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If Wishes Were Horses

by Amber Ray

If Wishes Were Horses: synopsis

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
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

part 5

I took Henry back to the Chinatown end of camp, steering him most of the way, because his tears blinded him. I walked him up to one of the older Chinese men, hoping to find someone of his kin to sit with him.

The old man clapped eyes on Henry and stepped back from him as if Henry had turned into a rock viper. He said something quickly in Chinese, then moving fast, turned and went down the line into his shack. I called out to a couple other men passing by and both startled at the sight of Henry, then scrambled quickly out of his path.

“What the tarnation is wrong with them?” I stared after the men, confused by their strange actions. “They think something’s wrong with you, Henry?”

Henry dragged one grimy sleeve over his nose. “I carry rope for men. I made bad luck, maybe anger spirits of the pass.” He gulped. “Once misfortune start, it easy to catch. Pass hand to hand like tar on rope, stick to next man take rope. They not want me; I now bring evil, bring pain. Make more thing break.” His accent was heavier, his grammar drowning in his grief.

“I’ll take you to the foreman. Me Da won’t let me take you to our shack.” I hugged Henry. “He’ll know what to do. You got family besides? Well, you got any family at all now in camp?”

“They not take me. My Baba only had paper family, not real.” He caught my confused expression. “He paid man to say he son of him so we come from China. Man not family of ours; all our family, they live China. Men of camp not take me. They afraid they take me, they take bad spirit I anger, too.”

“Well, someone has to take you! They can’t just leave you out here on your own!” I guided him away from the rails towards the Chinatown part of camp.

“Baba and me live in long house... end of line.” He hiccupped.

We trudged to the longest dormitory shack for the Chinese workers in time to see one of the men throwing out a sack while two other men lit firecrackers and fragrant incense sticks in big bowls.

“Hey! You let him in! Let him in!” I shouted at one of the men lighting the firecrackers. His eyes slid off me like boots on winter ice. He turned his back to me, concentrating on his task like it was the only thing that mattered in the world.

I tried to push past the men and storm inside the dormitory. One older man with a pigtail riddled with iron strands slapped his hands at me, shouting in rapid, shrill Chinese.

“He say no. They burn incense, drive out bad fortune. Let me in, someone die tomorrow, next day. He say me go away.” Henry was shaking, tears sneaking from the corners of his eyes down his grubby cheeks.

I could see some men in the shack glance down, their faces sad, but their hands hanging helplessly. Others stared, their eyes hard and glittering with anger, and some men talked loudly inside, their voices rising with a note of worry and fear.

I grabbed up the sackful of stuff outside the door. “This all your kit, Henry?”

His breath hitched, but he pulled the sack open and glanced through quickly. I stood up and pulled myself to the biggest size I could be. “This better be what all Henry and his Da owned. Just you chuck out anything else they had or I run now to the big foreman.” I clenched my hands to keep them still as I looked at the men as hard as I could.

One crabby fellow tossed out one small bundle that clinked a little. By the look on Henry’s face, it should have clinked more, but we both knew we’d won as much as we were likely to. Henry grabbed up the little bag and stuffed it into the larger one.

“Come on.” I helped him shoulder up the bag, which now had everything Henry owned. “I know Irish Mike’ll let you sack at his bar.” I studied my feet hard. “It’s not a great place he runs. The Gandy Dance mages drink there, and they’re a rough lot, but they’re not a bad lot. He’s offered to let me work there and sleep under the bar.”

“He take me?” Henry’s eyes were fixed on the gloomy street ahead, but seemed to not light on anything in particular.

“Think so. It’s the best place I know to take you. I think the worst he might do to you is try to make a good Christian out of you; he’s funny that way sometimes.”

“If good Christian eat good, then I be him.” Henry’s voice was flat. He knew very well how life in the camps ran. Sometimes you end up where the avalanche takes you.

* * *

Henry balked for a moment on entering the Black Forge, his eyes going large at the sight of Irish Mike.

I gave him a gentle nudge over the threshold. “Mike looks like a top devil from a Moral Temperance League play, but he’s a good man. He’ll be square with you.”

Henry stepped forward and gave a formal Chinese bow to Irish Mike, then stood quietly with his eyes on the floor.

Mike sighed and looked at me, shaking his head. “Sammy, the Gandys are a damn superstitious lot. They’ll no care for the boy.” He leaned back against the bar rail, his eyes sad, his mouth softly pulling to one side.

“Yeah, so they is.” I laid a hand on Henry’s shoulder. “Henry here’s no bad luck charm. I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that on him, and I knows him. Baptize him in the middle of the main street if’n you gots to. He’s smart about life here.”

Irish Mike stepped forward, studying Henry. “There’s something on him you know.” He bent his great hawk nose down over him, sniffing deeply. “Boy, you got magic on you for sure, I’d say.”

“I got some. I live with many mage in bunkhouse, learn some.” Henry did his little spark trick, the butterflies’ light shining off the tear streaks on his face. “Maybe I catch they magic.”

Irish Mike studied him, his eyes not quite approving but not rejecting Henry. Finally, Irish Mike leaned back and gave me a sour look. “’Tis naught but borrowin’ trouble, but I’ve no heart to watch even a foreign child starve.” He crossed huge, muscle-roped arms over his barrel chest. “Ye sleep under the bar, clean everything what needs to be cleaned, eat in the kitchen, but not too much, and try yer damn best to stay out of the men’s way.”

Henry solemnly nodded, snatched up a bar cloth and dashed to the end of a bar where a singing drunk was merrily sloshing his beer around him as he waved his stein in time to a can-can girl’s chorus.

Irish Mike turned a dyspeptic eye at me. “Sammy, I’ll do what I can, but ye know this may not go. Some of the Irish and Germans... they hate the Chinee for being brought here, and for all that they go on about the superstitions of heathens, they’n be twice as bad.” He patted me roughly on the shoulder with one of his huge, hairy, big-knuckled paws. “While he’s here, I can’t offer to let you kip under the bar. I can’t be running an orphanage under the beer taps.”

I felt my lips pull into a feeble grin. “Saint Mike’s of the Beer Tap.”

He snorted and shoved me out. “On wit’ ye. What comes, does.”

* * *

I didn’t see Henry much as the days got shorter and colder, but then Da was really acting up. Da hadn’t kept his latest “lucky candy lottery” free of townfolk, and he’d had to open his bar the whole night for locals to drink free.

From there he’d gone to the local gambling dens to “recoup” his losses with poker and faro games. Da being Da, his noisy card-whispering spells and jangling luck-spells had caught the attention of the dealers.

Da came home night after night bruised, bloodied, angry and plucked clean of cash. He began talking of moving us back to the tumbledown shack to “save a little money to get business started again.” The thought of winter winds in that miserable hut drove me to running errands for some of the rail men for extra money for winter clothes.

Whenever I could, I slipped down to the back door of the Black Forge. Henry was thinner, his shirt beginning to go threadbare. He was always running now, his bar cloth always flying or the broom always leaping into his hand. But often enough, I saw him on the hard end of a violent clout from a drunk, or diving behind the bar, a tankard or bottle flying after him.

Sometimes he’d meet me at the door. Often enough, I’d tend his cuts or bruises with a cantrip and some witch hazel, and we’d both stare into the hazy mountains surrounding town, willing our eyes not to let loose the tears we both knew lurked there. Every day as I ran for bolts, I heard complaints of how every minor mishap in town was now directly Henry’s fault, that he’d all but become some dark, malevolent power in town, the very spawn of the devil, foe to both heathen and Christian alike.

The days continued to shorten, and Da’s get-rich-quick schemes grew. He dabbled in watered booze, flour bulked out with sawdust, horsemeat sausages and ran short-change gambling games on miners heading to the gold fields.

The rails grew near to the far edge of camp, but people now called it a town. The high-rail men still talked about shifting things down the line, but every man who’d built a home, every shopkeeper who’d sprung for glass in their windows, and every bar man who’d put heavy, precious pianos in their saloons were beginning to protest.

People had begun to set down roots and get comfortable, and with winter kissing the air, people were loud about not wanting to strike huts and shanties that had already been double-walled and pitch-sealed.

By Thanksgiving, I’d mended Henry of six bad cuts, glass in his hair, bruised ribs, and a black eye. Mike and Missy kept Henry in the kitchen of the saloon more and more, and sometimes even the upstairs girls spirited him up to the sporting rooms when the hedge wizards went on benders and sparked up the bar.

By all rights, the start of snow should have ceased all work on the rails. The mountains were cruel places to build, and men’s lives became easy to lose when the steep slopes were full of high drifts.

The order to the men to shut down the operation and “winter up” never came. Some drifted off to the warmer southern routes, but the bosses wanted the line to open; some big goal was in the works, and they were bound and determined to make it. They kept the lines clear for construction with giant sheds and Native mages who charged a king’s ransom to shepherd snow away from the rails.

* * *

Henry and I kept snatching time for both of us to study. We met up one day in back of the bar after both of us had gotten the day’s work done. I’d managed to scare up a newspaper for Henry to practice reading. The wind wanted that paper bad and kept trying to snatch it out of our hands.

I shuddered as the wind tried to go through me, and Henry paused at puzzling out a word. “According to old Agatha Meyers at the dry goods, it’ll get down to freezing tonight.” We both glanced up at the pass, now dim with the creeping arrival of winter night.

A wan light of lanterns blossomed up to the notch of the pass. “There’ll be risk of men freezing on the rails. They crazy if they to try to finish connecting the line over the pass.” Henry tried to angle himself out of the wind.

“Foreman Ross said he’d get it done come hell or high water by tomorrow. I only hope they got the sense to quit if the winds kick up worse.” I tucked my scarf into the collar of my coat to block a breeze sneaking down my neck.

We both shuddered at the thought of building on the rails after the fall of dusk. I didn’t have much left to teach Henry; now he didn’t know only some of the longer words in the paper. He taught me as much from the papers from the Chinese camp whenever he could snake one.

His own people were walking on eggshells now for fear of the snows and dangers of blasting in the dangerous passes, and they barely even tolerated the sight of Henry. They threw firecrackers and snapspells at him whenever he came too close to them working.

While we were explaining words to each other, we heard a deep Hooo whuuuuuu building from the pass. At first, I thought it was my imagination, building on the conversation Henry and I had just had over the folly of the steep rail line, but from the notch of the pass, a round light rose, too bright to be the moon.

“That cannot be...” The paper fluttered like a freed bird from Henry’s hands. The wind whooped as it triumphantly carried it off to show to the fat gray clouds looming over us.

I followed with my eyes the bright light arching over the rise of the pass. “They couldn’t bring a locomotive down at night. It’s suicide!”

“They are showing off.” Henry shuddered. “This... is a stunt. They want to bring the locomotive down the pass at night to the last point of construction, probably to take a picture with it sitting at the end of the rail.”

“Tonight’s near freezing. There’s ice on the track for sure.”

Henry’s eyes became ghostly vague. “The Iron Horse... is afraid.” He cocked his head as the far-away sound of a steam engine’s whistle settled into the air like fog. “The Iron Horse loves speed, loves metal. But ice makes him lose his grip on the rails, makes him fear the track, makes him want to leap away from it to run free on clean track.”

I looked into Henry’s eyes. This was no minor spark magic. I took in a deep breath, and I could smell hot iron, coal burning, and feel a not-there forge-warmed wind rush past. I laid a hand on Henry’s shoulder and felt the rumble of an engine rising from his heart. I looked up at the pass and as my hand gripped Henry, I could feel something terrified screaming for him.

“Come on, Henry!” I shook him hard. “You and me got to go.”

His eyes were still foggy. “Go? Go where?” His eyes still were taking in some other world, something that must have been dazzling and strange.

“We’re going to the pass. I... I think the Iron Horse needs you Henry. It’s scared.” I pulled his scarf tight around him, stuffed several of what buttons he still had through their holes, then grabbed his arm and began hauling him through town. “Henry... I think it’s the Iron Horse itself that wants you.”

He stared after me and stumbled as I hauled him along the rough boardwalks. “Chinese not supposed to be Iron Mages!” He tripped again. “You can’t take me up there. They’ll throw me out of the camp for trying to call myself one.”

“I think you are one, Henry. And I think the locomotive’s gonna try to jump the rails. If they have an Iron Mage on the rail tonight, he’s plumb loco to try this. The Iron Horse needs you Henry, or people are gonna die tonight.” I fixed an eye on him but didn’t break step. “You gotta stop it jumping the rail!”

“How?” He panted after me as I sped up, angling for the pass. “I don’t know anything about Iron Maging.”

“I think you’re gonna learn about it right now!” A blast of wind slammed us as we stepped off the last boardwalk into the slush and snow of the logging road.

* * *

Proceed to part 6...

Copyright © 2019 by Amber Ray

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