today, the High Plains landscape seems on a clear day to stretch
on forever. In the mid-1870s, with the then-unsettled area only
traversed by vast herds of buffalo and the hunters who sought their
hides, it is hard to imagine the solitude.
Having a horse in that country was almost as critical a need as
food, water and shelter. In fact, ending up afoot often meant death.
Nearly a quarter-century later, Colorado
City cattle dealer John Lovelady still clearly remembered what
happened to him up on those plains on Feb. 12, 1877. It led to a
relentless pursuit that lasted 27 days and covered more than 1,000
miles. He told his story to a St. Louis newspaper reporter in 1901.
Camped with five other buffalo hunters on Sand Creek in present
late that winter day Lovelady saw two strangers ride up. Asking
if they could spend the night, the men said they had been out hunting
oxen and had just about run out of food.
Adhering to the already well-established Code of the West, Lovelady
and his fellow hunters welcomed the pair and fed them supper. In
the morning, the hunters gave the men some grub and they departed.
Later, when Lovelady walked to a nearby canyon where he and his
colleagues had hobbled their horses for the night, they were gone.
At first, he thought Indians had stolen them. But then he noticed
boot prints. One of the boots left a mark made by a metal plate
tacked to its heel. By happenstance, Lovelady had noticed the night
before that one of their guests wore such a boot.
camp, Lovelady reported the theft and said he intended to go after
the two men and the stolen mounts. One of the hunters, Marion Blakely,
agreed to join him. They stocked up on bread and dried buffalo meat,
buckled on their six-shooters and with their .50 caliber hunting
rifles, left on foot in pursuit of mounted thieves.
"The ground was covered with tall grass and we had no trouble in
following the trail," Lovelady recalled. "We [walked] about 35 miles
the first day, and became convinced that the thieves were making
for western Kansas."
On the fourth day, the two horse-less hunters exhausted their food.
They did kill a buffalo, but the meat was so poor that all they
ate was its liver. And then, things got even worse.
Seeing in the distance a man on a wagon, Lovelady left Blakely behind
and hurried to meet the man to explain their plight. The hunter
walked to within a few yards of the man when he stopped his team,
grabbed his gun and leveled it at Lovelady. Turned out the man took
Lovelady for an outlaw and didn't believe his story about being
on the trail of horse thieves.
When it looked like the wagon driver was about to shoot him, Lovelady
grabbed his gun, overpowered him and forced him to drive to where
he had left his partner and from there take them to his camp. There,
the other men in the suspicious man's party believed Lovelady's
story. They gave the two hunters some meat, but could not spare
to loan them horses.
Two days later,
still tracking the thieves, the sore-footed hunters again ran out
of food and again had to resort to buffalo liver. On top of that,
the nights were cold, and during the day, they suffered for lack
Ten days out, having averaged 40 miles a day, the pair encountered
a solitary buffalo hunter who told them he had recently seen two
men leading a string of jaded horses. The older hunter fed the two
pursuers and told them where he figured the riders he had seen would
make their next camp.
In the morning, with a strong norther blowing, the two hunters began
following the old man's directions. Sure enough, they came to a
ravine and from about 50 yards off spotted their stolen horses.
"We could have easily taken possession of the horses," Lovelady
said, "but were determined to have the men, too."
Following the tracks leading away from the horses, they came to
a dugout with smoke coming from its chimney. The two hunters burst
inside at gunpoint, quickly determined that of the six men warming
themselves around the fire, only the two men they had been following
were guilty. The other four men were buffalo hunters and had merely
let the two men stay with them until the weather improved.
In the morning, their 12th day out, Lovelady and Blakely left with
the two thieves, their hands now tied behind them. That night, they
camped near a stand of cottonwood trees. When Lovelady began looking
for a sturdy limb, the men readily understood their fate.
One of them began to cry, followed by fervent prayer. The other
thief cursed Lovelady and commented unflatteringly on his ancestry.
Lovelady had heard cussing before, but never the kind of prayer
the one doomed man offered. "He prayed for himself, for his companion
in crime, for me and for Blakely, but when he began to pray for
his wife and baby, even [the other thief] was overcome with emotion,"
he said. "That prayer saved two lives, for Blakely and I weakened,
and there was no hanging."
As an old man, Lovelady turned the story into something of a parable
showing the power of prayer. No matter one's religious beliefs or
lack thereof, it sure worked in this case.
Rather than a "suspended sentence" beneath a cottonwood tree in
the middle of nowhere, the two men faced trial in Albany
(then the nearest court), got convicted, and got two-year prison
terms. Whether they stayed on the straight and narrow after they
got of the Huntsville
penitentiary is not known, but the close call would have reformed
"Texas Tales" May
25 , 2017 column