The Secrets of Dead Man’s Cave
By Linda Kirkpatrick
This is a story of two men whose lives entwined in an unusual way. The story is part history and part folklore.
The story begins with Robert H. “Sarge” Cummings. Some called him a master of the long loop, a cowboy term for a rustler. Everyone loved him, except the Texas Rangers. Children would crawl under his chair to spin the rowels on his spurs, while he spun tales of the Wild West.
Sarge was born on March 12, 1861 in Texas. His parents, Mary Elizabeth and Lawrence Cummings, struggled in the small Irish community of San Patricio, Texas. They had no money and very little food but neither did anyone else. The Cummings family became more destitute after the mysterious death of Lawrence, after he returned from the Civil War. The responsibility of the family fell on Sarge’s shoulders. This might possibly have been the beginning of all his problems. No one cared if he robbed a hen house or took a hen for the stew pot. Stories soon circulated about Sarge and his ways of putting food on the table. As he got older, the stories and his antics got bigger.
The Cummings family then migrated to the Hill Country of Texas. The family always stayed close. Some lived in the area of the Dry Frio Canyon while the others lived in the neighboring Frio Canyon. The Cummings men helped not only their extended families, but also, any of the settlers in the area. Many families made it through because of these men. They were good men, sometimes though their lawless ways overshadowed the good deeds.
Sarge’s cowboy experience made horse and cattle rustling an easy part-time job. One story tells about Sarge and a few of his friends heading out to west Texas, planning to just round up a few of the maverick cattle in that vast area. They ignored the branded cows within those herds because cutting out the branded from the mavericks took too much time.
A maverick is any cow or calf that does not carry a brand or earmark. There were many maverick cattle in Texas during this time. Some thought the mavericks were there for the taking. However, many a man lost his life over a $2.00 mangy, bony, maverick cow. The owner of the herd considered the maverick just a cow missed at branding while Sarge thought otherwise.
One of the tools of the trade for rustlers was the running iron. Sarge’s plan included a running iron and with artistic flare, the pre-branded cows became his own. The running iron made its way into history as it converted brands all across Texas. Sarge and his gang would just take a few cows here from a 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 were not there. By the time the cows were missed, Sarge and the new herd were back at the ranch in the Dry Frio Canyon. But, the Texas Rangers were getting wise to these rustlers. They hatched a plan for Sarge’s next visit and they didn’t have to wait long.
In the wee hours of a West Texas night, Sarge decided to cut a few cows from a herd that they had located. The Rangers were waiting.
The full moon cast an eerie glow with just enough light to aid the rustlers. Sarge built a hot fire specifically for the re-branding of a few of the newly acquired cows. From across the arroyo, came the crack of a twig. Sarge’s 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 nonchalantly walked over to his borrowed bay mare, mounted and left hell bent for leather. He had to outrun whatever was out there and that “whatever” was the flock of Texas Rangers. The gang scattered safely to the winds, as the Rangers only wanted Sarge.
The sun was just peeking over the plains when Sarge neared the Pecos River with the Rangers in hot pursuit. The walls surrounding the Pecos River towered hundreds of feet, the drop over the sheer rock walls would be a deadly jump, one that even Sarge could not survive. The Rangers felt confident that Sarge was almost theirs but they underestimated Sarge Cummings.
Panic showed on Sarge’s face as he neared the edge of the deadly crevice. The horse was surefooted and, with that thought, he made a hard turn toward the Pecos River High Bridge.
Pecos River High Bridge
The Pecos River Viaduct, built in 1893, was the second railway crossing constructed over the Pecos River. Sarge was riding hard, his only hope was that those persistent Texas Rangers were not as brave or as stupid as he was about to be.
Sarge rode to the edge of the bridge. After a deep breath and a prayer, he put the spurs to lathered sides of the mare. She lowered her head, blew, and then took a nervous step. Sarge could hear the Rangers getting closer and knew that he had to get out of rifle range and soon. The horse felt confident and with the urging of the spurs she kept moving forward. About halfway across the 2,180-foot long bridge, Sarge looked below. It was a scary 321-foot drop down to the Pecos River. It would be a long fall if anything went wrong.
He reached the opposite side of the bridge before he heard the first shot. Smugly, he turned, gave the Rangers a wave of his hat, and then headed east towards his home in the Dry Frio Canyon.
This little escape from the Rangers kept Sarge lying low for some time. The folks of Leakey, Texas were somewhat skeptical when Sarge came into town one day driving a nice looking Hereford bull. When asked where he bought the bull, he only replied that he found him north of here and no one questioned him further.
After the embarrassment at the Pecos High Bridge, the Rangers were mad and more determined than ever to rid Texas of people like Sarge. The new plan involved a man with as much stealth as Sarge.
In the 1880s, local lore tells of a red-haired stranger who rode into the town of Leakey, Texas. He did not say much but he did ask a few questions. One of those questions probably had the name of Sarge Cummings in it. This stranger 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.
Somewhere in Texas in the year of 1859, James W. Woods was born. On September 1, 1883, James Woods joined Company B, Frontier Battalion under Captain Sam McMurray. Woods’ record noted that he was 24 years of age and stood 5 feet 11 inches tall. 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. This time he joined Company E under Captain John H. Rogers. Captain Rogers had recruited Woods and almost immediately made him Corporal Woods. He worked 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 Cummings. Things changed when this Texas Ranger rode into Leakey, Texas. Corporal Woods picked up the information that took him straight to Sarge. The Ranger rode to Sarge’s ranch in the Dry Frio Canyon, a deadly mistake. Word had already reached Sarge about a strange man asking questions about his whereabouts. Sarge knew that a Ranger was on his way and he was waiting.
Now the above may be partially folklore because in new discoveries, Sheriff Baylor of Uvalde wrote to the Leader News “…some man had met Woods on a train and told him he knew where there was a bunch of stolen horses.” Could that man have been Sarge? Now this version of the story states that the “man” “…captured Woods, loaded him in a wagon and took him to the headwaters of the Dry Frio and killed him.” Then instead of a cave, they covered the body with brush and rocks in a ravine. However the cave may still be correct, read on!
Bits of various stories tell that Sarge was responsible for the death of Ranger Woods and that he put the dead Ranger and his horse in a cave located in Red Hollow in the Dry Frio Canyon. All of these scenarios may be folklore. It all could have happened that way but did it?
Baylor’s story and folklore agree that later, the Rangers had jailed one of Sarge’s gang members and that gang member eventually talked. The Rangers and sheriffs were diligently searching for Woods. Baylor wrote that the informant was in the penitentiary and Baylor wanted him released to help in locating the place where Woods’s body could be found. The informant did not get released but he did send a map. No body was found but the informant said that just maybe the body was moved.
Years later, Baylor wrote that a skull, leg bone, boot and spur had been found in a cave about ten miles from where the map indicated. So could this second place been the actual “Dead Man’s Cave?” The Rangers took the remains to Rocksprings for identification. Sherriff Baylor went to Rocksprings and identified the remains as those of missing Texas Ranger Corporal James W. Woods. The courthouse in Rocksprings burned a couple of years later and all records pertaining to this incident literally went up in smoke.
What it all boils down to is that the body at the bottom of a cave is one James W. Woods. Where his remains are now, no one knows for sure. Where the cave is located, no one knows for sure.
The last official Texas Ranger pay file record for Woods indicates the following, “March 1, 1899, These pay certificates were never cashed because Woods was murdered somewhere at Ft. McKavitt and his body was never found and never heard from.”
Sarge Cummings managed to dodge the Rangers until the day he died. There is the old adage of “innocent until proven guilty.” The Rangers never charged or convicted him of anything. Sarge built his final loop on February 12, 1923. They laid him to rest in the Vanderpool Cemetery at Vanderpool, Texas.
Linda Kirkpatrick is an author and cowboy poet, known for her writings on local and area history, including a regular newspaper column and contributor to the Hill Country Visitors Guide. She has been an invited poet at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nv. and is a regular at the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas. Among her books are Somewhere in the West, Tales from the Frio Canyon, and a forthcoming book about the John Leakey family and the settlement of Leakey and the Frio Canyon.
Somewhere in the West can be purchased directly from Linda @ P.O. Box 128, Leakey, Texas 78873 for $20.00 shipping & taxes included
Tales of the Frio Canyon can be purchased for $20 from Linda or
Her poetry can be read at