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August 7th, 2012
Bartee Haile: Texas cowboys go on New Mexico crime spree

EDITOR’s NOTE: We inadvertently did not publish Bartee Haile’s This Week in Texas History column this week. Today we are running two to make up for it.

This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

All the High Fives Gang had to show on Aug. 6, 1896 for the comedy of errors they had the nerve to call a bank robbery was the posse hot on their heels.

A century or more ago, little boys dreamed of running away from home to join the circus, and big boys fancied themselves footloose highwaymen living off the fat of the land. Sick and tired of roping and branding for starvation wages, five cowboys with Texas ties decided to give crime a try.

As far as anyone can tell, the original members of the band that borrowed the name of a popular card game were: Tom Harris, a 24 year old Texan whose favorite alias was Cole Estes; George Musgrave, 22, born somewhere in Texas but raised in New Mexico; escaped convict Sam Hassels of Gonzales County, who went by the name Bob Hayes; Will Christian Jr., originally from Fort Griffin and an Indian Territory fugitive, known simply as Black Jack; and Tom or Frank Anderson, who may have been Will’s brother Bob.

The High Fives started out small with a twilight raid in July 1896 on Separ, a one-horse town in the southwestern corner of the New Mexico Territory. They relieved the post office and general store of $250 in cash and supplies without firing a shot.

Convinced they had the bandit business down pat, the overconfident amateurs raised the ante and the risk. At high noon on the sixth of August, the gang tried to break the bank at the Arizona border town of Nogales.

Musgrave, Hayes and an unidentified accomplice entered the bank, while the two remaining robbers stood guard outside. Musgrave was collecting the paper currency, when the bank president suddenly broke free and the cashier came up with a gun.

Hayes and the anonymous participant followed the president out the front door leaving Musgrave holding the bag. He slipped out the back but tripped over the threshold falling hard on his right knee and spilling the cash on the ground. The clumsy criminal limped to his horse and galloped away empty-handed.

Two county sheriffs combined forces to chase the bumbling badmen across 120 miles of scorching desert. The High Fives discouraged further pursuit with a canyon ambush that took the life of a customs agent.

The quintet came out of hiding two months later for the purpose of plundering a passenger train 30 miles south of Albuquerque. The railroad robbery was foiled by a deputy U.S. marshal, who caught Cole Estes in his sights.

“Go ahead, boys. I’m done for,” Estes called out in the darkness. His four companions heeded their mortally wounded leader’s dying words and fled the scene.

With Will Christian, alias Black Jack, at the controls, the desperadoes finally got out of the red. The stagecoaches running between San Antonio, New Mexico and the mining town of White Oaks were such easy pickings the gang kept going back for more.

The fourth stage stick-up in two weeks was pulled by Black Jack and Anderson. They casually inquired about the contents of the express box and took the driver’s word that it was empty. Their blind trust cost them $2,000 in silver bullion.

George Musgrave was absent because two days earlier he had settled a personal score. Returning to the Circle Diamond Ranch south of Roswell, he chewed the fat with former co-workers until the cattle boss showed.

“I have come all this way across this territory to kill you,” Musgrave told George Parker as he drew his pistol, “and now I’m going to do it.” Without another word he pumped four bullets into his tongue-tied target.

Sam Hassels, a.k.a. Bob Hayes, held the dozen and a half witnesses at gunpoint, while Musgrave explained his motive. He claimed the dead man not only sicked the law on him for his own crimes but also swindled his poor old mother out of her herd.

Before the foursome reunited, two again called on Separ, scene of the gang’s original robbery. Going from building to building, they took only cash and easily carried valuables before forcing the victims to join the parade.

The entire population of 13 wound up at the saloon, where the bandits ordered drinks all around. Each hostage was permitted to walk to the bar, take a drink and return to his place in line. After everyone had wet his whistle, the mischief-makers marched them single file to the edge of town before finally taking their leave.

The four-month crime spree ended on Nov. 17, 1896 with the death of Sam Hassels at the hands of a lucky posse. The three survivors wisely went their separate ways.

Will Christian, still using the fake name Black Jack, came back from Mexico the following March with a new gang. He lasted six short weeks.

The final chapter in the High Fives story was written in 1910. George Musgrave was recognized on a street in Grand Junction, Colorado and brought back to Roswell to stand trial for the murder of George Parker.

Musgrave swore he shot in self-defense, and no eyewitness could be found to contradict him. He was acquitted and lived to celebrate the Allied victory in World War II.


Visit BARTEE HAILE’s “General Store” at twith.com or request list of “Best of This Week in Texas History” collections at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549.

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