by: Wes Ishmael

Lightening flashed and thunder crashed. Hooter jumped.

There on the hill, silhouetted by the stormy light show, Hooter could just make out what looked like a mighty stallion, charging one direction then the next. There was an odd looking rider, too, that leaned, bobbed and bounced unnaturally with each change of gait and direction, like a sack of potatoes tied to the saddle.

The horse reared up, the rider rocked back like there was no bone in his body, the lightening flashed and Hooter saw it: a sombrero-festooned head, tied with a pigging string to the saddle horn: El Muerto. The Dead One. The Headless One.

Whatever the precise translation, El Muerto was equal parts legend, wives' tale and reality in the brush country of South Texas. Hooter never guessed he'd see El Muerto this far North.

The First Reality

As the story went, Vidal was a notorious Mexican bandit who rustled cattle and horses in what was then known as No Man's Land, a sprawling gap of ground between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River, where the only laws were those folks could conjure and enforce themselves.

The United States said its southern border was the Rio Grande. Mexico said its northern border was the Nueces. It took the war in 1846 to ultimately decide on the Rio Grande

History tells us that the bandit, Vidal, made the mistake of stealing a herd of cattle that included some horses owned by Texas Ranger, Creed Taylor. Taylor and fellow Ranger, Big Foot Wallace, and some others tracked Vidal and his gang. When they found Vidal, Taylor killed him. Then, Taylor cut off Vidal's head, tied the body to the bandit's mustang, tethered the head to the saddle horn and set the pony loose to serve as warning to other rustlers.

The Second Reality

Since then, plenty of folks claimed to have seen El Muerto riding through open country, most of those claims in jest, a few representing blood-curdling reality.

Somehow, Hooter knew this was who he had to be seeing. Then El Muerto dissolved into the storm. Hooter shook his head and looked again. Now, he saw someone he thought he should know tied fast with a suicide wrap to the back of a waspy brindle bull, spurs dug in and ahead of every jump to the left. There were a couple of bull fighters, too, taking turns dashing by the bull's massive horns, letting him know there was other prey when the rider bucked down.

That scene faded into one Hooter felt like he'd seen before only recently. Aunt Pinky was packing her yellow-flowered overnight case, what she called her war bag. She'd put her pistol in and Hooter would yank it back out.

“I'm mad, too, but you can't just go in and hold a gun on folks.”

“I'm sick of it, Hooter, sick and to death of it. When you can't call an idiot an idiot without it making national news, then this isn't the country your Uncle Elmer died fighting to defend.”

“Besides,” said Hooter, retrieving the gun yet again, “Who exactly would you go hunting? Sounds like it was a committee decision.”

Aunt Pinky was still in the scene on the hill, but it was a different time, a few years back when she'd gotten into breeding bucking bulls, almost on the ground floor.

“Bull fighters. Bull Riders. Bulls,” Aunt Pinky told him. “In that order. The bulls are the foundation, but if it wasn't for bull fighters there wouldn't be nearly as many bull riders, which means there wouldn't need to be nearly as many bulls.”

Hooter knew Aunt Pinky harbored a softer spot than the most ardent fan for bull fighters. She'd almost married one in her younger days. Now, she was raising bulls she hoped would make it to the big show.

Thunder crashed around Hooter again, but he was so used to it by now that he hardly noticed.

Friends Near and Far

Another blitz of light and Hooter saw another rodeo arena on the hill. He could swear it was Wilbur Plaugher strutting his rodeo clown best. Over there by the barrel, that had to be Quail Dobbs. Hooter had been fascinated by those legends and others as a kid. It wasn't until later that he understood some of the history, like how Plaugher won the All-Around Title at Madison Square Garden in 1946, the same year he started clowning, and how he later co-founded the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys.

Standing in front of Chute 3, ready to go to work, was Zebbie Moss. Like other bull fighters Hooter had known, Zebbie was tougher than a cornered badger, honest as rain, wore a huge soft spot for little kids and old folks, and possessed a rare gene that made him want to help fallen riders find a fence and to entertain crowds, in that order. Zebbie caught a fatal horn in San Angelo, what, must have been 30 years ago now.

Lightening blazed across the sky. There was Aunt Pinky again, pounding the newspaper with her meaty fist: “Did you see this?”

It was several months earlier and told the story of how the Missouri State Fair fired and banned for life from its show a rodeo clown who parodied the president of the United States, just like rodeo clowns, comedians and political pundits have done since the beginning of time.

That's why Aunt Pinky was packing while caterwauling, “What ever happened to common sense?”

Lightening and thunder flashed and crashed again, almost in unison this time. Now, up on the hill, Hooter saw what looked to be an old-timey and friendly man standing on a stage. His voice sounded just like the old tapes Hooter had of Will Rogers.

“I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts,” Rogers said, his voice crackling with static as if being broadcast over a lousy AM station. “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke, when it used to be vice versa….There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you.” More static and then Rogers saying, “We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others.”

The static stopped and there was more thunder. With the next bolt of lightening Hooter saw Wilbur Plaugher again, this time with that barrel racing monkey of his, the one that road the dog on his monkey-sized saddle.

Zebbie Moss was across the arena, pointing, bent over in hysterical laughter and roaring, the way only he could: “Hooter! You should have seen it. Pitch black, late-thirty, we tie a stuffed money to the saddle, cut off his little stuffed head, put a sombrero on it, tied it to the horn, then set Patch loose to go call on those committee members. Pasty-faced and then some…hoooo, hawwww!”

That thunder again, one more ear-splitting clap.

Hooter sat bolt upright. It was light. He was in bed. Nawww. It couldn't have been just a dream.

He scrambled to the window, looked at the point on the hill where he'd seen El Muerto and all the rest; nothing but rock and mesquite.

There was that crash again. Hooter saw a piece of loose tin on his Quonset riding the stiff wind.

Real or not, Zebbie Moss had given Hooter an idea that Aunt Pinky was going to love.

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