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.
ALP did not like it, no matter from what angle he looked at it. It was foreign to him. The game was not his. He was used to playing a lone hand and now he lay like a rabbit in a covert, not knowing what was expected of him, or if he would have courage to carry through the part assigned him. If it had been spring weather, he kept saying to himself, with a good, clear sky to pour content through the mind of a man and air through which one could see, things would have been very different with him. His one comfort was the bright eye of his companion. Cold had turned the fingers of Jack Chapel purple around the knuckles, but for some reason Alp could not imagine him stopped or even seriously embarrassed by such a thing as cold.
Yet he asked to make assurance doubly sure: "Pretty smooth with a gun?"
"Me? Smooth with a gun?" asked the heavyshouldered young fellow. "Why, Lou, I couldn't hit the side of a barn with a rifle, let alone a revolver."
The terror which had been reined up in Lou Alp's vitals now burst loose and flooded him. The chill which swept through him was a mortal cold that had nothing to do with either wind or snow. It was fear, horrible, strength-devouring fear. He could not even speak, as he heard his companion continue carelessly.
"But what does gun work have to do with it? I wouldn't hurt those two fellows if I could. Their boss is a skunk. He deserves anything that comes his way, but I don't hold any grudge against those two fellows. Not me! But there'll be no shooting. No, all you need for a game like this is a little bluff and some sand."
He followed his statement with his usual chuckle. Alp was seized in a fresh amazement. There were qualities about this man which never grew old. There was a surprising freshness, a nearness to the soil. Two things about him spoke the two sides of his nature. There were the bright, steady, and dangerous eyes. Lou Alp had been among the defiers of society long enough to recognize that glance. On the other hand, there was that ready chuckle. It came deeply out of his throat; it was musical, changing, and redolent with good nature. It was a laugh which instantly made a roomful of people smile and turn around. It was a laugh which never offended because there was not the slightest suggestion of mockery or derision or self complacency in it.
Yet it failed to warm the trembling heart of the thief at this juncture. He continued to stare as though at a revelation of madness.
"But for heaven's sake..." was all he could say. Then: "I've been wonderin' about your gun, where you been keepin' it all this time?"
"Here," said the other and, reaching above him, he snapped off a twig, shook the snow from it, and presented to Lou Alp the frost-blackened, curved fragment of wood. The sneak thief threw back his head and began to laugh wildly. The sound came up through his slender throat cackling. It was singularly like the wind-shaken scream of some bird of prey.
"That!" he cried. "Man, don't you know that you got two armed men to handle? Don't you know that they're lookin' for trouble? That's why they're with the coin! And even if you had a gun..." he broke off, unable to continue. Then: "Let's get out of this. I'm froze clear through."
"What's the matter?" asked Chapel. "Don't you trust me?"
Again Alp was staggered. He had dragged his cold-cramped body to his knees and now he paused, agape. He was about to say, "What has trust got to do with powder and lead?" but he checked himself. It occurred to him that this singular fellow might be angered by any doubts cast upon him; already there was the queer, thoughtful flicker in his eyes, and Alp dropped back into his bed of leaves and snow. It came to him that much as he dreaded the storm and the coming of the armed men, he dreaded Jack Chapel even more. He knew now why the twelve good men and true had looked into the face of this man and had believed all too readily, with only the most circumstantial evidence to back their belief, that he had been guilty of a murder. Aside from the escape from the prison he had never seen Chapel meet danger or perform any violent act, and yet he was ready to premise the most tremendous things of this bright-eyed man.
He lay back in the snow without a word and began to massage his lips with his knuckles, so as to be able to speak when he had mentally framed his argument. He must prevent this incipient act of madness that would destroy them both. His agile brain began to turn and twist around the subject, looking back on a score of arguments; but, when he was on the verge of beginning, there was a low exclamation from Jack Chapel.
He cast one wild glance down the road, but a whirl of snow rose and closed the way before him. Then, like the coward that he was, he looked to his companion, prepared with the protest, prepared with the plea, to let the danger and the money pass. He was stopped by the singular expression of happiness in the face of his companion. Somewhere he had seen such a look. Now he remembered. It was when he had taken a girl out of the slums to the theater; when the curtain slipped up, in the dim glow from the stage, he had turned and watched the face of the girl, her lips parted, her eyes at once dreaming, wistful, and eager.
Such was the face of Jack Chapel. The same hushed expectancy, the same trembling alertness, the same love of the unknown that lay before him. Now, through the curtain of the snow, the heads of two horses thrust out, powdered and unreal. Instantly the whole of the buckboard and the two men who rode in it came out upon Lou Alp. They were humped into bunches of flesh, shrinking from the cold, made numb and sleepy by it. Looking up at them they seemed huge and formidable to Alp. A shudder went through his meager body when he thought of a single man, armed with a bent twig, trying to halt that on-sweeping force of horses and wagon and fighting men.
Chapel was on his hands and feet like a runner at the mark. The wagon rushed nearer, rattling above the hum of wind and the soft crushing of the snow among the naked trees. Suddenly the man leaped out from behind his screen with a deep shout.
The horses stopped and veered to one side, cramping the wagon dangerously. The men in the wagon sat and stared stupidly at the apparition. There stood Jack Chapel before them, crouched a little, with the twig in his hand not extended at full arm's length, but drawn back close to his breast. For the moment Alp forgot that it was simply a crooked piece of wood. He expected to see fire flash from the end of it.
The guards must have expected the same thing. For they made no attempt at resistance, but slowly—or was it the feverish activity of Lou's mind that made it seem slow—they put their hands up to their shoulders and then, inch by inch, above their heads.
Chapel was barking orders. Obediently they climbed down and turned their backs, still with hands above their heads. Jack went to them at a run, still speaking swiftly, cautioning them not to make a suspicious move. He jerked a revolver out of the holster that hung at the hip of one of them and tossed his twig away.
Lou Alp stood up. The blood was beginning to run freely again in his veins. A spot of red stood out in the hollow of each sallow, thin cheek. For the madman was turning his madness into sane matter of fact. With his twig he had rendered two stalwart men helpless. With a cry of encouragement, Lou was about to step out and render such help as he was capable of when the second of the guards, whose revolver had not yet been taken, jerked down his arms, whirled, and fired.
It happened with incredible suddenness. Lou felt his left leg go numb, but he forgot that, giving his whole attention on Chapel. He expected to see that broad, strong form topple to the earth. Instead, his friend smashed the fist that carried the revolver into the face of the man who had just fired. The fellow tossed up both arms, staggered back, and sank slowly into the snow. His companion, turning at the shot, grappled the bandit. For a moment they swayed and twisted and then were torn apart. The guard came close again, his arms reaching out. He was met by the lunging fist of Chapel and dropped loosely upon his face.
By the time Alp's brain began to work, he felt the numbness in his leg give place to a sharp pain, as though a red-hot knife had been thrust into his calf and left there to burn the flesh. Not until then did he realize that he had been shot through the leg by that first wild bullet from the gun of the guard. A red trickle was running out over his trousers. He watched it, fascinated.
Chapel was tying the fallen guards. Now that the danger was past, Lou attempted to go to him, but his left leg crumbled beneath his weight. Lying on his side, he saw his friend climb into the buckboard, take up a box, smash the lock with a bullet, and then drop to the snow with a stack of what he knew to be money. Chapel was counting it. Was it possible that the fool was only taking the thirty-five hundred? There must be at least twelve thousand in that payroll!
He dragged himself out from the covert at the same time that the other finished dumping his loot into a sack. Chapel was instantly beside him with an exclamation while tears of self-pity rose into the eyes of Alp.
"The dirty swine," he moaned. "Look what they done to me? Will you? And what harm was I doin' 'em?"
Before he answered, Chapel knelt beside Lou, ripped up the leg of his trousers, and examined the wound. "It's an easy one," he said. He was tearing away his own coat as he spoke, and now he ripped his undershirt into strips and made a swift and skillful bandage. "Clean as a whistle, Lou," he went on reassuringly. "You won't lose a tablespoonful of blood hardly. Keep your chin up, will you?"
A hot rage sent a mist across the vision of Lou. "Pump 'em full of lead!" he said through his teeth.
"Why?" asked Jack Chapel.
"Didn't they do this? You ask me why?"
Something in the face of his companion cleared Alp's eyes again. He saw that Chapel was looking at him with a curiously cold glance.
"It was just a chance that you got hurt," he said. "Besides, do you blame 'em for tryin' to protect the stuff they were sent out to guard? No, they showed they had... courage. I like 'em all the better for it, but the luck was against 'em. And that's the only reason why we're not blown full of lead, the way you want me to fix them now that they got their hands tied."
Lou Alp forgot the pain of his wound as he met the new glance of Chapel.
"Say, Bo," he grinned feebly. "You don't think I meant it, do you? The leg was hurting like fire and it peeved me for a minute."
"Sure," said Jack Chapel slowly, "I know what you mean. Only..." He did not finish the sentence.
SOMEHOW that incomplete sentence tied the tongue of the sneak thief even when he saw Jack Chapel take up the box with the gold coin and drop it in the snow beside the guards. There went close to ten thousand dollars perhaps. Yet Lou Alp merely writhed in silence. He dared not speak.
Lou was lifted in the strong arms of Jack Chapel and placed in the rear of the buckboard. Looking over the side, he saw Chapel search the two guards for weapons, and then in amazement he saw him cut the bonds of his enemies. Such faulty procedure took the breath of Lou Alp. Still he attempted no advice, and even flattened himself on the bottom of the buckboard.
He felt quite sure that up to this point his presence had not been noted. He had not issued from his hiding place until after both guards had been stunned by the blows of Jack Chapel and, as they lay face downward in the snow, there was small reason to think that they had heard his voice over the screaming of the storm, or that they had seen him during the very brief interim before he was placed in the bed of the wagon. He lay still and said nothing while the two struggled to their feet and went with uncertain steps down the road. The circling, thick eddies of the snow covered them from view quickly. Jack climbed up to his place in the driver's seat. He turned and looked down to Lou Alp, bedded in feed sacks with his injured leg cocked up to break the jar of the bumps. As he turned, Lou saw Chapel's right hand laid on the rail of the seat, with the knuckles scraped bare and bleeding. The blows which knocked down the guards had done that work, he knew, and he felt once more that surprise, tinged with fear, with which he had already discovered so many unsuspected accomplishments in his companion. He knew enough about boxing to recognize the snapping, straight-armed power of the blows which had stunned the guards. He felt again that there was more to Jack Chapel than appeared on the surface. The man was hiding something.
"Are you going to be all right, there?" asked Jack.
His voice was cold, and Alp winced under it. "I can stand it, pal," he said conciliatingly.
He watched to see the face of the other soften, but with a curt nod Chapel turned and started the horses on. He swung the wagon about and sent it along the valley with the storm at their backs. They made good time up the road, jogging steadily on for the better part of three or four hours. Before the end of that time Lou Alp had squirmed into a dozen positions and was finding ease in none. How fervently he blessed the moment when the buckboard was brought to a halt. Chapel climbed down from the seat and stood over his companion.
"We've come to the end of the road," he said.
"This wilderness? Where in the name of heaven can we put up? Jack, I can't stand much more!"
"Look over there."
Lou strained his feverish eyes and made out the vague form of a house ghost-like in the storm, a big house of which he saw more the longer he stared.
"But how'll I get there?" he groaned. "Must be half a mile, Jack."
"I'll get you there."
Something of restraint in his voice made Lou wince again. He broached the vital question. "Will... will you be safe there?" he asked. "Suppose the posse turns along this road?"
"I dunno," replied the other. He turned as he spoke and looked into the teeth of the storm as though danger were at that moment riding upon him out of it. "I dunno. But I've got to get you to that house before you get a cold in your wound."
Lou could see his friend hesitating, and that hesitation drove him into a panic. Would he be abandoned here in the snow on the meager chance that someone from the house should happen on him, or that he could drag himself to the shelter? He was on the verge of breaking into a frantic appeal when he checked himself and thought of new tactics.
"Jack," he said, "listen to me. I've done you no good. First to last you've started everything and finished everything all by yourself. You got me out of jail. You brought me West. You planned the job down the road. You pulled it off. And all I've done is to clog up the works and gum the cards." He paused a little to study the effect of his words. It was hard to read Jack Chapel with the wind turning up his hat behind and the snow spattering on his shoulders. He seemed so self-reliant and self-possessed that again the shivering took Lou Alp. Yet he persisted in his singular appeal.
"Leave me be where I am, Jack," he went on, his voice shaking. "If you come up there to the house with me, they'll have you sure. Before ten hours somebody'll come along this way and the folks at the house'll tell 'em that you been there to leave me."
The larger man grunted. "What'll you do without me?" he asked harshly. "You don't know these folks around here. You don't know their ways. You ain't like 'em and they'll see the difference. They'll start askin' questions and you'll be fool enough to start tellin' 'em lies. Inside of five days they'll have the sheriff out here to look you over as a queer one."
The sneak thief looked into his wretched soul and shook in acknowledgment of the truth. "Let them come and get me," he said hoarsely. "Let 'em come. But if they get me, I'll have this one satisfaction, that I didn't drag you into it. Jack, pal, you take the horses and go on. I'll take my own chances."
Through a heart-breaking pause he saw the other hesitate, and even turn partly away; but at the very moment, when a wild and craven appeal was about to break from the lips of Lou Alp, Chapel turned again and caught the meager hand of the thief.
"I thought you were bluffin' me," he said with emotion. "I thought you were yellow and were just bluffin' me. But now I see you're straight, partner, and I'll tell you where I stand. Back there when you were peeved and wanted me to bump off those two gents, I figured that you meant it, and it sort of riled me a little. Speakin' man to man, I thought you were a skunk, Lou. Been thinkin' so all this time right up to now. But a gent that plays square once, can't play crooked the next minute. Here you lie, helpless, but not thinkin' once about yourself."
The emotion in his voice had a powerful effect upon Lou Alp. Tears of self-pity for the sacrifice which he had shammed began to gather.
"And now I feel like a skunk," said Jack Chapel. "If you can take my hand and call it square in spite of what I been thinkin' about you, here it is. If you're still mad at me, why, when you get on your feet again, we'll fight it out. What say?"
Lou Alp, trembling at the narrowness of his escape, clutched the proffered hand eagerly and wrung it.
"That's good," said Jack Chapel simply. "That's mighty good!" He seemed to brush away the remnants of the situation and turned to new things. "Give me your arms and I'll get you on my back," he directed.
"But what about the wagon and the horses?"
"Don't you see what'll become of 'em? With this storm at their backs, they'll drift straight down the road. I don't know a whole pile about this country, but I know there ain't more'n one road for 'em to take down this valley. As long as the wind blows, they'll keep moving and they may wind up fifty miles from here. The posse, if they start one out right away, will go straight for the place where the horses and wagon, or what's left of the wagon, are picked up. They'll start combing the hills for me around that place. They'll never think to look for me in a house. Even if they find me, they won't know me because I had my handkerchief over the lower part of my face and my hat pretty well down over my eyes. And it's a cinch that they'll never dream of lookin' for two of us!"
It was all so logically reasoned that the sneak thief nodded in admiration. The fever which had been gathering in him, and the waves of weakness, began to make his head swim. Yet he followed Jack Chapel's voice.
"First thing they'll do will be to look over the list of their old employees. Why? Because I only took part of the coin. On account of that the big boss will think that somebody he'd wronged, or somebody with a debt he wouldn't pay, tuned up a gun and came out to take what belonged to him by rights. And I'll tell you what they'll do. They'll be apt to send the posse right to the house of the first man around these parts that the big boss owes around thirty-five hundred dollars to. When they get all through with that sort of lookin'... then, and not till then... they'll take the back trail. By that time anything may have happened. Ten days ought to make you fit for a saddle, and most likely it'll be ten days before anybody bothers us here."
"And so?" queried Lou Alp.
"And so I'm goin' to take you up to that house, and I'm goin' to stay there with you. I dunno who lives there. But if it's white folks, and you don't talk too much, we won't be bothered. You hear me talk?"
The sneak thief smiled feebly as he was raised into the arms of Jack Chapel. "Jack," he said, "you're riskin' your life for me. I know you could make a getaway into the hills if you wanted to. You're riskin' everything to save me. You're givin' me everything. Some day I'll give it all back in a chunk!"
"Forget it," answered Chapel. "You talk a pile too much, partner."
Again he began to breathe hard as the strain of the steep hillside told on his legs and the weight of the limp body told on his arms.
THE half mile up that grade was no easy walk under any circumstances. With a staggering storm from one side, with the rocks slippery from snow, and with the burden of another man weighting him, it was a terrific task for Jack Chapel. Looking up into his face, Alp saw the fighting jaw thrust out and the muscles over the angles of the jaw harden. Yet he took the half mile with only three brief pauses for rest. Finally, just a brief distance from the house, he deposited the wounded man in a bank of snow and leaned over him, panting.
"I don't know what our story is going to be till I see the people of the house," he said. "The thing for you to do is to keep your ears open and your eyes shut. You understand?"
"You want me to faint?" grinned Lou Alp.
"Sure. Soon as I come close up to the door, I'll give you the word and you go limp. That'll bring me to the door with an unconscious man. As soon as I go in, they'll rush around until your senses come back. I'll have a chance that way to size up the gang in that house and frame a story. I'll tell the story so you can hear it. It won't be long, and you hang on to what I say. Will you do that?"
"I'll turn a flop," said the sneak thief, "that'll have the real thing beat a mile. Lead on!"
Where it was a mere matter of stratagem, Alp felt at home. His head cleared and his pulse strengthened as matters approached this new crisis. Once more he was taken up and they came in full view of a square-built ranch house whose tall windows promised capacious rooms within.
"Now!" cautioned Jack Chapel, and the thief made himself limp.
He became so perfectly inert that his left arm dangled toward the ground, his head dropped back and allowed his hat to fall off, while his long black hair blew in the wind. He heard a grunt of satisfaction from Jack Chapel that was music in his ears. Then he closed his eyes.
He was too much of an artist to attempt to look through the lashes at what passed around him. He remained in darkness, his mouth agape, his head dangling, his whole weight utterly inert. He felt Jack prop him up on one knee and then heard the clatter of knuckles against the front door; it was opened. Warm air rushed out around them.
"Hello, there! What you got? Not dead, man?"
It was a deep, strong bass voice.
"No. But drilled through the leg. Accident. Hunting." The reply of Jack Chapel was a tumbling mass of words panted out. "Lemme get him to a bed, will you?"
"Of course. Let me carry him."
"No, I'll manage him. Not serious, but he's played out. Lost a lot of blood."
"Up this way, then, son. Hello! Mother! Kate! Come here. Hurry up. Hurry, I say!"
A scurry of voices and footsteps in the distance, and then Lou felt himself being carried up a flight of stairs. The feminine rustling and voices came from behind and below and poured up around him. A young, pleasant voice had cried: "Poor fellow!" The voice of an older woman had screamed.
"Now, none of that foolishness," said the man who led the way. "Keep your head, Mother. He ain't goin' to die. Just a scratch. Lost a little blood. Kate, I want you to stand by to help. Get some water and bandages."
They reached level flooring, turned, and a door was opened. Lou could tell by the changed temperature of the air.
"I'll have a fire going in a jiffy," said the big man's voice. "Kate, get that hot water. But how did you get him here? How far'd you carry him?"
Lou felt himself laid upon a bed and then Jack Chapel was answering: "Not so far. We'd been hunting through the mountains. The storm got us, and we started down for lower levels. Coming along fine when this accident happened just in the hills, there above your house. And mighty lucky we were so close. Barbed wire is a curse, sir. Climbing through a fence got my holster caught... tried to get it loose... reached to pull my gun out... and somehow the thing went off and drilled Lou through the calf of his leg."
All the time he talked brokenly, he was working swiftly, taking off Lou's clothes. Presently Lou Alp found himself slipped in between chilly sheets. In the meantime, a pair of massive fingers closed over his wrist.
"He'll come along all right," said the deep voice after a moment. "Lucky it wasn't higher. Lucky it didn't hit the bone. Men of this generation don't know how to handle guns any more. No sense for 'em. Don't mean to hurt your feelin's, my young friend. By the way, my name's Moore, Roger Moore."
"My name is Jack Chandler and this is Louis Angus."
"Glad to know you. He ain't one of the Barr County Angus family, is he?"
"Might be related. I dunno."
"No, he ain't got bone enough to be one of 'em. Well, son, lucky you landed here. And you're welcome as long as you'll stay, and that'll be ten days anyway before he's on his feet. Come on in, Kate. Meet Jack Chandler. This is my daughter. Put that basin down over here, Kate. There's a good girl. Nothin' to be white about. The gent ain't goin' to die. Got a .45 through the calf of his leg, though. Was it a .45?"
"A .32," said Jack Chandler.
"What! Never seen a .32 tear things up like that, but bullets are as tricky as guns. Never know what they'll do. Look at that scar on my wrist. Bullet went in there, twisted clean around my forearm, and come out by the elbow. Didn't break a bone or tear a tendon and my arm was as good as ever inside three weeks. That's one of the queer things a bullet'll do. Luck, eh? Hello! He's comin' to!"
Alp had felt a covert nudge from the knee of his companion and he took it as a signal to open his eyes. He did it very well. First he blinked. Then he glared up at the ceiling and murmured: "It's all right, Jack. You couldn't help it."
"Delirious a little," muttered the deep voice.
Alp sat bolt upright in the bed and stared wildly around him. "What the devil!" he exclaimed.
His words met a pleased chuckle from half a dozen faces, and each with shining, kindly eyes.
"The snow," said Lou vaguely, rubbing his eyes. "The wind... I..."
A silver-haired woman with a youthful, beautiful face came beside him and laid her hand gently on his shoulder.
"You lie down, my boy," she said. "The snow and the wind and the trouble are all left outside. And now we're goin' to take care of you."
He allowed himself to be pressed back into the bed, but still his eyes went the rounds of the room. He saw Jack Chapel standing over him, his face grave with well-simulated trouble. He saw behind the woman the owner of the deep, bass voice. From the hand and the voice, he had expected a giant. Instead, he saw a stubby fellow, middle-aged, with a prodigious pair of shoulders and a not over large head set between them. His arms were very long, and the hands in exact proportion to the shoulders. Yet the small face which topped off this clumsy body was so filled with energy and penetration that Lou Alp forgot the lack of proportion.
Rattling at the fireplace at one side of the big bedroom was evidently a woman servant, and close to her stood a girl with sunny hair and earnest blue eyes, still darkened with the shadow of her recent fright. Her head was framed by the snow-crusted window beyond, and against that cold background the brown of her hair seemed golden and the olive skin took on tints of rich life. Upon Lou Alp she broke as light breaks upon deep darkness. Only the knee of Jack Chapel, striking his ribs, made him rouse himself enough to turn his glance.
"You'll have this room to yourself," the rancher was saying to Alp. "And you can take that smaller room next door, Mister Chandler. I suppose you'll want to be handy to your partner, eh? That way he can call you plumb easy."
He accepted the thanks which Jack Chapel proffered with a negligent wave of his massive arm.
"It ain't a thing," he said. "We're glad to have you. Lonely life we lead out here. Need company. Take Kate in particular, over there. She gets blue from bein' alone so much. Don't blame her. You try to cheer her up and I'll thank you for it."
The girl flushed and parted her lips to protest, but her father, laughing uproariously, drove her and the others out of the room.
"You boys make yourselves to home," he said from the door. "I'll see that you're kept quiet. If you need anything, just holler. We chow in about half an hour. We'll send up some broth and chicken for Mister Angus. S'long, boys."
He banged the door after him and went down the hall with a thunderous step.
The moment he was assured that there was no danger of being overheard, Lou Alp cried: "Did you see?"
His companion turned moodily. "See what?"
"The girl, blockhead!"
"Forget the girl."
Chapel began to pace the floor slowly. Once he stopped and kicked at the fire so that a shower of sparks went snapping up the chimney.
"Don't cuss women," said Alp, his face darkening. He was a good-looking fellow in his lean, dark way but, when he frowned, his face became savage to the point of venom.
"Cuss women?" said the other with a start. "Who cussed them? I didn't mean to."
"What a girl," sighed Alp. He looked hungrily at Chapel but, seeing that he could not confide in the larger man, he changed the topic reluctantly. "I guess we landed on our feet well enough."
"I guess we did."
"You don't seem terrible cheerful about it."
"Maybe I don't," growled Chapel.
"They're clean," said Jack. He straightened, and took a deep breath. "They're clean!"
The sneak thief gathered the bed clothes a little closer around his throat. "But ain't... ain't you clean yourself, Jack? Wasn't it a frame that put you in jail?"
There was a sort of acid eagerness in his query, a bitter longing to hold his head as high as his companion's.
"I s'pose I'm all right," said the big man dubiously. "But I've been in jail, and I bring the scent of it with me. I've been in the shadow, and now I don't feel right. Understand?"
The thief merely stared. His mind came near enough to comprehension to be disturbed, but no more.
In the meantime Jack Chapel paced up and down the floor thoughtfully. "Did you notice their eyes?" he kept repeating "Nothing behind them. Did you notice their eyes? Straight as a string. You can look a mile into eyes like that. Nothing to hide in 'em."
"What have you got to hide?" asked Lou, rather viciously.
"Nothin' much. I'm just a supposed murderer and an uncaught highway robber. I'm a jail breaker and a bum. Outside of them little things, I guess the doctor'll give me a clean bill of health."
He began to laugh in an ugly manner. Then the laughter broke off short, and he stood beside the fire with his elbow resting on the mantel. Over his downcast face the light tossed up bursts of yellow and bursts of red. It made the lines deeper and the strong jaw became a cruel, dominant feature. Lou Alp, looking on, saw as from a distance there was some inner struggle going on in the man. But he did not speak. He could not even silently name the trouble to himself.
"Nobody'll ever get anything on you," he ventured at length.
"But what about myself?" cried Jack Chapel. He threw out his hand, but there was no oratorical suggestion in the gesture. It was simply the appeal of one seeking aid. "They took us in and didn't ask any questions. Why, if the old man had asked questions, he could have punched my story full of holes. But he's so honest, he doesn't bother himself doubting. Well..." He stopped.
The sneak thief once more huddled deeper into the clothes. "Well?" he echoed faintly.
"Don't talk. I'm filled full of something... deviltry, I guess. I'm about ready to bust, Alp!"
A STILL small voice warned Lou Alp to be silent and let the mind of his companion work by itself. As one sees lights through a fog and cannot tell whether they mean ships or land or danger, so he stared at the gloomy face of Jack Chapel and wondered what passed behind his eyes. Secretly he rather despised Jack. Such exhibitions of emotion seemed ludicrous to Lou Alp.
Only one thing could extract any great display of his own inner self, and that was his overlord: fear. Yet, at the end of the chase when he found himself hopelessly lost, he could display the stoicism of an Indian. No third degree could make him betray the secrets of himself or of a confederate. Nothing under heaven could make him talk when he was helpless. The consequence was that each arrest was for a new and different crime, and not once had the police been able to link together a complete record of his doings from his testimony.
That day, for instance, up to the time when he was shot he was a coward, a trembling, rank coward. But the moment the bullet plowed through his flesh and made him helpless, he became brave. He had endured the torture of the ride with few murmurs, and only the new danger of Chapel's imminent desertion had shattered his nerves.
He was, indeed, the exact opposite of Chapel. To Lou Alp the exciting moment was the approach to this house where they knew no one, and where they might be betrayed and exposed. Once they were inside the place, helpless, hopelessly consigned to one course of action, fear departed from Lou Alp just as the fear which made the Indian flee in battle left him when he was in the hands of his enemy. On the other hand, Jack Chapel was perfectly at home meeting active danger, but this house closed around him like a new prison. The storm had been nothing except sound and fury, against which one could battle; but the silence of the house lay heavily on him. He was tormented by thoughts which could never enter the cramped forehead of Lou Alp. Under the sting of those thoughts he writhed. One room held the two men, but a world separated them.
In a few moments there was a tap at the door, which Jack Chapel answered. Katherine Moore entered with a steaming tray of food and her glance went pleasantly toward the wounded man, so that Lou Alp raised himself on one elbow, expectantly, and smiled back. Chapel took the tray.
"Thanks," he said. "But I'll take care of Lou."
The girl glanced at him in bewilderment, his tone had been so sharp. She apparently struggled against a touch of irritation, and then the feeling of a hostess overcame her scruple of anger.
"We'll see that he's comfortable," she suggested, "and then we'll both have to go down to dinner. Everything's about ready."
Chapel, on the way to the bed, turned back on her. "I'd better stay here till he's through. He might want something."
She paused, then, "We can leave the door open and hear him if he calls."
"If you don't mind, I'll bring a tray up for myself and stay with Lou."
This stark bluntness astonished Lou. It was almost as if Jack Chapel considered the girl an enemy. Katherine Moore continued to examine their strange guest in silent surprise. She said at last, laughing a little: "It will be a terrible disappointment to Dad. He's been congratulating himself on having someone to talk to. As a matter of fact, he's waiting for you now in the front room."
"Then I'll go," said Jack sullenly. He eyed his companion with a hopeless eye. "Get along without me, Lou?"
"Sure," said the other. "Sure, I can get along without you. 'S a matter of fact, I'd kind of like to be alone, not meanin' no offense to you, Jack."
Jack favored him with a brief glare and turned on his heel. The girl took the tray and placed it on the table beside the bed while she stacked pillows behind Alp. He watched the movements of her hands in a happy trance. Sometimes as she leaned her hair came close to his eyes, and the firelight was in it. She hummed a little, working over him, and the sound completed the charm for Lou. It seemed to him that he was swept outside of himself and carried away. Something was taken from him, and in its place a light and heady happiness began to run into him. She built up the pillows behind him; she took him under the shoulders and helped him to sit up higher; she put the tray across his knees.
"Are you comfortable?"
"Need anything more?"
"You must eat as well as you can. Mother says that's the thing for you. Have to build up lots of blood, you know, to take the place of what you lost."
Under his eyes she uncovered the dishes. The fragrance spoke strongly to the famished Lou Alp, and still he could not eat.
"Let me see you start," she was saying.
The sneak thief folded his hands and smiled vaguely at her. "Somehow, I can't," he murmured.
"It's the pain," nodded the girl. "I know how it works on one's appetite. You're mighty brave not to complain about it. Never a word all this time."
Lou Alp was dazed. He, brave? Since his earliest recollection he had been kicked about by stronger men. Brave? One flash of fire in the eyes of another man had always made him sick at heart. Brave? He looked sadly at the girl, for she seemed so bright, so clean eyed, so beautiful, that the old rhyme ran into his head: "None but the brave deserve the fair."
"Oh," said Lou Alp, "I don't mind the pain, hardly. I'm kind of used to it, you know?"
A little impulse of sympathy moved the girl to lay her hand over his and press it warmly. "You're the sort of man my father likes," she declared, and her smile went through the eyes of Lou Alp and embraced his whole soul with warmth. Something akin to fear was in him and an enormous happiness wavered in front of him. A dream-happiness, and he trembled for fear the delicate illusion should vanish. The world-shattering truth came home to him. He, Lou Alp, was respected and admired as a brave man.
She was speaking of something else. What she said did not matter. The important thing was to keep her talking.
"Your friend is a little shaken up, I guess. Must have been an awful shock to hear that gun explode and see you fall!"
"Him? Shaken up?" gasped Lou Alp. He laughed faint and shrill. "Lady, you don't know him."
He observed that she was frowning thoughtfully, and began to regret what he had just said.
"He wasn't nervous?" she asked.
"He ain't got any nerves," declared Lou Alp.
"Hmm," said the girl.
Lou Alp gathered that in some cases she considered nerves a commendable possession. He felt that she was forming a strong prepossession against Jack Chapel, and for some strange reason this fact pleased him greatly. Indeed, Lou Alp would gladly have destroyed her good opinion of every man in the world except one.
"I'll tell you how it is with Jack," he said. "He's hard. You see?"
"Ah?" said the girl.
It occurred to the thief that he must not go too far, for a suspicion of one would embrace them both.
"But he's square," added Lou. "He's terrible square in spite of the fact that he's hard."
"Terrible square is a good way to put it. He surely has a cold eye."
Lou Alp became alarmed. "You don't see under the surface," he declared. "In a pinch he's the best pal that ever stepped. No boastin', no braggin', but when the time comes he steps out and does his part. Steady as a rock, true as steel, honest as the day, that's the sort of a gent Jack is."
If he praised his friend, was he not removing the foundation of any suspicion she might have? Was he not, by allusion, strengthening his own safety and good repute in this household? "Birds of a feather," etc. Then he observed that readily as the girl had been prejudiced against Jack Chapel, she was equally ready to be prejudiced in his favor.
"Is he all those things? In fact, I guessed at part of them."
"Look at the way he done for me," went on Lou Alp. "It wasn't his fault I got shot. Then, when a lot of gents I know would of sat down and let me freeze to death, he starts right out to carry me and get me to some sort of help. Tears up his own shirt, makes a bandage, starts the long pull up that hill...."
"Uphill?" echoed Kate Moore.
"Downhill, I mean. I got my tongue twisted. But he took me a long way. Most men would of buckled before they carried me half so far. Then he saw the house. Didn't leave me there in the snow to freeze while he went and got help, but he carried me right down, with his breath comin' more like a rasp every step. That's the sort of a gent..."
His voice faltered and died away, for he looked more closely at her and saw that her eyes were on fire.
"It was a fine thing to do," declared the girl. "It was a fine thing. Sounds simple, but I know how hard it was. No wonder he was gruff after all that hard work. And he wanted to stay with you! Why, he has a lot of affection for you, Mister Angus."
"Him and me... pals," murmured Lou Alp.
He felt, miserably, that the light was gone for him. She stood up. "I'm going down, now. They'll be waiting for me."
"I'm sorry," said Lou.
"I'll explain later."
She went lightly out of the room, smiled back at him from the door, and was gone. A weight settled on the heart of the thief.
ALP had that surpassing mortification, the feeling that he had been defeated with his own weapons, that he had overreached himself. He had talked so hard to remove her dislike of Jack Chapel that he had overshot the mark and made her just as keen in an opposite direction. Before she left she had been looking at Lou through a film, and he knew perfectly well that on the other side of that film was the face of Jack Chapel.
He writhed in his bed and forgot the tray of food before him. If he had only dismissed Jack with a careless word of reassurance, but he had drawn a clear and strong portrait. Even now she would be downstairs studying the man. This thought led on to further misery, for Lou felt that there was much to be studied in Jack. If she once seriously turned her attention upon him it would be long before she finished the examination.
Turning restlessly in his bed, he saw that the last light of day was gone and the early winter evening, almost as black as night with the storm, had come. The window was white and sparkling with the crusted snow, but behind it was a field of dark. The fire, dying toward a bed of coals, no longer held the room in shadow but sent a steady glow over the opposite wall and kept the ceiling dim. It was a big, square, old-fashioned chamber with plenty of reach overhead, yet for all the solidity of the wall, the storm pried through crevices, perhaps around the window, and sent probing, cold fingers about the room. These icy touches of the air chilled the heart of the thief. He began to eat but without tasting his food.
Perhaps in all his life Alp had never seen a thing he desired to possess in another manner than taking it in his hands. The pinnacles of his life had been the moments when a weight of gold glided over the tips of his fingers, or when the cold surface of a rare jewel set the skin of his hand prickling with delight. He looked at those agile, lean, pale hands of his now with dumb lack of understanding. They were his weapons, his only weapons. They were his "open sesame" with which he set ajar the doors to his desires. They were his livelihood. They comprised his profundities and his subtleties. They were almost detached intelligences. They could glide over human skin without alarming the person he touched. They could gesture with the speed of a camera shutter, eluding the most trained and vigilant eye. The nerves of those sensitive finger tips informed him of the mechanism of a lock at the first turning of a knob. In the center of his palm a mind seemed to work.
Now Alp sat in his bed staring wistfully at the capable hands and realizing that the new thing which he desired was beyond the power of instruments ten times more gifted. In a word, it was something which could not be grasped, which eluded the usual methods of acquisition, which could not be bought or traded for, or stolen. Lifting his eyes again, Alp heard the storm go whining past the house, a lonely sound, and he felt here was music made to order for him.
What was the matter with him he did not know. Indeed, in all matters of emotion he was younger and less developed than a child. He knew fear from the ground up, but beyond that he was uneducated in matters of the soul. In a vague way he knew that the girl was at the root of his trouble; and yet in what way he could not tell. He had known other girls before. There was the one whom he had taken to the theater out of the slums, where she lived a soiled, small life bounded by the reaches of a dozen streets around one central place of noise, scrambling children, drunken men, scolding women. To that girl he had been a superior power, a voice of all knowledge. They had had a few weeks of intimate companionship, but he soon tired of her and made it very plain to her that she had become an annoyance. The effect of this experience was the crushing of all her ideals and aspirations to lead a life of the better sort. If Alp had been told that he was connected with her failure, or even to blame for it, he would have been the most astonished man in Manhattan. But of such experiences his knowledge of women was built, and therefore it was no wonder that he found a new world in Katherine Moore. She possessed a combination which upset and startled him. He finally sank into broodings over his half finished tray of food.
How long he remained there without lifting his head he could not tell, but it must have been a long time. When he was roused by the entrance of Chapel, he felt as though he had been wakened from a deep sleep. He instantly straightened among his pillows. Into his thoughts of the moment before, the growing pain of his leg had entered, but now the pain was clean forgotten. An air of excitement had entered with the form of Chapel, and Alp, with his usual sensitiveness to changes, shared the unexpressed emotion.
It showed in the light, quick step of the larger man. It showed in the manner in which he walked swiftly back and forth through the room. Now and then he stopped in the midst of his pacing, and then went on again. Not gloomily, but as one rapt in a happy mood. Now and again a smile flashed on his lips and his eyes danced. The light murmur of his humming came to Alp in the bed. For some mysterious reason he connected that humming with the humming of the girl. He listened again. It seemed to be the same tune. It went through the heart of Lou Alp with a bitter pang.
As a matter of fact for the first time in his life he was jealous. In his small soul each emotion was over-mastering. In his narrow heart every desire was a cloud-sweeping thing. Before Chapel spoke, the sneak thief knew that the girl was at the bottom of this sudden mood, just as he suddenly realized that she had been at the bottom of Chapel's previous depression.
Suddenly the larger man started and became aware of his companion. He hurried across to him and took the tray. He was filled with concern that his friend had been left alone so long. He apologized because he had not seen that the tray was still burdening his knees.
To all of this Lou listened in silence. He felt that something was beneath the rush of good feeling. It impressed him as penny alms thrown to a beggar by a newly-made millionaire. He had to cast a film over his eye to keep its coldness from being apparent. Chapel carried the tray out of the room and, when he had done that, he hurried back and sat down on the side of Lou's bed.
"Been lonely up here, old man?" he asked, and then without waiting for an answer: "Pretty clubby supper we had downstairs. These people are all to the good. Fine crowd. No dog. Plain, straight from the shoulder, don't turn corners when they talk. The old man is a world-beater outside of his stale yarns. His wife is a lady... a lady!"
He repeated the word with a singular softening of face and voice, but Lou Alp waited for something else, and presently it came.
"You dropped some pretty good words for me with the girl, didn't you?" he said, and his eyes were actually moist with gratitude. "Tell you what, Lou, you're such a silent gent that sometimes I hardly know how to make you out. About as noisy as a snake, not meaning that in an ugly way."
"'S all right," said Lou quietly.
He felt like a snake at that moment, and he would gladly have struck Jack Chapel with poison fangs.
"I made a fool of myself when I met her," went on Jack. He rocked back on the bed and gathered his knees within his strongly interlaced fingers. "But she dazed me a bit. I wasn't set for her, you see, and she made me feel that I'd been a skunk. You know how a good girl makes a gent feel?"
Lou did not know, but he kept his ignorance under a discreet veil. He knew only one thing now, and that was a raging hatred.
"I guess you made up for the way you met her later on," he suggested, and smiled for fear that he could not control a sneer.
Chapel flushed at the memory. "I dunno how it was," he said, nodding. "She seemed to sort of like me. Kept looking at me in a bright sort of way. You know?"
Alas, Lou Alp did know, and inwardly writhed in pain. "Go on," he said rather hoarsely.
"What's the matter?" asked Chapel.
"Matter? Nothin'. I've got a bit of a cold, that's all," replied Alp.
"Hmm!" murmured Chapel. Every now and then he forgot what he was about to say and sat smiling into space. "What a girl!" he said at length. "Anyway, she began talking after a while. Sat next to me at supper, you see? I ain't much at talking, and I had the handicap of knowing that I'd almost insulted her when we first met. But it don't take any sense to talk to her. She leads the way and a gent can just sort of follow along easy on the trail she makes. She sure carried the lantern for me and told me where to step. Right off she spilled out all the nice things you said about me, partner. Mighty decent of you, too. Fine of you to come out with a bunch of stuff. Somehow," he paused, and his glance flicked across the face of Lou with a shade of its old coldness, "somehow I didn't expect anything like that out of you."
The sneak thief grunted.
"Well," said Chapel after a pause, in which he appeared to be stumbling with incoherent mind over the memories of that evening, "I wrote down in red what you said about me, and I ain't going to forget it. You're solid with me for life, Lou Alp."
Alp said nothing at all. Outside the window a fresh gust of the storm went rattling and howling by and, if he could have done so, Lou would gladly have transformed his companion into a dead leaf and thrown him to the mercies of that wind. He began to ask questions and, though every answer was a fresh probing of this new and acute inner wound, he could not desist. He took a perverse pleasure in torturing himself.
He learned that Kate and Jack had talked together a good deal during the supper. Old man Moore had broken in for a few snatches of talk. When he found that Jack had no pronounced political views, was not an expert cattleman, had no intimate knowledge of guns and gunnery, he lost interest. He confined his own share in the conversation to a few threadbare anecdotes at which the family had faintly smiled, as at old, familiar faces, and at which Jack had made an effort and had been able to muster a laugh at the correct times. "Kind of jokes my grandfather told," said Jack.
Then, after supper, they had drifted into a big, dark room with a fireplace of gigantic dimensions, filled with great logs that roared and snapped like musketry. Here Mr. Moore had fallen asleep in his easy-chair, Mrs. Moore had gone up to her room, and Jack and the girl had the time and the silence to themselves. He appeared to have made great progress in the direction of securing information. He knew the schools to which she had gone. He knew the names of her friends and particularly of one Ross Kirkpatrick, of whom Chapel spoke with a concentrated venom, which it was easy for Lou to understand. He was a wealthy mining man. He had built up his own fortune. He was an Eastern "college gent." Chapel referred to him with the polite endurance a Puritan would show for the devil. In the middle of this talk the door was suddenly flung open, and without any warning Katherine Moore flung into the room.
THE rush of air from the opened door passed like a solemn sighing through the big room, but it did not need that sound to send the chill through Alp and Jack Chapel. The face of the girl was enough. She went straight to Chapel.
"Have you done anything wrong?" she whispered.
Why was all the concern for Jack Chapel? Was there not another man in the room? Through a haze of jealous agony Lou heard Jack answer: "In my time... things bad enough, I guess. Why?"
It was the grave and perfectly controlled voice which Alp envied. He was almost glad that the girl had not come so directly to him with that whispered alarm, for he knew that a sudden blanching of the face would have answered her. But Jack Chapel was quite controlled.
"I don't mean what you've done long ago, but lately... I haven't any time... a robbery..."
There was a little pause—a heart-breaking little pause—and during that space of a second or so Alp stared intensely at the girl. She was without color. There seemed a cold film of blue shadow around her mouth, and her eyes were unnaturally dark and deep. There was accusation in the glance she fixed upon Chapel. It was rather a prayer for his good. It seemed impossible that Jack Chapel could lie to that face.
Then he heard Chapel's voice, rather stifled. "Robbery? I'll say this: that I've never taken a penny that I didn't feel was owing to me!"
Lou Alp sighed with relief. After all, had not the queer fool said something like this when he was about to commit the robbery? Had he not actually left part of the money behind, and the greater part at that? But he had no time for his own thoughts. There was a sobbing, small breath of relief from the girl.
"I knew... oh, I knew," she said. "But I had to ask you. And I had to... to tell you that Marshal Gaines is here, and that he's coming up to see you."
Lou could see that the name shook his companion.
"Marshal Gaines. But I'm so glad... so happy... that there's no trouble."
She was gone like a shadow and, as she went through the door, she looked back as she had looked at Lou once before, only this time the look was for Jack Chapel. And what a look it was! What a flash of eyes! What a tremulous smile! Bitterly Alp remembered that not once had she glanced at him this time. Her whole care was for Jack Chapel, and he, the wounded man, could fend for himself as best he might. His companion turned slowly toward the bed, smiling faintly.
"Who's Marshal Gaines?" asked Alp, leaning forward.
"She's got eyes like a man," was the singular answer of Chapel. "Eyes like a man's eyes. But her smiles! That's all woman. Have you noticed her smile, Lou?"
"Forget her smile," groaned the sneak thief. "Who's Marshal Gaines?"
"Marshal Gaines?" echoed Chapel carelessly. "Oh, he's just a gent that I know."
The words froze the trembling heart of the thief to motionlessness. "That you know?" he whispered at length. "Then, for heaven's sake, does he know you?"
"Better'n you do, a lot," replied Jack Chapel.
Lou Alp fell back in the pillows with a chalky face. "What does it mean?" he asked.
"It means we're done for," said Chapel.
"No, no, no," whined Lou. "No, no, no!" He began wringing his hands; then he stretched them out to Jack Chapel. "Gimme a lift out of the bed. I can't go back to the pen, pal. I can't go! Who got me into this? You did! Who tried to keep away from the whole thing? I did! You got to save me. You got to!"
"Shut up," said the larger man. He winced before this exhibition of cowardice and looked at the other with new eyes. "Is this the stuff you're made of? Shut up, or she'll hear you!"
"I don't care," gasped Alp. "Gimme a lift to the window. I can stand the drop to the ground. There's snow on it and it'll break the fall. Then, my leg's good enough. Gimme a help and I can wiggle along. I'll get away from this infernal trap."
"Shut up, will you?" snapped Chapel. "I got you into this. I'd get you out if I could, but I can't. Now stop whining. I told you who the gent is. It's Marshal Gaines. There's no hope."
A singular change came over Alp. He arranged the pillows behind his back. His natural color returned. "Pass me the makings, will you?" he demanded. "I thought there was a show but, if there ain't, let's see what the music's like."
The sudden change of front made Chapel blink. "You've got something, Lou," he admitted admiringly. He himself was gray about the mouth, and his jaw was set.
"Tell me about Gaines."
"It'd take all the rest of the night. I'll tell you this much. If I knew that Gaines was out on my trail, I'd stop runnin'. I'd turn around and go in and give myself up to him to save a lot of trouble for both him and me. That's the sort he is. He's so good that, if I had two guns and he didn't have nothin' but a knife, I'd throw up my hands and let him take me. Why, man, I ain't a gunfighter, and Gaines is a devil. He took `Sandy' Crew. He took Gus Landers. He killed Peters and Galbright, and I could reel 'em off by the yard. That's Gaines."
"Well," sighed the sneak thief, "it's something to be taken by a bird like that. Thing that makes me sore is to be nabbed by some greasy cheap flatty, like's happened to me. Well, lead on your man-eater and let's have a look at his teeth."
He twisted his cigarette deftly into shape, lighted a match, and waited with a steady hand for the sulfur to burn away. Then he lighted his smoke and inhaled a deep breath.
"That's nerve," admitted Chapel, and brushed the perspiration from his own forehead. "That's nerve a-plenty. Here they come."
They heard the rhythm of footfalls coming unhurriedly up the stairs. Once, and once only, the eyes of the sneak thief darkened as he glanced toward the window. Then his glance went back to the face of Chapel and lingered there with a hungry content. In this crisis he felt his superiority. The larger man was going through a torture.
"The girl," asked Chapel. "What'll she think?"
"Nothing," said Lou coldly. "After a day or two she'll brush us out of her mind. No trouble at all when they see they've made a mistake. Girls can forget anything."
"Do you think so?" said Jack through his teeth. "But not this girl. She'll remember. Lou, what'll we get for this?"
"Oh, about five more years for you, same for me, maybe, or less seeing you started everything and simply took me along."
"Five and ten... fifteen... forty-one," said the other, rather incoherently. "Too long! She..."
He stopped, for the knob of the door turned slowly, then opened and Moore entered with a man behind him. Lou Alp prepared himself for a shock meeting the eye of this savage marshal, this man so terrible that even Jack Chapel gave up at the mere thought of him. But what he saw was a dusty little man with misty, long-distance eyes. He carried his hat in an apologetic manner in both hands, fingering the brim as though he felt that he was out of place, but Lou was fascinated by the action of those nervous broken hands. He recognized in them a quality of deft and easy precision.
"Here they are, Marshal," said Moore. "Here's Jack Chandler and his partner, Louis Angus. Jack and Lou, here's Marshal Gaines, my old friend. He wants to talk to you boys. There's been an outrage. Holdup down the valley. Thirty-five hundred dollars walked off by a holdup artist. Between you and me, Marshal, I don't see what good this talk will do you. That holdup was worked by one gent. Here's two of 'em."
The marshal nodded. He stepped from behind Moore and glanced at Chapel. Alp braced himself for the shock of the recognition, the flash of steel, as the marshal covered his man. He was stunned by the difference between his expectation and what actually happened. The marshal passed Chapel over with a glance and turned at once to Lou Alp, lying there helpless in the bed. It was embarrassing. Alp blinked and then smoothed his face to a smile.
"How are you, Marshal," he said. It was always a policy of his to be ingratiating with police. And here was simply a new form of flattery.
"I'm doin' fairly well," said the marshal, advancing as far as the foot of the bed. "Got a touch of rheumatism, though. Settled in my left hip a couple of years ago and I ain't much in the saddle when these cold snaps come on."
"Oh, you'll do well enough," boomed Moore from the background.
"Sorry to bother you boys," went on the marshal, "but I got to look over the strangers in these parts. I'd be sayin' that you're kind of new around here, Mister Angus?"
"Kind of," admitted Alp.
He observed a spark that came up behind the eye of the marshal, and the spark grew into a small and hungry fire. It made Alp feel distinctly ill at ease. The marshal's form was growing rapidly in his eyes.
"Well," said the marshal, "it ain't often that we get visitors around here in the cold spells. How long you think of staying on, partner?"
It occurred suddenly to Lou Alp that there was a double meaning in what the marshal was saying. He was addressing to the thief words apparently quite innocent in the ears of the other people in the room, but to Lou they might mean many things. At least he surmised that double meaning, and he decided to try out his theory.
"I dunno," he declared. "Maybe a month. Maybe a year. Maybe more."
The marshal shook his head. "I dunno," he said, "but I kind of feel maybe you're makin' a mistake. Take a gun wound like that, and it don't stand up none too well in stormy weather. I know."
Lou Alp shifted his eyes to the puzzled face of Jack Chapel. Plainly his companion was bewildered by this friendly dialogue and was waiting for the denouement.
"Know what I'd do if I was you?" went on the marshal.
"Well?" asked Alp seriously.
"I'd climb on a hoss as soon as that wound would let me and get away from here. I'd get down to some warmer climate. Otherwise you'll find rheumatism settlin' in your leg and making you lame, maybe for the rest of your life. Understand?"
"Maybe I do," said Lou, and his eyes grew larger. "Maybe I do."
"You look like an intelligent sort," said the marshal carelessly. "I wouldn't give that advice to everybody. Take your friend... Chandler"—and he turned to Chapel and looked him over—"if he had a wound like that in the leg, I'd leave it to his blood and good bones to bring him through safe and sound, even up here in the winter and in the mountains. Fact is, seems to me that some gents is all cut out for mountain life, winter or summer... and some ain't."
This statement of Gaines's was prompted by the fact that he had learned of Chapel's innocence of the crime with which he had been charged through letters from the prison authorities. The real murderer had confessed. Chapel understood.
Moore began to laugh thunderously. "There you go on your rheumatics," he said. "Get you on that and they ain't any means of pryin' you loose from it. Come on downstairs and have a drink, Gaines. I guess you've talked to these boys long enough?"
"Sure. I guess I have." The glance of the marshal went back and dwelt gently upon the face of Alp. The latter changed color. "I'm sure I have," continued the marshal.
"And you don't no ways think that they took the coin?" chuckled Moore.
"Nope. What I'm really lookin' for, Moore, is somebody that thought the big boss owed him some money, about thirty-five hundred of it. Well, glad to've met you boys. S'long."
Without another word he was gone. Chapel turned to Lou with a white face.
"He didn't know you, after all," said Alp cheerily. "Ain't that a load off? He didn't know you, the batty-eyed old fool. He missed you clean."
"He knew me," said Jack, "better'n you do. Why, three years ago I went on a hunting trip with the marshal. Not only knows me, but he knows that I ought to be in prison on a charge of murder."
"He can't know that. He'd..." began Alp.
"But he does. I got a letter from him while I was there."
"Then he's gone down to frame us!"
"That's not his way. And he seemed to take a fancy to you, Lou."
"You fool! Didn't you hear him plain as day tell me to get out of this country as soon as I could ride a hoss, and stay out?"
"I mean that he knowed me. Heaven knows how. He's giving you a chance to make good, but he's letting me go to the devil."
HOWEVER incredible the miracle was, yet it happened. Not only did the marshal leave the house of Moore, but he never returned. Afterward Lou and Jack heard frequent reports. The marshal let it be known throughout the countryside that he was going to get the daring outlaw or bust in the attempt. It was reported that he had brought several clues into the wind, and it was known that on two occasions he had made long rides through the mountains. But still the perpetrator of the outrage remained undiscovered.
What it was that urged the marshal toward this elaborate camouflage, Lou and Jack did not know, unless indeed it was that out of old friendship he had determined to give Jack another chance. One of the few failures which the marshal had ever made was being scored in this case, and people of the mountains wondered at it. Sheriff Meigs took a hand and followed separate clues, but those clues never brought him to the house of Moore, and Lou and Jack were safe.
The days went on with Alp improving by leaps and bounds. By the end of the first week the wound was only a red blur on the surface of the skin. In ten days he had taken his first careful step; within a fortnight he and Chapel were thinking of their departure.
Yet those days of recovery were by no means altogether happy days for Lou Alp. It was a period of storm and stress, with the storm composed of small things no louder than the laughter of a girl or the fall of a woman's foot. After that first day he saw the hopelessness of hope. Every morning, when he wakened, he made a firm resolve that that day he would bar her out of his heart. But before he had even seen her, at the first sound of her step or her voice, the hard lines in which he had set his face in preparation for the meeting dissolved, and invariably he smiled when he saw her.
If she had been oblivious of him, it would have been easier, but she paid him every attention. In fact, the girl and Jack Chapel were meeting, as it were, over his body. His welfare and the progress of his healing wound composed a topic which apparently possessed undying interest for them. He used to lie in his bed and read through the hypocritical warmth with which they made their inquiries. Always his condition was the starting point, and always the talk ended in something a thousand miles removed from him. Usually it brought both the talkers out of the room, and then a time of misery would begin for Lou Alp.
All day long, while he was bedridden, he found himself listening with terrific concentration for all sounds of life that passed through the walls of his room. When his door was left open, it was a double trial. Sometimes he could hear them talking, their voices reduced to an echoing murmur up the long hall. Sometimes the piano tinkled directly beneath him. Or again, and this more and more often, he caught the sound of their singing. They had learned some two-part songs. Jack Chapel had a strong, somewhat rough baritone, and the girl's voice was a light, sweet-toned soprano. It seemed that his strength covered the meagerness of her voice, and her quality smoothed the harshness of the man. The result was altogether pleasant. Lou Alp admitted that fact with the cruel and cold justice which had come to temper his mind more and more since the first day. But all things else were nothing compared to the sound of the girl's laughter. He could almost hear that even when the door was closed. He had a seventh sense for it. He could feel the rhythm of the sound before it was audible to his ear. He could tell it by a sudden quickening of the pulse and falling of the heart. Yet it was a mellow laughter, though it went through the heart of Lou Alp like a sword of fire.
It is very bad for a man to think of himself during any prolonged time. It is exceedingly evil for a man to set his heart on one desire, while his body is helpless to advance him toward his wish. A prisoner goes mad longing for green leaves. Yet the green may be on the other side of the wall, and half an hour in the sun would make him sick of the open day. Perhaps it is not the green of the leaves nor the yellow of the sun so much as the very thickness of the wall that torments the prisoner. Under ordinary conditions Lou would no doubt have cast the thought of the girl away or have pushed the memory of her into an obscure pain, recurring now and then.
Yet, perhaps, what a man once feels truly, he can never forget. Lou Alp was truly in love. Somewhere in that small, mean soul was fuel which fed the flame until it burned as brightly, as intensely as any noble passion in the heart of a noble man. The flame was too much for Lou. It crumbled that shell of a man. It tormented him. If he had been a poet, he could have translated his suffering into song and found relief. Or if he had been strong in manhood, he could have poured the truth frankly before the girl, and then roused himself with a muscular effort.
There was not a strong muscle in the body of Lou Alp. There was not a strong thought in his brain. She became to him what the drug is to the famished dope addict. He was in a fever, and the sight of her face was snow on his brow; his mind was filled with noises, and the sound of her voice brought him blessed peace. She fed the fire and she stacked it. If at times he blessed her as a devotee blesses his patron saint, at other times he writhed on his bed and cursed her with equal fervor.
There were not two possibilities. In the end there was only one result, and that result was a consuming, a devout hatred for Jack Chapel. Not that he really looked forward to winning the girl for himself if he could push Jack out of the way, but every time the girl smiled on Jack it cost Lou a pang, which he swore his companion should repay. Every time he heard them singing, every time the girl laughed in a high-hearted happiness, then Lou turned his face to the wall and begged God for a chance to blast this man, body and soul.
He did not reason on to final results. He only knew that Jack Chapel caused him pain, and therefore he wished to destroy the man. If it could be viewed abstractly, this devilish passion of Lou Alp's, was it not strange that such a girl as Katherine Moore, who had never in her life done as much evil as would give shading to a single day of an average man, was it not strange that she should have been the cause of such black viciousness?
She did not guess it, and Jack Chapel did not guess it. Once the sneak thief had determined that in some way or another he would destroy his former friend, he masked his purpose with truly fiendish cunning. At the very moment when he was closing his mind and his heart to all gentleness, he appeared to open his whole life to Jack. He told him stories of his childhood, and the dark, vicious days in the streets of Manhattan. He told him of adventures, some mean and all exciting. He told him things which would have caused an average man to turn away in loathing, but Jack was not average. He had on occasion called this fellow "partner," and in his Western eyes that was a sacred word, no more capable of recall than the fire of heaven. Moreover, a confession always subtly implies a reform and a change. Indeed, it is this hope of making the world believe him a better man or a man capable of better things, if he has the chance, that makes the suspected murderer make a clean breast of his past and sign his own death warrant. He will sign the paper that sends him to the gallows in the hope that his confession will draw one word of regret, one word of sympathy.
In this case the sneak thief was correct in his deductions. Jack answered the confidences of Lou with confessions of his own, and the two men seemed drawing close toward a true friendship. There was one bitterly sweet result of that. The more Lou wormed himself close to Jack, the more often the girl was with Lou. And to the man who is hungry, both the alms of charity and the alms of scorn are welcome. Lou accepted her presence with a deep joy and, knowing that her presence was due to Jack, he cursed Jack for it.
In the end, if he could have thought of no better way, Lou Alp would have stuck a knife into the back of Jack Chapel while his friend slept. But it did not turn out so. There was a better way, and Lou found it.
He had been searching his mind for days and days, hunting for some weapon which would strike down the larger man. One thing had repeatedly come home to him. The past of Jack, if it were known, would come like a wave and snatch him away to the prison as it withdrew. But if his prison record were known, the same danger that threatened one of them would threaten the other. Lou Alp was wanted, hardly less than Jack Chapel. He must find something that would overwhelm Chapel without scratching so much as a finger of the hand of he who struck him. Otherwise where was the satisfaction? Where would be the deep after-joy of seeing the girl in her despair, and remember her happiness of the past and all the pain which she had poured into his brain?
And then it came to him. It was the robbery. In that, at least, he had had no hand. Why could not that be worked? There was the lightning which he could direct at Chapel without singeing his own skin.
Suppose, therefore, that someone were to search the house for evidence of that crime. He would find thirty-five hundred dollars in the bedroom which Chapel now occupied, for Alp had insisted that he keep all the money until they were both well clear of the house. Also, the searcher would find the two revolvers which Jack had taken from the guards. Was not that proof enough?
But suppose that they then asked if he, Lou Alp, were not mixed up in this crime? Very easily answered! He had been through the mountains with Jack Chapel. He had met the man accidentally and they had struck up a friendship without asking about the past. On the trip they had stopped at a village. There they had heard about the coming of the payroll. The next day Jack had disappeared. Lou waited for his return. Late in the afternoon he had come, showing signs of having covered a long distance in a short time. They had gone on together in the storm. Then the accidental shooting occurred.
Or make it even stronger. After the return of his companion, Lou protested against the robbery in the first place and against keeping the money in the second. He argued violently. Jack Chapel flew into a rage, offered him part of the money for his silence, was refused, and then deliberately drew his revolver and shot down the unoffending Lou whose passion for law and order had drawn him to this dangerous pass. Thinking of this portion of the story, Alp felt tears of self-sympathy rise in his eyes. There he was on the ground, bleeding. Compassion seized the murderous robber as he saw his companion and late friend lying there in the snow. He felt remorse. He lifted the inert body. He carried his friend to the house of Moore and for a long time, filled with gratitude for that last act of grace, Lou refused to give the information. But at last the truth must be told, and he tells it. Surely that story would be smooth enough. Besides he would perfect it before it became necessary to tell it to the officer of the law.
To whom should he send the information? Not to Marshal Gaines, but rather to Sheriff Jesse Meigs who was the known rival of the marshal in that district, and who would consider it a choice morsel if he could take the man who had escaped the hands of the celebrated marshal. The plan had more and more good points which gradually unrolled themselves before the calm eyes of Lou Alp. There would not even be a whispered reproach from Jack Chapel until Jack was helpless in the hands of the law. He would make a bargain with the sheriff that his evidence should not be used against Jack until the last moment. In the meantime he would slip away and disappear, leaving behind him the money and the guns, sufficient evidence in itself to send Jack to prison for highway robbery, if not to bring out a lynching party to hang him up by the neck. The malice of Alp went even as far as this. Necessarily so, for if Jack survived, the day of reckoning sooner or later would come.
Yet for several reasons he decided to tell the marshal only enough to hint at the crime, only enough to bring the dogs of the law on the traces of Chapel. He wrote briefly:
If you want to find the dope on the holdup that fooled Marshal Gaines, come to Moore's house and look in the room where Jack Chandler sleeps. You'll find thirty-five hundred bucks and two guns.
He addressed the envelope, writing the address as he had done the note with his left hand, for Jack Chapel knew his writing. Using the cane which Kate Moore had given him, he hobbled slowly down the stairs and then out the front door and into the wilderness of shining snow outside. It was only fifty feet to the road, and by the road was the mail box. He lifted the iron flap and dropped in the letter.
THE rest of that day passed smoothly. There was only one real task for Lou Alp, and that was to exaggerate his limp. For, of course, when his leg was entirely healed, he and Jack Chapel must go on together. Now it was above all things necessary that he keep Jack in the house until that letter reached the sheriff and brought the man of the law to the house of Roger Moore. How long it would require for that he had not been able exactly to deduce, but he imagined that at least two full days would be required, unless the sheriff left the town as soon as the letter reached him and rode at full speed with his men.
That thought gave Lou another qualm. He should have warned the sheriff that Jack Chapel was a dangerous man, that there might be more than one man's handful of work in taking him. He had prepared to submit meekly enough to the marshal, but that was because he knew Gaines. Driven to the wall, and particularly now that he had so much to hope from life, Jack Chapel would probably fight like a devil incarnate.
The worry of it held on into the night for Lou Alp. In the afternoon he had retired to his room, pretending a feverish aching in his leg. In reality his mind was on fire with doubts, and he sat before the fire which Jack Chapel had built for him and kept rubbing his hands. The rest of his body was warm, but his hands were moist and cold always these days. A continual tremor possessed them. This afternoon he heard much noise and bustling in the house. There was, to Lou, an appearance of stealth about the noise, but he laid that feeling to his uneasy nerves. Everyone in the house was smiling. Everyone seemed to have bright and misty eyes. Everyone had a loud voice and a gay manner. There was a sort of reckless happiness, so strong that it pervaded the atmosphere as keenly as the cold.
Lou Alp canted an ear toward these sounds and regarded them with keen suspicion. It even occurred to him that all the rejoicing was because the girl and Jack Chapel had let the others know of their engagement, and the rest of the house had kept the secret well from him. Why? Did they guess how he felt about Kate Moore? Had they penetrated beneath his bright, shifting glances? Was that the reason for their singular gentleness this day, and the kindliness of their eyes? The thought put a whip upon him and made him writhe.
Supper that night was a trial indeed. The merriment, which had gone ringing up and down the halls all day and which had seemed to cover itself stealthily, now burst out full-fledged. Roger Moore dug out his oldest and most musty stories. Mrs. Moore wore a flush in either cheek which made her seem ten years younger and turned her white hair into a mockery. Jack Chapel was continually laughing with everybody, at everybody. Once he slapped Lou on the back with a force that made the teeth of the sneak thief rattle. Joy was closed upon the world, and Lou Alp shuddered in its presence.
In some manner he got through that nightmare meal and was in his room again. He stirred the embers of his fire and roused it with fresh wood. There he sat, nodding over his plans until very late. Just after supper everyone downstairs had gathered in the big front room and Jack Chapel and Kate Moore came up to plead with him and bring him down.
"Don't you know what day it is?" they asked in one voice.
He stared at them with blank eyes.
"He doesn't know!" murmured Kate Moore to Jack Chapel, and then they laughed together musically, idiotically.
It seemed to Lou Alp that they were flaunting their joy in his face to torture him with it. Finally they gave up their pleading, cast him a word of commiseration for his leg like alms thrown to a dog, and were gone off down the hall. Hardly had the door closed on them when he caught the muffled peal of their laughter.
Later still, while the fire was dying down, he thought that steps went up and down the hall and paused at his door. He thought he heard guarded whispers. His mind was still clear enough and strong enough to dismiss such absurd conjectures, and finally, quite late at night, he went to bed and was instantly asleep.
Dreams haunted him. People seemed to come to him. Once his eyes snapped open and he could have sworn that there had been someone leaning over him. He could almost have sworn, from the jumping of his heart and the tingling of his skin, that there was someone in the room at that very instant. He dismissed the illusion. What earthly reason could there be for stalking him?
When he wakened naturally after such a disturbed sleep, it was quite late. He lay looking up to the lofty ceiling. There was a fresh scent in the room, as if the window had been left wide open and the odor of evergreens had blown into the chamber. Lou Alp was no passionate lover of fresh air, and he certainly was never guilty of leaving the window open in winter. Then he was aware that he was hungry, and he hunched himself up in the bed, preparatory to getting up. Yet he did not slip from beneath the covers. He remained there with his elbows propping him and blinking.
For this was what he saw. On either side of the tall window leaned a great fir branch. From the mantelpiece over the fireplace dangled a long woman's stocking, bulged out of shape by its contents. On the table beside the bed there was a scattering of parcels large and small, wrapped in red paper and tied with gaudy green ribbon.
Lou Alp sat slowly erect in the bed. Then, like a sleepwalker, he got carefully out of bed and walked across the floor, in bare feet which did not feel the cold. He took the long stocking from its hook. He opened it and drew forth the contents, one by one. A bag of sugar candies, red, green, yellow, purple, blue; a necktie of gaudy stripe; some animal cakes, gilded with the colors of life; and on and on, his hand reached down the bag until he found a card and drew it out.
A happy, happy Christmas to the man who forgot.
The card fluttered from his hand, and falling into the fireplace began to blacken with the heat of the dying embers. And yet he turned again to the stocking and continued to draw out the silly knickknacks. A jumping jack which squawked foolishly when one pressed the button.
They had given him the gifts they would give a child in the house. Why? Because he did not know? Yet he seemed to expect something different, something more, and finally, at the very bottom of the stocking, his reaching fingers closed over the last thing. He knew it before he drew it out, and the form of Lou Alp shook, and his face whitened.
At length he let the stocking fall to the floor and there in his hand was a leaden soldier with red coat and stiff back, a painted musket at his side. Upon this Lou Alp gazed with a sort of horror, and raising his hand slowly he brushed numb fingers across his forehead. He had forgotten, but now it came back to him, so many things out of the past. But how had they known about the lead soldiers which in the brief time of his child life at home had been an inevitable part of every Christmas stocking? For some reason it humbled him.
He went with the lead soldier still clutched in his hand and opened the packages on the table, the largest first. It was a fleece-lined leather coat with a card scrawled upon in a great, rough hand: "To Lou from Roger Moore. Good luck."
Then a bundle of home-knitted socks so soft and woolly that they crunched up in his hand and warmed his numb finger tips. "To Lou from Mary Moore."
Then a big box of cigarettes, his own favorite brand of tailor-mades. "To Lou from Kate."
Then a heavy little package, the smallest of them all. The heavy leather tore its own way out of the flimsy wrappings of its own accord. Lou took out of the holster a neat little automatic, such a gun as he had often praised to Jack Chapel as the king of weapons, rather than one of these clumsy, wrist-breaking .45s. It came apart under his deft fingers, and was assembled again. A perfect weapon!
Then the card: "To my partner, Lou."
No name to that. It came suddenly home to him that no name was needed, for probably Jack Chapel had never applied the term "partner" to any other man. Lou Alp, dry-throated, laid the weapon carefully down on the table. He took up the little case of cartridges and loaded the gun with familiar swiftness.
There is a personality in weapons. The little automatic was particularly fitted for the sneak thief. One would expect to find it on him, and certainly he had skill in its use. Many a dick in Manhattan could have testified that Lou, in spite of his cowardice, when pressed to the wall could fight with tigerish ferocity. For there is nothing quite so terrible as the cornered coward. Under the surface lay the claws, under the velvet touch the steel.
Laying aside the loaded weapon, he sank down on the side of the bed. The chilly wind, prying through the crevices of the room, set him shuddering as though with an ague, but Lou Alp paid no heed to it. His face was buried in his hands, and in one hand was the leaden soldier.
In that manner Jack Chapel found him sitting when, a little later, he opened the door softly. He shut it again, just as silently. The girl behind met him with a glance of eager curiosity when he turned away. Jack Chapel laid a finger against his lips, and then whispered: "Hush! He's remembering."
"Poor fellow," said the girl, and her eyes misted.
"Poor devil," said Jack Chapel.
They had between them such a great happiness that they felt they could give alms to all the world and still have plenty left.
WHO knows what might have happened if Lou Alp had heard nothing of what they said? But he heard. The closing of the door, softly as it was done, had roused him as a whisper rouses a cat. Instantly he was beside the door, on his knees, and this was what he heard:
There is no man so low as to accept pity from a successful rival. If a great tide of tenderness had been rising in the heart of Lou Alp the moment before, it was now suddenly checked. He remembered that a treasure remained to Jack Chapel. The pity had a string to it that sent him reeling and gasping back into the room, as though a bullet had plowed through his vitals. He remained there in a silent frenzy, biting his hands, beating at his face.
Who has seen the frantic contortions of the cat that, playing with the mouse, loses the little creature? For such was the fury of Lou Alp. The fact that he despised himself for still hating Jack Chapel did not matter, it only intensified the hatred.
Going down for breakfast a little later, he found the old Negro servant hobbling up in the opposite direction. Lou nodded to him, and shrank aside, for he had an almost physical aversion for Negroes. But there was a great red-lipped smile, a flash of rolling eyes, and out of a deep throat the greeting: "Merry Christmas!"
The words came back from the lips of Lou Alp, but they came as a harsh and hardly whispered echo: "Merry Christmas."
That chance meeting prepared him for what was to follow. In the dining room the people were already gathering. Mrs. Moore had on a new dress and, from the manner in which she kept looking down at it and then across at her daughter, it was plain who had made the gift.
The bald head of Roger Moore was covered by a black silk skull cap which he touched now and then, as one will handle a novelty. But what Lou chiefly saw was the picture of Kate Moore and Jack Chapel in the corner. They were whispering together. They were almost holding each other's hands. Lou, shocked with surprise, realized that the parents of the girl must know what had been going on, that they actually approved of her affection for this unknown fellow, this chance acquaintance.
In the meantime all eyes had whipped across in his direction the moment he put foot through the door. There was a chorus of greetings.
"I dunno what to say," muttered Lou Alp.
"You don't have to say a thing."
What a joyous laugh there was.
"The best joke I ever heard," cried Roger Moore in his enormous voice. "A man who forgot Christmas!"
The words remained ringing in the ears of Lou Alp all during the breakfast, all during the rest of the day. But, after all, what was Christmas? Weren't there other holidays? What about Washington's Birthday? What about New Year's? Certainly all those were holidays which closed banks and stores with as much definiteness as any Christmas that had ever happened. Yet no one would laugh at him for forgetting such days. And here was Roger Moore with a brand-new jest added to his stale collection, happy as a child with a new toy.
"Don't apologize," the old fellow said. "You made us all a present, without knowing it. I wouldn't have missed this for a year of life!"
Wherein was the day different? For it was different. It came tinglingly to Lou Alp himself. This was the one day in the year when the world forgot its taking and gave itself up to giving. Very strange! People gave things away and were happier because of the giving.
Here he sat, the sole member of that household who had not given away valuable things, and yet all the rest were happy and he was wrapped in gloom. It made him shake his head. How had it all begun, this giving away? Out of his childhood the old story came slowly back to him, the stable, the manger, and Mary with the child. The child who grew to manhood and gave everything and took nothing. The one perfect type of the selfless man, who lived for others and who died for others.
And what was the result of this giving, this senseless outpouring of effort? Buildings erected in His name around the world, and myriads carrying His thought and one day each year set aside for giving in some small measure as He had given. The thought burdened and bewildered Lou Alp who had lived with his hand in the pockets of others. These people had given, and yet they acted as if they had received. Kate Moore, Jack Chapel, Mrs. Moore, Roger Moore, they all met him with open eyes and open hearts as though he had conferred a favor on each by his mute acceptances.
A bee buzzing in a small, closed room fills it with sound to bursting, and one large thought crammed the narrow brain of Lou Alp until it reeled. The thought kept him occupied all that day. Automatically he spoke, answered questions, smiled vaguely, and lived on the edge of the happiness which flushed the others and raised their voices. Nothing mattered. When the cook dropped the platter and spoiled the dinner set, there was only laughter from Roger Moore, and a smiling shake of the head from Mrs. Moore. When a gust of snow rushed through an opened window and soaked the carpet, there was an outburst of merriment, and everyone set about repairing the damage.
One would have thought that the howling wind was the voice of a friend, to see these people and to hear them. One would have thought that each of them sat in expectation of a legacy. And was there not, perhaps, a legacy left them by that man who had died two thousand years before? Again the thought appalled Lou Alp.
They were seated around the dinner table. Roger Moore was at the head, Mrs. Moore at the foot, with her cheeks roses and her hair whiter than ever by contrast. Lou Alp sat at one side, and Jack Chapel and Kate Moore at the other. It was a large table, so heaped with food that the five people seemed utterly inadequate. The mountain of bittersweet in the center helped to separate one from another, so that Lou felt that a great distance lay between him and the two opposite.
Things came and went, plates were passed before him, and he ate mechanically, hardly tasting what he touched. Roger Moore was filling his glass with wine, a rare treat in the mountains.
"Watery stuff," Roger Moore said, "but it's sort of in style this time of year."
Lou Alp did not hear or, if he heard, he did not understand. For the great thought was still rising and ebbing through his mind and crowding all other things out. All other things except the loveliness of Kate Moore.
How beautiful she was! There was about her a perishable quality. One might have wished that she be transmuted to marble and color, so that she could neither grow old nor die. No, death was not so much to be dreaded as the withering years.
Lou Alp attempted to push the thought of her beauty away by remembering what time accomplished. There was Belle Samson of Fourth Street near the Bowery. Belle at nineteen had been ravishing. The sort of girl people turned to look at and go on, half smiling and half sad. But Belle married Gandil, the saloon keeper, and at twenty-five her color was gone, the luster fled from her hair, her shoulders bowed, her fingers stubby. Still pretty, but without that other thing, that quality of a different world which stops the minds of men.
He could enumerate others. And then he squinted at Kate Moore across the table. It made no difference. He tried to dim those eyes with time. He tried to paint in the wrinkles on the brow and by the mouth. He tried to straighten the curve of the lips. But, when he had finished the picture which fifteen years would make of her, his hand fell away from the picture and his eyes saw the truth. No matter what she became, she would always remain, to him who loved her, what she was at this time. As if these young years alone truly expressed the soul within her. Afterward the husk of the body changed, but the spirit of beauty remained. Into the dark mind of the sneak thief the gentle thought made way, that love is an immortalizer, that time cannot undo that marvelous embalming.
IT had been an unfinished beauty, the face of Kate Moore, when he first saw her on the day of the shooting and the robbery. There had been lacking some master touch, and his weak hand had aspired, all unknowing, to supply the missing thing. But now the picture was completed. The room was lighted. There was nothing more to be wished. Every time she turned to Jack Chapel, the sneak thief remembered his first aspiration and knew that another hand had done what his own could not accomplish. Something as dry as soot choked him with hatred for Chapel.
They had come to mince pie and plum pudding when a knock was heard at the front door. The old Negro with a yellow face appeared at one of the two doors leading from the hall to the dining room, his lips parted to speak. He did not come to speech, for a hand brushed him roughly to one side and a big man, armed, stood in the doorway.
Lou Alp glanced to the other door. Immediately it was filled by a second man. Likewise he was tall and he was armed. There needed only one glance at either of them to know that these were trained man-hunters. The face of Roger Moore, starting up from his chair, would have supplied the information.
He choked down his morsel of pudding. "What the devil, Sheriff...?"
The tall man who had first appeared raised his hand and took off his hat, which up to that time he had apparently forgotten.
"Maybe I look like the devil to you, Roger," he said genially, "and I'm a pile sorry that I have to break in on a party like this. I'll tell you how it is. I've got a little job to do here, and I've got to see that you folks all stay in your places while the job is bein' done. They ain't goin' to be no unpleasantness I hope. Jest you go right on eatin'. And then I'll slope and there you are. But don't nobody, man or woman, leave his chair till I get back!"
He disappeared, and a third man stepped up to fill the vacant place at the door. Neither he nor the other man offered a single offensive word or gesture, but it was plain from their shifting glances that they were keeping every member of that Christmas group in mind. But that was not what Lou Alp saw first of all. He saw Kate Moore, as she had sprung up, clutch the arm of Jack Chapel with both her hands, and the white, still face which she turned to her companion told Lou that she knew everything—everything. Jack Chapel had laid his past bare before the girl. Had he told her about Lou as well, curse him? But he had told her, and in spite of that she loved him. Once more the knife entered the flesh of Lou Alp, and he grinned in his agony.
Now another thing. They were settling back in their chairs, and Roger Moore was saying something about an outrage and that the sheriff couldn't run for dog catcher in that county after an affair like this, invading a private home at Christmas. But the big voice of Roger Moore was a blur in the ears of Lou Alp. He saw Jack Chapel sink back into his chair with a reassuring word to Kate that brought a tint into her cheeks again, and then the eyes of Jack went across the table, across the mountain of bittersweet, and dwelt steadily on the face of Lou Alp.
He knew! As sure as there was a God in heaven, he knew that he had been betrayed and who the Judas was. Lou Alp, with murder and horror in his heart, slipped his cold fingers over the butt of his automatic. Yet it did not come. The explosion hung fire, and then did not explode. There was death in the eyes of Jack Chapel and yet he did not lift his hand.
A vast wonder swept over Lou. Roger Moore was ordering everyone to fall to and enjoy the dinner in spite of the sheriff. Jack Chapel seemed to be obeying the order. He did not eat. He drained his wineglass, and then he turned to Kate Moore and began talking in a low, swift monotone. There was something almost fierce about his face, the set of his jaw, and the flare of his eyes, and Lou quaked with the thought that he was telling the girl the story of the betrayer.
But no. She raised her glance and gazed at Lou, and yet he knew that she did not see him. Her eyes were wide and starry with the look of distance. Her lips were parted as though she drank. Lou Alp knew that indeed she was drinking, drinking the words of the condemned man at her side. That was the reason, then, that Jack Chapel would not lift his hand for vengeance. That was the reason he let Judas sit unharmed across the very table. He needed those last, priceless moments to pour out his heart to the girl. The whisper became more than the rush of the storm past the windows, and like a storm it shook Lou Alp.
In a rush of inspiration he knew that man who sat opposite him for the first time, knew that Jack Chapel would let himself be taken without one word of accusation leveled at his confederate. What had the whole story of their relations been? It had been a giving by Jack and a taking by Lou. He had given Lou the very gun, which now threatened his life, if he made one hostile move.
Lou Alp closed his eyes and sagged forward in his chair but, in the darkness that swam before his vision, he saw a picture grow, a picture he had seen long before, forgotten, almost. It was a picture of one man among many at a table. There was light upon that single face. Lou Alp opened his eyes again and saw Jack Chapel's face. For the moment in the blur of his sight it seemed that there was a light upon the face of his companion.
Steps were coming heavily down the stairs from above, and the heart of Lou Alp beat steadily in unison with that sound. The form of the sheriff towered again at the door and, casting down a bag which he carried, it struck the floor with a clash of much metal within. Jack Chapel stood up by his chair. He laid his hand on the shoulder of the girl, but he sent his last glance across the table, and Lou knew that he was forgiven.
"Gents," said the sheriff, "I'm sorry to say it, but there's a thief in this house and his name is..."
The explosion of a revolver tore the next word to rags. Lou Alp was on his feet with the automatic barking in his hands. Roger Moore, with an expression of dumb surprise, slid gently under the table. Kate Moore had shrunk back against the wall, carrying Jack with her and circling him with her entangling arms. Mrs. Moore sat stupefied.
Not one living soul would ever know what beautiful gun play was going on before them. For Lou Alp was a master hand, when his hand was steady, and today his hand was steadier than it had ever been before in his life. He did better than hit the bull's-eye. He chipped the edges of his target. He sent a slug through the shoulder of the sheriff's coat and trimmed the edge of the other fellow's long mustache with his first two shots. So lightning fast was his work that he had fired twice before the others, trained gunmen though they were, had their weapons out.
A bullet crashed through the left shoulder of Lou Alp and drove him back against the wall. He fired again, aiming nicely, and gave the hair of the sheriff a new part. Another slug struck him in the hip. Two guns roared at once, and Lou sank gently forward on his knees, still farther forward, and finally lay on his face.
The sheriff was the first to cease firing. His long legs brought him first to the side of Lou. He jerked him over upon his back.
"Yes," said Lou Alp, "I done the job. And then I shoved the coin in Jack's room, because I wanted to frame him. He didn't have nothin' to do with it."
Jack Chapel burst in between and gathered the shattered body in his arms. The whisper reached his ear only.
"My gift," said Lou Alp. "Be good to her."