He turned away with white, wretched face, and strode back toward the tent. He must get away from them for a little, he must try to think, he must find something to do. And as he turned a yell of derisive triumph from two hundred throats went booming and thundering out across the desert.
Until now he had been merely grief-stricken that such chaos should have sprung into being under his hand where there should be only order and efficiency. Now there surged into his heart a flaming, scorching rage. The whiteness left his face, and it went a dull, burning red. He prayed dumbly for the might of a Nero that he might wreck the vengeance of a Nero. No words came, but he cursed them in his heart. He saw their blackened fingers choking the life out of the last hope of success of the Great Work, and he longed with an infinite longing to have those yelling throats in the grip of his own two hands that he might tear at them.
He stalked on blindly, his back turned upon them, his ears filled with laughter and shouting, cursing and discordant singing, his brain so teeming with a score of broken thoughts that no single thought remained clear. He told himself that this thing was a nightmare, that it could not be, that it was impossible, ludicrously impossible! He tried to ask himself what it would mean. He tried to answer—and could not. It would mean that there could be no work done to-day! And to-morrow? Would the men be fit to work to-morrow? And the next day? How long would the stuff last?—how long the effects of it when it was gone?
He thought suddenly of the revolver which Lonesome Pete had given him, and which struck against his hip as he walked; and he stopped dead in his tracks at the thought of it. And then he laughed at himself for a fool and strode on. Half of the men were armed. True, they were drunk, but what of that? They were two hundred against one, and they were not cowards. And in the end he would not have helped the Great Work; he would only have done a fool’s part and lost his own life. No, there was no chance—
One thought suggests another. He had not gone on a dozen steps before he stopped again, a light of hope and of determination creeping slowly into his eyes. A moment he hesitated. And then, flinging all hesitation from him, seeing clearly his one desperate hope, crying aloud, “I’ll do it!” he broke into a run toward the tent. Yesterday they had taken Bat Truxton to Valley City. But they had forgotten Bat Truxton’s rifle.
With eager fingers Conniston struck a match. Almost the first thing which his searching eyes found was the heavy Winchester, three inches of its barrel protruding from a roll of bedding. He flung the bedding open upon the ground. There was half a box of cartridges with it. He made sure that the magazine was filled, threw a shell into the barrel, thrust the box into his pocket, and ran outside.