The Young Adventures of Hap and Leonard: In the River of the Dead (Chapter 5)
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.
Something heavy bumped into me, and I twisted away from it, and even in the grimy underwater light, I could see it was the child. He had come free of the open cabin door and was floating about in the river. It was eerie seeing him swirling around there, and the water kept shoving him at me, and when he touched me it felt like rubber. I pushed the little body away from me and that’s when Leonard grabbed my shoulder.
I turned and looked at him. He was right in front of my face. He raised his hand and pointed down. I got it together and shined the light down and swam after the beam. Below we saw the boat, the cabin rising up, and the grasses and vines on the bottom of the river were swirling around. It wasn’t like when we were down there in daytime. It was like an underwater haunted house.
The river was running fast and it was hard to swim in it, but it was easier the lower we got, another couple of feet down and it was totally different, calm almost. I was glad we got to the boat, but I was starting to lose my breath and knew I had to pop up pretty soon.
Leonard looked as if he was doing okay. He tied his end of the rope off on the boat’s railing, and then he was swimming inside the cabin, and I swam after him. The man and woman were twisting about in the murky light, bumping against one another and against the walls and the glass of the cabin, like they were doing some kind of macabre dance.
It was all I could do to not focus on them.
We found the built-in chest, and Leonard tugged at it, but it was staying in place. I went over and hung the light on a wall hook for jackets. The light shone down on the chest. I helped Leonard tug at it. We fought at it, trying to open it for a while, and then I patted him on the shoulder and pointed up.
I took the light off the hook, went out of the cabin, and started following the rope up. When we broke the surface, all three of them were leaning over looking at us. I let the line shine in their eyes a moment until one of them cursed, and then I pulled it away from them and held onto it. I pushed my mask up.
“Well, where the fuck is it?” August said.
“Still down there,” I said.
“Why is that?”
“Because we ran out of breath, and opening the chest underwater isn’t that easy.”
“That sounds like a personal problem,” Tom said.
“Be that as it may, it’s fastened tight,” I said.
“We need a hatchet, or a knife, or something to pry up the chest, or break it open,” Leonard said.
“Why would I give you assholes a hatchet?” August said.
“I just told you,” Leonard said.
“Hell, give it to them,” Jaret said. “Tom’s got the rifle.”
August stood there looking at us hanging on the rope, then went away and came back with a machete that had a little leather loop for hanging on the wrist or on a belt. It was in a green, canvas scabbard, and he pulled it out of the scabbard and handed it to Leonard.
“Take this, and goddamnit, don’t cut the cooler open. Don’t break it apart or the water will ruin it.”
“Got it,” I said.
“It gets ruined, you get shot,” August said.
“We might need to come up once more for air,” Leonard said. “It takes it out of you. The current is strong and it wears you out to tug on that goddamn chest lid.”
“You come up a third time and you don’t have that chest,” August said, “I shoot you, and we wait until morning and clear water and get it ourselves.”
Tom pointed the rifle at us. “I’m thinking one of you, with a little work, could pull that chest up. I don’t like there’s two of you out there.”
“It takes two,” Leonard said. “Listen fellows, all we want to do is swim down and get it and bring it up so you can let us go.”
Tom pulled a face, said, “Alright. Get on with it.”
We got to the boat and with a lot of work we worked the wall chest open, and there was the ice chest inside, wrapped up in duct tape. First thing Leonard did was he took the machete and cut the tape loose with a few slices, and then he got the lid open by prying it with the machete, and then he stabbed into the wrapped bags inside. The dope came out in a white cloud, and I figured fish would be dying, or a week from now begging another hit. Water moccasins would be swimming in formation, conducting a water ballet. I pushed back from the stuff. It all went up to the top of the cabin and floated there, then slowly the cloud spread and it eased out of the open doorway as if it were a living thing.
Leonard let the machete dangle off his wrist by the thong, and then we swam out of the cabin, Leonard taking the lead. We kept swimming close to the bottom, kept at it until I thought my lungs would burst and I was starting to feel dizzy. Leonard got up close to me and took the light from me and pointed it and we swam where he pointed the beam. Finally we started rising up because we needed air. As we rose through a cloud of silt, Leonard cut the light and let go of it. I felt it bump my leg as it went down.
Sudden loss of the light turned the river black as compost, but we kept rising up, and then there was a pattern in the water made by moonlight and tree shadow. It was like a camouflage netting had been tossed over the surface of the river. We broke the water lightly, just our heads above it, pushed our masks up, and looked back. We could see the boat sitting in its spot, the three dumb asses leaning over the side, looking down. The boat lights gave us a view of the heroin rising to the surface in a white foam all around the boat, and then the foam subsided and the river began to darken again.
I heard August scream, “Goddamnit.”
I was hoping they thought we had drowned, dropped the ice chest and it had busted open. Leonard touched my shoulder, nodded toward the riverbank.
We swam as silently as we could and came to a series of old stumps in the water. The land and its dead tree stumps had been claimed by the river over time, but it was shallow there, and as we made our way to shore it was hard to be silent. I expected them to hear us splashing about and bullets would crash into us before we made the riverbank.
The clouds were gone now and the moon was bright. Tendrils of light twisted in through the trees like silver gauze. With our skin still wet it was cool out of the water, and though it was not a winter night, there was a breeze, and it was steady. We worked our way deeper into the tree line.
My feet hurt from all the pokes it got from forest debris, and I figured what might be an end to a perfect night was to be snake bit or scorpion stung, if not shot in the back of the head, but we managed to finally get deep into the trees. The wind was less cool there. We tossed the face masks and started moving more quickly. Once we surprised a possum. It hissed and made me jump three feet back, but it rustled into the greenery and out of sight, looking there in the mottled moonlight like a giant rat.
Read The Young Adventures of Hap and Leonard: Not Our Kind, another original short story by Joe R. Lansdale.