Loving’s Bend, New Mexico

By Edgar Beecher Bronson in 1910  

Oliver Loving

Oliver Loving

From San Antonio to Fort Griffin, Texas, Oliver Loving was a name to conjure with in the middle 1860s. His tragic story is still told and retold around campfires on the Plains.

One of the thriftiest of the pioneer cow-hunters, he was the first to realize that if he would profit by the fruits of his labor he must push out to the north in search of a market for his cattle. The Indian agencies and mining camps of northern New Mexico and Colorado, and the Mormon settlements of Utah, were the first markets to attract attention. The problem of reaching them seemed almost hopeless of solution.  Immediately to the north of them, the country was trackless and practically unknown. The only thing certain about it was that it swarmed with hostile Indians. What were the conditions as to water and grass, two prime essentials to moving herds, no one knew.

To be sure, the old overland mail road to El Paso, Chihuahua, and Los Angeles led out west from the head of the Concho to the Pecos; and once on the Pecos River, which they knew had its source indefinitely in the north, a practicable route to market should be possible.

But the trouble was to reach the Pecos River across the 90 intervening miles of waterless plateau called the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain. This plain was christened by the early Spanish explorers who, looking out across its vast stretches, could note no landmark, and left behind them driven stakes to guide their return. An elevated tableland averaging about one hundred miles wide and extending four hundred miles north and south, it presents, approaching anywhere from the east or the west, an endless line of sharply escarped bluffs from one hundred to two hundred feet high that with their buttresses and re-entrant angles look at a distance like the walls of an enormous fortified town. And indeed it possesses riches well worth fortifying.

While without a single surface spring or stream from Devil’s River in the south to Yellow House Canyon in the north, this great mesa is nevertheless the source of the entire stream system of central and south Texas. Absorbing thirstily every drop of moisture that falls upon its surface, from its deep bosom pours a vitalizing flood that makes fertile and has enriched an empire, — a flood without which Texas, now producing one-third of the cotton grown in the United States, would be an arid waste. Bountiful to the south and east, it is niggardly elsewhere, and only two small springs, Grierson and Mescalero, escape from its western escarpment.

A driven herd normally travels only 12 to 16 miles a day and even less than this in the early Spring when herds usually are started. It, therefore, seemed a desperate undertaking to enter upon the ninety-mile “dry drive,” from the head of the Concho to the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos, wherein two-thirds of one’s cattle were likely to perish for want of water.

Oliver Loving was the first man to venture it, and he succeeded. He traversed the Plain, fought his way up the Pecos, reached a good market, and returned home in the Autumn, bringing a load of gold and stories of hungry markets in the north that meant fortunes for Texas ranchmen. This was in 1866. It was the beginning of the great “Texas trail drive,” which during the next twenty years poured six million cattle into the plains and mountains of the Northwest. Of this great industrial movement, Oliver Loving was the pioneer.

At Fort Sumner, New Mexico, situated on the Pecos about four hundred miles above Horsehead Crossing, was a large Government post, and the agency of the Navajo Indians, or such of them as were not on the war-path. Here, on his drive in the Summer of 1867, Loving made a contract for the delivery at the post the ensuing season of two herds of beeves. His partner in this contract was Charles Goodnight, later for many years the proprietor of the Palo Duro ranch in the Texas Panhandle.

The staked plains of New Mexico

The staked plains of New Mexico

Loving and Goodnight were young then; they had helped to repel many a Comanche assault upon the settlements, had participated in many a bloody raid of reprisal, had more than once from the slight shelter of a buffalo-wallow successfully defended their lives, and so they entered upon their work with little thought of disaster.

Beginning their round-up early in March as soon as green grass began to rise, selecting and cutting out cattle of fit age and condition, by the end of the month they reached the head of the Concho with two herds, each numbering about two thousand head. Loving was in charge of one herd and Goodnight of the other.

Each outfit was composed of eight picked cowboys, well drilled in the rude school of the Plains, a “horse wrangler,” and a cook. To each rider was assigned a mount of five horses, and the loose horses were driven with the herd by day and guarded by the “horse wrangler” by night.

The cook drove a team of six small Spanish mules hitched to a mess wagon. In the wagon were carried provisions, consisting principally of bacon and jerked beef, flour, beans, and coffee; the men’s blankets and “war sacks,” and the simple cooking equipment. Beneath the wagon was always swung a “rawhide”–a dried, untanned, unscraped cow’s hide, fastened by its four corners beneath the wagon bed. This rawhide served a double purpose: first, as a carryall for odds and ends; and second, as furnishing repair material for saddles and wagons. In it were carried pots and kettles, extra horseshoes, farriers’ tools, and firewood; for often long journeys had to be made across the country which did not furnish enough fuel to boil a pot of coffee. On the sides of the wagon, outside the wagon box, were securely lashed the two great water barrels, each supplied with a spigot, which are indispensable in trail driving. Where, as in this instance, exceptionally long dry drives were to be made other water kegs were carried in the wagons.

Cowboys near Silver City, New Mexico

Cowboys near Silver City, New Mexico

Such wagons were rude affairs, great prairie schooners, hooded in canvas to keep out the rain. Some of them were miracles of patchwork, racked and strained and broken till scarcely a sound bit of iron or wood remained, but, all splinted and bound with strips of the cowboy’s indispensable rawhide, they wobbled crazily along, with many a shriek and groan, threatening every moment to collapse, but always holding together until some extraordinary accident required the application of new rawhide bandages. I have no doubt there are wagons of this sort in use in Texas today that went over the trail in 1868.

The men need little description, for the cowboy type has been made familiar by Buffalo Bill’s most truthful exhibitions of plains life. Lean, wiry, bronzed men, their legs cased in leather chaparejos, with small boots, high heels, and great spurs, they were, despite their loose, slouchy seat, the best rough-riders in the world.

Cowboy character is not well understood. Its most distinguishing trait was absolute fidelity. As long as he liked you well enough to take your pay and eat your grub, you could, except in very rare instances, rely implicitly upon his faithfulness and honesty. To be sure, if he got the least idea he was being misused he might begin throwing lead at you out of the business end of a gun at any time; but so long as he liked you, he was just as ready with his weapons in your defense, no matter what the odds or who the enemy. Another characteristic trait was his profound respect for womanhood. I never heard of a cowboy insulting a woman, and I don’t believe any real cowboy ever did.

Men whose nightly talk around the campfire is of home and “mammy” are apt to be a pretty good sort. And yet another quality for which he was remarkable was his patient, uncomplaining endurance of a life of hardship and privation equaled only among seafarers. Drenched by rain or bitten by snow, scorched by heat or stiffened by cold, he passed it all off with a jest.

Range Rider

Range Rider

Of a bitterly cold night, he might casually remark about the quilts that composed his bed: “These here durned huldys ain’t much thicker ‘n hen skin!” Or of a hot night: “Reckon ole mammy must ‘a stuffed a hull bale of cotton inter this yere ole huldy.” Or in pouring rain: “‘Pears like ole Mahster’s got a durned fool idee we’uns is web-footed.” Or in a driving snowstorm: “Ef ole Mahster had to git rid o’ this yere damn cold stuff, he might ‘a dumped it on fellers what ‘s got more firewood handy.”

Vices? Well, such as the cowboy had, someone who loves him less will have to describe. Perhaps he was a bit too frolicsome in town and too quick to settle a trifling dispute with weapons, but these things were inevitable results of the life he led.

In driving a herd over a known trail where water and grass are abundant, an experienced trail boss conforms the movement of his herd as near as possible to the habit of wild cattle on the range. At dawn, the herd rises from the bed ground and is “drifted” or grazed, without pushing, in the desired direction. By nine or ten o’clock they have eaten their fill, and then they are “strung out on the trail” to water. They step out smartly, two men–one at either side–“pointing” the leaders; and “swing” riders along the sides push in the flanks, until the herd is strung out for a mile or more, a narrow, bright, particolored ribbon of moving color winding over the dark green of hill and plain. In this way, they easily march off six to nine miles by noon. When they reach water they are scattered along the stream, drink their fill and lie down. Dinner is then eaten, and the boys not on herd doze in the shade of the wagon, until, a little after two o’clock, the herd rise of their own accord and move away, guided by the riders.

Rather less distance is made in the afternoon. At twilight the herd is rounded up into a close circular compact mass and “bedded down” for the night; the first relief of the night guard riding slowly around, singing softly and turning back stragglers. If properly grazed, in less than a half-hour the herd is quiet and at rest; and, barring an occasional wild or hungry beast trying to steal away into the darkness, so they lie till dawn unless stampeded by some untoward incident.

Cowboy on Horse

Cowboy on Horse

Every two or three hours a new “relief” is called and the night guard changed. Round and round all night ride the guards, jingling their spurs and droning some low monotonous song, recounting through endless stanzas the fearless deeds of some frontier hero, or humming some love ditty rather too passionate for gentle ears.

But when a ninety-mile drive across the Staked Plain is to be done, all this easy system is changed. In order to make the journey at all the pace must be forced to the utmost, and the cattle kept on their legs and moving as long as they can stand.

Therefore, when Loving and Goodnight reached the head of the Concho, two full days’ rest were taken to recuperate the “drags,” or weaker cattle. Then, late one afternoon, after the herd had been well grazed and watered, the water barrels and kegs filled, the herd was thrown on the trail and driven away into the west, without halt or rest, throughout the night.

Thus, driving in the cool of the night and of the early morning and late evening, resting through the heat of midday when travel would be most exhausting, the herd was pushed on westward for three nights and four days.

On these dry drives, the horses suffer most, for every rider is forced, in his necessary daily work, to cover many times the distance traveled by the herd, and therefore the horses, doing the heaviest work, are refreshed by an occasional sip of the precious contents of the water barrels–as long as it lasts. By night of the second day of this drive every drop of water is consumed, and thereafter, with tongues parched and swollen by the clouds of dust raised by the moving multitude, thin, drawn, and famished for water, men, horses, and cattle push madly ahead.

Come at last within fifteen miles of the Pecos, even the leaders, the strongest of the herd, are staggering along with dull eyes and drooping heads, apparently ready to fall in their tracks. Suddenly the whole appearance of the cattle changes; heads are eagerly raised, ears pricked up, eyes brighten; the leaders step briskly forward and break into a trot. Cow-hunters say they smell the water. Perhaps they do, or perhaps it is the last desperate struggle for existence. Anyway, the tide is resistless. Nothing can check them, and four men gallop in the lead to control and handle them as much as possible when they reach the stream. Behind, the weaker cattle follow at the best pace they can. In this way, over the last stage, a single herd is strung out over a length of four or five miles.

Great care is needed when the stream is reached to turn them in at easy waterings, for in their maddened state they would bowl over one another down a bluff of any height; and they often do so, for men and horses are almost equally wild to reach the water, and indifferent how they get there.

However, the Pecos was reached and the herds watered with comparatively small losses, and both Loving’s and Goodnight’s outfits lay at rest for three days to recuperate at Horsehead Crossing. Then the drive up the wide, level valley of the Pecos was begun, through thickets of tornilla and mesquite, horses and cattle grazing belly-deep in the tall, juicy zacaton.

Comanche Camp, 1873

Comanche Camp, 1873

The perils of the Llano Estacado were behind them, but they were now in the domain of the Comanche and in hourly danger of ambush or open attack. They found a great deal of Indian “sign,” their trails and camps; but the “sign” was ten days or two weeks old, which left ground for hope that the war parties might be out on raids in the east or south. After traveling four days up the Pecos without encountering any fresh “sign,” they concluded that the Indians were off on some foray; therefore it was decided that Loving might with reasonable safety proceed ahead of the herds to make arrangements at Fort Sumner for their delivery, provided he traveled only by night, and lay in concealment during the day.

In Loving’s outfit were two brothers, Jim and Bill Scott, who had accompanied his two previous Pecos drives, and were his most experienced and trusted men. He chose Jim Scott for his companion on the dash through to Fort Sumner.

When dark came, Loving mounted a favorite mule, and Jim his best horse; then, each well-armed with a Henry rifle and two six-shooters, with a brief “So long, boys!” to Goodnight and the men, they trotted off up the trail. Riding rapidly all night, they hid just before dawn in the rough hills below Pope’s Crossing, ate a snack, and then slept undisturbed till nightfall.

As soon as it was good dusk they slipped down a ravine to the river, watered their mounts, and resumed the trail to the north. This night also was uneventful, except that they rode into, and roused, a great herd of sleeping buffalo, which ran thundering away over the Plain.

Dawn came upon them riding through a level country about fifteen miles below the present town of Carlsbad, without cover of any sort to serve for their concealment through the day. They, therefore, decided to push on to the hills above the mouth of Dark Cañon. Here was their mistake. Had they ridden a mile or two to the west of the trail and dismounted before daylight, they probably would not have been discovered. It was madness for two men to travel by day in that country, whether fresh sign had been seen or not. But, anxious to reach a hiding place where both might venture to sleep through the day, they pressed on up the trail. And they paid dearly the penalty of their foolhardiness.

Other riders were out that morning, riders with eyes keen as a hawk’s, eyes that never rested for a moment, eyes set in heads cunning as foxes and cruel as wolves. A war party of Comanche was out and on the move early, and, as is the crafty Indian custom, was riding out of sight in the narrow valley below the well-rounded hills that lined the river.

But while they hid themselves, their scouts were out far ahead, creeping along just beneath the edge of the Plain, scanning keenly its broad stretches, alert for quarry. And they soon found it.

Loving and Jim were in sight!

To be sure they were only two specks in the distance, but the trained eyes of these savage sleuths quickly made them out as horsemen and white men.

Halting for the main war party to come up, they held a brief council of war, which decided that the attack should be delivered two or three miles farther up the river, where the trail swerved in to within a few hundred yards of the stream. So the scouts mounted, and the war party jogged leisurely northward and took stand opposite the bend in the trail.

Comanche warriors

Comanche warriors

On came Loving and Jim, unwarned and unsuspecting, their animals jaded from the long night’s ride. They reached the bend. And just as Jim, pointing to a low round hill a quarter of a mile to the west of them, remarked, “Thar’d be a blame good place to stan’ off a bunch o’ Injuns,” they were startled by the sound of thundering hoofs off on their right to the east. Looking quickly round they saw a sight to make the bravest tremble.

Racing up out of the valley and out upon them, barely four hundred yards away, came a band of forty or fifty Comanche warriors, crouching low on their horses’ withers, madly plying quirt and heel to urge their mounts to their utmost speed.

Their own animals worn out, escape by running was hopeless. Cover must be sought where a stand could be made, so they whirled about and spurred away for the hill Jim had noted. Their pace was slow at the best. The Indians were gaining at every jump and had opened fire, and before half the distance to the hill was covered a ball broke Loving’s thigh and killed his mule. As the mule pitched over dead, providentially he fell on the bank of a buffalo-wallow–a circular depression in the prairie two or three feet deep and eight or ten feet in diameter, made by buffalo wallowing in a muddy pool during the rains.

Instantly Jim sprang to the ground, gave his bridle to Loving, who lay helpless under his horse, and turned and poured a stream of lead out of his Henry rifle that bowled over two Comanche, knocked down one horse, and stopped the charge.

While the Indians temporarily drew back out of range, Jim pulled Loving from beneath his fallen mule, and, using his neckerchief, applied a tourniquet to the wounded leg which abated the hemorrhage, and then placed him in as easy a position as possible within the shelter of the wallow, and behind the fallen carcass of the mule. Then Jim led his own horse to the opposite bank of the wallow, drew his bowie knife and cut the poor beast’s throat: they were in for a fight to the death, and, outnumbered twenty to one, must have breastworks. As the horse fell on the low bank and Jim dropped down behind him, Loving called out cheerily:

“Reckon we’re all right now, Jim, and can down half o’ them before they get us. Hell! Here they come again!”

A brief “Bet yer life, ole man. We’ll make ’em settle now,” was the only reply.

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