On the last day of summer a deadly dance unfolds on the sprawling landscape of timbered hills and open sagebrush country that defines Eastern Oregon. A curious cowboy on a green broke horse, cow dog trotting faithfully alongside moves slowly, cautiously, down the spine of a rocky ridge. The cowpoke slips from the saddle, takes the lead rope in one hand and squints through a narrow opening between tightly packed trees and into the swale below. Then he squats on his haunches, takes a can of snuff from his shirt pocket and tucks a fat pinch of brown tobacco under his bottom lip. He replaces the lid, adjusts his hat to shade his eyes from the setting sun, and continues to intently stare downhill; hoping to see what he might see, expecting something to happen, not at all sure what that something might be. The lead rope remains in his right hand, the snuff can in his left. Behind him the horse blows a soft trill of air out quivering nostrils and begins to anxiously paw the ground. The dog at his side, alert to danger, cocks an ear and points it down the hill.
A person takes a rest against a weathered stump, or it might have been against a tree, sights through the riflescope and lines up the crosshairs on a big bull elk that is not there, or sees the target all too well. This person flips off the safety and makes a conscious decision, sending a command impulse snaking down long, pliant arm muscles to an index finger. The finger curls imperceptibly against the fine grooved metal of a trigger, curls a tiny bit more and this sets in motion a sequence of reactions that, once initiated, can never be stopped, or reversed, or taken back. Sear mechanism trips, releasing the spring-loaded hammer whose sharp point abruptly contacts the soft brass coating of the primer. Nitrogen powder ignites. Smokeless gunpowder explodes and drives the 150-grain projectile down the throat of the barrel. Lands and grooves force the bullet to twist at a ratio of one full spin to each nine inches it travels. And, as if a precise line had been drawn to the target, the bullet travels in a slight arc and slams with an abrupt thud into the cowboy’s chest. Body mass absorbs the brunt force, and as the roar of the rifle washes over him, the cowboy rocks onto his heels and begins to fall, almost gently, so that when his head makes contact with the ground his hat remains in place, although the front brim is tilted upward at an odd angle. His right knee stays upright. The fingers on his left hand deftly relax and the snuff can rolls away down the incline. Overcome with panic, the horse rears, breaking off dead limbs from the tree above her head, pulls the lead rope free, and in her confusion races headlong down the rocky ridge toward where the shooter remains hidden. The dog shies, but only for a moment and then comes scooting back on his belly to whimper, whine and to finally lick the face of the dead cowboy.
Phil Brooks was a rangy man, 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, a boy really, and on the day he was killed – September 20, 1994 – he was only twenty-three years old. His eyes were blue, his hair was cut short and he was dressed in western garb; pretty much what he always wore because, after all, he was a cowboy. He had pointy-toed boots with slanted buckaroo riding heels, Wrangler jeans in need of a wash and held in place with a hand-tooled brown leather belt adorned with a silver rodeo buckle, no underwear, lightweight shirt with the sleeves snagged off at the elbows, and a gray felt cowboy hat that had been scuffed and banged around from wrecks on horseback, wrestling calves and rangy cows, bar fights and occasionally tossed aside when Phil was lucky enough to join a lady friend in bed.
Phil worked as a ranch hand on the Fopiano, a 33,000 acre cattle ranch on Waterman Flat in Eastern Oregon, located midway between Prineville and John Day. The Collins brothers, Jimmy and Bob, owned this ranch and several others. Jimmy and his wife Georgia lived at the Fopiano headquarters while Bob and his wife Ruth lived on the adjoining 101 Ranch.
On the day Phil was to die he spent his morning working cattle with Jimmy, and even though Jimmy was an old man, in his 80s, he was still capable of putting in long days in the saddle. He wanted to get the cattle out of the mountains and down to the safety of the barbwire delineation on Waterman Flat before hunting season began and some stupid hunter mistook a twelve hundred pound bred Hereford cow for a buck, or a bull elk.
When they broke for lunch Phil asked, “Anything pressing needs to get done?”
“Nothing that can’t wait,” replied Jimmy. “Got something in mind you wanna do this afternoon?”
“Was kinda thinkin’,” drawled Phil, “I might take my sister’s horse for a ride.” He went on to explain he had picked up the horse the day before from his sister, Tina Bolton, that it was green broke and spooky as all get-out at everything from a song bird flushing from sagebrush, to tree limbs and even shadows. The horse, a 2-year old filly, was dark chestnut with a white blaze running from its ears down the forehead to the tip of its nose. He said the horse’s name was Flirt, and followed that up with, “Sounds like somethin’ a gal might come up with for a name.” He shook his head. “Thought I might make a run up into the timber. Try and work out some of her spookiness.” He paused for a moment to dig a final dip of chew from the can, and he reminded himself to get a fresh can when he got to his trailer. He went on. “That horse is just a little bitty thing. Hell, I’ll probably hafta hold up my knees or my feet’ll drag the ground.” He laughed.
Jimmy said to go, take the afternoon off, that they’d ride for more cattle in the morning. Phil got in his pickup and drove to what was known locally as the granary, a barn where Phil had parked his travel trailer and was living at the time. He stopped long enough to grab a fresh can of chew and to fix a sandwich that he took with him and ate on the way. Jimmy, who was headed out to visit a neighbor, passed Phil on the road and they exchanged compulsory nods. That was the last time Jimmy saw Phil alive. Later, when Jimmy was asked what time they had met on the road, he thought for a minute and replied, “Suppose it was somewhere around 2 p.m., thereabouts anyway.”
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