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SLCC's Premiere Art & Literary Magazine

They Still Hang Horse Thieves, Don’t They?

William Anderson

In the days of the Wild West, the punishment for stealing a horse was hanging. The "by the neck" kind. The "until dead" kind. Seems a bit excessive, doesn't it? Perhaps one reason for the severe consequences attached to horse thievery was to encourage compliance with the honor system used to park horses. You know what I'm talking about. To secure his trail companion while afoot in town, the cowboy would simply tie or lazily wrap around the hitching post nothing more than a couple of leather straps dangling from his horse's mouth. Then, he'd stride confidently about his business certain in the knowledge that somebody would be dangled by a hemp necktie if that somebody entered into a nonconsensual transfer of title to "Trigger."

You still might consider hanging harsh, even barbaric, for a horse thief. After all, it's just a horse. But, in those hanging days, a man's horse was not "just a horse." And it was more than just a ride, too. A horse was a man's way of life. A cowhand riding his boot heels for a cause might as well change his occupation to panning gold with a skirt hoop. The wages paid for either wouldn't buy him three baked beans and a spit of coffee. Given the grave consequences for the crooked b@$+&rd and the ruinous loss imposed on the victim – why? – how? – who engaged in this kind of repugnance?

Why? What motivates someone you could never misidentify with the honor of being called a man to do something so ruthless to another? What dim calculations must be combined with what baffling rationalizations to form the guts of such a gutless plan? How? Could anything be more straightforward than stealing a horse? If you can untie a freaking apron you can untie a horse-not-your-own! And, the sheriff, his deputy and every potential posse member could be eyewitnesses to the audacity without raising the least suspicion because it looked as common then as picking up the daily paper from your driveway does today. Who? A real desperado would be chafed bloody to share the brand of "villain" with the whole basket of deplorables that is a horse thief – even if they do hang them both. If you're getting an unsettling sense I have an oddly passionate distaste for these lazy, spineless lawbreakers, it's only because I had a horse. Once.

Her name was Schwinn and it was the summer before my junior year of high school. I made the investment in her with steadily-earned, faithfully-conserved money from my college fund when I got a job carrying the morning news to my San Diego neighborhood. Not an easy-riding pony with a squat 20-inch aluminum frame trit-trit-trotting along on three speeds. She was a 25 inch, molybdenum alloy, pedal-cranking workhorse that pulled with twenty-one titanium gears. Her pea green coat may have been plain-looking, like all of her other features, but what she looked liked matter not one whit to either of us. She was not a show horse. She was not a speed racer. She was built and fittingly equipped, simply, for one thing – to carry her rider to an intended destination capably, surely, over any terrain without complaint or need of acclamation. With her, I learned to work -- hard, like she did — and love it, like she did. To me, she became more than just a horse, more than a just ride. She gave me an earned freedom that helped shape my teenaged mind and heart and body into that of a man.

Beyond work, Schwinn liberated me from the limitations of my family's lone car. I took her with me everywhere. One of our favorite destinations was the beach. The splendor that is a California summer day would find us up in the early freshness, sneaking off quietly not to wake the morning. Craving the ocean's salt, sand, symphony and crashing swells, we'd cruise for the shore chasing my vision of thrill-riding a wave boardless while watching the sun stretch and yawn before beginning its daily climb into the sky. Schwinn sat patiently all day, hitched securely, as, first, the surf boarders arrived, then the lifeguards followed by the swarm (many of whom came only because malls were not yet the magnets they are today, and for some of whom I was only too happy they did so I could loll on a towel searing myself in the sun and watch how their bikinis shifted this way and that as they strolled by.) Then, to cap a full-day bodysurfing stokefest (plus more lolling), I'd retrieve my dutiful mount and we'd conquer "The Drive" -- a 1.2-mile heart-bursting, lung-choking, bone-bending, muscle hulking pavement twister. Without standing in the saddle to use body weight for extra power, it was only those deep mines of my own strength I could quarry with Schwinn that were matched against it, exultantly, time after time, after day after day. It was there, on that winding, prove-your-mettle misery I learned the capstone lesson of my youth: with enough want-to, enough won't-quit; committing all my heart-blood, lung-wind, bone-sinew-muscle-muster, I could prevail.

During a four-year chapter with Schwinn, I saw my body toughen, my capacity to work intensify, my confidence surge, my manhood bloom. Then, it ended with disheartening cruelty. When it did, her transforming value to me never was so clear as the sense of violation I felt that day she was stolen. In the time it took me to leave her, stupidly I learned, lashed only by the honor system outside my college dorm to race to my room and return with a book, she was gone. To this day, the realities involved stupefy me. It happened in a breath of time. The blackheart had to have seen me as I rode up. Maybe the frantic speed of my intrusion into and exit from his (I can't imagine any "her" doing this) life roused enough notice for him to reckon: "Hey! Free ride. Cool!" Then, he just jumped on and rode off leaving me, upon my immediate return, with nothing more than the staggering vision of his Cheshire Cat smile mocking my pain! Damned horse thieves. Hang 'em all!