Bill now was crowded too much to use his firearms, and took to the bowie, thrusting at one man and another as best he might. It is known among knife-fighters that a man will stand up under a lot of flesh-cutting and blood-letting until the blade strikes a bone. Then he seems to drop quickly if it be a deep and severe thrust. In this chance medley, the knife wounds inflicted on each other by Bill and his swarming foes did not at first drop their men; so that it must have been several minutes that all seven of them were mixed in a mass of shooting, thrusting, panting, and gasping humanity. Then Jack McCanles swung his rifle barrel and struck Bill over the head, springing upon him with his knife as well. Bill got his hand on a six-shooter and killed him just as he would have struck. After that no one knows what happened, not even Bill himself, who got his name then and there. “I just got sort of wild,” he said, describing it. “I thought my heart was on fire. I went out to the pump then to get a drink, and I was all cut and shot to pieces.”
They called him Wild Bill after that, and he had earned the name. There were six dead men on the floor of the dugout. He had fairly whipped the ten of them, and the four remaining had enough and fled from that awful hole in the ground. Two of these were badly wounded. Bill followed them to the door. His own weapons were exhausted or not at hand by this time, but his stableman came up just then with a rifle in his hands. Bill caught it from him, and, cut up as he was, fired and killed one of the wounded desperadoes as he tried to mount his horse. The other wounded man later died of his wounds. Eight men were killed by the one. The two who got to their horses and escaped were perhaps never in the dugout at all, for it was hardly large enough to hold another man had any wanted to get in.
There is no record of any fighting man to equal this. It took Bill a year to recover from his wounds. The life of the open air and hard work brought many Western men through injuries which would be fatal in the States. The pure air of the plains had much to do with this. Bill now took service as wagon-master under General Fremont and managed to get attacked by a force of Confederates while on his way to Sedalia, Missouri, the Civil War being now in full swing. He fled and was pursued; but, shooting back with six-shooters, killed men. It will be seen that he had now in single fight killed twelve men, and he was very young.
This tally did not cover Indians, of whom he had slain several. Although he did not enlist, he went into the army as an independent sharpshooter, just because the fighting was good, and his work at this was very deadly. In four hours at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, where he lay behind a log, on a hill commanding the flat where the Confederates were formed, he is said to have killed thirty-five men, one of them the Confederate General McCullough. It was like shooting buffalo for him. He was charged by a company of the enemy, but was rescued by his own men.
Not yet enlisting, Bill went in as a spy for General Curtis, and took the dangerous work of going into “Pap” Price’s lines, among the touch-and-go Missourians and Arkansans, in search of information useful to the Union forces. Bill enlisted for business purposes in a company of Price’s mounted rangers, got the knowledge desired, and fled, killing a Confederate sergeant by name of Lawson in his escape. Curtis sent him back again, this time into the forces of Kirby Smith, then in Texas, but reported soon to move up into Arkansas. Bill enlisted again, and again showed his skill in the saddle, killing two men as he fled. Count up all his known victims to this time, and the tally would be at least sixty-two men; and Bill was then but 25.
A third time Curtis sent Bill back into the Confederate lines, this time into another part of Price’s army. Here he was detected and arrested as a spy. Bound hand and foot in his death watch, he killed his captor after he had torn his hands free, and once more escaped. After that, he dared not go back again, for he was too well known and too difficult to disguise. He could not keep out of the fighting, however, and went as a scout and free lance with General Davis, during Price’s second invasion of Missouri. He was not an enlisted man, and seems to have done pretty much as he liked. One day he rode out on his own hook, and was stopped by three men, who ordered him to halt and dismount. All three men had their hands on their revolvers; but, to show the difference between average men and a specialist, Bill killed two of them and fatally shot the other before they could get into action. His tally was now sixty-six men at least.
Curtis now sent Bill out into Kansas to look into a report that some Indians were about to join the Confederate forces. Bill got the news, and also engaged in a knife duel with the Sioux, Conquering Bear, whom he accused of trying to ambush him. It was a fair and desperate fight, with knives, and although Bill finally killed his man, he himself was so badly cut up that he came near dying, his arm being ripped from shoulder to elbow, a wound which it took years to mend. It is doubtful if any man ever survived such injuries as he did, for by this time he was a mass of scars from pistol and knife wounds. He had probably been in danger of his life more than a hundred times in personal difficulties; for the man with a reputation as a bad man has a reputation which needs continual defending.
After the war, Bill lived from hand to mouth, like most frontier dwellers. It was at Springfield, Missouri, that another duel of his long list occurred, in which he killed Dave Tutt, a fine pistol shot and a man with social ambitions in badness. It was a fair fight in the town square by appointment. Bill killed his man and wheeled so quickly on Tutt’s followers that Tutt had not had time to fall before Bill’s six-shooter was turned the opposite way, and he was asking Tutt’s friends if they wanted any of it themselves. They did not.
This fight was forced on Bill, and his quiet attempts to avoid it and his stern way of accepting it, when inevitable, won him high estimation on the border. Indeed, he was now known all over the country, and his like has not since been seen. He was still a splendid looking man, and as cool and quiet and modest as ever he had been. Bill now went to trapping in the less settled parts of Nebraska, and for a while he lived in peace, until he fell into a saloon row over some trivial matter and invited four of his opponents outside to fight him with pistols; the four were to fire at the word, and Bill to do the same—his pistol against their four. In this fight he killed one man at first fire, but he himself was shot through the shoulder and disabled in his right arm.