William Polk Rayner was a dandy. A tall man with jet-black eyes and hair, he cut a dashing figure in old El Paso in his black Prince Albert coat and gray pin-striped pants pulled over fancy Mexican boots. Wearing a broad-brimmed hat or a high silk topper, he was a familiar sight on the streets and in the gambling halls. ‘The best dressed badman in Texas was considered one of the handsomest men in El Paso. He sat a horse like a true equestrian and spent much of his time horseback riding with some of the finest ladies in El Paso society. He was affable, educated, entertaining, apparently affluent and generally respected.
He was, after all, a man with the credentials of a gentleman. His father, Kenneth Rayner, was an eminent North Carolina planter with a distinguished record as both public servant and agriculturist. A man of undoubted ability, Kenneth Rayner entered politics in the 1820s as a Jacksonian Democrat. He served in the North Carolina legislature and spent six years in the U.S. Congress. His political interests moved him into the Whig Party, where he came very close to being nominated for vice president in 1848. But Rayner’s career in Congress was stormy. Although he rarely spoke on the floor of the House, when he did he commanded attention with his eloquence and fire. He had a volatile temper, was frequently embroiled in quarrels, and once got into a fistfight with a colleague from North Carolina in the House chamber.
At first a Unionist, he switched his loyalties in 1860 and supported secession. He was not happy with Jefferson Davis, however, and secretly became involved in a Southern peace movement in 1863. After the war ended, he supported Andrew Johnson and even wrote an anonymous biography of him in 1866. In 1869, he moved his family to Tennessee and four years later to Mississippi, where he owned plantations. An attorney by training, though he had never practiced law, he was nominated to the Mississippi Supreme Court the same year he arrived in the state, and the next year, despite Rayner’s opposition to Reconstruction, President U.S. Grant named him a judge of the CSS Alabama Claims Commission. In 1877, he became solicitor of the treasury and held that post until he died.
Kenneth Rayner enjoyed the reputation of a warm-hearted, capable and honorable man, but he remained volatile and impulsive to the point of instability in the minds of many. In these respects, at least, Will Rayner was a lot like his father. Family connections opened doors for the dapper newcomer to Texas and might well have ensured his success. His father’s political connections may have enabled Will Rayner to secure the position of customs collector at Clinton, Texas, where he remained for a time. But once on his own, the younger Rayner developed a taste for the rougher side of frontier life. He reportedly worked as a Texas Ranger and a peace officer elsewhere in Texas before he showed up in El Paso about 1882. Rumor had it he had killed a man in Fort Worth.
Whatever the truth about his peregrinations, Rayner was reputed to be an expert with both rifle and revolver. In 1882, he joined the El Paso police force under James B. Gillette and cultivated the friendship of Assistant Marshal Edward Scotten. Rayner’s brother Hamilton joined him for a while at El Paso. In March 1884, Judge Rayner died, and apparently the boys’ mother joined them in Texas. Later that spring, Ham Rayner took the marshal’s job in Hunnewell, Kan. Ed Scotten followed him to Hunnewell as assistant marshal, and when Scotten was killed and Ham Rayner wounded in a gunfight with cowboys there in August 1884, Will Rayner and Frank Scotten hurried to Hunnewell to take up the fight. Things were quiet by the time they arrived, and the Rayners soon returned to El Paso.
No longer a peace officer, Rayner tried his hand at gambling. He was a familiar sight on the El Paso sporting scene, eventually taking a job as a dealer at the Gem Saloon, an upscale gambling emporium and theater operated by George Look and J.J. Taylor. Off duty, he courted El Paso’s ladies and charmed a certain element that was impressed by his bravado and cocky good humor.
But Rayner had a dark side. He had an officious manner and frequently butted into matters that were none of his business. More troubling, he imagined himself a Southern gentleman and a dangerous man with a gun. When drinking, his confidence turned to braggadocio. Drunk, he inevitably looked for a fight. On at least two occasions, he was arrested for assault while drinking. The problem was serious enough that he tried to deal with it, and for a time he stayed sober. But many local citizens still gave him a wide berth, and on the night of April 14, 1885, their worst fears came true.
El Paso was still a wide-open town despite its size, and it enjoyed a reputation for fast living. Its proximity to the Mexican border and Paso Del Norte (now Juarez) made it a haven for hard cases and ne’er-do-wells. Early in 1885, a local peace officer was killed in one of the many brothels, and the accused were transferred to Presidio County for trial on a change of venue. The trial required the presence of both El Paso’s marshal, Sam Boring, and the county sheriff, J.H. White, as well as most of El Paso County’s law enforcement officers. On the evening of April 14, the only lawman in El Paso was a jailer named Charles M. Buck Linn. Linn was a former Texas Ranger and a friend of Will Rayner’s. He was generally well behaved but, like Rayner, had a mean disposition when drinking. That night he was drunk.
Linn was nursing a grudge against a man named Sam Gillespie who had voiced the opinion around town that Linn should be indicted by the grand jury for beating a prisoner in his charge. Drunk and informed of Gillespie’s remark, Linn sent word to Gillespie that he intended to kill him. Gillespie was game. He armed himself, and when Linn appeared he wasted no time pulling his pistol in full view of the intoxicated jailer. Linn quietly withdrew, sobered enough by the sight to have second thoughts, and disappeared into the Gem Saloon, where he met Rayner. The two men were soon touring the town’s saloons, drinking heavily and making a nuisance of themselves wherever they went.
Near midnight, Rayner and Linn returned to the Gem. At some point in the evening, Rayner had learned that a man named Harry Williams, who fancied himself a bad man, had just arrived in town. When Rayner and Linn entered the Gem, Rayner waved his pistol and shouted: I hear a fighting man named Harry Williams came to town today. Where is he? I will make the damn bluffer wade the Rio Grande! George Look noticed the boisterous behavior of the pair and mentioned it to his partner, J.J. Taylor, with the remark that they were likely to have trouble with Rayner.
Look sought out Tom Ashton, a friend of Williams and a well-known confidence man, and warned him to keep Williams out of the way until Rayner sobered up. At first, Ashton nonchalantly remarked: Let them go at it. I don’t care. But he kept Williams in his room that night. Look and Taylor watched Rayner and Linn for a few minutes, then walked into the theater, which was filled with black soldiers from the 10th Cavalry who were passing through El Paso en route to Arizona. Look and Taylor sat down near the back of the theater, and had been there only a few minutes when Rayner strolled in, drew his revolver, waved it over his head, and shouted, Where is that SOB who came to town tonight?
Rayner’s display caused quite a commotion among the soldiers, but when he turned around he saw Look and Taylor. Quickly, he holstered his pistol, took off his hat, bowed low, and said, Excuse me, gentlemen, excuse me.
fter leaving the theater, Rayner returned to the bar and swaggered along a row of spectators’ chairs against the wall, slapping a pair of gloves against his leg and goading the customers, one by one, even striking several on the face with the gloves. Among the patrons sitting there was Wyatt Earp, by then well known in sporting circles and among the six-gun set. Earp was in town to visit his old friend from Tombstone, Lou Rickabaugh, who now ran a gambling hall in El Paso.
According to Earp’s possibly embellished account, he watched Rayner closely as he approached. At one point Rayner drew his gloves through his hand, slapped his palm with them, and said, I suppose you know that when a Southern gentleman goes hunting trouble, he likes to take his gloves along? He sometimes find them useful.
The kind of trouble you’re heading into right now, Rayner, can’t be handled with gloves, said Earp.
Rayner paused, then invited Earp to have a drink with hits. The two proceeded to the bar, where Rayner suggested they place their weapons on the bar. He did so, but Earp remarked that he didn’t carry a gun, and opened his coat to prove the point. In that case, Rayner remarked, I ought to buy wine. After finishing off his wine, Rayner picked up his pistol, left Earp at the bar, and proceeded into the gaming room.
If any of this happened — and it all may have been the fantasy of Wyatt Earp since there is no corroborating evidence other than the fact that Earp was there that night — Rayner soon shifted his attention to other prey. Wyatt, joined by his friend Dan Tipton, the Nevada gunman who had been with Wyatt in Tombstone and was now working with the U.S. Customs Service in El Paso, followed Rayner into the gaming room in time to witness the next act of the drama.
Robert Bates Cowboy Bob Rennick was a stranger in El Paso, but he was no stranger to trouble. A quiet man without any brag in him, he was nevertheless a truly dangerous man, with no need to prove himself to any one. He had a quick temper and was well acquainted with guns. A muscular man of medium height and florid complexion, he brought a reputation as a hard case to town with him. George Look described him as a very hard character, really one of the hardest desperadoes in this country at the time, but little known here. That evening, however, he looked the part of a cowboy in his broadbrimmed white hat, as he sat at the faro layout of a dealer named Robert Cahill. Unarmed and unassuming, he was minding his own business when Rayner approached the table.
Apparently, the conspicuous display of Rennick’s white hat drew Rayner to him. The room was crowded when Rayner stepped up behind Rennick and began to thump the brim of the stranger’s hat with his fingers. Are you a fighter? Rayner mocked.
Rennick shifted in his seat and turned toward Rayner. No, he said evenly. I am no fighter, and I want no trouble.
You look like a fighter. You have a white hat on, Rayner persisted. What are you so pale about? You look like a fighter.
At that point, A.P. Criswell, who ran the gambling concession at the Gem, stepped up to Rayner and asked him to stop harassing Rennick.
Am I wrong? Rayner queried.
Criswell responded in the affirmative and again urged him to cease plaguing the stranger. At that point, Rayner held out his hand to Rennick, shook hands with him, and said, 1 apologize.
For an instant, it seemed the confrontation was over. Some of Rayner’s friends — but not his drunk friend Linn, the jailer — tried to lead him away, but he would not leave. He kept saying over and over again that Rennick was a fighter and that he would have to kill him. Finally, he pulled away and confronted Rennick again. Cahill, the dealer, left his layout long enough to pull Linn to the door of the theater, explaining later that he wished to get Linn away from Rayner in order that I might get Rayner home.
As Rayner kept up the barrage of insults, Rennick continued to say that he was not a fighter. The tension was strong, and Cahill, having succeeded in separating Linn from Rayner, moved quickly to Rayner’s side and pulled him toward the bar, which was separated from the gaming room by large screens with archways and swinging doors. One of the doors was open, the other closed. Rayner tried to get Cahill to turn him loose, but the young dealer manhandled him out of the room with the assistance of others, pushing him through the open door as far as the first pool table in the bar.
While Rayner was being led away, Rennick remarked, I have been imposed upon long enough, and I won’t stand for it. He slid off the stool he had been sitting on and shifted into the lookout chair next to the table so that he could watch the door. He spotted a pistol in the open drawer of the faro table, stepped down from the chair and took it out of the drawer and put it into his pocket. He then asked Criswell if the back door was open. Criswell advised him to go out over the theater stage.
Rayner, still in the grasp of Cahill, was tall enough to see over the screens, and he saw this activity. Struggling to get free, he said, The SOB has got a pistol, and I am liable to have trouble with him. Rennick headed for the closed door, while in the other room Cahill scuffled with Rayner. Turning on Cahill, Rayner screamed: Turn me loose you SOB. Do you want to see me murdered? At that point, he pulled free, jerked his revolver, and pushed open the closed door just as Rennick approached it from the other side.
Rayner and Rennick faced each other at a distance of six feet. Rayner fired immediately. Rennick stepped back, dropped to his knees and, holding the revolver with both hands, returned the fire. Rayner’s shots went wide. Rennick’s first bullet struck Rayner in the left shoulder, and as he turned, a second slug tore through his body from hip to hip. Rayner stumbled back into the other room, emptying his gun into a pool table.
When the melee broke out, Linn started toward the back room from the bar and fired several shots in the direction of Cahill. He had seen Cahill scuffle with Rayner, but he could not see Rennick. Therefore, he apparently assumed that Cahill had shot Rayner. Cahill, who was unarmed, ran past Linn and out the front door of the saloon into the street, pursued by Linn, who fired at Cahill again as he ducked into the Ranch Saloon down the street. Linn then followed and disappeared into the Ranch himself.
Rayner, in the meantime, stood dazed beside the pool table. He then walked out through the front of the saloon to the street, where he got onto a streetcar and laid down on a seat. Rennick, with the revolver still hanging by his side, followed him to the door, but Look caught up to him, took him by the shoulder, and told him to go on out back and get out of the way.
Look entered the streetcar and found the badly wounded Rayner lying on the seat with his arms folded. Tell my mother I died and died game, he said quietly. Look called for help, and Rayner was soon carried away, in pain but still alive. Dr. A.L. Justice examined him and knew the wounds were fatal.
Rennick wasted no time. He left by the back way and crossed the river into Paso Del Norte, but the drama at the Gem Saloon was not over yet. Linn was still searching the saloons for Cahill and threatening to kill him on sight. Cahill managed to elude Linn and returned to the Gem a few minutes after Rayner was removed. He was out of breath and still very much agitated. He rushed through the bar and into the back room, where he asked Jim Gregory, one of the bartenders, to take over for him at the faro table because Linn was looking for him. He then asked Criswell to keep Linn out of the gambling room.
Cahill was understandably shaken by the string of events and asked for a pistol. Dan Tipton gave him a .45. What’ll 1 do? Cahill asked. I never was in a gunfight in my life. According to one account, Wyatt Earp advised him to leave and assured him that Linn could be quieted. Cahill said he would not run, whereupon Earp supposedly gave him the following advice: All right. If you’re going to make your fight take your time. He’ll come shooting. Have your gun cocked, but don’t pull until you’re sure what you’re shooting at. Aim for his belly, low. The gun’ll throw up a bit, but if you hold it tight and wait until he’s close enough, you can’t miss. Keep cool and take your time.
Look remembered the incident differently. He said Cahill retrieved his pistol from the money drawer of his faro table (which raises the possibility that Rennick had returned the revolver to the drawer after shooting Rayner and that the same pistol was used in two gunfights) and started back toward the front door. Look overtook him and persuaded him to sit down in a chair near the billiard tables. He gave him the same advice Earp claimed to have given him: to get out of there and avoid trouble. But while the two men were talking, Linn staggered through the front door.
Whether Wyatt Earp tutored him or not, Cahill was ready. He moved toward Linn and called out for him to throw up his hands. Linn kept coming toward the back of the room. Cahill called out twice more for him to throw up his hands, without effect. When Linn did not respond, Cahill fired four shots in quick succession, followed by a fifth. Linn went down with the first shot. He was hit twice, once through the heart and once through the bowels and spinal column. He was dead almost instantly.
The following day, a hearing was held in the Cahill-Linn fight. The testimony of Jim Gregory, Frank Gaffenberg, Wyatt Earp, Dan Tipton, Francis Jessie Boyd and A.P. Criswell (all men who had witnessed desperate encounters before) demonstrated clearly that Cahill had defended himself from a drunk and irrational man. The young dealer was released upon payment of $10 bond and never indicted.
The Rayner-Rennick shooting still had to be sorted out, however. On April 18, the El Paso Times reported that Rayner still lingers on his death bed. At a late hour last night his temperature was 104 degrees and his pulse 150. The pain in his wounds was slight, as he had been kept under influence of opiates. Fatal inflammation seems to have begun and any hopes of recovery has been despaired of…. He yet speaks intelligently and keeps a clear head.
Rayner’s condition prompted Frank E. Hunter, the county attorney, to visit him with pen and paper to take a statement from him. Rayner was uncooperative. What do you want this for, Frank? he asked. When the attorney replied that it was his duty to take a statement in case something happened to him, Rayner replied, Why? I ain’t going to die. When Hunter persisted, Rayner told him flatly: Well, I ain’t going to give it to you. If I die, that settles it; but if I don’t die, I will tend to that little business myself.
Rayner lingered on in great pain for some weeks. A few days after the shooting, William J. Fewel met Dr. Justice on the street and asked how Rayner was doing. When Justice said that he would surely die, Fewel proclaimed: I am damned glad of it. He ought to have been killed years ago. Fewel apparently had second thoughts because when he had walked on for almost half a block, he turned and shouted back to the doctor, Oh Doc, if Bill gets well, what I said don’t go.
Friends notified Hamilton Rayner of his brother’s condition, and he and their mother arrived on the evening of April 19 by train. Rayner lasted until 7 a.m. on June 7, 1885. He died without ever making a public statement about the shooting. He was buried two days later.
The editor of the El Paso Times searched for meaning in his passing: The high social standing of the family, the reputation and historical associations thrown around him, the advantages of education, and the physical perfections which Nature endowed with him, were rare opportunities which should have pressed him forward to an honorable and worthy aim. That they did not, the Times deemed inexplicable, and blamed the tragedy on the actions of a mind diseased and wandering from his plane of reason.
To his credit, Rennick had remained in Paso Del Norte throughout the long weeks of Rayner’s fight for life. A day or so after the shooting, Rennick had sent for George Look, who met him on the acequia bridge in front of an old brewery opposite the Mexican Central Depot. Look recalled that Rennick came out of the cane brakes, on the acequia banks at that place. I told him to come back over the river, which he did, and he was placed under $10 bond.
On April 19, the El Paso Times reported: The ‘Texas Cowboy,’ as he has been styled, who shot Rayner, is quietly sojourning in Paso Del Norte, Mexico, waiting the development of things on this side. Mr. Rennick instead of being the proverbial cowboy, is a quiet unassuming man, well-to-do and well connected in Texas, and while he explores the necessity for the dreadful tragedy which resulted in the shooting of Rayner, he is confidently waiting the earliest time when he can have the matter judicially investigated in the courts of El Paso county.
On June 26, 1885, in justice’s court, a hearing was held before Justice of the Peace Lewellyn H. Davis. A.P. Criswell took the stand first and recounted the events from the moment that Rayner accosted Rennick until the shooting. Criswell’s brother, M .W. Criswell, another Gem Saloon gambler, added a few details, and Cahill recounted his part in the Rayner-Rennick affair, without mentioning his own fatal encounter with Linn. Although other witnesses had been subpoenaed, no others were called. Rennick declined to make a statement. Davis then ordered that Rennick be bound over to the district court for trial in September 1885.
Rennick was soon a free man, and he never stood trial. On June 28, the Times reported that Rennick was exonerated because the dreadful necessity of killing his opponent was forced upon him. He left El Paso after that, and his trail faded into oblivion except for a few bits and pieces. A few nights after the gunfight at the Gem, three masked men pushed their way into the back room of the saloon, apparently intent on robbing the faro bank.
Look recalled: They walked up to the faro table and threw their guns down on it. One of the players jumped up, and the man with the shotgun jumped back, and the gun went off, accidentally, I presume, cutting the ear off of this fellow Harry Williams, the powder burning his face very badly, the load of buckshot hitting the layout and glancing into the lookout’s knee, Bob Cahill, leaving quite a number of buckshots in his leg…. Both parties ran each way, the robbers running back out, and the dealers and players running out the front way, leaving the room empty.
A few nights after that, Look said, three men came out of the cane brakes near the bridge at the spot where he had met Rennick and entered Bossilier’s Brewery in an attempted robbery. Again, however, plans went awry. Bossilier grappled with the man with the shotgun, who he recognized as Rennick, and was about to take the gun away when another of the robbers shot the brewery owner in the head. Look recalled that he had later met Rennick in Monterey, Mexico, and that Rennick had admitted that he was the man with the shotgun in both bungled robbery attempts. Rennick apparently remained in Mexico. In 1909, an El Paso newspaper article on the Rayner-Rennick fight said that Rennick was still living in Mexico City, a hopeless morphine addict.
Bob Cahill also left El Paso. During the gold rush, he went to Alaska, got rich in Nome, and eventually moved to New York City. Ham Rayner, who was described by one old-timer as one of the most vain men I ever knew, eventually moved back to El Paso, where he became a perennial candidate for public office and something of a local celebrity.
In the long run, the Gem Saloon shootout made little difference in the community. The El Paso Lone Star deplored what had happened in an editorial the day after the fight and called for strict enforcement of the no-gun ordinance of the town as a means of ridding El Paso of men who glory in being called ‘bad.’ The Herald was more philosophical: The victims have no one to blame but themselves. Their train of life collided with loaded revolvers and they have gone down forever in the smashup.
Rayner and Linn were not the first to die in a burst of gunfire in El Paso, and they would not be the last. Bass Outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, John Selman, Manny Clements and more would spill their blood in El Paso saloons and on her streets before the violence subsided more than 20 years later. Such sanguinary affairs as those in the Gem Saloon that April night in 1885 became the metaphor that defined the West for generations, even for many who saw the passing of the frontier firsthand.
Indeed, the myth of the Wild West became a contributing factor to the violence itself, as men like Will Rayner saw their badman image as something to be promoted, often at their own expense. A bizarre sense of honor that took men’s lives grew out of that glorification of violence, and the liquor induced delusions of small men were somehow transformed into legends of honor. The reality was almost always more sordid, and usually less honorable.
This article was written by Gary Roberts and orginally published in the June 1992 issue of Wild West magazine.
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