An American Legend

By Remy Sheppard

"Hey John, catch!" Samuel Washington shouted. John stood up straight and tall and reached his hand into the sky so high he might have just grabbed the sun should it have so struck him to do. With great ease John caught the large twenty five pound spike hammer in one hand and brought it forcefully down on the rail spike, driving it through the tie.

"Almost got that'un o'er my head, boys!" John yelled in that deep loud voice of his. Now, John was a large, obsidian man of mammoth strength. The other boys working on the railroad liked to steal his rail spike and see if they could toss it over his head. The game was fun for the guys and it gave John fun and creative ways to lay rail. With that big, white-toothed grin on his face, John wiped the Tuesday afternoon sweat from his brow and, after a nice deep yawn, set his eyes back to his work. It was another little while yet until they were let off to eat lunch, and John still had a lot of track to lie for the day.

With his left hand, John dropped a rail spike through a hole in the tie down and with his right hand he gently dropped his spike hammer on the previously laid spike to drive it into the ground. "You can do better than that, John Henry!" One of the greenhorns shouted.

"Hey," John yelled back, "Which one o' ya'll wants to know?" The crowd of men laughed, stopping what they were doing to turn their eyes to John. "Alright, fine!" He said with a smile. John took his spike hammer and slammed it hard down into the dirt, driving it in far enough to let it stand on its own. Then, the immensely muscular and tall John Henry bent over and grabbed a new section of track, and with brute strength picked up the one hundred and fifty-five pound section of steal railing and carried it over to an unfinished part of the track. The men around laughed at the ferocity of his strength, one of them elbowing the greenhorn who had pushed him to show off. John just smiled and set the railing on the tops of some pre-placed spikes that had yet to be driven by the team. John smiled and looked over his large shoulder at the men behind him and shrugged.

"Henry!" Someone shouted, John's large spike hammer soaring through the air. John reached up his right hand and caught the massive sledge, and in the same motion brought it crashing down louder than thunder on the section of rail and with that one strike simultaneously drove in every rail spike on that section. The men grabbed their ears and hooted and hollered out loud for John, cheering on his massive display of strength. John smiled gaily and rested his spike hammer on his right shoulder, making his way to the greenhorn that had started this whole mess.

"Come on," He said, putting his left arm around the boy, "I think I hear the lunch bell." The young man smiled and threw an arm as best he could around the giant man.

"So John," One of the guys started, mouth full of sandwich "Why ain't you got yerself a woman yet?"

"Yeah right, he'd kill 'er the first time he went and tried t' hug her!" Another one piped up.

John laughed and flexed his arms, "Nah fellas, its simple really. I only gots one love," With a smile, John Henry turned and faced the railroad, "Finishing that big iron snake and unifying this piece of land we call home."

All the men nodded and looked longingly at the railroad, all united in purpose. The peace that seemed to reign in the air in that moment felt as though it would last forever, if only could do so uninterrupted. "Howdy boys!" A loud voice rang out. The ground shook and all of the men turned their attention to the large land-owner that was helping fund the rail road project. Ulysses R. Williams was a tall and fat white man, who always wore a suit and always smoked a cigar. He had yellow teeth, bad breath and a horrible demeanor. The only time he laughed was when he had something sinister planned. A smile cracked across his face, the ground still shaking. From around the bend came a pillar of steam. "Gentlemen," Ulysses began, "Today we make history! Let me introduce you to the machine that will unite this country!" The billows of steam grew closer and closer, and with great pride in voice, Ulysses announced, "Gentlemen! Behold! The steam-power spike hammer! This machine can lay track faster and harder than any you men!"

The men stared at the machine with a quiet awe as it slowed to a stop on a section of unfinished track in front of them. Ulysses waived his hand and cracked another sinister smile, and suddenly the machine roared back to life. The large and shiny box of a machine began to move slowly forward, steam rising thicker and thicker from the top of its stack. As it drove forward, long mechanical arms reached out and grabbed fresh rail from either side of the track and laid it in front of the machine which then rolled over top of it and drove spikes through the tie downs, securing the rail. The machine moved at an incomprehensible rate of speed, and the longer it went the faster it moved. The hot sun that shone in the bright afternoon sky simply added to the beast's power. The men began to talk among themselves about where to find work. Some of them even began to take off their hats and tool belts, dropping them on the ground and walking off towards town. There was a general depression that fell on that day, until one man stepped forward.

"Ulysses!" A strong voice, loud as thunder called out. Ulysses turned around to face a man walking from the crowd, a man equal with him in height but a man stronger, with a darker face, loving eyes, and a chiseled jaw. "Ulysses, you listen here," John Henry said, "This here's a man's job. This here's a job that any my men could do better than any damned ol' machine yer money can buy. Nothin' can replace my men!"

Ulysses smiled and stepped forward to John, blowing smoke in his face, "Oh but Mr. Henry," He said, his thick southern drawl coming on strong, "I've already replaced you and your men."

John Henry turned and looked back to all the men standing still left standing around. His big brown eyes had turned sad. "Go home, Mr. Henry," Ulysses said, "Go find yerself a woman, an easier job, make a family. Let these men make families, Mr. Henry."

John shut his eyes tight for a moment, a tear streaming down his cheek. "Hey John," John looked up, "You can do better than that!" The greenhorn shouted, John Henry's spike hammer flying through the air. A large smile crossed Henry's face as his right hand shot up in the air with enough height and power to topple a mountain. There was a soft thud as John caught the spike hammer and turned to face down Ulysses.

"How about this," John said firmly, "Your machine verses me and my men. If I can lay rail faster than that… thing you got there, my men keep their jobs. Otherwise, we'll be takin' yer advice and movin' on. What do you say?"

Ulysses stopped, eyes wide with shock over Henry's response. He took a moment to ponder, puffing his cigar and leaning over to see passed John and lay eyes on the men. Then, suddenly, Ulysses began to laugh. "You haven't got a chance this side of hell, Mr. Henry," He mocked, "But if that's what ye really want, then far be it from me to stop ye!" The men roared in ovation, cheering on John who just smiled at Ulysses.

So there the time had come, an hour later, and John stood a mile away from steam powered spike hammer which faced him. They would race each a mile on the open field towards each other. The first one to make it to the opposite end of the Big Bend tunnel that lay between them would be declared the winner. Now there would be two parallel sections of track running next to each other in the tunnel as to avoid John running directly into the steam hammer and vice versa.

Tension began to fill the air as the men stood with steal loaded onto a pallet with ropes for pulling. John just smiled that big confident smile he had. "Hey," He shouted to the greenhorn, who was going to attempt to pull the pallet of rail sections with the guys, "Take this!" And with that John tossed the young man his hat. The boy barely had time to smile and thank Henry when the whistle sounded.

Immediately the steam hammer took off, white smoke billowing from its stack as it lurched forward. The large mechanical arms began reaching and grabbing sections of rail with loud metal shrieks and cries. The gears wound tightly as the two pieces of track were placed simultaneously in front of the machine which rolled on top of them and with a loud crack began to drive spikes down through the tie downs and into the cross sections of the track.

John Henry also sprung into action, reaching over to the pallet and grabbing two pieces of steal, hoisting them onto his shoulders and carrying them to their place. He threw them down and grabbed two more, not bothering to carry these where they go but rather just tossing them into place. He threw several more sections of track ahead of himself and where he was going to be and then grabbed a large sack of rail spikes.

Henry's men began pulling on the pallet of steal beams by the braided ropes. Slowly they started pulling it forward, attempting to beat Henry down the sections of track with the new railing he would need. So now John Henry's machine was in motion. John reached into the sack and threw a rail spike in the air with his left hand and then, spike hammer in his right, brought his right arm around in a circular motion. The head of the sledge collided with the head of the spike in mid air and Henry, like a monster, drove the spike into the tie down. As soon as the spike had been buried, John Henry switched the sledge to his left hand and threw a spike with his right. He would then bring his left arm around and drive the spike out of the air and into the opposite side's tie down before switching hands again.

Over and over again Henry went through this motion, laying section after section of rail with ferocious strength and fierce speed. As fast as Henry went, so went the steam hammer, keeping pace with him. Both John Henry and the steam hammer drew closer and closer to the tunnel, evenly matched for speed, but not for power. The men on Henry's crew continued to non-stop pull the sections of rail ahead of Henry so it would be waiting for him when he needed it, but they soon found that they, the thirty of them, couldn't keep up with John Henry! No matter how hard they pulled the pallet to keep up with him, John Henry would always move just a little bit faster than they could manage.

"John!" The greenhorn shouted. John looked up and saw that the steam hammer had entered the tunnel already. Sweat poured like water down Henry's face, grit and determination showing strong in his eyes. John ran over to the pallet, dropping his spike hammer and picking up instead an armful of about ten pieces of rail. John Henry held the rail sections diagonally across his body with brute force and strength he bent them to hold a slight curve. John ran over to the tunnel and, with a massive heave, threw the railing inside, and ran back to grab more. He repeated this process until he had enough railing to cover the rest of the tunnel. Each time John walked to the tunnel he could hear the steam hammer louder and louder.

Not letting anything slow him down, however, John Henry pressed on. He would place the curved railing in place and drive spike after spike through the tie downs, bolting the track in place. With each rail spike driven through, John gained a little bit of time on the steam hammer. Slowly he began to catch up in the race, going about the same speed as the steam hammer – which was now moving as fast as it was capable of going.

John looked up for just a moment, gauging the distance of the steam hammer in the tunnel. Both John and the steam hammer were about to meet at the half-way point, the two of them now going the same speed. John pressed on, alone in the tunnel against his foe. Emotionless and powerful, the steam hammer pushed on driving rail. And for every step it was matched with the spirit and strength of John Henry.

The noise of the metal goliath grew louder and louder, deafening the giant John Henry. It was here, in the middle of the tunnel, that John decidedly won the battle. With strength, anger, and the American Spirit, John Henry turned on the steam hammer and sent his massive sledge into the side of the steal beast. It groaned and slowed for a moment and Henry hit it again, putting a large hole in its side and losing his sledge to it. The giant steam hammer tilted up for a moment and fell over on its side by the track, its deafening noise quietly dissipating into the darkness of the tunnel.

John Henry turned back to the track and began throwing the next sections of rail down. He reached into his bag and pulled out several rail spikes and began driving them down through the tie downs with his bare hands, not breaking his rhythm from earlier at all. Sweat poured down his face and blood flowed from his hands as the tired but powerful John Henry drove spike after spike through the fresh laid railing harder than he ever had before.

Finally, just ten minutes after the race had began, John Henry emerged from the tunnel, still driving spike after spike with his bare hands. The cigar dropped from the lips of a surprised Ulysses R. Williams and John Henry's men roared in a loud applause. John Henry laid the rail and drove the spikes bare handed all the way up to Ulysses' feet and then stood, salty sweat running from his face and blood dripping from his knuckles, heart and head pounding in unison, and all of his men clapping and cheering wildly. "We'll be keepin' our jobs." He said, spitting sweat on Ulysses' face.

Frustrated, Ulysses turned and walked off back towards his carriage. Victorious, John Henry turned and faced his men with a smile. He threw off the sack of rail spikes threw his fist in the air in victory. All of the men went wild with applause, deafening cheers filling the air as every man celebrated John Henry's amazing victory over the steam hammer. John smiled and threw his other fist in the air, his eyes wide trying to take in air with his panting mouth, and then, unexpectedly, John Henry fell to the ground. Bruising covered his chest, and a smile covered his face – John Henry was dead.