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0 Comments | May 29, 2016

The Horse Thief

b1929f909cdd35c545ec0247cbc664aeBilly Hale was descended from a long line of miscreants and vagabonds, and when the day came at last and they sent him away for stealing horses from the farm in the same town as my own, no one was much surprised, least of all Billy. It was generally felt that his life—all thirty-two years of it—had been building to some sort of unfortunate crescendo, and the only question in the minds of those who knew him was whether or not the climax would include incarceration, death, or quite possibly both. That he ended up merely imprisoned was regarded by most as an unexpected windfall. Ours is an area of the state in which men are routinely shot for taking things that aren’t theirs to take, with the authorities in such cases more likely to offer a congratulatory handshake than anything approaching justice or retribution.

Hale was—to use my late grandmother’s favorite word—“touched” in an odd, hard to define way. Among his many and varied attributes, he had a serious penchant for horses, which he regularly borrowed from various farms in town, always, though, eventually bringing them back. And he was good with horses, though of little other discernible value to the community. No one quite knew how he survived. He appeared to live nowhere. He’d been in and out of the local jail for taking horses, but many folks no longer went to the trouble of reporting his thefts, as they appeared harmless. In fact, on most occasions, the animals were returned cleaner and better groomed than when he first absconded with them, though, again, no one had the slightest idea how he pulled off this seemingly magical feat.

Billy had, by the start of his fourth decade, established some sort of relationship with nearly every horse in the town of Benson. So much so that he could enter any barn, day or night, and saddle up the animal of his choice without the beast raising the slightest fuss. He would abscond with what he needed from the farmer’s tack shed, equip the horse as he deemed necessary, and disappear without a word to whichever bemused owner happened to pertain. Indeed, about six weeks before Billy was sent away by the state, I had personally stood not twenty yards from my barn and watched without concern as he entered and then cantered out a moment later with my youngest roan Steel, an animal of some notoriety for his temperament, but who appeared in Billy’s capable hands to be as gentle as my oldest mare. He gave me a quick glance as he rode off toward town, and I responded with the faintest tip of my hat. No harm, no foul.

It all seemed borderline entertaining to many of us old timers, who had, after all, been witness to Billy’s eccentricities all these many years. The problem, though, with this state of affairs was that there remained a few in town who did not enjoy the same sanguine nature as myself and many of my neighbors when it came to the easy, informal relationship between Billy and the community’s horses. Two men in particular found his cavalier attitude to the property of others to be not only something other than harmless, but downright pernicious, to the point where one of the two—Willis Brantley—had actually taken a shot at Billy upon seeing him approach the large red horse barn that sat atop the hill in the southwest corner of the Brantley farm. As luck would have it, Willis was (and remains) a dreadful shot, and his round missed Billy by a leisurely eight feet or thereabouts. It’s possible, some of the town’s more charitable residents conceded, that he had missed Billy on purpose, but those of us who had heard Willis’s ranting late the previous night at Casey’s Bar and who had, as well, witnessed his efforts at marksmanship in person, were quick to dismiss that revisionist interpretation. In any event, Billy emerged unscathed and riding Willis’s six-year-old Appaloosa Jasper (recently retired from a mediocre barrel racing career) off into the sunset on Filigree Road, whence he returned some eighteen hours later, only to be met by a reluctant, almost apologetic Sheriff Brad Clark, most senior of the town’s seven law enforcement officers, obliged to take Billy in due to Willis’s strident demand that he do so.

Billy had been taken into custody on four or five earlier occasions under similar circumstances, but was always released promptly thereafter upon receiving Sheriff Clark’s obligatory wrist slap and by now well rehearsed lecture about the dangers of laying hands on the property of others, particularly others who were well stocked with firearms and ammunition and the proclivity to use them. In each previous case Billy had laid low for a day or two but then returned to his larcenous ways as though the whole thing had never happened. What had kept Billy from an extended prison stay in each of the past episodes was a behind the scenes negotiation between Sheriff Clark and the infringed upon horse owner in question, the result of which had always been willingness on the part of the owner to spare Patterson County the expense and general inconvenience of a court trial whose result would almost certainly be the conviction and incarceration of one who was, to many locals, a genuinely colorful character and a harmless one at that.

Willis, though, was having none of it this time. This was the third such infraction for him in as many months, and whatever charm or mystique the thefts may have had for others, he was hell bent on pursuing justice, regardless of what his neighbors thought.

“I have locked the barn,” Willis wailed, standing in Clark’s office six hours before the latest arrest. “I have locked the goddamned stall. I will be damned to hell if I’m going to tie my horses up in chains just to keep that mentally deficient kleptomaniac from running off with my property.”

“Willis,” the sheriff replied, leaning back insouciantly in his chair, rolling a thin, unlit cigar between his fat fingers, “First of all, I’ll thank you to keep your language in check when you’re in this office. You are getting yourself worked up over nothing. Ain’t a person in this town thinks that Billy is anything other than a dim-bulb, horse loving child.”

“For Christ’s sake, Brad! You need to get out there and do your damn job. That boy’s a menace, and he’s gonna get his ass shot here directly.”

Clark leaned forward in his chair and gave Willis a look that quite clearly indicated that lines both vernacular and hierarchical had been crossed. He said nothing for a very long ten seconds.

“For starters, Willis,” Clark began quietly, “you will keep to yourself your beliefs as to what does and does not constitute my job. Second, I will pick the boy up, only because you’re making such a damn stink about it and anyway it’s been several months since he and I had a talk about his recidivist ways. And third, as far as him getting himself shot, we leastways can rest comfortable knowing that if it does happen, it’s not going to be you who did the shooting. Far as I recollect, you couldn’t hit the water if you fell out of a boat.”

“That may be so,” Willis replied, mustering a wry grin, “but if I did a catch a break and hit him, there ain’t a jury in this county’d convict me.” Which, though he did not admit as much, Sheriff Clark knew to be the truth.


“Don’t rightly know, Sheriff. I guess I just like horses. It ain’t any more complicated than that.”

“Well actually, Billy, it is a bit more complicated.” Clark sat with his belly to the back of a desk chair, facing Billy, who was sitting on the thin mattress inside the town’s single jail cell. The cell door was full open. “Those horses you keep disappearing with belong to other folks, and there’s lots round here who don’t take kindly to having their animals run off with.”

“Don’t none of them care that I always bring them back all fed and rubbed down?”

“Truth is some do and some don’t,” Clark replied, “and it’s the ones that don’t—like Willis—who are fixing to cause a lot of trouble for you, and me too, come to think of it.”

“Shoot, Sheriff, I didn’t never mean to get you into no trouble.”

“No, Billy, I understand that … I do. It’s just that the people of this town pay me to uphold the law, and one of those laws is you can’t go taking other peoples’ horses lessen they say you can.”

Billy sat quietly on the edge of the bed, palms firmly planted against each side of his head. Clark rose from his chair and walked to the desk, where he searched for a bit and then returned to the chair bearing a single sheet of paper.

“Billy,” he said, “We got ourselves a genuine situation this time, I’m afraid. This ain’t like before where I can just let you go home.”

“How do you mean, Sheriff? I’ll steer clear of folks’ horses if that’s what everybody wants.”

“Well, there’s some folks want that, and some who don’t much care one way or the other, but that’s not what we’re dealing with this time.” He handed the sheet of paper through the door to Billy, who stared down at it uncomprehendingly. Clark realized in that moment that after knowing Billy nearly ten years, he had no idea whether the man did or did not know how to read and write. “Willis has a serious bug up his ass about you. He’s swore out a complaint with the state Attorney General. He’s sunk his teeth into this thing and it don’t look as though he’s letting go.”

“What’s that mean, Sheriff?” Billy asked, looking up from the paper.

“It means there’s probably gonna be a trial, and between now and then I can’t let you out of here unless you can come up with a thousand dollars bail money. Am I right in assuming you don’t have that, Billy?”

“A thousand dollars? Lord no, Sheriff. I don’t guess I’ve earned that much in my whole life.”

“Kinda figured,” Clark said quietly. “Kinda figured.”

“So if I don’t have a thousand dollars, I got to stay in here ‘til the trial?”

“Afraid so, Billy, unless …” Sheriff Clark stopped himself for a second, momentarily unable to believe the words that were about to come out of his mouth. “Unless I was to throw your bail myself and you was to promise me, on your mama’s life, that you’d not skip town and that you’d show up for the trial.”

Billy rose from the bed and stood in the open cell door. “Sheriff, why on earth would you want to do a thing like that?”

“That, Billy, is one hell of a good question. Let’s just say I don’t take kindly to folks making mountains out of molehills. That, and I don’t much give a damn for Willis Brantley and his brand of personal cussedness.”

“Well, Sheriff, I won’t question your reasons, but I’ll take your offer and thank you for it kindly … oh, and I’ll also promise to stick around for the trial.”

“Oh, and one more thing,” Clark added. “It’ll likely be a month or so before they can get this on the judge’s schedule. See if you can’t go that long without running off with anybody’s horses, will you? It won’t help your cause none if you do. Meanwhile maybe in that time I can talk Willis out of this nonsense.”


As things transpired, the Patterson County Court docket was a bit less crowded than Sheriff Clark had estimated and the trial came around not quite three weeks after Billy was first arrested. That was the good news. The bad news was that Clark had had no luck talking Willis Brantley out of moving forward with the trial.


“Billy, do you understand why you’re here today?”

The Patterson County courtroom—of which there was exactly one—was a small affair that wouldn’t have been out of place in a nineteenth-century old west town, right down to the bar-style, double-hinged, waist-high gates you had to push through with your knees to move from the gallery to the area immediately in front of the judge’s bench. There were six individuals in the space adjoining the bench that morning—Judge Harrison Palmer, seventy-nine and still going strong save for a wooden left leg, the original having been shot off in some long forgotten war; Philip Belcher, prosecuting attorney, utterly bereft of hair and currently pacing before the witness stand; Rodney Crisco, court-appointed defense attorney, possessed of a riotous nest of pure white hair, sufficiently copious to handle both his own requirements and those of Belcher; Bailiff Fred Halpern, former offensive lineman for a west Texas high school just outside of Midland, who weighed two ninety at age seventeen and a good deal more now; Willis Brantley, the plaintiff, sitting with his arms crossed on his chest and a smug look on his face at the table to the judge’s right; and Billy Hale, who currently occupied the witness chair facing his interlocutor, the aforementioned Belcher. It was a bench trial and so no jury was in attendance. There were an additional six scattered about the gallery area, including Sheriff Clark and several witnesses.

“I think I do,” Billy responded. “You believe I’m a horse thief.”

“Actually, Billy, what I do or do not believe has little bearing on the outcome of these proceedings. My job is simply to determine the facts of the situation. Judge Palmer here,” Belcher gestured with his chin, “will come to his own decision concerning your guilt or innocence.”

Crisco’s defense strategy was as straightforward as it was obvious. Anyone who’d so much as watched an episode or two of Perry Mason would have done the same. He would put Billy on the stand and let him explain in his own childlike way why he took horses from his neighbors. This would then be followed by a string of character witnesses from the community—a number so plentiful that he’d been obliged to turn several away—who would expound on the harmlessness of Billy’s actions and who might, as an added bonus, toss in an unsolicited reference or two concerning what an ornery and vindictive SOB Willis Brantley was.

“Billy, do you deny that you regularly enter the property of the residents of Benson uninvited and that you help yourself to the use of their livestock?”

“No, Mr. Belcher. Why would I deny such a thing? Everybody knows I like horses.”

“That they do, Billy,” Belcher replied. “That they do. And do you understand what the word thievery means?”

“Oh, you mean to steal something, sir,” Billy said with a smile. “My mom taught all of us that that was a bad thing from way back when we was little.”

“I have no doubt she did. But here’s what I’m confused about. If you’ve known since you were a child that stealing was wrong, why do you nevertheless repeatedly insist on absconding with your neighbors’ horses?”

Billy sat silently for a moment, seemingly perplexed.

“Why, Billy, do you steal the horses?”

“Oh no, Mr. Belcher, I don’t steal nothing. The horses like me. I just take them out and exercise them and bring them back all cleaned and brushed down. But no, sir, stealing would be wrong, like I said. Nobody ever complained about it before … Well, hardly nobody.” He cast a hesitant glance toward Brantley sitting at the plaintiff’s table.

“Well, that’s not quite true, is it, Billy? Haven’t you been arrested by Sheriff Clark on four prior occasions for exactly the same thing?”

“Well sure, Mister Belcher, but all we ever did was just sit in his office and talk about the horses and … and … you know, just horses.”

Belcher continued questioning Billy in this manner for a few more minutes, but it was by now clear to everyone in the courtroom that he was treading and retreading the same ground and was well past the point of establishing any new information.

“No further questions, your Honor,” he said, returning to his seat.

Crisco rose and walked slowly, deliberately to the docket.

“Billy, why don’t you and me just cut to the chase? Do you believe that you have ever stolen any of your neighbor’s horses?”

“Oh no, Mr. Crisco, that would be wrong. Like I told Mr. Belcher, I just take them for walks and groom them up nice before I bring them back.”

“Your Honor,” Crisco said, stepping to the bench, “I don’t see much point in belaboring these proceedings any further. If the court allows, I am prepared to move on to my character witnesses.”

Which is precisely what Crisco did. Once word had gotten out about the impending trial, no fewer than thirteen citizens of Benson had approached Crisco volunteering to testify on Billy’s behalf, but the defense attorney had determined five to be a sufficient number and the rest redundant. Each of the five—four men and one woman—said more or less the same thing. Billy was friendly, harmless, and childlike, and had never in any way abused one of their animals. Indeed, all of the witnesses testified that their horses were returned—typically in eight to twenty-four hours—looking better than when they had departed. It was, they all conceded under Belcher’s unenthusiastic cross examination, an unusual state of affairs and, indeed, one that had taken a bit of getting used to, but also one that each of the five judged ultimately to be to their benefit and that of their animals.

Crisco’s final witness was Sheriff Clark, whose testimony was brief and factual. Yes, this was the fifth time he had arrested Billy on similar charges. No, Billy in no way constituted a danger to the community, his seeming lack of understanding for common law notwithstanding. Under questioning from Belcher, the sheriff conceded that he might have done a more professional job of conveying to Billy on his previous arrests the severity of his actions and the potential consequences of continuing to behave in such a way in the future.

Belcher had debated at considerable length the pros and cons of putting Willis on the stand, but had ultimately decided (with much objection from his client) that Brantley’s combative nature and generally agitated state would not serve his cause well. He rested his case with a brief closing statement that highlighted Billy’s continuing recidivism despite Sheriff Clark’s repeated exhortations and the fact that the defendant had freely admitted his actions in open court. That he appeared to not regard those actions as illegal or even particularly negative was, Belcher argued, surely not cause for exoneration, since it had been long ago established that ignorance of the law was no defense against breaking it. With this final assertion, Belcher took his seat, receiving for his efforts a grimace from Brantley that seemed to suggest that he was less than pleased with the enthusiasm his attorney had demonstrated in pleading the case.

Crisco, rising in retort, conceded that indeed Billy had confessed, as it were, to his actions, but that he was not possessed of the mental acuity necessary to understand the fundamental difference between criminal theft and the consensual sharing of community property. Crisco concluded his closing remarks by reminding Judge Palmer of his character witnesses’ collective assessment of Billy as a simple but harmless individual, a summary that the judge, based on his increasingly impatient mien, regarded as superfluous since the testimonies themselves were less than an hour past.

“Gentlemen,” the judge said, his first words since introducing the case two hours hence, “we will recess for one hour while I consider the details of the case.” With that peremptory utterance, he rose awkwardly, the prosthetic leg clunking loudly on the hardwood floor, and exited the courtroom through a rear door.

During the prescribed hour, during which defense and prosecuting attorneys presumed Judge Palmer to be deliberating on the pros and cons of Billy Hale’s case, but during which he, in fact, napped, having arrived at his determination even before hearing the closing statements, the four principals in the case lunched at Kate’s All Night Diner. Believing it to be bad form for the four to be seen dining together in the midst of an active trial, Billy and his attorney occupied a booth near the entrance while Brantley and Belcher sat at a table in the back room. Each pair ate and speculated as to the likely outcome of the trial, and all four were back in the courtroom as ordered, with six minutes to spare. Judge Palmer was punctual in arriving and terse in his rendering.

“Billy,” he said, his voice low but authoritative, “I find myself in a most difficult position. I am convinced that you are possessed of a fundamentally good heart, and I do not believe that you have willfully stolen anything in your life.”

A low grunt from the direction of the plaintiff’s table caused Palmer to throw a momentary grimace in Willis Brantley’s direction.

“However, intentions aside, there is no denying that you have, on this occasion and at least four previous, willingly helped yourself to the property of others without their consent. And there is no escaping the fact that these acts constitute, at a minimum, misdemeanor larceny. Were this your first offense, I could get away with a fine and some community service. But five offenses are impossible to avoid treating as a serious matter. And so I am obliged to sentence you to three months at the Hazlet State Correctional Facility. Defendant to be remanded immediately.”

Judge Palmer brought his gavel down with a strident knock and began to rise from his seat. But then he paused.

“Oh, and Mr. Hale, you may not be aware of this, but the Hazlet correctional facility has as one of its numerous rehabilitative programs a quite large farm. Last I knew, they were in possession of something in excess of two dozen horses. I will take it upon myself to make a few calls and see if I can’t exert some leverage concerning your specific work assignment while you are in their custody.”

As he uttered these words, he shifted his glance in Brantley’s direction and offered a subtle but wry smile.

“This court is adjourned,” he said, turning and exiting the courtroom.

Billy was led from the courtroom while Brantley and Belcher remained sitting at the plaintiff’s table, the former gesturing frenetically and pointing occasionally in the defendant’s direction.

By the time Willis Brantley made it home that evening, he was still annoyed and disappointed at the trial’s outcome. It was an hour past dark and he was more than ready for whatever his wife had prepared for supper. What he was decidedly not ready for was the discovery that not only was there no supper prepared, but that at some point during the nine hours he’d been gone that day attending the trial, every one of the seven horses in his barn had been stolen, none of which were ever to be seen again.

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