ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This is the true story of the only time a horse was arrested and tried for a felony in a federal court in New Mexico.
Writer Chuck Hornung told it to me last week, during the New Mexico History Conference in Albuquerque. He got it decades ago from Fred Lambert, the last surviving member of the territorial-era New Mexico Mounted Police.
This horse tale starts at Jemez Pueblo during a feast-day celebration in November 1913.
Lambert, two years into his service with the Mounted Police, was also serving as a deputy special officer for the U.S. Indian Service, which was charged with enforcing a law prohibiting alcohol on Indian reservations.
While Lambert was working the Jemez festival, a heavy-set Hispanic man trotted a roan horse into the pueblo. A roan horse, by the way, is a horse whose coat contains a thick sprinkling of white hairs. Dangling from the horse’s saddle were 13 gunny sacks, each of which, as it turned out, contained a quart bottle of alcohol.
Suspecting just that, another officer grabbed the big man by the collar of his coat and pulled him out of the saddle while Lambert got hold of the spooked horse’s reins and settled it down. Before the man could be subdued, he spun out of his coat, jumped into a fast-moving stream and disappeared into the willows as the other officer fired four or five shots at him, apparently in vain.
Left standing with only the horse and the prohibited booze, Lambert arrested the animal and charged it with taking alcohol onto an Indian reservation. If the horse made any statement, no record of it has been discovered.
In the hope of arresting the escaped suspect, or at least getting a lead on him, the officers put an ad in the newspaper saying that a roan horse lost at the Jemez Pueblo festival could be claimed at the U.S. Marshal’s Office in Santa Fe. No one was danged fool enough to claim the horse, so it remained in the marshal’s custody for six months.
To get the issue resolved before the horse ran up too big a feed bill, the animal was put on trial in federal court in Santa Fe in May 1914.
William H. Pope, the first federal judge for the state of New Mexico, presided. Pope’s photographs suggest a staid and imposing figure, but he must have had some kind of sense of humor. In the taped interview he did with Hornung years ago, Lambert suggests that the judge likely considered the horse’s trial “just something a little different.”
The horse was not in the courtroom, but it was represented by an attorney.
Upon hearing the evidence, the jury retired just long enough to have lunch and visit the defendant in a nearby corral before returning a verdict of innocent, determining that the animal had been “induced” into taking the alcohol onto pueblo land.
No name or age is recorded for the horse. It is known that at the time of its trial, it had run up a feed bill of $24.32. It was put up for auction to pay for its room and board, and a rancher from north of Santa Fe bought the horse for his daughter to ride.
Chances are the case of the roan horse would not have survived had it not been for Hornung, now 72 and retired except for his history research and writing. In books such as “The Thin Gray Line” (1971), “Fullerton’s Rangers” (2005) and “New Mexico’s Rangers” (2010), he has almost single-handedly saved from obscurity the history of the New Mexico Mounted Police, a band of rangers founded in 1905 to enforce the laws of the New Mexico Territory.
He was a college student at Kentucky’s Murray State in the 1960s when he first ran across a reference to the Mounted Police.
That caught his attention because, although he had been making summer trips to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M., and knew something of New Mexico history, he had never heard of the Mounted Police. Turns out almost nothing had been written about the organization, which existed until New Mexico statehood in 1912 and for a few years after that.
Imagine Hornung’s surprise when one summer in the mid-1960s a couple of his Philmont friends took him to a home in Cimarron and introduced him to Lambert, a name he recognized from the information he had dug up about the New Mexico ranger force. Lambert was just pushing 80 at the time, but Hornung had believed him long dead.
The young man from Kentucky and the old ranger became close friends during the last few years of Lambert’s life. Even now, all these years after Lambert’s death in 1971, Hornung’s voice catches when he talks about the lawman.
“He was probably one of the most mild-mannered people I have known,” Hornung said. “He had the manners of a frontier gentleman. But he was still a dead shot in his 80s. I saw him drive a tenpenny nail into a railroad tie at 50 feet with shots from a Colt .32-20.”
Lambert encouraged the young Hornung to write about the rangers.
“He said, ‘Write the history and do it without the vinegar and the varnish. Don’t put the gingerbread in it. We weren’t fast-gun artists. We got paid to do a job, and we done it,’ ” Hornung told me. “Fred and I recorded hours and hours about the old times. One of the stories we talked about was the arrest of the roan horse.”
It’s a fine story. No vinegar, varnish or gingerbread required.