RITE OF PASSAGE: Blood & Iron – A Steamfunk tale of the legendary John Henry!
RITE OF PASSAGE: Blood & Iron
Milton J. Davis
John Henry opened and closed his massive fists, giving relief to his wrists, which ached from the rusty, iron cuffs clamped around them.
He shuffled up the long hallway, his feet unable to move more than a half foot at a time due to the shackles on his ankles.
His four escorts – all clad in navy blue jackets, trousers and constabulary hats and spit-shined, black boots – were in stark contrast to his black and white striped prison uniform. All five men walked in silence toward the double doors at the end of the hall.
Upon reaching the doors, the escort at the head of the detail knocked.
“Enter,” a rich, tenor voice commanded.
The escort pushed the door open and then they all sauntered in.
John perused his surroundings. The gaslight chandelier cast dancing shadows upon the light green walls. A mahogany chest sat against the wall in the west corner. Atop the chest were several trophies featuring brass casts of pugilists or wrestlers standing on bases of cherry oak.
In the center of the room was a desk, which matched the chest. Behind the desk sat Victor Clemmons, Warden of Virginia’s James River State Penitentiary, smoking a meerschaum pipe carved in the image of a snarling hound.
“Prisoner number four-nine-seven to see you, sir!” The lead escort bellowed.
“Prisoner number four-ninety-seven…John William Henry, correct?” Warden Clemmons inquired.
“Yes, suh,” John Henry replied.
“Take a seat, son,” the Warden said, pointing toward the chair opposite his.
“Much obliged, suh,” John said, taking a seat.
The Warden smiled broadly. “How would you like to get out of here, John Henry…to feel the breeze on your face and to smell that Virginia dirt once more?”
“I’d like that very much, suh,” John said, his heart racing with excitement. “My appeal come through?”
“Your appeal?” Warden Clemmons said, tilting his head and squinting. “You’re still insisting that you didn’t rob that bank, boy?”
“I didn’t, suh,” John replied. “It was…”
“Sylvester Roper,” the Warden said, rolling his eyes.
“That’s right, suh,” John said.
“The inventor of the – what was it – the steam-powered pony?” Warden Clemmons asked.
Snickers escaped the lips of the escorts.
“He call it a motorcycle, suh,” John replied. “Mr. Roper robbed that bank ‘cause he needed money to build a motorcycle from steel instead of wood like the first one he built. I was Mr. Roper’s driver and I did all his heavy liftin’, too. When the law come callin’, he put the blame on me.”
“Well, no appeal has come through for you, John,” the Warden said. “However, I can offer you a freedom of sorts.”
“Suh?” John inquired, leaning forward in his chair.
“The C and O Railway needs some boys with muscle to lay tracks and drive steel,” Warden Clemmons replied. “You’ve got more muscle on you than a prize bull and you’re stronger than any two of those other boys out there put together.”
The Warden took a long draw from his pipe and then blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “If you want, I can release you into the custody of the C and O. They’ll feed you, clothe you and even pay you two bits a week. So, what you say, John? You in, boy?”
John flexed his thick forearms. His fingers had gone numb and the tips of his toes were just as dead. “Yes, suh…I’m in.”
“Water break!” A ruddy-faced man shouted from atop his quarter horse.
All of the men working the rails dropped their picks and their shovels and lined up at the water queue.
John Henry, however, kept on driving steel.
“I said water break, John,” the ruddy-faced man said, riding slowly toward John Henry.
John kept hammering away.
“Did you hear me, boy? The ruddy-faced man hissed, drawing closer.
John increased his pace.
“Boy!” The ruddy-faced man spat, bringing his horse within an inch of John Henry’s flank.
John torqued his hips toward the horse as he raised his hammer, swinging it in a wide arc.
The hammer slammed into the ruddy-faced man’s side.
A sickening crunch followed the blow. The ruddy-faced man let loose a choked grunt as he fell from his horse.
John leapt onto the horse’s back and snapped its reins. The horse exploded forward, running over the track and galloping toward the trees in the distance.
The five other guards – all on foot – gave chase.
One of the guards drew his Colt Dragoon revolver and fired a shot.
A second later, John felt something hot tear through his back, just below his left shoulder blade.
As the bullet burrowed through his flesh, John’s vision blurred and a maelstrom of nausea whirled in his gut. His hammer fell from his fingers and he could no longer hear the wind whipping past his ears. He beat back the encroaching darkness with his iron will, however, and rode on.
After what felt like miles, John spotted a large opening in the side of a hill. He pulled the horse’s reins and the beast stopped. He slid from the horse’s back and staggered into the opening.
Inside was a pathway that descended into darkness.
“A good place to die, I reckon,” John thought as he shambled down the path.
Far ahead of him, a light flickered on and off. John continued forward.
The darkness engulfed him; smothered him. John felt the dank darkness coil around his chest and squeeze the air from his lungs. He collapsed onto his haunches and then fell onto his side.
A flame appeared above him. Standing beneath the flame was a naked woman, whose pitch-black skin seemed to be one with the darkness of the cave.
“The angels done come for me,” John thought, smiling weakly.
And then he succumbed to the dark.
John Henry sat bolt upright.
He snapped his head from left to right as he studied his surroundings, half expecting to find that he had awakened from a dream and was, in fact, locked in his cell back in James River.
The flowstones, stalactites and stalagmites told him that he was, indeed, elsewhere.
The light cast by the large fire a few yards from told him that he was not alone.
John became aware of something soft beneath him. He looked down. Under him was a bed of grass, leaves and aromatic flowers. He inhaled deeply, focusing past the scent of pine, wheatgrass and jasmine upon which he sat and picked up the delicious aroma of garlic, onion, red pepper and lemon.
He swallowed the saliva building in his mouth as he became painfully aware of how hungry he was.
“You up just in time for lunch.”
John turned his gaze toward the source of the soothing alto voice. Standing before him, with a steaming bowl balanced on her palms, was the beautiful, black-as-pitch woman he had earlier mistaken as an angel. She was clothed now, her wiry frame covered in denim trousers, a man’s cotton shirt and worn black work boots. Her short, curly hair was only a half-shade darker than her skin and her brilliant smile seemed blinding in contrast to her face.
“You wearin’ men’s clothes,” John gasped, shaking his head.
“I live in a cave, the woman said, shrugging her shoulders. “What you think, I’m gon’ be walkin’ round here in a hoopskirt and a corset?”
“A woman dressed in men’s clothes…talkin’ tough to a man twice her size in a cave? Only thing I’m thinkin’ is – you crazy,” John replied. But, it look like you saved my life, so I guess you good crazy.”
The woman thrust the bowl toward John’s chest.
He reached for the bowl and gasped as white-hot pain shot across his chest.
“Hurt, huh?” The woman said. “That bullet nicked your lung and just missed your heart. I dug it out…put some Ogun medicine in and closed you up. It gon’ hurt fo’ a spell. Now, drink; it’ll ease the pain.”
John sipped the hot soup and, indeed, the pain subsided. The soup was delicious and John quickly devoured it as the woman watched him in silence.
“I’m John,” John said, wiping the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand. “John Henry.”
“I know,” the woman said. “I’m Lana – Ogunlana, really – but folks call me Lana, for short.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lana,” John said. “I would…wait…you know? How you know me and we ain’t never laid eyes on one another befo’?”
“Ogun told me,” Lana replied.
“Who this Ogun you keep talkin’ ‘bout?”
“The Spirit of Iron and War. He come here from Africa, on them ships, with yo’ ancestors.”
“Yo’ ancestors, too,” John said.
“Naw,” Lana replied, shaking her head. “I come here long time ago, from Africa…from a city called Onire. I ain’t never been no slave; my ancestors neither.”
“You from Africa?” John gasped.
“Didn’t I just say that? Lana said, shaking her head. “Baba Ogun, why you send me this one? He ‘bout slow as a dead snail.”
“You awful bold, Miss Lady,” John said. “You don’t know what might happen to you, pushin’ a big buck like me. I might jump up and…”
“Die, where you stand,” Lana said, interrupting him. “Look, I been waitin’ for you in this cave for three years. I gotta train you up fast, ‘cause somethin’ real bad is comin’ and Ogun say you the one to stop it. So, I ain’t got time to sugarcoat…I ain’t got time to pussyfoot, or tiptoe through no tulips. You gon’ learn or you gon’ die.”
“Ogun said that?” john asked.
“Naw, I said it,” Lana replied. “Get some rest. Tomorrow mornin’, you start yo’ trainin’.
A stinging blow to the thigh snatched John from the peaceful realm of slumber back to his bed of grass, leaves and flowers.
Lana stood before him, brandishing a cutlass.
“What you hit me fo’?” John asked, rubbing the welt on his thigh.
“Get up,” Lana replied, ignoring his question. “Time to go to work.”
John rose from his bed. The pain in his chest made him wince.
“Follow me,” Lana said, walking toward a large, circular hole in the wall before her.
Lana crawled into the hole. John followed suit, lying on his belly and low-crawling down the duct just beyond the hole.
The duct opened into a capacious chamber, illuminated by torches that lined the walls.
John looked upward. Embedded in the ceiling was a huge copper disc. Hanging from the disc were scores of thick, iron chains of various lengths. At the end of each chain hung a cannonball.
A loud crack echoed throughout the chamber as the flat side of Lana’s cutlass smacked him across the cheek.
John stumbled sideways, massaging his face with his palm.
“Strike me again, woman and I’ll tan your hide,” John shouted.
“Aw, the big man ‘bout to cry,” Lana said, feigning tears. “You want me to take you to yo’ mama, so she can kiss it and make it all better?”
John searched the chamber for Lana, who seemed to vanish after slapping him. He spotted her on the far side of the chamber. The chains stood between them. “That ain’t funny. My mama dead.”
“Then, I guess you should have kissed her and made it all better, huh?” Lana chuckled.
“What?!” John shouted angrily.
He stepped forward.
A hissing noise came from behind the disc in the ceiling. The great disc began to rotate, causing the cannonballs to swing.
“Come and get me, John,” Lana snickered.
John darted forward; a cannonball whizzed past his face. He shifted to his left, then to his right, avoiding two heavy, iron balls.
A fourth ball hit its mark, however, slamming into his gut. John collapsed onto one knee as the air fled his lungs.
Another ball collided with the side of his head. John fell onto his back. He struggled to maintain consciousness as he stared up at the ceiling, watching cannonballs fly by, just inches above his face.
“Ogun gon’ toughen you up, John Henry,” Lana shouted. “He gon’ make you as hard and as strong as the iron that put that knot on yo’ noggin’. Now, get up and try again!”
John exploded forward.
A cannonball crashed into his side.
John shook off the pain and pressed on.
A cannonball sped toward his face. John raised his massive forearms. The ball bounced off of them, leaving only a minor bruise.
John moved through the deadly obstacle course – blocking, parrying and dodging cannonballs with incredible speed and power.
He smiled as he came face-to-face with Lana on the other side of the chains for the first time.
Lana tossed him her cutlass; the cutlass that had rudely awakened him every morning for the past six months.
“Do your worst,” Lana said.
John raised the cutlass high above his head and then brought the flat side down hard on her bottom.
Lana barely seemed to notice.
“Why you usin’ the flat side?” Lana asked. “I just sharpened her this mornin’; don’t make sense to let all that hard work go to waste.”
John’s eyes widened to the size of a baby’s fist and his chin dropped to his chest. “You want me to…”
“Cut me,” Lana ordered.
“I…I can’t,” John sighed.
“Cut me, or I’ll send you on your way home,” Lana said. “And I ain’t talkin’ bout that old shack yo’ mama raised you in, neither.”
John swung the blade at Lana’s arm. Sparks flew as the razor sharp edge slid across her ebon flesh.
Lana was unharmed. The blade had not even left a scratch.
“How?” John gasped. The cutlass fell from his hand.
“Ogun live in all of us,” Lana replied. “He live in our blood…in our bones. He the heart that beat in our breast and he the heart at the center of the earth that keep this world spinnin’. I’m Ogun; you Ogun…and iron don’t cut iron.”
“You say things I ain’t never heard befo’,” John said. “But, somehow, I understand.”
“That’s ‘cause you a child of Ogun,” Lana said. “You was born to understand. Now, come on.”
John followed Lana into a smaller chamber, which was empty, save for a long stone table, upon which sat a wooden bowl and something large, which was covered by a red quilt. The room was illuminated by a single torch in the far wall.
Lana pointed toward the bowl. “Drink.”
John picked up the bowl. Inside it was a thick, viscous dark brown liquid. John pressed his lips to the rim of the bowl and devoured its contents. The liquid tasted bittersweet and somewhat metallic.
“What was that?” John asked.
“Should have asked that befo’ you drank it, John,” Lana said, shaking her head. “It’s blackstrap molasses, with the bullet that I pulled outta you ground up in it. Also, a little bit of this and a little bit of that thrown in fo’ good measure.”
John’s heart pounded so hard, he thought it would rip through his chest. His muscles tensed involuntarily and he began to sweat profusely.
Lana smiled. “Yeah, you ready now.”
She snatched the quilt from the table, revealing a pair of large, cast-iron sledgehammers. “Pick ‘em up.”
John grabbed the hammers and raised them from the table. They felt nearly weightless and fit his hands perfectly.
The heads of the hammers began to glow a bright red, as if they had just left a blacksmith’s forge.
“These hammers was created by Ogun hisself,” Lana said. “They been waitin’ on you in this cave for over a hundred years.”
“Waitin’ on me?” John inquired.
“Ain’t that what I just said?” Lana replied. “Lawd…anyhow, you was born to bring justice to our people and to teach ‘em ‘bout Ogun, ‘cause they done forgot…and if you say ‘Who me?’, or anything like that, I’m gon’ kill you!”
Lana turned and headed back toward the chamber of chains. She paused and peered at John Henry over her shoulder. “Behind you is a path that leads out of this cave; take it…one mo’ thing…four times a year, them hammers got to be fed human blood. Don’t really matter whose, long as it ain’t yours.”
John twirled the hammers in a figure-eight pattern in front of his chest. He could feel the hammers increasing his strength with each passing moment. “Then, I reckon I’ll see if they like the taste of Mister Sylvester Howard Roper.”
John tossed the hammers over his shoulders and stepped onto the path. He disappeared as he sauntered down the trail, his glowing hammers carving a path through the darkness.