The Signs Just Wasn’t Right


When Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving started their herd of beef steers out in the summer of 1867, it was actually the third drive, not second, for the partnership along the route from the headwaters of the Middle Concho to the Pecos and then northward. The first drive had been fortunate to have found a surprise market for their steers at the Bosque Redondo where the federal government had begun what was to be yet another failed experiment. The government needed to feed the Navaho and the Mescalero Apaches who had been foolishly herded there to share space. The “Redondo” was not only ill-suited for it but the fact that the Navaho and Mescalero were traditional enemies and hated each other seemed to have escaped the government planners.

But as a result of the government being in a fix of its own making, the Texas partners were able to pocket about 8 cents a pound on the hoof for the steers in gold (twice the price in Denver and almost four times the price in Texas). But they had driven a “mixed” herd up the Pecos so they still had the cow and calf pairs to sell. Loving took the “stock cattle” north toward Las Vegas and then through the Raton Range to strike Arkansas and then to Denver where he sold the herd out to John W. Iliff.

Goodnight took the gold, three reliable hands, and went back to Texas to gather or buy a new herd, hire hands and make one more trip before winter prevented it. After bringing in that new bunch of beeves, the partners had trouble selling them to the army at Fort Sumner because of a newly invented policy of not buying directly from former rebels. Goodnight had scouted in the ranger service during the war on the frontier and was not technically a Confederate. Loving, now 54, had not served in any army since the Mexican War but had sold herds to the CSA (which was mostly why he was broke, having been paid in Confederate script to the tune of 150,000 uncollectable dollars). The pair took their case a step higher to the commander in Santa Fe, got their money, and a promise of contracts for 1867.

So in the early spring 1867, the Texas partners trailed the 500 head they still had in New Mexico northeast and left them to summer graze on the Capulin Vega to the west of the volcanic crater of the same name. James Foster was left in charge of the cattle and according to Goodnight had “the entire country to himself”. The cowmen then headed back toward the Elm Fork country of Texas to purchase and gather for “heavier drives than before”.

The Comanche had been avoided on the first 1866 drive, which was the purpose of that southern route which forded at Horsehead Crossing. But there are few good crossing along the Pecos, especially south of the New Mexican border. And Horsehead had long been a favorite crossing for Comanche raiding parties returning for the interior of Mexico. In fact, the crossing’s very name was supposedly due to the skulls of stolen horses which reached the bitter waters of the Pecos too weak to withstand the brine and alkali in their first drink in days.

The Lords of the Plains now knew there was plunder to be had, even before Goodnight made his first trip back. In fact, J.D. Hoy lost three different herds to Comanche raiders trying to copy Goodnight/Loving before the pair even started their 1867 drive.

The famous drive did not start until July. It had been a dry May and June on the western side of the Concho country and migrating buffalo had picked it bear to the point of starving themselves. But the eastern side toward the Brazos had fared better and provided plenty of grazing. So the gather was strengthened for the drive there while the rains which finally came at the end of June freshened the ground along the Middle and Western Concho.

Years later Goodnight would reflect on how the 1867 drive was rough and difficult from the very beginning. “The signs just wasn’t right”, he told J. Evetts Haley.

The drive had not yet started when the Comanche attacked and stampeded the herd during the night while it was being held on the Clear Fork of the Brazos near Old Camp Cooper. The next morning while tracking on wet ground Goodnight saw where a large party of warriors had taken to the brush in the Clear Fork bottoms. He took this to mean another attack during the coming night. He sent back word for Loving to move the remainder of the herd to more open ground and expect an attack. He then trailed the lost cattle north, found them, and took them back about 15 miles from camp.

The Goodnight party didn’t get back to the main herd until well after dark and its exhausted leader caught some sleep with his tired horse still saddled. The Indians attacked again just before the morning light. A Comanche arrow was deflected by the edge of Goodnight’s buffalo robe which was upright having hung on some tall grass or he would have been killed in the first moment of the attack. After finding is pistols in the dark, the trail boss led a group to save the horse herd from being stampeded but a part of the beef herd had been scattered.

Although no one was killed in the attack, Long Joe Loving did have an arrow in his head, stuck in the bone behind the ear. Long Joe wasn’t related to the Loving family who owned a share of this herd but he did have the same name as Oliver’s son. Being a fairly tall feller, he had been tagged as “Long Joe” to distinguish him from the other Joe Loving.

Since the plains tribes had first begun to trade with Europeans most arrowheads used by them were metal, beaten out of some metal object either traded for or taken. This one was made from the hoop-iron of a wagon wheel and not steel. That meant it had to be taken out before it began to corrode. The sinew holding it to the shaft was removed so that just the metal was left. The only “instrument” that Goodnight could find to remove the object was a pair of old shoe pinchers. Two big men were assigned to holding down the cowboy while Goodnight took as good a hold as he could with the “instrument”. The cowman pulled hard enough to raise all three men off the ground and the arrowhead came free. The wound was packed with wet mud and the victim sent to the Keechi to be nursed by Goodnight’s mother. It is not recorded if the wet mud had any effect on Long Joe’s brain, just beyond the open wound in his skull.

The day was spent rounding up scattered cattle and it was determined that about 160 head were missing. It was decided they would leave that night after grazing the herd as much as time allowed and feeding the men.

That first night was an omen of things to come throughout the drive. Goodnight had placed “two first-class men” in the rear “at the corners” and he and “One-Armed” Wilson were at the point as they headed west in the darkness.

They had not gone far before they endured one of the strangest stampedes Goodnight was to ever experience. Half of the herd began to run and came up one side of the herd. Wilson and then Goodnight got to the front and turned them back into the other cattle. But instead of being the start of a “mill” where they mix into the herd and run themselves down, they simply ran down the other side. The men “at the corners” turned them back into the other cattle again. The stampeders simply continued to run a circle around the other cattle until “their tongues were out”. The other cattle had merely kept moving along quietly while their more excitable cousins ran rings around them. Goodnight remembered that he and Wilson were on two good horses but “it took all we could get out of them with quirts and spurs to head those cattle.”

Later that night it began to storm with rain heavy enough to chase out what little light was provided by moon and stars. As was his custom when driving at night, Goodnight had belled work oxen toward the front of the herd and toward the back so the sound of the bells could tell him when the herd was split or too strung out.

Once cattle began to stampede on such a drive, they can become a nervous bundle of energy that might run night after night, each time to exhaustion. This became such a trip with runs started by weather, Comanche, and who knew what.

They had passed through Buffalo Gap (in the area where Abilene, Texas is now) when they seemed to be having a better evening. Goodnight and Bose Ikard had the last guard and the animals seemed to be quiet. With daylight coming soon, Goodnight went back to camp to wake the cook and some of the men. He tied his horse to the wheel of the chuck wagon and left enough slack in his “get down rope” for the mount to graze some.

It was while he was waking the men that the cattle broke. They were heading for the edge of camp and it seemed some of the men might be trampled. Goodnight grabbed a blanket out of one of the bedrolls to wave in an attempt to turn the cattle and some of the men did the same. Most of the camp was saved but Goodnight’s horse was knocked down and the cattle were jumping over him as he tried time and again to get up. As the last steer cleared Charlie (the strong and fast night horse) the other Charlie (Goodnight) jumped on his neck, cut the lead rope with his belt knife, and was in the saddle when the horse Charlie came to his feet.

From there both Charlies raced together toward the front of the herd. Goodnight was surprised to find Ikard racing along with the front of the herd. But when he got close enough for Bose to see him clearly the ex-slave’s horse broke like lighting to turn the cattle.

After the run was over and the cattle quieted, Goodnight asked Ikard why he had not begun to turn the cattle any sooner. With a grin, Bose told him that until he identified Goodnight and his horse he wasn’t sure if they still had the herd or the Comanches had it.

Goodnight had learned on the first drive of ’66 to simply drive the cattle around the clock across the last, waterless 80 miles before the Pecos. He also had the herd “squeezed down”, closing the flanks of the herd constantly to force the cattle toward the back to tighten and push the whole group to a higher pace. They just were not allowed to trot. After the last push through Castle Gap and then across the next 10 miles to Horseback, they watered the herd and drifted them a few hundred years from the river and bedded.

That night another storm came blowing in. Of course, the cattle ran. When the tally was made, there was about 200 head missing. Goodnight and Loving began a circle of about 5 miles since most of the trail had been wiped out by the rain. During this time, they ran across Jim Burleson and his crew who had lost control of around 2000 head they were driving north as well. Goodnight broke off with some men to help.

“One-Armed” Wilson was sent to search for the 200 head and was given Yankee Bill and young, fearless John Kutch as help.  The three cowboys caught sign of the cattle and followed it along the eastern side of the river for about 25 miles.

The Pecos is hardly a straight flowing river. In fact, one old-timer called it the “crookest river this side of hell”. So there are plenty of bends in it with normally the lower side of each bend as the best place to reach the water’s edge. About mid-afternoon, Wilson and his party spotted the cattle several hundred yards ahead. But they were being held by a large band of Comanche and it was clear that recovering the cattle was not going to be as important as keeping their scalps.

Always cool in a fix, Wilson didn’t turn and make a panicked ran for it. “One-Armed” Bill directed his party into a bend of the river where the mesquite was high and thick. The Indians had made a dash for the hill to cut the drovers off but didn’t discover their mistake until it was too late and Wilson had his crew were out the opposite side and with a fair start. The only thing that slowed the cowboys down on their return was the mule that Yankee Bill was riding. But with help from quirt and spur as well as some sharp-edged encouragement from the other two drovers both Yankee Bill and his steed arrived back in camp at Horsehead only slightly behind the pace. Years later, Wilson recalled simply, “seeing we were greatly outnumbered, and as it was about sundown, we decided to turn back and go to our camp, which we did.”

When the two owners decided that the herd was settled enough to drive, they began the push up the Pecos. The herd now seemed broken to the trail and it was fairly quiet for 100 miles toward the New Mexican border. Then Oliver Loving became impatient and made a fateful decision.

*Note: Having again spent too many words getting this far along, I will beg indulgence, take a break, pour three more fingers, and promise to get Wilson and Loving to that battle under the bluff of the Pecos!

*Another Note: Although there is some question about the picture in the previous piece about Wilson, the one here is the only completely verified one – taken in the 1920s as he approached 80 years of age.

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  1. Housebroken Thatcher

    My grandfather used to delight to tell me about the Loving trail, as he’s an ancestor of mine.

    • #1