The Ballad of John Williams
January 6, 2012
Another of my rewrite pieces, something I rather enjoy. Probably also needs a decent amount of editing.
Try to guess what myth I’m retelling. I think it’s pretty obvious but it’s a fun one.
The day had been a long one for Ezekiel, watching the cattle herd flow down into the valleys of northern Texas. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a red kerchief and stuffed it back into his back pocket. His first cattle run, he was told, would be long, hard, and dirty. So far, this was true.
He sat now ‘round the campfire with some of the other cattlehands, the older hands, and listened to their stories. Marcus spoke of his time out west with the new farmers and crazy stories of the new settlers in Utah. Truman spoke of Louisiana and the Mississippi stretching far up the country, and how it was both old and new. Jonathan spoke of the new city of Washington, the shining city, and the crush of New York’s Five Points.
That’s about the time they all turned to Zeke and asked him about his other runs. He told them that he was a fresh hand, grew up in the farms near the coast of Texas. His Pa’s pa died in the Alamo. The only thing he had to really be proud of his family, since they lost the farm and were moving west again, was the iron on his hip. Zeke showed them the gun; heavy, a little bigger than the .44 that Smith and Wesson just started selling through the Sears & Roebuck catalog, and a deep rust red color.
Jonathan nodded sagely and asked, “Boy, have you heard the story of the first iron that came west? It was carried by John Marks Williams and he created the best weapon man’s ever seen. Smith, Wesson, and Colt all tried to copy it but haven’t gotten close.”
Zeke shook his head slowly and the old hands all grumbled together, “Well then boy, hope that the cookie’s got some good coffee in the morn’ ‘cause it’s a long story and every hand’s gotta know it. Never know when ol’ John might show up and hand his gun off. Happened but once before t’a man named Carl. No one knows where the gun went since.”
Zeke nodded and Jonathan cleared his throat. “Many years ago, the Williams brothers, John and Jake, started a company to produce goods for the people of Georgia. John was an engineer, trained in the old schools in Europe, while Jake was a brilliant inventor. However, just after starting the company, Jake spent all their money on the building, on employees, on equipment and had no materials. John, in anger, fashioned the first hard iron, the first solid revolver, and headed west to make his own fortune. He said as he left, over his shoulder, ‘Men need goods, Jake. Men need help out there, an’ I aim to give it to them. Y’can’t spend all our money on stuff here in Georgia, it’s the boys in California that are more important. Good luck t’ya, brother.’”
“Now John was a strong man, a long man, a thin man. He was built out of the crack of a whip and the smart of whiskey on a dry mouth and he used that mettle to lead him West, t’ward California. This pistol he wore was a new kind, didn’t use no powder charges, didn’t use no balls. Shot came formed in a cartridge, a metal tube of thunder an’ death. Y’see, now we take these things for granted, ’cause of the work of Colt, Smith, Wesson, Harris, Winchester…all smart men, y’ken, but none quite as smart as ol’ John Williams. None as gifted, or as giving, as ol’ John Williams. Some say he even met Smith and Wesson at a saloon a’fore he left the East and told them how t’make the smokeless powder he used. But that’s neither here nor there for our tale tonight.” Jonathan cleared his throat and adjusted his hat, “Pour me some that there whiskey, boy. Let me tell ya about meetin’ good ol’ Rodimer McCallister. And let me tell ya why that no-good sneaky slaver is no better than any spec o’ dust that blows ‘cross this here prairie.”
Zeke poured some of the whiskey in a tin cup for the old cowboy and sat back against a log to take in the story. Jonathan drank the whole cup in one go and sighed, “Ah, now, let’s see. It was just after the business was built that the Williams boys came face to face with Rodimer McCallister. He was a plantation owner, owned a big farm out in Ohio and used that money to invest in the things that caught his fancy, whether they be women, politicians, or instruments of death an’ dismemberment. He had overheard some of the bank troubles the Williams brothers were havin’ after the younger decided to spend all of their money on settin’ up their first shop. He went over to their shop that afternoon and proposed a partnership; he’d rescue them from their situation if they’d produce for him the finest gun that anyone’s ever seen. They agreed and got to work that very night.”
Jonathan stretched and cracked himself before returning to the story, amid grumbling of his embellished language. “Now it took them ten years to fashion the gun, a 48 caliber weapon using precision-made cartridges and a loader that John built with his own two hands. When ol’ Rodimer came over to see their work, he exclaimed that it was fantastic…and that no dirty pioneer should have access to such a fine and reliable firearm. He said,” Jonathan cleared his throat and sat up in as stuffy a manner as possible, “’It is not in the interests of the civilized world we live in to give such powerful weaponry to mere peasants and plow-pushers. So as your principle investor I am going to take this weapon and show it to our clients here, as many are very interested in a good weapon to arm the good old boys of the South with.’ And when he heard that, ol’ John took that loader, took those designs, and took that gun. He took them to his old horse, mounted up, and stole off in the night, carrying that first gun with him…a gun named The Fire of Creation.”
Truman nodded and tipped his drink to Jonathan and cleared his throat, “It’s near ’bout that time when th’ stories of th’ gun first started appearin’ among the stories of cattlehands out here on th’ trail. Ol’ John never shot no redskins nor mountain men that didn’t deserve a bit o’ lead in their skull. He did love showin’ off that there hand cannon, though. Wherever he found a bushwacker, a thief, a snake-oil salesman, or even some Union boys doin’ things the Union wouldn’t be proud of, he brought out that ol’ iron and gave them a what-for. They say when’ere he fires that piece, there’s a roar of thunder and fire leaps from the barrel to spit molten lead through the air. ‘Course no man he’s ever shot at has had the ability to say much about the gun’s effectiveness, though a smart tongue’ll tell you that’s testimony enough. Now, good ol’ John kept up his antics across the country, both East and West o’the Mississippi, ‘fore he was caught by that bastard Rodimer. It must’ve been forty years ago now when in Boulder, a rather infamous city on its own, but all the more storied when Rodimer hired the Clanston brothers to give the town a little trouble.”
Truman set down his now empty whiskey cup and lit his pipe, letting the scent fill the air before he continued. “Chances are ya haven’t heard of the Clanston brothers but mark my words that they’re some of the roughest folks to ever have seen the sun in the sky. Their father was soldier in the French army that’d fought on our soil years ago and their mother was an itinerant prostitute that finally settled in Colorado after her man died in the French-Indian war. The oldest, Jebediah, ran their criminal enterprise like he was born to it, leadin’ the two younger brothers to control the saloons and brothels of ol’ Boulder. The middle child, Clancy, ran the hotel in town with the support of his brother’s thugs, and they got away with it ’cause of the youngest, Robert, runnin’ the sheriff’s with a squirrely man named Feston as his deputy. Now, the old bastard from the start of our story knew his way ’round the telegraph offices and around the negotiations of a bountiful nature and set out a prize on ol’ John’s head, more his neck to be precise, and the gun he had skipped town with all those years ago. That bounty floated along the canals of the north until it fell to Boulder, fell onto the desk of the Clanston Sheriff, and fell into Jebediah’s crafty hands. But this leg of the story isn’t really about John, but John’s friend – Hank. Hank d’Bouise, a mountain of a man from Quebec, and one of the last great lumberjacks.”
Truman puffed on his pipe a bit to get the smoke flowing again and ate a mouthful beans and beef, before grumbling about cheap cooks. He inhaled and exhaled deeply again and, in a bit of a song, started his tale again.
“Hank was and old codger by the time he found his way to Boulder, but when he was young, he was an impressive woodsman. Grew up with just his ma’ in Quebec, speaking an old French that few still understand. No one knows who his pa’ was, some say it was the thunder that rolls through the snowy wastes, given his pale skin, slabs of thick muscle, and penchant for anger and good cheer. A damn mountain of a man, standing no less than seven and a half feet, if he was an inch, and a whole man across from hand to hand. He carried an axe big enough for two men as if it were a hatchet and found his daily bread by felling the great pines and oaks north of the border. Trouble followed him, though, and one night while deep in his cups, and frothing from the badgering of some of the trappers and traders in the post he lived near, he flew into a rage. They say in the fighting he accidentally broke his own mother’s neck and after he came to, he flew out into the forest in shame and anger.”
Truman paused and let his words hang in the air, then took another draught of his whiskey. “It was a dark time for Hank. He roamed the woods in anger, avoiding the men he had called friend and family, and headed south. He didn’t come back to civilized lands until he found himself in Boulder. He came back in to trade, eat, and drink himself under the table again, and while he was there he fell into conversation with the Sheriff. The Sheriff heard his story and sat down with him like a chaplain and helped him through his guilt. Twelve days they worked together, the Sheriff leading poor ol’ Hank to secure the land ’round Boulder for the Clanston family. When Hank found out what was going on, he was getting locked in a cell right next to John Williams. That night, as Hank shook out the aftereffects of some underhanded things that the Clanston boys had done to him, John spoke to him about what happened, about Hank’s mother, about Hank’s guilt and the things he’d done the past few weeks. We still don’t know what was aid that night, but over a plate of liver and turnips, John healed poor old Hank’s heart. Hank tore the prison open that night, and Hank and John found themselves fightin’ the Clanstons, axe and gun against fists and iron.”
Truman tapped his pipe out and packed it again, then swirled some whiskey in his mouth before swallowing. “The rest of that night is still repeated in Boulder, people watched Hank and John break out of prison with a handful of other wastrels caught up in the Clanston’s plans. A handful of handguns, including the Fire, and an axe against the Clanstons and their repeaters. That night proved to be fortuitous, as the Boss, John’s old financier, was bound in by train to collect John and his gun. The good people of Boulder fell into the hovels beneath their homes, hid from the Clanstons and the prisoners, and watched as a handful of men and women, hard as nails with justice in their eyes, marched on the train station at the northern end of town. Nobody is sure how the firefight started, but John and one of his neighbors in the prison, Carmichael Von Strappe, killed the Sheriff in the street and chased Clancy back into his hotel while Hank waded into the train station, taking shots but standing fast. Hank walked right into the building and introduced Jebediah and his men to the edge of his axe before falling to the lead in his bones. That night the people of Boulder fixed up their trainstation, sent the old boss packing, and buried good ol’ Hank on a hill overlooking the town. The money they found on Jebediah and the old Boss they gave to John and Carmichael before leaving. Word was they were headed to the South West, Carmichael had a family and was going out to the Alamo to pay off his family’s farm.”
Truman finished the last of his whiskey and sat back, looking up at the night sky. “They left that night, three men, four women, and a casket with a brass plate on it stamped P A N that was full of guns and rations. It was a long trek from Boulder to Texas, but the confrontation with Mexico was heatin’ up and good and proper Texans were offering bounty to keep the Alamo. Money, livelihood, and justice paved their road from the north down to the end of our story.”
Marcus cleared his throat and exhaled a stream of smoke from a lit cigar, “Now, this last part I did hear from my brother who knew a man who died at the Alamo, they sent letters back and forht ‘fore the siege and, afterward, his journal was mailed to my brother by a thief among the Mexican army. The story starts right around where Truman’s ended. It was several weeks travel from Colorado down the Rockies into Texas, and the party wasn’t prepared for either the biting wind of the mountains nor the baking heat of the desert, but they soldiered on. One of the women, Gerty, was lost to exposure on the trip and one of the men fell to bandits, raiders from Oklahoma. Keep that in mind, Zeke. Should you find yourself out in the Ozarks or in the plains of Oklahoma, carry your piece clear and don’t be afraid to use it. Dangerous men live outside of civilized lands. Now, as I was saying, they descended into the basin of Texas and arrived at the Alamo a few days after ol’ Davy Crockett did.”
He puffed on his cigar a few more times and leaned against the log he sat infront of, “So our intrepid band of heroes arrived in time to hear about the Mexican army coming, and the seige they were planning. With the guns that they had brought in ol’ Pan’s casket, several of the defenders of the fort thought they could hold it until the Union army came to help them, a fantasy that continued in strong force in the fort right up until the end. John, though, bless his heart sent Carmichael away with his gun. He told him, ‘Keep that iron good and proper, make sure you show your ways to your children, and tell them all of the things I told you. Clean the gun twice a day, reload sparingly, use the press under the barrel to make your shot and reload your cartridges. Always, always pay heed to man and beast, and never shoot when you can speak.’ With that, John sent Carmichael out to his farm. That’s the last time anyone would see Carmichael, or the Fire of Creation, ever again.”
He paused there, a moment of silence for a man lost to myth and legend. Truman cleared his throat, discretely, but nodded to Marcus to continue. “The crack Pan’s box and brought out the guns, the food, the blankets. They felt ready. Rifles, cannon, pistols…they were prepared. The food was low, but it’d help them through. Five days after Carmichael left, on the twenty-third of February in 1836, Santa Anna marched on the Alamo and laid siege to it. Good men and women died at that fort over the next fortnight. They turned away two attacks but the third overwhelmed them. They say that a handful of nurses and cooks were turned out after the siege but Crockett, Bowie, and Williams never made it out. Or if they did, no one has heard from them since. Since then, all we’ve had is this story, passed from cattlehand to cattlehand, from father to daughter, mother to son, and all the advantages John left behind. He taught the west to irrigate, he taught the west to blaze trails, he taught the west the value of a good gun, good word, and good manners. Without John, civilization wouldn’t thrive in the West. He was a good man.”
All three men nodded and the looked at Zeke. “The stories you’ve told me have taught me a lot tonight. Especially on what it means to live out here in the dust and the rock of the new West. To make it on our own and to do it like civilized men rather than the savages that bandits and highwaymen have turned into. It reminds me of a warning my pa’ gave me before he died.”
Zeke pulled out his gun and started cleaning it while looking into the fire, “Clean the gun twice a day. Reload only when you need to. Form the lead with the press under the barrel. Use your empty casings. Make your gunpowder carefully and use the recipe on the gun. Don’t kill when you can talk. Don’t speak of any woman or any animal in a fashion you would not use for a man. Don’t close your mind to change, and don’t miss.”
As he finished polishing the outside he set the gun down and, clear in the fire light, emblazoned on the barrel, was simple script. Hand carved in rust-red iron. The Fire of Creation