By Will Law
The image is iconic. The cowboy and his partner racing across the prairie pursued by outlaws or “red savages.” Sometimes it is the other way around and the cowboy chases the outlaws and the red savages. However it goes, guns are blazing while horses gallop at top speed. The image is basic to our idea of America and is the dramatic moment in western movies from “Stagecoach,” with John Wayne on top of the red Concord stage as they race across the southwest desert toward Lordsburg, New Mexico, running from the Apaches who jumped the reservation, to “Lonesome Dove,” with Robert Duvall riding hard to escape certain death from the Crow Indians in Montana. Mostly these images are based on wishful thinking of writers and children. The Lonesome Dove image, however, is based in a real event which took place here in South East New Mexico, about seven miles south east ofCarlsbad, in 1867.
Picture a couple of Texas business men. One is fifty-five, a lean handsome store keeper and rancher named Oliver Loving. The other a thirty-seven-year-old friend and protégée, Charles Goodnight. They have a plan to drive a herd of cattle from central Texas to Fort Sumner,New Mexico and the Bosque Redondo where the Navahoes and some groups of Apaches were held as prisoners on a small reservation. Between them and their destination picture, too, “a sea of sand and grass with no island or shore,” known as the Comancheria, home of the fiercest tribe of horse Indians of the southern great plains, the Comanche, the first tamers of the feral horses lost by the Spanish conquistadores as they explored across this sea of grass northward to what is now Kansas three hundred years earlier. Loving and Goodnight face the challenge of getting the herd from Texas to Ft Sumner without running into these fierce roaming bands of Comanches who have been at war with the Texans since the 1820′s and are known to give no mercy or quarter because they have received none.
It is a dangerous journey which will first go south along the eastern edge of the grassland and along the edge of theTexashill country west of San Antonio, then west across dry desert basins to the Pecos River and then north toward the Bosque Redondo. It is a journey marked by dry lighting, wild fires, stampedes and seventy mile stretches of water-less land, that even today is daunting in an automobile. As they near New Mexico territory Loving rides ahead to scout out the route, to meet their other partner, John Chisum, and to make sure that they secure the beef contract with the Army. He is warned by Goodnight to travel only at night but in his impatience he and his traveling companion, one armed Bill Wilson, decide to move up the prairie along thePecos River during the day. What happens next is best described by Larry Mc Murtry in his fictionalized account, the novel Lonesome Dove. In this story Loving is called Gus and Bill is called Pea-eye.
“Then Pea heard the sound of a running horse and looked for Gus, supposing he had jumped another little bunch of buffalo. What he saw froze him instantly in place. Gus was racing down the little slope he had just gone up, with at least twenty mounted Indians hot on his heels. He must have ridden right into them. The Indians were shooting both guns and arrows. A bullet cut the grass ahead of Pea and he yanked out his rifle and popped a shot back at the Indians before whirling his horse and fleeing. Gus and he had crossed a good sized creek less than an hour back, with some trees along it and some weeds and shrubbery in the creek bed. He assumed Gus must be racing for that, since it was the only shelter in the wide prairie. Even as he started, Pea saw five or six Indians veer toward him. He swerved over to join Gus, who had two arrows in his leg. Gus was flailing his horse with his rifle barrel and the horse was running full out.” p 841
The “good sized creek” was actually the Pecos Riverand Loving and Wilson took shelter there under a cut-bank where the river makes a wide sweeping bend. There is some disagreement as to where that spot actually is. A state historical sign outside the city limits of the small community of Loving locates it just south of town. An account by Goodnight, who was later taken by Bill Wilson to the spot of the fight, locates the place of the fight north of Loving where route 31 now crosses the Pecos seven miles south of Carlsbad. In either case the place is called Loving’s Bend and the community of Loving is named in honor of Oliver Loving.
It was along this section of the Pecos that Oliver Loving was wounded and from there that Bill Wilson floated south in the flowing PecosRiverto escape and then walk across the open and harsh prairie to find Goodnight and help. When Wilson and Goodnight returned they discovered that Loving had struck out on his own. He was later found by them inFt. Sumner, dying of gangrene. The epic story of Goodnight’s fulfillment of his promise to bury his friend inTexasand the journey to get Loving’s body home is also dramatized in the novel Lonesome Dove.
Today, with the invasion of mesquite and creosote, it is hard to imagine that this area was once the western edge of a shoreless sea of grass so tall that it brushed a horse’s belly. It is hard too, to picture this running, mounted gunfight and the siege at the river bank. Yet, if one gets out of one’s car and walks, or better yet rides a horse, along the river, one can still get a sense of what this country was like one hundred and fifty years ago when all that was here was sand and sky and grasses waving in the prairie wind.
Today the grasses are short and sparse and thePecosValleyis dotted by small ranches, fields of alfalfa and oil jacks. It is easy to forget in our daily rush that this was “the old west” that is so poorly portrayed in movies.Carlsbadsits astride the old Goodnight-Loving trail and this bruised remnant of the prairie was the location of part of the great cattle-herd of John Chisum. This area also once was LincolnCountyand a part of theLincoln county war. Pat Garrett was one of the men who founded Carlsbad, then known as Eddy. In the rush to grow, develop and make money, it is all too easy to forget our history and appreciate and honor what others have done as they have gone before.
After visiting the location of Oliver Loving’s epic struggle along the Pecos, if you want to get a sense of what it was really like for Loving and Wilson to ride full out shooting as they rode for cover, come to the Sheriff’s Posse Arena on November 11th, 12th and 13th, 2011 to watch the sport of Cowboy Mounted Shooting. Local and national competitors will be there riding and shooting to earn points toward the national Championship held inAmarilloeach year. Watching the competitors ride hard and shoot at a full gallop can help take you back in your imagination to a time when this was the heart of the Old Wild West, a time of brave men and women, strong fast horses and great danger met with a sure eye and a steady hand holding a Henry rifle or an open top navy colt.
To find Loving’s Bend drive south east on the Loving highway and look for a turn to the left at route 31. Once you explore that part of the Pecos, drive on back to the small town ofLovingand read the state marker. To attend the Cowboy Mounted Shooting drive east on theHobbshighway and turn into the Sheriff’s Posse arena just at the edge of town.
For further reading follow this link.
Also, the movie and book Lonesome dove, though highly fictional is a nice way to get a sense of the story of Loving and Goodnight and the old west.
(Will Law is the founder and Executive Director of Canyon Sage Healing Arts, a collaborative of counselors, educators and alternative healers.)