Monday, October 12, 2015

El Muerto: the Headless Horseman of Texas

 
Serial published in 1865
First published in 1820, Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been frightening children for generations. Though the tale of a hapless schoolmaster’s midnight gallop through the New York woods made the phrase “headless horseman” a household term in America, by the time Irving’s story appeared, headless horsemen had been staples of European folklore for centuries. German, Irish, Scandinavian, and English legends all offered versions of the ghoulish phantoms, who usually were said to appear to proud, arrogant people as a warning.

South Texas has its own gruesome headless horseman legend. Unlike Irving’s unforgettable spook, however, Texas’ decapitated desperado rode among the living once upon a time.

Some say he still does.

Creed Taylor, 1890s
In the summer of 1850, a Mexican bandito by the name of Vidal made an egregious error: He and several compadres rustled a sizable herd of horses from several ranches south of San Antonio. One of the ranches belonged to Texas Ranger Creed Taylor, a veteran of the Texas War for Independence and a man not inclined to suffer fools gladly. (Taylor later would participate in the Sutton-Taylor Feud, a bloody, years-long running gun battle that rivaled the better-known fracas between the Hatfields and McCoys.)

Rustling cattle already had earned Vidal’s head a dead-or-alive bounty. Stealing a Texas Ranger’s horses proved the proverbial last straw. Together with fellow Ranger William A.A. “Big Foot” Wallace and another local rancher, Taylor set out to put a stop to Vidal’s unbearable insolence.

As a group, the early Texas Rangers were hard men. Tasked with protecting an enormous patch of land rife with outlaws and Indians, the early Rangers were expert trackers, accomplished gunmen, and not opposed to meting out immediate — and often brutal — “frontier justice.” Vidal was about to discover that in a very personal way.

After tracking the bandidos to their camp, Taylor, Wallace, and the third man mounted a surprise attack while the outlaws were asleep. Killing the desperados was not enough for Taylor and Wallace, though. The entire Ranger force was fed up with the rash of rustling plaguing Texas at the time. Not even leaving bodies hanging from trees or hacking them to pieces and using the bits for predator bait had made a strong enough statement.

Big Foot Wallace c. 1872
So Wallace got creative. After beheading Vidal, he secured the corpse upright on the back of the wildest of the rustled horses, lashed the bandido’s hands to the saddle horn and his feet to the stirrups, and tied the stirrups beneath the animal’s belly. Just to make sure anyone who saw the ghoulish specter got the message, he looped a rawhide thong through the head’s jaws and around Vidal’s sombrero, and slung the bloody bundle from the saddle’s pommel. Then Wallace and his friends sent the terrified mustang galloping off into the night.

Not long thereafter, vaqueros began to report seeing a headless horseman rampaging through the scrub on a dark, wild horse. As sightings spread, some claimed flames shot from the animal’s nostrils and lightning bolts from its hooves. Bullets seemed to have no effect on the grisly marauder. They dubbed the apparition el Muerto — the dead man — and attributed all sorts of evil and misfortune to the mysterious rider.

Eventually, a posse of cowboys brought down the horse at a watering hole near Ben Bolt, Texas. By then the dried-up body had been riddled with bullets and arrows, and the head had shriveled in the sun. The posse laid Vidal’s remains to rest in an unmarked grave on the La Trinidad Ranch. Only then did Wallace and Taylor take public credit for the deed. The episode contributed to Wallace’s reputation as a man nobody wanted to mess with and had the intended effect on rustling.

Even the revelation of the truth behind the legend did not end el Muerto’s reign of terror. Until nearby Fort Inge was decommissioned in 1869, soldiers reported seeing a headless rider roaming the countryside around Uvalde, near Taylor’s ranch. Thirty years later, a rise in the ground 250 miles to the southeast, near San Patricio, Texas, was christened Headless Horseman Hill after a wagon train reported an encounter with el Muerto. A sighting occurred in 1917 outside San Diego, Texas, and another near Freer in 1969.

El Muerto reportedly still roams the mesquite-covered range in Duval, Jim Wells, and Live Oak counties — still fearsome, still headless, and still reminding those who see him that Texas Rangers didn’t come by their tough-hombre reputation by accident.


A rabble-rousing Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats. Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the 2014 Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction.

Visit her home on the range at KathleenRiceAdams.com.

17 comments:

  1. Great yarn, Kathleen. And perfect for a Halloween prank should anyone feel so inclined. I do thank you for the entertainment.

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    1. You're welcome, Frank! I always get a kick out of this story. Keep this under your Stetson (and for heaven's sake don't tell Jim Griffin): Some Texas Rangers were a tad shy of what you might call "upstanding." ;-)

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    2. Wouldn't breathe a word of it. Especially to one of them thar, mean-as-snakes Texas Rangers.

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  2. Great story. I realized while reading it that I've always used the spelling "spectre." Guess I'd better correct my British ways...especially considering that I'm not British.

    Speaking of corrections, you won the Peacemaker in 2015, not 2014. How well I remember!

    All the very best!
    Vonn

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    1. Oops! I guess I should rephrase that Peacemaker sentence, huh? It should be "Peacemaker Award for Best Short Fiction of 2014."

      The story beat stiff competition from a great story by someone whose name I don't recall at the moment. ;-)

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  3. Oh the deeds of creative men. A suitably gruesome story. Thanks for telling it. Doris

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    1. "Creative" is more polite than "dastardly." ;-)

      Thanks for stopping by, Doris!

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  4. Interesting article. Your story gives some competition to one of literatures most interesting characters, Ichabod Crane. But of course Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt cut quite a figure as well in Washington Irving’s famous tale, THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW.

    Maybe Creed Taylor was a might tougher than Brom Bones?

    In Texas, those rangers had to have some kind of entertainment.

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    1. Good point, Charlie! After fighting Indians all day, chasing bandidos back across the border, and dealing with cranky horse thieves, a good beheading is an excellent way to let off steam. ;-)

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  5. I'm not sure which Ranger was harder core, Taylor or Wallace, but both meant business that's for sure. Thoroughly enjoyed your creepy recount of the Texas version. Those Rangers were tough through and through and sure made great characters for a good chiller, thriller.

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    1. Big Foot Wallace probably is better known, but Creed Taylor certainly was no one to sneeze at. The Sutton-Taylor feud got a might nasty, and he was smack-dab in the middle of it.

      We Texans tend to want to put white hats on every Texas Ranger since the beginning, but a whole lot of the early Rangers weren't exactly married to the letter of the law. ;-)

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    2. MITE nasty, not might nasty. **sigh**

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  6. Typical of the early Rangers. Loved this.

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    1. The early Rangers completely fascinate me. Back in Texas's early days, I'll bet it was difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. ;-)

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  7. Whoa! This definitely competes to overthrow Sleepy Hollow.

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  8. Wow! A real macabre tale with a macabre spectre!

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