The lizardman, king of his domain, rode on air into the swamp and gnashed his teeth against the night.
He had a feeling in his bones. A mighty feeling. He was old and wise enough to know the power of such feelings.
Tonight—yes, tonight—he would find the beast he sought. Out there amid the cypresses and on the mud flats, somewhere betwixt moonrise and dawn, the Old Pope waited for him, in robes of gnarled green. Tonight he would pay his respects to the Old Pope, that chawer of bones and spitter of flesh, and then he would sail his lasso around the Old Pope’s throat and drive his gaffhook into the white bellyflesh to pierce a heart as tough as a cannonball.
The lizardman chewed on his unlit cigar, the wind streaming his long white hair back from his leather-brown face, and powered the airboat over a sea of weeds. The light of a single battery lamp, mounted on the frame behind his seat, speared a direction for him, but he could have found his way in the dark. He knew the sounds of the swamp—the chirrs, croaks, and whispers—and he knew the smells of the swamp, the stale, wet odors of earth caught between dry land and sea. The lizardman had navigated this place in drought and monsoon; he knew it as a man knows the feel of a well-worn shirt, but in all these many years the Old Pope had found a secret pocket and would not come out to play.
“You’ll come out,” the lizardman growled. The wind ate his words. “You’ll come out tonight, won’t you? Yessir. You’ll come out tonight and we’ll dance us a little dance.”
He had said those same words every night he’d left the shore and ventured into the swamp. Saying those words was a habit now, a ritual, but tonight . . . tonight he could feel the true power in them. Tonight he felt them prick the hide of the Old Pope, like darts thunking into tree bark, and the Old Pope stirring in his underwater cavern, opening one red eye and exhaling a single bubble from the great, gruesome snout.
The lizardman changed his direction, a wrinkled hand nudging the tiller. South by southwest, into the sweet and rancid heart of the swamp, where honeysuckle covered the hulks of decaying boats and toads as big as dinner platters sang like Johnny Cash. Some of those boats had belonged to the lizardman’s friends: other lizardmen, who had sailed the sargasso seas of the swamp in search of Old Pope and found their eternity here. Their corpses had not been recovered. The lizardman knew where they were. Their guts and gristle had nourished Old Pope, had rushed through the reptilian bulk in bloody tides to be expelled into the dark mud thirty feet down.
Their bones had moldered on the bottom, like gray castles, and slowly moss had streamed from their ramparts and consumed them in velvet slime. The lizardman knew. His friends, the old braggers and bastards and butchers, had made their living from the swamp, and the swamp now laid new foundations on their frames.
“Gonna dance a little dance,” the lizardman said. Another correction of the tiller, the fan rotor roaring at his back. “Gonna prance a little prance.”
He had seen sixty-three summers; this sweltering August was his sixty-fourth. He was a southern man, burned dark by the Florida sun, his skin freckled and blotched, his eyes dark brown, almost black, revealing nothing. He lived alone, drank rotgut whiskey straight from the moonshiner’s still, played a wicked game of five-card stud, had two ex-wives who couldn’t stand the sight or smell of him, and he made his money off gator skins. He’d done his share of poaching, sure, but the gators were growing wild in Florida now and it was open season. He’d read in the paper last week that a gator had chomped three fingers off a golfer’s hand when he’d reached into the bushes for his ball on a Sarasota course. That didn’t surprise the lizardman. If it moved or used to move, a gator would go after it. Mean sonsofbitches, they were. Almost as mean as he was. Well, the lizardman figured, it took mean and ugly to kill mean and ugly.
A slight nudge of the tiller sent the airboat heading straighter south. He could smell honeysuckle and Indian weed, the sweet tang of wild persimmons and the musky fragrance of cypress. And the odor of death in the night air, too: rot and fungus, putrefying gas from the muddy bottom, something long dead caught in a quicksand pool. The wind took those aromas, and he arrowed on, following the beam of light. Wasn’t too far now; maybe a mile or so, as the buzzard flew.
The lizardman did not fear the swamp. That didn’t mean, of course, that he came in asking to be gator bait. Far from it: In his airboat he carried two gaffhooks, a billy club with nails driven into it and sticking out like porcupine quills, a double-barreled shotgun, a bangstick, and his rope. Plus extra food, water, and gasoline. The swamp was a tricky beast; it lulled you, turned you into false channels and threw a mudbar up under your keel when you thought you were in six feet of water. Here, panic was death. The lizardman made a little extra money in tourist season, guiding the greenhorns through. It always amazed him how soft the tourists were, how white and overfed. He could almost hear the swamp drool when he brought the tourists in, and he made sure he stayed in the wide, safe channels, showed the greenhorns a few snakes and deer and such, and then got them out quick.
They thought they’d seen a swamp; the lizardman just smiled and took their money.
The Seminoles, now, they were the tall-talers. You get a Seminole to visit the little hamlet where the lizardman lived, and his stories would make curly hair go straight. Like how Old Pope was a ghost gator, couldn’t be killed by mortal man but only by God himself. Like how Old Pope had ridden on a bolt of lightning into the heart of the swamp, and any man who went looking for him was going to end up as nuggets of gator dung.
The lizardman believed that one, almost. Too many of his friends had come in here and not come out again. Oh, yeah, the swamp had teeth. Eat you up, bury you under. That was how it was.
He cut his speed. The light showed a green morass ahead: huge lily pads and emerald slime that sparkled with iridescence. The air was heavy, humid, pungent with life. A mist hung over the water, and in that mist glowed red rubies: the eyes of gators, watching him approach. As his airboat neared, their heads submerged with thick shuccccking sounds, then came back up in the foamy wake. The lizardman went on for another hundred yards or so, then he cut off the rotor and the airboat drifted, silent through the mist.
He lit his cigar, puffed smoke, reached for his rope, and began to slip-knot a noose in it. The airboat was drifting over the lily pads, making toads croak and leap for safety. Just beyond the area of lily pads was a deeper channel that ran between glades of rushes, and it was at the edge of this channel that the lizardman threw his anchor over the side, a rubber boot full of concrete. The airboat stopped drifting in the midst of the rushes on the rim of the deep channel.
The lizardman finished knotting the rope, tested it a few times, and found it secure. Then he went about the business of opening a metal can, scooping out bloody chunks of horseflesh, and hooking them onto a fist-sized prong on the end of a chain. The chain, in turn, was fixed to the metal framework of the airboat’s rotor and had a little bell on it. He tossed the bait chain out, into the rushes, then he sat on his perch with a gaffhook and the lasso near at hand, switched off the light, and smoked his White Owl.
He gazed up at the stars. The moon was rising, a white crescent. Off in the distance, toward Miami, heat lightning flared across the sky. The lizardman could feel electricity in the night. It made his scalp tingle and the hairs stand up on the backs of his sinewy, tattooed arms. He weighed about a hundred and sixty pounds, stood only five-feet-seven, but he was as strong as a Dolphins linebacker, his shoulders hard with muscle. The lizardman was nobody’s kindly old grandpap. His gaze tracked a shooting star, a red streak spitting sparks. The night throbbed.
He could feel it, like a pulse. To his right somewhere a nightbird screeched nervously, and a gator made a noise like a bass fiddle. Tonight the swamp seethed. Clouds of mosquitoes swirled around the lizardman’s face, but the grease and ashes he’d rubbed onto his flesh kept them from biting. He felt the same powerful sensation he’d experienced when he was getting ready to cast off from shore: Something was going to happen tonight, something different. The swamp knew it, and so did the lizardman. Maybe the Old Pope was on the prowl, mean and hungry. Maybe. Laney Allen had seen Old Pope here in this channel a year ago. The big gators cruised it like submarines, placid in the depths, angry on the surface. Laney Allen—God rest his soul—said the biggest gator paled beside the Old Pope. Said the Old Pope had eyes that shone like Cadillac headlamps in the dark, and his ebony-green hide was so thick cypress roots grew out of it. The Old Pope’s wake could drown an airboat, Laney had said, and from grinning snout to wedge-shaped tail the Old Pope looked like an island moving through the channel.
Laney and T-Bird Stokes had come out here in late April, armed with shotguns, rifles, and a few sticks of dynamite, to root Old Pope out of his secret pocket. In May, a Seminole had found what was left of their airboat: the rotor and part of the splintered stern.
The bell dinged. The lizardman felt the boat shudder as a gator took the bait.
With his teeth clenched around the cigar’s butt, he picked up a high-intensity flashlight from its holder beside his seat and flicked it on. The gator was thrashing water now, turning itself over and over on the end of the chain.
The lizardman’s light found it, there in the rushes. It was a young gator, maybe four feet long, not very heavy, but it was madder than hell-cast Lucifer and ready to fight. The lizardman got down off his perch, put on a pair of cowhide gloves, and watched the gator battle against the prongs jabbed in its jaws. Foamy water and dark mud splattered him as the beast’s tail smacked back and forth. The lizardman couldn’t help it; though he and the gators were always on opposite ends of the chain, he found a savage beauty in the saw-toothed grin, the red-filmed eyes, the heaving, slime-draped body. But money was more beautiful, and the hides kept him alive. So be it. The lizardman waited until the gator lifted its head to try to shake the prongs loose, then he let fly with the lasso.
His aim, born of much practice, was perfect. He snared the gator’s throat, drew the beast in closer, the muscles standing out in his arms and the boat rocking underneath him. Then he picked up the gaffhook and speared the white belly as the gator began to turn over and over again in the frothy gray water. Blood bloomed like a red flower, the heart pierced. But the gator still fought with stubborn determination until the lizardman conked it a few times on the skull with the nail-studded billy club. The gator, its brain impaled, expired with a last thrash that popped water ten feet into the air, then its eyes rolled back into the prehistoric head and the lizardman hauled the carcass over the side. He gave the skull another hard knock with the billy club, knowing that gators sometimes played possum until they could get hold of an arm or leg. This one, however, had given up the ghost. The lizardman slipped the chain out of the prongs, which were deeply imbedded and would have to be pulled out with pliers at a later date. He had a cardboard box full of prongs, so he attached another one to the chain, baited it with horseflesh, and threw it over the side.
He freed his lasso from around the bleeding, swamp-smelling carcass, turned off his flashlight, and climbed again onto his perch.
This was what his life was all about.
An hour passed before the bait was taken again. This gator was larger than the first, heavy but sluggish. It had one claw missing, evidence of a fight. The lizardman hauled it in some, rested, hauled it in the last distance with the lasso and the gaffhook. Finally, the gator lay in the bottom of the airboat with the first, its lungs making a noise like a steam engine slowly losing power.
The lizardman, with slime on his arms and his face glistening with sweat, waited.
It was amazing to him that these creatures had never changed. The world had turned around the sun a million times, a hundred times a million, and the gators stayed the same. Down in the mud they dwelled, in their secret swamp caverns, their bodies hard and perfect for their purpose. They slept and fed, fed and bred, slept and fed, and that was the circle of their existence. It was weird, the lizardman thought, that jet airplanes flew over the swamp and fast cars sped on the interstate only a few miles from here, while down in the mud dinosaurs stirred and crept. That’s what they were, for sure. Dinosaurs, the last of their breed.
The lizardman watched shooting stars, the dead cigar clamped in his teeth. The hair prickled on his arms. There was a power in the night. What was it? Something about to happen, something different from all the other nights. The swamp knew it, too, and wondered in its language of birdcalls, gator grunts, frog croaks, and whistles. What was it?
The Old Pope, the lizardman thought. The Old Pope, on the move.
The moon tracked across the sky. The lizardman brought in his bait—found a water moccasin clinging to it—then he pulled up anchor and guided the boat through the weeds with a gaffhook. The water was about five feet deep, but nearer the channel the bottom sloped to twelve or more. He found what he thought might be a good place next to a clump of cypress, a fallen tree angled down into the depths and speckled with yellow crabs. He let the anchor down again, threw out the bait chain, got up on his perch, and sat there, thinking and listening.
The swamp was speaking to him. What was it trying to say?
Ten minutes or so later, the bell dinged.
Water foamed and boiled. A big one! the lizardman thought. “Dance a little dance!” he said, and turned on the flashlight.
It was a big gator, true, but it wasn’t Old Pope. This beast was seven feet long, weighed maybe four hundred pounds. It was going to be a ballbreaker to get in the boat. Its eyes flared like comets in the light, its jaws snapping as it tried to spit out the prongs. The lizardman waited for the right moment, then flung his rope. It noosed the gator’s muzzle, sealing the jaws shut. The lizardman pulled, but the gator was a powerful bastard and didn’t want to come. Careful, careful, he thought. If he lost his footing and went overboard, God help him. He got the gaffhook ready, the muscles straining in his shoulders and back, though he already knew he’d have to use the shotgun on this one.
He started to pick up the shotgun when he felt the airboat rise on a pressure wave.
He lost his balance, came perilously close to slipping over, but the rubber treads of his boots gripped to the wet deck. He was surprised more than anything else at the suddenness of it. And then he saw the gator on the end of the chain thrash up and almost leap out of the foaming water. If a gator’s eyes could register terror, then that was what the lizardman saw.
The gator shivered. There was a ripping noise, like an axed tree falling. Bloody water splashed up around the reptile’s body. Not only bloody water, the lizardman saw in another second, but also ropy coils of dark green intestines billowing out of the gator’s belly. The beast was jerked downward with a force that made the rope and the chain crack taut, the bell dinging madly. The lizardman had dropped his light. He fumbled for it amid the gator carcasses, the rope scorching his cowhide glove. The airboat lifted up again, crashed down with a mighty splash, and the lizardman went to his knees. He heard terrible crunching noises: the sounds of bones being broken.
And just that fast, it was all over.
He stood up, shaking. The airboat rocked, rocked, rocked, a cradle on the deep. He found the light and turned it on the beast at the chain’s end.
The lizardman gave a soft gasp, his mouth dry as Sahara dust.
The gator had been diminished. More than half of it had been torn away, guts and gore floating in the water around the ragged wound.
Bitten in two, the lizardman thought. A surge of pure horror coursed through him. Bitten by something from underneath . . .
“Good God A’mighty,” he whispered, and he let go of the rope.
The severed gator floated on the end of the chain, its insides still streaming out in sluggish tides. On the fallen tree trunk, the crabs were scrambling over one another, smelling a feast.
The lizardman realized that he was a long way from home.
Something was coming. He heard it pushing the reeds aside on the edge of the deep channel. Heard the swirl of water around its body, and the suction of mud on its claws. Old Pope. Old Pope, risen from the heart of the swamp. Old Pope, mean and hungry. Coming back for the rest of the gator, caught on the chain’s end.
The lizardman had often heard of people bleating with fear. He’d never known what that would’ve sounded like until that moment. It was, indeed, a bleat, like a stunned sheep about to get its head smashed with a mallet.
He turned toward the airboat’s engine, hit the starter switch, and reached for the throttle beside his seat. As soon as he gave the engine some gas, the rotor crashed against the frame, bent by the force of Old Pope on the chain, and it threw a pinwheel of sparks and crumpled like wet cardboard. The airboat spun around in a tight circle before the engine blew, the flashlight flying out of the lizardman’s grip as he fell onto the rough hides of the dead gators. He looked up, slime dripping from his chin, as something large and dark rose up against the night.
Swamp water streamed from Old Pope’s armored sides. The lizardman could see that Laney had been right: roots, rushes, and weeds grew from the ebony-green plates, and not only that but snakes slithered through the cracks and crabs scuttled over the leathery edges. The lizardman recoiled, but he could only go to the boat’s other side, and that wasn’t nearly far enough. He was on his knees, like a penitent praying for mercy at Old Pope’s altar. He saw something—a scaled claw, a tendril, something—slither down and grasp the snared gator’s head. Old Pope began to pull the mangled carcass up out of the water, and as the chain snapped tight again the entire airboat started to overturn.
In another few seconds the lizardman would be up to his neck in deep shit. He knew that, and knew he was a dead man one way or the other. He reached out, found the shotgun, and gave Old Pope the blast of a barrel.
In the flare of orange light he saw gleaming teeth, yellow eyes set under a massive brow where a hundred crabs clung like barnacles to an ancient wharf. Old Pope gave a deep grunt like the lowest note of a church organ, and that was when the lizardman knew.
Old Pope was not an alligator.
Copyright © 1989 by Robert McCammon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.