Friday, May 20, 2011

Horse thieves in my history

My grandmother, Rhoda Moulton Furniss, remembered a serious crime that happened when she was a little: thieves stole the family's team during spring planting. Next to murder, stealing horses was the most despicable crime in the Old West because horses were farmers' property and pets, and their means of making a living from their land.  If those thieves had been properly prosecuted, they would have ended up in the penitentiary in Boise, Idaho. However, because they were friends with the sheriff, they were allowed to go free, and Grandma didn't tell whether the horses were returned. Even if they were returned, her family was hurt by this crime: a delay of a few days could make a critical difference in the notoriously short growing season of Teton Valley, Idaho. 

This is Rhoda around 1910, when she married William Furniss, below. He was an upstanding man who would have chased down a horse thief if necessary. 

I recently entered the Old Idaho Penitentiary Poetry contest. (It is now a museum.)  The poem had to be about the prison, so I imagined the plight of a young man, easily led by friends, who gets caught after stealing a horse on a lark.


Maybe four times a year
Bob saw the full moon
Floating above his cell window.

Days were full of sweat and swearing
night-- fatigue, his smelly wool blanket
his memories
sometimes sleep.

Bob loved the faithful stars
but when he saw the moon, he fought to follow it
standing on the broken chair
craning, peering,
soaking it in
'til it was gone.

He remembered a full moon night,
not the night he and Charlie took the horses
galloping, whooping
so stupid.

This other night was a fancy dance
in his aunt's town, in Twin,
his cousin Edna's first dance
His, too, though
no one said a word about that.

Her dance card was pink with yellow roses:
hanging from a golden cord,
the tiniest maroon pencil
skinnier than a twig.

The handsome young blades of Twin
signed their ame on Edna's card
with that tiny pencil.
He didn't dance, nor sign.

He dreamed he had that pencil
pinched tight, writing small
on the white moon,
his circular bit of shining paper.

If she looked up in Wendell
maybe she'd see the words
he wrote in Boise:

Dear Ma
So sorry I drank with C. and stole horses
Yr loving son,

(The poem won first place in the adult division-- you should see my T shirt and mug!)

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