It was 120 years ago this summer when a horse rider came racing to Payson with a warning that the Apache were coming this way on a bloody raid. It was only a few decades later that a lengthy poem was set to music and sung throughout the Rim country about that rider, Billy Vanero, and how he tried to save the love of his life, Bessie Lee, before the raiders could get to her.
Like many, if not most of the stories, the versions grow with the years and each teller of tales clings to his story. Being a fool to go where angels fear to tread, I took another look at Billy (sometimes spelled Billie) Vanero (variously spelled Venero, Vinero).
Frank Gillette, in his book "Pleasant Valley" (1984), remembers Julian Journigan singing "Billy Vanero" around the dying embers of a campfire. Gillette called it "the most tender and touching love song ever written, particularly since it was based on an actual happening." Billy was shot by Apaches while racing to warn his Bessie, and as he died he scribbled a love note with a warning of the attack. His horse carried it to her door, and when she buried him she planted flowers around his grave "till they lay her by his side."
A 1958 edition of Tonto Trails (a vacation guide published by Norm's Publishing House in Mesa) carries a fanciful story by Jack Grant identifying Billy Vanero with the Apache raiders who left a trail of blood through the Rim country. However, he has the wrong year (1881 instead of 1882), says the two Meadows boys were killed and the father escaped (which is not true; father and son were killed), and insists that Tonto Chief DelShay was the leader of the band. But of course DelShay was killed in 1874 and it was not a Rim country Tonto band that made the raid. When one reads that many errors, the tendency is to question the veracity of the author, but when things are in print they take on a life of their own.
In Guy Logsdon's 1989 book of cowboy songs, ("The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing," University of Illinois Press) he writes, "After singing 'Billie Vanero' Riley Neal said, 'It's wrote about the Verde Valley and Prescott.'" Then in an interview with a couple of local ranchers (who are still living and shall go without names), Logsdon heard another version. He quotes a rancher saying, "The ride occurred between Pleasant Valley and Payson ... The ride was to warn ranchers about a band of Apache raiders (in July 1882). Billie Vanero was in Pleasant Valley when the escape and raids started, and he made his courageous ride to warn the William Burch Ranch in Payson." Logsdon goes on, "It is speculated that the Vanero of the song was buried in one of the unmarked graves near Pleasant Valley or Payson."
It is no wonder a troubadour from Idaho had come this way looking for the Vanero grave. Terry Raff, "The Singing Mountain Man," was visiting Payson looking for the story behind this song in his repertoire. "I sing about old Billy," he told me, "but I want to find his grave. I understand it was while he was riding to warn the people of Payson about the Apache renegades that they shot and killed him. Do you know where he was buried?" We talked to Ana Mae Deming, whose roots go as deep as anyone's in these parts, and she spoofed the whole idea. She knows the cowboy poetry about old Billy, but insists it had nothing to do with Payson, nor is there any grave of his to be located.
Let's consider some other sources for the Billy Vanero story.
Dec, 29, 1881, a popular national weekly called the Youth's Companion published a poem titled "The Ride of Paul Venarez," written by Eben E. Rexford of Wisconsin. The poem mentioned an Indian chief named Red Plume, the settlement of Crawford and a district called Rocky Run. Though mortally wounded, Paul Venarez fought off a band of Indian warriors and rode to warn the village of an impending attack.
The long narrative poem became a favorite recitation for dramatic speakers, though Rexford was seldom, if ever, given credit for the poem.
In 1910 a song titled "Billy Venero" appeared in the collection "Cowboy Songs & Other Frontier Ballads" by John Lomax (MacMillan Publishing Co. NY). It followed almost to the letter details of "The Ride of Paul Venarez." From that date on, variations of the song were published by others, usually set in the Wild West of Arizona, and the cowboy poets had taken it up. In 1969, an edition of "Cowboy and Western Songs" by Austin and Alta Fife announced that the "real Billy Veniro" story occurred near Payson, and said his grave is in our town.
It is a matter of record that in the summer of 1882 L. P. Nash, who at the time was postmaster at Fort Reno in Tonto Basin, sent a rider to Payson, Pine and Strawberry (where his wife and children lived) with news of the outbreak. Fort Reno was a rendezvous point for several units of cavalry who were in pursuit of the renegades. Thus, Nash was one of the first to learn of the renegades and the direction they were headed, toward Green Valley (then the name for Payson). However, the rider with the warning was not the legendary Billy Vanero, nor did he encounter any Apaches on the way.
Of course, every cowboy poem has a life of its own, so let's just leave a good song and its story right here in the Rim country.