The Last Hundred Yards – Calumet “K”, Chapter 16
Bannon stood looking after her until she disappeared in the shadow of an arc lamp, and after that he continued a long time staring into the blot of darkness where the office was. At last the window became faintly luminous, as some one lighted the wall lamp; then, as if it were a signal he had been waiting for, Bannon turned away.
An hour before, when he had seen the last bolt of the belt gallery drawn taut, he had become aware that he was quite exhausted. The fact was so obvious that he had not tried to evade it, but had admitted to himself, in so many words, that he was at the end of his rope. But when he turned from gazing at the dimly lighted window, it was not toward his boarding-house, where he knew he ought to be, but back into the elevator, that his feet led him. For once, his presence accomplished nothing. He went about without thinking where; he passed men without seeing who they were or what they were doing. When he walked through the belt gallery, he saw the foreman of the big gang of men at work there was handling them clumsily, so that they interfered with each other, but it did not occur to him to give the orders that would set things right. Then, as if his wire-drawn muscles had not done work enough, he climbed laboriously to the very top of the marine tower.
He was leaning against a window-casing; not looking out, for he saw nothing, but with his face turned to the fleet of barges lying in the river; when some one spoke to him.
“I guess you’re thinking about that Christmas dinner, ain’t you, Mr. Bannon?”
“What’s that?” he demanded, wheeling about. Then rallying his scattered faculties, he recognized one of the carpenters. “Oh, yes,” he said, laughing tardily. “Yes, the postponed Christmas dinner. You think I’m in for it, do you? You know it’s no go unless this house is full of wheat clear to the roof.”
“I know it,” said the man. “But I guess we’re going to stick you for it. Don’t you think we are?”
“I guess that’s right.”
“I come up here,” said the carpenter, well pleased at the chance for a talk with the boss, “to have a look at this—marine leg, do you call it? I haven’t been to work on it, and I never saw one before. I wanted to find out how it works.”
“Just like any other leg over in the main house. Head pulley up here; another one down in the boot; endless belt running over ’em with steel cups rivetted on it to scoop up the grain. Only difference is that instead of being stationary and set up in a tank, this one’s hung up. We let the whole business right down into the boat. Pull it up and down with that steam winch.”
The man shook his head. “What if it got away from you?”
“That’s happened,” said Bannon. “I’ve seen a leg most as big as this smash through two decks. Thought it was going right on through the bottom of the boat. But that wasn’t a leg that MacBride had hung up. This one won’t fall.”
Bannon answered one or two more questions rather at random, then suddenly came back to earth. “What are you doing here, anyway?” he demanded. “Seems to me this is a pretty easy way to earn thirty cents an hour.”
“I—I was just going to see if there wasn’t something I could do,” the man answered, a good deal embarrassed. Then before Bannon could do more than echo, “Something to do?” added: “I don’t get my time check till midnight. I ain’t on this shift. I just come around to see how things was going. We’re going to see you through, Mr. Bannon.”
Bannon never had a finer tribute than that, not even what young Page said when the race was over; and it could not have come at a moment when he needed it more. He did not think much in set terms about what it meant, but when the man had gone and he had turned back to the window, he took a long breath of the night air and he saw what lay beneath his eyes. He saw the line of ships in the river; down nearer the lake another of Page’s elevators was drinking up the red wheat out of the hold of a snub-nosed barge; across the river, in the dark, they were backing another string of wheat-laden cars over the Belt Line switches. As he looked out and listened, his imagination took fire again, as it had taken fire that day in the waiting-room at Blake City, when he had learned that the little, one-track G. & M. was trying to hinder the torrent of the Northern wheat.
Well, the wheat had come down. It had beaten a blizzard, it had churned and wedged and crushed its way through floating ice and in the trough of mauling seas; belated passenger trains had waited on lonely sidings while it thundered by, and big rotary ploughs had bitten a way for it across the drifted prairies. Now it was here, and Charlie Bannon was keeping it waiting.
He stood there, looking, only a moment; then before the carpenter’s footsteps were well out of hearing, he followed him down the stairway to the belt gallery. Before he had passed half its length you could have seen the difference. In the next two hours every man on the elevator saw him, learned a quicker way to splice a rope or align a shaft, and heard, before the boss went away, some word of commendation that set his hands to working the faster, and made the work seem easy. The work had gone on without interruption for weeks, and never slowly, but there were times when it went with a lilt and a laugh; when laborers heaved at a hoisting tackle with a Yo-ho, like privateersmen who have just sighted a sail; when, with all they could do, results came too slowly, and the hours flew too fast. And so it was that Christmas night; Charlie Bannon was back on the job.
About ten o’clock he encountered Pete, bearing off to the shanty a quart bottle of cold coffee and a dozen big, thick sandwiches. “Come on, Charlie,” he called. “Max is coming, too; but I guess we’ve got enough to spare you a little.”
So the three of them sat down to supper around the draughting-table, and between bites Bannon talked, a little about everything, but principally, and with much corroborative detail—for the story seemed to strain even Pete’s easy credulity—of how, up at Yawger, he had been run on the independent ticket for Superintendent of the Sunday School, and had been barely defeated by two votes.
When the sandwiches were put away, and all but three drinks of the coffee, Bannon held the bottle high in the air. “Here’s to the house!” he said. “We’ll have wheat in her to-morrow night!”
They drank the toast standing; then, as if ashamed of such a sentimental demonstration, they filed sheepishly out of the office. They walked fifty paces in silence. Then Pete checked suddenly and turned to Bannon.
“Hold on, Charlie, where are you going?”
“Going to look over those ‘cross-the-house conveyor drives down cellar.”
“No, you ain’t either. You’re going to bed.”
Bannon only laughed and started on toward the elevator.
“How long is it since you had any sleep?” Pete demanded.
“I don’t know. Guess I must have slept part of the time while we was putting up that gallery. I don’t remember much about it.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” said Pete, and as he said it he reached out his left hand and caught him by the shoulder. It was more by way of gesture than otherwise, but Bannon had to step back a pace to keep his feet. “I mean business,” Pete went on, though laughing a little. “When we begin to turn over the machinery you won’t want to go away, so this is your last chance to get any sleep. I can’t make things jump like you can, but I can keep ’em going to-night somehow.”
“Hadn’t you better wrap me up in cotton flannel and feed me warm milk with a spoon? Let go of me and quit your fooling. You delay the game.”
“I ain’t fooling. I’m boss here at night, and I fire you till morning. That goes if I have to carry you all the way to your boarding house and tie you down to the bed.” Pete meant it. As if, again, for illustration, he picked Bannon up in his arms. The boss was ready for the move this time, and he resisted with all his strength, but he would have had as much chance against the hug of a grizzly bear; he was crumpled up. Pete started off with him across the flat.
“All right,” said Bannon. “I’ll go.”
At seven o’clock next morning Pete began expecting his return. At eight he began inquiring of various foremen if they had seen anything of Charlie Bannon. By nine he was avowedly worried lest something had gone wrong with him, and a little after ten Max set out for the boarding house.
Encountering the landlady in the hall, he made the mistake of asking her if she had seen anything of Mr. Bannon that morning. She had some elementary notions of strategy, derived, doubtless, from experience, and before beginning her reply, she blocked the narrow stairway with her broad person. Then, beginning with a discussion of Mr. Bannon’s excellent moral character and his most imprudent habits, and illustrating by anecdotes of various other boarders she had had at one time and another, she led up to the statement that she had seen nothing of him since the night before, and that she had twice knocked at his door without getting any reply.
Max, who had laughed a little at Pete’s alarm, was now pretty well frightened himself, but at that instant they heard the thud of bare feet on the floor just above them. “That’s him now,” said the landlady, thoughtlessly turning sideways, and Max bolted past her and up the stairs.
He knocked at the door and called out to know if he could come in. The growl he heard in reply meant invitation as much as it meant anything, so he went in. Bannon, already in his shirt and trousers, stood with his back to the door, his face in the washbowl. As he scoured he sputtered. Max could make little out of it, for Bannon’s face was under water half the time, but he caught such phrases as “Pete’s darned foolishness,” “College boy trick,” “Lie abed all the morning,” and “Better get an alarm clock”—which thing and the need for it Bannon greatly despised—and he reached the conclusion that the matter was nothing more serious than that Bannon had overslept.
But the boss took it seriously enough. Indeed, he seemed deeply humiliated, and he marched back to the elevator beside Max without saying a word until just as they were crossing the Belt Line tracks, when the explanation of the phenomenon came to him.
“I know where I get it from,” he exclaimed, as if in some measure relieved by the discovery. “I must take after my uncle. He was the greatest fellow to sleep you ever saw.”
So far as pace was concerned that day was like the others; while the men were human it could be no faster; with Bannon on the job it could not flag; but there was this difference, that to-day the stupidest sweepers knew that they had almost reached the end, and there was a rally like that which a runner makes at the beginning of the last hundred yards.
Late in the afternoon they had a broad hint of how near the end was. The sweepers dropped their brooms and began carrying fire buckets full of water. They placed one or more near every bearing all over the elevator. The men who were quickest to understand explained to the slower ones what the precaution meant, and every man had his eye on the nearest pulley to see when it would begin to turn.
But Bannon was not going to begin till he was ready. He had inspected the whole job four times since noon, but just after six he went all over it again, more carefully than before. At the end he stepped out of the door at the bottom of the stairway bin, and pulled it shut after him. It was not yet painted, and its blank surface suggested something. He drew out his blue pencil and wrote on the upper panel:—
C. H. Bannon.
Then he walked over to the power house. It was a one-story brick building, with whose construction Bannon had had no concern, as Page & Company had placed the contract for it elsewhere. Every night for the past week lights had been streaming from its windows, and day and night men had waited, ready at any time for the word to go ahead. A dozen of them were lounging about the brick-paved space in front of the battery of boilers when Bannon opened the door, and they sprang to their feet as they read his errand in his face.
“Steam up,” he said. “We’ll be ready as soon as you are.”
There was the accumulated tension of a week of inactivity behind these men, and the effect of Bannon’s words was galvanic. Already low fires were burning under the boilers, and now the coal was piled on, the draughts roared, the smoke, thick enough to cut, came billowing out of the tall chimney. Every man in the room, even the wretchedest of the dripping stokers, had his eyes on the steam gauges, but for all that the water boiled, and the indicator needles crept slowly round the dials, and at last the engineer walked over and pulled the whistle cord.
Hitherto they had marked the divisions of time on the job by the shrill note of the little whistle on the hoisting engine boiler, and there was not a man but started at the screaming crescendo of the big siren on top of the power house. Men in the streets, in the straggling boarding houses over across the flats, on the wharves along the river, men who had been forbidden to come to the elevator till they were needed lest they should be in the way, had been waiting days for that signal, and they came streaming into the elevator almost before the blast had died away.
Page’s superintendent was standing beside Bannon and Pete by the foot of the main drive. “Well,” he said, “we’re ready. Are you?”
Bannon nodded and turned to a laborer who stood near. “Go tell the engineer to go ahead.” The man, proud as though he had just been promoted, went out on the run.
“Now,” said Bannon, “here’s where we go slow. All the machinery in the house has got to be thrown in, one thing at a time, line shafts first and then elevators and the rest of it. Pete, you see it done up top. I’ll look out for it down here. See that there’s a man to look at each bearing at least once in three minutes, and let me know if it gets warm.”
It took a long time to do it, but it had to be done, for Bannon was inflexible, but at last everything in elevator, annex, and spouting house that could turn was turning, and it was reported to Bannon. “Now,” he said, “she’s got to run light for fifteen minutes. No——” he went on in answer to the superintendent’s protest; “you’re lucky I didn’t say two hours. It’s the biggest chance I ever took as it is.”
So while they stared at the second hands of their watches the minutes crept away—Pete wound his watch up tight in the vain hope of making it go a little faster—and at last Bannon turned with a nod to the superintendent.
“All right,” he said. “You’re the boss now.”
And then in a moment the straining hawsers were hauling cars up into the house. The seals were broken, the doors rolled back, and the wheat came pouring out. The shovellers clambered into the cars and the steam power shovels helped the torrent along. It fell through the gratings, into steel tanks, and then the tireless metal cups carried it up, up, up, ‘way to the top of the building. And then it came tumbling down again; down into garners, and down again into the great weighing hoppers, and recognized and registered and marketable at last, part of the load that was to bury the Clique that had braved it out of sight of all but their creditors, it went streaming down the spouts into the bins.
The first of the barges in the river was moved down beside the spouting house, her main hatch just opposite the tower. And now Pete, in charge there, gave the word, and the marine leg, gravely, deliberately descended. There is a magnificent audacity about that sort of performance. The leg was ninety feet long, steel-booted, framed of great timbers, heavy enough to have wrecked the barge like a birch bark canoe if it had got away. It went down bodily into the hold and the steel boot was buried in wheat. Then Pete threw another lever, and in a moment another endless series of cups was carrying the wheat aloft. It went over the cross-head and down a spout, then stretched out in a golden ribbon along the glistening white belt that ran the length of the gallery. Then, like the wheat from the cars, it was caught up again in the cups, and shot down through spouts, and carried along on belts to the remotest bins in the annex.
For the first few hours of it the men’s nerves were hair springs, but as time went on and the stream kept pouring in without pause, the tension relaxed though the watch never slackened. Men patted the bearings affectionately, and still the same report came to Bannon, “All cool.”
Late that night, as the superintendent was figuring his weighing reports, he said to Bannon; “At this rate, we’ll have several hours to spare.”
“We haven’t had our accident yet,” said Bannon, shortly.
It happened within an hour, at the marine leg, but it was not serious. They heard a splintering sound, down in the dark, somewhere, and Pete, shouting to them to throw out the clutch, climbed out and down on the sleet-clad girders that framed the leg. An agile monkey might have been glad to return alive from such a climb, but Pete came back presently with a curious specimen of marine hardware that had in some way got into the wheat, and thence into the boot and one of the cups. Part way up it had got jammed and had ripped up the sheathing of the leg. They started the leg again, but soon learned that it was leaking badly.
“You’ll have to haul up for repairs, I guess,” the captain called up to them.
“Haven’t time,” said Pete, under his breath, and with a hammer and nails, and a big piece of sacking, he went down the leg again, playing his neck against a half-hour’s delay as serenely as most men would walk downstairs to dinner. “Start her up, boys,” he called, when the job was done, and, with the leg jolting under his hands as he climbed, he came back into the tower.
That was their only misfortune, and all it cost them was a matter of minutes, so by noon of the thirtieth, an hour or two after MacBride and young Page arrived from Minneapolis, it became clear that they would be through in time.
At eight o’clock next morning, as Bannon and MacBride were standing in the superintendent’s office, he came in and held out his hand. “She’s full, Mr. Bannon. I congratulate you.”
“Full, eh?” said MacBride. Then he dropped his hand on Bannon’s shoulder. “Well,” he said, “do you want to go to sleep, or will you come and talk business with me for a little while?”
“Sleep!” Bannon echoed. “I’ve been oversleeping lately.”
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
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