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An Arrest for Drunk Driving (on Horseback) Puts One Rider in a Purple Rage

updated 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

All his life Willis Hammett has lived by the cowboy's code: ride hard, drink hard and stay one step ahead of the sheriff. But Willis, 69—a cowpoke who rides herd for cattle ranches in the foothills around Valley Springs, Calif.—has had a problem with that third part lately, and if he ever gets back in the saddle again, he may want to check a Breathalyzer first.

One afternoon last December Hammett saddled up his chestnut gelding, Jug, and clopped down Highway 26 to town. After hitching Jug to a flagpole in a vacant lot, Hammett sashayed into a saloon to quench his thirst, an endeavor that kept him occupied—in several taverns—nigh onto midnight.

As the evening wore on, Willis recalls, an officer of the Humane Society, Beverly Scott, lassoed him. "She comes a 'slinking in there and set down about three stools away. She says, 'The sheriff's office told me to tell you to get on that horse and ride out of town or for me to take it to the shelter.' " Hammett admits that he sassed the officer a mite on the way out of town, but Scott remembers it as something more: "He was acting like a wild Comanche, shouting and galloping his horse all over the road and sidewalks."

Deputy Sheriffs James McKeon and Bill Whitlock arrived to join the discussion. They invited Willis to take a sobriety test. "He was obnoxious," McKeon says. "He told me where I could put my sobriety test, and if I had done that, I would not be able to sit in a squad car, on a horse or anywhere else."

Willis spent the night in a drying-out tank and was charged with, of all things, drunk driving. In California anyone who rides or drives an animal on a roadway is subject to the vehicle code. Says McKeon: "He rode his 1,300-pound horse into the middle of a state highway and sat there. I couldn't let him go."

The charge has since been changed to plain public drunkenness, but Willis Hammett is plumb riled by now. He has requested a full-scale trial. In a few weeks, he says, he will canter old Jug down to the courthouse, confront his accusers and dare a jury of his peers to sit in judgment of him and the horse he rode in on.

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