Miniature waves bobbed over the surface of the river until finding their way to shore where they lapped against the side of the aluminum boat. The boat—anchored in the shallow water a few feet from the bank—was loaded with ropes, traps, and a large cooler that sat in the center of its deck. On shore, her modest crew of two lay under the outstretched limbs of a Willow tree letting their lunch settle. It had been humid all morning and the thick river air made them slow in returning to their work.
When they finally did stagger to their feet, the shorter man said, “if I’d known it’d be this shitty out I’d stayed home—handful of cats ain’t even worth this crap.” Rodney had heard the same complaint before—nearly every hot day with no fish in the traps—so he just let Wes vent his frustration. They had been friends since middle school and Rodney knew it would blow over soon enough, so there was no need to risk adding fuel to the fire with any attempts at levity. Wes’ grumbling trailed off as he waded through the water to the boat and tossed his lunch bag and water jug inside.
Rodney followed behind, waiting for his friend to climb over the side of the boat before pulling the anchor from the mud. The fish were a lot scarcer this summer, he thought as he coiled the wet anchor line. They had been scarce last year too. In fact, they had been declining for as many years as Rodney could remember—with any fish over a couple of feet being a rare treat these days. There were just too many people fishing the same water and even the prodigious catfish couldn’t compete with the insatiable demand. Once aboard, Rodney pulled the rope on the side of the motor and it roared to life in a cloud of blue smoke.
They had traveled upriver for just over an hour when they passed a side channel. Rodney let the motor throttle down to an idle and their wake caught up with the little boat, lifting it high in the air as it passed under. “We drop back there before?’ He asked—jerking his head towards the channel—as the boat settled. Wes turned to look before answering, “Last year, wasn’t it? Goes back a ways and then forks, I think.” It was possible that Wes did in fact remember this particular channel—out of dozens along this stretch of the Drake River—but it was more likely he was talking out of his ass, Rodney figured. But, he was the dummy who had asked.
Rodney turned into the channel, keeping the boat idle low in fear of submerged obstacles like stumps and sunken logs. “Climb up to the bow and make sure I don’t hit anything”, he called to Wes. Rodney watched him stumble as he climbed over the fish traps before settling in at the bow. Why would I have to tell him that, He thought, After all this time? They had been catching and selling catfish to several restaurants in Ashcroft since high school. After graduation Rodney turned their small-time hustle into a full scale operation—taking out loans for a better boat and newer nets.
Like usual, when Rodney started the business Wesley was never far away. He had nowhere else to be and his merely graduating high school had defied the modest expectations of those who knew him. Rodney would probably get more done with someone else working on the boat, but he felt responsible for his friend—who he viewed more as a little brother than just a friend.
Something scraped the bottom of the boat causing it to lean to the side and Rodney shot a look at Wes. “That felt high enough to see,” he called over the boat’s motor. Wes just shrugged and gave a sheepish look before resuming his dubious watch. The boat went around a bend before opening up to a wide pool.
“Hey, stop-stop, what’s that?” Wes asked, pointing towards the bank. Rodney followed his gaze and saw something caught under a low hanging branch that sagged down into the water. “I dunno,” he replied as he turned the boat in that direction. It looked familiar but he couldn’t think of what it reminded him of as he steered the boat closer. Something dark blue was pinned against the branch. As the boat drew near, it came to him: A leg. It looks like a human leg, he thought.
He saw the shoe—tangled in a clump of bright green leaves—confirming his instincts at the same time Wes realized what was under the branch. “Holy shit, man! That’s a body,” he nearly yelled. “Hey—,” hissed Rodney, “keep it down!” He suddenly felt like they were being watched from somewhere in the dense woods that surrounded them. He aimed the bow of the boat at the bank upstream of the body, and Wes hopped ashore with the bowline before tying it to a sapling on the bank.
Once on the bank the two men walked slowly downstream to where the leg floated in the water, bobbing up and down gently in the current. “What the hell is he doing all the way out here?” he asked, pulling his cap off his head. “I dunno,” Rodney said, “he must have washed down the channel from the river. It stormed a few nights ago, maybe he came down when the river was high.” Dead bodies turning up in the Drake river wasn’t unheard of, though neither men had ever seen one themselves.
Wes started to walk down the short bank to the water’s edge and Rodney grabbed his arm, “whoa, where you going?” he asked. “I’m going to see what the hell happened,” Wes replied, tugging free from his grip. When he got to the water he leaned over the edge, peering down beneath the limb. “We have to get him out,” he called back to Rodney. “What? No way, get back in the boat and we’ll let the police know when we get back to the marina.” “What if it’s someone we know?” Wes persisted. Rodney thought about that for a second. If they got back and reported it, and it turned out to be someone they knew, it wouldn’t look good to have left them there, rotting in the water—Ashcroft was still a small town.
Rodney sighed, “Ok, hang on,” he said and returned to the boat for a length of rope. When he got back he walked down the bank to Wes, rope in hand. Up close, he could only see pretty much what he saw from the boat. One leg, clad in a sneaker and jeans, poked out of the water at a queer angle, pinned to the branch by the current. The other leg—and presumably the rest of the body—hung below the surface, just out of eyesight in the murky water.
“Here,” Rodney said, handing Wes the rope. “What? I’m not tying it to him, you do it—you’re better at knots than I am.” “Better at knots?” Rodney said incredulously, turning to face him. “Wes, buddy, we’re dragging him out of the river, not lashing him down for a storm.”
Wesley finally conceded—as he always did when he couldn’t think of a rejoinder quick enough—and took the rope. He made a loop in the line and gestured for Rodney to take his other hand to hold him steady. After Rodney braced himself, Wes leaned out and tossed the loop over the exposed sneaker on the first try. Both men leaned back towards the bank and Wes pulled the rope slowly.
When the leg pulled free from the branch it spun out into the current and was almost swept away. Wes pulled the rope taught however and the body began floating perpendicular to the current, steaming to shore like an unlikely submarine. When it got close to the bank Rodney saw that Wes would need help getting the body out of the water and grabbed the rope behind him. Both men backed up the shallow bank, pulling the body ashore as they went.
When the body was lying on the dirt the men let the rope down and walked up hesitantly, glancing around the trees occasionally. The body belonged to a man—most likely around middle age, though it was hard to be certain as the face had swollen in the water. The eyes and tongue protruded comically from the bloated face and Rodney would almost laugh if it weren’t so disgusting.
“See if he has a wallet,” Rodney told Wes but when he refused, Rodney didn’t push him. He held his breath and bent down to pull the body over but it just flopped back over face up each time he tried. “His arm’s caught,” Wes said, stepping to the edge where the man’s arm and hand disappeared into the water. He used his rubber boot to nudge the arm hoping to free it, but it held fast, stuck to some unseen obstacle below. Wes glanced up at Rodney before bending down and grabbing the shirt sleeve. He pulled lightly at first, and then when that failed he began tugging harder.
The arm came free with a pop—dropping Wes on his butt in the mud. He grabbed the sleeve and pulled again but this time it moved. As it came to the surface the men saw a silver cuff that gleamed in the sunlight. The chain disappeared into the murky water, and Wes glanced back at Rodney—who just gave a wide-eyed shrug—before pulling on the chain. Soon, a large briefcase came to the surface, the dull silver glowing brighter underwater as it rose. He dragged the case onto the shore and sat back down in the mud panting.
The two men crouched on the bank staring at the body with the case chained to the arm. “This is like one of those movies,” Wes said. “Like those ones with the mobster and drug things.” Rodney was only half listening, but he said, “drug things? What drug things?” “You know, the gang things,” Wes said, getting frustrated as he struggled for the word. “Cartels?” Rodney asked. “Yeah—cartels; like one of those cartels.” “I don’t think there are any cartels in Georgia,” Rodney said flatly.
“What do you think is in it?” Wes asked. “Well there’s only so many things you handcuff to your arm,” the boat captain replied, standing up. He walked over to the body and looked at it. The man wasn’t dressed flashy—but not shabby either—wearing sneakers, blue jeans, and a buttoned shirt. The type of clothes that wouldn’t attract much attention—if that was your aim, he mused. He looked at the case. There were two small combination lock hasps by the handle. It wouldn’t be hard to open—if he wanted to. But whatever was in the case was likely the reason this man ended up dead in the river. Someone would probably come looking for the case. They could be coming here now.
“Go to the boat-box and grab the two biggest screwdrivers you can find,” Rodney called over his shoulder. Wes came back a few minutes later and handed him the tools. He knelt down and picked up the handcuff chain before sliding the screwdrivers into a link at opposite angles. Grunting, he pried apart the link and the loose end slid to the mud. The men carried the case a short distance from the body and knelt down under the thick limb of an oak tree.
Rodney tried the latches but—as he had expected—they were locked. He placed the tip of the flathead screwdriver under the hasp arm and pried up. At first it only bent but then it popped free with a metallic clink. Doing the same to the other latch, he then set the case on the ground. The men looked at each other briefly before Rodney raised the lid. They both gasped when they saw inside, the noise piercing the silence of the woods.
The entire case was filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills. Yellow and white paper bands around the row of bundles read: “$10,000.00”. Rodney quickly closed the lid and looked around the forest. Further upstream a fish splashed as it snatched a bug from the surface—but otherwise it was quiet. Wes reached over and opened the lid again. “Holy shit,” he exclaimed, that has to be a million bucks!” “I don’t think it’s a million,” Rodney said, “but it’s a lot” He’d never seen so much money in his life—and he knew right away that it meant trouble.
“I think we should leave right now and tell the police,” Rodney said a few minutes later as they stood by the boat. “No way,” Wes replied in horror, “this is our ticket—our big break. We take the money and get the hell out of here. We never tell anyone what we found and we live like kings.” Rodney shook his head, “Think about it, man. Do you honestly believe whoever was supposed to get that briefcase is going to forget about it? No, they’re out there looking for it right now and eventually they’re going to figure out this guy went in the river. I don’t plan to be anywhere near here or that case when they do.”
“Think about Sadie,” Wes continued, trying another tack. “You told her you’d have her a house by two years after the wedding, right? What’s it been now, three and a half—four years?” “Five,” Rodney said evenly and spat into the water. “And what about the boat note,” the shorter man continued, “and the nets? How long until those are paid off?” There had been more costs than just the boat and the nets of course, but Rodney never wasted time explaining that stuff to Wesley; he wouldn’t understand half of it anyway. He stood by the boat—one foot on shore and one in the water—thinking about his options. He hated himself for being so weak.
“Ok,” he finally said, “but not because of the loan or the house… Sadie’s late.” It took a moment for Wes to understand, but then—dead body and money forgotten for the moment—his face beamed and he rushed over to hug his friend. “That’s great news, man! We have to celebrate!” Wesley’s celebrations were why Rodney had waited so long to tell him in the first place. Never quite outgrowing the bonfire-and-beer lifestyle from high school, Wes still liked to party until the sun chased him to bed, responsibilities be damned. “Absolutely, man—but first we need to deal with this,” he said, nodding his head towards the body now attracting fat black flies.
Wes walked over and grabbed the case before returning to the boat. “Wait, hold up—,” Rodney said stopping him just before the boat, “we can’t just leave him here.” “What do you want to do? We can’t bury him—we don’t have any shovels.” Wes was right of course, but Rodney had other reasons for not wanting to bury him: he wanted to leave as quickly as they could. “I have an idea,” he said, “why don’t we give him a sailor’s burial?” As usual, Wes had to chew on the words for a bit but then he understood the idea. “But what are we going to sink him with?” he asked.
Five minutes later the two fishermen had their spare boat anchor tied around the dead man’s legs. They each held a long stick in their hands, the ends of which were tucked under the man’s torso. Rodney began to count, “one… two…” On three, both men raised their sticks and the body rolled back into the water before quickly sinking out of sight in the muddy channel. “It wouldn’t take much to find him—but you’d have to know to look here in the first place,” the captain said, glancing around the woods.