Harold didn’t enjoy the act of killing, not the way Rick did. For Harold it was something that had to be done out of necessity. Because a past filled with wrong turns and ill fortune had led him down a twisted path to the dead end he currently faced. Harold wasn't fond of Rick. The two men could hardly have been more different, and in another life their paths would not have crossed. But fate had placed them together, and for now that was okay with Harold because Rick enjoyed killing and if Rick pulled the trigger it meant that Harold didn't have to.
The two men had met ten years ago when they both worked as mechanics at T&R Auto on Highway 41. From what Harold could tell by the way Rick bragged, he spent every weekend killing anything that moved. Harold lowered his window slowly, allowing the wind to whip his face. One more good night and he wouldn’t have to do this for a while.
Rick sat next to him in the passenger seat of the old blue Ford pickup. Rick’s son, Lyle, was crouched in the back cab. Harold had told Rick to let his son ride in the middle, but Rick had said he needed to “toughen the kid up.” The only reason Rick had brought his son was because Paul, their regular partner, was hung over six ways to Sunday. When Harold had told Rick that Paul wasn’t coming, Rick said he would have to bring his kid. Rick said they didn’t have a choice. He needed someone to hold the spotlight so he could see where he was aiming. The sharp light of the late afternoon sun forced Rick’s face into a grimace as he sipped slowly on a beer. He leaned over and changed the radio station. Harold had liked the country music station that had been playing, but Rick didn’t and Rick did what he wanted.
This was Harold’s third trip this week, which was more than he usually liked to risk, but since he had lost his job at T&R Auto, he had only been able to find a part time gig at the Rod & Gun club. The money wasn’t good and he was three months behind on rent. Rick didn’t mind the additional trips. He liked having the extra cash to spend on beers and dances at the KittyBox. Harold checked on Lyle in the rear view mirror. He was small for fourteen and the faint bruise around his eye showed it. There was just something about bringing the kid that didn’t sit right with Harold – pulling a kid, who wasn’t even old enough to drive – into something like this.
Rick raised the can to his lips and drained the last of the beer before crushing the can and throwing it out the window. A few droplets of beer remained, perched precariously on his thick mustache. They passed the Captain’s Table motel and two miles later Harold pulled the truck over to the side of the road and parked in the stretched out shadow of an oak tree. As Rick got out of the car, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out his latest toy, a .45 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun he had gotten from his uncle’s gun store on Dixie Highway. Rick placed the gun in his satchel and hung it across his chest. Harold walked around to the back of the truck and asked the kid how he liked the ride. He looked for his chest waders and then realized he had left them drying out back from his early morning trip to bait the hooks. He had forgotten to throw them in his truck when he left for work. Damn, he thought, he would have to wade across the canal without them.
Harold had been born in the Everglades, at the clinic on Chokoloksee Island, and from the beginning the vast, surrounding wilderness had been intertwined with the fabric of his being. The Indian shell mounds and tangled mangrove islets that made up the ten thousand islands had served as both his playground and schoolroom as a child. He never had much time for real school, often skipping out to run wild with his friends, but his knowledge of the wetlands could have filled every book at the schoolhouse.
As his heavy boots sunk slowly into the mud, long grass stems brushed his knees. He motioned to Rick and Lyle to hurry up and took a slight detour to pick up a long branch. Holding it horizontally in front of him, he entered the tall sawgrass, pushing it down with the stick. Even though sweat dripped down his neck, he kept his shirtsleeves rolled down and buttoned to protect his arms from the cuts and gashes that came from walking through the grass. It was getting late, and the grass that reached above his head filtered through the last rays of the lowered sun. He looked behind him to make certain Rick and Lyle were following. The boy was breathing hard, and Harold knew he was struggling to keep up as they made their way through the grass.
After a quarter of a mile, they exited the grass and came to a small muddy bank that sloped down into the swamp. Lyle’s eyes were filled with tears that stung the cuts on his face as they rolled down his cheeks. It was Harold’s job to retrieve the boat. Harold handed the light to Rick and then reached in his pocket and handed Rick his keys, too. He didn’t want them to get wet. He stepped slowly down the bank, keeping his eyes firmly on the ground to watch for cottonmouths. He reached the water and placed one foot into it. It had been one of the hottest summers on record, and the water was warm as it seeped into his boot. Even though the water wasn’t deep, he never stepped in the swamp without being wary of a sinkhole. For all the time he had spent hunting and fishing in these waters, he had never learned to swim. In the water he would be powerless, everything he had learned useless.
Harold continued wading the twenty-five yards to the pop ash tree that stood thirty feet tall on the opposing bank. The water was up to his waist now. He took his time, feeling along the bottom until it felt secure before shifting his weight forward. This was the part of the trip he dreaded the most. Harold knew he didn’t stand a chance of surprising an alligator in these waters, they saw him way before he ever saw them – but still – he moved slowly. Hidden next to the mess of exposed roots lay his old eighteen-foot Koffler flat bottom boat. Harold, now waist deep in the water, lifted the cabbage palm fronds and the Spanish moss that hid the boat and placed them carefully on the bank to cover the aluminum boat again when they returned. Harold always hid his boat here even though they had first to drop the carcasses off at another point closer to the road. Harold knew that the new crop of game wardens with their Rayban sunglasses and pressed shirts were no match for him. He doubted if they would be able to find this place even if he had given them a map. But still, he wanted to be as careful as he could. The water became shallower as he stepped toward the bank. He untied the rope that was knotted around a thick root and pushed the boat off as he stepped into it.
Harold paddled a few strokes to send the boat gliding over the sixty feet. The boat sliced through the mirror -like surface of the water, shattering the reflection of the late afternoon sky. A large blue heron that had settled down for the evening flew further down the river.
“Let’s go. Get in,” Harold said. He wanted the evening to be over.
Lyle climbed in first and sat in the middle. He slapped at his neck as mosquitoes buzzed around him. Rick handed the searchlight to Lyle. “Here,” he said, “Don’t drop it.” He removed the satchel from around his neck and placed it carefully in the boat. Harold moved to the back of the boat as Rick pushed off and sat down at the opposite end to Harold. Harold started the electric motor and kept the boat moving at a slow speed to keep the noise level low. Harold positioned three fishing poles upright at the back of the boat to give them cover. But if they were to get stopped with even just one dead alligator in the boat, the fishing poles would mean nothing. The Florida legal system didn’t look kindly on black men who had already been to prison. Harold knew he would be sent right back to the Dade Correctional Institute. Under the current laws, even with a permit, a hunter was only allowed to “harvest” two alligators per season. It wasn’t even worth paying the four hundred dollar license fee.
The alligator farms that had been destroyed two years ago by Hurricane Chloe had begun to reestablish themselves and the money black market dealers were now willing to offer for a hide was about half of what it was a year ago. But Harold felt as if his luck had turned when a man walked into the Rod & Gun Club and asked if his name was Harold. The man explained that he was building a tourist attraction on a small two lane highway a few miles from the Florida-Georgia border and he was looking for a twelve foot alligator – a dead one, that is. He said he had heard that a Harold who worked at Hollywood Subs could help him find one. All done legally of course. He was prepared to pay a couple thousand dollars but it had to be at least twelve feet long.
They headed down a narrow waterway that snaked through the high sawgrass. The last bits of daylight would soon be gone, and they would be surrounded by the hard night sky. Harold had spent nearly every afternoon of his childhood in these sawgrass prairies and knew this area so well he could navigate in the night as long as he had a little moonlight. He felt that even if he closed his eyes he would still know where he was. He leaned over and untied the laces on his boots and just checked that he could slip his feet out easily. He noticed the kid was watching him. Harold could tell the kid didn’t know what to expect and was scared. He winked at him and guided the boat slightly to the left to miss a log that lay in their path, an alligator to an inexperienced eye.
Four more turns and they would be at the bank where he had set the first hook earlier that morning. His uncle had taught him how to attach the six inch steel hook to a thick nylon cord that was knotted several times around an overhanging tree and left dangling just above the water. Pierced on the hooks were slabs of rotting chicken breasts that he had taken from the kitchen of the Rod & Gun Club as they had began to go off. The stench of rotting meat attracted the alligators, and during the early hours of the evening when they fed, they would swim up silently, snatch at the meat and swallow the hook whole. As they tried to swim away, the hook would snag the lining of their stomach, and they would be stuck, tethered to the tree. Legal hunters would set their traps during the day and then return the following day to see if any alligators had been caught over night. Harold didn’t have this luxury however as he worked a nine hour day at the sub shop. It meant that they caught less alligators as some had not yet begun feeding by the time Harold and Rick went round checking their lines.
“Turn it on,” Rick said to his son. “Do exactly what I say.” Lyle wiped his nose with the back of his hand and panned the spotlight across the bow of the boat. The first line came into sight. It was taut. Harold switched off the engine, and the boat drifted towards the line. As they reached the mangrove the hook was tied to, Harold stretched out his arm and grabbed one of the roots that extended out of the water. He steadied the boat and nodded to Rick who had already pulled out the Smith & Wesson. Most hunters preferred to use rifles, but Rick liked the handgun as he could suppress the sound. Besides he had just bought it. He placed the clean, well-oiled weapon on one of the stools and withdrew the AAC silencer wrapped in a felt drawstring bag from the satchel. Carefully picking up the loaded weapon, he screwed the silencer on.
“Hold the light steady. I gotta hit him in a spot the size of a fucking quarter,” Rick said.
“What if the boat moves?” the boy asked.
“You just worry about making sure I can see. You ready Harold?”
Harold nodded. He didn’t like the way Rick talked to his son, but he knew what it meant to have a father like Rick , and he knew if he said anything it would only make it worse for the boy. Harold braced himself as he grabbed onto the nylon. Rick stood with his legs apart for balance, tense with both arms extended straight ahead, fingers gripped around the handle, barrel pointed down into the murky water. Harold inhaled, exhaled, and inhaled again and jerked the chord to the side as powerfully as he could.
Suddenly water exploded upwards and a tail flashed up in the air. Lyle gave out a yell of surprise and jumped backwards taking the light with him.
“Light, Goddamit!” yelled Rick.
Lyle recovered his footing and pointed the searchlight at the water. Harold’s arms burned under the power and weight of the alligator, the chord shredding the skin of his palms. Rick shot twice and the line went slack.
“Got him. First shot,” Rick said. His expression changed. He turned to Lyle. “I told you to hold the Goddam light steady. This ain’t no fucking game. That’s a fucking 600 pound killer there,” he pointed his pistol at the floating carcass of the alligator.
Harold wondered if Rick’s beer had been his first or his sixth. “Come on. Let’s get him in and keep going,” he said.
“Hold the Goddam light on the body as we roll it in.”
Rotor blades sounded overhead.
“Turn off the light. Don’t move,” Harold said in a steady voice. His mind returned to the two years he had spent at Dade. After his father had died, his mother had struggled to support them. Harold had been able to look after himself. But his sisters were too young. He had agreed to help some guys find some “packages” they had lost in the Everglades. He hadn’t asked any questions, but he knew what he was doing – helping some dealers locate parcels of cocaine dropped from an airplane. Harold liked to tell himself that he had been unlucky, but he knew otherwise. He had been eighteen and when the judge, who sentenced him, told him he was getting off lightly, but that if there were a next time, he would do what he could to make certain Harold got the maximum. Harold had never been able to erase the face of the judge as he told him, “Don’t you ever let me see you back here, you here?” He instinctively touched the scar on the left side of his waist. He didn’t want to go back. Harold counted each of the forty seconds that passed until the sound of the helicopter disappeared. The pilot didn’t circle or turn his spotlight on. They were safe, but they didn’t move for five more minutes.
“We’re ok,” Said Harold, “Let’s get it in the boat.”
“Get on the other side,” Rick ordered his son to shift his position in order to help balance the weight.
“Are you sure it’s dead?” Lyle asked.
"Course it's dead. Now stop actin like such a pussy and get on the other side. Fuckin kid’s born scared,” he said to no one in particular and then added, “like his mother.”
Harold and Rick crouched over the side of the boat. They both grabbed the head of the dead animal and attempted to roll it into the boat. Harold looked at Lyle and pointed with his chin. “ Move over there. We’ve got to get the head in first,” he said, “otherwise the boat’ll tip over.” The tough ridged skin acted in their favor, aiding their grip as they hauled it in. With the head acting as a counterweight, Harold and Rick had an easier time getting the rest of the body in. Rick admired the carcass while Harold crouched down and examined the head. As he raised the head and looked into the animal’s dead eyes, he was momentarily disgusted with himself. Growing up, he had been taught that poachers were the scum of the earth. But the unexpected realities of life had caused Harold to move the boundary of what he would and wouldn’t do. He didn’t believe in absolutes anymore.
Harold sensed the boy’s fear. “He’s dead alright. See here,” he said, spreading his hand across the length of the gator’s head. “The distance from the eyes to the snout in inches will tell you how long it is in feet,” he looked at Lyle over the back of his shoulder. Harold put the alligator at about nine feet, which would fetch a pretty good price. The price per hide rose exponentially with each added foot as larger alligators could be used for more expensive items like jackets. But he still needed a good twelve footer. His take of $2,000 for the twelve footer plus two gators at $6-700 a piece would bring him just about up to date on his rent. “That’s a clean shot,” he said, “right at the back of the head. Only see one bullet hole though.”
“Both musta gone in that one spot,” Rick said with a wink. He turned and looked at Lyle. “You see that? That’s how you shoot. Hit them in the body and it takes too many shots to kill them. Ruins the hide, makes them worthless.”
“We should keep going,” Harold said.
Harold didn’t really need the spotlight to find his way to the lines. The moonlight and the movement of the water was enough to guide him. Harold glanced down at the motor and caught a glimpse of the alligator’s tail. His eyes returned to the water ahead.
Rick grew restless as the second and third lines were untouched. “Think we’re gonna get another one?” Lyle asked.
“Damn right we are,” said Rick.
Rick’s spirits rose as they arrived at the location of the fourth line, and it appeared to be tight. Dark sweat patches covered Harold’s camouflage green shirt, the temperature of the day hadn’t lessened much as night had come. They approached the line Harold had tied to a tall forty-foot cypress.
When they arrived at the line, Harold gently tugged it to test the tension. It felt looser than it should have. He gave a sharper yank and a mass of moss and sticks leaped into the air. He pulled in the line and cleared the debris, examining the hook. Rick and Lyle looked on in disappointment as Harold held up the straightened hook.
“This one’s a big fucker,” said Rick, breaking the silence.
Harold nodded in agreement and edged forward on his seat. Their next line was just a bit further up and there was a chance this gator had gone for that line too. This one could be the twelve-footer Harold needed.
“Harold,” Rick said. “What?”
“Cut the motor.” “Why?” Asked Harold. “Just do it,” Rick said.
Harold turned the motor off and let the boat drift over close to the bank. As the boat slowed, Harold turned and saw that Rick was pointing the handgun at him. Harold looked at Rick, but didn’t say anything. He was going to let Rick talk first. He had come across guys like Rick before and he knew what not to do.
“I’ve been thinking about this Harold. It just don’t seem fair that we’re splitting this money down the middle. It looks like there’s a gator here that might be a eleven, twelve footer. Now just about anyone can drive a boat round. But how many people can kill a twelve foot monster?”
“That’s not what we agreed upon, Rick,” said Harold.
Rick waved the gun in a slow circle and stopped it pointing at Harold’s chest.
“Things change Harold. I get the money for the big boy and we’ll split the others fifty-fifty.”
“That’s not what we agreed upon.”
Rick took a step forward and pressed the barrel into Harold’s breastbone. “You kidding me Harold? You’re lucky I’m giving you anything at all. I could shoot you right now. Dump your body overboard. You think anyone’s gonna care? Gonna look for you? How long do you think the cops are gonna look for a fucking nigger with a record?”
“Dad, stop,” said Lyle.
Rick spun around and slapped Lyle across the face, knocking him down.
Harold struggled to restrain himself not to give Rick the excuse he was looking for. “Okay, Rick,” he said, “you take the big one, and we’ll . . .”
The sound of a helicopter sliced through his sentence. Rick and Harold instinctively dropped to the floor of the boat and lay flat. Lyle was still on the ground from Rick’s blow and lay curled up next to the alligator. A spotlight flashed by a hundred yards up the river, illuminating the dark water. Harold shut his eyes and prayed that when he opened them the river would be dark again. There would be no talking their way out of this. The dead alligator in the boat was all the proof the wardens would need. The sound seemed to grow louder and Harold could see light through his closed eyelids.
But suddenly the noise began to lessen and when Harold opened his eyes the water was black again. “Ok,” Harold said, “Let’s just do this and get out of here.”
Rick and Harold rose to their feet. Harold held his hand out for the boy. He pressed his lower lip hard against his teeth and nodded at the boy. As they traveled to the next line, Rick held the gun tight in his hand. The branch the line was attached to was bobbing up and down. As they got closer, Lyle flashed the spotlight on the tree and then into the water where the line disappeared, cutting left and then right every few seconds. Rick stared at the line, mesmerized with a smile across his face. He resumed his familiar stance and focused his eyes intently on the water. Harold moved to steady himself and flexed his hands a few times before he grabbed onto the nylon chord. Rick turned momentarily and stared directly at Lyle.
“Don’t drop the fucking light this time. Don’t even move. Just point it at the water and I’ll do the rest. Got it? Good. Harold do it.”
Harold tore at the line and within a split second the gargantuan body of an alligator rose from the water. The boat rocked sideways as the alligator spun and thumped his tail against the hull. Lyle held the light steady as Harold yelled at Rick to take a shot. Rick crouched down and saw an opening, but it was gone as quickly as it came, and before he even had time to register it, the massive tail swung out of the water and hit him in the head. Rick fell backwards and tackled Lyle to the floor. Rick’s gun and the spotlight were thrown to the back of the boat.
Harold knew something was wrong. He felt his body, still holding the line, fly forward into the water. Like a leaden kite, the branch of the cypress tree crashed in the water behind him. An incredible weight crushed his right arm. He was spinning around and around, the water rushing in through his mouth as he tried to breathe. And then he understood. His untied boots slipped off his feet just as they were meant to. He didn’t even feel fear anymore. All that he had known was gone. Above water, the boy had pulled himself from under his father’s body. He found the light and the gun at the back of the boat.
Harold knew what to do. ‘Go for the eyes.’ He tried to swing his left arm around, but the denseness of the water was too much for him to generate any force. The only sound he could hear was the churning of the water as the alligator spun him around and around. Then suddenly there were flashes of light that made the bottom of the boat appear a solid mass of darkness. He felt a stab in his left leg. The spinning stopped. The alligator let go of his arm. Harold didn’t fight his way to the surface, but let himself drift upwards.
As his face broke the surface, he saw Lyle, pointing the light on the red water. The boy lowered the gun and looked at Harold. He raised it again and pointed at the floating carcass of the alligator. Harold looked on as Lyle squeezed the trigger again and again and again, answering back for all the years he had been alive, until there was nothing left except a dead click.
Lyle dropped the pistol and leaned over the side of the boat and held out a paddle out for Harold.