Horse Thief Shorty is a well-known character described by Taos historian, activist, storyteller and river-running guru Cisco Guevara. Among other things, Guevara said the rapid named Horse Thief Shorty on the Middle Box of the Río Grande in La Junta area was the approximate location of a secret cable crossing and nearby cabin of Shorty’s, allowing him to sell horses on one side of the river and then steal them back overnight, changing their “spots” and selling them again on the opposite side of the river. Everybody also knew Shorty because he supplied most restaurants with game and fish.
For more Taos lore, contact Guevara at Los Rios Adventure Center, 233 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Taos; (575) 758-8854 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
I first came to Taos from San Francisco with a bunch of friends sometime around 1968 or maybe early 1969. I was the lead singer and keyboardist for a fledgling rock band named The Roadside Extravaganza.
Only two band members had any real talent – Nick the Pick and Rick Rhythm, lead guitarist and drummer, respectively. The rest of the band – Ham, Shaggy Mike and I – had absolutely everything necessary to be full-on rock stars, with the exception of the required amount of musical talent to make it big in those days.
So we rented a big, ancient house in Arroyo Seco and began practicing in earnest.
Taos Plaza was a bit different then, but still basically the same as now. A few scenes of “Easy Rider” were filmed in Taos Plaza, if I remember correctly. There was a hardware store, La Fonda restaurant and bar, a clothing store, a few other stores and businesses, and a semi-subterranean police station and local jail, right in the middle of the plaza, which I think still had hitching posts for horses.
Most of us had grown up in the city somewhere back East, and the closest connection we had to the actual Old West were cowboy movies and black-and-white TV shows since our birth. Coming to Taos was quite an adventure – and immediately got very interesting once we met Mace McHorse and kind of adopted him as an honorary member of our band.
Mace was something over 90 years old when we met him, an archetypal old cowboy by every standard. Tall, lean, weathered, big old cowboy hat, Levi’s, boots (the exact attire that virtually every hippie musician in San Francisco sought to emulate), slow drawl, gravelly voice, everything.
He hand-rolled his own cigarettes, drove an old 1940s pickup – top speed about 5 mph. As he got older, he just drove slower. It was quite an experience to ride with him and listen to his commentary on the horn-honking motorists behind us.
He cooked his own meals on a wood-fired stove in his three-room adobe located about a mile up Lower Ranchitos Road – with running water in the kitchen and an outhouse in the back.
He had some likings for the special herbal substances that most rock bands of the time had in abundant supply, told us how they used to call it “punji” and how some folks over by Peñasco used to grow the best, way back in his early cowboy days. He said they would mix it with their tobacco and lots of cowboys smoked it all the time.
Mace immediately gave us all Western nicknames: Slim, Pee-Wee, Society Mike, Shaggy Mike and me. He looked kind of startled the first time he met me. He said I was the spitting image of the Old West outlaw he knew as a kid – Black Jack Ketchum. Everyone I hung out with, myself included, was studying Eastern philosophies at the time, so it was immediately assumed that I was the reincarnation thereof.
Mace soon gave me an old weathered, tied-together pair of cowboy boots, which he said were taken from Black Jack when they hung him in 1901, and which had been on Shorty’s fence ever since.
I was really excited by all this and my bandmates soon took advantage of it. They found an old, worthless straw cowboy hat beside the road and told me that Mace had told them to give it to me because it was Black Jack Ketchum’s original hat. I called “b__lsh_t” when they broke down in uncontrollable laughter after I put it on my head.
Mace brought Horse Thief Shorty by the house a few times. We got to know him OK, but not nearly as well as Mace. He said Shorty was slowing down a bit in his older years, and was spending extended visits in the VA hospital down in Texas. But that didn’t prevent Mace from relating dozens of stories and anecdotes about Shorty – always told with respect for Shorty, but knowing just what to emphasize to give the story the most traction.
One of the better stories was the time Shorty, who lived about a mile down the road from Mace, decided he was going to finally enter the 20th century and replace his wood-burning kitchen stove with a modern gas stove. Mace told us how he kept telling Shorty that it wasn’t going to work out that well, but Shorty was a real stubborn guy and went ahead with the upgrade.
Evidently Shorty had a big bushy beard the day before he put in the stove and a burnt and beardless face afterward. He yanked out the newfangled gas stove and put the wood burner back in.
Mace followed that up with a fairly typical cowboy joke: “This guy jumps out of an airplane and doesn’t know how to work his parachute. As he’s falling down, he sees a guy flying rapidly upward from the ground. He yells at him, ‘Hey, do you know how to open a parachute?’ The guy flying upward yells, ‘No! Do you know how to light a gas stove?’”
Another of Mace’s cowboy jokes goes, “This guy put up two windmills on his ranch. There wasn’t enough wind so he had to take one down!”
Then, of course, there’s the one about the guy selling a blind horse because, “He just don’t look too good …”
Mace gave Shorty his name after bailing Shorty out of jail for stealing the same horse twice in two days. Supposedly, the horse was brown and couldn’t be found the second time, but Shorty had a new brown and white paint horse in his back corral. It rained that night and washed off the white lime powder Shorty had used to disguise his new acquisition. Maybe not a very well-thought-out plan.
But Shorty obviously liked his nickname. After a bit of searching online, I came across several classified ads in a newspaper archive where one ad offered a horse trailer for sale, another offered 40 acres for rent, and another had several head of livestock for sale. The ads simply said, “See Horse Thief Shorty.”
One time when we were living there, the roof over Shorty’s front porch collapsed. Mace got a big kick out of Shorty coming by the next day and offering him some used lumber for sale.
Shorty was revered as a local character and much beloved by many residents of Taos, except the shopkeepers, I was told. Shorty was such a colorful bit of Taos’ overall character that he could get away with petty theft and didn’t care much if he had to do a night or two in the “hoosgow,” as he was close friends with all the cops because he was such a likable guy.
So when Shorty went into a store, the shopkeepers followed him around like his shadow. Even so, it was incumbent on Shorty to try to swipe something. I heard it became a running game between him and the merchants. One that the merchants didn’t much appreciate.
Our group was far from the first of our generation to come to Taos. The commune at New Buffalo – featured in “Easy Rider” – had been up and running for a few years, and there were numerous longhairs spread throughout the mountains. Ram Dass had not yet opened the Lama Foundation.
Generally, I felt the residents of Taos were welcoming – Taos having a long history as a special retreat for artists and writers. We spent a few hours each week hanging out in the plaza, meeting as many interesting people as possible. We got to know a number of folks from Taos Pueblo and had some wonderful cross-cultural experiences with them.
The town changed almost overnight when Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and crew came through town making “Easy Rider.” Several local characters and locations made it into the film. An older gentleman that I was told was once a local school teacher is shown helping test the bounty that the Easy Riders kept concealed in their gas tanks.
There is a scene in an old hot springs that is beside the Río Grande out by the John Dunn Bridge. One heck of a hike down into the canyon but a really intense hot spring. I got out of it once in May or June and jumped into the river full of spring runoff melted snow. Wow! I came-to about 100 yards downstream and thankfully made it to the shore.
Even though Fonda and crew weren’t huge Hollywood stars yet – that would come after “Easy Rider” – they sure made a splash in the Taos counterculture of the time. One memorable scene is at the New Buffalo commune in Arroyo Hondo. Seeing it in the movie was likely the first view of this new alternative lifestyle for many American moviegoers. The movie did a great deal to spread around the world the loftier ideals of the anti-war, peace-and-love generation.
We all moved back to San Francisco shortly after and I saw the movie there when it came out.
I still like to visit Taos whenever possible and visit my old haunts. A lot has changed in 50 years, yet a lot remains the same. I would bet that should I ever move back there for an extended stay, I would find current Taoseños every bit as warm and friendly as the wonderfully unique characters I hung out with 50 years ago.