Merchant seamen as a rule have very little acquaintance with the appalling alligator, whose unappeasable ferocity and diabolical cunning make him so terrible a neighbour.
Had the alligator been a seafarer, it is in my mind that mankind would have heard little of the savagery of the shark, who, to tell the truth fairly, is a much maligned monster; incapable of seven-tenths of the crimes attributed to him, innocent of another two-tenths, and in the small balance of iniquity left, a criminal rather from accident than from design. But all the atrocities attributed by ignorance to the shark may truthfully be predicated of the alligator, and many more also, seeing that the great lizard is equally at home on land or in the water.
I speak feelingly, having had painful experience of the ways of the terrible saurian during my visits to one of the few places where sailors are brought into contact with him. Tonala River, which empties itself into the Gulf of Mexico, has a sinister notoriety, owing to the number of alligators with which it is infested; and through the proverbial carelessness of seamen and their ignorance of the language spoken by the people ashore, many an unrecorded tragedy has occurred there to members of the crews of vessels loading mahogany in the river. Like all the streams which debouch into that Western Mediterranean, Tonala River has a bar across its mouth, but, unlike most of them, there is occasionally water upon the bar deep enough to permit vessels of twelve or thirteen feet draught to enter with safety. And as the embarkation of mahogany in the open roadstead is a series of hair-breadth escapes from death on the part of the crew and attended by much damage to the ship, it is easy to understand why the navigability of Tonala Bar is highly valued by shipmasters fortunate enough to be chartered thither, since it permits them to take in a goodly portion of their cargo in comparative comfort. Against this benefit, however, is to be set off a long list of disadvantages, not the least of which are the swarms of winged vermin that joyfully pass the short space between ship and river-bank, scenting fresh blood. The idea of there being any danger in the river itself, however, rarely occurs to a seaman until he sees, some day, as he listlessly gazes overside at the turbid current silently sweeping seaward, a dead log floating deep, just awash in fact. And as he watches it with unspeculating eyes, one end of it will slowly be upreared just a little and the hideous head of an alligator, with its cold, dead-looking eyes, sleepily half unclosed, is revealed. Just a ripple and the thing has gone, sunk stone-like, but with every faculty alert, that rugged ironclad exterior giving no hint to the uninitiated of the potentialities for mischief, swift and supple, therein contained.
In spite of having read much about these creatures and their habits, I confess to having been very sceptical as to their agility until I was enlightened in such a startling manner that the memory of that scene is branded upon my mind. I was strolling along the smooth sandy bank of the river opposite the straggling rows of huts we called the town one lovely Sunday morning, all eyes and ears for anything interesting. After about an hour’s walk my legs, unaccustomed to such exercise, begged off for a little, and seeing a stranded tree-trunk lying on the beach some little distance ahead, I made towards it for a seat. As I neared it a young bullock came leisurely down towards the water from the bush, between me and the log. I, of course, took no notice of him, but held on my way until within, I should say, fifty yards of the log. Suddenly that dead tree sprang into life and spun round with a movement like the sweep of a scythe. It struck the bullock from his feet, throwing him upon his side in the water. What ensued was so rapid that the eye could not follow it, or make out anything definitely except a stirring up of the sand and a few ripples in the water. The big animal was carried off as noiselessly and easily as if he had been a lamb, nor, although I watched long, did I ever catch sight of him again. Notwithstanding the heat of the sun I felt a cold chill as I thought how easily the fate of the bullock might have been mine. And from thenceforth, until familiarity with the hateful reptiles bred a sort of contempt for their powers, I kept a very sharp look-out in every direction for stranded tree-trunks. This care on my part nearly proved fatal, because I forgot that the alligators might possibly be lying hid in the jungly vegetation that flourished thickly just above high-water mark. So that it happened when I neared the spot where I was to hail the boat, as I nervously scanned the beach for any sign of a scaly log, I heard a rustling of dry leaves on my right, and down towards me glided one of the infernal things with a motion almost like that of a launching ship. I turned and tried to run—I suppose I did run—but to my fancy it seemed as if I had a 56-lb. weight upon each foot. Hardly necessary to say, perhaps, that I escaped, but my walk had lost all its charms for me, and I vowed never to come ashore again there alone.
But as if the performances of these ugly beasts were to be fully manifested before our eyes, on the very next day, a Greek trader came off to the ship accompanied by his son, a boy of about ten years old. Leaving the youngster in the canoe, the father came on board and tried to sell some fruit he had brought. We had a raft of mahogany alongside, about twenty huge logs, upon which a half-breed Spaniard was standing, ready to sling such as were pointed out to him by the stevedores. The boy must needs get out of the canoe and amuse himself by stepping from log to log, delighted hugely by the way they bobbed and tumbled about beneath him. Presently a yell from the slingsman brought all hands to the rail on the jump, and there, about fifty yards from the raft, was to be seen the white arm of the boy limply waving to and fro, while a greasy ripple beneath it showed only too plainly what horror had overtaken him. The distracted father sprang into his canoe, four men from our ship manned our own boat, and away they went in chase, hopelessly enough to be sure. Yet, strange to say, the monster did not attempt to go down with his prey. He kept steadily breasting the strong current, easily keeping ahead of his pursuers, that pitiful arm still waving as if beckoning them onward to the rescue of its owner. Boat after boat from ships and shore joined in the pursuit, every man toiling as if possessed by an overmastering energy and impervious to broiling sun or deadening fatigue. For five miles the chase continued; one by one the boats and canoes gave up as their occupants lost their last ounce of energy, until only one canoe still held on, one man still plied his paddle with an arm that rose and fell like the piston-rod of a steam-engine. It was the bereaved father. At last the encouraging arm disappeared, as the alligator, having reached his lair, disappeared beneath the surface, leaving the river face unruffled above him. Quick as a wild duck the solitary pursuer swerved and made for the bank, where a score of his acquaintances met him tendering gourds of aguadiente, cigaritos, and such comfort as they could put into words. He took the nearest gourd and drank deeply of the fiery spirit, accepted a cigarette and lit it mechanically, but never spoke a word. All the while his eyes were roving restlessly around in search of something. At last they lit upon a coil of line hanging upon a low branch to dry. He rushed toward it, snatched it from its place, and taking his cuchillo from his belt felt its edge. Then roughly brushing aside all who attempted to hinder him, he boarded his canoe again, taking no notice of one of his friends who got in after him. Under the pressure of the two paddles they rapidly neared the spot where the beast had sunk. As soon as they reached the place the silent avenger laid aside his paddle, took one end of the coil in his hand and flinging the other to his companion, slipped overside and vanished. In about two minutes he returned to the surface, ghastly, his eyes glaring, and taking a long, long breath disappeared again. This time he did not return. When the watcher above felt that all hope was gone he hauled upon the line as much as he dared, but could not move what it was secured to. Soon, however, boats came to his assistance, and presently extra help raised to the surface the huge armoured body of the man-eater, the line being fast round his hind legs. The bereaved father was clinging to the monster’s throat, one arm thrust between his horrid jaws and the other hand still clutching the haft of the bowie-knife, whose blade was buried deep in the leathery folds of the great neck. With bared heads and solemn faces the helpers towed the group ashore, and reverently removing the poor remains of father and son, buried them deep under a wide-spreading tree.
In the intervals (frequently occurring) between the shipment of one consignment of logs and the arrival of another, it was part of our duties to hunt along the river banks for ownerless log-ends or even logs of mahogany or cedar which we might saw and split up into convenient pieces for broken stowage or filling up the many interstices between the logs in the hold. Naturally this led us into some queer places and not a few scrapes, but incidentally we were able to do some good service to the inhabitants by destroying many hundreds of embryo alligators. For wherever, in the course of our journeyings, we came across a swelling in the sand along the river bank, there we would delve, and we never failed of finding a deposit of ball-like stony-shelled eggs, which each contained a little devil of an alligator almost ready to begin his career of crime. Needless perhaps to say that none of those found by us in this manner ever did any harm. But while busy on one occasion destroying a clutch of these eggs, a huge specimen some sixteen feet long appeared from no one knew where, and actually succeeded in reaching with the horny tip of his tail, as it swept round, the legs of a West countryman, one of our finest seamen. Fortunately for him the bo’sun was carrying a loaded Snider rifle, and without stopping to think whether anybody else might be in the way he banged her “aloose.” The alligator was at the moment in a half circle, swinging himself round to reach the fallen man with his awful jaws wide spread and displaying all their jagged yellow fangs. The heavy bullet plunged right down that stinking throat and ploughed its way out through the creature’s belly into the sand. With a writhe like a snake the monster recoiled upon himself, snapping his jaws horribly and loading the air with a faint, sickening smell of musk. After two or three twists and turns he managed to slip into the water, but not before the bo’sun had fired twice more at him and missed him by yards. Poor Harry, the man knocked down, was so badly scared that he sat on a log end and vomited, looking livid as a corpse and shaking like a man of ninety. We could do nothing for him, but watched him sympathetically, hoping for his recovery, when suddenly with a wild yell he sprang to his feet and began to tear his clothes off as if he were mad. Lord, how he did swear too! We were all scared, thinking the fright had turned his brain, but when he presently danced before us in his bare buff, picking frantically at his skin, our dismay was changed into shrieks of laughter. A colony of red ants, each about half an inch long, had been concealed in that log. They had walked up his trouser legs quietly enough and fastened upon his body, their nippers meeting through the soft skin. Hence his endeavours to get disrobed in haste. He said it was nothing to laugh at, but I don’t believe the man was yet born that could have seen him and not laughed. Happily it cured him of his fright.
Whether by good luck or good management I don’t presume to say, but in all our explorations we met with no accident either from snake or saurian, while the crew of a Norwegian brig lying close by us lost one of their number the second day after their arrival. They had been very short of water, and in consequence sent a boat up the river to one of the creeks for a supply. Four hands went on this errand, and, tempted by the refreshing coolness of the water, one of them waded out into the river until the water was up to his waist, and stood there baling it up with the dipper he carried and pouring it over his head. The others were in the boat laughing at his antics, when suddenly, as they described it, a dark sickle-like shadow swept round him, and with one marrow-freezing shriek he fell. All the signs of a fearful struggle beneath the water were evident, but never again did they see their shipmate, nor was it until some time afterwards that they learned what the manner of his going really was. And when they did find out, nothing would tempt any of them to leave the ship again while she lay there. One of them told me that his shipmate’s last cry would be with him, reverberating through his mind, until his dying day. I am not naturally cruel, but I confess that when one day I caught one of these monsters with a hook and line while fishing for something else, I felt a real pleasure in taking the awful thing alongside, hoisting it on board, and ripping it lengthways from end to end. From its stomach we took quite a bushel basket-full of eggs, nearly all of them with shells, ready for laying, and we felt truly thankful that so vile a brood had been caught before they had begun their life of evil.