part 1 of 2
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.

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.

When Tony was thirteen, his family moved to Cleveland, and Clara went to live with relatives in Arizona. She'd write, though, and encourage Tony to continue exploring his heritage. His search led him to the Nation of Islam, an Americanized version of the religion that incorporated the teachings of the prophet Mohammed with the notion of black separatism. At fifteen Tony converted to Islam: He liked its simplicity compared to the complexities of the Catholic faith in which he'd been raised.

But Tony's spiritual growth nearly came to a halt in 1970, when his great-grandmother died. He felt lost at her funeral. Clara Murrell had been his best friend and teacher, had warned him about staying away from the gangsters who hung out in the local pool halls, drinking cheap whiskey, committing petty crimes and frittering away their lives. Now that she was gone, he felt like it didn't matter anymore. So he quit school and began hanging out at those pool halls.

Finally, an aunt sat Tony down and told him to quit feeling sorry for himself. "When he couldn't find a job, your Grandpa Evans moved his whole family to Arizona and helped build the Hoover Dam," she told him. "They lived in a tent in the desert, and he built them a home with his own hands...Now what are you doing with your life?"

The talk woke Tony up. With his aunt's help, he enrolled in the Job Corps in Ogden, Utah, and got his high school equivalency diploma while renewing his love for wide-open spaces.

Once out of the corps, Tony got a job washing trucks. Most of the other workers were old men, transients who had pretty much given up on getting anywhere. One day one of those men pulled him aside. "Tony, most of us are old and washed up, and it don't matter much what we do," he told Tony. "But you're young and smart. You could do something with your life. You just got to make up your mind and do it."

That evening Tony went out and picked up a newspaper and began searching the employment ads. One in particular caught his attention: A national restaurant chain, Church's Fried Chicken, was looking for management trainees. The next morning Tony marched down to the recruiter's office. A few days later he was on his way to California for training.

Church's was a good operation to work for, but by 1976 Tony was growing restless. His early marriage had ended in divorce; they both had been too young. So Tony moved to Colorado and got a job managing a Kentucky Fried Chicken store.

He was glad to be back in the Rocky Mountain West. He bought a cowboy hat, followed shortly by a pair of boots from the Denver Stock Show. And every birthday, he drove to an Estes Park riding stable to relive the dreams of his childhood. In the back of his mind, Tony thought that someday he would like to get some land and start a farm or a ranch. In the meantime, though, he was serving up fried chicken by the bushel.

He was also dating. Shortly after his arrival in Denver Tony started seeing a young woman, but he grew uneasy around some of her relatives who were involved in drug dealing. He also found it increasingly difficult to reconcile her habits with his Islamic beliefs that prohibited the use of alcohol and drugs. Finally he broke off the relationship and, discouraged, prayed to Allah that he would someday meet a woman who would want to settle down and raise a whole bunch of kids.

In the summer of 1977 Tony was visiting a friend when he met Sharon, a short, dark woman with big, beautiful eyes who laughed a lot and was interested in what he had to say about Islam. She already had an infant son named Elijah; his father had abandoned them both.

Sharon had been raised on a farm outside of Dodge City, Kansas. Although there wasn't much money for the seven kids in her family, there had been a lot of love and support. Now she wanted her own big family and a big garden and lots of animals--and a good, honest man with whom she could share these dreams. When Sharon met Tony, she was sure he was the one. The only thing that marred their courtship was a telephone call from his previous girlfriend, who said she was pregnant with Tony's child. Six months later Jamal was born.

In 1978 Tony opened Denver's first Church's franchise at 34th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. The business was a success, and in September he and Sharon were married, with little Elijah in attendance. A year later the family grew by one when a daughter, Malika, was born. She was followed two years later by Ali.

Three years later Sharon was again pregnant. At 5 a.m. on a bitterly cold January day, she told Tony that the new baby seemed to be in a hurry to arrive. Tony went out to warm up the car for the drive to the hospital. When he returned, it was to the sound of Sharon yelling for help: The baby was on the way. And so Luqman, future cowboy, was delivered into his father's hands, eager to get started with the business of living. The hospital birth of Kareem two years later in 1986 was tame by comparison.

By then Tony and Sharon had purchased a nice bungalow in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in northeast Denver. But the city was changing. Crime seemed to be coming closer. They were hearing stories about troubled teenagers that they might have expected in Los Angeles or New York. But Denver?

Maybe it was time to start turning their dreams of a farm into reality.
Tony began reading books about crops and livestock, including The Shepherd's Guide Book, quietly giving thanks for his mother's determination that he learn how to use a library. He and Sharon traveled to various operations and talked to farmers and ranchers. Eventually they settled on a chicken farm, which seemed like a good business they could learn quickly. Besides, Tony already knew the retail and marketing end of the business. But they'd still need $25,000 just to build a barn and get the equipment to raise brooder hens. They started saving.

It soon became apparent that they needed to move faster. One evening in 1988 a young black man riding his bicycle in the Park Hill area was shot in the back and killed. According to police reports, the man didn't belong to a gang but had been shot by gang members because he was wearing clothing with the trademark colors of a rival gang.

Tony and Sharon watched the television news reports in horror. What kind of insanity was this? What was happening to kids...especially black kids...that they would kill other kids because of their clothes? Elijah was twelve; how long would it be before they had to worry about the color clothing he wore to school?

Over the next two years drive-by shootings and gang-related crime became so commonplace that they often didn't rate the front page of the papers. Although the Browns' immediate neighborhood seemed safe, the high-crime areas were only blocks away, and gunfire occasionally punctuated the night. They heard that gangs were recruiting younger and younger members, and they worried about Elijah and Ali, as well as the boys' teenage cousins. They insisted their children avoid certain areas and be home well before dark.

Then in late 1989, time ran out. Eighth-grader Elijah came home from school with his clothes torn and lips bloodied. He wouldn't talk much about it, and at first his parents thought maybe it was normal kid stuff. But when it happened day after day, they insisted Elijah tell them what was going on. It turned out one of his childhood friends had joined a gang, and now the pressure was on Elijah to join, too. He had to fight his way into and out of the school.

Angry and frightened for his son, Tony left the house intending to track the tormentors down and beat them with his own hands. But partway down the sidewalk he stopped. What am I doing? he asked himself. Am I going to fight with a child? What will that do, except make things worse?

Slowly, he felt his anger recede. These children weren't his enemies. It was the city, with all its frustrations and dead-ends, that made kids go bad. It was the destruction of the family that made them turn to gangs for support.

He turned around and went back into his house. That night he and Sharon decided to leave Denver as soon as possible. There wasn't time to build a bigger nest egg. They'd take out a second mortgage on their home and be gone before some cop showed up on their doorstep one evening to tell them that one of their sons was in jail or at the morgue.

They had to leave Denver now if they were going to save their children.

A month later, in January 1990, Tony and Sharon were driving through the San Luis Valley. Luqman and Kareem were with them, doing all the talking; their parents were lost in their thoughts. So far the search for a farm they could afford had been discouraging. As Sharon stared morosely out the window, Tony drove and prayed for a sign.

They had already traveled to a small town in Kansas, prepared to buy a farm there. A local realtor had sent a picture of the property with what appeared to be a nice home. Perfect, they thought, the farmlands of Kansas were about as far away from gangs as they could get. But when they actually saw the place, it looked nothing like the photograph. The house was a broken-down shack and the property in such disrepair that it would cost more money to fix up than it would ever be worth...more money than they had, anyway.

They were back in Denver, wondering what to do next, when Tony saw an ad for cheap farm land in southern Colorado. So they hopped in the car and drove four hours south to the San Luis Valley, a part of the state they'd never seen before.

Since they'd gone over Poncha Pass, the valley had been blanketed in gray clouds that stretched from the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east to the San Juan range to the west. The land between the two ranges looked harsh and inhospitable. Here and there, old cabins of weathered wood stood alone on the prairie, their splintered roofs open to the weather. Tony wondered what had become of the settlers. Were they running away from something or to something when they came to this high valley?

The Browns were driving north on Highway 17 when they caught a distant flash of light to the east. Looking over, they saw that Mount Blanca had poked its white peak through a wreath of clouds and the sun's rays were glancing off the snow in a dazzling display of light. It was so bright it was almost painful to look at, yet so wondrous that Tony thought, So that's what heaven looks like.

He pulled the car to the side of the road and remembered the old Muslim adage about doing what is necessary: If the mountain would not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain. He had been praying for some sign, and now it seemed his prayers had been answered. He turned to Sharon, who was looking at the mountain, to explain what he was thinking--but she already had reached the same conclusion. "This is the place," they said at the same time, then laughed in relief.

end of part 1


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >