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Auraria a novel, p.5
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       Auraria: A Novel, p.5

           Tim Westover
 

  Chapter Five

  Holtzclaw arrived in town ravenous and went straight into the Old Rock Falls in search of dinner. Abigail looked up from her work.

  “Well, you are a sight!” she said. “What sort of trouble did you find in your scrap metal dealings?”

  Holtzclaw looked down at himself. His boots were caked in mud, his traveling clothes damp and wrinkled. There was a green vegetative stain across the seat of his trousers, left by moss or slime.

  “It must have happened when I sat down on a log to talk to someone,” he said.

  “Who?”

  “Oh, no one. A strange girl. I’ve met her several times along the road.”

  “Do you mean Princess Trahlyta?” said Abigail.

  “You know her?” said Holtzclaw. “She isn’t an actual princess, is she? Maybe she’s the daughter of a rich man and thus feels entitled to wander wherever she likes.”

  “I don’t think she’s anyone’s daughter. I’ve never met her parents, even when we played together when I was small.”

  “How could that be? You look at least ten years older than she is.”

  Abigail scowled at him, and Holtzclaw was abashed.

  “I apologize. My new surroundings are overwhelming my better instincts.”

  “Things around here take a little getting used to, or so they say. I was born here, so I haven’t had to acclimate. Where did you see the princess?”

  “She and her strange habits have followed me all over the valley. I saw her up near the Cobalt Springs Lake and then again at the frozen tundra on Moss’s property.”

  “What were you doing on Moss’s farm? No scrap metal there,” said Abigail.

  “It’s part of a right-of-way,” said Holtzclaw quickly. He was embarrassed at the lie, and he hoped that Abigail didn’t catch the reddening of his ears—although he was already flushed from his previous lapse in decorum and decency.

  “To where?”

  “I’m afraid I don’t have the whole map in my head. I’m just an agent, and I can’t think clearly if I haven’t had anything to eat.” Holtzclaw cleared his throat. “Did you have some hot food on special today?”

  “No specials, only ordinaries.” Abigail crossed her arms, tapping her left elbow with her cupped right hand, eliciting a puff of flour. Had she held a rolling pin, she could not have been more intimidating.

  “I would be very content with ordinary.”

  Abigail left him in his flustered state and returned with a bowl. “It’s a sort of stew,” she said. “Sweet potatoes, pickled cabbage, turnips, beef fat. We call it a miner’s dinner. Nobody wanted to play the cook or gardener while everyone else was working the creeks. So nobody did, and when mealtime came around, they made do. Folks around here got used to it.”

  It was not a high cuisine, but it was hearty and salty and restorative. His involuntary slurping seemed rattled in the rafters. Abigail hovered around his table and kept up the conversation.

  “I think that hat suits you,” she said. “And the little bit of grime too.”

  “Do you think so? I’ll admit, it’s not my usual manner. I like to keep a bit more civilization about me, but perhaps that’s not possible out here in the wilderness.”

  “We’re not so wild, Mr. Holtzclaw. You’re a claret man, right?” She fetched a bottle from behind the counter; Holtzclaw indicated with his fingers that he wanted a small pour.

  Abigail sat down across from Holtzclaw and poured herself a glass of claret before Holtzclaw could offer to pour it for her. She lifted it to her nose, which wrinkled back from the aroma, and her lips did the same from the taste. She put her glass on the table, and the red liquid quivered inside.

  Should he say something about the tastes of the city and country? Offer to get her something else? A champagne, a spring water? Everything felt false. He found himself retreating.

  “I’m surprised that you don’t have any help here,” said Holtzclaw. “No maid or waiter or cook? And no man about the place?”

  “My father managed by himself.”

  “And your mother?”

  “My mother was a miner,” said Abigail. “Not a hard rock miner. They wouldn’t let a woman into the tunnels because there are too many places in petticoats where she could hide gold dust, and it wouldn’t be polite to check them all. She worked the gold pans.”

  “Did she find much gold?”

  “You can pan the rainwater coming down the roads here and come up with a few flakes.”

  “I didn’t know one could get rich from rainwater.”

  “Do we seem rich?” said Abigail. “As I said, it’s only a few flakes, which buys you less than a full supper. Almost any work would be better.”

  “Like tavern keeper?” asked Holtzclaw. “I’m sorry for the barrage of questions. Unfortunately, men like me often turn our conversations to money and profits. We can’t help it.”

  “Profits are a very small thing,” said Abigail. “Even if the Old Rock Falls had no paying customers, I could keep it going. I’d have to. Our many guests would be displeased if there were no more Old Rock Falls. They might get into mischief.”

  She gestured to one of the artifact-covered walls. A dozen daguerreotypes showed the outside of the Old Rock Falls and a parade of different figures standing in front. Holtzclaw recognized a smooth-cheeked Bogan, leaning against a mattock as tall as himself. Moss was there too; he held a shovel. A boy wore a gold pan inverted like a hat. His makeshift headwear covered his hair and eyes, but Holtzclaw’s interest was piqued by a certain familiarity to his chin. Most of those pictured in the daguerreotypes clutched some dear possession: a gun, a book, a quilt. Some held the reins of a prized animal. Children held corn-husk dolls or spools of thread.

  “No one is smiling,” said Holtzclaw. “Are you sure they’re happy?”

  “Have you seen anyone smile for a picture? They are content, at least. Comfortable.”

  “And you, Ms. Thompson, are you happy? As a tavernkeeper?”

  “I suppose I am. What other choice do I have?”

  “Even if you felt compelled to stay in the family business, you could have forgone the tavern and been a miner, like your mother.” Holtzclaw was examining one of the smaller daguerreotypes, which hung crooked on the wall. He straightened it and saw a row of smudge-faced people standing in front of a long rocker box on the shores of a creek. Just as many wore laced-trimmed bonnets as brown bowlers.

  Abigail tilted the daguerreotype of the miners until it hung just as crookedly as before. “My mother spent the entire day in the mountains on our own claim. I’d play in the river while she worked, and we would stay out for as long as there was light and often longer. Mother said that the gold would shine out in the darkness like points of sunlight, but that never helped her find much.”

  “It’s like gambling—all luck,” said Holtzclaw.

  “No, not luck! For some people, gold is a certainty.”

  Holtzclaw thought of Shadburn. He knew just how to pan a nugget from the poorest sand; one quick flick of the wrist and Shadburn came up with gold. The dam at Canton. A magistrate ruling on Franklin’s land. The silent partner who had invested in the railway spur when they’d bought the millrace at Baxley. An owner’s change of heart in Fitzgerald. It couldn’t be luck, thought Holtzclaw. If it were luck, then he would have wasted the prime of his life trying to learn from Shadburn. It had to be a secret talent, one that he could almost grasp.

  “But my poor mother,” continued Abigail, “might have been six inches from a nugget the size of her fist and not know it. Her hand would slide over a stone as she was climbing from a creek bed, and under that very stone was a fortune!”

  “How did you know?” asked Holtzclaw.

  Abigail looked embarrassed. “To some people, gold is a certainty.”

  “Do you mean you could see where the gold was, in the ground?”

  Abigail said nothing.

  “Well, if that were the case,” said Holtzclaw, “you would have told her w
here to dig, and there would have been no need to earn your living at the Old Rock Falls.”

  “That’s just it. I said nothing because my mother was a miner, but why should she be if we had already found gold? My father was an innkeeper, but why should he be, if we had enough money to provide for us? A person can’t find a fortune one day and be the same person the next.”

  “So, Ms. Thompson, you’d rather that your fellow townsfolk dig for gold but not find any? That’s a cruel slavery to wish for them.”

  “Oh, they could find a little. Find enough to keep them fed and happy. But we are a town of poor miners, not rich idlers. The only profit my father took was in kindness. It’s why we have so many guests here, even if they don’t pay for a meal or occupy a bed. Some just play the piano.”

  “Oh, there’s no piano today!” said Holtzclaw. The silence had not struck him before. The piano was silent in the corner.

  “Mr. Bad Thing doesn’t get up until four o’clock,” said Abigail.

  •

  As he left the Old Rock Falls, the door to McTavish’s flew open, and Mrs. McTavish puffed down her front stairs.

  “Begging your pardon, Mr. Holtzclaw,” she said, “I don’t mean to intrude. But seeing as how you were on your way again without so much as a ‘hallo’ to me, I must. See, this came for you. Byers got back from Dahlonega an hour ago and had this with him. I thought you’d be in the Old Rock Falls, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for you. You’ve been real friendly with Ms. Thompson instead of eating here, where you’re booked. Not that I mind, Mr. Holtzclaw. She’s a pleasant young woman, and I’m a hairy old bat. I cook a sight better than her, though. Can’t trust a matchstick girl to cook.”

  Mrs. McTavish handed him a folded letter. Shadburn’s seal was impressed against the flap, but the seal was broken.

  “Did it come to you unsealed?” asked Holtzclaw.

  “Yes, it came like that. Byers said the man gave it to him unsealed. It broke when he was fiddling with it, and the man said there wasn’t time to redo it.”

  Holtzclaw thanked Ms. McTavish and turned away to read the letter:

  Need yr assistance regard railroad. Come to Dah-ga this instant. All land bought?—S

  Why did Shadburn need to be so curt? It wasn’t a telegram; Shadburn was not paying by the word. Had he written in full sentences and standard grammar, he might have included some vital information, such as a meeting time or what sort of assistance was needed or clues about this new railroad project.

  Holtzclaw bristled too at the accusing question mark in “all land bought?” He had visited four properties between yesterday afternoon and this morning. He’d acquired hundreds of acres of land—a cobalt blue lake, a gold mine, a frozen creek where a gold nugget had been found, or hidden. But these four properties did not make up “all land.” With one mark of punctuation, Shadburn turned Holtzclaw’s efforts thus far into a disappointment.

  The worst of it was the interruption in the work, the delay. While Holtzclaw was gone in Dahlonega, word of his purchases would soon leak to others, and the prices would soar. Nothing could be so important in Dahlonega that it would counter-balance such a fundamental error.

  It was all so foolish, so unlike the wisdom that he usually saw from his employer, that Holtzclaw wondered if there hadn’t been a mistake. Perhaps Shadburn had meant the letter to go to someone else. At this very moment, a Milledgeville law clerk was musing over the significance of “Dear Holtzclaw, smashing job so far. Keep up the excellent work. I shall trust you to make all acquisitions in a reasonable and prudent time. Take care of your knees and have a good breakfast every morning.” But this was a wishful thought.

  Holtzclaw decided that he could not leave now. The risk was too great. He would finish out his day—three more properties. That would be seven, enough so he would not be ashamed. If they were the most essential, as Shadburn had claimed, then perhaps the surge in prices would be mitigated somehow. After acquiring the Terrible Cascade, Holtzclaw would find transportation back to Dahlonega. He would have to travel overnight. It was not a prospect that he relished, but he saw no other way to fulfill his employer’s command.

 
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