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If Wishes Were Horses

by Amber Ray

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


As the first light of dawn slipped down the pass and lit up the camp, I finally found Henry. He was hiccupping a little, swinging his heels as he sat on the high edge of the snow plow and munched on a dill pickle. His face was covered in lipstick kisses, and he smelled of champagne.

I yanked his foot a little. “Hey, you up there!”

Henry reached down to me, pulling me up onto the cooling locomotive. “Hey to you, too!”

I grinned at Henry. “An Iron Mage. As the good Lord is my witness, I’m in the company of a real, true Iron Mage!” I doffed my cap and mimed a bow at him. “One of the few Greats of the Line. They’ll be talking of you lifting the rails for a century!”

“Few and far between, mighty as the Iron of the Line!” Henry sang, his eyes lit up bright. He grinned at a Chinese mage doing a somewhat drunken waltz with one of the dance hall girls. “No more bad luck, no more being the pariah of the Line.”

I gave the mage a little stink-eye, and he stumbled in his waltz slightly. “They weren’t good to you, Henry. You could really give them grief for what they did to you—”

He cut me off with a quick motion. “No, they’re still my people.”

“Ain’t the other Iron Mages your people now?”

Henry shrugged and took a bite from his pickle. “I got two people now. Same as having a mother and father.” He beamed at the revelers in camp.

“Sometimes... people get scared, Sammy, sometimes family does not do right by you. They are still family, and they still love you. I still love them. No good will come of me holding onto pain and sorrow.” He smiled, sadly. “Being Chinese on the Line isn’t easy. It may never be easy, Iron mage or no.”

He grinned at me. “But now, like I said, I am big man.” He offered me the pickle. “I think that means I can help improve things, build a better world for everyone. Doesn’t your Bible say something about forgiving trespasses and all that?”

I took the pickle and bit off a good chunk. The taste of a good German dill, salty and spicy, filled my mouth. “I thought you got baptized and the whole lot to show you were no bad-luck token or devil boy.”

He shrugged again. “They weren’t specific about which church or which beliefs. They said Christian, I ask no questions. Too scared they run me out of town.” We roared with laughter and I hugged him hard.

Henry hugged me back. “I’ll miss you, Sammy.”

“Miss me?” I pulled back to look at him. “I’m not going—”

The wind whipped up around me, and Henry grinned, waving a hand vaguely at it. “You have magic too, pretty big at that. I think... it woke up to save me.”

“But that doesn’t mean—”

Henry looked at me sadly. “Yes, it does mean I going... I’m going to miss you.” He drew a deep breath in. “I smell the ocean on you now.” He nodded back at camp. “Your baba — your father — no going, isn’t going to stand you not having iron magic.”

I tasted the wind, crooked a finger and felt the breeze leap into my lap and bump against my hand for a quick stroke. “Wind and sea.”

Henry squeezed my hand. “No sea here. You go before your father not... before your father isn’t drunk anymore.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but then I shook my head. “There’s a roaring party going on, so of course he’s drunk. He’s probably gambled the house away again, too.”

Henry leaped down from the engine. “I can ask one of the railroad company men to give you a ride to town. There you can get the stagecoach to the sea.”

“Hah, you must be a big man already, ordering the Company men around!”

Henry winked at me. “I’m an Iron Mage, even if I’m a new one. Has a few advantages.” He looked down at his battered boots as if they’d offended him. “I wish you could ride the Iron Horse with me straight to the sea.”

“Someday, when the Line is done, I will.” I looked at the raw camp and as the morning light touched it, I could feel that somehow the night’s magic had indeed settled it into being a small town. “Life here in Ironhorse will never be the same.” The wind took the name from my lips, and I could feel it settle over the town, changing it as names always do.

Henry hugged me. “Then I see you when the rails reach the sea.” He smiled, raised a hand in farewell, hesitated a moment. “Goodbye... Samantha.”

I gaped at him as he trotted towards the bars but laughed. Henry was just Henry, and always a damn bright spark.

I slid down too and ran to the shack I shared with Da. I riffled the strong box for my fair share of our money and bundled up my few possessions into a sack.

As I was about to turn and go, a stray bit of light touched Ma’s chest. I thought long and hard a moment or two, then stuffed all my girl clothes into my bag. I took Ma’s clothes out too and, as I held up Ma’s Sunday dress, I realized it was only just a bit too long for me now.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to feel if any of Ma’s spirit was nearby, then spoke to the empty air. “I can be as God made me now, Ma. I don’t have to pretend to be a boy no more just ’cause Da never wanted a daughter.”

There was the faintest of maybe touches on my cheek. A sunbeam danced across the last seashells on the high shelf, and I snatched them up. As I did so, I felt the tickle of paper in the mouth of one of them. Pulling it out, I found a few bills and a scrawled address in San Fransiskee.

“Bless you, Ma!” I turned to go.

“So, you’re gonna just hightail it outta here. Thought you’d wanna stay round here since your little Chinee friend’s gonna be so high and mighty.” I whipped round to find Da slumped against the door.

I looked at him hard in the rising light. “I was hoping to avoid you as I went, but yeah, Da, I’m going. I wasn’t meant to stay around here, was never meant to work the rails, and you’ve always known it.”

Da lurched into the room, dropping his bottle of whiskey as he came. “Now lookit here, ye useless thing, ya done made me drop ma bottle.” He curled his lip at me. “You never been a use to me, you just’r a worthless burden t’me, and ye always will.”

“You could have sent me to Ma’s folk, and you know it.” I raised myself up high, looking Da straight in the eye. “You’ve kept me round to cook, clean and earn money for you, ’cause you hoped to bum magic off of me, not ’cause you wanted me to be a daughter to you.” I took a step forward. Da looked into my eyes and stepped back, stumbling over his bottle of whiskey.

I took another step forward, my fists curling, nails digging into my palms. “I’m done with you, Da. I’m done with you and your cheap schemes, your drinking, how you treated me and Ma, how you pretty much killed Ma when you kept stealing her magic. DON’T THINK I DIDN’T KNOW YOU DID THAT!

Da scuttled back from me, from the sudden wind rising in the drafty shack. I shook my head at him. “I won’t touch you, Da, yer not worth it to me.” I shouldered my bag and stepped around him, stepped free of the dilapidated shack. “I’m off to find Ma’s people now, like I should have a long time ago.”

I turned and stepped over the threshold. “I loved her! She was always willing to give magic to me!” He snuffled wetly. “’Twas up to her to tell me she needed it to get well!”

He pawed at the tears on his face and glared at me. “Yer Ma’s kin’ll no want ya!” Da yelled at me, drink slurring his voice as he tried to scrabble to his feet and failed. He’d always been an ogre, a terrible hurricane of a man I’d never hoped to defeat, but now he lay on the floor, done in without a blow from me.

“If they don’t, Da, then I’ll find someplace to be. I’m free of you now, and you won’t see me no more.” I studied him. “If you’re wise, Da, you’ll be leaving camp soon, too. I don’t think the men’ll welcome your schemes and shoddy sales much more.”

“You don’ know nuthin. Six months an’ I’ll run this camp without you dragging me down no more!” He gestured grandly at me from the dirty floor. “Farewell, ungrateful child, for I shall see you no more.” He harrumphed. “Jus’ like your fool mother, always talking about beggars ’n wishes...” He toppled over, face down into the spreading puddle of whiskey.

I pinched my eyes shut a moment, then turned to walk through the door. Henry and his Company man would be waiting for me. “Well, Da, today the wishes are horses and, today, this is the day this beggar’s gonna ride!”

Copyright © 2019 by Amber Ray

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