He pulled on his boots and, without stopping to lace them, hurried toward the wagons. And before he had gone twenty paces he knew what it was that had happened. The men had been talking in hushed voices, so as not to wake him; but, now that two or three made out who he was, a shout rose sharply into the morning stillness, a shout at once of warning and of derision. And it was clearly the shout of drunkenness. It was taken up by fifty throats, a hundred throats, clamorous, exultant, jeering.
As the men moved back and forth, many of them staggered perceptibly. Conniston saw one of them pitch forward and lie helpless. A man passed by him, swaying and lurching, and in the pale light there was something fiendish in the fellow’s leering face, his open mouth, his wide, staring eyes. Off yonder he heard two men quarreling, their voices raised in windy gusts of snapping oaths; saw one of them lift his hand and strike, not as a man strikes with his bare fist, but as a man strikes with a knife; saw the other man fling out his arms, heard his gurgling, choking cry above the sudden clamorous tumult; saw him settle quietly to the ground as though every bone in his body had jellied. His eyes accustomed to the half-light, his ears free of the wax of sleep, it seemed to Conniston that he was peering into a scene which could be no part of earth, but which must be some frenzied corner of hell.
As he ran forward, brushing past tottering forms which cursed him thickly, he saw yet another group of men beyond the wagons; saw that there, too, the spirit of alcohol was rampant; heard a man’s voice, high-raised and raspingly shrill, in a monotonous song. And as he ran men did not fall back, but glared at him belligerently, many a coarse-featured countenance distorted hideously, while the men about the wagon bunched up close together threateningly.
He stopped suddenly, trying to think. A mighty laugh greeted his hesitation. He saw a big fellow thrust a tin cup down into one of the barrels, the head of which had been knocked in, lift his cup high above his head, laughing, and then put it to his lips. Then he understood while he did not understand: one of the barrels which should have contained water was nearly full of raw whisky!
Conniston did not believe that there were a dozen sober men in camp. He had recognized the big man standing at the barrel. It was Ben the Englishman. Mundy and Peters, obviously drunk, stood close to him. The little San-Franciscan was standing in the body of the wagon, trying to put his two short arms about the barrel. He had the grotesque look of a dwarf embracing a fat wife.
He could look to no one for help. These two hundred men—men whose hard, brutish natures had known nothing of the excitation of alcohol for weeks, perhaps months, whose brains were now inflamed with it, whose reckless spirits were unchained by it—would listen to words from him, from any man in the world, as much as they would listen to the sighing of the breeze which was beginning to stir the scanty desert vegetation. And above all other considerations, above even the half-formed wonder, “How came it there?” rose the knowledge which would not down, he and he alone was responsible for what these men did.