The Man Who Forgot Christmas - Max Brand - ebook

The Man Who Forgot Christmas ebook

Max Brand



After a successful prison breakout Lou Alp, a thief, and Jack Chapel, a wrongly accused person, form an unlikely pair and plan to rob a bank. But when the attempt at bank robbery goes awry with a bullet wound on Alp’s legs, Chapel comes forward to take care of him. But things are not going to be as easy as both of them fall for the same girl, Kate. What happens after this is sure to melt many hearts. No writer captured the excitement, humanity, or adventure of the American West better than Max Brand. And nowhere was Brand’s talent more evident than in this Classic Western. Prolific in many genres he wrote historical novels, detective mysteries, pulp fiction stories and many more.

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IT was snowing. A northwester was rushing over the mountains. As the storm wind shifted a few points west and east, the mountains cut it away, so that one valley lay in a lull of quiet air, with the snow dropping in perpendicular lines; or else the mountains caught the wind in a funnel and poured a venomous blast, in which the snow hardened and became cold teeth.

The two men lying in a covert saw Skinner Mountain, due south of them, withdraw into the mist of white and again jump out at them, blocking half the sky. The weather and the sudden appearances of Mount Skinner troubled Lou Alp. In his own way and in his own time, Alp was a successful sneak thief. He had been known to take chances enough; but that was in Manhattan, where the millions walk the street and where mere numbers offer a refuge. That was in Manhattan, where a man may slip into twisting side streets with a dozen issues through alleys and cellars. That was in Manhattan, where a fugitive turning a corner is as far away as though he had dropped to the other side of the world.

Far different here. Of man there was not a trace, and the huge and brutal face of nature pressed upon the sensitive mind of Lou Alp; the chill air numbed his finger tips and made his only useful weapons helpless. Lou Alp depended upon sleight of hand and agility rather than upon strength. This whirl and rush of snow baffled him and irritated him. He kept repeating to his companion: “Is this your sunshine? Is this your happy country? I say, to hell with it!”

His companion, who lay by his side in the bushes and kept a sharp lookout up the road at such times as the drive of the snow made it possible to see fifty yards, would answer: “It’s a freak storm, Lou. Never saw it come so thick and fast so early in December as this. Give the country a chance. It’s all right.”

Alp would stare at him in amazement. From the time of their first intimacy Jack Chapel had continually amazed him. That was in the shoe shop of the penitentiary where they had sat side by side on their stools. The rule was silence and, though there were many opportunities for speech from the side of the mouth in the carefully gauged whispers which state prisoners learn to use so soon, Chapel had never taken advantage of the chances. Lou would never forget the man as he had first seen him, the clean-cut features, the rather square effect given by the size of his jaw muscles, the prison pallor which made his dark eyes seem darker. On the whole he was a handsome chap, but he had something about him more arresting than his good looks.

For the most part the prisoners pined or found resignation. Their eyes became pathetic or dull, as Lou’s eyes became after the first three months. But the eyes of Jack Chapel held a spark which bespoke neither resignation nor inertia. He had a way of sitting forward on his stool all day long, giving the impression of one ready to start to his feet and spring into action. When one of the trusties spoke to him, he did not stare straight before him, as the other prisoners did, but his eyes first looked his questioner full in the face and flashed, then he made his answer. He gave an effect, indeed, of one who bides a day.

These things Lou Alp noted, for there were few things about faces which he missed. He had learned early to read human nature from his life as a gutter urchin who must know which face means a dime, which means a cent, and which means no gift to charity at all. But what lay behind the fire in Jack Chapel’s eyes he could not say. Alp was cunning, but he lacked imagination. He knew the existence of some devouring emotion, but what that emotion was he could not tell.

He was not the only one to sense a danger in Chapel. The trusty in charge of the shop guessed it at the end of the first week, and he started to break Chapel. It was not hard to find an opening. Chapel had little skill with his hands, and presently job after job was turned back to him. He had sewed clumsily; he had put in too many nails; he had built up the heel awry. After a time, he began to be punished for his clumsiness. It was at this point that Alp interfered. He had no great liking for Chapel, but he hated the trusty with the hatred of a weasel for a badger. To help Chapel was to get in an indirect dig at the trusty.

Because Lou Alp could do almost anything with his agile fingers, he began to instruct Chapel in the fine points of shoemaking. It was a simple matter. He had only to wait until Chapel was in difficulty, and then Lou would start the same piece of work on one of his own shoes. He would catch the eye of Chapel and work slowly, painstakingly, so that his neighbor could follow the idea. Before long, Chapel was an expert and even the carping trusty could find no fault.

Now charity warms the heart; a gift is more pleasant to him who gives than to him who takes. Lou Alp, having for once in his life performed a good deed, was amazed by the gradual unlocking of his heart that followed. He had lived a friendless life; vaguely, delightfully, he felt the growth of a new emotion.

When the time came, he had leaned over to pick something from the floor and had whispered sidewise: “What’s the charge?”

The other had made no attempt to reply guardedly. His glance held boldly on the face of the sneak thief, as the latter straightened again on his stool. There was a slight tightening of his jaw muscles, and then Chapel said: “Murder!”

The word knocked at the heart of Lou Alp and made him tremble. Murder! Looking at the strong, capable, but rather clumsy hands of Chapel, he saw how all that strength could have been applied. Suppose those square-tipped fingers had clutched someone by the throat–an ache went down the windpipe of the thief.

If Lou had been interested before, he was fascinated now. In all their weeks of labor side by side, only four words had been interchanged between them, and here he was in the soul of his companion. He was not horrified. Rather, he felt a thrill of dog-like admiration. He, Lou Alp, had wished to kill more than one man. There was the “flatty” who ran him down in “Mug” McIntyre’s place. He had wanted to bump that man off. There were others. But fear, which was the presiding deity in the life of the sneak thief, had warded him away from the cardinal sin. He respected Chapel; he was glad he had helped his neighbor; he felt even a touch of reverence for the boy.

And later on he had said: “How?”

“It was a frame,” answered Chapel. “A dirty frame!”

And then Alp knew the meaning of the spark behind those eyes. It took some of the thrill from his feeling for Chapel, but now he understood that undying alertness, for it sprang out of the hate of a man who has been wronged. After all, it is almost as exciting to be seated beside a man who has been wrongly convicted of murder as it is to sit beside a man who is really guilty.

A little later Chapel put his first question.

“And you?” he said.

“They framed me, too,” said Alp, and with marvelous skill he was able to put a touch of a whine even in his whisper. “The dirty dogs framed me, too!”

He hardened his face in lines of sadness, prepared to meet unbelief in the eyes of the other, but there was no questioning in Jack Chapel’s mind. Instead, he sat rigid on his stool and his eyes flamed at his companion. Then he smiled. The last bar was down between them; he admitted the sneak thief into his friendship.

Events came swiftly to a head. About his past Chapel was reticent. He had come from the West and he was going back to some part of his own great country when he was out. He was not going to attempt to get even for the double-cross which in the first place had brought him East and then lodged him in prison for a ten-year term. His vengeance was barred, for it was a girl who had engineered the whole scheme to save her lover. Alp learned of this reticence with amazement. If a strong man had injured him in a similar manner, he might well have postponed his vengeance as he had often postponed it in times past; but to withhold the heavy hand from a woman, this was a thing which he could not comprehend. As always when a thing passed his understanding, he remained silent. In the future he was to find that silence was often necessary when he talked with the falsely accused murderer.

A new event came. Chapel was planning an escape and he confided his plan to the sneak thief. That night Lou sat in his cell and brooded. If he took part in the attempt, it meant a probable recapture and a far heavier sentence for breaking jail. The other alternative was to tell the prison authorities everything. They would make him a trusty at once, lighten his service, and cut his term as short as was possible. On the other hand a still, small voice kept assuring him that if he betrayed Chapel, he would sooner or later die by the hand of that man. There was a third possibility, to remain quietly in the prison, say nothing, and take no part in the attempted escape.

Lou Alp had not sufficient moral courage to be reticent. As a result he found himself dragged into the plan. On the appointed night, after five minutes of quiet work and murderous suspense, he stood outside the black walls a free man, with Jack Chapel at his side. Instinct told him, as strongly as it tells the homing pigeon, safety lay in the slide across country to the all-sheltering labyrinth of Manhattan, but the voice of Jack Chapel was stronger than instinct and Alp started West with his friend. They had aimed for a district safely north of Jack Chapel’s home, had ridden the beams as far as the railroad would take them, and then plunged into the wilderness of mountains on a road that led them here. The night before they had spent in a small village and there, with his usual ferretlike skill, Lou learned of the payroll which was to go the next day from the village up to the mine in the hills under charge of two armed men. He had told Chapel, and the latter insisted on a holdup.

“I’ll take what’s coming to me, and no more,” he said. “What’s my time worth for two years? I don’t count in the pain or the work or the dirty disgrace, but write me down for a thousand a year. That’s two thousand. Then you come in. A year and a half at the same rate. That’s thirty-five hundred the world owes us and here’s where we collect. Thirty-five hundred, no more and no less. We use that to make a new start. Tell me straight, is that square? And we take it from old Purvis’s payroll. God knows Purvis can afford to spare the coin. He’s so crooked he can’t lie in bed. How’d he get his mines? By beating out poor devils who hit hard times. So he’s our paymaster. Something is coming to us. We’re both innocent. We’ve both been hit between the eyes. Now we can get something back. Is that logic?”

There had been a sort of appeal in his voice as he made the proposition to Alp early that morning.

“Sure it’s justice,” nodded Lou.

Then Chapel drew a little breath and his eyes flashed from one side to the other. “I ain’t much on a holdup,” he faltered.

“You never stuck ‘em up before?” cried Lou, horrified by such rash inexperience.

“Sure I never did. That doesn’t make any difference. I know how holdups go. You step out and shove a gun under the nose of somebody. He jerks his hands over his head. You go through his pockets or whatever he has the coin in. You take his guns. He rides into town like a shot. A posse starts out after you. You go one way and they go the other way. Haven’t I seen it work out that way a hundred times? I tell you there’s nothing to it, Lou.”

Once more Lou had been drawn into the dragnet of the other’s commanding will.

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