Me and that chair got to know each other real good the next few days. The Chinese were up at the break of dawn every day, their lift baskets at the ready. The Irish would stumble in some time after, the lines of Gandy-Dancers would link arms, form up and begin the steps and chants to begin lifting the rails into place. Round mid-day the high and mighty Iron Mages would arrive on horseback or in buggies, and their apprentices would scurry out to start heating the bolts with spellfires before the Mages would begin tapping out magerythms with their hammerstaves.
The bolts would ring, tap, and settle into the mage tunes as the magic found its rhythm and the iron was shaped. The new day’s iron would merge into the old, the songs of power braiding into each other and strengthening the metal.
The Chinese chanted but did not sing as they set the lines for the baskets that lowered the charge setters down the stony maw of Dead Horse Pass. They looped huge coils of heavy ropes around the largest boulders of the slopes, set huge beams into place, and set heavy winches to drop the charge teams into their place for the day. After the winches were set and their hauling trolls bullied into the turning cages, nimble men in odd mixtures of rough mine camp gear and silk mage robes would leap nimbly into the ridiculously fragile baskets. An old man in flowing robes and a tall hat that strapped under his chin would wave incense, chant prayers and do protection spells and the drums would begin to beat out the “Lower away” rhythm.
There were always two men in the baskets. One to work the spells and one to grip him by the coat tails or the suspender straps to keep him from leaning too far and upsetting the basket. The setter would clap his hands and chant in high, wavering tones, hands held up high. Their hands would glow like coals in a forge, and their partner would slam a spike and an iron hammer-ball into their upheld hands. The mages struck their spikes against the stone walls and beat the hammer-balls into them, the glow of their hands riding the spike like a red bolt of lightning.
I stared the first time I saw this, my belly draped over a boulder. The small, wiry men didn’t even seem to pay attention to the terrible force of the strikes, their chants falling into a high, calling tone that seemed to race from man to man as they struck in unison to amplify the force of the magics.
“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 steak 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 dumpling of a boy. He squinted at me just a bit and somehow I knew he already needed spectacles some.
“Who’re you?” I scrambled off the boulder, setting my bulky jacket and my bag of bolts to rights.
“Me, I am Hen-Ree. I got good American name, speak 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 as it bumped into the dirt. “I make restaurant. In gold field place!” He bounced and smiled at me as if we were old friends and we’d been having a talk about this all month long.
I had to grin back at his energy. Hell, maybe knowing the funny magics of these Chinese we were old friends already 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. So manys 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. Every man Jack has to bring every bit of gear he needs along with him too, an’ every man coming along is gonna want to ride up on the rails rather than make trip after trip after trip carrying every bit of that on his back. Every man’s gotta eat, every man’s gotta be clothed, but not every man’s gonna get rich panning in the gold fields, but he’s still got to pay for every thing he’s gonna need regardless of how much he makes.”
“Many gold hop out of miner pocket.” Hen-Ree nodded in agreement, bent over and grabbed the leather bottle. “Him he what got sock, what got hat, sell hat, sell shovel, HE get gold.”
I grinned at Henry, 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.” He 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 not a bad kid. 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 name me? You asking who my 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 my Da is anyways, he’s Soapy Michael.”
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 my Da and his “deals.” I know what my Da is like.” I stared down at the rail crews too. “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 soap from Da neither.”
“You Da sell bad soap? No good?” He looked confused.
“He runs…a contest. You buy his special bars of soap, some of them have a fifty dollar bill in the wrapper.” Hen-Ree’s face lit up. “Don’t even think of buying one kid. He sells soap in front of a crowd, one of his friends opens a bar with big money inside.”
“All other soap?” He still looked hopeful. “Some money?”
“Less money than what you bought it for in the first place. His special bars cost extra cause maybe you win some big money. You buy a five dollar bar of soap 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 worth so 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 soap contest 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.” 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 in belly, 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 many place of 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 curdled at the thought and I remembered the bouts of belly-sick that I got every camp we went to. I looked hard at his tea bottle. “You don’t get belly 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 does not like to be heated, 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, offends stomach.”
”And our cook offends the tongue as well as the the stomach. What our cook don’t serve raw or oversalted’s 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 America name, I stay here, I be American, grow up be rich! Buy big house in San Fransiskee… I Henry then…American fate for me!”
I knew the power of a name, how it shaped what you were, how it called you to a fate, whispered what you were and were not, shaped you even. “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.