#14 – the Vaal River

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,
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
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.



Copyright © 1982 by Sheldon Literary Trust

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