“He soldiered on, conceding nothing, even his own mortality, until disaster inevitably struck.”
Excerpt from Robert’s Story: A Texas Cowboy’s Troubled Life and Horrifying Death
Used with permission from author Stephen G. Michaud.
Many Texas ranchers at the time were turning to helicopters to help manage their herds. Not Tom, who continued to do it the old way, on horseback. It was a daunting personal challenge; East was risking everything, including his health. Now in his mid-60s, having already outlived his father and six of his seven paternal uncles—four of them succumbed to cardiovascular disease—Tom was too intelligent not to realize the threats he faced.
Dr. James W. Nixon Jr., a prominent San Antonio surgeon and the East family physician as his father had been, shared his concerns about Tom’s health in a 1967 letter to Old Mama, advising that her son ought to “take it a little more easy,” because he was “certainly doing more than he should with his present condition.”
But East ignored all the warnings. Mike remembers his father’s exhausting daily schedule that began at three o’clock each morning when Mike would hear him climb into his Jeep Bronco and rumble away from the Santa Fe on a cross-country route to the Kenedy Ranch. Each morning, East would stop to pick up one of his cowhands, who later reported how Tom was sometimes stricken with sudden, agonizing chest pains as they drove along. East warned the man that if he said a word about the episodes, he’d be fired.
One practical reason for hiding his heart condition was to protect those big loans. But Tom East wouldn’t readily give in to what he probably saw as a weakness. So he soldiered on, conceding nothing, even his own mortality, until disaster inevitably struck.
It was nearly 80 degrees on Saturday afternoon, December 8, 1984, dry and humid, with a light breeze, as East carefully steered his Ford Bronco toward the Fernández windmill at La Parra. Just ahead of Tom and his passenger, 22-yearold Ramiro Pérez, were four or five head of cattle that Tom was expertly coaxing toward a water trap gate near the windmill in advance of a roundup.
Slowly weaving the vehicle back and forth behind the little herd, Tom was careful not to rush or disturb them. He knew from long experience that if the animals thought it was their idea to pass through the gate, they’d cooperate, although at their own unhurried pace. Pérez remembers Tom was enjoying himself that afternoon, conducting a sort of master class in working cattle for the young cowboy. Once the animals passed through the gate and were securely inside the 300-acre trap, East lifted his right arm as if to throw an imaginary lasso, smiled, and said, “That’s the way you do it, kid.”
When Pérez thinks back on the afternoon, he always fixes on an unusual moment, maybe five minutes before Tom escorted the cattle into the trap, when the older man stopped the Bronco, pulled out his wallet, and handed him $30.
“What’s that for?” Pérez asked.
“Take ’em,” Tom replied. “You’re going to need ’em—money for something.”
The vaquero has ever since wondered if don Tomás, at that moment, somehow knew something he didn’t.
They made a U-turn in the trap and headed back through the gate and out onto a caliche road, where the vehicle lost traction in the soft ground. East stopped once more. Ramiro, looking out his passenger-side window, heard Tom moan and turned to see him bent at the waist over the gear shift.
There had been a couple such moments before. Once, at the Piedra Camp on Sarita Kenedy’s side of the ranch, they were drinking water together at a trough when Tom stopped and walked over to the truck, where he bent over, grabbed his stomach, and started gasping for air. After a time, he stood up, looked straight at Pérez in a way that suggested the young man better listen up, and said, “Okay. Don’t tell anybody.” Pérez understood this was an order, not a request.
Something similar had also happened at the Marana pasture. Tom bent over and then fell to his knees before he recovered. Again there was the stern look and the explicit command that Pérez say nothing.
Beto Salazar, also a vaquero, witnessed similar episodes as well and was warned to keep what he had witnessed to himself. Pérez, at first, had thought that East was reaching for the four-wheel drive lever, but he soon realized that Tom was motionless and unmistakably moaning in pain.
“Are you okay?” Pérez asked him. “Are you okay?”
The cowboy tapped Tom on his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Again no reply.
He then grabbed East by his shirt and pushed him back into the driver’s seat.
Tom’s face was purple.
“Are you okay?” Pérez asked once more as he pushed the gear shift into park, jumped out of the vehicle, and ran around to the driver’s side, where he opened Tom’s door. “Are you okay? Are you all right?” he asked.
The only reply was a moan. Tom’s face had turned from purple to red.
“I got scared,” says Pérez. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Then his gaze fell on East’s car phone. The device served the sole purpose of saving time when communicating with B. Goodwyn, who provided trucking service during roundups. If more or fewer trucks were required as the roundup proceeded, Tom could quickly contact Goodwyn from his Bronco rather than have to drive all the way back to the ranch office phone. Pérez didn’t know how to operate the cell phone, so he punched REDIAL, hoping for the best. The last person Tom had called on the car phone was B. Goodwyn himself, who answered Pérez’s call.
“My name’s Ramiro,” he told the trucker. “I’m just a kid. I’ve got Tom East here with me. We’re in a pasture with nobody around.”
Goodwyn thought it was a prank and admonished the young man that Tom East’s car phone was for business only.
Pérez persisted. “I HAVE TOM EAST WITH ME!” he yelled. “I THINK HE’S HAVING A HEART ATTACK. SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH HIM!”
That got Goodwyn’s attention. The cowboy again explained that he did not know how to use the car phone and asked the trucker to call 911 for him. “Tell them I have Tom with me,” he said. “I need help!”
Goodwyn advised Pérez that he’d find help and instructed the young vaquero to try to get Tom out of the pasture to Highway 77. The trucker called the sheriff ’s office and Mike East as well. Just then, Ramiro’s father, Avelino Pérez, appeared in the distance, putting out hay for the cattle. Ramiro ran to him.
“I told him, ‘Tom is dead!’
“‘Tom is dead!’
Avelino ran to the Bronco, grabbed Tom’s wrist to search for a heartbeat, and found none.
Another young vaquero, Rubén Bueno, was with Avelino that day. Together, Bueno and Pérez were able to move Tom across the center console into the vehicle’s passenger seat and then headed for the highway.
Soon after they got to the main road, Kenedy County sheriff Rafael Cuéllar Jr., known as Junior, and his deputy, Buddy Naranjo, intercepted them. The sheriff ordered Pérez to drive to the Buckhorn, a small convenience store near the entrance to La Parra. There, they carried Tom inside and laid him on the floor.
Sheriff Cuéllar attempted CPR. “But it was too late,” says Pérez, who was overcome by what he’d just been through and drove away in Tom’s Jeep to be alone with his feelings.
Robert’s Story: A Texas Cowboy’s Troubled Life and Horrifying Death
Hardcover, 979-8985265002, 384 pages
September 13, 2022
Stephen G. Michaud is an internationally recognized author, co-author, reporter, and editor whose decades-long career credits comprise twenty books and multiple contributions to periodicals including Newsweek, Businessweek, The New York Times, Maxim, Reader’s Digest, Salon, Boys’ Life, and Playboy.