A shiver ran down Belle's spine with each shrill beep of the Emergency Alert System tone. Pulling her phone from her pocket, she opened the urgent message displayed on the screen. The car bounced as it ran over a rough stretch of road. She struggled to keep her phone steady. She read, "A tornado warning has been issued for Kiowa County. A radar indicated tornado has been detected. The storm is moving to the northeast at thirty miles per hour."
In front of the car, the green prairie basked in the warm light of the spring afternoon sun. The road stretched out like a black ribbon in front of her brother’s white SUV. Out in the distance, dark, towering clouds loomed over the landscape. Every so often a flash of lightning illuminated the horizon.
“LET’S GOOOOO!” her brother, Will, shouted. An ear-to-ear grin grew on his face. A wild glint shone in his eyes. He stepped on the gas. “We’re going to have to move a little faster then. What does the radar look like?”
Belle gripped the inside door handle as the car accelerated. Pulling up the radar feed on her phone, Belle glanced at the pixilated blobs of green, yellow, orange, and red. Each color represented a different precipitation intensity. This helped Belle to determine the strength of the storm cell. An intense orange and red cell caught her attention. On the southwest side of the cell, a blob of intense precipitation stuck out and curled like a claw. It was a hook echo—the telltale sign of a tornado. Belle blanched. "The line of storms has intensified. We have a hook echo."
Will took his foot off the accelerator and glanced at his sister. “Are you okay? You don’t sound too good.”
Belle shook her head. “It’s moving straight towards Greensburg.”
Will’s expression fell.
"You have to use the lasso," Belle said, grabbing an intricately designed rope from the back of the car. The rope's dyed strands braided together in the pattern of a diamondback rattlesnake. Near the ends of the rope, the design formed the head of a rattlesnake on one end and its tail on the other.
Will shook his head. “But I’ve only used it a few times before. I don’t know if I will be strong enough to use it. Dad said to only use it in an emergency.”
Belle threw up her hands. “This is an emergency! Hundreds of people could die if we don’t do something. I haven’t used the lasso at all before, but if we work together, maybe we could stop the tornado.”
“Yeah, but we also could die if we try to rope a twister that is too large for us. Dad isn’t here to help us if something goes wrong. Besides, the twister could change course at any moment and it could miss the city entirely.”
Belle sighed and hugged the lasso to her chest. Ever since they were young, their father had told them that the lasso had once belonged to Pecos Bill. Raised by coyotes, Pecos Bill grew up to be the wildest and most fearless cowboy the West had ever seen. One time he roped a tornado using a rattlesnake for a lasso. He then rode the twister like it was a bucking bronco. Belle would never forget her first storm chase when she watched her father wrangle a tornado. He would have come on this storm chase too, but he caught the flu and had to stay home.
Outside the sky began to darken as Belle and Will finally caught up with the line of thunderstorms. The dark clouds above roiled and glowed an eerie jade green. The wheat and corn in the surrounding farm fields thrashed in the wind. Off to the right, in the distance, stood the tiny city of Greensburg, Kansas. The city was no stranger to tornadoes. On May 4, 2007, a massive EF-5 twister leveled the city, killing eleven people and injuring sixty-three. Belle hoped that this storm would not harm the city.
“Let’s stop here,” Belle said when they were a few miles southeast of the city. “The tornado should be here any minute.”
Will parked the car on the side of the road next to an empty field. He looked at the radar on his phone and then glanced at the dark horizon. His eyes widened and he pointed. “There it is!”
Belle looked where her brother had indicated. On the horizon, a dark wedge shape appeared. A flash of lightning illuminated the funnel, revealing the twister’s size. Belle’s jaw dropped. This was the largest tornado she had ever seen.
"I'll notify the local National Weather Service office," Will said as he jumped out of the car. His short brown hair danced in the gale and his t-shirt and shorts whipped around his body. "You record this."
Belle nodded. Using a hair tie that she had around her wrist, she pulled her curly hair back into a ponytail. She slung the lasso over her shoulder. By the time she joined her brother outside, Will had hung up with the National Weather Service. They both began to film the tornado.
One end of the twister protruded from a low hanging, swirling cloud mass known as a wall cloud. The opposite end scoured the earth. A rotating cloud of debris swirled around the tornado itself.
Will gaped as the tornado drew closer. “That thing’s got to be at least a mile wide!”
A few miles away, the twister passed Belle and Will by. Rain poured down, soaking the siblings and partially obscuring the twister. Belle watched as the tornado approached Greensburg. Please let the tornado turn. Please let the tornado turn. Please let the tornado turn. Belle prayed, but the twister still crept closer to the city. Her tears fell along with the rain as a sob escaped her lips.
Will stopped recording and turned to Belle. “Give me the lasso.”
Belle wiped her face and stopped recording as well. “What?”
“We have to try something.”
Belle slipped the lasso off of her shoulder and gave it to Will. Will took the head of the rattlesnake and tied the front end into a loop. Assuming a wide stance, he grasped the loop in his right hand and the free end of the rope in the other. He drew in a breath to steel himself and froze. Will stared at the massive funnel. The lasso fell from his grip, his arms hanging limp at his sides. Will sank to the ground and rested his head on his knees. “It's too big. We can’t stop it.”
“What!” Belle bent down and shook her brother. “We need to do something! You said we were going to do something?”
Will kept muttering about the tornado being too big.
Before she realized what she was doing, Belle snatched the lasso off of the ground. Grasping the two ends, she swung the loop over her head, and let it fly. The lasso was about twenty-five feet long. It never should have reached the twister, but Belle's jaw dropped as she watched the rope lengthen. Homing in on the twister like a heat-seeking missile, the loop encircled the tornado. Belle grabbed the rope with both hands. She dug in her heels as the lasso pulled taught. The tornado stopped in its tracks.
“I did it,” She gasped. Her muscles strained against the pull of the raging whirlwind.
Will snapped back to his senses. “What are you doing?” He sprung to his feet and raced over to Belle. Grabbing the rope, he joined her in her game of tug of war with the twister.
“What does it look like?” Belle retorted.
“Okay then, what were you thinking?” Will shot back.
The rain lubricated the rope and Belle's hands began to slip so she wrapped the end of the rope around her left hand. She shrieked when she saw that the end of the rope had turned into a rattlesnake's tail. The whole rope turned into an enormous rattlesnake that squirmed in her grip. The rattle shook as if to show discontent. Belle shrieked again and let go of the lasso.
At the same time, the tornado lurched forward. With the lasso still wrapped around her hand, Belle stumbled into Will, knocking his grip off the rope. She grasped the lasso and scrambled to regain her footing, but it was too late. The twister pulled her forward. Rain pelted her face. Air rushed around her, sweeping her upwards. The wind kept her aloft as she spiraled in towards the dark gray funnel of ravenous winds.
Belle screwed her eyes shut. She couldn’t let go of the lasso. The wind lifted her so high that if she did, the fall would kill her, but if she didn’t the tornado would tear her to shreds. This is it. This is how I die. She thought as she approached the funnel. She wondered if Dorthey from the Wizard of Oz felt this way when her house was sucked up in the twister that sent her to Oz. Belle could only hope that this ordeal would end with her landing in a magical land. Right before she collided with the twister her father's words came back to her. For a moment her mind drifted back to a chase from the previous spring.
“Stories are powerful,” her father said as he showed Belle how to tie a proper lasso loop.
The afternoon sun warmed their backs as they sat in a grassy field. Will had slipped off to the gas station across the street in search of snacks. Pollen from the prairie flowers tickled Belle’s nose and she sneezed. Her fingers strained as she attempted to undo a failed knot.
Her father continued. “You see, that’s what gives the lasso its magic — the power of Pecos Bill’s story. Pecos Bill was never a real person, he was the product of the imagination of an early 20th-century writer. Even so, his lasso exists and anyone can tap into its magic, that's how powerful his story is.” He took Belle’s knot, untied it with ease, and handed the rope back to her. “The key to tapping into the magic is to act like a legend. If you want to wrangle a tornado like Pecos Bill, then you've got to act like a wild and fearless cowboy. Even if you don't feel like one on the inside. It's difficult to do, but if you act fearlessly eventually you will become fearless. Once you do that, any twister will yield when you rope it with the lasso."
Belle attempted to tie the knot for what felt like the millionth time. She grinned with pride as she held up a perfect knot.
“That looks just about right.” Her father took the knot, inspected it, and smiled. “Great job. You have just taken your first step towards tornado wrangling.”
Snapping back to the present, Belle drew in a breath. The funnel of hungry winds in front of her roared as she flew closer. Although her hands trembled, she grasped the rattlesnake lasso even tighter. She had to believe that she was as fearless as Pecos Bill himself. It was the only way she could make it out of this ordeal alive. With the loudest "Yee-haw" that she could muster, she kicked her feet out in front of her. Instead of sinking into the raging wind, Belle landed on the outside of the funnel as if it were solid. She heaved with all her might and stopped the twister once more. The tornado howled and shrieked as she pulled even harder on the lasso. Coiling tighter, the mighty, mile-wide wedge shrunk to no more than fifty feet wide. Belle's heart swelled with a level of courage that she had never felt before.
"Let's back you up a few paces," Belle said as she yanked the twister backward and away from the city. The twister whipped to and fro, shaking Belle like a dog tearing apart a new squeaky toy. Belle's arms ached from the strain, but she held on. She pulled even harder and steered the twister to the north and around the city.
When she had guided the tornado away from the city, she gave the lasso one final tug. With a rush of air, the entire funnel dissolved. She let go of the lasso. Gravity took hold and she plummeted towards the ground. The thick, gray clouds broke apart and the sun peeked through the cracks. The last gust of the storm surged towards Belle. The wind coiled around her and set her safely down in a wheat field near the road.
Belle rested on her back in the field, silently thanking her father for the advice that saved her life. She jumped to her feet when a snake poked its head through the golden stalks of wheat. It hissed at her as it wrapped its body around itself. Coil upon coil of the snake’s sinuous form looped at her feet. The twenty-five foot rattlesnake stared at her with unblinking eyes. It flicked its tongue at Belle. She relaxed and bent to pick the snake up. It hissed at her once more and shook its rattle. As her fingers closed around the snake’s body, it morphed back into a coil of decorated rope. Belle slung the lasso over her shoulder and made her way to the side of the road.
A white SUV speeded down the road. It pulled up next to her. Will jumped out. He bounded over to Belle and wrapped her in a tight hug. “You’re alive!”
Belle gasped for breath. “Not for long.”
“Sorry.” Will loosened his grip. “You did it. You saved everyone.”
Belle nodded. Everyone is safe. The thought bounced around in her brain. A wave of relief washed over her. Her body relaxed, releasing tension she didn’t realize that she was holding. Every part of her body ached, her arms most of all. She leaned on Will for support as her legs grew unsteady.
“Are you okay?” Will asked, his brow furrowed with concern.
“Just tired,” Belle said as her brother led her back to the car.
Will helped Belle climb into the front passenger seat. “I can imagine. That was one powerful twister.” He bit his lip and glanced at the ground. “I’m sorry that I was such a coward back there. I said that I would step up, but I didn’t.”
Belle nestled the lasso at her feet. She looked up at Will. “Don’t blame yourself. I would have frozen too if I had been thinking about what I was doing.”
“Luckily for the people of Greensburg you didn’t.” He shut Belle’s door and climbed in on the driver’s side. Will started the engine. “Let’s get you home. You deserve a rest.”