Big Dan studied me. “Yer Da’s talked about your Ma passing y’know, what happened t’ her. Don’ let yer Da draw magic offen ya—one mage pulling magic outa someone’s a sure recipe t’ make a body sicken. He talks about yer Ma real sweet you know. Mebbe he blames himself some over her.” 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.
A 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 solemnly bowed to me and set the lantern down at his feet.
He glanced swiftly over his shoulder at the line of men, gave me a broad, merry grin, then scooped up two bits of coal from the rail bed and clapped them together.
A glowspark of magic rose from the bits of coal. The boy cupped his hands together and breathed into the glowspark. I could feel magic rise from him, setting all the hairs down my arm to dancing like reeds before a lightning storm. I shivered hard and held my breath to not scare off his magic.
The glowspark flickered and jumped. It pulled into itself, nearly went out, then with a firecracker snap burst into a few seconds of glittering butterflies that illuminated his thin face and darted around and over his thin fingers like little pet comets.
He grinned in triumph as I gaped in wonder and jealousy. The boy bowed again, grabbed his lantern, then turned and ran back to the line of men.
I laughed and waved to him as Big Dan grabbed my shoulder and 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 joined the line of burdened men and the twilight settled over him like coal dust.
“They don’t look like they’re dangerous heathens Big Dan. They look to me like they’re all 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. “Just you remember, 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 place. “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 beckoning Big Dan over and it only took a second before her rocking hips sifted me out of his mind like a prospector sifting gold dust out of gravel. He drifted over to her as if he was a log caught in a swift mountain 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 gravelly rough as I aped Big Dan’s lumbering walk through the darkening street.
“Now 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 and grabbed me by the hair. 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 what you is?”
“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 anyone! I ain’t said hardly anything since we got to this camp at all!”
He leaned in close, the whiskey heavy and sour on his breath. “With setting up the saloon and my businesses here in camp, you know how important it is for me to stand tall in front of the other men! Gandy-Dance mages is supposed ta get themselves sons to prove they can keep up their family lines and do proud to their Magic. I only got you, so that means you got to be a strong, Iron-Mage boy.” He shook me hard. “No matter what ya really be.”
Da stepped off the porch, nearly jerking me into the water trough, and banging one of my shins into the boot scraper. “I got deals going right now Sammy, big ones that’ll have us outta that damn leaky shack and back into a real house in no time!” 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. Men respect a feller what ain’t soft on his own get.”
“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 blast 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 rattled me hard again. “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. Maybe this’ll make you finally show some magic—it ain’t right you being a dud with all the talent of a shovel!”
I pulled my hat down over my eyes to hide my 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 the bargain was for not drowning you when you was born, but you ain’t been living up to your part of th’ 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!”
He shoved me in the door. “You git in there and git 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 towards town, the sooty light burying him in the gloom.
I stared after him for a while. 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 and pray he didn’t gamble off his business money again.
I closed up the shutters of the shanty and since Da wasn’t going to be there, I shucked off my baggy overalls, one of Da’s old cut-down shirts and Union suit. I balled up my boy self and stuffed it in the woodbox where I didn’t have to see the false self Da made me wear.
From under my bed I dragged out the box with the dresses Ma made for me before she died. With Da not here, I could put my own self on and could be as God and not Da made me for a while. It felt damn fine to be Samantha instead of Sammy. I swooped the dress around the old cabin and wished I could yell with happiness.
I could hear Ma’s ghost rise up from the rustling of the fabric as the dress sighed over my head. “Samantha, my lamb listen now. 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 sighed and the folds settled around me in the whisper of a hug. “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 swirled ‘round 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, the wind. Your father took it for the rails, for his luck spells. Took and took till I bled dry and couldn’t heal myself when sickness came to camp. I loved him too much to ever say no and he loved the cards too much to make himself stop. 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 twined around my hands like the memory of hands clasping mine. “You have to go soon my lamb. You’re near grown, and voices already whisper in camp you’re no boy and your Da thinks only sons are credit to a man like him. Soon you won’t be able to pass. You’re big enough to run now, find your moment and leave him as I should have done long ago for both our sakes.”
The wind rattled in the panes, and in a blink, Ma’s voice blew away in the biting winds.
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 not sleep too deep. I knew if I laid down in the bed, I wouldn’t hear the creaking of the floorboards when Da came in and he always got hitting mad if I didn’t leap to see to his demands quick and fast.
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.