Authors: Shelley Katz
TO THE PEOPLE OF THE EVERGLADES HELL WAS GREEN—AND THE DEVIL WAS 20 VICIOUS FEET OF FLESH-EATING POWER...
Many men had hunted the beast. All were dead.
Ripped by jaws lined with 80 razor teeth—or crushed by a lashing tail that could shatter trees. But Lee Ferris and Rye Whitman were two men who had to try. Both were death-hardened adventurers, bound by a mutual hatred—and a mutual need—to conquer the most savage killer in Florida's Green Hell.
THE KILLING GLADES...
...Where two men faced poison grass, killer trees, man-eating insects, fever, snakes, and each other—while a primitive giant stalked them both, with the cold, brute intelligence of the perfect predator.
They tell grim tales of him all along the Florida Everglades. Blacks tell of a gator as big as an elephant that eats little children and attacks men in boats with the power and ferocity of a landlocked Moby Dick.
Whites in the small towns that border the swamps have hunted him for years. They have tried to kill him with axes, shotguns, and hooks.
They say he has suffered hours of agony from the wounds they have inflicted; many times he has been close to death at their hands. Huge chunks of flesh have been torn from his leathery sides, and his monstrous dragonlike head is riddled with the lead of their shotguns and the steel of their rifles.
But still he has survived. He has survived because, in some mysterious way, the people want him to.
He is a legend. And there are very few legends left.
It was a primeval night, dark and calm. Except for the occasional call of a limpkin and the low croak of a frog, the swamp was still.
Darkness hung like a thick veil. There were no glistening lights from nearby towns, not even the vague flicker of candlelight from a cabin to illuminate the blackness. Only the pale new moon cast any light. It splashed silver across the muddy swamp water, making long shadows and grotesque shapes of the massive moss-curtained trees that edged the shore.
A thick, sluggish haze rose up from the water and faded into the warm, humid air like smoke. The mist obscured everything, making the land and the water blend together until it was impossible to tell one from the other.
In the middle of a slough that ran between two hummocks, a small skiff drifted in the almost unmoving water. It would have looked like a phantom ship were it not for the figures of two men, one old and stoopshouldered, the other young and still lumpy with puppy fat, shifting slightly as they worked the skiff through the water.
Orrin Bodges ran his sinewy old fingers through his thick yellow-white hair. It was his way of showing disgust. He switched on a flashlight and swung the beam of light over the surface of the water. He was scanning it for eyes, the two points of light which glowed red in the night and meant alligator.
Orrin made a wide circle with the light while he puffed out his cheeks and grunted his imitation of an alligator, just as he had been doing for close to sixty years. The light picked up a tree stump, a few lily pads, some decomposing leaves, but there was not a sign of an alligator. Soon he shut off the flashlight and sighed.
Dinks Collier understood by his sigh that he wanted to move on. Dinks had learned to understand every move and every sound that Orrin Bodges made. Orrin rarely spoke. It was a point with the old man. He told Dinks it was because sound carried in the swamps, and alligators and game wardens were notorious for their hearing. Dinks doubted that was the real reason. He figured the old man just wanted time to think.
Dinks Collier picked up the long pole by his side and pushed the skiff back out toward the open water. His strokes were sure and strong, and the skiff moved almost as quickly as when they were running the motor.
Dinks looked at his watch in the moonlight. It was two o'clock, and they hadn't so much as seen an alligator. The night was shot. He knew from experience that if he hadn't seen an alligator by one or two o'clock, chances were he wasn't going to see one at all. It was becoming harder all the time to find alligator; pretty soon there wouldn't be any left at all. Common sense told him he should forget about making a living poaching. He should sign up to drive a semi, like the rest of his friends. But he kept putting it off. Wiring himself with bennies and driving forty-eight hours down the long sameness of highways seemed almost worse than starving.
As Dinks brought the skiff through the mouth of the slough, he veered off toward the shoreline. Once again Orrin Bodges switched on the flashlight and began his methodical scanning of the water. Dinks lit up a cigarette. He didn't even bother lifting his rifle. There would be no alligator tonight.
Until recendy, he and Orrin would never have stayed out on a night like this. They would have quit a long time ago and gone over to Albert's for a beer and a couple of games of pool. Now Orrin wasn't willing to give up until dawn.
Dinks thought how nice it would be to pack it in and go over to Albert's. If they headed back now, Sandy Dodd might still be there, and maybe something would happen. He'd almost nailed her yesterday out by the crab traps. Jesus, he'd had his hand crammed way down her blue jeans and she hadn't even tried to stop him. He could picture her with her head thrown back, her eyes closed; he could even hear the sound of her breath catching in her throat. Goddammit, he thought, if her old man hadn't come out of his trailer when he did, maybe something would have happened.
Dinks stopped poling and stared out into the night. He didn't know what he was going to do if something didn't happen fast. He probably was going to go crazy. One day for sure, he was just going to go over the edge and run through the streets naked, or hide out in the shadows of the Everglades National Bank until one of the few girls who lived out there made the mistake of crossing his path.
The unmanned skiff hit a log and lurched backward. Dinks avoided looking at Orrin, who shot a disapproving look at him, and jammed his pole into the thick, yielding muck, pushing them away from the shore and toward the deeper water.
He tried to keep his thoughts from drifting back to that picture of Sandy with her head tilted back with pleasure, but he couldn't for long. And he cursed Orrin for not being willing to give up before dawn like he used to.
Through the darkness, Dinks could see the stooped old man staring off into the thick jungle on the shore, and his anger quickly changed to pity. Sitting so quietly in the other end of the skiff, his scarred and lined old hands clutching the flashlight, his watery blue eyes riveted to the land in hopes of seeing the telltale glimmer of red they so rarely saw, Orrin seemed very old.
Orrin had changed recently, and Dinks didn't have to be a mind reader to know that his young wife, Loreeta, was behind it. People said she threatened to leave the old man every night. He could picture her standing in the doorway of Orrin's shack, her hair teased like a rat's nest, clutching a battered suitcase, and the old man begging her to stay. He could imagine that Orrin must wonder every morning as they pulled their skiff on shore whether he'd find Loreeta at home, or if this time she really would have left and thumbed her way to Naples. That was probably why he was so desperate about poaching all night. He must figure that if he could earn enough, maybe she wouldn't leave him.
Dinks promised himself he wouldn't make the same mistake when he got old, but his thoughts became jumbled and Loreeta's teased hair became Sandy's tilted curly mop and he felt himself being pulled away from the swamps and back to the soft earth behind the crab traps at Albert's.
The skiff slowly drifted with the gently pulsing water. Overhead, a wild turkey sailed into the moon and a limpkin shrieked. Otherwise, the mirrorlike water and the blue-black night muffled everything and cut the two mismatched men and their skiff off as if from all of life.
At four o'clock, Orrin noticed a change in the water. The tide from the gulf was starting to come in, changing islands into water and water into ocean. That was the thing about the swamps—you could never really know them, because they were never really the same. They were always changing from one moment to the next. Even a man like Orrin, who had lived and worked in the swamps every day of his life, could be fooled. Just a few minutes' miscalculation and he too could find himself lost in a new land.
Orrin looked out at the moon-silvered water and became confused by the shifting tides, but he didn't worry. It was always like this before dawn, and he trusted his instincts.
Orrin was an old pro when it came to the swamps. He could remember when there were so many alligators that the swamps practically shook with their thunderous roar and there was never a time they'd come back without a full boat of skins. Now they were lucky if they found one or two a night. Orrin damned all the new factories and housing developments for it, but he knew part of the reason was people like him and Dinks. They'd laughed when they'd heard that the government had passed new laws protecting alligators. There weren't enough laws in all the books to stop a man from taking what was right outside his back door.
Orrin switched on the flashlight and methodically worked it over a hummock. The beam of light caught gnarled mangrove roots and dead trees; it shimmered and shook buttery yellow on the dead tannin-stained water.
Slowly Orrin became aware of a change. He couldn't put his finger on it; it was just that everything felt out of the ordinary and almost menacing. He began to notice the quiet. There was no croaking of frogs, no chattering of birds; there wasn't even the buzz of an insect to break the deathly stillness. Perhaps it was always like that. He was no longer sure.
He laughed to himself. It was probably just nerves. He had been very jumpy recently, and those backaches of his weren't helping matters. It must be the dampness, he thought, as he took another aspirin and grimaced at the chalky, bitter taste. The heavy swamp air ate into your bones after a while and made you old. He shook his head as if that would help him get rid of the thought. He didn't want to think about getting old, not now, when the night was almost over and in a few hours he'd be able to go home to Loreeta.
His mind kept drifting back, though. It was just about the only thing he thought about any more. Orrin watched Dinks's strong body pushing at the pole effortlessly. He'd been like that once. He envied Dinks his years; sometimes he even hated him for it. If only he could get hold of some money, he and Loreeta could move away. He'd buy a trailer and they'd go to Naples to live. She was young, and the city would suit her.
Orrin didn't even notice as Dinks turned the skiff into an open stretch of water, but he could feel the shifting tides that lightly shook the murky water and rocked the boat slightly. It soothed him into a calmness that he had not felt all night.
Slowly Orrin became aware that there was something else out in the darkness of the swamp. The air was vibrating with sound. At first it reminded him of the roar of a locomotive, or heavy thunder. It was far away but seemed to be coming closer. The rumbling grew louder and stronger, until it filled Orrin's ears and head with its roar, and he knew that sound came from nothing on earth he had ever experienced before.
He grabbed for his flashlight, but his fingers were trembling and he couldn't find the switch. All around him was the darkness. Moon shadows reached out through the trees like long, glistening fingers. The roar was crushing in on him, and he felt a shock of fear like a fist in his chest.
Suddenly the roar stopped. Once again the swamps were deathly still. Dinks let out a nervous laugh. It echoed ghostly in the quiet. Still, it was a human sound, and the humanity of it reassured Orrin. He found the switch and turned on the flashlight. Light spilled across the water, catching on roots, trees, lily pads, sawgrass. He could find nothing out of the ordinary, and he began to relax. Maybe he hadn't heard anything at all. Still, he reached behind himself and touched his rifle, just to make sure it was there. Nerves, Orrin decided angrily. Maybe Loreeta was right; maybe he was getting too old.
An explosion of sound cut the silence. This time Orrin knew it was more than a case of the jitters.
Dinks held on to the gunwales of the skiff, hardly moving, barely able to breathe. Only his eyes moved. They followed the yellow cone of light from Orrin's flashlight. It was as if he were hypnotized.
There was something in the water, a shock of ebony, a blackness even darker than the night. The giant shadow resolved itself into a form. Humpbacked like a bull, enormous, almost prehistoric, it had the form of an alligator, only it was bigger, much bigger than anything Dinks had ever seen. The alligator didn't move, but lay across the surface of the water like a giant patch of darkness. Dinks could see its blood-red eyes glowing fiery, hypnotized by the magic of the lamp.
"It ain't real," Dinks gasped.
Orrin didn't answer. Dinks saw from the corner of his eye that he was reaching behind himself for something, and realized with terror that Orrin was looking for his gun. He was going to try to shoot. "You can't!" he whispered frantically. "Let's just get out of here."