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It must have been a bit hard to believe when Rills' work was all still there: the quarter-mile of chimes, the strange, majestic towers. Today, there is not a trace of any of it. In fact, the wharves, the shipyard, all the old buildings, the very ground they stood on are gone, claimed by the sea. Now, standing on the sunny heights, looking down at the outboards--white toys dotting the emerald meandering of the Pamet--now, with the town hall chimes cascading their Westminster melody lazily over the peaceful valley, John Rills's bells seem nothing but a half-remembered dream.
"Ol' John," as Rills was often called (even when young) Ol' John simply appeared one morning in Truro, why or where from no one ever knew. That was in 1831. He knocked together a shack out of driftwood, bought a team of oxen, and began to hunt, find, and haul wood with such demonic energy and to such uncertain purpose, that he was thought to be addled--moon-struck probably, since he had been heard working on his shack at odd hours of the night. It soon became clear that next year the tons of it he stacked near Corn Hill would be the only good supply from Chathamsport to Provincetown. It was supposed that he meant to hold back, raise prices and profiteer. But what people supposed about John Rills had a way of turning out wrong.
Had anyone paid close attention to his shrewd handling of the firewood affair, his later activities would not have seemed so demented, but, after all, why should anyone think carefully about a man who had to be fined and threatened into building a privy? Ol' John was eccentric all right; it was commonly believed that he used the great outdoors as his outhouse, and it wasalso said that, having complied with the law by building a privy, he had to be fined again when it was discovered that he had not dug a pit beneath his token toilet.
Within a few months, and mostly by himself, he had built a rugged windmill (not at all a make-do affair like his hut). He hired Shebnah Simms, a one-time salt maker, two other hands, and, using the windmill to pump sea water, began to burn his acres of firewood to get salt from the sea. Visitors to the new operation always found Simms's skinny little ten-year-old daughter, Ellie, ready to shout that her father would boil 'em like lobsters if they got too close, and that the boiling pans were the biggest in the world. They looked it.
Rills's old-fashioned salt works was certainly the most efficient on Cape Cod. He made far more money than he could have done by merely selling wood, and while people accused him of taking the little remaining timber from lands thought to be for public use, they had no choice: they needed salt to preserve their fish, so they waited in line, they watched little Ellie whooping and running, and they bought their salt from "the Salt King," John Rills.
Since he attended no church, Rills soon began to have trouble with Owen H. Antrim, deacon of a local congregation. Though few suspected it, the desperately ambitious Antrim craved to be minister of that congregation. Had anyone investigated his one-time connections with a church in Boston, they would have found that the Reverend Sylvester Graham, inventor of the new graham flour, had thrown the man out of the "Grahamites" because of Antrim's public accusations that eating graham crackers would send a person into convulsions.
Antrim strongly disliked his present minister too, a man who never let important religious convictions interfere with his disposition to make kindly and forgiving decisions about everything. A weakling, in Antrim's view.
The minister's considerate nature caused him to indulge Deacon Antrim in an occasional pre-service announcement which ususally turned out to be a thinly disguised sermon. Few minded, because Antrim usually restrained himself and kept it short. Hearing that Rills had worked on a Sunday, the deacon stood up in church to make an "announcement." He said that it was no surprise to him that those who would defile the face of the land with their night soil would desecrate the holy Sabbath with their filthy work habits, and that such infidels should be whipped and driven from the community. Everyone knew whom he meant.
Everyone knew, and several turned to stare at Antrim's nephew, Master Gorran, age ten. The deacon saw, paused, and sniffed, but in the angry joy at being allowed to preach, he passed over the incident without trying to fathom it. Had he known the meaning of those glances, his icy oratory would have turned into spluttering rage, but he was to have his first encounter with Ol'John in ignorance of the fact that little Justin Gorran, while playing with Ellie Simms, had become a friend and a frequent companion of the Salt King--and more.