If Wishes Were Horses
by Amber Ray
Building the transcontinental railroad through the western mountains is hard, dangerous work in the 19th century. The men and women engaged in it come from all over the world, and they are hardened to the life and tasks. For young “Sammy” and Hen-ree, the work is magical, complete with Iron Mages and blasting spells. And the two young adults are misfits in their respective societies. Real magic will help them come into their own.
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Ma would always laugh when Da slurred that out, but I never felt like laughing when Da was drunk. She’d laugh and fetch him more whiskey, even in the bad times when he’d smash one or another of the fragile sea shells that were Ma’s only valuable possessions. He smashed her things and she served whiskey till the day she got too sick to lift the bottle for him anymore.
I first saw the kid when I’d sneaked off from Da and was throwing some coal clinkers at one of the Iron Horses. Da was off drinking with some of the Gandy-Dance Mages again. For sure, too, he’d be cheating the drunker ones out of their pay. Da almost had enough to open his own saloon here in Dead Horse Camp and, for once, his luck spells were being reliable.
A double line of men in basket hats and blue pajamas shuffled by, bundles swinging from poles across their shoulders. The setting sun made their bodies sink into the shadows of the mountain pass. As the first man stepped over the last of the railroad tracks leading through the camp, he raised his head. I let the clinkers fall from my hands as I watched them plod by.
“Well, hell. The bigwigs of the Transcontinental North Star Railway done hired Chinee Iron Mages!” Big Dan’s boots ground in the gravel and clinkers as he trudged up behind me.
I stared at the strange face of the first of the men in line with his oddly slanted eyes and jet-black hair in a long swinging braid. Big Dan was half Chook Indian, half Norwegian Viking and had yet to meet a man higher than his chin.
“Chinee?” I looked up at Big Dan. “What’s Chinee?”
“Chinese. They’s cheaper than the Irish Iron Mages, and they’re willing to do the damn blasting in Dead Horse Pass.” He curled his lip at them. “Damn well ain’t right fer them to undercut the Irish an’ take their jobs. I heard they done hired them on the Transcontinental line to Utah, and now they been brung here.” He snorted in disgust. “We’ll see how they like spelling themselves to the top of the cliffs in Canada winds.”
“Spelling themselves up the cliffs? What? They can fly?” I stared so hard at the line of men I felt my eyes would fall out of my face and go rolling in the ashes and gravel.
Big Dan roared with laughter, and one filthy hand clapped me so hard on the shoulder I stumbled. “No, they can’t fly, but they can be lifted. Them little men is willing to climb into baskets and be lifted down those rock walls what’s too steep and dangerous to be climbed.”
I blinked at the Chinese. Several of them passed one of the blasting sheds, and I saw they were carrying coils of rope and giant baskets on their backs like turtles. A smaller shadow separated from the mass of men and resolved itself into the form of a boy, maybe a couple years younger than me with a shaved-back hairline and a neat plait of hair laid over his shoulder.
He turned and met eyes with me, his strange face drawn, weary and smeared with dirt and shadows. I lifted a hand in greeting to him. Shyly, he began to raise his in return... and we both got a cuff on the ear almost in perfect unison.
“Don’t you be confabulating with that heathen!” Big Dan growled at me through his uneven teeth.
“Confabulating?” I squinted at him. “I was just sayin‘hey’ to him. “He can’t but be lonely by himself like that.”
Big Dan grunted. “He’s with his own kind. That’s how it should be. You leave it be that way and don’t go messing with what you ain’t a part of.”
“But, Big Dan—”
“You’re a good Christian boy who’s got no with truck with heathens, and you got no reason to tangle with heathen magic, either. God alone knows what evil rituals they gonna do when they set the blasting spells.” He spat. “They better not call down the wrath of any mountain spirits on us.”
The last of the Chinese passed us by, one of them raggedly starting up a snatch of a strange song. Two others in the line picked up the chorus of the song. They didn’t look dangerous or evil. Mostly, they looked dirty, tired, trail-worn, and hungry. They were all thin, and their clothes looked heavily mended and re-mended. Their heads hung low as they dragged their feet through the grime and dirt of the camp.
“Who brung ’em here? Why are there Chinese in the camp anyways?” I followed them as they walked past the inn and the saloon towards a shambling row of tents at the far end of the rail camp.
“The railroad bosses in all their infinnhit wisdom brought them.” Big Dan spat. “They’re undercutting us with cheap labor. They may be willing to be lifted down the mountainside to set the blasting spells, but they ain’t much good otherwise. No Chinese ever beat an Irish mage on the rails, even a low-hedge Gandy-Dance wizard. Them bigwig rail owners shipped ’em straight from the heathen lands and brought them here with their own diamond-wearin’ hands.” He turned to eye me. “Yer Da ain’t gonna like this none.”
I looked up at him. “Da don’t like any outsiders ever. He near killed that German alchemist they brought in to supervise the dynamite. He’s been bad since Ma passed away.”
Big Dan nodded, his eyes following the ragged Chinese. “Irish Mike and Missy’ll let you sleep under the bar if ya need. You want, I’ll ask if they’ll take you on for sweeping and washing up.”
I shook my head. “You know Ma didn’t want me working at the bar with how hard Da’s drinking was on her. She had me Pledge to stay clear of Demon Rum.”
“Ayah.” He nodded. “You may got to, though. Your father ’spects you to earn money and, to be fair, Sammy, ye’re not working out on the rails. For sure, you ain’t got the hands for dealing cards, and I’ll swallow my teeth if’n you got enough sneak in you to handle doing any bunco jobs for him, neither.”
I bristled a little. “So what if I’m not cut out for three-card games or if I’m not as strong as the others on the Line, I got magic! I know I do! It’s just my iron magic hasn’t shown yet.”
Big Dan angled a bloodshot eye in my direction, then leaned over and took a deep breath of me like he was a bloodhound on a trail and I was a fresh track. Big Dan’s Native magic was pretty damn strong when he wasn’t too deep into a bottle.
“I smell somethin’ on ye, Sammy.” He whuffed another deep breath off of me, frowned, smacked his lips some, but then shook his head. “I’m getting’ a taste of somethin’ like magic offa ya, but I ain’t felt nothin’ like it in my life. I got no clue what it is and why it ain’t said how-do to you yet with how old ya are. Fer sure, you don’t smell like no iron magic or hedge wizardry.”
Big Dan studied me. “Yer Da’s talked about your Ma passing y’know, what happened t’her. Don’ let yer Da draw magic offen ya; one mage pulling magic outa someone’s a sure recipe t’make a body sicken. He talks about yer Ma real sweet, you know. Mebbe he blames himself some over her.” He looked keenly at me, and I squirmed, feeling like he could see right into me and see what Ma’d told me to hide.
A shadow peeled off from the shuffling block of men as they dragged themselves and their bundles through the deepening twilight. A lantern flared to life and illuminated the shape of the Chinese boy. He solemnly bowed to me and set the lantern down at his feet.
He glanced swiftly over his shoulder at the line of men, gave me a broad, merry grin, then scooped up two bits of coal from the rail bed and clapped them together.
A glowspark of magic rose from the bits of coal. The boy cupped his hands together and breathed into the glowspark. I could feel magic rise from him, setting all the hairs down my arm to dancing like reeds before a lightning storm. I shivered hard and held my breath so’s not to scare off his magic.
The glowspark flickered and jumped. It pulled into itself, nearly went out, then with a firecracker snap burst into a few seconds of glittering butterflies that illuminated his thin face and darted around and over his thin fingers like little pet comets.
He grinned in triumph, and I gaped in wonder and envy. The boy bowed again, grabbed his lantern, then turned and ran back to the line of men.
I laughed and waved to him, but Big Dan grabbed my shoulder and began towing me back into the line of raw-lumber shacks.
The Chinese boy paused for a moment in the light, his dirty, thin face illuminated by the glow of the lantern before he joined the line of burdened men, and the twilight settled over him like coal dust.
“They don’t look like they’re dangerous heathens, Big Dan. They look to me like they’re all wore out from hauling all of what they got up the pass, and they’re scared they might get throwed back down it.”
Big Dan snorted. “Just you remember, Chinese and Gandy-dance mages don’t mix. You start messing with them, it won’t take but a second for the news to get back to Yer Da, and you know he’ll throw a fit if you’re mixing with anyone he don’t approve of.”
I nodded. In our place, things went how Da wanted and only like how Da wanted. “He probably don’t even talk English anyways.” I scuffed my boot in the gravel, muck and clinkers. “But sure would be good to have anyone my age to talk to again. Ain’t anything fun to do in a mine camp if you can’t do magic or you’re too young to drink.”
Dan didn’t answer back. One of the hurdy-gurdy women was beckoning Big Dan over, and it only took a second before her rocking hips sifted me out of his mind like a prospector sifting gold dust out of gravel. He drifted over to her as if he was a log caught in a swift mountain current.
* * *
I sighed. At least I was being spared Big Dan’s usual speech about how families came and went in the camps. I puffed out my chest and stomped my feet in the gravel. “Ye never know when you’ll see people from last month’s camp again, or next week ye’ll find out ye’ve got ten new friends to talk to! Who would trade working on the rails? Why ’tis a grand life of adventure!” I made my voice gravelly rough as I aped Big Dan’s lumbering walk through the darkening street.
“Now there you go, mocking not only your betters but a good hard railworking man.” Da’s hand shot out from the rail porch of the general store and grabbed me by the hair. Da peered at me through the gloom.
“You look a disgrace. Your hair’s all but in ringlets. You want everybody looking at you? You want the whole rail yard to know what you is?”
“Da! I ain’t had time to cut my hair!” I squirmed in his grasp, trying to pull free of the bite of his bony fingers. “Nobody knows! I ain’t told anyone! I ain’t said hardly anything since we got to this camp at all!”
He leaned in close, the whiskey heavy and sour on his breath. “With setting up the saloon and my businesses here in camp, you know how important it is for me to stand tall in front of the other men! Gandy-Dance mages is supposed ta get themselves sons to prove they can keep up their family lines and do proud to their Magic. I only got you, so that means you got to be a strong, Iron-Mage boy.” He shook me hard. “No matter what ya really be.”
Da stepped off the porch, nearly jerking me into the water trough and banging one of my shins into the boot scraper. “I got deals going right now, Sammy, big ones that’ll have us outta that damn leaky shack and back into a real house in no time!” Loud music spilled out from one of the local bars as someone struck up a tune on a tinny piano. “Sammy, Monday morning you’re moving to the blasting crew. Men respect a feller what ain’t soft on his own get.”
“Da! People get killed on the blasting crew!” I struggled to keep up as he hauled me down the collection of shanties, bars, and false-fronted stores that made up the camp. “Timmy Waters had a blast cap spell go off on him early two weeks ago and near got kilt, and he was just carrying them for the Coalmages!”
“That’s who yer replacing. You ain’t worth your feed on the rail crew. You can’t lift nothin, yer not tall enough, you don’t weigh enough to properly lift a rail with a shovel.”
He rattled me hard again. “Men is talking about that, so’s I got to move you to another crew.” He sneered at me. “I know you’re fast, ’cause the Lord knows yer always ducking from under me hand when I’m teaching you the error of yer ways. You better pray now that you’re always faster than a blast. Maybe this’ll make you finally show some magic. It ain’t right, you being a dud with all the talent of a shovel!”
I pulled my hat down over my eyes to hide my tears. People on the blast crew got paid double for the danger and lasted about half as long in the camps before they left with blown-off limbs, ears that rang or heard no more, or hands that no longer were burdened with so many fingers. Leaving in coffins was so common it was called the Pinebox Railroad.
“Da, you can’t do this to me! You promised Ma—”
Da cuffed me hard. “A man don’t gotta keep his word to rich men, foreigners and wimmen. I told yer Ma what the bargain was for not drowning you when you was born, but you ain’t been living up to your part of the deal.”
He turned a bloodshot eye on me as he dragged me into our shanty. “You’re my get. You was supposed to be a boy who’d do me proud, earn me good coin, see to our affairs, and see to me in me old age. You ain’t done a bit of that, and you ain’t ever gonna be a bit of good to me. Being on the blast team will fix you one way or another!”
He shoved me in the door. “You git in there and git the shanty clean. I got business at the Silver Rails tonight, so I’m gonna be out late. You better have this shack clean and food waiting for me when I gits here.” He shuffled towards town, the sooty light burying him in the gloom.
I stared after him for a while. I felt a bit like crying again, but he’d sung this song for me so many times I could only sigh and rub a knuckle against my aching head and pray he didn’t gamble off his business money again.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Amber Ray