In 1860, [Will] Bill [Hickock] was placed in charge of the teams of the Overland Stage Company, -which ran between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Denver, over the old Platte route, - at Rock Creek, about fifty miles west of Topeka, Kansas. It was while occupying this position that the first and most desperate fight of his life occurred, and one which we may safely say is without a parallel.
The author collected the facts and particulars of this fight from Capt. E. W. Kingsbury, at present chief of U. S. Storekeepers for the western district of Missouri, who was a passenger in the overland stage which arrived at Rock Creek within an hour after the fight occurred, and saw the bodies of the men Bill had killed, and heard the story fresh from Bill’s own lips.
Capt. Kingsbury’s version of the encounter is corroborated by Dr. Joshua Thorne, one of the most prominent physicians in Kansas City, who was Wild Bill’s physician during his life, and at whose home Bill was a frequent and familiar visitor. Bill repeated the story to Dr. Thorne several times, just as he gave it to Capt. Kingsbury. Bill had very few confidants, but among that privileged class were the two gentlemen mentioned, who, by their permission, will be frequently referred to hereafter.
The correct story of the “battle,” as we may very properly call it, is as follows:
The country for many miles around Rock Creek, including Marysville and Manhattan, had for several years been infested by a desperate band of marauders headed by Jim and Jack McCandlas. They were horse thieves and murderers who overran the country and levied tribute from nearly every one they met. This murderous gang had killed more than a score of innocent men and women for the purpose of robbery, and yet their power was such that no civil officer dared undertake their arrest.
In 1861, the year in which the fight occurred, the McCandlas boys raised a company in that section for the Confederate service. They established their headquarters about thirteen miles west of Rock Creek, where they were collecting men and stolen horses. Early in the morning of the day in question, Jim McCandlas rode by Rock Creek station in company with four of his men. McCandlas was leading an old man, known as Parson Shapley, by a lariat which was around the old man’s neck. Coming up to Bill the party stopped, and McCandlas entered into a conversation, in which he tried to persuade Bill to enter the Confederate service and to turn over all the horses at the station to him. Bill, a stranger to the sensation of fear, told McCandlas to go to h--l; that if he did any fighting it would be on the side of the Union. McCandlas then told Bill if he didn’t have the horses ready for delivery by the time of his return, “that there would be a small murder at Rock Creek station, and the stage company would have to get another man.” The party then rode off.
In this connection, in order to give the reader an idea of the manner in which Wild Bill received his would-be murderers, it is necessary to partially describe Rock Creek station. The house in which Bill and his single partner, known as Doc. Mills, ate and slept, was a low-roofed log hut fronting the creek, with the rear part built against the hill. It had a front door, and a very small window in the side, near the rear. The single room was divided by an old blanket hung from the roof, behind which was a table and a bed made after the frontier style. This rude structure was one of the many sleeping places called “dugouts,” so often seen in the wild West even at this day. The stables, also very rude but strongly made, adjoined the “dugout” on the east side. The arms in the house consisted of two revolvers, one shot-gun, a large bore rifle, which Bill called a Mississippi yager, and two large bowie knives.
After dinner, Doc. Mills took the shot-gun and one of the revolvers—which he usually carried—and went down the creek a short distance to shoot some quail. During his absence, and about four o’clock in the evening, Wild Bill saw the two McCandlas boys, accompanied by eight others, riding up the road towards him. Bill at once withdrew into the dugout and prepared to defend the place. Coming around in front of the dugout, Jim McCandlas hallooed to Bill, telling him to come out and deliver the horses. To this Bill returned an insulting reply. The mounted party then left their horses and began an onslaught on the door with a log which they used as a battering ram. Bill stood behind the old blanket, rifle in hand, and revolver and knife lying on the table. It required but a few strokes to break the door, and the crowd of cut-throats, headed by Jim McCandlas, rushed in. The old yager was discharged, and the leader fell with a hole in his heart as large as a silver half-dollar. Bill seized his revolver and shot three more before any of them had reached him.
The most terrible scene then followed. Every man was like a wounded lion; the six others jumped at Bill like harpies that had tasted blood. He was borne down upon the table, but his right hand was cutting right and left; the blood was gushing from his forehead, where he had been struck with a rifle, which almost blinded him; he cut two others down, and Jack McCandlas leaped upon him with an immense dirk drawn to cut Bill’s throat. By a rare stroke of luck, Bill placed the muzzle of his pistol over McCandlas’ heart and fired. The knife in McCandlas’ hand dropped harmlessly upon Bill, and the man jumped into the air and fell dead, rolling over Bill and falling off the table to the floor. During this time the others, who had life in them, were firing their pistols at Bill whenever opportunity presented, but their numbers gave him the advantage. There was but little light in the room, and it was only the ones next to Bill that could do him any injury, the others being fearful of killing their own party. Six of the number had now been killed and two others badly wounded. They began to retreat ,and though Bill was apparently bleeding at every pore, he now pressed the fighting. The two who remained unharmed reached their horses, and, leaping into the saddle, fled as though they were being pursued by one who was shielded with the panoply of invulnerability. The two wounded ran down the hill, but one was cut so badly that he fell beside the root of a large tree, and was unable to go further. At this juncture Doc. Mills came back, and, when half-way up the hill, he was met by Bill, who grabbed the loaded shot-gun, and, placing the muzzle to the head of the wounded man, blew his brains out. The other one, whose name was Jolly, managed to elude Bill and reach Manhattan, where, in a few days thereafter, he died, but not until he had told the story of the fight substantially as here related.
After the excitement of the terrific combat was over, Bill fainted from loss of blood, and was carried into the dugout by his partner, Doc. Mills. The sight on the inside was now terrible. Six men lay dead on the floor. Jim McCandlas’ body was lying across the threshold of the door, almost half submerged in his blood. Hideous gashes and large bullet-holes had opened the reservoir of blood which formed in large pools, after making small creeks over the floor. The countenances of the dead men were most revolting. Not a groan escaped the lips of any of the victims after Doc. Mills entered with Bill’s half-lifeless body, which he lay tenderly on the rude bed; every one had been killed outright. Those shot evidenced Bill’s coolness and deliberate aim throughout the terrible ordeal; each was shot either in the heart or head, and the terrible dagger had been thrust with equal precision to the wells of the heart.
In less than one hour after the fight was over, the stage from Denver arrived, full of passengers, some of whom were thus introduced for the first time to the desperation of Western life. Wild Bill rallied sufficiently to tell the story of his dreadful encounter with ten of the most desperate men that ever cut a man’s throat or robbed a stable. Every attention that could be shown was given Bill. He was too badly cut and shot to admit of removal, but a surgeon was sent for from Manhattan, and old Mrs. Watkins, who lived within five miles of the station, came down as soon as she heard the news, and volunteered her services to nurse him. Bill’s wounds consisted of a fracture of the skull, three gashes on the breast, and a cut to the bone on his left forearm. There were seven balls in his legs and body, and there was scarcely a place on his face, limbs or body that was not black from bruises he had received. It would seem impossible that a man could survive such injuries, but, nevertheless, in six months Bill was out again, and in less than one year he was as sound physically as ever.
The people of that section worshiped Bill as no other man. He had civilized the neighborhood.
Text and image extracted from Life and Marvelous Adventures of Wild Bill, The Scout. Being a True and Exact History of All The Sanguinary Combats and Hair-Breadth Escapes of the Most Famous Scout and Spy America Ever Produced by J.W. Buel (St. Louis Press, 1879).