The outlaw as elder statesman
March 7, 2014
By the mid-1880s, the wild, unpredictable and dangerous Oregon almost-outlaw Hank Vaughan had started showing distinct signs of settling down. He had married a part-Umatilla woman named Martha Robie in 1883; Martha, a widow, had inherited a comfortable sum from her late husband, and also was entitled to claim 640 acres of reservation land.
Hank, as Martha’s husband, now turned his considerable managerial talents away from livestock rustling and toward wheat-farm management.
The results were surprisingly gratifying.
The farm was in the Pendleton-Athena area, which meant both those towns were going to be seeing a lot of Hank Vaughan over the following dozen-odd years. Hank quickly developed a reputation as a real local character. He also became known as somebody to never lend money to.
For the most part, once Hank had borrowed money, the only way he’d pay it back was through legal proceedings. But historians Jon and Donna Skovlin tell of one constable in Pendleton, Billy Mays, who figured out how to collect: He’d simply ask Hank for a loan in the same amount as what was owed. Hank would never refuse, nor would he ever remember to ask for it to be paid back, so it was all good.
Hank became most famous for his Saturday-afternoon excursions to Athena, then called Centerville. According to former resident Lute Lane as quoted in The Dalles Chronicle in 1926, he’d “patronize the various bars until he attained his Western frame of mind, and then he would ride up and down the streets shooting out the few lights or go in stores, two guns on his hips, and take without pay whatever he wanted. The merchants never worried over this, for Monday morning Hank was sure to come to town with a repentant headache, and ask the various storekeepers what he had “charged” Saturday. He would then pay what they asked and go out without a word.”
When in Pendleton, Hank would request service at the Bureau Saloon, his favorite watering hole, by putting a bullet through the transom window over the door, showering the floor of the bar with broken glass. This was the bartender’s signal to drop everything and hustle out onto the front stoop with a drink for Hank; if he moved too slow,
Hank might ride his horse into the bar and start shooting glasses and bottles off the back wall. He’d pay for everything, of course, but the hassle and drama was best avoided, and Hank always got the promptest possible service.
Hank’s pranks weren’t always drunken revelry, though, and they weren’t always really pranks. On one occasion, when he learned a judge was holding court (without his permission) in a building he owned, he charged into his building and evicted everyone inside — during the trial of a man accused of a stabbing. The prisoner slipped away in the confusion, and there’s some reason to suspect that may have been the real purpose of the whole affair — that the defendant was a friend of Hank’s, and the timely eviction was intended to rescue him from prosecution.
Rustlers and sodbusters make peace
Something else happened about that time, too, that no one could have predicted. The livestock business had started consolidating into the hands of a small cadre of cattle barons — men like Peter French and Henry Miller. They displaced and undercut local cattle producers and feuded with settlers over property boundaries, and they considered themselves to owe nothing to the local communities near which they operated other than wages paid to local cowboys they hired. Resentment started to grow among the small farmers and homesteaders, and Hank found it convenient to harness that resentment to get in one last great glorious round of industrial-scale stock theft at the expense of the big out-of-town operators.
By late 1885, though, the local support for this sort of thing had subsided into a fresh outbreak of vigilantism, inspiring Hank to actually leave town for a few weeks on a “camping trip” (in December) to give the vigilantes time to cool down. After that, although he certainly didn’t stop rustling, he became much more discreet about it.
A prank gone bad
In 1886, Hank tried one of his favorite pranks — the old “dance, varmint” routine familiar to us from so many old Western movies and Yosemite Sam cartoons, in which he’d inspire his victim to step lively by shooting at his feet — on a newcomer to town, one Bill Falwell. Falwell turned out to be a former member of the Younger Brothers gang, a hot-blooded Southern outlaw who would not let such a humiliation go unanswered. Hustling out of the bar, he spotted a man packing a massive .50-caliber cap-and-ball revolver and traded his saddle horse for it. Then he hustled back into the saloon and without further ado opened fire on Hank.
Hank soaked up one of the bullets using his right arm — his shooting arm — which was shattered. In spite of this, he surged out from behind the bar when the shooting stopped, collared his assailant and was busy pummeling him when the sheriff arrived. Falwell got four years in the state pen for this assault, and Hank had to spend about that much time learning to shoot with his left hand.
The “dance, varmint” routine backfired on Hank another time, too, with less damaging (but more humiliating) consequences. Hank picked a big burly railroad bridge builder as his dancer, and after his bullets ran out and the dancing subsided, this fellow stepped up to Hank, grabbed his gun with one hand, and flattened him with a powerful roundhouse punch with the other. Then he handed the gun to one of the bystanders and walked unhurriedly away.
Hank the robber-buster
Hank earned a lifetime free pass on the railroad after foiling a robbery attempt one day. He was napping on the train when a trio of robbers appeared and started robbing the passengers in the car.
Martha, who was traveling with him, reached up under his Prince Albert coat and unbuckled his gun belt, and as the pistols fell to the floor he caught the butts and flipped the muzzles up. A split second later, two of the three robbers suddenly decided to call the robbery off and ran for it, bullets whizzing past them, leaving the third robber dead on the floor.
The end of the legend
Eventually, the wild chances Hank took every day caught up with him.
While galloping wildly through downtown Pendleton, his horse slipped — there are all kinds of explanations for what it might have slipped on, ranging from a muddy street to a railroad track to “Pendleton’s first concrete sidewalk,” so apparently nobody knows for sure — and fell heavily to the ground, landing on top of Hank. His head whiplashed into the rocky ground, hitting it hard enough to fracture his skull and force his right eyeball partway out of its socket.
A week or so later, on June 15, 1893, at the age of 44, Henry Clay Vaughan slipped away from the land of the living and took his place in the pantheon of Western legends.
(One last thing: There are far more interesting anecdotes about Hank Vaughan than I’ve been able to touch on here. If you’re interested in more stories of his gunfights and horse thefts and wild-eyed rascalities, you should find a copy of Jon and Donna Skovlin’s thoroughly researched, carefully sourced and very readable book. I highly recommend it.)
(Sources: Skovlin, Jon and Donna. Hank Vaughan: Hell-Raising Horse Trader of the Bunchgrass Territory. Cove, Ore .: Reflections, 1996; Gulick, Bill. Outlaws of the Pacific Northwest. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2000)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Image above: Reflections Publishing. Hank Vaughan as he appeared around the age of 35, in 1885, when he was beginning to settle down in the Athena-Pendleton area.
McKenzie River Reflections