July 12, 1861
David McCanles, his son William and two employees ride up to Rock Creek Station, Nebraska Territory. Leaving his two hired hands at the barn, McCanles and his son go over to the main house and demand that the occupants clear out.
The Pony Express station keeper Horace Wellman tells McCanles he has no such authority (see “Deadly Deal” sidebar, opposite page). An argument ensues and a frightened Wellman retreats into the house while Jane, Wellman’s common-law wife, stands outside the doorway and berates McCanles for thrashing her father earlier over an alleged theft.
James Hickok (not yet Wild Bill) appears in the doorway and is advised by McCanles to keep away.
A known bully, McCanles is usually armed with a pistol and shotgun (it is hotly debated whether he was so armed that day). To gain time, he asks Hickok for a drink of water. Hickok steps inside to get it. Moments later, a shot is fired from within the house and McCanles collapses.
James Woods and James Gordon, McCanles’ two employees, rush up from the barn and are both shot, though not fatally. Jane Wellman takes a hoe—it is later claimed—and smashes Woods’ skull, perhaps aided by her still-frightened husband. James Gordon manages to escape into the brush but his bloodhound follows him and his pursuers follow his blood and the dog. Gordon is easily found and killed with a shotgun blast, supposedly by James W. “Doc” Brink, a Pony Express rider.
McCanles’ son William runs to his father’s side but is driven away by Jane Wellman. The boy escapes into the brush and makes it to safety.
Odds & Ends
Three days later, Hickok, Horace Wellman and Doc Brink were arrested and charged with murder on warrants sworn out by the McCanles family. After a preliminary hearing, the defendants were discharged when the judge ruled they were defending company property at the time of the killings.
Seven years later, Col. George Ward Nichols wrote a fantasy account of the fight for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In this version, McCanles and his “gang of ten cuthroats” rushed the cabin where Hickok was holed up. Hickok managed to win a fierce hand-to-hand battle (see Harper’s illustration, left) and killed all of his assailants. This fictional account inspired subsequent writers and enlarged the myth.
We recommend Joseph G. Rosa’s They Called Him Wild Bill, University of Oklahoma Press, 1974. For a study of Sarah Shull, McCanles’ mistress, an excellent source is Mark Dugan’s Tales Told Around The Campfire, Swallow Press, 1987.