His body fell in the muck. Wen felt his blood swirl into the swamp, prayed that if he died he did it before the gators smelled him, and that if he died he was discovered soon, not when the fetid water had turned his body into a bloated sack oozing adipocere and bile, not when all the human parts of him were gone and he was left only a black gobbet of meat that no one could have ever loved or protected. He heard his attackers splashing away, the echo of the gun running after them, his money and his boots leaving without him.
A log bobbed to the surface, near the eye that still saw the surface. The log blinked back at him and bubbled. “You are sinking,” said the alligator.
“Am I dying?” asked Wen. He did not know if he thought it or he said it. He felt the black water slide up his nostrils.
“Yes,” said the alligator. For a reptile its voice was very friendly. “You are dreaming now. Dreaming the black death dream of the bayou.”
Wen shuddered. He could think of no worse exit on life’s interminable highway. He wished only worse for the highwaymen who beset him. “I will drown in this water,” said Wen. “Is that it?”
“Even if you did not,” said the alligator, “your wound is wide and deep, and this water is ancient and alive, filled with creatures you could not carry with you for falling.”
Wen knew the alligator meant infection. “If there was a way,” said Wen, “to escape this fate…”
“Oh,” said the alligator. He blew bubbles. “For that you’d want the witchy woman. She lives not far from here.”
“And would you take me?” asked Wen. “I shall give you anything, anything at all.”
“Carried to the voodoo woman on the back of an alligator, dying, already in its debt, is a rather doomed proposition. It would be better for you to die and better for me to eat you.”
“No,” said Wen. “I shall make it worth your while.”
The alligator bubbled and submerged. Wen sank lower in the swamp and then felt the leathery hide on his neck, on his stomach. The alligator lifted him to the surface and began a leisurely swim between the trees, deep into the heart of the bayou. “An alligator’s while is worth more than a dying man’s dream,” said the alligator. “I have tasted enough to know the value of things.”
“So be it,” said Wen, or dreamed he did.