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Auraria a novel, p.3
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       Auraria: A Novel, p.3

           Tim Westover
 

  Chapter Three

  Embarrassment sullied Holtzclaw’s relief at reaching his destination. The small triumph of buying the widow’s land was a poor recompense for an afternoon lost to hysteria, wandering in the woods and stumbling upon some local bathers. The pace of the project was off now; he would have to move double time tomorrow.

  Progressing from Milledgeville to Atlanta to Gainesville to Dahlonega to Auraria, Holtzclaw had witnessed the gradual fading of civilization. Milledgeville, the glittering old capital, had given way to upstart, industrial Atlanta, which had in turn given way to functional Gainesville, a busy agricultural center and home to several vegetable canneries. Dahlonega, though smaller, was at least a county seat, with a courthouse, a clock tower, and a railroad depot. Auraria could be called a town only because of tradition.

  At its heart, Auraria was a grassy square, bordered on three sides by dirt roads and weathered storefronts and on the fourth by the Lost Creek. A few streets emerged from the square, like shaggy threads hanging from a spool, tying together a disordered collection of simple houses.

  The first structure that Holtzclaw passed was typical of the location: a two-story building slowly collapsing under its own weight. The upper porch tilted forward, and columns splayed out like branches. Holtzclaw thought that it wouldn’t take much effort to demolish the place once he’d purchased it. A good rain might do the trick.

  Half the houses in Auraria had weeds growing over them. Most of the storefronts were empty. Above them were deserted offices, their window frames filled with broken glass.

  The only signs of life in Auraria were flickering yellow lights clustered on a neighboring street. Three buildings, standing opposite each other, all had the look of guesthouses: wide porches, worn stairs, and bald patches in their gardens where feet had passed in idle pacing. One house emitted loud fiddle music; in another, a solo piano played. The third was silent. None had any signs or nameplates that Holtzclaw could see, so he did not know which was McTavish’s, where he hoped his possessions had been delivered. He needed to shine his shoes before continuing on; he felt awkward negotiating in dirty shoes.

  The silent house disturbed him, and he was too weary to endure a ribald fiddle house. Holtzclaw chose the piano music, even though it was lifeless playing. He saw the reason for this when he entered the guesthouse. There was no one at the piano; it played itself.

  Five small tables, two occupied, sat beneath dozens of daguerreotypes in the dining room. A high counter, attended by six empty stools, served as a bar. Many years of boots had worn the floors smooth. Someone had etched and re-etched tally marks into the wooden beams. It was neat and well-tended, a pleasant little place.

  A red-haired woman in a white apron emerged from a back room. Her curls framed a round face, and her eyes appraised Holtzclaw, her dining room, and her guests. She was thin and short. With her red hair, she reminded Holtzclaw of a matchstick. He thought her a little plain and common—again, like a matchstick. But what passed for common in Milledgeville might be great beauty up here in the mountains.

  Between her freckled hands, she carried two copper mugs and two bowls of soup, which she laid on one of the occupied tables in front of two identical men. She executed this crisp delivery and then turned to address Holtzclaw.

  “A handsome new face!” she said. “Muttonchops too. From the city? That’s always good for few minutes’ entertainment. Welcome to the Old Rock Falls! Not that there’s a New Rock Falls. This one has been old from the start. Have a seat; what can I get you?”

  The other table was occupied by a very fat man and a very thin one. They sat beside their hats; Holtzclaw, in his confusion, had neglected to remove his own. Doing so now added to his embarrassment.

  “I’m terribly sorry. I believe I’m engaged at McTavish’s house. My trunk was sent ahead. The guesthouses were unsigned, and I didn’t see anyone to ask.”

  “Running off so soon?” said the red-haired woman. “Did someone tell you about the sweet potatoes here?”

  “No, not about the sweet potatoes, but about certain other phenomena,” said Holtzclaw, remembering the warnings of X.T., the carriage driver.

  “It’s only the sweet potatoes that are dangerous,” said the woman. “Ours here are so full of sugar that if you cook them too long, they’ll burst into flames. I explode one every now and then, just to test the harvest. I’ll explode one for you, if you buy it. But if you’re not the kind of person who can take a sweet potato, then, I’m afraid there’s little I can do for you for supper. Mrs. McTavish’s place is the quiet one across the way.”

  “Many thanks, and I hope we may be properly introduced under better circumstances.” Holtzclaw bowed in preparation to take his leave.

  “Now I wouldn’t run off so soon!” said the woman. “Mrs. McTavish doesn’t have any spirits. Only water or buttermilk. Not even sweet milk.” She stuck out her tongue in a pantomime of revulsion. Holtzclaw couldn’t help but smile, even though he knew it wasn’t polite.

  “I think I can become acclimated to sweet potatoes, if they’re well prepared,” he said, placing his hat on one of the empty tables.

  “Not that one!” said the red-haired woman. “It’s occupied.” The woman looked flustered. “Now I must apologize to you, mister …”

  “Holtzclaw. James Holtzclaw.”

  “Abigail Thompson, charmed.” She lowered her voice and leaned in close to him. “I don’t know if you are familiar with small towns. They have traditions. Folk ways. I won’t call them ruts, out of respect for current company.” Abigail glanced over her shoulder, but not at her customers; she looked at the piano.

  “I’m sorry,” said Holtzclaw. “I don’t mean to upset anyone.” He let Abigail lead him to another empty table.

  “Now, what is it that I can get you for supper?” she said. “Fair warning: everything has sweet potatoes in it.”

  “Whatever’s hot is fine by me. Among your alternatives to water and buttermilk, you wouldn’t have any claret, would you?”

  Abigail walked behind the bar counter. A key turned in a lock; then she lifted up a dusty, age-darkened bottle. The label was yellowed and foxed; an illegible name was handwritten in an ornate script. The style of cork at the top didn’t correspond with that of the Bordeaux vintners—at least not of this century. At the bottom, sediment in suspension was swirled upward by Abigail’s handling, then drifted down again like a lazy ghost.

  “Oh, this isn’t claret,” said Abigail, perusing the label. She replaced the bottle and took out another, which Holtzclaw recognized even at a distance as common and modern. It promised a familiar, if unremarkable, drink. Moments before, the rare and ancient bottle had inflamed Holtzclaw’s imagination; now, he could think of nothing better than the comfort of a known vintage.

  “It came in the delivery last week,” said Abigail.

  “You have a regular delivery of claret here?”

  “We’re fond of all sorts of anti-fogmatics.”

  “I wouldn’t think that your clientele would be the claret kind.”

  “Do you think we drink just white lightning and corn liquor in the mountains?” A bit of crimson touched the tops of her cheekbones.

  “That came out wrong, Ms. Thompson,” said Holtzclaw. “I’m out of my natural element.”

  “You don’t say.” She brought out a heaping plate of food from the kitchen. There was a bowl of stew, thickened with sweet potatoes, and a plate of biscuits.

  “It looks delicious,” said Holtzclaw. “Truly it does.”

  “I hope you enjoy it, Mr. Holtzclaw. Truly I do.” She spun on her heels, and in the swirl of her apron and the flame of her hair, she was gone—back to the kitchen or behind the bar or where ever Auraria kept its finer things. He fancied he could see steam from where she had just been standing, and his nose was hot.

  It was the food, of course. The food which, while delicious, was a little rustic for his sensibilities. He could taste the sweet potatoes in everything, and a sweet
potato is not as elegant a vegetable as the courgette or aubergine.

  Halfway through his meal, he remembered he was not alone. Taking with him his glass of claret, Holtzclaw approached the table at which sat the thin man and the fat man; the twins presented a more formidable barrier to a stranger. “May I join you, gentlemen?”

  “My associate and I were about to discuss this year’s turkeys,” said the fat man. The thin man nodded in confirmation.

  “Are you farmers, then?” said Holtzclaw.

  “We are aggregators,” said the fat man. “I take it you’re not in the poultry game?” When Holtzclaw confessed that he was not, the fat man began a lengthy and candid explanation of his business. The turkeys, raised in small clutches on family farms, were driven down from the hills into a pen on a rented town lot. Here, the turkeys were kept until all the year’s stock could arrive and be bought by the aggregators.

  It was a story that ceased to be fascinating just a few minutes into its telling, and Holtzclaw regretted his decision to talk with these two, who owned no property and had little influence in town. The twins leaned in toward each other for some whispered words and then arose to depart. The clattering of the front door caused the fat man to interrupt his speech, and Holtzclaw was able to interject a question. “When was the last time anybody made a good strike?”

  Abigail flashed back into the room, a whirlwind of motion. With what seems like a hundred hands, she collected the plates, polished the table, swept the floor, and put their chairs back into the tiny grooves that they’d worn for themselves. It was the first whirlwind Holtzclaw had ever seen that had cleaned and righted—a flurry of order, not disorder. It was not a duty for the elegance and charm of a lady, but Holtzclaw was touched with admiration for an unpleasant task perfectly performed. The fat man and the thin man watched her too.

  When the motion settled, Abigail floated in to the conversation. “Are you asking after gold, Mr. Holtzclaw? Already?”

  “I didn’t realize the subject was taboo.”

  “Only that it’s not nearly as exciting as strangers would suppose. If you must know, six months ago, Ode Peppers found that nugget the size of a squirrel turd.”

  This gave everyone pause.

  The silence was broken by the thin man, speaking up for the first time. “Did you know,” that a turkey’s foot makes an excellent raking tool and a thousand turkeys’ feet so much the better? That after a herd of turkeys is driven over a promising area—say, the wet bank of a creek—that the sand is churned up, loosened, made ready for the wise man who comes back later with a pan or, better still, a rocker box to wash that sand away and find a little gold left behind?”

  It was too complicated to raise turkeys just to make gold mining easier. But Holtzclaw did not share his doubts with his companions. “Well, that’s quite clever,” he said.

  “Not half as clever as how we really use them,” said the thin man. At this, the fat man walloped the thin man with his hat.

  “Are you still looking for that cave, gentlemen?” said Abigail.

  “Maybe we are, and maybe we aren’t,” said the fat man.

  “Spanish caves! Soldiers’ caves! Miners’ caves! Misers’ caves! If every story about treasure caves were true, you’d all have gold nuggets the size of squirrel turds,” said Abigail.

  “Course they’re not all true,” said the thin man. “Just a few of them are. That’s all we need. Only two or three fabulous fortunes, not six or ten.”

  “Well, it’s good to know you’re not greedy,” said Abigail. She tallied up their bill. The fat man withdrew a small pouch and poured out a quantity of gold dust onto a set of balances. Holtzclaw had seen its like only among jewelers and herbalists, never in a tavern.

  “They are good men,” said Abigail to Holtzclaw, after the turkey drovers left, “and hardworking, even when they’re digging for gold.”

  “Nothing wrong with people trying to find their fortune in the world, is there?”

  “Only if they dream of nothing else.”

  The piano in the corner began an up-tempo number that had been popular a decade ago. It wasn’t suited to the mood, and it stirred Holtzclaw out of his thoughts.

  “I should be on my way to McTavish’s,” he said. He paid for his supper in ordinary federal coins, which Abigail accepted without complaint. At the threshold of the house, he turned back and called to Abigail. “I think your player piano may be a bit out of tune. May I take a look?”

  “It’s not a player piano,” said Abigail. “I wouldn’t touch it if I were you. Mr. Bad Thing is a little jealous.”

  Ignoring her, Holtzclaw lifted the lid of the upright piano. Inside, there were no gears, no mechanisms at all—just the ordinary contents of a piano. “How can this possibly work, Ms. Thompson?”

  “Just because you don’t know how it works,” said Abigail, “doesn’t mean that it can’t work. Mr. Bad Thing plays just fine.”

  The tune jumped to a minor key, then cut off. A shiver ran over the crown of Holtzclaw’s head. A pale fear tickled at his feet; they cried out for him to flee.

  “See, you shouldn’t have touched it,” said Abigail.

  •

  Outside, Holtzclaw’s head swam with claret and discomfort. The night air cut into his thoughts. Why had he fled at something so preposterous as … nothing? The absence of a player piano?

  These were the improper workings of a wearied mind; he himself was going out of tune. Somewhere, there was a trick whose explanation, for the moment, eluded him. It wouldn’t be proper to keep on with his mission in this state. He should find his correct quarters and make it an early night. If he tried too hard to solve the matter now, on a depleted constitution, it would pollute his dreams. A sober, fresh morning would give him back his reason, and with reason he could sort out the strange events of the day.

  He opened the front door at the guesthouse that he now knew to be McTavish’s. He was greeted by an immense globe of a woman. Her head, feet, and arms were undifferentiated from the purple sphere of her body.

  “You’re Mr. Holtzclaw, yes? X. T. left off your trunk earlier this afternoon, and I made him haul it up to your room. I’m glad you made it here safe; I was fixing to worry about you, and I wouldn’t have felt right to charge you for a room you weren’t to sleep in, but I guess since your trunk’s already up there, you are occupying it. What brings you to Auraria?”

  An excellent lie occurred to him. “I am a dealer in scrap metal. You have a great deal of it in your old mines, and I would like to buy and remove the larger pieces for better purposes.” He was quite pleased by this story; it would excuse his behavior and wouldn’t inflame too many suspicions.

  “As good a call as any,” said Mrs. McTavish. “Most folks come to dig for gold too. Figure you’ll be doing that at some point? You could hardly say you’d seen Auraria unless you looked up at it while kneeling in the sand of the river!” Mrs. McTavish made this remark from memory. She had perfected the melody of the joke while neglecting this meaning. Still, Holtzclaw performed his duty of issuing a slight chuckle.

  “Now, are we going to be getting you some supper?” she said.

  Holtzclaw confessed to his blunder and that he had already eaten at the Old Rock Falls Inn.

  “Why would you trust a skinny innkeeper?” said Mrs. McTavish.

  •

  When Holtzclaw awoke, it was midmorning. The claret had been too fragrant, the sweet potato stew too heavy, the wear on his feet and mind too taxing. He’d fallen into the feather bed at McTavish’s and had not stirred until a chickadee at his window began tapping in an unintelligible code.

  It was a rotten start to a day that was burdened with tasks. If he didn’t make at least six visits today, from the Strickland's through to the Sky Pilot at some place called the Terrible Cascade, he might as well surrender the project; he would be too far behind schedule. Procrastination would make the prices go up, perhaps too high to overcome.

  Holtzclaw put on the shoes that he h
ad not found time to polish the night before and ate an unsatisfying breakfast in McTavish’s parlor. She offered hard rolls, garnished with marmalades imported at great distance and expense, and a glass of buttermilk. Holtzclaw first tried to eat the buttermilk with a spoon, as though it were some breakfast custard, before her glare corrected him. He took a glass of water instead, and this was the only restorative part of the meal. The water was cool and sweet and fresh.

  Before leaving town to make his first visit of the day, Holtzclaw decided to purchase a few needed effects from local stores. In his trousseau de voyage, he had mirrors, ablution bowls, shavers, basins, ewers, powders, pill cases, and an array of bottles, sprinklers, and spritzers, in addition to a gentleman’s wardrobe—none of it was useful. He needed a pair of boots and a walking stick so he could cover the terrain before nightfall; a hat in the local fashion might help prevent townsfolk from instantly marking him as an outsider.

  Holtzclaw walked from McTavish’s to the center of town. Around the open lot that constituted the square of Auraria were several merchants, though twice the number of empty storefronts. By their signs, Holtzclaw recognized a tailor, a barber and tonsor, a store for dry and general goods, a confectionary (a curious find in a small town), a pharmacy, and, most germane to his purposes, a seller of readymade clothing.

  He went inside, where the proprietor, Burton, directed him to a display of boots. Holtzclaw selected a workhorse pair. Of the hats, Holtzclaw asked Burton’s opinion.

  “Well, if you’re looking for a farm hat,” said Burton, “then most folks would go for the straw one, with the wide brim. Keeps the sun off your neck. But you can’t wear that if you’re off visiting folks. You’d look like a hayseed. Most folks buy something like this if they want a traveling hat.” Burton indicated an array of low-quality bowler hats in brown or grey felt. “People like this one, even though it’s more expensive.” He held it out to Holtzclaw. “Dark lining and the bowl is stiff, so you can turn it over for a quick pan if you happen to see colors in the water.”

  “But then isn’t your hat wet for the rest of the day?”

  “With the right strike, you could buy a whole store full of hats.”

  Holtzclaw bought the gold-panning hat, along with the boots. No walking stick was to be had, though. “Folks don’t buy a thing like that,” laughed Burton. “Plenty of sticks out in the forest; you can make it yourself.”

  After outfitting himself sartorially, Holtzclaw aimed to stop at the confectionary and purchase two tarts—one for now, as a supplement to a hasty breakfast, and one for later, to give him some extra vigor on the road. At the door of the confectionary, he met Abigail Thompson, who was exiting.

  “Victuals for the Old Rock Falls’ dining room?” he asked. “Or a treat for your dear Mr. Bad Thing? Don’t let the syrup gum up the piano keys.” Beneath his jokes, he felt a strange shudder.

  “He doesn’t much care for sweets, Holtzclaw, except for sweet potatoes. If he did, he wouldn’t have such a temper. They say no one who eats sweets can have a sour disposition.”

  “I’m not sure that’s true,” said Holtzclaw. “I can be quite sour sometimes, even if I’ve eaten well.”

  “Then stop by later. I’ve got a sweet potato pie that will do wonders. That is, if you’re not busy. But you’re probably the busy type, aren’t you? Not here in Auraria to vacation, I imagine. Just how are you keeping busy here, Holtzclaw?”

  “I have some visits to make to various old mines. Recover some scrap metal, if the price is fair.” The lie felt hollow the second time, either because of the repetition or because he had a higher opinion of Abigail than of Mrs. McTavish. “It would be an easier journey if I had a walking stick, but the shopkeeper said that I’d have to make my own.”

  “I have one you could borrow,” said Abigail. He followed her, forgetting about the confectioner’s shop. She led him back to the Old Rock Falls; on the way, he modeled his new hat for her. “It’s a proper Auraria hat,” she said, stretching up to give it a rap with her knuckles. “It’s got gold on the brain.”

  Just inside the door of the Old Rock Falls was an umbrella urn containing several walking sticks. Abigail selected one and gave it to Holtzclaw. It was made of pale wood, without the knobs and twists of a walking stick made from a fallen branch.

  “This one belonged to my uncle,” she said. “He was out walking through some brush when a copperhead started coming for him. Most times, a copperhead will skedaddle, but this one wanted blood. My uncle held up his walking stick, and the copperhead’s fangs got caught in it. There it was, thrashing and crashing on the end of that stick, biting it over and over, and the snake didn’t quit even when my uncle dunked the end of the stick in the river. The copperhead just kept struggling until it drowned. Then the stick began to swell up. When you get bit by a copperhead, your leg will swell up—that’s the poison. Well, his walking stick had got the poison, and by the time he got home, he could hardly carry the stick anymore—it was a log bigger than a railroad tie. Ten feet long, two feet around. I saw it! But my uncle liked that walking stick. So, he spent the next two weeks whittling and planing that walking stick back down to a size he could use.”

  “So he carved himself a walking stick from a bigger walking stick?” said Holtzclaw.

  “That’s why it’s special,” said Abigail.

  “And you don’t mind if I take it?”

  “I’ll mind if you don’t bring it back.”

  •

  The beat of the walking stick measured the miles as Holtzclaw ascended the Fiddlehead Trail. Beneath the high canopy of chestnuts, an unbroken carpet of ferns strained for light.

  Holtzclaw was confident enough in his boots and walking stick that he ignored the path and instead reviewed his notes on the acquisition. He hoped that they were more accurate than the notes concerning the amalgamated empire of the widow Octavia Smith Patterson.

  He arrived at a two-story cabin, covered on the sides with clapboard and painted white, and was admitted into the farmhouse of Edgar and Eleanor Strickland by the former. Inside, the bottom story was one large room; a ladder in the corner led upstairs. Small feet scurried overhead. Three brooms of various lengths were hanging by the door—two pointed downward and a short-handled one pointed upward.

  “Begging your pardon,” said Edgar as he shook corn husks off a cane-seat chair. “The house has been a bit of a mess since the wife died.”

  “I am very sorry for your loss, Mr. Strickland,” said Holtzclaw. “When did she pass?”

  “Oh, about a year ago, I suppose,” said Edgar. “Yup, that would be about right.”

  A woman in an apron entered from the rear door of the cabin. Holtzclaw stood as the lady entered and came toward them.

  “That’s nobody, just ignore her,” said Edgar. “That’s my wife’s ghost. She’s been fluttering around here ever since she died.”

  Holtzclaw was in a quandary. Propriety demanded that he introduce himself to the lady of the house, but this risked offending Edgar, who was insistent about his odd marital spat. Holtzclaw decided on a middle way, with which he hoped to reconcile his duty with the superstitions of Auraria. He bowed slightly toward the lady, with his hat touched against his breast. The lady said nothing but curtsied in reply, which was a very unghostly response.

  In Holtzclaw’s experience, those who reported encounters with ghosts usually described subtle, ambiguous events—rattling doors or pans, tapping inside walls, faint whispering. These subtleties made them easy to emulate. Shadburn had once expelled a stubborn family by giving a pack of street urchins ten cents each to hide beneath the foundations of a home and whisper the bloody details of their murders to the terrified inhabitants above. This particular trick Holtzclaw did not think very sporting, but Shadburn had excused it by giving the family a good deal of money for their land.

  This ghost wife appeared neither subtle nor ambiguous, but like an ordinary mortal. Beneath her apron, she wore a long bone-white dress that ended in lace at the
collar and cuff—not fitting for farmwork. Her raven black hair tumbled below her shoulders. Had she been in the kitchen or fields, she would have put it up in a bun or braid, away from her work.

  “As I was saying,” continued Edgar, “since Eleanor died, I’ve had to do the housekeeping, or make the children do it, and I’m not very good at either. I’m lucky to get any kind of supper turned out. Folks were nice to us right after Eleanor passed. We ate real well after the funeral, real well. Then they didn’t keep it up. I think Eleanor scares them. I wish she would move on! Silly ghost! Get going!” He waved his arms at his ghost wife as though he were trying to shoo chickens. Eleanor’s expression was unchanged.

  Three faces appeared, spaced along the ladder. “Is that Momma you’re talking about?”

  “Who else?” said Edgar. “You three, come meet this man. He says his name is Holtzclaw. He wants to talk about the farm here.”

  The three children presented themselves in a ragged line for Holtzclaw’s inspection. The smallest, a girl, had a corn husk doll. “Momma made it for me.”

  “I hadn’t seen that before,” said Edgar, taking it from her. The doll had a long dirty-white dress, fringed in rough fabric that resembled lace at the collar and cuff. Black thread stood for hair that tumbled below its shoulders. It was the spitting image of its supposed creator. “Ain’t that a thing?” Edgar gave it back, and the child clutched it to her chest.

  Eleanor turned to watch the children climb the ladder. In the dark of the cabin, a milkiness of light clung to her skin. She was so pale that she seemed to glow.

  The two men and the ghost wife took seats around the kitchen table, which held, among the remnants of a past dinner, a reed basket of porcelain doorknobs.

  “It’s for the chickens,” said Edgar. “If they’re not laying, they get lonely, and that makes them even less likely to lay. Then they’re restless; they walk around and maybe drop the egg in some secret nest, in a bush. So you put a doorknob in their real nest, in the coop, with the pointy part down and the smooth part up, so the chicken thinks it’s sitting on an egg. If you’re a rich person, you can buy a real porcelain egg for your chicken, but poor people have to make do with some old doorknobs. Doesn’t work as well. They know the difference. Chickens aren’t laying right now, haven’t had more than a dozen eggs since Eleanor died. She gives them the fright! See some white lady stalking about in the bushes in the dead of night. You wouldn’t lay either.”

  Eleanor placed her hands on the table. Her slender fingers were capped by translucent nails.

  Holtzclaw presented his scenario about scrap metal and inquired if the Stricklands were willing to sell. Edgar invited an offer with a sweep of his hand. As Holtzclaw enumerated the value of the property, Edgar remained silent. He did not grimace at particular sums, nor did he correct Holtzclaw to say, “We just put a new roof on that corncrib” or “What about the chickens? You didn’t count the chickens.” Edgar’s chief interest was the running tally. When Holtzclaw’s running total exceeded a certain sum, Edgar leaned back in his chair and sighed.

  Eleanor turned away, her face in profile against the window. Her hair was up in a bun now; Holtzclaw had not seen her do it. The sharp angle of her nose was softened by the sunlight.

  “So, Mr. Strickland, do we have a deal?” said Holtzclaw.

  “Where do I sign?” When Edgar had finished making his last mark—a curious pattern of geometric shapes that, while bearing no resemblance to a cursive rending of his name, was actually more complicated—Holtzclaw counted out a stack of bills.

  “What do you think you’ll do with your money, Mr. Strickland?”

  “I have plans, yes, very definite plans, Mr. Holtzclaw, now that I’ve got your money and you’ve got my land. You’ve got some new plans too. You get to deal with all the corn coming up; some you got to feed to the chickens and some you got to feed to yourself and some you got to cart down into the valley and try to sell it for sugar or coffee. And then you’ve got to wake up the next morning and do it all again, and there’s never an end in sight.” Edgar gesticulated toward an empty chair; Eleanor sat on the opposite side of the table. “When your wife dies, then you get to deal with a farmhouse and all the washing and the cooking too and sweeping out the house because you get dirt and spiders and evil spirits—can’t keep ’em all away, least of all your ghost wife. And you got to try to make it all mean something, doing the same work day after day with never an end in sight, thinking if you could save a penny here or a penny there you could get out, but you never do.”

  Eleanor’s eyes fixed on his husband. Her mouth was hard set. A red flush spread to her pale cheeks.

  “We’re gonna move,” said Edgar. “We’ll go to California or maybe Alaska, where they still have gold. Strike it rich. We won’t be saving pennies anymore. Buy a mountain of sugar, buy a ton of coffee. Move in to the city and have twenty butlers. They still have butlers in the city? Somebody told me about it once, but that was a long time ago. A maid too, and some golden slippers. They don’t have to be real gold, because that would be heavy. Just gold colored. And expensive.”

  Edgar stood up, scooping the money into his pocket. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Holtzclaw, I’ve got to get ready. We have to load the wagon. Hitch up the children. Shake off all these old ghosts.”

  Holtzclaw went to the door, and Eleanor followed beside him. He tipped his hat to her, but she did not return any courtesy. She looked at him with sadness welling in her eyes.

  “I am sorry for any trouble I have caused you, ma’am,” he said, with as much tenderness as his profession would allow.

  Eleanor took the small broom that hung upside down and swept his dust from her house.

 
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