#16 – Salomon van der merwe, general store

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 aren’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
bis 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.”


Copyright © 1982 by Sheldon Literary Trust

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