Authors: Mike Blakely
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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, buzzardsâanything 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 colorâthe bracing blue sky, the succulent green slopes, the icy whites of clouds and mountaintopsâflecks 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 CaÃ±on 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 bullâa confidence man workin' hard at anythingâbut 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. “âSwindle,' 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 CaÃ±on 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 Fairplay 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 CaÃ±on 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 CaÃ±on 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 brotherâ¦” 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.”