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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.

There was no question of giving up. Tony and Sharon had left the city because they believed it was the only way to save their children--especially the boys--from the gangs and the drugs. If they'd stayed in Denver, Tony truly believed the gangs would have won, that his boys would either be in the ground or in prison or heading toward one or the other. And then his whole life would have been a waste.

So he got out--and now look: Elijah, the oldest boy and Tony's stepson, was about to graduate from a country high school where he'd been one of the most popular kids and a star athlete. Ali was dreaming of becoming a jet fighter pilot. And Luqman, that crazy ten-year-old, Garth Brooks-loving Luqman, well, he was just like his father...he wanted to be a cowboy. And they were all being raised in the faith that taught them to be honest, to avoid drugs and alcohol, to not bring children into the world that they couldn't care for.

But one of his sons was still in danger, and the Denver courts were trying to force Tony to choose between this son and the future of all the others. They wanted him to send Jamal, a sixteen-year-old boy he'd fathered before meeting Sharon, the son he'd gained custody of shortly before moving to the valley, back to his mother for a month-long visit, back to the war zone.

Tony didn't want to do it. Jamal's mother used drugs, Tony had complained to the courts, and her other kids and relatives were involved with gangs and guns. But if Tony didn't comply, he might be thrown in jail or fined--either of which would have devastating consequences for the rest of his family. The choice weighed heavy on his mind. This is how Abraham must have felt, he thought, when God ordered him to sacrifice his son Ismail to test his devotion.

From the window, Tony could see Mount Blanca. The afternoon sun danced off the snow fields that gave the peak its Spanish name. He remembered the day four years earlier when he and Sharon were looking for a sign and the sun had broken through the clouds to illuminate the mountain, convincing them that this was the place to bring their children. The memory gave him comfort. After all, God had relented and spared Abraham's son. Perhaps this was a test as well.

Tony smiled as Luqman went careening past the window on his bicycle, Chubs bounding along behind. Like father, like son. In sha lah. As God wills...

Born in Denver in 1954, Tony was still an infant when his family moved to the suburbs that were springing up like mushrooms in the farmland surrounding Kansas City. His mother stayed home to raise Tony and his brother and sister, and she saw to it that they kept up with their schoolwork. Each child was required to check out four library books a week. Tony never needed reminding after he learned that everything he wanted to know about everything, especially cowboys, could be found in a book.

Tony's father was a mailman, a man who never took any handouts and didn't approve of his kids asking for anything they weren't willing to work for. The children of the Brown household were taught to take personal responsibility for their actions. If you borrow one of Pop's tools, put it back. Don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal. If you promise to do something, stick with it to the end. Respect your elders and trust your conscience.

The Browns had plenty of help raising their kids. Tony's great-grandmother, Clara Murrell, who had been born on a Tennessee farm in 1890 to two former slaves, taught her great-grandkids all about the Emancipation. She told them to take pride in their heritage, that freedom had a special meaning to black folks.

At her urging, Tony began asking for books on black history at the library. That's how he discovered the black cowboys. Bill Pickett, the famous bull-dogger...champion calf-roper Nat Love...One Horse Charley. They and hundreds like them had ridden the old trails and helped settle the West--respected and admired even by their white peers. Mounted on his trusty bicycle, his cocker spaniel, Teddy, running alongside, Tony imagined himself riding the range, a six-shooter on his hip, with nothing between him and the horizon but freedom. When no one was looking, he'd sidle up to a neighbor's horse and, grabbing a handful of mane and hopping on the horse's back, hang on for dear life until gravity and angry animal joined forces to throw him in the dirt. Then he'd get up, brush himself off and start dreaming again.

He and his siblings would take turns brushing Clara Murrell's thick white hair as she told them stories about growing up on a farm. One of their favorites was the tale of the night when, as a little girl, Clara took a shortcut across the local cemetery to get home. "A mysterious fog rose out of the ground and chased me," she told her wide-eyed listeners. "I ran and ran until I got to the edge of the churchyard and thought I was gonna get caught. But I looked back, and the fog had stopped right there...I never took that shortcut again." Seventy years later, she was still spry enough to catch and sit on any kid who gave her too much guff.

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