Master of the game, p.3
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       Master of the Game, p.3
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           Sidney Sheldon
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Chapter 2

  He could not believe it. He looked for a wound of some kind, thinking it must have been attacked by a wild animal during the night, but there was nothing. The beast had died in its sleep. Mr. van der Merwe will hold me responsible for this, Jamie thought. But when I bring him diamonds, it won't matter.

  There was no turning back. He would go on to Magerdam without the mule. He heard a sound in the air and looked up. Giant black vultures were beginning to circle high above. Jamie shuddered. Working as quickly as possible, he rearranged his gear, deciding what he had to leave behind, then stowed everything he could carry into a backpack and started off. When he looked back five minutes later, the enormous vultures had covered the body of the dead animal. All that was visible was one long ear. Jamie quickened his step.

  It was December, summer in South Africa, and the trek across the veld under the huge orange sun was a horror. Jamie had started out from Klipdrift with a brisk step and a light heart, but as the minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, his steps got slower and his heart became heavier. As far as the eye could see, the monotonous veld shimmered flat and forbidding under the blazing sun and there seemed no end to the gray, stony, desolate plains.

  Jamie made camp whenever he came to a watering hole, and he slept with the eerie, nocturnal sounds of the animals all around him. The sounds no longer bothered him. They were proof that there was life in this barren hell, and they made him feel less lonely. One dawn Jamie came across a pride of lions. He watched from a distance as the lioness moved toward her mate and their cubs, carrying a baby impala in her powerful jaws. She dropped the animal in front of the male and moved away while he fed. A reckless cub leaped forward and dug his teeth into the impala. With one motion, the male raised a paw and swiped the cub across the face, killing it instantly, then went back to his feeding. When he finished, the rest of the family was permitted to move in for the remains of the feast. Jamie slowly backed away from the scene and continued walking.

  It took him almost two weeks to cross the Karroo. More than once he was ready to give up. He was not sure he could finish the journey. I'm a fool. I should have returned to Klipdrift to ask Mr. van der Merwe for another mule. But what if Van der Merwe had called off the deal? No, I did the right thing.

  And so, Jamie kept moving, one step at a time. One day, he saw four figures in the distance, coming toward him. I'm delirious, Jamie thought. It's a mirage. But the figures came closer, and Jamie's heart began to thud alarmingly. Men! There is human life here! He wondered if he had forgotten how to speak. He tried out his voice on the afternoon air, and it sounded as if it belonged to someone long dead. The four men reached him, prospectors returning to Klipdrift, tired and defeated.

  "Hello," Jamie said.

  They nodded. One of them said, "There ain't nothin' ahead, boy. We looked. You're wastin' your time. Go back. "

  And they were gone.

  Jamie shut his mind to everything but the trackless waste ahead of him. The sun and the black flies were unbearable and there was no place to hide. There were thorn trees, but their branches had been laid waste by the elephants. Jamie was almost totally blinded by the sun. His fair skin was burned raw, and he was constantly dizzy. Each time he took a breath of air, his lungs seemed to explode. He was no longer walking, he was stumbling, putting one foot in front of the other, mindlessly lurching ahead. One afternoon, with the midday sun beating down on him, he slipped off his backpack and slumped to the ground, too tired to take another step. He closed his eyes and dreamed he was in a giant crucible and the sun was a huge, bright diamond blazing down on him, melting him. He awoke in the middle of the night trembling from the cold. He forced himself to take a few bites of biltong and a drink of tepid water. He knew he must get up and start moving before the sun rose, while the earth and sky were cool. He tried, but the effort was too great. It would be so easy just to lie there forever and never have to take another step. I'll just sleep for a little while longer, Jamie thought. But some voice deep within him told him he would never wake up again. They would find his body there as they had found hundreds of others. He remembered the vultures and thought, No, not my body - my bones. Slowly and painfully, he forced himself to his feet. His backpack was so heavy he could not lift it. Jamie started walking again, dragging the pack behind him. He had no recollection of how many times he fell onto the sand and staggered to his feet again. Once he screamed into the predawn sky, "I'm Jamie McGregor, and I'm going to make it. I'm going to live. Do you hear me, God? I'm going to live. . . " Voices were exploding in his head.

  You're goin' chasin' diamonds? You must be daft, son. That's 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? It's halfway 'round the world. You hae no money.

  Mr. van der Merwe, I'm the person you're looking for. Believe me, sir, I'll work night and day. I'll bring you back more diamonds than you can count.

  And he was finished before he had even started. You have two choices, Jamie told himself. You can go on or you can stay here and die. . . and die. . . and die. . .

  The words echoed endlessly in his head. You can take one more step, Jamie thought. Come on, Jamie boy. One more step. One more step. . .

  Two days later Jamie McGregor stumbled into the village of Magerdam. The sunburn had long since become infected and his body oozed blood and sera. Both eyes were swollen almost completely shut. He collapsed in the middle of the street, a pile of crumpled clothes holding him together. When sympathetic diggers tried to relieve him of his backpack, Jamie fought them with what little strength he had left, raving deliriously. "No! Get away from my diamonds. Get away from my diamonds. . . "

  He awakened in a small, bare room three days later, naked except for the bandages that covered his body. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was a buxom, middle-aged woman seated at the side of his cot.

  "Wh - ?" His voice was a croak. He could not get the words out.

  "Easy, dear. You've been sick. " She gently lifted his swathed head and gave him a sip of water from a tin cup.

  Jamie managed to prop himself up on one elbow. "Where - ?" He swallowed and tried again. "Where am I?"

  "You're in Magerdam. I'm Alice Jardine. This is my boarding house. You're going to be fine. You just need a good rest. Now lie back. "

  Jamie remembered the strangers who tried to take his backpack away, and he was filled with panic. "My things, where - ?" He tried to rise from the cot, but the woman's gentle voice stopped him.

  "Everything's safe. Not to worry, son. " She pointed to his backpack in a corner of the room.

  Jamie lay back on the clean white sheets. I got here. I made it. Everything is going to be all right now.

  Alice Jardine was a blessing, not only to Jamie McGregor, but to half of Magerdam. In that mining town filled with adventurers, all sharing the same dream, she fed them, nursed them, encouraged them. She was an Englishwoman who had come to South Africa with her husband, when he decided to give up his teaching job in Leeds and join the diamond rush. He had died of fever three weeks after they arrived, but she had decided to stay on. The miners had become the children she never had.

  She kept Jamie in bed for four more days, feeding him, changing his bandages and helping him regain his strength. By the fifth day, Jamie was ready to get up.

  "I want you to know how grateful I am to you, Mrs. Jardine. I can't pay you anything. Not yet. But you'll have a big diamond from me one day soon. That's a promise from Jamie McGregor. "

  She smiled at the intensity of the handsome young boy. He was still twenty pounds too thin, and his gray eyes were filled with the horror he had been through, but there was a strength about him, a determination that was awesome. He's different from the others, Mrs. Jardine thought.

  Jamie, dressed in his freshly washed clothes, went out to explore the town. It was Klipdrift on a smaller scale. There w
ere the same tents and wagons and dusty streets, the flimsily built shops and the crowds of prospectors. As Jamie passed a saloon, he heard a roar from inside and entered. A noisy crowd had gathered around a red-shirted Irishman.

  "What's going on?" Jamie asked.

  "He's going to wet his find. "

  "He's what?"

  "He struck it rich today, so he stands treat for the whole saloon. He pays for as much liquor as a saloon-full of thirsty men can swallow. "

  Jamie joined in a conversation with several disgruntled diggers sitting at a round table.

  "Where you from, McGregor?"

  "Scotland. "

  "Well, I don't know what horseshit they fed you in Scotland, but there ain't enough diamonds in this fuckin' country to pay expenses. "

  They talked of other camps: Gong Gong, Forlorn Hope, Delports, Poormans Kopje, Sixpenny Rush. . .

  The diggers all told the same story - of months doing the backbreaking work of moving boulders, digging into the hard soil and squatting over the riverbank sifting the dirt for diamonds. Each day a few diamonds were found; not enough to make a man rich, but enough to keep his dreams alive. The mood of the town was a strange mixture of optimism and pessimism. The optimists were arriving; the pessimists were leaving.

  Jamie knew which side he was on.

  He approached the red-shirted Irishman, now bleary-eyed with drink, and showed him Van der Merwe's map.

  The man glanced at it and tossed it back to Jamie. "Worthless. That whole area's been picked over. If I was you, I'd try Bad Hope. "

  Jamie could not believe it. Van der Merwe's map was what had brought him there, the lodestar that was going to make him rich.

  Another digger said, "Head for Colesberg. That's where they're findin' diamonds, son. "

  "Gilfillans Kop - that's the place to dig. "

  "You'll try Moonlight Rush, if you want my opinion. "

  At supper that night, Alice Jardine said, "Jamie, one place is as big a gamble as another. Pick your own spot, dig in your pickax and pray. That's all these other experts are doing. "

  After a night of sleepless self-debate, Jamie decided he would forget Van der Merwe's map. Against everyone's advice, he decided to head east, along the Modder River. The following morning Jamie said good-bye to Mrs. Jardine and set off.

  He walked for three days and two nights, and when he came to a likely-looking spot, he set up his small tent. Huge boulders lay along both sides of the riverbank, and Jamie, using thick branches as levers, laboriously moved them out of the way to get at the gravel that lay beneath.

  He dug from dawn until dusk, looking for the yellow clay or the blue diamondiferous soil that would tell him he had found a diamond pipe. But the earth was barren. He dug for a week without finding a single stone. At the end of the week, he moved on.

  One day as he walked along, he saw in the distance what looked like a silver house, glowing dazzlingly in the sun. I'm going blind, Jamie thought. But as he got closer, he saw that he was approaching a village, and all the houses seemed to be made of silver. Crowds of Indian men, women and children dressed in rags swarmed through the streets. Jamie stared in amazement. The silver houses glistening in the sun were made of tin jam pots, flattened out, fastened together and nailed over the crude shacks. He walked on, and an hour later, when he looked back, he could still see the glow of the village. It was a sight he never forgot.

  Jamie kept moving north. He followed the riverbank where the diamonds might be, digging until his arms refused to lift the heavy pick, then sifting the wet gravel through the hand sieve. When it got dark, he slept as though drugged.

  At the end of the second week, he moved upstream again, just north of a small settlement called Paardspan. He stopped near a bend in the river and fixed himself a meal of carbonaatje, grilled on a spit over a wood fire, and hot tea, then sat in front of his tent, looking up at the wheeling stars in the vast sky. He had not seen a human being in two weeks, and an eddy of loneliness washed over him. What the hell am I doing here? he wondered. Sitting in the middle of a blasted wilderness like a bloody fool, killing myself breaking rocks and digging up dirt? I was better off at the farm. Come Saturday, if I don't find a diamond, I'm going home. He looked up at the uncaring stars and yelled, "Do you hear me, damn you?" Oh, Jesus, he thought, I'm losing my mind.

  Jamie sat there, idly sifting the sand through his fingers. They closed on a large stone, and he looked at it a moment, then threw it away. He had seen a thousand worthless stones like it in the past weeks. What was it Van der Merwe had called them? Schlenters. Yet, there was something about this one that belatedly caught Jamie's attention. He rose, went over to it and picked it up. It was much larger than the other stones and of an odd shape. He rubbed some of the dirt off it against the leg of his trousers and examined it more closely. It looked like a diamond. The only thing that made Jamie doubt his senses was the size of it. It was almost as large as a hen's egg. Oh, God. If it is a diamond. . . He suddenly had difficulty breathing. He grabbed his lantern and began searching the ground around him. In fifteen minutes he had found four more like it. None of them was as large as the first one, but they were large enough to fill him with a wild excitement.

  He was up before dawn, digging like a madman, and by noon he had found half a dozen more diamonds. He spent the next week feverishly digging up diamonds and burying them at night in a safe place where no passers-by could find them. There were fresh diamonds every day, and as Jamie watched his fortune pile up, he was filled with an ineffable joy. Only half of this treasure was his, but it was enough to make him rich beyond anything he had ever dared to dream.

  At the end of the week, Jamie made a note on his map and staked out his claim by carefully marking the boundaries with his pick. He dug up his hidden treasure, carefully stored it deep down in his backpack and headed back to Magerdam.

  The sign outside the small building read: DIAMANT KOOPER.

  Jamie walked into the office, a small, airless room, and he was filled with a sudden sense of trepidation. He had heard dozens of stories of prospectors who had found diamonds that had turned out to be worthless stones. What if I'm wrong? What if - ?

  The assayer was seated at a cluttered desk in the tiny office. "Somethin' I can do for you?"

  Jamie took a deep breath. "Yes, sir. I would like to have these valued, please. "

  Under the watchful eye of the assayer, Jamie started laying the stones on his desk. When he was finished, there was a total of twenty-seven, and the assayer was gazing at them in astonishment.

  "Where - where did you find these?"

  "I'll tell you after you tell me whether they're diamonds. "

  The assayer picked up the largest stone and examined it with a jeweler's loupe. "My God!" he said. "This is the biggest diamond I've ever seen!" And Jamie realized he had been holding his breath. He could have yelled aloud with joy. "Where - " the man begged, "where did these come from?"

  "Meet me in the canteen in fifteen minutes," Jamie grinned, "and I'll tell you. "

  Jamie gathered up the diamonds, put them in his pockets and strode out. He headed for the registration office two doors down the street. "I want to register a claim," he said. "In the names of Salomon van der Merwe and Jamie McGregor. "

  He had walked through that door a penniless farm boy and walked out a multimillionaire.

  The assayer was in the canteen waiting when Jamie McGregor entered. He had obviously spread the news, because when Jamie walked in there was a sudden, respectful hush. There was a single unspoken question on everyone's mind. Jamie walked up to the bar and said to the bartender, "I'm here to wet my find. " He turned and faced the crowd. "Paardspan. "

  Alice Jardine was having a cup of tea when Jamie walked into the kitchen. Her face lighted up when she saw him. "Jamie! Oh, thank God you're back safely!" She took in his disheveled appearance and flushed face. "It didn't go well, did it? Never you mind. Have a nice cup of tea wit
h me, dear, and you'll feel better. "

  Without a word, Jamie reached into his pocket and pulled out a large diamond. He placed it in Mrs. Jardine's hand.

  "I've kept my promise," Jamie said.

  She stared at the stone for a long time, and her blue eyes became moist. "No, Jamie. No. " Her voice was very soft. "I don't want it. Don't you see, child? It would spoil everything. . . "

  When Jamie McGregor returned to Klipdrift, he did it in style. He traded one of his smaller diamonds for a horse and carriage, and made a careful note of what he had spent, so that his partner would not be cheated. The trip back to Klipdrift was easy and comfortable, and when Jamie thought of the hell he had gone through on this same journey, he was filled with a sense of wonder. That's the difference between the rich and the poor, he thought. The poor walk; the rich ride in carriages.

  He gave the horse a small flick of the whip and rode on contentedly through the darkening veld.

 
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