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.

The Cowboy Strike of 1883 and the Demise of Old Tascosa

A cowboy strike, in Texas?  In a state now known for its right to work laws and general hostility toward unions?  And cowboys–well, let’s just say that they are not often associated with the words “collective” and “bargaining.”

Yet these allegedly lonesome men on horseback, working from “can see” until “can’t see” in heat and dust, lightning storms, and northers cold enough to freeze them to their saddles, did rise up against big cattle syndicates back in  March of 1883.  And they fought the brief but good fight to regain the rights they had lost to greedy or inept corporate ranchers who had taken over the open range that fit the cowboy soul like a well-worn glove.

Before the syndicates moved in there was a sense of community on the smaller spreads. The best ranches brought together tough, hard-working, essentially decent and practical men who respected one another and shared not only the elements and the endless plains but a heritage of frontier cooperation born of necessity: In 1883, the Comanche threat was less than a decade in the past.

A cowboy then, on one of the smaller ranches, could take some calves in lieu of pay and combine them with mavericks he had “gathered” on the open range to form his own small herd, good for sales or to supplement whatever victuals he usually had from his own fire or from one communal cast-iron pot.  The longer he stayed with a ranch, the more likely he was to have two or more horses to use, and the horses he was dealt improved with his tenure.  This was a real life with a stake.

The syndicates came in, understanding the business world but often very little of the ranching life on the plains.  Profits tended to be as low as their ignorance and speculative fever were high; so, as their heirs might do today, they blamed the people who actually did the work for the problem.  They cut wages, disallowed horses for personal use, stopped the gathering of mavericks, and offered no more calves for pay.  Then…they forbade drinking and gambling.  This was not much of a life, with no stake.

Tom Harris was a seasoned and respected hand at the LS Ranch and decided he had seen enough.  He rounded up some men from the LIT, the LX, the LE and the T Anchor, and made out a list of demands:


We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian River, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations, viz:

First: that we will not work for less than $50 per mo. And we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per mo. after 31st of Mch.

Second: Good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.

Third: Any one running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per mo.

Any one violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31 will be provided for for 30 days at Tascosa.


No one specified what made a good cook, or how much a bad cook should receive. Not much, probably.

Twenty-four cowboys signed the proclamation.  The number of cowboys who supported it thereafter was as variable as the disappearing mavericks along the Canadian.  Maybe upwards of three hundred had some ties to the strike.  The LE and T Anchor fired the strikers right away; more cunning by far were the LS and LIT.  They offered piddling increases to cowboys who stayed, and then they fired the rest. Then they picked up the leavings from the other outfits by paying the marginally higher wages, at least for a while.

The out of work cowboys drifted into Tascosa, as famous as Dodge City in its time as a stopping place for the big drives headed north.

The cattlemen would pause and water their herds along the Canadian, leaving the beeves under the disgruntled watch of the few hands who were not allowed to go into Tascosa for recreation.  Here is what state historian Bill O’Neal tells us about Tascosa at the time:

“A cluster of dives a quarter of a mile east of Main Street was dubbed Hogtown, partially because of the presence of such less than glamorous ‘sporting women’ as Homely Ann, Gizzard Lip, Rowdy Kate, Box Car Jane, Panhandle Nan, Slippery Sue, Canadian Lily, and Frog Lip Sadie. In 1878, Billy the Kid and four other fugitives from New Mexico’s Lincoln County War arrived with 150 stolen horses, enjoying Tascosa’s bawdy pleasures for several weeks. During the 1880s there was so much rustling in the area that Pat Garrett was hired to lead a band of ‘Home Rangers.'”

In the midst of such gentility, the strikers claimed that they would be peaceful.  Most probably were.  Newspapers covered the strike and reported gossip likely planted by the syndicates that the strikers were plotting to kill the owners, burn down fences, and kill syndicate cattle at random.  None of this happened.

On the other hand, a disturbing number of cows began to disappear from the syndicate herds.

Only two months after the strike began on March 31, 1883, it was over.  The efforts of Tom Harris and his comrades did not so much as delay the May roundup.  If they did nothing else, though, they gave the late, great Elmer Kelton a subject and title for his novel The Day the Cowboys Quit.  In those pages find the real dust of the plains.

As for Tascosa, whether from Hogtown or the few respectable precincts, some remained optimistic.  The railroad would come to town, finding its way past buffalo bones and through the attenuated grass. The syndicates would pour cattle into waiting trains, which would blow out steam and sound their whistles in their urgency to depart.  Surely some of the money would come back to the plains.

There are two books on Tascosa.  In reviewing John L. McCarty’s Maverick Town, in 1947, Walter Prescott Webb was characteristically direct regarding the fate of Tascosa: “It is useless to look on a modern map for Tascosa because the town is not there.  It died so long ago that the map makers have forgotten it.”

The Rock Island railroad had bypassed Tascosa in favor of Amarillo.  The Oldham County seat moved to Vega.  In the end, years later, only the former prostitute Frenchy McCormick remained in Tascosa, her husband and tavern-keeper, Mickey, having gone to his reward twenty-nine years before her death in 1941.  She had continued to live alone in their crumbling adobe home, without electricity and running water, insisting that Tascosa would come back to life.

Before Tascosa died, a volatile brew of syndicate hired guns, disgruntled ranch hands, and the insalubrious atmosphere of Hogtown erupted in a gunfight in 1886 at the Jenkins Saloon. Unlike the “ambush” of Billy The Kid, Webb says, this “was a real fight between the cowboys [gunmen] of the big LS outfit and the little men of Tascosa.  Three LS cowboys were killed, along with an innocent and too-curious ‘poverty-laden’ immigrant named Jess Sheets.” 

A great review of the more recent book on the town, Frederick Nolan’s Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times, came from Bill Neal in 2008: “Tascosa was located in a land beyond the law, a fact that many frontiersmen found appealing….Pioneer cowman Charles Goodnight pronounced Tascosa ‘the most lawless place on the continent.'”  It was said that one resident, perhaps Bill Gatlin, “used to kill men just to see if his pistol was loaded.”

Reading Neal’s review, I came across the name of Cape (Caleb Berg) Willingham, and was reminded that some of my relatives hailed from western Oklahoma and West Texas.  Cape Willingham had a solid reputation as a lawman and rancher, indicating that he actually knew how to do some practical things.  I therefore dismissed him as a possible ancestor until I found out he had also run a saloon.

Said to have been the first sheriff of Tascosa, he carried the true standard weapon of lawmen in those days, a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.  One day, while relaxing in the Equity Saloon, one of the town’s few “respectable ladies” burst in and screamed that a man outside had just killed her duck.  Perhaps intrigued that, for once, a killing had not involved a human, the sheriff went outside to investigate.  His concern was also enhanced because he had instituted what may have been one of the state’s earliest gun-control measures–he had banned firearms from Tascosa.

Clay Coppedge of the Country World’s Texas Trails tells the story:

“The duck killer turned out to be Fred Leigh, foreman of the LS Ranch, who had a habit of taking his guns to town in defiance of Willingham’s ban. The sheriff notified Leigh that he was now indebted to the woman for the fair market value of a duck and he might have been trying to figure out an exact sum when Leigh did something a lot dumber than shooting a duck — he went for his pistol. Willingham blew him out of the saddle with his shotgun, which ended the negotiations.”

Now, there remains in me a trace of the boy from Waco, Texas, who played cowboys and Indians, and “Army,” and watched westerns on TV, and that would get a kick out of claiming Cape Willingham as an ancestor.  And the duck story almost pushes me to the point of prevarication.  But, alas, Cape’s branch of the clan came west from Virginia through Georgia, and mine through Tennessee, so any connection is remote.

Cape Willingham, Charles Goodnight, the good hand Tom Harris, and the woman with the dead duck– all would be amazed to know that in 1939, not far from Boot Hill in old Tascosa, Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch was born.  Frenchy McCormick was still around by then to see it, and no doubt feisty at age 87.  And that, my friends, one-ups the duck.