What would a series on vintage Texas be without tales from big cattle drives?

We have a special — and longer than usual — treat for you this week: An excerpt from "The Essential J. Frank Dobie" by Steven L. Davis, literary curator for the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos.


In 2009, Davis rescued the reputation of Dobie, a folklorist, mentor and one of the state’s first literary stars, with his biography, "J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind." In this 2019 book, Davis culls from Dobie’s vast output and edits him carefully to make a case that Dobie deserves his title as "Mr. Texas."


Davis helps us out with a quick intro to a selection from the book: "In 1926, J. Frank Dobie was a fledgling author who received permission to interview 90-year-old cattleman Charles Goodnight for a magazine story. Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving blazed the Goodnight-Loving trail and they became the historical inspirations for Larry McMurtry’s Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae in ‘Lonesome Dove.’


"It was Loving who died on a trail drive after being wounded by Indian arrows, and it was Goodnight who brought his comrade’s body back to Texas for burial. Woodrow Call (Goodnight) was played by Tommy Lee Jones in the classic television miniseries.


A quote of Goodnight’s at the end of this story, ironically attesting to his ‘hell of a vision,’ was memorably adapted by screenwriter Bill Wittliff for the film version of ‘Lonesome Dove.’


"The full version of this essay that appears in ‘The Essential J. Frank Dobie’ also describes Goodnight’s devotion to Bose Ikard, a former slave, who became the model for Joshua Deets in ‘Lonesome Dove,’ played by Danny Glover."


"Charles Goodnight of Amplitude," by J. Frank Dobie


People called him Colonel Goodnight and still refer to him by that title. Born in 1836 in southern Illinois, he came to Texas in 1845 with his mother and stepfather. At the age of 20 he contracted, with a partner, to care for a herd of about four hundred cows on shares. The grass was all free.


During the Civil War he served as scout and ranger against Indians on the northwestern frontiers, becoming intimately acquainted with Plains country beyond all settlements. He had a compass inside his body, was never lost, day or night, alone or leading.


In 1866 he and Oliver Loving drove two thousand cattle of their own across ninety miles of desert from the headwaters of the Middle Concho to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos and on to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where contractors supplying government beef paid high prices. He trailed other herds west over the Goodnight-Loving Trail, now traced out on maps.


In 1876, he established the first ranch in the Panhandle of Texas, making the J A cattle on the Palo Duro perhaps the best-bred herd in the West. He blazed a trail to Dodge City, Kansas, his market. He roped a few buffalo calves, raised them and developed the first controlled buffalo herd in the West. He led in maintaining law and order over a vast territory. In 1887, in the depth of a financial panic, Goodnight dissolved his partnership with John Adair and soon sold his own holdings, one hundred and forty thousand acres and twenty thousand cattle — at panic prices. After a disastrous plunge in Mexico mining, he settled down on the ranch where I met him.


In response to a letter, he had replied that he would be "pleased to entertain" me any time I came. He had been interviewed and written about various times. He had himself written brief articles on handling a trail herd and other experiences. He was plainly not elated at my arrival, though courteous enough. He told me right off that he did not care a damn for any "publicity" that I or any other writer could give him. He was now ninety years old. His wife, married in 1870, had died the preceding spring. A woman of mature years was cooking and keeping house for him.


At supper I noticed on the table the biggest bottle of pepper sauce I have ever seen — red Mexican peppers in maybe two quarts of vinegar. He ate, without talking, as if he meant business, finished, pushed his chair back, said, "I never was a hand to dally around the table, excuse me," and left.


I stayed with him for three or four days, taking down voluminous notes. On the second morning he told me that his men were going to bring in and pen his buffalo herd. I wanted to ride with them.


"You'd be in the way and probably scare the buffaloes beyond control," he said.


While he narrated experiences and observations to me, I sometimes had to prod for facts. Yet our chemistries mixed. At mention of "my old pardner Oliver Loving," his voice grew warm and tender. The Christmas following this visit he sent me by mail a fine buffalo roast. We remained in contact for the rest of his life.


He told me about Old Blue, his lead steer on the great J A Ranch. Old Blue led beef herds from the Palo Duro Canyon to Dodge City and came back with the cowboys and the remuda. He was a camp pet. Many an outlaw steer roped in the breaks was necked to him to be led straight to the ranch corrals. Buffalo calves that Goodnight saved to start a buffalo herd with were necked to Old Blue for bringing in.


When I evidenced lively interest in Old Blue, Mr. Goodnight's spirits rose. While he would not give half of a damn for anything that anybody might write about Charlie Goodnight, he would "like to have Old Blue given his dues." Out of the rich stores of his memory he related instance after instance of the old Longhorn's behavior; he gave me a biographical sketch of him that he had written in doggerel verse.


Back in Austin, I wrote the story of Old Blue as best I could and sold it to a magazine published in New York. After I sent Mr. Goodnight the story as printed, he responded: "My eyes filled with tears when I read what you had written of my faithful old friend." Years later I put it in my book "The Longhorns."


At one time Goodnight partly owned and wholly controlled about 1,300,000 acres of land, some of it leased from individual owners, some of it fenced-in state land. Often over a hundred cowhands worked under him.


One day while I was with him, we drove in my car a short distance from the house to the big pens. After we got out and looked around, he had difficulty sidling his thick body back into the car. While struggling he said, "Old age hath its honors but sometimes it is damned inconvenient."


In October of 1928 he and his new wife came to our house in Austin on their way south for a gathering of the Old-Time Trail Drivers of Texas at San Antonio. He had never been to the annual meeting. Sixty-two years had passed since he blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail on his first long cattle drive. He was now well stricken in years. His strong young wife evidenced respectful dedication to him. He told me she had had a miscarriage.


The trail drivers always met in the Gunter Hotel. Mr. Goodnight did not make a talk to the gathering, but greeted many men and was the center of curiosity and attention. For hours through two days he sat, wide and thick, on a long lounge in the big hotel lobby. Two or three times while I sat with him talking, a stranger came up to say, "This is Colonel Goodnight, I take it," or something like that.


His invariable reply was, "This is Charlie Goodnight." He had not been even a captain. He did not like complimentary titles implying a status contrary to fact. The present concern over personal "images" would have disgusted him. He preferred, I judge, Mister to Colonel.


He did not mind naming, to me at least, known cow thieves who had prospered — and even been "colonel-ed."


"No more night work for me," he said. "I've done my share of night work — and it wasn't after other people's cattle." In his adamantine code of honesty, thieves were among the primary enemies of society.


Some man said, "You have been a man of vision." "Yes," he retorted, "a hell of a vision."