From Tall Tales of America by Irwin Shapiro, illustrated by Al Schmidt, 1958

Image credit: saltycotton

Tall tales are a part of American literature and history. The stories tell the bigger than life tales of men taming the early American frontier, exaggerating actual events, explaining natural phenomena. Some were based on true people like Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed, while others tell of folk heroes who stories were passed down through generations.

Pecos Bill was not a real historical figure, nor is he truly a folk hero. His is a later tall tale that first appeared in a “saga” written by Edward O’Reilly for a 1923 Century Magazine. Nonetheless, the story has become part of America’s literary landscape. The version I read was retold by Mary Pope Osborne in American Tall Tales.

Pecos Bill, the story goes, was a baby in eastern Texas when his family packed up a wagon and headed west. Along the rough ride, Bill fell out and landed in the middle of the desert. Luckily, a coyote found him, took him home, and Bill spent the next 17 years living with the coyotes. One evening, when Bill was sniffing around, a cowpoke rode by, stopped, convinced the young man he was human, and took him back to the ranch. Bill just didn’t fit in there, though; he was too wild and dirty.

Then the cowboys told Bill about the Hell’s Gate Gang, the “mangiest, meanest, most low-down bunch of low-life varmints that ever grew hair.” Hearing that, Bill knew he’d fit right in, so he headed out to meet the gang. Along the way, his horse went lame, so Bill carried him. Then, he had to knock some sense into a rattlesnake who joined up with them and he fought a mountain lion who then let Bill ride him.

So picture him, riding on a mountain lion, carrying a horse, and holding a rattlesnake around his arm. The gang immediately acknowledged him their new leader.

Once Bill settled down with the Hell’s Gate Gang, his true genius revealed itself. With his gang’s help, he put together the biggest ranch in the southwest. He used New Mexico as a corral and Arizona as a pasture. He invented tarantulas and scorpions as practical jokes. He also invented roping. Some say his rope was exactly as long as the equator, others argue it was two feet shorter.

Everything was going well, until a drought hit, drying up the Rio Grande. No matter what he did, Bill couldn’t get enough water for his animals. And then came the storm. A black funnel cloud appeared and instead of running like all the folks and critter, Pecos Bill stood his ground and lassoed that cyclone. He got sucked up but then grabbed ahold and rode the twister across Texas, squeezing enough water out of it to flood Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Finally he slid off in California, and where he landed became Death Valley.

After riding that cyclone, no horse was a match for Pecos Bill. He raised a horse as tough and wild as he, Widow-maker, and they were perfect together. He mets another match, the woman who grabbed his heart, Slue-foot Sue, who rode a gigantic catfish. They marry, but after the wedding, she insisted on riding Widow-Maker who bucked her off. She flew so high, she looped over the moon and fell back to earth, immediately bouncing back up on her steel-spring bustle. Bill lassoed her, but he got yanked into the sky with her. Eventually, Bill must have gotten a foothold on the moon, because neither Bill nor Sue returned to earth.

Texans’ll tell you that every time you hear thunder rolling over the desolate land near the Pecos River, it’s just Bill’s family having a good laugh upstairs. When you hear a strange ah-hooing in the dark night, don’t be fooled – that’s the sounds of Bill howling on the moon instead of at it. And when lights flash across the midnight sky, you can bet it’s  Bill and Sue riding the backs of some white-hot shooting stars.

I love a good tall tale. First of all, they tend to be uniquely American, and the characters are just so big. The adjectives are all superlative – biggest, meanest, strongest. They actions are broad enough to physically change the landscape.

Okay, they’re probably far from the most politically correct stories, or environmentally friendly. Osborne in her introduction to the book comments that she “sought to revitalize the stories’ essential spirit of gargantuan physical courage and absurd humor, de-emphasizing incidents that would seem cruel or insensitive to today’s reader.” Her book is a good introduction to several tall tales, but I think I’d like to read tellings that are closer to the originals.

You can purchase American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy at Amazon. It’s geared for kids in grades 3-6.

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.


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