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"Nine carets ef it's a blessed one."
"Scale 'im, an' ye'll find he's a half better. Clear es a bottle o' gin, an' flawless es the pope! Tommy Dartmoor, ye're in luck, s' welp me never ef ye ain't, an' that's a brilliant yer can show the polis an' not get time fer."
Tommy Dartmoor, who owed his surname to a crown establishment within the restraining walls of which he had once enjoyed a temporary residence, growled out a recommendation to "stow that," and then added, "Boys, we'll wet this. Trek to Werstein's."
Forthwith a crowd of dirty, tanned diggers turned their heads in the direction of Gustav Werstein's American Bar, and walked toward it as briskly as the heat and their weariness would admit of. The Israelite saw them coming, straightened himself out of the half-doze in which he had passed the baking afternoon, stopped down the tobacco in the porcelain bowl of his long-stemmed pipe with stumpy forefinger, and, twisting a cork off his corkscrew, stood in readiness.
"Name yer pizons, boys, an' get outside 'em, wishin' all good luck to R'yal Straight; R'yal Straight bein' the name o' this yer stone given by Thomas D. Hesquire, original diskiverer an' present perprietor."
The orders were given,--bass at five shillings a bottle, champagne (nee gooseberry) at five pounds, Cape smoke at two shillings per two fingers,--and, at a given signal, there was an inarticulate roar from dusty throats, an inversion of tumblers over thirsty mouths, and a second inversion over the ground to show that all the contents had disappeared.
Satan, the one cat and only domestic pet of the camp, saw that there was a general treat going on, and bustling up for his drink took a can of condensed milk at six shillings. Other diggers came trooping in as the news spread, and Tommy Dartmoor, who was rapidly becoming mellow, for he drank half a tumbler of raw whisky with every one who nodded to him, stood them refreshments galore, while the greasy Jew began to see visions of his adopted fatherland in the near distance.
So the Kaffirs, except those who had supplies of their own, kept sober and peaceful, while the higher order of the human race at Big Stone Hole, after the manner of their kind, began to squabble. It was natural for them to do so, perhaps, for the weather was so hot, and the liquors, for the most part, more so; and under these circumstances men do not always cast about them long for a casus belli. One or two minor brawls opened the ball, and Herr Gustav, scenting battle in the air, drew from a locker a card, which he balanced against the bottles on a shelf above his head. It read thus:
GENTS IS REKESTED TO SHOOT
and had been written for the German by a gentleman who had had some experience in Forty Rod Gulch, Nevada. The action elicited a contemptuous laugh from one or two of the new hands, but the oldsters began shifting sundry articles which depended from their belts into positions from which they might be handled at the shortest notice; and the black cat, more wise than any of them, having drunk his fill, stalked solemnly out into the security of the darkness.
The sun went down,--went out with a click, some one declared,--and, as no twilight interposed between daylight and darkness in the country which Big Stone Hole ornamented, Herr Gustav lit his two paraffin- lamps. Neither boasted more than a one-inch wick, and, as their glasses were extremely smoky, the illumination was not brilliant; but it sufficed to show the flushed, angry faces of a couple of men standing in the centre of the room, with all the others clustered round, watching eagerly. One was the Scholar. The other was a burly giant, whose missing left little finger caused him to be nicknamed the Cripple. About what they had originally fallen out was not clear to any one, to themselves least of all. As the case stood when the second lamp was lit, Scholar had called Cripple a something-or-other liar, and Cripple, who was not inventive, had retorted by stigmatising Scholar as another. Further recriminations followed, and their pistols were drawn; but as the audience had a strong objection to indiscriminate shooting, by which it was not likely to benefit, the belligerents were seized. No one was unsportsmanlike enough to wish to stop the fight, and Jockey Bill, giving voice to the general wish of the meeting, proposed that the gents be fixed up agin' a couple o' posts outside, where they might let daylight into each other without lead-poisoning casual spectators.
The motion was acted on, and after rectifying a slight omission on the Cripple's part--he had forgotten to put caps on the nipples of his revolver--the pair of them were seated upon upturned barrels some ten yards apart, each with a lamp at his feet, and told to begin when they saw fit to do so. The swarthy, bearded diggers grouped themselves on either side, and the cat, emerging from his retreat, scrambled on to the shoulder of one of them, fully as curious as the rest to "see the shootin'." It was a weird sight,--dust, scorched grass, empty tins, rude hovels, piles of debris, African moonlight,--yet, except, perhaps, in the eyes of the newest comers, there was nothing strange in it. The others were too wrapped up in what was going to take place to see anything quaint in their every-day surroundings. There was no theatre in the camp. The little impromptu drama riveted all attention.
But before the duel commenced, a galloping horse, which had approached over the grassy veldt unnoticed during the excitement, drew up with a crash between the two combatants, and its rider, raising his hand to command attention, cried:
"Boys, there's a white woman comin'!"
"A white woman!" was chorused in various tones of disbelief. "What, here? White woman comin' here, Dan?"
And then some one inquired if she was a Boer.
"Boer--no," replied Dan; "English--English as I am; leastways Englisher, bein' Amurrican-born myself. Overtook her et Hottentot Drift. Thort I'd spur on an' tell yer. We'd do wi' a clean-up, some on us."
Dan spoke indistinctly, as a bullet had lately disarranged some of his teeth; but his words had a wonderful effect.
Each man began instinctively to tidy himself. The would-be duellists, forgetting their quarrel, stuck the revolvers in their belts and followed the general example. The Cripple hied him to the store, and after breaking down the door abstracted the only blacking-brush in the camp,--putting down a sovereign on the counter in exchange for it,-- and set to polishing his high boots as if a fortune depended on their brightness. The Scholar bought Herr Gustav's white shirt for a fiver, threatening to murder its owner if he did not render it up. And Partridge, a good man from Norfolk, with a regrettable weakness for shooting other people's game, induced a friend to denude him of his flowing locks by means of a clasp-knife and a hunk of wood, as no scissors were procurable.
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Stories by English Authors in Africa -by- Various