El Muerto: The Headless Horseman of South Texas brush country ~ Learn Spanish language fast | free memory tricks | Spanish vocabulary lessons.
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Sunday, August 26, 2007

El Muerto: The Headless Horseman of South Texas brush country


Out of the badlands of the Rio Nueces and across the pages of western lore galloped the most fearsome rider of all time, the dreaded Headless Horseman of South Texas brush country. People called him El Muerto, the Dead One, and all who saw him ran screeching like banshees into the night. El Muerto brought terror and fear to the south plains for years.


Unlike Washington Irving’s rider in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, this mounted specter was no figment of the imagination by any means. There is probably no legend in Texas history more frightening and terrifying than that of the headless horseman. He seemed to be everywhere, and his nightly rides caused more wide-spread panic than did the Indians, bandits, and outlaws combined. All efforts to destroy him went futile, as did all attempts to explain him. Credited with all sorts of evil and misfortune, El Muerto galloped across South Texas like wildfire.

The gruesome horror began turning up in conversations one summer around 1850 after one of two ranch hands out tending cattle in the Wild Horse Desert, which at that time stretched from the Nueces River practically all the way to the Rio Grande, happened to glance off into the darkness and saw what he thought was a lone rider silhouetted against the moon on a nearby low rise. The rider looked odd, and the cowboy wasn’t sure why. Since the cowboy and his partner were frying fatback for their evening fare, and the flickering flames of the campfire made viewing poor, if not totally obscured, the cowboy cautiously stood up for a better view. Squinting into the darkness, he suddenly turned and reached for his rifle. Not only was the rider sitting stiffly upright in the saddle, there was absolutely nothing above the shoulders! When the cowboy turned back around with his weapon, however, the horse and rider had vanished.

Thinking the Comanches were on the move and playing tricks, the two men quickly doused their campfire and spent a tense, restless night on the prairie listening for war whoops that never came. Daylight found them carefully picking through the brush for any signs of Indians or their pony tracks. They found none. What they did find, however, were the faint traces of a horse---a lone, unshod horse which had milled and moved about the meadow in an apparent grazing pattern. The tracks led over the rise and disappeared into the next valley.

With passing time, more and more cowboys and travelers spotted the dark horse with its fearsome cargo. All claimed that the rider carried his head under a Mexican sombrero tied to the horn of his saddle. The rider himself wore the light tan, rawhide leggings of the Mexican vaqueros, and a brush-torn serape which fluttered over his shoulders and out behind him like a wind-blown cape. Some people even claimed to see Indian arrows and spears dangling from the body. But El Muerto wasn’t yet ready to be explained. Stealing through the night, creeping up on the unwary, he made the South Texas brush country a place to avoid, a place associated with evil and misfortune. It would be years before the real truth could be learned.

From the outset, Texas was probably the most savage and brutal of all the western states. It was never a Territory---it went from a Republic in 1836 directly into Statehood in 1845---and it had to rely solely on its own wits instead of the United States Army for survival. It was prime Indian and bandit territory, and the lawless took every advantage of it.

Fortunately, Texas was never totally defenseless. It had a group of peace officers determined to drive the outlaws from the land. Called Texas Rangers, this roving posse of expert gunmen existed long before the bid for independence took place. Two of these men were Creed Taylor
and William Alexander Anderson "Big Foot" Wallace, who was himself a folk hero. It was Big Foot, with Creed’s blessing, who unwittingly created El Muerto.

Creed’s ranch lay west of San Antonio, in the thickest of bandit territory, not far from the headwaters of the Nueces River. He had cattle and horses, and like all stockmen on the open range, he also had a devil of time keeping tabs on his stock. At the time Creed Taylor and Big Foot Wallace created their headless horror, Mexican bandits were a dime a dozen in South Texas.

One well-known raider was a Mexican horse thief known as Vidal, who had always been as elusive as the will-o’-the-wisp. Back in the earliest days of the Texas Revolution, he had been a lieutenant in the Mexican army. However, after the war, Vidal turned to horse stealing with his area of operation stretching clear into Louisiana and Mississippi and soon he had a price on his head all over South Texas. That summer of 1850, taking advantage of a Comanche raid which pulled most of the men northward in the pursuit, leaving the sparse settlements temporarily unguarded, he and three of his top confederates made off with some of Taylor’s prized mustangs. Taylor lost all his patience.

Unknown to Vidal, Taylor was not out chasing Comanches. Where the river bends below Uvalde, Taylor and his aide ran into Big Foot Wallace. But Big Foot already knew how to get to the Indians: mutilate the body in some fashion---like scalping---and then leave the body to rot. But, getting to the Mexican superstitious beliefs required a little more thought.

When the three men finally located the camp of their quarry, they waited until night, when all the thieves lay sleeping, before making their attack. An ensuing gunfight down the line, the thieves were quickly killed, and that included Vidal. Although Vidal was wanted dead or alive, Big Foot had other plans. As disgusting as the task was, with the help of his friends, he severed Vidal’s head from his body.

The men then lashed Vidal’s body on a young, charcoal-colored stallion, binding the hands to the saddlehorn, legs to the stirrups, and securing the torso in such a fashion that it sat upright in the broad, Mexican saddle and couldn’t fall out. They then tied the stirrups to each other under the horse’s belly so they could not fly up. When that was finished, Big Foot worked a rawhide thong through the jaws of Vidal’s decapitated head, and with the chin strap of the sombrero, secured it in the sombrero, which he tied to the saddlehorn where it would flop and bounce with each step of the horse. He then turned the terrified mustang loose with an ear-splitting yell that could have been heard in the next valley. The maddened pony went bucking and stomping over the hill...and into legend.

Big Foot’s creation rode into legend. Why? Because no one knew what it was. No one was ever able to kill it. The black horse never came close to anyone or anything. It just milled about on the fringes of vision, scaring everyone who saw it. Furthermore, although frontiersmen took long shots at it and claimed that they hit it, it continued to ride. Creed Taylor and Big Foot couldn’t advertise what they had done because then it would not have been effective. No doubt they chuckled every time they heard stories of the fearsome rider. As it was, the specter, clad in its Mexican rawhide leggings, buckskin jacket, and blowing serape, with its severed head tied on the saddlehorn beneath the tattered Mexican sombrero, frightened everyone on the south plains for years. As more and more ranchers, cowhands, and stage drivers saw the dark horse with its gruesome cargo galloping through the brush, more and more outlandish characteristics were added to its countenance.

Eyewitnesses claimed the horse spouted flames from its nostrils and sent lightning bolts skyward with each clop from its hooves. The eyes in the head under the tattered sombrero were said to be like two fiery coals chipped from the cinders of hell. Some even claimed the specter glowed with an eerie green light and smelled like brimstone as it thundered through the tumbleweeds and desert sage.

People credited it with all kinds of curses and misfortune. When a posse of local ranchers and cowboys finally became brave enough to bushwhack it at a watering hole on a ranch at the tiny community of Ben Bolt just south of Alice, they were thunderstruck to discover a dried-up Mexican corpse riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, arrows, and Indian spears. It was lashed to the horse and saddle so tightly that the rope had to be cut to unfasten it. Beneath the rotting sombrero was a small skull, shriveled from too many years in the grueling, Texan sun.

Vidal---what was left of him---was finally laid to rest in La Trinidad’s tiny ranch cemetery at Ben Bolt. The grave lies back in the brush marked only by a small, jagged chunk of limestone.

Although El Muerto was now properly dead and buried, his ghost apparently never got the message. Right up until the fort closed in 1869, soldiers at Fort Inge (present-day Uvalde) saw the headless rider---and properly avoided him. So did travelers and ranchers throughout the No-Man’s Land.

At the turn of the century, the headless horror rode straight through a wagon team in Old San Patricio, passing soundlessly through the traces, the wagon, and the terrified occupants at a place now called Headless Horseman Hill. The site is on the outskirts of town, near the old cemetery. Even today in the tiny community of San Diego in Duval County, a headless rider can occasionally be seen on dark nights, galloping through the desert sage toward a dried up pond once known as Dead Man’s Lake.

There are still rumors that El Muerto continues to ride. In a modern-day manhunt in the brush near Freer in 1969, members of the mounted posse reported a strange horseman off in the distance. Two men rode to investigate, but they found no indication that a horse and rider had been in the area. Furthermore, although unwilling to admit it in front of other members of the posse, one officer was overheard to whisper that he thought the unknown rider had no head.

Although everyone is gone now, the legend lives on. The Headless Horseman of South Texas Brush Country is still very much real.

Cited from TheOutlaws.com.

Laane said...

El Muerto....

I didn't know it had anything to do with a headleass horseman, so thank you very much!!

Jamie said...

Very interesting...I hadn't heard of this before. Thanks for sharing!

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But in most of the cases the horse and its rider rode on and the legend of el muerto, the headless one, began. soon, the south texas brush country became a place to avoid as el muerto was credited with all kinds of evil and misfortune.

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But the horse and its rider rode on and the legend of el muerto, the headless one, began. soon, the south texas brush country became a place to avoid as el muerto was credited with all kinds of evil and misfortune

jason said...

INTERESTING STORY BEING IM 30 MILES FROM FREER, HOPEFULLY I WONT CROSS PATHS WITH EL MUERTO, HAVENT HEARD OF THIS STORY BEFORE, WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF ANYONE HAS AND INFORMATION ON THE MILLS BENNETT COMMUNITY IN FAR WEST DUVAL COUNTY IN LATE 1800'S TO EARLY 1900'S

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The gruesome horror began turning up in conversations one summer around 1850 after one of two ranch hands out tending cattle in the Wild Horse Desert, which at that time stretched from the Nueces River practically all the way to the Rio Grande, happened to glance off into the darkness and saw what he thought was a lone rider silhouetted against the moon on a nearby low rise.

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It was the Texas Rangers, established in 1823 by Stephen Austin, that stood between citizens and the bad men. Rustlers and horse thieves were dealt with particularly harshly, because their targets were the livelihood of Texans.

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On the cap like the ashes of hell are two pieces of coal in the eyes. Some people even called the spectrum of green light emission of sulphur sinister thunder heard through the desert thistle and sage.

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