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       Black Jack, p.34

           Max Brand


  An hour's ride brought them to the environs of the little town. But itwas already nearly the middle of night and the village was black;whatever life waked at that hour had been drawn into the vortex ofPedro's. And Pedro's was a place of silence. Terry and Denver skirteddown the back of the town and saw the broad windows of Pedro's, againstwhich passed a moving silhouette now and again, but never a voice floatedout to them.

  Otherwise the town was dead. They rode until they were at the otherextremity of the main street. Here, according to Denver, was the bankwhich had never in its entire history been the scene of an attemptedraid. They threw the reins of their horses after drawing almostperilously close.

  "Because if we get what we want," said Terry, "it will be too heavy tocarry far."

  And Denver agreed, though they had come so close that from the back ofthe bank it must have been possible to make out the outlines of thehorses. The bank itself was a broad, dumpy building with adobe walls,whose corners had been washed and rounded by time to shapelessness. Thewalls angled in as they rose; the roof was flat. As for the position, itcould not have been worse. A dwelling abutted on either side of the bank.The second stories of those dwellings commanded the roof of the bank; andthe front and back porches commanded the front and back entrances of thebuilding.

  The moment they had dismounted, Terry and Denver stood a whilemotionless. There was no doubt, even before they approached nearer, aboutthe activity and watchfulness of the guards who took care of the newdeposit in the bank. Across the back wall of the building drifted ashadowy outline--a guard marching steadily back and forth and keepingsentry watch.

  "A stiff job, son," muttered Denver. "I told you these birds wouldn'tsleep with more'n one eye; and they's a few that's got 'em both open."

  But there was no wavering in Terry. The black stillness of the night; thesoundless, slowly moving figure across the wall of the building; thehush, the stars, and the sense of something to be done stimulated him,filled him with a giddy happiness such as he had never known before.Crime? It was no crime to Terry Hollis, but a great and delightful game.

  Suddenly he regretted the very presence of Denver Pete. He wanted to bealone with this adventure, match his cunning and his strength againstwhoever guarded the money of old Lewison, the miser.

  "Stay here," he whispered in the ear of Denver. "Keep quiet. I'm going toslip over there and see what's what. Be patient. It may take a longtime."

  Denver nodded.

  "Better let me come along. In case--"

  "Your job is opening that safe; my job is to get you to it in safety andget you away again with the stuff." Denver shrugged his shoulders. It wasmuch in the method of famous old Black Jack himself. There were so manyfeatures of similarity between the methods of the boy and his father thatit seemed to Denver that the ghost of the former man had stepped into thebody of his son.

  In the meantime Terry faded into the dark. His plan of approach wasperfectly simple. The house to the right of the bank was painted blue.Against that dark background no figure stood out clearly. Instead ofcreeping close to the ground to get past the guard at the rear of thebuilding, he chose his time when the watcher had turned from the nearestend of his beat and was walking in the opposite direction. The momentthat happened, Terry strode forward as lightly and rapidly as possible.

  Luckily the ground was quite firm. It had once been planted with grass,and though the grass had died, its roots remained densely enough to forma firm matting, and there was no telltale crunching of the sandunderfoot. Even so, some slight sound made the guard pause abruptly inthe middle of his walk and whirl toward Terry. Instead of attempting tohide by dropping down to the ground, it came to Terry that the leastmotion in the dark would serve to make him visible. He simply halted atthe same moment that the guard halted and trusted to the dark backgroundof the house which was now beside him to make him invisible. Apparentlyhe was justified. After a moment the guard turned and resumed his pacing,and Terry slipped on into the narrow walk between the bank and theadjoining house on the right.

  He had hoped for a side window. There was no sign of one. Nothing but thesheer, sloping adobe wall, probably of great thickness, and burned to thedensity of soft stone. So he came to the front of the building, and sodoing, almost ran into a second guard, who paced down the front of thebank just as the first kept watch over the rear entrance. Terry flattenedhimself against the side wall and held his breath. But the guard had seennothing and, turning again at the end of his beat, went back in theopposite direction, a tall, gaunt man--so much Terry could make out evenin the dark, and his heel fell with the heaviness of age. Perhaps thiswas Lewison himself.

  The moment he was turned, Terry peered around the corner at the front ofthe building. There were two windows, one close to his corner and one onthe farther side of the door. Both were lighted, but the farther one sodimly that it was apparent the light came from one source, and thatsource directly behind the window nearest Terry. He ventured one long,stealthy pace, and peered into the window.

  As he had suspected, the interior of the bank was one large room. Half ofit was fenced off with steel bars that terminated in spikes at the top asthough, ludicrously, they were meant to keep one from climbing over.Behind this steel fencing were the safes of the bank. Outside the fenceat a table, with a lamp between them, two men were playing cards. And thelamplight glinted on the rusty old safe which stood a little at one side.

  Certainly old Lewison was guarding his money well. The hopes of Terrydisappeared, and as Lewison was now approaching the far end of his beat,Terry glided back into the walk between the buildings and crouched there.He needed time and thought sadly.

  As far as he could make out, the only two approaches to the bank, frontand rear, were thoroughly guarded. Not only that, but once inside thebank, one would encounter the main obstacle, which consisted of twoheavily armed men sitting in readiness at the table. If there were anysolution to the problem, it must be found in another examination of theroom.

  Again the tall old man reached the end of his beat nearest Terry, turnedwith military precision and went back. Terry slipped out and wasinstantly at the window again. All was as before. One of the guards hadlaid down his cards to light a cigarette, and dense clouds of smokefloated above his head. That partial obscurity annoyed Terry. It seemedas if the luck were playing directly against him. However, the smokebegan to clear rapidly. When it had mounted almost beyond the strongestinner circle of the lantern light, it rose with a sudden impetus, asthough drawn up by an electric fan. Terry wondered at it, and squintedtoward the ceiling, but the ceiling was lost in shadow.

  He returned to his harborage between the two buildings for a freshsession of thought. And then his idea came to him. Only one thing couldhave sucked that straight upward so rapidly, and that was either a fan--which was ridiculous--or else a draught of air passing through anopening in the ceiling.

  Unquestionably that was the case. Two windows, small as they were, wouldnever serve adequately to ventilate the big single room of the bank. Nodoubt there was a skylight in the roof of the building and anotheraperture in the floor of the loft.

  At least that was the supposition upon which he must act, or else not actat all. He went back as he had come, passed the rear guard easily, andfound Denver unmoved beside the heads Of the horses.

  "Denver," he said, "we've got to get to the roof of that bank, and theonly way we can reach it is through the skylight."

  "Skylight?" echoed Denver. "Didn't know there was one." "There has tobe," said Terry, with surety. "Can you force a door in one of thosehouses so we can get to the second story of one of 'em and drop to theroof?"

  "Force nothing," whispered Denver. "They don't know what locks on doorsmean around here."

  And he was right.

  They circled in a broad detour and slipped onto the back porch of theblue house; the guard at the rear of the bank was whistling softly as hewalked.

  "Instead of watchdogs they keep doors with rust
y hinges," said Denver ashe turned the knob, and the door gave an inch inward. "And I dunno whichis worst. But watch this, bo!"

  And he began to push the door slowly inward. There was never a slackeningor an increase in the speed with which his hand travelled. It took him afull five minutes to open the door a foot and a half. They slippedinside, but Denver called Terry back as the latter began to feel his wayacross the kitchen.

  "Wait till I close this door."

  "But why?" whispered Terry.

  "Might make a draught--might wake up one of these birds. And there youare. That's the one rule of politeness for a burglar, Terry. Close thedoors after you!"

  And the door was closed with fully as much caution and slowness as hadbeen used when it was opened. Then Denver took the lead again. He wentacross the kitchen as though he could see in the dark, and then among thetangle of chairs in the dining room beyond. Terry followed in his wake,taking care to step, as nearly as possible, in the same places. But forall that, Denver continually turned in an agony of anger and whisperedcurses at the noisy clumsiness of his companion--yet to Terry it seemedas though both of them were not making a sound.

  The stairs to the second story presented a difficult climb. Denver showedhim how to walk close to the wall, for there the weight of their bodieswould act with less leverage on the boards and there would be far lesschance of causing squeaks. Even then the ascent was not noiseless. Thedry air had warped the timber sadly, and there was a continual processionof murmurs underfoot as they stole to the top of the stairs.

  To Terry, his senses growing superhumanly acute as they entered more andmore into the heart of their danger, it seemed that those whispers of thestairs might serve to waken a hundred men out of sound sleep; in realitythey were barely audible.

  In the hall a fresh danger met them. A lamp hung from the ceiling, theflame turned down for the night. And by that uneasy light Terry made outthe face of Denver, white, strained, eager, and the little bright eyesforever glinting back and forth. He passed a side mirror and his own facewas dimly visible. It brought him erect with a squeak of the flooringthat made Denver whirl and shake his fist.

  For what Terry had seen was the same expression that had been on the faceof his companion--the same animal alertness, the same hungry eagerness.But the fierce gesture of Denver brought him back to the work at hand.

  There were three rooms on the side of the hall nearest the bank. Andevery door was closed. Denver tried the nearest door first, and theopening was done with the same caution and slowness which had marked theopening of the back door of the house. He did not even put his headthrough the opening, but presently the door was closed and Denverreturned.

  "Two," he whispered.

  He could only have told by hearing the sounds of two breathing; Terrywondered quietly. The man seemed possessed of abnormal senses. It wasstrange to see that bulky, burly, awkward body become now a sensitiveorganism, possessed of a dangerous grace in the darkness.

  The second door was opened in the same manner. Then the third, and in themidst of the last operation a man coughed. Instinctively Terry reachedfor the handle of his gun, but Denver went on gradually closing the dooras if nothing had happened. He came back to Terry.

  "Every room got sleepers in it," he said. "And the middle room has got aman who's awake. We'll have to beat it."

  "We'll stay where we are," said Terry calmly, "for thirty minutes--byguess. That'll give him time to go asleep. Then we'll go through one ofthose rooms and drop to the roof of the bank."

  The yegg cursed softly. "Are you trying to hang me?" he gasped.

  "Sit down," said Terry. "It's easier to wait that way."

  And they sat cross-legged on the floor of the hall. Once the springs of abed creaked as someone turned in it heavily. Once there was a voice--oneof the sleepers must have spoken without waking. Those two noises, and nomore, and yet they remained for what seemed two hours to Terry, but whathe knew could not be more than twenty minutes.

  "Now," he said to Denver, "we start."

  "Through one of them rooms and out the windows--without waking anybodyup?"

  "You can do it. And I'll do it because I have to. Go on."

  He heard the teeth of Denver grit, as though the yegg were being drivenon into this madcap venture merely by a pride which would not allow himto show less courage--even rash courage--than his companion.

  The door opened--Denver went inside and was soaked up--a shadow amongshadows. Terry followed and stepped instantly into the presence of thesleeper. He could tell it plainly. There was no sound of breathing,though no doubt that was plain to the keen ear of Denver--but it wassomething more than sound or sight. It was like feeling a soul--thatimpalpable presence in the night. A ghostly and a thrilling thing toTerry Hollis.

  Now, against the window on the farther side of the room, he made out thedim outline of Denver's chunky shoulders and shapeless hat. Luckily thewindow was open to its full height. Presently Terry stood beside Denverand they looked down. The roof of the bank was only some four feet belowthem, but it was also a full three feet in distance from the side of thehouse. Terry motioned the yegg back and began to slip through the window.It was a long and painful process, for at any moment a button might catchor his gun scrape--and the least whisper would ruin everything. Atlength, he hung from his arms at full length. Glancing down, he faintlysaw Lewison turn at the end of his beat. Why did not the fool look up?

  With that thought he drew up his feet, secured a firm purchase against theside of the house, raised himself by the ledge, and then flung himselfout into the air with the united effort of arms and legs.

  He let himself go loose and relaxed in the air, shot down, and felt theroof take his weight lightly, landing on his toes. He had not only madethe leap, but he had landed a full foot and a half in from the edge ofthe roof.

  Compared with the darkness of the interior of the house, everything onthe outside was remarkably light now. He could see Denver at the windowshaking his head. Then the professional slipped over the sill withpracticed ease, dangled at arm's length, and flung himself out with aquick thrust of his feet against the wall.

  The result was that while his feet were flung away far enough and tospare, the body of Denver inclined forward. He seemed bound to strike theroof with his feet and then drop head first into the alley below. Terryset his teeth with a groan, but as he did so, Denver whirled in the airlike a cat. His body straightened, his feet barely secured a toehold onthe edge of the roof. The strong arm of Terry jerked him in to safety.

  For a moment they stood close together, Denver panting.

  He was saying over and over again: "Never again. I ain't any acrobat,Black Jack!"

  That name came easily on his lips now.

  Once on the roof it was simple enough to find what they wanted. There wasa broad skylight of dark green glass propped up a foot or more above thelevel of the rest of the flat roof. Beside it Terry dropped upon hisknees and pushed his head under the glass. All below was pitchy-black,but he distinctly caught the odor of Durham tobacco smoke.

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