End of the Trail

Image result for cowboy on the trailGood morning. It’s Tuesday, September 25, 2018. On this date in 1867, Texas cattleman Oliver Loving died at Fort Sumner in territorial New Mexico after being wounded by a Comanche arrow along the Pecos River.

Texas’ agriculture had been devastated by the Civil War — the Confederacy left vast unpaid debts to the state’s ranchers — but business improved afterward as cattlemen such as Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight began driving their herds north again.

Most trail bosses preferred the established routes such as the Chisholm Trail, leading to a glut of beef in the great Midwestern stockyards in Missouri and Kansas. Goodnight had another idea: to drive his herds westward through Kiowa and Comanche country to the mining camps U.S. Army forts had located in present day New Mexico and Colorado.

Goodnight and Loving met some 60 miles west of Fort Worth in a town called Black Springs (present day Oran) and forged a fateful partnership with a handshake. Their association would result in a historic trail that bears their name, an initial drive that netted the men $12,000 in gold coins, Loving’s fatal encounter with a Comanche war party, and the inspiration for Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” novel and TV miniseries.

On September 25, 1867, penicillin was still unknown, which is why Oliver Loving succumbed to gangrene after being pierced by arrows in his side and arm. He might have survived if his arm had been amputated, a procedure that saved tens of thousands of Civil War combatants on both sides, but the doctor at the fort reportedly had no experience removing limbs, and shied away from the procedure. This left Loving to face another scourge of Civil War field hospitals: infection, gangrene, and death.

In “Lonesome Dove,” the two trailblazing cattlemen are named Augustus McCrae (played by Robert Duvall) and Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones). As one would expect, Gus McCrae’s fictional dying scene is more romantic than Oliver Loving’s actual death: McCrae, also wounded by Indians, has one leg removed because of infection, but balks at losing the other — to the point of aiming his pistol at the attending physician to keep him at bay.

Nor is there any record of Oliver Loving’s last words being as poetic as Gus McCrae’s: “By God, Woodrow!” he exclaims before dying, “it’s been one hell of a party.”

But there is evidence in the historic record of Oliver Loving expressing sadness at the prospect of being buried “in a foreign country.” And so Charles Goodnight, as Woodrow Call would do on screen 122 years later, promised to take his partner’s body back to Texas. In the miniseries, Woodrow’s quest ends with Gus buried in a pecan grove beside a creek where he often picnicked with his beloved Clara.

In real life, Charles Goodnight, along with Oliver Loving’s son Joseph, honored a dying man’s wish by bringing his body 600 miles from Fort Sumner to Weatherford, Texas. There, Loving is buried, alongside his wife, in Greenwood Cemetery.

His descendants, however — and the rest of us, too — can benefit from the wisdom of Augustus McCrae, as epitomized by his advice to a young friend named Lorena who is thinking her problems will all be solved if she can get herself to California.

“Lorie darlin’, life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life,” Gus tells her. “If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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