Silver Thread, Hammer Ring by Gary A. Braunbeck
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
The legendary John Henry battles the steam-drill driven by a mythical creature as part of a rivalry between two other legendary individuals in a world in which alternate history and myth combine. The night before his hammers battle a steam-drill driven by a bullheaded man, John Henry recounts the events that led him to the railroad construction company owned by Mr. Daedalus in the Confederate States of Mexico, led by President John Brown. After proving himself to the foreman Captain Tommy, Henry becomes the crew’s best worker until one day a Mr. Minos and his bullheaded assistant block the tunnel and demand the crew use their steam-drill then kill one of Henry’s co-workers. Henry challenges the machine and later meets with Mr. Daedalus who relates that Mr. Minos and he were once partners but they had a falling out as Minos only wanted money and Daedalus wanted to create for everyone. Years later, Daedalus’ son Icarus and Minos’ son, Perdix, got into a fight and Icarus beheaded Perdix but Minos caught him and chained him to the Gates of Hell that Daedalus had constructed. Incidentally the path Henry will be tunneling will lead him to said Gates and Daedalus asks him to rescue his son. Henry agrees and the next day using hammers that Daedalus says is loaned by a Mr. Thor hammers his way to the Gates of Hell, releases Icarus, and after they escape Henry returns to the contest and bests the bullheaded man and the drill.
Besides the earlier story of Odysseus, this is one of the most fantastical stories of the collection so far. The intertwining of alternate history, Greek myth, American folklore, and other bits of world mythology are expertly combined to create a great story that was slightly ruined by the somewhat out of nowhere happy ending dealing with Henry’s dead younger brother who turns up alive.