The Young Adventures of Hap and Leonard: In the River of the Dead (Chapter 6)
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.
Squatting there in the woods, looking through gaps in low-hanging limbs and splits in thick-leafed brush, a lot of time passed. We trembled in the cool breeze. It was obvious August and Jaret were starting to get worried. They paced the deck. Finally, Jaret stripped down and went over the side.
I don’t know how much time passed, couple of minutes maybe, before Jaret came up. His head rose over the edge of the boat as he pulled himself inside, then he and August started pulling on the rope. After some time they bent down over the side and hoisted Tom’s body into the boat. It flopped on the deck like a big, white fish.
I got it then. Tom had gone down to see if there was some dope to be saved. He followed the rope, but we had the big light, and he got confused, trapped in the cabin and couldn’t get out. Something like that. Jaret had groped around down there and found him and found the rope again, unfastened it and tied Tom’s body to it, and came up by the rope. Then he and August had pulled Tom up.
There came a sob so loud and sad from August, that even under the circumstances I felt his pain. Jaret kept saying over and over, “Those goddamn bastards. Goddamnit. We should have shot them soon as we seen them.”
Leonard said, “Ha, the fucker drowned.”
I was learning Leonard was short on sympathy for assholes.
They were there for a while, crying and bawling like children, and all that did was make Leonard snicker. I on the other hand felt damn bad about it, but wasn’t sure why. They would have killed us as easily as looking at us if we had brought that dope chest up. Maybe even tortured us like they did the family, just because they could. All in all, we had turned out alright, not dead, not in the depths of the river with bottles stuck up our asses.
I don’t know how long we shivered there, but eventually August went inside the cabin with Jaret. The boat motor fired up, lights came on, and the boat made a loop in the river and started back the way it came.
We eased down to our camp site then, got spare clothes out of our packs and got dressed. Neither of us had spare shoes. The only way back to Marvel Creek was by river, and that meant we had to go the way they had gone.
I don’t know how long we waited, but it was a long time. We didn’t want to wait until daylight, because if we came upon them they would be sure to see us, but we were hoping to give them enough time to get off the river and pass wherever they were in the night. From the way they talked, they lived right along the bank.
Leonard had me hold the flashlight while he took the little tool kit he had, and slipped the motor cover off. He messed with it awhile, but couldn’t do anything with it. If we went back to Marvel Creek we’d be paddling upriver for hours, and I wasn’t sure we could do it, fight the current all night. And still there was that whole thing about maybe being seen passing wherever they lived. Hell, they might even be looking for us.
We put our supplies back in the boat, slid the boat down to the river. The river carried us along with its flow, away from the way we had come, and we let it, using our paddles to speed up the process. It was a safer way to go, but it was going to be a while before we came to any place that was worth stopping.
Day eased away the night, and the water lit up with sunrise and was rust-colored, then within minutes, it turned dark brown. The air was cool with wind for a while, but it wasn’t long before it turned still and hot. We paddled onward.
There were fishing camps along the way, but we didn’t stop to talk to anyone there, as we couldn’t be certain who those three knew along the river. At some point someone took a shot at us, and we paddled really hard. No more shots came.
Eventually we came to a clearing off to our left, and we paddled for that, pulled the boat on shore, then sat back down in it to rest. We hadn’t been there long when we heard an engine groaning, and all of a sudden a black pickup barreled up beside us. It was going so fast I thought it would go into the river, but it didn’t. The truck braked and the doors slammed and two young men got out. I thought, okay, now what the fuck?
They came down and saw us sitting there in the boat.
“You have to put it in the water, you want to go anywhere,” said one of the boys. He was blond and stocky and had a little bit of blond fuzz on his chin that looked so thin you got the impression he could have wiped it off with a rag. The other was a darker-haired boy with a five o’clock shadow at the break of day.
“We’ve just stopped for a while,” I said.
The blond boy nodded. “Fishing?”
“Have been,” Leonard said. “Didn’t catch a thing.”
“You ain’t got no shoes?” said the dark-haired boy.
“We just ain’t wearing any,” Leonard said.
The dark-haired boy nodded. “I got some nigger friends,” he said.
“That’s nice,” Leonard said. “I got some cracker buddies.” He pointed at me. “There’s one now.”
This made them laugh out loud. I was glad for that. I wasn’t sure they were the humorous type, but turned out they were. I had yet to determine which direction that humor could go.
The blond said, “Shit, man, I took a shot at you guys earlier.”
“Oh,” I said. “That was you?”
I thought it was about to all go south, end up with us being shot and butt-fucked while dead.
“Yeah,” said the blond. “I thought you was my brother.”
“Ah,” I said. I didn’t examine that comment any further. I merely said, “Is there a town nearby? Our boat motor played out, and we thought we might get it fixed.”
“What’s wrong with it?” the blond said.
“It don’t work,” Leonard said.
The blond laughed. “You’re a hoot. I always say, you want to laugh, hang with niggers.”
“That’s why we black folks are here, to make you laugh,” Leonard said.
The blond boy studied Leonard for a moment. “I like you.”
“I’m glad,” Leonard said.
“Let’s look at that motor,” the blond said. “Leroy, look at the fucker.” Then to us, “Leroy could fix the dead Jesus.”
Leroy went back to the pickup, leaned into the bed and pulled out a toolbox. We got out of the boat and he got in. He popped the sheath off the motor and pottered around a bit, poking it with a screw driver, and after a while he popped it with a hammer a bit, then took a wrench to it. Within fifteen minutes he had pulled the rope out of where it had disappeared, and he managed to get enough of it to go back through the gap in the sheath after he put that back on. He tied the end of the rope over the handle of the hammer, and let that clamp up against the gap. Then he used the bit of rope with the pull handle lying in the boat to fasten it back together with the rope he had saved, freeing his hammer and making a big knot so it wouldn’t slip back through the gap.
“You ain’t got as much pull room,” said the dark-haired boy, “but it ought to go now.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I haven’t got any money to give you, but if you want my fishing tackle, you can have that.”
“Naw,” said the blond boy. “You’ll need that. We don’t fish much anyway. We come down here to shoot turtles mostly. We can help you push the boat in the water, you’re ready to go.”
“We are,” I said.
They helped us get the boat back in the water, and as we were climbing in, the dark-haired boy said, “You fellows want a beer? We got some cold ones.”
“I’m going to pass,” I said.
“Sure,” Leonard said. “I’ll have a beer, and I wouldn’t fight you off if you offered me a pretzel.”
The blond laughed. “You niggers are funny.”
“What we black folk tell ourselves all the time,” Leonard said.
“Y’all really do that?” said the blond boy.
“Naw,” Leonard said. “I’m just fucking with you.”
That made both boys laugh. The dark-haired one brought Leonard a beer from the truck, handed it to him without him having to get out of the boat. I used my paddle to push off.
“Thanks again,” I said.
“Sure,” said the blond.
“Don’t shoot at us no more,” I said.
“Naw. I thought I was fucking with my brother.”
Leonard pulled the rope on the motor and the motor caught and away we went.
We went home after that, and the next day I read in the local paper how the Robbie family, which was the first time I’d heard their last name, had been arrested for murder, and how the law found Tom’s body on their property. They were digging a hole out behind the house to bury him when the law came up with a search warrant. Eventually the Robbie boys, perhaps with the persuasion of rubber hoses and phone books upside the head, admitted they had killed the family, and showed the law where the sunken boat was. Of course, there was no more dope. The man’s and the woman’s bodies were claimed, but they didn’t find the child.
About a week before Christmas I read in the paper that the kid’s remains were found caught up in some stumps and brush. There wasn’t much left of him by then, of course, but it was the child alright.
The little black mammy figurine, which was about the size of a chess piece, quit being one of Leonard’s fishing sinkers. He fastened it to his key chain, and when he gets a new ride, he always moves the figurine to his latest set of keys.
Sometimes, I lay down at night, and there, in the dark of my dreams, swirling around and around, is that poor unfortunate child, his head blown apart. It’s a dream that’s been with me so long, I can from time to time wish him back into a swirling cloud of shadow, push him and the knowledge of what some people can do to others, far away from me.
Read The Young Adventures of Hap and Leonard: Not Our Kind, another original short story by Joe R. Lansdale.