Roping 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 El Paso. 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.
One 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 pretty ladies.
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 tall.
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.