Tall Tale: El Muerto
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.
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