Getting Even with a Railroad – Calumet “K”, Chapter 4
As Bannon was paying for his dinner, he asked the clerk what sort of a place Manistogee was. The clerk replied that he had never been there, but that he understood it was quite a lively town.
“Good road over there?”
“That means you can get through if you’re lucky.”
The clerk smiled. “It won’t be so bad to-day. You see we’ve been getting a good deal of rain. That packs down the sand. You ought to get there all right. Were you thinking of driving over?”
“That’s the only way to go, is it? Well, I’ll see. Maybe a little later. How far is it?”
“The farmers call it eighteen miles.”
Bannon nodded his thanks and went back to Sloan’s office.
“Well, it didn’t take you long,” said the magnate. “Find out what was the matter with ’em?”
He enjoyed his well-earned reputation for choler, and as Bannon told him what he had discovered that morning, the old man paced the room in a regular beat, pausing every time he came to a certain tempting bit of blank wall to deal it a thump with his big fist. When the whole situation was made clear to him, he stopped walking and cursed the whole G. & M. system, from the ties up. “I’ll make ’em smart for that,” he said. “They haul those planks whether they want to or not. You hear me say it. There’s a law that covers a case like that. I’ll prosecute ’em. They’ll see whether J. B. Sloan is a safe kind of man to monkey with. Why, man,” he added, turning sharply to Bannon, “why don’t you get mad? You don’t seem to care—no more than the angel Gabriel.”
“I don’t care a damn for the G. & M. I want the cribbing.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll have the law on those fellows——”
“And I’d get the stuff about five years from now, when I was likely enough dead.”
“What’s the best way to get it, according to your idea?”
“Take it over to Manistogee in wagons and then down by barges.”
Sloan snorted. “You’d stand a chance to get some of it by Fourth of July that way.”
“Do you want to bet on that proposition?”
Sloan made no reply. He had allowed his wrath to boil for a few minutes merely as a luxury. Now he was thinking seriously of the scheme. “It sounds like moonshine,” he said at last, “but I don’t know as it is. How are you going to get your barges?”
“I’ve got one already. It leaves Milwaukee to-night.”
Sloan looked him over. “I wish you were out of a job,” he said. Then abruptly he went on: “Where are your wagons coming from? You haven’t got them all lined up in the yard now, have you? It’ll take a lot of them.”
“I know it. Well, we’ll get all there are in Ledyard. There’s a beginning. And the farmers round here ain’t so very fond of the G. & M., are they? Don’t they think the railroad discriminates against them—and ain’t they right about it? I never saw a farmer yet that wouldn’t grab a chance to get even with a railroad.”
“That’s about right, in this part of the country, anyway.”
“You get up a regular circus poster saying what you think of the G. & M., and call on the farmers to hitch up and drive to your lumber yard. We’ll stick that up at every crossroads between here and Manistogee.”
Sloan was scribbling on a memorandum pad before Bannon had finished speaking. He made a false start or two, but presently got something that seemed to please him. He rang for his office boy, and told him to take it to the Eagle office.
“It’s got to be done in an hour,” said Bannon. “That’s when the procession moves,” he added; as Sloan looked at him questioningly.
The other nodded. “In an hour,” he said to the office boy. “What are you going to do in an hour?” he asked, as the boy went out.
“Why, it’ll be four o’clock then, and we ought to start for Manistogee as early as we can.”
“We! Well, I should think not!” said Sloan.
“You’re going to drive me over with that fast mare of yours, aren’t you?”
Sloan laughed. “Look at it rain out there.”
“Best thing in the world for a sand road,” said Bannon. “And we’ll wash, I guess. Both been wet before.”
“But it’s twenty-five miles over there—twenty-five to thirty.”
Bannon looked at his watch. “We ought to get there by ten o’clock, I should think.”
“Ten o’clock! What do you think she is—a sawhorse! She never took more than two hours to Manistogee in her life.”
The corners of Bannon’s mouth twitched expressively. Sloan laughed again. “I guess it’s up to me this time,” he said.
Before they started Sloan telephoned to the Eagle office to tell them to print a full-sized reproduction of his poster on the front page of the Ledyard Evening Eagle.
“Crowd their news a little, won’t it?” Bannon asked.
Sloan shook his head. “That helps ’em out in great shape.”
The Eagle did not keep them waiting. The moment Sloan pulled up his impatient mare before the office door, the editor ran out, bare-headed, in the rain, with the posters.
“They’re pretty wet yet,” he said.
“That’s all right. I only want a handful. Send the others to my office. They know what to do with ’em.”
“I was glad to print them,” the editor went on deferentially. “You have expressed our opinion of the G. & M. exactly.”
“Guess I did,” said Sloan as they drove away. “The reorganized G. & M. decided they didn’t want to carry him around the country on a pass.”
Bannon pulled out one of the sheets and opened it on his knee. He whistled as he read the first sentence, and swore appreciatively over the next. When he had finished, he buttoned the waterproof apron and rubbed his wet hands over his knees. “It’s grand,” he said. “I never saw anything like it.”
Sloan spoke to the mare. He had held her back as they jolted over the worn pavement of cedar blocks, but now they had reached the city limits and were starting out upon the rain-beaten sand. She was a tall, clean-limbed sorrel, a Kentucky-bred Morgan, and as she settled into her stride, Bannon watched her admiringly. Her wet flanks had the dull sheen of bronze.
“Don’t tell me,” said Sloan, “that Michigan roads are no good for driving. You never had anything finer than this in your life.” They sped along as on velvet, noiselessly save when their wheels sliced through standing pools of water. “She can keep this up till further notice, I suppose,” said Bannon. Sloan nodded.
Soon they reached the first crossroad. There was a general store at one corner, and, opposite, a blacksmith’s shop. Sloan pulled up and Bannon sprang out with a hammer, a mouthful of tacks, and three or four of the posters. He put them up on the sheltered side of conspicuous trees, left one with the storekeeper, and another with the smith. Then they drove on.
They made no pretence at conversation. Bannon seemed asleep save that he was always ready with his hammer and his posters whenever Sloan halted the mare. The west wind freshened as the evening came on and dashed fine, sleety rain into their faces. Bannon huddled his wet coat closer about him. Sloan put the reins between his knees and pulled on a pair of heavy gloves.
It had been dark for half an hour—Bannon could hardly distinguish the moving figure of the mare—when Sloan spoke to her and drew her to a walk. Bannon reached for his hammer. “No crossroad here,” said Sloan. “Bridge out of repair. We’ve got to fetch a circle here up to where she can wade it.”
“Hold on,” said Bannon sharply. “Let me get out.”
“Don’t be scared. We’ll make it all right.”
“We! Yes, but will fifteen hundred feet of lumber make it? I want to take a look.”
He splashed forward in the dark, but soon returned. “It’s nothing that can’t be fixed in two hours. Where’s the nearest farmhouse?”
“Fifty rods up the road to your right.”
Again Bannon disappeared. Presently Sloan heard the deep challenge of a big dog. He backed the buggy around up against the wind so that he could have shelter while he waited. Then he pulled a spare blanket from under the seat and threw it over the mare. At the end of twenty minutes, he saw a lantern bobbing toward him.
The big farmer who accompanied Bannon held the lantern high and looked over the mare. “It’s her all right,” he said. Then he turned so that the light shone full in Sloan’s face. “Good evening, Mr. Sloan,” he said. “You’ll excuse me, but is what this gentleman tells me all straight?”
“Guess it is,” Sloan smiled. “I’d bank on him myself.”
The farmer nodded with satisfaction. “All right then, Mr. What’s-your-name. I’ll have it done for you.”
Sloan asked no questions until they had forded the stream and were back on the road. Then he inquired, “What’s he going to do?”
“Mend the bridge. I told him it had to be done to-night. Said he couldn’t. Hadn’t any lumber. Couldn’t think of it I told him to pull down the lee side of his house if necessary; said you’d give him the lumber to build an annex on it.”
“Oh, it’s all right. Send the bill to MacBride. I knew your name would go down and mine wouldn’t.”
The delay had proved costly, and it was half-past seven before they reached the Manistogee hotel.
“Now,” said Bannon, “we’ll have time to rub down the mare and feed her before I’m ready to go back.”
Sloan stared at him for a moment in unfeigned amazement. Then slowly he shook his head. “All right, I’m no quitter. But I will say that I’m glad you ain’t coming to Ledyard to live.”
Bannon left the supper table before Sloan had finished, and was gone nearly an hour. “It’s all fixed up,” he said when he returned. “I’ve cinched the wharf.”
They started back as they had come, in silence, Bannon crowding as low as possible in his ulster, dozing. But he roused when the mare, of her own accord, left the road at the detour for the ford.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. “The bridge is fixed.” So they drove straight across, the mare feeling her way cautiously over the new-laid planks.
The clouds were thinning, so that there was a little light, and Bannon leaned forward and looked about.
“How did you get hold of the message from the general manager?” asked Sloan abruptly.
“Heard it. I can read Morse signals like print. Used to work for the Grand Trunk.”
“Boss of a wrecking gang.” Bannon paused. Presently he went on.
“Yes, there was two years when I slept with my boots on. Didn’t know a quiet minute. Never could tell what I was going to get up against. I never saw two wrecks that were anything alike. There was a junction about fifty miles down the road where they used to have collisions regular; but they were all different. I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do till I was on the ground, and then I didn’t have time to. My only order was, ‘Clear the road—and be damn quick about it. ‘What I said went. I’ve set fire to fifty thousand dollars’ worth of mixed freight just to get it out of the way—and they never kicked. That ain’t the kind of life for me, though. No, nor this ain’t, either. I want to be quiet. I’ve never had a chance yet, and I’ve been looking for it ever since I was twelve years old. I’d like to get a little farm and live on it all by myself. I’d raise garden truck, cabbages, and such, and I’d take piano lessons.”
“Is that why you quit the Grand Trunk? So that you could take piano lessons?” Sloan laughed as he asked the question, but Bannon replied seriously:—
“Why, not exactly. There was a little friction between me and the master mechanic, so I resigned. I didn’t exactly resign, either,” he added a moment later. “I wired the superintendent to go to hell. It came to the same thing.”
“I worked for a railroad once myself,” said Sloan. “Was a hostler in the round-house at Syracuse, New York. I never worked up any higher than that. I had ambitions to be promoted to the presidency, but it didn’t seem very likely, so I gave it up and came West.”
“You made a good thing of it. You seem to own most all Pottawatomie County.”
“I wish you would tell me how to do it. I have worked like an all-the-year-round blast furnace ever since I could creep, and never slighted a job yet, but here I am—can’t call my soul my own. I have saved fifteen thousand dollars, but that ain’t enough to stop with. I don’t see why I don’t own a county too.”
“There’s some luck about it. And then I don’t believe you look very sharp for opportunities. I suppose you are too busy. You’ve got a chance this minute to turn your fifteen thousand to fifty; maybe lot more.”
“I’m afraid I’m too thick-headed to see it.”
“Why, what you found out this morning was the straightest kind of a straight tip on the wheat market for the next two months. A big elevator like yours will be almost decisive. The thing’s right in your own hands. If Page & Company can’t make that delivery, why, fellows who buy wheat now are going to make money.”
“I see,” said Bannon, quickly. “All I’d have to do would be to buy all the wheat I could get trusted for and then hold back the job a little. And while I was at it, I might just as well make a clean job and walk off with the pay roll.” He laughed. “I’d look pretty, wouldn’t I, going to old MacBride with my tail between my legs, telling him that the job was too much for me and I couldn’t get it done on time. He’d look me over and say: ‘Bannon, you’re a liar. You’ve never had to lay down yet, and you don’t now. Go back and get that job done before New Year’s or I’ll shoot you.'”
“You don’t want to get rich, that’s the trouble with you,” said Sloan, and he said it almost enviously.
Bannon rode to Manistogee on the first wagon. The barge was there, so the work of loading the cribbing into her began at once. There were numerous interruptions at first, but later in the day the stream of wagons became almost continuous. Farmers living on other than the Manistogee roads came into Ledyard and hurried back to tell their neighbors of the chance to get ahead of the railroad for once. Dennis, who was in charge at the yard, had hard work to keep up with the supply of empty wagons.
Sloan disappeared early in the morning, but at five o’clock Bannon had a telephone message from him. “I’m here at Blake City,” he said, “raising hell. The general manager gets here at nine o’clock to-night to talk with me. They’re feeling nervous about your getting that message. I think you’d better come up here and talk to him.”
So a little after nine that night the three men, Sloan, Bannon, and the manager, sat down to talk it over. And the fact that in the first place an attempt to boycott could be proved, and in the second that Page & Company were getting what they wanted anyway—while they talked a long procession of cribbing was creaking along by lantern light to Manistogee—finally convinced the manager that the time had come to yield as gracefully as possible.
“He means it this time,” said Sloan, when he and Bannon were left alone at the Blake City hotel to talk things over.
“Yes, I think he does. If he don’t, I’ll come up here again and have a short session with him.”
“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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