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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

El Muerto

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The 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.”

The 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 forthcoming.

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.

The 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, Wallace 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 Wallace 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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