words “legendary” and “Texas Rangers” often are seen riding together
across the printed page, but at some point, two former rangers got
roped into a South Texas legend – the story of El Muerto.
Of course, maybe El Muerto did exist. The two rangers at the center
of the tale certainly were real, Creed
Taylor and Bigfoot
Wallace. Both men served under Captain
John Coffee Hays during the days of the Republic of Texas.
More likely is that someone who had read “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey
Crayon, Gent” took it upon himself to Texanize one of the short
stories it contained. “The Sketchbook,” as it’s generally called,
came out in 1820, an anthology of pieces by Washington Irving. Of
those, the one that became a timeless classic is “The Headless Horseman.”
basic headless horseman story goes even further back, across many
centuries and numerous cultures.
In Celtic culture there’s the dulachan, “dark man,” a headless fairy
(hey, he’s Irish) who rides around with his head in his hands, whipping
his horse with a quirt made from a human spine. The legend is that
when this fellow shows up and calls out a name, that person soon
will be headed to the other side of the rainbow – no pot of gold
A Scottish variation features not only a headless rider, but a headless
horse. How man and steed manage to get around so impaired is not
explained, only that they came out on the losing end of a vicious
clan fight and are eternally unhappy about it.
The headless horse and rider story swam across the channel to Germany,
where the rider evolved as a hunter who blows his horn as a warning
to other sportsmen that something bad’s going to happen if they
head afield the next day. How Heir Headless manages to blow a horn
is left to the imagination.
When the American British colonies started acting uppity and the
Empire dispatched ships and troops to put down the rebellion, the
headless horseman must have been a stowaway because he soon appeared
in New England, thanks to Washington Irving.
Ever ready to ride into new country, the headless horseman eventually
showed up way down in South Texas.
story of El Muerto begins in Kimble
County, where former
ranger Taylor settled in the late 1860s. Back then, nearly a
decade before the county’s creation that area lay well beyond the
western edge of the Texas frontier. Indians still posed a considerable
threat, and there were more outlaws than respectable folks.
So, when someone helped themselves to some of Taylor’s
horses, he and a ranch hand set out to find the thieves and recover
their stolen stock. Following the trail, the two men happened to
meet up with Bigfoot.
He and Taylor being
friends from their rangering days, he said he’d be pleased to throw
in with them on their search.
Somewhere south of Uvalde,
in the still lawless Nueces Strip, Taylor,
and the hired hand caught up with the horses and the man who had
taken them, a well-known Mexican bandit. In the fight that followed
the two aging rangers proved they still knew how to shoot. Soon,
Texas had one less horse thief.
While Taylor and
both were as hard and tough as their leather saddles, according
to the El Muerto tale, they were not without a sense of humor. No
one had coined the term “mind games” yet, but perhaps the two former
rangers decided to do something that would discourage others along
the border from driving off property that was not theirs. Whatever
their thinking, the two Texans cut off the outlaw’s head. Then they
tied his body to his horse, affixing that portion of his anatomy
which once fit under his sombrero onto his saddle horn. After that,
one of them slapped the already terrified horse on its rump and
off he galloped.
The blazing South Texas sun soon did its work on the corpse, which
became increasingly fearsome until it was nothing but a skeleton.
The dead outlaw’s unfortunate horse, having done nothing wrong –
at least that it had any control over -- wandered the landscape.
People of a superstitious nature saw the headless horseman not as
a macabre warning to others, but as a mounted ghost whose appearance
did not presage good news. Before long, the dead rider became El
Muerto, the Dead One.
The horse and the headless skeleton astride it continued to roam
South Texas until the animal died of old age. But horses can live
20 years or more, so El Muerto and his caballero scared a lot of
people before the sightings stopped. When someone found the hapless
critter’s carcass on the edge of a water hole near Alice, they removed
what remained of the headless outlaw and buried him at Rancho La
Trinidad near present Ben
Bolt in Jim Wells County.
But the story
didn’t end there. Though the bandit and his horse no longer existed
on an earthly plane, the ghostly duo are said to have kept riding,
a timeless warning that stealing horses – or anything else – is
not only illegal, in Texas it’s mighty risky.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - June
11 , 2015 Column
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