Shoe leather has started a small war in our town. It's put twelve dead horses in front of my saloon, and laid a vexing problem before Sheriff Theodore Clemens.
A mob of mad Texas cowboys is milling around in the street, looking off in the direction Addie Sparks rode. They're cussing and carrying on like lunatics, but they haven't yet touched their pistols.
Maybe they'll let Addie go home in peace.
Maybe they'll go back to their cattle drive and leave the rest of us in peace.
Hell, maybe the moon will fall down on them Texans.
It's been a warm day for September. Every man I see is sweating like it's July, and dead horses will be a problem in no time. If they're not buried by morning, the swells in Topeka will be smelling them things with their breakfast.
But before the horses, we got cowboys to deal with, like Addie wanted us to in the first place.
Addie lives eighteen or nineteen miles outside our town of Restful Haven. She's got a sod shanty and nine kids Buford Sparks left with her when he run off to California. Her sister in St. Louis writes at least twice a year, begging Addie to move back east where them children can get more educated than they will on a Kansas dirt-shanty homestead. Addie won't do it.
The thing is, she believes with all her heart and soul the tales Buford told, about coming back a rich man, how he'd take her and them kids to a better place, better even than St. Louis. Addie says, "If I leave Restful Haven, Buford might not find us when he comes back from California."
President Garfield is more likely to turn up in Restful Haven than Buford Sparks, but nobody says so to Addie. When she talks about her man there's a look in her eye that says you better not contradict her.
By now some of them children are old enough to help Addie. Last time I was out her way, I seen one of the bigger boys horseback, inspecting fences, and in a few years her daughters will attract a man or two who'll settle down with them. The Sparks family ain't as likely to starve as they once were. It's a long time since anybody thought it necessary to carry food to them out yonder.
They raise a few head of cattle, farm a little, and keep some sheep, not so many to hurt what little grazing pasture they got. Addie spins the wool into yarn, knits shawls, mittens, all manner of well-made items for John Barker, our storekeeper. In the fall Addie trades wool goods for shoes. Her children can run barefoot spring and summer, but Kansas winters are fierce.
As a rule, that's the only time we see her, in September, when she rides her mule in to get nine pair of new shoes. Everybody was surprised when Addie rode in last March, well ahead of time. People who seen her coming say her face had no more movement to it than a painting, and she didn't say word one to nobody.
She kept her eyes set straight ahead, didn't climb off the mule till she was at the sheriff's office. He wasn't there, and Addie worked her way through the town, door to door, and found him trading lies with Toby Bradley, the piano player at my saloon.
Addie scattered sawdust every which a way, stomping across the floor, ignoring whores at the bar and the men drinking with them. "I want the law on somebody," she said, standing between Sheriff Clemens and Toby.
There ain't much for a sheriff to do in Restful Haven. Theodore was drunk, like he is most of the time. He didn't look up, just tried to see around Addie, waiting to hear the end of a dirty story Toby was telling.
When Theodore raised his head to see who was interrupting, he was as surprised to see Addie in town as he would be to see snow in summer. One's about as common, out of season, as the other.
"What're you doing here, Miz Sparks?" he asked. "It ain't September. Is it?" He grinned at Toby, like their two or three day drunk might have lasted longer than they thought.
Toby told him, "Why sheriff, we ain't even seen July yet." He would have said more but Addie shot a look in his direction that made him hush.
"I want the law on somebody," she repeated, talking slow, like she just that moment realized it was a drunk man in front of her.
I was cleaning glasses at the bar, and when Theodore tried to wave me over to the table, I pretended not to see him. Sometimes the sheriff decides I'm a deputy, never mind the town ain't got money to pay one. I don't keep a pistol nor even a badge.
Theodore turned his waving into a two-handed semaphore, and then he bellowed, "Robert Patrick Reilly, I need you here. " When he makes me his deputy, Theodore uses all three of my names. If I didn't go he'd get louder, so I put down my dish towel. "Now," the sheriff said to Addie as I sat down at the table. "Tell us about it."
"Last November," she began. "I was robbed." The hard look on her face gave way, but Addie sucked the tears beading in her eyes back inside someplace, and her face went hard again.
"What have you got that anybody could rob, Addie?" I asked. I thought one more winter in a dirt house, where you can see twenty miles in any direction, waiting for a man who ain't never coming home had caused that woman to lose her mind.
What Addie said next brought us where we are now, to dead horses and mad Texans in the street.
"Six men come by my place, four months ago, and stole from me," she said. "Right after they left it snowed, and I wasn't able to get to town all winter." Tears come back in her eyes and this time they ran down her thin cheeks. Addie paid them no mind and let them drip onto the front of her dress. "They took my babies' shoes."
"Who'd do a thing like that?" Theodore looked shocked, but he and I both knew the men Addie was talking about.
A Texas cattle drive had come through in the fall. Later, a half dozen cowboys, going home, hung around town till winter was almost on us before they rode south. We'd not been sorry to see that bunch leave.
Most everybody in Restful Haven owns at least one gun, but we keep 'em put away mostly. The Texans carried pistols everywhere they went. Sharp Mexican spurs rang like sleigh bells when they walked, and looking at their half-wild horses, you understood what the spurs was for. If you watched their eyes, you could see the Texans understood what pistols could be for.
"They took them shoes for pure meanness," Addie said. She lowered her voice so only Theodore, me, and Toby Bradley could hear. "They done meanness on me too, Sheriff Clemens. " Addie looked away from us, her pale skin turning pink. "Do I have to say what kind?"
"I reckon not," Theodore said, shaking his head. Addie's not much to look at, but a drifter might want her, especially if he was drunk. The sheriff's eyes showed every one of his sixty eight years.
"I sent my children to sleep in the barn the night them men come by," she said. "I done what they wanted me to. " Addie's cheeks got red while she remembered. "I done what all of 'em wanted me to, but in the morning, when they rode off, they took my babies' shoes. I come here to put the law on 'em."
"Addie, them men was from Texas." Theodore told her. "I don't have no authority down there."
"Telegraph a federal marshal," said Addie. "A marshal could arrest them."
"He could," Theodore agreed. "But he won't. A marshal's got plenty to do without looking for a half dozen cowboys whose names he don't even know."
"They rode for the Broken T brand, out of west Texas someplace." I was only thinking out loud, but Theodore looked sorry he'd had me come to the table.
"Knowing who they work for is nearly as good as having names," Addie said."And I can describe them for you, sheriff. " She blinked her eyes and took a deep breath. "I can tell you a whole lot about them."
Theodore stared dumbly at Addie, too drunk to do anything but puzzle over finding her in front of him when it wasn't yet fall. Or maybe only pretending to be that drunk. "You go on to Reverend Stuckey's," I told her. Addie stayed with the preacher and his wife whenever she came to town. "Come see me and the sheriff tomorrow morning and we'll talk."
Addie's face sagged, once she knew nothing more was going to happen right then. She'd marched into the saloon, but walked out like a whipped child.
I didn't sell Theodore Clemens any more whiskey that day, and spent most of the night making sure he'd be sober enough to at least listen to Addie. There wasn't much he could do about what happened, but I thought Addie had the right to tell her story to a man who wasn't drunk.
The next morning I made Theodore put his gun belt on. There's seldom any reason for him to wear it. The main job for Restful Haven's sheriff is collecting taxes or running elections, and it don't take a gun to do either one. "You owe it to Addie to look like a lawman," I said when he fussed about wearing the pistol.
Theodore wanted to bargain about it. "I'll wear a gun if you let me have one drink," he said.
I shook my head, and when the hardware was strapped around his belly, put another cup of coffee in front of the sheriff. I was thinking about three weeks in December, when the mud in Front Street never thawed once, and them youngsters out there with no shoes.
Addie got to the office about eight o'clock. She told her story again, with more detail than I needed to hear. "I know I should of fought what they wanted me to do," she said at the end. "But I've got daughters, twelve and thirteen years old. Them men was watching my girls."
Addie looked out the window, but I don't believe she saw anything a'tall. "I expect Buford will understand, when I tell him how they looked at the girls," she whispered.
Theodore looked sick, from Addie's story, or from being sober for hours at a stretch. Or both. "I'll do for you what I can, " he said. "But it won't be much."
"What exactly will you do?" Addie wanted to know.
Theodore took a deep breath. "I'll wire the marshal and tell him what you've told me, and if I can track down where the Broken T is, I'll send another telegram to the sheriff down in Texas."
"What else?" she demanded.
"For the love of God, Addie, what more do you want?" Theodore almost shouted. "I can't ride after them."
"If they drove cattle this way once, they may do it again. " Addie said. "I want a promise you'll arrest those men if they show up in town."
Theodore gazed at the pie safe where he keeps a bottle, but Addie stepped to the left, so he had to look at her. "Promise, " she said.
Theodore nodded. "If they come back I'll do what I can."
Addie wanted something stronger from the sheriff, but knew as well as I did she wasn't going to get it. She left us sitting there, went straight to her mule and rode for home.
Addie had told a terrible tale, and not a man in town doubted we ought to do something. All that spring and summer we picked at her story like a boil that won't go away, and someone was sure to talk about it when more than three people were in the saloon.
But like any other sore spot, it began to heal as time passed. Spring turned into summer, and by then it didn't hurt so much. Come September, no one talked about what happened to Addie. Theodore Clemens acted like he didn't remember at all.
When the Broken T's foreman, a whiskered squint-eyed man named Garner showed up, Theodore sent for me. The sheriff made me a deputy again because he was scared, and I could see why. By the time I got to the sheriff's office, Garner had made himself at home in Theodore's chair and didn't look like someone to trifle with.
"I hear some of my men stopped over, after the drive last fall," he said. "A law man down home told me a local lady had some little problems with them."
"More than little problems," Theodore told him. "Are the same men with you?"
Garner nodded. "But you can't have 'em. " he said. "I got a bigger herd than last year, gents, and can't spare a single hand till I get them cattle to the railhead at Dodge. " He put his feet on the sheriff's desk and offered us cigars. Theodore made a big show of lighting his. Fooling with the smokes gave us an excuse not to look at Garner.
"Anyway, my boys tell a different story, " the foreman said, blowing smoke in my direction. "They claim the lady was glad to see them ride up, even sent her kids out of the house so she could have a noisy good time."
"Did they tell you the rest of it?" I asked. "Did they tell about stealing shoes and leaving children with naked feet in winter? What did they want with children's shoes, Mr. Garner? Trade 'em for a few bottles of whiskey on their way south?"
Garner looked at me like I was a bothersome child. "A man who runs a saloon ought to know every story's got two sides." Turning back to Theodore he said, "Leave my crew alone, sheriff, and I'll give you fifty dollars for the woman's trouble. She can buy shoes for half the town with that."
Theodore looked at me like he wanted help, but Garner stood up and put his hand on the sheriff's chin. He moved so his whiskers wasn't but a few inches from Theodore's nose and hissed, "I won't lose any hands off this drive, sheriff."
Theodore at least had the decency to look ashamed as he told Garner, "I reckon that's fair. Fifty dollars for Addie and I'll not bother you nor your men."
Garner dropped a gold piece on Theodore's desk and got up, still grinning as he left us. "The drive's a few days out yet, " he said, holding the door open. "I expect if we bed the herd close to town, and some of my boys want to celebrate some, it'll be all right."