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Oliver Loving’s Death and the Fate of Gus McRae in Lonesome Dove

The elder partner in the famous team of Goodnight and Loving, and the man who pioneered cattle drives from Texas, Oliver Loving died in September, 1867–but the story of his death has lived on in Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove.

In the novel, the scenes leading to the death of Robert Duvall’s character, Gus McRae, are based in large measure on Oliver Loving’s ordeal with Comanches along the banks of the Pecos River.  As you read the account of Loving’s last days, the many correspondences with Gus’s last fight and death in Lonesome Dove will be clear.

Oliver Loving and Charlie Goodnight had a handshake deal with officials at Ft. Sumner, an outpost in southern New Mexico where about 8,000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache had been interned.  Knowing that the fort needed food for the Indians, who had not taken to subsistence farming and keenly resented their internment, Goodnight and Loving saw a new market for the cattle they had rounded up on their main ranch holdings near Weatherford, Texas.  The two men even started a new ranch about 40 miles south of Ft. Sumner, which they used for grazing and holding cattle for shipment to the fort and to markets in Colorado.  The partners spent the winter of 1866-1867 at the new ranch at Bosque Grande.

In the spring, they returned to Weatherford to round up a new herd to take back to the northern markets.  On their way back to Ft. Sumner, neither the Comanches nor the weather cooperated, causing serious delays.  Because their “contract” with the Ft. Sumner officials was informal, the partners became concerned that it could be in jeopardy if they did not reassure the officials that the herd was in fact on its way.

Loving decided to go to Ft. Sumner, but Goodnight was concerned that Loving would fall prey to Comanches if he rode by day, alone.  So he sent his most trusted hand, Bill Wilson, along with Loving to make sure the older man wouldn’t take to riding during the day.

“Loving was a man of religious instincts and one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known, but devoid of caution,” Goodnight wrote later.

He knew his partner all too well.  “But Loving, who detested night riding, persuaded Wilson that I had been overcautious and one fine morning they changed their tactics and proceeded by daylight.”

About two o’clock that afternoon, the pair ran headlong into 500 Comanches.  Leaving the trail, they began a horse race of about four miles to the northwest, toward the steep banks of the Pecos River, the best defensible spot nearby.  Dismounting, they carried five pistols and two rifles with them and took up positions in the dunes and brakes of the Pecos.  Wilson urged Loving to watch for Comanches along the bank, especially in the reeds that stood five or six feet tall.  Wilson was about 40 feet away and higher up, hoping to take on any attackers from the bluff.  Meanwhile, Comanches had spread out on both sides of the river, and in the river itself, most notably in the tall reeds.

Loving moved down toward the reeds, a pair of revolvers and cartridge belts slung over his left shoulder and his Henry repeating rifle in his right hand.  A bullet glanced off the cartridge belts, broke his arm, and he had a serious wound in his side.

Both men “retreated to the shelter of the river bank, and had much to do, to keep the Indians off,” Goodnight wrote laconically.

Loving was convinced that he would not survive his wounds, and he ordered Wilson to return to Goodnight with news of what had happened.

Goodnight wrote that Loving made it clear in his message that “he had no desire to die and leave [his family] in ignorance of his fate. He wished his family to know that rather than be captured and tortured by the Indians, he would kill himself. But in case he survived and was able to stand them off we would find him two miles down the river. He gave [Wilson] his Henry rifle which had metallic or waterproof cartridges, since in swimming the river any other kind would be useless. Wilson turned over to Loving all of the pistols—five—and his six-shooting rifle, and taking the Henry rifle departed. How he expected to cross the river with the gun I have never comprehended for Wilson was a one armed man. But it shows what lengths a person will attempt in extreme emergencies.”

Wilson did in fact have to ditch the rifle, but he did so with characteristic calm.  He placed it underwater, wedged it against the bank, and stood it upright.  He then removed his shirt and boots and hid them in separate places, and finally hid his knife as well.   After floating past a Comanche on a horse in the middle of the river, he then walked for three days through prickly pear and stickers of every kind, being shadowed part of the time by snarling and snapping wolves.  Wilson made his way about 100 miles back to Goodnight and the main herd.  He had beaten off the wolves with a broken teepee stick he had found on his trek.

When Goodnight and 14 men returned to the Pecos, Loving was gone.  Every item Wilson had hidden was recovered, according to his descriptions of their hiding places.  But Loving had not died; rather, he had floated away down the river, as Wilson had done, and staggered to the nearest road, where he waited for five days before a group of Mexicans found him and took him to Ft. Sumner.

“I believe he would have fully recovered if the doctor at that point had been a competent surgeon,” Wilson said later.  “But that doctor had never amputated any limbs and did not want to undertake such work. When we heard Mr. Loving was at Ft. Sumner, Mr. Goodnight and I hastened there. As soon as we beheld his condition we realized the arm would have to be amputated. The doctor was trying to cure it without cutting it off. Goodnight started a man to Santa Fe after a surgeon, but before he could get back mortification set in, and we were satisfied something had to be done at once and we prevailed upon the doctor to cut off the affected limb. But too late. Mortification went into his body and killed him. Thus ended the career of one of the best men I ever knew. Mr. Goodnight had the body of Mr. Loving prepared for the long journey and carried it to Weatherford, Texas, where interment was made with Masonic honors.”

Author’s Note: The accounts of Charlie Goodnight and Bill Wilson can be read in full in Trail Drivers of Texas.

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