Arthur Dobbins first heard the story of the alligator rodeo in 1924. He was sitting at the bar in the dining room of the Cormorant Island Lodge, drinking an illegal scotch and soda. Several other men were loafing at the bar—the ferry captain, one of the brothers who owned the island’s pepper plantation, a citrus buyer from Ft. Coleman—and they took turns interrupting the grizzled bartender as he spun his favorite yarn. The air was thick with cigar smoke. Overhead, the ceiling fans buzzed like giant moths.
“Eight years ago if it’s a day,” said Earl, the bartender. “Nineteen hundred and sixteen. Back when Wilson was still keeping us out of the war.”
It was a tale the men knew like their own hats, but it lost nothing with the retelling.
Commodore Langtree sat front row center. He was flanked by his daughter, a dreamy wisp of a child in a white summer dress, and by his Yankee wife, a delicate pink-faced woman who’d never adjusted to passing the Christmas season in a warm climate. Adelaide Bingham worried aloud that she might contract malaria or that the grandstand might collapse or that one of the oversized lizards might climb from the foggy water and carry off her girl. But the band struck up a chorus of Shine On, Harvest Moon and everything fell into place without a hitch. Two black servants baited the animals with chunks of tarpon meat and taunted them with a wire cage of young gators. The babies yelped y-eonk, y-eonk, y-eonk; the adults hissed anger through their nostrils. Next, each of the grapplers was given his chance to try a hand at bulldogging, the perilous and elusive art of wrestling shut the gator’s jaw and holding it closed between one’s neck and one’s chin. No easy feat with the reptiles straining their thick muscular tails in an effort to shake the competitors loose. One by one the contenders stepped forward: men missing fingers, men with jagged scars across their chests. One by one they failed. Only a previously unknown grappler named Jeb Moran managed to clasp shut the jaws of the largest bull gator for the requisite thirty seconds. This Moran was a scrappy matchbox of a man who competed shirtless and barefoot. When Bingham stood on the podium and awarded him the first prize bounty, the grappler counted his cash in front of the spectators.
The two men were posing for photographs, the old hotelier grinning, the young grappler staring defiantly beyond the camera, when one of the bull gators snapped his jaw shut around Oriana’s exposed foot. The gator thrashed his head wildly, rolling back and forth until he’d drawn the girl’s face under the water. Silence lapped across the crowd as the onlookers realized what had happened. Commodore Langtree charged down to the edge of the swamp where his wife, screeching like a wounded cat, struggled against the restraint of two burly grapplers. The other contenders stood helpless at the edge of the pit. They had been required to check their firearms up at the hotel, and only a crazy man would throw himself between a bull gator and his prey. But then Jeb Moran was in the water, his legs wrapped around the scoot of the lizard’s back. He rode the beast hysterically, almost sexually. Its teeth remained clamped to bone, its body thrashing against the weight of its assailant. Moran responded by digging his thumbs deep into the gator’s eyes, so deep he touched skull, so deep brain flecked his wrists, his chest, so deep the animal’s pain seemed like his own.
A surgeon at the army hospital removed what remained of Oriana’s foot. When she awoke from the chloroform, somehow still wearing a blooming smile, she’d immediately asked after Jeb Moran. But he was long gone.
“He didn’t put the money up at first,” said the ferry captain. He was a tall man with military shoulders and as face as impassive as a clam shell. “She wouldn’t give him no peace.”
“Right you are,” agreed the bartender. “Morning, noon and night that girl went after the old commodore about tracking down Moran. Said she was gonna marry him and all. Child’s talk. You and I both know the daughters of men like Commodore Langtree don’t marry gator grapplers. But then the old missus died and the girl was a grown woman and still she was saying she wanted Moran.”
The citrus buyer dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. “Malaria,” he said.
“The old missus died of malaria,” explained the bartender. “That’s pushing four years ago, if it’s been a Sunday. That near broke the old commodore. It’s the girl that keeps him going. He dotes on her like she was the first child ever born.”
The pepper grower laughed bitterly. “Lord knows why,” he said. “She doesn’t give a lick for the old bastard. She’d sell this place right out from under him, if she could, and move off to Jacksonville or New York City or wherever.”
The bartender waved his dishrag at the pepper grower. “Love gone sour.”
“Arrogant bitch,” muttered the pepper grower.
“You’d be singing a different song if it was you she was after,” said the bartender. He topped off all of the glasses along the bar. “The thing is, Dobbins—you don’t mind me calling you Dobbins, do you?—she’s turned down half the men in Pelican Bay and Ft. Coleman. She’s stuck on a pipedream, if you ask me.”
“But they don’t ask you, Earl, do they?” said the pepper grower.
All four men laughed heartily. Dobbins smiled.
“And you say this Moran never showed up?” he asked.
The pepper grower looked at his wristwatch. “Not yet. But it’s only noon.”
The other loafers liked that; they laughed hard. The citrus grower slapped his knee to express his pleasure.
“I take it these suitors are after the inheritance,” said Arthur Dobbins. “If this Moran fellow won’t have her for five thousand dollars, she can’t be much to look at.”
Dobbins had been something of a wit at the agricultural college, and on the dinner circuit in Jacksonville, and he’d expected his joke to go over well. It didn’t. The citrus buyer coughed and shifted his weight uncomfortably. The ferry captain and the pepper grower stared at Dobbins like slabs of petrified wood. Earl wiped down the bar and then scrubbed vigorously at a minor stain. She’d already leaned her wooden crutch against the counter when Dobbins caught her reflection in the wall mirror.
“Good morning, Miss Oriana,” said the bartender.
The ferry captain tipped his cap. “Morning, ma’am,” he said.
Oriana Bingham smiled at the men. The old commodore’s daughter was a petite girl with gentle features and long dark hair than flowed down to her waist. She might have been thought merely pretty, in the ordinary way, if not for a set of sharp black eyes that ignited her entire visage with a tormented and passionate beauty. A wicker basket of freshly cut lilacs dangled from her arm, and now she tucked one of the flowers into an empty vase by the window. Arthur Dobbins fingered the camellia blossom in his lapel. He felt vaguely inadequate and, for the first time in his memory, at a loss for words.
“We were just saying…” said Dobbins.
“I heard what you were saying, sir,” answered Oriana. She made her way around the room, refreshing the bouquets on the dining tables. Her wooden foot thumped against the parquet floor, but even without her crutch, she was surprisingly agile. Dobbins thought she might say something more, but she didn’t.
“I do beg your pardon,” said Dobbins. “It was a stupid thing to say.”
“Yes, it was,” said Oriana.
She asked the bartender for a glass of ice water and then carried her drink to a shaded alcove beside the gramophone box. At first, Dobbins thought this might be an invitation for him to join her in a secluded spot, but the girl quickly immersed herself in novel.
“I say,” said Dobbins. “I’m the new naturalist.”
He was fresh off his master’s degree in zoology—or almost fresh. He’d been enjoying the easy life on the East Coast for several months, but tired quickly of Jacksonville’s provincial notions of high society. Commodore Langtree had hired him sight unseen to lead guided wildlife tours for the guests.
“My specialty is herpetology,” he added. “Turtles, gators.”
Oriana looked up sharply; she closed the book around her fingers to hold her place.
“Look, I’m sorry,” said Dobbins. “Let’s be friends. My name’s Arthur. We have to be friends, Miss Bingham, because I’ve already determined to like you.”
The girl rose and advanced toward the French doors. “I know who you are, Mr. Dobbins,” said Oriana. “And I don’t like you.”
“Not yet. But that will change. You’ll get to know me better.”
“I doubt it,” answered Oriana. “I stick to my snap judgments.”
Dobbins pressed his suit on all occasions, trying to make himself useful. On hot afternoons, when Oriana read in the garden, he insisted on bringing her pitchers of iced lemonade; during cool evenings, when she rocked on the porch swing, he appeared at her side with a shawl. She had to express only the most idle desire for any object, a motion picture projector, a fresh peach out of season, and the naturalist delivered it to her door. Once he even went to far as to copy several sonnets from a volume in the library and present them to her on one knee. All of these maneuvers made the young naturalist the talk of the hotel bar, where odds were running two-to-one against him, but they did nothing to win the girl’s heart. Nor did Commodore Langtree’s blessing help. One evening at supper, Oriana’s father, himself a graduates of Annapolis, class of eighty-seven, had declared that he’d always wanted a college man for a son-in-law, and that he deeply wished his daughter would make a match before he passed on. She responded by urging the old commodore to live a long life.
A full year passed. Slowly Dobbins lost his joie de vivre. He sat for hours on the rotting grandstand beside the swamp, contemplating, trying to get the girl out from under his skin. Often he dozed off and woke shivering in a dew-drenched shirt. The naturalist could still be counted on for a good jest in the drawing room and a honed quip at the bar, but now his clothes hung a bit looser from his already thin frame, and his eyes wandered during conversation, and sometimes, while leading a tour at dusk along the windswept beach or listening to a sad song on the gramophone, his eyes moistened with longing. Nearly every night he asked Oriana if she wished to accompany him on an outing the following morning, a picnic at Lighthouse Point, a fishing excursion into Great Tarpon Sound. Nearly every night she rejected him, sometimes turning away without a word. And then she changed her mind. Without warning. One perfectly ordinary evening, he walked her to the foot of the stairs and invited her on a canoe trip through the mangroves. At first she walked away. But when she reached the top of the staircase, she turned and said, “Yes, Mr. Dobbins, a canoe trip. I think that would be a good idea.”
Dobbins was afraid to speak. He didn’t want to jeopardize the moment. He finally said, “It’s hard to believe you’ve come around. I was beginning to fear you were stubborn enough to hold out on principle.”
Oriana didn’t answer. They turned into a narrow channel where a pair of night herons huddled on the leeward shore. A long log sat like a gator in the water.
“I’m so happy,” said the naturalist, “I’m trembling. Look at me. My hands are shaking.”
Oriana turned her head back toward him. She wasn’t smiling. “I’m sorry, Mr. Dobbins…Arthur…but I’m afraid I’ve given you the wrong impression. I came out with you today to make it clear once and for all that your persistence will get you nowhere.”
Dobbins pulled the paddle into the boat. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
“I was wrong about you,” said Oriana. “I said I wasn’t going to like you and the truth is that I have grown to like you. I really have. You’re kind, and considerate, and sometimes you can be downright funny. Only I’m not going to like you in that manner. The way a wife loves a husband. But if you drop your silly courtship, Arthur, I do think we could be friends.”
“Friends,” echoed Dobbins. His heartbeat accelerated like an avalanche. “But if you were wrong about not liking me, how do you know you won’t be wrong about not loving me?”
Oriana sighed. “A woman knows these things.” She took a sip of water from her canteen. “Let’s try to have a good time today,” she said. “Why don’t we talk about something else for a change?”
“Like Jacksonville,” said Oriana. “What was it like?”
“It’s a city. There’s not much to say about it. I’m much happier out here where you don’t have to worry about getting run over by motorcars.”
“I’d rather get hit by a motorcar than waste away in the middle of nowhere,” said Oriana. “I don’t really mean that. But sometimes I get so tired.”
“Of taking care of Commodore Langtree?”
“Oh I don’t know,” she said. “Of everything.”
Dobbins spotted a bull gator sunning himself on the opposite bank. He recalled a conversation he’d once had with a fellow herpetologist at the agricultural college. The graduate student, a woman, had asked him whether he thought reptiles fell in love. He’d said yes, at least alligators did. You could see the lust in their eyes.
“Is it because you don’t find me physically attractive?” asked Dobbins. He’d never experienced this before, but it was possible.
“Please, Arthur,” Oriana answered sharply.
“I have a right to know why.”
She nodded. “I guess you do,” she said in a softer voice. “Only I don’t know if I can explain. I feel like I waited all my childhood for someone to rescue me. A girl dreams that a man will put his life on the line for her. Most girls only dream, of course. But in my case someone actually did.”
The canoe lurched suddenly. Dobbins flailed at the air with his paddle as the vessel rose several feet above the water and landed upright with a splash. A six-foot long shadow coasted across the channel like a giant gray potato.
“It’s a manatee,” explained the naturalist. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Oriana shook the water from her hair. “I’d rather see Jacksonville.”
This made Dobbins angry. He couldn’t count the times he’d offered to take her away from the island. “Jeb Moran’s not coming back,” he said. “Why can’t you get that through your thick skull and move on with your life?”
“Take me home,” she answered. “Now.”
The naturalist considered paddling out toward the manatee and staging a second accident on their return voyage. If she wanted to be rescued, he thought, he’d show her rescue. Then he considered the risks. She might drown. They both might drown. The manatee might knock him unconscious. But it was the gators that scared him most: He couldn’t afford to hobble through life with a wooden crutch and a matching wooden foot. At first, Dobbins steered toward the open water, measuring his courage with each stroke, but at the last moment he cut back toward the shallows and followed the trail to the lodge.
“Well dog my cats,” exclaimed the bartender. “You’re Jeb Moran.”
The grappler set his carpet bag on the floor. He grinned. “Yeah, I’m Jeb Moran.”
Conversation died out at the bar. The citrus buyer grudgingly removed a crisp twenty dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to the pepper grower. Arthur Dobbins felt the heat creeping up his neck like a rash.
“Where’s Bingham?” asked Moran. “He owes me money.”
The bartender slid a whiskey in front of Moran. “So you’re going to marry her?”
“For five thousand dollars,” said the grappler. “Where’s Bingham?”
“Take a load off,” said the bartender. “The doc’s in with Commodore Langtree right now. They’ll be done soon. You waited this long, surely you can wait half an hour.”
“Bingham sick?” asked Moran.
The citrus buyer slapped his hand against his chest. “Ticker,” he said.
Moran nodded. He polished off the whiskey and smacked the shot-glass down on the counter. The bartender filled him up.
“So where you been all this time?” asked the pepper grower.
Moran cut him a sidelong glance. “I fought in the war.”
This drew a murmur of approval; two fisherman drank to the war.
Arthur Dobbins asked, “On which side?”
The citrus buyer chuckled nervously. Moran squared his shoulders. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” said Dobbins. “But the war’s been over some time now. Maybe it took you six years to muster out.”
Several of the men at the bar laughed aloud; they cleared a circle around the naturalist and the grappler.
“I spent some time up near Gainesville,” said Moran. “What’s it to you?”
“Gainesville,” answered Dobbins. “You’ve been studying at the college, have you?”
More laughter. The pepper grower chortled his drink through his nose.
“I been up at Raiford,” said Moran. “The state pen.”
“What happened? Did they catch you cheating at the women’s college? Or did they find out which side you fought on in the war?”
Moran rubbed the nub of his missing nose. “A fellow tried to cheat me out of my bounty, so I threw him in the gator pit.” The grappler drew a knife from his belt and twirled the point on the bar. “Don’t fool with me, okay? I’m aiming not to get sent back up.”
Commodore Langtree’s voice answered from the doorway. “Who’s getting sent where?”
The hotelier lumbered into the dining hall and rested both his hands on his dragon-headed walking stick. His eyes shifted from Moran to Dobbins to Moran. He appeared about to speak when his daughter and the plump physician passed through the French doors in heated conversation. The girl recognized Moran. She stopped speaking mid-sentence.
Moran stepped toward the old Commodore. “I done come for a wife.”
Oriana didn’t give her father the chance to answer. She dragged her foot quickly across the dining hall and Dobbins could only watch as she kissed the ligaments of the grappler’s neck and the hollows of his eyes and thin gray lips that reluctantly kissed her back.
The only time Moran expressed concern for Commodore Bingham’s fortune was when he suspected that his bride was trying to cheat him out of it. Most often this occurred when he returned home from the mainland without a bounty. He drank himself angry and let the accusations flow. Nobody was immune. Not the two brothers who owned the pepper plantation. Not the overweight physician. Not Earl behind the bar. Moran grilled his suspect for several hours at a stretch—the regulars knew enough to humor him with their denials—and railed at Oriana for the remainder of the night. The couple’s rows kept the whole hotel awake. But they were sporadic, maybe once a month, and comical enough, in light of the farfetched conspiracies imagined by the grappler, that some of the regulars made a game of sitting up in the lobby to eavesdrop. Whoever was the subject of the night’s deranged charges drank for free while the others paid tribute to his alleged cunning and his sexual prowess.
Oriana accepted her husband’s moods. She bore his insults and his curses until he passed out, then pulled off his heavy boots and washed the mud from his body with a sponge. Once he hit her so her eye swelled shut. Another time, he fractured her arm. She always appeared in the lobby the next morning with her head high and a determined smile on her face. If ever the girl second-guessed her marriage, she kept her regrets under lock and key.
Arthur Dobbins’ feelings were another matter. He’d never much understood the desires and motives of others, especially women, and Oriana Moran’s attachment to her husband struck him as both perverse and spiteful. It might have been different if the grappler treated her right, if they’d visited Niagara Falls and New York City, but Moran had nixed the idea of a honeymoon. “If you want to see nigger policemen,” he’d said, “go yourself.” The naturalist couldn’t figure why a girl who’d only months before spoken longingly of moving to the big city would be willing to spend forever on a backwater barrier island. I have everything to offer her, thought Dobbins. He doesn’t even have a goddam nose. The young naturalist wandered the sycamore barrens, growing angrier by the day. He didn’t understand what he’d done wrong.
The grappler found Dobbins sitting backwards on the bar, his feet resting gingerly on a barstool. The naturalist was telling a story to three women in their twenties, the daughters of a midwestern real estate speculator who’d come down to Cormorant Island for the winter. Usually Moran—even on a bender—left Dobbins alone. But it so happened that the naturalist’s story, sentimental and self-pitying, was about a hotelier’s daughter who spurns a handsome gentleman for a disfigured ne’er-do-well. This was too much for the drunken grappler.
Moran pushed his way between the ladies. “Where’d you sleep last night?”
Dobbins folded his spectacles into his pocket. “You’re drunk, Moran,” he said.
“Don’t tell me what I am,” said Moran. He wiped his wound with his arm, spreading mud across his face. “Where the hell d’ya sleep?”
The bleeding grappler started to draw attention. Oriana had already gone to bed, but the bartender sent one of the black youths to rouse her. Another servant was sent down the road for the plump physician.
“I asked you something,” said Moran. “Where the hell d’ya sleep?”
There was nothing new in the question. Moran had, at one time or another, asked the same of half the men in the room. They had sworn their alibis in good humor. They expected the naturalist to do the same. Dobbins merely smiled as though he’d been looking forward to the grappler’s harangue. “You want to know where I slept?” he asked. “I’ll tell you. I slept in a bed.”
“So you’re gonna be a wiseacre,” said Moran. “Whose bed?”
Dobbins shrugged. “It’s hard to remember.”
“I’ll tell you where you slept,” Moran shouted back. “You slept in my bed. I’ve been on to you all along, how you and that bitch have been plotting to sell this place out from under me. You think just because I don’t got a fancy carnation in my lapel, I don’t know which end is up.”
“Mrs. Moran and I?” asked Dobbins, grinning. “Why would you think that?”
“So you’re denying it?” demanded Moran.
The naturalist said nothing. Several of the regulars answered for him, assuring Moran that his accusations were off-base. The band continued to play to an empty dance floor.
“I’ll give you one last chance,” said Moran. “Are you plotting with my wife?”
“Tell him the truth,” urged the bartender. “C’mon, Dobbins.”
Dobbins leaned toward Moran. “The truth?” he said in a sopping-sweet voice that oozed with insincerity. “The truth is that Mrs. Moran is madly in love with her husband.”
Moran reached for his knife and discovered the sheath was empty. Several onlookers tried to restrain him, but he shook them off. He swaggered toward the lobby and when he reached the foot of the stairs he shouted, “Coward!”
“Please Arthur! Open up!”
He drew the bolt. Oriana tumbled into the bedroom. Her hair was bunned under a mesh bonnet and she was holding her dressing gown closed with her hand.
“What did you do to him?” she cried.
Dobbins helped her into a chair. “Are you okay?”
“You have to stop him,” said Oriana. “He has this crazy idea that we’re plotting against him, that we’re in cahoots behind his back. He says you said so.”
“I told him just the opposite,” Dobbins answered calmly. “Did he threaten you?”
“He said he’s leaving. He packed all his things. You have to stop him Arthur. Please tell him it’s all in his head.”
“What good will that do? I already told him.”
Oriana broke into sobs. Dobbins grew aware that his room was a mess, that the water pitcher was overturned and the bedding was jumbled on the floor. He vaguely recalled Earl and the physician carrying him up the stairs.
“There, there,” soothed Dobbins. He offered her a glass of scotch and she drank.
“Please, Arthur,” begged Oriana. “I don’t know what I’ll do if he leaves. I swear it will kill me…If you ever cared for me at all….”
Dobbins hadn’t expected this. “Where is he?”
“He’s down by the swamp, saying goodbye,” said Oriana. “I’ll show you.”
“Jeb, dear,” said Oriana. “Mr. Dobbins wants to speak with you.” She hobbled onto the pier and placed her palm on her husband’s shoulder. He jolted.
“Mind your business,” said Moran.
The naturalist stood at the base of the jetty. “Look, Moran,” he said. “I’m afraid I might have given you the wrong impression that night. If I said anything to make you think—well, I just don’t think you have cause to run off.”
Moran stood up and kicked the empty bucket into the water. The entire left side of his face was wrapped in gauze. “Lying coward,” he muttered.
“I’m not lying now,” said Dobbins.
“Please, Jeb,” pleaded Oriana. “Please listen.”
“I heard all I need to hear.”
Moran stepped forward and Oriana grabbed his arm. “I love you.”
“Well, I don’t love you,” he snapped. The grappler swallowed several times and then spit into the swamp. “I’m fucking done with this.”
“Hold on a second,” said Dobbins.
“You want her so bad?” shouted Moran. “You can have her.”
The grappler lifted his wife up suddenly and tossed her sideways into the water. She landed with a broad splash about ten feet out and her body actually clipped the tail of a gator. Moran grinned. “She’s all yours, coward. Go get her.”
Arthur Dobbins stood frozen on the shoreline. He suddenly remembered the story of the alligator rodeo and how Moran had fought the animal by gouging out its eyes. That was what the occasion demanded. He would jump in the water and use his thumbs as knives. He would do it. He would. These were his thoughts as Oriana’s body vanished into the depths.