Master of the game, p.2
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       Master of the Game, p.2

           Sidney Sheldon
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Chapter 1

  BOOK ONE

  Jamie

  1883-1906

  1

  "By God, this is a real donderstorm!" Jamie McGregor said. He had grown up amid the wild storms of the Scottish Highlands, but he had never witnessed anything as violent as this. The afternoon sky had been suddenly obliterated by enormous clouds of sand, instantly turning day into night. The dusty sky was lit by flashes of lightning - weerlig, the Afrikaners called it - that scorched the air, followed by donderslag - thunder. Then the deluge. Sheets of rain that smashed against the army of tents and tin huts and turned the dirt streets of Klipdrift into frenzied streams of mud. The sky was aroar with rolling peals of thunder, one following the other like artillery in some celestial war.

  Jamie McGregor quickly stepped aside as a house built of raw brick dissolved into mud, and he wondered whether the town of Klipdrift was going to survive.

  Klipdrift was not really a town. It was a sprawling canvas village, a seething mass of tents and huts and wagons crowding the banks of the Vaal River, populated by wild-eyed dreamers drawn to South Africa from all parts of the world by the same obsession: diamonds.

  Jamie McGregor was one of the dreamers. He was barely eighteen, a handsome lad, tall and fair-haired, with startlingly light gray eyes. There was an attractive ingenuousness about him, an eagerness to please that was endearing. He had a lighthearted disposition and a soul filled with optimism.

  He had traveled almost eight thousand miles from his father's farm in the Highlands of Scotland to Edinburgh, London, Cape Town and now Klipdrift. He had given up his rights to the share of the farm that he and his brothers tilled with their father, but Jamie McGregor had no regrets. He knew he was going to be rewarded ten thousand times over. He had left the security of the only life he had ever known and had come to this distant, desolate place because he dreamed of being rich. Jamie was not afraid of hard work, but the rewards of tilling the rocky little farm north of Aberdeen were meager. He worked from sunup to sundown, along with his brothers, his sister, Mary, and his mother and his father, and they had little to show for it. He had once attended a fair in Edinburgh and had seen the wondrous things of beauty that money could buy. Money was to make your life easy when you were well, and to take care of your needs when you were ailing. Jamie had seen too many friends and neighbors live and die in poverty.

  He remembered his excitement when he first heard about the latest diamond strike in South Africa. The biggest diamond in the world had been found there, lying loose in the sand, and the whole area was rumored to be a great treasure chest waiting to be opened.

  He had broken the news to his family after dinner on a Saturday night. They were seated around an uncleared table in the rude, timbered kitchen when Jamie spoke, his voice shy and at the same time proud. "I'm going to South Africa to find diamonds. I'll be on my way next week. "

  Five pairs of eyes stared at him as though he were crazy.

  "You're goin' chasing after diamonds?" his father asked. "You must be daft, lad. That's all a fairy tale - a temptation of the devil to keep men from doin' an honest day's work. "

  "Why do you nae tell us where you're gettin' the money to go?" his brother Ian asked. "It's halfway 'round the world. You hae no money. "

  "If I had money," Jamie retorted, "I wouldn't have to go looking for diamonds, would I? Nobody there has money. I'll be an equal with all of them. I've got brains and a strong back. I'll not fail. "

  His sister, Mary, said, "Annie Cord will be disappointed. She expects to be your bride one day, Jamie. "

  Jamie adored his sister. She was older than he. Twenty-four, and she looked forty. She had never owned a beautiful thing in her life. I'll change that, Jamie promised himself.

  His mother silently picked up the platter that held the remains of the steaming haggis and walked over to the iron sink.

  Late that night she came to Jamie's bedside. She gently placed one hand on Jamie's shoulder, and her strength flooded into him. "You do what you must, Son. I dinna ken if there be diamonds there, but if there be, you'll find them. " She brought out from behind her a worn leather pouch. "I've put by a few pounds. You needn't say nothin' to the others. God bless you, Jamie. "

  When he left for Edinburgh, he had fifty pounds in the pouch.

  It was an arduous journey to South Africa, and it took Jamie McGregor almost a year to make it. He got a job as a waiter in a workingman's restaurant in Edinburgh until he added another fifty pounds to the pouch. Then it was on to London. Jamie was awed by the size of the city, the huge crowds, the noise and the large horse-drawn omnibuses that raced along at five miles an hour. There were hansom cabs everywhere, carrying beautiful women in large hats and swirling skirts and dainty little high-button shoes. He watched in wonder as the ladies alighted from the cabs and carriages to shop at Burlington Arcade, a dazzling cornucopia of silver and dishes and dresses and furs and pottery and apothecary shops crammed with mysterious bottles and jars.

  Jamie found lodging at a house at 32 Fitzroy Street. It cost ten shillings a week, but it was the cheapest he could find. He spent his days at the docks, seeking a ship that would take him to South Africa, and his evenings seeing the wondrous sights of London town. One evening he caught a glimpse of Edward, the Prince of Wales, entering a restaurant near Covent Garden by the side door, a beautiful young lady on his arm. She wore a large flowered hat, and Jamie thought how nice it would look on his sister.

  Jamie attended a concert at the Crystal Palace, built for The Great Exposition in 1851. He visited Drury Lane and at intermission sneaked into the Savoy Theatre, where they had installed the first electric lighting in a British public building. Some streets were lighted by electricity, and Jamie heard that it was possible to talk to someone on the other side of town by means of a wonderful new machine, the telephone. Jamie felt that he was looking at the future.

  In spite of all the innovations and activity, England was in the midst of a growing economic crisis that winter. The streets were filled with the unemployed and the hungry, and there were mass demonstrations and street fighting. I've got to get away from here, Jamie thought. I came to escape poverty. The following day, Jamie signed on as a steward on the Walmer Castle, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.

  The sea journey lasted three weeks, with stops at Madeira and St. Helena to take on more coal for fuel. It was a rough, turbulent voyage in the dead of winter, and Jamie was seasick from the moment the ship sailed. But he never lost his cheerfulness, for every day brought him nearer to his treasure chest. As the ship moved toward the equator, the climate changed. Miraculously, winter began to thaw into summer, and as they approached the African coast, the days and nights became hot and steamy.

  The Walmer Castle arrived in Cape Town at early dawn, moving carefully through the narrow channel that divided the great leper settlement of Robben Island from the mainland, and dropped anchor in Table Bay.

  Jamie was on deck before sunrise. He watched, mesmerized, as the early-morning fog lifted and revealed the grand spectacle of Table Mountain looming high over the city. He had arrived.

  The moment the ship made fast to the wharf, the decks were overrun by a horde of the strangest-looking people Jamie had ever seen. There were touts for all the different hotels - black men, yellow men, brown men and red men frantically offering to bear away luggage - and small boys running back and forth with newspapers and sweets and fruits for sale. Hansom drivers who were half-castes, Parsis or blacks were yelling their eagerness to be hired. Vendors and men pushing drinking carts called attention to their wares. The air was thick with huge black flies. Sailors and porters hustled and halloaed their way through the crowd while passengers vainly tried to keep their luggage together and in sight. It was a babel of voices and noise. People spoke to one another in a language Jamie had never heard.

  "Yulle kom van de Kaap, neh?"

  "Het julle mine papa zyn wagen gezien?"

  "Wat bedui'di?"
<
br />   "Huistoe!"

  He did not understand a word.

  Cape Town was utterly unlike anything Jamie had ever seen. No two houses were alike. Next to a large warehouse two or three stories high, built of bricks or stone, was a small canteen of galvanized iron, then a jeweler's shop with hand-blown plate-glass windows and abutting it a small greengrocer's and next to that a tumble-down tobacconist's.

  Jamie was mesmerized by the men, women and children who thronged the streets. He saw a kaffir clad in an old pair of 78th Highland trews and wearing as a coat a sack with slits cut for the arms and head. The kaffir walked behind two Chinese men, hand in hand, who were wearing blue smock frocks, their pigtails carefully coiled up under their conical straw hats. There were stout, red-faced Boer farmers with sun-bleached hair, their wagons loaded with potatoes, corn and leafy vegetables. Men dressed in brown velveteen trousers and coats, with broadbrimmed, soft-felt hats on their heads and long clay pipes in their mouths, strode ahead of their vraws, attired in black, with thick black veils and large black-silk poke bonnets. Parsi washerwomen with large bundles of soiled clothes on their heads pushed past soldiers in red coats and helmets. It was a fascinating spectacle.

  The first thing Jamie did was to seek out an inexpensive boardinghouse recommended to him by a sailor aboard ship. The landlady was a dumpy, ample-bosomed, middle-aged widow.

  She looked Jamie over and smiled. "Zoek yulle goud?"

  He blushed. "I'm sorry - I don't understand. "

  "English, yes? You are here to hunt gold? Diamonds?"

  "Diamonds. Yes, ma'am. "

  She pulled him inside. "You will like it here. I have all the convenience for young men like you. "

  Jamie wondered whether she was one of them. He hoped not.

  "I'm Mrs. Venster," she said coyly, "but my friends call me 'Dee-Dee. '" She smiled, revealing a gold tooth in front. "I have a feeling we are going to be very good friends. Ask of me anything. "

  "That's very kind of you," Jamie said. "Can you tell me where I can get a map of the city?"

  With map in hand, Jamie went exploring. On one side of the city were the landward suburbs of Rondebosch, Claremont and Wynberg, stretching along nine miles of thinning plantations and vineyards. On the other side were the marine suburbs of Sea Point and Green Point. Jamie walked through the rich residential area, down Strand Street and Bree Street, admiring the large, two-story buildings with their flat roofs and peaked stuccoed fronts - steep terraces rising from the street. He walked until he was finally driven indoors by the flies that seemed to have a personal vendetta against him. They were large and black and attacked in swarms. When Jamie returned to his boardinghouse, he found his room filled with them. They covered the walls and table and bed.

  He went to see the landlady. "Mrs. Venster, isn't there anything you can do about the flies in my room? They're - "

  She gave a fat, jiggling laugh and pinched Jamie's cheek. "Myn magtig. You'll get used to them. You'll see. "

  The sanitary arrangements in Cape Town were both primitive and inadequate, and when the sun set, an odoriferous vapor covered the city like a noxious blanket. It was unbearable. But Jamie knew that he would bear it. He needed more money before he could leave. "You can't survive in the diamond fields without money," he had been warned. "They'll charge you just for breathin'. "

  On his second day in Cape Town, Jamie found a job driving a team of horses for a delivery firm. On the third day he started working in a restaurant after dinner, washing dishes. He lived on the leftover food that he squirreled away and took back to the boardinghouse, but it tasted strange to him and he longed for his mother's cock-a-leekie and oatcakes and hot, fresh-made baps. He did not complain, even to himself, as he sacrificed both food and comfort to increase his grubstake. He had made his choice and nothing was going to stop him, not the exhausting labor, or the foul air he breathed or the flies that kept him awake most of the night. He felt desperately lonely. He knew no one in this strange place, and he missed his friends and family. Jamie enjoyed solitude, but loneliness was a constant ache.

  At last, the magic day arrived. His pouch held the magnificent sum of two hundred pounds. He was ready. He would leave Cape Town the following morning for the diamond fields.

  Reservations for passenger wagons to the diamond fields at Klipdrift were booked by the Inland Transport Company at a small wooden depot near the docks. When Jamie arrived at 7:00 A. M. , the depot was already so crowded that he could not get near it. There were hundreds of fortune seekers fighting for seats on the wagons. They had come from as far away as Russia and America, Australia, Germany and England. They shouted in a dozen different tongues, pleading with the besieged ticket sellers to find spaces for them. Jamie watched as a burly Irishman angrily pushed his way out of the office onto the sidewalk, fighting to get through the mob.

  "Excuse me," Jamie said. "What's going on in there?"

  "Nothin'," the Irishman grunted in disgust. "The bloody wagons are all booked up for the next six weeks. " He saw the look of dismay on Jamie's face. "That's not the worst of it, lad. The heathen bastards are chargin' fifty pounds a head. "

  It was incredible! "There must be another way to get to the diamond fields. "

  "Two ways. You can go Dutch Express, or you can go by foot. "

  "What's Dutch Express?"

  "Bullock wagon. They travel two miles an hour. By the time you get there, the damned diamonds will all be gone. "

  Jamie McGregor had no intention of being delayed until the diamonds were gone. He spent the rest of the morning looking for another means of transportation. Just before noon, he found it. He was passing a livery stable with a sign in front that said MAIL DEPOT. On an impulse, he went inside, where the thinnest man he had ever seen was loading large mail sacks into a dogcart. Jamie watched him a moment.

  "Excuse me," Jamie said. "Do you carry mail to Klipdrift?"

  "That's right. Loadin' up now. "

  Jamie felt a sudden surge of hope. "Do you take passengers?"

  "Sometimes. " He looked up and studied Jamie. "How old are you?"

  An odd question. "Eighteen. Why?"

  "We don't take anyone over twenty-one or twenty-two. You in good health?"

  An even odder question. "Yes, sir. "

  The thin man straightened up. "I guess you're fit. I'm leavin' in an hour. The fare's twenty pounds. "

  Jamie could not believe his good fortune. "That's wonderful! I'll get my suitcase and - "

  "No suitcase. All you got room for is one shirt and a toothbrush. "

  Jamie took a closer look at the dogcart. It was small and roughly built. The body formed a well in which the mail was stored, and over the well was a narrow, cramped space where a person could sit back to back behind the driver. It was going to be an uncomfortable journey.

  "It's a deal," Jamie said. "I'll fetch my shirt and toothbrush. "

  When Jamie returned, the driver was hitching up a horse to the open cart. There were two large young men standing near the cart: One was short and dark, the other was a tall, blond Swede. The men were handing the driver some money.

  "Wait a minute," Jamie called to the driver. "You said I was going. "

  "You're all goin'," the driver said. "Hop in. "

  "The three of us?"

  "That's right. "

  Jamie had no idea how the driver expected them all to fit in the small cart, but he knew he was going to be on it when it pulled out.

  Jamie introduced himself to his two fellow passengers. "I'm Jamie McGregor. "

  "Wallach," the short, dark man said.

  "Pederson," the tall blond replied.

  Jamie said, "We're lucky we discovered this, aren't we? It's a good thing everybody doesn't know about it. "

  Pederson said, "Oh, they know about the post carts, McGregor. There just aren't that many fit enough or desperate enough to travel in them. "

  Before Jamie could ask what he meant
, the driver said, "Let's go. "

  The three men - Jamie in the middle - squeezed into the seat, crowded against each other, their knees cramped, their backs pressing hard against the wooden back of the driver's seat. There was no room to move or breathe. It's not bad, Jamie reassured himself.

  "Hold on!" the driver sang out, and a moment later they were racing through the streets of Cape Town on their way to the diamond fields at Klipdrift.

  By bullock wagon, the journey was relatively comfortable. The wagons transporting passengers from Cape Town to the diamond fields were large and roomy, with tent covers to ward off the blazing winter sun. Each wagon accommodated a dozen passengers and was drawn by teams of horses or mules. Refreshments were provided at regular stations, and the journey took ten days.

  The mail cart was different. It never stopped, except to change horses and drivers. The pace was a full gallop, over rough roads and fields and rutted trails. There were no springs on the cart, and each bounce was like the blow of a horse's hoof. Jamie gritted his teeth and thought, I can stand it until we stop for the night. I'll eat and get some sleep, and in the morning I'll be fine. But when nighttime came, there was a ten-minute halt for a change of horse and driver, and they were off again at a full gallop.

  "When do we stop to eat?" Jamie asked.

  "We don't," the new driver grunted. "We go straight through. We're carryin' the mails, mister. "

  They raced through the long night, traveling over dusty, bumpy roads by moonlight, the little cart bouncing up the rises, plunging down the valleys, springing over the flats. Every inch of Jamie's body was battered and bruised from the constant jolting. He was exhausted, but it was impossible to sleep. Every time he started to doze off, he was jarred awake. His body was cramped and miserable and there was no room to stretch. He was starving and motion-sick. He had no idea how many days it would be before his next meal. It was a six-hundred-mile journey, and Jamie McGregor was not sure he was going to live through it. Neither was he sure that he wanted to.

  By the end of the second day and night, the misery had turned to agony. Jamie's traveling companions were in the same sorry state, no longer even able to complain. Jamie understood now why the company insisted that its passengers be young and strong.

  When the next dawn came, they entered the Great Karroo, where the real wilderness began. Stretching to infinity, the monstrous veld lay flat and forbidding under a pitiless sun. The passengers were smothered in heat, dust and flies.

  Occasionally, through a miasmic haze, Jamie saw groups of men slogging along on foot. There were solitary riders on horseback, and dozens of bullock wagons drawn by eighteen or twenty oxen, handled by drivers and voorlopers, with their sjamboks, the whips with long leather thongs, crying, "Trek! Trek!" The huge wagons were laden with a thousand pounds of produce and goods, tents and digging equipment and wood-burning stoves, flour and coal and oil lamps. They carried coffee and rice, Russian hemp, sugar and wines, whiskey and boots and Belfast candles, and blankets. They were the lifeline to the fortune seekers at Klipdrift.

  It was not until the mail cart crossed the Orange River that there was a change from the deadly monotony of the veld. The scrub gradually became taller and tinged with green. The earth was redder, patches of grass rippled in the breeze, and low thorn trees began to appear.

  I'm going to make it, Jamie thought dully. I'm going to make it.

  And he could feel hope begin to creep into his tired body.

  They had been on the road for four continuous days and nights when they finally arrived at the outskirts of Klipdrift.

  Young Jamie McGregor had not known what to expect, but the scene that met his weary, bloodshot eyes was like nothing he ever could have imagined. Klipdrift was a vast panorama of tents and wagons lined up on the main streets and on the shores of the Vaal River. The dirt roadway swarmed with kaffirs, naked except for brightly colored jackets, and bearded prospectors, butchers, bakers, thieves, teachers. In the center of Klipdrift, rows of wooden and iron shacks served as shops, canteens, billiard rooms, eating houses, diamond-buying offices and lawyers' rooms. On a corner stood the ramshackle Royal Arch Hotel, a long chain of rooms without windows.

  Jamie stepped out of the cart, and promptly fell to the ground, his cramped legs refusing to hold him up. He lay there, his head spinning, until he had strength enough to rise. He stumbled toward the hotel, pushing through the boisterous crowds that thronged the sidewalks and streets. The room they gave him was small, stifling hot and swarming with flies. But it had a cot. Jamie fell onto it, fully dressed, and was asleep instantly. He slept for eighteen hours.

  Jamie awoke, his body unbelievably stiff and sore, but his soul filled with exultation. I am here! I have made it! Ravenously hungry, he went in search of food. The hotel served none, but there was a small, crowded restaurant across the street, where he devoured fried snook, a large fish resembling pike; carbonaatje, thinly sliced mutton grilled on a spit over a wood fire; a haunch of bok and, for dessert, koeksister, a dough deep-fried and soaked in syrup.

  Jamie's stomach, so long without food, began to give off alarming symptoms. He decided to let it rest before he continued eating, and turned his attention to his surroundings. At tables all around him, prospectors were feverishly discussing the subject uppermost in everyone's mind: diamonds.

  ". . . There's still a few diamonds left around Hopetown, but the mother lode's at New Rush. . . . "

  ". . . Kimberley's got a bigger population than Joburg. . . "

  ". . . About the find up at Dutoitspan last week? They say there's more diamonds there than a man can carry. . . "

  ". . . There's a new strike at Christiana. I'm goin' up there tomorrow. "

  So it was true. There were diamonds everywhere! Young Jamie was so excited he could hardly finish his huge mug of coffee. He was staggered by the amount of the bill. Two pounds, three shillings for one meal! I'll have to be very careful, he thought, as he walked out onto the crowded, noisy street.

  A voice behind him said, "Still planning to get rich, McGregor?"

  Jamie turned. It was Pederson, the Swedish boy who had traveled on the dogcart with him.

  "I certainly am," Jamie said.

  "Then let's go where the diamonds are. " He pointed. "The Vaal River's that way. "

  They began to walk.

  Klipdrift was in a basin, surrounded by hills, and as far as Jamie could see, everything was barren, without a blade of grass or shrub in sight. Red dust rose thick in the air, making it difficult to breathe. The Vaal River was a quarter of a mile away, and as they got closer to it, the air became cooler. Hundreds of prospectors lined both sides of the riverbank, some of them digging for diamonds, others meshing stones in rocking cradles, still others sorting stones at rickety, makeshift tables. The equipment ranged from scientific earth-washing apparatus to old tub boxes and pails. The men were sunburned, unshaven and roughly dressed in a weird assortment of collarless, colored and striped flannel shirts, corduroy trousers and rubber boots, riding breeches and laced leggings and wide-brimmed felt hats or pith helmets. They all wore broad leather belts with pockets for diamonds or money.

  Jamie and Pederson walked to the edge of the riverbank and watched a young boy and an older man struggling to remove a huge ironstone boulder so they could get at the gravel around it. Their shirts were soaked with sweat. Nearby, another team loaded gravel onto a cart to be sieved in a cradle. One of the diggers rocked the cradle while another poured buckets of water into it to wash away the silt. The large pebbles were then emptied onto an improvised sorting table, where they were excitedly inspected.

  "It looks easy," Jamie grinned.

  "Don't count on it, McGregor. I've been talking to some of the diggers who have been here a while. I think we've bought a sack of pups. "

  "What do you mean?"

  "Do you know how many diggers there are in these parts, all hoping to get rich? Twenty bloody thousand! And there are
n't enough diamonds to go around, chum. Even if there were, I'm beginning to wonder if it's worth it. You broil in winter, freeze in summer, get drenched in their damned donderstormen, and try to cope with the dust and the flies and the stink. You can't get a bath or a decent bed, and there are no sanitary arrangements in this damned town. There are drownings in the Vaal River every week. Some are accidental, but I was told that for most of them it's a way out, the only escape from this hellhole. I don't know why these people keep hanging on. "

  "I do. " Jamie looked at the hopeful young boy with the stained shirt. "The next shovelful of dirt. "

  But as they headed back to town, Jamie had to admit that Pederson had a point. They passed carcasses of slaughtered oxen, sheep and goats left to rot outside the tents, next to wide-open trenches that served as lavatories. The place stank to the heavens. Pederson was watching him. "What are you going to do now?"

  "Get some prospecting equipment. "

  In the center of town was a store with a rusted hanging sign that read: SALOMON VAN DER MERWE, GENERAL STORE. A tall black man about Jamie's age was unloading a wagon in front of the store. He was broad-shouldered and heavily muscled, one of the most handsome men Jamie had ever seen. He had soot-black eyes, an aquiline nose and a proud chin. There was a dignity about him, a quiet aloofness. He lifted a heavy wooden box of rifles to his shoulder and, as he turned, he slipped on a leaf fallen from a crate of cabbage. Jamie instinctively reached out an arm to steady him. The black man did not acknowledge Jamie's presence. He turned and walked into the store. A Boer prospector hitching up a mule spat and said distastefully, "That's Banda, from the Barolong tribe. Works for Mr. van der Merwe. I don't know why he keeps that uppity black. Those fuckin' Bantus think they own the earth. "

  The store was cool and dark inside, a welcome relief from the hot, bright street, and it was filled with exotic odors. It seemed to Jamie that every inch of space was crammed with merchandise. He walked through the store, marveling. There were agricultural implements, beer, cans of milk and crocks of butter, cement, fuses and dynamite and gunpowder, crockery, furniture, guns and haberdashery, oil and paint and varnish, bacon and dried fruit, saddlery and harness, sheep-dip and soap, spirits and stationery and paper, sugar and tea and tobacco and snuff and cigars. . . A dozen shelves were filled from top to bottom with flannel shirts and blankets, shoes, poke bonnets and saddles. Whoever owns all this, Jamie thought, is a rich man.

  A soft voice behind him said, "Can I help you?"

  Jamie turned and found himself facing a young girl. He judged she was about fifteen. She had an interesting face, fine-boned and heart-shaped, like a valentine, a pert nose and intense green eyes. Her hair was dark and curling. Jamie, looking at her figure, decided she might be closer to sixteen.

  "I'm a prospector," Jamie announced. "I'm here to buy some equipment. "

  "What is it you need?"

  For some reason, Jamie felt he had to impress this girl. "I - er - you know - the usual. "

  She smiled, and there was mischief in her eyes. "What is the usual, sir?"

  "Well. . . " He hesitated. "A shovel. "

  "Will that be all?"

  Jamie saw that she was teasing him. He grinned and confessed, "To tell you the truth, I'm new at this. I don't know what I need. "

  She smiled at him, and it was the smile of a woman. "It depends on where you're planning to prospect, Mr. - ?"

  "McGregor. Jamie McGregor. "

  "I'm Margaret van der Merwe. " She glanced nervously toward the rear of the store.

  "I'm pleased to meet you, Miss van der Merwe. "

  "Did you just arrive?"

  "Aye. Yesterday. On the post cart. "

  "Someone should have warned you about that. Passengers have died on that trip. " There was anger in her eyes.

  Jamie grinned. "I can't blame them. But I'm very much alive, thank you. "

  "And going out to hunt for mooi klippe. "

  "Mooi klippe?"

  "That's our Dutch word for diamonds. Pretty pebbles. "

  "You're Dutch?"

  "My family's from Holland. "

  "I'm from Scotland. "

  "I could tell that. " Her eyes flicked warily toward the back of the store again. "There are diamonds around, Mr. McGregor, but you must be choosy where you look for them. Most of the diggers are running around chasing their own tails. When someone makes a strike, the rest scavenge off the leavings. If you want to get rich, you have to find a strike of your own. "

  "How do I do that?"

  "My father might be the one to help you with that. He knows everything. He'll be free in an hour. "

  "I'll be back," Jamie assured her. "Thank you, Miss van der Merwe. "

  He went out into the sunshine, filled with a sense of euphoria, his aches and pains forgotten. If Salomon van der Merwe would advise him where to find diamonds, there was no way Jamie could fail. He would have the jump on all of them. He laughed aloud, with the sheer joy of being young and alive and on his way to riches.

  Jamie walked down the main street, passing a blacksmith's, a billiard hall and half a dozen saloons. He came to a sign in front of a decrepit-looking hotel and stopped. The sign read:

  R-D MILLER, WARM AND COLD BATHS.

  OPEN DAILY FROM

  6

  A. M. TO

  8

  P. M. ,

  WITH THE COMFORTS OF A NEAT

  DRESSING ROOM

  Jamie thought, When did I have my last bath? Well, I took a bucket bath on the boat. That was - He was suddenly aware of how he must smell. He thought of the weekly tub baths in the kitchen at home, and he could hear his mother's voice calling, "Be sure to wash down below, Jamie. "

  He turned and entered the baths. There were two doors inside, one for women and one for men. Jamie entered the men's section and walked up to the aged attendant. "How much is a bath?"

  "Ten shillings for a cold bath, fifteen for a hot. "

  Jamie hesitated. The idea of a hot bath after his long journey was almost irresistible. "Cold," he said. He could not afford to throw away his money on luxuries. He had mining equipment to buy.

  The attendant handed him a small bar of yellow lye soap and a threadbare hand towel and pointed. "In there, mate. "

  Jamie stepped into a small room that contained nothing except a large galvanized-iron bathtub in the center and a few pegs on the wall. The attendant began filling the tub from a large wooden bucket.

  "All ready for you, mister. Just hang your clothes on those pegs. "

  Jamie waited until the attendant left and then undressed. He looked down at his grime-covered body and put one foot in the tub. The water was cold, as advertised. He gritted his teeth and plunged in, soaping himself furiously from head to foot. When he finally stepped out of the tub, the water was black. He dried himself as best he could with the worn linen towel and started to get dressed. His pants and shirt were stiff with dirt, and he hated to put them back on. He would have to buy a change of clothes, and this reminded him once more of how little money he had. And he was hungry again.

  Jamie left the bathhouse and pushed his way down the crowded street to a saloon called the Sundowner. He ordered a beer and lunch. Lamb cutlets with tomatoes, and sausage and potato salad and pickles. While he ate, he listened to the hopeful conversations around him.

  ". . . I hear they found a stone near Colesberg weighin' twenty-one carats. Mark you, if there's one diamond up there, there's plenty more. . . "

  ". . . There's a new diamond find up in Hebron. I'm thinkin' of goin' there. . . "

  "You're a fool. The big diamonds are in the Orange River. . . "

  At the bar, a bearded customer in a collarless, striped-flannel shirt and corduroy trousers was nursing a shandygaff in a large glass. "I got cleaned out in Hebron," he confided to the bartender. "I need me a grubstake. "

  The bartender was a large, fleshy, bald-headed man with a broken, twisted nose and ferret
eyes. He laughed. "Hell, man, who doesn't? Why do you think I'm tendin' bar? As soon as I have enough money, I'm gonna hightail it up the Orange myself. " He wiped the bar with a dirty rag. "But I'll tell you what you might do, mister. See Salomon ven der Merwe. He owns the general store and half the town. "

  "What good'll that do me?"

  "If he likes you, he might stake you. "

  The customer looked at him. "Yeah? You really think he might?"

  "He's done it for a few fellows I know of. You put up your labor, he puts up the money. You split fifty-fifty. "

  Jamie McGregor's thoughts leaped ahead. He had been confident that the hundred and twenty pounds he had left would be enough to buy the equipment and food he would need to survive, but the prices in Klipdrift were astonishing. He had noticed in Van der Merwe's store that a hundred-pound sack of Australian flour cost five pounds. One pound of sugar cost a shilling. A bottle of beer cost five shillings. Biscuits were three shillings a pound, and fresh eggs sold for seven shillings a dozen. At that rate, his money would not last long. My God, Jamie thought, at home we could live for a year on what three meals cost here. But if he could get the backing of someone wealthy, like Mr. van der Merwe. . . Jamie hastily paid for his food and hurried back to the general store.

  Salomon van der Merwe was behind the counter, removing the rifles from a wooden crate. He was a small man, with a thin, pinched face framed by Dundreary whiskers. He had sandy hair, tiny black eyes, a bulbous nose and pursed lips. His daughter must take after her mother, Jamie thought. "Excuse me, sir. . . "

  Van der Merwe looked up. "Ja?"

  "Mr. van der Merwe? My name is Jamie McGregor, sir. I'm from Scotland. I came here to find diamonds. "

  "Ja? So?"

  "I hear you sometimes back prospectors. "

  Van der Merwe grumbled, "Myn magtig! Who spreads these stories? I help out a few diggers, and everyone thinks I'm Santa Claus. "

  "I've saved a hundred and twenty pounds," Jamie said earnestly. "But I see that it's not going to buy me much here. I'll go out to the bush with just a shovel if I have to, but I figure my chances would be a lot better if I had a mule and some proper equipment. "

  Van der Merwe was studying him with those small, black eyes. "Wat denk ye? What makes you think you can find diamonds?"

  "I've come halfway around the world, Mr. van der Merwe, and I'm not going to leave here until I'm rich. If the diamonds are out there, I'll find them. If you help me, I'll make us both rich. "

  Van der Merwe grunted, turned his back on Jamie and continued unloading the rifles. Jamie stood there awkwardly, not knowing what more to say. When Van der Merwe spoke again, his question caught Jamie off guard. "You travel here by bullock wagon, ja?"

  "No. Post cart. "

  The old man turned to study the boy again. He said, finally, "We talk about it. "

  They talked about it at dinner that evening in the room in back of the store that was the Van der Merwe living quarters. It was a small room that served as a kitchen, dining room and sleeping quarters, with a curtain separating two cots. The lower half of the walls was built of mud and stone, and the upper half was faced with cardboard boxes that had once contained provisions. A square hole, where a piece of wall had been cut out, served as a window. In wet weather it could be closed by placing a board in front of it. The dining table consisted of a long plank stretched across two wooden crates. A large box, turned on its side, served as a cupboard. Jamie guessed that Van der Merwe was not a man who parted easily with his money.

  Van der Meerwe's daughter moved silently about, preparing dinner. From time to time she cast quick glances at her father, but she never once looked at Jamie. Why is she so frightened? Jamie wondered.

  When they were seated at the table, Van der Merwe began, "Let us have a blessing. We thank Thee, O Lord, for the bounty we receive at Thy hands. We thank Thee for forgiving us our sins and showing us the path of righteousness and delivering us from life's temptations. We thank Thee for a long and fruitful life, and for smiting dead all those who offend Thee. Amen. " And without a breath between, "Pass me the meat," he said to his daughter.

  The dinner was frugal: a small roast pork, three boiled potatoes and a dish of turnip greens. The portions he served to Jamie were small. The two men talked little during the meal, and Margaret did not speak at all.

  When they had finished eating, Van der Merwe said, "That was fine, Daughter," and there was pride in his voice. He turned to Jamie. "We get down to business, ja?"

  "Yes, sir. "

  Van der Merwe picked up a long clay pipe from the top of the wooden cabinet. He filled it with a sweet-smelling tobacco from a small pouch and lighted the pipe. His sharp eyes peered intently at Jamie through the wreaths of smoke.

  "The diggers here at Klipdrift are fools. Too few diamonds, too many diggers. A man could break his back here for a year and have nothing to show for it but schlenters. "

  "I - I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that word, sir. "

  "Fools' diamonds. Worthless. Do you follow me?"

  "I - Yes, sir. I think so. But what's the answer, sir?"

  "The Griquas. "

  Jamie looked at him blankly.

  "They're an African tribe up north. They find diamonds - big ones - and sometimes they bring them to me and I trade them for goods. " The Dutchman lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I know where they find them. "

  "But could you nae go after them yourself, Mr. van der Merwe?"

  Van der Merwe sighed. "No. I can't leave the store. People would steal me blind. I need someone I can trust to go up there and bring the stones back. When I find the right man, I'll supply him with all the equipment he needs. " He paused to take a long drag on the pipe. "And I'll tell him where the diamonds are. "

  Jamie leaped to his feet, his heart pounding. "Mr. van der Merwe, I'm the person you're looking for. Believe me, sir, I'll work night and day. " His voice was charged with excitement. "I'll bring you back more diamonds than you can count. "

  Van der Merwe silently studied him for what seemed to Jamie to be an eternity. When Van der Merwe finally spoke, he said only one word. "Ja. "

  Jamie signed the contract the following morning. It was written in Afrikaans.

  "I'll have to explain it to you," Van der Merwe said. "It says we're full partners. I put up the capital - you put up the labor. We share everything equally. "

  Jamie looked at the contract in Van der Merwe's hand. In the middle of all the incomprehensible foreign words he recognized only a sum: two pounds.

  Jamie pointed to it. "What is that for, Mr. van der Merwe?"

  "It means that in addition to your owning half the diamonds you find, you'll get an extra two pounds for every week you work. Even though I know the diamonds are out there, it's possible you might not find anything, lad. This way you'll at least get something for your labor. "

  The man was being more than fair. "Thank you. Thank you very much, sir. " Jamie could have hugged him.

  Van der Merwe said, "Now let's get you outfitted. "

  It took two hours to select the equipment that Jamie would take into the bush with him: a small tent, bedding, cooking utensils, two sieves and a washing cradle, a pick, two shovels, three buckets and one change of socks and underwear. There was an ax and a lantern and paraffin oil, matches and arsenical soap. There were tins of food, biltong, fruit, sugar, coffee and salt. At last everything was in readiness. The black servant, Banda, silently helped Jamie stow everything into backpacks. The huge man never glanced at Jamie and never spoke one word. He doesn't speak English, Jamie decided. Margaret was in the store waiting on customers, but if she knew Jamie was there, she gave no indication.

  Van der Merwe came over to Jamie. "Your mule's in front," he said. "Banda will help you load up. "

  "Thank you, Mr. van der Merwe," Jamie said. "I - "

  Van der Merwe consulted a piece of paper covered with figures. "That will be one hun
dred and twenty pounds. "

  Jamie looked at him blankly. "W - what? This is part of our deal. We - "

  "Wat bedui'di?" Van der Merwe's thin face darkened with anger. "You expect me to give you all this, and a fine mule, and make you a partner, and give you two pounds a week on top of that? If you're looking for something for nothing, you've come to the wrong place. " He began to unload one of the backpacks.

  Jamie said quickly, "No! Please, Mr. van der Merwe. I - I just didn't understand. It's pefectly all right. I have the money right here. " He reached in his pouch and put the last of his savings on the counter.

  Van der Merwe hesitated. "All right," he said grudgingly. "Perhaps it was a misunderstanding, neh? This town is full of cheaters. I have to be careful who I do business with. "

  "Yes, sir. Of course you do," Jamie agreed. In his excitement, he had misunderstood the deal. I'm lucky he's giving me another chance, Jamie thought.

  Van der Merwe reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, wrinkled, hand-drawn map. "Here is where you'll find the mooi klippe. North of here at Magerdam on the northern bank of the Vaal. "

  Jamie studied the map, and his heart began to beat faster. "How many miles is it?"

  "Here we measure distance by time. With the mule, you should make the journey in four or five days. Coming back will be slower because of the weight of the diamonds. "

  Jamie grinned. "Ja. "

  When Jamie McGregor stepped back out onto the streets of Klipdrift, he was no longer a tourist. He was a prospector, a digger, on his way to his fortune. Banda had finished loading the supplies onto the back of a frail-looking mule tethered to the hitching post in front of the store.

  "Thanks. " Jamie smiled.

  Banda turned and looked him in the eye, then silently walked away. Jamie unhitched the reins and said to the mule, "Let's go, partner. It's mooi klippe time. "

  They headed north.

  Jamie pitched camp near a stream at nightfall, unloaded and watered and fed the mule, and fixed himself some beef jerky, dried apricots and coffee. The night was filled with strange noises. He heard the grunts and howls and padding of wild animals moving down to the water. He was unprotected, surrounded by the most dangerous beasts in the world, in a strange, primitive country. He jumped at every sound. At any moment he expected to be attacked by fangs and claws leaping at him from out of the darkness. His mind began to drift. He thought of his snug bed at home and the comfort and safety he had always taken for granted. He slept fitfully, his dreams filled with charging lions and elephants, and large, bearded men trying to take an enormous diamond away from him.

  At dawn when Jamie awakened, the mule was dead.

 
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