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       Black Jack, p.35

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 35

  That scent of smoke was a clear proof that there was an open way throughthe loft to the room of the bank below them. But would the opening belarge enough to admit the body of a man? Only exploring could show that.He sat back on the roof and put on the mask with which the all-thoughtfulDenver had provided him. A door banged somewhere far down the street,loudly. Someone might be making a hurried and disgusted exit fromPedro's. He looked quietly around him. After his immersion in the thickdarkness of the house, the outer night seemed clear and the stars burnedlow through the thin mountain air. Denver's face was black under theshadow of his hat.

  "How are you, kid--shaky?" he whispered.

  Shaky? It surprised Terry to feel that he had forgotten about fear. Hehad been wrapped in a happiness keener than anything he had known before.Yet the scheme was far from accomplished. The real danger was barelybeginning. Listening keenly, he could hear the sand crunch underfoot ofthe watcher who paced in front of the building; one of the cardplayerslaughed from the room below--a faint, distant sound.

  "Don't worry about me," he told Denver, and, securing a strong fingerholdon the edge of the ledge, he dropped his full length into the darknessunder the skylight.

  His tiptoes grazed the floor beneath, and letting his fingers slide offtheir purchase, he lowered himself with painful care so that his heelsmight not jar on the flooring. Then he held his breath--but there was nocreaking of the loft floor.

  That made the adventure more possible. An ill-laid floor would have setup a ruinous screeching as he moved, however carefully, across it. Now hewhispered up to Denver. The latter instantly slid down and Terry caughtthe solid bulk of the man under the armpits and lowered him carefully.

  "A rotten rathole," snarled Denver to his companion in that inimitable,guarded whisper. "How we ever coming back this way--in a hurry?"

  It thrilled Terry to hear that appeal--an indirect surrendering of theleadership to him. Again he led the way, stealing toward a ghost of lightthat issued upward from the center of the floor. Presently he could lookdown through it.

  It was an ample square, a full three feet across. Below, and a littlemore than a pace to the side, was the table of the cardplayers. As nearlyas he could measure, through the misleading wisps and drifts of cigarettesmoke, the distance to the floor was not more than ten feet--an easy dropfor a man hanging by his fingers.

  Denver came to his side, silent as a snake.

  "Listen," whispered Terry, cupping a hand around his lips and leaningclose to the ear of Denver so that the least thread of sound would besufficient. "I'm going to cover those two from this place. When I havethem covered, you slip through the opening and drop to the floor. Don'tstand still, but softfoot it over to the wall. Then cover them with yourgun while I come down. The idea is this. Outside that window there's asecond guard walking up and down. He can look through and see the tablewhere they're playing, but he can't see the safe against the wall. Aslong as he sees those two sitting there playing their cards, he'll besure that everything is all right. Well, Denver, he's going to keep onseeing them sitting at their game--but in the meantime you're going tomake your preparations for blowing the safe. Can you do it? Is your nerveup to it?"

  Even the indomitable Denver paused before answering. The chances ofsuccess in this novel game were about one in ten. Only shame to beoutbraved by his younger companion and pupil made him nod and mutter hisassent.

  That mutter, strangely, was loud enough to reach to the room below. Terrysaw one of the men look up sharply, and at the same moment he pulled hisgun and shoved it far enough through the gap for the light to catch onits barrel.

  "Sit tight!" he ordered them in a cutting whisper. "Not a move, myfriends!"

  There was a convulsive movement toward a gun on the part of the firstman, but the gesture was frozen midway; the second man looked up, gaping,ludicrous in astonishment. But Terry was in no mood to see theridiculous.

  "Look down again!" he ordered brusquely. "Keep on with that game. And themoment one of you goes for a gun--the minute one of you makes a sign or asound to reach the man in front of the house, I drill you both. Is thatclear?"

  The neck of the man who was nearest to him swelled as though he werelifting a great weight with his head; no doubt he was battling withshrewd temptations to spring to one side and drive a bullet at therobbers above him. But prudence conquered. He began to deal, laying outthe cards with mechanical, stiff motions.

  "Now," said Terry to Denver.

  Denver was through the opening in a flash and dropped to the floor belowwith a thud. Then he leaped away toward the wall out of sight of Terry.Suddenly a loud, nasal voice spoke through one of the front windows:

  "What was that, boys?"

  Terry caught his breath. He dared not whisper advice to those men at thetable for fear his voice might carry to the guard who was apparentlyleaning at the window outside. But the dealer jerked his head for aninstant toward the direction in which Denver had disappeared. Evidentlythe yegg was silently communicating imperious instructions, for presentlythe dealer said, in a voice natural enough: "Nothing happened, Lewison. Ijust moved my chair; that was all, I figure."

  "I dunno," growled Lewison. "I been waiting for something to happen forso long that I begin to hear things and suspect things where they ain'tnothing at all."

  And, still mumbling, his voice passed away.

  Terry followed Denver's example, dropping through the opening; but, morecautious, he relaxed his leg muscles, so that he landed in a bunchedheap, without sound, and instantly joined Denver on the farther side ofthe room. Lewison's gaunt outline swept past the window at the samemoment.

  He found that he had estimated viewpoints accurately enough. From onlythe right-hand window could Lewison see into the interior of the room andmake out his two guards at the table. And it was only by actually leaningthrough the window that he would be able to see the safe beside whichTerry and Denver stood.

  "Start!" said Terry, and Denver deftly laid out a little kit and twosmall packages. With incredible speed he began to make his molding ofsoft soap around the crack of the safe door. Terry turned his back on hiscompanion and gave his undivided attention to the two at the table.

  Their faces were odd studies in suppressed shame and rage. The muscleswere taut; their hands shook with the cards.

  "You seem kind of glum, boys!" broke in the voice of Lewison at thewindow.

  Terry flattened himself against the wall and jerked up his gun--a warningflash which seemed to be reflected by the glint in the eyes of the red-headed man facing him. The latter turned slowly to the window.

  "Oh, we're all right," he drawled. "Kind of getting wearying, thiswatch."

  "Mind you," crackled the uncertain voice of Lewison, "five dollars if youkeep on the job till morning. No, six dollars, boys!"

  He brought out the last words in the ringing voice of one making agenerous sacrifice, and Terry smiled behind his mask. Lewison passed onagain. Forcing all his nerve power into the faculty of listening, Terrycould tell by the crunching of the sand how the owner of the safe wentfar from the window and turned again toward it.

  "Start talking," he commanded softly of the men at the table.

  "About what?" answered the red-haired man through his teeth. "About what,damn you!"

  "Tell a joke," ordered Terry.

  The other scowled down at his hand of cards--and then obeyed.

  "Ever hear about how Rooney--"

  The voice was hard at the beginning; then, in spite of the levelled gunwhich covered him, the red-haired man became absorbed in the interest ofthe tale. He began to labor to win a smile from his companion. That wouldbe something worthwhile--something to tell about afterward; how he madePat laugh while a pair of bandits stood in a corner with guns on them!

  In his heart Terry admired that red-haired man's nerve. The next timeLewison passed the window, he darted out and swiftly went the rounds ofthe table, relieving each man of his weapon. He returned to his place.Pat had bro
ken into hearty laughter.

  "That's it!" cried Lewison, passing the window again. "Laughin' keeps agent awake. That's the stuff, Red!" A time of silence came, with only thefaint noises of Denver at his rapid work.

  "Suppose they was to rush the bank, even?" said Lewison on his next trippast the window.

  "Who's they?" asked Red, and looked steadily into the mouth of Terry'sgun.

  "Why, them that wants my money. Money that I slaved and worked for all mylife! Oh, I know they's a lot of crooked thieves that would like to layhands on it. But I'm going to fool 'em, Red. Never lost a cent of moneyin all my born days, and I ain't going to form the habit this late inlife. I got too much to live for!"

  And he went on his way muttering.

  "Ready!" said Denver.

  "Red," whispered Terry, "how's the money put into the safe?"

  The big, red-haired fellow fought him silently with his eyes.

  "I dunno!"

  "Red," said Terry swiftly, "you and your friend are a dead weight on usjust now. And there's one quick, convenient way of getting rid of you.Talk out, my friend. Tell us how that money is stowed."

  Red flushed, the veins in the center of his forehead swelling under arush of blood to the head. He was silent.

  It was Pat who weakened, shuddering.

  "Stowed in canvas sacks, boys. And some paper money."

  The news of the greenbacks was welcome, for a large sum of gold would bean elephant's burden to them in their flight.

  "Wait," Terry directed Denver. The latter kneeled by his fuse untilLewison passed far down the end of his beat. Terry stepped to the doorand dropped the bolt.

  "Now!" he commanded.

  He had planned his work carefully. The loose strips of cords which Denverhad put into his pocket--"nothing so handy as strong twine," he hadsaid--were already drawn out. And the minute he had given the signal, hesprang for the men at the table, backed them into a corner, and tiedtheir hands behind their backs.

  The fuse was sputtering.

  "Put out the light!" whispered Denver. It was done--a leap and a puff ofbreath, and then Terry had joined the huddled group of men at the fartherend of the room.

  "Hey!" called Lewison. "What's happened to the light? What the hell--"

  His voice boomed out loudly at them as he thrust his head through thewindow into the darkness. He caught sight of the red, flickering end ofthe fuse.

  His voice, grown shrill and sharp, was chopped off by the explosion. Itwas a noise such as Terry had never heard before--like a tremendouslycondensed and powerful puff of wind. There was not a sharp jar, but hefelt an invisible pressure against his body, taking his breath. The soundof the explosion was dull, muffled, thick. The door of the safe crushedinto the flooring.

  Terry had nerved himself for two points of attack--Lewison from the frontof the building, and the guard at the rear. But Lewison did not yell forhelp. He had been dangerously close to the explosion and the shock to hisnerves, perhaps some dislodged missile, had flung him senseless on thesand outside the bank.

  But from the rear of the building came a dull shout; then the door besidewhich Terry stood was dragged open--he struck with all his weight,driving his fist fairly into the face of the man, and feeling theknuckles cut through flesh and lodge against the cheekbone. The guardwent down in the middle of a cry and did not stir. Terry leaned to shakehis arm--the man was thoroughly stunned. He paused only to scoop up thefallen revolver which the fellow had been carrying, and fling it into thenight. Then he turned back into the dark bank, with Red and Pat cursingin frightened unison as they cowered against the wall behind him.

  The air was thick with an ill-smelling smoke, like that of a partiallysnuffed candle. Then he saw a circle of light spring out from theelectric lantern of Denver and fall on the partially wrecked safe. And itglinted on yellow. One of the sacks had been slit and the contents wererunning out onto the floor like golden water.

  Over it stooped the shadow of Denver, and Terry was instantly beside him.They were limp little sacks, marvellously ponderous, and the chill of themetal struck through the canvas to the hand. The searchlight flickeredhere and there--it found the little drawer which was wrenched open andDenver's stubby hand came out, choked with greenbacks.

  "Now away!" snarled Denver. And his voice shook and quaked; it remindedTerry of the whine of a dog half-starved and come upon meat--a savage,subdued sound.

  There was another sound from the street where old Lewison was coming tohis senses--a gasping, sound, and then a choked cry: "Help!"

  His senses and his voice seemed to return to him with a rush. His shrieksplit through the darkness of the room like a ray of light probing tofind the guilty: "Thieves! Help!"

  The yell gave strength to Terry. He caught some of the burden that wasstaggering Denver into his own arms and floundered through the rear doorinto the blessed openness of the night. His left arm carried the crushingburden of the canvas sacks--in his right hand was the gun--but no formshowed behind him.

  But there were voices beginning. The yells of Lewison had struck outechoes up and down the street. Terry could hear shouts begin insidehouses in answer, and bark out with sudden clearness as a door or awindow was opened.

  They reached the horses, dumped the precious burdens into the saddlebags,and mounted.

  "Which way?" gasped Denver.

  A light flickered in the bank; half a dozen men spilled out of the backdoor, cursing and shouting.

  "Walk your horse," said Terry. "Walk it--you fool!"

  Denver had let his horse break into a trot. He drew it back to a walk atthis hushed command.

  "They won't see us unless we start at a hard gallop," continued Terry."They won't watch for slowly moving objects now. Besides, it'll be tenminutes before the sheriff has a posse organized. And that's the onlything we have to fear."

 
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