The Last Day

After one year at the University of Alabama, JOHN CRAIG STEWART sampled a wide variety of jobs. The war pulled him out of mercantile life; he served in the Army for four years, three of them in the Pacific as Supply Officer for an Air Corps fighter group. After the war he returned to college to study creative writing. His first stories have been written under Professor Hudson Strode at the University of Alabama,and when he has taken his degree he plans to retire to a fifty-acre farm which he owns near Montgomery and write.

by JOHN CRAIG STEWART

AT FOUR o’clock in the morning the mill whistle sent its long moan into the dark still winter air. It blew just as it had every morning except Sundays for the past thirty years, starting with a shrill falsetto and expanding its volume with a sudden crescendo to a deep, reverberating musical blast. It blew for almost a minute and then the sound died away slowly until it faded into its own echo across the lake and in the swamp below the old dirt dam.

Ben opened his eyes in the cold darkness of his room and listened to the whistle just as he had done every day except Sundays for the past thirty years. He took a deep breath, leaned over the side of the bed and coughed. Slowly he lifted the cotton quilts back off his heavy body; slowly he drew his legs up, twisted around, and let his feet down onto the chill board floor. He reached for the big brogan, sliced open on the sides to relieve the pressure on his injured foot. He forced his sick foot down into the shoe and grunted as the pain shot through his leg. Fully awake now, he put his sock and shoe on the other foot hurriedly, the cold of the dark room beginning to penetrate his body. Then he pulled his crutch from beneath the bed, got up, and hobbled into the kitchen.

The light was on, a fire was roaring in the big iron cookstove. His wife Nancy, withered and small, looked aged in her gray flannel robe as she went about getting his breakfast. She always had his breakfast started by the time the whistle blew. Ben had never been late to work.

“Mornin’, Ben,” she said.

“It sho’ is cold this mornin’, ain’t it?” he said.

“It sho’ is, and you with that foot ain’t got no business goin’ to the mill. The doctor tol’ you to stay off’n it.”

“And I done tol’ you to quit botherin’ me about it, too. I reckon I know what I kin do and what I can’t.” He paused a moment, sniffing the odor of bacon frying on the stove. “I ain’t missed a day since the mill opened, and it’s gonna take more’n a sick foot to make me miss it. There ain’t another man in the mill Mr. Cabe kin put his dependence in, and with them damn convicts gittin’ meaner every day, I reckon I gotta be there. Like I tol’ you, yestiddy, three of ‘em jumped on Dave Wilson down in the weave room and dang nigh kilt him. The warden locked ‘em up on bread and water, but I tell you, if it hadda been me they jumped on he’da locked ‘em up in the hospital.” Ben drew his big frame up erect and pulled his shoulders back. There was an intonation of triumph in his voice and a proud glint in his blue eyes. “ Mr. Cabe tol’ me last night in his office that he wisht hit hadda been me in the weave room steada Dave. Ay God, he knows what I’da done.”

Nancy was shuffling about the kitchen nervously.

“You gittin’ mighty old fer them kinda doin’s, Ben,” she said.

“Damn it, go on and git my clothes, and quit talkin’ foolish,” he answered.

Nancy went into the bedroom and came back with his lint-dusty blue work shirt and trousers.

“Now put yer clothes on, Ben, and set down. I’ll pour you some coffee.”

Ben took the clothes from her and laboriously began to draw them on. He pulled the green galluses up over his shoulders. Hobbling over to the wash pan in the corner, he washed his face and hands, then came back and sat down to the table. Ben ate slowly the breakfast of bacon, fried eggs, grits, and the big biscuits he called “ bumpers.” He drank two cups of strong hot coffee.

Nancy sat across the table and sipped a cup of coffee. Ben noticed her gray hair and the pallor of her skin in the bright light. Her eyes looked weak and tired. They did not have the sparkle they once had, but still they reminded Ben of Shelton, their youngest son. A faint smile touched his lips as he watched her. He remembered when Nancy was right pretty.

“Shelton still sleep?” he asked.

“Yes, he’s still sleep, Ben,” she said.

“How’s he doin’ in school? By golly, I believe that kid is smart as they come.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and smiled. “We sho’ picked the right one to name for Mr. Cabe. He’s always asking me about him. Damn if I don’t think he’s proud of him as we are.”

“He’s doin’ good jest like he always has,” she answered. “He wants to go to work in the evenin’s to make some spendin’ money. I tol’ him I’d ask you about it.”

Ben looked up irritably. He felt a faint flush almost like the sting of embarrassment spread over his face.

“He’s too young to go to work,” he said.

“It’ud only be two hours in the evenin’, Ben, jest clerkin’ in Thornton’s store. I think it’ud do ‘im good.”

“Shelton ain’t goin’ to work till he’s through school, Nancy. If he needs spendin’ money, I’ll find out what it’s fer and give ‘im what I kin.”

2

BEN drained his cup, set it down with an air of finality, pushed himself back from the table and got up. She helped him on with the big black overcoat, the same he had worn every winter for fifteen years. He placed the blue cotton cap squarely on his head and pulled the bill down at an exact angle over his eyes. He would not take it off until he got home for dinner unless he had occasion to go into the office of his boss, Mr. Shelton Cabe, the manager of the mill.

When Nancy handed him his crutch, he bent down and kissed her, the same brief kiss on the same cheek, as in their many thousand previous dawns after the mill whistle blew. Ben limped into the “company room,” which Nancy kept shining clean. He always went through this “company room” blindly and hurriedly. Today he paused there without knowing why. It depressed him; it was lifeless and unused and unchanging. None of his daughters had ever learned to play the old upright piano.

He went out the door into the cold dawn. The mill was just east of the house and behind it he could see the first faint light of day bleaching the horizon. The great black smokestack of the mill stood against the morning sky, and the smoke which rose slowly out of it coiled into the upper sky and was lost in the lingering darkness. The lights in the mill were on but the workers had not yet come in and the massive brick building was as silent as the dark frosty earth about it. Ben felt the sting of the cold air on his face, he could see his breath come out like puffs of steam. He turned his coat collar up, rammed his left hand in his pocket, and limped off toward the mill.

Damp warm breath against the dark cold air; so many years, so many times on the same path worn bare across the field. A man must wear many paths in the earth. This is my path; the white sand of it shows well in the dark of morning and the dark of evening. How many steps across it on how many days? It leads from home to the mill and from the mill back home. Four daughters, three sons, all gone from home but Shelton. None of the others like him. Proud of that son, proud of that name — the smile on Mr. Cube’s face when he heard about his namesake. How much longer will Mr. Cabe feel proud of me, how much longer can I stand off the men who are stronger than me? They obey me for what I used to be, not for what I am; the new ones coming in don’t seem to know.

Many years, it must be many years ago that mean, murdering Jack Malburn came begging to me, “For God’s sake, Cap’m Ben, don’t take me in to Mr. Cabe. Take me back to the prison and tell ‘em to lock me in the doghouse, but don’t take me in to Mr. Cabe.” How long ago — that blondheaded bastard, Conway, nobody could tame him, said he was born in Hell and wasn’t scared to go back. I took him into Mr. Cube’s office once. Black eyes looking him up and down, words lashing out at him, he just stood there and shriveled up. Never had to have him locked in solitary. Fifteen years ago when power for the electric lights came from the lake back of my house; lights out suddenly on the night shift; convicts yelling, throwing weights, breaking windows; guards and overseers hiding behind machinery — then Mr. Cabe with a lantern swinging in his left hand, a pistol in his right, striding down between the spinning frames. The feeling of his presence, then the silence. Yes, Mr. Cube could always handle them by just being there. He’s the only man besides me that could stop them riots; he’s the only man besides me been with the mill ever since the State bought it and started to work convicts in it thirty years ago.

Ben braced himself on his crutch and rattled the steel wire gate leading into the mill yard. The guard inside opened the door to his round wooden shack and came out hunched down in his overcoat.

“Good mornin’, Ben,” he said.

“Good mornin’, Rufus,” Ben answered.

“Sho’ is cold this mornin’.”

“It’s mighty cold; sho’ is, mighty cold,” Ben said.

“How’s yuh foot, Ben?”

“It’s not doin’ so bad, Rufus, not so bad.”

He moved on across the cinder-covered mill yard. The shafts of light from the front windows in the mill slanted down and made pale rectangles on the black ground. A steampipe jutting from beneath the boiler room sent out rhythmical puffs of steam.

Ben entered the mill through the machine room, used now for tool repair. In the center of it there still was fixed the giant drive wheel. The big wheel had been used in the days when the mill was run by steam power. But it had never been removed. The great spokes, wider than two spans of a man’s hand, extended from the thick hub just above the floor to within a foot of the ceiling. In its day it had done the work of a giant, driving with its long heavy leather belt every wheel, every shaft, every machine in the whole mill. Now it was still and quiet, covered over with the oily dust of many years. Ben paused; there was no one else in the room and he could hear nothing but the faint puffing of steam from beneath the boiler room.

Faint weak puffs of steam now, but ay God, it had the sizzle and hiss of real steam that day thirty years ago when I reached out with one hand and pulled back the lever nobody else could move, the lever that started this old wheel turning. Everybody standing around looking silly and Mr. Cabe said, “Come here, Ben, you pull the damn thing back.” And a big grin spreading all over his face when the piston rods began to move in and out and you could hear the machinery. It was grinding slow at first, then you could hear it start to roar.

3

BEN started up; someone had pulled back the sliding door leading into the spinning room. He heard voices and the familiar grinding of the machinery, slow at first, picking up with a whining strain, gathering speed and then settling down to a steady roar. He limped through the open door, past the ends of the long rows of spinning frames, and mounted the little landing which led into his office at the north end of the spinning room. He took off his overcoat, pulled a straw-bottomed chair from the office onto the platform which overlooked the whole room, and sat down on it heavily. The door closed behind the last man in the line. The two guards by the door who counted the incoming men walked away. The convicts spread out and scattered among the machines. The mill whistle gave two short blasts, the workday had begun.

The long rows of clattering, twisting machines stretched away from where Ben sat to the far end of the room. The spinners walked slowly up and down in front of their frames, reaching in now and then, tying a piece of broken yarn. The heads and shoulders of the roving boys bounced up and down as they ran through the alleys pushing their loaded spool trucks before them. On the east side of the room the heavy, squat card machines forced out their gossamer film of lap which oozed slowly through narrow rings and coiled itself into tall red roving cans. The slubbers clanked and banged; the speeders and spinning frames hummed steadily with a constant, half-musical tone.

Over it all Ben was watching. Now and then he put two fingers into his mouth and let out a shrill piercing whistle which penetrated the deafening roar of the machinery, and waved a lagging worker on to a machine which needed tending, or motioned another to come to him for directions. The bright lights from the steel beams overhead shone down with white brilliance through the vibrating, lintdusty air. Every machine, every spindle, every wheel and shaft in the room moved in rhythm with the rest of the ceaseless, roaring, yarn-webbed, beltflapping, wheel-grinding labyrinth of seeming confusion in the cotton mill.

It was warm inside the mill and Ben felt a slight drowsiness creeping over him. His foot was throbbing; he lifted it to the wooden banister and let it rest there. Outside, the bright light of day was in the sky. The white-clad convicts moved back and forth before him. A man came down the alley, paused in front of the platform, went over to a west window and sat down on the sill. He gazed for a long time through the bars out across the fields and the blue lake in the distance. Ben watched him through eyes that were half closed.

The barred windows and the lake beyond; always lookin’ out acrost that lake; a thousand men before you done it jest that same way. Never stop lookin’ out on the free world, do you? Well, ay God, you may be better off lookin’ out than lookin’ in. It ain’t easy on tether side. It was a long time ago that ol’ Steve Sanders, serving his third hitch for highway robbery, sat in that same window with a raft of papers in his hand.

“What you got there, Steve?”

“It’s a book I wrote, Cap’m Jackson.”

“A book, ay God. I didn’t know you could write a-tall.”

“It’s my life story, a autobiography. A fellow in the prison office put it on the typewriter for me. I’m sellin’ it for two bits a copy. Don’t you want one, Cap’m Jackson, it’s mighty interestin’ readin’?”

“Ay God, I bet it’s interestin’. How many you done sold, Steve?”

“Two copies.”

And all day long Steve peddlin’ his life story. He sold all five copies and then went to settin’ in that window agin. Guess Steve was smart in a way. He always got his work done, but he sho’ couldn’t stay out’n the penitentiary. Convicts always tryin’ to peddle somethin’ when they ain’t tryin’ to steal somethin’.

Twenty years ago, this same room, this same straw-bottom chair, but no crutch. Just lean hard muscle and bone, two hundred pounds of it that could take on any six of the meanest devils in the mill. Royce Angelli, that big black-headed scoundrel and his convict rebellion somewhere back in the years. The line had just come in at six o’clock for the day shift. “Mr, Jackson,” he said, “I want to talk to you.” Four men standin’ behind him, the knife blade flashin’ in the bright light, the feel of his soft greasy face against my knuckles, the crash of his body against the spinnin’ frame, the others backin’ off tryin’ to look innocent. Ay God, those were the days; I could drink a quart of corn whiskey, play poker all night, and run this damn spinnin’ room next day like a kid spinnin’ a top.

Kid spinnin’ a top — Shelton, thirteen years old last month; three more years and he ought to be gettin’ a diploma from high school. Ay God, that’ll be a big day, he’ll walk up on that stage jest like Mr. Cabe’s boy done and take his diploma from the principal. And I’ll be there to see it. None of the others finished school; Tom would have, but Tom got killed. Shelton will finish though; ay God, that boy’s smart.

The white spools spinnin’ dizzily down the long rows of frames. The many faces lookin’ up out of the past from between those frames. The convicts come and go; their faces change but the number of ‘em don’t ever git no smaller. And all the time it seems they git younger and huskier. I wonder how many of ‘em have looked up here and wish’t they could kill me. Some of ‘em real fightin’ men, convicts or not; some of ‘em jest plain, no good, lowdown bastards; some of ‘em so slick they could steal the lard out’n a biscuit; some of ‘em always quiet and sad-like. But all of ‘em was always plottin’ to git out one way or another. Always plottin’, that’s what I been lookin’ out fer all these years, and how many million yards of yarn was spun off them frames while I was settin’ here lookin’ and waitin’. They’ve tried to burn the mill down, they’ve tried to wreck it; they’ve kilt guards and kilt each other, but ay God, ain’t none of ‘em put anything acrost on me. Mr. Cabe knows that.

4

A MAN walked past and turned into the alley in front of Ben. He could see the outline of his figure plainly from the back. He was young and stronglooking. The shoulders were broad, sloping, and muscular; the head, round and well-shaped, seemed poised and alert in his erect posture.

Somethin’ familiar-lookin’ about those shoulders and the shape of that head. Where in the years was it once before I seen ‘em? A summer day, sometimes in summer long ago, those shoulders and that head movin’ away from me — Tom! It was Tom,

I remember; I remember my boy Tom walkin’ out the front door that summer day he got kilt by the train. He was jest about the age of that boy yonder. Ben straightened up from his slouched position in the chair. The man had turned and was pushing a spool truck back down the alley toward the platform. Ben looked at him for a moment. “No, ‘tain’t no resemblance in the face a-tall,” he said aloud.

He stood up and put his crutch under his arm. He looked at his watch. The morning half gone. He felt a faint sag in his muscles; a sudden wave of weakness spread through his whole body. He remembered what Nancy had said that morning. Hit’s the first time she ever tol’ me I was gittin’ old. The roar of the machinery and the ancient scene before him were irritating.

“Ay God, I better git down and walk about some,” he said to himself.

He descended the steps to the mill floor and hobbled off down the alley nearest to him. He paused occasionally as he made his way between the machines. Halfway down the alley he stopped and bent over an empty spool turning uselessly on its spindle. It was not easy to come back to the present with the assurance and vigorous ease of the past. Some of the convicts looked at him and it seemed to Ben they grinned as they turned away. He pulled his shoulders back and couched his limp under a strained, erect posture. Better not go all the way to the end, too fer, I’ll turn around here. He paused and with his head held high, his lips compressed, surveyed the men and machines about him.

“Look out, Cap’m Ben, look out!” The voice sounded hollow and distant in the noise of the mill. Involuntarily he stepped back as from a blow and moved his upper body quickly sideways and down, dropping his crutch on the machine back of him. Then he heard the splintering crash and felt the jar and the quick puff of air by his face as the great steel shaft hit the floor beside him.

Out of the corner of his eye Ben saw the convict across the alley go down beneath the shaft. He saw him now, his shoulders pinned under it, his face against the floor. Those were the same muscular shoulders, the same handsome head — the same, but they looked different now, twisted and still. The muscles in Ben’s face tightened.

The stunned convicts gathered around. He seized the shaft in both hands and tried to lift it, but it did not move. Some of the convicts were trying to get in between the frame and the broken shaft to help him, but he did not wait. Ben leaned over and cupped his arms beneath the shaft just above the fallen man’s shoulders. Slowly, he drew himself up. Inch by inch his back and shoulders straightened.

The shaft, cradled in his arms, moved up with him, and the thick floor boards splintered loudly as the weight was drawn off them. The wrecked spinning frame cracked and popped as pieces of metal broke off and fell to the floor.

“Ay God, pull him out easy now, easy,” Ben said.

Two men squeezed under the shaft and lifted the injured man out. When they were clear of the wreckage, Ben snapped his arms straight and the heavy weight thundered against the floor. He was breathing rapidly and reached back for his crutch. Slowly he climbed over the wreckage into the open alley beyond.

“Roy, go git the doctor, and don’t nobody move that man any more till he gits here.” Ben spoke jerkily between his hoarse, panting breaths. The throbbing, darting pains in his right foot and leg seemed to have set off a sudden new pain within his chest.

Someone had cut the power switch and the machinery was still. A strange silence filled the long room. Ben leaned forward on his crutch and watched the quick breathing of the injured man. His head drooped a little as he stood there. Then suddenly he straightened up and looked into the eyes of Mr. Shelton Cabe.

“I was jest comin’ out to git you, Mr. Cabe, you musta heard the machinery stop.”

Mr. Cabe was looking up at the broken beams and steel braces from which the shaft had fallen.

“God damn it, the engineers just checked those shafts two days ago. Now we’ll lose a week getting it put back up there.”

Ben nodded his head vaguely. For the first time in his life he felt helpless. He did not know what to say to Mr. Cabe. The crutch dug into his armpit sharply. The accident was not his fault, but he felt somehow the wrecked spinning frame, the still machinery, the injured boy, were all connected with this strange weakness in his body. He felt a sense of guilt as though he had torn the shaft down with his own hands.

“Who’s the man that got hurt, Ben?” Mr. Cabe’s voice sounded like a far echo to Ben.

“I — I don’t know, sir — he was a doffer —”

The strength in his legs was suddenly gone. He tried to straighten up on his crutch but his body sagged forward heavily. He reached out. Mr. Cabe caught him as he fell.

5

THEY took Ben home and the doctor came. He put a stethoscope over Ben’s heart and listened. He talked quietly to Nancy for a while, gave her some pills for Ben out of his black case, and left the house.

Ben lay quietly staring at the ceiling or with his eyes closed until midafternoon. Then he heard footsteps on the front porch, and a knock. Nancy came through the room wiping her hands on her apron and went to the door. Ben heard the deep voice of Mr. Cabe. Nancy brought the tall man into the room. She gave him a chair beside the bed and went back into the kitchen.

“How you feeling now, Ben?” Mr. Cabe asked.

“Played out,” Ben said weakly.

“Course, but tomorrow you’ll feel better. Just rest and take it easy.”

“For good, I mean, played out for good.”

“You’re going to be all right, Ben. A lot of men our age get over these attacks.” Ben shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“How’s that boy, the one that got hurt?”

“He died, Ben.”

Ben looked up at the ceiling for a moment without speaking. Wonder how he got in prison, he thought, wonder what his life was like. He sho’ did look like Tom. Then he spoke without turning his head.

“Mr. Cabe, I sho’ want Shelton to finish his schoolin’.”

“That boy’ll finish school all right. He’s doing mighty fine work I’ve heard.”

“But if somethin’ was to happen to me he might want to quit and go to work. I want him to finish his schoolin’ —” He looked at Mr. Cabe hesitantly. “I don’t never want him to work in that cotton mill,” he said with sudden firmness. “He kin do better! ”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you. You just stop worrying.”

Ben closed his eyes.

“I’m going on home now and let you get some sleep.” Mr. Cabe got up from his chair.

“ Don’t go yit awhile, Mr. Cabe.” Ben’s voice was husky. “You know, this is the first time you ever come here to see me.” He raised his hand in a feeble gesture of restraint. Mr. Cabe leaned over the bed.

“Can I get you something, Ben?” he asked.

“No, sir,” Ben said, and after a pause added, “I — I’m sorry about the shaft, Mr. Cabe.”

“Don’t worry about that, they’re putting a new shaft in now. Forget the mill until you’re well again.”

“I’ll never git back in the mill,” Ben said. Mr. Cabe sat down on the edge of the chair and leaned forward.

“Wait and see what the doctor says, Ben. Hell, we couldn’t run that mill without you.”

Ben smiled and opened his eyes. The shadows of bare branches danced across a golden patch of sunlight on the far wall.

“Mr. Cabe —” Ben’s voice was almost a whisper and he turned his face back to his old boss.

“Yes, Ben, what is it?”

“I want to be buried a long way from here.”

Mr. Cabe put his hand on Ben’s arm.

“I don’t want to rise amongst these convicts,” Ben said simply. “Ay God, I want to sleep where I can’t hear that mill whistle blow.”