank where Bigun Bradley died.

“You know what I always think when I drive by here?” Susann Flowers says. “I think about Bigun’s hat. We never found it. It’s down there somewhere.

“Bigun couldn’t swim, you know. Neither can Bill. It scares the hell out of me to see them swimming their horses, but they do it all the time. There’s no reason for it, it’s just something they do. We’re not supposed to question what happens on this earth, but I can’t help wonder what happened that night. He could have been bucked, or the horse could have gone into the tank, but I can’t help feel that Bigun rode in on purpose.”

We stop in a warm summer rain while Susann fills the tank of her station wagon from a gasoline drum near the foreman’s house. In an adjoining pasture there is a modern house trailer where old Pee Wee Flowers still comes occasionally to play dominoes with the hands. Susann wants to change the name of the Bill Flowers Ranch to “something Spanish,” but Bill and Pee Wee won’t hear of it. Susann Flowers doesn’t want her two children to cowboy, but that’s what they will do—cowboy like their daddy, not like Bigun Bradley. Meanwhile, Susann is organizing a college scholarship fund for little Carl Kent Bradley.

“Bigun wasn’t afraid of anything,” she says as we drive back to the ranch headquarters. “I heard him say one time—he was talking about this cowboy we all knew—Bigun said: ‘Charley’s afraid of dying.’ It was something Bigun couldn’t understand. He was tough as hell—that’s what he was. Yet he was the most considerate, most dependable man I ever knew. I’d known him for years before he stopped calling me Mrs. Flowers—and I was younger than he was.”

Jeff Flowers, age 5, tells me what he remembers about Bigun—Jeff remembers Bigun brought him a tiny rabbit they caught in post hole. Jeff wears spurs on his little boots and has two horses. They’re not very good horses, he tells me.

In a driving rainstorm, I turn toward Knox City, thinking about women and glasses of beer.

I STOP TO CONSULT MY CRUDE map. The rain has stopped and the sun is slipping behind Buzzard Peak when I find the muddy, rutty, unmarked road which leads to the tenant house where Bigun and all his people grew up—the ranch that Banty Bradley now leases. A sign at the main-gate cattleguard identifies this as the “General American Oil Co.,” and it is still another ten miles to the house, which sits on a crest overlooking miles of green hills and naked brown peaks. Fat quail and jack rabbits big as dwarf deer bounce in front of my car, and horses and cattle look me over without judging my intentions.

Banty and May Bradley are out by the stable, hoeing weeds. There are miles of weeds, weeds far as you can see, but the apron of ground around the stable is clean as a dinner plate. They hoe patiently, like people listening to the radio, like they don’t care if there is an end to their struggle.

Banty is a short, husky, red-faced cowboy with wide spaces between his teeth to spit tobacco through. They say Bigun was a younger exact replica of his daddy. May, though, is pure Texas mule-iron, a lean, severe, outspoken woman who hasn’t smiled since Christmas. There is no telephone here; I couldn’t call in advance, and now they decline to be interviewed. I stand by my open car door, asking questions, while they go on hoeing, then I get an idea.

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