This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Clutching the telegram with the news of a brother Ranger’s murder, John R. Hughes marched into the Marfa office of his commander on Apr. 17, 1889 and announced through clenched teeth, “I want to go after Parra.”
“Parra” was Geronimo Parra, a bandit leader well-known to lawmen on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Earlier that day in a mountain pass north of El Paso, the outlaw had ambushed Ranger Sgt. Charles Fusselman and killed him with a rifle shot to the head.
Fusselman had befriended the younger Hughes soon after he joined the frontier corps less than two years before. The corporal was determined to avenge the death of a close comrade who wore the same badge.
Capt. Frank Jones knew better than to try to talk Hughes out of his grim quest. All he said was, “You’ve just got time to catch the El Paso train.”
Corp. Hughes spent week after week searching for any sign of Parra and his gang. Riding as far north as the southeastern section of the New Mexico Territory and west into Chihuahua and Sonora in “Old” Mexico, he failed to pick up the killer’s trail before finally being ordered back to Marfa.
Hughes obeyed and returned to his duties but kept on looking for the murderer of Charles Fusselman. He paid informants out of his own pocket for clues, no matter how iffy, to the whereabouts of Geronimo Parra but never quite caught up with him.
Hughes advanced steadily in rank until he was promoted to captain following the in-the-line-of-duty death of Frank Jones in 1893. Nevertheless, his enhanced authority made little difference in his relentless pursuit of Parra.
Then in 1899 he got lucky at last. A deputy sheriff in New Mexico wrote to tell him that a burglar he arrested under the name “Juan Flores” was none other than Geronimo Parra. And the Texan would have no trouble finding him because he was doing a seven-year stretch in the territorial prison.
As quickly as he could, the elated Ranger forwarded an official request for Parra’s immediate extradition to the governor’s office. The paperwork was processed, and in a month or two New Mexico agreed to surrender the wanted man to the State of Texas.
But at that point the wheels of justice ground to a halt. The warden at the territorial penitentiary came up with one excuse after another for maintaining custody of Parra, an infuriating reluctance to comply with the extradition order that smelled of corruption.
Hughes had run out of legal options, when Pat Garrett stopped by his camp at Ysleta south of El Paso. The frustrated Ranger poured out his heart to the visitor ending with a plea that was a statement of fact: “Pat, you’re the one man who can get me Parra.”
The two may have been friends, but the killer of Billy the Kid never did something for nothing. It just so happened, however, that a fugitive named Agnew wanted for murder in New Mexico was believed to be hiding somewhere in western Texas.
“You get him for me,” Garrett said, “and I’ll get you Parra.”
All Hughes had to go on was that Agnew was a giant of a man, who packed two pistols and was missing the tip of the pinky finger on his left hand. No one was more surprised than the Ranger captain, when he found Agnew on a borderland ranch and captured him without firing a shot.
From Texas’ westernmost town, Hughes wired Garrett, “Holding Agnew in El Paso. Bring me Parra.” Garrett promptly collected his prize, delivered him to the Las Cruces sheriff and headed north to Santa Fe.
How Pat Garrett persuaded the heel-dragging warden to give up Parra is unclear. What matters is that the New Mexico lawman with the checkered past kept his promise to the Texas Ranger with a much cleaner reputation.
A decade after his despicable deed, Geronimo Parra was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. His execution was scheduled for the fifth day of the brand-new century.
A hundred invitation-only witnesses, including the Ranger captain with the personal interest, were in their seats and waiting for the first of two gallows guests. A lady-killer, who hacked a young woman to pieces for rejecting his marriage proposal, stepped onto the trapdoor located on the third floor of the jail. Moments later, he dropped to his doom ending up at eye-level with spectators on the second level.
Either the jail was on a tight budget or someone forgot to bring a second rope. It took 20 minutes to lift the lifeless body back up through the open trapdoor and to remove the noose for the second act.
Had he known the grisly fate that awaited him, Geronimo Parra might not have gone so calmly to his death. When he hit the end of the rope, the noose tore open his throat spraying the first row of spectators with blood.
With his old friend now able to rest easy in his grave, Capt. John Hughes went on with his life retiring in 1915 as the longest serving Ranger of that era. Thirty-two years later at the age of 92, he decided he had lived long enough and took his own life.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at email@example.com or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.