“Footfalls” is a short story by Wilbur Daniel Steele that was first anthologized in 1928 and probably published in a magazine at an earlier date. Steele was a popular author of novels, stories, and plays throughout the Great Depression. He wrote about a variety of dramatic topics, always setting his stories in American locations. In 1921, a silent film based on “Footfalls” was released by Fox Film Corporation. It starred Tyrone Power, Sr.
The main character of the story is Boaz Negro, a middle-aged blind man who works as a cobbler. Though Boaz is blind, his other senses are sharp, and he is characterized as an energetic and vigorous worker. He has suffered a number of tragedies in his life, including the deaths of his wife and three of his four sons. His surviving son, Manuel, is spoiled by Boaz who often gives him money and does not require that he work.
Boaz has a lodger, Campbell Wood, who has recently been employed by the town’s bank. Campbell and Boaz enjoy a distant but cordial relationship, though Boaz does not completely trust Campbell since he is educated and works at a white-collar job.
Though many people in town gossip about Boaz’s treatment of Manuel, no one expresses concern to him except for Campbell. One evening, Campbell mentions to Boaz that he ought to start teaching Manuel the family trade. This angers and alarms Boaz because he knows Manuel is in the house and could easily have overheard Campbell’s remarks. That same night, Boaz learns that Campbell is carrying a large sum of money for a public works project that he did not want to leave in the bank overnight. This worries Boaz still more, since he is afraid that Manuel may try to steal the money.
After Campbell goes to bed, Boaz stays up to keep an eye on Manuel. Noticing that his son is up very late, he invites him to a game of cards. Manuel agrees to play but does not join his father at the table. Boaz is aware of someone moving around the house because he can hear his footsteps, but he does not make any move to find out what he is doing. He sits quietly listening until he realizes that his house is on fire.
Boaz escapes the blaze. After the fire, Manuel is missing and a body is found in the upstairs hallway dressed in Campbell’s clothes Almost immediately, the case is deemed suspicious by the police, who soon find that the corpse was dead before the fire even started. The money that Campbell brought home from the bank is also missing.
The police interrogate Boaz who tells them everything he heard before the fire but refuses to actually admit that he thinks his son committed the crime. Much as he does not quite trust Campbell because he works for the bank, he does not fully trust law enforcement either. However, after he recovers from his shock, Boaz declares the murderer a dog and vows to go back to work as soon as possible.
For the next six years, Boaz sits in his shop, plotting revenge. He is sure that the murderer will return and that he will know him by his footsteps so that he can kill him. Finally, a man with a familiar tread enters the shop and Boaz springs his trap. He kills the man and then tries to determine his identity by feeling his face. However, the stranger has a thick beard and Boaz is initially unable to determine exactly who he is. He is worried that he has accidentally murdered an innocent man.
Finally, the police break into Boaz’s house and shave the beard off the dead man. Boaz asks if it is the dog, and they tell him that it is not Manuel, but that it does look a little like Campbell Wood.
Boaz reveals that he knew all along that Campbell murdered Manuel and stole the money, then staged the scene to make it look like Manuel was the criminal. He was aware the whole time that the footsteps moving around the house were Campbell’s and not his son’s. He tells the police that they can arrest and try him now that he has had his revenge.
During the trial, the court is sympathetic to Boaz. They determine that Campbell died of heart failure, and Boaz is acquitted of the crime. Boaz explains that he didn’t tell the police that he knew Campbell was the murderer because he did not think that they would believe him. After the trial is finished, Boaz finally begins to rebuild his house and some of his old vitality and spirit begin to return.