Texan Bill Wilson lost his right arm when he was a child. Some sources say a threshing machine yanked it off when he was 8 years old. Others claim a mean horse bit it off before he turned 4 years old.
Despite his disability, “One Arm” Bill was one of Texas’ most famous cowboys. He became a legend after surviving a shootout with 100 rifle- and bow-and-arrow-armed Comanche warriors in New Mexico.
Goodnight and Loving
Born in Arkansas in 1843, Wilson moved with his family to Palo Pinto County, Texas. He scouted and drove cows for Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. After the Civil War, the duo escorted Texas longhorns to New Mexico and Colorado along a dusty road, which later became known as the Goodnight and Loving Trail.
In the spring of 1867, they started a herd toward Fort Sumner, N.M., where they planned to sell the beef-on-the-hoof to government Native American agents, who supplied food to a nearby Navaho reservation.
Wilson and Loving rode to the fort, 250 miles away, to settle the contract before Goodnight, the drovers and the cattle arrived. They agreed to travel at night to avoid Native Americans who considered cattlemen trespassers.
After a while, they opted to ride in daylight to make better time. The decision nearly cost them their lives.
Encounter with Comanches
On the second day of their journey, the pair was approaching the Black River when they spotted the Comanches.
“They saw us about the same time and we knew we were in for trouble, but we reached the river all right,” Wilson wrote in The Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys and their Experiences on the Range and on the Trail during the Days that Tried Men’s Souls—True Narratives by Real Cow-Punchers and Men Who Fathered the Cattle Industry in Texas. “An Indian rose up and I shot him, but not before he had fired on Mr. Loving,” Wilson said.
The bullet bored through Loving’s wrist before burying itself in his arm. The Native Americans charged. After emptying his revolver at the foe, Wilson “picked up Mr. Loving’s gun and continued firing.” The Comanches dove for cover in some weeds and began crawling toward Wilson.
Wilson managed to get Loving to the river’s edge and hid “him in a sandy depression, where the smart weeds grew about 2 feet high and laid down beside him.” The Comanches tried to flush them out by shooting arrows upward “and some came very near striking us,” Wilson said.
The trek ahead
Night fell with the two holding their position and the Comanches still nearby. Loving’s wounds threw him into a high fever and he was sure he would be dead by dawn.
Sure not to avoid the same fate, Wilson agreed to go on with the journey. He eased into the stream and started swimming. After some time, he swam over to a patch of weeds and got out of the stream. For the next 3 days, they trudged barefoot.
Wilson eventually “crossed a little mountain and knew that the boys ought to be right in there somewhere with the cattle.” He sought refuge from the searing sun in “a sort of cave” and waited.
According to his memoir, Wilson confessed he was spent and “could go no further.” Luckily, he did not have to. “After a short time the boys came along with the cattle and found me.”
Unknown to Wilson and Goodnight, Loving, too, had gotten away via the river. Bloodied but unbowed, he reached the road that Wilson took, sat down and hoped some wayfarer would help him.
Travelers met the herd and told them Loving eventually reached an army post. Upon reunion, Wilson and Goodnight saw Loving’s arm was seriously infected. They pleaded with the post doctor to cut it off, but he refused, protesting that he had never removed a limb. He feared he would kill Wilson if he tried an amputation.
Wilson and Goodnight sent for a surgeon, but as Loving’s gangrene worsened, the post doctor agreed to remove the limb. “But [it was] too late,” Wilson wrote. “Mortification went into his body and killed him.”
Wilson, who married Emma Sheek, died an old man. Stories live on.
- J. Marvin Hunter. The Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys and their Experiences on the Range and on the Trail during the Days that Tried Men’s Souls—True Narratives by Real Cow-Punchers and Men Who Fathered the Cattle Industry in Texas, revised second edition (Nashville, Tenn.: Cokesbury Press, 1925).