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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

Voice of a Ranch Woman
Ninth in a Series

Living Through the Droughts

Lessons from a one-eyed cowboy.

By Linda McDonald, as told to Victoria Tester

This first-person reminiscence is excerpted from recordings of Linda Nielson McDonald at her home on the McDonald Ranch. Established in 1903, the McDonald Ranch is among the five oldest continuously working ranches in Grant County. Linda McDonald, born in Moab, Utah, in 1942, is the wife of Jerry McDonald, the son of Jonnie McDonald and Evelyn McCauley. These recordings are a collaboration between McDonald and author Victoria Tester, whose book Miracles of Sainted Earth (University of New Mexico Press) won the nationally recognized Willa Cather Literary Award. Their efforts mark the beginning of a project by the two women to record and publish a book of oral histories of ranch women in southern New Mexico. August's story is a tribute to Jonnie McDonald (1912-1997), in his birthday month.

Grandpa Jonnie McDonald was born in the house he died in, on the McDonald Ranch. He was born prematurely, and his mother of course did not know he was going to come, and there was only a young girl there by the name of Lilly Trotter. Lilly was only eighteen years old, but Grandma Mitchel McDonald had already had three children. She'd had Uncle Bartley, Uncle Taylor and Aunt Jane, so I guess she knew about having babies, and I do think all of those were born at home. So Grandma McDonald helped this young girl get everything ready because she knew she was going to have this baby. And because he was born prematurely, he was so small he fit in a shoebox.

Newlyweds Jonnie and Evelyn McDonald in 1936.

Aunt Jane said her mother had already prepared a special dinner that day — it was Sunday — an elaborate dinner. It was chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes, and hot biscuits, and because it was in August there were lots of vegetables. The dessert was probably a cobbler. Jeremiah, Grandpa McDonald, didn't really work on Sundays, but for some reason he and the two boys weren't there.

But Lilly Trotter was there; her mother was Grandma McDonald's sister, Aunt Sally, who had passed away in February. Grandma Mitchel and Lilly were sitting on the porch visiting, and Mitchel said, "Do you think you could act as a granny for me?" Maybe they called a "granny" somebody that delivered the babies. Lilly said, "Oh, if I had to." She assured Lilly it was no laughing matter — the baby was on the way. So she stirred up the fire in the woodstove and put a big tea kettle on, plenty of hot water, and told her how to fix the bed for the home delivery. Grandpa's mother was always a real organized person, and she knew what was coming, so she had the baby clothing, the blankets, the shirts and so forth, all ready.

She hadn't been in that bed more than five minutes when Grandpa was born! Lilly put him in a blanket and put him beside his mother, and then they had to cut the umbilical cord. Up until that point Lilly had been very cool and collected, but it unnerved her for the rest of the day to have to cut the cord. She was a very young and timid person, but she was the only one there so she had to do it.

Pretty soon Uncle Bartley and Uncle Taylor came in. They were just boys, and they viewed the situation and went right to their mom, Grandma Mitchel, and both of them began to cry. Aunt Jane said her mother was a little impatient with that, because they grew up in an era where the arrival of babies was not discussed openly among family members. The boys probably didn't even know she was going to have a baby! Or maybe they were aware of the approaching birth, but they'd had a bad experience because Aunt Sally had died with complications of a birth. I'm sure they thought their mother was going to die, too. A birth has a lot of blood connected to it.

When Grandpa Jeremiah McDonald came in, he said, "Do you need a doctor?" And Mitchel said, "No need of a doctor now!" So he rode to the neighbors and told them all the good news.

Jonnie McDonald was sickly for the first year of his life, and they didn't know if he was really going to live. Aunt Jane said he was a quiet child, but he did become waspy about things from time to time. So he was the little brother. He was several years younger than his older siblings, so they were all protective of him. But they wanted to teach him to be a cowboy, so they'd take him out riding, and they wanted him to do all the things they hadn't gotten to do.

Aunt Jane talked about how Grandpa Jonnie would just sit by his father Jeremiah's side in the evening, and listen to his stories, all the old stories about when Jeremiah was growing up and he was on all the cattle drives. The wonderful talent Grandpa Jonnie had was that he remembered all of this. And he became the storyteller, because he remembered it all perfectly, the way his father had told him.

One of the stories was about when Jeremiah was 13 years old, and his mother had passed away and a housekeeper come in to take care of the housekeeping duties and take care of the children, and the housekeeper disciplined his little brother Bat, and spanked him. Jeremiah took great offense at this and he slapped her. But he knew when his dad Bartholomew came home, he would beat him for hitting that housekeeper.

So Jeremiah left home when he was 13 years of age. He happened to get in with cowboys, and he started just being a wrangler. He'd go out and wrangle up the herd. They found he had a real knack with cattle, so he worked his way up and he'd always become a foreman in these groups of cowboys, and he got a reputation for that. He was a trail herd cutter, which is the same as a brand inspector.

Another story Jonnie McDonald was told was about when Jeremiah came to New Mexico. They were down around Cloverdale, and he was working for a cow outfit — he didn't know who was he working for — but he saw a big herd of cattle come in, and then there became a big gunfight going on, and he and the cook and another guy by the name of Joe Taylor got on top of this Spanish-style roof and they had that protection, the way those Spanish-style houses were built. Men were shooting their guns and everything and the cook turned to Jeremiah and he says, "Do you know who you're working for?" And Jeremiah says, "No, I don't." And the cook says, "You're working for Black Jack Ketchum! If you'd just take my advice, you'd get out of here!" So he did. He slid down off that roof and he got him a horse — I don't know where he got a horse — and he got away. That was around the 1880s, when he first came into this country.

So Grandpa's father came into New Mexico — he actually came in here with an immigrant train — with this Joe Taylor, and then he got up to the Silver City area and he worked for the LC Cattle Co., Lyons and Campbell Cattle Co., and he was a wagon boss for 'em. He worked for them for 13 years. Then he met Grandpa's mother, Mitchel Ann Gordon, over near Duncan, Ariz. These cowboys were there going to dances, and these girls lived around there. Jeremiah asked her one night, "Can I carry you home?" She says, "No, I can carry myself!" But anyway, they got married, and she was a lot younger than he was. She also knew, because she had been living in that area, that the LC was a rough bunch. They had their cattle in there, and they had all these settlers in there, and the settlers would steal their cattle, because they were looking for something to feed their families.

There was a story Grandpa's dad told. There was a lady, and her husband had abandoned her and she had this baby, and so Aunt Ellen, which would be another aunt of Grandpa Jonnie, went around taking collections for this woman who'd lost her husband and just had this baby. Jeremiah gave her $10. He'd caught her husband stealing one of the LC cattle, and he'd said, "You'd better get out of here or I'm going to kill you." Then he realized that this was the wife of the man! That was why he gave her such a nice big donation, because he'd told her husband to get out.

Back then a lot of people were taking up homesteads around here. The area wasn't fenced, so everybody's cattle just all ran together. But before Mitchel said she'd marry Jeremiah McDonald, she said, "Okay, but you've got to quit the LCs." So then he worked for several ranches around this area. They lived over at Oak Grove.

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