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John Prather: Life with New Mexico’s Mule King

Life with New Mexico’s Mule King

By Arleen Gaba

It was February of 1961 when I arrived in New Mexico with my two-month-old son. I had left the verdant valleys of northern California to join my husband and begin our life together on his grandfather's ranch, two hours north of El Paso, Texas. Looking out the window as our plane circled over the desolate Chihuahua desert, I was quite sure we were about to land on the moon! Perhaps my parents were right in questioning my sanity; marrying some boisterous cowboy and moving out to the middle of nowhere.

We would be living on a very large ranch, hours from the closest town, with no radio or television.  The ranch was situated on something called Otero Mesa that had been pioneered by my husband’s grandfather at the turn of the century. What was I thinking? I was a city girl. I had just given birth to my first child, I wasn’t that well versed in child rearing, and it seemed that every creature out here either had a stinger, fangs, or a barb---not a real welcoming environment! Apprehensive as I was though, my curiosity about my husband’s grandfather, who was referred to endlessly, helped to divert my recurring thoughts of “tucking and rolling” out the door as soon as the pick-up slowed down to at least 40 mph.

Although I had never met him, I along with everyone else in the country was familiar with John Prather. In his early years he was known as the “Mule King” because of the huge breeding program he and his brother Owen had run on the mesa, supplying remounts for the U.S. and Mexican governments during the World Wars. The collaboration between John and Uncle Sam worked well until 1957. Later, the Army was in the process of expanding the nearby White Sands Missile Range by purchasing all of the neighboring ranches for a fair market value though they could have condemned them and taken them over under the concept of eminent domain. The Army’s expansion program had proceeded well, with the ranchers having foreseen the futility of fighting such a huge entity as the U.S. government, accepting their individual offers, and moving out.

There proved to be one major roadblock however to this operation, in the form of an ornery octogenarian by the name of John Prather. When reporter Rick Raphael asked John if he wasn’t afraid of all those missiles that would be moving in nearby, he snorted back, “Oh hell no, I’ve raised mules all my life.” Although the Army had proffered a more than fair deal for his place, John was not about to be swayed. He understood the military’s need for expansion, and even offered to lease his land to them for one dollar a year, libel free, but the Army representatives refused. One of his departing neighbors asked him what he would do if the Army made good on its promise to forcibly remove him if he continued his stance, at which he calmly replied: “I’m saving this land for those kids of mine and if they try to drag me out of here, it will be with a rifle in my hand.” So there he stayed, tending to his cattle. Occasionally an armed guard would try to stop John and his housekeeper, Mary Toy, from passing through a pasture gate to check water and feed. John would tell the soldier that he realized that the man was only doing his job, but that he intended to pass through and that the young man had a choice to either let him through or they would have to settle it with whatever weapon was available, for John it was usually his pocket knife. None of the soldiers took him up on the offer, and after a hurried radio consultation with superiors, John was allowed access.

On August 8, 1957, a showdown came in the form of three deputies sent to forcibly remove the old man from his large, rock-faced home. The press planes circled overhead as John stepped out of the house where his family had gathered to greet the deputies. He offered them coffee, beans and cornbread, and the dignity of a shootout afterwards if they would prove to be intent on fulfilling their mission. The old man was not bluffing as he showed the deputies his rifle tucked in the corner of the living room amid sacks of letters of support from citizens from around the world. Hours later, after a meal and much talking the deputies’ car took off down the dirt road headed west, back to town, with an empty back seat. Afterward it was decided to let the whole issue calm down a bit, the military thinking it best to try and outwait the old man; after all how long would he be around? John would laugh and tell reporters: “Ha, I’ll show ‘em, I’ll live to be a hundred, and then I might decide to live a hundred more years!”

It was during this impasse that I would get to meet this special man called John Prather, a person people were calling everything from a crazy fool to an American hero, but my time knowing him would be the most incredible five years of my life. I have to admit that my first impression of him was quite disillusioning. I had him pictured as a stately cowman, dressed in fancy western clothes and very businesslike. The reality, when we drove up to the ranch headquarters on that cool spring morning, was very different. There sitting in his wrought iron rocking chair, under his carefully tended Pecan trees sat Grandpa (I guess I started calling him Grandpa before I ever met him). He was dressed in a khaki shirt and trousers with Brogan boots and a sweat stained Stetson pulled down low over his bright blue eyes. When he saw it was us, he came over to my side of the pick-up and very slowly said, “Well by damn, I see you finally made it out to see me”. Of course Grandpa always said that he never swore, because he never took the Lords’ name in vain, but he was known to come up with some pretty creative variations. I was truly astonished at this old man that stood before me, and I soon realized that you do not judge a book by its cover.

Before that first day was over I would see him working side by side with the young hands, ride all morning, and then walk more than a mile behind a herd of tired, dusty steers. As we sat at the dinner table that night I looked across at the man of eighty-seven years and realized that I had mistakenly referred to him as “old” and could not stop myself from smiling. I was surprised to find that Grandpa lived very simply. His large U-shaped home had been built by his son-in-law and my husband and was heated only by a huge fossil encrusted rock fireplace in the living room. The house had many windows and all of them were bare, without curtains or shades. Yet for all its starkness, it was a house in which guests and strangers alike always felt comfortable. Nearly everyone in that part of the country called him “Uncle John”. He loved people and enjoyed having company. Whenever any one visited the ranch, whether by plan or accident, they were always treated as if they had been eagerly expected and their place was set at the supper table before they had gotten to the front door. Long hours would be spent in that kitchen, enjoying some “confabing” and a raucous card game or two. We would often-times be surprised with the company of a” tourist” at the table, as John liked to call them. They were just people who had read newspaper accounts or seen television coverage of him and had somehow found their way out on the mesa to come see him in person. The old pioneers battle had brought him a celebrity status with the author Edward Abbey, who wrote a novel based on John titled, “Fire on The Mountain”, later to be made into a movie by the same name, starring Buddy Ebsen and Ron Howard. Walk into any honky-tonk and you were bound to hear Calvin Boles song, “The Ballad of John Prather” emanating from the background. Whatever the hoopla was though, he was just “Grandpa” to us.

The seasons came and went but I would notice that regardless of the weather, summer or winter, Grandpa always wore his shirt buttoned up to his neck and secured at the wrist. I often times could see his long underwear peeking out from underneath his cuffs. When I asked him about it he said that he dressed that way because nobody had seen his naked skin since the last time his mother bathed him and by damn nobody was ever going to. Evenings, after the work was done and dishes cleared, the family would settle down around the fireplace and Grandpa would tell us stories of the old days when his family had moved to New Mexico from east Texas by covered wagon. One of my favorite stories was the one where Grandpa as a young man had told his mother that if he ever saw a man uglier than he was, he would buy that man a horse. Several years later John ran into a long lost friend while taking care of business at the bank. As they caught up with each others lives Grandpa suddenly reared back his head so as to get a better look at his friend through his thick “coke bottle” glasses and exclaimed: “You know by damn, you’re so much uglier than me you deserve to have more than one horse!” Taken by surprise, his friend was quickly offended. However, that was soon forgotten as John came through with a fine saddle horse and a mule to boot! 

To me though, Grandpa was anything but ugly. Watching him work and listening to him talk I could feel the wisdom and beauty of this man right down to my toes. Even the stock on the ranch could sense this about him. John could mount the most skittish horse on the place and the minute he settled in to the saddle, the horse would straighten up and tend to business. Grandpa told us that to work with animals you have to think like them and respect them for what they are. Just being around him was wonderful and it made me aware that here was one of the last great ranchers of our time, a walking testimony to those men who had worked all their lives to mold a life and home with their sweat and blood. It wasn’t any wonder that now after so many years; he wouldn’t and couldn’t sell it to anyone. Whenever we needed groceries, had medical visits, or general town needs, we would make the long drive into the closest city, Alamogordo. It was here that Grandpa would never cease to amaze me. If he saw an expectant mother and thought she might need some baby clothes, he would approach her, introduce himself, and offer to buy whatever she might need. The local orphanage knew Grandpa as well and counted on him during the holiday season. Generally, no one was surprised at this behavior because he was well known in Alamogordo and noted for all sorts of random acts of generosity. We figured that he bought more baby clothes and false teeth for friends and strangers than we would eve be able to count.

As the years passed Grandpa would have occasional words with the Army, meeting with a general every now and then but not budging from his oft stated stance of “only leaving in a box.” There was however one person that John could not deter and that was Father Time. During one particularly hard winter John was stricken with pneumonia and spent the better part of a year in the hospital. When he was finally released to return home, he was not the same; the living, loving, and fighting had finally caught up with him. It was tragic to see this once seemingly invincible man rocking away his remaining time under the shade of his Pecan trees, knowing that he could not defend his beloved ranch and home as he once had. Often my son Mike would walk out to the trees and bring Grandpa some of the hard rock candy that he loved.  Although he had false teeth, he could make his great-grandson laugh and smile with the way he could make that candy snap and pop. He always faced his decline with a brave front for the adults of the house but more than once while watching the two generations enjoying their candy from the frame of the kitchen door, I would see him pull my young boy on to his lap and talk to him for hours as he wiped the stray tears from his weathered face. It was not long before Grandpa was back in the hospital, this time with double pneumonia. He had refused to go into town knowing that this would be his last ride. Too afraid to witness what I knew had to happen, I turned my back and stared at the floor as his son-in-law had to forcibly scoop up the frail pioneer in his arms and take him out to the truck for the journey to the hospital.  One day while visiting with Grandpa in the hospital I asked him if he was afraid of death.  He laughed softly while patting my hand and said: “Aww honey, you can’t kill an old gray mule like me.”  Every day we would visit with him and every day he would break our hearts by asking us to take him home; but of course it was impossible.  Waiting my turn outside of his hospital door I often found myself asking God, “why?”  Why couldn’t he have died quickly?  Maybe fallen off his horse or some such accident at the ranch where he could have gone instantly instead of lingering and suffering.  Eventually we had him moved to a private nurse’s home in town.  By then Grandpa had given up hope of ever going back home and he made us promise to bury him at his favorite spot where his empty rocking chair stood.

On February 12, 1965 he passed away quietly in his sleep.  Over 300 people attended the funeral services in Alamogordo and then began the long cortege out to the ranch.  Looking back I laugh when I think of all of the people at the funeral with nattily dressed children and shiny false teeth.  The service was short and sweet with Grandpa’s favorite horse, Lonesome, tied to the gate and his rocking chair nearby, just like he would have wanted it.  As they lowered his casket into the ground, the tears I had successfully held back so I could be as strong as Grandpa, fell like rain onto that box placed in the earth he loved and fought for so dearly.  When you live off the land, you always worry about having enough water, and as I looked around I saw that drought would not be an issue today.  This was the end of my friend, my Grandpa, and one of the greatest men I would ever know.  I was consoled by the thought that many people felt the same way I did and that his life would serve as a lesson for all of us. 

Three months after he passed away, the Army gave us notice to vacate the ranch.  We had no choice but to do what they asked and take the money they offered.  After all, the land was not ours and we couldn’t stand up against the government the way Grandpa had.  It was two years later when my husband drove up to the ranch to put flowers on Grandpa’s grave that he would get the start of his life.  It was right at dusk as he pulled up the drive and around the now deserted buildings. His eye caught a fleeting shadow moving under the trees.  When he got closer something jumped out from behind the grave’s fence and bolted west towards the mesa’s edge.  As he flashed his headlights on the moving shadow, my husband caught a glimpse of a ragged-eared old gray mule cutting through the greasewood.  Perhaps the old jack was a remnant of one of Grandpa’s vast herds or perhaps something else.  Though many years have passed and those of us who lived through those glorious times are answering the Lord’s call when it comes, we still go to visit the pecan trees, check on the grave, and keep an eye out for an old gray mule.  It was never seen again but we know that no matter what, the ranch will always be Grandpa’s.  He will always be there watching over things and he is at peace.  We will never forget him.  I know that I never can.