A Battle at the Bluff


If you travel north out of Texas on present-day US 285, you will pass through the western edge of the village of Loving, New Mexico. You might also notice that the road takes a slight bend toward the northwest as it aims itself at Carlsbad which lays another 12 miles up the highway. Half-way to Carlsbad is Otis. If you have traveled that road before and failed to notice Otis, you are not in the minority. But there was a time when it was home to enough souls to support a post office (from 1893 to 1901), well over a century past.

From Otis, if you strike a path roughly east by northeast you will be pointed toward a bend in the meandering Pecos River. As you head that way you will probably notice (being a keen observer and constantly aware Indian scout) that you left the rugged and seemingly broken landscape that bored your eye from the lower reaches of the Pecos. Here is the first really wide open country where you can be literally seen for miles. To the west is the outline of what seems to be mountains. After 2 ½ miles, the open plain suddenly drops 35 feet to form a reddish bluff that fronts the Pecos River less than 200 feet away. The feature stretches for a mile northward along the winding, brackish waters. It is here that Oliver Loving and “One-Armed” Bill Wilson made a desperate stand against more than 100 Comanche warriors.

The Goodnight/Loving herd was still well below the New Mexico line when Oliver Loving had become anxious. It was late July 1867 and the contracts they had been promised to supply Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo were to be confirmed in August. Remembering the bureaucratic hassle the cowmen had gone through the fall before, Loving wanted to ride ahead to Sumner and then Santa Fe if necessary to be certain of their outlet for the beef steers.

Goodnight wanted him to not leave until they had passed the dangerous region of the Guadalupes but finally gave in if his partner would only travel at night and hide-out during the day. Goodnight later described Loving as “a man of religious instincts and one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known”. And then he added, “but devoid of caution”. At 54, Oliver Loving might well have been the most experienced trail driver in the Southwest. But the 30-year-old Goodnight had spent most of the last 15 years either avoiding or tracking the Comanche and Kiowa. Few people better understood these nomad warriors or the wild country they thrived in. Goodnight selected “the clearest headed man in the outfit” to accompany his partner, “One-Armed” Bill Wilson. Between them, the two men carried five pistols and each had a rifle. Loving had a new Henry which unlike the handguns and Goodnight’s six-shot revolving rifle carried by Wilson used metal cartridges. Before the pair rode off, Goodnight pulled his mount up beside Loving and reminded of the importance of “caution” and the two men jogged their horses past the point and aimed for Pope’s Crossing, just below the New Mexico border.

They rode that night and two more before camping along the area where the stream then known as Black River drained into the Pecos from the west. But Loving hated riding at night and wanted to make more time. They rested their horses for three or four hours and then struck out with the sun up in the east. So later that day they were crossing the most open and exposing ground they had been on so far and in broad daylight.

They were about four miles from the Pecos and that high red bluff when the horizon to the southwest filled with horseback Comanches. In later years, Wilson recalled there were well over 100 of the “rascals” and always assumed they had been hunting south of the river and were on their way back to “their old ground”.

The two white men made a race for the river in the hope of finding a place to fort up and got there ahead for their pursuers. Drainage coming off of the bluff was eating out a small gully that made for a good “hole-up” spot for the pair. They had a full view of the area from all sides except for one small spot where the brush and carrca (Spanish cane) had grown thick. Loving guarded the brushy “backdoor” while Wilson who was considered a dead-shot despite his “handicap” covered the rest.

Toward the end of the day the two white men were called to in Spanish from above. Wilson positioned himself to stay protected but still answer the call. An Indian raising above the rim of the bluff fired a shot and Wilson killed him at once. But the Comanche’s shot had hit Loving, passing through his wrist and deep into his side. Wilson made a fight of it and then took his companion deeper into the brush to conceal them both.

The Comanche shot arrows all through the brush and weeds trying to make the pair give themselves away but failed. At one point, a single warrior was making his way through the cane using this lance to separate the vegetation ahead of him while crawling toward the river. He did not realize he was only a few yards from the white men and Wilson was making ready to shoot if he made a few more feet.

But besides its twists and turns and its brackish water, the Pecos was also known for its abundance of rattlesnakes. On the first drive up the Pecos, the year before cross-eyed cowboy Nate Brauner had made it a mission to collect as many rattlers off the snakes as possible. Nate was not the best shot in the world and at one point Goodnight made sure he was burning up his own powder and ball and not the “company’s”. But despite his eyes and lack of marksmanship, Brauner rode into Fort Sumner with 72 of the trophies which he sent back to relatives in Kentucky to show the home folks just how wooly things were out on the wild frontier.

As Wilson was preparing to shoot, knowing that one more advance would expose him to the Indian, the Comanche scared up a big rattlesnake which hissed and coiled slightly more than an arm’s length from Wilson (his good arm, not the stub!). The warrior slowly backed out.

As dark fell, Wilson took one of Loving’s boots and crawled to the river where he filled it with water to take back to its suffering owner. Loving began to plead with Wilson to leave him and make for Goodnight. He was sure that he was done for and wanted to make sure that his family would know his fate and that his partner would complete the drive.

Wilson finally agreed to make the attempt. They laid out all of the guns and Loving would keep them all except for his Henry which they felt would be more useful in the water because of its metal cartridges. The five pistols and the revolving rifle were all percussion cap and ball weapons.

When the moon had gone down, Wilson told the older trail driver good-bye and worked his way down to the river where he could easily into the water. He striped to his long underwear and hid his clothes where he felt they could be found later. He then hid his pocket knife in another location and began his try at escape.

The water was running about 4 feet deep and he soon discovered there was a mounted Comanche warrior in the river beyond the bend to prevent either of the men from getting away to the south. Wilson would later describe how he watched the warrior sitting horseback in the stream with his feet in the river and how he was playfully splashing the water as he sat on his pony.

Wilson was indeed “the clearest headed man in the outfit”. After coolly watching the Comanche, he began to silently make an attempt to swim past along the darker, far bank. He tried three times and each time failed while he was holding the Henry in his one good arm. He finally hid the rifle by sticking the muzzle into the mud below the bank and then pushing the stock below the water, so that the Indians wouldn’t find it. He also abandoned his boots. He then swam into the current and let it take him down steam to begin his “get-away”.

Downriver, he exited into a cane break and made up as much ground as he could before hiding during the daylight. That night he made it over the gravel hills that follow the Pecos up out of Texas. But it wasn’t an easy trip. He found an old, broken lodgepole from a tepee to use as a walking stick, later it would serve another purpose.

But Goodnight and the herd had stopped while still on the Texas side to lay over a day and a half, so instead of having about 50 miles to meet them, it was more like 80. But the one-armed warrior pressed on through prickly pear, mesquite, anything else that grew thrones, rocks, and the sun of the Trans-Pecos in July. The last night of his tract some wolves followed him all night and each time he stopped to rest they would circle until he moved them away with the broken lodgepole. By morning he had reached a landmark he remembered from last year’s drive.

The cattle were being driven on the eastern side of the river. There is a stretch of over 200 miles in which there is not a tributary stream emptying into it from that direction and so it makes for easier trailing. Goodnight and Wilson’s brother were riding point when over the next rise they could make out a cave they had found on the first drive the year before. A figure appeared at the mouth of the cave and at first they both thought it was an Indian. Goodnight was telling the other Wilson brother to bulk the herd and get ready for a fight when they both saw the stub arm. It was “One-Armed” Bill.

Wilson was saved but hardly well off. His feet were bloody raw and swollen. His underwear was saturated with the red sediment from the Pecos and he had not eaten in over three days. He had to be cared for before he was able to relay much useful information to Goodnight but when he did, it was exact. Not only did he direct them to where he had left Loving but was detailed enough that they found all his clothes and even the pocket knife and rifle where they had all been hidden.

But they didn’t find Oliver Loving

He lasted two days and nights holding off the Comanche and then decided that perhaps help would never come. He was suffering from the shattered wrist as well as hunger and fever. So on the third night he had crawled into the river and went upstream, not down. He was hoping to find a crossing about 6 miles in that direction. He made the crossing then known as Wildcat Bluff (now known as Loving’s Bend) where he hoped someone would find him. They did but it took another two days.

Three Mexicans and a German boy were in a cart pulled by two yoke of oxen with plans of going to Texas stopped to camp. The boy found Loving while looking for firewood and from there the party took the cowman back to Fort Sumner.

Jim Burleson had ridden ahead to Sumner and he was the one who took back the word to Goodnight. It is from that point that the well-known story begins about the removal of Loving’s arm and the promises made to him by his partner to not only take care of his family but to not let him be buried “in a foreign land”.

Oliver Loving rests in the old Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford, Texas where his final burial was with Masonic honors. Not that far away lies Bose Ikard under a headstone with an inscription written by Charles Goodnight. The ex-slave and trusted companion had lived out his last days in Parker County. Loving’s body had arrived a half-century before Bose was put to rest, brought back to its home ground by Goodnight. But another major player in that drama was a tough, determined one-armed warrior with a clear mind and an undefeated heart.

*Note: If you like original sources, accounts by both Goodnight and Wilson can be found in The Trail Drivers of Texas, collected and edited by J. Marvin Hunter. It is a treasure of narratives but its weakness is a lack of an index. The two accounts began roughly at page 380.

But in my mind, the final word in such matters will always lay with J. Evetts Haley, scholar, cowman and probably the best historical writer of his time

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  1. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp

    I got more than my money’s worth this month…and from just one author!

    • #1
  2. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Geologically, the area south of Loving along the Pecos sits on top of a three-quarter mile thick salt block, which rises to the surface in several areas. Made for a valuable commodity in the days when salt was a major preservative — there were major battles over control of similar salt lakes on the west side of the Guadalupes in the 15 years after the Civil War — but it also makes for a barren, inhospitable landscape, where the underground salt springs flowing into the Pecos turn the river flow saline during dry years. Not a place you want to get stranded or hide out for very long.

    (Salt deposits also tend to be in areas that harbor shale oil and natural gas, and one of the bi-products of the fracking revolution over the past 15 years has been to industrialize a lot of the Goodnight-Loving Trail from Texas into southeastern New Mexico. You could drive up U.S. 285 and get a much better feel for what Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight would have seen up until that area became part of the second largest oilfield in the world thanks to shale fracking and horizontal drilling.)

    • #2
  3. JoelB Member

    A fascinating story.

    • #3