“If beggars were horses, wishes would ride.” Ma would always laugh when Pa slurred that out, but I never felt like laughing when Pa was drunk. She’d laugh and fetch him more whiskey, even in the bad times when he’d smash one or another of the fragile sea shells that were Ma’s only valuable possessions. He smashed her things and she served whiskey till the day she got too sick to lift the bottle for him anymore.
I first saw the kid when I’d sneaked off from Da and was throwing some coal clinkers at one of the Iron Horses. Da was off drinking with some of the Gandy-Dance Mages again. For sure too he’d be cheating the drunker ones out of their pay. Da almost had enough to open his own saloon here in Dead Horse Camp and for once, his luck spells were being reliable.
A double line of men in basket hats and blue pajamas shuffled by, bundles swinging from poles across 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. I let the clinkers fall from my hands as I watched them plod by.
“Well, hell. The big wigs of the Transcontinental North Star Railway 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 swinging braid. Big Dan was half Chook Indian, half Norwegian Viking and had yet to meet a man higher than his chin.
“Chinee?” I looked up at Big Dan. “What’s Chinee?”
“Chinese. They’s cheaper than the Irish Iron Mages, and they’re willing to do the damn blasting in Dead Horse Pass.” He curled his lip at them. “Damn well ain’t right fer them to undercut the Irish an’ take their jobs. I heard they done hired them on the Transcontinental line to Utah, and now they been brung here.” He snorted in disgust. “We’ll see how they like spelling themselves t’ the top of the cliffs in Canada winds.”
“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 those rock walls what’s too steep and dangerous to be climbed.”
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 on 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-back hairline 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.
“Don’t you be confabulating with that heathen!” Big Dan growled at me through his uneven teeth.
“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 who’s got no with truck with heathens, and you 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 were all 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 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. She had me Pledge to stay clear of Demon Rum ‘fore she passed.”
“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. For sure you ain’t got the hands for dealing cards, and I’ll swallow my teeth if’n you got enough sneak in you to handle doing any bunco jobs for him neither.”
I bristled a little. “So what if I’m not cut out for three-card games or if I’m not as strong as the others on the Line, I got magic! I know I do! It’s just my Iron Magic hasn’t shown yet…”
Big Dan angled a bloodshot eye in my direction, then leaned over and took a deep breath of me like he was a bloodhound on a trail and I was a fresh track. Big Dan’s Native magic was pretty damn strong when he wasn’t too deep into a bottle.
“I smell somethin’ on ye Sammy.” He whuffed another deep breath off of me, frowned, smacked his lips some, but then shook his head.
“I’m getting’ a taste of somethin’ like magic offa ya, but I ain’t felt nothin’ like it in my life. I got no clue what it is and why it ain’t said how-do to you yet with how old ya are. Fer sure, you don’t smell like no iron magic or hedge wizardry.”