If Beggars Were Horses Part 3

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 as I didn’t much care for rice at breakfast.  The bread in camp came from a bakery untainted by our grubby cook, so it wasn’t halfway bad, so I always ran round to the baker’s tent first thing before heading out 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–unless too many men were out sick, tea cost money and time and river water was cheap and free. I did drink tea though during the day, if somewhat weaker than the nice stuff Henry always had.

Henry and I were indeed old friends that just hadn’t run into each other yet. 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 that me Da’s.

As the weeks went by and autumn started slinking round the calendar’s bend, Da hatched even more 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. He wouldn’t have given back a penny of the money, but Da’s customers began asking for their money back with a fist to the face and threats of beatings in the back alleys.

Progress on the rails was still at a crawl, even with the new Chinese workers.  The mountains here were hard granite, hard to blast and riddled with unpredictable seams of splintery rock. The Chinese were lowered down the mountainsides to chip holes in the rock walls and set the blast spells for their mages.  As the track bed progressed around the mountain, we Irish carried off the loads of splintered 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 ran his his soap scheme and oddly for him, managed to confine his contest to only the drifting day laborers and transient workers this time.  It was only when he ran his schemes on permanent workers we got into Dutch—he did well enough once he finally learned to only pull that scheme on people just passing through camp.  With what he made, Da began to sell some dry goods—usually cheap things like rusty picks, fraying twine, limp hats, ratty socks, and worn shirts.  The quality of everything for sale in the camp was usually little better than Da’s sad stock, and even the Chinese sometimes had to buy tools and necessaries from him–usually at three times the price of the white miners.

All this time, I was run ragged between carrying bolts to the Iron Mages, keeping our shack 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 hauling 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 Manderin whenever we found a chance.

The day the disaster happened was the day the roustabout casters were beginning to pull down some of the tents and shanties on the far side of camp in order to shift the camp to the more protected side of the mountain in preparation for the winter blast work.

The day began plain as anything. I ran to the bakery shack above the camp, watching the lines of Chinese carrying their lift baskets on their backs from the east side of camp while lines of Germans and Irish, backs bowed under sacks of heavy tools shuffled from the west.  The two lines both turned at the Orders tent where two men in bowlers and fine vests gestured directions to go.  The two lines shuffled in the same direction, never mixing until the Irish and Germans reached the rail end.  The Chinese continued on into the pass to continue the slow, dangerous work of carving out the track bed.

I choked down my breakfast before one of the other runners could take it from me and ran to the ironwork 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 doubletime or it’s half pay for you!” I scrabbled for my bolts as the nastier ironmen laughed and jeered.

I threw the carry yoke onto my shoulders again, their weight swinging wildly as I ran to the supplying 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. A smaller shape darted across the lines and vanished into the swirling cotton-wool of the fog–Henry running for tea or joss sticks to burn in the rituals the Chinese mages used to bribe the mountain spirits they disturbed.

And then the chant….faltered. Cries broke out above me on the mountainside. I dropped my yoke as a voice screamed something I could not follow. I looked up in time to see a basket 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 tried to catch the belaying rope, but there was another terrible pop and then the basket dangled by one rope.  The two men in the basket scrabbled desperately 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 an invisible giant threw a punch into my ribs and belly.  I tottered off my feet, my bucket of bolts rolling into the gravel and muck.  All around me, men clapped their hands to their ears, fell to their feet and tools struck the ground in a metallic chorus as the blast flowed through the path of the work teams.

Two heavyset Germans were 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 rapidly lowering a couple men in another basket, while others were swarming down the rocky slope and down the narrow path that led to the drop stations.

The Germans reached the man 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 look for the other man.  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.

“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 look first….this might be bad Henry. 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. One of the Chinese who’d reached the first man stood, shook his head and motioned down the slope. One of the assistants laid a tarp over the body and they began unfolding a carrying sling to take him back to camp. A cry went up from a small gully nearby. The doc took one look, called for another litter and tarps. The Chinese team relayed the tarps and litter out with amazing 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 fair handed 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.

I took Henry back to the Chinatown end of camp, steering him most of the way as the 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 like Henry’d turned into a rock viper. He said something in Chinese quickly, 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’s 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. Passes hand to hand like tar on rope, sticks to next man picks up the 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 son on paper, not real family.” He caught my confused expression. “Paid man to say he son of him so we come from China. They not take me–rope I carry…rope was new. Only old rope break, so if 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!” We turned and walked towards the Office Tent. Even though it was still light, two lanterns hung in black crepe had already been lit above the two bodies in the tent.
“Baba and me live in the big house…end of the line the shacks.” He let out another gasp. “Maybe I already live there no more.”

We ran to the big dormitory shack for the Chinese workers and we got there in time to see one of the men throwing out a sack while two other men lit firecrackers and fragrant smoke 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 and he turned his back at me, concentrating on his task like it was to save him there and then.

I tried to push past the men and storm inside the dormitory. One older man with a pigtail riddled with iron strands smacked 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. Other men 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, that bundle should have clinked more, but we both knew we’d won as much as we were likely to. Henry grabbed up the little sack and stuffed it into the larger one.

“Come on.” I helped him shoulder up the bag which had everything Henry owned now. “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.”

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

 

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