Editor’s note: The 2016 Top of the Lake Art Festival, held Jan 23 and 24, included a short story contest. Stories were required to be set in Okeechobee. “Alligator Sally” won first place.
Silence sucked the breath from the already warm, humid schoolroom. Alice Appleby poised her index finger atop the cow bell, as the boys unconsciously leaned forward in anticipation. A smile was twitching at the comer of her mouth.
“Ring-a-ling,” the boys shot from their seats , springing for the door.
“Walk don’t run, boys!” she admonished, smiling.
“Yes, Miss Appleby,” they chimed in unison.
The boys slowed to a fast walk, and after escaping the palmetto shack schoolhouse, they scrambled for their cane poles stacked neatly outside. Everyone in Tantie was anxious to see Alligator Sally , and the river boat Success, which was arriving at the mercantile today.
Sam and Jimmy hurried down the white sandy road lined with palmettos, looking like giant green fans. Crickets chirped as if to protest the stifling heat, while the cicadas’ incessant
high pitched buzz hummed through the air.
Passing Raulerson’s mercantile on Fourth Street, they reached the docks along Taylor Creek behind the store. They promptly baited their hooks, having them in the water in record
John Masters looked down from the bridge on the upper deck of his boat, and put a heavy hand to the horn, a big grin spreading across his face. Everyone cheered, the grin got bigger.
Giving the horn two short toots, smoke billowed from the tall black stack behind him as he churned to a perfect stop along the dock. Newly built this year in 1906, her fresh white paint
glistened brightly in the afternoon sun.
Men scrambled into action tying off the boat, while others boarded to help the two man crew unload supplies from Fort Myers for the store, town folk, trappers, and farmers in the area.
Local fishermen had their catch of catfish ready for the return trip.
Jimmy and Sam were so absorbed in watching him that they didn’t notice a quiet murmur rippling through the crowd.
Slowly people parted as Alligator Sally made her way to the boat.
She let her two wheeled cart down easy, and stood hands on hips squinting up at John.
“Bout time you got here, cap’n. Been waitin’ across the bridge for a long time .. .long time cap’ n.”
John peered down at Sally, and took a long draw on his pipe. Even through her rough exterior, he could tell that she had once been a beauty. A puff of white smoke escaped slowly
from the right side of his mouth, curling like a snake about his head. The crowd looked from Sally to him and back again. The silence was bristling, and they both secretly enjoyed it.
John bowed deeply, donning his hat in mock chivalry. “Miss Sally, tis good to see you. I am sorry to have inconvenienced you.” His voice oozed, grinning from ear to ear.
“Ack… don’t you be butterin’ me up cap’n, with yer fancy words and such.”
Sally’s suntanned cheeks flushed as she broke into a reluctant smile. Just as quickly it was gone. She suddenly spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the dock. Jimmy, Sam and others
nearby backed up quickly, some women gasped, pulling their skirts back.
Looking them up and down, she snorted her disdain.
“Prissy women.” She muttered.
“Ya think she’s really part alligator like they say?”
“Don’t know … maybe.” Jimmy whispered from the corner of his mouth, unable to take his eyes off her.
Tucking a loose strand of grey hair under her broad rimmed palmetto hat, she took her wares out of the cart one by one gently, lovingly, laying them upon the dock for John’s
inspection. The gator feet were made into useful objects such as back scratchers, and fan-pulls.
Palmetto woven hats, and fans were laid out in neat rows, along with a variety of gator teeth necklaces, bracelets, and of course a local favorite, gator meat.
When she finished, John made his way down for their monthly ritual. Walking erect, left arm behind his back, he clutched his ever present pipe in his right. Scrutinizing each piece with care, he nodded and mumbled his way along her display.
“Eh, what you tink cap’n? Good, eh?”
“Oooooh, mighty good Sally. But… I already have trinkets and hides from ole one-eyed Charlie.” He said, taking a puff.
“Baaaah ! One-eyed Charlie! My tuffs the best.” Sally said, spitting a brown stream into the water.
Round and round they went, bartering and bargaining, as was their custom . It was like a waltz at times; lead and follow, then a full out tango, rough and fast. It was their game, and they played it well.
“Well Miss Sally, you drive a hard bargain. ” John laughed.
Sally looked up from beneath the brim of her hat, grinning. “Best tuff round, and you know that cap’n.”
Shaking hands to seal the deal, he reached into his money pouch giving her the agreed upon amount. Shoving the money quickly into a pocket of her tattered maroon skirt, she saluted
him, and gave him a wink as she turned around.
“Come on boys! Get this on board.” He bellowed.
Walking towards her cart, the crowd parted like the Red Sea. The brim of her hat hid a sly smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. Stopping, she adjusted the waist ofher skirt, and
Suddenly lurching forward, she hissed at the crowd, shaking and rattling the gator teeth necklaces about her neck.
Jimmy, and Sam jumped back along with the rest of the crowd as a collective “Oh!” rang out. One of the prissy women fainted.
“Awwwwwwgh!” Backing up even further, someone fell backwards off the dock.
Continuing through the skittish crowd a steady, soft, “thump, thump, thump” sound caused everyone to look down towards the ground behind her. Coming out from beneath the
back of her skirt was a foot long alligator tail.
A loud gasp ensued and those standing nearby pointed to the tail, whispering behind their hands. She turned to the right and left hissing, and snapping at those closest to her.
“Whoa! Did ya see that?!” Sam elbowed Jimmy.
“See, told ya! I just knew it! Jimmy beamed.
Sally continued walking, thump, thump, thump across the bridge. Reaching the other side, she turned giving one last growl to the crowd, before disappearing into the palmettos.
She walked a good quarter of a mile before stopping for a rest, making sure no one was following. Then, untying the rope belt about her waist, she let loose the alligator tail from under
“Ack! Good to be done with that stinkin’ ting.” She sighed, pulling the severed tail up by the rope to untie it. Giving it a good fling, she sent it flying deep into the woods .
“Serves them right. ‘ Specially those prissy women.” She contemplated that a moment, then bent over laughing, clutching her belly. “And… tis good for business, cap’n say.”
She sighed deeply, then a fit of laughter overcame her again.
Sam, Jimmy, and remnants of the crowd were still lingering about the dock. They looked in one accord towards the sound of eerie laughter. A shiver ran down Jimmy’s spine. Sam
looked at him wide-eyed, and both nodded. Quickly picking up their poles and worms, they hurried towards home along with the rest of the crowd.