“I gotta be hittin’ the trail back to the Half Moon real soon. I wanted to ask you a question firs’.” Again he hesitated, again broke out suddenly: “I take it a lady ain’t the same in no particulars as a man. Huh, Con?”
Conniston, thinking of Argyl, said “No,” fervently.
“If a man likes you real well you can tell every time, can’t you? An’ if he ain’t got no use for you, you can tell that, too, can’t you?”
Conniston nodded, thinking that he began to guess Pete’s troubles.
“Don’t you know—can’t you tell—how Miss Jocelyn feels toward you, Pete? Is that it?”
“That’s it, only how in blazes you guessed it gets me! Con, I tell you, I can’t tell nothin’ for sure. It’s worse ‘n gamblin’ on the weather. One day I’m thinkin’ she likes me real well, an’ she shows me things about grammar an’ stuff, an’ we git on fine. An’ then—maybe it’s nex’ day an’ maybe it’s only two minutes later—she’s all diff’rent somehow, an’ she jest makes fun of the way I talk, an’ you’d suppose she wouldn’t wipe her feet on me if I laid down an’ begged her to.”
After a long night, during which he slept little and thought much, Conniston rose early, breakfasted at the little lunch-counter, and without waking Tommy Garton rode swiftly toward Truxton’s camp. He hastened, for although it was still early morning it was time for work to begin upon the ditch.
From the top of a knoll half a mile out of camp he could look down into the little hollow where the men and teams should be already at their daily grind. A little frown gathered his brows as he saw instead that the horses were standing at their stakes in a long row, that the men were gathered together in clumps, obviously idle. And even then he had no way to guess what new trouble had come to the Great Work.
Shooting his spurs into his horse’s panting sides, he swept down the gentle slope of the sand-hill and galloped straight toward the cook’s tent. He saw that not only were the men idle, but that they gave no evidence of an intention to go to work. He saw, too, that they looked at him as he rode among them, that they watched him curiously, that many of them were laughing.
Fifty paces from the tent he came upon his two foremen—Ben the Englishman and the Lark—talking in low tones with the two foremen who had worked under Truxton’s eye.
“What’s the matter?” he called, sharply, angrily, although he did not know it. “Where’s Truxton?”
“Inside the tent,” the Lark answered him, shortly.
And, asking no further questions, waiting for no explanation, Conniston swung down from his horse, hurried to the tent, flung back the flap, and entered. Only then did the truth dawn on him, and he staggered back as though a man had struck him a stunning blow full in the face.
The air in the tent was reeking and foul with the fumes of cheap whisky. At the little table Bat Truxton sat slouched forward, his face hidden in the arm he had flung out as he slipped forward. An empty quart bottle lay on its side at his elbow. A second bottle, with an inch of the amber fluid in it, stood just beyond his clenched fist.