Charles Goodnight wrote of the death of his friend Oliver Loving in the book The Trail Drivers of Texas by J. Marvin Hunter. The book is widely available for purchase, and also can be downloaded. In it, Hunter has assembled sketches and observations of the cattle drivers of the 1800s.
Goodnight refers to Loving as the first man to trail cattle from Texas, having made his initial drive in 1858 across the Indian Nation and into Missouri and Illinois. The following year, Loving took a second herd west to Colorado. Goodnight then refers to their first joint trail drive in 1866 in which they drove a herd west to Mexico and then up to Denver, Colorado. The next year, 1867, they began a similar drive, starting around Palo Pinto County, heading west to the Concho and proceeding further west to the Pecos.
After they had driven the herd north 100 miles upon reaching the Pecos, just across the current Texas-New Mexico border, Loving and one of their most trusted cowboys named Bill Wilson struck out alone to precede the herd’s arrival and make contacts for its sale to the government. Wilson was a top hand despite having only the use of one arm. The herd had been delayed already, as it was June and the government contracts would be let in July. Their destination was Fort Sumner, about 250 miles away, and the intention was to sell some or all of the cattle to the U. S. Army to feed the Indians on the newly established reservation located nearby.
Goodnight referred to Wilson as the clearest-headed man in the outfit and said that he had recommended that the two travel only at night in order to avoid detection along the way. Loving did not like to travel at night, so after about two days of it, the two decided to make time by day. Around 2 o’clock that very afternoon, Wilson spotted a large group of around 100 Comanches. Loving and Wilson left the trail and headed northwest to the Pecos River where they planned to seek shelter. They had just reached the river bank and tied up their horses when the Comanche converged on the two, seizing the cowboys’ mounts. The Comanche then took positions in the six foot tall native cane along the riverbank. In the skirmish, one Comanche rose up out of the brush, aimed at Loving and Wilson shot him, but not before Loving had taken a round that passed through his wrist and lodged in his side. After an exchange of fire with the group, Wilson stepped out to try and parlay with the Comanches and was promptly shot in the arm as well. He was also wounded in his side and returned to Loving, who was suffering badly from his wounds.
Despite their injuries, they found shelter and survived the night. The next morning Loving tried to persuade Wilson to leave and try to make contact with the herd. Loving figured that he was too badly wounded to make it that far, and if Wilson survived, at least Loving’s family would know his fate. Further, Loving vowed to kill himself rather than fall victim to the Comanches and told Wilson that he would do his best to make it one mile to another place of concealment on the river. They divided up their various weapons with Loving taking Wilson’s six shot rifle and all of the pistols while Wilson took Loving’s Henry rifle since the Henry rounds were waterproof. Wilson made his way into the river after shedding and hiding most of his clothing down to his underwear and hat. Wilson managed to conceal himself in the water as he drifted to the south although he stashed the Henry rifle. It was hindering him as he tried to escape in the water and he did not want to take the chance of it falling into the hands of the Comanche.
Wilson passed undetected for a short way and left the river, walking barefoot in the general direction of the herd. He thought that even traveling slowly, he and the herd were closing the distance between each other, originally a distance of around 100 miles. Traveling mostly at night and staying close to the Pecos, Wilson took shelter in a small cave about fifteen or twenty feet in length and sheltered for the day. When he exited the cave later, he looked in the direction of the herd and was surprised to see it approaching. The first cowboy he saw turned out to be his own brother, riding “point” for the herd along with Goodnight. Goodnight cautiously rode toward the lone man suspecting also that Indians could be not far away. As he got closer, he recognized man to be Wilson, who gave him a sign that it was safe to continue.
Once rescued and treated for his wounds, Wilson told his tale, saying that Loving had been badly wounded and that he had probably died either from the wound or from having taken his own life. Wilson described the location to Goodnight and told him where to find his clothing and rifle that he had hidden. At this point, Goodnight’s story concludes in the book, but Wilson’s directly followed and completed the narrative.
Goodnight took several cowboys and struck out to find Loving. When they arrived at the scene of the skirmish, they located Wilson’s clothing and rifle, but there was no sign of Loving. They felt that he had possibly not been killed there, as they did not find his body although there ample tracks of the Comanche ponies as they had searched for him. Goodnight and his cowboys returned to the herd. About two weeks later, they encountered a group heading south from Fort Sumner who told them that Loving was at the fort. Loving had managed to drift down the river and after five days had encountered a group of Mexicans who took him to the fort.
Goodnight eventually connected up with Loving at Fort Sumner. His wounded side was healing but his arm was still in a sling. Goodnight stayed at the fort for a few days, before leaving to round up some cattle. He was headed back when a courier reached him to say that Loving had taken a serious turn for the worse. Loving’s wound in his side had responded to treatment but his wounded arm had become infected and developed gangrene. The senior camp doctor was away attending a court martial. The young doctor left in charge at the fort had not previously done an amputation and was reluctant to undertake such an operation on Loving. Nevertheless, he did eventually remove Loving’s arm but the infection had already spread. After a few more days, Loving died. Wilson concluded his remarks in the book by saying of Loving, “Thus ended the career of one of the best men I ever knew.”
In the J. Evetts Haley biography of Charles Goodnight, he wrote that the Goodnight cowboys had gathered oil cans, flattened them out, soldered them together and made a big tin casket, placing inside it the exhumed wooden casket that contained Loving’s body. The cowboys, including Boze Ikard, left Fort Sumner, New Mexico on February 8, 1868 with a wagon led by six mules and carried it back down the Goodnight-Loving trail back to Weatherford, Texas where Goodnight, then thirty-one years old, buried his friend with Masonic honors.
[Note: There are conflicting accounts as to the parties who returned Loving’s body back to Weatherford. In addition to the Haley account, there are other accounts stating that it was Oliver Loving’s son Joe Loving who retrieved his father’s body and brought it back to Weatherford. If more information becomes available, we will post it here.]
The location where the confrontation between the Comanche, Loving and Wilson supposedly occurred is now called Loving’s Bend and is just a few miles north of the town of Loving, New Mexico, located in Eddy County. There is an alternate location slightly south of Loving where the Pecos makes a similar westerly bend near where the Black River ties into it. Both locations lie a few miles southeast of Carlsbad.
Bose Ikard and Oliver Loving are both buried in City Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford, Texas. Charles Goodnight is buried in Goodnight Cemetery in Armstrong County, Texas. W. J. Wilson lived well up into his senior years and is believed to be buried in Oklahoma.
Certain true events in the life of Oliver Loving strongly resemble those of the fictional character Gus McCrae in Larry McMurtry‘s Lonesome Dove. W. J. Wilson’s barefoot walk resembles that of another of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove characters, Pea Eye Parker.
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