The Branding Iron

The Branding Iron

screenplay by Alan Nafzger (113 pages)

You hardly ever see a branding iron at church Sunday morning, but Old Man Curry brought his, put it in the collection plate and then died. In 1957 at the terrible end of the era’s worst drought, everybody understood. Wife dead. Kids left off for California. Grand-kids beatniks. It didn’t even cause much debate at the Wheelock New Hope Baptist Church. They simply took on the responsibility.

What we didn’t know is that Curry was a huge marijuana grower. Half starved cattle when we got out there. But in the barn was tons and tons of the stuff. That caused a debate in the congregation. How after six years of half normal rainfall could a man grow this much marijuana? This was the only question. A secret well? A spring somewhere on the old man’s ranch? Never figured it out, but that was only a curiosity.

Winter was coming on with no hay in the barn, what was the congregation to do? Of course the Mexican drug gang was upset. And the Sheriff he wanted a piece of the action too. The banker controls the corrupt Sheriff.

Like every ranch in Texas in the 1950s, the place was mortgaged and the evil banker is about to foreclose. The only way we could escape was to feed the marijuana through the winter. Then drive the cattle to Fort Worth. Never seen so many people chasing 20 cattle trucks.

It wasn’t easy. With only no cowboy or rancher in the congregation. The drought ran off half the congregations to start with. Nothing left but three grand-kids, three widows, gunsmith turned preacher, an retired truck mechanic, a young female school teacher. They were joined by a Mexican immigrant kid and an out of work cowboy.

The Branding Iron – FILM PITCH

No people have suffered more than the Texas rancher in the 1957. After six years of extreme drought, there is great concern about money to buy food. Children are going to school and even church without shoes. The entire society is on the brink. Rancher, bankers and townspeople are strapped for cash. The church can’t even raise enough money to buy a head stone for Old Man Curry.

A motorcycle gang, using stolen water, has planted a marijuana field in the Big Bend National Park. In desperation to save his ranch from the drought and the banker, Old Man Curry has baled it. Curry invested in one of the first Allis-Chalmers “Roto-Balers”. Curry removes the bales to his barn, leaving the motorcycle gang flustered but looking for revenge. Their strategy is to visit each rancher in the area, ask for work and search for the marijuana.

Wil MacAnndres is an out of work cowboy without the good sense to move out of the drought area. He takes a job working in a small boot and saddle factory.

Wil MacAnndres is hired by the church to feed through the winter and then transport the cattle 400-miles to Fort Worth. Wil tries to hire help but the drought has decimated the area. Even the neighboring ranches don’t have hired help. Every laborer has moved on ahead of the drought.

There, Anse Petriashvili (gunsmith and preacher) suggests using the church membership. MacAnndres visits the church but departs unconvinced. The next morning, the congregation shows up at MacAnndres’s factory job. It is a very small church and they try to persuade him to use them as ranch labor and drivers.

MacAnndres tests the church members’ ability to cut and herd cattle. As the church members successfully take turns, Cimarron, a young Mexican boy walks up. He has crossed the border and is in bad condition. The boy has come from a family of Vaqueros in Mexico. He is angry at almost having died in the desert but slowly his heart warms to the church, who promptly adopt him.

While MacAnndres and the church care of the cattle in the winter, a group of mysterious men – a motorcycle gang – led by “Long Knife” Jon Nielsen show up asking for work. MacAnndres catches Nielsen in a lie about his past, and refuses to hire them. Long Knife gets a whiff of the Marijuana in the barn and plots to steal it.

Later Anderson saves Babe “Black Ace” Turner, a Black blues singer, from the gang. Ace makes Anderson’s ranch bunk house complete.

Under MacAnndres and Cimarron’s continued tutelage, the church membership learns to rope, brand and herd the cattle and horses. Much to MacAnndres’s concern, Long Knife and his motorcycle gang, are seen sneaking around the ranch.

There is a battle when the motorcycle gang raids the ranch with an eye on stealing the marijuana. Their idea is to take the drugs to the city and sell it for profit.

Old Man Curry had bought one of the Allis-Chalmers Roto-Balers and the marijuana is in round bales. However, MacAnndres and Cimarron have in the night moved the marijuana to the old Comanche overhang. They move the bales under a cliff were, in the old days, Comanche camped in winters. It is covered with tarps. The motorcycle gang reach the barn but get nothing.

The motorcycle gang finds traces of the marijuana. And now target the cattle for theft.

The banker and the Sheriff overhear the motorcycle gang members talking and they show up on the ranch looking to seize the marijuana and force the ranch into foreclosure. Once on the road, their plan is to use the transportation laws to seize the truck and keep the cattle from reaching market.

Anderson and the schoolteacher develop a romance.

There is a second battle when the cattle and what little of the remaining marijuana is to be moved to Fort Worth for sale. The cattle have wintered well. They are fat and will bring a nice price. Every other rancher is selling his or her skinny cows for very low prices, so the cattle are put on trucks and hauled to town.

Mr. Turner’s truck has a flat. As the church continue to drive the herd, Mr. Turner stays behind to fix the tire. That night, the rustlers surprise MacAnndres and the church at a truck stop, leading to a fistfight between MacAnndres and Long Knife in which MacAnndres ultimately gets the upper hand. Nielsen then grabs MacAnndres’s gun, seriously wounds MacAnndres and steals the herd, the trucks, and in Nielsen’ words “everything but their chicken fried steak.”

The following day, Turner catches up to the group to find the boys tending to the wounded MacAnndres. At the hospital, MacAnndres tells the church members how proud he is of all of them.

They church members are debating returning home defeated. However, word spreads among Christians in the small town of Gun Barrel. Soon there is an army of soldiers who are volunteering to help them get the cattle back. Armed with many weapons and in a variety of vehicles. The group and new friends travel to Fort Worth to recover the cattle.

The weather threatens a rainstorm. This may signal an end to the drought. Clouds are moving in. Many ranchers are in the parking lot listening to the weather on their truck radios. Many have sold cattle during the drought and once it is over they will be buying. The speculation is that the drought might be over as reports of a huge West Texas rain.

The motorcycle gang is parked in the parking lot of the Fort Worth Stock Yards. They are waiting to unload the cattle. Using ruses, trickery, and ambush, the church manages to disable the rustlers to a man, including Long Knife.

The battle to retake the cattle ends in the pouring rain. The sale of the cattle is made in the pouring rain. The price skyrockets as demand dramatically increases with the rain.

After the Church complete the sale at the stockyards, they use the money to pay off the banker. The ranch is clear and free. There is even enough money to make repairs on the fencing, house and barn at the ranch. Wil is hired to manage the ranch for the church. The church gets a new coat of paint.

Old Man Curry gets a head stone for his grave.

Wil recovers from his gun shot wound.

Wil and the schoolteacher are married.


Saving Grace (2000) meets The Cowboys (1972)

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