He glanced down at his hands. The middle finger of the right one, with which he had struck Brayley’s heavy cheek-bone, was swollen to twice its natural size, stiff and sore. The nails were broken and blackened. There were a dozen scratches and little cuts. The palms were hard and calloused, with bits of loose skin along the base of the fingers where blisters had formed and broken and healed over.
He lifted his head, and his speculative eyes ran back along the ditch. The work was again running smoothly, quietly, save for the clanking of the scrapers and the men’s voices calling to their horses and mules, each man intent upon his own duty, the face of the desert as peaceful as the hot, clear arch of the sky above.
Three days passed, four, a week, and still no word came of the men for whom the “Old Man” had wired to Denver. Conniston had nearly forgotten them. His day was from daylight until dark, often until long after dark. Upon more than one evening, after the men had had their suppers and crawled into their blankets, he and Truxton had sat in the tent at the cook’s rude table, a lantern between them, figuring and planning upon the next day.
He began to notice a vague change in the older engineer as the days went by. At first he was hardly conscious of it, at a loss to catalogue it. But before the middle of the week he realized that each evening found Truxton more irritable, more prone to explode into quick rage over some trifle. The man’s eyes began to show the restless fever within him, and some sort of an unsleeping, nervous anxiety. Throughout the days the men stood clear of him. His flaming wrath burst out at a blundering mistake or at a man’s failure to follow to the last letter some short-spoken instructions. It was only one night when Conniston made careless mention of Oliver Swinnerton, and Truxton flew into a towering, cursing rage, that he began to believe that he saw the real reason for Truxton’s growing ill temper.
“The thievin’, mangy, pot-bellied porcupine!” Truxton had shouted, banging his fist down upon the cook’s table so hard that the lantern jumped two inches in the air. “I’ll just naturally rid the earth of him one of these days. Those men ought to have arrived from Denver three days ago. How am I ever goin’ to get anything done, an’ no men to work for me? With Colton Gray gone an’ the rest of the P. C. & W. thieves playin’ into that scoundrel Swinnerton’s hands, where do we get off? We send for a hundred men, an’ it saves Swinnerton the trouble an’ expense of a wire. By now every man jack of them is makin’ fences an’ buildin’ houses for him, or I’m the worst-fooled man in the country.” And he swung off into a string of curses which would not have been unworthy of Ben the Englishman.
One afternoon when they had run the ditch through the Seven Knolls and were cutting rapidly through a level stretch with a double line of smaller hills a mile ahead of the foremost team, Truxton came striding along the ditch to where Conniston was standing.