The Cotton Gin

by Robert Scott

Because he was afraid, John Kirk Ormsby, the new managing overseer to that great patch of fertile North Carolina land known as Excelsior Plantation, had passed the night in his office and not at home comfortably in his wife’s good bed.  The whitewashed mill office was dimly lit by a kerosene lamp turned down low. Through the wavy glass windowpanes opening to the small porch, dawn was just beginning to light the Eastern skies. The horizon’s red clouds warned of an approaching storm. The swiveling springs on his oak-framed red leather-tufted chair creaked as he shifted his stocky frame uneasily, somewhere between asleep and awake. The heels of his black-trousered legs were crossed on top of the oak desk in front of his chair. His black vest was open, his tie was slack, his black coat hung on a bronze trimmed oak hall tree beside the door. It was unusual for an overseer to dress so formally. A moth landed and fluttered on his gray neatly trimmed beard; he brushed it off, not aware he had done so. The remaining embers of last night’s fire glowed weakly in a fireplace at the end of the room. Above the mantel, in a tasteless gilded frame, frowned a dour lithographic portrait of the carpetbagger founder of Excelsior, George Zadoc French. Mr. French’s questionable and unorthodox farming and business practices had made the farm one of the most profitable — and most controversial — in the county.

A hundred yards distant from the office, Excelsior’s great machinery, the cotton gin and the bale press, had been running all night at full capacity. The clanking, humming throb of the steam engine driving the cotton works persistently infiltrated Ormsby’s dreams even as he tried to sleep, and the thump of the 10-ton piston that finished each five-hundred-pound bale vibrated the un-planed rough-cut pine boards of the office floor with every fall. All through the warm October night, the machinery labored. One by one, the heavy wagons standing in rows in the yard had been emptied of their cotton by the third shift hands, to be replaced by full wagons before dawn. The hands found it strange to even be operating at night by the dangerously low light of lanterns and torches – it was an uncommon practice. But Ormsby was determined to keep production high at all costs. Too much depended upon the success of this year’s cotton crop. He had staked everything on it.

Two loud sounds jolted Ormsby out of his sleep’s twilight, and made him jump upright out of the chair and grab the edge of the oak desk to keep from falling over. The cold ashes in his pipe spilled on the floor. The screeching bellow of the mill whistle suddenly split the quiet morning air like the harpy scream of a derailing freight train. Counterpoint underneath its wailing was the pathetic hollering of a screaming man. The whistle stopped for a moment, in its temporary silence the man’s anguished screams carried far across the yard. Then the hellish calliope of the alarm whistle started up again. Ormsby rushed out of the office, down the three porch steps to the yard.

The press foreman ran to meet him. “There’s been an accident,” he gasped, unused to running so hard. “Got his sleeve caught in one of the wheel belts. His arm is mangled. Nearly torn off.”

“Will he live?”

“Yes, I think so. He’ll lose that arm certainly. We’re taking him over to Rocky Point, to Doctor Kellum.”

It would be an agonizing five-mile ride for the injured man. Over by the press shed, men were laying burlap in a mule wagon for a cushion. Ormsby winced. He had considered to bring a nurse on full-time permanent duty at the mill when he began the risky experiment of round the clock production, but had pushed the notion aside, cautious of the expense. Too cautious. He regretted it now.  “Have one of the hands ride over to get his wife, and take her to Doctor Kellum. Make sure she gets anything she needs.” Four men came out of the press shed carrying a twisting writhing body between them, whose left side was drenched in dark red blood.

“We’ll need time to clean things up and restart, we may be back to full running by mid-afternoon.”

“No, we’ll start back up immediately.”

“But that last bale we were pressing is…” the shocked foreman couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.

“Put it aside and continue. Finish as many bales as possible before that storm comes in from the west.” Ormsby scouted the red enemy sky. “We can’t gin rain-soaked cotton.” He looked at his watch. A dozen or more bales could certainly be pressed before dinner, and perhaps as many could be done after…


He entered the dining room and watched his wife, Lillie Pierce Ormsby, take the blue and white porcelain platter from the ornately carved sideboard. On the wall behind the sideboard hung a framed glass covered map of the vast Excelsior holdings. Her trim figure in the dark blue shirtwaist under a pressed white apron pleased him immensely. Ormsby regarded his wife highly. Few men remained as childishly enamored of their wives for so long a time. “Sit down, John,” she said, “and I’ll get the fricassee.” She was as fine a cook as she was a wife. She came back from the kitchen with the gravy smothered meat. “I was a little worried when you didn’t come home last night.” She served his plate, then sat down to his right and served her own.

“I wanted to keep a close eye on things at the gin,” he said, “Anything could go wrong.”

“I thought so.” They ate quietly. Lillie spoke to break the quiet. “I knew something had gone wrong when one of the hands came by to saddle the spare horse. He told me about the accident. So terrible.”


They ate quietly. “John?” He set down the silver fork when she laid a hand on his forearm. “Could it be you’re trying too hard? Shouldn’t you ease off a little? Worry is changing you, I’m afraid. And that worries me greatly.” Her understanding eyes were like balm. He wanted to tell her: yes, I should ease off, because I’m afraid I’ve made a great mistake in all this, afraid that the other partners were right about my plan, afraid that I will fail miserably, just as they cautioned I might. But he didn’t say it, he could not say that, not to her. Especially not to her. His partners could think of him as they pleased, he didn’t much care, but Lillie must never be let down or disappointed. Not by him. He looked at her hand and said nothing. The tall case clock ticked. “Oh, my dear…” she began. Someone turned the front door bell. “I’ll get it,” she said. He heard a man’s voice in the hall as he packed his pipe at the table. He heard the glass double doors to the front parlor open, heard his wife say, “He’ll be right in, Mr. McQuigg.”

The civil war’s end had not diminished Edgar Henry McQuigg’s military bearing. Neither his capture as a prisoner of war, nor court martial by his own Union Army had affected McQuigg’s high opinion of himself. He stood ramrod rigid, his long face and long nose and dimpled chin were not pleasant. His lips were set in a firm line, and his hair was parted to one side and held in place with a slick dressing. Ormsby held out his hand to Mr. French’s other partner. They shook hands mechanically. “Please sit down, Edgar.” They settled into two big armchairs to smoke, a cigar for McQuigg and Ormsby his pipe.

“I’m bringing sad news, I’m afraid,” McQuigg said. “I received word this morning from New York that Mr. French has passed away. Last night around 10, I believe.”

Finally, Ormsby thought, but aloud he said: “Regrettable to hear. A fine man.”

“Yes, a fine man.”

They’d satisfied propriety, spoken well of the dead. Ormsby wanted to bring up a topic less agreed to between them. “Have you considered my proposal for improvements to the gin machinery?”

“I’ve looked it over. It seems to me to be a rather reckless investment to capital right now. Why put that amount of cash at risk? Especially when it’s not necessary to sustain the farm’s income. The marl quarry is still the financial life blood of Excelsior. Finest in the state, as the state geologist attests…”

“Yes, yes,” Ormsby broke in, he knew every word of the state geologist’s report by rote; it was ostentatiously printed on every single bag of Excelsior fertilizer. “But the quarry has been mined near to depletion. That state contract for rock to stop the riverbank erosion took out most of it. Now, if we shift our focus to agricultural production…”

It was McQuigg’s turn to interrupt. He had personally handled the rock fill contract, which had not turned out anywhere as lucrative as expected. “Ridiculous. Farming? Cotton? Especially with the added labor costs?  Labor costs like those you’re incurring at the gin even now, with your ‘modern’ ideas.”

Ormsby’s ears began to turn red. “Modern practices are the sure way to generate much greater profits…look at Trask in Castle Hayne. Shipping produce north in ice filled boxcars! My God, man! He’ll double his sales and his production in two seasons!”

McQuigg rolled the tip of his expensive cigar delicately in the ashtray to snuff it out. “And triple his costs. Just as you’ve tripled yours by pulling those workers out of the quarry to help run the gin around the clock. Very risky, as last night proves.”

Ormsby was angry. “When you brought in those five hundred extra laborers from Wilmington to mine the rock for the river contract you thought differently! And we barely broke even on that.”

McQuigg put his cigar case in his pocket and rose to go. “It is perhaps ill-timed and upsetting to be discussing these things so soon after the death of our founder. No, don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”


Ormsby parked the wagon in front of the gin shed and bent over to brush the dust off his boots. Hotter now than the morning, from the gray clouds building along the horizon came a rumble of thunder, as he walked into the shed. He heard an unusual sound, an unaccustomed faint clanking. The shed smelled of hot metal and burning grease.

The foreman was shaking his head in front of one of the auxiliary drive shafts. “Looks like the end bearings are seizing up some,” he turned to Ormsby with a yellow paper in his hand. Ormsby took the opened telegram from him. Sent from Mr. French’s widow, announcing the death and funeral, one sentence stood out: “Request you stop all work Excelsior at time of funeral 3pm in respect.”

“I’ll get the word out to all the men that we’ll shut down at three,” the foreman said. Ormsby glanced at his watch. It showed ten to three.

A louder peal of thunder. The rain was going to begin in earnest soon. There were still full wagons in the yard, if he could get them ginned before…if it rained hard, it would be weeks before the cotton dried out enough to pick or gin, every finished bale would count now. Another strange sound, a hissing noise, joined the clanking bearing in duet. “Sir?” the foreman said. Ormsby crumpled the telegram and threw it away. Damn them all!

“No. Continue on,” Ormsby said to the foreman, “I don’t suppose Mr. French will know any different where he is now. Continue on.” The foreman’s jaw dropped.

At exactly three o’clock – as lightning flashed, a thunder clap sounded, and the rain started to waterfall down – the main boiler blew up. Metal squealed hysterically on metal, then stopped. Steam from the explosion filled the machine shed with hot wet fog. The alarm whistle wailed again.  The mill hands ran for safety, the yard hands frantically tried to cover the full cotton wagons with oilcloth sheets. Ormsby walked slowly back to the wagon. It would take a month or more to get a replacement boiler from the Savannah Iron Works. He would send the extra men back to the quarry. He gathered the wet reins in his hands, they weren’t as stiff as before. The rain sluiced sheets of dust off the mule’s back. With his head down against the driving rain, Ormsby got in the wagon to go home, to go back home, to Lillie.

Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student