What is a mayordomo? And what does irrigation have to do with the cow in the story?
Irrigation has long been part of life in northern New Mexico. During a good year, enough snow falls in the mountains to fill the streams in the spring. (The picture is of the East Fork of the Jemez River.) These streams carry the water into the farmers in the valleys. The water in the streams is diverted into the ditches or acequias and then flows into the fields of the landowners along the ditch. As Stanley Crawford explains in the preface to his book Mayordomo, landowners whose property is served by the same irrigation ditch or acequia, belong to an association (also called an acequia) which elects a mayordomo, the man who is responsible for the day-to-day management of the ditch.
The mayordomo arranges for ditch maintenance in the stream and allocates the available water to the acequia members. Both the amount of maintenance work expected from and the amount of water allocated to a landowner is proportional to amount of land the individual owns. (In the old communal system that came from Spain, it is the land not the owner which owes work and receives water.)
This system works very well in a wet year. It is more problematical if there has not been enough snow. That is when the mayordomo must be a man who is both diplomatic and trustworthy.
The mayordomo I once knew was a relative newcomer to the upper Rio Grande Valley. He was a civil engineer who worked for the County of Los Alamos who had chosen to live in “the valley” rather than on “the hill.” As a landowner he became a member of the acequia where he was soon elected mayordomo. This, he explained was due to the fact that he was not a local. The two families who owned most of the land along the ditch were engaged in a long-term feud. Neither family wanted a mayordomo who was a member of the other family, so they elected the newcomer who they hoped would be fair to all. They got what they wanted. The civil engineer used Lotus 1-2-3 (yes this was a long time ago) to allocate the water.
A life on an acequia is a life controlled by the schedule of the water. In River of Traps, deBuys and Harris quote their neighbor who chided them: “never to ‘give holiday to the water.’” If a farmer’s water is scheduled for midnight, that farmer is at the water gate, la preseta at midnight.
That was the key to the old man’s plan. He wanted the widow’s son out in the dark, by himself. It was the end of summer, the end of the irrigation season, when the widow’s son refused to pay the debt.
The old man could wait.