Dee Hassard shifted his rear end across the wagon bed, trying to avoid the splinters that angled from the rough boards. The cuffs behind his back held him to the steel springs of the buckboard seat, and the back of the seat bounced down on his shoulders every time the wheels hit a rough spot in the road. He sat backward in the wagon box, looking over the tailgate at the road winding snakelike through South Park.
"People are just so damned gullible," he said.
Frank Moncrief glanced over his right shoulder at his prisoner. "Plain stupid to fall for what you tried to pull," he replied. He looked beyond the two-mule team, scanning a timbered ridge a half mile ahead. This prisoner didn't have any partners coming to rescue him as far as Moncrief knew, but it didn't hurt to be watchful.
Hassard's leg irons rattled across the wagon bed as he squirmed for comfort. "You'd be surprised," he said. "It's the smart ones that're most gullible. They're easier to get intrigued. They're ambitious. They're not necessarily greedy, but they'll risk a small fortune if they think there's profit in it."
Moncrief's eyes swept the horizon for smoke, dust, buzzardsanything that might warn or inform him. He saw only the snow-capped peaks of the distant ranges, the hacklelike timber on the high rolls, the great verdant grasslands guiding the South Platte through its undulations.
Crisp air cooled his nostrils, his throat, his lungs, charging him with something close to rapture. This place was big and simple, the way Frank Moncrief liked to live. It was primary, right down to the broad swaths of colorthe bracing blue sky, the succulent green slopes, the icy whites of clouds and mountaintopsflecks of it all reflected in the blackness of the lucid river.
It galled him to be here on this wagon. He would much prefer a saddle. After he delivered Dee Hassard to the state penitentiary in Caon City, he was going to trade his old buckboard and mule team for a good horse. He would take his time riding back to Fairplay, straying off this beaten trace to look over the hills when the notion struck him. He could almost feel the rhythm of the lope now.
"You can soak any ol' half-wit for a couple of greenbacks," Hassard continued, "but if you want to run a high-dollar confidence game, you have to go after somebody rich. And how do you think they got rich away out here in Colorado Territory? Well, not by bein' stupid. But not by playin' it safe, either."
"Still," Moncrief said. "Diamonds in South Park? I don't see how you pulled it off as long as you did."
"Hard work," Hassard said. "I know you think that's a line of bulla confidence man workin' hard at anythingbut it's true. You can't make it look too simple or too easy, or the mark will catch on. You've got to make it look complicated, like any other kind of business.
"Now, with the South Park Diamond Field, what I did was, I let my victims come to me. After I brought that first diamond into town and let the word slip out, I made myself scarce. I'd sneak out of town at night and give the slip to anybody tried to follow me. Mystery, Sheriff Moncrief, that's what got 'em. When the report came back from that jeweler in Denver that I had sure 'nough found a raw diamond, then all I had to do was wait."
Moncrief glanced down at the cuffs around the seat springs. He wasn't taking any chances with this flimflam artist. Hassard was built scrawny, but he had a tricky look about him. He stood only about five-seven, weighed maybe a hundred fifty with the cuffs and leg irons. But little men often knew how to equalize.
Moncrief had been on the trail of some road agents and hadn't taken part in Hassard's arrest or trial, but his deputy had briefed him. Hassard had been cooperative. He hadn't put up a fight during the arrest. Hadn't tried to escape. Pleaded guilty. But he was too damn sure of himself. Too casual. The man was going to prison with higher spirits than most men took into whorehouses.
"Was that diamond real," Moncrief asked, "or was the report from Denver faked?"
"The diamond was real."
"Where' d you get a real diamond, uncut like that?"
Hassard chuckled. "This ain't my first game, Sheriff. I got it and a dozen more like it off a jeweler back east on another job. Fenced the rest of 'em and kept the one for this swindle."
Moncrief hissed. "'Swindle,' my foot. Plain ol' stealin' is what it was."
"Now, I resent that, Sheriff. A regular thief would have just broke into Sam Cornelius's saloon and robbed the till. My way of takin' his money was slicker, more daring. And I got more money than any sneak thief ever could have. But you gotta work hard at it. When Cornelius offered to buy the diamond field from me, I could have took him up on it right away and lit out with the money. But I strung him along. I wouldn't have nothin' to do with him at first. Didn't want to look too anxious. After his price got high enough, I agreed."
Moncrief snorted his amusement. Sam Cornelius was one hell of a saloon operator, but what did he know about diamonds? "You mean he handed over all that gold dust? Just like that?"
"Hell, no. He was too smart for that. He wanted to see the diamond field first. So I blindfolded him and took him to it. I had salted it with a bunch of worthless pieces of agate, but he didn't know one rock from another. When we got back to town, I showed him all sorts of forged documents and contracts from the gemstone companies in New York. That hooked him. He paid me the gold dust then, and I got the hell out of Fairplay."
Moncrief could not hold back the chuckle. "Diamonds in South Park!"
"Why not? They got diamonds in Arkansas, don't they? I'm tellin' you, it was the slickest piece of work I ever did."
"Then how come you got caught?"
Hassard spat over the side of the wagon. "Because that tricky bastard Cornelius stole one of my fake diamonds from the diamond field. I found out later that he had a hole in the sole of his boot, and he stepped on top of one of those agates I had showed him and pushed it up in the toe of his boot. He knew that if he'd have tried just pickin' it up, I'd have seen him. Anyway, he tried to sell it in Denver, and a jeweler told him it wasn't worth a damn. They tracked me down before I could board the train to San Francisco. If Sam Cornelius hadn't been a thief, I'd have gotten away with it all. But there went three months of hard work in Fairplay wasted."
Frank Moncrief grunted. "Well, you won't have to do any more of that hard work for a spell," he said, turning to locate a hawk he had heard scream in the sky. "You can take it easy, bustin' rocks in Caon City for the next five years."
The wheels of the buckboard hit a washed-out place in the road, slamming the spring seat down on Hassard's shoulder. "Ain't that a hell of a deal?" he said, grimacing through the pain. "It ain't like I murdered somebody. Hell, I never hurt nobody in my life. I met fellas in Fair-play who have shot and killed men over cards, and they're still walkin' free. And me, I pull a little swindle and get five years, hard labor."
Frank Moncrief drove the wagon around an easy bend in the road and saw the campground come into view. There the road veered away from the river, over the dry prairie toward Cañon City, It was early in the afternoon yet, but the mules had been pulling since dawn and needed rest. Anyway, this was the recognized campground on the Fairplay to Caon City road, and Frank Moncrief liked it. Sleeping by the river would beat making a dry camp out in the open park. The stars would come out tonight like gems in Dee Hassard's fake field of diamonds.
"Maybe if you'd have given the money back, you might have gotten off a little lighter," Moncrief said.
"I tried to explain to 'em that I lost the money to a gambler in Denver. He cheated me blind, Sheriff Moncrief. I swear, there are so many crooks in this territory a man can't earn a living. When I get out of prison, I'm goin' back east."
"You'll stay out of those confidence games if you know what's good for you," Moncrief warned.
Hassard shook his head. "I'm too set in my ways."
"You're a young man yet."
"Yeah, but I've been workin' angles since I was a kid. People don't change, Sheriff. You ought to know that in your line of work."
Moncrief drove the wagon down next to the river and pulled the reins back. The bank wasn't steep here in the level park; the river looked like a manicured irrigation canal except for its aimless meanderings. "My brother sure did," he said, setting the brake. "I once drove him on this same route, cuffed to the wagon, just the way you are. And this is where we camped together the day before I put him in prison."
Hassard craned his neck and looked Moncrief in the eye for the first time that day. "Your own brother?"
"That's right." He grabbed his bedroll from the wagon box and threw it down on a patch of soft grass. "He was a hired gun for the Bayou Salado Ranch years ago. Wild as a drunken buck back then. Killed a few rustlers here and there."
Out of habit, the law man began walking a broad circle around the campground, looking for tracks coming or going. Had someone been here today? Yesterday? Could somebody have concealed a gun for Hassard to use on him in the night? Hassard didn't have a partner in the territory that he knew of, but confidence men often worked in pairs or in teams. He wasn't taking any chances. Satisfied that the camp had not been used in a week, Moncrief returned to the wagon, took the hobbles from the bed, and went to fix them on the mules.
"Killed a few rustlers, huh?" the prisoner said. "So, you jailed your own brother for murder."
"Naw, nobody cared about a few dead rustlers," the lawman answered. "But he stayed drunk too often, got fired, and went to rustlin' the ranch's cattle himself. I figured I better arrest him and get him tried before he wound up lynched."
"Your own brother…" Hassard lay on his side behind the buckboard seat. It felt good to stop here, get the weight off his hind end for a change.
"Best thing ever happened to him. He got religion down there in prison. Made a preacher. Maybe you've heard of him. Name's Carrol."
Hassard's chains rattled as he squirmed to a sitting position. "Carrol Moncrief, the fightin' parson? He's your brother?"
"Well, I'll be damned. Wasn't he in on some big fight this spring?"
"He shot a couple of hard cases who tried to steal some horses from a camp meetin' he was preachin' outside of Pueblo: Just winged 'em."
Hassard chuckled. "Don't sound like he's settled down much to me."
"Oh, he's changed. Before he got religion, he'd just as soon kill you as look at you, and he'd do about anything for a dollar. He was a sight worse than you, Hassard. You said yourself you never hurt nobody in your life. Carrol's done worse than hurt folks. That's why I say you can mend your ways. If Carrol Moncrief did, you can, too."
Hassard shrugged and lay back down on his side. "What's he doin' with hisself these days?"
Moncrief slipped the bit from a mule's mouth and let the beast wander off to graze. "He rides a circuit all through the territory. Preaches at weddings and funerals and camp meetings. Picks up a dollar here, dollar there. Got a letter from him last week. Said he hired on to guide some bunch of religious fanatics from Clear Creek over to the Western slopes."
"Yeah, the Church of the Weeping Virgin, or some such name as that. From the states. They want to build their own town out in the wilderness. Be lucky if the Indians don't slaughter 'em all. Anyway, Carrol is supposed to meet 'em on Clear Creek and guide 'em over the mountains."
Hassard lay on his side in silence. He could just see the fighting parson taking a band of fanatics over the divide. Odd things happened out here. That's why this was such fertile ground. People here would fall for things like diamonds lying around on the ground in South Park. "Hey, Sheriff," he said suddenly. "You gonna let me loose so I can accomplish my toilet?"
The lawman dropped the wagon tongue and reached into his coat pocket for the keys. "Never heard it said that way."
"You have to learn to talk like that if you want to bamboozle those rich Easterners. You'd never know it to look at me now, but I can clean up like the starchiest dandy you ever seen," Hassard claimed.
Moncrief unlocked the cuffs. "Get out," he ordered. He looked the swindler over as he watched him rub his wrists and climb out of the wagon bed. The reddish-blond stubble on the man's face, the tattered wool suit, and the moth-eaten hat made it difficult indeed to see him as an Eastern dude. "Hold your hands out," he said.
Hassard put his wrists together in front of him and let Moncrief fasten the cuffs again. "I'll only be a couple of minutes, then I'll help you set up camp."
"I'll do it myself. You'll stay cuffed to the wagon."
Hassard shrugged and turned toward the river. He ambled toward a patch of cattails downstream and downwind, the chain straightening between his ankles with every stride. He followed a narrow path into the cattails, the obvious latrine location for the campsite. He knew it well. He had memorized every step of this trail before he ever set foot in Fairplay. The South Park Diamond Field scam really was the slickest piece of work Dee Hassard had ever pulled off, and it wasn't over yet.
He found the rock he had planted there before and stopped beside it. He looked back toward the wagon, saw Moncrief watching him over the back of the second mule. He unbuttoned his pants, letting them drop to his ankles. He squatted, and Deputy Frank Moncrief disappeared behind the veil of cattails.
The stone between his feet rolled over easily, revealing the bundle of oilcloth pressed into the soft ground. He picked it up, trying to keep the cuffs from rattling as he pulled back the folds, revealing the .36-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. A few specks of rust had appeared on the blue gunmetal, but otherwise the pistol seemed no worse for the wait.
When Hassard came out of the cattails, Frank Moncrief was throwing firewood out of the wagon bed. The lawman had stopped to gather the wood in the timber on one of the high rolls. "You want to sit on the seat, or on the ground?" the sheriff asked.
"The ground, I guess," Hassard said, approaching. He saw the deputy reach into his pocket for the keys. "You'll never guess what I found over there," he said.
"A diamond?" Moncrief answered.
"Somethin' more valuable than that." Hassard reached into his coat and put his hand on the revolver stuck in his waistband. He saw the key drop from Moncrief's hand. He pulled the weapon out, grasping it in both hands.
Moncrief froze with his hand on his sidearm. He heard the wind moaning among the wheel spokes. That hawk screamed down on him again. "You're makin' a mistake, Hassard," he said.
The confidence man showed his straight white teeth and chuckled. "Take off your gun belt and throw it over here."
"No." He saw his mistake now. He had stopped to camp at a recognized campground. He should have chosen some random site.
"I'll kill you if you don't."
"You're liable to try killin' me if I do, but you better think hard about it. That gun's been out there in the cattails a while from the looks of it. It might misfire."
"It might. You a gamblin' man?"
"If it shoots, you think one shot from a thirty-six cal will kill me?"
Hassard's eyes twinkled. "It's been known to happen."
"All right, say it does happen. Say you kill me. You'll just make things worse. You're not a murderer, Hassard, you're just a two-bit confidence artist."
Hassard sighed. "I think I better clear somethin' up with you, Moncrief. You remember before, when I said I had never hurt nobody in my life?"
"I lied." He tightened his finger on the trigger.
The mules leaped when the pistol fired, one of them almost throwing itself down, its front legs hobbled together as they were. Moncrief fell back against the wagon and slumped to the ground, blood gushing from his head wound.
Hassard cocked the pistol and watched. The lawman kept breathing for a couple of minutes, but Hassard just waited. Another shot might alert somebody, he thought. Probably not, but it didn't hurt to be careful. When he was sure Moncrief was dead, he put the pistol in the wagon bed and reached into the lawman's pocket for the keys.
The gun belt was hard to drag out from under the dead weight of the body, and when he strapped it on, he found that it needed a new hole for the buckle, his waist being much thinner than Moncrief's. He fished a pocket-knife from Moncriefals pants and sat down to bore the new hole.
He looked at the dead body and shook his head. "It's a wonder what some people won't fall for," he said.
Copyright © 1996 by Mike Blakely