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Auraria a novel, p.19
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       Auraria: A Novel, p.19

           Tim Westover

  Chapter Nineteen

  Holtzclaw returned to his own room, alone. He extinguished his bedside candle and climbed beneath the covers. The yellow light in the room was replaced by pulsing green flashes. The drapes dulled the glow of the falling stars.

  He heard scratching at the door. At first he dismissed it as a pest—a loose mouse or another forest creature, compelled into shelter by the rising waters. The scratching became more rhythmic. There was a voice behind it, too soft to understand.

  Holtzclaw’s leapt to his feet, following the leaping of his heart. He fumbled with a match but could not make the candle light. Giving up, padded to the door. Now the voice was whispering his name. He opened the door only slightly, but it was wide enough for Abigail to push past into his room and close the door behind her.

  “That’s the fanciest nightshirt I’ve ever seen,” she said. “You’re dressed for a dinner party even when you sleep.”

  Holtzclaw was wearing formal pajamas—red and white striped broadcloth, with buttons that fastened down the front. He shook off the faint shimmer of disappointment. He should be very glad, rather. It was better that Abigail was the one at his door. Only she had the promise of gold; in Ms. Rathbun he had the hope of something else.

  “So have I convinced you?” said Holtzclaw, drawing himself up, trying to look majestic in pajamas. “Are we to undertake a mining expedition?”

  “Don’t call it that,” said Abigail. “I have to satisfy a curiosity. There is one dream that is so strange, I don’t see how it could possibly be real. In the mountain behind Raven Cliff, there is a tunnel. And I will never know if that tunnel leads as deep as the dream supposes it does, unless we go tonight. When this lake is filled, no one will ever see it again. It will be a part of Auraria lost forever, and I want to collect its memory.”

  “That’s splendid, Ms. Thompson,” said Holtzclaw, pulling an evening cloak over his pajamas. He was brimming with excitement. “Is it a long journey? What must I take?”

  “If there is anything you need, get it quickly. The lake is rising. It has almost covered over the tunnel entrance. By morning, it will be filled with wild wonder fish.”

  This was very clever, thought Holtzclaw. She would take him to treasure, but only at the last possible moment. He could only mine it for a moment, and the transformation of poor miner to rich idler would be limited.

  Abigail had driven in a little wagon, pulled by a mule, but she had no digging supplies. Holtzclaw scrounged for a strongbox and found one amongst the rubble of Shadburn’s offices. He wanted a second one for Abigail to carry, but the rubble was not accommodating. Neither could he find a proper rock hammer. Abigail rocked from foot to foot; the search would have gone faster, but she did not help him. She watched the stars that continued to fall in green streaks. At last, Holtzclaw ceased his preparations and climbed aboard the wagon. Abigail’s mule set off with vigor.

  Their path was mostly unknown to him. He had been all over the valley, but the barren slopes, the burned houses, and the battered work paths made the landscape new and strange. The weird light of falling stars made disconcerting shadows.

  Holtzclaw tried a few meaningless pleasantries, but Abigail was not interested. She was fixed on their path. Holtzclaw tried to memorize their way, but he was soon disoriented. Anyway, if she was right about the rising water, he would not need to commit the way to memory. It would be accessible only to fish and mermaids.

  After half an hour, Abigail stopped the cart. They were in the shadow of an immense face of rock. She coaxed the mule and wagon into a stand of broken limbs as Holtzclaw took out his mining supplies. Water lapped a few feet away. The mule, if it were thirsty, could have reached the lake by straining with its tongue.

  “Where do we go from here?” asked Holtzclaw. He could not see an obvious entrance to a mine. He scanned the rock face that rose above him, but there were no wood-framed adits, iron-gated tunnels, or boarded-up passages.

  Streaks of green light illuminated the cliff face rising above them. Granite had fissured and fractured. Squared-off pieces of stone jutted from the cliff or rested on the valley floor where they had fallen. A promontory emerged from halfway up the cliff and extended twenty feet into space; below, smaller cubes of stone were arrayed like a listening audience. Holtzclaw could not tell if this landscape was natural or artificial. The right angles and smooth vertical faces could have been cleavage on natural faults, or the result of mining and blasting, or the remains of some ancient architecture.

  A spark of electric fluid floated into the valley; it touched the ground and flashed brilliantly. In the sudden light, Holtzclaw saw ten thousand black birds nesting along the ridges of the cliff. Ravens. They shuddered, stretched their wings, and settled again.

  A thin waterfall tumbled through a recessed fissure in the cliff from a buried spring. Below the falls was a triangular pool, inches away from merging with the rising lake. Its straight edges intrigued him. He hesitated, looking at the waterfall, the pool, wondering.

  “It’s there!” he cried.

  “Not so loud,” said Abigail. “We all know it’s there. Come on.”

  Holtzclaw crossed the pool in three strides, the water flooding his boots. Abigail followed close behind and then overtook him. She was the first up the slick rocks on the far side. Water beat against Holtzclaw’s neck and back, soaking him utterly, pushing him to the ground, but he came through to the other side, to a tunnel.

  The stumps of candles and the charred ends of torches were visible in the green light. They were covered in verdigris.

  “We should have brought a lantern,” said Holtzclaw. “Do we have time to go back?”

  “No, no spare time at all. These candles will have to do.,” said Abigail, gathering up several of the candle stumps. “I knew that they would be here.” From an inner pocket, she withdrew several matches. “I’m never without fire.”

  When Abigail lit one of the torches, Holtzclaw was startled. Dark words were written into the ceiling. His eyes adjusted, and he could read familiar names. Edgar Strickland. Hulen Holmes. Emmett Moss. Abigail Thompson! Hiram Shadburn! Many others, known and unknown. The names had been burned onto the wall with candle smoke.

  “It’s no secret, this cavern,” he said.

  “Oh, not this part,” said Abigail. “Every child in Auraria has played here.”

  Abigail set off first, and Holtzclaw followed closely behind, darkness pressing him closer than strict decorum should have permitted for a man wearing pajamas. The entry passageway opened after a hundred yards into a circular rotunda and a myriad of twisting smooth passages, all alike. A dirt-filled pit in the center of the rotunda contained wooden boxes, trays, and tubes—equipment for refining saltpeter. Abigail continued without hesitation into a tunnel that looked just like all the others.

  They cut left and right, turning back on themselves, following rising tunnels and descending passages. Holtzclaw did not know how far he had come below the mountain. The walls were a uniform gray-white stone, worn smooth not by water, as he expected, but by the friction of many hands and feet.

  Then they were in a progressively narrowing passage. A chasm on the floor began as a cut no higher than his ankles but then deepened further and further so that Holtzclaw was running in a channel up to his chest. He had to turn sideways and hold his strongbox over his head in order to pass. Abigail moved faster, urgent, playful.

  “Please, Ms. Thompson, let me keep up,” said Holtzclaw, gasping.

  “You’re not tired already, are you? We’re barely below the surface. Miles to go yet.”

  She waited for him at the end of the squeeze. The passage widened into a little domed room, filled with the debris of children’s play: bits of string, fragments of bottles, fearsome warnings and club bylaws rendered in soot, tiny gold pans split in two, burst water skins.

  Seeing the water skins, Holtzclaw regretted that he had not brought any himself. He was hungry too. A sweet potato or a handful of mushrooms would be ver
y welcome. But he pushed the hunger aside for another thought.

  “Are we going to find any gold, Ms. Thompson? These tunnels look entirely too traveled. I can’t imagine that the visitors would have left anything for us.”

  “I don’t know, Holtzclaw.” She continued for a hundred yards down a further tunnel and then turned around. They came back to the children’s camp. “No, it’s here.”

  “What, the treasure?” The light of the torch caught glimmers in the rock.

  Abigail knelt next to a flat stone.

  “Under there?” said Holtzclaw. “It’s too heavy for you to lift. Put down the torch. I’ll give you a hand.”

  But Abigail got her fingers under the stone and flipped it up with a grunt. Below the stone was a sloping tunnel, caked with dust and age. No gold, only the promise of something farther down.

  Holtzclaw slid down the passage after Abigail.

  On the lower level, the signs of child’s play were gone, and the passages were less traveled. Still, there was evidence of use. Chunks of fallen stone had been moved for easier travel. Holes in the wall held the burnt-out stumps of torches, which were made from river cane wrapped in ash cloth.

  They snaked for another quarter of an hour through dark passages that meandered without purpose or plan. Tunnels met tunnels at regular angles and at crooked junctures. A thin current of water trickled through some of the passages, but it would not have been strong enough to have carved the entire cave. Perhaps the current had once worked here but then had been turned to other uses.

  All at once, the tunnel opened up into an immense chamber, whose ceiling was lost in inky shadows. Walls of tiny cabins, a subterranean village, divided the space. Some of his astonishment was lost to hunger, some to urgency, but most to the weariness of astonishment itself. He had witnessed so many wonders in Auraria; this village was hardly the greatest of them.

  “Have you ever been here before, Abigail?”

  “No, never have. But I know it.” She led their expedition into the streets that ran between the cabins. Each cabin was made of flat, stacked rocks. Holtzclaw looked into several for some remnant of food—a sealed can or a piece of hard tack. His search was unrewarded. One corner of each cabin was hollowed out into depression and lined with smaller rocks, and water bubbled up to fill the basin. The springs smelled strongly of metal, and Holtzclaw did not risk tasting from them.

  Straining at these sights, Holtzclaw tripped over a pipe. He collected himself from the rock floor and let his eyes follow the pipes in a dozen directions. It was a system of water and waste. Pipes flowed to and from every cabin, collecting into branches and then a main line. Abigail walked on top of it, like a girl balancing on a rock wall. She held out her arms to steady herself; they wobbled exaggeratedly. Holtzclaw stayed on the solid ground and watched his footing.

  The main pipe vanished into the rock at the base of a rise. Their lights illuminated the face of an enormous building and, behind that, a waterfall tumbling from an unseen source.

  “This is more spectacular,” said Holtzclaw. “I could believe that somewhere in here we’d find a stockpile of treasure. A rock maiden’s finery or the state jewels of an underground race of trolls.”

  “There’s a ways to go yet, if there’s anything to find.”

  Such a grand stone structure would make a splendid tourist attraction, he thought. An underground hotel. Servants could be accommodated in the cabins so they would be close at hand. The chamber offered excellent acoustics for an orchestra. But would guests become weary of the stone sky? The novelty of vacationing underground would appeal for a few days, but would it last a season?

  They proceeded from the wide entrance hallway, back through a vaulted dining room furnished with a table long enough to seat two hundred, and then into the kitchens, where sooty signs of cooking fires marred the walls. Holtzclaw looked into larders and iceboxes, but there was nothing edible or bankable.

  “We need to search the better rooms,” said Holtzclaw. “Perhaps there is a vault, a throne room?”

  Abigail crooked her elbow to place a hand on her hips. In her other hand, she held the torch.

  “This is my expedition, Holtzclaw. We’ll go where I say.”

  “But since we are here, we should explore …”

  “Did you bring any matches? Any candles? Then you’re going under the mountain with me, unless you can see in the dark.”

  In a sub-basement, they passed a wheezing machine. The main lines of the pipe system reappeared and terminated at a clockwork mechanism, and other pipelines made abrupt turns downward into solid stone.

  A circular opening in the ceiling admitted the waterfall from above; it fell onto a worn basin, twenty feet across, into which a drain was cut. Other ends of pipes discharged here too. A grate had been dislodged from the center of the bowl, and a rusted ladder ran inside the large waste pipe. Abigail began her descent without concern; Holtzclaw, encumbered with the strongbox, found the route much more treacherous. Halfway down, he realized that if they were successful, the return would be even worse.

  “Abigail, how will we get the gold back up this ladder? We should have brought a rope.”

  “I always wake up before having to go back. That’s the easy way out.”

  The ladder ended in a downward-sloping passage that bore the water away, leaving behind damp mineral deposits that looked like mud flows. The accretions restored natural irregularities to the artificial tunnel. The temperature had increased. Steam flowed through tunnels and tubes, again soaking any part of Holtzclaw that had dried a little since his passage through the falls. Abigail’s hair hung in matted streaks across her forehead.

  Hunger rumbled in Holtzclaw’s stomach. He wished he’d found another of the giant peaches that the princess had given him on their first meeting. Holtzclaw tried to reassure himself—a man can live for weeks without food. But he hoped that, at the end of this journey, there was a restaurant.

  In his sour mood, he bumped into Abigail, who’d stopped at a junction. A side tunnel sloped upwards. Abigail, though, stared down the main passage, which became a wide staircase. A channel of water ran down the stairs—the mingled runoff from the hotel, the kitchens, the cabins, and innumerable springs above.

  “Which way?” asked Holtzclaw.

  “It has to be the stairs,” she said. “Under the mountain.”

  “Aren’t we rather too deep already?”

  “I’m going this way. You can go where ever you like.”

  Holtzclaw followed Abigail and the path of water.

  A coolness came up the stairs from below, chasing away the withering steam. Abigail’s torch was the only point of light; it showed only more stairs leading down.

  Holtzclaw counted one hundred steps, then two hundred, five hundred, a thousand. The river coursed through the channel, its sibilant rush revealing nothing about how far they had yet to go. And Abigail did not know either.

  Another thousand steps passed beneath them. They stopped to rest; Abigail sat on the strongbox like a stool, and Holtzclaw sprawled on the steps. No matter how deeply they descended, they were not the first to pass here. How many thousands had made the tunnels, the village, the drainage tunnels, the stairs? How could he hope that there was any gold left for him? The first finders are the ones that are rewarded with fame and fortune. What prize goes to the very last?

  But hunger, more than a fear of failure, gnawed at him, hunger that had grown out of size with his physical demands. Why hadn’t he brought with him his Effervescent Brain Salts or his container of Pharaoh’s Flour?

  “You don’t have anything to eat, Abigail, do you? A sweet potato?”

  “I brought a picnic basket, but I ate everything when you weren’t looking.”

  She rose from the strongbox, her silhouette framed in firelight. Following her, Holtzclaw put one weary foot below another. He wished that he had dried some of the mushrooms that Emmy had shown him or that he’d filled a canteen with spiced groundhog stew or that he
d brought a container of hash browns, dripping with fat.

  It was only a hundred more steps, and then the stairs ended, the tunnel turned, and they faced a wall of rich gold, yellow like the yolk of an egg. Gold covered every shore of a vast underground lake.

  “And there it is,” said Abigail. Holtzclaw staggered forward past her. He shook off his bewilderment, surveying the underground lake and its shoreline, trying to understand. The gold was not layered like a natural formation of ore, which would be solid and intermingled with quartz and mica. These deposits looked like the loose tailings of a mine—slag and waste, and yet, pure gold. Pipes and springs and tunnels flowed into the lake from all directions.

  In a circle of lantern light, Shadburn worked the deposit with a little hammer. He was chipping fragments of gold into an open strongbox at his feet. In the raw surface of the metal, a new light—the reflection of Abigail’s torch—flickered, and Shadburn turned to them.

  “Holtzclaw? Abby? You shouldn’t be here.” He turned his back to the wall and held up his arms as though he were trying to hide the wall of gold, but he could hide it no better than he could hide a mountain.

  Holtzclaw came toward him. “I convinced Ms. Thompson that you were bankrupt. But that wasn’t true, was it? You could never run out of money, could you? Not when you knew about this place.”

  Shadburn shook his head. “Just the opposite, Holtzclaw. I never wanted to come here again. I never wanted anyone to come here. I didn’t know you would follow me. That is so much for the worse.”

  “We didn’t follow you. We followed Abigail’s dreams.”

  Shadburn peered around Holtzclaw to look at the tavernkeeper.

  “Curiosity,” she said. “Useless curiosity. I don’t need a crumb of the gold. Seeing it is enough.” She sounded disappointed.

  “And how many times have you made this trip, Shadburn?” said Holtzclaw. He wasn’t looking at his employer but at the shores of gold. “How many times have you brought up a fortune without me?”

  “Five. The first was an accident. I stumbled a little deeper than others. We all played in the caverns, and I wandered past all those ancient leavings, through their sewers. For a time, I believed I had done something great, but it was chance. No merit in it. An illusion of wealth.”

  Holtzclaw clawed some loose flakes from the deposits and shoved his gilded palm toward Shadburn’s nose. “What’s an illusion? This is just as good as any paper money. It’s your business that’s the illusion, your entire life. Mine too, I suppose. Why waste your time with unprofitable land deals? What use is there in turning some gold to less gold?”

  Shadburn turned his head. “I wanted money, not gold. I meant to earn it, not just find it. Or at least, I meant for those poor miners up there to think that I had earned it. I can’t let them know I just dug it up. That would make their mania so much worse. What sort of respectable man just picks up his money, rather than earning it? You won’t tell them, will you?”

  Holtzclaw did not respond. He clenched his fists; the gold dust between his palms and fingers was cold and slippery.

  “These are not mineral veins,” said Shadburn, his finger tracing the pipes and springs that emptied into the lake. “It’s a sewer. The gold has washed up here. The moon maidens slough it off, and it flushes from their baths and builds up in drifts in the rocks. You came past their hotel and their cottages and their pipes and pumps—or what is left of them. You’ve seen the sheen on the waters after they bathe. Gold is their waste, Holtzclaw. It is the sickness that the water takes out of them, for us scavengers and night-soil men to contract in turn. Goodness knows how the moon maidens get it—it leaches into their skin from the sun or from meteors, or they catch it the same way we catch our own diseases, from bad airs or idleness or shame. Only, they’ve ruined their cure from overuse.”

  “Who’s told you all this poppycock?”

  “The princess,” said Shadburn. “She’s their Holtzclaw.”

  “And does she get a salary from the moon maidens,” said Holtzclaw, “or do they pay her in dividends and shares?”

  “I would guess that they don’t pay her in gold.”

  “Shadburn, you are a fraud,” said Holtzclaw. “Your own one-person confidence scheme. I’ll make better of it. I’ll have ten thousand men bring up gold by the bucketful. I’ll have the railroad twins lay a narrow-gauge railroad.”

  “You can’t,” said Shadburn. “Not before the flood. The dam is closed. Soon enough, this gold will be hidden away for as long as the lake lasts, and I mean for that to be a very long time indeed.”

  “If we don’t hurry, we’ll be drowned ourselves,” said Abigail.

  They were right. Holtzclaw cursed that Shadburn’s obsession should rob him of a fortune. Had Shadburn confessed his secret shame earlier, there might have been time to talk some sense into him. And Holtzclaw could have set up the wealthiest company ever seen on the continent. He would have made the great men of capitalism weep over their tiny fortunes. He could have sat atop a pyramid of gold, surveying the low and level world stretched out before him—his own possession, ready for the plow.

  The rising lake made all this impossible. But he could still fill his strongbox. Holtzclaw began to dig at the gold with the ill-suited tools he had brought. It was slow work. Shadburn had already filled his own strongbox, but he did not offer his hammer to Holtzclaw. He watched his protégé, neither helping nor restraining him.

  Abigail wandered the narrow lakeshore, fidgeting. Dark water quivered near her feet. Ripples washed up against her shoes. The underground lake was stirred into motion by the discharge of a thousand subterranean pipes, each flowing stronger because of the swelling river.

  Every time he heard the water splashing against the rock, Holtzclaw anticipated the arrival of Princess Trahlyta. But she never appeared. With so much water pouring into her valley, perhaps she was overwhelmed.

  Holtzclaw worked until his strongbox was full. Neither Abigail nor Shadburn’s discomfort could hurry him. He scraped a little more gold into his trouser pockets and the cuffs of his coat. He put flakes under his hat brim. Only when no more gold could be crammed into his person did he let himself be led from the underground lake.

  Abigail lead the ascent up the long flight of stairs. She took the lantern from Shadburn, who followed without a backward glance, carrying his load atop his shoulder. Holtzclaw kept pace with them, but with effort; he’d packed his strongbox very full. Perhaps he had taken a little more than he needed—a few ounces less would have made little difference for his ultimate plans.

  In the channel that split the stairs, water was running faster and higher. They reached the top more quickly than Holtzclaw expected. The return trip, with each step leading closer to home, is always faster than the outward journey.

  The walls of the steamy tunnels were covered in curtains of water pouring in from cracks and fissures across the rock. Cascades tumbling from high above made the ladder slick and treacherous, especially with the added weight of the strongboxes. They raised the strongboxes one at a time, all three of them pulling, pushing, balancing, fighting.

  Abigail needed no guide to take her back through the meandering streets of the cavern and its village of cabins. Overwhelmed pipes disgorged muddy soup. The brackish basins in each of the cabins ran over. Holtzclaw’s arms ached and his knees complained. He wished gold were not so heavy. Why could they not have found a cache of paper money instead? A ten-thousand-dollar bill weighs no more than a feather. But he supposed that no process, natural or supernatural, would allow federal notes to accrete below the earth.

  Rivulets ran through all the upper passages. Flotsam of childish pastimes washed into the elbows of the tunnels and broke up against the smooth rocks. They passed by the names written in candle smoke. Had they not been in such a rush, Holtzclaw might have put his own mark there.

  They broke out onto the surface, passing through the engorged waterfall, and stumbled through the entrance pool, which had merged with the ri
sing river. The bright face of the moon was half hidden behind the rim of the Raven Cliffs.

  “And we couldn’t go back for another load?” said Holtzclaw.

  “There’s no time,” said Abigail.

  Holtzclaw removed his hat and wiped yellow dust from his brow. A few flakes of gold fell on his shoulders, and half a hundred colors shone from inside the brim. He knew that he could not hold any more. Gold spilled out of him, from every pore.


  When the lake covered Auraria’s graveyard, the pine boxes and mahogany caskets rose up through the softened ground. The headstones had been moved to the new graveyard, but the coffins had been left behind. The dead clung to their coffins like survivors of a shipwreck. Most pitiful was little Emmy, the mushroomer, sitting on her half-rotted pine boards, toes curled away from the water. She and her kind bobbed on the lake for two days until Holtzclaw was able to negotiate with a construction crew for their recovery. The coffins were tied to rowboats, pulled to shore, and reburied in the new cemetery overlooking Shadburn’s lake. Holtzclaw paid all in gold.

  Book III

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