Three Big Strings of Empties – Calumet “K”, Chapter 3
Next morning at eight o’clock Charlie Bannon walked into the office of C. H. Dennis, the manager of the Ledyard Salt and Lumber Company.
“I’m Bannon,” he said, “of MacBride & Company. Come up to see why you don’t get out our bill of cribbing.”
“Told you by letter,” retorted Dennis. “We can’t get the cars.”
“I know you did. That’s a good thing to say in a letter. I wanted to find out how much of it really was cut.”
“It’s all cut and stacked by the siding, taking up half the yard. Want to see it?”
Bannon smiled and nodded. “Here’s a good cigar for you,” he said, “and you’re a good fellow, but I think I’d like to see the cribbing.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” laughed Dennis. “I’d have said the same thing if it wasn’t cut. Come out this way.”
Bannon followed him out into the yard. “There it is,” said the manager.
There was no need of pointing it out. It made a pile more than three hundred feet long. It was nothing but rough hemlock, two inches thick, and from two to ten inches wide, intended to be spiked together flatwise for the walls of the bins, but its bulk was impressive. Bannon measured it with his eye and whistled. “I wish that had been down on our job ten days ago,” he said, presently. “I’d be taking a vacation now if it had.”
“Well, it was ready then. You can tell by the color.”
“What’s the matter with the G. & M. anyway? They don’t seem to be hauling very much. I noticed that last night when I came up. I’m no good at sleeping on the train.”
“Search me,” said Dennis. “They’ve tied us up for these two weeks. I’ve kicked for cars, and the old man—that’s Sloan—he’s kicked, but here we are yet—can’t move hand or foot.”
“Oh, he’s the whole thing. Owns the First National Bank and the trolley line and the Ledyard Salt and Lumber Company and most of the downtown real estate.”
“Where can I find him? Is he in town?”
“I guess so. He’s got an office across the river. Just ask anybody where the Sloan Building is.”
“Likely to be there as early as this?” asked Bannon, looking at his watch.
“Sure, if he’s in town.”
Bannon slipped his watch into his pocket. “Much obliged,” he said. “Glad to have met you. Good morning;” and, turning, he walked rapidly away down the plank wagon road.
In Sloan’s office he stated his errand as briefly as on the former occasion, adding only that he had already seen Dennis.
“I guess he told you all there is to tell,” said the magnate. “We can’t make the G. & M. give us cars. I’ve told Dennis to stir ’em up as hard as he could. I guess we’ll have to wait.”
“I can’t wait.”
“What else can you do? It’s every bit as bad for us as it is for you, and you can rest assured that we’ll do all we can.” As if the cadence of his last sentence were not sufficiently recognizable as a formula of dismissal, he picked up a letter that lay on his desk and began reading it.
“This isn’t an ordinary kick,” said Bannon, sharply. “It isn’t just a case of us having to pay a big delay forfeit. There’s a reason why our job’s got to be done on time. I want to know the reason why the G. & M. won’t give you cars. It ain’t because they haven’t got them.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because there’s three big strings of empties within twenty miles of here this minute. I saw them when I came up this morning.”
For a minute Sloan said nothing, only traced designs on the blotter with his pencil. Bannon saw that there was no longer any question of arousing his interest. At last he spoke:—
“I’ve suspected that there was something in the wind, but I’ve been too busy with other things to tend to it, so I turned it over to Dennis. Perhaps he’s done as well as I could. I don’t know much about G. & M. these days. For a long time they were at me to take a big block of treasury stock, but the road seemed to me in bad shape, so I wouldn’t go in. Lately they’ve reorganized—have got a lot of new money in there—I don’t know whose, but they’ve let me alone. There’s been no row, you understand. That ain’t the reason they’ve tied us up, but I haven’t known much about what was going on inside.”
“Would they be likely to tell you if you asked? I mean if you took it to headquarters?”
“I couldn’t get any more out of them than you could—that is, not by asking.”
“I guess I’ll go look ’em up myself. Where can I find anybody that knows anything?”
“The division offices are at Blake City. That’s only about twenty miles. You could save time by talking over the ‘phone.”
“Not me,” said Bannon. “In a case like this I couldn’t express myself properly unless I saw the fellow I was talking to.”
Sloan laughed. “I guess you’re right. But I’ll call up the division superintendent and tell him you’re coming. Then you’ll be sure of finding him.”
Bannon shook his head. “I’d find him with his little speech all learned. No, I’ll take my chances on his being there. When’s the train?”
“That gives me fifteen minutes. Can I make it?”
“Not afoot, and you ain’t likely to catch a car. I’ll drive you down. I’ve got the fastest mare in Pottawatomie County.”
The fact that the G. & M. had been rescued from its poverty and was about to be “developed” was made manifest in Blake City by the modern building which the railroad was erecting on the main street. Eventually the division officials were to be installed in office suites of mahogany veneer, with ground glass doors lettered in gold leaf. For the present, as from the beginning, they occupied an upper floor of a freight warehouse. Bannon came in about eleven o’clock, looked briefly about, and seeing that one corner was partitioned off into a private office, he ducked under the hand rail intended to pen up ordinary visitors, and made for it. A telegraph operator just outside the door asked what his business was, but he answered merely that it was with the superintendent, and went in.
He expected rather rough work. The superintendent of a railroad, or of a division, has to do with the employees, never with the customers, and his professional manner is not likely to be distinguished by suavity. So he unconsciously squared his shoulders when he said, “I’m Bannon, of MacBride & Company.”
The superintendent dismissed his stenographer, swept with his arm a clear space on the desk, and then drummed on it with his fingers, but he did not look up immediately. When he did, it was with an expression of grave concern.
“Mr. Bannon,” he said, “I’m mighty sorry. I’ll do anything I can for you. You can smoke ten cent cigars on me from now till Christmas, and light them with passes. Anything——”
“If you feel like that,” said Bannon, “we can fix things all comfortable in three minutes. All I want is cars.”
The superintendent shook his head. “There’s where you stump me,” he said. “I haven’t got ’em.”
“Mr. Superintendent, that’s what they told me in Chicago, and that’s what they told me at Ledyard. I didn’t come up here to Blake City to be told the same thing and then go back home.”
“Well, I don’t know what else I can tell you. That’s just the size of it. I hope we’ll be able to fix you in a few days, but we can’t promise anything.”
Bannon frowned, and after an expectant pause, the superintendent went on talking vaguely about the immense rush of traffic. Finally he asked, “Why do you think we’d hold you up if we had the cars?”
“That’s what I came here to find out. I think you’re mistaken about not having them.”
The superintendent laughed. “You can’t expect to know more about that than I do. You doubtless understand your business, but this is my business. If you can tell me where the cars are, you can have them.”
“Well, as you say, that’s your business. But I can tell you. There’s a big string of empties—I counted fourteen—on the siding at Victory.”
The superintendent looked out of the window and again drummed on the desk. When he spoke again, his manner was more what one would expect from a division superintendent. “You don’t know anything about it. When we want advice how to run our road we’ll ask you for it. Victory isn’t in my division anyway.”
“Then wire the general manager. He ought to know something about it.”
“Wire him yourself, if you like. I can’t bother about it. I’m sorry I can’t do anything, but I haven’t got time.”
“I haven’t begun sending telegrams yet. And I haven’t very much more time to fool away. I’d like to have you find out if the Ledyard Salt and Lumber Company can have those cars that are on the siding at Victory.”
“All right,” said the superintendent, rising. At the door he turned back to ask, “When was it you saw them?”
Bannon decided to chance it. “Yesterday morning,” he said.
The superintendent returned presently, and, turning to his desk, resumed his work. A few minutes later the telegraph operator came in and told him that the cars at Victory had been loaded with iron truss work the night before, and had gone off down the State.
“Just too late, wasn’t I?” said Bannon. “That’s hard luck.” He went to the window and, staring out into the yards, began tapping idly with his pencil on the glass. The office door was open, and when he paused he heard the telegraph instrument just without, clicking out a message.
“Anything else I can do for you?” asked the superintendent. His good humor was returning at the sight of his visitor’s perplexity.
“I wish you’d just wire the general manager once more and ask him if he can’t possibly let us have those cars.”
“All right,” said the other, cheerfully. He nodded to the operator. “For the Ledyard Salt and Lumber Company,” he said.
Bannon dropped into a chair, stretched himself, and yawned. “I’m sleepy,” he said; “haven’t had any sleep in three weeks. Lost thirty-two pounds. If you fellows had only got that cribbing down on time, I’d be having a vacation——”
Another yawn interrupted him. The telegraph receiver had begun giving out the general manager’s answer.
The superintendent looked at Bannon, expecting him to finish his sentence, but he only yawned again.
Bannon’s eyes were half closed, but the superintendent thought he was turning a little toward the open doorway.
“Do you feel cold?” he asked. “I’ll shut the door.”
He rose quickly and started toward it, but Bannon was there before him. He hesitated, his hand on the knob.
“Why don’t you shut it?” snapped the superintendent.
“I think I’ll—I think I’ll send a telegram.”
“Here’s a blank, in here. Come in.” But Bannon had slipped out and was standing beside the operator’s table. From the doorway the superintendent saw him biting his pencil and frowning over a bit of paper. The general manager’s message was still coming in.
As the last click sounded, Bannon handed his message to the operator. “Send it collect,” he said. With that he strode away, over the hand rail, this time, and down the stairs. The operator carried the message to the superintendent.
“It seems to be for you,” he said.
The superintendent read—
Div. Supt. G. & M., Blake City. Tell manager it takes better man than him to tie us up.
MacBride & Company.
Bannon had nearly an hour to wait for the next train back to Ledyard, but it was not time wasted, for as he paced the smoky waiting room, he arrived at a fairly accurate estimate of the meaning of the general manager’s message.
It was simply a confirmation of the cautious prediction he had made to Peterson the night before. Why should any one want to hinder the construction of an elevator in Chicago “these days” except to prevent its use for the formal delivery of grain which the buyer did not wish delivered? And why had Page & Company suddenly ordered a million bushel annex? Why had they suddenly become anxious that the elevator should be ready to receive grain before January first, unless they wished to deliver a vast amount of December wheat? Before Bannon’s train came in he understood it all. A clique of speculators had decided to corner wheat, an enterprise nearly enough impossible in any case, but stark madness unless they had many millions at command. It was a long chance, of course, but after all not wonderful that some one in their number was a power in the reorganized G. & M.
Already the immense amount of wheat in Chicago was testing the capacity of the registered warehouses, and plainly, if the Calumet K should be delayed long enough, it might prevent Page & Company from carrying out their contract to deliver two million bushels of the grain, even though it were actually in the cars in Chicago.
Bannon knew much of Page & Company; that dotted all over the vast wheat tracts of Minnesota and Montana were their little receiving elevators where they bought grain of the farmers; that miles of wheat-laden freight cars were already lumbering eastward along the railroad lines of the North. He had a touch of imagination, and something of the enormous momentum of that Northern wheat took possession of him. It would come to Chicago, and he must be ready for it. It would be absurd to be balked by the refusal of a little single-track road up in Michigan to carry a pile of planks.
He paused before the grated window of the ticket and telegraph office and asked for a map. He studied it attentively for a while; then he sent a telegram:—
MacBride & Company, Minneapolis: G. & M. R. R. wants to tie us up. Will not furnish cars to carry our cribbing. Can’t get it elsewhere inside of three weeks. Find out if Page will O. K. any bill of extras I send in for bringing it down. If so, can they have one or more steam barges at Manistogee within forty-eight hours? Wire Ledyard Hotel. C. H. Bannon.
It was an hour’s ride back to Ledyard. He went to the hotel and persuaded the head waiter to give him something to eat, although it was long after the dinner hour. As he left the dining room, the clerk handed him two telegrams. One read:—
Get cribbing down. Page pays the freight. Brown.
Steam barge Demosthenes leaves Milwaukee to-night for Manistogee. Page & Co.
“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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