Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Forty Days and Forty Nights, a forthcoming novel of the Mississippi River published by the University of Louisiana Press and written by Amber Edwards and Justin Scott. The book is available for pre-order, and will be released this fall.
Captain Ike Edwards—master of the long-haul towboat Miss Josephine of Blytheville— felt like a prisoner set free when he pushed fifteen super-jumbo hopper barges out of the Chain of Rocks Canal six miles north of St. Louis. The dams and locks that made the steeply descending Upper Mississippi River navigable (“Schedule-screwing, pain-in-the-butt water elevators,” Ike called them) were behind him at last, good riddance.
The Middle Mississippi River and the Lower Mississippi flowed along flat land and didn’t need dams. Miss Josephine of Blytheville would stop only once between here and the Gulf of Mexico to pick up fifteen more super jumbos at a staging area a few miles below St. Louis. From there to the Gulf, the unimpeded river could accommodate his entire forty-five-thousand-ton fleet (which happened to be carrying, Ike would tell anyone who would listen, more gravel and grain than a freight train six-miles long, or thirty miles of trucks in a row) without having to break it up into smaller units to descend locks.
But first, they had to get past St. Louis.
Seven bridges crossed the river on an obstacle course of piers and archways. Each of Miss Josephine’s barges was nearly as long as the distance between home plate and the outfield fences. When they were cabled together in a fleet five barges long and three wide, it felt like steering the entire ballpark.
The earliest hint of trouble was a strange buzz on the radio, jamming the signals.
But it was no big deal. The radio would kick back in a minute or two. They were well underway. He’d already spoken with all the boats nearby, and he could see everything ahead on the AIS. Behind him was a “poison fleet” of ammonia barges, her captain hanging back to give him time to pull ahead.
Ike Edwards envied the poison captain’s extra pay. The ammonia captain had to be hauling down five-hundred a day, easy, maybe more. On the radio he had sounded like a ninety-year-old geezer. Trouble was, management liked geezers running their red-flag boats more than hard-working, hard-driving young fellows like Ike Edwards. Trusted cautious geezers to be safer. Just wait till that geezer got hisself a heart attack one night while flanking down a chute; fall dead on the steering bars, tear the hulls open on the revetment, and spill ammonia clouds across fourteen counties and two states.
He checked again that the geezer was still laying back where he belonged and got a surprise. The radar showed a boat pulling alongside, flying fast—a little guy he couldn’t see out the window. He craned his neck, but still couldn’t see his lights.
Ike Edwards could not abide anything moving around him that he couldn’t see. He called his mate on the handheld radio, to tell him eyeball that little son of a bitch. The handheld was jammed too.
“Shee-it!” He was puzzled by the continued radio failure, but more concerned that some damned fool was ranging alongside on too many six packs to know he was in danger. Shouldn’t be out here in the first place, not at night with rain coming down like sheet steel and the river blasting along at damned near flood stage. He telephoned down to the galley two decks below to roust out the boys drinking coffee. “Git on deck. Check out the right side ‘fore we run down some damned drunk.”
He flipped on a search light. “Damn!” There he was, a black rubber skiff with a bunch on board, coming in fast at an angle that was going to slam him right against Miss Josephine’s steel hull. Ike let loose a deck-shaking bellow on the air horns to warn him off, then lost sight of the skiff as it slipped under where he could see.
He turned on the make up lights—the deck floods—so his crew could see any drunks thrown in the water. Might get lucky and pull one or two out. He was not expecting gunfire and when he heard the sharp reports he thought, goddam, cables were popping, the tow was breaking up, and he’d be chasing loose barges all the way to St. Louis.
Then his work lights went out in showers of white sparks and it finally dawned on him that he still didn’t know what was going on, but he had more trouble on his hands than trying to keep fifteen barges in the channel while not running down drunks.
Boots pounded up the stairs. More shots. A frightened yell. Sounded like the cook. A black-clad commando pushed open the wheelhouse door. The towboat captain took him in in a swift glance. Masked. Flak vest. More guns and knives than the Tulsa Arms Show.
The commando shoved an automatic rifle with duct-taped double banana clips in Ike Edwards’ face and said, “Don’t touch a thing.”
A man who had earned the right to be master of a nine-thousand horsepower towboat pushing forty-five-thousand tons of corn and sand on a river famous for destruction neither panicked nor frightened easily. Ike Edwards replied in the same calm, clear voice he would use to straighten out a deck hand.
“You bet, mister. Only if I don’t touch anything we are going to crash into an upbound tow, or a bridge pier, or a flood wall, or a levee—whichever comes first.”
The commando said, “Now wouldn’t that be a shame.” •