When the swamp gave forth its fortune

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WILL TEAL COULDN’T BELIEVE that Caddo was mad at him, but it must have been. He had heard the sacred old Indian tales about the night a great spirit appeared before the chieftain, warning him that “the earth will heave and sink, and it will rain for many nights – and water will come upon the lands.” Well the water came, and he had no idea a fortune lay at the bottom of the swamp.

Will Teal had read the words of a wrinkled old Indian who claimed to have been an eyewitness the night a troubled and trembling quake tore open the grounds beneath his feet:Once there was a prairie where we hunted the buffalo. But that was before the earth had chills and fever and shook. In the night, the village sank. Then the water rolled over our ground, and we fled to the hills.

Will Teal knew the feeling. He was on his feet and scrambling for the hills himself. So the earth had had a tough bout with fever and chills, he thought as the water reached out to suck the mud and scum away from his boots. Will Teal reached out and grabbed the trunk of a young pine sapling, frantically holding on as the lake swamped everything, man and beast, in its path. Damned if it wasn’t happening again.

On a bright morning three years earlier, as the mist danced lightly around the cypress knees and Lily pads of Caddo Lake, Will Teal and Tom Allen rowed their wooden john boat slowly away from the sleeping streets of Potter’s Point. Neither spoke. Neither had anything to say. Fishing had long ceased to be a pleasure; it was work in the year of 1909.

The men casually eased their way along the trotlines that stretched beneath the Spanish moss of the bayou, checking the hooks, putting new bait on the empty ones, using the soft white flesh of the mussels that lived in the warm, shallow waters of Caddo.

The day began slow, then lost ground. Late in the afternoon, Will Teal gingerly sliced away the outer edge of a mussel’s shell, inserted his knife point and quickly pried the shell apart. It was an old practice, one that had become a habit, done without thinking or looking.

For once, fate reached down and tapped Will Teal on a weary shoulder, and he glanced down a the mussel in his hand. Lying there in the tender, waxy flesh – no bigger than the eraser on a No. 2 pencil – was a pearl. At least, it looked like a pearl, although Teal wasn’t quite sure what he had found and what it was doing amongst the lily pads and beneath the calm, shallow waters of Potter’s Point.

The two men, curiosity nagging at their common sense, mailed the small gem to Dr. Owens, a buyer of precious stones up in Newport, Arkansas. At first, they were feeling on the near side of euphoric, then merely hopeful, and finally just a little on the lame and embarrassing end of foolish.

Doc Owens, however, wired back, “I’m on my way to Caddo Lake to set up a purchasing agency to handle as many pearls as can be found.”

George Murata hunts for pearls.
George Murata hunts for pearls.

Potter’s Point had been nailed together out of pine logs, just a shelter and a refuge for the fishermen and hunters and farmers who had cast their lots upon those soggy East Texas bayous. Overnight, it exploded into a boom town.

Wagons and buggies and hacks came rumbling down the dusty roads to Britt’s Gap, Alligator Bayou, Towhead, Perch Gap and Little Green Break. Those muddy banks were lined with digging, clawing, dirt-grabbing fortune hunters who crawled on hands and knees into the mossy, tepid water with a mother-of-pearl gleam in their eyes.

More than two dozen camps quickly sprang up amidst the cypress knees. A tent city of five hundred new souls was whipped by the winds that swept the leaves atop a pin oak ridge, and the canvas cracked and popped like gunfire, but no one cared about anything but the sounds of mussels belching pearls.

Fishermen no longer ran their trotlines, and farmers forgot about their crops, leaving them for the sun to sap and the bugs to consume, and the bugs had never had a healthier summer. The hunters called each other hogs, and they would tie one end of a rope around their waists and latch the other end to a boot, splashing around in the shallow water, easing their bare fee along the lake floor, picking up mussels between their toes and finally tossing them onto the boat that trailed peacefully behind them. Back on the shoreline, their women waited eagerly with vats of boiling water, old hoe files, and butcher knives, prying the shells open and digging out white pearls from washboard mussels, pink pearls from white-eye mussels, and wine pearls from buttermilk mussels.

Buyers from across the country rode without wasting time or changing horses down into the heavily-timbered bayous around Potter’s Point, setting up shop beneath the shade of pine thickets and clutching leather satchels filled with money. They bought pearls as soon as they were dredged out of the water – one or a handful; it didn’t make any difference – offering silver, gold, greenbacks, or whatever would spend in the country stores of Britt’s Gap and Alligator Bayou.

As soon as a hog uncovered a shiny, white gem, he would holler, “Pearl!” And the bidding began before he could catch his breath or wipe the mud from the grin off his face. Some of the pearls sold for a hundred dollars. A few brought as much as six hundred dollars.

A fisherman could be a pauper at breakfast and an aristocrat by the time he sopped up his last meal of the day. Sachihiko Ona Murata, who had walked off his job as a cook on a drilling rig, rolled up his sleeves and plunged into Caddo. The roughnecks had sadly shaken their heads and ridiculed him.

They were still laughing, but not nearly as hard, when he pawned off one of his pearls for $1,500. The gems brought as much money and were more plentiful than oil, and not nearly as deep or hard to find.

Will Teal and Tom Allen weren’t selfish. There were enough pearls down beneath Caddo to make them all rich. They weren’t even worried about the secret being smuggled out of the pine thickets. The wealth that lay under their bare feet would be theirs for the taking forever, and there weren’t any calendars large enough to hold forever.

The search for pearls lasted three years.

Then one morning, without any threat or warning, the gates and locks on the old dam in Mooringsport, Louisiana, were removed and the dam raised. Flood waters came rushing madly into Potter’s Point, chasing them all to the high ground and burying the mussels in bayous far too deep to hunt..

Will Teal, clutching the young pine, looked down at the rising lake. Caddo had given, and it had taken away. Maybe the earth didn’t have fever and chills this time, but Will Teal knew that he was shaking as badly as a stray dog afflicted with malaria. He would have felt like giving up, but he had saved his trotline and, if nothing else, the fish in those churning waters would keep a hungry man from going hungry.

He pulled his last pearl from his shirt pocket and couldn’t figure out why in the world anybody would pay so much money for something so small. It didn’t glitter, glare, or glow in the dark.

It just lay there in the palm of his hand. If Will Teal had seen one lying among the rock pebbles, he would have just walked on past. He pitched the pearl into Caddo and watched it sink down into dark waters where not even a probing sunlight could find it. A pearl was like a lot of things in life, he thought.

Men fought over them, women swooned over them, and one was never enough.

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