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
“Dey call dat spell Tongue of Dragon,” a piping voice announced behind me.
I turned around. There was the skinny little Chinese kid, his face covered with coal grime and a smear of something reddish that looked like a sauce rather than blood. He grinned happily, his eyes curving joyfully into the folds of his round cheeks. Had he been fed decent, I got the feeling he’d naturally be a plump little boy. He squinted at me just a bit, and I guessed he needed spectacles.
“Who’re you?” I scrambled off the boulder, and the weight of my bolt bag nearly sent me sprawling when it caught on the rock.
“Me, I am Hen-Ree. I got good American name, speak much good English. My father bring me Gold Mountain to here to make me good American boy and make much wealth.” He grinned again. “He say go back year, two, rich. I no go back. I stay, make hotel!”
He dropped some sort of leather bottle that sloshed when it hit the dirt. “I make restaurant. In gold field place!” He bounced and smiled at me as if we were old friends and had been having a talk about this all month long.
I had to grin back at his energy. Hell, maybe the peculiar magics of these Chinese did make us friends somehow, and it sure wasn’t like I had friends up and down the Line.
“Ah yah, do ya now? Why not go to the Gold Fields and hunt up a pan of gold of your own?”
He laughed, and it was a real laugh, not mean or bitter or tired. “You think hard way get gold!” He stuck out his hand and I shook it. He only bowed a little before he caught himself.
“You think go get gold. Many, many, many men think go get gold. Dat hard way. So many men need every man a shovel.” He held up a hand and began to tick fingers off. “He need him tent, Canadhee govamens say he bring him all his ton food for the whole year to no starve. Need sock, need hat, need boot and pant, need coat, hat tent...many...” He flailed for the words a moment. “Many dinner.”
I nodded. For all that I felt like I’d walked into the middle of this conversation and missed the start of things entirely, he made a lot of sense. “Yeah, the Canadah goverment says ever man got to bring him a whole ton of food so he don’t starve to death and every man Jack’s gotta pay for it.”
I waved at the line. “They’re running this line all the way to Californy so’s they can bring all that food and gear up, and damn the cost.”
“Many gold hop out of many pocket here.” Hen-Ree nodded in agreement, bent over and grabbed the leather bottle. “I no own railway, but I know him he what got sock, what got hat, sell hat, sell shovel, he get gold more easy than dig, dig, dig all winter for gold!.”
I grinned at Hen-ree, then glanced down the rocky slope back at the camp. “He who has the socks, sells the hats and socks to the miners gets their gold, ’cause all of them need gear.”
Hen-Ree looked solemn. “He who has the socks and sells the hats to the miners...” He wrinkled his nose, looking blank for a second.
“Gets their gold,” I prompted. Hen-Ree nodded. “He who has the socks, sells the hats and socks to the miners... him—”
“He, not ‘him’.”
”He gets their money.” Hen-ree nodded and and tapped his head. “I listen all time. “English like making rails. Pay attention everything, learn fast everything. That how I get hotel, get restaurant, get much hat and sock.”
“Many hats and socks.” I nodded at Hen-Ree, impressed at his thinking. “You’re pretty smart. I like you.”
“Yeah, ’course you like me. I rare com-mod-ity. Only other kid in mining camp.” Hen-Ree’s eyes were friendly and shrewd. “Everybody like what is not much of.” He shrugged. “Not much Hen-Ree, so rare. More demand!” He cocked his head at me. “Who name you? You Iron Mage him you or Gandy-Dance man crew?
I squinted at him. “Who named me? You asking who me Da is?”
He pointed at me, scratched his head and looked like he was rummaging around in a bag of words inside his head.
“Oh yeah.” I laughed. “I’m Sammy. But if you want to know who me Da is anyways, he’s ‘Sweet’ Caleb Sugarman.”
Hen-Ree’s eyes got wide at that, and he glanced down at the rail crews a bit fearfully. “I hear him. Baba say he no...” He clamped his mouth shut fast, looking like he was trying to suck his lips back into his mouth to block the words that had just tumbled out.
I shook my head. “Everyone hears of me Da and his ‘deals.’ I know what me Da is like.” I stared down at the rail crews. “Just... make sure you and your Baba — whoever that is — don’t buy from me Da. Don’t enter any card games with him... if’n somehow they manage to win, which ain’t likely, no Chinese is going home with money won from me Da. And don’t go buyin’ no candy from Da neither.”
“You Da sell bad candy? No good?” He looked confused.
“He runs... a contest. You buy his special bags of candy, some of them have a fifty-dollar bill inside the bag.” Hen-Ree’s face lit up. “Don’t even think of buying one, kid. He sells his candy in front of a crowd, one of his friends opens a bag with big money inside.”
“All other bags?” He still looked hopeful. “Some money?”
“Less money than what you bought it for in the first place. His special bags cost extra, ’cause maybe you win some big money. You buy a five-dollar sack of old penny candy and you’re lucky to get a dollar back.”
I listened to the rising of the chants of the Gandys. “Some men get so luck-crazy they even sometimes think that’s winning somehow.”
“I tell Baba. He think get money fast, be rich, go home China quick, quick. He say we get money, go home China, buy land, be rich landlord. I say we go back China, men selling land... we make him only him rich-like. Not us. Not worth him big trouble.”
“So much trouble, and I hear you. No use getting rich if you can’t hold onto it. I see lots of men in the mine camp get good pay and blow it all every Saturday night. Me Da gets money from his candy contest, from guess-the-shell games and all kindsa other schemes, but money to him’s like a cur dog... it never follows him home.”
Hen-Ree’s eyes were sharp and bright. “I hold money. My money follow me home lots.” He studied me. “You ever have money someday, you keep too.”
I sighed. “I work carrying blast caps and bolts for the crews. Da says it’ll wake up my magic being near iron, being around magic.” I shouldered the pails of blast caps I was carrying. “I got to take this load down, then I gotta run for water for them.”
“Not water from river. You bring tea to Iron Mages. Water from river make belly bad. Evil spirit like river water. No like being boiled up in tea pot. Dat scare him gone.” Hen-Ree shook his leather bottle.
“Tea?” I raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re a smart kid, but why ya think river water’ll give you a bad belly? That’s just nonsense.”
He shook his head. “Not nonsense. Baba see. Man drink from river, bad spirit get swallowed, he want right back out again, both end. Much sick.” He pointed to the big bottle he carried. “Tea say go ’way, Sick-Make Spirit. I see too. Drink tea, no sick.” He held out the bottle to me.
I was thirsty anyways, so I shrugged and took a few swallows. It sure was better than the sour, gritty water from the stream running through camp.
“River here, he run through dirty place. Much place of Iron Mage, much place of horse, many place of....” He twirled his hand in the air, trying to snatch words from the air, then pointed to his rear.
“That water visits every outhouse in town.” I looked at the river, seeing it like I’d never walked into this camp in my life. “Unless I get the water from a mile, two miles above the camp, we’re drinking water that’s run over every forge and stable, and through every dump in camp.” My stomach rolled at the thought and I remembered the bouts of gut-sick that I got every camp we went to. I looked hard at his tea bottle. “You really don’t get sick with this stuff?”
Hen-Ree shook his head. “Bad belly spirit, he like cold water from river. Like dirty place. Water not like to be used twice, take back into body after letting out, makes bad spirits. The spirit not likes hot, makes him angry. He goes away.”
“I owe you one, then. I seem to get sick every year in these camps, and Da goes crazy whenever I don’t earn me keep.” I hefted the buckets onto my yoke.
Hen-Ree hefted up his own bottle to his shoulder. “You come eat... you come eat in Chinese camp.” He wrinkled his nose like the Bad-Belly Spirit had walked up to him. “Irish cook... he not look clean. Dirty cook make food sick too, always bad. Careless cook is bad magic, bad for stomach.”
“And our cook is bad for the tongue as well as the the stomach. What our cook don’t serve raw or oversalted is always burned.” I started off and Hen-Ree began to trot the other way.
I had a sudden thought. “Hey!” I shouted after him. “Your name Hen-Ree....or is it Henry?”
He frowned. “Which American? Which is the American way say it?”
“If you want to be American, it’s Henry. You got a Chinese name too?”
“Chinese name, my family, is Chang. I got Chinese first name too, but I like Henry! I not use old name; it call me back to China. I use American name, I stay here, I be American, grow up be rich! Buy big house in San Fransiskhe... I Henry, then. American fate for me!”
I knew the power of a name, how it shaped you, whispered what you were and weren’t, how a name could call you to a fate and how it could bind you into your skin. “Then you’re Henry.” I waved a hand at him from around the yoke, and we ran back to our camps before a work-hardened hand started thinking about giving us a little speed-you-up on the ear.
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Copyright © 2019 by Amber Ray