The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, October 31, 1997, Columns

The tale of the headless horseman circulated the plains of Texas in the days when the shadows were young. Storytellers repeat reports of a big mustang stallion carrying a man shrouded in a serape with his head dangling from his saddle horn by a strap.

After the Civil War, between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, the brush was thick and the cattle and horses that escaped from the Spanish herds roamed free. Many an outlaw hid in the arid region between the governments of Mexico and Texas. It was a wild land of cactus and gnarly mesquite trees that gave up little and took what it wanted.

In this wild land there was one horse that was wilder than the rest. He was bigger than any of the other mustangs and his coat was as shiny black as a moonlit lake. From all accounts he traveled alone and shunned the herds. He ran like the wind and his hooves pounded the ground with a thud like thunder. He never seemed to tire and disappeared as quickly as he appeared.

On his back was a vaquero, a Mexican cowboy, who sat as straight as a store-bought post. The rider's head bounced from the saddle horn of a fancy Mexican saddle decorated with Spanish silver coins. On the head was a sombrero with a band of gold bullion.

The horse and rider never stayed in one place long and ranged far and wide. The Indians reported seeing the headless rider. Outlaws told of their bullets passing through the rider as if through paper targets.

In the cow camps and settlements, no one denied that the thing had been seen. Theories guessed that the horse and rider were an Indian ruse, a ghostly guard of a lost mine on the Nueces River, or Lucifer himself.

The hill above the old City Cemetery in San Patricio is named Headless Horseman Hill because of sightings of the headless cowboy. Visitors to the cemetery have seen the mustang speed past them in the darkness and disappear over the hill, leaving not a hoof print. It is the ghost of a horse thief who was captured by a posse and beheaded because a suitable hanging tree could not be found.

Around Corpus Christi a story making the rounds of the campfires and parlors tells of a couple traveling by wagon to San Diego, near Alice, to visit an uncle. On the first day they spotted a campfire in the distance and decided to join their fellow travelers.

When they found the campfire on the banks of a pond, the flames had nearly died. The man built up the fire while the woman unloaded the wagon. Just as the fire began to roar the sound of hooves came thundering out of the shadows.

The woman fainted as her startled husband watched the horse and its headless rider disappear across the water as if it were solid. When his wife regained consciousness, the couple rushed to continue their journey. But before they left they tied some rags to a tree.

The next day, the man returned with his uncle to the spot where he had started to camp the night before. Not a trace was to be found of the campsite, not even the pond. Only dry Texas dirt surrounded the tree where he had tied the rags. The uncle surmised that the couple had camped next to Deadman's Lagoon.

J. Frank Dobie, the dean of Texas tales, collected several versions of the horse and rider. In Tales of Old-Time Texas, Dobie tells of a soldier from the Mexican army named Vidal who deserted to join Ben Milam in San Antonio.

After the Battle of San Jacinto, Vidal took up the risky business of horse-stealing, cloaked by his reputation as a patriot. His last foray into the occupation was when he made the mistake of stealing from a ranch near San Antonio owned by Creed Taylor, a veteran of the Texas Revolution and a former Texas Ranger.

Taylor, joined by Bigfoot Wallace, struck out after the lost horses. They caught up with the thieves on the banks of the Nueces River near Fort Inge. The night was soon lit up with the flash of six-shooters and all of the rustlers were laid to rest where they were caught.

Bigfoot Wallace loved a good joke, or maybe he wanted to give a warning to other horse thieves, but he suggested that they catch the meanest stallion in the herd. They strapped the headless body of Vidal to the unbroken mount and turned him loose to forever wander the Texas plains.

On the Texas prairies between the Red River and the Rio Grande the ghosts of thousands of souls wander the nights looking for the lives they squandered or had robbed from them. Whether it is a full moon or a starless night, in the city or next to a campfire, the ghosts might find you.

To find out more about Bigfoot Wallace, visit the Bigfoot Wallace Museum on TX173 three miles east of Devine. The museum is open the second Saturday of each month, 10am-4pm, 830/633-5054. Fort Inge was a temporary military installation 4.5 miles southeast of Uvalde off FM140. Used from 1849 until 1869, the fort has all but disappeared.

Coming up this weekend...

Wurstfest in New Braunfels celebrates the fall sausage-making with German music and food, Oct. 31-Nov. 9. 800/221-4369 or

Fall Festival of Roses in Independence at the Antique Rose Emporium presents a variety of experts from gardening to photography at the eight-acre rose farm, Nov. 1-2. 409/836-5548.

Coming up...

Bald Eagle Tours of Fairfield Lake State Park happen every Saturday in November, 10am-noon. 800/442-8951.

Big River, Big Sky, Big Bend is a tour lead by the Heard Natural Science Museum through the Big Bend area including a river trip, Nov. 6-9. 972/562-5566.

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