If Beggars Were Horses, version 2, section 6 (finale)

He stared after me and stumbled as I hauled him along the rough boardwalks. “Chinese not supposed to be Iron Mages!” He tripped again. “You can’t take me up there…they’ll throw me out of the camp for trying to call myself one.”

“I think you are one Henry. An’ I think the locomotive’s gonna try to jump the rails. If they have an Iron Mage on the rail tonight he’s plumb loco to try this. The Iron Horse needs you Henry…or people are gonna die tonight.” I fixed an eye on him but didn’t break step. “You gotta stop it jumping the rail.”

“How?” He panted after me as I sped up, angling for the pass. “I don’t know anything about Iron Mageing….”

“I think you’re gonna learn about it right now!.” A blast of wind slammed us as we stepped off the last boardwalk into the slush and snow of the logging road.

We could see the lights of the road crew ahead of us racing around like fireflies. The shouts of the company man carried easily on the night air as he bellowed himself hoarse. Men with buckets of salt and ashes ran past us, heading for the top of the pass.

Henry’s eyes were fixed now on the notch of the pass where the lights were gathering, his lips moving as he talked to something past my hearing.  Henry stumbled in the snow, tripping over rocks he couldn’t see with magic fogging his eyes. I hauled him back onto his feet and steered him through the snow and gravel, the night wind pushing at my back.

I snatched up a bucket of salt in case anyone asked where we were going. None of the men spared a glance for us, the smell of disaster in the making was too strong. I broke past the swarms of men, the workers in their rough winter clothes and the Company mages with their fine furs.

I towed Henry in his daze up the track as if I were one of the Iron Horse engines, and he my freight. I could hear his ragged breathing match my own as I puffed and panted my way up the line. Something urgent screamed in the back of my head that time was close, close, close–we had to go faster, danger was so near. I could feel magic from Henry climbing up my arm, hot and tasting of iron.

I panted my way up the line into a circle of torches.  The rail workers were in tight gangs, throwing the grit and salt onto the tracks, trying to spell away the ice. I could hear one of the Gandy-Mages having a screaming row with a Company man.

“Tis ice on the track from the pass to the camp! Ye had ter have the line come in under yer fine budget and that meant a steep line to manage it! The wind’s picking up and a storm’s setting in–the whole of the line could ice up!”

The Company man grabbed at his useless little bowler hat as the wind tried to make off with it. “It’s your job and mine if the engine isn’t in camp by the morning!”

“Better we both lose ‘em than bring the Iron Horse through the pass. She’ll jump the line for sure if we get any more ice!”
”The spells’ll hold!” The Company bean-counter shouted back. “We’ve got enough de-ice spells on the line to cook a polar bear! Now get ready or get out of the way, this is going to happen now!” The Gandy-Mage stepped back and the Company man waved his lantern over his head, giving the “All-ahead” signal.

The men standing around the tracks stopped their castings and salt throwing. The only sound was the quickening wind and the pops and hisses of torches and lanterns. Henry and I clutched hands, our eyes fixed on the pass and the ring of firefly lights there.

From the pass, the engineer blew the whistle. A grizzled old man to our left pulled his muffler down off his whiskers. “They gonna do it. By Thunder and Jove, they’re for cert pulling this crazy stunt!” Now the sound of the far off engine reflecting off the rock walls of the pass reached our ears. Not a single foot crunched in the snow and gravel bed of the line.

The whistle shrieked again, an incantation against disaster. The chuff chuff of the engine straining up the track was louder, the Iron Horse still straining up lines that hadn’t gotten the brunt of the frosted wind. Henry’s eyes shone like moonlight fog and ice in the darkness. “The engine is still on clear track.” I nodded. “That part of the pass ain’t been hit by the storm.”

“It’s not afraid yet.” Henry’s hand was ice in mine. “It only sees clear track ahead for now.”

The sound of the whistle was triumphant as the locomotive crested the pass and came down through the protected lee of some sharp-toothed crags. The Company man whooped and waved his fists triumphantly in the air. “There! You lot see that? It’s doing just fine! The Iron Horse’ll be in camp in an hour, and its’ bonuses for everyone all round…”

The angry wind slapped him full in the face, finally snatching away his ridiculous little hat as we heard the first note of danger in the whistle’s cry. The even blasts of the anti-ice spell the engineer was blowing suddenly faltered. The Iron Horse jumped and shuddered on the line, not so much propelling itself forward as threatening to slip. As Henry’s hand tightened on mine, I suddenly saw the engine coming into a circle of torchlight.

As I looked at the twin windows and cowcatcher face of the locomotive, I felt a tingle travel up my arm from Henry’s hand as more of his magic spilled into me. I saw the engine blur, then shift. Now a monstrous, iron-gray horse galloped down the line, its eyes lantern bright, and its hooves wreathed with the smoke made by small fires set by the sparks they kicked up.

The Iron Horse reared and plunged, smelling danger on the line. The Line was too steep, too cold. Ice beckoned and it flung itself backwards, screaming.

“She’s going over! She’s gonna run away!” Someone shrieked. The men gathered around us began running in all directions, trying to run from the path the engine would take as it plunged down the pass. The track bed became a storm of confusion. Men ran everywhere, lanterns and torches flying and scattering light drunkenly over the mad scene.

Henry stepped forwards and his hand slid from mine. He gazed up at the panicked Iron Horse as it plunged down the line hoof-brakes screaming like damned souls. He drew a deep breath, then plunged forwards, snatching a lantern from a bundled-up fireman.

As Henry began to run up the mountainside, I saw a haze gather round him as if a burning fog was boiling round his thin body. The haze brightened, and I saw him lunge forward, picking up speed….and then with a bound he began to run over the snow that would have blocked his path. He swept towards the panicked Iron Horse like a comet, fire streaming from the lantern.

The Iron Horse screamed again. Without Henry’s magic flowing into me I couldn’t make it out as clear, nor hear its voice in my head. The Iron Horse swung from locomotive to horse and back again, mostly wreathed in driving snow from the gathering storm and boiling ice from the rails. I plunged after Henry, desperate to help somehow.

I spotted Henry way up the line–was he flying or just fast as lightning now? The rails were roaring with the force of the brakes, the steel ringing with stress and rumbling as the Iron Horse panicked and fought the inevitable runaway plunge.

I saw the comet-Henry reach the Iron Horse and fling the lantern high into the air. The small steel-and-iron lantern tumbled into the air and burst into a tiny sun, lighting up the whole pass.

He held up his hands, shouting something out to the panicking Iron Horse. Through the snow and devil-wind fog the Iron Horse plunged one more time…then turned its’ colossal head towards him.

He shouted again, and I could hear his voice echoing down the pass. He was shouting in no mortal language, but I was steeped in rail and line, iron and bolt for so many years that I could feel the knowledge of what he shouted to the engine pass into me. “You are all right, the Line is clear. Trust me, trust me, I know the Line, the Way is clear.” He sang, his voice like a hammer strike on an anvil.

I gulped the cold air of the pass too now…and felt a tang in it, a memory of wind on the ocean. “Help me, speed me on!” I called to the cold air. The night wind sang back to me. “Lost child, lost child, I hear you, I speed you on.” Air like iron bands slammed round my ribs…my feet lost their grip on the pass. I was carried up the Line like a leaf on the wind till I was a hammer’s throw from Henry and the Iron Horse whose lantern eyes lit him up bright as day.

I could hear Henry clearly now. “Follow me, listen to my voice. Be calm, be calm. I am here. No harm will come to you, I will keep you from all harm. Your brakes are strong, you are mighty. Your engine burns like a star, and I am here.”

The Iron Horse’s whistle screamed with joy. “My mage is here. My mage is here!” It slammed huge hooves on the line, dancing and clattering on the rails. “Master, the Line is cold and steep! Help me! Help me! I cannot grip the Rails!”

Henry took a deep breath, and I could see the fury of the wind try to push him over, try to throw him down. “NO!” I screamed at the wind. “You let him BE! Don’t touch him!”

I looked out at the furious whipping snow and wind….and before I could think, I reached out and grabbed like I was snatching the tail of a furious cat. I grabbed and held on, my fingers digging into it, shifting my grip till I was holding the wind by the scruff of its neck, not hurting it, but holding it like a mama cat holding her kitten.

Be still, be still.” I sang to it. “Play later, scream all night, race all around and up and down the pass as is your right…but lay down now, rest and be still.

The wind screamed around us, whipping the men and blinding us all with snow…but then the wind curled up at my feet in the snow and fell still.

Henry blazed in the light of the Iron Horse and his tiny lantern star. He strode onto the rails and laid his hands on the cold steel. Up and down the Line, I could see Gandy-Dance and Hedge mages raise their heads, grab their tools and step into place up and down the rail bed. Henry called out, once…twice…thrice…and lifted the rail.

Up and down the Line, a glow shot down the rails as they rose into the air. The Gandy-Dance mages began to chant, stepping in time and began a work dance. The gravel beds rose too and began twining up the mountainside as if they were following a gently-flowing a phantom river.

Bit by bit, the whole track gently rose, every bolt, every spike rising into the air, the iron singing happily. The mages followed, gently shepherding the tracks into a gentler, less dangerous route with their staves.

I could see Henry’s face lit like a star, grinning ear to ear as the over steep path righted, the crafting song rang true, and the railway found its track down the mountainside like a river of light and iron. The men sang with Henry, their tune joyous and loud as they righted the work they’d done, as magic gave them the strength of titans.

I held the wind and petted it like a kitten. It forgot about lashing and pouncing on the men as I cuddled it to my chest and rubbed it through my hands, scratching and petting it, praising it as it nuzzled and tickled me.

The Iron Horse let out a whistle whoop of glory and stepped onto the path. “Good iron, safe and true!” it cried like a ringing bell.

“Good iron safe and true!” sang Henry and the rail men. “True and strong is the Line!”

“Safe, safe, safe is the Line!” the Iron Horse sang and began to gently wend down the now curving path down the mountainside. “I am safe upon the Line! Praise be to the Mage of My Line!”

The lines of men chorused back to the Iron Horse. “Praise be to the Iron Mage! Praise be to the Line, strong and swift! Hold fast, hold true as the Path of the Line and bless us, the Hands of the Line, makers of the way!”

The Iron Horse sang as it found its pace, its whistle marking the descent down the pass, invoking the protection of the spells laid down in every tie and rail, strengthening and recognizing every element of the Line.

The rail camp was a blaze of light with every man, woman, child and odd spirit pouring out into the streets, dancing and screaming with joy as the Iron Horse shivered one more time, rolling up to the edge of the town only as a massive twin-window, snowplow-fronted locomotive.

The men poured like a river into town and Henry was the crest of the wave. That wave struck town, Henry riding high on the shoulders of the railway men.  The Chinese stepped out of their bunkhouse, were caught up by the dancing men and found themselves carried or pulled alongside Henry’s wave, whiskey bottles leaping into their hands.

I let go of the wind with one last pat and it squealed up the pass to romp through the craggy rocks and race the stars.

It wasn’t so much that the camp threw Henry a grand party as the party just seemed to bust out of every nook and cranny of town. Every door was thrown wide, every bottle popped open, and every soul and spirit in town danced as the Angel of Death said “Aw shucks. Gimmie a drink!” then passed us by.

As the first light of dawn slipped down the pass and lit up the camp, I finally found Henry. He was hiccupping a little, swinging his heels as he sat on the high edge of the snow plow and munched on a dill pickle. His face was covered in lipstick kisses and he smelled of champagne.

I yanked his foot a little. “Hey you up there!”

Henry reached down to me, pulling me up onto the cooling locomotive. “Hey to you too!”

I grinned at Henry. “An Iron Mage. As the good Lord is my witness, I’m in the company of a real true Iron Mage.” I doffed my cap and mimed a bow at him. “One of the few Greats of the Line. They’ll be talking of you lifting the rails for a century!”

“Few and far between, mighty as the Iron of the Line!” Henry sang, his eyes lit up bright. He grinned at a Chinese mage doing a somewhat drunken waltz with one of the dance hall girls. “No more bad luck, no more being the pariah of the Line.”

I gave the mage a little stink-eye and he stumbled in his waltz slightly. “They weren’t good to you Henry. You could really give them grief for what they did to you….”

He cut me off with a quick motion. “No. They’re still my people.”

“Ain’t the other Iron Mages your people now?”

Henry shrugged and took a bite from his pickle. “I got two people now. Same as having a mother and father.” He beamed at the revelers in camp.

“Sometimes…people get scared Sammy, sometimes family does not do right by you. They are still family, and they still love you. I still love them. No good will come of me holding onto pain and sorrow.” He smiled, sadly. “Being Chinese on the Line isn’t easy. It may never be easy, Ironmage or no.”

He grinned at me. “But now, like I said, I am big man.” He offered me the pickle. “I think that means that I get to help improve things, build a better world for everyone. Doesn’t your Bible say something about forgiving trespasses and all that?”

I took the pickle and bit off a good chunk. The taste of a good German dill filled my mouth, salty and spicy. “I thought you got baptized and the whole lot to show you were no bad-luck token or devil boy.”

He shrugged again. “They weren’t specific about which church or which beliefs. They said Christian, I didn’t ask questions. Too scared they’d run me out of town.” We roared with laughter and I hugged him hard.

Henry hugged me back. “I’ll miss you Sammy.”

“Miss me?” I pulled back to look at him. “I’m not going….”

The wind whipped up around me and Henry grinned, waving a hand vaguely at it. “You have magic too, pretty big at that. I think…it woke up to save me.”

“But that doesn’t mean…”

Henry looked at me sadly. “Yes, it does mean I going….I’m going to miss you.” He drew a deep breath in. “I smell the ocean on you now.” He nodded back at camp. “Your baba…your father no going…isn’t going to stand for you not having iron magic.”

I tasted the wind, crooked a finger and felt the breeze leap into my lap and bump against my hand for a quick stroke. “Wind and sea.”

Henry squeezed my hand. “No sea here. You go before your father he not…before your father isn’t drunk anymore.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but I shook my head. “No….we’re talking about my father. There’s a roaring party going on, so of course he’s drunk. He’s probably gambled the house away again too.”

Henry leaped down from the engine. “I can ask one of the railroad company men to give you a ride to town and from there you can get the stagecoach line to the sea.”

“Hah, you must be a big man already, ordering the Company men around!”

Henry winked at me. “I’m an Iron Mage, even if I’m a new one. Has a few advantages.” He looked down at his battered boots as if they’d offended him. “I wish you could ride the Iron Horse with me straight to the sea.”

“Someday when the Line’s done I will.” I looked at the raw camp and as the morning light touched it, I could feel that somehow the night’s magic had indeed settled it into being a small town. “Life here in Ironhorse will never be the same.” The wind took the name from my lips and I could feel it settle over the town, changing it as names always do.

Henry hugged me. “Then I see you when the rails reach the sea.” He smiled, raised a hand in farewell, hesitated a moment. “Goodbye….Samantha.” I gaped at him as he trotted towards the bars but laughed. Henry was just Henry, and always a damn bright spark.

I slid down too and ran to the shack I shared with Da. I riffled the strong box for my fair share of our money and bundles up my few possessions into a sack.

As I was about to turn and go, a stray bit of light touched Ma’s chest. I thought long and hard a moment or two, then stuffed all my girl clothes into my bag. I took Ma’s clothes out too and as I held up Ma’s Sunday dress, I realized it was only just a bit too long for me now.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to feel if any of Ma’s spirit was nearby, then spoke to the empty air. “I can be as God made me now Ma. I don’t have to pretend to be a boy no more just cause Da never wanted a daughter.”

There was the faintest of maybe touches on my cheek. A sunbeam danced across the last seashells on the high shelf and I snatched them up. As I did so, I felt the tickle of paper in the mouth of one of them. Pulling it out, I found a few bills and a scrawled address in San Fransiskee.

“Bless you Ma.” I turned to go.

“So, you’re gonna just high tail it outtah here. Thought you’d wanna stay round here since your little Chinee friend’s gonna be so high and mighty.” I whipped round to find Da slumped against the door.

I looked at him hard in the rising light. “I was hoping to avoid you as I went, but yeah Da, I’m going. I wasn’t meant to stay round here, was never meant to work the rails and you’ve always known it.”
Da lurched into the room, dropping his bottle of whiskey as he came. “Now lookit here ye useless thing, ya done made me drop mah bottle.”

He curled his lip at me. “You never been a use to me, you just’r a wurth’lss burden ta me an’ ye always will.”

“You could have sent me to Ma’s folk and you know it.” I raised myself up high, looking Da straight in the eye. “You’ve kept me round to cook, clean and earn money for you, cause you hoped to bum magic off of me, not cause you wanted me to be a daughter to you.” I took a step forward. Da looked into my eyes…and stepped back, stumbling over his bottle of whiskey.

I took another step forward, my fists curling, nails digging into my palms. “I’m done with you Da. I’m done with you and your cheap schemes, your drinking, how you treated me and Ma, how you pretty much killed Ma when you kept stealing her magic—DON’T THINK I DIDN’T KNOW YOU DID THAT!”

Da scuttled back from me, from the sudden wind rising in the drafty shack. I shook my head at him. “I won’t touch you Da, ye’re not worth it to me.” I shouldered my bag and stepped round of him, stepped free of the dilapidated shack. “I’m off to find Ma’s people now, like I should have a long time ago.”

I turned and stepped over the threshold. “I loved her! She was always willing to give magic to me!” He snuffled wetly. “T’was up to her to tell me she needed it to get well!”

He pawed at the tears on his face and glared at me. “Yer Ma’s kin’ll no want ya!” Da yelled at me, drink slurring his voice as he tried to scrabble to his feet and failed. He’d always been an ogre, a terrible hurricane of a man I’d never hoped to defeat, but now he lay on the floor, done in without a blow from me.

“If they don’t Da, then I’ll find someplace to be. I’m free of you now and you won’t see me no more.” I studied him. “If you’re wise Da, you’ll be leaving camp soon too. I don’t think the men’ll welcome your schemes and shoddy sales much more.”

“You don’ know nuthin. Six months an’ I’ll run this camp without you dragging me down no more!” He gestured grandly at me from the dirty floor. “Farewell ungrateful child, for I shall see you no more.” He harrumphed. “Jus’ like your fool mother…always talking about beggars ‘n wishes…” He toppled over, face down into the spreading puddle of whiskey.

I pinched my eyes shut a moment, then turned to walk through the door. Henry and his Company man would be waiting for me. “Well, Da…today the wishes are horses, and today…this is the day this beggar’s gonna ride!”

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