tornadoes posed no challenge for legendary West Texas cowpoke Pecos
Bill. Of course, as a boy he'd started out modestly by practicing
on dust devils until he got the hang of it.
Pecos Bill existed only in the imagination of an early 20th century
newspaperman turned pulp magazine writer named Edward S. "Tex" O'Reilly,
but real cowboys did pride themselves on their lassoing skills.
Any waddy worth his grub and wages could slip a loop around a cedar
fence post, an energetic calf, a recalcitrant cow or a charging
bull, but who would want a hand content to settle for that?
Following the Civil War, cowboying as a career choice offered ample
potential. Once the U.S. Cavalry and the Texas Rangers cleared West
Texas of hostile Indians, cattle ranching spread into the new
country like a prairie fire pushed by a north wind. Young men who
knew which end of a cow got up first (or could learn so quickly)
found themselves in high demand.
First they were called drovers, then cow-boys and finally, just
cowboys. Using a rope as a range management tool dated back to the
Spanish who first brought longhorn
cattle to Texas. Later, Mexican vaqueros perfected the art.
While roping amounted to old-school technology, new technology exploded
in the last quarter of the 19th century. The largest, loudest and
most powerful example of the growing nation's industrialization
was the railroad locomotive, a steam-powered machine that rolled
plenty farther and faster than a four-horse stagecoach.
In the early 1880s the Texas and Pacific Railroad was laying a line
across West Texas, headed
eventually for El
Paso and points west. Meanwhile, the Fort Worth and Denver railroad
was putting down track in the direction of the vast Panhandle
plains. By June 1881, the Texas and Pacific neared the mid-way
point between Dallas and
. When the mostly Irish track layers got roughly 30 miles from Big
Spring, the railroad built a section house it called Midway.
Within a year, the government established a post office there. However,
since the nation had no shortage of post offices named Midway, the
name got changed to Midland.
As the rail line continued its westward progress, Midland
became a shipping point for the large cattle ranches that had developed
in the area. Cowboys employed by those ranches worked hard, but
not all the time. Occasionally, they came to town to recreate. First
told in 1965 by the late Tanner Laine, longtime state editor of
the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, a story about one way the boys came
up with to amuse themselves is probably just folklore. Still, it
might have happened.
day, a group of cowboys rode into town to watch the train come in.
This had evolved into something of a spectator sport. Seeing a fire-spitting,
smoke-belching iron horse roll into the station was a big deal to
cowboys who didn't get out much. On top of that, you never knew
who might alight from one of the passenger cars. Maybe even a few
As the boys sat their horses waiting on the train, it occurred to
one of them that he might pick up a little extra cash by proposing
a friendly wager.
"Bet you couldn't
rope that locomotive when it gets here," he challenged the best
man with a lariat in the party.
"How much?" the cowboy asked, not wasting words.
At that, the boys dug into their jeans and fished around for their
respective liquid assets. After some math work, they came up with
the collective sum of $7.19 and placed the change into a sweaty
hat. To put that "rodeo" purse in perspective, back then, the prevailing
cow country wage was a dollar a day.
Like the fictional Pecos Bill, the handy-with-a-rope Midland-area
cowboy figured he could hurl woven hemp around just about anything.
His self-confidence enhanced perhaps by a shot of whiskey or two
or three, he took the bet.
"There she comes!" one of the cowboys yelled before long.
As the train chugged into sight, the cowboy sitting astride his
horse with his rope at the ready began to wonder if he'd taken a
bigger bite than he could chew. That locomotive was moving fast,
and its smokestack--the most logical part to rope--looked mighty
But no one could ever accuse this fellow of not being game. Twirling
his rope in an ever-widening circle, he spurred his horse into a
gallop and rode after that train. As his fellow cowhands watched
in amazement, his loop sailed through the air and dropped down right
around the smokestack.
"Tie 'er down...you've
got 'er looped," one of the watching cowboys yelled, in his excitement
momentarily forgetting that he'd just lost his bet.
The young roper had expected that the train would continue to slow
down until stopping, and that all he had to do was ride fast enough
to keep his rope tight until then. Unfortunately, the commotion
startled the engineer and instead of braking, he threw the throttle
In subsequent tellings of the story by cowboys sitting around the
campfire drinking their Arbuckle coffee, it was asserted that the
"winning" cowboy got dragged half-way to Odessa
before the train finally stopped. That was rank exaggeration, but
the cowpoke had required some medical attention.
The doctor's bill, they said, came to $7.19.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September
21, 2016 column
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