LONDON LETTER: Trashing the concept of honour

LIKE many of my generation, I was fascinated with the Wild West as a kid.

I suppose we had no option. Most movies were ‘skiet-en-donner’ Westerns, the most prolific books were penned by Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey, and Rawhide with Clint Eastwood was required viewing.

Indeed, my prized possession was a Davy Crockett hat and my toys were plastic Colt 45s or Winchester Repeaters — which by today’s politically correct standards makes my mom and dad bad parents.

This soon changed, not for me, but for the zeitgeist of the times.

With the advent of the flower-power 1960s, the cowboy was relegated to redneck dinosaur status.

Western movies, the few that were made, depicted them as evil murderers. To give a kid a toy gun was worse than child abuse.

I had long hair and looked like a hippie in those days, but I was a fraud.

I still sneakily loved the concept of the Wild West, even if was based on perception rather than reality.

One of my favourite books is Larry McMurtry’s classic Lonesome Dove, about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

However, thanks to a handful of TV documentaries honestly airing this extraordinary period of American history,

I’ve since discovered that McMurty’s classic is in fact based on the true story of the two men who spawned the legend of the cowboy.

They had the most un-cowboy-like names of Oliver Loving and Charlie Goodnight, and in 1867 were scratching a meagre living after the bitter Civil War where cows were four times more plentiful than humans in Texas.

Not only were they cowboys, but they were canny entrepreneurs and Loving heard that there could be a market for beef in New Mexico, a couple of thousand kilometres away.

He and Goodnight, a former Texas Ranger, lassoed every Longhorn they could find to drive to Fort Sumner.

The main hazard was that the cattle drive had to cross several hundred miles of Comanche territory, the fiercest of Native American tribes.

Any paleface caught trespassing would be scalped – with good reason. To the Comanche, this was sacred land.

For much of the drive, the cowboys travelled at night. Then when they were 100km away from Fort Sumner, Loving and a wrangler called Bill Wilson, who only had one arm, rode ahead to secure the beef deal.


If they didn’t reach Fort Sumner first, some other cowboy could get the contract.

The gamble backfired and they were spotted by a Comanche war party.

Loving and Wilson galloped to the banks of the Pecos River, where they dug in for the fight of their lives.

For three days in the blazing desert sun, a 54-year-old man and his one-armed sidekick, who could only fire a pistol, held an entire war party at bay.

Eventually, Loving was shot in the chest and told Wilson to escape by swimming the Pecos, a dubious option as venomous cottonmouth water vipers were so numerous they attacked in shoals.

Wilson, dog-paddling up river with only one arm, miraculously managed to find the cattle drive cowboys.

Goodnight immediately rode off to help his wounded buddy.

There was no sign of Loving.

The cowboys reached Fort Sumner a week later. Goodnight sold the entire herd, making a good profit.

He then discovered that Loving had escaped the Comanche, also by swimming the Pecos River, but was in a bad way at a mission hospital.

Goodnight arrived to find Loving dying from gangrene. His last request was to be buried in his beloved Texas.

For Goodnight, an oath on his friend’s deathbed was a blood vow.

He put Loving’s corpse in a lead-sealed coffin and rode back to Texas, pulling his dead friend in a cart.

The return trip was equally harrowing, braving Comanche attacks and wrestling a cart with a coffin through snake-infested rivers.

Loving’s courage and Goodnight’s loyalty became the stuff of legend.

It cemented the spirit of the stoic cowboy that lasted for nearly a century, until modern Hollywood and fashionable liberalism trashed it.

Such stories are seldom told these days. Perhaps it’s because concepts of honour, bravery and granite-like grit are way past their sell-by date.

Graham Spence

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