These are the first five pages of Auraria, a Novel.
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 the customary eagles and shields, they were stamped with images of bumblebees, terrapins, chestnut trees, and indistinct figures by a stream. Perhaps they were bathing, perhaps panning for gold; they were too small to tell. Shadburn said the coins had been minted in Auraria, from local metal. The gold was returning to its source.
Opening the traveling bag was reassuring but unnecessary. Holtzclaw would have felt by the heft of the bag if the gold had gone missing, and besides, who could have taken it? He was the only passenger aboard the stagecoach. His other supplies, too, were present: pen, ink, linen paper, his notary stamp. 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, descending from the Great Hogback Ridge, forded a stream that broke from the mountainside and cascaded down a moss-painted cliff. The air was heavy with water, and Holtzclaw, knowing no better, tried not to breathe it in. One could not drown in such an atmosphere, he knew, but it could imbue his unacclimated lungs with sickly airs.
Beside the road, a boy was fishing from a fallen log that jutted over the edge of a rocky knob, giving him a clear cast into the emptiness of the valley. His feet swung in space above the fog. Holtzclaw saw that the boy’s fishing pole was only a 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,” said the boy. He snapped his fishing pole back, and a fish flew up from the mist. Holtzclaw recoiled from the sudden appearance of this missile, but the boy caught it with practiced hands. Neither the crudeness of the fishing equipment or the lack of a body of water had hampered the boy’s ability to land a catch. “I’ll sell it to you,” the boy said, pushing the head of the fish through the open window. “They’re good eating.”
The fish’s ruby body and barb-like 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,” said the boy, “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 naive travelers, who thought they were buying into some wondrous phenomenon.
“Here,” said Holtzclaw, pleased that he had not be hoodwinked. “I’m going to give you a few coins—not for the fish, but for the effort. I think you’d be well served to operate more honestly. Set up a little booth in the square. It’s hard work, but you’ll find it more rewarding than these transparent tricks.”
“It’s no trick, sir,” said the boy. “Usually, it’s catfish when I’m fishing the fog. Never pulled up one of these red ones before. If you don’t want it, 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 rolled on.
The mist lifted as the stagecoach continued downwards, and the view from the ridgeline became clearer. Balds and breaks in the trees afforded glimpses of the Lost Creek Valley, rolled out just like on Holtzclaw’s map. The Lost Creek entered at the head of the valley for a meandering run before exiting through a gorge, which was 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: trees stripped away for pasture, ridges cultivated into narrow rows of crops, and smears of mud and rocks left behind after mining for iron or coal or gold.
A chickadee and a titmouse pepped from overhead; they were answered by a terrible warbling.
“Turkeys,” said the driver of the stagecoach, breaking his silence, “or a singing tree that’s out of tune. No, turkeys, I think.”
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—poorly enough to be mistaken for 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 three cents a mile toll had the road 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. Farmers’ wagons, turkey drivers’ nibbling herds, and rainwater flowing from the heights both made and unmade the road by turns. It was clear now that 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 McTavish’s the only inn in Auraria?” Scottish hospitality and cuisine had not favorably 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, 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. He issued his orders to the driver. “Take my things to the McTavish’s then. I’ll select other lodgings if they impress me better when I arrive.”
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. Only a little hair had vanished from his head. 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 monogrammed gold buttons, was a crisp silk shirt. In his breast pocket, he displayed a folded handkerchief.
“You’ll get your fancy getup all muddy,” said X.T.
“I assume you have laundry tubs and soap, somewhere in your town?”
“Sure do. We even got a shop where you can buy yourself the right kind of clothes.”
X.T. cracked his whip; an explosion split the air. The horse set off, much more quickly than before. His hoofs landed with confidence, avoiding the ruts and pits, and the wagon bounded over the terrain. Holtzclaw watched his remaining possessions disappear down the road. He hoped that when they arrived in Auraria, they would still be whole.