Monday, September 24, 2012


The next few stories are based on American Tall Tales and Legends. I've created my own versions of these stories based on several different retellings from several different sources. In this case, I looked at a few filmed and animated versions along with many written accounts only to find out that this story really isn't "folklore" at all, it's something else. Something called "fakelore." Fakelore is when you make up a new story and just pretend that it's an old story. Pecos Bill was originally created by a man named Edward J. O'Reilly which he claimed to have heard from old cowboys. I included it here anyway, partly because it's such a well-known example of a tall tale, but mostly because regardless of where it came from, it's just a good story.

Wellsir, seems jest ‘bout ev’ry time I see that thar full moon and hear them ky-oats a-howlin’, I think of the high-ridin’est, rootin’-tootin’est varmint ta ever rope a…er…

Yeah, no, I can’t do this. I know it’s a cowboy story, but I just can’t pull off this dialect. It just doesn’t ring true coming from me. Let’s start again, shall we?

Everytime I hear coyotes howling at the full moon as it shines over the prairie, I think about the story of the greatest cowboy to ever live. Now maybe you’ve heard tall tales about bigger-than-life men who did things you would’ve thought impossible. You might know the story of the cowboy who dug the Rio Grande with a stick, or rode a cyclone like a bucking bronco or who painted the painted desert. Well, I’m here to tell you that all those stories are about the same man:

Pecos Bill.

Bill’s story starts with a wagon train that was making its way west. Just a whole slew of good folk seeking wide open spaces and new opportunity in the new territories. Of course, when you have that many people all in one wagon train, someone’s likely to be overlooked. Especially a small someone, cuz that’s what Bill was back then. And, sure enough, his wagon hit a big rock and poor little Bill was thrown out and landed with a  soft “bump” on the desert sand.

And by the time anybody noticed he was missing, the wagon train was miles away. Bill was lost.

But there’s an old saying I just made up that goes “Nothing is really lost; just waiting to be found” (catchy, huh?). And it wasn’t long before little Bill was found by a kindly mother coyote (pronounced “ky-oat”). You might think that a coyote would see a little baby like Bill as a meal, but you know how mothers are. She didn’t see Bill as being any different from her own pups. Just another scared, hungry little child who needed someone to take care of him. So, she took him home and raised him as one of her own.

Many years later, a cowboy was riding through the desert. He stopped by the Pecos River to water his horse and wet his own whistle when he happened to look up and see the strangest sight any Texan had ever seen (and if you’ve been to Texas, you know that’s saying something). It was a full grown man, with a full beard, walking around on all fours like some kind of dog.

He was also stark naked.

“What in the blue blazes do you think you’re doin’, son?” cried the cowboy. “Why ain’t you got no clothes on?”

“Clothes? You ever heard of a coyote who wears clothes?”

(And if you’re wondering how Bill learned to speak when he was raised by coyotes, then maybe you’d better stop reading the story right now cuz it’s only gonna get stranger from here)

“Coyote? Son, you ain’t no coyote.”

“The heck I’m not! My momma’s a coyote, my brothers and sisters are coyotes. What else would I be?”

“I hate to break this to you, but you’re a human being.”

“A what?”

“A human. Like me…sort of.”

“Really? You mean I’m…I’m not a coyote?”

“I’m sorry to bust yer bubble, pardner, but it’s true. You might be stinky and hairy and nekked as a jaybird, but as a real life coyote? I’m afraid you don’t quite fit the bill.”

“Bill? Why does that sound so familiar?”

“Maybe that was the name your momma gave you before the coyotes found you. Funny thing is, it’s my name too. Course, it might get confusing both of us having the same name...” Then Bill the Cowboy remembered the name of the river where they were standing. “How about we call you Pecos Bill?”

Pecos Bill caused quite a sensation when Regular Bill brought him back to town with him. But he was quickly fitted with a new suit of clothes. And the minute he got them on, you’d never have guessed he had ever been a coyote. He was just like an honest-to-goodness-gracious-gosh cowboy. And so, Regular Bill and his cowboy friends taught Pecos Bill all about being a cowboy. That took about twenty minutes because, back in those days, cowboys didn’t know very much about cows except that you put hay in one end and got milk out the other end, and that before you tried it, you had to be reeeeeal sure it was a lady cow.

I mean, let’s face it, that would be embarrassing for everyone involved.

So from then on, Pecos Bill started showing the cowboys a thing or two. Have you ever wondered why cowboys tie their handkerchieves around their necks? Well, it was Bill’s idea. Figured it made sense to keep it closer to your nose. And, back in them days, cowboys used their hats mainly for drinking out of when they had to stop by a river or a spring. But Bill had such a powerful thirst, he needed a ten-gallon hat to satisfy it. And when he tried to teach the other cowboy how to howl like a coyote, the best he could get out of them was a warbly kind of singing, which is how cowboys learned to yodel.

Being raised by coyotes, Pecos Bill was just more rugged than his new cowboy friends. So when a wild stallion came running through town, spooking the cows, Bill was the only one who wasn’t scared to death of the animal. He asked for a length of good, strong rope, and the cowboys watched as he tied a special knot in one end. They didn’t know it yet, but Bill was invinting the lariat, or lasso. He swung that rope in the air and hurled it at the horse, catching it around the neck. Then, he dug in his heels and pulled on that rope until he was close enough to the horse to climb on his back. Of course, the horse tried to throw Bill off, but the king of the cowboys would not be thrown. After riding that bucking bronco for three days and nights, Pecos Bill had finally tamed that ornery beast. From then on, Pecos Bill wouldn’t ride any other horse, and the horse wouldn’t let anyone else ride him, which is why Bill named him “Widdowmaker.”

One day, while Bill and Widdowmaker were enjoying a leisurely ride in the desert, something happened that would change not only their lives, but the entire history of cowboys in the wild west. They were coming up on the Rio Grande, the river that Bill had dug to keep a particularly nasty band of Mexican banditos out of Texas, when they saw a most unusual sight: A girl riding a giant catfish.

Now, of course, Bill had seen more giant catfish than he’d had hot dinners, but the other thing was brand new to him: A girl! See, cowboys didn’t spend a lot of time with womenfolk back in them days, so in all the time he’d been living among human beings, Bill had never looked at a real live woman before…and he never looked at any other from that day on.

Yep. Pecos Bill had fallen in love.

The girl’s name was Sluefoot Sue, and she had heard all about the famous Pecos Bill. That’s the reason she’d come to Texas in the first place. Her family wanted her to be a polite, demure, obedient little housewife who cared about things like doilies and thimbles and having babies. But Sue wanted to play in the dirt with the boys and climb trees and other stuff that girls were just not allowed to do back then. So she resolved to run away and become the first ever cowgirl.

Of course, Bill’s friends were hesitant to let a girl into their group, but when she roped six steers with one throw of her lasso, they welcomed her gladly…that is, the men welcomed her. Widdowmaker did not like that someone else was taking up all of Bill’s time and attention. That silly old horse was jealous of Sluefoot Sue.

But Bill didn’t know this, and probably wouldn’t have cared if he had. All he knew was he was in love and just about the happiest cowboy to ever live. And when the world’s greatest cowboy falls in love with the world’s greatest cowgirl, you can bet it’s going to be one heck of a courtship. The first time they kissed, Bill got so excited that he started firing his guns into the air all night and by the time he stopped, he realized that he had shot out every single star in the sky, except one. Which is why, even today, Texas is known as the “Lone Star” state.

Naturally, Bill and Sue wanted to get married and have lots of little cowbabies…not, I mean, not like baby cows. They’re not gonna have calves or anything, that’d be weird…anyway, before they could get married, Sue had one request: She wanted to ride Widdowmaker.

Even without knowing that Widdowmaker had it in for Sue, Bill knew that this was a terrible idea. And, frankly, was surprised that he had to explain that to Sue since he felt the horse’s name was enough of a warning. But Sue was convinced that she could do everything Bill could do, only backward and in high heels (look it up) and felt that his refusal to let her ride his horse was a sign that he didn’t think she was as tough as him. The last thing Sue wanted to be was coddled, so she insisted and, in the end, Bill relented.

The wedding day was a big affair, as you can probably imagine. Sue was dolled up in the prettiest wedding dress ever seen in those parts, complete with that recent invention that had swept the nature: The bustle! Don’t ask me why, but back then, women weren’t considered fashionable if they didn’t have a big wire…well, butt, frankly. It was a big wire frame that they wore under their skirts that made their butts look really big. I don’t know why, it’s part of the story. The point is that Sluefoot Sue was wearing a wire bustle under her wedding dress...a decision she would live to regret.

The deal was that Sue would actually be riding Widdowmaker during the wedding ceremony, which is why it was held in the street outside the courthouse as opposed to inside. While the minister was saying the whole “Dearly beloved” bit that you’ve heard a thousand times in movies and shows, Bill was nerously watching his bride-to-be straddle Widdowmaker (side-saddle would’ve been more appropriate for a lady in those days, but the record will indicate that Sue was no lady). Meanwhile, six of Bill’s strongest cowhands were trying to restrain Widdowmaker, but he was fighting them at every turn. He did not want anyone riding him except Bill, least of all Sluefoot Sue!

Things didn’t really start going wrong until they got to the vows. By the time Bill had said “I do,” two of his men had lost their grip on the horse. The other four soon followed and when it was Sue’s time to say it, it came out more like “I doooooooooo!” because now Widdowmaker was bucking for all he was worth, trying to throw Sue off his back. But Sue was just as tough as her new husband of about four seconds, and she refused to be thrown. And, it’s likely she would’ve ridden him out just as Bill had done…had it not been for that bustle.

Now every time Widdowmaker kicked, Sue started bouncing, thanks to all that steel and wire in her bustle. Widdomaker kept kicking harder and Sue kept bouncing higher. Finally, with one well placed kick, Sue was thrown high into the air. She came down, landing on her bustle and bounced back up. With every bounce, Widdowmaker kicked harder and Sue kept gaining altitude. Now she was bouncing up and down like a rubber ball, higher and higher every time. Even after Widdowmaker had been subdued, Sue kept landing on her bustle and kept bouncing higher! It was beginning to look like she’d never stop.

Now, I don’t know if this kind of thing is really covered by “for better or worse” or “in sickness and in health,” but Bill felt he had an obligation as her husband to do something about this. It was just lucky for her that she had married the world champion…lassoer? Lassoist? Lasso-artist? Lariateer? What would you call that. Anyway, he called for five miles of rope, tied the single biggest loop in roping history and (with the assistance of three other men) threw it to Sue…and caught her right around the middle!

That was the good news. The bad news is that Sue’s bouncing was stronger than Bill and, rather than pulling her back down to earth, she pulled him up to the sky! Now Bill and Sue were bouncing together until their last bounce took them all the way up to the moon...which is where they stayed.

The Cowboys of Texas mourned the loss of their native son, though they were comforted by the knowledge that his beloved Sluefoot Sue was with him up there on the moon. But, somehow, the loss seemed to affect the coyotes greater than the men. And every night, from that day on, the coyotes would sit in the light of the moon and howl, in mournful tribute to their beloved Bill. A tradition they continue to this day. So now you know why the sound of coyotes howling at the moon makes me think of Pecos Bill, the greatest cowboy who ever lived.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Meldoy Time (1948) This was one of Walt Disney’s “package features” which consisted of several short subjects, among them was an animated version of Pecos Bill told and sung by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. The song “Pecos Bill” was used years later as the finale of the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland, when it was performed by the late, great Wally Boag and Betty Taylor. Boag recreated the number for his appearance on “The Muppet Show.”
  • Shelley Duvall’s Tall Tales and Legends (TV) After her acclaimed “Faerie Tale Theatre” series, Ms. Duvall produced a series of television shows honoring American folklore. Steve Gutenberg palyed the titular cowboy and was joined by Rebecca De Mornay, Martin Mull and, in one of her first television appearances, Megan Mullally.
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