'Pecos' rich in translation

Columnist explores facts, fables of West Texas' Pecos

By Winston A. Hall
On October 9, 2003

The word "Pecos" conjures up all kinds of images in the minds ofAmericans, and even people around the world. If you asked 10different people what comes to mind when they hear that word, youwill get 10 different answers.

The word means everything from cowboys and rodeos to gunfightsand folktales, from American Indians and outlaws to a town in WestTexas.

To some people, Pecos means cantaloupe. Pecos is also a countyand, of course, Pecos is a river

How one word can gain such a broad meaning is truly a testamentto the tall-tale mentality of the American West. Even a friend ofmine in Eastport, Maine, knew the connotation of the phrase "westof the Pecos." (He also told me in Maine, the phrase "east of theKennebec" means the same thing.)

The actual origin of the name "Pecos" is debated. It's mostlikely derived from the Latin word "pecus," which means "a singlehead of cattle." However, others argue that it comes from theSpanish verb "pecar," which means to sin or do wrong. This beliefis substantiated by the use of "pecos" as a verb in the late 19thcentury. Cattlemen and farmers referred to something being stolenas a "pecos swap." For the less fortunate, "to pecos" someone meantto murder him. And yet another source claims the river is namedafter the Spanish word "pecoso" which means "freckled." (They neverexplain how a river can look "freckled.")

Despite the ambiguity, we do have some constants. Take PecosBill, for example, the larger-than-life cowboy who once roped androde a cyclone. Many of us heard bedtime stories as children of howcoyotes raised Pecos Bill when he got lost crossing the PecosRiver. One of Bill's greatest accomplishments is having dug the RioGrande River with only a stick.

Beyond Pecos Bill are the wild and rowdy stories of the town ofPecos, home to the world's first rodeo. Supposedly, in 1883, somecowhands started arguing over who were the better cowboys, and arodeo ensued. No one owned blue ribbons, so they cut strips from ayoung girl's dress to be used as ribbons. And wah-la, rodeo wasborn.

Pecos is also home to the legendary Orient Hotel, sight of an1896 saloon gunfight that left two men dead. (The building actuallybecame the Orient Hotel after the gunfight, to be truly accurate.)In comically Pecos-like terms, locals described the shoot-out as a"disagreement."

For history buffs, the gravesite of famed gunman Clay Allisoncan be found just around the corner from the Orient Hotel indowntown Pecos. One of Allison's more famous lines, in keeping withthe Pecosian mentality, was uttered after he shot a man he'd justeaten dinner with: "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell onan empty stomach."

If you consider yourself a "fruity" person, Pecos is alsoworld-renowned for its cantaloupes, which growers claim are sweeterthan other cantaloupes. This extra sweetness led to the saying "ifyou haven't had a Pecos cantaloupe, you haven't had acantaloupe."

And who hasn't heard of Judge Roy Bean and his law West of thePecos, headquartered in the Jersey Lillie Saloon? Bean named thesaloon/courtroom after an actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean's leap intothe realm of folklore came after staging a prizefight on a sandbarin the Rio Grande claiming the location as international waters andthereby avoiding both Mexican and American officials.

The common bond with all these stories and locations is thePecos River itself. The river stretches almost 500 miles from MoraCounty, New Mexico, to the Rio Grande, cutting through all that is,or could be considered, West Texas.

For the most part, the river stretches through desert terrain.Before mankind controlled the river with the Red Bluff Reservoirnear Mentone, Horsehead Crossing (near the town of Girvin) was theprime location for cattle drives to make their way across theriver. You will often find references to the Horsehead Crossing inwesterns, including some by San Angeloan Elmer Kelton.

Last weekend, I visited a friend's ranch several miles south ofSheffield (population 600). The ranch, four sections big, sharesits western border with the Pecos River. Salt cedar and mesquitedominate the area, but that doesn't stop a person from hiking downto the river and picturing things the way they once were. You canstill see in some places where Comanches and Kiowas passing throughwould grind corn. To them, "Pecos" meant life. If you're quiet, youmight hear the hooves of the Spanish expedition led by GasparCasta�o de Sosa, who made his way up the river in 1590.

Some regions of the Pecos River are still so remote, a quickglance reveals no power lines, no roads, no houses— nocivilization. All one can see are mesas—everywhere.

It's not hard for a person to understand fully the vast meaningsassociated with the region and the river.

Sadly though, traveling west of the Pecos today involves nothingmore than glancing down when you zoom over it on I-10.

Fortunately, tall-tales and larger-than-life attitudes stillpermeate the people who consider the Pecos a part of their lives.In the tiny town of Sheffield, I found a photo on the wall of a gasstation. The picture shows a man and his son holding up an enormousalligator gar with the bucket of a backhoe. In ink, someone hadscratched "7 feet 5 inches."

When asked the origin of the monstrous catch, the woman at theregister smiled.

"They caught that in the Pecos."

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