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Auraria a novel, p.14
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       Auraria: A Novel, p.14

           Tim Westover

  Chapter Fourteen

  The Song of Parting started up again, and Holtzclaw could extract only the vaguest of commitments from Abigail. Still unfed and dissatisfied, he stepped out of the Old Rock Falls; the sky was clouded with an even, featureless gray that promised rain. While rain was not unusual, the princess often neglected the clouds and made drizzle fall from the clear blue sky. The clouds were reassuring; they promised a natural rain.

  At the Grayson House, there were no fiddlers, no festivities, no poppy rocks, but there was some food. The chuck-luck wheel was still. At a few tables, men rolled dice. The bone cubes tiptoed along the tables to the gentle tune of coins.

  “Hey there, Jimmy,” said Emmett. “Life treating you all right?”

  Normally, Holtzclaw did not relish talking with the garrulous druggist. But in his present state, he was happy for any company. Holtzclaw joined him at the bar, placed his money on the spot in the table, and then turned his back on it, as he’d been taught. “Too much work to do to waste time with complaining.”

  “That’s me too, friend,” said Emmett. “I have scads of fiddly bottles to move up the mountain. Got to wrap them all up so they don’t bust. Just this morning, I knocked over a couple by accident when I was pulling them from the shelves. Some of them spilled on the floor and got mixed up. Then there was a purple cloud, and I woke up two hours later. There’s time lost.”

  Holtzclaw glanced back to the bar counter and was relieved to see, at last, a plate of food put before him. He tucked in to the reddish brown stew and parsed the flavors of rich meat, caramelized onions, good measures of salt and pepper and woodland spices, and, happily, no mushrooms.

  “Will you tell me what am I eating here, Emmett, or is it better to enjoy it in ignorance?”

  “It’s groundhog stew. Not real groundhog. Can’t get real groundhog right now. The blasting and hammering up on the ridge scares them away. Sampson’s had to make do with imitation ground hog. It’s beef with extra fat. He puts in all the right spices, and that makes the stew taste right.” Emmett reached into Holtzclaw’s bowl and extracted a gravy-soaked leaf. “You don’t want to eat this whole.”

  “What is it?”

  “They call it cut-gut, turkey pea, or goat’s rue. It’s got three names because people can’t decide if it’s good for you or not. I keep some at the shop. A few folks will come in and want it for the shivering fits, dropsy, the vapors, chronic bubo, the squirting johnnies, or spider kiss. The rest want it for groundhog stew. But I’m an apothecary, not a greengrocer!”

  Holtzclaw ate shovelfuls until he found the bottom of the bowl; then he sopped up the remainder of the stew with torn pieces of bread. He wondered if this dish could be exported from Auraria. In flavor, it could stand with the best of city cuisine, but Holtzclaw doubted it could survive a change of atmosphere. A bowl of groundhog stew served in a mountain tavern is a very different dish than a ragout de marmotte served in a china bowl to a wheezing aristocrat.

  The lady of the house, Lizzie Rathbun, entered from the kitchen. Her hair was up and her sleeves were rolled to her elbows.

  “Ms. Rathbun,” said Emmett, shocked, “are you staffing the kitchen today?”

  “Goodness, no,” said Ms. Rathbun. “I was only passing through. Why, Holtzclaw, it’s a pleasure to see you. You’ve been scampering all over the Lost Creek Valley like a squirrel trying to keep his brains out of the pudding.”

  “Enchanted, Ms. Rathbun, I’m sure,” said Holtzclaw.

  “Do you know, Holtzclaw, there’s a matter you could help me with. Something related to business. May I invite you for a conversation?”

  Emmett’s face, for the first time that evening, cracked into a broad smile. “Say no more, Jimmy! I release you.” He scooped up his bowl and found a chair near the dice game, casting a sly glance back at Holtzclaw.

  “Do you think Emmett there is the most discreet of your customers?” said Holtzclaw, a little perturbed, yet feeling more flattered.

  “If your reputation is going to suffer a tarnish, you may as well deserve it and claim your few minutes in the pleasure of my company. You may find it profitable.”

  Ms. Rathbun’s rooms occupied the highest story of the Grayson House. Her private stair and corridor were not shared with any of the guest rooms. At the top of her landing was a fine wooden table, likely French, on which stood a painted vase, decidedly not French. It had two large loop handles that fancifully doubled as ears and applied clay decorations that represented bulging eyes, a bulbous nose, and a thin-lipped but toothy grin. A bouquet of flowers in pinks and purples stuck out of its head.

  “Do you like it?” said Ms. Rathbun. “One of the mountain men gave it to my father in payment for medical services rendered.”

  “It’s charming, in a rustic way,” said Holtzclaw. “What kind of flowers are they?”

  “Oh, beautiful ones. I don’t collect them. For all I know, they grow from this fellow’s head.”

  Ms. Rathbun opened a set of double-doors into a long room. One end was set for dressing and conversation, and here Ms. Rathbun bade Holtzclaw to take a seat. The other end of the room held her nighttime furniture. A large bed, as wide as it was long, was guarded by four posts and veiled by white gossamer. From a hook on the wall hung a silk sleeping gown.

  Ms. Rathbun did not sit beside Holtzclaw. She sat down in front of a large mirror, facing away from him. From a silver ewer, she poured a measure of water into a silver basin.

  “What sort of water is that?” said Holtzclaw.

  “The wet kind,” said Ms. Rathbun.

  “Yes, but I mean which of your local springs is it drawn from?”

  “All the water comes from the same mountain. Some of it leaks from rocks, some of it flows down the hillside, some of it comes from upriver. It all mixes and mingles and flows out through the cascade, and then the people below us do not care a whit where it came from.”

  In the mirror, Holtzclaw could see her ablutions. Ms. Rathbun lifted a hand and unfastened the top two buttons on her collar, which fell open to reveal the flesh at the base of her neck. She applied a dampened cloth across her forehead and down her cheeks.

  “I can step outside, Ms. Rathbun …”

  “Do you think you could see fit to calling me Lizzie?”

  “I suppose I could try,” said Holtzclaw, who was feeling flush from the intimacy “And please call me James.”

  “I don’t believe that I will, Holtzclaw. It does not hang on you well. Some people simply do not suit their given names. Neither you nor your employer.”

  “He’s not a Hiram, is he?” said Holtzclaw. “It was suitable for his boyhood in Auraria, but it’s not a name for a businessman.”

  Ms. Rathbun patted her throat and re-fixed her buttons, then joined Holtzclaw at the cluster of furniture designed for conversation. She collapsed into an overstuffed club chair, reclining as though it were a fainting couch, and exhaled deeply.

  “Tell me, Holtzclaw, how large is your share in your employer’s company? Thirty percent? Forty?”

  “There is no share,” said Holtzclaw. “I have a salary.”

  “Do you mean that he doesn’t include you in the profits? Holtzclaw, that’s unconscionable!”

  “It is an excellent employment that has kept me in good stead, professionally and financially.”

  “With all his rhetoric about giving better jobs to the people of this town! You’re the one scampering through the valley while he stays tucked up in his office. The rich are the laziest of men. They pay others to do the hard work.”

  “That is not Shadburn’s philosophy,” said Holtzclaw.

  “Of course he says that it’s not his philosophy,” said Ms. Rathbun. “But what is his practice? Who is drafting contracts or pleading with widows to surrender their family homesteads or driving away sweet potato farmers? And he pockets the profits, of course. You get your … salary.” She made the word a small and contemptible thing. “And why do you care if it’s profitable if you a
re not owed a portion of the profits? Because success is its own reward? Because you enjoy the beaming glow of completion and the pat on the back of a job well done? Are they redeemable in coin, Holtzclaw? Can you cash them in for comfort in your old age?”

  “I suppose not,” said Holtzclaw.

  “He’s buying respectability. He’s buying eminence. Happiness. And he’s getting them. But who makes it possible? Why, you do, Holtzclaw. You are doing these … chores … for a man who thinks he’s above them. You are running your feet raw. You are going hungry while Shadburn gorges himself on the foods of his childhood. I know all about it, Holtzclaw. Sampson sends up platter after platter to his offices.”

  She lifted herself from the reclined position and leaned forward, arms crossed, elbows on her knees. Her voice dropped to a whisper; Holtzclaw, despite himself, leaned forward too. “We have an opportunity to earn our own riches. And you can be a full partner. All we need is a little land of our own, right on the shore.”

  Holtzclaw knew this was a ploy, a manipulation. But Ms. Rathbun—Lizzie—did not seem strange or desperate. She was not a ghost, or troubled by ghosts. Rather, she seemed to be the most reasonable person he’d found in Auraria. The one most like him, or most like what he wished to be.

  “I can’t work against my employer,” he finally said, because he could find nothing better. “I couldn’t do anything that would harm him.”

  “Ah, loyal Holtzclaw. Well, loyalty isn’t a bad trait. You’re right. His failure would be a loss to everyone, but you can make a side bet on his success. The men down there at the chuck-luck wheel sometimes put down money on numbers that aren’t their own. And what’s the harm in that?”

  Indeed, where was the harm in that? And it was better that Holtzclaw explore this avenue a little, see where Ms. Rathbun thought she had found an opportunity. If Holtzclaw did not at least feign an interest, she might turn to the railroad men or to outside investors, and that could prove a much greater danger to Shadburn’s plans. “And what will you do with this land? Sell it? Hold it?”

  “No, Holtzclaw. We’ll build. Something useful. Something of our own.” There was money in her voice.

  Holtzclaw nodded. “Shadburn wants to own it all.”

  “Would his plans be harmed if he owned only ninety-nine percent of the lakeshore, rather than a stifling hundred?”

  A bit of competition would benefit everyone, conceded Holtzclaw. It may whet Shadburn’s appetite for profits again, make him more of a Shadburn and less of a Hiram.

  “Find me a piece of shorefront,” said Ms. Rathbun. “I would be happy with even the smallest slice. There is plenty of profit, even in that.”

  She held out her hand, not horizontally to kiss, but vertically, as for business agreements. A clock in the room counted three seconds. Her hand trembled slightly from the exertion of extending it over the chasm between them. It was a trick known as the Toledo Tremble—a splendid tool because it exploits the social compunction to take any hand that is offered. Impossible agreements have been reached because a single hand looks lonely. Holtzclaw recognized that this trick was being employed against him, and his esteem for Ms. Rathbun rose.

  When Holtzclaw’s hand met hers, he was surprised to feel an exhilaration within him, a new animating purpose. If the dice came up for Shadburn, as they always did—then for once, after so much honest work, he would profit, too.

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