Dec. 13, 2020

The Old Shoe Salesman

The Old Shoe Salesman

The old shoe salesman wasn’t as spry as he used to be. A fact his aching and crackling joints made abundantly clear to him each and every morning when he climbed up out of bed.

But he found that once he got a few cups of strong coffee in him, he didn’t feel all that bad. Real coffee, though. Not Chicory. He’d had more than enough of that as a youngster.

Morning cup of joe notwithstanding, he still wasn’t moving briskly enough to suit the loudmouthed customer he was currently attending.

“Don’t you know who I am?” the blowhard shouted. “I’m Bill Duggans and I’ve got a mind to bust you upside the head if you don’t find me the boots I want!”

Yikes. Obviously, whoever said the customer is always right never worked retail. And they never encountered Bill Duggans.

Now, I don’t know what this lout looked like, but I’d be willing to bet he was on the bigger side. The kinda guy used to throwing his weight around and bullying those that were smaller or weaker than him.

I mean, I think we all know the truth about bullies, right? How they’re really just cowards at heart and only pick on easy targets, those they don’t consider a threat. In this case, Bill Duggans was picking on what looked to be just an old man working at a shoe store.

Ah, but looks can be deceiving.

And sometimes a man will tell you all you need to know about him without even saying a word, if only you just pay attention.

Take the shoe salesman, for example. If the loudmouth bully had been the observant type, maybe he’d have noticed that the old man sure didn’t have the looks of a guy who spent a lifetime selling shoes.

The wrinkles around the eyes, for instance, indicated time spent out of doors, squinting at the sun. And the way he walked, kinda awkward. A little bowlegged and with a slight limp. A walk that you’d except from a man accustomed to long hours in the saddle as opposed to the confines of a department store.

And maybe if Duggans had noticed the limp he’d probably just snidely explain it away as arthritis or old age. Never stopping to entertain the idea that it might just be the result of a hip once shattered by a .36 caliber ball. And then not furthering that thought with the notion that maybe this old shoe salesman had other scars, from other bullets.

Or if he had, maybe he just dismissed the salesman as being yet another old veteran. Most men his age were, but hell most of them were broken. And the stories they told were all lies anyway, most likely.

Why, if only Bill Duggans had been around during the war, he’d have shown those damn Yankees a thing or two!

Maybe if Duggans had taken the time to speak with the other employees he’d have gleefully sneered at the stories they told of the soft-spoken shoe salesmen who was easily startled by loud, unexpected noises. Noises of the sort that didn’t have any effect on a brave man such as Duggans.

But I wonder if he would have paid attention as the same employees also spoke about how the old man never let nobody walk too close behind him. How no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t sneak up on the man. He just always seemed to know you were there.

And I’m fairly certain that if the old man’s coworkers were to share his fondness for quoting Shakespeare or his tendency to volunteer at the church teaching Sunday School, that would have only emboldened the bully even more.

And blind him to the signs that were there and obvious to anyone willing to just pay attention.

Signs like the total lack of fear in the old man’s eyes.

And not just a lack of fear, something else…something the bully probably had never yet encountered during one of his tirades. A twinkle of amusement.

The situation had to be amusing for the old shoe salesman, who hadn’t always been a shoe salesman. But still the bully had asked him a question, one he was going to make an honest attempt at answering.

Had he ever heard of this brute, he wondered, as he began turning the name over in his head.

Bill Duggans….Bill Duggans

Was this here Bill Duggans around back in ’61 when the old man heeded the call? Back before he found out he was just mere mortal at places like Lexington and Wilson’s Creek?

No, not that he could recall.

Nor could he recall anyone by the name of Duggans who rode with Captain Scott or Quantrill. Or Bill Anderson.

Especially not that terrible day in the ravines when their ammunition ran out and they were reduced to fighting with clubbed rifles and fists and rocks. No, the name of every man he fought with that day was carved into the very core of his being. And none of ‘em went by Duggans.

And try as he might he just couldn’t place a Bill Duggans among those whom he accompanied to Lawrence the day he and the boys sold their souls to the devil and set the jayhawkers straight.

The old shoe salesman’s mind scanned over the past few decades. He saw the faces of men he’d known. Guys like George Todd, Clell Miller, and Charlie Pitts. That brave yet foolish banker up in Minnesota by the name of Heywood. And others, some of which he couldn’t put names on but as far as he could remember, none of ‘em were called Duggans.

And there damn sure wasn’t no Duggans present back in ’82 when the old man became a temporary guest of the government.

Finally, the old salesman looked up at the loudmouth and replied. “No, I don’t think I know who you are. Do you know who I am, Mr. Duggans?”

No, who are you?

Name’s Frank James. Perhaps you’ve heard of me or my brother, Jesse.

The story then goes that Bill Duggans all of a sudden turned pale, started trembling, and very quickly decided he liked the boots he already had just fine.

Within moments he was gone. Probably to go find a fresh pair of underwear.

Now, I don’t know if that story is true. It’s one of the many tales that you can find on the internet when researching Frank James. I’m not sure when it was first printed and there’s no way that I know of to verify its accuracy. And even if it is true, I’m sure it’s at least been slightly embellished over the years. I’m not ashamed to say I even took liberties myself when sharing it just now.

But the fact is Jesse’s brother, Alexander Franklin James, did sell shoes in his old age. At Sangers in Dallas, Texas. It was one of the many odd jobs he took up after he got out of jail. In addition to selling shoes, he also punched tickets for a burlesque show, picked berries, gave lectures, and even worked for AT&T. Until he finally settled down on the family farm in Missouri, where he died in 1915 at the age of 72.

Whether or not there was ever any Bill Duggans is up for debate, but surely at some point some cocky kid, some local bully or pompous blowhard, did brush shoulders with the notorious Frank James without knowing who he was. Maybe cursed at him for walking to slow or for accidentally bumping into ‘em.

Not knowing they were just talking to a man who could kill them 4 times over before breakfast and then sleep like a baby that night.

And I gotta wonder what Frank thought of such men, guys like Bill Duggans, who walked around seemingly begging for death without even knowing it. Men who wouldn’t make a pimple on a tough man’s ass or hold a candle to the likes of those he rode with back when the west was still wild and the air was permeated with the black powder smoke.

A lot of people idolize the James brothers, put ‘em up on a pedestal as freedom fighters or robin hood types. And that’s not what I’m doing here. I just think it’s an interesting story.

But there’s no disputing the fact that Frank was a dangerous man. He never drank or used foul language, but he sure as hell left plenty grieving mothers in his wake and so did his little brother.

Frank James wasn’t no hero. But he was a product of his time and, like I always say, history is complicated.

On one hand I think everyone is responsible for everything they do. Nobody forced Frank James into a life of crime. But on the other hand, I figure he and Jesse had about as much chance at going straight after the war as a young kid nowadays in Mexico does, growing up in a poor barrio where the only way to feed his family is to become a sicario for a cartel.

The type of life that causes you take make choices the more privileged don’t have to make, choices that I’ve never had to make. Choices that lead to a lifestyle that sickens a man’s soul.

But I do believe there’s redemption in this world. At least, I hope to God there is for my own sake. And maybe Frank found that redemption in his later years. Doing honest work. And ignoring that inner voice, quieted thought it was through the years, that surely was telling him to end Bill Duggans existence the same way you or I would casually swat a mosquito.

Anyway, fun to think about. And something to keep in mind next time your out in the world, feeling yourself. Maybe don’t rush to anger. Or mouth off at someone who you don’t know anything about.

There are still killers among us. Just like in Bill Duggans time. And they might not all be as patient as Frank James.