'John Henry' Editor's note: The tale of the legendary African-American hero who raced against a steam drill to cut through a mountain.

Story Time

August 09, 1998|By Julius Lester

John Henry went on his way. He had heard that any man good with a hammer could find work building the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad through West Virginia. That was where he had been going when he stopped to build the road.

The next day John Henry arrived at the railroad. However, work had stopped. The railroad tracks had to go through a mountain, and such a mountain. Next to it even John Henry felt small.

But a worker told John Henry about a new machine they were going to use to tunnel through the mountain. It was called a steam drill. "It can hammer faster and harder than ten men and it never has to stop and rest."

The next day the boss arrived with the stream drill. John Henry said to him, "Let's have a contest. Your steam drill against me and my hammers."

The man laughed. "I've heard you're the best there ever was, John Henry. But even you can't outhammer a machine."

"Let's find out," John Henry answered.

Boss shrugged. "Don't make me no never mind. You start on the other side of the mountain. I'll start the steam drill over here. Whoever gets to the middle first is the winner."

As the machine attacked the mountain, rocks and dirt and underbrush flew into the air. On the other side was John Henry. Next to the mountain he didn't look much bigger than a wish that wasn't going to come true.

He had a twenty-pound hammer in each hand and muscles hard as wisdom in each arm. As he swung them through the air, they shone like silver, and when the hammers hit the rock, they rang like gold. Before long, tongues of fire leaped out with each blow.

On the other side the boss of the steam drill felt the mountain shudder. He got scared and hollered, "I believe this mountain is caving in!"

From the darkness inside the mountain came a deep voice: "It's just my hammers sucking wind. Just my hammers sucking wind." There wasn't enough room inside the tunnel for the rainbow, so it wrapped itself around the mountain on the side where John Henry was.

All through the night John Henry and the steam drill went at it. In the light from the tongues of fire shooting out of the tunnel from John Henry's hammer blows, folks could see the rainbow wrapped around the mountain like a shawl.

The sun came up extra early the next morning to see who was winning. Just as it did, John Henry broke through and met the steam drill. The boss of the steam drill was flabbergasted. John Henry had come a mile and a quarter. The steam drill had only come a quarter.

Folks were cheering and yelling, "John Henry! John Henry!"

John Henry walked out of the tunnel into the sunlight, raised his arms over his head, a hammer in each hand. The rainbow slid off the mountain and around his shoulders.

With a smile John Henry's eyes closed, and slowly he fell to the ground. John Henry was dead. He had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst.

Everybody was silent for a minute. Then came the sound of soft crying. Some said it came from the moon. Another one said she saw the sun shed a tear.

Then something strange happened. Afterward folks swore the rainbow whispered it. I don't know. But whether it was a whisper or a thought, everyone had the same knowing at the same moment: "Dying ain't important. Everybody does that. What matters is how well you do your living."

JOHN HENRY by Julius Lester, illustrations by Jerry Pinkney. Text copyright Julius Lester, 1994. Illustrations copyright Jerry Pinkney, 1994. Published by arrangement with Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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