“Hey Capt’n. What’s that on the radar cuttin cross the channel?” Dex asked while peering at the radar scope in the steering house of the Mauville. The fog on the river was worse than ever. However, neither of them were very familiar with operating the radar.
“I was just wonder’n that too. Maybe another barge float’s tied off and we kin tie to ’em,” Billy answered.
“Maybe. That’d sure be a site easier’n a tree in this fog, Capt’n.”
“Let’s just ease her down. Don’t want to bump her too hard.”
“I’ll go tie her off,” Dex said as he headed forward.
As they approached what the radar showed to be barges across the channel Billy eased up on the engines, and even reversed them once to make sure they were going slow. “No sense risking any damage,” he reasoned to himself.
Before Dex reached the front of the flotilla, they did bump the barges, although it didn’t feel like barges they bumped. It seemed to Billy to be something more substantial than that. He was proud of the fact that he had eased up on the engines to slow down.
Dex, who had left his walkie-talkie in the steering house, came running back along the barges a few moments later.
“Twern’t no barges, Capt’n. Looks like some kind a bridge that we bumped – maybe a train bridge,” he panted.
“Bridge? Are you sure? There ain’t no charted bridges across the channel along here.” Billy opened the drawer and dragged out some old charts and maps. While doing that, he eased backward on the engines again to pull away from this uncharted bridge.
The master of the boat called on the shipboard intercom, “Billy, everything OK up there? I felt a bump.”
Billy looked at his watch. It was about 2:40 in the morning. His midnight shift started almost three hours ago. “Yeah, Captain. The fog’s bad, like you said. We was going to tie up to some barges that we saw on the radar, but Dex said it twern’t barges.”
“Do you need me up there?”
“Naw, Captain. We’re idled here. We’ll tie up ’till this fog lifts. Get some sleep.”
“Over and out.”
Billy looked out the forward steering house window, trying to see through the fog. Something about his flotilla didn’t look right. He turned to Dex, who was standing in the doorway.
“Looks like a couple a barges might be loose, Dex. Take the radio this time, and go get ’em secured. I can’t tell in this fog if they’re totally free, or just loose on the front. If they get outa sight in this fog we may be all night tryin to round ’em up.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll let ya know what I find,” Dex answered, suddenly all business.
Dex headed toward the front of the flotilla again. Billy was glad to see that this time he did grab the walkie-talkie and a life vest on the way. In the meantime, Billy studied the charts and maps. The nearest bridge over the Mobile Channel on the chart was miles north of Twelve-Mile Island. They couldn’t have traveled that far since midnight, assuming the master was right about their position then. Were they really where the master said he thought they were at midnight? “So what bridge did we bump? It just don’t make no sense. Where’d this dern bridge come from? Are the charts that old?”
Billy looked on the radar again, and could still see what he now knew to be a bridge on the scope. Occasionally he could see its dark shape looming above them in the fog, almost like a giant gate refusing them passage further up the channel. “What’s taking Dex so long?” he muttered, trying to shake the gloomy thoughts from his mind.
“Dex, how’s it coming, man?” he called into the radio.
“One barge is totally free but not far away, the other’s loose on the front. I’m tying it off first, then we kin chase down the other’n.”
“Roger that. While you’re up there, check out the bridge again. Make sure there’s no damage. Hopefully there’s pilings around the supports.”
“I checked it out earlier,” Dex answered. “There’s ain’t no pilin’, but we was goin so slow that there didn’t look to be no damage. We glanced off one post and bumped the second.
“Are you sure? If there’s damage we’ll have to report it.”
“I’ll check agin.” There was silence on the radio for a few moments.
“Naw, Capt’n, we’re clean. Bridges are tough. Don’t see a thing outa place.”
“Good. Let me know how yer comin with the barges. As soon as ya get ’em secured we’re tying up, even if we have ta ground em on the shore or tie to this mystery bridge.”
Billy was still confused about where they were. “A bridge being here just don’t make no sense,” he muttered to himself, lighting another cigarette to calm his nerves and help him think. “There ain’t supposed to be no bridge round these parts of the Mobile Channel.”
He traced the channel along the chart with his finger. The charts clearly showed the railroad staying beside the channel for miles before crossing the river. “It just don’t make no sense.”