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Friday, July 18, 2014

Is that a gun in your pocket, or...?

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Life is full of little ironies. Every so often, a big irony jumps up and literally grabs a person by the privates. Just ask late Texas lawman Cap Light.

Many of the details about William Sidney “Cap” Light’s life have been obscured by the sands of time. His exact birth date is unknown, though it’s said he was born in late 1863 or early 1864 in Belton, Texas. No photographs of him are known to exist, although there seem to be plenty of his infamous brother-in-law, the confidence man and gold-rush crime boss Soapy Smith. Several of Light’s confirmed line-of-duty kills are mired in controversy, and rumors persist about his involvement in at least one out-and-out murder. Even the branches of his family tree are a mite tangled, considering the 1900 census credited Light with fathering a daughter born six years after his death.

What seems pretty clear, however, is that Light survived what should have been a fatal gunshot wound to the head only to kill himself accidentally a year later.

Light probably lived an ordinary townie childhood. The son of a merchant couple who migrated to Texas from Tennessee, he followed an elder brother into the barbering profession before seeking and receiving a deputy city marshal’s commission in Belton at the age of 20. Almost immediately—on March 24, 1884—he rode with the posse that tracked down and killed a local desperado. Belton hailed the young lawman as a hero.

For five years, Light reportedly served the law in an exemplary, and uneventful, fashion. Then, in 1889, things began to change.

In August, while assisting the marshal of nearby Temple, Texas, Light shot a prisoner he was escorting to jail. Ed Cooley tried to escape, Light said. Later that fall, after resigning the Belton job to become deputy marshal in Temple, Light shot and killed Sam Hasley, a deputy sheriff with a reputation for troublemaking. Hasley, drunk and raising a ruckus, ignored Light’s order to go home. Instead, he rode his horse onto the boardwalk and reached for his gun. Light responded with quick, accurate, and deadly force.

The following March, Light cemented his reputation as a fast and deadly gunman when he killed another drunk inside Temple’s Cotton Exchange Saloon. According to the local newspaper’s account, Felix Morales died “with his pistol in one hand and a beer glass in the other.”

Light’s growing reputation as a no-nonsense straight-shooter served Temple so well that in 1891, the city cut its budget by discontinuing the deputy marshal’s position. Unemployed and with a wife and two toddlers to support, Light accepted his brother-in-law’s offer of a job in Denver, Colorado. By then, Jeff “Soapy” Smith was firmly in control of Denver’s underworld. After the Glasson Detective Agency allegedly leaned on one of Smith’s young female friends, Light took part in a pistol-wielding raid meant to convince the detectives that investigating Smith would not be healthy.

Creede, Colorado, c. 1892
In early 1892, Smith moved his criminal enterprise to the nearby boomtown of Creede, Colorado, where he reportedly exerted his considerable influence to have Light appointed deputy marshal. At a little after 4 o’clock in the morning on March 31, Light confronted yet another drunk in a saloon. Both men drew their weapons. When the hail of gunfire ceased, Light remained standing, unscathed. Gambler and gunfighter William “Reddy” McCann, on the other hand, sprawled on the floor, his body riddled with five of Light’s bullets.

Despite witness testimony stating McCann had emptied his revolver shooting at streetlights immediately before bracing the deputy marshal, a coroner’s inquest ruled the shooting self-defense. The close call rattled Light, though. He took his family and returned to Temple, where in June 1892 he applied for a detective’s job with the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad. His application was rejected—possibly because his association with Smith and lingering rumors about the McCann incident overshadowed the stellar reputation he had earned early in his career. According to a period report in the Rocky Mountain News, “Light’s name had become a household word, and for years he was alluded to as a good sort of a fellow―to get away from. He was mixed up in many fights, and after a time the ‘respect’ he had commanded with the aid of a six-shooter began to fade away. It was recalled that all his killings and shooting scrapes occurred when the other man’s gun was elsewhere, or in other words, when the victim was powerless to return blow for blow and shot for shot.”

With his life apparently on the skids, Light developed a reputation of his own for drunken belligerence. With no other options, he returned to barbering in Temple until, during one drinking binge in late 1892, he pistol-whipped the railroad’s chief detective—the man Light blamed for the end of his law-enforcement career. During Light’s trial for assault, the detective, T.J. Coggins, rose from his seat in the courtroom, pulled his pistol, and fired three .44-caliber rounds into Light’s face and neck. Although doctors expected the former lawman to die of what they called mortal injuries, Light fully recovered. Adding insult to injury, Coggins never faced trial.

It’s unclear how well Light adapted to circumstances after the Coggins episode or why he was traveling by train a year later. What is clear is that his life came to a sudden, ironic end on Christmas Eve 1893. As the Missouri, Kansas & Texas train neared the Temple station, Light accidentally discharged a revolver he carried in his pocket. The bullet severed the femoral artery in his groin, and he bled to death within minutes. He was 30 years old.

In a span of fewer than ten years, Light’s brief candle flickered, blazed, and then burned out. Though once hailed as a heroic defender of law and order on the reckless frontier, not everyone was sorry to see him go. An unflattering obituary published in the Dec. 27, 1893, edition of the Rocky Mountain News called him "a bad man from Texas." Beneath the headline “Light’s Ready Gun. It Took Five Lives and then Killed Him,” the report noted “‘Cap’ Light of Belton, Texas, shot himself by accident the other day...thus [removing] one who has done more than his share in earning for the West the appellation of ‘wild and woolly.’”

Not every Christmas story comes to such a disastrous end. Prairie Rose will prove that beginning July 25, during "Christmas in July." Look for giveaways and special pricing on many PRP books, including the popular anthology Wishing for a Cowboy and my story "Peaches," which will be released as a short single. (I love the "Peaches" cover designed by Livia Washburn Reasoner. How 'bout y'all?)


  1. ...or are you just happy to see me? (had to finish the line or I'd have felt incomplete all day) ;-)

    So, this fellow played the good guy/bad guy role, rubbed elbows with some salty characters, generally lived an exciting life that added to the "wild and wooley" persona of the Wild West, and then shot himself?

    Um... I think Count Rugen would say: 'How marvelous. I think that's the worst thing I've ever heard of.'

    Speaking of Count Rugen, this is fabulous:

    1. *banging forehead on desk* Yes, yes. I spelled woolly wrong and I can't let it go without 'fixing it'. *sigh* It's my 'Obsessive Compulsive Editing Disorder. (maybe I had Sheb Wooley on my mind) 0_o

    2. LOL, Kaye! You know, I've seen "woolly" spelled about twenty different ways. I'm not sure there IS a correct way to spell the darn word. :-D

      Cap Light appears to have been quite the character, doesn't he? I've never been sure whether to categorize him as a good guy or a bad guy or someone who couldn't get off the fence. Maybe he belongs in the "sad case" category.

      I adore THE PRINCESS BRIDE. That's one movie without a substandard performance. Everyone was great, and the movie was a stitch!

  2. Thank you Kathleen for this interesting story. Looking forward to Peaches and yes, the cover design is beautiful! :-)

    1. Thank you, Claudia! I'm so happy you stopped by today. BIG HUGS!!!!

  3. Kathleen, loved this. That is the joy and frustration of trying to recreate the lives of people in the early days of the West. I've spent two years trying to piece together the lives of a family involved in a murder trial here where I live. Dead end so far, but....
    Looking forward to all that you will be writing. Yeah, more stories! Love it. Doris

    1. Oh, Doris! You've got to share that murder mystery. It's frustrating when research reaches a dead end, but maybe you could make up the rest of the story and turn it into a manuscript!

      Speaking of looking forward to future stories... Congratulations again on yesterday's debut of HOME FOR HIS HEART! I can't wait to see what you have in store for readers next. :-)

    2. Kathleen, I will soon, I hope. (Sigh- I did write a novel about the the murder etc. from the female perspective- took lots of liberties)

      Did you know Poker Alice was also in Creede about that same time? Doris *GRIN*

  4. Wonderful post, Kathleen! I didn't know about any of this---so interesting. What a way to end it all!

    Oh, I just love the cover Livia did for your "Peaches"! It's just perfect.
    I'm really looking forward to our Christmas in July event starting next Friday.

    I can't think of any ironic Christmas stories! That's probably a good thing, for me, since it might be the kind of irony that would make Christmas memorable in a bad way...

    Hugs, and congratulations on your single release of Peaches and that awesome cover!

  5. Tex, this was one of my favorite posts of yours. Loved Cap Light's story. I must admit, I'm a cruel person I laughed out loud at the line about him surviving a shot to the head only to die of a self inflicted gun wound. It made me think of the old Bob Hope PALEFACE movies. :) Thanks for sharing. I'll have to keep Cap in mind for future story inspiration.

  6. Dang Kathleen, how in the world did you come across Cap Light? I never heard of him until now. Wasn't it odd how many lawmen were once outlaws and vice versa? I remember the beautiful towns of Belton and Temple during my time loving in Texas. I never would have guessed they would have such a colorful character in their history. Great blog.
    I loved your story, Peaches, in the Wishing for a Cowboy Christmas anthology. It was a wonderful story.

  7. I'm a little late, but another great post, Kathleen!