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Gregory Marshall Marshall Smith

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River of Death
By Gregory Marshall Marshall Smith
Monday, March 04, 2013

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Authorities enlist the aid of a famous hunter in turn-of-the-century Massachusetts to hunt a killer shark in a river. What they find is much worse.

The Mystic River is dark tonight. I rest on a captain’s chair bolted to the deck of the fishing boat my party has procured. I look out at the shore and see the new manufactured gas lamps that illuminate portions of Boston. When I left here three years for my most recent expedition to the Congo, the city had still been using naptha for its street lights. However, the fuel, which is similar to gasoline, had become increasingly expensive.

I would gladly have paid for it myself if I could only have taken it and the lamps it fueled with me to the Congo. That entire country is still in the Dark Ages, even within Leopoldville and across the Congo River in Brazzaville. I had clearly gotten too used to the mantle gas lamps, so much that I thought I would go blind having to rely on nothing but hand-held oil lamps in the bush and even in the so-called “modern” hunting lodges of the capital “cities.”

A cold breeze chills me but I have gotten used to it. I don’t need to be back in my native Massachusetts for long to get reacquainted with its weather. I contrast that with the trip up the Congo River on a steamer I boarded at Leopoldville. The air was so humid I had no choice but to stay on deck.

There are times I wish I had suffered below. Then, I would not have been at the stern of that vessel heading for a life-and-death mission to Stanleyville. Sitting on the deck of this boat, I remember well what happened. I went hunting crocodiles on the Congo River and, instead, found a bull shark.

Yes, a bull shark. I never found out how the thing got past the impassible rapids of Livingstone Falls but there was no doubt that it existed. A poor reefer man had climbed over the stern and stood upon a diver’s rest to help an explorer try to reel in a monstrous catfish. The shark then ate the catfish and caught the reefer man as well.

Oh, how we struggled to save him as he screamed bloody murder loud enough to be heard all the way in Kindu. It took the efforts of five men -- the fisherman and four card players -- to get the reefer man mostly out of the water and bring the shark to the surface.

I still remember those black eyes, boring a hole straight through me as if it blamed me for trying to take its meal. It whipped its head side to side, its razor sharp teeth slicing through bone and flesh like a whipsaw. I had to empty my entire Tranter revolver into its head and that gun fired fifty-caliber bullets. The shark finally fell away and we pulled the reefer man up on the deck. However, he had died sometime before the creature that killed him met its fate.

My mission had included both life and death. Ultimately, though, I killed a devil that had taken the lives of many villagers, including children all the way from Stanley Pool to Stanleyville. No others died from shark attacks that I knew of and colonial authorities were able to write the incident off as isolated.

A ship sounds its horn as it passes the fishing boat and I bring myself back to the present. The vessel still churns slowly up the Mystic River. I cannot quite tell because of the darkness but we are about to pass under a bridge. I believe it is the Boston & Maine Railroad Bridge. Somerville lies to our left, Everett to our right. We are at the conjunction of the Mystic and Malden rivers.

I look ahead. There are other men on deck. They extend poles with lanterns attached to the ends. This will allow us to see more than five feet beyond the boat on all sides.

On either side of the vessel, a man carries a rifle. For the one of the port side, he has one of the new M1906 Springfield rifles for he is a sailor we picked up at the Charlestown Navy Yard where the journey began. The fellow on the starboard holds one of the old Krag-Jorgenson rifles, a brand I have never liked. Once the poles are set, the other men pick up harpoons and take up stations at the railings, their eyes scanning the dark water, hoping not to see what they know they must.

For my part, I finish cleaning and loading my Tranter and shove it into my leather shoulder holster. My Navy Colt .41 is ready at my hip. At my feet, within easy reach is my trusty Winchester pump, together with a box of rifled slugs that can take down a Grizzly bear.

A man exits the wheelhouse and makes his way aft toward me. He is a tall and sturdy fellow with a thick bushy mustache. He wears the uniform of the Massachusetts State Police and his name is Lieutenant William Anderson. He and I are old friends; well, as much as a white man and a colored man (I still have not picked up the American government’s new use of the term “negro”) like myself can be friends. Tonight, however, his calling on me as soon as I stepped off the steamer that brought me back home was no matter of friendship.

It was far more serious.

My experience on the Congo with the shark had reached the newspapers of Boston. To many, it was just another in a long line of exploits for Medford’s favored colored son. It was also a world away.

Except tonight.

“I hope to God I am wrong, Mordecai,” Anderson says with a heavy voice as he stops by my chair. “But, those poor people did not drown, I am sure of it.”

I remember what he told me on the docks of East Boston. A stevedore had disappeared at the very pier my ship moored at. He had been working late and was by the water climbing down to a barge that was to be moved early the next morning. Friends heard a splash, an agonizing scream and then a bigger splash. They rushed to help and saw nothing but a small spray of blood on a bumper.

Then, a day later, two men rowing across the Mystic to the railroad bridge we had just passed disappeared. The boat was found near the bridge, half sunk due to a large hole in the side. Neither man was seen again.

Three more people disappeared over the next several days. While drownings weren’t uncommon on the river, to have so many in so short a time smacked of more than mere accidents. The newspapers had caught wind of it and, soon, headlines screamed out about Jack the Ripper-style killers or sea serpents.

The latest incident involved a man from Harvard. Part of an independent rowing team, he had not been pulling his weight. So, he set out early one evening in a small skiff to practice his oaring, but had chosen the Mystic so his teammates would not see him during their practices on the nearby Charles River.

Witnesses heard him scream and saw him fall into the water. By the time a police boat arrived, there was no sign of him. It was dusk and hard to see, but the officers aboard would swear the water around his skiff was much darker than the rest of the river. This implied blood.

“I hope to God, too, Lieutenant,” I said, careful to use his rank as a show of respect in front of the other men. “To drown is horrible enough, but to be eaten alive is a fear unlike no other. Tell me, have preparations been made for the upper Mystic?”

Anderson nods his head.

Our boat is too large to get past the new Craddock Locks under the Main Street Bridge in Medford. Anderson lets me know that we will dock at the lock controls. He and I will go to the far side and board another boat, a smaller one to continue the journey. Though the disappearances occurred below the locks, we want to make sure the shark has not gotten upriver, where there is typically more use of the river by boaters, workers and pedestrians because of the narrower confines.

We will be joined by two other such boats to accommodate more men. Some will stay with this boat to stand guard at the locks, should our prey make a break for the sea. There is no way to guarantee that it will not divert its course into the Malden River and there are two police launches by the Boston & Maine Railroad Bridge laying out bait.

“Tell me about his beast,” Anderson says. “No one can give me any information. Governor Foss wants this kept quiet but I doubt that, even if it were to be released to the public, I would find many people who could help me know my enemy.”

I understand. There were those who refused to believe a bull shark was the true culprit in the Congo. They would not believe what all of us on that steamer saw. Maybe it was their way of getting back at us for not believing their superstitious tales. Maybe they felt betrayed that a man of their skin color would find more in common with white men than themselves.

“It is called a bull shark,” I say. “It can reach lengths of between ten and twelve feet.”

Smith/River of Death/7

Anderson whistles in awe, glancing around him. Our boat is sturdy enough. However, I am not sure about the vessels we will transfer to.

“It mainly feeds at night,” I continue. “However, attacks on people can happen anytime. So far, though, the suspected killings have been on people who were on or near the river at night, an unwise endeavor in the best of times.

“It is a relentless foe, often following prey into shallow waters. There have been reports of the creature beaching itself by mistake in its pursuit of a meal. Should any of us fall into the river, it would behoove that person to not stop swimming until completely out of the water.”

Anderson contemplates the advice. Pardon the pun, but he is truly a fish out of water. His normal duties keep him far from the river and the ocean, for that matter. It is just that the governor has assigned him to solve the disappearances because the Mystic crosses several jurisdictions.

“Lieutenant!” a grizzled bearded man leaning out of the wheelhouse calls. “Something off the port bow.”

I marvel at the boat captain’s eyesight. We haven’t even turned on the boat’s spotlight and still the man has seen something in the dark. Anderson and I get up and make our way forward, carefully gripping the handrail tightly (no one wants to test the waters, even if our prey has yet to make its presence known).

One of the lieutenant’s men hands us each a flashlight. I don’t use them much as even the new ones with the tungsten-filament lamps require rest periods between uses. It is better to find the target with the spotlight and then use the flashlight up close.

Smith/River of Death/8

 “Slow down, Captain,” Anderson says.

Anderson climbs up to the wheelhouse’s port bridge wing, turns on the spotlight and focuses the beam ahead and to the left. Immediately, the light catches a small object floating. I ask one of the men to bring me a boat hook. When the object is abeam of the vessel, I reach out with the hook, catch the lip of the object and pull it close enough to see with my flashlight.

“It’s an oar,” I report. “Bitten clean in two.”

I let the object float away for the light beam has caught something else. I snag it and pull it aboard. It is heavier than it should be. It is a shirt or what is left of one. It is torn to rags. Then, I see a forearm, the flesh shredded like threshed wheat. Somehow, the material has gotten wrapped about the shattered bone. I hold out little hope for the man who might have been wearing it this night.

“It’s a prisoner’s shirt,” a burly man over my left shoulder says, as he shines his flashlight beacon upon it. “There was an escape from the Charles Street Jail last night. Mary, mother of God, I think I’m going to be sick.”

I cannot blame the man as he turns away. Freedom can be fleeting sometimes. I look up at the lieutenant, who merely nods at me. Then, I drop the rags and the arm back into the water. Only I also shove the end of the pike under a davit to hold it in place. Perhaps in death, the former owner of the shirt can lure his killer to us.

“Where are we now, Captain?” I say aloud.

“Captain says we should be approaching Mystic Park,” Anderson relayed.

 

Smith/River of Death/9

It is to port, meaning Wellington lies across the river. Our journey will become more treacherous. Soon, the river will narrow dramatically. We will then reach Main Street where our boat will be stopped by the new Craddock Locks.

I dread having to switch to a smaller boat. The inmate might have been swimming but we also found a broken oar. He could very well have been in a boat that afforded him no protection against the shark.

The oil lamps are fading so we bring them back aboard and douse them. It is dark save for the spotlight beam stabbing ahead into the blackness. No one speaks; the tension is too great. Each of us is lost in our concentration, our eyes instead trying to pierce the uncaring waters of the river for a menace we all want dead, yet none of us really want to face.

 “Somebody please help!”

I jump to my feet. If I am not mistaken, it is a woman’s voice. Ahead of me, Anderson implores his men to be quiet and we all listen once again.

“Oh, God, please help me!”

Anderson directs the spotlight to the starboard side and we see the woman. She is clad in a heavy gray coat and a red skirt and huddles in what remains of a rowboat. This must be the one that lost the oar I found earlier.

The boat captain turns his boat towards her and cuts his engines, letting our momentum carry us close to her. We don’t want to smash into the rowboat. As we near her, one of the lieutenant’s men reaches out with a spar. The woman refuses to move, shaking her head vigorously.

I draw my pistol.

Smith/River of Death/10

The boats meet and still the woman deigns not to move. Finally, Anderson climbs over the railing so that he straddles it. He offers the woman his hand. Slowly, trembling from the chilled air or from something else, she takes his hand.

Suddenly, the shark breaks the surface, tearing the rowboat in half.

Its maw aims for the woman’s arm as she screams bloody murder. Anderson, always a quick thinker, pulls her straight across and they both tumble to the deck in a heap.

I lean over the railing and put a fifty from my Tranter into the shark’s head. I am about to fire a second time but something stops me. Instead, I ask for a pike, get to my feet and stick the end of the spar into the shark’s mouth.

“Careful, sir,” one of the officers warns. “It’s a killer.”

Anderson is back on his feet, having passed the woman off to one of his men. He leans over the railing and questions my machinations. I step aside, turning the shark as I do. We both stare at it until we see the same thing.

Actually, it’s what we don’t see that frightens us.

We do not see the rest of the shark.

It has been bitten clean in half!

“Sweet Jesus!” Anderson exclaims. “What in God’s name could have done that? A boat propeller?”

I shake my head. Based on the bull shark’s head, I estimate it to have been at least ten feet in length. Whatever killed it is far larger.

 

 

Smith/River of Death/11

Anderson looks at me and we both cringe. There is but one creature in these waters off the northern Atlantic that could do such a thing. As impossible as it may seem, we are now hunting the dreaded Great White.

“But, how could a Great White be in fresh water?” the lieutenant asks.

“Let us ask the woman,” I reply.

It takes several more moments for the woman to calm down enough to talk. The boat captain has passed along a bottle of Medford rum and the woman gags a little after taking a draught of the famous beverage. It is a nice gesture from the captain; Medford rum ceased production abruptly in 1905.

“T-thank you, kind sirs,” the woman says after a bit. “And thank you, especially, Lieutenant.”

Anderson merely nods. She is a comely woman. Yet, he must remain professional.

“Your name, madam?’ he asks.

“I am Lucille Whitaker,” she answers, looking up at each of us around her. “I live in Medford.”

“How came you to be on the river at this unearthly hour?” I ask.

The woman looks at Anderson, as if seeking permission to answer. I am not offended. It is not customary for a colored man to ask a white woman a question with authority behind it. Not unless there’s real authority -- like Anderson -- present.

“This is Mordecai Cozza, the famous explorer,” Anderson says.

 

Smith/River of Death/12

 “Oh, yes, I have heard of you, sir,” Lucille says. “I apologize. I always thought you were a white man.”

I ignore the need to explain my surname and I bid her to answer my question. My family name often confuses people. Suffice it to say, though unusual, it led my ancestors to avoid slave hunters when they escaped a plantation in South Carolina. No one ever bothered to change it.

“I was at Mystic Park,” Lucille says. “I was to meet...a friend.”

We understand. Perhaps her family did not approve of this friend and Lucille had to meet him away from where friends or family might see her. Who were we to judge?

“But, this awful man kidnapped me at knifepoint,” she continues. “He said his name was Black Bill and he had just escaped from Charles Street. He made me take a rowboat moored at the park and row it upstream.”

She further explained that she had to stop after a while. She had never rowed a boat before and it was very exhausting. Black Bill had become impatient and pushed the knife at her. That was when something hit the boat.

A nudge at first. Then, a stronger bump that jostled them both. Black Bill had become angry, believing Lucille had deliberately rowed the boat close to shore and that it was now scraping bottom.

Black Bill fumbled at the oars when a huge maw and razor sharp teeth came out of the water, clamped on to the oar and pulled it and the unfortunate Black Bill into the Mystic River. Lucille was terrified into silence, watching in horror as

 

Smith/River of Death/13

the escaped criminal thrashed about in the water before finally disappearing beneath the surface.

It took her a minute to lean over the gunwale to stare into the water. That’s when Bill’s right arm shot out of the dark, the hand clamping on to the side of the boat in a white-knuckled death grip. The grip held but the gunwale didn’t and a huge part of the side of the row boat came away. The arm and Black Bill disappeared, leaving a petrified Lucille to huddle in the middle of that same boat, wondering when her turn at death would come.

Anderson comforts her while I walk up to the bow and stare ahead into the darkness. Our mission had taken on a greater urgency, yet we dared not impose any more danger upon this poor woman. I know Anderson will make haste to the locks to get the woman ashore for medical assistance.

It is likely the Great White will return to the sea soon. Before the Craddock Locks were built, ocean water backed up all along the river at high tide, creating extensive salt marshes. After the locks opened, fresh water was released at steady intervals to keep the Mystic fresh until it merged with the Charles River. It might have been possible for some unusually strong tides to push more salt water up the river, allowing a Great White to swim further. Eventually, though, the lack of salt would hit it (salt helped it maintain bouyancy) and force it to return to the Atlantic.

“Locks dead ahead,” the boat captain calls out.

The spotlight illuminates the house that contains the lock controls. A small dock sits in front of it and leads to stone stairs that connect to the Main Street

Smith/River of Death/14

Bridge. The light swings over to the locks themselves and I can see that the steel gates are closed. Originally, we did not want the bull shark to get past the locks, if it hadn’t already. If it had, we wanted to keep it from the lower part of the river because we needed to kill it.

Bam!

What the?

Something has just struck the gates.

“Swing the light at the gates,” I tell the lieutenant. “At the surface.”

The gates heave inward as something roils the water in front of them. The sound of flesh on metal reverberates through the night air. I look right and see three men with rifles coming out on to the control house deck. A fourth man also steps outside and he has a large flashlight.

“There it is!” Anderson announces, his voice tense.

I see it. No dorsal fin shows but a large body is clearly just beneath the surface. It is trying to break through the locks. The Great White is known for tremendous strength and, given enough time, it could break the locks.

A shot rings out. The men on the dock are shooting at it. I wish them luck. I can’t see much to shoot at and their bullets are going to be nullified by the water. However, to my surprise, it does the trick. The thrashing stops and all goes quiet.

“Do you see anything, Mordecai?” Anderson asks.

I shake my head. He has the spotlight and he is asking me if I see anything? I frown and turn my attention back to the locks.

 

Smith/River of Death/15

 “Flashlights on, gentlemen,” I order. “Check the water. The shark is going to try to get past us. If you have a shot, take it. Aim for the head.”

The men fan out along the deck. The extra two deckhands who work for the captain begin put the lanterns back on to the ends of the extra spars and hanging the lights over the water. We go back to looking like some weird junk during the Chinese New Year.

It seems there is something I am forgetting.

A scream alerts us all back to the control house dock. Three men are rushing to the edge of it, rifles at the ready. My God, they are jumpy, probably shooting at shadows.

Then, it occurs to me that a man is missing. Anderson lights up the area and, indeed, the man who held the large flashlight for the riflemen is nowhere to be seen. The others are staring into the water, which makes me see, to my utter shock, that a huge chunk of the dock is also gone.

Did the shark take the man and the dock as well? To do so, it must be huge. It shouldn’t even be able to swim freely in this part of the river then.

“Any sign of him?” Anderson shouts. “Did he fall in?”

Something smacks into our boat and we all crash to the deck. I am seeing stars and it takes a moment to clear my head. I push to my knees and turn over onto my left shoulder to push myself to my feet. That’s when I remember what I have forgotten.

The arm. I still have the spar with Black Bill’s arm hanging from it, trailing in the water. Shaking the cobwebs out of my head, I stagger to my feet and pull out

Smith/River of Death/16

my trusty Tranter. Standing next to the baited spar, I wait, for I know the beast wants more human flesh. If I have anything to say about it, he’ll get nothing but hot lead.

One of the lieutenant’s men suddenly rushes up and shoves me hard to the deck. Mewling about the arm making the boat a target, he tries to pull the bait back in or, at least, free the spar. I yell for him to stop.

“Don’t be a fool, man,” I yell. “Leave it alone. You’ll get yourself killed.”

The man is too terrified to listen to reason and I must wonder exactly what kind of men Anderson picked for this mission. I try to get back to my feet and see the man, unable to work the spar loose, lean out over the water to rip the shirt free of the spar’s end.

He gets a face full of water instead. I can’t quite say what I saw but it was massive, just one huge outline of a head. It falls back into the water just as the officer reels back onto the deck.

I grab a fallen flashlight and shine it on him to see if he is okay. Instead, I see great gouts of blood spewing up like Old Faithful. He has been decapitated. The shark has taken his head.

Lucille screams and faints dead away. In the excitement, I had forgotten she was aboard. I had thought that Anderson had taken her below before going back up to the wheelhouse.

I must wonder what kind of life I’ve been leading. A man is beheaded and I do not flinch a muscle. I have seen men mauled by lions, gored by bulls, trampled by elephants and rhinoceroses and mangled by rampaging baboons.

Smith/River of Death/17

It is just that all of those incidents happened far, far away from America. I had gotten used to making Medford my refuge from the nightmares of the animal kingdom. Now, that kingdom had invaded my home.

I grab a tarp and throw it over the corpse. I am glad that I will not have to explain to the man’s next of kin what happened to him. There are some horrors I still reserve for other people and, back home, that duty lies with people such as Anderson.

Disgusted, I lift a foot and bring it down on the end of the spar under the davit. It snaps and the baited pike falls into the water. Were I had done it five minutes earlier; the officer might still be alive.

At that, the boat lifts up out of the water like a great whale. We all spill to the deck, sliding or rolling to the starboard. I see a man grab Miss Lucille.

For my part, I spin around and use my feet against a small winch to stop my slide. The flashlight rolls against the deckhouse, illuminating the railing. For the first time in my life, I feel myself go completely numb with fear.

It is the beast and it is looking directly at me.

Nature has played a cruel trick on me again. Where I once sought a crocodile in the Congo, I got a bull shark. Now, hunting sharks in the Mystic River, I now confront a completely different horror.

It is not a shark that rests on the railing of the fishing boat, its tremendous weight threatening to capsize us.

It is a crocodile!

 

Smith/River of Death/18

Yes, a crocodile. Not an alligator. I know crocodiles and this was just such a beast. Even worse, it is a Nile crocodile, a species well-known to be a man-eater.

The thing was thirty feet if it was a foot. Longer than the boat. We had to get it back into the water.

And we definitely had to kill it here and now. The dynamics of the situation had changed yet again. A crocodile could easily crawl ashore and kill unsuspecting citizens. A man walking his dog in the early evening would be no match for such a monster. The crocodile has surprising speed and could snatch a child playing too close to the water’s edge. And not just the Mystic but the Malden and Charles rivers, too, not to mention Boston Harbor.

Again, as in the Congo, I have no idea how such an animal made it into the river. The crocodile is so far from its own native temperate zone as to make an ocean crossing seem impossible. It is possible it had been brought back to America as a pet when it was a baby but was tossed into the river after getting too big. Yet, the cold water should have killed it or maybe even the typical New England winters it must have experienced as its sheer size belied its age.

I have no time to ponder the mystery. The monster is before me and snaps its jaws at any meal it thought it could take. Clearly, its appetite has not been sated by the dock man or the head of the officer. At thirty feet in length, it must have taken a great deal of food to satisfy its hunger.

I reach for my Tranter and realize it is missing. I must have dropped it when the crocodile slammed into the boat the first time. I look around for it but cannot see it in the darkness. I really need it. I don’t believe anything less than a fifty will

Smith/River of Death/19

stop this monster. For that matter, the shotgun with its rifled slugs would work even better but, like a fool, I had left it on the stern when Anderson and I went forward to retrieve the broken oar.

I settle for my Navy Colt, yanking it out of my shoulder holster and firing shot after shot into the creature. All I do is make it bellow and roar and rock the boat even harder. I reholster my weapon and turn to pull myself to the port side.

“For God’s sake, somebody shoot it!” I shout as I scramble to get away from those deadly jaws.

In response, I hear rifle shots, very close. Both the Springfield and Krag are distinctive and I hope the thirty caliber bullets are enough to drive the monster off. Then, I hear the blast of a shotgun and shake my head in disbelief. Whoever took my Winchester pump from where it lay near the captain’s chair at the stern did not grab the box of rifled slugs. He is using buckshot which will bounce off the crocodile’s leathery hide.

I have to get those slugs. I stand up and suddenly feel a sharp stabbing pain in my left calf. My God. It’s got me.

I look back and see those jaws snapping at me futilely. I am too far away, yet I see a dark patch spreading across the back of my pants leg. It is then that I feel something whiz past my ear.

It is a bullet.

I’ve been shot!

Those idiots on the dock are shooting at the crocodile but they are wild. With just flashlights, they cannot possibly distinguish where the monster’s shadow

Smith/River of Death/20

ends and the boat’s begins. I feel another bullet crease my left sleeve and dig itself into the deckhouse.

Even worse, the crocodile has smelled my blood and has pulled itself even further onto the boat. We are dangerously close to capsizing which would be disastrous for all of us. There is little safety just swimming to shore, not when what hunts us can easily follow.

All over the boat, men cry out for their fellow officers to kill the monster. Voices are on the edge of panic, if not already there. Gunshots echo through the night air and still the crocodile refuses to yield.

I half crawl along the deck until I reach the stern. During this desperate scramble, I find my Tranter again and shove it into my waist holster. Then, I begin scanning in the faint light for my original target. My box of rifled slugs rests against the starboard transom. Water is already sloshing into the boat and my box of bullets is about to be washed overboard.

With little left to lose, I let myself slide down the deck until I splash into the pool of water. Wincing in pain, I grab the slugs. Now, to find my shotgun.

“Mordecai!”

I hear Anderson but cannot tell where he is. I hear his voice again and look up. He is leaning out from the starboard bridge wing, trying to hang on for dear life while fumbling with a Springfield.

“Mordecai, are you okay?”

 

 

Smith/River of Death/21

I can’t help but wonder at the timing of the question. A thirty-foot Nile crocodile is about to tip the boat and eat all of us and he is wondering how I am doing. I call out for my shotgun and he pulls himself back into the wheelhouse.

Cursing under my breath, I shove the box of slugs into my coat pocket. Then, I reload the Tranter. It is better than nothing. Having to brace myself against the transom (using even my bad leg) and being knee deep in water leaves little time for choice.

I aim my Tranter and start blasting. The crocodile bellows again, telling me I am causing it pain. When I run dry with my revolver, I use the Navy Colt and spray the monster again.

All of a sudden, it gives up. Just like that. It swings its massive body over the side and back into the river. The boat is flung back as it rights itself, sending all of us to the port side. I personally slide across the deck and smash into the opposite transom. Stars greet my vision once more. Should I survive this affair, I may need serious medical attention.

My next sensation is when a pair of strong hands grips my shoulders and roughly hauls me to my feet. It is Anderson and I can see he has retrieved my shotgun. I take it from him, collapse into the captain’s chair and set about loading the damned thing.

“I say, Mordecai, you’re hurt,” Anderson notes, shining his flashlight on my left leg.

“One of the men on the dock shot me,” I say. “It hurts but I can fix it later.”

 

Smith/River of Death/22

 “Bloody fools,” Anderson curses. “One of them almost got our skipper. Imagine facing a monstrosity like we just did and being killed instead by a bullet? I’ll see if the skipper has an aid kit. We can at least bandage your wound until we can get you to a hospital. I think I’ll enjoy it when you have to explain to the nurse the circumstances under which you incurred the bullet.”

For the first time this night, I smile and even laugh.

“Not looking forward to it, I can assure you, Lieutenant,” I reply. “Now, what is our situation? We have two dead and I am guessing that our boat is not the most ship-shape.”

Anderson shakes his head.

“The good news is that we’ve been shoved to the west side of the river,” he tells me. “The bank is too steep for the croc to attack us from the port side. I’ve got all lights on our starboard side. And the men on the dock have moved back in case the creature should decide to take another bite out of them.”

“What are you leaving out?”

“We’re almost out of bullets,” Anderson answers. “A lot of panicked shots. Under pressure, most of my men are very good. However, none of us ever trained to hunt a crocodile in Massachusetts. I’ve requested more but all available police officers in Medford are keeping curious bystanders away.”

I had been wondering why no onlookers had showed up. We unleashed enough bullets to make it sound like the Battle of San Juan Hill. Still, there are bound to be reporters who will not be deterred and will get some information into the morning editions.

Smith/River of Death/23

 “Is it over?”

Anderson and I turn around and see Lucille Whitaker stepping tentatively onto the deck from below. There is a large bruise on her forehead and she walks with a limp. She sees the water sloshing around and spies the damaged railing and transom. She is perilously close to the side and Anderson gently takes her by an arm.

“Miss, it will be safer for you down below,” he says. “Then, we can treat your injuries.

I am not too sure about the truth of that statement. She must have been tossed around pretty good down below when the boat was swamped. It’s no wonder she looks shell-shocked. However, there are already enough panicking people on this boat; we don’t need hers added to the mix.

“Please, Miss,” I add, walking up to her and Anderson. “What he says is true .”

She tries to pull away.

“Please, I want to go home,” she pleads. “I have to get off this boat.”

She makes for the railing. Is she really going to swim for it? Could she be that scared?

The matter is settled before she can even try to jump, for the water explodes and the crocodile leaps into the air. I thought it had left, possibly down river. Now, it seems to have taken a personal dislike to the boat and those on it, as if we have invaded its territory.

I shove Anderson and the woman back into the hatchway and they tumble out of sight. Not so lucky for me. I am directly in the monster’s path.

Smith/River of Death/24

I have just enough time to put my free arm up in front of me in a pitiful attempt at self-defense. Then, the crocodile is on me. Literally.

Its momentum carries it onto the deck and its massive head pins me down tight. The Lord has favored me, though. The monster has overshot its target and, though I am pinned, I am not within its deadly jaws.

Yet, I cannot breathe and those razor sharp teeth are just inches from my face. The putrid breath of the beast assaults my nostrils. It whips its head to the side and I am slammed against the transom yet again.

The crocodile lifts its head and I scramble to move only to be crushed once more the head drops. I am sure I have broken some ribs. Then, to my horror, the horrible mouth full of teeth moves away and turns so that the flat top of the snout faces me. It is going to try to take my legs and drag me overboard.

Reaching out, I feel the shotgun I had dropped when the breath had been knocked out of me. I pull my legs back, scrunching into a ball even as the move elicits tortuous pain from my ribs. The crocodile refuses to let his prize -- me -- go so easily. The mouth snaps at me.

In a flash, I jam the barrel of my shotgun in the thing’s mouth and fire. It is like a cannon and I feel a spray of blood on my face. I rack in another round and fire again and again. I don’t realize that I am yelling like some fanatical Zulu warrior.

With a burst of adrenaline, I roll on to my knees, ignoring the throbbing of my wounded leg.  The crocodile is not moving but I still place my shotgun right against its left eye and fire. The recoil knocks me on my rump again but I see the

Smith/River of Death/25

creature’s cranium explode, leaving a fist-sized hole where its brain should have been.

As I lay back on the deck, Anderson comes out of the hatchway and carefully makes his way around the crocodile. He looks at me and I am too nonsensical to answer any question for him. Instead, he has a deckhand and one of his men grab pikes while two men with rifles aim them at the creature.

The men with the pikes touched the croc. It did not move. Half its snout was gone, as was its left eye and, presumably, its brain. With a nod from the lieutenant, the riflemen shoot the carcass three times apiece. Still, no movement. The deckhand and officer with the pikes quickly lever the dead reptile overboard.

“You did it, Mordecai,” Anderson tells me as he leans down to check me. “You killed the beast.”

I merely nod. It hurts too much to talk. The last I hear before I pass out is Anderson telling the skipper to take the boat to the control house dock.

 

 * * *

 

“And that is my tale.”

I am sitting in a comfortable leather chair in the main room of a large club. It would appear to be a hunting lodge from all of the animal skins, trophies, spears and African warrior shields on the walls and floors. That appearance would be wrong, for it is but one room of the club. It just happens to be the room I have

 

Smith/River of Death/26

been asked to speak in, most likely because of the roaring fire in the hearth that has taken the chill off a cold Boston evening.

The gentlemen I face this night with my story sit on the far side of the room, away from the enormous bookshelves of the library. They also occupy leather lounge chairs staged around a bear skin rug so large it must be one of the grizzly bears I have read so much about. The positioning allows the heat from the roaring flames of the stone fireplace to warm the entire room.

I recognize all but one of the members. From left to right, I recall their names: L. Frank Scott, intrepid (and heavily mustachioed) explorer of the Nile; Whisenhunt Cooper III, an adventurer who turned the results of his gold expeditions to Alaska into a very profitable shipping company; famed big game hunters Harrison Coolidge and Rojas Montalbano; Irish Will O’Malley, whose reputation is as fiery as his heritage, and Truitt Davenport, the man who single-handedly killed two raging hippopotami on the Zambezi two years earlier.

No one says a word for at least a full minute. I hope it is because my words have had the effect I desired. Much rides on how they react. Just then, Scott, the presumed leader of this group, clears his throat.

“I say, Mr. Cozza, well done,” he compliments. “Well done indeed. It is fair to say that the newspapers never would have printed what really happened on the Mystic, especially if the police had any say. None of the papers even mentioned the bull shark and they all missed the true size of the Nile crocodile by at least fifteen feet.”

 

Smith/River of Death/27

 “What Mister Scott is trying to say,” Whisenhunt Cooper interjects, “is that we would like to officially welcome you as the first colored member of the Boston chapter of the Bell Club. Congratulations.”

We all stand and I shake each man’s hand in turn. I had sweated the result of their judgment far more than I had worried over getting details of my story correct. My heart stops pounding. Though it might not have showed, I had more pain not knowing what these distinguished men would say than I did during the month-long recovery from my fractured ribs and gunshot wound at Massachusetts General Hospital.

It is a great weight off my shoulders. Normally, membership in the Bell Club comes from tales of personal horror or tragedy suffered by those seeking induction. Members judge those stories to see if they are worthy of admission. As I have said before, though, being colored plays an important factor for men (and women) like myself. Despite tales that should have qualified them, time and again men of color have failed to earn membership in gentlemen’s clubs.

It is why I sought out the Boston chapter of the Bell Club. Many of its members are adventurers, big game hunters and explorers. They know of my reputation in the field and could judge my story without factoring in skin color.

“Don’t think this is over yet, Mordecai,” Coolidge says. “We all want to know how in the world a crocodile ended up in the river.”

“Oh, don’t spoil the story so soon, Harry,” Montalbano chides. “I am sure the details will change the next time he tells it. The important thing is that it is a tale worthy of membership in this club.”

Smith/River of Death/28

I frown but O’Malley pats me on the back. I am mildly surprised. Coloreds and Irish are not known to mix well in Boston.

“Pay no attention to our big game hunters,” he reassures. “They think that only their tall tales are true . They have to see something before they believe it.”

I am not sure how to react to the backhanded compliment, but a knock at the double doors that lead to the main hallway interrupts me. A moment later, one door opens and a well-dressed butler enters. He is Jeffers, the man who delivered the club’s invitation to me a fortnight earlier.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he apologizes. “But, there is a Lieutenant Anderson to see Mr. Cozza.”

“By all means, show him in,” Davenport says. “Well, well, Rojas. It looks like Mordecai anticipated your challenge to the authenticity of his story. He has brought the man who organized the expedition.”

A minute later, the second of the double doors swings wide. Anderson, in his state police uniform, steps into the room. With him is a tall, gaunt man with a thick black mustache who bears the rank of lieutenant and the uniform of the Medford Police Department. Behind both lieutenants stands a regular patrol officer. He holds a rather large box.

“Pardon the interruption, gentlemen,” Anderson says. “This is Lieutenant Hoffman of the Medford Police Department and Patrolman Sims.”

“No problem, Lieutenant,” Scott acknowledges. “We are always ready to welcome the police, unless, of course, it’s about a warrant.”

The members laugh but the visitors’ visages remain serious.

Smith/River of Death/29

 “I am afraid humor must wait tonight,” Anderson admonishes. “Hoffman, perhaps you’d better show him.”

Hoffman steps aside and has Sims walk in front of him. The patrolman lowers the box and removes the lid. I gasp.

Inside the box is a baby crocodile.

“But, the one I killed was male,” I say. “Where did you find this one?”

“In Alewife Brook,” Hoffman replies. “And, earlier, we found a half-sunken scull by the Boston Avenue Bridge. No sign of the oarsman.”

Now it all makes sense. No wonder the crocodile I killed did not flee but continued attacking the dock and the boat. It was protecting its territory. It also explained why the monster had assaulted the Craddock Locks. It must have swum into the wider part of the river for food only to be locked out of where its babies were. And its...

“Mate,” I murmur. “Good God.”

“Yes, gentlemen,” Anderson concurs. “There is another full-grown crocodile on the river, as well as the potential for even more if we do not act soon. Obviously, these creatures have gotten past the locks and threaten the Mystic Lakes, as well as Alewife, Fresh Pond, even Spot Pond and the Reservoir. Not to mention all the people living near those water sources.”

I sigh and grab my coat.

“Gentlemen,” I say, turning to face the members of the Bell Club. “Would you care to personally experience the River of Death?”

We leave Jeffers to douse the fire of the now-empty room.

 

Smith/River of Death/30

© 2011 Gregory Marshall Smith. All rights reserved.

 

 

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