Friday, October 28, 2016

LEGENDS OF THE WEIRD WEST: El Muerto, The Headless Horseman

   As weird as things sometimes got in the Old West, it was full of some fairly sensible people. They had to be. Soldiers fighting off Indians, miners in the earth, ranchers trying to master their empires, regular folks in between scraping for jobs or a piece of fame or history. You had to be sensible, reasonable to survive.
   The West was unforgiving and didn’t truck with foolish ways. Let your attention wander in some fancy flight and that was that. The end of you. Crops, weather, locals – a man had enough to worry about without running into the dark jabbering like a fool.
   He hears howling on the wind, it needs to be coyotes. Sees shapes in the dark, it’s bandits or Indians. The world made sense and was a thing to be wrestled into place. Controlled, not controlled by. It was wood and water and what you could see. Not what might be. Whatever weird thoughts a man had about the wind or the dark, he kept them his own.
   Or tried to.
   Because when something like El Muerto, the Headless Horseman rides by, well, you can’t deny your eyes. When you can see him as simple as the tree on your own acre, there’s little else to do but start giving in. After all, if you can see it, it’s there. Reason says so. Even if what you’re seeing defies all reason. Then a man forgets about what he knows and starts to really wonder what he doesn’t. Oh, he can say it’s a prank. Foolishness. But the horse rides and the man on it bounces in the saddle like any other. And no one cuts off heads on a prank.
   Though in this case, it wasn’t for foolishness. Ironically, it was done for the same sensible reason men were out west to begin with. To wrestle it into place for reasonable, civilized folks.
See, the Texas Rangers were men’s men. Drinkin’, swearin’, livin’ in the saddle day in and out. Vicious men, too. They weren’t above beatings, hangings, even cutting folks up to make a point. Rustlers, bandits, Indians all knew what was waiting for ’em on the wrong side of Texas law. Didn’t seem to stem the tide, though.
   One day in 1850, two of them had enough of it. Creed Taylor and William “Big Foot” Wallace got an idea. They’d tracked a rustler named Vidal to his camp and were lying in wait. Vidal was an arrogant sort and had a high price on his head. Not the type to be frightened by his fellows hung off trees or left to rot in the desert. He’d proved that time after time with his villainy and had just done so again. But with this latest raid, snatching up a passel of horses from some settlements near the San Antonio River, he’d gotten a few off Creed’s ranch to boot.
   That did not sit well, for obvious reasons.
   So, the two Rangers decided to get creative. They rode in and put him down, him and his crew, then cut Vidal’s head clean off. Ol’ Big Foot propped him on the back of a mustang and lashed him in place, the head tied down right in front of him. Then they gave that horse a slap and off he rode. El Muerto: The Headless Horseman.
   Sightings of the strange rider soon cropped up, no doubt about that. El Muerto was seen by settler and Indian alike and word began to spread. Not about the corpse tied to a mustang, though. No, this was about the headless phantom spreading death and misfortune wherever it went. About the devil rider who ruled the South Texas wasteland.
   Makes a certain sense. No reason to fear the unknown when it gallops right up to you. At least you can keep your eye on it. Easier than thinking your fellow man had gone and cut off some fool’s head to keep your world spinning.
   When El Muerto was finally chased down by a posse, he had enough wear and tear (and arrows sticking out of him) to attest to the fear he had wrought during his terrible reign. Vidal was cut down from the horse’s saddle and buried in an unmarked grave.
   But that of course, wasn’t the end of it. To this day, people claim to see that dark spirit. A headless rider galloping across the desert, crying out “It’s mine, all miiiiiine!”
   The ghost of Vidal himself? Who could blame him? Maybe revenge, maybe he just rode so damn long he forgot how to stop. Maybe too, the land itself simply picked up where the Rangers left off.     Put its own man out there.
   Hell, why not?
   Reason is for fools. Weird is for the West.

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