Tall Tale: El Muerto

Catron Courier - - News -

by Sam “Sweet­wa­ter” Sav­age

Texas was a wild and law­less place back in the 1880s with ban­di­tos and out­laws. The Texas Rangers were formed to set about bring­ing law to tame the wild Texas fron­tier.

The Rio Grande river to the south was the bor­der be­tween the US and Old Mex­ico, ac­cord­ing the US govern­ment. How­ever, the Mex­i­can govern­ment re­fused to rec­og­nize that bound­ary, in­sist­ing the Nue­ces River was the bor­der. This left a huge area of land be­tween the two rivers which be­came known as “No Man’s Land” and a prime tar­get for des­per­a­dos.

The dis­pute even­tu­ally lead the US to go to war with Old Mex­ico in 1846 to force the Rio Grande to be the of­fi­cial bor­der. How­ever, it would take an­other thirty years be­fore the Texas Rangers could rid the ter­ri­tory of cat­tle rustlers and thieves who used this as an easy es­cape.

The Texas Rangers were a well-armed and highly trained posse of ex­pert gun­men and were not to be taken lightly. Ever pur­su­ing their quarry, they lived out of the sad­dle and often dis­pensed jus­tice bru­tally. Two of th­ese Rangers were Creed Tay­lor and William Alexan­der An­der­son ‘Big Foot’ Wallace, who was al­ready a folk hero when he joined the Rangers. It was Big Foot who un­wit­tingly cre­ated the leg­end of El Muerto.

In 1850, a man known sim­ply as “Vi­dal” had been rustling cat­tle all over South Texas and soon he had a “dead or alive” price on his head. That sum­mer, Vi­dal took ad­van­tage of a Co­manche raid which di­verted most of the men north to fight off the at­tack. In the mean­time, the sparse set­tle­ments were tem­po­rar­ily left un­guarded. Vi­dal, along with his men, wasted no time and stole a con­sid­er­able num­ber of horses on the San An­to­nio River, head­ing south to­ward Old Mex­ico.

Un­be­knownst to Vi­dal, among the stolen herd were sev­eral prized mus­tangs be­long­ing to Texas Ranger Creed Tay­lor. Even though he was quick to de­fend set­tle­ments against In­dian at­tacks, on this oc­ca­sion, Tay­lor had not gone af­ter the Co­manche. His ranch was west of San An­to­nio, in the midst of ban­dit ter­ri­tory, not far from the head­wa­ters of the Nue­ces River.

Tay­lor sum­moned fel­low ranger, Big Foot Wallace, and a nearby rancher by the name of Flores. Th­ese men were as skilled as any Co­manche in track­ing and the three men shortly found the trail of Vi­dal and Tay­lor’s horses.

When the three men found the out­law camp, they waited un­til night to at­tack. Their strat­egy worked, and they were able to shoot and kill the horse thieves. But they weren’t fin­ished—Tay­lor and Wallace wanted to set an ex­am­ple that would de­ter fu­ture theft. In those days, steal­ing cat­tle and horses was a crime more se­ri­ous than mur­der. The Rangers had tried all types of bru­tal jus­tice, in­clud­ing string­ing up out­laws, chop­ping the bod­ies to pieces, and leav­ing the dead for scav­engers. But noth­ing had stopped the rustling.

In a dra­matic ex­am­ple of fron­tier jus­tice, Wallace be­headed Vi­dal, then put the body on a sad­dle on the back of a wild mustang. Ty­ing the out­law’s hands to the pom­mel and se­cur­ing the torso to hold him up­right, Big Foot then at­tached Vi­dal’s head and som­brero to the sad­dle with a long strip of rawhide. He turned the buck­ing horse loose to wan­der the Texas hills with its ter­ri­ble hor­ror on his back.

Soon, sto­ries be­gan about the head­less rider seen in re­mote coun­try, with its head swing­ing back and forth to the rhythm of the horse’s gal­lop.

As time went on, more and more cow­boys spot­ted the dark horse with its fear­some cargo, and not know­ing what it was they rid­dled it with bul­lets. But the horse and its rider gal­loped 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 mis­for­tune.

Lo­cal ranch­ers fi­nally cap­tured the wild pony at a wa­ter­ing hole near the town of Ben Bolt, south of Alice, Texas. Still strapped firmly on its back was the dried-up corpse of Vi­dal, now rid­dled by scores of bul­let holes and In­dian ar­rows. The body was buried in an un­marked grave, and the horse freed of its bur­den.

You’d think this would be the end of El Muerto, but the leg­end lives on to this day. Soon af­ter Vi­dal’s body was laid to rest, sol­diers at Fort Inge (present day Uvalde) be­gan re­port­ing see­ing a head­less rider on dark nights. Trav­el­ers and ranch­ers in “No Man’s Land” also re­ported see­ing the grotesque ap­pari­tion.

In 1917, a cou­ple trav­el­ing by cov­ered wagon to San Diego, Texas camped for the night out­side of town. The next day, they said that as they’d sat by the camp­fire, a large gray stal­lion sped by with a head­less man shout­ing, “It is mine. It is all mine.”

An­other sight­ing of El Muerto was re­ported near Freer, Texas in 1969. Even to­day, peo­ple re­port see­ing the head­less rider gal­lop­ing though the mesquite on moon­lit nights in South Texas.

If you’d like to share your own Tall Tales, or Cow­boy Poetry, please send them my way: write Tall Tales c/o Ca­tron Courier HC 32 Box 726, Que­mado, NM 87829 or by email at My.Ca­tron.Courier@gmail.com

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