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Early in the twentieth century, when rare birds are being hunted and killed illegally to supply the millinery industry with feathers, naturalist Walt Murdoch comes to the small frontier town of Miami, Florida seeking a teaching job at the high school. While stepping off the train the plumage of a woman's fashionably excessive hat slaps him in the face and, offended, he mischievously yanks out the feather and berates the woman. Her husband, wealthy George Leggett, a member of the school board who is secretly involved in plume traffic, blocks Walt's application to teach nature studies and has the sheriff arrest him. However, Audubon Society member Howard Ross Morgan offers Walt a job as bird game warden for the Everglades area and arranges with the judge to have Walt's sentence commuted to the warden position. Having been warned by Howard that the last two wardens were killed by Cottonmouth, who is the leader of a plume-hunting band of renegades known as the Swamp Angels, Walt makes his first canoe trip into the "'Glades." He encounters Cottonmouth and his hooligans, who sneak up on him and then shoot at the birds in their nesting area. After he returns from the overnight trip, he eloquently describes the beauty of what he saw to immigrant storekeeper Aaron Nathanson and his daughter Naomi, with whom he has taken board. While Walt is inspired to protect the land and its wildlife, the kind Aaron, who grew up in a European ghetto, envisions that swamp land can be drained and filled to make more land for human habitation. Aaron invites Walt to be his partner, but Walt responds that "progress and I don't get along real well." He feels drawn to the `Glades, which he describes as a life force in its "purist, earliest form." At the small village of shacks in the swamps where Cottonmouth's men reside, a rowdy named Beef and companion join up with the band, after engaging in hand to hand battle with Cottonmouth's men over sleeping cabins. Perfesser, a thoughtful member of the group whose vocabulary ranges from the vernacular to the academic, reports to Cottonmouth that their new foe Walt, whom they have nicknamed "Birdboy," "is no pantywaist." He can "hold his liquor," is "good with his dukes," "smokes big black cigars," and "is crazy enough to make trouble." Cottonmouth predicts that Walt will die of "natural causes" and makes plans to set his demise into motion. Acting on Cottonmouth's, Beef introduces himself to Walt at a saloon and connects him with Billy One-Arm, an outcast Seminole who can act as his guide in the swampland. Although Billy, a member of Cottonmouth's gang, has been ordered to lure Walt deep into the dangerous `Glades and abandon him, the Indian realizes Walt's goodness. Instead, he intervenes when Walt attempts to touch the deadly manchineel tree sap that destroys the mucous membranes of humans, causing a painful death. Guessing that Billy has disobeyed his orders, Cottonmouth sends men to fetch him. Leaving Walt, they force Billy to their headquarters, where Cottonmouth "sentences" Billy to die by the manchineel tree. Walt follows the sound of Billy's wailing, but finds him dead. When Walt tries to untie Billy from the tree, he succumbs to the poison. Returned to town unconscious by Billy's wife, Walt is nursed back to health by Naomi. Later, during Independence Day celebrations, Naomi and Walt admit to each other that they are in love. On that day, Aaron, with Leggett, is seeking approval from a state land commission hearing to begin expanding the town. Walt becomes suspicious when he sees Beef being carried into town on a thick mattress. Although Beef claims to be ill, Walt discovers that the mattress is filled with illegal plumage being smuggled into town to Leggett. Walt interrupts the hearing to make his charge, but the judges refuse to listen to him. They refuse to question Leggett's activities, but offer to issue a warrant on Cottonmouth, if Walt is willing to bring the man in. Feeling defeated, Walt prepares to quit, but Howard talks him into standing up to the authorities and the lawbreakers. Knowing the dangers he faces, he makes a brief farewell to Naomi, then travels into the swampland where he is captured and taken to Cottonmouth's camptown. A brewing storm prompts Cottonmouth to delay killing him. Instead, Cottonmouth offers him a rough hospitality of some of the "sweet tastin' joys of this world," liquor and gators' tail to eat. A party atmosphere develops and Walt, emboldened by liquor and the knowledge of his impending death, complains to the men that rookeries are being destroyed for fast money. Cottonmouth, who was born and reared in the swamps, argues that they eat the birds, the birds eat the fish and someday, when he dies, the animals will eat him. He says that their law in the swamp is "eat or be `et." When Walt insists that Cottonmouth's balance of nature philosophy is no longer in force, the latter jokingly considers keeping Walt around for the talk. Then, Walt surprises them by singing one of their songs, prompting Cottonmouth to joke that Walt is "joining" them. As the evening continues, Walt and Cottonmouth realize that they both "protest" civilization. The next morning, when Walt awakens with a hangover, Cottonmouth asks if he is a gambler. Walt's answer, that "who else would take his job?" amuses Cottonmouth, who makes him an offer: If Walt can get him back to town alive, without a guide and without Cottonmouth helping except to "pole" the boat, he will accept the legal punishment given to him. Of course, Cottonmouth promises he will kill Walt if he gets the chance. Walt accepts, but that night, finds he dare not fall asleep and, the next morning, Cottonmouth tries to confuse Walt about the direction to take. Exhausted, Walt, mistakes a root for a snake and shoots at it. Thinking Walt was aiming at him, Cottonmouth hits him with a pole, injuring Walt's shoulder. Upon realizing his mistake, Cottonmouth admits that he is "bone sorry" and helps him to a safe place. Believing that Cottonmouth has "won," Walt mourns that people cannot see and enjoy the beauty of the area and points out the sunlight on the wings of the birds. Cottonmouth admits that he cannot understand the trouble Walt has taken for the birds, but, allowing that Walt, like himself, "feels gut deep about living," plans to take him into Miami for medical care. However, Cottonmouth is then bitten by a cottonmouth snake and remarks that he will be the first of them to die from "natural causes." Although Walt tries to administer first aid, Cottonmouth says that the poison is already in his blood, gives him directions to town and bellows at his new-found friend to leave him there. Walt sets off in the boat reluctantly, as the dying Cottonmouth, looking at the birds in the sky, remarks to himself that "maybe I never had a good look at them before." Cottonmouth yells to the swamps to take him, and Walt hears those dying words as he sadly travels homeward.