Jack Abernathy, standing in coat holding hat. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)
Homesteading on the Oklahoma prairie in the 1890s was difficult, and most young families struggled to earn a livable wage, but Jack Abernathy was an enterprising man with a knack for finding moneymaking opportunities. His first job was playing the piano in an Old West saloon when he was just six years old, but he soon discovered a strange skill that earned him fortune, fame, and even the admiration of President Theodore Roosevelt.
John “Jack” Abernathy was born in Texas in 1876. He and one of his brothers were naturally gifted musicians despite never taking lessons and earned money for some time by playing piano and singing in a saloon in Sweetwater, Texas, but the young boys’ careers abruptly ended when a gunfight broke out in the saloon and their mother forbade them from returning to work. The family still needed money, so when he was nine years old, Abernathy took a job as a cowboy at the AKX Ranch, and by the time he was 11, he was driving cattle to market some 500 miles away.
Abernathy was 15 years old when he truly struck pay dirt—or rather, a wolf’s mouth. He was out hunting on horseback with several dogs when a pack of wolves attacked; when a wolf caught up to his favorite dog, Abernathy jumped from his horse, landed on the wolf, and took a swing at his snout, but his fist went right into the wolf’s open mouth and throat. Amazingly, instead of chomping Jack’s hand right off, the animal kept its mouth open and stopped fighting. Abernathy realized if he pulled his fist out, the animal would begin to fight again, so with the help of a hunting companion that soon rode upon the scene, he hog-tied the wolf before removing his (uninjured) hand. When they weighed it back at the ranch, they found the wolf was 130 lbs., three lbs. more than Abernathy.