John Smith and the Devil

A Southern Appalachian Folk Tale
as told by Alan Longmire

ONCE upon a time there was a blacksmith named John. He was known as a stern fellow, since he didn't like to be bothered while he was working. He always shooed away the children who gathered at the door of the shop to watch the sparks fly, and woe to the person who dared touch his hammer! John wasn't really a mean man, he just wanted folks to leave him and especially his tools alone.

WELL, one day an old man came down the road and stopped at the shop. It was a really hot day, one of those where the heat waves off the road make it hard to see from one side to the other, when the road is dirt and only ten feet wide. Well, John took pity on the old man, and asked him to come into the shop and sit down, and even gave him a big frosty cold glass of lemonade. Since it wasn't a busy day in the shop, John even told a few stories and played a bit of fiddle while the old man recovered.

THE OLD man was extremely grateful, and when he had recovered from the heat he got up and said "John, I've got to tell you: everyone says you're a mean old so-and-so, but you've treated me as good as anyone possibly could. That's gonna stand you in good stead, because I'm not what I look like. I'm Saint Peter! And as a reward for how good you are to an old stranger, I'm gonna give you three wishes! Any old thing whatsoever you want, just tell me and it'll be so." Well, John looked at the old man (who now had a faint, but noticeable, halo, plus a bit of white shining through the seams of his old patched coat), and said "Anything I want?" Saint Peter said "Anything at all, I can make it happen."

NOW, IF you remember what I said earlier, you know that John was mighty particular about his tools and his shop in general, so it won't surprise you that John took a long look around his shop, squinting into the corners, hmm-ing and haw-ing, scratching his head, walking around (at least twice he glanced over at Saint Pete and said "Only three, right?"), picking things up, putting them down, and so on, before he looked St. Peter square in the eye and said: "All right. Wish number one. That rocking chair you're sitting in was made to fit me exactly. I don't mind you sitting in it, not for a second, but it gripes me to death when some lazy boot-scuffer comes in and kicks back in my chair when I'm tired and ready to sit a spell. I want you to make it so that anyone who sits in that chair besides me has to rock till I tell them they can get up."

SAINT Peter's smile faded a bit, but he snapped his fingers and said "Okay, there you go. Now you've got two wishes left, choose 'em well!"

JOHN smiled a bit with the corner of his mouth and said " It bugs the heck out of me when kids come in here and take my good hammer when I'm not looking. They bang on the anvil, they throw it on the ground, and one of the little cusses actually took it out in the road and hit rocks with it! I hereby wish that anyone who picks up that hammer besides me has to hit what I tell them to until I tell them they can quit!"

SAINT Peter pulled a sad face, and said "Now John, that's not nice, but I respect a man's tools. I don't like to, but (he blinked hard) there you go. It's done. Now what else do you want? Gold? A bottomless bag of rivets? I can do anything, and you've only got one wish left. Better make it a good one, 'cause I gotta tell you, I don't like the way you're going so far."

THIS made John think a little harder, and pull his mouth in a bit, but finally he said "Pete, I don't have anything against anyone, I just want what I want, and I don't want anyone to run over me like I wasn't anyone. Did you see that big old rosebush beside the shop door when you came in?" Saint Peter relaxed a little bit, and said "Oh yes, it's a beauty. I bet you want me to make it bloom all year round, don't you? That'll be real nice, the Man upstairs won't mind that at all!" John replied "No, I don't want it to bloom all the time, that wouldn't look right. I've had it up to here with folks coming by and rippin' a branch of flowers off when they want to look fancy or when some young buck wants a flower for his girl. I want you to make it so that that rosebush will grab anyone who tries to pull a branch off it, pull 'em into the middle, and waller 'em in the stickers til I say they can go."

WELL, Saint Peter about cried. He begged John to choose something else, or to limit the damage to one sticker per person, or something, but John wouldn't budge. Saint Peter begged and he pleaded, he reasoned and he hollered, he even pointed out that his Boss would not be at all amused, but nothing would make John change his mind. So finally, Peter gave in. He got a strained look, like he was doing something unpleasant, closed his eyes, sighed long and low, and looked at John. "John, I tell you, I thought those folks who said you were mean were wrong after the way you treated me, but now I'm not so sure. But a promise is a promise, and now we both have to live with it. A deal is a deal, and this one's done. I hope you turn out all right. I've got to go on now, see you in a few years."

THE YEARS went by, as years tend to do, and eventually folks learned to leave old John and his shop alone. Of course, his reputation as a mean old so-and-so just got worse as the years went by, even though folks forgot exactly why. They just knew not to bother him. Eventually, as with all mortals, John's time on this earth drew nigh. His reputation had spread far and wide, so that even the Devil had heard of the cranky old smith. The Devil decided John would be a good man to have in hell, to keep the place in order maybe. All the little demons and imps were getting out of hand, and old Satan had heard that no child dared darken the door of John Smith's shop. So, he called up the younger of his two boys and said "Son, I want you to go upstairs and get old John the blacksmith. I want him down here, his time's up."

SO THE little devil went up to get John. He found John working at his anvil with his back to the door, paying no attention to whoever walked in. "Hey! John Smith!" the little devil hollered: "Daddy said you got to come with me, your time here's done! So come on now, we got to go!" John looked around to see who said that, and when he saw who it was, he said "I'll be with you in a minute. I told a man I'd have this job done today, and I'm almost through. Why don't you just have a seat in that old rocking chair, and I'll come with you when I finish."

WELL, the little devil hopped right up in the chair , and soon as he did that chair started whippin' him back and forth like a leaf in a hurricane, so fast he couldn't even see straight. "Hey! Help! Let me up from here!" the little devil yelled. John just laughed. The little devil threatened and cussed, but John just laughed louder. After about an hour, the yells and cussin' had kind of faded out. After two hours, a shaky little voice from the blur of the rocker said " Hey, mister John? Can I please get up from here?" John though for a minute, and asked "Do you promise if I let you up you'll go away and never come back?" The little voice from the blur said " Yes, Sir." So John stopped the chair and let the little devil go.

THE DEVIL was pretty mad that his littlest son couldn't get John, but he didn't want to go up himself since he was busy roasting some former politicians, so he called his older son: "Junior! Go up there and get John, and don't sit in that chair!" So the older devil strode into John's shop in a cloud of sulfurous smoke (not realizing a blacksmith would hardly be impressed by that) and yelled in the fiercest voice he could muster "John Smith, You're to come with me right now!" John looked the bigger devil-child up and down, and said "I done told your brother I had to finish this job before I go, and he wouldn't wait on me. Have yourself a seat in that old rocking chair, and I'll be through in an hour or so." "Ohhh, no you don't!" the bigger devil roared. "You ain't gonna do ME like that! And I ain't a-gonna wait around on you, either! You're coming right now!" John stopped hammering and gave the bigger devil an appraising look. "Say, you look pretty strong. Tell you what: You come here and swing this hammer for me, and I'll be done in no time. Then I'll go with you." "No tricks?" the bigger devil asked. "Nope. Just need a hand." John said.

SO THE bigger devil grabbed the hammer away from John without so much as a "Gimme that" and started pounding away on the work John was holding. Of course, he couldn't stop! This was before the time of small power hammers, so John really put the bigger devil through his paces. John and the bigger devil made forty-seven sets of horseshoes, twenty-eight fire pokers, sixteen coathooks, ten sets of singletree irons, five felling axes, three hoes, repointed two plows (one of them cold just to say he did it), and just for fun he started on a life-sized ram head out of a four-inch square bar of merchant iron, the bigger devil hollering and screaming the whole time, when the bigger devil got real quiet. John stopped pumping the bellows to see what was wrong, and through the ringing of the anvil he heard a low voice say "Mr. Smith, sir? Please let me stop. I won't take you down with me. I just want to go home."

"Promise?" John asked.

"Yes, sir!"

So John let him go.

WELL, If the Devil thought he was peeved when his littlest boy came back, when the older one came in with his arm still jerking up and down and his horns ringing softly like a tuning fork, old Satan had to do a major rethink. "BOYS!" he shouted:


JOHN was sweeping up the knee-deep pile of scale from around his anvil when the door of the shop blew in, a thunderclap rolled through the building (blowing the pile of scale all over the room), and Satan Himself stalked in like the lord of evil he is.


JOHN just looked at Satan, huffed a little bit, and said quietly "You ain't so big."

Well, the thunder rolled again and Satan drew himself up a bit more and said,


JOHN just spit at the Devil's feet and said "You ain't man enough to do it, you old so-and-so."

TORNADOES and hurricanes don't begin to describe the noise the Devil made as he reached for the biggest, thickest, thorniest branch in the rose bush and tried to break it off. Of course, the bush grabbed right back and pulled the Devil down into the very midst of the bush and commenced to flogging, poking, and sticking old Satan with every sticker of every branch in the whole bush (which covered the entire side of the shop towards the road from side to side and floor to roofpeak). The commotion was so dreadful all the people in the whole valley ran away thinking for sure the end of the world was at hand. As for John, he just laughed.

THREE days later, John was coming in to work when a little voice from the middle of the rosebush asked "John? It's me. Your old pal Satan. If I agree to go away, will you not tell anyone about this little incident? I won't bother you ever again, I swear. Just please let me go."

SO, JOHN let him go. And kept on living for a number of years, until he was too tired of living to keep on living, in fact. When he finally died, he went up to Heaven and knocked at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter looked out and said "John! I hate to tell you, but the Big Man just about busted me to halo shining duty for giving you such awful wishes! You aren't allowed up here at all after that. Just follow that path off to the side, they'll take you down below, I'm sure."

JOHN just shrugged and walked down the road to Hell. When he was getting close to the gates, just where he could read the sign about abandoning hope and such, the littlest devil-child poked his head out, saw John, and ran back inside screaming "Daddy!!! Daddy!!! That awful old John is here!!!" Satan himself came and barred the gates, and said "I'm sorry John, I just can't let you in here, I'm afraid you'll take over. Now, GIT!"

JOHN shrugged again, and walked off. I don't know for sure, but I've heard that he started his own place to go, where he could do whatever he wanted to do and nobody ever bothered him. If you ever happen to find him, remember what I told you, and be nice!


anvilfire graphic (c) 1998 Patrick Dempsey
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