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Auraria: Chapter 1

This is the first chapter of Auraria – A Novel.

Holtzclaw hadn’t heard of Auraria until his employer sent him to destroy it. The tiny town, nestled into the curve of an unimportant mountain river, had no reputation among capitalists or tourists, but even insignificant places can be expensive to acquire. Holtzclaw rechecked his traveling bag—all the money was still there. The thousands of dollars in federal notes were just ordinary paper, but the gold coins were the strangest he had ever seen. Instead of eagles and shields, the coins were stamped with images of bumblebees, terrapins, chestnut trees, and indistinct figures by a stream. The figures might have been bathing or even panning for gold; they were too small to tell. Shadburn had said the coins were minted in Auraria from local metal. The gold was returning to its source.

Opening the traveling bag was reassuring, but unnecessary. If any of the gold had gone missing, Holtzclaw would have felt by the heft of the bag. Besides, who could have taken it? He was the only passenger in the stagecoach. His other supplies, too, were present: pen, ink, linen paper, his notary stamp. The weight was a sign that all his work lay before him. If he met his employer’s expectations, Holtzclaw would be gone from Auraria in a few days, and his traveling bag would be much lighter. The worth of land deeds is not measured by their weight.

Even past noon, blue mist filled the Lost Creek Valley. The stagecoach descended from the ridge, fording a stream that cascaded from a moss-painted cliff. The air was heavy with water. Holtzclaw tried not to breathe in the mists, thinking they could imbue his unacclimated lungs with sickly airs. He already felt ill from the jolting and jostling of the iron-bound wheels over the road.

Beside the road, a boy was fishing from a fallen log that balanced from a precipice, giving him a clear cast into the emptiness of the valley. His feet swung in space above the mist. The boy’s fishing pole was just a gnarled branch, still covered in bark. The poor should take better care of their possessions, thought Holtzclaw, since they have so few to look after. He leaned out of the window and called for the driver to stop.

“There’s no water below you, young sir,” Holtzclaw said to the boy.

“Doesn’t matter.” He snapped his fishing pole back, and a fish flew up from the mist. Holtzclaw recoiled from the sudden projectile, which the boy caught with practiced hands.

“I’ll sell it to you.” The boy pushed the head of the fish through the open window. “They’re good eating.”

The fish’s ruby body and barblike fins were dusted with a golden residue. Its eyes were like two gold coins. Holtzclaw doubted that it made for good eating. The boy must be judging by rural standards.

“First, you must tell me how you caught it,” said Holtzclaw.

“You don’t have boys that go fishing where you come from?”

“They fish in sensible places. Creeks and ponds. Wet places, not empty ones.”

“Mist is wet, isn’t it?”

“But it is an entirely different state of matter. Water sustains life, but mist is a vapory nothing.”

“Not if it’s thick enough. I just throw out my line, and the fish latch on.”

This spilled the secret of the boy’s scheme. He must have hooked some local trout to the end of his line, then spooled it out so that the fish disappeared into the fog. When a stagecoach like Holtzclaw’s came down the Great Hogback Ridge Road, he hauled up his supposed catch and sold it to the naive traveler, who thought he was buying into some wondrous phenomenon.

“Here,” said Holtzclaw, pleased that he had not been hoodwinked. “I’m going to give you a few coins—not for the fish, but for the effort. From now on, you should be more honest in your business. Set up a little booth in the square and sell what you catch in the streams. It’s hard work, but you’ll find it more rewarding than these transparent tricks.”

“It’s no trick, sir,” said the boy. “I won’t take your money if you don’t want this fellow. I’ll throw it back.” The boy grasped the fish by the tail and flung it sidearm. It whirled into the mist below.

“For lies, I’ll give you nothing.” Holtzclaw hollered to the driver, and the stagecoach rattled on, crashing over every rut and rock.

The mist lifted as the stagecoach continued downward, and the view from the ridgeline became clearer. Breaks in the trees afforded glimpses of the Lost Creek Valley, rolled out just as on Holtzclaw’s map. The Lost Creek entered at the head of the valley and meandered for five miles before it exited through a gorge, white with the foam of waterfalls. The town of Auraria—thirty houses and a squat commercial square—clung to the river. Scars marred the valley walls where trees had been stripped away for pasture, ridges cultivated into narrow rows of crops, and smears of mud left behind after mining.

A chickadee and a titmouse called out from overhead; a terrible warbling from the woods answered them.

“Turkeys,” said the driver of the stagecoach, breaking his silence, “or the singing tree is out of tune. No, has to be turkeys.”

The driver had introduced himself as X.T.—a name simple enough for even an illiterate to draw. He pointed to brown shapes that waddled through the underbrush. “Folk drive them into town to sell, but some of the birds get lost and go up in the hollows. Now if it were a singing tree, that would be a real sight. It belts out old mountain tunes when it’s had too much sweet water to drink.”

Holtzclaw took out his notebook to record the details of this pastime. Evidently, the locals, after some stout local brew, climbed the boughs of a tree to sing ballads and folk lyrics—and they sang poorly enough to be mistaken for warbling turkeys. Perhaps Holtzclaw could employ it as a distraction.

The jostling of the stagecoach troubled his handwriting. A wheel bounced off a stone, and his head was thrown against the window glass. “Is it much farther into Auraria?” he asked, rubbing his injury.

“Still a fair piece, Mr. Holtzclaw,” said X.T.

The stagecoach had left its station in Dahlonega at dawn that day. Holtzclaw had planned for the journey to take no more than five hours. Through the settled acres around the county seat, the stagecoach had kept an excellent pace. A private turnpike had provided the best stretch; Holtzclaw would have gladly kept paying the toll if the road had stayed so comfortable. But the smooth traveling was too short. On the Lost Creek side of the Great Hogback Ridge, the road was only a cart path. The primitive suspension of the stagecoach was inadequate for the mountain road and for Holtzclaw’s sensibilities.

“I’ll walk from here,” he said to X.T.

“Still a fair piece, Mr. Holtzclaw.”

“I will be in a fair number of pieces if I keep on with you.”

X.T. shrugged. “If you still want the old Smith place, then, it’s over the Saddlehorn two miles, then you’ll take the Post Trace down into the valley. I’ll haul your boxes to McTavish’s.”

“Is there any other inn in Auraria?” Scottish hospitality and cuisine had not impressed Holtzclaw in the past.

“Well, there’s the Old Rock Falls Inn and the Grayson House. We don’t like to put up guests at the Old Rock Falls. The whispering walls make strangers nervous. The Grayson House has a rough crowd. They bring out the chuck-luck wheel every night, and sometimes folks lose a finger.”

Were his deadlines less pressing, if the land was not pining to be purchased, Holtzclaw would have questioned X.T. further about these superstitions. But it was already later in the afternoon than he would have liked, and he had important visits to make. “Take my things to McTavish’s then.”

“Want me to wait for you on the road?” asked X.T.

“Not necessary,” said Holtzclaw. “I’ll enjoy the constitutional. Fine day for a walk.”

He climbed down from the stagecoach and stretched his journey-stiffened limbs. He was clean-shaven but with admirable sideburns—a young man’s fashion, and Holtzclaw could still, with some truthfulness, call himself a young man. His hairline had retreated only a short distance up his forehead. He removed a bit of fluff from his bowler; it was black, matching his wool suit. Beneath his double-breasted coat, which was studded with gold buttons, was a crisp silk shirt. In his breast pocket, he displayed a folded handkerchief.

“You’ll get your fancy getup all muddy if you head off by yourself,” said X.T.

“I assume you have laundry tubs and soap, somewhere in your town?”

“Sure we do, if you get there.”

Before Holtzclaw could retort, X.T. cracked his whip. The horse leapt forward, and the stagecoach bounded over the terrain like a jackrabbit. Holtzclaw watched his remaining possessions disappear down the rocky road. By the time they got to Auraria, they would be shards and splinters.

Two days prior to his arrival in the Lost Creek Valley, Holtzclaw was spending the evening working in the Milledgeville offices of his employer, H. E. Shadburn, Land Acquisitions, when Shadburn himself entered the office and opened a bottle of claret.

Shadburn, sixty-four years old, was twice Holtzclaw’s age. He was a head taller as well, which was evident even when he was sitting down. His knees jutted above the level of his hips; he could not relax even in the overstuffed chairs of his offices. Several of his shirt buttons were fastened into the wrong holes. His appearance was not inspiring. But appearances don’t figure into balance sheets, and to judge by his balance sheet, Shadburn was a spectacular success.

Gas lights glinted off his balding head as he poured a glass of claret. Drinking was not his personal custom. While his sideboard held full shelves of every clear and colored liquor imaginable, he kept them for the tastes of his clients and agents, rather than his own.

But Holtzclaw loved claret. It was a weakness, though he did not yet call it a flaw. The sight of the wine eased his annoyance at being disturbed. “I’d thought you’d gone home,” he said. “I was tidying the books on the Franklin deal. The final tallies are coming out quite nicely. A handsome profit.”

“You flatter me,” said Shadburn.

“It’s the opposite of flattery. It’s income minus expenses. And then the magistrate came through with the rights-of-way just in time. It’s impossible, how you manage such things.”

“It isn’t perfect. Franklin still wants to keep those ridiculous furnaces and plow around them. If I’d bought that land for myself, the first thing I’d do is knock them down. What does a modern plantation need with old iron smelters?”

“Maybe he wants to try smelting some iron,” said Holtzclaw. “Hammer out a nail or horseshoe.”

“He’ll end up with slag and waste. He should stick to his talents. Cotton. Corn. Peanuts. Turn the crops into money and then buy proper nails and horseshoes from a man who knows what he’s doing. That would be a better use of his land. I hate to see him waste it.”

“He did pay us.”

“Paid us, did he?” Shadburn wriggled in his clothes. Holtzclaw didn’t remember them being so ill-fitting. “Well, yes, that’s worth something.”

“Did you come to talk about Franklin?” said Holtzclaw. “Are we buying some other properties for him?”

“No. Franklin’s small potatoes,” said Shadburn, working his thumb into the cleft of his hard chin. “I have information on a far more useful project. A hundred lots, a hundred owners. The whole town.”

Holtzclaw began to emit two contrary expressions of astonishment—a rising grunt and a low whistle. They collided somewhere near his lips and tripped over each other. “Who’s the client? Piedmont Mills? Amalgamated Bitumen? Cotton speculators? Coke miners?”

“I am,” said Shadburn. “Or rather, the town itself. Auraria and its valley.”

“Auraria? Which Latinism are they aspiring to?”

“‘Aurum,’ as in gold,” said Shadburn. “It is more a hope than an industry. A few companies tried to sink tunnels into the mountain but ended up sinking their investors instead. Most of the townsfolk left for California in the ’40s. The remainder are reluctant farmers, always looking under their plowshares for nuggets. Sometimes, someone still finds one, and it’s enough to keep the creaky wheel turning for another few years.”

“And you think there’s promise in abandoned mines and a ghost town?”

“Every land has a higher and better use.” Shadburn stood up. “We can take the railroad as far as Dahlonega. We’ll set up an office there, and you’ll go on to Auraria by stagecoach.”

“You’re not going?”

“I have a thousand other tasks in Dahlonega that must come first.”

Shadburn handed him a burlap potato sack. Inside, among roots and clumps of earth, were hundreds of gleaming gold coins. Holtzclaw withdrew a handful, noting the decorations that marked them as products of a peculiar mint.

“You’ll have plenty of ordinary money too,” said Shadburn. “But this gold is our special weapon, which must be treated with as much care as dynamite. It’s what the people are chasing, and it will move them when federal notes fail. What are federal notes but promises and paperwork?”

“That’s poppycock,” said Holtzclaw. “Notes spend just as well as gold.”

“Some highlanders feel otherwise.”

Holtzclaw shut the bag but found no way to tie it closed. “What are you going to do with this land, once we’ve bought it?”

“Why, improve it!”

“How?”

“Go and see, Holtzclaw.”

Thus Holtzclaw found himself walking alone through the mists of the Lost Creek Valley. He was sure that he’d done right to leave the stagecoach—there’d be one less local oaf stalking his movements. Financial gossip is the fastest news, and he would only have a short time to buy the most essential properties before prices jumped.

Holtzclaw followed the road that X.T. had called the Saddlehorn. Rhododendrons encroached on the path, the crowns meeting overhead. Out of a mass of vegetation rose two narrow, straight columns. As Holtzclaw neared, he saw that one was a tree, blackened by a lightning blast. The other was a metal chimney. At the top, ravens had made a nest. What kind of creature would place its fragile young in such a perilous place? There were safer, natural trees not twenty feet away. Perhaps the ravens were drawn by some residual smell from the top of the chimney. Vegetation obscured any trace of what kind of structure had once belonged to the chimney. An iron forge would not be likely so far from a primary line of transport. The chimney was wrong for a pottery or kiln.

As Holtzclaw stood pondering, the chimney belched. Steam, not smoke, issued from the top. The nest held firm and the ravens were unperturbed. Holtzclaw hoped that the people of Auraria would be more easily moved than the birds.

The path to the Smith homestead cut off from the main road, tumbling into the darkness of a valley grove. Mud and loose stones compounded the precariousness of the slope. Holtzclaw placed his weight on a rock covered with slick moss, and his incorrect shoes lost their grip. He fell in a hump into a leaf-filled hole.

“Blasted fool rocks! Blasted fool hills!”

“Can’t blame the rocks if they’re trod upon by a fool,” said a voice from below. Rounding a bend in the path was a mule. Behind the mule was a canvas-covered cart, and behind the cart, a man.

The mule put its face in front of Holtzclaw’s and yawned. An aroma of oats and turnips washed over him, and a moist pink tongue played between the beast’s enormous teeth. Then, licking its lips, the mule backed away.

“Help you?” said the mule’s master.

“I’m looking for the lands of Mr. Smith,” said Holtzclaw, struggling to his feet and brushing off leaves and dust.

“Well, then, you’ve arrived. You’re covered in them right now,” said the man. “Well, not exactly. They belong to his widow, Octavia. And Smith’s not even the most recently deceased. She’s had another husband since then, and he died too. Call her the widow Smith Patterson. And I don’t even know how long that will hold.”

“Are you a relation of the lady, or an employee?” asked Holtzclaw.

“Some of both, I guess, or on my way from one to the other.” The man blushed, turning his leathery skin burgundy. “The widow Smith Patterson wouldn’t like some stranger stalking around here. I think I’d best take you on down to the house.”

“That would be kind of you. But weren’t you on your way to sell your turnips?”

“Turnips keep. Guests don’t.”

Again the mule flashed its teeth, but this time Holtzclaw dodged its breath. At the man’s invitation, Holtzclaw climbed on top of the canvas-covered wagonload. The ride was even less comfortable than X.T.’s carriage. He felt like he was sitting on a mixture of rocks and mashed potatoes. The cart tipped and rocked on the steep path, threatening to spill both passenger and turnips, and Holtzclaw grabbed for the sides of the cart. But the wheels were better suited to the land than Holtzclaw’s shoes, and the journey was short.

The path widened into fields of corn, with pole beans growing between the stalks. A dogtrot cabin stood inside a neat, swept yard. A row of cows lined up against a straight-rail fence, and a woman stood framed by one of the cabin’s doorways.

“Strange load you got there, Clyde. You find him growing in the fields, or are they paying for turnips in city folk now?”

“Someone I picked up on the road, Ms. Octavia. Said he wanted to see you.”

“How pleasant,” said the widow Smith Patterson. She could have been forty or four hundred years old; Holtzclaw did not know how the air and sun worked on the skin of mountain-folk. She wore a straw hat and simple clothing—a long checkered dress, turned-up sleeves, and a high collar.

“You have a name?” she said.

“James Holtzclaw, of Milledgeville. I have a business transaction to discuss with you, on behalf of the Standard Company.” Shadburn had wisely given his company a vague name. Other developers picked clumsy names pleasing to investors, like the Red Top Mountain Hotel and Recreation Development Company or the Oconee Ridge Timbering and Sawmill Authority. Besides being too revealing, they prolonged already lengthy business conversations.

“The Standard Company? Not a big company, is it?” said the widow Smith Patterson.

“A small but industrious operation, like yours,” said Holtzclaw. He smiled.

“A big company would have sent a herd of men, not just one muddy fellow with a satchel.”

“Precisely.” He persisted with a smile.

“Well, what’s your offer?” The widow stood on the porch, two feet above Holtzclaw, and looked down her long nose at him.

“May I come inside?” asked Holtzclaw. “Perhaps you’d prefer to conduct business in more accommodating and private circumstances.” Haggling from the stoop was not advantageous. He had to look up at his adversary.

“Anything you want to say, you can say in front of the mule. And Clyde.”

“I must say that you have a very beautiful farm here.” Holtzclaw tried his best, but his words came out with too much flattery and not enough superiority.

“It’s a lot of work,” said the widow Smith Patterson. “It took a lot of work to put it together, and it takes even more to keep it going every day.”

“Now that you’ve built this all into a very respectable enterprise, don’t you think you deserve a reward?”

“Such as?”

Holtzclaw found it difficult to condescend to a woman standing several feet above him. “Such as a life of leisure. The freedom to not run your life by the cycle of crops and weather. A little money for city luxuries. With the lifetime of hard work that you have already spent, you could buy another of peace.”

“I hadn’t planned on retiring,” said the widow Smith Patterson.

Holtzclaw found this puzzling. He thought she would have been glad to get off the land, away from the shovel and hoe. “You can’t mean to work this farm into your old age.”

“Even past it. I’ll be buried right under the cornfields. Still have a hand in raising the crops. Push up the stalks from below.”

“Are your husbands buried there too?”

“I buried my husbands down in the graveyard, where I don’t have to look at them but twice a month. Everything that you see here, I made it. Before me, there was nothing. Weeds. Rocks. Springs. I turned it into corn, sorghum, sweet potatoes, fat cows, big smoked turkeys. Now where are you trying to get, Holtzclaw, with your beat-around-the-bush words? You better get there quickly. I have hams to cure that are bigger than you.”

Holtzclaw scratched at a small bug that had made its way behind the flap of his right ear. He felt incompetent, and it was not a feeling to which he was accustomed.

“What I meant, ma’am, by my introductions, was that I wanted to buy your land. The Standard Company wants to buy your land. I’m prepared to offer you a fair value, which you can put toward your comfort. If you are parsimonious with it, it may last you to the end of your life, and you needn’t work another day. Leave the cornfields just as they are. Here, I have ready money. Think what it can buy.”

Sensing he was losing control of the conversation, Holtzclaw employed a favorite gambit. He withdrew a wrapped bundle of bills from his traveling satchel. The sight of money was meant to create a visceral feeling of happiness in the landowner. If the owner would hold the bills, so much the better. The smell and feel of the crisp notes were more persuasive than the sight.

“Money’s a bad guest,” said the widow Smith Patterson, keeping her arms crossed. “It doesn’t stay long enough, and it makes an awful mess as it leaves.”

Whoever invented this silly proverb was trying to sell more almanacs. “I can assure you that, for your forty acres, this is an excellent price,” said Holtzclaw. “We can make considerations for your timber, crops, livestock, and improvements as well.”

“It’s a mess more than forty acres. That’s what Samuel Smith, my first husband, got in the land lottery. Land’s changed hands since then. We just haven’t been up to Dahlonega to file it.” The widow Smith Patterson considered for a moment. “The lottery land is just the first forty. Then Bertold over the hill died and his son didn’t want the land; he was out in California trying to make it. So I bought it. The piece in between belonged to the twins, and they moved to North Carolina. Bought that too, so eighty more. That left old Butterbean surrounded; he couldn’t get his cart to market without rolling over my land, and I didn’t much care for old Butterbean, so I didn’t make it easy for him. Well, he moved off without telling anyone—just vanished one day, and I bought up his farm for a song from his son, who wanted to drink more than dig. My second husband, Odum Patterson, came with forty acres of his own; it was a happy chance that his land was right next to mine. Poor Odum, though, he didn’t live long. Sickly man. His estate had enough in it to buy the James place. Then just a few months ago, Clyde and I started courting; he still lives out on his place, but we’re working his farm like it’s part of mine, and if there’s any selling, I’ll be the one to speak of it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Clyde, from atop the turnips.

That was four hundred acres in all, the whole hillside. Five fewer trips for Holtzclaw, five fewer negotiations. It was the first lucky stroke of the trip, but it would be a fivefold catastrophe if he couldn’t persuade her to sell.

Holtzclaw was prepared to fight. In cases of refusal, the land purchaser has many options. If coercive talk and emotional arguments fail, he can appeal to neighbors and family. A confederate can be found who has both a connection to the owner and a personal motive, even if the motive is no more than a finder’s fee. Failing that, a host of legal remedies can be applied. A judge will often see reason before an owner, or a mayor will think of the greater good. And below that are a host of clever tricks. Once, Shadburn cleared several acres upwind of a stubborn homesteader and introduced a breed of malodorous swine. And there are many silver-tongued and colorfully named maneuvers known to the profession: the Charleston Chomp, the Cincinnati Slip-off, the Asheville Attitude, the Fitzgerald Flip. But Holtzclaw trusted none of them in his present situation. Instead, he made a surefire move, one that had particular power in Auraria.

“I can pay you in gold.” Holtzclaw made a flourish with his hand; he wished he’d worn white gloves, like a magician’s. From his traveling bag, he withdrew a handful of the local coins. He tilted his hand, as though he were going to let the coins fall, and the widow reached out against her will.

Her eyes became radiant as the coins tumbled into her palms. “Well, now, that’s some pumpkins.” She held the gold coins as if they were fragile living things.

The look in the widow’s eye was her agreement to sell. The rest would be paperwork. She plopped down on the porch stoop. “You wanted to buy the whole lot, fields and buildings and all? Knock ’em down?”

“Yes, all the acres. I imagine they will be cleared for my employer’s purposes.”

“What purposes are those?”

“They are my employer’s purposes. I’m just an agent.”

“There’s the house here, the barn, the smokehouse, the root cellar, the springhouse.” She was distracted, staring at the coins. “Clyde’s cabin, which isn’t much of anything. He’s got an iron shop out the back, all rusted out. We’ve got a hundred acres in corn, twenty for sorghum, ten in oats, and twenty acres for pasture.”

As she spoke, Holtzclaw noted each item in a ledger, requesting dimensions for the structures and providing a value. The widow Smith Patterson pressed hard only on the smokehouse, which she claimed had a supernatural ability to preserve a ham against all corruption, and for which Holtzclaw let her win a price that was double his estimate. He tallied up the numbers, double-checking for mathematical mistakes. He had not made any, either accidentally or on purpose. For some speculators, the common man’s unfamiliarity with numbers and figures represented a source of profit, but Holtzclaw could not abide an error with his name signed to it.

The final contracted amount was substantial. The widow Smith Patterson and her helpers could not hope to earn its equal in five years of hardscrabble on the mountainside. Holtzclaw counted out the sum into towers of gold coins and gave the contract over to the widow Smith Patterson for her mark. Instead of an illiterate’s scrawl, though, she executed a florid signature that shamed Holtzclaw’s.

“When does your employer arrive to evict us?” asked the widow Smith Patterson. “Or did he keep that from you as well?”

“He will be here in his own time,” said Holtzclaw. “You may want to harvest what you can.”

Turnip tops and corn-stalks waved in the wind. “I think I will leave it for the birds,” she said.

“That’s your choice, of course. I do hope, though, that you’ll be discreet concerning our transaction. I have a few more lots to purchase, here and there.”

“Why should I keep it a secret?” said the widow Smith Patterson, caressing a coin.

“Because your neighbors might take it on themselves to be greedy, beyond the value of their lands. Then, I will have a difficult choice. I would have to pay them more than I paid you. And they wouldn’t deserve it. You have been more clever and productive than they have. Why should they have the reward?”

Holtzclaw tried to make the speech sound fresh and lifelike, though he’d asked the same of every landowner he’d met in his career. The widow nodded her understanding; she wanted justice just as much as he wanted cheap land.

The deal was done; Holtzclaw could not linger. He’d extracted her promise of discretion, but promises are not worth much. The weight of his traveling satchel pleased him as he hefted it back over his shoulder. It held less gold, but more wealth.