Fiction

The Race For The Donkerbos Diamonds

The villainous Marsberg pulled smugly on his cigar. He knew that in a diamond rush the fastest runner got the best claim. Surely his hired athletes would beat the proud Roy Summers

JOHN KARL July 15 1954
Fiction

The Race For The Donkerbos Diamonds

The villainous Marsberg pulled smugly on his cigar. He knew that in a diamond rush the fastest runner got the best claim. Surely his hired athletes would beat the proud Roy Summers

JOHN KARL July 15 1954

The Race For The Donkerbos Diamonds

Fiction

JOHN KARL

The villainous Marsberg pulled smugly on his cigar. He knew that in a diamond rush the fastest runner got the best claim Surely his hired athletes

WE ATE some stale bread dripping with bully beef out of a tin and heated up the black coffee. We didn’t say much and soon it began to feel like any other Saturday night. All day we’d been busy putting the gravel through the wash but it was no good again. We used to think it was the Negroes pinching the stuff, but it was a long time now since we could afford help and still we didn’t find anything. It was the same on the other claims, the boys said the ground was played out, that’s what it was. We’d have gone long ago if somebody knew a better place.

“Well?” said Roy. He got up and wi|>ed his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Okay,” I said.

Roy locked up the corrugated iron shanty and I started up the old Lizzie and we drove the five bumpy miles down to Boshoff’s Cafe. A few of the boys looked up from their poker hands.

“Hullo,” they said.

“Hullo.” We went over and sat down in the corner by the short-wave set. Roy tuned in to JB. “No fights tonight in Johhurg,” somebody said. “There’s supposed to be,” said Roy.

“Raining.”

“Oh.” Roy looked disappointed and put a hand

over his big chin. Even after two years we could still remember the names of the boys that were fighting; it sort of helped to keep in touch. We started for the counter and the screen door creaked open and a man came in waving a copy of the Johannesburg Star. He’d been in to Lichtenburg.

“Start, to pack up, boys,” he said. “Start to pack up.”

We all crowded around and there it was in black and white about, the big blue-whites they’d just found out at Donkerbos. And it said the government was throwing the place open to public digging. The boys gave a few cheers and everybody got excited and started ordering brandies. Only old Dan Boshoff that owned the cafe didn’t look so good. He kept on fetching more brandies but still he didn’t look so good.

“Where’s Donkerbos?” Roy asked

“Other side of Lichtenburg. About twelve miles out,” a man said.

“And the rush? Do they say the date?” Roy’s jaw was practically on top of the paper but the print was too small for him.

“Yes,” said the one next to him. “Here’s the date.” He read it out.

“That’s six weeks from now,” Roy said.

“There’ll be a hell of a mob. There’s sure to be.”

“And how there’ll be a mob,” someone else spoke up. “That’s the worst of putting it in the paper.” “1 don’t mind the mob,” Roy said. “The mob’s all right with me. As long as there’s no blasted athletes. That’s what makes me spit.”

“And how,” said another one. “We had them the last time. And I mean, had them. It was like trying to catch race horses.”

“If they’d run just for themselves, it wouldn’t be so bad,” said the one with the paper. “But all they peg claims for is the blokes that, hire them.” “That’s right.. The lily-whitest amateurs you ever seen,” Roy said. “They’re not interested in money. Not in pin money.” He clenched his fists. “They make me sick. Them and the guys they run for.”

Next morning the both of us had a breath you could smell a mile. We must have had a lot of brandies. Anyway, it wasn’t till a day later we could start, training.

I don’t know if you know how it used to be at a diamond rush. When the prospectors found the ground would pay, the government used to open it up for public digging by setting a day for the rush. Everyone came to try his luck, office workers, diggers like Roy and me and the athletes. You bought, a five-shilling Continued on page 27

The Race for the Donkerbos Diamonds

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 13

digger’s license and a claim license and you all lined up at a starting point set by the mining commissioner, maybe two, three, four miles from the new ground. The commissioner read out the proclamation and then he dropped his flag and you ran like the devil to wherever it was you wanted to stick in your pegs; naturally the one with the best legs picked himself whatever piece he wanted.

It was a tough job getting our legs right again. Every morning when we got up it was still dark. We aimed to take it slow for a couple of weeks, just jogging along two miles out and the same coming back. The first three j times after we’d done a mile I was finished, so I sat down and waited for Roy. Sure enough, he just kept on going, he had the kind of a jaw that never gives in. He was a bit under six feet and broad with sloping shoulders.

He had a square moody face, but that jaw was the first thing you always saw.

In a couple of weeks I was going much better. Not so good as Roy, ¡ but seeing out the distance. After a month we stepped it up to six miles regular every morning. Suddenly I started to enjoy it and kept kidding Roy as we ran.

‘‘Anyone can tell you’re an old pug.”

‘What do you mean, old?”

■‘You’ve got to have style for this running game.”

‘What do you mean, old?” he said.

Roy was a little in front of me and I was grinning. You know the way fighters move when they’re doing road work. You know the kind of short sharp perky little steps they take, all the time blowing loud through their noses and rolling their shoulders and keeping their hands high with the elbows bent. That was Roy.

“Thirty’s old,” 1 told him. “Old for a fighter, anyway. Old for a runner even. I bet you could do with about ! six years off.”

“If I had just six weeks more,” Roy said. “Never mind about the six years.

Six weeks more and I’d show them blasted athletes.” That’s all he could think of, the athletes.

“Perhaps they’ll give it a miss this t ¡me.”

“No. They’ll be there.”

Lots of the boys started drifting ! off the diggings toward Donkerbos and every day there were fewer and fewer left. The married ones had to get there early. I was sorry for the women and the kids. That’s what made you feel bad, the kids with their pinched old-looking faces and the meekness in the eyes of the womenfolk, j like they’ve been hit with something and they’re still waiting for the next blow that’s sure to come. Some of the boys got hold of dray carts to make the trip, and there were even a few with ox wagons and they had their tin shacks loaded up on top somehow and there was their whole world, the wives and the kids and the chickens as well. On account of the gravel Roy and I finally got away only the day before the rush. We had enough gravel for one more wash and we were still hoping the luck would change, but for all the good it was we could have left it.

It was late in the afternoon when we hit Lichtenburg. You should’ve seen it, it was like somebody had burned over an ant heap and everybody and everything was running and rushing about like mad. Then there were the folks shuffling around in the queues outside

the hotel, waiting for the taxis to come back. Outside the town we turned on to the dirt road that ran across the veld. It was dirt all right, the whole twelve miles of it was really dirt. There were trucks and Cape carts and taxis, there were even donkey carts, and they all kept tossing the dirt up into your face. Were we glad when we came to Donkerbos at last. It was just shacks and shanties and then more shacks. Hundreds of them. Spread all over the place like rashes on a sick man’s belly. But we were glad to be there all the same.

"Looks like a mob all right.” I said lo Roy.

He was shaking his head. “Never seen this many before.”

We stopped the car next to a tent. A man looked out.

"Where’s a good place to eat?" Roy asked him.

“There’s just the one place,” the man said. "The Gaiety. Keep on up this road and you can’t miss."

Pretty soon we came to a long corrugated iron shed with a fenced-in strip at the back. A low sloping veranda ran all the way along the

street front. There were dozens of parked cars.

“The bad luck’s here already,” Roy said as we got out of the Lizzie. He was pointing to a few sleek long American cars with Johannesburg number plates. “That’s how these gents travel. Everything nice and super-duper.” "Gents? How do you mean, gents?” “Them damn-blasted athletes.” Roy said.

We stopped in front of the long notice board that hung from the veranda. HARRY MARSBERG’S GAIETY CAFE it said in letters a couple of

feet high. Roy stood stroking his chin.

“Marsberg?” he said half aloud. “Marsberg.”

It sounded familiar to me too. 1 asked Roy, “Wasn’t there a Marsberg near Christiana?”

“That’s right,” he said.

“The one that found that tenthousand-pound stone.”

Roy turned and looked at me.

“So you think he was the one that found the stone? It was his Negro boy, that’s who found it. And guess what he gave the kid that found the stone?”

“1 didn’t know about the boy.”

“A new hat, that’s what he gave him.” He laughed wryly. “The boy finds him a stone that sells for ten thousand so Marsberg gives him a new hat. He’s meaner than a flyspeck, that one.” He looked at the notice board again. “Come on. Let’s go in.”

The wooden frame door, that was covered with mosquito netting to keep the flies out, slapped shut behind us with a bang. The place was crowded and hot and full of tobacco smoke and nobody took any notice. The bar counter was down at the far end and

there was a bit of a mob around it. Three girls with odd-looking blond hair were waiting on tables and one of them came over when we sat down. We ordered lentil soup and beef stew and a pot of tea and then we watched the girl as she went off for the order. She had very long thin legs. There were a lot of men trying their luck at the slot machines and pin tables along the right-hand wall. One of them was shooting the electric gun. You press the trigger and if you hit the bull a light flashes on. We saw him shoot four bulls and when he finished he

turned around. He was looking at us.

He was tall and young and his hair was a light brown. His cheeks were lean and firm like brand-new leather —you know that kind of a look when you’re fit and fine. I was trying to think where I’d seen him, when he started coming over. His grey suit could have been fresh out of the tailor shop, every line was where it ought to be.

“Hello,” he said to Roy and held his hand out.

Roy looked at him. He didn’t get up or anything and the man stopped and put his hand down.

“I know you,” he said. “You’re Roy Summers.”

“I don’t know you,” Roy said.

“I know you.” The fellow was smiling and trying to be friendly. He was like a puppy dog wagging his tail waiting to be patted. “I saw you fight in Johannesburg. I was still a highschool kid. We used to talk about nothing else but Roy Summers. This fight was in the City Hall and there were about six of us, but we didn’t have the money so we sneaked around the back way. You go through the tramway offices and up some stairs and finally you’re under the big dome and there’s the ring down below at the organ end. We wriggled around and we just got settled when the police spotted us and came up after us. You remember that time? You came out of the dressing room just as they were taking us past and you asked what it was all about and you . . .”

“I just told you,” Roy said. “I don’t know you.”

“But . . .” he looked from Roy to me, then back again. “You surely remember? You told the cops to leave us, you’d fix us tickets. You said you were a kid once too and used to scale into the fights yourself.”

Roy just sat looking at the man.

“Surely you wouldn’t forget a thing like that?” You could see the fellow couldn’t make it out. “It was just a couple of fights before your eyes gave in.”

“My eyes?” Roy said. “Never anything wrong with my eyes.” He turned and winked at me. “You see anything wrong with my eyes?” Roy said.

“First I heard about it,” I said, keeping it up.

“You must be making a mistake, pal,” Roy said to the fellow.

“Look. My name’s Jimmy Niells. Maybe you’ve heard it. But this I’m telling you about is gospel. I remember it like it was yesterday. I’ve never forgotten.”

“Sorry, wrong number. So long, pal,” Roy said.

Niells’ cheeks went red. He stood there like he didn’t know what to say.

“So long,” Roy said again and Niells turned and walked off slowly. He was shaking his head. He sat down at a table across the room. He sat there looking at us.

I said to Roy, “Of course you know Jimmy Niells. Who wouldn’t, the way they keep sticking his face in the paper? They say he’s the best middle-distance champ for years. You must know him.”

“All I know is what I want to,” Roy said.

“You could have just said hullo. It wouldn’t have hurt you to say hullo.”

Some men came up from the end where the bar was. There were about

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seven of them and all but one were quite young and held themselves very straight and you could see from their slick city clothes that they weren’t juSt diggers. The seventh man was tall and pot-bellied with red hair and a thick ginger mustache. He wore a blue open-necked shirt and brown riding breeches and leather leggings.

“Hey.” 1 said to Roy. “There’s Marsberg.”

Roy nodded.

He was sitting with his head down. His eyebrows were together and his bottom lip was over the top lip. The way he pushed his jaw forward gave it a bulldozer look. The men went over to Niells’ table and pulled up extra chairs and sat down with him.

“So it’s the same Marsberg.” Roy said. “Just the kind they would run for.” He brought his two fists up together just in front of his chest. It was like when he was coming out of his corner with the gloves on.

“You know what 1 feel like? You know what I’d like to do with that crowd?” He started to get up.

1 put a hand on his arm.

“What good would it do?” 1 said to him. “Besides, here comes the girl with the grub.”

THE RUSH wasn’t till 11.JO in the morning, but before it was light we were up already and going over the course. We slept in the old Lizzie so all we had to do was stand up in our clothes and we went over to the tin rondavel that the mining commissioner used as an office. This was where they’d start from. It was about a mile from the Gaiety. We walked across over the veld a slow four, five miles till we came to a low koppie. On the top of the koppie was a dark bush. It was this that gave it the name, Donkerbos. At the foot of the koppie, this side of it, we could see where they’d heen working. It must have been there that they found the stones.

“We ought to pick ourselves something around here,” Roy said. He went on talking, then suddenly he grabbed my arm. “Who are those Johnnies out there?” he said.

“Out where?”

Roy pointed and then I saw them. They were over to the left and there were about a dozen of them. They had their backs to us and seemed to be in a huddle. They must have seen us because now they all turned around and started walking around, making like they were there for nothing special. Just then I spotted the riding breeches and leather leggings of Marsberg.

“I wish we’d got here a day earlier,” I said to Roy.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“We could have had a good look around. That Marsberg must know every inch of the ground.”

“Tell me,” Roy said. “Can you see Niells? Is he out there with that bunch? I can’t pick them out too good.”

I took a look at them.

“Yes. He’s there all right.”

“Okay,” Roy said. “Then all we’ve got to do later on today is watch where Niells makes for.”

“You’ll need a horse to keep up with him.”

“I won’t need a horse.”

We walked back to the tin rondavel. There was a queue starting to build up already. After we got our licenses we went over to the Gaiety and we each had steak and a couple of eggs. Roy drank only half a cup of coffee to my two.

“What’s the idea?” I asked him. “Drying out.”

“Drying out! You must think it’s a fight or something?”

“What do you think?” Roy said.

We went back to the car and got changed into shorts and vests and tackies. Roy put on a very bright red vest. The morning started to drag a bit and the flies buzzed about in the hot sun and we sat in the old Lizzie wishing it was all over.

There was still a good three-quarters of an hour to go when we walked down to the start line. You never saw such a mob. There was a splash of chalk about a hundred yards long and at each end were a couple of cops mounted on horses. More cops on horses were galloping around over the veld. Here on this side of the chalk mark everybody was jammed like logs in a river. Lots of men were sitting down but some couldn’t bear sitting down and kept jumping up all the time. There were some girls there too. There were about a dozen of them in blouses and bloomers and they were laughing. It was different to them, it didn’t mean the same thing that it meant to the diggers. It wasn’t their bread and butter, it was just a lark to them.

“Where’s this Niells?” Roy said. “That’s the first thing.”

At first we looked for him together, then we decided to split up.

“How’ll you find me again?” Roy asked.

1 looked at his red vest and laughed. “If there was a fire engine five miles off, they’d spot you and come rushing up.”

A little later I ran into Niells. I didn’t have to find him, he saw me first and came up. He was wearing a T-shirt and running shorts and shoes with thick rubber soles.

“What’s the matter with Roy Summers?” he said. “What’s he so sore about?”

“He doesn’t like athletes.”

“He’s changed. But what’s wrong? What’ve we done?”

“How would you like it?” I asked him. “How would you like it if you were older and not so fit and you had to run against athletes?”

He still didn’t get it.

“What’s wrong with that?” he wanted to know. “It’s nothing il-

legal. Isn’t the rush open to all? As long as you put down your five boh for the license.”

“Sure,” I nodded. “But don’t forget. It’s a digger’s license, not a runner’s license.” I told him about the time we picked ourselves a nice piece out at Grasfontein. There were diamonds there all right. Plenty. The only trouble, the day of the rush, one of the athletes got there first.

“I’m sorry,” Niells said. “I never looked at it. that way. Sometimes you can do things and you don’t know that you’re hurting somebody. Like with Roy Summers. I remember how we all used to look up to him when we were kids. We wanted to grow up like him. They never had a better fighter than he was.”

A couple of butterflies flitted past slowly like they were taking a look at things. Then a fight started up between two black Kaffir dogs. Everybody turned and watched them. It was a sort of relief from everything else. I went off to look for Roy.

It didn’t take long to find him and I pointed out where Niells was.

“What are you figuring?” I said. “You’re not going to do anything crazy?”

“I’m going to stick with him.”

“He’s fit and he’s got young legs.” “That’s okay.”

“He could run you into the ground.” “Okay, okay,” he said roughly. “Take it slow, man. Don’t hurt yourself.”

“You let me worry.”

The crowd started jeering and hooting and we saw two mounted cops

riding toward us at a walk. Between the horses were two men, one of ( hem grey-juyidedand limping a bit. They were both «ïHLearrying their pegs in their hand».

wTougf^^meIx« 1 y asked. “Just it 4Öuple «>f wíl« guys,” I seid. “Every time there’» a rush you get them. The cops must ha ve just flushed them out.”

“But what’s the idea?”

“Trying to get. a jump on the field.” When I told him that the man’s face changed. He joined in t he shouting and jeering.

“In a way 1 don’t blame them,” Roy said.

“We should all get a start, running against these damn athletes,” Roy said. He put a hand on my back. “Well, good luck.”

“Good luck, Roy.”

He walked over toward Niells.

A thin man in a khaki suit and wearing a sun helmet came out of the rondavel. He walked with a slight stoop and his face was tired. He had a sheaf of papers under his arm and there were three policemen with him.

Everyone stood up now. We all watched him climb into the cab of a three-ton open truck. The cops got in at the back and one of them fixed a big red flag on a bamboo pole to the back of the cab.

“Okay,” he called out when he was finished and the truck started up. The two black dogs started to fight again, but nobody took any notice, everyone was watching the truck roll slowly over the veld. When it was about two hundred yards in front of the start line, it stopped. The man in the sun helmet got out of the cab and got in

at the back and stood next to the flag.

“What’s he doing? Looks like he’s reading,” someone said.

“That’s right,” said the man next to' him.

“When do we start?”

“When that flag drops.”

“It’s dropped!” I shouted, and I wasn’t the only one.

A roar like rocks rolling down a hill came out of the throats of the crowd and thundered down the line from both ends and met in the middle with a kind of concussion. Those right in front got away fast but the mass hesitated for a few moments and then moved forward in one lump and inside it everyone was elbowing and shoving and it was a wonder nobody got hurt from all the pegs whirling in the air. At first everyone was going fast like it was a hundred-yard dash and then the craziness began to subside and the pace slowed down. It started to feel less crowded but you still had to be careful with those pegs.

That first part was a long gradual uphill. I tried to find Roy but there were too many around me and it was only later on, when lots of runners began dropping back, that I thought I saw him. A long way ahead, right out in front near the top of the rise, a handful of men were running. And among them was this red vest. Then they were out of sight over the top.

Poor old Roy. You couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. The way he was trying to hang on to them trained athletes. Roy with his short-stepping ugly twisting jerky motion like a washing machine, and Niells with his distance-killing legs moving smooth like the hindquarters of an eland. Roy was tough and he could take it, more than most of them he could take it, but there was a limit to everything. And just then my own troubles began.

PLENTY of troubles. I was going to take it easy, like it was just training. But everywhere there was stubble that near twisted your ankle off, and then the long stretches of uphill, there hadn’t seemed all this uphill when we went over it in the morning. And there was that burning in your chest and the dryness in the throat and your legs getting heavy and slowing down on you, and after that the pins and needles in the side. Several times I stopped and knelt down and bent forward right over my knees and then I would start up again and begin to be going good and then the needles would come back, only now they felt like long hatpins. I don’t know how long it went on like that but all the time there was this running and stopping. It seemed like I’d been on the veld all day when at last I got to the top of another rise and there it was—that dark bush on the top of the koppie. Thank God, I said to myself.

But where was Roy?

It was only when I got closer that I saw the little red blur on the veld. It began to get bigger. »Suddenly I forgot my own troubles and started to run as hard as I could. It was Roy all right.

He was lying on his side sort of half curled up and there was blood coming from his ears and mouth and nose. He was breathing jerky and he was groaning. I stretched him out and started working on him.

“How’s he?” someone asked. I looked up and it was Niells. There were some red marks across the front of his vest.

“Anything I can do?” he asked.

I looked up at the sand and dirt that was on his legs and shorts and then 1 looked at his vest. “You know by any chance what happened?”

“He must’ve run himself out,” Niells said.

He stood watching for a bit, then he walked off toward where he had his pegs about fifty yards off. It took a little while for Roy to come around and then he opened his eyes.

“Where’s Niells? Where’s Niells?” he said, starting to shout.

“What you worrying about Niells for, when you’ve got your pegs stuck in?” All four pegs were in good. I showed him where Niells had pegged a claim farther up.

Roy looked at the pegs and started to say something and then stopped. A bunch of men came running over the crest behind us and I suddenly remembered about my own pegs and picked them up and stuck them in alongside Roy’s piece of ground.

“You got a jerk on that time,” Roy said and started to grin.

We were waiting for the mining commissioner to come up and okay our claims, when who should show up but Harry Marsberg, riding breeches and leggings and red head and all. He was walking past us to where Niells was, when he stopped and looked back and then looked at the bush on the koppie and back to our claims again. It was like he was taking a line on it.

“Wonder what’s got into him?” Roy said.

Marsberg went over to Niells. He was waving his hands toward our ground. He seemed to be having an argument and then he came over. “You blokes care to sell?” he asked. “What’ll you give us?” Roy lay on his back with his arms under his head. He didn’t bother to sit up. “A new hat, hey? Like you gave your boy at Christ iana?”

Marsberg’s face changed color. “I’ll give you a couple of hundred each.

“So long,” Roy said.

“I’ll make it more.”

“Go on. Clear off.”

Niells went off the next day and we didn’t see him again for six months. We’d ordered a blue Cadillac and Roy wanted to be sure it was a sky-blue and not just any blue, so we came up to Johannesburg to make sure. That’s the way it was with us. Roy liked the color when he saw it, then there was the fixing up of the papers and 1 left that to him. We arranged to meet in the Carlton Hotel Grill.

There was no sign of Roy when I got there; but at one of the tables there was this fellow all by himself.

“Hullo Niells,” I went up and held out my hand.

“Hello.” ' He was surprised and pleased. “How you doing?”

“I feel like the Oppenheimers. It’s going good. Extra good. Thanks to you,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“You carried Roy about half a mile. I could tell from the blood on your vest.”

He tried to grin it off but it didn’t go. “Anyway,” he said in the end, “it wasn’t half a mile.”

“And you stuck his pegs in.”

“Aw, forget it.” He asked, “Does he know?”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and there was Roy.

“Who’s your friend?” he asked. Then he took another look. “Oh, it’s him?” He pointed to a table in the corner. “Let’s go there.”

“Let’s sit here,” I said. “Let bygones be . . .”

Roy started moving off and I looked at Niells.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Never mind.”

“I ought to tell him.”

“No,” Niells said. “That way it might spoil it for him too.” ★