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Authors: Mike Blakely

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BOOK: Dead Reckoning
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“That's all right,” Hassard said, getting down from his mule. He rubbed his rear end. “I saw you down below and got curious. Thought you were some kind of prospector or somethin'.”

The confidence man looked down on the campground of the hymn singers again, lingering over it this time. He recognized the tune: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” “Never saw a photograph bein' made before,” he said.

“This is just the plate,” Jackson explained. “I'll have to take it down to the studio to print photographs.”

Hassard shot a quick glance at the hole under the rock where he had stashed his gold. “What the hell is the Hayden Survey?”

“Government geological explorations,” the photographer said, “headed by Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden.”

“And you go around and make photographs of everything they explore?”

“Not everything. Just the points of interest.” Jackson removed his hands from the box. “Maybe you've seen some of my photographs from Colter's Hell in the Yellowstone country.”

Hassard put his hand on his chin. “You mean the geysers and hot springs and all?”

“Yes.” He had opened the box and was removing a developed plate of glass.

Hassard stuck his thumbs under his gun belt and approached the photographer. “Now, tell me the truth, Jackson. Is that Yellowstone country for real? I can spot a hoax, you know, and them geysers don't set right with me.”

“It's real, all right,” Jackson said. “I brought the photographic evidence back to Congress. Why do you think they established the national park?” He put the exposed glass in a pan of fluid on a rock and wiped his fingers on his shirt.

“I figured it was some kind of government scam. What the hell do we need a national park for, anyhow?” He looked into the pan at the plate of glass, unable to see a picture in it. “I believe I've heard of this Hayden Survey before,” he said. “Were you all in Fairplay last summer?”

“We were,” Jackson said.

“I thought so. I was just there a few days ago. Folks are still talkin' about you-all down there. Said you was on some wild-goose chase to photograph some mountain cross, or holy snowy cross, or some such thing.”

Jackson's sad eyes twinkled as he looked up from his work. “We found it,” he said. “I was the first to photograph it.”

“But what is it?” Hassard demanded.

Jackson stood erect, pointed west. “It was just a legend until we located it. I had talked to a lot of people who knew of it, but none who had ever seen it. Then, as luck would have it, we ran into an old prospector up in the Sawatch who claimed he had seen it once. He was lost when he stumbled across it, then he found his way, like magic.”

“Stumbled across what?”

“The Mount of the Snowy Cross. The old man told us it was visible only from a few places above timberline. He said the best place to see it from was Notch Mountain, an easy landmark to recognize because of the notch in its summit. So I took the photographic division over the Great Divide at Tennessee Pass. There's an old Indian trail that leads from there past the base of Notch Mountain. We had to leave the mules below and carry the camera and chemicals and plates on our backs. A couple of miles above timberline, we finally came over the summit of Notch Mountain, and there it was, standing across a high mountain basin.”

“There what was?” Hassard said.

“The snowy cross.”

“But what the hell is it?”

Jackson put his feet together, stood straight, and spread his arms. “It's a huge cross formed by snow packed into natural crevices in the slope of a mountain peak. It stands a thousand feet tall.” He let his palms rise above his shoulders. “The arms lift upward to heaven like this, hundreds of feet wide. The top of the cross reaches the very peak of the Mount of the Snowy Cross. I just got a glimpse of it before clouds moved in and obliterated it.”

“I thought you said you got photographs of it.”

“We had to camp on Notch Mountain overnight,” Jackson said, letting his arms fall. “The next morning the clouds cleared long enough for me to make eight exposures. One of them was excellent. It was an extraordinary experience.”

Silence surrounded the rocky outcropping over the creek, and Hassard found the image of the snowy cross on his mind now even clearer than that of the gold hidden at the photographer's feet. “I guess everybody knows about it now,” he said. “Like them geysers up in Colter's Hell.”

Jackson shrugged as he moved his glass plate to another pan of fluid. “The photograph circulated fairly well in certain circles back east, but oddly enough, the Snowy Cross is still thought of as a legend out here.”

Hassard recognized a new tune in the valley below: “The Old Rugged Cross.” “Funny they should start singin' that,” he said.

“Not really,” Jackson replied. “They do a lot of singing, and that's one of their favorites. We're camped not far down the creek from them, and I hear them singing several times a day.”

“Who are they?”

“Some bunch of religious fanatics who call themselves the Church of the Weeping Virgin.” Jackson took the glass plate from the pan of fluid and carried it to a box on the ground beside his pack mule. “Mind opening that lid for me?”

Hassard took the cover from the sturdy wooden box to reveal padded slots inside, most of them holding plates of glass. He held the lid as the photographer slid his negative into one of the empty slots. “The Church of the Weeping what?” The swindler's interest rose. Hadn't Frank Moncrief mentioned something about this?

Jackson motioned for Hassard to replace the lid on the box and took a fresh plate of treated glass from a holder near the camera. “Weeping Virgin. They seem like simple Christian folks, but their late founder was an eccentric who claimed the angel of the Virgin Mary spoke to him in dreams.”

Hassard chuckled. “What did the ol' girl say?”

The photographer was installing the plate of glass in his boxlike camera. “According to this prophet—his name was Wyckoff—she instructed all faithful Christians to renounce materialism and give all their money to the church, which seems awful convenient for Wyckoff, since he controlled the church finances. Also, he claimed the Virgin Mary said to shun outsiders but embrace anybody who accepted their religion. Well, that's what got them into trouble.”

“How's that?”

“Wyckoff told his people they were going west to establish a new community in the wilderness. But before they did, they made a sweep across the southern states preaching and looking for converts. They let some black folks join.”

“Alongside of white folks?” Hassard said.

Jackson nodded. “And worse. One of the white ladies from up north decided she wanted to marry one of the black men from down south. This Reverend Wyckoff said the Virgin Mary had told him that one day all the races would be as one, and so he married this couple in their camp somewhere in Arkansas. They were mobbed by some local thugs, the newlywed couple and Wyckoff lynched.”

Hassard's eyebrows raised. “Who's leadin' 'em now?”

“They're waiting on a guide to take them into the mountains. A Reverend Carrol Moncrief. Maybe you've heard of him.” Jackson put his head under the black cloth hanging from his camera.

“Sure,” Hassard said, grinning. “He rides a circuit big as the territory. I met his brother down in Fairplay.” He turned to look again at the hole under the rocky outcropping where his gold lay hidden. “You gonna make some more pictures?”

“Yes,” Jackson said, coming out from under the hood. “The sun's good right now. Say, how would you like to get into one of them?”

“A photograph?” The swindler's smile broadened. It was something akin to becoming immortal, getting one's picture made. “It won't really steal my soul, will it?”

“Not unless your soul is very loose. Stand there on that boulder.” The photographer glanced up to judge the light. “Quick, before that cloud covers the sun.”

Hassard felt giddy as he stepped onto the boulder, the vast grasslands behind him. He held his coat back to reveal Frank Moncrief's gun belt and Colt revolver, his own rust-speckled Smith & Wesson tucked under the cartridge belt.

“Look at the camera,” Jackson said.

Hassard raised one eyebrow. This was a little risky, he realized. He had heard of detectives using photographs to track people down. But Hassard made it a policy to change his appearance after every job, anyway. In that way, the photograph might actually help cover his trail. He heard the shutter open and close, felt the cloud shade him.

“What did you say your name was?” Jackson asked. “I try to identify my subjects when possible.”

“Hassard. Dee Hassard.” He heard the pilgrims strike up a new hymn in the valley below.

“And what is your profession?”

“Investments.”

Jackson left it at that. “You're welcome to come down to the studio tomorrow and see a print.”

“Thanks all the same,” Hassard said, turning for his mule. “But I've got places to go. Good luck on your survey this summer.”

“We're going down to the San Juans by way of Fairplay. Want me to pass anything along to anybody down there?”

Dee Hassard put his foot in the stirrup and climbed onto the weary mule. “I don't have any friends there,” he said, smiling. “I was just passin' through.” He touched his hat brim and reined his mount down the slope toward Denver.

He would have to come back later for the gold, but that didn't matter right now. The money didn't sway Dee Hassard the way the plotting did—all the risky conniving and the feeling of power he got when he made a slick escape, or even when he rescued a botched job like he had done in South Park.

And right now, he could feel an idea coming on. All those gullible Weeping Virgin idiots waiting for a new prophet down there in camp. He had never heard of the late Reverend Wyckoff, but he would have bet his entire diamond field haul that the good reverend was more confidence man than prophet.

Five

May Tremaine's new shoes were not meant for walking. She had blisters on her feet the size of dimes—about two dollars' worth, judging by the sharp pains that stabbed her with every step.

Most of the stores and shops had shut down, late afternoon filling the streets of Denver with shadow. She felt tired and dirty. If she didn't find some work now, it would mean another night in the wagon yard, and that man there was going to expect reimbursement tonight. He had told her as much when she left this morning.

She saw a door ajar down the street and quickened her step, though it felt like walking barefoot over sharp rocks. The sign simply said
HARDWARE
, a commodity about which she knew nothing. She reached for the door, but it opened before she could grab the brass handle, and a man stepped onto the street.

“Sorry,” he said. “Closed for the day.”

“No, I'm looking for a job,” May replied.

The man turned his key in the lock. “Well, we're not hiring.” He turned to walk away.

“Wait!” May cried. “Please, wait.”

The man stopped in the street and turned.

“I have no money. I have no place to stay. I'll work for room and board. Just until I find something else. Please. I'll do anything.” She gestured toward the store, but she knew the man would take it the wrong way.

He smiled with one side of his mouth as his eyes traveled down her skirt and slowly back to her face. “My wife wouldn't approve of that sort of arrangement. Good luck.” And he left, shaking his head as he walked away.

May thought about that man back in the wagon yard. It wouldn't be so bad. He had bathed last night, and had made sure she knew about it this morning, having worn oil in his hair and a clean shirt. But where would it get her? A restless night on a bed of straw? She would be better off hiring herself out as just a regular whore. At least then she would get paid.

Up until a couple of days ago, May thought she had made it in Denver. She had landed a job in a shoe shop, and the cobbler had advanced her a pair of shoes, as hers was pretty much worn out. The job had gone well for a week. Then, two days ago, while cleaning up after hours, the cobbler had followed her into the back room. When she reached up to put a pair of shoes on a high shelf, he grabbed her from behind, squeezing her breasts with both hands, pressing himself against her.

She had gasped and wrenched violently away, elbowing him in the mouth as she stumbled and fell to the ground. She sprang and ran, made it to the door, and bolted out to the street.

“Hey!” was all the cobbler said as she ran away.

She had made just enough money that week to earn the shoes that were giving her blisters now. She walked on. She wasn't going to sleep on that wagon yard straw again tonight.

May didn't know what she did to make men come after her like that. When she looked in the mirror, she didn't see a pretty woman. She thought her eyes and her lips were too large. Her face was too wide, her chin too weak. She had always wanted to be tall and skinny and able to run like a deer. But she was of medium height, too curvaceous to be considered skinny, even though she carried no extra weight. She didn't see herself as pretty, but men had been groping for her since she was fifteen.

It had started with her uncle, the husband of her mother's sister, an army captain back in Iowa. He was quite a dashing character, having done battle with Indians on the plains. It was true that May had flirted with him in a girlish way, but it never even remotely occurred to her that she might summon the monster in him. She was visiting on the army post for the summer, and her aunt had gone to town one day, leaving her alone in the captain's quarters. The captain came home in the middle of the morning, asked her to come into the bedroom, and pushed her onto the bed, falling on top of her.

“If you scream again, I'll hit you,” he said, pressing his hand hard over her mouth. “You've been wanting this and now you're gonna get it.” He felt like he weighed five hundred pounds on top of her. And though she cried the entire time, he seemed not to notice, and even told her how good she made him feel.

BOOK: Dead Reckoning
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