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Texas | Columns | Somewhere in the West

Sarge Cummings

Master of the Long Loop

by Linda Kirkpatrick

Robert H. “Sarge” Cummings was known as a master of the long loop, a cowboy term for rustler. This old coot was loved by all, except for maybe the Texas Rangers. Children were ecstatic whenever he came to visit a spell. Some would crawl under his chair just to spin the rowels on his spurs as he spun tales of the wild west.

Sarge was born in Texas on March 12, 1861. His parents, Mary Elizabeth Torrence and Lawrence Cummings, struggled to keep the family going in the small Irish community of San Patricio, Texas. They had no money and very little food. Lawrence died of mysterious circumstances shortly after he returned home from fighting for the Confederacy. This left the family that much more destitute. The responsibility of helping feed everyone fell on Sarge’s shoulders and was perhaps the beginning of his downfall. Stories began to be told about Sarge and some of these stories are still shrouded in mystery.

The family migrated and eventually settled in the hill country of Texas. 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 did everything that they could to help the early settlers of the Dry Frio Canyon. Because of their kindness and generosity many families made it through some pretty hard times. But Sarge on the other hand was a different story.

Sarge was a cowboy and rancher. This experience made horse and cattle rustling an easy part-time job for him. Once upon a time, Sarge and a few of his outlaw friends headed out west. Their plan was to just round up a few of the maverick cattle and if a few branded ones got mixed in, well that was ok. They just forgot that it was against the law to take these branded bovine and cutting them out was just not in the plan.

Now ole Sarge probably carried one of the tools of the trade for rustlers of that era, the running iron. His plan for the pre-branded cows 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.

The gang would just take a few cows here and a few cows there, never taking the entire herd thus narrowing the chances that the cows would be missed. This tactic worked for awhile because it would take a bit for the ranchers to realize that a few cows had vanished. 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. The Texas Rangers were getting wise to the rustler’s ways and they would be ready for this renegade outlaw gang on their next venture west.

Soon the gang was westward bound with the rangers hot on their trail. The rangers knew that soon the rustlers would make their move. It was late one night when Sarge decided to just cut a few cows from a herd.

On this particular moon light night, as Sarge was building a hot fire for the re-branding of a few of these newly acquired cows, that he was alerted by the crack of a twig from the other side of the arroyo. His uncanny ability to realize when he needed to vacate the premises kicked in and plans quickly changed. 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 probably a herd of Texas Rangers. The rest of the gang scattered to the wind but 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 capture was imminent. They knew that the Pecos was getting closer and the drop over the shear rock walls would be deadly. The walls surrounding the Pecos River towered hundreds of feet, but the Rangers underestimated the antics of Sarge Cummings.

There was just a little bit of panic on Sarge’s face as he neared the edge of the deadly crevice. Then he had an idea. He remembered that the bay mare, Conella, was a sure footed horse and with that thought he made a hard turn towards the Pecos River High Bridge. The Pecos River Viaduct was built in 1893 and was the second railway crossing constructed over the Pecos River. This particular bridge was later replaced by a bridge that could support the weight of the newer trains. 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.

Old Pecos River High Bridge Texas
The Old Pecos River High Bridge
Postcard courtesy Linda Kirkpatrick

Sarge rode Conella to the edge of the bridge. After a deep breath, he put the spurs to her 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. Conella was now feeling more confident and the urging of the spurs kept her moving forward. About half way across the 2,180 foot long bridge, Sarge looked below. It was a scary 321 foot drop down the canyon to the Pecos River.

He reached the opposite side of the bridge before he heard the first shot. Sarge never felt so sure of himself in his entire life. He slowly turned, gave the rangers a wave 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 newly acquired herd put him swinging that long loop again. The folks of Leakey were somewhat skeptical when Sarge came into town driving a nice looking Hereford bull. “Sarge, where’d you find that bull?”

“Aw shucks, I picked him up about 300 miles north of here,” was Sarge’s only reply. No one dared question him anymore.

But those Texas Rangers were persistent. They could not let this scoundrel get away again and so they put into action another devious plan. One that they were convinced was fool proof, but like your favorite television series….this is the cliffhanger. Keep checking Mike Cox’s Texas Tales column for the rest of the story.
© Linda Kirkpatrick
Somewhere in the West June 30, 2007 Column

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