Master of the game, p.4
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       Master of the Game, p.4
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           Sidney Sheldon
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Chapter 3

  Klipdrift had not changed, but Jamie McGregor had. People stared as he rode into town and stopped in front of Van der Merwe's general store. It was not just the expensive horse and carriage that drew the attention of the passers-by; it was the air of jubilation about the young man. They had seen it before in other prospectors who had struck it rich, and it always filled them with a renewed sense of hope for themselves. They stood back and watched as Jamie jumped out of the carriage.

  The same large black man was there. Jamie grinned at him. "Hello! I'm back. "

  Banda tied the reins to a hitching post without comment and went inside the store. Jamie followed him.

  Salomon van der Merwe was waiting on a customer. The little Dutchman looked up and smiled, and Jamie knew that somehow Van der Merwe had already heard the news. No one could explain it, but news of a diamond strike flashed across the continent with the speed of light.

  When Van der Merwe had finished with the customer, he nodded his head toward the back of the store. "Come, Mr. McGregor. "

  Jamie followed him. Van der Merwe's daughter was at the stove, preparing lunch. "Hello, Margaret. "

  She flushed and looked away.

  "Well! I hear there is good news. " Van der Merwe beamed. He seated himself at the table and pushed the plate and silverware away, clearing a place in front of him.

  "That's right, sir. " Proudly, Jamie took a large leather pouch from his jacket pocket and poured the diamonds on the kitchen table. Van der Merwe stared at them, hypnotized, then picked them up slowly, one by one, savoring each one, saving the largest until last. Then he scooped up the diamonds, put them in a chamois bag and put the bag in a large iron safe in the corner and locked it.

  When he spoke, there was a note of deep satisfaction in his voice. "You've done well, Mr. McGregor. Very well, indeed. "

  "Thank you, sir. This is only the beginning. There are hundreds more there. I don't even dare think about how much they're worth. "

  "And you've staked out the claim properly?"

  "Yes, sir. " Jamie reached in his pocket and pulled out the registration slip. "It's registered in both our names. "

  Van der Merwe studied the slip, then put it in his pocket. "You deserve a bonus. Wait here. " He started toward the doorway that led into the shop. "Come along, Margaret. "

  She followed him meekly, and Jamie thought, She's like a frightened kitten.

  A few mintues later, Van der Merwe returned, alone. "Here we are. " He opened a purse and carefully counted out fifty pounds.

  Jamie looked at him, puzzled. "What's this for, sir?"

  "For you, son. All of it. "

  "I - I don't understand. "

  "You've been gone twenty-four weeks. At two pounds a week, that's forty-eight pounds, and I'm giving you an extra two pounds as a bonus. "

  Jamie laughed. "I don't need a bonus. I have my share of the diamonds. "

  "Your share of the diamonds?"

  "Why, yes, sir. My fifty percent. We're partners. "

  Van der Merwe was staring at him. "Partners? Where did you get that idea?"

  "Where did I - ?" Jamie looked at the Dutchman in bewilderment. "We have a contract. "

  "That is correct. Have you read it?"

  "Well, no, sir. It's in Afrikaans, but you said we were fifty-fifty partners. "

  The older man shook his head. "You misunderstood me, Mr. McGregor. I don't need any partners. You were working for me. I outfitted you and sent you to find diamonds for me. "

  Jamie could feel a slow rage boiling up within him. "You gave me nothing. I paid you a hundred and twenty pounds for that equipment. "

  The old man shrugged. "I won't waste my valuable time quibbling. Tell you what I'll do. I'll give you an extra five pounds, and we'll call the whole thing quits. I think that's very generous.

  Jamie exploded in a fury. "We'll nae call the whole thing quits!" In his anger his Scottish burr came back. "I'm entitled to half that claim. And I'll get it. I registered it in both our names. "

  Van der Merwe smiled thinly. "Then you tried to cheat me. I could have you arrested for that. " He shoved the money into Jamie's hand. "Now take your wages and get out. "

  "I'll fight you!"

  "Do you have money for a lawyer? I own them all in these parts, boy. "

  This isn't happening to me, Jamie thought. It's a nightmare. The agony he had gone through, the weeks and months of the burning desert, the punishing physical labor from sunrise to sunset - it all came flooding back. He had nearly died, and now this man was trying to cheat him out of what was his.

  He looked Van der Merwe in the eye. "I'll not let you get away with this. I'm not going to leave Klipdrift. I'll tell everybody here what you've done. I'm going to get my share of those diamonds. "

  Van der Merwe started to turn away from the fury in the pale-gray eyes. "You'd better find a doctor, boy," he muttered. "I think the sun has addled your wits. "

  In a second, Jamie was towering over Van der Merwe. He pulled the thin figure into the air and held him up to eye level. "I'm going to make you sorry you ever laid eyes on me. " He dropped Van der Merwe to his feet, flung the money on the table and stormed out.

  When Jamie McGregor walked into the Sundowner Saloon, it was almost deserted, for most of the prospectors were on their way to Paardspan. Jamie was filled with anger and despair. It's incredible, he thought. One minute I'm as rich as Croesus, and the next minute I'm dead broke. Van der Merwe is a thief, and I'm going to find a way to punish him. But how? Van der Merwe was right. Jamie could not even afford a lawyer to fight his case. He was a stranger there, and Van der Merwe was a respected member of the community. The only weapon Jamie had was the truth. He would let everyone in South Africa know what Van der Merwe had done.

  Smit, the bartender, greeted him. "Welcome back. Everything's on the house, Mr. McGregor. What would you like?"

  "A whiskey. "

  Smit poured a double and set it in front of Jamie. Jamie downed it in one gulp. He was not used to drinking, and the hard liquor scorched his throat and stomach.

  "Another, please. "

  "Comin' up. I've always said the Scots could drink anybody under the table. "

  The second drink went down easier. Jamie remembered that it was the bartender who had told a digger to go to Van der Merwe for help. "Did you know Old Man Van der Merwe is a crook? He's trying to cheat me out of my diamonds. "

  Smit was sympathetic. "What? That's terrible. I'm sorry to hear that. "

  "He'll nae get away with it. " Jamie's voice was slurred. "Half those diamonds are mine. He's a thief, and I'm gonna see that everybody knows it. "

  "Careful. Van der Merwe's an important man in this town," the bartender warned. "If you're goin' up against him, you'll need help. In fact, I know just the person. He hates Van der Merwe as much as you do. " He looked around to make sure no one could overhear him. "There's an old barn at the end of the street. I'll arrange everything. Be there at ten o'clock tonight. "

  "Thanks," Jamie said gratefully. "I won't forget you. "

  "Ten o'clock. The old barn. "

  The barn was a hastily thrown-together structure built of corrugated tin, off the main street at the edge of town. At ten o'clock Jamie arrived there. It was dark, and he felt his way carefully. He could see no one around. He stepped inside. "Hello. . . "

  There was no reply. Jamie went slowly forward. He could make out the dim shapes of horses moving restlessly in their stalls. Then he heard a sound behind him, and as he started to turn, an iron bar crashed across his shoulder blades, knocking him to the ground. A club thudded against his head, and a giant hand picked him up and held him while fists and boots smashed into his body. The beating seemed to last forever. When the pain became too much to bear and he lost consciousness, cold water was thrown in his face. His eyes fluttered open. He thought he caught a glimpse of Van der Merwe's servant, Banda, and the beating began anew. Jamie could feel his
ribs breaking. Something smashed into his leg, and he heard the crunch of bone.

  That was when he lost consciousness again.

  His body was on fire. Someone was scraping his face with sandpaper, and he vainly tried to lift a hand to protest. He made an effort to open his eyes, but they were swollen shut. Jamie lay there, every fiber of his being screaming with pain, as he tried to remember where he was. He shifted, and the scraping began again. He put out his hand blindly and felt sand. His raw face was lying in hot sand. Slowly, every move an agony, he managed to draw himself up on his knees. He tried to see through his swollen eyes, but he could make out only hazy images. He was somewhere in the middle of the trackless Karroo, naked. It was early morning, but he could feel the sun starting to burn through his body. He felt around blindly for food or a billy can of water. There was nothing. They had left him there for dead. Salomon van der Merwe. And, of course, Smit, the bartender. Jamie had threatened Van der Merwe, and Van der Merwe had punished him as easily as one punished a small child. But he'll find out I'm no child, Jamie promised himself. Not anymore. I'm an avenger. They'll pay. They will pay. The hatred that coursed through Jamie gave him the strength to sit up. It was a torture for him to breathe. How many ribs had they broken? I must be careful so they don't puncture my lungs. Jamie tried to stand up, but fell down with a scream. His right leg was broken and lay at an unnatural angle. He was unable to walk.

  But he could crawl.

  Jamie McGregor had no idea where he was. They would have taken him to some place off the beaten track, where his body would not be found except by the desert scavengers, the hyenas and secretary birds and vultures. The desert was a vast charnel house. He had seen the bones of men's bodies that had been scavenged, and there had not been a scrap of meat left on the skeleton. Even as Jamie was thinking about it, he heard the rustle of wings above him and the shrill hiss of the vultures. He felt a flood of terror. He was blind. He could not see them. But he could smell them.

  He began to crawl.

  He made himself concentrate on the pain. His body was aflame with it, and each small movement brought exquisite rivers of agony. If he moved in a certain way, his broken leg would send out stabbing pains. If he shifted his position slightly to favor his leg, he could feel his ribs grinding against each other. He could not stand the torture of lying still; he could not stand the agony of moving.

  He kept crawling.

  He could hear them circling above, waiting for him with an ancient, timeless patience. His mind started to wander. He was in the cool kirk at Aberdeen, neatly dressed in his Sunday suit, seated between his two brothers. His sister, Mary, and Annie Cord were wearing beautiful white summer dresses, and Annie Cord was looking at him and smiling. Jamie started to get up and go to her, and his brothers held him back and began to pinch him. The pinches became excruciating shafts of pain, and he was crawling through the desert again, naked, his body broken. The cries of the vultures were louder now, impatient.

  Jamie tried to force his eyes open, to see how close they were. He could see nothing except vague, shimmering objects that his terrified imagination turned into feral hyenas and jackals. The wind became their hot, fetid breath caressing his face.

  He kept crawling, for he knew that the moment he stopped they would be upon him. He was burning with fever and pain and his body was flayed by the hot sand. And still, he could not give up, not as long as Van der Merwe was unpunished - not as long as Van der Merwe was alive.

  He lost all awareness of time. He guessed that he had traveled a mile. In truth, he had moved less than ten yards, crawling in a circle. He could not see where he had been or where he was going. He focused his mind on only one thing: Salomon van der Merwe.

  He slipped into unconsciousness and was awakened by a shrieking agony beyond bearing. Someone was stabbing at his leg, and it took Jamie a second to remember where he was and what was happening. He pulled one swollen eye open. An enormous hooded black vulture was attacking his leg, savagely tearing at his flesh, eating him alive with its sharp beak. Jamie saw its beady eyes and the dirty ruff around its neck. He smelled the foul odor of the bird as it sat on his body. Jamie tried to scream, but no sound came out. Frantically he jerked himself forward, and felt the warm flow of blood pouring from his leg. He could see the shadows of the giant birds all around him, moving in for the kill. He knew that the next time he lost consciousness would be the last time. The instant he stopped, the carrion birds would be at his flesh again. He kept crawling. His mind began to wander into delirium. He heard the loud flapping wings of the birds as they moved closer, forming a circle around him. He was too weak now to fight them off; he had no strength left to resist. He stopped moving and lay still on the burning sand.

  The giant birds closed in for their feast.

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