The Big Swing – Calumet “K”, Chapter 14
The effect of the victory was felt everywhere. Not only were Max and Pete and Hilda jubilant over it, but the under-foremen, the timekeepers, even the laborers attacked their work with a fresher energy. It was like the first whiff of salt air to an army marching to the sea. Since the day when the cribbing came down from Ledyard, the work had gone forward with almost incredible rapidity; there had been no faltering during the weeks when Grady’s threatened catastrophe was imminent, but now that the big shadow of the little delegate was dispelled, it was easier to see that the huge warehouse was almost finished. There was still much to do, and the handful of days that remained seemed absurdly inadequate; but it needed only a glance at what Charlie Bannon’s tireless, driving energy had already accomplished to make the rest look easy. “We’re sure of it now. She’ll be full to the roof before the year is out.” As Max went over the job with his time-book next morning, he said it to every man he met, and they all believed him. Peterson, the same man and not the same man either, who had once vowed that there wouldn’t be any night work on Calumet K, who had bent a pair of most unwilling shoulders to the work Bannon had put upon them, who had once spent long, sulky afternoons in the barren little room of his new boarding-house; Peterson held himself down in bed exactly three hours the morning after that famous victory. Before eleven o’clock he was sledging down a tottering timber at the summit of the marine tower, a hundred and forty feet sheer above the wharf. Just before noon he came into the office and found Hilda there alone.
He had stopped outside the door to put on his coat, but had not buttoned it; his shirt, wet as though he had been in the lake, clung to him and revealed the outline of every muscle in his great trunk. He flung his hat on the draughting-table, and his yellow hair seemed crisper and curlier than ever before.
“Well, it looks as though we was all right,” he said.
Hilda nodded emphatically. “You think we’ll get through in time, don’t you, Mr. Peterson?”
“Think!” he exclaimed. “I don’t have to stop to think. Here comes Max; just ask him.”
Max slammed the door behind him, brought down the timekeeper’s book on Hilda’s desk with a slap that made her jump, and vaulted to a seat on the railing. “Well, I guess it’s a case of hurrah for us, ain’t it, Pete?”
“Your sister asked me if I thought we’d get done on time. I was just saying it’s a sure thing.”
“I don’t know,” said Max, laughing. “I guess an earthquake could stop us. But why ain’t you abed, Pete?”
“What do I want to be abed for? I ain’t going to sleep any more this year—unless we get through a day or two ahead of time. I don’t like to miss any of it. Charlie Bannon may have hustled before, but I guess this breaks his record. Where is he now, Max?”
“Down in the cellar putting in the running gear for the ‘cross-the-house conveyors. He has his nerve with him. He’s putting in three drives entirely different from the way they are in the plans. He told me just now that there wasn’t a man in the office who could design a drive that wouldn’t tie itself up in square knots in the first ten minutes. I wonder what old MacBride’ll say when he sees that he’s changed the plans.”
“If MacBride has good sense, he’ll pass anything that Charlie puts up,” said Pete.
He was going to say more, but just then Bannon strode into the office and over to the draughting table. He tossed Pete’s hat to one side and began studying a detail of the machinery plans.
“Max.” He spoke without looking up. “I wish you’d find a water boy and send him up to the hotel to get a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of coffee.”
“Well, that’s a nice way to celebrate, I must say,” Pete commented.
“Why, last night; throwing Grady down. You ought to take a day off on the strength of that.”
“What’s Grady got to do with it? He ain’t in the specifications.”
“No,” said Pete, slowly; “but where would we have been if he’d got the men off?”
“Where would we have been if the house had burned up?” Bannon retorted, turning away from the table. “That’s got nothing to do with it. I haven’t felt less like taking a day off since I came on the job. We may get through on time and we may not. If we get tangled up in the plans like this, very often, I don’t know how we’ll come out. But the surest way to get left is to begin now telling ourselves that this is easy and it’s a cinch. That kind of talk makes me tired.”
Pete flushed, started an explanatory sentence, and another, and then, very uncomfortable, went out.
Bannon did not look up; he went on studying the blue print, measuring here and there with his three-sided ruler and jotting down incomprehensible operations in arithmetic on a scrap of paper. Max was figuring tables in his time-book, Hilda poring over the cash account. For half an hour no one spoke. Max crammed his cap down over his ears and went out, and there were ten minutes more of silence. Then Bannon began talking. He still busied his fingers with the blue print, and Hilda, after discovering that he was talking to himself rather than to her, went on with her work. But nevertheless she heard, in a fragmentary way, what he was saying.
“Take a day off—schoolboy trick—enough to make a man tired. Might as well do it, though. We ain’t going to get through. The office ought to do a little work once in a while just to see what it’s like. They think a man can do anything. I’d like to know why I ain’t entitled to a night’s sleep as well as MacBride. But he don’t think so. After he’d worked me twenty-four hours a day up to Duluth, and I lost thirty-two pounds up there, he sends me down to a mess like this. With a lot of drawings that look as though they were made by a college boy. Where does he expect ’em to pile their car doors, I’d like to know.”
That was the vein of it, though the monologue ran on much longer. But at last he swung impatiently around and addressed Hilda. “I’m ready to throw up my hands. I think I’ll go back to Minneapolis and tell MacBride I’ve had enough. He can come down here and finish the house himself.”
“Do you think he would get it done in time?” Hilda’s eyes were laughing at him, but she kept them on her work.
“Oh, yes,” he said wearily. “He’d get the grain into her somehow. You couldn’t stump MacBride with anything. That’s why he makes it so warm for us.”
“Do you think,” she asked very demurely, indeed, “that if Mr. MacBride had been here he could have built it any faster than—than we have, so far?”
“I don’t believe it,” said Bannon, unwarily. Her smile told him that he had been trapped. “I see,” he added. “You mean that there ain’t any reason why we can’t do it.”
He arose and tramped uneasily about the little shanty. “Oh, of course, we’ll get it done—just because we have to. There ain’t anything else we can do. But just the same I’m sick of the business. I want to quit.”
She said nothing, and after a moment he wheeled and, facing her, demanded abruptly: “What’s the matter with me, anyway?” She looked at him frankly, a smile, almost mischievous, in her face. The hard, harassed look between his eyes and about his drawn mouth melted away, and he repeated the question: “What’s the matter with me? You’re the doctor. I’ll take whatever medicine you say.”
“You didn’t take Mr. Peterson’s suggestion very well—about taking a holiday, I mean. I don’t know whether I dare prescribe for you or not. I don’t think you need a day off. I think that, next to a good, long vacation, the best thing for you is excitement.” He laughed. “No, I mean it. You’re tired out, of course, but if you have enough to occupy your mind, you don’t know it. The trouble to-day is that everything is going too smoothly. You weren’t a bit afraid yesterday that the elevator wouldn’t be done on time. That was because you thought there was going to be a strike. And if just now the elevator should catch on fire or anything, you’d feel all right about it again.”
He still half suspected that she was making game of him, and he looked at her steadily while he turned her words over in his mind. “Well,” he said, with a short laugh, “if the only medicine I need is excitement, I’ll be the healthiest man you ever saw in a little while. I guess I’ll find Pete. I must have made him feel pretty sore.”
“Pete,” he said, coming upon him in the marine tower a little later, “I’ve got over my stomach-ache. Is it all right?”
“Sure,” said Pete; “I didn’t know you was feeling bad. I was thinking about that belt gallery, Charlie. Ain’t it time we was putting it up? I’m getting sort of nervous about it.”
“There ain’t three days’ work in it, the way we’re going,” said Bannon, thoughtfully, his eyes on the C. & S. C. right-of-way that lay between him and the main house, “but I guess you’re right. We’ll get at it now. There’s no telling what sort of a surprise party those railroad fellows may have for us. The plans call for three trestles between the tracks. We’ll get those up to-day.”
To Pete, building the gallery was a more serious business. He had not Bannon’s years of experience at bridge repairing; it had happened that he had never been called upon to put up a belt gallery before, and this idea of building a wooden box one hundred and fifty feet long and holding it up, thirty feet in air, on three trestles, was formidable. Bannon’s nonchalant air of setting about it seemed almost an affectation.
Each trestle was to consist of a rank of four posts, planted in a line at right angles to the direction of the gallery; they were to be held together at the top by a corbel. No one gave rush orders any more on Calumet K, for the reason that no one ever thought of doing anything else. If Bannon sent for a man, he came on the run. So in an incredibly short time the fences were down and a swarm of men with spades, post augers, picks, and shovels had invaded the C. & S. C. right-of-way. Up and down the track a hundred yards each way from the line of the gallery Bannon had stationed men to give warning of the approach of trains. “Now,” said Bannon, “we’ll get this part of the job done before any one has time to kick. And they won’t be very likely to try to pull ’em up by the roots once we get ’em planted.”
But the section boss had received instructions that caused him to be wide-awake, day or night, to what was going on in the neighborhood of Calumet K. Half an hour after the work was begun, the picket line up the track signalled that something was coming. There was no sound of bell or whistle, but presently Bannon saw a hand car spinning down the track as fast as six big, sweating men could pump the levers. The section boss had little to say; simply that they were to get out of there and put up that fence again, and the quicker the better. Bannon tried to tell him that the railroad had consented to their putting in the gallery, that they were well within their rights, that he, the section boss, had better be careful not to exceed his instructions. But the section boss had spoken his whole mind already. He was not of the sort that talk just for the pleasure of hearing their own voices, and he had categorical instructions that made parley unnecessary. He would not even tell from whom he had the orders. So the posts were lugged out of the way and the fence was put up and the men scattered out to their former work again, grinning a little over Bannon’s discomfiture.
Bannon’s next move was to write to Minneapolis for information and instructions, but MacBride, who seemed to have all the information there was, happened to be in Duluth, and Brown’s instructions were consequently foggy. So, after waiting a few days for something more definite, Bannon disappeared one afternoon and was gone more than an hour. When he strode into the office again, keen and springy as though his work had just begun, Hilda looked up and smiled a little. Pete was tilted back in the chair staring glumly out of the window. He did not turn until Bannon slapped him jovially on the shoulders and told him to cheer up.
“Those railroad chaps are laying for us, sure enough,” he said. “I’ve been talking to MacBride himself—over at the telephone exchange; he ain’t in town—and he said that Porter—he’s the vice-president of the C. & S. C.—Porter told him, when he was in Chicago, that they wouldn’t object at all to our building the gallery over their tracks. But that’s all we’ve got to go by. Not a word on paper. Oh, they mean to give us a picnic, and no mistake!”
With that, Bannon called up the general offices of the C. & S. C. and asked for Mr. Porter. There was some little delay in getting the connection, and then three or four minutes of fencing while a young man at the other end of the line tried to satisfy himself that Bannon had the right to ask for Mr. Porter, let alone to talk with him, and Bannon, steadily ignoring his questions, continued blandly requesting him to call Mr. Porter to the telephone. Hilda was listening with interest, for Bannon’s manner was different from anything she had ever seen in him before. It lacked nothing of his customary assurance, but its breeziness gave place to the most studied restraint; he might have been a railroad president himself. He hung up the receiver, however, without accomplishing anything, for the young man finally told him that Mr. Porter had gone out for the afternoon.
So next morning Bannon tried again. He learned that Porter was in, and all seemed to be going well until he mentioned MacBride & Company, after which Mr. Porter became very elusive. Three or four attempts to pin him down, or at least to learn his whereabouts, proved unsuccessful, and at last Bannon, with wrath in his heart, started down town.
It was nearly night before he came back, and as before, he found Pete sitting gloomily in the office waiting his return. “Well,” exclaimed the night boss, looking at him eagerly; “I thought you was never coming back. We’ve most had a fit here, wondering how you’d come out. I don’t have to ask you, though. I can see by your looks that we’re all right.”
Bannon laughed, and glanced over at Hilda, who was watching him closely. “Is that your guess, too, Miss Vogel?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think you’ve had a pretty hard time.”
“They’re both good guesses,” he said, pulling a paper out of his pocket, and handing it to Hilda. “Read that.” It was a formal permit for building the gallery, signed by Porter himself, and bearing the O. K. of the general manager.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Bannon commented. “Now read the postscript, Miss Vogel.” It was in Porter’s handwriting, and Hilda read it slowly. “MacBride & Company are not, however, allowed to erect trestles or temporary scaffolding in the C. & S. C. right-of-way, nor to remove any property of the Company, such as fences, nor to do anything which may, in the opinion of the local authorities, hinder the movement of trains.”
Pete’s face went blank. “A lot of good this darned permit does us then. That just means we can’t build it.”
Bannon nodded. “That’s what it’s supposed to mean,” he said. “That’s just the point.”
“You see, it’s like this,” he went on. “That man Porter would make the finest material for ring-oiling, dust proof, non-inflammable bearings that I ever saw. He’s just about the hardest, smoothest, shiniest, coolest little piece of metal that ever came my way. Well, he wants to delay us on this job. I took that in the moment I saw him. Well, I told him how we went ahead, just banking on his verbal consent, and how his railroad had jumped on us; and I said I was sure it was just a misunderstanding, but I wanted it cleared up because we was in a hurry. He grinned a little over that, and I went on talking. Said we’d bother ’em as little as possible; of course we had to put up the trestles in their property, because we couldn’t hold the thing up with a balloon.
“He asked me, innocent as you please, if a steel bridge couldn’t be made in a single span, and I said, yes, but it would take too long. We only had a few days. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘Mr. Bannon, I’ll give you a permit.’ And that’s what he gave me. I bet he’s grinning yet. I wonder if he’ll grin so much about three days from now.”
“Do you mean that you can build it anyway?” Hilda demanded breathlessly.
He nodded, and, turning to Pete, plunged into a swift, technical explanation of how the trick was to be done. “Won’t you please tell me, too?” Hilda asked appealingly.
“Sure,” he said. He sat down beside her at the desk and began drawing on a piece of paper. Pete came and looked over his shoulder. Bannon began his explanation.
“Here’s the spouting house, and here’s the elevator. Now, suppose they were only fifteen feet apart. Then if we had two ten-foot sticks and put ’em up at an angle and fastened the floor to a bolt that came down between ’em, the whole weight of the thing would be passed along to the foundation that the ends of the timbers rest on. But you see, it’s got to be one hundred and fifty feet long, and to build it that way would take two one hundred-foot timbers, and we haven’t got ’em that long.
“But we’ve got plenty of sticks that are twenty feet long, and plenty of bolts, and this is the way we arrange ’em.
We put up our first stick (x) at an angle just as before. Then we let a bolt (o) down through the upper end of it and through the floor of the gallery. Now the next timber (y) we put up at just the same angle as the first, with the foot of it bearing down on the lower end of the bolt.
“That second stick pushes two ways. A straight down push and a sideways push. The bolt resists the down push and transmits it to the first stick, and that pushes against the sill that I marked a. Now, the sideways push is against the butt of the first timber of the floor, and that’s passed on, same way, to the sill.
“Well, that’s the whole trick. You begin at both ends at once and just keep right on going. When the thing’s done it looks this way. You see where the two sections meet in the middle, it’s just the same as the little fifteen-foot gallery that we made a picture of up here.”
“I understand that all right,” said Pete, “but I don’t see yet how you’re going to do it without some kind of scaffolding.”
“Easy. I ain’t going to use a balloon, but I’ve got something that’s better. It’ll be out here this afternoon. Come and help me get things ready.”
There was not much to do, for the timber was already cut to the right sizes, but Bannon was not content till everything was piled so that when work did begin on the gallery it could go without a hitch. He was already several days behind, and when one is figuring it as fine as Bannon was doing in those last days, even one day is a serious matter. He could do nothing more at the belt gallery until his substitute for a scaffold should arrive; it did not come that afternoon or evening, and next morning when he came on the job it still had not been heard from. There was enough to occupy every moment of his time and every shred of his thought without bothering about the gallery, and he did not worry about it as he would have worried if he had had nothing to do but wait for it.
But when, well along in the afternoon, a water boy found him up on the weighing floor and told him there was something for him at the office, he made astonishing time getting down. “Here’s your package,” said Max, as Bannon burst into the little shanty. It was a little, round, pasteboard box. If Bannon had had the office to himself, he would, in his disappointment, have cursed the thing till it took fire. As it was, he stood speechless a moment and then turned to go out again.
“Aren’t you going to open it, now you’re here?” asked Max.
Bannon, after hesitating, acted on the suggestion, and when he saw what it was, he laughed. No, Brown had not forgotten the hat! Max gazed at it in unfeigned awe; it was shiny as a mirror, black as a hearse, tall, in his eyes—for this was his first near view of one—as the seat of a dining-room chair. “Put it on,” he said to Bannon. “Let’s see how it looks on you.”
“Not much. Wouldn’t I look silly in a thing like that, though? I’d rather wear an ordinary length of stovepipe. That’d be durable, anyway. I wonder what Brown sent it for. I thought he knew a joke when he saw one.”
Just then one of the under-foremen came in. “Oh, Mr. Bannon,” he said, “I’ve been looking for you. There’s a tug in the river with a big, steel cable aboard that they said was for us. I told ’em I thought it was a mistake——”
It was all one movement, Bannon’s jamming that hat—the silk hat—down on his head, and diving through the door. He shouted orders as he ran, and a number of men, Pete among them, got to the wharf as soon as he did.
“Now, boys, this is all the false work we can have. We’re going to hang it up across the tracks and hang our gallery up on it till it’s strong enough to hold itself. We’ve got just forty-eight hours to do the whole trick. Catch hold now—lively.
It was a simple scheme of Bannon’s. The floor of the gallery was to be built in two sections, one in the main house, one in the spouting house. As fast as the timbers were bolted together the halves of the floor were shoved out over the tracks, each free e
nd being supported by a rope which ran up over a pulley. The pulley was held by an iron ring fast to the cable, but perfectly free to slide along it, and thus accompany the end of the floor as it was moved outward. Bannon explained it to Pete in a few quick words while the men were hustling the big cable off the tug.
“Of course,” he was concluding, “the thing’ll wabble a good deal, specially if it’s as windy as this, and it won’t be easy to work on, but it won’t fall if we make everything fast.”
Pete had listened pretty closely at first, but now Bannon noticed that his attention seemed to be wandering to a point a few inches above Bannon’s head. He was about to ask what was the matter when he found out. It was windier on that particular wharf than anywhere else in the Calumet flats, and the hat he had on was not built for that sort of weather. It was perfectly rigid, and not at all accommodated to the shape of Bannon’s head. So, very naturally, it blew off, rolled around among their feet for a moment, and then dropped into the river between the wharf and the tug.
Bannon was up on the spouting house, helping make fast the cable end when a workman brought the hat back to him. Somebody on the tug had fished it out with a trolling line. But the hat was well past resuscitation. It had been thoroughly drowned, and it seemed to know it.
“Take that to the office,” said Bannon. “Have Vogel wrap it up just as it is and ship it to Mr. Brown. I’ll dictate a letter to go with it by and by.”
For all Bannon’s foresight, there threatened to be a hitch in the work on the gallery. The day shift was on again, and twenty-four of Bannon’s forty-eight hours were spent, when he happened to say to a man:—
“Never mind that now, but be sure you fix it to-morrow.”
“To-morrow?” the man repeated. “We ain’t going to work to-morrow, are we?”
Bannon noticed that every man within hearing stopped work, waiting for the answer. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
There was some dissatisfied grumbling among them which he was quite at a loss to understand until he caught the word “Christmas.”
“Christmas!” he exclaimed, in perfectly honest astonishment. “Is to-morrow Christmas?” He ran his hand through his stubby hair. “Boys,” he said, “I’m sorry to have to ask it of you. But can’t we put it off a week? Look here. We need this day. Now, if you’ll say Christmas is a week from to-morrow, I’ll give every man on the job a Christmas dinner that you’ll never forget; all you can eat and as much again, and you bring your friends, if we work to-morrow and we have her full of wheat a week from to-day. Does that go?”
It went, with a ripping cheer to boot; a cheer that was repeated here and there all over the place as Bannon’s offer was passed along.
So for another twenty-four hours they strained and tugged and tusselled up in the big swing, for it was nothing else, above the railroad tracks. There was a northeast gale raging down off the lake, with squalls of rain and sleet mixed up in it, and it took the crazy, swaying box in its teeth and shook it and tossed it up in the air in its eagerness to strip it off the cable. But somewhere there was an unconquerable tenacity that held fast, and in the teeth of the wind the long box grew rigid, as the trusses were pounded into place by men so spent with fatigue that one might say it was sheer good will that drove the hammers.
At four o’clock Christmas afternoon the last bolt was drawn taut. The gallery was done. Bannon had been on the work since midnight—sixteen consecutive hours. He had eaten nothing except two sandwiches that he had stowed in his pockets. His only pause had been about nine o’clock that morning when he had put his head in the office door to wish Hilda a Merry Christmas.
When the evening shift came on—that was just after four—one of the under-foremen tried to get him to talking, but Bannon was too tired to talk. “Get your tracks and rollers in,” he said. “Take down the cable.”
“Don’t you want to stay and see if she’ll hold when the cable comes down?” called the foreman after him as he started away.
“She’ll hold,” said Bannon.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17
LIVE TALK: Calumet “K”: Ayn Rand’s Favorite Novel by Shoshana Milgram Ph.D.
“This talk offers an introduction to the background, spirit and craft of the novel Ayn Rand called her favorite. Calumet ‘K,’ she wrote, features a ‘portrait of an efficacious man’; it reflects the sense of life of ‘a time when people were capable of admiring productive achievement.’ Dr. Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, specializes in narrative fiction and film. She has lectured on Ayn Rand at Objectivist and academic conferences, and has published on Ayn Rand, Hugo and Dostoevsky. She is editing the draft of her book-length study of Ayn Rand’s life (to 1957).
Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster
Latest posts by Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster (see all)
- Christmas Dinner – Calumet “K”, Chapter 17 - May 27, 2017
- The Last Hundred Yards – Calumet “K”, Chapter 16 - May 27, 2017
- The Company and The Clique – Calumet “K”, Chapter 15 - May 27, 2017