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A poacher &
two lawmen in the Thicket

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Back in the early 1920s, a dead squirrel was as negotiable as coins or paper money in the Big Thicket.

And given his prowess with a rifle, Sim Collins knew he'd never go hungry. Sure, the law might catch up with him some day, but if he had his Winchester with him, he didn't figure on going to jail.

Born Jan. 29, 1875, Collins grew up in the thicket. As Joe Richards recalled in "Another Keechi Kreak," his second book of recollections, Collins knew the Thicket "from top to bottom, inside out and wrong side up.

Having come to manhood in a stand of timber where deer, turkey, squirrel and even mountain lions and black bears were plentiful, Sims had learned to put a bullet where he wanted it to go. A friendly merchant in Livingston would accept a squirrel, or a mess of them, from Collins in exchange for staples. Most of the squirrels tendered as "currency" would have been hit in their eye with a .22 round so as not to damage any meat.

According to Richards, one day the merchant was taken aback when Collins brought in a squirrel that had its left front leg missing. While a human might have survived such a wound, the squirrel had not. When the merchant chided his customer for missing his standard eye shot, Collins replied, clearly affronted: "That's all I could see!"

No matter a man's proficiency with a rifle, the law's the law. Collins did something that resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest and the Polk County sheriff's office knew they had to bring him in from the Thicket. But they also realized how well Collins knew the Thicket. The only reasonable way to find him would be through a snitch.

Someone had been taking the wanted man supplies from town, and that someone began to get nervous that he could go to jail for harboring a criminal. His reluctance to give up a friend watered down by a decided lack of interest in going to jail, the man finally went to Sheriff John McCloud to report Collins' whereabouts.

The sheriff turned to two of his best deputies, both future Texas Rangers, to lead a posse to go after Collins. One was Roscoe Holiday, who later served as Polk County sheriff before joining the Rangers. The other was Hardy Purvis, who would rise through the Rangers to the rank of captain. His son one day also would wear the cinco peso Ranger badge.

The two lawmen and other officers approached Sims' hiding place after dark. As they moved quietly toward him through the timber, they could see him sitting cross-legged next to a campfire, his rifle in his lap.

"Get 'em up, Sim, we've got you covered," Purvis yelled.

Before saying anything, Purvis had dropped to one knee and sighted his rifle on Collins. Holiday and the other officers also had the man in their sights.

Collins, of course, had no intention of surrendering. Other officers in the posse later said it sounded like only one rifle went off, but Purvis reacted so quickly when Collins raised his rifle and fired that he pulled the trigger at almost the same moment.

Both men had well-deserved reputations as dead shots, but both men missed, at least in a manner of speaking. Collins' bullet hit Purvis in his leg above his knee and exited near his hip. Purvis's slug, surely intended for Collins' heart, slammed into the right side of his chest, just missing the vital organ. Though seriously wounded, it didn't stop Collins from shooting at the officers until he emptied his rifle.

Meanwhile, a couple more bullets hit the gunman, neither where they needed to be to put him down for good. In fact, when the lawmen ran up to him, Collins was struggling to get his pistol out of its holster.

No matter that he had three bullets in him, Collins survived the shootout. So did Purvis, though his wound left him with a slight limp for the rest of his life.

Purvis went on to join the Rangers in 1927 and served until 1933. He rejoined the law enforcement agency two years later and wore the Ranger badge until his 1956 retirement. At the time, he was a captain stationed in Houston. He died in 1961.

The excellent squirrel hunter but so-so gunfighter who gave Purvis his lasting limp got convicted and sent to Huntsville. No matter that he'd shot a peace officer, Collins time in the joint lasted only until the election of Gov. Miriam "Ma" Ferguson. She pardoned him along with hundreds of other felons.

Collins lived until May 9, 1951. He's buried in Peeble's Cemetery in Polk County. In the same cemetery, not far away, rests the lawman who wouldn't have become a ranger if Collins had gotten off a better shot that distant night in the Big Thicket.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 29, 2016

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