February 15, 1898
Sweat flowed down the exhausted man’s face, cascading
in heavy drops off his unshaven cheeks. Pulling a pair of
thick wooden oars toward his chest, he tilted his head
and rubbed a soiled sleeve across his forehead. He ignored the
pain in his limbs and resumed a slow but steady stroke.
The exertion alone didn’t account for his perspiration, nor
did the muggy tropical climate. The sun had barely cleared the
horizon, and the still air hanging over Havana Harbor was cool
and damp. It was the strain of pursuit that kept his pulse rapid.
With vacant eyes, he stared across the water, gesturing with his
head to the man behind him in the boat.
It had been nearly two weeks since the Spanish militia first
tried to appropriate his discovery, forcing him to flee. Three of
his comrades had already died defending the relic. The Spaniards
had no qualms about killing and would gladly murder
him to get what they wanted. He would have been killed already,
except for a chance encounter with a ragtag band of
armed Cuban rebels, who provided him safe passage to the outskirts
He glanced over his shoulder at a pair of warships moored
near the harbor’s commercial anchorage.
“Al estribor,” he rasped. “To the right.”
“Sí,” replied the squat Cuban seated behind, wielding his
own set of oars. He was similarly attired in torn and soiled
clothes, his face shaded by a weathered straw hat.
Together, they maneuvered the leaky longboat toward the
modern steel warships. The old man scoured the harbor for
threats, but he seemed to have finally eluded his pursuers. A
safe haven was within his grasp.
They rowed slowly past the smaller warship, which carried
a Spanish flag hung from its stern mast, and approached the
second vessel. An armored cruiser, it featured twin gun turrets
that protruded awkwardly over either side rail. The deck
and topsides were painted a straw yellow, offset against a clean
white hull. With lanterns still aglow in the dawn’s light, the ship
sparkled like an amber diamond.
Several sentries patrolled fore and aft, watching over the
ship in a high state of readiness. An officer in a dark uniform
appeared on a superstructure walkway and eyed the approaching
He raised a megaphone. “Halt and state your business.”
“I’m Dr. Ellsworth Boyd of Yale University,” the old man
said in a shaky voice. “The American Consulate in Havana has
arranged for my refuge aboard your vessel.”
“Stand by, please.”
The officer disappeared into the bridge. A few minutes later,
he appeared on deck with several sailors. A rope ladder was
lowered over the side and the longboat waved to approach.
When the boat scraped against the warship’s hull, Boyd stood
and threw a line to one of the sailors.
“I have a crate that must accompany me. It is very important.”
Boyd kicked away some palm fronds that concealed a thick
wooden crate lodged between the benches. As the sailors lowered
additional ropes, Boyd surveyed the surrounding waters.
Satisfied as to their safety, Boyd and his assistant secured the
ropes to the crate and watched as it was hoisted aboard.
“That will have to remain on deck,” the officer said as a pair
of sailors muscled the heavy box to a ventilator and tied it down.
Boyd handed his rowing partner a gold coin, shook hands in
farewell, then climbed up the rope ladder. Just north of fifty,
Boyd was in strapping condition for his age and acclimated
to the humidity of the tropics from working in the Caribbean
each winter season. But he was no longer young, a fact he was
loath to accept. He ignored the nagging pains in his joints and
the constant fatigue he couldn’t seem to shake as he climbed
onto the deck.
“I’m Lieutenant Holman,” the officer said. “We’ve been expecting
you, Dr. Boyd. Let me show you to a guest cabin, where
you can get cleaned up. Due to security concerns, I’ll have to
ask that you remain confined to your cabin. I’ll be happy to arrange
a tour of the ship later, if you like, and we’ll see if we can
get you on the captain’s schedule today.”
Boyd extended a hand. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I’m grateful
for your hospitality.”
Holman shook his hand with a firm grip. “On behalf of the
captain and crew, I welcome you aboard the battle cruiser USS
A light evening trade wind nudged the Maine about her mooring
until her blunt bow pointed toward the heart of Havana.
The ship’s sentries were thankful for the breeze, which alleviated
the rank odor of the harbor’s polluted waters.
The evening breeze also carried the nighttime melody of
Havana’s streets—the honky-tonk music from its harbor-front
bars, the laughing voices of pedestrians on the nearby Malecón,
and the clank of horse and wagons maneuvering through the
narrow boulevards. The vibrant sounds were a painful reminder
to the Maine’s enlisted sailors that they had been denied
all shore leave in the three weeks since they had arrived. The
ship had been dispatched to protect the American Consulate
after a riot by Spanish loyalists, angry at the U.S. support of
Cuban rebels battling the oppressive Spanish regime.
Boyd’s cabin door shuddered under a loud knock and he
opened it to find Lieutenant Holman, dressed in a razor-crisp
blue uniform that seemed to defy the humidity.
Holman gave a slight bow. “The captain welcomes your acceptance
to dine with him this evening.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Please lead on.”
A warm bath and a long afternoon nap had rejuvenated
Boyd. He walked with the confident gait of a man who had
beaten the odds. He still wore his field clothes, now freshly
laundered, to which he had added a dinner jacket borrowed
from Holman. He tugged uncomfortably at the sleeves, several
inches too short for his gangly arms.
They made their way to a small officers’ mess near the aft
deck. In the center of the room, a linen-covered table gleaming
with white china and silverware was occupied by the Maine’s
Charles Sigsbee was a studious man with a reasoned mind,
well respected in the Navy for his leadership qualities. Sporting
round spectacles and a bushy mustache, he resembled a bank
clerk more than a ship’s captain. He rose and greeted Boyd with
an impatient gaze as Holman made the introductions.
The three men sat down at the table and a steward appeared,
serving a consommé. Boyd ignored a small dog that clung to the
Sigsbee turned to Boyd. “I hope you find your accommodations
aboard the Maine satisfactory.”
“More than adequate,” Boyd said. “I am thankful for your
courtesy in allowing me aboard on short notice. I can’t tell you
how beautiful the Maine looked when I first sighted her this
“I’m afraid we’re not configured for comfort or guests,”
Sigsbee said. “While our presence in Havana is to affect the
transport of Americans at risk, local events seemed to have
calmed since our arrival. I must say, I was surprised at receiving
a communiqué from the Havana Consul asking that you be welcomed
aboard for transit back to the United States—with nary
Boyd sighed. “The local Consul is a family friend from Virginia
who was kind enough to intervene. However, it is no exaggeration
to say my life was in grave danger.”
“Lieutenant Holman tells me you are an anthropologist from
“Yes, I specialize in the native Caribbean cultures. I just
completed a winter field school in Jamaica and made an unplanned
detour to Cuba.”
The steward cleared away their empty soup bowls and returned
with plates of broiled fish. “The crate that we brought
aboard,” Holman said, “it was from your excavation?”
“Perhaps,” Sigsbee said, “you’d care to show us this artifact
after dinner and explain its significance.”
Boyd tensed. “I would rather wait until we get to sea,” he
said in a low voice.
“How did you come to arrive in Havana?” Holman asked.
“I left Montego Bay on the steamer Orion a fortnight ago,
bound for New York. But shortly after we departed, the vessel
developed boiler problems. We were forced to limp into Cárdenas,
where the passengers were offloaded. We were told we
would be delayed at least three weeks while the ship was repaired.
I decided to come overland to Havana in the hope of
catching a packet boat to Key West. Then the trouble began.”
He took a sip of water, and Sigsbee and Holman waited for
him to continue.
“It was the Spaniard, Rodriguez,” Boyd said, his eyes bulging
“Rodriguez?” Holman said.
“An archeologist from Madrid. He happened to be in Jamaica
and visited our camp. Someone must have tipped him off
to my discovery, as there he was, traveling aboard the Orion,
watching my every move. It was no coincidence.” His voice
quivered. “I have no proof, but somehow he must have disabled
The captain frowned. “So what happened when you landed
“I was traveling with two students and my field assistant,
Roy Burns. We purchased a mule and wagon in Cárdenas and
loaded the crate and our belongings. We set off for Havana the
next day, but while bivouacked that night we were attacked.”
His eyes glazed in a distant stare at the painful memories.
“A group of armed men on horseback assaulted us. They
roughed up Burns and me pretty good and took the wagon.
Then one of my students went after them with a knife. The
fiends ran him through with a machete, then hacked up his
classmate. They didn’t have a chance.”
“These were Spanish soldiers?” Sigsbee asked.
Boyd shrugged. “They were armed and wore uniforms, but
they seemed to be some sort of insurgent outfit. Their uniforms
had no insignia.”
“Probably Weylerites,” Holman said. The extremist faction
remained loyal to Spanish Governor General Valeriano Weyler,
who had recently departed Cuba after a brutal reign subjugating
“Perhaps,” Boyd said. “They were well equipped but appeared
to be irregulars. We found they were camped in a village
called Picadura. Burns and I were determined to recover the
artifact and followed them to their camp. Burns started a fire
to distract them, while I scattered their horses and retook the
wagon. Burns caught a bullet in the chest. I had to leave him . . .”
His voice trailed off in bitterness.
“I drove the wagon hard through the night, barely escaping
their pursuit. At dawn, I hid the wagon in the jungle and foraged
for food for me and the mule. I eluded their patrols for
three days, traveling only at night on trails I hoped would lead
“Remarkable that you avoided capture,” Sigsbee said.
“Ultimately, I didn’t.” Boyd shook his head. “They found me
on the fourth day. The mule gave me away with his braying. It
was just a small patrol, four men. They pushed me up against
the wagon and had their rifles raised when a volley sounded
from the jungle. The Spaniards fell to the ground, cut down to
a man. It was a band of Cuban rebels, who happened to be
camped nearby and heard the ruckus.”
“They didn’t try to take the crate?” Holman asked.
“They were only interested in the dead Spaniards’ weapons.
They treated me like a compadre, seeing, I suppose, that I was
an adversary of the Spanish. They stuck with me until the edge
“I’m told the Cuban rebels, while untrained, are tough fighters,”
“I can attest to that,” Boyd said. “After their patrol was
killed, the remaining Spanish contingent consolidated forces
and came after us with a vengeance. The rebels constantly peppered
and harassed them, slowing their advances. When we
reached Havana’s outskirts, the Cubans dispersed, but one of
them contacted the consulate on my behalf. Their best fighter
guided me to the waterfront, acquired a longboat, and helped
me reach the Maine.”
Sigsbee smiled. “Fortuitous assistance.”
“The Cuban rebels show great hatred to the Spaniards and
appreciate the armed assistance our country is giving them.
They pleaded for more weapons.”
“Captain,” Boyd said, “how soon will you be departing
“I can’t say, but we’ve been on station for three weeks, and
the local unrest appears to have subsided. We have a commitment
in New Orleans later this month, which I believe will still
be honored. I anticipate orders directing our departure within
the next few days.”
Boyd nodded. “For our well-being, I hope it is soon.”
Holman laughed. “Dr. Boyd, you needn’t worry. There’s not
a safer place in Havana than on the Maine.”
After dinner, Boyd smoked a cigar with the officers on the
quarterdeck, then returned to his cabin. A nagging uneasiness
gnawed at his thoughts. He wouldn’t feel safe until the ship left
the waters of Havana Harbor far off its stern. Somewhere in his
mind, he heard the voices of Roy Burns and his dead students
crying a warning from the heavens.
Unable to sleep, he climbed to the main deck, drawing in a
deep breath of the damp night air. Somewhere near the bridge,
he heard the chimes of a bell signaling the time at half past
nine. Across the harbor, revelers were getting a jump on their
Mardi Gras celebration. Boyd ignored the sounds and stared
over the rail at the calm black waters below.
A small skiff approached the battleship, eliciting a sharp
warning from the officer of the deck. The boat’s lone occupant,
a ragged fisherman, waved a half-empty bottle of rum at the
officer and shouted a slurred response before turning the small
Boyd watched it angle around the Maine’s bow, then heard a
metallic clink in the water. A small crate or raft was banging
against the hull. The wooden object skittered along the ship as
if self-propelled. Boyd looked at it, then realized it was being
towed by the fishing skiff.
A knot tightened in his stomach. He looked up to the bridge
and yelled at the officer on watch. “Officer of the deck! Officer
of the deck!”
A muffled bang seemed to originate beneath the ship, and a
small geyser of water sprayed near the bow. Boyd felt two beats
of his heart, then there was a titanic explosion.
The Yale professor was flung against a bulkhead as the front
half of the ship erupted like an angry volcano. Steel, smoke, and
flames shot high into the sky, carrying the mangled bodies of
dozens of crewmen. Boyd shook off a pain in his shoulder as a
rain of debris hammered the deck around him. The ship’s forward
crow’s nest appeared from nowhere and collapsed in a
heap alongside him.
Rising to his feet, Boyd instinctively staggered forward across
the listing deck. His ears rang, drowning out the cries of sailors
trapped belowdecks. All that mattered was the relic. Under the
red glow of an inferno burning amidships, he staggered toward
it. Somehow the crate had escaped damage and was lying secure
near the remains of a crumpled ventilator.
A fast-approaching side-wheeler caught his eye. The steam-
powered boat drew alongside the sinking battleship, turning
briskly and slapping against its hull. Without making a sound,
a trio of men in dark clothing leaped aboard.
Boyd thought they were part of a rescue party until one of
the Maine’s sailors, a machinist who had been standing watch,
limped across their path, his singed uniform smoking. One of
the borders lunged at the sailor, driving a blunt knife into his
side and tossing his crumpled body over the rail.
Boyd was too shocked to react. Then, his mind processed the
meaning. The boarders weren’t there to lend aid; they were
Rodriguez’s men. They had come for the artifact.
The archeologist limped back to the crate and spun to face
the attackers. A twisted shovel, flung up from one of the coal
bunkers, teetered against a bulkhead. Boyd grabbed it.
The first attacker brandished a bloody knife that glistened
under the light of the spreading flames.
Boyd swung the shovel.
The intruder tried to step back, but the water now swirling
at his feet slowed his movement. Boyd tagged him across his
cheekbone. The attacker grunted and fell to his knees, but his
two companions behind didn’t falter. They rushed Boyd before
he could swing again, knocking the shovel aside. A heavy pistol
appeared in the hands of one of the men and he fired pointblank
The bullet struck his left shoulder. The archeologist fell
back, and the two men elbowed past him and loosened the
ropes that secured the crate.
“No!” Boyd shouted as they began dragging the crate across
the sinking deck.
He regained his feet and sloshed after them on weakening legs.
The boarders ignored him and hoisted the crate over the side and
into the arms of several men in the lighter. One wore a low-
brimmed hat to hide his face, but Boyd knew it was Rodriguez.
Woozy from loss of blood, Boyd sagged against the nearest
man. The boarder, a short man with cold black eyes, grabbed
Boyd’s arm. But before he could shove Boyd aside, his face fell
blank. A faint shadow crossed his face, and his gaze shot
An instant later, the border disappeared under the towering
mass of one of the Maine’s twin funnels, which had fractured at
its base and collapsed like a hewn redwood. While the attacker
was flattened, Boyd was only clipped by the funnel. But his leg
got caught under the mass, pinning him to the now awash deck.
He struggled to break free, but the weight was too great.
Held underwater, he fought for air, poking his head above the
rising water and gasping great breaths as he pulled at his
Beneath him, he felt the ship lurch as the keel sought the
harbor floor. As the forward fires licked at the ship’s ammunition
magazines, sporadic shots zinged around him. Then the
bow began a slow descent to the bottom.
Feeling the vessel begin to plunge, Boyd strained for one last
breath. His final vision was of the side-wheeler, the stolen crate
wedged on its aft deck, steaming rapidly toward the harbor
Then the Maine dragged him down into the blackened
The squat wooden fishing boat had been painted a dandy
combination of periwinkle and lemon. When the colors
were fresh, they had lent the vessel an air of happy tranquility.
But that was almost two decades ago. The weathering
of sun and sea had beaten out all semblance of vibrancy, leaving
the boat looking pale and anemic against the ominous sea.
The two Jamaican fishermen working the Javina gave little
thought to her dilapidated exterior. Their only concern was
whether the smoky engine would propel them back to their island
home before the leaks in the hull overran the bilge pump.
“Quick with the bait while the tuna are still biting.” The
elder man stood at the stern while manually deploying a long
line over the side. Near his feet, a pair of large silver fish flopped
angrily about the deck.
“Not you worry, Uncle Desmond.” The younger man picked
up some small chunks of mackerel and slapped them onto a
string of rusty hand-forged hooks. “The sun is low, so the fish
still bite on the bank.”
“It ain’t the sun that’s waiting for the bait.” Desmond grabbed
the remains of the baited line and dropped it over the side, tying
off the end to a cleat on the gunwale. He stepped toward the
wheelhouse to engage the throttle but stopped and cocked his
ear. A deep rumble, like rolling thunder, sounded over the boat’s
old diesel motor.
“What is it, Uncle?”
Desmond shook his head. He noticed a dark circle of water
forming off the port beam.
The Javina creaked and groaned from the invisible hand of
a submerged shock wave. A frothy ball of white water erupted
a short distance away, spraying a dozen feet into the air. It
was followed by a bubbling concentric wave that seemed to rise
off the surface. The wave expanded, encompassing the fishing
boat and lifting it into the sky. Desmond grabbed the wheel for
His nephew staggered to his side, his eyes agape. “What is it?”
“Something underwater.” Desmond gripped the wheel with
white knuckles as the boat heeled far to one side.
The vessel hung on the verge of flipping, then righted itself
as the wave subsided. The Javina settled back to a calm surface
as the wave dissipated in a circular path of boiling froth.
“That was crazy,” his nephew said, scratching his head.
“What’s happening way out here?” The small boat was more
than twenty miles from Jamaica, the island’s coastline not quite
visible on the horizon.
Desmond shrugged as he turned the boat away from the receding
eruption’s epicenter. He motioned off the bow. “Those
ships ahead. They must be searching for oil.”
A mile from the Javina, a large exploration ship tailed a high-
riding ocean barge down current. An orange crew boat motored
slightly ahead of the ship. All three were headed for the Javina—
or, more precisely, the point of the underwater explosion.
“Uncle, who says they can come blasting through our
Desmond smiled. “They got a boat that big, they can go anywhere
As the small armada drew closer, the waters around the Javina
became dotted with white bits of flotsam arising from the
deep. They were bits of dead fish and sea creatures, mangled by
“The tuna!” the nephew cried. “They kill our tuna.”
“We find more someplace else.” Desmond eyed the exploration
ship bearing down on them. “I think it best we leave the
“Not before I give them a piece of my mind.”
The nephew reached over and spun the wheel hard to port,
driving the Javina toward the big ship. The blue crew boat
noted the course change and sped over, pulling alongside a few
minutes later. The two brown-skinned men in the crew boat
didn’t appear Jamaican, which was confirmed when they spoke
in oddly accented English.
“You must leave this area now,” the boat’s pilot ordered.
“This is our fishing grounds,” the nephew said. “Look
around. You kill all our fish. You owe us for the fish we lose.”
The crew boat pilot stared at the Jamaicans with no hint of
sympathy. Pulling a transmitter to his lips, he placed a brief call
to the ship. Without another word to the fishermen, he gunned
the motor and drove the crew boat away.
The massive black hulk of the exploration ship arrived a
short time later, towering over the Javina. Undaunted, the fishermen
yelled their complaints to the crewmen scurrying about
the ship’s decks.
None paid any attention to the dilapidated boat bobbing beneath
them until two men stepped to the rail. Dressed in light
khaki fatigues, they studied the Javina momentarily, then raised
compact assault rifles to their shoulders.
Desmond rammed the throttle ahead and spun the wheel hard
over as he heard two quick thumps. His nephew stared frozen
as a pair of 40mm grenades, fired from launchers affixed to the
assault rifles, slammed onto the open deck and bounced about
The wheelhouse vaporized into a bright red fireball. Smoke
and flames climbed into the warm Caribbean sky as the Javina
wallowed on her broken keel. The pale-blue-and-yellow fishing
boat was charred black as she settled quickly by the bow.
For a moment, she seemed to hesitate, and then the old vessel
rolled in a faint farewell and disappeared under the waves.