TEXANS always like to brag that everything’s bigger in Texas. And there’s some truth in all that. Until someone reminds the speaker about the hills in Texas. Puny by any stretch. Texans don’t have much they can argue with that. But it wasn’t always so.
Now, folks, I know most of you have heard of Pecos Bill and his wild ride on the tornado. A Texas cowboy, the likes of which won’t soon be seen again. A rodeo darling, with his flowing black locks and smile as wide as the Rio Grande River, he’d wanted to ride the biggest, meanest bull alive. And he did. Held on for eight seconds of reddish dirt flying, thousand-pound hunk of moving anger, before bouncing off and staring the bull down. When that wasn’t enough, he’d vowed he’d ride a tornado, which he did.
Well, Pecos Bill was all that and more. But I’m not here to talk about Bill. I’m guessing you never heard of his little sister, Prairie Dog Town Maude. This is her tale.
Maude was born when Bill was ten years old.
Maude’s family lived in the panhandle of Texas on the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Near the border with Oklahoma, the closest town was Amarillo but that was at least a day’s ride on horseback.
Maude’s daddy had built a two-room log cabin when he’d brought her mama to this place. Round logs stacked on top of each other with interlocking corners. Mud and green moss were daubed in the cracks along with sticks and rocks filling the bigger areas. The cabin was snug and warm in the winter with a crackling wood fire and a cool respite in the summer humidity that was at once sticky and clammy.
A wood shelter with three enclosed sides had been added later for the cows and goats. Chickens ran free within the rail fenced area around the front of the house, although they could easily slip through the rails. The chickens seemed to know that they needed to be back before sunset for the safety of the coop that was mostly bits of spare wire and wood.
You wouldn’t know it today, but at the time, to the west, the Rocky Mountains stretched all the way through New Mexico, curving through the northern part of the Texas panhandle to Amarillo. On the east, The Appalachian Mountains continued through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and into Texas. Stopping just short of Amarillo. With the highest points of either mountain range running across the northern parts of Texas into Louisiana. Tips that rivaled anything else in the two mountain ranges.
A gap separated the two ranges and in that gap were valleys that settlers had staked their claims and built their lives. Lush land for farming and animals. Shades of green grass once the winter lets go of the land. White snow caps on otherwise beige and brown mountains until spring melted the coldness.
When Maude let out her first cry, Bill He took one look at that yellow-haired little squiggling mess lying in the wood cradle his daddy had made and vowed he’d watch over her all her days. Maude’s piercing blue eyes peered out from a swath of old patchwork quilts. The cradle looked more like a tiny rowboat sailing on the seas with its high sides resting on two large half-moons for the rocking parts than a baby’s bed. Her people weren’t given to decoration, other than polishing up the natural beauty of the pe-can wood. This piece gleamed from the hours her daddy had sat and rubbed the cradle.
Life was good for the family as brother and sister grew closer. Working the farm, tending to the cows and goats. Weeding the garden and making bread. The mountains kept the area cooler than some of the drier areas of the state, and more rain tended to fall on the Texas side.
Now the coast of Texas hugs the Gulf of Mexico. For some durn fool reason, hurricanes like to come in from the deep water and set a spell, bringing all that rain and thunder and lightning and wind with them. Most times, the rain is needed to quench the thirst of the land but sometimes, it’s like most folks that go into a saloon to drink, it’s just too much to drink too fast.
Except the land doesn’t get drunk. It and anything on it, like farms and ranches and such, get covered up for a time. Like the patchwork quilt that covered Maude when she was a baby, except the water can’t be picked up and moved. If the timing is before the crops are brought in, the wetness ruins crops and families can starve during the winter months.
About the time Maude was sixteen going on seventeen, just such a hurricane came to visit. A massive ball of wind, filled with storms that electrocuted trees and picked up anything in its path and set it down here and yonder.
Maude had long since lost the yellow locks to long chestnut curls and matching freckles. She’d grown into a tall, willowy girl who could stand toe to toe with her brother at five feet eleven. Bill had run off several young men who’d come a-courting. He’d not met a man yet that was good enough for his sister.
Maude had begun to despair she’d ever have a beau. Let alone a husband and family. She’d tried every way she knew how to show Bill she’d grown up just fine and could take care of herself. She’d listened while he taught her to shot first a pistol and then a rifle. Just in case.
Maude watched and practiced, but she knew she could never kill another living thing. Her heart was gentle like that.
But Bill had made his promise to watch over her. And Bill was nothing if not a man of his word. Not to mention he was the one everyone turned to when there was a problem.
So when news of the hurricane arrived, everyone in the valley looked for Pecos Bill.
He wasn’t anywhere near enough to help, him being off chasing wife number seven. “Oh, whatever will we do?” the farmers asked. They resigned themselves to riding out the storm, moving valuables to higher places in their cabins.
No one looked to Maude ‘cuz Bill had always solved the problems. Maude knew this was her chance to show everyone she was just as good at dealing with things as Bill. She’d have to think of something quick.
The rains had started small, and then became a relentless sheet of water pooling everywhere in the valley as it crawled towards the base of the mountains.
Winds whipped around corners of the buildings, sending hay and baskets, anything loose flying. The animals lumbered into the shelter and hunkered down, seeming to know they were in for a wild ride.
Maude gathered the crops behind their log cabin before the rain had soaked all that was in the small fields. Then she gathered the last of the summer potatoes from the garden. Her mama helped some but was busy making bread in case the water came into the cabin. Her daddy chopped extra wood so they’d have a fire. With no one to help Maude, the harvest was pitiful. Maude knew they depended on her and she said not a word of protest.
After three days of rising winds, the rain stopped, but the water still rose – from across the plains and from the Prairie Dog Town Red River which had not yet crested. It reached the wood rail fence fifty feet in front of Maude’s house.
Before Maude could turn around, it had moved two feet closer to the front porch. Soon it was licking the rails of the rockers on either side of the front door.
Maude pondered what to do.
She couldn’t sit by and let her family and neighbors lose everything to the rising water.
She paced and thought.
Then thought some more.
There must be something she could.
Maude’s face lit up in a smile. She ran to the door and put on her rain slicker to cover her blue jean shirt and pants, and cowhide cowboy boots, without a word to anyone as to where she was headed.
Pulled the cabin wood door opened and walked outside.
Splashing through the now ankle-deep water, Maude ran to her favorite pe-can tree. Whenever she had a hankering for nuts, she’d come here and if there weren’t any scattered on the ground, she’d look up at the tree and ask nicely if she could pick some.
More often than not, whether there was a breeze or not, nuts would begin to fall.
Today she wasn’t after nuts. She needed a long branch with smaller branches at the end.
“Old man tree,” Maude called. “We’re all in danger from the water. Can you spare a strong limb with some life left in it?”
Darned if that old tree didn’t send a branch as tall as Maude crashing into the water below.
Maude picked it up and grasped the limb, a knotty old branch with lots of small branches at the end and green leaves at the end. Maude nodded her thanks to the tree and ran back to the front of her house.
Now Maude helped out on the first Saturday morning of each month to move all the chairs and kitchen table outside so the floors could be washed. Sand thrown down on the hardwoods, followed by a scrubbing with a broom, made them gleam. Once scrubbed to loosen the tracked in dirt and farm leavings, the dirty water was swept out.
Followed by a rinsing with clean water.
The reward? A clean house, a rest on the porch with a cool glass of lemonade while the floor dried and then all the furniture came back in.
Maude realized that what really needed to happen were the waters needed to be swept back into the Gulf of Mexico.
How you ask? Well, Maude figured that if she could find the right broom, she could do it, just as Pecos Bill had ridden the tornado. And the tree had given her just what she needed.
So Maude began to sweep. Slower in the beginning as she pushed the water this way and that.
Then faster, circling round, creating a wave that she swept back the way the waters had come.
Growing bigger as she moved faster, the branch broom in her hands, it grew in size as Maude did until she was fifty feet tall, and a whirling mess of sweeping.
Well, the water was no match for a giant girl with a broom. Nor was anything else in her way.
Maude steered clear of the towns and farms across the mid-section of Texas, careful not to disturb them.
Then down to the coast where the port and fishing towns lay.
People who saw Maude thought the hurricane had come back for a second time, only to realize it was just Maude and her broom.
The water fought back. Many times, Maude had to step backward before she could move forward. Arms and shoulders aching ‘til she thought they’d fall off. Always sweeping.
At the end of the day, Maude slowed down. Looked around. Saw that the water was back in the Gulf of Mexico where it belonged.
Maude wiped the sweat from her brow and started the long walk back home. Carrying her branch broom.
All along the way, people came out.
“Thank you, Maude. I bet your brother, Pecos Bill, is proud of you.”
Maude’s smile grew with every step, and she walked taller. For the first time, everyone in Texas knew her name.
Except, that as she walked, everything looked different. Nice and clean, just like the log cabin floor after a Saturday morning cleaning.
Except it was not quite right. Maude’s unease increased as she neared her home.
Where were the mountains?
And then she realized.
In the flurry of trying to keep the waters from the farms and towns, she’s swept so hard that she’d reduced what were the mightiest, prettiest and tallest mountains of boulders and rusty red dirt in the entire United States into tiny hills. Hills no one would ever mistake for mountains. She’d been so busy she didn’t realize she was sweeping away the mountains in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of New Mexico.
We’ll Maude wept ‘cuz she loved spending long hours climbing in the mountains behind her house.
Each time a family came out to thank her, Maude dried her tears on her sleeve and tried to smile.
At home, her mama rose from the rocker where she’d been waiting and wrapped her arms around Maude. “You saved us, honey. Your brother couldn’t have done better.”
“But I swept away the mountains.”
“Couldn’t be helped. Sometimes you just have to sweep out things to preserve what’s really important.”
Maude looked into her mama’s eyes and nodded. Squared her shoulders.
Turning away, she walked back to the pe-can tree and placed the branch near the dark tree trunk.
“I couldn’t have done all this without you,” Maude said as her stomach grumbled.
As if in answer, a breeze blew up and the branches of the old tree shook, sending a hail of pe-can nuts to Maude’s feet.
She smiled, shelled a few and began munching away on the meat inside.
Sweeping all that water had given her a Texas-size appetite.
And that’s why Texas has hills instead of mountains.