THE LUDLOW GUN
Pittsburgh, Autumn 1862
At the Forge
Rails suspended overhead, from which black chains hung like jungle vines that clattered through their blocks, making a tooth-rattling noise, a noise like the jabbering of a thousand jawbones in a thousand skulls. The huge reverberatory furnace emitting a churning sound of combustion and refraction; the coke, brought in by the cartload, burning; the steam-driven McKenzie bellows outside the four-story building pushing a quarter acre of flame over the molten metal inside the furnace; the smoke bounding up the chimneys in huge, endless clots to fill the valley's sky.
A man moved along a catwalk up by the clerestory, opening the sooty, hinged windows with a wooden pole. The black sky, upwind of the furnace stacks, was lustrous with stars. The man up on the gallery walk wore a protective leather mask across his nose and mouth. His head was swathed in rags wrapped in such a way as to resemble a turban. The rags had been soaked in water. The man lifted his leather curtain to take a drink from a ladle he'd pulled from a bucket. His tongue reached for the liquid. He drank his fill, then, for the hell of it, spat a mouthful of water out over the rail of the catwalk. Not a drop reached the foundry floor. It all evaporated in the rage of heat swirling in the air around the furnace.
They had been smelting for several days now and were likely to go until dawn, when they would open the sluice and pour the iron into the giant gun pit built into the floor.
That is what Chester Ludlow had told them--dawn--told vanderWees and Katerina. He figured he could last the night at the foundry, if the heat didn't get to him.
Chester was manufacturing, from this infernal noise and heat, the largest cannon ever made. A gun designed by Chester Ludlow, formerly chief engineer and electrician-projector of the Atlantic telegraph (may it rest in peace), now artillery specialist and engineer on retainer to the Army of the Potomac. He'd wanted to name the cannon the Monongahela, after the ironworks, but the cannon's nickname, the "Ludlow Gun," was what was sticking.
The weapon was to weigh ninety tons. It would be the shape of a gigantic bottle and, like an Armstrong cannon, with increasingly larger sections moving from the muzzle to the breech. This reinforcement would help prevent the gun from exploding and killing its firing crew. It would take nearly three hundred pounds of explosives, Chester calculated, to throw a half-ton projectile perhaps as far as ten miles.
The night shift crew was at its tasks. The stokers pushed carts of coke toward the hoppers and kicked open the furnace, where the white flames seemed to divert themselves from melting the iron to come rushing and tearing toward the door to lap up the fuel, only to be beaten back by the rotary bellows that blew the flames toward the molten ore.
It was a spectacle befitting hell--the furnace, the adamantine fuel, the overwhelming noise, the acrid smell, the vaulted roof pulsing with combustion light, the belching smoke, the men laboring in constant peril or sprawled, exhausted, on coal piles about the main floor--and it had a way of stimulating Chester. It shouldn't, he thought. This was the work of war; oh, but the Lord forgive him, it did stimulate him.
"It's your religion."
He did not say that aloud. Katerina Lindt had said it.
She was back in his life. The war brought her to him. The war and Russell vanderWees.
After the cable failure, Chester had become a man in hiding. Estranged from Franny, he lived alone at Willing Mind. He had no idea where Katerina was. He began to drink. There was a vapidity about his days that he didn't seem to notice after whiskey. He tried writing a narrative of the cable venture, but it kept coming out muddled and stillborn, too entangled with memories of his life breaking apart. He took on the occasional minor local engineering project: designing a new bridge for the Falmouth Road, supervising the reshoring of the village fishing wharf. But mostly the months unspooled dully. Three years went by while beyond the coast of Maine the country was falling apart.
Copyright 2003 by John Griesemer. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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