If beggars were horses part 1
If beggars were horses, wishes would ride.”Ma would always laugh when Pa slurred that out, but I never saw it to laugh when Pa was drunk. She always laughed, then fetched him more whiskey, even in the worst of times when he’d smash one or another of the precious sea shells that were Ma’s only valuable possessions. He smashed her things and she served whiskey till the day she couldn’t lift the bottle any more.
I was out throwing clinkers at one of the Iron Horses when the Coal Mages and the gandy-dancing hedge workers were roaring it up at the local bar when I first saw the kid. A double line of men in basket hats and blue pajamas shuffled by, bundles swinging from poles over 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 and I felt the clinkers fall from my hands.
“Well, hell. They 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 long braid.
“Chinee?” I looked up at Big Dan, trying to figure out what he meant from his expression.
“Chinese. They’s cheaper than the Irish Iron Mages, and they’re willing to do the work with blasting in the pass.” He curled his lip at them. “Damn well ain’t right fer them to undercut the Irish an’ take their jobs. We’ll see how they like spelling themselves t’ the top of the cliffs though.”
“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 that slope that yer daddy and his friends done been stopped by!”
I blinked at the Chinese. As several of them passed one of the blasting sheds, I saw they were carrying coils of rope and giant baskets over their backs like turtles. As they passed, 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 forehead 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.
“Dinnae ye be confabulating with that heathen!” Big Dan growled at me through the wiry bush of his whiskers.
“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 and you ain’t got no truck with heathens, and you ain’t 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 to me. They all were 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 in straight from straight from the heathen lands and brought them here with their own diamond-wearin’ hands.” He turned to eye me. “Yer pa ain’t gonna like this none.”
I looked up at him. “Pa 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.”
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, you want.”
I shook my head. “You know Ma didn’t want me working at the bar with how hard Pa’s drinking was on her.”
“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.”
“I’m just not as strong as the other gang kids Big Dan, but I got magic! Just my Iron Magic hasn’t shown yet…”
“Dunno you got any rail magic. I smell some kinda magic on ya Sammy. And ye make me worry. Your Da’s a decent railman when he ain’t a damn cheat—which is mosta the time, but he wern’t ever above a hedge wizard and the drink’s done him no favors.” He turned a coal-irritated eye at me. “The magic I smell on ye, I dunno what kind it is. You smell entirely different than anyone else I ever’ve seen. Jes’ don’t let him draw magic offen ya—one mage pulling magic outa someone’s a sure recipe t’ make a body sicken.” 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.
Just then one 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 glanced swiftly over his shoulder at the line of men, scooped up two bits of coal from the rail bed and clapped them together.
A glowspark of magic rose from the bits of coal and resolved for a moment into a few seconds of glittering butterflies wafting over his thin fingers. He grinned in triumph as I gaped in wonder and jealousy. He bowed, then turned and ran back to the line of men waving at me. I laughed and waved as Big Dan 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 stepped back and the twilight settled over him like coal dust. I could see his shadowed form for a moment or two running to catch the ragged line of men.
“He don’t look like much Big Dan. He don’t look like he’s any danger. Not a man of them do to me. They look like they all all’re 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 through his sooty whiskers. “Just know they ain’t like us. 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 pa, and you know he’ll throw a fit if you’re mixing with anyone he don’t approve of.”
I nodded. Things went how Da wanted and only like how Da wanted in our shack. “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 waving to Big Dan and he was already drifting in her direction like a river log caught in a current. I sighed. At least I was being spared his 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 as deep and booming as I bent my legs and walked bowlegged through the darkening street.
“And 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. 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?”
“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!”
He leaned in close, the whiskey heavy and sour on his breath. “I ain’t having no one say I’m less than a real man. Real men who’s Gandy-dance mages got good strong sons to prove they can keep up their family lines. You better not disgrace me by being some kind of weakling who prances through the streets playing to be better than they is?”
Da stepped off the porch, nearly jerking me into the water trough, and banging one of my shins into the boot scraper. 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. Ye’re too much of a mewling weakling to be on the rail crew.”
“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 blasting cap spell go off on him early two weeks ago and near got kilt, and he was just carrying them for the Coalmages!”
“Thet’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 shook me hard. “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.”
I pulled my hat down over my eyes to hide 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 she needed to hear, 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–ye’ll either stop being such a mewlin’ shame and a disgrace ta me and me whole family line clear back ter Noah and what mages he brung over on his ark!”
He shoved me in the door. “You git in there and get 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 into back towards town, the sooty light burying him in the gloom.
I stared after him for a while through the gloom. 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.
I closed up the shutters of the shanty and since Da wasn’t going to be there, I shucked my boy clothes and from under my bed I dragged out a box with the dresses Ma cut down for me before she died. I could at least be as God and not Da made me for a while.
I could hear her voice rustle in my ears as the dress sighed over my head. “I have folk up North. Disobey your Da, take the money from the strong box, go find them and go find your magic.”
“He’ll find me Ma….”
The dress rustled. “Cross water before he knows you’re gone and take pain there’s no bridges with rails in your path. He won’t be strong enough to find your trail once you cross water. If you keep water between yourself and the railroad, the rails cannot sing to him and they’ll not tell him which way ye’ve gone.”
“I’m scared of him ma.” I began sweeping the floor as the dress rustled around me, still smelling sweet from Ma’s sachets.
“How can I go to people who’ve never seen me? They’ll no understand anything of me.” I leaned the broom against the wall and ran the sash of the dress between my hands, rumpling and rolling it.
“My magic came from the sea. Your father took it for the rails. Took and took till I bled dry and couldn’t heal myself when sickness came to camp. Like as be, he’s taking yours, or soon he will realize he can. My folk will have magic as yours. Go to them.”
“I’m scared ma, the iron tells him everything.”
The fabric gave a tired sigh. “Change came to camp, let him look at that and he cannot look at you.”
I busied myself cleaning the shack, laid a supper in the oven, banked the fire to keep it warm, then laid Ma’s dress back in the chest. I settled into a chair with pillows and a blanket so I’d wake when Da came in.
I drifted off to sleep, seeing ranks of turtles climbing the mountain, their sad heads dipped low, the very last one pausing to wave at me for a moment, then gesturing to point at something far over the mountains.