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How the Cayman was killed, edited by Andrew Lang

Waterton’s Wanderings in S. America.

In the year 1782 there was born in the old house of Walton, near Pontefract, in Yorkshire, a boy named Charles Waterton, who afterwards became very famous as a traveller and a naturalist. As soon as he could walk, he was always to be found poking about among trees, or playing with animals, and both at home and at school he got into many a scrape through his love of adventure. He was only about ten when some other boys dared him to ride on a cow, and of course he was not going to be beaten. So up he got while the cow was only thinking how good the grass tasted, but the moment she felt a strange weight on her back, she flung her heels straight into the air, and off flew Master Waterton over her head.

Many years after this, Waterton was travelling in South America, seeing and doing many curious things. For a long time he had set his heart on catching a cayman, a kind of alligator that is found in the rivers of Guiana. For this purpose he took some Indians with him to the Essequibo, which falls into the sea not far from Demerara, and was known to be a famous place for caymans. It was no good attempting to go after them during the long, bright day. They were safely in hiding, and never thought of coming out till the sun was below the horizon.

So Waterton and his Indians waited in patience till the moon rose, and everything was still, except that now and then a huge fish would leap into the air and  plunge again under water. Suddenly there broke forth a fearful noise, unlike the cry of any other creature. As one cayman called another answered; and although caymans are not very common anywhere, that night you would have thought that the world was full of them.

The three men stopped eating their supper of turtle and turned and looked over the river. Waterton could see nothing, but the Indian silently pointed to a black log that lay in the stream, just over the place where they had baited a hook with a large fish, and bound it on a board. At the end of the board a rope was fastened, and this was also made fast to a tree on the bank. By-and-bye the black log began to move, and in the bright moonlight he was clearly seen to open his long jaws and to take the bait inside them. But the watchers on shore pulled the rope too soon, and the cayman dropped the bait at once. Then for an hour he lay quite still, thinking what he should do next, but feeling cross at having lost his supper, he made up his mind to try once more, and cautiously took the bait in his mouth. Again the rope was pulled, and again the bait was dropped into the river; but in the end the cayman proved more cunning than the Indians, for after he had played this trick for three or four times he managed to get the fish without the hook, and when the sun rose again, Waterton knew that cayman hunting was over for that day.

For two or three nights they watched and waited, but did not ever get so near success as before. Let them conceal a hook in the bait ever so cleverly, the cayman was sure to be cleverer than they, and when morning came, the bait was always gone and the hook always left. The Indians, however, had no intention of allowing the cayman to beat them in the long run, and one of them invented a new hook, which this time was destined to better luck. He took four or five pieces of wood about a foot long, barbed them at each end, and tied them firmly to the end of a rope, thirty yards long. Above the barb  was baited the flesh of an acouri, a creature the size of a rabbit. The whole was then fastened to a post driven into the sand, and the attention of the cayman aroused to what was going on by some sharp blows on an empty tortoiseshell, which served as a drum.

About half-past five the Indian got up and stole out to look, and then he called triumphantly to the rest to come up at once, for on the hook was a cayman, ten feet and a half long.

But hard as it had been to secure him, it was nothing to the difficulty of getting him out alive, and with his scales uninjured, especially as the four Indians absolutely refused to help, and that left only two white men and a negro, to grapple with the huge monster. Of these, too, the negro showed himself very timid, and it was not easy to persuade him to be of any use.

The position was certainly puzzling. If the Indians refused their help, the cayman could not be taken alive at all, and if they gave it, it was only at the price of injuring the animal and spoiling its skin. At length a compromise occurred to Waterton. He would take the mast of the canoe, which was about eight feet long, and would thrust it down the cayman’s throat, if it showed any signs of attacking him. On this condition, the Indians agreed to give their aid.

Matters being thus arranged, Waterton then placed his men—about seven in all—at the end of the rope and told them to pull till the cayman rose to the surface, while he himself knelt down with the pole about four yards from the bank, ready for the cayman, should he appear, roaring. Then he gave the signal, and slowly the men began to pull. But the cayman was not to be caught without a struggle. He snorted and plunged violently, till the rope was slackened, when he instantly dived below. Then the men braced all their strength for another effort, and this time out he came and made straight for Waterton.

The men force the cayman out of the water


 The naturalist was so excited by his capture, that he lost all sense of the danger of his position. He waited till the cayman was within a few feet of him, when he flung away his pole, and with a flying leap landed on the cayman’s back, twisting up the creature’s feet and holding tightly on to them. The cayman, very naturally, could not in the least understand what had happened, but he began to plunge and struggle, and to lash out behind with his thick scaly tail, while the Indians looked on from afar, and shouted in triumph.

To Waterton the only fear was, lest the rope should prove too weak for the strain, in which case he and the cayman would promptly disappear into the depths of the Essequibo. But happily the rope was strong, and after being dragged by the Indians for forty yards along the sand, the cayman gave in, and Waterton contrived to tie his jaws together, and to lash his feet on to his back. Then he was put to death, and so ended the chase of the cayman.