Authors: Robbins Harold
He shuddered. They were serious. They were going to hang him.
The second day they brought him a woman's dress. They guffawed when
he put it on, but it covered more of him than the blanket did, and it
What evil spirit governed his fate? How had he
come to deserve the tribulations that — ? God had tested Job
and had not found him wanting. He, Maurie, had been tested in
been found wanting. He should have fought
off John at the cost of his life. That was what the Lord had
expected, and he had failed. Now ...
The second night, he managed to sleep fitfully. Until about four in
the morning, when he was wakened by the sound of a key turning in the
lock. A dawn hanging. A lynch.
But no. It was Max Sand. He jerked Maurie to his feet and shoved him
out into the sheriff's office, where the deputy who had tormented him
lay facedown on the floor.
They rode out of town. No one bothered them. Houston was not
unaccustomed to seeing women riding astride horses. The odd-looking
woman riding with the bearded man was obviously a whore, being taken
out to entertain. She'd earn her money. People who noticed them
shrugged and shook their heads. Many of them laughed.
They rode hard. A posse would not be far behind, but Max seemed to
know where he was going, to some place he had been before. He avoided
everything that might have made traveling easier and stopping more
comfortable: groves, streams, grassland. They sat down at last, under
a high sun, in a dry creek bed, where two rattlers retreated as they
"How can I thank you?"
"You can't. But you don't have to. If you hadn't said hello to
me and bought supper and all, they wouldn't have grabbed you."
"He was hurt. He ordered me to leave him behind and go on. Worst
thing I ever did, but I did it. 'Cause I figured I had an obligation
t' come back and he'p you."
"How'd you know they grabbed me?"
"We didn't run out of town all that fast. Wanted to get some
he'p for Mike. Figured too we'd better bring you with us. I saw 'em
"Max ... They say you shoved a red-hot poker in a man's eyes."
"I did it," said Max.
"That man," said Max, "was the last of the gang that
tortured and murdered my father and mother. One of 'em carried a
tabacca pouch made from my mother's tit, cut off her whilst she was
still alive. Tanned and sewed up into a tabacca pouch."
"None of 'em died easy," said Max. "I shot the balls
off one. I shoved a red-hot poker into the eyes of the last of 'em. I
wisht they was all alive so I could kill 'em all again."
"What are you gonna do now, Max?"
"'Nough of this shit," said Max. "Got
some money in a ranch. Gonna change m' name, shave off m' beard, and
go to livin' honest. What
gonna do, Maurie?"
MAURIE DIDN'T SEE MAX AGAIN FOR MANY YEARS, until after Max had
changed his name.
They parted with a handshake, at a railroad station in Missouri: two
young men, each twenty-six years old. Max gave him a hundred dollars,
from the proceeds of a year-old bank robbery, and rode off on a
horse. Maurie boarded a train for Kansas City and began to work his
way east and north.
For a while he was a grifter. It was all he knew how to do. In
Missouri and Kansas, then across the river into Illinois and Indiana.
For five years he struggled as a flimflam man, working every game he
could devise. He sold fake insurance policies again — this time
smart enough to scram while the scramming was good. He played cards
in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago. The players there weren't as
dumb as the ones in Texas, and the profits were slim.
He had catalogs and order blanks printed and sold everything from
railroad watches to basketballs, asking as little as ten percent in
advance as "earnest money" or an "order-handling
charge." He sold wholesale to stores and retail door-to-door,
and when he had collected a few hundred dollars in cash he would slip
away from his boardinghouse and catch a train.
His best flimflam was with automobiles. He would buy a new Chevrolet
or Ford for four hundred dollars, drive it fifty or sixty miles to
another country town, let it be known that he was a factory
representative who could discount automobiles as much as forty
percent, and sell it to some happy buyer for two hundred fifty
dollars. Then he'd say he could sell a few more. Of course, he would
have to collect down payments — after all, he had to buy the
cars at the factory. Having collected maybe five hundred dollars, he
would return to the dealer fifty or sixty miles away and buy another
car. When he delivered that one to a happy buyer, his bona fides was
established, and more down payments would come in. It was of course a
pyramid scheme. He could continue collecting money, buying and
delivering cars, and collecting more down payments until he judged
the time had come to take his profits and scram.
The scheme was ruined in 1913, when an article warning of the scheme
was syndicated and appeared in scores of small-town newspapers.
Maurie decided the time had come to go home to Manhattan.
It was a strange experience. He had left home at
sixteen and now came home fifteen years older and fifty years wiser,
with scars on his back and purple circles around his ankles, marks of
the Plaquemine prison, that he would carry the rest of his life. Odd.
The first time he undressed with a girl and she saw them —
"Maurie! You got
? You went down sout'! You shoulda
never gone down sout'! Wha'd they do to you? You don't let your
mother see, no?" And then she would give him the best sex she
knew how, because he was the adventuresome man who had gone down
Word got around. Maurie Cohen was back from down south. Prob'ly
carrying a fortune he'd taken off the rednecks. No? Well, the goyim
could be bastards. Anyway, he was back, in a good suit, a sharp guy,
a wise guy. Guys could use a man like Maurie.
A little fellow like him could not work as a legbreaker. But he was
sharp. He had a head for figures. He was honest. Well ... you could
trust him. He was given a job as a numbers runner, then as a numbers
book. He made money. He had everything a man could want: nice
clothes, a comfortable apartment, a girl when he wanted her ... Some
good years. Then He had suffered nightmares. At last a dream.
The Christians, in their smarts and beauty, imposed Prohibition on a
nation that was going to drink, one way or another. A whole new
business! Numbers was suddenly small potatoes. And Maurice Cohen was
smart enough to see it.
In a small way at first. Then bigger and smarter. Smuggling the stuff
in from ships or across the Canadian border was a fool's game. Make
it here! You could make gin easy, and beer easier. It could be done
by anybody. Of course, where there was real money there would always
be thieves, guys that skimmed money off the take. To make money go
where it was supposed to, you needed a trusty guy who could keep
books — and cook them, too, when you wanted him to.
That was for Maurie. He had a head for figures. He started in New
York. But the Eye-tyes began to take over. Sicilians. Maurie looked
around. He'd been around and knew the country. Guy like him would be
valued anywhere. In 1922 Maurie went to Detroit to talk to a guy
named Firetop — so known for his red hair. They made a deal,
and Maurice Cohen became a member of the Purple Gang.
Prestige. Everybody had heard of the Purple Gang. In Detroit and
Toledo, the guy who kept books for the Purple Gang was somebody. He
was forty years old, and suddenly everybody wanted to know him. Guys
wanted to know him. Broads wanted to know him.
He was the guy who toted the revenues and payouts. To pay him, they
gave him a piece of a numbers book. The guy who worked it cheated.
When Maurie reported that to Firetop, the guy disappeared into Lake
Maurie counted the shipments and the bucks. He never knew, or
professed not to know, what happened to guys who shorted. He knew he
didn't see them again. He was never tempted to count wrong. His
reputation was that he never shorted. He cooked the books, sure, but
he cooked them to rook other guys, never the Purple Gang.
Trouble was, it was small-time. He wore handsome suits. He wore spats
over his shiny patent-leather shoes. His gray fedoras were of beaver
felt. Wearing no more celluloid collars, he now wore silk collars and
paid twenty-five cents apiece for them. He was shaved by a barber
every morning. He had his hair trimmed twice a week. He lived in a
comfortable apartment and listened to a six-tube console radio that
worked on socket power and required no batteries. He smoked dime
cigars and drank real Scotch smuggled over from Canada. He drove a
Small-time. He could not afford to buy a house in the suburbs. He
could not afford a new Cadillac or Packard, the kind other guys
drove. He didn't take vacations in Florida or sail to Europe. He
bought girls when he wanted them but didn't feel he could afford to
keep one, not a classy one anyway.
The worst thing was, he took orders, and he knew where he'd stand if
he made any kind of a mistake — dead at worst, on the street at
least. They liked him. Sure. He was a good boy. An errand boy.
Oh, they'd sell him a piece of something, sure. But only for cash.
When you bought a piece of the action, there was no such thing as
In 1927 they made him manager of a carpet joint on the road between
Detroit and Toledo and just across the Ohio line — a roadhouse
called The Clock, where a customer could buy a drink, gamble, and
take a girl upstairs. It was called a carpet joint because it was
fancy enough to have carpet on the floor. It attracted a high-class
clientele, including Harry Daugherty and Will Hays, the late
President Harding's attorney general and postmaster general. They
came to The Clock because they were assured that Maurie Cohen, the
manager, was an absolutely trustworthy guy. Hays was now the czar of
the movies, responsible for the nation's morals. His sexual
predilections were so bizarre that Maurie could never persuade a girl
to see him twice, no matter what he paid.
Maurie made bigger money as manager of The Clock. He bought his
Packard at last. But he was still an employee.
Toledo had a fine burlesque house downtown. Maurie liked it. Coming
out of it one night, he happened to walk past a movie theater where a
Western was playing. The star was a handsome cowboy named Nevada
Smith. Even in poster artwork, the face looked familiar.
Maurie went inside and watched the picture. It was Max Sand! No
question. Nevada Smith was Max Sand!
That night Maurie wrote him a letter. He was discreet. He didn't use
the name Max Sand. He just said he wondered if Nevada Smith
remembered his old friend Maurie Cohen.
Max remembered. Maurie received a note three or four weeks later,
saying sure he remembered, and someday when he was in the area he'd
stop by and say hello.
The man in the camel coat and the white homburg looked like a
gangster. By his clothes. The resemblance ended there. He was tall
and lean and tanned. He was Max Sand.
Maurie hurried across the room. "Max ..." he said quietly
as he took his hand. "Nevada Smith. Congratulations. You've done
Nevada glanced around. "Looks like you're doin' okay yourself."
Maurie shrugged. "Well ... C'mon. Have a drink. Have —
What can I do for you?"
What Maurie could do for Nevada was not the question, it turned out.
Before the evening was over, Maurie had told Nevada how dolefully
precarious his position was and had put the touch on his old friend
for money to buy a piece of The Clock.
"You need a stake," said Nevada dryly.
Twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money in 1929. Maurie swore he
would pay it back. It was enough to buy The Clock: all of it, not
just a piece.
Maurie made payments to Nevada over the years, but it took him
fifteen years to repay the twenty thousand dollars. Only two years
after the loan was made, he repaid the favor — even if Max
Nevada met Maurie on the station platform. Maurie had been in Texas
but never in California, and he found the sun blinding and the heat
oppressive. Nevada led him, not into shade, but to a magnificent
Duesenberg roadster. With the top off and the sun beating on their
heads, they rode behind a chauffeur who drove them through palm-lined
streets and up into barren hills studded with gorgeous mansions.
Nevada's house was not pretentious, yet was the home of a movie star.
His wife was there: a woman conspicuously overwhelmed by her
circumstances and not really happy with them. She was almost as old
as Nevada and was dark-skinned and pudgy, with a weathered face that
said this luxurious life was new and troubling for her. She seemed
not to know there was such a thing as a swimsuit and swam innocently
nude in the pool behind the house, while Maurie and Nevada sat at
poolside and talked about old times.
After dinner, when the woman was washing the dishes and going to bed,
Nevada and Maurie sat in the living room over cigars and more whiskey
and talked. Nevada told Maurie about a problem he faced.
"Y' remember what happened to Fatty Arbuckle?" Nevada
"Charged with rape," said Maurie.
"Yeah. He wasn't guilty of it, but it ruint his career."
"Don't tell me that you —"
"Yeah," Nevada grunted. "I never
the girl. But her mother claims she's pregnant and
says I'm the daddy. Worst part, she's just fifteen years old. Hell,
even if they can't prove a thing, just the story gettin' out will
prob'ly be the end of Nevada Smith."