Excerpt from Raid of Souls

Nevada City, California, The Silver Moon Tavern

June 1866

The conflict now rising was not so much amongst men, but of battles first waged in dark hearts. Hostilities proved a mere hiccup to California, isolation being its sanctuary and its curse. The nation survived a war, faced reconstruction, and the race of railroad titans culminates to link a beleaguered land.

And yet, a savvy, subtle enemy hovers as a will-o’-the-wisp. In the best of mortal man, good intentions meander. Covetous notions, curtained from view, fester. Justification feeds reason, building its case to devour the unguarded.

Man’s eye side glances to the inner workings of his heart, exaggerating his own honor. His soul is an assailed entity, searching for nobility in a rash and reckless world. The weak tremble under temptations of the influential. Few lions arise to protect the pride.

James MacLaren felt as though the stone of Sisyphus rolled against his braced back. He returned from Sacramento with new evidence and a string of mares, only to be faced with the emptiness of Justin’s departure. Spring’s heavy rains yielded a bumper crop of alfalfa awaiting harvest in his fields. Althea’s slow recuperation, and the shock of the accident that nearly killed her, still pierced his core. Worse yet, he found Lodie’s agitation over phantom manipulation of the gold mines to be warranted.

He hoped Sean, as a new foreman at Empire, possessed enough insider knowledge to untangle the twisted path he discovered in Sacramento’s public record. A grab for controlling interest in the Empire mine began long before the rumors. Claims trailed to the San Francisco Stock Exchange, where speculators gobbled up mining shares. Leads appeared as tossed marbles in a roulette wheel, leaving James to guess where they might bounce out again.

And now, ensconced at their customary corner table at the Silver Moon, James bestowed his bundled enigma of field work upon his former mining partners, Sean Miller and Lodie Glenn. Ignoring the raucous noise of afternoon patrons, Sean studied a sheath of papers. He shoved their abandoned beverages aside, the last of the deflated froth clinging to sour smelling mugs.

“I’m not sure what this means.” Lodie sat, elbows on the table, his head resting between his large hands as he stared at the scattered files. His fingers furrowed rows through his white-blond hair.

“Nor I,” answered James. “I followed a horrific paper chain, one filing after another. All transactions ended up under ownership of Empire mines, ta be sure.”

Sean muttered, “I coulda told you as much. As quick as small mines fail, they show up on my list as holdings to be inspected.”

“But, who’s behind this?”

Escalating woes of independent miners, inflamed old wounds James fought to keep hidden. Rules of engagement had changed over the dozen years since their partnership of four flourished. The slow and calculated march of progress failed to alarm early pioneers besotted with newly acquired autonomy. He could find no face behind the advance, only that there were many. But he knew they wielded common weapons—power, money, and position—in their bid for takeover.

Surfaces picked clean of profitable ore now required heavy equipment to penetrate unreachable depths. Empire’s investment in machinery pushed independents with title to choose between abandoning claims or teetering on the edge of financial abyss. Even worse was legal confusion created by gold-laden veins stretching their spiderlike spread into areas both claimed and poached by independent miners—areas that Sean warned months ago nested on land now titled to Empire.

“We need names.” James reached abruptly into Lodie’s fanned out pile to snatch a particular page. “One peculiar item . . . I traced the newest holdings ta a separate entity, a finance network called Coleridge Sierra. And them unrelated ta large bundles of stock William Bourn owns. Apparently, Coleridge Sierra put up the money, ultimately causing failure for our independent friends. They did na waste time calling in their loans.”

Lodie frowned. “What’s Bourn’s part in this?”

“Nothing new as far as I cu tell. He’s invested for years, gradually buying up stock. A businessman with many interests—I cu na find anything ta suggest he’s got any portion of what’s happening here.”

“But how does this tie into Empire?” asked Sean.

“Coleridge Sierra owns the largest block of stock, other than Bourn. They’re calling the shots, and it’s na just mines. Coleridge Sierra acquired a small railway servicing old Dog Run Mine near Camptonville and the Miner’s Foundry here in Nevada City. Then, there’s our stamp mill.”

“Damn.” Lodie looked surprised. “They’re moving right into town. What the hell else do they intend to own?”

“Well, I do na suggest borrowing money for any reason.”

“I don’t like this at all; it’s bad enough when independent mines fold all around us. Older towns than ours die out for lack of business. I’m all for chasing dreams, but, if more collapse, it hurts the reputation of the town. Everything I own is tied to Nevada City. In fact, this affects all our livelihoods.” Lodie shook his head in disgust. “Maybe, if the miners sold out earlier, this fiasco wouldn’t be raining down on our heads.”

“That ain’t quite fair, Lodie. We all put hopes on pulling rocks outta the ground. How much sense does that make? When manna from heaven quits, it ain’t our call,” said Sean.

They sat in silence, each struggling for answers like a drowning man grasps at a trailing rope.

Sean rocked his chair back on two legs. “Question is: what now?”

“Well, it’s clear we can’t sit on this,” stated Lodie.

“No, but we can na explain it, either. Someone’s making big moves on our whole area. We’ve got ta come up with a plan.”

“This is why we need the union, to put up a united front.”

“We need names. We’ve got ta kin who we’re up against.” Silence hung over the table once again.

Sean let the front of his chair hit the floor. “I’ll see what I can dig up at the main office. But I gotta be up front about a union with the bosses. I’ll shine it up like an apple at the fair—let ’em see a union’s got advantages. I’d feel better with our own people in this thing so I know who to count on. Empire plans to bring in experts.” He spat the word. “Experts on theories, anyways . . . a bunch of educated blokes that ain’t never raised a blister or broke a sweat. Nothing but a pain in the arse.” He rubbed his brow above the eye-patch. He rarely seemed conscious of his souvenir of Vicksburg, but, when agitated, he swiped at it like an annoying insect.

James nodded. “Our own need ta be involved. It’s crucial we get word ta every town, along every ridge, that ever found an ounce. We’ll draw in the holdouts—miners still in operations we kin. Let’s announce a meeting. Send curriers ta nearby taverns. If we organize, men cu have a say in their future and that of the town.”

Lodie gave him a hard squint. “Then, you’ll let me put you forward as union chief?”

James scoffed at their old argument. “It’ll take more than me ta make this work.”

“It’s a start. I’ll talk to the bosses,” offered Sean. “Ya know,Clancy worked independent long before we were partners; he knows most everybody. James, if you write up the notice, I’ll get him to post it around.”

“I’ll address the Merchants Bureau, see if anyone’s been offered loans,” added Lodie. “And, local banks—they’ll worry about competition, which will throw their support our way. I can draw up major points we aim to accomplish as a union. We three should meet in a day or two to go over it—add to it as we see fit. If we’re done here, I’ll get started.” He pushed his chair back to rise.

Sean leaned towards James. “On a separate matter of sorts, I need to hire blasting help if you’ve got time.” He grinned. “Wouldn’t hurt you politically for the men to see you back amongst ’em.”

“What ha ye got?”

“Cornish pumps pulling out eighteen thousand gallons of water per hour. Heavy spring rains done a number on stopes. Makes for future safety issues—a union concern, I might add. Need to open up some new tunnels. Trouble is, as we develop one area, another falls to rest until I can send more men in. The mining progression depth is falling below the water table.Where water sits, ceiling timbers show signs of rot and produce methane. Gets tricky, but we got to replace those beams.”

Lodie turned. “You taking canaries down in the meantime?”

“Nah. The boys feed the rats to keep ’em around. We watch them.”

“I’ll have a look. When?”

James glanced past Lodie to watch Sheriff Shaw push through the doors of the Silver Moon. The lanky, gray-headed man walked straight for their table. Stopping in front of Lodie, he pushed his hat back and greeted them with a quick head bob.

“Afternoon, fellas. Sean, I’m headin’ to Althea’s dress shop. She back at work yet?”

James answered, “She rode in with me this morning.”

“Need to talk to her. Sean, you might wanna come along. Lodie, as mayor, I ’spect you ought to come, too.”
Sean straightened. “Sounds official, Tom.”

“Could say that. You know a miner by the name of Salty Scanlon?”

“Yeah, I know him. Nice enough fella. Worked up at North San Juan Ridge before he took off for Comstock—knew him there, too, as a matter of fact.”

The sheriff nodded. “He just got back from Virginia City— been there a couple months now. Came in to see me today. Seems the last day he was here was the day of Mrs. Albright’s accident. Wanted to know, did I catch the guy driving the wagon that hit her?”

“No one drove it,” said James. “The driver was in a saloon and swore the brake was secure. He did na kin what spooked the team or how the hand brake came loose.”

“That’s just it. Salty came up behind the wagon and saw a man take the team and whip ’em up good, ran ’em hard down the street. Man still sittin’ in the driver’s seat when the wagon went outta his sight. Salty didn’t know Althea’d been hit ’til he got back to town. Nobody else recalls seeing anybody driving. He got a pretty good look at the fella, too. Stranger. Never seen him before, but says he’d never forget—guy had both earlobes cut up like a bad horse.”

* * *

“He jumped,” she whispered.

Althea paled, clutching her throat. She stared into nothingness, struggling through jagged impressions. The circle of men around her waited.

“I . . . didn’t recall until now. I saw a man jump off.” She traced memory’s steps in her mind. “I turned . . . I heard the wagon coming and . . . he jumped . . . as it ran me down.”

“You get a look at him?” asked the sheriff.

“No. I barely remember seeing the movement. He . . . had long, dark hair. I didn’t see his face.”

“Witness said his earlobes been tore up.”

She stared at the faces huddled around her, her panic rising. “Sean! That’s the man who came after me that day.”

“I recollected you sayin’ so the minute Tom gave his description. I told him what happened.”

“What does this mean?”

“It means he thinks you saw something in the alley that day,” said Lodie grimly.

About the Author

Kalen Vaughan Johnson is a historical fiction writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated from The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill with a BA in mass media and worked in television for eight years.
Together with her husband Gary, she has raised three children on the move in Tokyo, Chicago, Sydney and New York before returning to her southern roots.