If Wishes Were Horses
by Amber Ray
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
I did go round to the Chinese camp to eat that night and any other night that Da didn’t tell me to have supper waiting for him. I even ran there for midday meals but didn’t go there much for breakfast; I’m not one for rice first thing in the morning, though the tea in the Chinese camp is right fine. Our camp bakery was cleaner than the cook tent, so I usually would stop for yesterday’s bread or buns on the way to the rails.
Within the next week, three more men came down with typhus, but I couldn’t convince the foreman to just serve the work crews tea, though; river water was free. Tea costs money and time. I did start drinking tea on the line instead of water. Henry sure wasn’t wrong about how foul-tasting the camp’s water was.
Henry and I were indeed old friends that had just met. Maybe he had magic that made me trust him so fast, or maybe it was just how his money-making schemes were just always smarter and more honest than me Da’s.
As the weeks went by and autumn started slinking round the calendar’s bend, Da hatched some new schemes to bring in some quick coin. He began brewing up cures: liniments that brought on rashes instead of curing sore muscles, hair restorers that turned a man’s remaining hair a peculiar orange shade, and typhus cures that were better sold as purgatives.
Da spent almost all that he made from his schemes paying back the last round of customers who complained about his cures. Da managed to hang onto enough money to pay off his saloon and bought back the goodwill he’d lost by declaring free drinks for men who lived in camp the first day it opened. He also kept only the out-of-towners losing regularly. Men of the rail lines won enough in the choose-the-shell matches and poker games to stay happy.
Da even staked a few prospectors who’d lost everything at the games of chance the price of a ticket home. I whispered to Henry that people wouldn’t be so impressed with Da’s generosity if they knew he’d been the one to rig the games and encourage them to bet too deep in the first place.
Progress on the rails was still at a crawl, even with the new Chinese workers. The mountains here were hard to blast and riddled with unpredictable seams of splintery rock. As the track bed progressed around the mountain, we Irish carried off the loads of smashed rock, then began maging the iron rails into place.
A few men even piled up the rock rubble into crude huts that they slept in or that were taken over by some of the rougher good-time girls.
By the time leaves were starting to fall from the few oaks around the camp, Da had moved on to running his favorite scheme.
With what he made from his “lucky candy dip,” Da opened a tiny dry-goods store to sell cheap things like secondhand picks, fraying twine, limp hats, ratty socks, and worn shirts. The stuff on sale in the stores was better than Da’s ragtag stock, but Da sold cheap, and miners running out of money kept us going.
All this time, I was run ragged between carrying bolts to the Iron Mages, keeping our newer, bigger cabin clean, selling Da’s junk, and helping Henry with his English.
I never saw Henry during the day without him running somewhere with carrying poles slung over his shoulders; he hauled tea to the lines, spells to the mages, or food out to the men. I taught him more words and even some reading and grammar. Henry taught me Chinese magics and even characters in Mandarin whenever we found a chance.
The day the disaster happened, some of the men and roustabout mages were pulling apart some crumbling shacks. Wintering preparations would eat up any good lumber available, and cookstoves would get anything not worth sticking a nail in anymore.
Da had made and gambled away a near fortune picking the abandoned town of Dahea clean of every stick of milled lumber and cold-iron nail. The tiny river port had been abandoned when the river silted up, and Da hadn’t let it sit long before he and his crew of vultures bought some shacks cheap for their lumber and had “accidentally” helped themselves to most of what others hadn’t been right quick to pack off.
* * *
On the morning of the disaster, while I was climbing up the slope to the bakery, I watched lines of Chinese carrying their lift baskets winding up the paths from the east. Lines of Germans and Irish, backs bowed under sacks of heavy tools shuffled in from the west. The two lines both turned at the Orders tent, where two men in bowlers and fine vests angrily yelled directions at everyone, regardless of what side of camp they came from.
The two lines shuffled in the same direction, never mixing until the Irish and Germans reached the narrow rail end, where they dropped out of line to cluster round the last day’s rails. The Chinese continued climbing up into the pass to continue the slow, dangerous work of carving out the track bed.
I wolfed down my breakfast before one of the other runners could take it from me and ran to the iron-spelling tent. Da had given orders I wasn’t to be given the easy lot in work, so today the pinch-faced ironsmith in charge loaded my yoke buckets till I staggered like a three-day bender drunk below the weight.
“Iron hates a weakling!” Drunk Pete, the materials master slapped me and I spilled my buckets. “Clear that up and get to the line double-time or it’s half pay for you!”
I swore under my breath, scrabbled for my bolts and threw the carry yoke onto my shoulders again, the buckets swinging wildly while I ran to the supply line. In the gray light of the foggy morning, all edges were melted and vague. One man looked just like another, with only the sounds of the mage hammers tapping the rails to guide me.
As I reached the end of the supply line, I could hear the first “haul up” cries of the Chinese as the first blast charges were set. The men on the high slope began their strength chant as a huge drum thundered out the pull-count.
Henry darted across the lines and vanished into the swirling cotton-wool of the fog, running for tea or joss sticks to burn in the rituals the Chinese mages used to pacify the mountain spirits they disturbed.
And then the chant faltered.
Cries broke out above me on the mountainside. I dropped my load as a voice screamed something I could not follow. I looked up in time to see one of the lowering baskets lurch wildly, spinning out from the slope. A rope popped like a gunshot, lashing the two men clinging to the sides of the basket. They shrieked and snatched desperately at the ropes, basket and the merciless rock wall.
There was another terrible crack and then the basket dangled by one rope. The two men in the basket screamed as they tumbled, caught the edge for a moment, and then their weight slammed them into the sheer cliffside.
One man fell immediately, his head at a terrible angle and his body falling in a limp sprawl. The second man clung for a few moments more, riding the basket like a circus monkey.
He leapt for the rope and caught it, but as the rope and basket turned again, one of his boots slammed into a partially set blast charge. All the men wore boots tipped with iron to protect their toes. The foreman said later the blow of the iron against stone set off enough of a spark that the spell caught.
The explosion slammed against the sides of the pass, and the unfortunate man blossomed into a tiny sun.
The force of the blast echoed off the sheer cliffs of the pass. It felt like a punch into my ribs and belly thrown by an invisible giant. I tottered off my feet, my bucket of bolts rolling into the gravel and dirty snow. All around me, men clapped their hands to their ears and fell to their knees. Tools rained in a metallic chorus as the blast flowed through the path of the work teams.
Two heavyset Germans were the first to recover. I didn’t know their names but remembered both were a trifle deaf from working for years on the front lines of the blast teams. As the men around me staggered to their feet, the Germans raced towards the first fallen man. On the slopes above, the Chinese who had been manning the drop baskets were frantically lowering the other blast teams.
The Germans reached the man who’d slammed into the wall first. One of them immediately stood and waved the sign for “Man down.” The Chinese reached the man a moment later, and some ran to what was left of the man who’d banged into the spell cap.
I could see Henry on the fringes of the chaos of men, and I ran over to grab him. I’ve seen what dynamite can do to a man. A knot of men thankfully blocked Henry’s view as a man with a tarp reached the body.
“Baba! Baba!” Henry’s eyes were huge. “Where he? I see fall! Where he?” Henry lapsed into Chinese as he tried to pull from my grasp.
“Henry! No!” I hauled him back and gripped him like I was trying to keep him from falling too. “Let the foreman and the doc look first. This might be bad. Really bad.”
The lead foreman, a wiry fellow with a red checked wool jacket and iron-colored hair was running forward, two assistants and the camp doctor hard on his heels. The doctor glanced at both bodies, shook his head and walked back slowly. No work for him, just for the undertaker.
The Chinese team relayed tarps and litters out with lightning speed and soon hauled up a pitifully small covered bundle lashed down to the second litter. The Chinese began to wail and chant forlornly as the men were carried out.
The Irish and Germans doffed their caps and downed any tools they were still holding as the bodies passed; death was death, after all, and respect was due to anything so relentlessly evenhanded as that which comes for all men regardless of race and wealth. A couple of hours of daylight were still on hand, but the mages of the line gave the signal to knock off for the day.
No man keeps his eye on his work when Death has just visited camp.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2019 by Amber Ray