The alligator war
It was a very big river in a region of South America that had never been visited by white men; and in it lived many, many alligators—perhaps a hundred, perhaps a thousand. For dinner they ate fish, which they caught in the stream, and for supper they ate deer and other animals that came down to the water side to drink. On hot afternoons in summer they stretched out and sunned themselves on the bank. But they liked nights when the moon was shining best of all. Then they swam out into the river and sported and played, lashing the water to foam with their tails, while the spray ran off their beautiful skins in all the colors of the rainbow.
These alligators had lived quite happy lives for a long, long time. But at last one afternoon, when they were all sleeping on the sand, snoring and snoring, one alligator woke up and cocked his ears—the way alligators cock their ears. He listened and listened, and, to be sure, faintly, and from a great distance, came a sound: Chug! Chug! Chug!
“Hey!” the alligator called to the alligator sleeping next to him, “Hey! Wake up! Danger!”
“Danger of what?” asked the other, opening his eyes sleepily, and getting up.
“I don’t know!” replied the first alligator.
“That’s a noise I never heard before. Listen!”
The other alligator listened: Chug! Chug! Chug!
In great alarm the two alligators went calling up and down the river bank: “Danger! Danger!” And all their sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts woke up and began running this way and that with their tails curled up in the air. But the excitement did not serve to calm their fears. Chug! Chug! Chug! The noise was growing louder every moment; and at last, away off down the stream, they could see something moving along the surface of the river, leaving a trail of gray smoke behind it and beating the water on either side to foam: Chush! Chush! Chush!
The alligators looked at each other in the greatest astonishment: “What on earth is that?”
But there was one old alligator, the wisest and most experienced of them all. He was so old that only two sound teeth were left in his jaws—one in the upper jaw and one in the lower jaw. Once, also, when he was a boy, fond of adventure, he had made a trip down the river all the way to the sea.
“I know what it is,” said he. “It’s a whale. Whales are big fish, they shoot water up through their noses, and it falls down on them behind.”
At this news, the little alligators began to scream at the top of their lungs, “It’s a whale! It’s a whale! It’s a whale!” and they made for the water intending to duck out of sight.
But the big alligator cuffed with his tail a little alligator that was screaming nearby with his mouth open wide. “Dry up!” said he. “There’s nothing to be afraid of! I know all about whales! Whales are the afraidest people there are!” And the little alligators stopped their noise.
But they grew frightened again a moment afterwards. The gray smoke suddenly turned to an inky black, and the Chush! Chush! Chush! was now so loud that all the alligators took to the water, with only their eyes and the tips of their noses showing at the surface.
Cho-ash-h-h! Cho-ash-h-h! Cho-ash-h-h! The strange monster came rapidly up the stream. The alligators saw it go crashing past them, belching great clouds of smoke from the middle of its back, and splashing into the water heavily with the big revolving things it had on either side.
It was a steamer, the first steamer that had ever made its way up the Parana. Chush! Chush! Chush! It seemed to be getting further away again. Chug! Chug! Chug! It had disappeared from view.
One by one, the alligators climbed up out of the water onto the bank again. They were all quite cross with the old alligator who had told them wrongly that it was a whale.
“It was not a whale!” they shouted in his ear—for he was rather hard of hearing. “Well, what was it that just went by?”
The old alligator then explained that it was a steamboat full of fire; and that the alligators would all die if the boat continued to go up and down the river.
The other alligators only laughed, however. Why would the alligators die if the boat kept going up and down the river? It had passed by without so much as speaking to them! That old alligator didn’t really know so much as he pretended to! And since they were very hungry they all went fishing in the stream. But alas! There was not a fish to be found! The steamboat had frightened every single one of them away.
“Well, what did I tell you?” said the old alligator. “You see: we haven’t anything left to eat! All the fish have been frightened away! However—let’s just wait till tomorrow. Perhaps the boat won’t come back again. In that case, the fish will get over their fright and come back so that we can eat them.” But the next day, the steamboat came crashing by again on its way back down the river, spouting black smoke as it had done before, and setting the whole river boiling with its paddle wheels.
“Well!” exclaimed the alligators. “What do you think of that? The boat came yesterday. The boat came today. The boat will come tomorrow. The fish will stay away; and nothing will come down here at night to drink. We are done for!”
But an idea occurred to one of the brighter alligators: “Let’s dam the river!” he proposed. “The steamboat won’t be able to climb a dam!”
“That’s the talk! That’s the talk! A dam! A dam! Let’s build a dam!” And the alligators all made for the shore as fast as they could.
They went up into the woods along the bank and began to cut down trees of the hardest wood they could find—walnut and mahogany, mostly. They felled more than ten thousand of them altogether, sawing the trunks through with the kind of saw that alligators have on the tops of their tails. They dragged the trees down into the water and stood them up about a yard apart, all the way across the river, driving the pointed ends deep into the mud and weaving the branches together. No steamboat, big or little, would ever be able to pass that dam! No one would frighten the fish away again! They would have a good dinner the following day and every day! And since it was late at night by the time the dam was done, they all fell sound asleep on the river bank.
Chug! Chug! Chug! Chush! Chush! Chush! Cho-ash-h-h-h! Cho-ash-h-h-h! Cho-ash-h-h-h!
They were still asleep, the next day, when the boat came up; but the alligators barely opened their eyes and then tried to go to sleep again. What did they care about the boat? It could make all the noise it wanted, but it would never get by the dam!
And that is what happened. Soon the noise from the boat stopped. The men who were steering on the bridge took out their spy-glasses and began to study the strange obstruction that had been thrown up across the river. Finally a small boat was sent to look into it more closely. Only then did the alligators get up from where they were sleeping, run down into the water, and swim out behind the dam, where they lay floating and looking downstream between the piles. They could not help laughing, nevertheless, at the joke they had played on the steamboat!
The small boat came up, and the men in it saw how the alligators had made a dam across the river. They went back to the steamer, but soon after, came rowing up toward the dam again.
“Hey, you, alligators!”
“What can we do for you?” answered the alligators, sticking their heads through between the piles in the dam.
“That dam is in our way!” said the men.
“Tell us something we don’t know!” answered the alligators.
“But we can’t get by!”
“I’ll say so!”
“Well, take the old thing out of the way!”
The men in the boat talked it over for a while and then they called:
“What can we do for you?”
“Will you take the dam away?”
“Very well! See you later!”
“The later the better,” said the alligators.
The rowboat went back to the steamer, while the alligators, as happy as could be, clapped their tails as loud as they could on the water. No boat could ever get by that dam, and drive the fish away again!
But the next day the steamboat returned; and when the alligators looked at it, they could not say a word from their surprise: it was not the same boat at all, but a larger one, painted gray like a mouse! How many steamboats were there, anyway? And this one probably would want to pass the dam! Well, just let it try! No, sir! No steamboat, little or big, would ever get through that dam!
“They shall not pass!” said the alligators, each taking up his station behind the piles in the dam.
The new boat, like the other one, stopped some distance below the dam; and again a little boat came rowing toward them. This time there were eight sailors in it, with one officer. The officer shouted:
“Hey, you, alligators!”
“What’s the matter?” answered the alligators.
“Going to get that dam out of there?”
“Very well!” said the officer. “In that case, we shall have to shoot it down!”
“Shoot it up if you want to!” said the alligators.
And the boat returned to the steamer.
But now, this mouse-gray steamboat was not an ordinary steamboat: it was a warship, with armor plate and terribly powerful guns. The old alligator who had made the trip to the river mouth suddenly remembered, and just in time to shout to the other alligators: “Duck for your lives! Duck! She’s going to shoot! Keep down deep under water.”
The alligators dived all at the same time, and headed for the shore, where they halted, keeping all their bodies out of sight except for their noses and their eyes. A great cloud of flame and smoke burst from the vessel’s side, followed by a deafening report. An immense solid shot hurtled through the air and struck the dam exactly in the middle. Two or three tree trunks were cut away into splinters and drifted off downstream. Another shot, a third, and finally a fourth, each tearing a great hole in the dam. Finally the piles were entirely destroyed; not a tree, not a splinter, not a piece of bark, was left; and the alligators, still sitting with their eyes and noses just out of water, saw the warship come steaming by and blowing its whistle in derision at them.
Then the alligators came out on the bank and held a council of war. “Our dam was not strong enough,” said they; “we must make a new and much thicker one.”
So they worked again all that afternoon and night, cutting down the very biggest trees they could find, and making a much better dam than they had built before. When the gunboat appeared the next day, they were sleeping soundly and had to hurry to get behind the piles of the dam by the time the rowboat arrived there.
“Hey, alligators!” called the same officer.
“See who’s here again!” said the alligators, jeeringly.
“Get that new dam out of there!”
“Never in the world!”
“Well, we’ll blow it up, the way we did the other!”
“Blaze away, and good luck to you!”
You see, the alligators talked so big because they were sure the dam they had made this time would hold up against the most terrible cannon balls in the world. And the sailors must have thought so, too; for after they had fired the first shot a tremendous explosion occurred in the dam. The gunboat was using shells, which burst among the timbers of the dam and broke the thickest trees into tiny, tiny bits. A second shell exploded right near the first, and a third near the second. So the shots went all along the dam, each tearing away a long strip of it till nothing, nothing, nothing was left. Again the warship came steaming by, closer in toward shore on this occasion, so that the sailors could make fun of the alligators by putting their hands to their mouths and holloing.
“So that’s it!” said the alligators, climbing up out of the water. “We must all die, because the steamboats will keep coming and going, up and down, and leaving us not a fish in the world to eat!”
The littlest alligators were already whimpering; for they had had no dinner for three days; and it was a crowd of very sad alligators that gathered on the river shore to hear what the old alligator now had to say.
“We have only one hope left,” he began. “We must go and see the Sturgeon! When I was a boy, I took that trip down to the sea along with him. He liked the salt water better than I did, and went quite a way out into the ocean. There he saw a sea fight between two of these boats; and he brought home a torpedo that had failed to explode. Suppose we go and ask him to give it to us. It is true the Sturgeon has never liked us alligators; but I got along with him pretty well myself. He is a good fellow, at bottom, and surely he will not want to see us all starve!”
The fact was that some years before an alligator had eaten one of the Sturgeon’s favorite grandchildren; and for that reason the Sturgeon had refused ever since to call on the alligators or receive visits from them. Nevertheless, the alligators now trouped off in a body to the big cave under the bank of the river where they knew the Sturgeon stayed, with his torpedo beside him. There are sturgeons as much as six feet long, you know, and this one with the torpedo was of that kind.
“Mr. Sturgeon! Mr. Sturgeon!” called the alligators at the entrance of the cave. No one of them dared go in, you see, on account of that matter of the sturgeon’s grandchild.
“Who is it?” answered the Sturgeon.
“We’re the alligators,” the latter replied in a chorus.
“I have nothing to do with alligators,” grumbled the Sturgeon crossly.
But now the old alligator with the two teeth stepped forward and said:
“Why, hello, Sturgy. Don’t you remember Ally, your old friend that took that trip down the river, when we were boys?”
“Well, well! Where have you been keeping yourself all these years,” said the Sturgeon, surprised and pleased to hear his old friend’s voice. “Sorry I didn’t know it was you! How goes it? What can I do for you?”
“We’ve come to ask you for that torpedo you found, remember? You see, there’s a warship keeps coming up and down our river scaring all the fish away. She’s a whopper, I’ll tell you, armor plate, guns, the whole thing! We made one dam and she knocked it down. We made another and she blew it up. The fish have all gone away and we haven’t had a bite to eat in near onto a week. Now you give us your torpedo and we’ll do the rest!”
The Sturgeon sat thinking for a long time, scratching his chin with one of his fins. At last he answered:
“As for the torpedo, all right! You can have it in spite of what you did to my eldest son’s first-born. But there’s one trouble: who knows how to work the thing?”
The alligators were all silent. Not one of them had ever seen a torpedo.
“Well,” said the Sturgeon, proudly, “I can see I’ll have to go with you myself. I’ve lived next to that torpedo a long time. I know all about torpedoes.”
The first task was to bring the torpedo down to the dam. The alligators got into line, the one behind taking in his mouth the tail of the one in front. When the line was formed it was fully a quarter of a mile long. The Sturgeon pushed the torpedo out into the current, and got under it so as to hold it up near the top of the water on his back. Then he took the tail of the last alligator in his teeth, and gave the signal to go ahead. The Sturgeon kept the torpedo afloat, while the alligators towed him along. In this way they went so fast that a wide wake followed on after the torpedo; and by the next morning they were back at the place where the dam was made.
As the little alligators who had stayed at home reported, the warship had already gone by upstream. But this pleased the others all the more. Now they would build a new dam, stronger than ever before, and catch the steamer in a trap, so that it would never get home again.
They worked all that day and all the next night, making a thick, almost solid dike, with barely enough room between the piles for the alligators to stick their heads through. They had just finished when the gunboat came into view.
Again the rowboat approached with the eight men and their officer. The alligators crowded behind the dam in great excitement, moving their paws to hold their own with the current; for this time, they were downstream.
“Hey, alligators!” called the officer.
“Well?” answered the alligators.
“Still another dam?”
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again!”
“Get that dam out of there!”
“Very well! Now you alligators just listen! If you won’t be reasonable, we are going to knock this dam down, too. But to save you the trouble of building a fourth, we are going to shoot every blessed alligator around here. Yes, every single last alligator, women and children, big ones, little ones, fat ones, lean ones, and even that old codger sitting there with only two teeth left in his jaws!”
The old alligator understood that the officer was trying to insult him with that reference to his two teeth, and he answered:
“Young man, what you say is true. I have only two teeth left, not counting one or two others that are broken off. But do you know what those two teeth are going to eat for dinner?” As he said this the old alligator opened his mouth wide, wide, wide.
“Well, what are they going to eat?” asked one of the sailors.
“A little dude of a naval officer I see in a boat over there!”—and the old alligator dived under water and disappeared from view.
Meantime the Sturgeon had brought the torpedo to the very center of the dam, where four alligators were holding it fast to the river bottom waiting for orders to bring it up to the top of the water. The other alligators had gathered along the shore, with their noses and eyes alone in sight as usual.
The rowboat went back to the ship. When he saw the men climbing aboard, the Sturgeon went down to his torpedo.
Suddenly there was a loud detonation. The warship had begun firing, and the first shell struck and exploded in the middle of the dam. A great gap opened in it.
“Now! Now!” called the Sturgeon sharply, on seeing that there was room for the torpedo to go through. “Let her go! Let her go!”
As the torpedo came to the surface, the Sturgeon steered it to the opening in the dam, took aim hurriedly with one eye closed, and pulled at the trigger of the torpedo with his teeth. The propeller of the torpedo began to revolve, and it started off upstream toward the gunboat.
And it was high time. At that instant a second shot exploded in the dam, tearing away another large section.
From the wake the torpedo left behind it in the water the men on the vessel saw the danger they were in, but it was too late to do anything about it. The torpedo struck the ship in the middle, and went off.
You can never guess the terrible noise that torpedo made. It blew the warship into fifteen thousand million pieces, tossing guns, and smokestacks, and shells and rowboats—everything, hundreds and hundreds of yards away.
The alligators all screamed with triumph and made as fast as they could for the dam. Down through the opening bits of wood came floating, with a number of sailors swimming as hard as they could for the shore. As the men passed through, the alligators put their paws to their mouths and holloed, as the men had done to them three days before. They decided not to eat a single one of the sailors, though some of them deserved it without a doubt. Except that when a man dressed in a blue uniform with gold braid came by, the old alligator jumped into the water off the dam, and snap! snap! ate him in two mouthfuls.
“Who was that man?” asked an ignorant young alligator, who never learned his lessons in school and never knew what was going on.
“It’s the officer of the boat,” answered the Sturgeon. “My old friend, Ally, said he was going to eat him, and eaten him he has!”
The alligators tore down the rest of the dam, because they knew that no boats would be coming by that way again.
The Sturgeon, who had quite fallen in love with the gold lace of the officer, asked that it be given him in payment for the use of his torpedo. The alligators said he might have it for the trouble of picking it out of the old alligator’s mouth, where it had caught on the two teeth. They gave him also the officer’s belt and sword. The Sturgeon put the belt on just behind his front fins, and buckled the sword to it. Thus togged out, he swam up and down for more than an hour in front of the assembled alligators, who admired his beautiful spotted skin as something almost as pretty as the coral snake’s, and who opened their mouths wide at the splendor of his uniform. Finally they escorted him in honor back to his cave under the river bank, thanking him over and over again, and giving him three cheers as they went off.
When they returned to their usual place they found the fish had already returned. The next day another steamboat came by; but the alligators did not care, because the fish were getting used to it by this time and seemed not to be afraid. Since then the boats have been going back and forth all the time, carrying oranges. And the alligators open their eyes when they hear the chug! chug! chug! of a steamboat and laugh at the thought of how scared they were the first time, and of how they sank the warship.
But no warship has ever gone up the river since the old alligator ate the officer.