After pardon, rustler Vaughan leaves prison at age 21
When Hank Vaughan was sent to prison in 1865, more than one person breathed a sigh of relief.
Although a lad of only 16, Hank had already tried to kill four men with his six-shooter, and with one he’d succeeded. Hot-tempered, hard-drinking and quick on the draw, Hank was an unpredictable terror of the “Billy the Kid” type. Had he not been sent to prison, it’s extremely unlikely Hank would have celebrated his 18th birthday; he would most likely have died at the hands of an angry mob, something that very nearly happened already.
But the Hank Vaughn who, at the age of 21, walked out of Oregon State Penitentiary a free man, his mother having successfully lobbied the governor for a pardon, was different. He was more sober, more mature, far more competent and quite a bit more dangerous. Prison had taught him the skills he’d need to survive another 25 years in Oregon country.
Hank was, first and foremost, a horseman — quite possibly the most gifted horseman in the history of the state. So he naturally went straight back into the horse-trading business
Shortly after his release from prison, Hank developed what would become his regular routine: Using money made either by running stolen stock or leaning on family and friends, he’d set up a prosperous and ostensibly legitimate horse ranching business as a front. He’d run that business with diligence and competence, and it would thrive. But by night, in the backcountry, Hank would be prowling the land, looking for stock to rustle and quietly adding it to his herd.
This was in the heyday of the open range all over the West. That meant there were vast expanses of unfenced land where cattle and horses would just wander across, and occasionally ranchers would take their animals on long drives to markets or to better food supplies. When they did this, a few of the animals would always stray off from the herd, melting into the woods one or two at a time. Cowboys would ride through a day or two later collecting the strays, but they often wouldn’t find them all. The way this was supposed to work was, when they were found, the animals would be recognized by their brands and returned to the rancher who’d lost them.
But it didn’t always work out that way, especially when the person who found the animals was Hank Vaughan — known to actually follow cattle drives closely so he could gather up the strays before cowboys following the drive could. Hank also was known to cut a few animals out of herds when he found them unsupervised.
Operating on the border of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Hank would then lead the stolen animals into the reservation and mingle them with the Indians’ herds. It was a beautiful swindle and worked nicely for a long time.
Of course, this wasn’t the sort of thing a fellow could do forever.
One day, Hank was gambling and drinking in a saloon in the Central Oregon town of Pilot Rock when a group of stockmen walked in, fresh from having tracked a group of their strays straight to Hank’s corral. They confronted him with the evidence.
Jon and Donna Skovlin, in their book, describe the scene that followed: Hank very coolly told them he didn’t know what they were talking about; then he leisurely picked up his poker chips and strolled toward the bar to cash them in, riffling them as he walked.
Halfway there, he abruptly dropped the poker chips, whirled ‘round to face the stockmen, and froze. His gun was out, cocked and pointed straight at them. There was a split-second of silence, followed by the cacophonous clatter of the poker chips hitting the floor. Hank had turned, drawn and was ready to shoot, all in less than the time it took a handful of poker chips to fall three feet.
The shocked stockmen backed away, hands in the air. Hank backed away, too, toward the door, and then ducked through it and ran for his horse.
Hank’s horse was always the best in town. Through his own operations and his thefts, he was able to basically take his pick, and he always picked the best. Today, that attention was going to be crucial because, as soon as his pistol was no longer pointed their way, the stockmen were running for their own horses and shouting for a posse to gather and catch him.
Out of town Hank galloped, with the posse just a few hundred yards behind. He was making for a big bluff that overlooked the town — not a cliff per se, but it might as well have been; the ground sloped away at a good 75 degrees.
When they saw where he was headed, the posse slowed a bit and fanned out, seeking to cut off Hank’s avenues of escape. Their plan was to pin him against the edge of that bluff, from which he’d have no alternative but to surrender or be shot.
What they didn’t know was that Hank had planned for this moment. He’d scouted a line down the bluff and practiced it with his horse until the animal was perfectly comfortable taking it.
And so, as the posse closed in, they saw Hank’s horse leap off the bluff like Pegasus taking off.
Rushing to the rim, they looked down through the dust, expecting to see horse and rider in a broken pile of flesh and bone at the bottom of the bluff, and instead saw Hank’s horse galloping away.
There was nothing for it but to go back to town and recover as much of their property as Hank had left behind.
It was the events of that day — played for high drama in an almost Vaudevillean way — that cemented Hank Vaughan’s reputation as a masterful horseman and terrifyingly swift gunfighter. Hank’s flair for the dramatic served him well; many a future opponent, having had such a clear demonstration of his skills, opted not to risk challenging him because of it.
Hank was involved in at least a half-dozen gunfights over the following dozen years, including two that left him fearfully wounded and one that resulted in some premature obituary notices in local newspapers.
Hank spent those years drifting around the dry country of the Pacific Northwest, buying and stealing and selling horses and cattle. He had a hideout deep in the Wallowa Mountains to which he’d drive stolen stock, to wait for their skin to heal over the old, legitimate brands before rebranding them and driving them out and selling them in Boise. Today, that hideout is known as Vaughan Basin.
But by 1883, Hank could see the writing on the wall. The open range was closing up. The future would belong not to the cowboy and his riata, but to the farmer and his plow. So, following a marriage to a Umatilla Indian woman named Martha Robie, Hank prepared to lead the country into this transition to a more settled life on a 640-acre wheat farm near Pendleton.
It wouldn’t be all that settled, though. Not with Hank Vaughan involved.
We’ll talk about Hank’s life as a hard-partying gentleman farmer in the third and final part of this series, next week.
(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 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@example.com or 541-357-2222.