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O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921 online

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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!"



Online LibraryVariousO. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921 → online text (page 5 of 28)