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The Man Who Cursed the Lilies by Charles Tenney Jackson

From Short Stories

Tedge looked from the pilot-house at the sweating deckhand who stood on the stubby bow of the Marie Louise heaving vainly on the pole thrust into the barrier of crushed water hyacinths across the channel.

Crump, the engineer, shot a sullen look at the master ere he turned back to the crude oil motor whose mad pounding rattled the old bayou stern-wheeler from keel to hogchains.

“She's full ahead now!” grunted Crump. And then, with a covert glance at the single passenger sitting on the fore-deck cattle pens, the engineman repeated his warning, “Yeh'll lose the cows, Tedge, if you keep on fightin' the flowers. They're bad f'r feed and water—they can't stand another day o' sun!”

Tedge knew it. But he continued to shake his hairy fist at the deckhand and roar his anathemas upon the flower-choked bayou. He knew his crew was grinning evilly, for they remembered Bill Tedge's year-long feud with the lilies. Crump had bluntly told the skipper he was a fool for trying to push up this little-frequented bayou from Cote Blanche Bay to the higher land of the west Louisiana coast, where he had planned to unload his cattle.

Tedge had bought the cargo himself near Beaumont from a beggared ranchman whose stock had to go on the market because, for seven months, there had been no rain in eastern Texas, and the short-grass range was gone.

Tedge knew where there was feed for the starving animals, and the Marie Louise was coming back light. By the Intercoastal Canal and the shallow string of bays along the Texas-Louisiana line, the bayou boat could crawl safely back to the grassy swamp lands that fringe the sugar plantations of Bayou Teche. Tedge had bought his living cargo so ridiculously cheap that if half of them stood the journey he would profit. And they would cost him nothing for winter ranging up in the swamp lands. In the spring he would round up what steers had lived and sell them, grass-fat, in New Orleans. He'd land them there with his flap-paddle bayou boat, too, for the Marie Louise ranged up and down the Inter-coastal Canal and the uncharted swamp lakes and bays adjoining, trading and thieving and serving the skipper's obscure ends.

Only now, when he turned up Cote Blanche Bay, some hundred miles west of the Mississippi passes, to make the last twenty miles of swamp channel to his landing, he faced his old problem. Summer long the water hyacinths were a pest to navigation on the coastal bayous, but this June they were worse than Tedge had ever seen. He knew the reason: the mighty Mississippi was at high flood, and as always then, a third of its yellow waters were sweeping down the Atchafalaya River on a “short cut” to the Mexican Gulf. And somewhere above, on its west bank, the Atchafalaya levees had broken and the flood waters were all through the coastal swamp channels.

Tedge grimly knew what it meant. He'd have to go farther inland to find his free range, but now, worst of all, the floating gardens of the coast swamps were coming out of the numberless channels on the crevasse water.

He expected to fight them as he had done for twenty years with his dirty bayou boat. He'd fight and curse and struggle through the les flotantes, and denounce the Federal Government, because it did not destroy the lilies in the obscure bayous where he traded, as it did on Bayou Teche and Terrebonne, with its pump-boats which sprayed the hyacinths with a mixture of oil and soda until the tops shrivelled and the trailing roots then dragged the flowers to the bottom.

“Yeh'll not see open water till the river cleans the swamps of lilies,” growled Crump. “I never seen the beat of 'em! The high water's liftin' 'em from ponds where they never been touched by a boat's wheel and they're out in the channels now. If yeh make the plantations yeh'll have to keep eastard and then up the Atchafalaya and buck the main flood water, Tedge!”

Tedge knew that, too. But he suddenly broke into curses upon his engineer, his boat, the sea and sky and man. But mostly the lilies. He could see a mile up the bayou between cypress-grown banks, and not a foot of water showed. A solid field of green, waxy leaves and upright purple spikes, jammed tight and moving. That was what made the master rage. They were moving—a flower glacier slipping imperceptibly to the gulf bays. They were moving slowly but inexorably, and his dirty cattle boat, frantically driving into the blockade, was moving backward—stern first!

He hated them with the implacable fury of a man whose fists had lorded his world. A water hyacinth—what was it? He could stamp one to a smear on his deck, but a river of them no man could fight. He swore the lilies had ruined his whisky-running years ago to the Atchafalaya lumber camps; they blocked Grand River when he went to log-towing; they had cost him thousands of dollars for repairs and lost time in his swamp ventures.

Bareheaded under the semi-tropic sun, he glowered at the lily-drift. Then he snarled at Crump to reverse the motor. Tedge would retreat again!

“I'll drive the boat clean around Southwest Pass to get shut of 'em! No feed, huh, for these cows! They'll feed sharks, they will! Huh, Mr. Cowman, the blisterin' lilies cost me five hundred dollars already!”

The lone passenger smoked idly and watched the gaunt cattle staggering, penned in the flat, dead heat of the foredeck. Tedge cursed him, too, under his breath. Milt Rogers had asked to make the coast run from Beaumont on Tedge's boat. Tedge remembered what Rogers said—he was going to see a girl who lived up Bayou Boeuf above Tedge's destination. Tedge remembered that girl—a Cajan girl whom he once heard singing in the floating gardens while Tedge was battling and cursing to pass the blockade.

He hated her for loving the lilies, and the man for loving her. He burst out again with his volcanic fury at the green and purple horde.

“They're a fine sight to see,” mused the other, “after a man's eyes been burned out ridin' the dry range; no rain in nine months up there—nothin' green or pretty in——”

“Pretty!” Tedge seemed to menace with his little shifty eyes. “I wish all them lilies had one neck and I could twist it! Jest one head, and me stompin' it! Yeh!—and all the damned flowers in the world with it! Yeh! And me watchin' 'em die!”

The man from the dry lands smoked idly under the awning. His serenity evoked all the savagery of Tedge's feud with the lilies. Pretty! A man who dealt with cows seeing beauty in anything! Well, the girl did it—that swamp angel this Rogers was going to visit. That Aurelie Frenet who sang in the flower-starred river—that was it! Tedge glowered on the Texan—he hated him, too, because this loveliness gave him peace, while the master of the Marie Louise must fume about his wheelhouse, a perspiring madman.

It took an hour for the Marie even to retreat and find steerage-way easterly off across a shallow lake, mirroring the marsh shores in the sunset. Across it the bayou boat wheezed and thumped drearily, drowning the bellowing of the dying steers. Once the deckhand stirred and pointed.

“Lilies, Cap'n—pourin' from all the swamps, and dead ahead there now!”

Scowling, Tedge held to the starboard. Yes, there they were—a phalanx of flowers in the dusk. He broke into wild curses at them, his boat, the staggering cattle.

“I'll drive to the open gulf to get rid of 'em! Outside, to sea! Yeh! Stranger, yeh'll see salt water, and lilies drownin' in it! I'll show yeh 'em dead and dried on the sands like dead men's dried bones! Yeh'll see yer pretty flowers a-dyin'!”

The lone cowman ignored the sneer. “You better get the animals to feed and water. Another mornin' of heat and crowdin'—”

“Let 'em rot! Yer pretty flowers done it—pretty flowers—spit o' hell! I knowed 'em—I fought 'em—I'll fight 'em to the death of 'em!”

His little red-rimmed eyes hardly veiled his contempt for Milt Rogers. A cowman, sailing this dusky purple bay to see a girl! A girl who sang in the lily drift—a-sailing on this dirty, reeking bumboat, with cattle dying jammed in the pens! Suddenly Tedge realized a vast malevolent pleasure—he couldn't hope to gain from his perishing cargo; and he began to gloat at the agony spread below his wheelhouse window, and the cattleman's futile pity for them.

“They'll rot on Point Au Fer! We'll heave the stink of them, dead and alive, to the sharks of Au Fer Pass! Drownin' cows in dyin' lilies—”

And the small craft of his brain suddenly awakened coolly above his heat. Why, yes! Why hadn't he thought of it? He swung the stubby nose of the Marie more easterly in the hot, windless dusk. After a while the black deckhand looked questioningly up at the master.

“We're takin' round,” Tedge grunted, “outside Au Fer!”

The black stretched on the cattle-pen frame. Tedge was a master-hand among the reefs and shoals, even if the flappaddle Marie had no business outside. But the sea was nothing but a star-set velvet ribbon on which she crawled like a dirty insect. And no man questioned Tedge's will.

Only, an hour later, the engineman came up and forward to stare into the faster-flowing water. Even now he pointed to a hyacinth clump.

“Yeh!” the master growled. “I'll show yeh, Rogers! Worlds o' flowers! Out o' the swamps and the tide'll send 'em back again on the reefs. I'll show yeh 'em—dead, dried white like men's bones.” Then he began to whisper huskily to his engineer: “It's time fer it. Five hundred fer yeh, Crump—a hundred fer the nigger, or I knock his head in. She brushes the bar, and yer oil tank goes—yeh understand?” He watched a red star in the south.

Crump looked about. No sail or light or coast guard about Au Fer—at low tide not even a skiff could find the passages. He nodded cunningly:

“She's old and fire-fitten. Tedge, I knowed yer mind—I was always waitin' fer the word. It's a place fer it—and yeh say yeh carry seven hundred on them cows? Boat an' cargo—three thousand seven hundred—”

“They'll be that singed and washed in the sands off Au Fer that nobody'll know what they died of!” retorted Tedge thickly. “Yeh, go down, Crump, and lay yer waste and oil right. I trust yeh, Crump—the nigger'll get his, too. She'll ride high and burn flat, hoggin' in the sand——”

“She's soaked with oil plumb for'ard to the pens now,” grunted Crump. “She's fitten to go like a match all along when she bumps—”

He vanished, and the master cunningly watched the ember star southeasterly.

He was holding above it now, to port and landward. The white, hard sands must be shoaling fast under the cattle-freighted Marie. It little mattered about the course now; she would grind her nose in the quiet reef shortly.

Tedge merely stared, expectantly awaiting the blow. And when it came he was malevolently disappointed. A mere slithering along over the sand, a creak, a slight jar, and she lay dead in the flat, calm sea—it was ridiculous that that smooth beaching would break an oil tank, that the engine spark would flare the machine waste, leap to the greasy beams and floors.

The wheezy exhaust coughed on; the belt flapped as the paddle wheel kept on its dead shove of the Marie's keel into the sand. Hogjaw had shouted and run forward. He was staring into the phosphorescent water circling about the bow when Crump raised his cry:

“Fire—amidships!”

Tedge ran down the after-stairs. Sulphurously he began cursing at the trickle of smoke under the motor frame. It was nothing—a child could have put it out with a bucket of sand. But upon it fell Tedge and the engineer, stamping, shouting, shoving oil-soaked waste upon it, and covertly blocking off the astounded black deckman when he rushed to aid.

“Water, Hogjaw!” roared the master. “She's gainin' on us—she's under the bilge floor now!” He hurled a bucket viciously at his helper. And as they pretended to fight the fire, Crump suddenly began laughing and stood up. The deckman was grinning also. The master watched him narrowly.

“Kick the stuff into the waste under the stairs,” he grunted. “Hogjaw, this here boat's goin'—yeh understand? We take the skiff and pull to the shrimp camps, and she hogs down and burns—”

The black man was laughing. Then he stopped curiously. “The cows—”

“Damn the cows! I'll git my money back on 'em! Yeh go lower away on the skiff davits. Yeh don't ask me nothin'—yeh don't know nothin'!”

“Sho', boss! I don't know nothin', or see nothin'!”

He swung out of the smoke already drifting greasily up from the foul waist of the Marie Louise. A little glare of red was beginning to reflect from the mirrored sea. The ripples of the beaching had vanished; obscurely, undramatically as she had lived, the Marie Louise sat on the bar to choke in her own fetid fumes.

Tedge clambered to the upper deck and hurried to his bunk in the wheelhouse. There were papers there he must save—the master's license, the insurance policy, and a few other things. The smell of burning wood and grease was thickening; and suddenly now, through it, he saw the quiet, questioning face of the stranger.

He had forgotten him completely. Tedge's small brain had room but for one idea at a time: first his rage at the lilies, and then the wrecking of the Marie. And this man knew. He had been staring down the after-companionway. He had seen and heard. He had seen the master and crew laughing while the fire mounted.

Tedge came to him. “We're quittin' ship,” he growled.

“Yes, but the cattle—” The other looked stupefiedly at him.

“We got to pull inside afore the sea comes up—”

“Well, break the pens, can't you? Give 'em a chance to swim for a bar. I'm a cowman myself—I cain't let dumb brutes burn and not lift a hand—”

The fire in the waist was beginning to roar. A plume of smoke streamed straight up in the starlight. The glare showed the younger man's startled eyes. He shifted them to look over the foredeck rail down to the cattle. Sparks were falling among them, the fire veered slightly forward; and the survivors were crowding uneasily over the fallen ones, catching that curious sense of danger which forewarns creatures of the wild before the Northers, a burning forest, or creeping flood, to move on.

“You cain't leave 'em so,” muttered the stranger. “No; I seen you—”

He did not finish. Tedge had been setting himself for what he knew he should do. The smaller man had his jaw turned as he stared at the suffering brutes. And Tedge's mighty fist struck him full on the temple. The master leaned over the low rail to watch quietly.

The man who wished to save the cattle was there among them. A little flurry of sparks drove over the spot he fell upon, and then a maddened surge of gaunt steers. Tedge wondered if he should go finish the job. No; there was little use. He had crashed his fist into the face of a shrimp-seine hauler once, and the fellow's neck had shifted on his spine—and once he had maced a woman up-river in a shantyboat drinking bout—Tedge had got away both times. Now and then, boasting about the shrimp camps, he hinted mysteriously at his two killings, and showed his freckled, hairy right hand.

“If they find anything of him—he got hurt in the wreck,” the master grinned. He couldn't see the body, for a black longhorn had fallen upon his victim, it appeared. Anyhow, the cattle were milling desperately around in the pen; the stranger who said his name was Milt Rogers would be a lacerated lump of flesh in that mad stampede long ere the fire reached him. Tedge got his tin document box and went aft.

Crump and Hogjaw were already in the flat-bottomed bayou skiff, holding it off the Marie Louise's port runway, and the master stepped into it. The heat was singeing their faces by now.

“Pull off,” grunted the skipper, “around east'ard. This bar sticks clean out o' water off there, and you lay around it, Hogjaw. They won't be no sea 'til the breeze lifts at sunup.”

The big black heaved on the short oars. The skiff was a hundred yards out on the glassy sea when Crump spoke cunningly, “I knowed something——”

“Yeh?” Tedge turned from his bow seat to look past the oarsman's head at the engineman. “Yeh knowed——”

“This Rogers, he was tryin' to get off the burnin' wreck and he fell, somehow or——”

“The oil tank blew, and a piece o' pipe took him,” grunted Tedge. “I tried to drag him out o' the fire—Gawd knows I did, didn't I, Crump?”

Crump nodded scaredly. The black oarsman's eyes narrowed and he crouched dumbly as he rowed. Tedge was behind him—Tedge of the Marie Louise who could kill with his fists. No, Hogjaw knew nothing—he never would know anything.

“I jest took him on out o' kindness,” mumbled Tedge. “I got no license fer passenger business. Jest a bum I took on to go and see his swamp girl up Des Amoureaux. Well, it ain't no use sayin' anything, is it now?”

A mile away the wreck of the Marie Louise appeared as a yellow-red rent in the curtain of night. Red, too, was the flat, calm sea, save northerly where a sand ridge gleamed. Tedge turned to search for its outlying point. There was a pass here beyond which the reefs began once more and stretched on, a barrier to the shoal inside waters. When the skiff had drawn about the sand spit, the reflecting waters around the Marie had vanished, and the fire appeared as a fallen meteor burning on the flat, black belt of encircling reef.

Tedge's murderous little eyes watched easterly. They must find the other side of the tidal pass and go up it to strike off for the distant shrimp camps with their story of the end of the Marie Louise —boat and cargo a total loss on Au Fer sands.

Upon the utter sea silence there came a sound—a faint bawling of dying cattle, of trampled, choked cattle in the fume and flames. It was very far off now; and to-morrow's tide and wind would find nothing but a blackened timber, a swollen, floating carcass or two—nothing more.

But the black man could see the funeral pyre; the distant glare of it was showing the whites of his eyes faintly to the master, when suddenly he stopped rowing. A drag, the soft sibilance of a moving thing, was on his oar blade. He jerked it free, staring.

“Lilies, boss—makin' out dis pass, too, lilies—”

“I see 'em—drop below 'em!” Tedge felt the glow of an unappeasable anger mount to his temples. “Damn 'em—I see 'em!”

There they were, upright, tranquil, immense hyacinths—their spear-points three feet above the water, their feathery streamers drifting six feet below; the broad, waxy leaves floating above their bulbous surface mats—they came on silently under the stars; they vanished under the stars seaward to their death.

“Yeh!” roared Tedge. “Sun and sea to-morry—they'll be back on Au Fer like dried bones o' dead men in the sand! Bear east'ard off of 'em!”

The oarsman struggled in the deeper pass water. The skiff bow suddenly plunged into a wall of green-and-purple bloom. The points brushed Tedge's cheek. He cursed and smote them, tore them from the low bow and flung them. But the engineman stood up and peered into the starlight.

“Yeh'll not make it. Better keep up the port shore. I cain't see nothin' but lilies east'ard—worlds o'flowers comin' with the crevasse water behind 'em.” He dipped a finger to the water, tasted of it, and grumbled on: “It ain't hardly salt, the big rivers are pourin' such a flood out o' the swamps. Worlds o' flowers comin' out the passes—”

“Damn the flowers!” Tedge arose, shaking his fist at them. “Back out o' 'em! Pull up the Au Fer side, and we'll break through 'em in the bay!”

Against the ebb tide close along Au Fer reef, the oarsman toiled until Crump, the lookout, grumbled again.

“The shoal's blocked wi' 'em! They're stranded on the ebb. Tedge, yeh'll have to wait for more water to pass this bar inside 'em. Yeh try to cross the pass, and the lilies 'll have us all to sea in this crazy skiff when the wind lifts wi' the sun.”

“I'm clean wore out,” the black man muttered. “Yeh can wait fer day and tide on the sand, boss.”

“Well, drive her in, then!” raged the skipper. “The in-tide'll set before daylight. We'll take it up the bay.”

He rolled over the bow, knee-deep in the warm inlet water, and dragged the skiff through the shoals. Crump jammed an oar in the sand; and warping the headline to this, the three trudged on to the white dry ridge. Tedge flung himself by the first stubby grass clump.

“Clean beat,” he muttered. “By day we'll pass 'em. Damn 'em—and I'll see 'em dyin' in the sun—lilies like dried, dead weeds on the sand—that's what they'll be in a couple o' days—he said they was pretty, that fello' back there—” Lying with his head on his arm, he lifted a thumb to point over his shoulder. He couldn't see the distant blotch of fire against the low stars—he didn't want to. He couldn't mark the silent drift of the sea gardens in the pass, but he gloated in the thought that they were riding to their death. The pitiless sun, the salt tides drunk up to their spongy bulbs, and their glory passed—they would be matted refuse on the shores and a man could trample them. Yes, the sea was with Tedge, and the rivers, too; the flood waters were lifting the lilies from their immemorable strongholds and forcing them out to their last pageant of death.

The three castaways slept in the warm sand. It was an hour later that some other living thing stirred at the far end of Au Fer reef. A scorched and weakened steer came on through salt pools to stagger and fall. Presently another, and then a slow line of them. They crossed the higher ridge to huddle about a sink that might have made them remember the dry drinking holes of their arid home plains. Tired, gaunt cattle mooing lonesomely, when the man came about them to dig with his bloody fingers in the sand.

He tried another place, and another—he didn't know—he was a man of the short-grass country, not a coaster; perhaps a sandy sink might mean fresh water. But after each effort the damp feeling on his hands was from his gashed and battered head and not life-giving water. He wiped the blood from his eyes and stood up in the starlight.

“Twenty-one of 'em—alive—and me,” he muttered. “I got 'em off—they trampled me and beat me down, but I got their pens open. Twenty-one livin'—and me on the sands!”

He wondered stupidly how he had done it. The stern of the Marie Louise had burned off and sogged down in deep water, but her bow hung to the reef, and in smoke and flame he had fought the cattle over it. They clustered now in the false water-hole, silent, listless, as if they knew the uselessness of the urge of life on Au Fer reef.

And after a while the man went on eastward. Where and how far the sand ridge stretched he did not know. Vaguely he knew of the tides and sun to-morrow. From the highest point he looked back. The wreck was a dull red glow, the stars above it cleared now of smoke. The sea, too, seemed to have gone back to its infinite peace, as if it had washed itself daintily after this greasy morsel it must hide in its depths.

A half hour the man walked wearily, and then before him stretched water again. He turned up past the tide flowing down the pass—perhaps that was all of Au Fer. A narrow spit of white sand at high tide, and even over that, the sea breeze freshening, the surf would curl?

“Ships never come in close, they said,” he mused tiredly, “and miles o' shoals to the land—and then just swamp for miles. Dumb brutes o' cows, and me on this—and no water nor feed, nor shade from the sun.”

He stumbled on through the shallows, noticing apathetically that the water was running here. Nearly to his waist he waded, peering into the starlight. He was a cowman and he couldn't swim; he had never seen anything but the dry ranges until he said he would go find the girl he had met once on the upper Brazos—a girl who told him of sea and sunken forests, of islands of flowers drifting in lonely swamp lakes—he had wanted to see that land, but mostly the Cajan girl of Bayou Des Amoureaux.

He wouldn't see her now; he would die among dying cattle, but maybe it was fit for a cattleman to go that way—a Texas man and Texas cows.

Then he saw a moving thing. It rode out of the dark and brushed him. It touched him with soft fingers and he drew them to him. A water hyacinth, and its purple spike topped his head as he stood waist-deep. So cool its leaves, and the dripping bulbs that he pressed them to his bloody cheek. He sank his teeth into them for that coolness on his parched tongue. The spongy bulb was sweet; it exhaled odorous moisture. He seized it ravenously. It carried sweet water, redolent of green forest swamps!

He dragged at another floating lily, sought under the leaves for the buoyant bulb. A drop or two of the fresh water a man could press from each!

Like a starving animal he moved in the shoals, seeing more drifting garden clumps. And then a dark object that did not drift. He felt for it slowly, and then straightened up, staring about.

A flat-bottomed bayou skiff, and in it the oars, a riverman's blanket-roll of greasy clothes, and a tin box! He knew the box. On one end, in faded gilt, was the name “B. Tedge.” Rogers had seen it on the grimy shelf in the pilothouse on the Marie Louise. He felt for the rope; the skiff was barely scraping bottom. Yes, they had moored it here—they must be camped on the sands of Au Fer, awaiting the dawn.

A boat? He didn't know what a Texas cowman could do with a boat on an alien and unknown shore, but he slipped into it, raised an oar, and shoved back from the sandy spit. At least he could drift off Au Fer's waterless desolation. Tedge would kill him to-morrow when he found him there; because he knew Tedge had fired the Marie for the insurance.

So he poled slowly off. The skiff drifted now. Rogers tried to turn to the oar athwart, and awkwardly he stumbled. The oar seemed like a roll of thunder when it struck the gunwale.

And instantly a hoarse shout arose behind him. Tedge's voice—Tedge had not slept well. The gaunt cattle burning or choking in the salt tide, or perhaps the lilies of Bayou Boeuf—anyhow, he was up with a cry and dashing for the skiff. In a moment Rogers saw him.

The Texas man began driving desperately on the oars. He heard the heavy rush of the skipper's feet in the deepening water. Tedge's voice became a bull-like roar as the depth began to check him. To his waist, and the slow skiff was but ten yards away; to his great shoulders, and the clumsy oarsman was but five.

And with a yell of triumph Tedge lunged out swimming. Whoever the fugitive, he was hopeless with the oars. The skiff swung this way and that, and a strong man at its stern could hurl it and its occupant bottom-side up in Au Fer Pass. Tedge, swimming in Au Fer Pass, his fingers to the throat of this unknown marauder! There'd be another one go—and nothing but his hands—Bill Tedge's hands that the shrimp camps feared.

Just hold him under—that was all. Tread water, and hold the throat beneath until its throbbing ceased. Tedge could; he feared no man. Another overhand stroke, and he just missed the wobbling stern of the light skiff.

He saw the man start up and raise an oar as if to strike. Tedge laughed triumphantly. Another plunge and his fingers touched the gunwale. And then he dived; he would bring his back up against the flat bottom and twist his enemy's footing from under him. Then in the deep water Tedge lunged up for the flat keel, and slowly across his brow an invisible hand seemed to caress him.

He opened his eyes to see a necklace of opalescent jewels gathering about his neck; he tore at it and the phosphorescent water gleamed all about him with feathery pendants. And when his head thrust above water, the moment's respite had allowed the skiff to straggle beyond his reach.

Tedge shouted savagely and lunged again—and about his legs came the soft clasp of the drifting hyacinth roots. Higher, firmer; and he turned to kick free of them. He saw the man in the boat poling uncertainly in the tide not six feet beyond him. And now, in open water, Tedge plunged on in fierce exultance. One stroke—and the stars beyond the boatman became obscured; the swimmer struck the soft, yielding barrier of the floating islands. This time he did not lose time in drawing from them; he raised his mighty arms and strove to beat them down, flailing the broad leaves until the spiked blossoms fell about him. A circlet of them caressed his cheek. He lowered his head and swam bull-like into the drift; and when he knew the pressure ahead was tightening slowly to rubbery bands, forcing him gently from his victim, Tedge raised his voice in wild curses.

He fought and threshed the lilies, and they gave him cool, velvety kisses in return. He dived and came up through them; and then, staring upward, he saw the tall, purple spikes against the stars. And they were drifting—they were sailing seaward to their death. He couldn't see the boat now for the shadowy hosts; and for the first time fear glutted his heart. It came as a paroxysm of new sensation—Tedge of the Marie Louise who had never feared.

But this was different, this soft and moving web of silence. No, not quite silence, for past his ear the splendid hyacinths drifted with a musical creaking, leaf on leaf, the buoyant bulbs brushing each other. The islets joined and parted; once he saw open water and plunged for it—and over his shoulders there surged a soft coverlet. He turned and beat it; he churned his bed into a furious welter, and the silken curtain lowered.

He shrank from it now, staring. The feathery roots matted across his chest, the mass of them felt slimy like the hide of a drowned brute.

“Drownin' cows”—he muttered thickly—“comin' on a man driftin' and drownin'—no, no! Lilies, jest lilies—damn 'em!”

The tall spiked flowers seemed nodding—yes, just lilies, drifting and singing elfin music to the sea tide. Tedge roared once again his hatred of them; he raised and battered his huge fists into their beauty, and they seemed to smile in the starlight. Then, with a howl, he dived.

He would beat them—deep water was here in the pass, and he would swim mightily far beneath the trailing roots—he would find the man with the boat yet and hurl him to die in the hyacinth bloom.

He opened his eyes in the deep, clear water and exulted. He, Tedge, had outwitted the bannered argosies. With bursting lungs he charged off across the current, thinking swiftly, coolly, now of the escape. And as he neared the surface he twisted to glance upward. It was light there—a light brighter than the stars, but softer, evanescent. Mullet and squib were darting about or clinging to a feathery forest that hung straight down upon him. Far and near there came little darts of pale fire, gleaming and expiring with each stir in the phosphorescent water.

And he had to rise; a man could not hold the torturing air in his lungs for ever. Yes, he would tear a path to the stars again and breathe. His arms flailed into the first tenuous streamers, which parted in pearly lace before his eyes. He breasted higher, and they were all about him now; his struggles evoked glowing bubble-jewels which drifted upward to expire. He grasped the soft roots and twisted and sought to raise himself. He had a hand to the surface bulbs, but a silken mesh seemed tightening about him.

And it was drifting—everything was drifting in the deep pass of Au Fer. He tried to howl in the hyacinth web, and choked—and then he merely fought in his close-pressing cocoon, thrusting one hard fist to grasp the broad leaves. He clung to them dumbly, his face so close to the surface that the tall spiked flowers smiled down—but they drifted inexorably with a faint, creaking music, leaf on leaf.

Tedge opened his eyes to a flicker of myriad lights. The sound was a roaring now—like the surf on the reefs in the hurricane month; or the thunder of maddened steers above him across this flowery sea meadow. Perhaps the man he had killed rode with this stampede? Tedge shrank under the lilies—perhaps they could protect him now? Even the last stroke of his hands made luminous beauty of the under-running tide.

An outward-bound shrimp lugger saw the figures on Au Fer reef and came to anchor beyond the shoals. The Cajan crew rowed up to where Milt Rogers and Crump and the black deckhand were watching by a pool. The shrimpers listened to the cowman, who had tied the sleeve of his shirt about his bloody head.

“You can get a barge down from Morgan City and take the cows off before the sea comes high,” said Rogers quietly. “They're eating the lilies—and they find sweet water in 'em. Worlds o' lilies driftin' to sea with sweet water in the bulbs!” And he added, watching Crump and the black man who seemed in terror of him: “I want to get off, too. I want to see the swamp country where worlds o' flowers come from!”

He said no more. He did not even look in the pool where Crump pointed. He was thinking of that girl of the swamps who had bid him come to her. But all along the white surf line he could see the green-and-purple plumes of the hyacinth warriors tossing in the breeze—legion upon legion, coming to die gloriously on Au Fer's sands.

But first they sent a herald; for in Tedge's hand, as he lay in the pool, one waxen-leafed banner with a purple spear-point glittered in the sun.