In this part of Texas, in the late 1800’s, times were very hard. And, who are we to judge those who did their very best to keep food on the table when there was no money available. The people and the families of this era survived any way they could. That is just the way things were back then. Still, some of the ways of survival were on the edge of breaking the law, so enter the Texas Rangers, men who did their best to control the lawless ways of some.
Growing up in the Frio Canyon I had always heard the tale of a place called Dead Man’s Cave and I didn’t think much of it until I got older and more curious. The story that emerged is exciting to say the least. As kids, we all hunted the cave but to this day, the exact location is still somewhat of a mystery. The caves of the Texas Hill Country can be as simple as an over-hanging shelter or as complex as a wandering cavern. They have protected animals and people from rain and bad weather and one cave in particular is the final resting place for one person. The cave in the center of this story is nothing more than a hole in the ground with a drastic drop to the floor below and on the floor below laid a skeleton. Everyone who knows the tale is convinced that the skeleton belongs to a Texas Ranger who went missing in 1893 and they know this because it is told that the skeleton is over…6 ft tall. Texas Rangers are bigger than life. However, all stories begin somewhere and I was determined to find out if this really was the ranger and why he was there.
I had been chasing down a story concerning one Robert H. “Sarge” Cummings. Some called him a master of the long loop, a cowboy term for a rustler. Everyone loved this old codger. That is, everyone but the Texas Rangers. Children were ecstatic whenever he came to their homes to visit a spell and he was a friendly sort. The kids would crawl under his chair just to spin the rowels on his spurs while he spun tales of the Wild West.
Sarge was born in Texas on March 12, 1861. His parents, Mary Elizabeth and Lawrence Cummings, struggled to keep the family going in the small Irish community of San Patricio. They had no money and very little food but neither did anyone else at the time. Lawrence died under very mysterious circumstances shortly after he returned home from fighting for the Confederacy. Some say his wife may have played a part in his demise. This left the family that much more destitute. The responsibility of helping feed the family fell on Sarge’s shoulders. This might possibly have been the beginning of all his problems. No one cared, except the people who owned the hen, if he robbed the neighbor’s hen house of the day’s eggs or maybe an old hen for the stew pot, but soon the stories began to circulate about his ways of putting food on the table. The older he got, the bigger the tales and his antics became.
After the death of Lawrence, the Cummings family began to migrate. First, in the area of Uvalde, on the Leona and eventually in the Hill Country of Texas they found a safe haven for those living on the shady side of the law. The family always stayed close together. Some lived in the area of the Dry Frio Canyon while the others lived in the neighboring Frio Canyon. The Cummings men helped everyone they could, as that was just the way it was done back then. Because of their kindness and generosity, many families made it through some hard times. Sarge had these good qualities for helping others, though his lawless ways sometimes overshadowed all his good deeds.
Sarge was a cowboy and a rancher. This experience made horse and cattle rustling an easy part-time job for him. Once Sarge and a few of his friends headed out West, planning to just round up a few of the maverick cattle running in that part of Texas. Moreover, if a few branded ones got mixed in with the bunch, well, that was okay too, in their minds, that is. They just sorta forgot that it was against the law to take these branded bovine. Cutting out the branded from the mavericks was just not in the plan that Sarge and his friends had that day.
Now a maverick is any cow or calf that does not carry a brand or earmark. There were many maverick cattle in Texas during the time of Sarge Cummings. They were there for the taking, so some thought but, many a man lost his life over a $2.00 mangy, bony, maverick cow. Many put their life in peril trying to remove a maverick from another man’s herd because to the owner of the herd, the maverick was just a cow missed at branding so the owners were out to protect their herds. Remember, times were hard and cattle were plenty.
Now Sarge probably carried one of the tools of the trade for rustlers of that era, the running iron. His plan to make the pre-branded cows his own would require a little artistic ability, a D-ring from his saddle, and a green mesquite branch. This device could convert the brand on any bovine to read as his own. Sarge would impale the mesquite branch into the D-ring, which would then allow him to control this makeshift branding iron. Thus, the running iron made its way into history.
The rustlers would just take a few cows here and a few cows there, never taking an entire herd, narrowing the chances of the cows ever being missed. This tactic worked for a while because it would take a bit for the ranchers to realize that a few cows had just vanished under questionable circumstances. Sarge’s gang would then quickly drive the newly acquired herd back to the ranch in the Dry Frio Canyon. They were quite sure that they would be home long before the Law West of the Pecos had any idea that any cattle had disappeared. But, the Texas Rangers were getting wise to the rustlers’ activities and they would be ready for this renegade outlaw gang on their next venture west.
So, when the gang again saddled up and headed out, the Rangers were waiting on them. The Rangers knew that soon the rustlers would make their move and, in the wee hours of night, Sarge decided to cut a few cows from a herd that they had located.
On this particular moonlit night, Sarge built a hot fire for the re-branding of a few of these newly acquired cows. Then, from across the arroyo, came the crack of a twig. His uncanny ability to realize when he needed to vacate the premises kicked in and plans quickly changed. The cows would just have to wait. He sauntered over to his borrowed bay mare, Connela, mounted and left hell bent for leather. He had to outrun whatever was out there and that “whatever” was probably a flock of Texas Rangers. The rest of the gang scattered safely to the winds because the Rangers wanted Sarge.
The sun was just peeking over the plains of West Texas when the hunted and the hunters neared the Pecos River. The Rangers knew that capturing Sarge was imminent. The Pecos was getting closer and the drop over the sheer rock walls would be a deadly jump, one that even Sarge could not survive. The walls surrounding the Pecos River towered hundreds of feet, but the Rangers had underestimated the antics of Sarge Cummings and Sarge was getting tired of these Rangers who would just not quit.
Panic set in and showed on Sarge’s face as he neared the edge of the deadly crevice. He remembered that the bay mare, Conella, was a surefooted horse and, with that thought, he made a hard turn toward the Pecos River High Bridge, the railroad bridge.
Sarge was riding as hard as Conella could travel and his only hope was that those persistent Texas Rangers were not as brave or as stupid as he was about to be.
He rode Conella to the edge of the bridge. After a deep breath and a prayer, he put the spurs to Conella’s already-lathered sides. The mare lowered her head, blew, and then took a nervous step. After another blow, Conella stepped again. Sarge could hear the Rangers getting closer and knew that he had to get out of rifle range soon. Conella was now feeling more confident and the urging of his spurs kept her moving forward. About halfway across the 2,180-foot long bridge, Sarge looked below. The 321-foot drop down the canyon to the Pecos River would be a long, hard fall if anything went wrong.
Sarge reached the opposite side of the bridge before he heard the first shot. He never felt so sure of himself in his entire life. He slowly turned, gave the Rangers a wave of his hat, then headed east towards home.
This little escape from the Rangers kept Sarge lying low for some time. But, soon the need for a better bull for his herd put him swinging that long loop again. The folks of Leakey, Texas were somewhat skeptical when Sarge came into town one day driving a nice looking Hereford bull.
“Sarge, where’d you find that bull?”
“Aw shucks, I picked him up about 30 miles north of here,” was Sarge’s only reply. No one dared question him any further.
Those Texas Rangers were now not only persistent, they were mad. They could not let this feller get away again. They had to come up with a better plan, one that would be foolproof.
I had just finished telling master storyteller Elmer Kelton and retired Texas Ranger Brantley Foster the story of Sarge Cummings. With a look of disdain, this former Texas Ranger leaned across the table, and with his Texas Ranger stare and a voice cold as ice said, “Well, did we catch that SOB?”
I was a little hesitant to answer, but finally got up the courage to quickly say, “No, he died of old age.”
You see, the pride of the Texas Rangers goes way back and they most always get their man but they did not get this one. Sarge Cummings managed to dodge them until the day he died.
But, back to the time of the cattle and horse rustling. After the embarrassment at the Pecos High Bridge, the Rangers were more determined than ever to rid Texas of people like Sarge. Therefore, a plan was developed. The plan the Rangers had in mind involved another man that I had been researching because I wanted to know who was in Dead Man’s Cave, never realizing his connection to Ole Sarge. It was there that the two stories merged. This man traveled with as much stealth and cunning as that Master of the long loop.
It was a day back in 1893 that a red-haired stranger rode into the town of Leakey, Texas. He did not say much, just mostly visited in the saloon and every once in a while he did ask a question that included the name of Sarge Cummings. This red-haired stranger, whose name no one knew, hung around town for a few days and then just disappeared. Folks thought that he just rode on but that was not what happened at all. What did happen has become the coldest of South Texas cold case mysteries.
Somewhere in Texas in the year of 1859, James W. Woods was born. On September 1, 1883 in Colorado City, Texas, he joined Company B of the Frontier Battalion under Captain Sam McMurray. Woods’ enlistment record noted that he was 24 years of age and stood 5 feet 11 inches tall, almost 6 feet. Most of the men who signed up to serve as a ranger were young men from large families struggling to survive. The $30.00 per month pay would be a great help to a household. Most signed up for only a few months or so, some made a career, and some finished their term, left and rejoined later. Woods served a term of about a year and a half, leaving the rangers in May of 1884.
On January 31, 1893, James W. Woods joined the Texas Rangers again at 34 years of age. This time he joined Company E under Captain John H. Rogers based out of the town of Alice, Texas. Captain Rogers probably recruited Woods and almost immediately made him a corporal. Corporal Woods traveled to the Menard area to work undercover, gathering information against the ruthless cattle rustlers in the area. The area that Woods was to cover was large and the one rustler that covered the most territory was none other than Sarge Cummings. Corporal Woods was hot on the trail of Sarge, the one who kept getting away. Sarge managed to avoid the lawmen up until this one Texas Ranger rode into the town of Leakey. It was not long after his arrival that Corporal Woods picked up the necessary information that would lead him straight to Sarge. He rode to Sarge’s ranch in the Dry Frio Canyon, a deadly mistake. Word had already reached Sarge about a red headed strange man asking questions about his whereabouts in the Leakey saloon. Sarge knew that a Ranger was on his way and he was waiting.
Sarge and his gang put an end to this inquisitive stranger that very day. In Sarge’s mind the best way to rid oneself of a nosy Texas Ranger was to hide the body and his horse in a remote cave. In the northern most part of the Dry Frio Canyon is a place that is now known as Red Hollow. On a hillside in Red Hollow is a cave marked on a topography map in faded pencil. Red Hollow is situated in the middle of Sarge Cummings territory. Another cave in question may have been on the old Miller ranch north of Leakey and this too makes sense, because the Miller ranch belonged to the brother-in-law of Sarge Cummings.
Sometime later, the Rangers jailed one of Sarge’s cronies and that feller eventually talked. He said that they killed the Ranger and his horse, and that both lay in the bottom of a cave. The Rangers believed him. He led the Rangers to the cave where they retrieved articles of clothing and human bones. The Rangers took the remains to Rocksprings for identification. The remains were identified as those of missing Texas Ranger Corporal James W. Woods. Rocksprings was the county seat at the time and, wouldn’t you know it, the courthouse burned a couple of years later and all records were lost. So following up on this lead literally went up in smoke.
Many have questioned as to why they killed the horse. My response to that is, many people were known or remembered by what they rode or drove. You are probably associated with a certain vehicle. Rangers would have recognized Woods’ horse, so Sarge wisely deposited the remains of the animal along with the Ranger in the cave. Some question as to how he would have gotten the horse in the cave if it was just a hole in the ground. Simple, lead the horse next to the hole, shoot it and, as it is going down, push it over into the abyss. For someone with a devious mind and a life to lose if captured, this worked.
What it all boils down to is that the body at the bottom of the cave is one James W. Woods. His remains are probably in an unmarked grave in Rocksprings. The closest that I will probably get to the cave is that pencil mark on the topography map.
The last record, of Woods where-abouts, in his Texas Ranger pay file read as follows:
Texas Ranger pay file.
March 1, 1899,
Woods, J. W. Ranger Company E.
Pay accts for Aug 30 & Nov 30, 1893 filed by Capt J. H. Rogers.
These pay certificates were never cashed because Woods was murdered somewhere at Ft. McKavitt and his body was never found and never heard from.”
The Officer Down Memorial Page lists the following information about James W. Woods.
End of Watch: Thursday, November 30, 1893
Age: Not available
Tour of Duty: 6 months
Badge Number: Not available
On September 1, 1883, J. W. Woods enlisted as a private in Company B under the command of Captain John H. Rogers. Pay records show Woods still enlisted in Company B as late as February 29, 1884.
On January 1, 1893, Captain John H. Rogers formed Company E and recruited J. W. Woods. Rogers’ biography reported that Woods was promoted to corporal in March 1893, but ranger pay rolls indicate he was a private during this enlistment. In the summer of 1893, the sheriff of Menard County requested assistance from the Texas Rangers with cattle thefts. Captain Rogers assigned Woods to work undercover and Woods went to work at a local ranch. In July of 1893, Woods simply vanished. His body was never recovered and no one was ever prosecuted for what the Texas Rangers determined was a murder. On November 30, 1893, the Texas Rangers declared him dead since no one had collected his pay check since July. No personal information is known about J. W. Woods at this time.
The Texas Rangers and Captain Rogers did make every attempt to find Woods. First, the Rangers searched, offered rewards, planted spies, and still nothing. One report even suggests that Woods may have deserted. Could he just have turned his back on the Ranger life and rode away? Could he have joined up with the fun loving Sarge Cummings and his gang? Could he just have escaped the clutches of this rustler gang in the dark of night to resurface again later? Or, had he really had been murdered. Murder seems to be the consensus especially after the one bad guy talked, but the 1900 census records indicate that there were three fellers by the last name of Woods alive and well. Any could have been Texas Ranger J. W. Woods. They were all three born around the same time in Texas and all showed up in this 1900 census. One even became a Federal Marshal. Could this have been former Ranger J. W. Woods resurfacing?
Whatever happened to Sarge? There is the old adage of innocent until proven guilty and the law never charged or convicted him of anything. The Rangers simply missed their dally on this long loop master.
My friend, Retired Texas Ranger, Brantley Foster, has to just unhappily live with the fact that Robert (Sarge) Cummings was the one that just got away. Sarge lived a long, exciting life. He built his final loop on February 12, 1923. They laid him to rest in the Vanderpool Cemetery in the Vanderpool, Texas community.
Linda Kirkpatrick is a ranch real estate agent, author and Texas Hill Country historian