The sponge fishermen of the Florida Keys have always been a hard lot, with a taste for rough sport. Seldom if ever has that taste been more satisfactorily fulfilled than it was on July 5, 1897, when the brawlers and gamblers of the sponge fleet arranged a fight between an alligator and a crocodile.
I didn't see it, of course, but I heard about it many years later from old "Tarp" Turpin, a 'Glades fishing guide who had been a helper to "Alligator Joe" Frazee, the man who supplied the 'gator.
More than a quarter of a century after the epic battle Tarp remembered every detail and recounted each one with gusto. His tale was so tall, in fact, that I might have put it down as invention had I not been able to check a good deal of it with contemporary newspaper accounts. A woman reporter from Kissimmee named Minnie Will-son had interviewed almost all of the spectators a year or so after the fight. Their testimony bore out everything Tarp said that night when a number of us were camped out and Tarp's chores were interrupted by the roar of a gator.
"That sounded like a big one," Tarp commented. "He must be 10 to 12 foot long. He wouldn't hold a candle, though, to old Barney, a 13-footer Joe Frazee and I roped over near Immokalee. Barney was so big that Joe and I decided not to skin him. Instead we put him on exhibition in a pen outside a saloon owned by a friend of ours, where everybody in town could have a look at him. Miami was only about a year old then, and there weren't more than a few hundred people there; but they all came down to have a look at old Barney."
Tarp paused to reflect, and the rest of us filled and lit our pipes and listened to the love songs of the frogs. "One day a bunch of spongers from the Keys came up and had a look at Barney," Tarp continued. " 'Why that gator ain't nothing,' one of them said, 'I've got a crocodile I caught in Card Sound that could whomp him any day.' "
A group of waterfowl, startled on their roost by something in the night, let out some wild screams. One of the cranes had a voice like a boy running a stick along a picket fence. Tarp waited patiently until the fearsome racket quieted down.
"We didn't know much about crocodiles then," he went on. "They're not the same as gators, you know. There weren't any crocs here in the 'Glades, and what few there were in Florida stayed in the bays and inlets around the Keys and didn't come into fresh water. But a challenge was a challenge, and we had faith in old Barney. The sponge fishermen were all eager to bet anything they had on their croc to lick any critter. So we raised a bundle of money and bet it against their boats and nets and loaded Barney on a sloop for Matecumbe Key to go meet the croc.
"When we saw the croc we weren't so sure as we had been. He was lean and quick and ugly. Our fighter outweighed him by maybe 50 pounds, but the croc was at least half a foot longer, and he looked full of fight. When we put Barney in a pen next to his he tried to tear down a solid cypress partition to get at him.
"Well, sir, there never was such a crowd on Matecumbe Key before as showed up the next morning to see the fight. There weren't any roads or rail-road over the Keys then, but they came from everywhere, in all kinds of boats. There were dinghies and sloops and captain's gigs and just plain old dugouts pulled up all over that beach.
"Some people wanted the fight to take place right on the beach, but we put a stop to that. We didn't want that croc running for salt water if he was getting licked. So some of the ship's carpenters built a strong pen about 40 by 40, and we roped the two beasts and dumped them inside."
The glow of the fire could hardly match the glow of old Tarp's eyes as he remembered the scene.
"If anyone thought that those critters wouldn't fight each other," he said, "it didn't take long to show he was wrong. Old Barney raised up on his legs and rushed the first thing. It looked like he expected that croc to turn tail and run like everything else did when he charged. But that crocodile not only stood his ground, he slashed at Barney with those big jaws of his. For a minute Barney seemed to change his mind about charging, and the two beasts circled each other, looking for an opening. Then Barney thought he saw one and rushed in, taking a vicious bite from the croc but giving it back with a deadly swat of his tail. That blow landed square and, though it would have killed a mule, the crocodile took it and came back for more. I'll swear the crack when it hit him was loud enough to have been heard up in Georgia."
Another of the eerie sounds that mark night in the deep Everglades stopped Tarp. It was a sound like a woman's scream, followed by a fierce cackle. Tarp listened until it died away, then he went on.
"Well, once again the croc sank his teeth into Barney, but the gator proved that his jaws could be a weapon, too. With one vicious bite he tore a hunk from the crocodile's neck. The two wounded reptiles separated for a moment. Barney rushed in again, lashing out with his tail; but the croc wasn't having any more of that. He kept his distance, looking for an opening. Then suddenly, as the gator turned to attack, the croc hit him full force with his snout, rearing him upward for an instant. It was just long enough to bare the gator's soft belly, and the croc's teeth raked it back and forth. Man, Barney's roar sounded like a dozen locomotives whistling for a crossing at the same time."
That was no time to stop, but Tarp went over to the mangroves and, with what seemed to us maddening slowness, cut off a few dry branches and put them on the fire.
"I'd have thought a wound like that would kill anything," Tarp went on at last, "but Barney didn't show any signs of weakening. Instead, as his opponent closed in for the kill, Barney managed to swipe him again with that still-powerful tail. Blood and guts flew around everywhere, but Barney jumped on the half-stunned crocodile and managed to clamp its lower jaw between his teeth. Trying to free himself, the croc brought down his upper jaw on Barney's head with such a crack that he knocked one eye right out of its socket, but the big gator just hung on. He didn't even stop when the croc died. Instead he kept right on until the body was shredded into chunks.
"Man, we were happy! We loaded our badly damaged champion back on the sloop and collected our bets. That big Barney was half torn to pieces himself; but derned if he didn't recover, and we had him on show at the saloon for four or five years after that."
"The Roman emperors used to stage shows like that," one of my awestruck companions muttered.
"Not like that, they didn't," Tarp protested. "There never was another fight like that. I know. I was there."
Out in the night an alligator roared again, as if to say, "Yeah, man!"