Salt water crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) drawing by Suzanne Baird.
It’s always difficult to be the new guy on a well-oiled team. Bumbling doesn’t help. But trying to be helpful is always a good thing and saving a teammate from being eaten by a crocodile is extra points.
Outside In was published in Fiction on the Web on March 12, 2018. It was chosen as the “pick of the month.”
Irritation filled Matthew’s voice as he looked at Roger. “We’re catching crocodiles. We can’t be baby-sitting any tourists.”
“I’m with you on that, but Steve’s starting a photo journalism career, and Todd thought our project would make a good subject for him. I said I’d talk it over with you.”
“Shit. That’s even worse. We all need to focus on our project. Having someone there with his own agenda will be nothing but trouble.”
“That’s what I think. However, Steve is Todd’s son, and we have one more project permit that needs Todd’s signature.”
“Shit. I didn’t know Todd was such an asshole.”
“I didn’t either, but he did say that if Steve’s any problem, just send him home.”
“You can damn well be sure of that.”
“So you think we should take him? I’ll go along with whatever you want on this.”
Matthew paused as he looked at the ground. He rubbed his short salt and pepper beard. “Alright. We’ll make the best of it.” He picked up his tattered bag of personal gear, embossed with the logo of UCLA where he had shared a herpetology graduate student office with Roger many years ago, and placed it in the carryall while Roger phoned Todd.
After his call Roger told Matthew that Steve was near by and would be joining them in just a few minutes. Matthew checked his watch. He and sat down on the ground, leaned against the building, and opened his morning newspaper.
Thirty minutes later Matthew put down the paper and checked his watch again. He mumbled to himself, “Yeah, ‘just a few minutes,’ huh?” He looked over at Roger who had just stood up and was stretching, flattening his middle-age paunch. “How much longer are we …”
“Let’s get going. We’ve waited long enough. We have work to do.” Roger waved his arm at Ben and Jack, two professional crocodile wranglers, at the other end of the loading dock.
As they moved toward the carryall a smiling young man stepped around the corner. A clean camera bag hung from his shoulder. He wore his straight sandy-blond hair pulled back and tied so it hung out below his wide-brimmed hat. A long brown feather stuck in the headband. “Hi. I’m Steve. I’m here to record your project for posterity.” He stuck out his hand toward Roger. “You look just like Dad said you would.”
Roger shook his hand, made introductions all around, and mumbled something about a late start. There was no small talk before they clambered into the carryall, borrowed from the University of Adelaide, their academic partner. Matthew folded his lean frame behind the wheel and rumbled the engine to life. They were leaving the city of Darwin, heading east to the Adelaide River to catch some crocodiles.
It was still early in the day and the sky was crystalline. Their carryall soon left the stop-and-go of city traffic and slipped into the steady drone of the highway that cut a straight path through towering eucalyptus trees.
Steve sat in the back seat between Jack and Ben. He turned to Jack, part aborigine and dark and lean from a life in the out back. “Is it easy to find crocodiles when they’re in the water? What do you see when you’re hunting?”
Jack leaned toward Steve. “Sometimes you see a pair of bumps pokin’ up from outta the water. Those are the eyes, Sport. The rest of the creature is restin’ below the surface. Sometimes all you see is a long shadow in the water. And sometimes you don’t see nothin’ but still, dark water.” Jack paused and moistened his lips. “And when you go to catch a croc, be sure to go for one that’s by himself. When it comes to catchin’ crocs, it’s not a good idea to get the neighbors too excited.” Jack looked over at his partner Ben. “Ain’t that right, Ben?”
Ben was a little heavier with fairer coloring and had his wide-brimmed hat pushed back on his bald head. He looked over at Jack and Steve. “’At’s right. Don’t get the neighbors excited.”
Then Steve looked toward Roger. “Roger, tell me about the project. All I know is that you’re going to catch crocodiles. There must be more to it than that.”
Roger tilted back his baseball cap, and twisted around enough to put his arm on the back of the seat. “Well, here in the Northern Territory, sometimes crocodiles and people crowd each other. That’s dangerous for people, and, if the people have weapons, it’s deadly for crocodiles. The Australian government is trying to preserve the salt-water crocodile so, when they crowd each other, it moves them away from people.”
“You mean someone actually cares about an occasional dead crocodile? I always figured that the only good croc was a dead …” Matthew’s eyes glared at Steve from the rear-view mirror. Roger’s jaw set hard and his eyes narrowed. “I mean … I mean that was back when I was a kid. Of course I know now we should save as many as we can.” Steve presented a tentative smile as his eyes darted between Roger and Matthew.
Without smiling, Roger continued. “To move a crocodile, captors like Jack and Ben here ensnare the animal and let it fight until it’s so exhausted it’s totally limp, then they pack it for traveling.” Roger paused. “Sometimes one would simply die soon after capture. The larger ones seem to be more susceptible.” Steve tilted his head to one side, a wrinkle on his brow.
Roger continued. “And since the larger ones are doing most of the reproducing, they’re more important to keep alive. Our project is to find the cause of death. Then we might be able to figure out how to stop it.”
“Wow. How do you plan on doing that?”
“We need to sample blood and analyze some of its components. For reliable results we need to follow strict protocols. That means no interruptions. You can take all the pictures you want, but do not interfere. Or you are history. Am I clear?”
Steve put his hands up as if to surrender. “Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll be well back. I’ll just take pictures.”
About sixty miles later they crossed over the Adelaide River and turned left onto a dirt road to follow it downstream. Thick stands of riparian foliage obscured the river, but through occasional openings they could see its dark, slow-moving waters. It wasn’t long before they stopped at a wide sandy bank suitable for their field site. They climbed out of the carryall to examine the location more closely. The bright sun was pushing the day’s heat down onto them. Roger wiped his brow with his sleeve.
The river was wider here and it moved very slowly with hardly a ripple. Through their binoculars the opposite bank appeared like their own side, mostly barren with a few small trees. However, unlike their own side, the opposite bank was littered with dark, log-like forms. Pairs of bumps poked up through the surface of the river.
Jack let out a low whistle and said quietly, “There are crocs here from arsehole to breakfast.” He turned to Roger, complimenting him on finding a good site, “Good on ya, Roger.”
Roger acknowledged the compliment with a smile and a nod and then announced, “Okay. We’re starting here.” He and Matthew started setting up their equipment to measure and weigh the crocs and to analyze blood. Jack and Ben unloaded the skiff from its trailer and got it ready. When everyone was set, they launched the skiff. Steve took pictures.
They started with small crocs. For quietness they used the trolling motor and paddles. Jack slid the skiff up next to a small crocodile. Then Ben snagged it with a simple hand net and grabbed it with his hands. The first one they brought back to the field site was about three feet long. Jack had tied some cord around its mouth and a rope around its tail right at the base before it enlarged and then tapered to its tip. Jack climbed out of the skiff, holding the wiggly croc cradled in one arm.
Steve was right there, snapping pictures of Jack, Ben, the croc, and the skiff. When Matthew came over to them, Jack plopped the croc into Matthew’s arms.
“Here you go, Sport. He’s all yours.” He handed him the tail rope. Steve took more pictures.
Matthew managed a grin after his initial surprise. “Thanks. It’s just what I always wanted.” He carried it over to an open area away from their equipment and put the croc on the ground.
The croc began to walk away with Matthew right behind, holding the tail rope. When he began whooping, hollering, and stomping his feet, the croc broke into a run. Jack and Ben grinned and shook their heads while they watched. When the croc slowed down, Matthew yanked on the tail rope to get it running again. When it got slower yet, Matthew flipped it over on its back, and waited for it to right itself and continue running. With each flip the crocodile took longer to recover. Finally, it could no longer right itself. It just lay on the ground without moving. Matthew started his stopwatch, scooped up the croc and carried its limp form back to the field site. Steve took pictures.
Matthew laid out the croc on its back and grabbed his blood sampling toolbox. He cleaned off the skin over the chest, placed the hypodermic needle between scales just to the left of the centerline, and angled it to point at the center of the chest cavity. Everyone was watching.
Jack turned to Roger and asked, “What’s he doing?”
“He’s going to get a blood sample. You can’t draw blood from a crocodile vein because you can’t see any veins through the scales and hide.” Jack nodded and looked at the veins on his arms, tanned and left bare by his sleeveless shirt. “The only way to get a blood sample is by sticking a needle directly into the heart.”
Jack winced. “Oooo.” He rubbed his chest.
“And it’s best to hit it on the first try. You don’t want to poke around in there any more than you have to.”
If anyone knew crocodile anatomy it was Matthew. As a professor at Florida State, not only did he teach herpetology, he focused his research on the big beasts. He had done behavior studies, physiology studies, and anatomy studies. But he never had to sample any blood until now.
This was his first heart stick. The tips of his fingers betrayed his nervousness with just a slight quiver as he positioned the needle. He took a deep breath and, with the accompaniment of camera shutter clicks and Steve’s shadow moving back and forth across the crocodile, pulled back gently on the syringe plunger while he pushed on the needle. It slipped through the skin and between the ribs. Dark red fluid flowed into the chamber. Everyone cheered, and Matthew grinned broadly as he exhaled.
There were more camera clicks, and then a crashing sound as Steve’s foot bumped into the blood sampling toolbox. “Dammit, Steve! Get back from here.” Matthew’s eyes blazed as he reached for the toolbox.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m back, I’m back.” Steve stepped back like he was trying to disappear.
Matthew glared at Steve and then transferred the blood to special holding tubes and placed them on ice. Steve didn’t look back at Matthew.
Jack looked at Roger. “What’re you looking for in the blood?”
Roger paused a moment, appearing to organize his thoughts. “Lactic acid. Muscles form it when you exercise so hard that you pant. Lactic acid is toxic and the panting helps detoxify it. We think the crocs struggle so hard to get away from you guys that they form enough lactic acid to kill themselves. After all, they’ve never had to fight anyone before and they probably don’t know what lactic acid build-up feels like.”
“So we need to take two blood samples a known time apart to measure clearance rate from the blood and to measure it on different sized crocs to see if the clearance rate differs by size.”
“It is … for us. You and Ben have the hard part.”
Jack let a self-conscious smile cross his face.
Roger and Matthew measured and weighed the croc and took some photos for data. Jack and Ben then tied the croc to a shady tree near the water and covered its body with wet burlap to keep it cool while it recovered. They also covered its eyes to keep it calm. Using paint that would wear off in a few days, they then marked its head so they wouldn’t capture it again.
Jack and Ben then went out for another croc, and the team followed the same procedures. At about two hours after the first blood sampling, Matthew did a second blood sampling to track the lactic acid detoxification. So two crocodiles were always being processed in an overlapping sequence. When the first croc was alert and responded to pokes, Jack and Ben untied all its ropes, uncovered it, and shooed it into the water. It slid in quietly, looking pretty normal. Steve took pictures.
During an afternoon break when Roger and Matthew were looking over some data, Steve stepped over to the ice chest that held the blood samples. He pulled out the rack with the vials of blood and set it on top of the chest in the sun. As he squatted down to frame a picture, Matthew was suddenly right behind him and bellowed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Matthew grabbed the rack and placed it back in the chest. He turned to Steve. “I ought to break your arm for that. If we wanted that blood warm, we’d put it in the sun ourselves. Are you stupid?”
“I … I … I thought just a few seconds wouldn’t hurt anything. It would make a great picture.”
Matthew took a step toward Steve, but Roger put a calming hand on his arm and turned to Steve. “The next time you even touch anything without permission, you are gone. Do you understand?”
Steve nodded. “Yes. Yes. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” He retreated to the water cooler.
Matthew turned to Roger, “If something else like that happens, he’ll be postmortem gone. I’ll make sure of that myself.”
Steve kept away from Roger and Matthew for the rest of the day and rarely spoke to Jack and Ben. But he still took pictures.
Toward the end of the day Roger and Matthew fired up the portable generator and warmed up their blood analyzing instruments. By the time all the blood samples had been analyzed, everyone was tired, dirty, and hungry. They ate all the snacks they brought and then drove back to Darwin for a good meal, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed. They had two more days of this only with larger crocodiles.
In the morning, as they were unloading their gear, Steve turned to Jack and asked, “You been catching crocodiles for long?”
“’Bout a hunnert years.” Jack’s smile showed a chipped tooth. “There’s nothin’ I do better.” He pulled out a coil of rope and started laying it carefully into a tub.
Steve stepped closer. “I can help with that if you like.”
“Thanks for offering, Sport. Helping’s a good thing but not with this. Nobody coils these ropes but Ben and me. They need to be laid in just right so they’ll uncoil without getting us all tangled. They’re for wrapping up the big crocs after we stick ’em with our harpoons, and we don’t want to get wrapped up with ’em.”
Steve’s eyes got big. “Harpoons? You use harpoons?”
Jack smiled as he finished laying in the rope. “I’ll show you.” He hefted a solid brass cylinder that easily fit in the palm of his hand. It had a pair of straight barbs protruding from one end. “This is the head of the harpoon, Sport. These barbs are just long enough to go through the hide of one o’ them crocs, but not into the meat, see? The back end of this head fits onto the end of one o’ these poles so we can stick it in by hand and then pull the pole back, leaving the barbs in ’im. When we do that, the croc gets mighty upset and starts thrashin’ and spinnin’ and snappin’ at everythin’ in sight. This rope is attached to the head through here,” Jack poked his pinky finger through a hole in the cylinder, “…gets ’im all tangled up, an’ when he’s all played out an’ limp as a rag, we just pull ’im like an ol’ log, tie ’is jaws shut, and lash ’im to the skiff with his nose above water so he won’t drown whiles we bring ’im back in. Simple as pie.”
Steve turned the cylinder over in his hand. “Can’t the croc just pull hard enough to break free from this?”
“If he’s big enough. So for the big uns, Ben an’ me both stick a harpoon in ’im, one near the neck and one in the fat part of the tail. When we do it at the same time, we got ’im good.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It ain’t easy, Sport. But we’ve caught over a hunnert crocs with these harpoons an’ we still got all our arms and legs.” Jack chuckled. “Ain’t that right, Ben?”
Ben looked up from coiling some rope. “Yeah. We still got all our arms and legs.”
Steve smiled, tugged on a loop in the knot, and asked, “Does this knot ever come loose?”
Jack looked off somewhere back in time. “No, Sport, never. But one time my rope broke.” Then his eyes sparkled as he said, “So I just jumped on that croc’s back and wrapped the rest of my rope around him myself.” Jack grinned at Steve.
Steve tilted his head and smiled. “I wish I had a picture of that.” Then he got some pictures of Jack and Ben with their harpoons.
Steve had watched the release of each crocodile. He knew the procedure and didn’t need any more pictures, so this afternoon he asked if he could help with the release. Jack agreed. When the croc, a six-footer, seemed recovered, Jack gave Steve a nod. Steve went through the release steps but he pulled off the eye covers before he completely untied the last rope. The croc bolted for the river. Because Steve had a couple of turns of the rope around his wrist, the fleeing croc yanked him off balance and Steve ended up face first in the mud at the edge of the river. The croc wriggled free of the last of the rope and was gone.
Jack and Ben guffawed and slapped their thighs with their hats. Steve sat in the mud and looked at them with a sheepish grin. When Roger and Matthew saw what happened, they shook their heads.
Matthew noted, “That Steve is bad news.”
“At least he didn’t damage any blood samples and he is trying to be helpful.”
“Helpful? Hah! I’m not holding my breath.” Matthew walked off to get a drink of water.
They saved the largest crocs for the last day. They were the most difficult. Jack and Ben used two harpoons on the crocs longer than about nine feet. They alternately pulled in ropes and let them out without getting tangled while the croc spun, dove, and thrashed. As the size of the crocodiles increased, the capture fights got longer and more dangerous. The longest fight lasted almost an hour. When brought to shore these larger crocs, the largest approaching four hundred pounds, required all four members of the team to carry them from the skiff to the shade tree where Matthew drew blood. Getting the needle through their thicker hide was a lot more difficult. The first time Matthew had to pound in the needle with the heel of his hand, he muttered, “Now I know why their hides were used to make luggage.”
It was about mid-day. Matthew was carrying one of the rear handles of the stretcher they used to carry larger crocs ashore from the skiff. His feet were still in the water when he let out a low grunt, dropped his handle, and collapsed to his knees with a slosh. “Shit,” he said. He fell forward, leaning on his hands.
The others put down their handles. “Is it your back again?” asked Roger. Matthew nodded. Roger helped him to the shade tree where Matthew stretched out flat on his back not far from the croc that was there also on its back. After downing something to ease the pain and inflammation, Matthew waved Roger away, indicating he just wanted to rest a bit.
When Roger looked back at the skiff, Steve was standing at Matthew’s handle. “I can help with this if you like,” he said. Three faces looked relieved. The four of them carried the croc ashore, Roger drew the blood, and they settled the croc under the shade tree.
After some rest and lunch Matthew was feeling more human. Although he could walk, he still couldn’t carry one-fourth of a large crocodile. Steve continued to take his place. He also continued to help with the releases, paying special attention to the ropes.
Near the end of the day, they had sampled a total of twenty-six crocodiles. The largest ones weighed over four hundred pounds.
Because the project was looking at the relationships of recovery to size, Roger wanted one really large crocodile to anchor one end of the data. For their last croc for their last day he wanted a fourteen-footer.
When he heard the news Ben’s eyes got big. “Fourteen-footer? We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
“Naw. We’ll be fine, Mate,” Jack reassured him. “Those fourteen-footers aren’t much longer than that twelve-footer we just dragged in. No worries, Mate.” Jack patted Ben’s shoulder. Ben nodded his head, but he pursed his lips and didn’t say anything. They made sure their gear was in order, and once again Jack and Ben went cruising for crocs.
Steve muttered to himself, “Fourteen footer. Wow. It would be great to get shots of that.” He mounted his telephoto lens on his camera and paced back and forth on the shore, watching Jack and Ben creep out to the fleet of logs.
Roger walked up to him. “If you get the canoe down, I’ll take you a little ways off shore. We won’t get very close but closer than we are now.”
Steve’s eyes brightened. “That’s great! Thank you. Thank you.” Steve rushed to unlash the canoe. They slid it into the river. Steve perched at the bow, and Roger paddled from the stern. When they were almost to the center of the river Roger stopped.
“This is as close as we want to get. Take your pictures.”
Steve raised his camera and began shooting.
The two crocodile hunters glided past some log-sized creatures, but they weren’t quite big enough. Then they spotted a pair of large bumps with a long shadowy form beneath. The eyes seemed to follow them as they approached. They made a big circle so they could approach from behind. The croc shifted position. They made their circle bigger. They shut down the motor. Jack wiped the sweat dripping into his eyes. He kneeled near the rear of the skiff, silently dipping his paddle into the water, and Ben was at the front, his harpoon in his hand. Their skiff glided toward the crocodile.
With his camera in front of his face, Steve stood up in the canoe. Roger called, “No. Don’t st…,” but he was too late. The canoe rocked and Steve pitched into the river with a big splash. He surfaced immediately and grabbed the side of the canoe.
“Don’t try to climb in,” Roger instructed. “You’ll tip the canoe. I’ll paddle us back to shore. You’ll be able to touch bottom in a minute and you can walk out.”
Steve watched his hat float out of his reach and then turned back to Roger. “Okay.”
Roger turned around in the seat and paddled while Steve kicked his feet and paddled with one hand, hanging onto the canoe with the other. Steve looked over his shoulder to see several log-like forms now oriented on them, and one moving closer. He called out to Roger to hurry and he kicked harder. His feet touched bottom just as Roger’s end of the canoe scraped the shore. The croc was a lot closer now. Roger stepped out of the canoe and started pulling it onto shore while Steve, looking over his shoulder, splashed toward dry land. The croc swam faster.
Roger gave the canoe one last heave and lost his footing. He landed flat on his back and when he sat up he saw the croc almost on him. Without a pause Steve leaned down, scooped Roger under one arm, and pulled him toward dry land. At that same moment the croc lunged at Roger’s leg. Roger pulled his leg back but not quite far enough. The croc clamped onto the tip of Roger’s boot. When the croc opened his jaws to get a better grip, Roger yanked his foot back, and Steve powered Roger inland as the croc snapped at empty air.
Just then Matthew arrived. Gritting his teeth, Matthew dragged the aluminum canoe ashore, pushing it across the croc’s pathway to Roger and Steve. The croc stopped moving. They all held their breath. The croc could easily push past the canoe, but the canoe looked like a solid blue wall. The croc appeared to think for a moment, and then it turned and slid back into the water.
Three sighs of relief sounded. There were smiles and many thanks all around with comments about teamwork, saving asses, and getting new boots. They retired to some shade and long drinks of water.
About an hour later, Jack and Ben brought in the largest crocodile any of them had ever seen. With great effort they dragged and carried it ashore while Matthew snapped some pictures of the giant beast. Then they processed it like all the others.
After the last blood sample was analyzed, Roger announced with a big smile, “We were right! Look at this.” He held up a graph. “The larger crocs take longer to clear lactic acid than the smaller ones. This is a big deal and you all were part of it! Congratulations, everyone.” They all smiled and applauded each other.
Later Roger called back to the office to have his secretary check his mail. Then he told Matthew, “Todd Wilson signed off on our second permit. In fact, he signed off on it two days before he asked us to take Steve on.”
Matthew stared at Roger. “Before? You mean there really wasn’t any pressure to take him?” Roger shook his head in response. “Todd may not be the asshole I thought he was.”
“So now our other project is a ‘go,’ but we need to add a team member to compensate for your bad back.”
Matthew nodded, pursing his lips. “This short notice doesn’t make it easy, does it?” Matthew paused. “Maybe we can find someone at the U.”
“It’s break time right now. Hardly anyone’s around. And next week the new term begins. It’ll be hard to find anyone at all, much less someone who can miss the first week of classes.”
“Damn. Then we’ll just have to find someone outside of the university.”
“Yeah, but going through the labor markets could take more time than we have.”
“Damn it all! We may be really stuck.”
They both looked at the ground in silence. Then they both looked up at Steve lashing the canoe onto the roof of the carryall.
They looked at each other then Matthew called out, “Hey, Steve, we have a question for you.”