Dad stood over the bloody python writhing on the bottom of the swamp boat. He tapped his bat against his boot and stared at the yellow splotch-patterned snake. “This is one of Lucifer’s offspring,” he said. “I knew he was back when we saw that hog.”
I didn’t want to think about the hog.
“Hey, kill that thing,” Wyatt said looking at the pathetic reptile. He was out of breath, and the flaming serpent tattoos that wound up both of his arms were covered with dirt from wrestling the snake into the boat.
Dad held out his bat, blocking his partner. “Let the damn thing suffer. Squeezers don’t feel.”
The broken snake was pitiful, but Wyatt and I knew not to argue with Dad when he had that look in his eyes: that cold stare of determination to kill every last snake he could find. Hunting pythons was the only thing that gave him pleasure anymore.
But there was one python in particular—one huge, yellow Burmese—that had cemented Dad’s impossible mission deep inside him. This python, Lucifer, had wrapped itself around Dad’s heart and squeezed everything out but his driving desire to take back the glades.
“He’s back and he’s probably not far from here,” Dad said dropping the bat. He grabbed his binoculars, pushed them against his face and began scanning the marsh in all directions. “Haven’t seen a deer all summer. That demon squeezer has ruined the ecosystem.”
Wyatt caught my eye and smirked. We had heard this rant from Dad more than once. “The deer have been gone for years, Ben. No sense fretting about it now.” He eased around my dad, whacked the snake with his machete, and threw its head off the boat. He and Dad had hunted together for years: deer, gators and now pythons. Dad saw a dead python as one less intruder. But for Wyatt, this wasn’t personal. A python skin meant $130 from the state, which was more than a Florida deer was ever worth.
I can’t say I cared at all about the Everglades, or how many deer were left, or the number of people who had left. I couldn’t wait to get away from this endless swamp. I thought we would leave after Mom died, but her death set something hard inside Dad. It anchored him to a land that was way too low and unpromising to anchor anything. The glades were his home, and he wasn’t going to give up one more acre to the reptiles.
“The Johnson’s dog was over a hundred pounds,” he said. “That had to be Lucifer.” The Johnson’s healer—one of the last dogs around—went missing last week. After that we found the half-digested remains of the wild pig that would have choked only the biggest snake.
Wyatt was already slitting the python up the middle and throwing its guts over the side. “Ben, you can’t hunt Lucifer at night. That snake’s been around since Andrew. He’s gotta be over twenty feet long. We’ll be the prey out here.” Hurricane Andrew had destroyed a snake breeding facility near Miami in the early ‘90s, loosing hundreds of designer pythons into the wild. The everglades hadn’t been the same since.
Dad put down his binoculars and fixed a hard look at Wyatt. “It’s us or the squeezers, Wyatt. Us or them. And this is the front line.” Dad spat and his tobacco-stained gob hung on the surface of the water, floating grossly among the snake guts. “Every minute we’re not hunting, we’re prey.”
We grilled hamburgers that night and Dad and Wyatt had a few beers. It felt pretty normal, and I hoped that Dad had forgotten about Lucifer. But I knew better.
“He wiped out the coons and possums, and then he took the deer and our whole way of life.”
Wyatt rolled his eyes, but Dad wasn’t wrong. Even I can remember when the glades were full of birds and game. It’s not like that anymore. Most folks have moved away from the rivers and swampy areas, but the pythons are even invading the coastal towns now. That’s why Florida put a bounty on them. They think there’s over a million of them in the glades now, and since a female python can lay up to a hundred eggs a year, nobody knows what to do.
Dad kept staring out at the dark swamp that extended for a hundred miles beyond our dock. “Then he took Jenny,” he said with a gravelly hurt in his voice. “If I do one thing in my life, I’m going to kill that snake.”
We lost my mom three years ago when I was twelve . . . about the time we first saw Lucifer. Neither Dad or I really spoke for about a year after that. We lived together in our little house at the edge of the glades, trying to avoid each other as much as possible. Wyatt finally got him to go out hunting again. Eventually, Dad and I got a little easier around each other, and I used to think that I was at least a minor consolation in Dad’s life, but I don’t kid myself anymore.
The three of us hunted for the next two days and took at least a dozen pythons, but didn’t see any sign of Lucifer. Dad was constantly scanning the banks, and he even had us pass up a few small pythons, which he never does.
After pulling into the dock, when we usually prep the skins, Dad stayed on the boat.
“I’m going back out.”
“You can’t hunt that thing at night,” Wyatt said. “It’s suicide.”
“We’ll never catch him during the day. He’s too old and too smart. But he’s out there.”
We tried to persuade Dad not to go, and he tried to persuade us not to come along, so, of course, we all went. I sure didn’t want to go, and if Dad had been the same father he was three years ago, he wouldn’t have let me. But Dad was drawing his line, and that’s all that mattered.
The boat was fitted out for night hunting with two powerful spots and two infrared LEDs. For ammunition, we had a shotgun, two .38s, a .44 bang stick and a modified AR-15. I had my own .22, and, of course, Wyatt had his machete and the homemade harpoon he used to gig gators. If that wasn’t enough, Dad always kept an old but too-powerful-to-be-legal cattle prod onboard for the odd hog encounter. I’d have felt pretty good if we were hunting gators, or normal pythons, but we were looking for Lucifer, and I just knew deep inside that we were going to find him.
Using a small electric motor, we quietly cruised the dark channels amidst the miles of grass. It would be easier to set out bait, but we’d be dealing with ten gators for every python. Still, after a couple of hours, we were attracting all the wrong attention. With the infrareds on, I could see the glow from the eyes of at least a dozen gators, and I had no doubt which of us they thought was the prey.
“Let’s take one of these gators and call it a night,” Wyatt tried, but Dad ignored him. He wasn’t going home with a gator.
“Keep watching both sides,” Dad whispered to us from the back.
After another hour, I began to feel a thin hope that Dad might give up, at least for the night.
But then I saw the snake.
It was just a quick glimpse of a thick yellow body slipping into the water ahead of us. I knew Dad didn’t see him, and for a second I thought about not telling him. We’d keep cruising for a while and with any luck, be home by sunrise. We’d go out again tomorrow night, and probably every night after that, but at least tonight, we’d be safe at home.
I don’t know what made me say it, probably the hope that if Dad actually did kill Lucifer, some small part of him might come back. He could drown all his hate and anger with that terrible python, and maybe we could finally leave this swamp like everyone else. So, I said it.
“There he is.”
The minute it came out of my mouth, I knew it was a mistake.
Dad reacted immediately, jumping to the cockpit, flipping on the big spots and flooding the channel with light. Even though my eyes weren’t adjusted, Lucifer lit up in the water like a huge fluorescent tube.
“It’s a monster!” he said under his breath, and I didn’t fail to notice that the snake was no longer “Lucifer,” or even “him,” but “it”, like it was a whole new species no one had ever seen before.
The python stretched from one side of the channel to the other, almost thirty feet, and was thick as an oak. Normally, when a snake sees you, it darts into the grass and runs. Lucifer was different. When the lights came on, he moved his head toward the source, but stayed right in front of us, suspended in the water, proud and unafraid.
“Get ready,” Dad said, reaching for the AR-15 below the cockpit.
“It’s just hanging there, waiting,” Wyatt said, staring in awe at Lucifer.
“Let’s blast this bastard,” Dad barked, while rushing to the front of the boat. “Patrick take the motor.”
Wyatt shook off his amazement and readied his .38 with both hands. There was no illusion about taking this snake alive, or even wrestling it into the boat for its skin. This was an execution. The trouble was the snake seemed to know this, too.
“He ain’t moving,” Wyatt said.
“Let’s make him,” Dad said with cold purpose. “Get ready to shoot when he comes out of the water.” Dad aimed the gun and shot off two quick rounds. The water shifted the bullets’ trajectory, but one of the rounds sunk right into Lucifer’s body. He turned and bolted down the channel.
“Forward,” Dad ordered, leaning over the front of the boat and scanning the water in front of us.
“You hit him, Ben. I don’t know how you did it through two feet of water, but he’s bleeding. The gators will tear him to pieces within the hour.”
“Just move ahead,” Dad said. One bullet in the snake was not going to satisfy him.
“He’s in the grass by now,” Wyatt tried. “We’ll never track him from the boat.”
“Did you see how bold he was? That snake is waiting for us.”
“That’s crazy, Ben. Any snake that got shot is going to disappear.”
“This isn’t any python.”
We moved down the channel about fifty yards, just in time to see Lucifer’s tail sliding up the bank.
“Damn, we can’t chase him on land with the three of us,” Dad said. “At least we know he’s here.” Dad seemed to think that was a relief.
“Let’s go,” Wyatt said, and I immediately maneuvered the electric motor to turn the boat.”
The boat eased into the first stage of a Y-turn, coming close to the bank, and I couldn’t help feeling a huge sense of relief that we were heading home, and that with any luck Lucifer would be dead by morning.
That’s when the snake struck.
Shooting out from the bank, it launched itself onto the boat, and sank its teeth into my Dad’s chest. Dad dropped his rifle and screamed.
Wyatt and I jumped on the snake’s body, trying to keep it from wrapping around Dad. The two of us were no match for such a monster, and it thrashed us back and forth. When Lucifer threw me to the side, I grabbed my .22 and shot two small holes into it … and two in the bottom of the boat.
Dad was flailing at the snake with his free hand, blood gushing down his chest.
“Grab it, Patrick. Grab it,” Wyatt yelled.
I dropped the gun and threw myself back onto the snake. Wyatt let go with one hand and managed to bring out his machete. He took an awkward swipe and the knife sank a few inches into the python. Lucifer let go of my dad and turned to Wyatt. Dad collapsed to his knees and threw up.
Wyatt stared at the snake’s huge head, letting go of its body and backing up. The snake’s tail came out of nowhere and wrapped around Wyatt’s arm, causing him to drop the machete. A second later, there was a sickening snap, and Wyatt’s arm bent back at a bizarre angle.
We couldn’t control the snake; we’d all be dead in a matter of seconds. I let go of its body, and lunged for the machete. Slashing with all my might, I struck the snake in the middle. The machete cut deep, but not deep enough, and Lucifer lurched away, taking the knife with him. He slid to the front of the boat, coiling to strike.
Dad tried to get to his feet, slipped on his own blood and puke, and crashed to the floor in front of the python. Lucifer didn’t hesitate. In one blindingly quick motion, he wrapped himself around my dad and pulled them both into the water.
Wyatt ran to the edge aiming his .38, his right arm hanging at his side, but there was nothing to shoot at. “Where’d he go? Where’d he go?” he kept shouting.
Any stray shot could kill my dad, but he’d be dead in seconds if we didn’t do something. I scanned the boat, hoping to find an answer; there was nothing but the bang stick and the cattle prod. I don’t know what made me do it, but I grabbed the cattle prod, stuck it in the water and pulled the trigger.
Blue electric flashes shot through the water, and a loud thwack sound came from the prod as it shorted out. A second later, a stunned Lucifer rose to the surface, followed by Dad, who was either unconscious or dead.
I was about to jump in to get him, when Wyatt grabbed my shoulder with his good arm. I flailed to get him off me, knocking his broken arm. He howled in pain. When I saw a gator swimming toward us, I realized he had saved my life. Together we gigged my dad into the boat just in time, Wyatt wailing the whole time. My Dad’s chest was punctured with jagged cuts, but he was breathing, blood oozing from his chest with each breath. When he moaned, it was the greatest sound in the world.
I told Wyatt that Dad was alive, and he seemed to collapse. “Get us out of here,” he said, his voice filled with exhaustion and pain.
“Wait,” I said. “We’ve got to make sure.” I looked at Lucifer who was starting to shake off the stun. I didn’t want to leave him out there and wonder if he was really gone. That snake had taken too much from me. Then I saw the two bullet holes in the hull. We were starting to fill up. I took one last look at Lucifer, who was making his way to the shore.
“We’ve gotta go.” Wyatt was lying on the floor, cradling his arm and groaning. My dad was next to him, moaning and bleeding.
We had to leave, but I’d come back tomorrow. I was going to make sure that snake was dead. He’d taken too much from me and from Dad. I’d finish our revenge, and we’d finally leave the glades for good because this swamp didn’t belong to us anymore. We were no longer on the front line; we were way beyond it.