Monday, May 28, 2007

Bo Bandit and the Steel Driving Man

Retold by Bethany Hegedus

Although i was no bigger than a sack of flour, I set my sights on working for the C & 0 Railroad. I crouched beneath the wheels of a wagon, scoping things out, when a shadow spread over me, blocking out the noonday sun.

Standing a dozen feet away was a man as big as a mountain. His shoulders were the size of two mighty boulders. His arms bulged thick as tree trunks. A hammer hung at his side, black and solid like the night.

"Excuse me, mister. Who's in charge here?" I asked, getting up my gumption.

"Cap'n's in there." The man pointed to a makeshift office. His voice wasn't thunderous like I thought it'd be. It poured outta him like lemonade from a pitcher, slow and easy. "What you want with him?"

"Looking for work. My daddy's taken ill. Bringing in some pay would sure help matters." I stuck out my hand. "Name's Bo Bandit, from down in Virginie. What's yours?"

"John," the man said with a grin. "John Henry. I'm from Virginie, too."

So that's how I came to find John Henry was sure enough muscle and bone and not some tall tale told round campfires. I'd heard his name as I made my way from the fields of North Carolinie to the Chesapeake Bay. Rumors and hearsay traveled faster than spit jumps on a griddle.

"John Henry can do the work a four men and still not need but an hour's worth a rest."

"That hammer of his is darn near the size of a hog's head."

And the one I heard time and time again: "Believe you me, that John Henry's got a steel hammer at the center of his chest. He ain't got no heart, none a'tall."

And here I was face to face with the man himself.

"Tell Cap'n you're a friend of mine." He grinned. "He'll put you to work."

Cap'n was 'bout to show my behind the door when I piped up, "John Henry sent me."

Cap'n stamped out his cigar. "Did he, now? You're too scrawny to be working the steel driving line. Cook just lost a man. You could fill his spot. No sneaking, vittles, got that?"

"Yes, sir." I tipped my hat, happy to have me a job.

The next morning, I slogged helping after helping of grits into the bowls of the growling men. John was the only one to smile and say "thankey" 'fore filling his hurgsry belly.

"Where are they setting off to?" I asked Cook while the men bustled about.

"Headed to the work site, over yonder. The steel drivers and the shakers are cutting a hole in that mountain there for the railroad to go through." Cook shook a pot over the fiery embers. "We got our own work to do. These plates ain't going to scrub themselves."

That evening, long past dusk, the men returned to camp. When I finished serving vittles and washing dishes, I set off to find John. I found him whittling, set off a piece from the men, who raised their voices in song.

I plunked down beside him. "Whatcha carving?"

"A heart for the lady I left behind."

"That so." I rubbed my hands together. John wasn't right talkative, but I had a feeling he liked me fine. Might as well ask what was really on my mind. "Heard it said you don't need no sleep and that you ain't got no…"

"Hear a lot of rumors working on the rails. Ain't many of 'em true." John smiled and let out a low whistle. "Except the one 'bout my belly being as deep as Big Bend Tunnel will be wide. That one's a fact."

Each week I sent Mama my pay. The days went along dandy, until one afternoon when a crowd gathered as a man barked from the platform, "This here steam drill can outlast, outblast any man. It can chop rock like a hot knife slides through butter." Cap'n hung back until the crowd dispersed, then chatted with the traveling salesman.

"Listen here," said Cap'n that evening over the hum of hungry men. "Jim, Hank, and Cole: Go on home. C & O Railroad won't be needing your services anymore. Today I bought me a steam drill, a fancy new contraption that can do the work of three of ya."

Shouts of "Hold up. Nawww," laced with grumbles, erupted from the workers as the three men called got to their feet.

"Ain't fair. We' re good workers," said Hank. "Our blood, sweat, and tears are up on that mountain."

Cap'n's voice rose above the din, "Y'all may think you're free men nowadays, but C & O owns your hides. You boys ain't nothing next to this here machine but lumps of muscle, good for nothing."

John slung his hand on my shoulder and stopped the ruckus himself, announcing, "No machine gonna make me not a man."

"John, hush, or you'll be next," I said, my words swallowed by the cheers of the men.

"We ain't worthless," said John. "None of us."

The men clanged their spoons against their empty chowder bowls and shouted a chorus of "John! John! John!"

"Fine." Cap'n raised his arms to silence the crowd. "If that's how you want it, John. Muscle against machine--a little competition tomorrow morning. We'll see who's worthless after that. You win: the men stay on. You lose: four more men are gone."

When night fell, I snuck over to John's bunk. "You're crazy, John. There's no way you can win."

"Now, listen here, Bo," he said, working a worn rag over the steel head of his hammer. "You was born free. I remember slave days, and nothing--not C & O, not Cap'n, and not some machine--is going to take away the feeling I get when I swing me a hammer. Ever hear a hammer? It's the sound of freedom ringing loud and clear."

"But, John, I've seen that steam drill put to the test. It pounded a block of granite to dust like that." I snapped my fingers.

"Bo, I ain't just doing this for me. I'm doing it for them three cut loose today--and all them others out there who believe they ain't worth nothing when someone like Cap'n tells them they ain't. I'm gonna win or die trying. Now, good night, Bo. I need me my rest."

At breakfast, camp swarmed with a worried buzz. I dillydallied, pouring the oatmeal as slow as I could. But before long, everyone had eaten. John didn't say a word. Just winked when I snuck him an extra scoop.

A long rope held back the crowd at the lip of the Big Bend Tunnel. Being pint-size, I weaseled my way to the front of the crowd. John stood at the ready, towering over Wilkes, Who'd been handpicked by Cap'n to man the steam drill.

My stomach was a jumble of knots as Cap'n's revolver rang out. The steam drill made an awful noise, but John's hammer could still be heard clanging amidst the clatter. What John said was true: it was the sound of freedom! And it was music to my ears.

Dust circled the mouth of the mountain as they pounded into the granite. Wilkes and John were swallowed into the belly of Big Bend. I ran to the other side of the mountain to wait it out.

I slunk through the throng of folks who were already there hooting and hollering one minute and holding their breath the next. I said me a prayer and crossed my fingers, hoping religion and pure superstition combined would make John come up the winner.

With one pound after another, as steady as a heartbeat, John Henry's hammer rattled against the rock. The steam drill hummed and sputtered. Folks began coughing and backing away.

I wiped the dust from my eyes, and there he was--John Henry and his hammer, standing straight as a pine saluting the summer sky.

"He did it," I cried, running forward. "He beat the steam drill!" John threw open his arms, scooped line up, and hoisted me into the air. Sweat and dust were caked into a paste all over his face and neck.

"We ain't worthless," John said, breathless. "'Member that, Bo."

"I won't never forget."

My feet had barely touched the ground before John Henry toppled over as if he'd been struck by lightning.

Move on back now. Give 'im room," called Cap'n, coming through the crowd. "Get the doctor down at camp. Hurry."

I knew before Doc pried the hammer from his hand that John Henry was dead and gone. None of them rumors I heard was true. Not a one. I learned that much from the man himself. It wasn't John Henry's muscles or his hammer that made him beat that steam drill--that had him pound straight through that mountain, as legend is bound to say. Sure enough, it was his heart.

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