THE FARM TEAM

THE DENVER GANGS WANTED TONY BROWN'S BOYS. SO HE TOOK HIS FAMILY AND HEADED FOR THE HILLS.HOME ON THE RANGE MEET THE MUSLIM COWBOYS OF MOSCA, COLORADO.

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Allah-who-akbar. At the call to prayer, the Brown family assembled in the living room of their home near the tiny town of Mosca, in the San Luis Valley. Rolling out their prayer rugs in rows--the males in front of the females--they faced northeast, having determined that the route over the Arctic Circle to the holy city of Mecca is shorter than the more traditional course due east.

Allah-who-akbar. God is great. At his place in front of his family, Tony Brown invoked the name of God and dropped to his knees. Leaning forward and bowing from the waist so that his forehead touched the rug, he moved his lips in quiet supplication. The others--his wife, Sharon, their daughter, five sons, two nephews, two nieces and three little girls from the Shabazz family next door--followed his lead.

At Tony's command, they stood and continued praying before dropping back to their knees. "Allah-who-akbar," Tony called out again. "Allah-who-akbar," the others repeated. God is great. After a litany of invocations and responses, both standing and kneeling, the prayer was finished and the kids were free to go back to their games or studies.

Looking out of the trailer's picture window, Tony, a thin, coffee-colored man with short-cropped hair and a wispy goatee, could see most of the 160 acres of gray-brown dirt and ubiquitous rabbitbrush that constitute his farm. It was May, and the winter winds had given way to a gentle breeze that slipped over the San Juan range fifty miles to the west, passing over prosperous and dirt-poor farms like his, over the abandoned cabins of earlier settlers, then gliding east toward the nearby peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range. Toward Mecca.

Outside, three orphan lambs bleated to be fed. In the corral, Tony's young mare, Crescent, stood guard over the rest of the flock of 34 sheep that gathered around her legs. Chubs, a large white mop of a dog, and his smaller black colleague, Dog, rolled in the dust, jumping up occasionally to bark at nothing in particular.

The backyard had become the final resting place for a half-dozen cars, including a rusting Mercedes-Benz that the boys hope to resurrect someday. A makeshift clubhouse they'd thrown together a few years before, since commandeered by Tony to store last season's wool, teetered precariously to one side; the sign out front warned Buisiness Club...No girLs! Behind the clubhouse was the bicycle graveyard, the skeletons of what remained after the kids cannibalized the best parts to create the three or four bikes that actually worked and were a constant source of contention. And over by the corral, a basketball hoop rose out of the hard-packed dirt, with 14,345-foot Mount Blanca as a backdrop some twenty miles in the distance.

Off to one side, Tony's mother puttered about her small trailer. She stayed with the rest of the family through the long winter when the winds howled across the valley, but she liked having her own place during the summer months. Raised a Catholic, she didn't participate in the five daily Muslim prayers; she was content with her conception of God and too old to change. Tony knew to leave her be, to enjoy just having her near until she, too, was called to God and her body joined the other two in the small plot of land reserved for the family cemetery.

Tony had to admit that the place didn't look like much of a farm. He and the kids had managed to clear almost half of the tough, gray-green rabbitbrush that the locals called chicos, burning, chopping and digging up each bush by hand. They'd also put up a couple of miles of fence post and barbed wire and made a start at cleaning the piles of trash left by the previous owner. But there still was a lot to do.

Someone with less faith might have seen only more chicos and dust. But in his mind's eye, Tony saw a farm that was home to hundreds of sheep, a couple dozen head of cattle, a corral full of horses with fields of hay to feed them and a chicken-raising operation that would pay for everything. There'd be money for college educations. And, if all went right, a group home on the range to get even more kids out of the city and onto the farm where, yes, there was work to be done but also plenty of time for bonfires and cookouts, camping and fishing excursions. It was going to be a place where kids could run free, and the only gunshots they'd hear would be when one of the boys tried to pot a rabbit.

Tony and Sharon had come a long way since they'd picked up their kids and left Denver and its gangs four years earlier. But it had been at great cost: They'd lost their home in Denver to the banks and decimated their savings just to survive. It was still a constant struggle. Tony did odd jobs and took care of the farm and the kids; Sharon worked for the school district. But the money was barely enough to pay the mortgage, feed ten kids (with more coming that summer) and the livestock and put away a little toward the final balloon payment on the farm due next year.

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