One Arm Billy Wilson
I think that William J. Wilson wanted to live a productive and quiet life, one with little or no action, but his cards held a different plan for him. Young Billy Wilson came with his family to North Central Texas around the time of the Indian Wars. Danger lurked everywhere during this time. Because of the depredations, Billy’s dad decided to move his family to the citizen’s fort on the Brazos River, some ten miles away. Billy’s mom was shot and died before they reached the fort leaving his dad with eight children to raise. A story that was not unusual for the time. Billy’s dad soon married a young widow. Billy was fourteen years old, five years younger than his step-mom. Another story that is not that unusual, as many families combined for convenience.
Billy was a unique child. There are several stories as to why he lost his arm. Some tell that a horse bit his arm when he was two or three and another says that he was born without the limb. I could not verify either but it is for sure that he was without the arm most of his life. In his early twenties, One Arm Billy Wilson bought about 350 head of cattle and threw in with another herd that was heading to a cattle market. Billy figured safety traveled in larger numbers. As he rode along with the herd, he served in the role as cowboy and scout. The trail boss said Billy was, “The coolest man in the outfit.”
In the year 1867, the herd traveled across Texas, headed to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The Indian Agents were purchasing cattle and they hoped to get there and find a market for the herd. However, the trip would not be easy. First, Indians attacked the herd. They lost several head of cattle and one cowboy lay gravely wounded. An arrow hit Long Joe, deeply embedding in his body. Several cowboys had to hold him down in order to remove the arrow.
This outfit was typical. There were around sixteen cowboys along with a 2000 head of cattle. When they reached the Middle Concho River, they allowed the cattle to drink their fill. The next ninety-six miles to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River would be a non-stop dry land drive across the desert filled with pools of alkali water, a menace to cows and cowboys. It took the cowboys three days and nights of hard riding and continually pushing the now thirsty cattle on to the Pecos River. Three hundred cattle died of thirst along the way. Cowboys and cattle alike were glad to reach the muddy banks of the Pecos.
Shortly after crossing the Pecos, Indians attacked again. After regrouping, the cowboys and herd traveled on, having lost a little over 300 head of cattle to this raid. About 100 miles after the attack one of the trail bosses decided to ride on ahead to Fort Sumner to arrange for the sale of the cattle. He took twenty-five year old One Arm Billy Wilson with him. This trip would put One Arm Billy Wilson on the pages of Texas history and make him a character in a best-loved western novel.
The pair planned to travel only at night as the Indians were less likely to attack then. By day two, the trail boss had tired of sleeping during the day and changed their plans. At mid-day, they headed towards a distant mountain. Soon, they noticed a few Indians and the Indians noticed them. The pair changed direction and headed towards the river and the Indian population began to grow.
The situation was tense as the two decided how to best defend their location on a mud bank of the Pecos. As the trail boss eased closer to Billy, a well-aimed shot from an Indian’s rifle hit him. Billy managed to shoot that Indian but one less did not make a dent in their situation. The wound in the side of Billy’s comrade went through his body and fractured his wrist but the wound in his side caused the trail boss to fear for his life. Billy tightly bound the wrist but could do nothing for the other wound. The boss insisted that Billy try to escape. The two continued to ponder their situation as they watched another brave crawling through the brush toward them. The brave inched closer and Billy heard a sound that he feared but in this case, it may have saved his life. The rattlesnake lay coiled and ready to strike. The Indian heard the sound but could not locate the position of the rattler so he backed away, leaving the cowboys safe in the river brush.
As darkness set in Billy decided, he had to go for help. His boss was getting no better, fever had set in, and he kept insisting that Billy leave. He told Billy to tell his family what happened and assured Billy that he would take his own life before he’d let the Indians capture and torture him.
Billy realized that the river would be his best avenue of escape. He stashed his clothing, boots, and the rifle where the Indians could not find them and slipped past the Indians by staying in the river. Many times, he had to swim under water and in the weeds to get beyond the Indian guards. After a time he felt it was safe to get out of the river. He walked for three days, barefooted, through a country covered with stickers, scorpions and rattlesnakes. With exhaustion about to take over, he topped a hill and saw the boys and the herd below.
After he told the story to the drovers, a group of the cowboys left in search of the one left behind. From the description given by Wilson, they found his clothes, the rifle and the mud bank where he had left his partner but his partner was nowhere to be found. Assuming either he had taken his own life and then drifted away in the river current or the Indians had captured him, the cowboys turned back and continued with the herd to Fort Sumner. They underestimated the determination of their boss.
Upon reaching Fort Sumner, they were surprised to learn that their comrade had made it there. He had managed to crawl upriver to a road where he found a shade. He remained under that tree until a wagon of travelers found and took him on to Fort Sumner. He arrived in very bad shape. His arm was severely infected. Even though the doctor removed the arm, the procedure was done too late and as One Arm Billy Wilson said, “Thus ended the career of one of the best men I ever knew. Mr. Goodnight had the body of Mr. Loving prepared for the long journey and carried it to Weatherford, Texas, where interment was made with Masonic honors.”
There you have it, the story of One Armed Billy Wilson and his two pals, trail bosses Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, the characters portrayed in “Lonesome Dove” as Captain Augustus McCrae, Captain Woodrow F. Call, and Pea Eye Parker.