Monday, August 10, 2020

Where is Pecos Bill when you need him?


We need heroes. We always have. One of my favorite songs of all time is Bonnie Tyler’s I NEED A HERO. ‘Holding out for a hero…’. I swear that song sends a thrill to my heart every time I hear it. I am not ashamed to say that its lyrics have fueled more than one of the plotlines of my books.

Every person has a different idea of what makes a hero. Some think Superman, Batman, or Captain America fits the bill. Others have real-life heroes like soldiers or first responders – and that’s a good thing – we all should hold those men and women in high esteem.  

Throughout history, different groups of people have created their own heroes. When life is hard and the work you do to survive is even harder, people spin inspirational stories of someone who excels at that task and makes it look easy. These heroes are relatable, a figure they can look up to and imagine them solving all of the problems they face day to day. Examples of this type of hero is Paul Bunyan, the great lumberjack, or Big John, the miner whose heart was as big as his muscles. Cowboy country came up with its own hero, Pecos Bill. *(I wish he were this cute in all of his portrayals. Here, he could be a McCoy.)

Pecos Bill was born around the campfires of cattle drives, growing from the imaginings of cowboys who told tales at the end of long days spent herding cattle. Personifying the frontier spirit, Bill exhibited traits the cowboys valued – strength, courage, and a distinctive sense of humor.  

According to legend, this superhero was born to Texas pioneers in the 1830’s, the youngest of 18 children. He was tough from the beginning, using a bowie knife as a teething ring and making friends with every wild animal he came across. The story goes that he fell out of his parent’s wagon as they crossed the Pecos River and was swept away by a strong current. Coyotes found Bill and raised him as their own. His family didn’t stop looking for him, however. Years later when his brother finally found him, he had to convince Pecos Bill he wasn’t a coyote but a human being.

When he returned to civilization, Pecos Bill quickly fit right in, becoming a cowboy’s cowboy. He invented the branding, iron, the lasso, and taught gophers how to dig postholes. He could also perform extraordinary feats – rope a whole herd of cattle with one fell swoop, use a rattlesnake as a whip, harness the Rio Grande River to irrigate his ranch, even ride a mountain lion. Of course, this made Widow-Maker, his favorite horse jealous. To appease the animal, Bill would give the horse his favorite treat – a few sticks of dynamite.

Love didn’t elude Pecos Bill either; one day he found a worthy woman as she rode a catfish as large as a whale down the Rio Grande River. This lovely creature captured Bill’s heart and he tried to impress her by shooting all the stars from the sky except one – the Lone Star of Texas.

Yes, Pecos Bill accomplished many phenomenal things, but the one that always stuck with me was the story of how he lassoed a tornado and rode it like a bucking bull. Talk about a visual!

I used to imagine that scene as a kid growing up in Southeast Texas and Louisiana where hurricanes are just a fact of life. Now, I live in what is known as Tornado Alley. In this part of the world, we not only have tornadoes, we have flash floods. I’ve witnessed a little of all of it in my time. I’ll never forget hurricanes Katrina or Rita or Ike. They were devastating and life-altering storms. But a hurricane is a storm you can prepare for. You might not know the exact path, but it’s forecasted for days, even weeks ahead of time. A tornado is different, those suckers seem to come out of nowhere. What appears to be a regular thunderstorm can suddenly turn deadly. Plus, like storms from the sea which can vary from tropical storms to full flown Category 5’s, the tornado can be thin and rope like or a horrendous mile wide wedge of destruction.

Where I live now, there is a town close to me that suffered a mammoth tornado in May of 1997. I remember it well. The town’s name is Jarrell and it’s located just forty miles north of Austin on Interstate 35. The Jarrell tornado was not a normal storm, defying logic, not behaving as it should. On May 27th of 1997 the conditions weren’t right for a tornado. The wind shear and rotation seemed too low and slow in the beginning to create more than just a thunderstorm. What was there – in abundance – was atmospheric instability, or CAPE value. A regular thunderstorm has a CAPE of 500, the Jarrell storm had a mind-boggling CAPE of 7500. Plus, the direction the storm took was not normal, they usually move southwest to northeast or west to east. The Jarrell tornado moved from north to southwest. Clearly, something unique was afoot.

On that day, this surprise storm cell spawned twenty-four separate tornados in Central Texas. One hit in Lakeway, just across Lake Travis from where I live, and one hit in Cedar Park, just up the road from me. But the biggest, the monster, was the one that hit the small town of Jarrell. 

Courtesy of Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

The tornado started out pencil thin, but gradually grew into a ¾ of a mile-wide behemoth with F5 300 mile per hour winds. What made it extremely dangerous was how slow it moved. Most tornados travel at about 30 miles an hour, the Jarrell tornado moved an agonizingly slow 9 miles an hour, which could put it over one spot for as much as three minutes. 300 mile per hour winds for 3 minutes is a hellishly long time. Nothing survives a force like that.

For seven and a half miles, the tornado wreaked havoc, tearing the earth from the ground to a depth of 18 inches. The asphalt was sucked off the roads. All the houses in the Double Creek Estate were obliterated, killing 27 residents who happened to be at home. 300 head of cattle were killed, some skinned, and some torn to bits so small it couldn’t be identified as man or beast. Sadly, the people who were killed suffered the same fate. Identifying their remains was next to impossible. To illustrate the tornado’s power, it dug up a tree in one field and replanted it in another. Vehicles were tossed a half mile, so mangled that they could barely be recognized as parts of trucks and cars.

They say lightning never strikes in the same place twice, but Jarrell has attracted two huge tornadoes in just eight years, a prior one hitting in 1989. Luckily, only one person lost their life in that storm, but the 1997 tornado was much more deadly. A whole neighborhood was obliterated, killing the twenty-seven people and leaving only the concrete foundations of 38 homes.

Courtesy of Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

I recently visited Jarrell to do some research for a book and I visited the park built as a memorial to the victims who lost their lives on that fateful day. In 1997, there were very few homes built with storm cellars in Jarrell. Now, there are many. Hopefully, nothing like this will ever happen to them again.

Attribution: Larry D. Moore

I’m making this devastating tornado a key, hero-molding event in my novel THE STORM YOU CHASE. The hero, Clint Wilder, saves his family from the Jarrell storm when he is young, then returns to live there when he’s grown, discovering a life-changing secret buried in the ruins.

Here is part of the blurb:

Storms are a force of nature. Like a woman. Beautiful. Nurturing. Dangerous.
Storms are inevitable – it’s not a matter of if they’ll come, only a matter of when.
Clint Wilder knew this to be gospel truth. In some weird way, he felt he attracted them – for every major, life-shaking storm in his life was always accompanied by a rip-roaring weather event. Like the day his father left home for the last time. Or the day he signed up to play professional football. Hell, the day he found out he was related to the McCoy’s, the bottom fell out of the sky.
That was also true on the day he met…her. Jensen Mistretta.
Talk about a storm! From the moment they met the sparks began to fly. Thunder. Lightning. No woman ever touched him the way Jensen did. Just one kiss and he was hooked. Addicted.
Now…if he could just make her feel the same way.
From Jensen’s standpoint – the man is trouble – pure trouble. She’d weathered enough storms in her life to know better than to walk headfirst into a hurricane. And that was what Clint reminded her of – he was big, powerful, and nothing could stop him once he set his course. Too bad they rubbed one another the wrong way.
When fate threw them together at a wilderness rescue program, some thought they’d kill one another before it was over. One thing for certain, they have to learn to trust and depend on each other – or else.
This love story is fraught with excitement, emotion, and enough heat to shame the sun. Clint and Jensen learn that not all storms should be avoided – there are definitely some worth chasing.


Unlike Clint, I don’t chase storm, but I am fascinated by them. I love to watch it rain. Thunder and lightning excite me. Some storms can be nurturing, bringing life-giving rain to parched landscapes. Other, unfortunately, can be deadly. One day – maybe – we’ll find a way to curb these monsters, maybe even harness their energy for good.

Until then, there are days when we still need old Pecos Bill around.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons by Maroonbeard


Thank you

Sable Hunter

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