A Devil of a Lot of Wheat – Calumet “K”, Chapter 2
The five o’clock whistle had sounded, and Peterson sat on the bench inside the office door, while Bannon washed his hands in the tin basin. The twilight was already settling; within the shanty, whose dirty, small-paned windows served only to indicate the lesser darkness without, a wall lamp, set in a dull reflector, threw shadows into the corners.
“You’re coming up with me, ain’t you?” said Peterson. “I don’t believe you’ll get much to eat. Supper’s just the pickings from dinner.”
“Well, the dinner was all right. But I wish you had a bigger bed. I ain’t slept for two nights.”
“What was the matter?”
“I was on the sleeper last night; and I didn’t get in from the Duluth job till seven o’clock Saturday night, and Brown was after me before I’d got my supper. Those fellows at the office wouldn’t let a man sleep at all if they could help it. Here I’d been working like a nigger ‘most five months on the Duluth house—and the last three weeks running night shifts and Sundays; didn’t stop to eat, half the time—and what does Brown do but—’Well,’ he says, ‘how’re you feeling, Charlie?’ ‘Middling,’ said I. ‘Are you up to a little job to-morrow?’ ‘What’s that?’ I said. ‘Seems to me if I’ve got to go down to the Calumet job Sunday night I might have an hour or so at home.’ ‘Well, Charlie,’ he says, ‘I’m mighty sorry, but you see we’ve been putting in a big rope drive on a water-power plant over at Stillwater. We got the job on the high bid,’ he says, ‘and we agreed to have it running on Monday morning. It’ll play the devil with us if we can’t make good.’ ‘What’s the matter?’ said I. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘Murphy’s had the job and has balled himself up.'”
By this time the two men had their coats on, and were outside the building.
“Let’s see,” said Bannon, “we go this way, don’t we?”
There was still the light, flying flakes of snow, and the biting wind that came sweeping down from the northwest. The two men crossed the siding, and, picking their way between the freight cars on the Belt Line tracks, followed the path that wound across the stretch of dusty meadow.
“Go ahead,” said Peterson; “you was telling about Murphy.”
“Well, that was the situation. I could see that Brown was up on his hind legs about it, but it made me tired, all the same. Of course the job had to be done, but I wasn’t letting him have any satisfaction. I told him he ought to give it to somebody else, and he handed me a lot of stuff about my experience. Finally I said: ‘You come around in the morning, Mr. Brown. I ain’t had any sleep to speak of for three weeks. I lost thirty-two pounds,’ I said, ‘and I ain’t going to be bothered to-night.’ Well, sir, he kind of shook his head, but he went away, and I got to thinking about it. Long about half-past seven I went down and got a time-table. There was a train to Stillwater at eight-forty-two.”
“Sure. I went over to the shops with an express wagon and got a thousand feet of rope—had it in two coils so I could handle it—and just made the train. It was a mean night. There was some rain when I started, but you ought to have seen it when I got to Stillwater—it was coming down in layers, and mud that sucked your feet down halfway to your knees. There wasn’t a wagon anywhere around the station, and the agent wouldn’t lift a finger. It was blind dark. I walked off the end of the platform, and went plump into a mudhole. I waded up as far as the street crossing, where there was an electric light, and ran across a big lumber yard, and hung around until I found the night watchman. He was pretty near as mean as the station agent, but he finally let me have a wheelbarrow for half a dollar, and told me how to get to the job.
“He called it fifty rods, but it was a clean mile if it was a step, and most of the way down the track. I wheeled her back to the station, got the rope, and started out. Did you ever try to shove two five hundred foot coils over a mile of crossties? Well, that’s what I did. I scraped off as much mud as I could, so I could lift my feet, and bumped over those ties till I thought the teeth were going to be jarred clean out of me. After I got off the track there was a stretch of mud that left the road by the station up on dry land.
“There was a fool of a night watchman at the power plant—I reckon he thought I was going to steal the turbines, but he finally let me in, and I set him to starting up the power while I cleaned up Murphy’s job and put in the new rope.”
“All by yourself?” asked Peterson.
“Sure thing. Then I got her going and she worked smooth as grease. When we shut down and I came up to wash my hands, it was five minutes of three. I said, ‘Is there a train back to Minneapolis before very long?’ ‘Yes,’ says the watchman, ‘the fast freight goes through a little after three.’ ‘How much after?’ I said. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I couldn’t say exactly. Five or eight minutes, I guess.’ I asked when the next train went, and he said there wasn’t a regular passenger till six-fifty-five. Well, sir, maybe you think I was going to wait four hours in that hole! I went out of that building to beat the limited—never thought of the wheelbarrow till I was halfway to the station. And there was some of the liveliest stepping you ever saw. Couldn’t see a thing except the light on the rails from the arc lamp up by the station. I got about halfway there—running along between the rails—and banged into a switch—knocked me seven ways for Sunday. Lost my hat picking myself up, and couldn’t stop to find it.”
Peterson turned in toward one of a long row of square frame houses.
“Here we are,” he said. As they went up the stairs he asked: “Did you make the train?”
“Caught the caboose just as she was swinging out. They dumped me out in the freight yards, and I didn’t get home till ‘most five o’clock. I went right to bed, and along about eight o’clock Brown came in and woke me up. He was feeling pretty nervous. ‘Say, Charlie,’ he said, ‘ain’t it time for you to be starting?’ ‘Where to?’ said I. ‘Over to Stillwater,’ he said. ‘There ain’t any getting out of it. That drive’s got to be running to-morrow.’ ‘That’s all right,’ said I, ‘but I’d like to know if I can’t have one day’s rest between jobs—Sunday, too. And I lost thirty-two pounds.’ Well, sir, he didn’t know whether to get hot or not. I guess he thought himself they were kind of rubbing it in. ‘Look here,’ he said, ‘are you going to Stillwater, or ain’t you?’ ‘No,’ said I, ‘I ain’t. Not for a hundred rope drives.’ Well, he just got up and took his hat and started out. ‘Mr. Brown,’ I said, when he was opening the door, ‘I lost my hat down at Stillwater last night. I reckon the office ought to stand for it.’ He turned around and looked queer, and then he grinned. ‘So you went over?’ he said. ‘I reckon I did,’ said I. ‘What kind of a hat did you lose?’ he asked, and he grinned again. ‘I guess it was a silk one, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘a silk hat—something about eight dollars.'”
“Did he mean he’d give you a silk hat?” asked Peterson.
They were sitting in the ten-by-twelve room that Peterson rented for a dollar a week. Bannon had the one chair, and was sitting tipped back against the washstand. Peterson sat on the bed. Bannon had thrown his overcoat over the foot of the bed, and had dropped his bag on the floor by the window.
“Ain’t it time to eat, Pete?” he said.
“Yes, there’s the bell.”
The significance of Bannon’s arrival, and the fact that he was planning to stay, was slow in coming to Peterson. After supper, when they had returned to the room, his manner showed constraint. Finally he said:—
“Is there any fuss up at the office?”
“Why—do they want to rush the job or something?”
“Well, we haven’t got such a lot of time. You see, it’s November already.”
“What’s the hurry all of a sudden? They didn’t say nothing to me.”
“I guess you haven’t been crowding it very hard, have you?”
“I’ve been working harder than I ever did before,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the cribbing being held up like this, I’d ‘a’ had the cupola half done before now. I’ve been playing in hard luck.”
Bannon was silent for a moment, then he said:—
“How long do you suppose it would take to get the cribbing down from Ledyard?”
“Not very long if it was rushed, I should think—a couple of days, or maybe three. And they’ll rush it all right when they can get the cars. You see, it’s only ten or eleven hours up there, passenger schedule; and they could run it right in on the job over the Belt Line.”
“It’s the Belt Line that crosses the bridge, is it?”
Bannon spread his legs apart and drummed on the front of his chair.
“What’s the other line?” he asked—”the four track line?”
“That’s the C. & S. C. We don’t have nothing to do with them.”
They were both silent for a time. The flush had not left Peterson’s face. His eyes were roving over the carpet, lifting now and then to Bannon’s face with a quick glance.
“Guess I’ll shave,” said Bannon. “Do you get hot water here?”
“Why, I don’t know,” replied Peterson. “I generally use cold water. The folks here ain’t very obliging. Kind o’ poor, you know.”
Bannon was rummaging in his grip for his shaving kit.
“You never saw a razor like that, Pete,” he said. “Just heft it once.”
“Light, ain’t it,” said Peterson, taking it in his hand.
“You bet it’s light. And look here”—he reached for it and drew it back and forth over the palm of his hand—”that’s the only stropping I ever give it.”
“Don’t you have to hone it?”
“No, sir; it’s never been touched to a stone or leather. You just get up and try it once. Those whiskers of yours won’t look any the worse for a chopping.”
Peterson laughed, and lathered his face, while Bannon put an edge on the razor, testing it with a hair.
“Say, that’s about the best yet,” said Peterson, after the first stroke.
“You’re right it is.”
Bannon looked on for a few minutes, then he took a railroad “Pathfinder” from his grip and rapidly turned the pages. Peterson saw it in the mirror, and asked, between strokes:—
“What are you going to do?”
“Looking up trains.”
While Peterson was splashing in the washbowl, Bannon took his turn at the mirror.
“How’s the Duluth job getting on?” asked Peterson, when Bannon had finished, and was wiping his razor.
“All right—’most done. Just a little millwright work left, and some cleaning up.”
“There ain’t any marine leg on the house, is there?”
“How big a house is it?”
“Eight hundred thousand bushels.”
“That so? Ain’t half as big as this one, is it?”
“Guess not. Built for the same people, though, Page & Company.”
“They must be going in pretty heavy.”
“They are. There’s a good deal of talk about it. Some of the boys up at the office say there’s going to be fun with December wheat before they get through with it. It’s been going up pretty steadily since the end of September—it was seventy-four and three-eighths Saturday in Minneapolis. It ain’t got up quite so high down here yet, but the boys say there’s going to be a lot of money in it for somebody.”
“Be a kind of a good thing to get in on, eh?” said Peterson, cautiously.
“Maybe, for those that like to put money in wheat. I’ve got no money for that sort of thing myself.”
“Yes, of course,” was Peterson’s quick reply. “A fellow doesn’t want to run them kind o’ chances. I don’t believe in it myself.”
“The fact’s this,—and this is just between you and me, mind you; I don’t know anything about it, it’s only what I think,—somebody’s buying a lot of December wheat, or the price wouldn’t keep going up. And I’ve got a notion that, whoever he is, it’s Page & Company that’s selling it to him. That’s just putting two and two together, you see. It’s the real grain that the Pages handle, and if they sell to a man it means that they’re going to make a mighty good try at unloading it on him and making him pay for it. That’s all I know about it. I see the Pages selling—or what looks mighty like it—and I see them beginning to look around and talk on the quiet about crowding things a little on their new houses, and it just strikes me that there’s likely to be a devil of a lot of wheat coming into Chicago before the year runs out; and if that’s so, why, there’s got to be a place to put it when it gets here.”
“Do they have to have an elevator to put it in?” asked Peterson. “Can’t they deliver it in the cars? I don’t know much about that side of the business.”
“I should say not. The Board of Trade won’t recognize grain as delivered until it has been inspected and stored in a registered house.”
“When would the house have to be ready?”
“Well, if I’m right, if they’re going to put December wheat in this house, they’ll have to have it in before the last day of December.”
“We couldn’t do that,” said Peterson, “if the cribbing was here.”
Bannon, who had stretched out on the bed, swung his feet around and sat up. The situation was not easy, but he had been sent to Calumet to get the work done in time, and he meant to do it.
“Now, about this cribbing, Pete,” he said; “we’ve got to have it before we can touch the annex?”
“I guess that’s about it,” Peterson replied.
“I’ve been figuring a little on this bill. I take it there’s something over two million feet altogether. Is that right?”
“It’s something like that. Couldn’t say exactly. Max takes care of the lumber.”
Bannon’s brows came together.
“You ought to know a little more about this yourself, Pete. You’re the man that’s building the house.”
“I guess I’ve been pushing it along as well as any one could,” said Peterson, sullenly.
“That’s all right. I ain’t hitting at you. I’m talking business, that’s all. Now, if Vogel’s right, this cribbing ought to have been here fourteen days ago—fourteen days to-morrow.”
“That’s just two weeks of lost time. How’ve you been planning to make that up?”
“Why—why—I reckon I can put things together soon’s I get the cribbing.”
“Look here, Pete. The office has contracted to get this house done by a certain date. They’ve got to pay $750 for every day that we run over that date. There’s no getting out of that, cribbing or no cribbing. When they’re seeing ten or twenty thousand dollars slipping out of their hands, do you think they’re going to thank you for telling ’em that the G. & M. railroad couldn’t get cars? They don’t care what’s the matter—all they want of you is to do the work on time.”
“Now, look here, Charlie——”
“Hold on, Pete. Don’t get mad. It’s facts, that’s all. Here’s these two weeks gone. You see that, all right enough. Now, the way this work’s laid out, a man’s got to make every day count right from the start if he wants to land on his feet when the house is done. Maybe you think somebody up in the sky is going to hand you down a present of two extra weeks so the lost time won’t count. That would be all right, only it ain’t very likely to happen.”
“Well,” said Peterson, “what are you getting at? What do you want me to do? Perhaps you think it’s easy.”
“No, I don’t. But I’ll tell you what to do. In the first place you want to quit this getting out on the job and doing a laborer’s work. The office is paying out good money to the men that should do that. You know how to lay a corbel, but just now you couldn’t tell me how much cribbing was coming. You’re paid to direct this whole job and to know all about it, not to lay corbels. If you put in half a day swinging a sledge out there on the spouting house, how’re you going to know that the lumber bills tally, and the carpenters ain’t making mistakes, and that the timber’s piled right. Here to-day you had a dozen men throwing away their time moving a lot of timber that ought to have been put in the right place when it first came in.”
Peterson was silent.
“Now to-morrow, Pete, as soon as you’ve got the work moving along, you’d better go over to the electric light company and see about having the whole ground wired for arc lamps, so we can be ready to put on a night shift the minute the cribbing comes in. You want to crowd ’em, too. They ought to have it ready in two days.”
Bannon sat for a moment, then he arose and looked at his watch.
“I’m going to leave you, Pete,” he said, as he put on his collar.
“Where’re you going?”
“I’ve got to get up to the city to make the ten o’clock train. I’m going up to Ledyard to get the cribbing. Be back in a couple of days.”
He threw his shaving kit into his grip, put on his overcoat, said good-night, and went out.
“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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