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A Cup of Cold Water

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A SILENT and gloomy man. For a man of wealth, who, at one time, had been noted for his social qualities and his hospitality, Marten was looked upon with some little wonder by those who lived in his neighbourhood. People spoke of his solitary habits and the frightened, hunted look he always had in his eyes. Rumour even said that that stalwart and attentive man-servant of his was, in reality, a keeper.

Marten was a man whom vengeance had overtaken in this world and he could never forget it.

Dull, dark scrub all around, a sandy, barren soil underfoot, a cloudless sky and a hot, relentless sun overhead. Even more desolate than the usual dreary-looking scrub

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of the interior of Australia is this lonely thicket. The trunks of the stunted trees are gnarled and crooked, the foliage is scant and almost shadeless, the ground absolutely free from all undergrowth, and a deep, lifeless quiet reigns throughout. Footsteps and laboured breathing; and the repose of the scene is broken by the appearance of a human figure, a worn and wearied man slowly and painfully dragging himself along some horse-tracks forming a trail through the scrub. The unfortunate traveller is a pitiable sight, his sun-scorched face is thin and haggard with starvation, and his bloodshot eyes gleam with the delirium of thirst, his boots are absolutely ragged, and he leaves a bloody track on the baked ground. At times he sinks beneath the mockery of shade thrown by one of the scrub-trees, then, after a brief rest, renews his toilsome way.

Presently a break is visible ahead, and with restored hope the exhausted man pushes on, and ere long, with a hoarse, inarticulate cry of joy, emerges from the scrub

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on to the bank of a river. A river such as had haunted his dreams—clear, bright, sparkling, splashing in tiny rivulets amongst granite boulders, and rippling from one wide pool to another.

But the river has a strange appearance—no trees line its banks, no rushes fringe its shore, the bed is like a broad channel cut through the sandy waste around; down the centre runs the stream of water, the sight of which has brought fresh life to the worn-out wanderer. Slowly he toils across the hot and heavy sand to one of the shallow pools that sparkle in the sunlight, flings himself down and plunges his burning face and cracked lips into the crystal stream, then raises his head quickly with a bitter cry of pain—for this delusive, mocking river is salter than the sea.

The first moments of despair passed, the traveller gathers himself together again for a struggle to the last, retraces his steps to the bank and searches for the continuation of the horse-tracks he has been following. Finding these, he once more plunges into

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the sea of scrub that lines either bank of the river, and slowly staggers on. Three hours have passed and the sun is getting low when there is again a break in the weary, monotonous thicket—a small, comparatively clear patch of country, in the centre of which rises a conical hill of bare granite rock, lifting its bald crest and smooth, glistening sides nearly a hundred feet above the expanse of sad-coloured tree-tops. The open space encircling the foot of the rock is covered with short grass, there are several clumps of cork-trees scattered about, and in a deep depression at the base of the hill is one of the rock-holes peculiar to Western Australia, nearly half full of rain-water—a deep hole almost like a tank hollowed out by human hands.

Refreshed by a long drink, the man eagerly surveys the signs of a late encampment. He thrusts his hand into the ashes of the fire, but they are cold. He searches anxiously for any scraps of food that may have been left behind, but without avail. Then another hope comes to him, and with

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his last remaining strength he climbs the side of the naked rock and stands upright on the summit gazing around.

A terribly depressing panorama meets his view, lit up by the last rays of the declining sun. North, south and east is a grim, black expanse of scrub without opening, save that here and there he can recognise the sheen of the treacherous saltwater river. As far as eye can see stretches this lonely, lifeless waste, that owns no boundary save the blue haze of the horizon. He then turns to the west. The same stern uniformity, the only difference being that a dark-blue, square-topped range is visible far off. No smoke arises anywhere, neither break nor clearing is visible; all is silent, merciless and dead. With one last, despairing look he recognises that the great wilderness has pronounced his doom, and, with hopeless step, descends to the rocky hole and throws himself down to await the coming of his last and only friend.

Darkness sets in; the clear stars shine bright in a moonless sky, one by one the

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southern constellations sink lower and lower until they are swallowed up in the black shadow of the gloomy scrub. The distant whoop of an owl, or the melancholy wail of some other night-bird alone breaks the oppressive stillness, but the sleeper heeds them not. Nature has been kind to him at last and brought him painless slumber. In pleasant dreams his mind wanders far away from the foot of the giant rock where his body rests. The grey dawn finds him still alive, but the bitterness of death has passed, he neither cares nor thinks of rescue or relief; the encircling desert has lost its terrors, he is half-way to another world. Still there is something to be done, and he takes a loose bit of stone, and drags himself alongside a flat rock which is covered with rude markings, the work of the aborigines: imitations of the tracks of kangaroos and emus, the trails of serpents and lizards, and, keeping guard over all, a gigantic human track with six toes, the mystic footprint of the aboriginal devil.

Amongst these savage emblems the

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dying man scrawls his name and the date; that done, he feels that his earthly cares are over. He thrusts his hand inside his shirt as though to grasp some object there with loving care, and with a sigh of relief his head falls back and he thinks no more of heat or thirst or hunger, for Death, the comforter, has brought him full release.

Four months have passed, the weather has been unchanged. Day after day a cloudless sun has looked down on the lonely body, gradually shrivelling up into a withered mummy: day after day has seen it untouched by bird or beast; even the scavenger crows have shunned the spot, and the dead white man has lain in solitude all the time. Two men are now standing by the remains, horses are feeding around on the dry grass, and two black boys are kindling a fire a short distance away. One of the men, a young fellow of about three-and-twenty, kneels down and reverently takes from the fleshless hand the object it has held so long in the clutch of death—

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a worn and weather-stained note-book. Rising, he calls to one of the blacks to bring a blanket, which he throws over the body, and the two go silently to their camp.

“Tom,” says the young man, “we have found what we started to look for sooner than I expected. God help Marten when I meet him!”

“The black boy's yarn must have been right,” returned Tom.

“True as Gospel. Over a hundred and fifty miles he must have come in on foot, starving, and for every mile my father trod to meet his death here on this rock, the murdering cur who left him out there to die shall suffer bitterly in return, or my name's not Manning. Now, let us see what he has written.”

The message of the dead man to his son was short, but pregnant. It ran:—

“While I was away from camp Marten packed up, and taking all the horses and the two boys, started home. I came back with my horse knocked up and sore-footed and

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found the camp deserted. We discovered some splendid country on the heads of the G— and the L—, and I think he means to go down and take it up for himself, trusting to my never turning up again. I must follow on foot as best I can, for my horse is dead lame. … I have been walking now for two days and my feet are cut to pieces on the ranges; perhaps when I get down on the level country I may get along better. … Quite knocked up; I have done my best but can hold out no longer; if anyone finds this let them take it and the note to my son, John Manning, Ballarat, Victoria.”

Between the leaves was one, torn out and folded note-shape. It ran:—

“DEAR JACK,—Marten left me to die of starvation at the head of the L——River. I have struggled along so far, but must lie down and die here. God bless you, my boy.”

There was silence after reading this. Tom broke it first.

“Marten sold the country well, didn't he?”

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“Yes, almost immediately he got back, there was a bit of a craze for country just then.”

“But for that nigger we'd never have dropped on the rights of it.”

“No, Marten supposed that the two boys would go back to their country—never dreamt that I would come over here on a forlorn hope of finding my father and run across one of them. He said, too, that he found the good country after my father was lost, so that I had no share in the proceeds of the sale.”

“Shall we bury him now?” said Tom at last, after a pause.

Young Manning nodded, and they proceeded with their task. By sundown the long-neglected body, that had lain unwatched on the desolate rock, was consigned to the earth, and, next morning, the son set himself the labour of carving out in more permanent characters the name of the man who rested there.

“Tom,” said Manning, when his work was done, “I have made up my mind how to act,

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and I want you to keep quiet about my father's death. I intend giving that fellow rope enough and coming down on him when he least expects it. It would be impossible to sheet this home to him by law, so I shall use other means. I can trust you, I know.”

“About the boys?” returned Tom.

“We'll discharge them before we get back to town, and it's not likely Marten will ever run against any of them again.”

In an hour's time the rock mound and the new-made grave were as lonely as before.

James H. Marten, Esq., was a rich man, the few thousands he had made out of pastoral country in the western colony had been well invested in mining shares, and he had been one of the few who had made money by a mining-boom. He still dabbled in it, although there was no necessity for him doing so, but the fever was yet in his veins, and the fascination of a new reef had all its old attraction for him. At the present time he had, as he thought, “a big thing on” in

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Kimberleynote—he had just had a satisfactory interview with a man who showed him specimens “rich enough to boom any company along until the bottom dropped out of it.” Marten had half a mind to go up north and look at it himself; he was getting too stout, he thought, and a good rough trip would set him up again—why, he'd been leading a sedentary life ever since that trip with Manning. And as the thought came back to him he picked up his hat and went out hastily, for he felt as though there was something strange locked up in the office with him.

Thus affected by nervous fears, due, as he thought, to inertia, Marten, after some hesitation, finally decided on the Kimberley trip, and, in company with the prospector who had brought him the specimens, whose name was Tom Howard, started for the North. The camp where the reef was situated was one of the furthest outlying ones, and by the time they reached it Marten felt that he was rapidly getting back to hard condition again.

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Nearly a week passed, and the mining magnate was quite satisfied that he had a most profitable speculation, whatever the public might find it in the end, when there was a new arrival in the camp—a friend of the prospector's, who had been on a long trip southward. After some mysterious conferences, Marten was taken into confidence and shown specimens that made his mouth water. The man who brought them into camp had found them nearly one hundred and fifty miles to the south-west; there was a patch of desert country to cross, but that was nothing with such a lure ahead. Marten, who now felt in his old bush form, consented to go with the stranger and look at the new find so that he could make a personal report in Melbourne, and they started.

Marten found his new companion taciturn and reserved; he would take his meals apart in solitary fashion, and sleep some distance off. Marten had seen the same moodiness before in men who had long lived an “outside” life, and he thought nothing of it—the more stupid the man, the better for him.

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Strange schemes intruded themselves into his brain of playing his companion the trick he had played Manning, if the reef turned out anything like the specimens that had been produced. If Fortune dealt trumps in his hand why should he not take advantage of them? Their way was a weary one, some of it across sandy spinifex plains, and part of it through mulga—only twice did they come to any water, in each instance a brackish native well. On the fourth day they reached rough, broken country, and his companion pointed to a range and said that the reef was there. That night they camped at a small rock-hole which just sufficed for their wants and those of their horses. Next morning the prospector said they must leave their spare horses and ride on, look at the reef, and come back, as there was no water beyond this place.

After about three hours' ride they halted at the foot of a frowning range from which some deep ravines ran down into the lower country. Here the prospector pulled up. “We had better,” he said, “tie our horses to

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this tree and go up the gully on foot—it's too rough for horses.” They dismounted. “I am not quite sure which of the two gullies it is—they are both so much alike; you go up this one and I'll go up the other. If you see anything of my old tracks fire your revolver; if not, come back here and wait for me.”

They parted, and Marten made an unsuccessful ascent of the gully. There were no tracks nor any signs of auriferous country, and tired, thirsty, and disgusted, he returned to the rendevous.

The horses were gone! Was it possible he had made a mistake? No; there were the tracks. Had they broken their bridles and made off? A distant noise drew his attention to a ridge about half-a-mile away. There was the prospector riding homewards, leading Marten's horse. Marten yelled and “coo-eed” without attracting any attention; then he drew his revolver to fire a shot, but an empty click was the only response. He looked at it; the cartridges had been removed. There was no doubt he was

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being purposely left behind. As this thought flashed through his mind, the receding man pulled up on the crest of the ridge and looked back. Taking off his hat, he waved a mocking salute, and then vanished down the far side.

With all the terror that now crowded into Marten's brain there was one predominant question—what was the motive for deserting him? Then a cold shiver ran through him. Had Manning come to life after all and paid someone to play him this trick? He rallied himself and started to follow the track of the horses. It was evident no one would come back for him; he must help himself. It was dark when he got to the rock-hole where they had camped the night before, and, although he knew that it could not be otherwise, yet it was with horror he noticed that the place was deserted, packs, horses, everything gone. There was a little muddy water at the bottom of the hole, and he drank it greedily. He passed an awful night, the mysterious suddenness of the blow overwhelmed him. If he had had a chance to argue

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or explain it would have been different, but all around him was silence and the desert. “Plead to that!” a mocking voice seemed to say.

Next morning at grey dawn he was off along the back track, and doggedly pursued his way until the loose sand and spinifex compelled him to seek rest. He had no water-bag, so he had thrown his useless revolver away and filled the pouch with some of the muddy water, perhaps he could struggle through to the second native well —but 60 miles!—it was a long way. That night was passed in the slumber of exhaustion; next morning, with stiffened limbs, he recommenced his march, and now his watersupply was exhausted. Noontide found him lying under a mulga-bush, praying for death. The sound of an approaching horse aroused him”; the prospector had repented and turned back. He halted near the exhausted man, and, leaning on his horse's neck looked calmly at him. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am Jack Manning, the son of the man you

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murdered. I have brought you out here to die the same death you condemned him to. I know everything, I found his dead body, his note-book, and a letter to me, I also found one of the boys you had with you. My father followed you nearly one hundred and fifty miles, then he died of hunger and exhaustion; I intend you to do the same, and also to have the pleasure of watching you do it. I have no intention of letting you die just yet, so I will give you a quart of water and you must make that do until you reach the second well.” Manning dismounted, filled his quart-pot from the water-bag he was carrying and placed it on the ground, when, just as he was riding off, the wretched man broke the spell of shameful silence that held him and begged and implored mercy. It was useless. As though stone-deaf, Manning rode away and left him to plead to the sand, the mulga, and the spinifex; once more the silence and horror of the desert were around him.

On the fourth day, in a state of delirium,

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he staggered to the native well and buried his face in the tepid, brackish water. His enemy was not visible. Should he wait here for death? He fell unconscious while thinking.

When he awoke it was morning, and he thought he would make the attempt to reach the other well; perhaps his foe would relent. He staggered wearily on, and when the day grew hot sank down at the foot of a sand-ridge.

“Do you repent?” said a voice. Manning was standing over him. His swollen tongue refused to answer, but he feebly raised his hand. “Drink,” said his enemy: “I cannot see even you die of thirst.”

With all the fierce longing burning within him for the sweet, cool draught, he yet thought that it were better to die now than live to undergo it all once more, and, with a last effort, he put the proffered bag aside. “Let me die,” he groaned in a scarcely audible voice. “Drink,” said the other, “I will spare your life, though I cannot forgive; drink, and repent.”

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He held the mouth of the bag to his enemy's lips and moistened them. The touch of the cool water was too much; with a feverish grasp the half-dead man seized the bag and drank greedily. Then, with a wild laugh, he fell back insensible.

“Is it too late, I wonder?” thought Manning, looking at him.

It was not too late for his life; but his reason never quite recovered. Ever since he has been haunted by the nightmare of that dreadful tramp through the waterless desert, with the avenger ever dogging his footsteps.