The Young Adventures of Hap and Leonard: In the River of the Dead (Chapter 1)
Journey back in time to witness one of Hap and Leonard’s young adventures in the story, “In the River of the Dead,” from Joe R. Lansdale’s most recent book Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade, which is now on sale via Tachyon Publications. Sign up today to receive weekly chapters of “In the River of the Dead” in your inbox.
Start reading Chapter 1 in the blog post below, or download the PDF to take it with you.
We were seventeen when this happened, out fishing on the Sabine River.
What we learned was if we went fishing, sat in a boat and dragged some lines in the water, we might catch dinner for our night camp, but mostly we found out about each other. That’s how I learned about Leonard’s family, his feelings about being black and gay, and he learned about my family and me.
We drifted all day, had our camping supplies in the boat, and the plan was we would find a place to stop before nightfall. The boat was pretty good sized, an open boat. The outboard motor wasn’t strong on horse power, but it puttered us along as fast as we needed to go.
The river smelled sour because the day was warm. After we motored down a ways, we killed the engine and let the boat drift beneath the shade of the overhanging trees in the narrow part of the river. It was cooler there. The wind finally picked up, which was nice, because it blew the stink and the mosquitoes away from us.
It wasn’t quite dark when Leonard snagged his line. Where we were, the Sabine was surprisingly clear. The water ran fast enough we had to drop anchor to keep from floating away. The deep water was so clear, that when Leonard looked to see what his line was snagged on, he saw all the way to the bottom.
“Take a look,” he said.
I leaned over the side and looked. There was a boat on the bottom.
It wasn’t a boat with an outboard. It was one those boats with a top and front and side glasses in the cabin, and it had a real engine. Except for being on the bottom of the river, it looked like a nice boat. Leonard’s line had caught up in a side rail, and we could see it clearly. Leonard pulled at the line, but it wouldn’t come loose.
“I could swim down there and get it,” he said.
“That’s deeper than it looks,” I said.
“I can swim good,” he said. “I’m like fucking Aquaman.”
“Just cut the line and go on. Re-rig your tackle.”
“I want that sinker,” he said.
“A goddamn lead sinker, that’s your worry? Shit, I got lead sinkers in my tackle box. Help yourself, and when we get back to shore I’ll buy you some more, maybe get you an anvil to tie on your line.”
“My uncle gave it to me,” he said. “It’s made out of lead. It’s a little figurine, an old black mammy from some kind of advertisement.”
I hadn’t noticed he had it. I said, “And you want that?”
“You might not understand it, Hap, but it belongs to my uncle, or did. He gave it to me. It’s what we call a keep-sake.”
“A humiliating little statue made of lead that’s a black mammy, and you won’t be able to sleep nights if you don’t get it? You’re jerking my dick?”
“He took it off a man once. A man tried to fight him, made fun of him, and waved that thing under his nose.”
“Some guy was carrying it around in his pocket?” I said.
“Story is, my uncle whipped his ass and took that thing and made it his own. Then he gave it to me.”
“Try shaking it loose again.”
“I’ve tried,” Leonard said. “The hook is under the railing somehow. I’m going to swim down and get it.”
“I’ll be right here,” I said.
Leonard pulled his shirt over his head, slipped off his shoes and pants until he was in his boxer shorts.
Leonard, who had probably seen the same episodes of Sea Hunt I had, sat on the edge of the boat and back-flipped into the water. I moved from where I sat and took his former spot, and looked down.
Leonard swam with hard strokes. My guess was right, it was deeper than it looked. I saw him reach the deck and land on it and pull himself along the railing to where his hook was hung, and I saw his head turn toward the open back door of the boat’s cabin. Leonard froze there. He stood there on the deck underwater for a few seconds, and then he forgot the sinker, let go of the railing, and came swimming up hard. I watched him surface like a porpoise and grab the side of the boat. I helped him inside the boat.
“What the fuck?” I said. “You forgot the sinker.”
For a black guy he looked a little pale.
“There are bodies down there. Naked bodies.”
“What do you mean, bodies?”
“What the fuck do you think I mean, a squirrel and a moose? Fucking bodies. People. I saw a woman and a man floating in there, and they ain’t testing the temperature of the water.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“What do you think happened?”
“They fucking drowned, I guess. God, Hap. I don’t know.”
I thought about it for a moment, stripped off my clothes, and went over the side. The water was cold. When I swam to the deck, I looked through the open door and saw what Leonard had seen. Two bodies. I looked in there, and when I did a child’s corpse brushed up against me, made me shoot up to our boat and clamor over the side, almost tipping it.
“There’s a child too,” I said.
“Shit,” Leonard said.
“Yeah. I panicked.”
“Me too,” Leonard said. “Maybe we should learn not to panic.”
“I guess the boat sank fast and they drowned, but damn, couldn’t they swim up from that depth? It’s deep, but it’s not that deep, and the mother or the father could have brought the child up.”
“Not if it was so quick they were down there and full of water before they knew it.”
“It would have to have had a real blow-out to sink that fast,” I said. “I didn’t see any rips, so it has to be a hole in the cabin.”
“We ought to get someone down here to get them out,” Leonard said.
“Yeah,” I said. “We got to do that. Look, I’m going down one more time to get your sinker.”
“Oh, the hell with it,” he said.
“It was everything a few minutes ago, and now it’s to hell with it?”
“I hadn’t found three dead bodies in a boat then.”
I didn’t say anything. I was still in my shorts, so I got my pocket knife out of my jeans, opened the knife, and went over the side and swam down. I cut the fishing line loose and got the little lead statue Leonard was using for a sinker and clutched it in my fist. The water was starting to stir and grow dirty, and the sun was going down, laying a strange rust-colored sheen over the water.
I made myself go into the cabin again. It was creepy to see them floating in there, and there was blood too, but it was in odd little strings that floated in the water inside the cabin like odd party confetti.
That kid must have been about four or five years old, and that was a hard thing to see, because when he rolled in the water, which was becoming agitated, I could see there was a hole in his head right over his ear, and when he rolled over, I could see the other side, and there was a larger hole there, one that pretty much replaced that side of his head.
The man and woman were young, and I could see there were burns on their body, and something was stuck up their asses and broken off. Liquor bottles, I thought. There were dark bruises on their necks, and the man’s penis had been split down the middle like a banana, and the woman’s breasts had burn marks on them. River mud stirred by something washed in and everything turned dark. I panicked and lost my pocket knife and swam up with the lead statue in my fist.
When I topped out of the water, darkness had fallen on the river like a curtain, and it was raining. You couldn’t see very far down the river, but you could see a line of rain crossing it and coming in our direction, a rain more fierce than the current one. It was coming in waves and the next wave was going to be rough. The moon wasn’t up yet and the stars weren’t visible, and with the rain like that, and the clouds, you might not be able to see them anyway.
Leonard pulled me into the boat, and then he got a flashlight and turned it on me. I held out my hand with the statue in it.
“You didn’t need to do that, Hap.”
“Hell, I know that. Those people, they’ve been murdered. It’s not just a boat drowning.”
I told him what I saw.
“Jesus. Well, one thing’s for sure. They didn’t come out here and do that to themselves, drown their kid and stick bottles up their asses and break them off.”
“What I’m saying.”
Leonard had already slipped into his clothes, and now I slipped back into mine. They were damp from the rain.
I went to crank the motor, and it wouldn’t crank.
Leonard said, “Let me give that a pull.”
Any other time I would have turned that line into a joke, but right then I didn’t feel too humorous.
He came over and took the rope, and jerked real hard. The rope broke.
“Nice work,” I said. “We got to paddle back.”
“Tonight? It would take hours. With this rain we won’t even be able to see where we’re going, and we’ll spend all night bailing out the boat.”
“But those people,” I said.
“Listen, Hap. We got to get the boat on shore, maybe I can screw off the casing on the outboard and figure how to get it going without the rope, or maybe I can tie the rope back together and start it, but it will still be dark and wet as shit. We can dock the boat, spend the night with our camping gear, like we planned to do, and in the morning we can paddle the boat, provided it’s not raining like a son-of-a-bitch. And speaking of that.”
The rain really hit then. It was heavy and cold and it splattered into the boat and within instants water was starting to rise inside of it.
“So,” Leonard said. “A better idea?”
“Let’s paddle for shore.”
We took the paddles from the bottom of the boat and did just that.
Plus read The Young Adventures of Hap and Leonard: Not Our Kind, another original short story by Joe R. Lansdale.