It is often hard in history to separate fact from fiction, and the dime novel version of a story from reality; but it is interesting to note that in the remarkable story of one Black Hills character the two ends of the spectrum bear similarities.
Nat (pronounced Nate) Love was born a slave on a plantation near Nashville, Tenn., in June of 1854. He had no formal education, but with help from his father, learned to read and write. When the slaves were freed following the Civil War, Love worked on the small farm his father rented from his former owner. Upon his father’s sudden death, he became the sole support of his mother and younger brother and sister. He was able to obtain work on various plantations where he displayed great skill in breaking horses.
In 1869, Love left his family in an uncle’s care and headed west for Kansas with $50 in his pocket. When he reached Dodge City, he found his first job as a cowboy with the Duval Ranch. The Texas outfit employed several good black cowboys, and was preparing to go back to Texas after bringing a herd to the Kansas railhead. After sharing breakfast with the crew, Nat asked the trail boss for a job. The boss said Nat could join them if he could break a horse named Good Eye, the wildest horse in the outfit. Bronco Jim, one of the black cowboys in the outfit, gave Nat some pointers before his successful ride. Nat said later that it was the toughest ride he had ever had.
The strong and confident 16 year-old adapted well to the tough and dangerous way of Western life. He became a good shot with his prized .45 revolver, and one of the best all-around cowboys in the Duval outfit.
In the course of his three years with the Duval Ranch, Love became their buyer and chief brand reader. He made many trips into Mexico in this capacity and in the process also learned to speak Spanish fluently. Nat left Texas in 1872, and went to work for the Gallinger Ranch in Arizona, where he remained for many years, traveling many of the major western trails between the Gulf of Mexico and the Northern Plains, work sometimes involved him in dangerous gun battles with Native Americans, cattle rustlers, and bandits. In one encounter with Indians he was wounded, but taken captive rather than killed because the Indians were apparently impressed with his bravery. He also claimed to have known many of the famous men of the West, including Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, and Pat Garrett. While he was in the southwest, Nat was referred to as Red River Dick.