The notorious con artist Soapy Smith was his brother-in-law, but that didn’t dim the reputation of Cap Light, known in Texas as a tough, honest peace officer. Light was “a brave man, a dead shot and made a good officer for years,” wrote the Houston Daily Post in 1892. The Dallas Morning News concurred, calling him a fine shot who “was always cool and composed in his difficulties, and always managed to have the law on his side.”
William Sidney “Cap” Light was born in late 1863, or early 1864, near Belton, a fast-growing town in central Texas. He was the son of W.R. Light, a merchant, and Eliza Hyatt Light, both from Tennessee. After young Cap’s father died, his mother married John Wiseman, a widower and prosperous wheelwright who had come to Texas from South Carolina.
Cap first became a barber like his older stepbrother Ed Wiseman, but he found cutting hair and shaving whiskers a bit boring. When a deputy marshal’s position opened up in Belton, Light, not yet 20, applied and was hired. His baptism by fire soon followed. It is believed he was with a posse that tracked down and fatally shot a local desperado, William Northcott, on March 24, 1884.
There was also a local bully, one Sam Hasley, a veteran of the bloody Hasley-Early feud. Considered one of the most dangerous men in Bell County, Hasley held a deputy sheriff’s commission that allowed him to carry a revolver. The renegade lawman certainly knew how to use his six-shooter, having shot down five or six men, mostly from ambush. Whenever Hasley rode into Belton for one of his wild drinking sprees, no officer or citizen dared challenge him— that is until one fall day in 1889 when Light met the challenge. According to the Dallas Weekly Herald, Hasley was drunk and causing trouble, so Light told him to go home. Instead, Hasley started riding his horse down a sidewalk, daring the youthful lawman to do something about it. Light told him he was under arrest. Hasley responded by reaching for his six-shooter, a big mistake. Light beat the booze-soaked hellion to the draw and shot him dead.
His reputation now firmly established, Light had no more serious trouble in Belton. After a couple of years, he traveled farther west, perhaps looking for new adventure. News drifted back to Bell County that Light had killed another man in what the Dallas Morning News called a “fatal difficulty at some point in western Texas.”
By June 1887, Light was back in Belton. That month he married his sweetheart, Eva K. Smith, the beautiful daughter of a local attorney, J.R. Smith, formerly of Georgia. Eva had an older brother who loved to gamble and to not give suckers an even break. His real name was Jefferson R. Smith, like his father, but he became better known as “Soapy.” Soapy Smith didn’t attend Cap and Eva’s wedding because he was already in Colorado, working the boomtowns and making himself pocketfuls of money.
Back in Belton, newly married Cap Light packed away his deadly revolver, sharpened his scissors and went back to work at his barber’s chair. He seemed determined to settle down into a peaceful life, that is until new adventure came knocking from a neighboring community two years later. Bell County’s Temple had sprung up along the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad and, like most railroad towns, was untamed and lawless. Marshal William Taylor sometimes found the job of keeping the peace more than he could handle. On a spring night in 1889, things in Temple went from bad to worse when his deputy, R.E. Hawkins, was shot dead in the Keystone Saloon.
The Temple Weekly Times of May 24, 1889, printed an open letter from Mayor A. Levy to Marshal Taylor, calling for a “purging of the city as it has not had in many long days, and of which it has long stood in need.” Taylor responded that his job, as he understood it, was to assure that the gambling dives and houses of prostitution were run in an orderly fashion and kept from the “plain view of the passing public.” But the marshal went ahead and got tougher on crime, running off the prostitutes with the exception, he said, of several women “of known loose character” who were living in their own places.
This was all well and good, but apparently not good enough for some of Temple’s citizens, including Mayor Levy. Temple had more than just soiled doves to deal with and needed the services of a gun-toting, town-taming lawman. Fortunately, a man who could fill that role lived only a few miles away in Belton.
Cap Light was more than happy to escape the cramped confines of the stuffy barbershop. In the deal that brought Light to Temple, Marshal Taylor remained at his post but turned over most of the enforcement duties to his new deputy marshal. On July 4, 1889, Light—handsome, well groomed and riding a prancing horse—led Temple’s founder’s day parade. In August the new deputy marshal had reason to draw his revolver. It happened just after he had arrested local gunman Ed Cooley. Light was marching his prisoner up 12th Street toward jail when Cooley tried to escape. Light drew his revolver and fired at the fleeing target. The Temple Weekly Times failed to report whether Cap missed, wounded or killed Cooley. Still, the town knew it had a lawman who meant business.
Following the birth of the Lights’ first child, Willie, that October, Eva became very sick. She returned to her family, now living in Round Rock, Texas, hoping to regain her health, while Cap stayed on in Temple, enforcing the law. The Weekly Times of January 10, 1890, reported that a cold, mud-spattered Light had just returned to town empty-handed after two days on the trail of a murder suspect. Light, the paper said, had finally lost his man “in the swamps which, owing to the rain, were impassable.”
In March 1890, Light used his six-shooter again. A stranger in Temple, Felix Moralas, went to the Cotton Exchange Saloon, got liquored up and caused a disturbance. Deputy Marshal Light was quickly summoned. When Cap walked in and confronted Moralas, the hell-raiser attempted to pull his pistol. Light was much faster on the draw and fired first. Moralas sank to the floor and died with, according to the paper, “his pistol in one hand and a beer glass in the other.”
Her health partially restored, Eva Smith Light, along with little Willie, returned to Temple in August 1890. Later that year, Cap took a leave of absence from his peace officer duties there so that he and Eva could do some travelling. The baby was probably left with her family in Round Rock before they traveled south to San Antonio, then over to Galveston Island to relax. In January 1891, the Weekly News announced that Cap had returned to his post at Temple and was “looking well.”
The spring and summer of 1891 were a quiet time in Temple. Deputy Marshal Light had tamed the town, and his services were no longer needed. Cap was soon out of work, and Eva was pregnant again. He didn’t want to go back to cutting hair, and there were hardly any towns left in east Texas that needed taming. Consequently, when he heard from Eva’s big brother in the spring of 1892, Cap was ready to listen.
Soapy Smith was in Creede, a fast-growing, silver-rich mining town perched high in the snow-peaked San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Knowing that Cap needed employment, Soapy urged him to come to Creede and take a deputy marshal’s position there. Soapy didn’t tell Cap how rough a place it was, what with its dozens of saloons and gambling halls, including Smith’s Orleans Club, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every man in town, according to the Houston Daily Post, carried a pistol.
Bob Ford, the slayer of Jesse James, was in Creede operating the Exchange Saloon in direct competition with Soapy’s Orleans Club. And to make matters even worse for Smith, Ford had a faro dealer, William “Reddy” McCann, who was trigger-happy and reckless. McCann often got drunk and shot up Creede and other mining camps in the area. Because of his close association with Ford, McCann was a dangerous enemy to Soapy and his gang.
Born William McAhan in Louisville, Ky., about 1860, he grew up in the Ohio River town of Henderson, Ky., where he was called “Reddy” because of his red hair. Gambling became McAhan’s passion, and one 1883 newspaper called him one of the “nerviest poker players that ever threw a chip.” By the later 1870s, Reddy had changed the spelling of his name from McAhan, to McCann, and was plying his trade in Little Rock, Ark. By 1880 Reddy had drifted all the way across Texas and had taken up residence at Santa Fe. He celebrated his arrival in the New Mexico capital by going on a drinking spree and “treeing” the town. At gunpoint, he stood off everybody on the plaza until the local law finally arrived and subdued him. He spent a night in the calaboose but got off with a bad headache.
Still in Santa Fe in 1882, McCann had a serious falling out with a local rancher named Billy Fisher over a card game. Fisher held a grudge, and when the two men ran into each other again on August 5, 1883, at Motley’s Music Hall and Saloon in downtown Santa Fe, they argued heatedly.
McCann was ready for action. He drew his revolver, a .45 Colt with a “sawed-off” barrel, and twice struck Fisher over the head with the weapon. The burley cattleman staggered backward against the bar, trying to regain his senses and balance. Standing only a few feet away, McCann cocked his Colt, expecting Fisher to draw his own revolver.
George Harvey, Motley’s piano player, stepped between the two adversaries, hoping to prevent bloodshed. At that same instant, McCann fired, his bullet passing all the way through Harvey’s mid-section, and embedding in a wall. A deputy sheriff named Chavez heard the shot from the street and rushed to the scene. McCann wheeled around, aimed his cocked revolver at the lawman and pulled the trigger, but there was no explosion. Somehow Chavez had gotten close enough to grasp Reddy’s pistol, the falling hammer, according to a newspaper account, “catching on the fleshy part of his hand.” No doubt, the officer’s swift move had saved his life. McCann was quickly disarmed and hauled off to jail. Apparently, the piano player recovered from his serious wound and McCann was not prosecuted.
McCann was involved in another Santa Fe shooting some three years later, this time with a hard case saloon owner named Joe Stinson. On the night of June 17, 1886, Stinson ran McCann out of the saloon following an argument, but Reddy returned with his Colt .45. Stinson, despite being drunk, had the sense to shoot first. A slug from his Colt .44 revolver struck McCann near the base of his nose, then ricocheted away. Dazed and bleeding profusely, Reddy fell to the floor. Stinson was apparently too inebriated to realize what he had done. He bent down, shook the fallen man, and said: “Red, where do you live? Come on and go home.” Stinson then sat down, lay his head on a tabletop and passed out.
McCann was physically tough and recovered quickly. Two days later, the Daily New Mexican reported Reddy was “propped up and smoking cigarettes today, and that the wound at the base of his nose has been so nicely adjusted that it won’t even leave much of a scar.” In the meantime, Stinson, now as sober as the judge, was charged with attempted murder and released on $2,000 bail. When the grand jury met, McCann couldn’t be found to testify, but Stinson was eventually brought to trial, found guilty of the lesser charge of assault and battery, and fined $100.
On September 2, 1886, McCann returned to Santa Fe, apparently to even the score, but Stinson took refuge in a shoe store next door and refused to fight. McCann scooped up several stacks of silver dollars from a monte table at Stinson’s saloon and then stepped outside and tossed the money across the plaza. A crowd gathered, but Stinson remained in the shoe store, and McCann got tired of waiting. He saddled up and left town for good.
McCann moved around frequently in the next few years. After stops in Salt Lake City, Denver and Leadville, Colo., he landed in Creede in early 1892—about the same time as Bob Ford and Soapy Smith. With silver aplenty in the nearby mines, and miners spending their money liberally in town, there should have been room for all three of them. But all three were greedy.
When Cap Light arrived in Creede in March 1892, he had no idea what he was walking into. It was still winter in the San Juan Mountains, but there was more to worry about than the biting cold. The residents had been cooped up there for months and they couldn’t stay quiet forever. There was also the ambitious Ford and deadly McCann, though it isn’t certain how much Soapy Smith told his brother-in-law about that pair.
Ford and McCann no doubt took note of the arrival of the new deputy marshal with the reputation for toughness. But they were hardly the types to be intimidated or to change their ways. Light had scarcely settled into his new job before he was tested. About 4:15 a.m. on March 31, 1892, rapid gunfire erupted on Main Street. A drunken gunman was reportedly standing there under the flickering glow of the lamps, shooting out the lights on both sides of the street. Light dressed quickly and hurried to the scene of the disturbance. He soon learned from witnesses that the shooting had been the work of faro dealer Reddy McCann, who had gone into the Branch Saloon after emptying his six-shooter. Light didn’t think twice about what he must do next. He walked right into the saloon and boldly approached McCann, who was warming himself by a woodstove.
Light told McCann to turn over his six-shooter and to consider himself under arrest. McCann cursed the new lawman and told him nobody was going to take his gun. In response, Light slapped McCann’s face, knocking a cigar out of his mouth. That caused both men to draw their revolvers and open fire at each other. When the smoke cleared after five or six shots, McCann was on his back, on the dirty saloon floor. “I’m killed,” he said. Bystanders picked him up and placed him on a nearby table. Fifteen minutes later, the red-headed gambler was dead.
A coroner’s jury reviewed the facts of the case and ruled Light had shot McCann in self-defense. Soapy Smith no doubt was pleased, but Light was distraught. He seemed to have second thoughts about taking on the job way up in Colorado. Maybe he didn’t want to “work” for his brother-in-law anymore. “I’ve had enough of this,” he told a reporter from the Creede Candle, “and I do not wish to again be placed in this position.” Light soon resigned his position and returned to Texas. A short time later, Ford’s Exchange Saloon was burned to the ground. Ford reopened in a tent, but it was not business as usual. Gunman Ed O’Kelley walked in and blasted him to death with a shotgun. Soapy Smith was on top, but he soon took his act to new ground in Alaska.
Back in Texas in June 1892, Light tried to secure a good-paying position as a detective for the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad, but he was turned down. His reputation may have been tarnished by his association with Soapy Smith and his killing of McCann in Creede. Light became moody and for some reason believed that the railroad’s chief detective, T.J. Coggins, had kept him from getting the job.
One day Light was in Temple’s Silver Moon Saloon, brooding and drinking. He noticed Coggins across the street at the railroad depot, and walked over to him. After striking the detective a couple of times with his fists, he struck him twice more with his six-shooter, severely splitting Coggins’ scalp. When a reporter from the Temple Weekly News interviewed Light, Cap blamed Coggins for “causing good men to lose their jobs” and said he had made up his mind to whip the detective.
On July 6, 1892, Cap Light was arraigned at the Temple City Hall on the charge of aggravated assault. His bond was set at $300. As the hearing ended, Coggins rose from his seat, pointed the muzzle of his .44 revolver near the side of Light’s head and opened fire. One of the slugs struck Cap near his right ear, the other bullet entering his neck just below the jaw. Physicians pronounced that Light’s wounds were fatal.
Although bleeding freely, Light never lost consciousness. He just sat there in a pool of his own blood, calmly cursing Coggins for shooting him down like a dog. “Move me out of this blood,” he finally told a group of bystanders, and “give me some fresh air.” As he was being moved from the city hall to his residence, the former deputy marshal assured his friends, “he [Coggins] hasn’t murdered me yet.”
Cap was right. Three weeks later, he was well on his way to a complete recovery. The Weekly Times wrote, “Light’s vitality is remarkable…the wounds causing him hardly any inconvenience.” Detective Coggins was later arraigned in Belton, the seat of Bell County, on attempted murder charges, and then released on a $2,500 bond. Apparently, he was never tried and convicted, because years later he was still at his post with the railroad.
On December 24, 1893, Cap was a passenger on a Missouri, Kansas & Texas train steaming northward toward Temple. He had been on a trip and was returning home for Christmas, likely carrying gifts for Eva and the kids. At a rural siding known as Little River Switch, the train stopped. The conductor had just entered Light’s coach and was walking down the aisle, checking tickets, when he heard a muffled shot. Then somebody noticed a stream of blood running from the side of Light’s seat, and onto the carpeted floor.
Light just sat there, in shock, holding his groin and trying to curb the flow of blood. Somehow, his six-shooter had accidentally discharged, the bullet severing his femoral artery. A physician happened to be on the train and rushed to Light’s aid, but there was little he could do. Light, barely 30, hemorrhaged to death in minutes.
A short time later, the train pulled into Temple with a dead man aboard. For Eva, her Christmas Eve grief must have been all but unbearable, but she continued to raise their children in that town. Eva’s beloved brother, Soapy Smith, was shot and killed in Skagway, Alaska, on July 8, 1898, the victim of a vigilante committee that was tired of his lawless ways. In 1900 Eva was still living in Temple, working as a seamstress. It is uncertain when she finally left, but she had many years ahead. She died in Big Spring, Texas, in 1959 at age 88. In her latter days in west Texas, Eva seldom spoke of her early years in Belton and Temple.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.