Sunday, August 28, 2016

Gus Raney and the Smell of Death

Smell of death
Gus Raney
La Ultima
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
            Gus Raney was long part of our family verbal history.
He would arrive during those nighttime sessions when the thunder would rattle the windows, rattlesnakes would be a certain feature, memories were retold of crazy women in abandoned cabins sitting up in the rafters watching cowboys light fires to dry out and get warm, and lightning stories were in the offing. It was when television wasn’t even part of our culture. We kids would sit on the edge of our seats in great anticipation listening to the elders. The suspense was infectious and intense. We could have set off in full stampede with a simple “boo”.
            Gus stories were always spooky. He was the villain of villains. Most of us never laid eyes on him, but we were scared to death of him. He was gone from our area before those “kids” were born, but stories of his life would suggest such fears were warranted.
            Gus Raney
 The more finite details of Gus’ life will be left to writer Richard Melzer who is doing a series on the crusty legend. Only the verbal history that I know will be dealt with this morning, but perhaps it adds an interesting corollary to Melzer’s two part series.
            About 2000, I met a descendent of Gus who worked at the Physical Laboratory at NMSU. In our discussion, he suggested Gus actually came to Grant County with a contract by a mining operation to rid the country of claim jumpers. Whether true or not Gus’ demeanor was suggestive that he would have been good at such a mission.
            A common theme in all stories was that he had either succeeded in killing somebody or he was discussing the threat of same.
            The Raney family settled at Cliff, New Mexico and lived at or just above the potholes in Davis Canyon. Prevailing accounts had the family living in a tent and or a cave. The children of Gus and Sugarfoot Raney were known to the Cliff community as Ethel, Hale, Sleet, and Snow (contemporary children of Cliff knew Orville as Snow).
The story starts in a dispute over a horse. In the days of the Depression, there were still a number of wild horses that ran in the Davis Canyon country. From those mustangs, many local families acquired saddle horses. It was there the McMillans moved their ranch horses in the spring of either 1932 or 1933 to avoid a loco weed outbreak up the Mangus to the east.
            Immediately, they started having trouble with a stud horse that was running in the canyon and playing havoc with the remuda. He was known to be owned by Gus. Having dealt with that particular horse too many times without a response from the Raneys, Tom McCauley and my grandfather, Albert Wilmeth, roped the horse and castrated him.
            Gus was then in prison serving a sentence for murdering another man, but the news of the castration was relayed to him by Sugarfoot. Never one to worry about good behavior, he announced from his cell he was going to kill Tom and Albert upon his release from prison for the castration of his horse.
            Giving credence to the possibility he was employed on the sly by an influential mining operation, Gus was paroled in 1934 after serving only 22 months and 22 days for the killing. As it happened, the McMillans and the McCauleys were both shipping cattle at Silver City the day Gus rode the train back into town. Tom and Grampa were both there when Gus stepped off. Tom was driving a new Chevy and pulled over and asked Gus if he needed a ride home.
            One account of the incident suggested one of them mentioned that if there was going to be another killing they might as well get on with it.
            The other account suggested not a single word was mentioned of the castration (or the unfortunate and untimely death of horse in the aftermath) or the death threat from the jail cell. In this latter version, Gus was a subdued gentleman all the way home.
The trip to Cliff wasn’t without incident, though, by the account of Tom’s son, Freddie. Freddie was seated between his father and Gus and had been thinking about the death threat from the time he saw Gus at the rail station. He just knew when they started across the old steel bridge at Riverside Gus was going to grab him and throw him into the river!
He was crowding his father to the point Tom asked him, “What in the Sam Hill is wrong with you?”
            At five years old, all death threats were terrifying.
            Freddie also remembered Gus’ eyes and he spoke about them repeatedly through his life. As an old man, he told me he woke up many times in his childhood in the midst of a nightmare seeing Gus and those eyes were glaring at him. He thought it started from the time he and his dad had ridden up on Gus at the head of a canyon and he had confronted them with a gun. What had Gus on the prod was the statement Tom had made about the theft of a big roll of rope. Gus claimed that Tom had cussed him without cause and he was going to even the score. His eyes were glaring at them like a wild man, a savage, or an animal on a desperate hunt. They matched the muzzle of the gun pointing in their direction.
            The apparent score in the maniacal view of Gus Raney was to kill Tom McCauley for calling him a son-of-a-bitch. Tom suggested to Gus that is not what he had said, and, in fact, he had clearly restated what he did say.
“I said whoever stole that rope from me is a son-of-a-bitch,” Tom said coolly. “Furthermore, I don’t think this better go any further because there will be hell to pay.”
            What caught Gus’ attention was the six inch Stillson wrench that Tom always carried in his leggins’ pocket. When the confrontation reached crescendo pitch, Tom had poked the end of the wrench against his chap pocket making it appear that he had a loaded pistol in the pocket.
            “Now, Tom, you and I have no issue here at all,” Freddie remembers Gus saying in a tone change with all anger and threats gone.
            “I didn’t think so, Gus,” Tom concluded.
            As they turned and rode away, Tom told Freddie not to look back and to act like nothing happened. Freddie suggested they should “fly” and get out of there, but Tom reminded him that is exactly what they were not going to do.
            There was little doubt, though, who the culprit was in the rope theft.
            La Ultima
            The death of Hale and Snow was a deflowering ebb in the life of Gus Raney. People who knew those boys talked in awe of their toughness. Like too many families in the Depression, the needs and wants of children were not the highest priority. The Raney children were normally barefooted, but that didn’t stop them from astounding feats of physical endurance. The wild horses of the Davis country represented opportunities of income and they became mustangers. Their method of capture was to relay those horses on foot until they could trap them. They were known to do it in bare feet in the rough malpais of the Davis watershed. They were tough and they weren’t easily prone to take stupid chances much less put themselves into a situation that was life threatening.
            Their deaths, therefore, sparked questions. The prevailing story in the Cliff community was that one of them had drowned swimming in a tank and the other had drowned trying to save him. Those that knew Gus came to believe Gus had killed one of them and had to kill the other to keep him quiet. He had thrown them both in the tank to make it appear they had drowned.
            The bizarre only got more bizarre when Gus decided he needed to have a picture taken with the boys. He dressed up and stood between his dead sons propping them up for the photographer to take the picture.
            Gus spent the rest of his life near Grants, New Mexico spreading his own fame by continuing to polish his bad guy persona. He killed several more men before he died at an unknown age made more confusing by the various dates he claimed he was born.
            In the end, the only thing that was certain about Gus Raney was … the smell of death.

            Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Two copies of the pictures of Gus and his two dead sons were rumored to exist in Cliff. One was supposed to be in the McCauley collection and the other from the collection of Lorena Terman Moss Lewis, my great grandmother. I saw neither.”

 Part 1 of Melzer's 2-part series can be viewed here.  Part 2 will be published on Sept. 8.

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