America’s Last Emperor: Foreclosure

Chapter Thirteen

May 15th, 1855

Norton read the paperwork with a grim look on his face. Nearly three years of legal wranglings had led to this moment. He paused for a second, and looked around the room.

He was sitting in William T. Sherman’s office at Lucas, Turner and Co. bank. The angry looking man watched him as he read the document, making him all the more nervous.

Hall McAllister’s best arguments were all for naught, and the judge decided against Norton. He was on the hook for twenty thousand dollars. The years of fighting the contract in court had dumped most of Norton’s money into McAllister’s pocket. His rice mill sat unused, and the dry goods store on the opposite corner had folded when the gold petered out. The final insult was the foreclosure. The courts put a lien on all of his properties, and the final result was more money than they were worth. Sherman determined that it was time to confiscate the properties for the bank to pay Norton’s debt, after a year of refusing to lend him the money to get out of his predicament.

He looked up at Sherman, who was watching him intently.

“Does it all make sense?” asked Sherman.

“Do you mean literally, or in a more general sense of how the world works?” asked Norton.

Sherman looked at him for a second, trying to figure out what he meant. The man seemed to struggle with the concept of black humor for a second, and then it hit him all at once and he let out a barking laugh.

“Norton, with an attitude like that you may just make it after all,” he chuckled.

“Easy for you to say,” said Norton. “Currently people like me are paying your bills.”

Sherman turned his face to stone again, and nodded.

“Don’t think I don’t have a heart, Mr. Norton,” said Sherman. “And you are hardly the only person in this predicament.”

Norton considered this, and signed his name to the document. All of his real estate now belonged to the bank.

“Yes, I know,” said Norton as he finished. “Ever since Meiggs fled to South America, the city has been flailing in debt.”

“Don’t forget the squatters,” said Sherman. “I’ve seen a few reports saying that up to half of the city is now broke miners come back to find real jobs.”

“I’m just glad that I have what little I have,” said Norton.

“What will you do now?” asked Sherman.

“What I’ve been doing for three months,” said Norton. “I have a new office on Montgomery Street, and my new partner and I have been trading stocks.”

“Well, best of luck to you,” said Sherman, standing up and offering his hand.

Norton stood as well, and shook Sherman’s hand. “I’ll stay in touch.”

Sherman watched him walk through the lobby and out of the front doors of the bank, then turned to process more of the foreclosure paperwork.

#

Norton walked down Montgomery Street towards where the old waterfront he remembered was. There was a huge Miner’s Exchange building opposite the bank building, and the next block over was the Montgomery Block. This building had sprung up a few years back and was the tallest building west of the Mississippi when it was built. He considered the facade as he walked past. So much of the city had changed since he’d arrived, and it changed very quickly. The Niantic Hotel was still there but now looked nothing at all like a boat.

Montgomery was no longer the muddy morass that it had been when he’d first walked down the wooden sidewalks. It was now paved, even if the sidewalks were still made of wood. Every thirty feet was a new gaslight, stamped with the legend PACIFIC IRONWORKS on the base. He was thinking about this when a stray dog rounded the corner, stopped in front of him, and looked back the way it came. The dog might have been some wonderful color but the amount of mud on the dog made it impossible to determine. He appeared to be some kind of mutt, a good twenty five or thirty pounds of stray.

“Git outta here you bummer!” yelled a man from the direction of where the dog was looking. The dog turned and kept pace with Norton as he walked, looking up at him with baleful eyes.

“Alright, alright,” Norton said. He’d seen this dog before on his daily walks. Norton had seen every single stray dog in town as a matter of fact, and carried a bag of dried meat in his pocket exactly for this purpose. The dog knew this as well, which was why he’d given Norton puppy dog eyes.

“Bummer is a good name for you,” muttered Norton as he fished out a piece of jerky. “I’ve never met a dog that begged so efficiently.”

“Norton!” called out someone in his path ahead. Norton looked up to see his old pal Eastland and a group of men standing next to one of his streetlamps, the base of it disassembled.

“Eastland!” said Norton. “When did you get back in town?”

“I’ve been in town, chap,” he said. “I got married, remember. That tends to make one scarce.”

“Ah yes,” said Norton. “I remember now. The house in South Park.”

“You mean the extravagance in South Park,” said Eastland. “When are you settling down and buying a house, Norton?”

“I fear that might not be in the cards for me,” said Norton.

“What?” asked Eastland. “What’s going on?”

“Too much to tell on the street,” said Norton, indicating the group of men around Eastland. “What are you up to here?”

“I’m teaching these men how to install the streetlights,” said Eastland. “I sit behind a desk all day these days, directing them. I take every chance I can to get outside, trust me.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” said Norton, handing his new card to Eastland. “We must have dinner soon. Maybe go to Macao and Woosung?”

“Oh heavens no,” said Eastland. “It’s much too close to Pike Street.”

Norton considered this, and walked on towards his office. Bummer followed, hoping for another piece of meat.

#

Norton worked at his office for most of the afternoon until a knock came at the door and it opened. Norton looked up to see his friend Eastland, walking in with his hat in his hand.

“Eastland! How good to see you again!”

Eastland looked a bit sheepish, then got to the point.

“Norton, I’ve been hearing things and I am worried about you,” said Eastland.

“You shouldn’t worry about me, old chap,” said Norton. “I’m still working.”

“Yes, you are,” said Eastland. “But word gets around. And the lodge…”

“Ah yes,” said Norton. “A temporary setback.”

“Norton, you can’t even pay the dues to the lodge,” said Eastland. “Forgive me, old friend, but I am worried about you. I went to the Rassette House and they had no idea who you were.”

“I moved out of there to save money,” said Norton. “As a matter of fact, I must leave soon to get supper.”

“Well, I’ll walk you home,” said Eastland. “I can buy you a dinner as well.”

“Oh there’s no need,” protested Norton.

“I insist,” said Eastland.

#

Eastland and Norton walked up Kearny Street, full from their meal at the new Poodle Dog restaurant. The restaurant had relocated from the first place Norton had eaten at with Meiggs all those years ago. The owner was openly racist about the move, since the old neighborhood was overflowing with Chinese now. Norton and Eastland both were well aware they were in the minority as far as their high opinions of the Chinese were concerned, so they avoided conversations about it as much as possible, The newspapers and street corners were both filled with rants against the Chinese lately, and to Norton it seemed that it started when the gold ran out.

Eastland walked with his old friend up the hill to Broadway, noticing that his friend was leading him to an even more disreputable neighborhood than Chinatown and Pike Street. As they crossed Broadway and Kearny, Eastland looked up the street at the streetlights he himself had installed in front of the town jail. Norton led him about fifty feet up the hill, to a nondescript wooden boarding house with a sign that read ROOMS TO LET. He opened the door after a short climb, and Eastland looked into a dingy room set with a large table and a group of men in various states of dirtiness eating supper.

“Mr. Norton, we missed you at dinner,” said the woman who was placing a bowl of potatoes on the table.

“Mr. Eastland here bought me dinner, thank you ma’am,” said Norton.

“Well good then, you know there’s no guests in the rooms though,” she said.

“Yes ma’am,” said Norton. Turning to Eastland, he looked apologetic.

“It’s OK, Norton,” said Eastland. “I have to get home anyway.”

Norton took his leave of Eastland on the porch, and then trudged up the stairs to his room as Eastland watched through the glass of the front door. When Norton had disappeared, Eastland knocked on the door again, and the boarding house lady appeared.

“Excuse me, Mrs…,” he asked hesitantly.

“Carswell,” she answered. “Yes sir, how may I help you?”

“Well, my friend Norton,” he started. “Have you had problems with him?”

“He pays what everyone else pays,” she said. “He keeps to himself. He is always going out for walks, which is fine by me because he’s not messing up the place here. He is sometimes late on his rent, but times are tough.”

“Indeed,” said Eastland. “Can I ask you a favor?”

“Anything, sir,” she said as Eastland rummaged in his coat.

“If he ever has any trouble paying his rent, please let me know,” said Eastland, producing a card and handing it to Mrs. Carswell. “I shall cover anything he cannot pay.”

“Are you sure?” asked Mrs. Carswell, sounding dubious.

“Madam, if I could just do that for him then it would be a bargain compared to what he’s given to me in friendship,” said Eastland.

#

November 17th, 1855

Norton walked out of Macao and Woosung with a small linen bag of spring rolls that Norman had given to him. Despite Norman’s plea for him not to feed the stray dogs around his restaurant, Norton had a roll out almost immediately because he knew Bummer would be waiting for him. He tossed the roll to the hungry mutt, and walked on Kearny towards Clay Street.

As soon as Norton got to Clay Street he heard a shot ring out. He looked to where the shot had come from but it was confusing for a second. The sound had bounced off various wooden and brick buildings so that it seemed to come from everywhere, but a look towards Montgomery Street showed a crowd gathering at that corner. Norton walked that way, Bummer following at his heels.

When he got to the corner, he saw that a group of men were standing around a body lying there. Unlike before when he had witnessed such events he had no idea who was around him — everyone’s face was totally unfamiliar. He decided to ask someone at random.

“Do we know who was shot?” asked Norton to a red headed man in a bowler hat.

“Aye,” said the man. “Twas the marshall.”

Norton was taken aback.

“And they caught the gambler that did it,” said another man.

“Marshall called his Belle a whore,” said another man, except the way he said it the word came out sounding more like hooo-are.

“Well she is,” laughed another man, and the group laughed. Norton turned away in disgust.

“Lawlessness prevails again,” muttered Norton as he trudged back to his boarding house.

###
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