June 26, 1898
Along the Camino Real in Cuba
Assistant Surgeon Duncan Cleary lay sprawled in the churned-up mud of the encampment, the rifle shot still ringing in his ears. He swore, rolled over, and looked up at the sky. The rain clouds were breaking up, and brilliant white stars sparkled between them. He sat up, turned on his knees, and stood, slapping mud from his mismatched uniform.
A man clutching a rifle ran up beside him and whispered, “It’s the Spanish?”
“No, goddamnit, it’s a land crab. Stop shooting at crabs. You’re going to kill one of us. Maybe me.”
The soldier, unconvinced, said, “Could be ‘Spanards’ sneakin’ in.”
“The Spanish would be shooting, not sneaking.” Cleary turned away, stopped, and said, “And pass the word to stop eating the crabs.”
“Not much else to eat around here just now,” said the soldier.
“The crabs are eating the dead. You’re eating the crabs. That’s cannibalism once removed. Are you really that hungry?” Cleary stared at the man as he straightened his tunic.
“God! You sure about that, Doc?”
“Yes. And it’s Lieutenant. Stop shooting at every little noise, or maybe the Spanish will start shooting too.”
Armies of red and black land crabs swarmed along the coast and through the camps, their angular legs clicking on the rough ground while two massive claws snapped mechanically at curious soldiers looking to put something edible on the camp stoves. Food was scarce, so scavenging had become a necessary part of this slow-motion war. Cuban rebels looted dead soldiers, American soldiers looted the packs off dead mules, and Cuban crabs scavenged whatever lay dead on the ground.
Cleary turned away and followed an imagined path among the white dog-tents and the random clumps of men huddled around reluctant campfires. After a little maneuvering, he came to a large field tent and poked his head inside. An oil lamp hanging from one of the support poles cast a faint yellow light over the interior. Two wounded soldiers lay sleeping on the muddy ground. Neither of them moved. Cleary looked to his left, to his field pack and haversack lying on the rubberized poncho and to the wet wool blanket that made up his bedding. Stepping back, he dropped the canvas flap and pulled his hat off to scratch at his matted brown hair. He knew he should lie down and sleep, but he was restless from the stalled invasion and wanted to do something more than wait for the blinding dawn of another tropical morning.
He picked his way to the top of a small rise covered in palmetto and boot-high cactus plants. Sharp needles scraped against his brown leggings. The last of the rain clouds had drifted away. A half-moon hung low in the sky, and to the northwest Cleary could make out the blacker shadows of dense jungle. Around him the open scrub was dotted with tents and wagons and the dull red lights of campfires. Hidden within the crowded encampment were the Army’s wounded and sick, and those healthy enough to grumble about too much waiting and too little eating or fighting. In the distance Cleary could see a larger, open-topped hill called El Pozo—he had no idea what the name meant. Beyond the hill lay a jumbled line of darkness that he guessed were the Heights, where Spain was making its last stand in the New World. Beyond the Heights was the city of Santiago and the end of the war.
“Can you see them? The Spanish?” a voice called from near the bottom of the mound.
Cleary looked down, saw the dark outline of a large man, his head wreathed in blue smoke, and shook his head. “Just shades of black and bits of starlight.”
“A poet,” said the voice.
Cleary started downward. “No. Just a fella who thinks he might have been better off staying in Hartford.”
At the foot of the mound a black man in a blue wool uniform stared up at him. The man took off his forage cap, and Cleary noticed a head of close-cropped hair. A pipe drooped from his mouth, which was encircled with a sweaty goatee. He slipped the pipe free and smiled.
“Contract Surgeon William Brown from Chicago. I’m with the 24th Infantry. Under Colonel Wikoff.” Doctor Brown put his cap on again and stuck out his right hand.
Cleary stepped closer. “The Buffalo Soldiers?”
The campsite and the initial beach landings had been crowded with Negro soldiers. He had seen them encamped in Florida, watched them march inland from the Cuban beachhead, and even treated some of their wounded after the first encounter with the Spanish Army at a place called Las Guasimas. Yet he had never met a colored doctor. That one might exist was not in doubt; there had been two Negro medical students in his class in New Haven. And now one—a living, pipe-smoking surgeon—had emerged from the Cuban night.
“I have the privilege of serving with them,” said Brown, his hand still extended.
Cleary reached for Brown’s hand, fumbled, shook it briefly, and said, “Uh…First Lieutenant Duncan Cleary. Assistant Surgeon with the 71st New York Volunteers.” He did not know what more to say, so he pointed off to the left and said, “Some of us from the 71st are set up over here. Most of the regiment is back down in Siboney.” He was aware of rambling on. “I should be too, but then some of the surgeons and hospital corpsmen got pulled up this way for the fight around Sevilla and that Las Guasimas village. Now we’re scattered…like everything else in this army.”
“Our units too seem to be all mixed up. Maybe that is why supplies are taking so long to find us,” said Brown. “I have been asking about…”
“Everything seems to be stacked up down the road in Siboney. Or still on the transports. Or all the way back in Tampa. As far as I know, my medical chest is still not ashore. It’s been four days now, I think.”
“Myself, I have only the first-aid packets I can take off the wounded,” said Brown. His voice was deep and each word seemingly measured with caution. He dug charred tobacco from his pipe with a penknife. “Half of the men appear to have lost theirs or simply thrown them away to lighten their burdens.”
A single rifle shot sounded to the east. Cleary swore under his breath. He said, “Yeah, probably the length of the Camino Real is littered with gear dropped by tired or foolish men not wanting to haul their kit into a jungle fight. We’re leaving a trail of bread crumbs, so to speak.” Then, almost to himself, he said, “Be nice to retrieve some of it. Follow the trail through Sevilla, all the way down to the depot at Siboney.”
“Well, that sounds like an excellent idea,” said Brown. “But can we? What about the Spanish?”
Cleary looked at Brown and wondered about the “we.” “Spain? They’re a couple of miles west of here. Waiting for us to come to them. Likely the only danger right now is getting lost along the trail or shot by our own troopers.” Still staring at the shadowy shape of the surgeon, he said, “Care to do some scrounging in the jungle, Dr. Brown?”
“That is what I was doing here when I saw you, but there are no medical supplies to be had here, and no food to share with the soldiers of the 24th.”
Cleary looked up at the sky, found the half-moon, and said, “Dawn’s not far off, and we’ll get no chance again during the day.” He glanced at this strange doctor. “Well, come along if you like. Two can carry more than one.”
They walked back to his tent. Cleary reached inside for his haversack. He lifted a brass lantern from the sack, unfolded the handles, and said to Brown, “Hold this. Please.”
Cleary struck a match and lighted the oily wick. A pale-yellow beam emerged from the lens and fell across the muddy ground. Cleary reached back into the sack, pulled out underclothes, a book, a Kodak Bulls-Eye camera, and a toothbrush, and tossed them into the tent. His fingers brushed a piece of smooth steel, passed over a half-empty canteen and a surgical field kit. He wrapped his hand around a bottle of five-grain quinine tablets and tossed it onto his bedding. Then he swung the haversack over his shoulder and asked Brown for the lantern.
“The skinners and wagons are this way.” Cleary headed away from the camp toward a patch of low ground where the Army’s surviving mules and horses were crowded into a makeshift paddock.
They passed small groups of whispering soldiers, cleaning rifles, nervously telling jokes, and waiting for the morning. Several other soldiers passed around a bottle of whisky probably smuggled out of Tampa in a blanket roll. No sentries were posted. A makeshift fence of rope and stakes appeared in the darkness. The smell of manure grew stronger.
“Do you know anything about mules?” Cleary asked.
“All right then. Wait here. I’ll see if I can get us some animals to carry whatever we find.” Cleary walked off with the lantern, thinking it would be easier for one Army lieutenant to order up a couple of mules from the civilian drivers than for two doctors—one of them a Negro—to wangle the same favor out of them.
Half an hour passed. Cleary appeared out of the dark leading two mules with flaccid leather panniers draped across their backs. “I promised them a portion of whatever food we might scrounge.” He handed a length of rope to Brown and said, “Now you’re a muleskinner. Just give a little tug and she’ll come along.”
Cleary led his mule along the camp perimeter and Brown hurried to catch up. He looked back at the mule at the other end of the rope and then at Cleary. “Did you grow up on a farm?” he asked.
“A small town across the river from Hartford, but there were horses and such about.”
“Connecticut. Why are you with the New York 71st? Did your state not raise a regiment?”
“They did. Two infantry and some artillery, but they’re stuck in Connecticut. Guarding the Niantic beachfront, I expect. My uncle—he’s a jobber for Colt—he knows people in New York City, and they got me into the 71st. So here I am.”
“Here you are,” Brown said.
Cleary caught the man’s brief smile. “Yeah, here I am.” He tugged on his mule’s lead.
Pushing through the mud and clumps of sharp palmetto, they came to a picket of soldiers, who halfheartedly pointed their Springfields at the two men.
Cleary said, “We’re heading down the road to scavenge for food and medicine. Don’t be too quick on the triggers if you hear any noise coming back up the track. That’ll be us.”
“Got orders, Doctor?” asked one of the older men.
Does he care, or is he just trying to annoy a fresh-faced surgeon and a Negro? Cleary stayed calm. “If you can find Colonel Downs or any of the staff officers, tell them Doctors Cleary and Brown from the 24th are looking for medical supplies and food. We’ll be back.” To Brown he said, “Let’s go,” and led his mule off to the right.
Behind them Cleary heard one of the men say, “Nobody but doctors,” and then a quiet chuckle from some other men. It was common derision among the line and staff officers to refer to the Army’s Medical Department as “nobody but doctors,” and apparently that official disregard had filtered deep into the ranks. Cleary pulled at the Red Cross brassard on his left arm and wondered if he would get more respect without it.
Trying to lighten his mood, Cleary said to Brown in a low, affected brogue, “Na where be the Spaniards when they’re needed?” He aimed the lantern ahead at the muddy trail, which sloped down into a black tangle of lanky palms and wet ferns.
The Camino Real was a grand name for a narrow jungle trail connecting tiny towns and primitive villages scattered along the southeast coast of Cuba. It snaked east to west through dense jungle, over rough chaparral, and across narrow beaches of stone and coral, finally evolving into an appreciable road as it approached the port city of Santiago. Four days ago, it had become the Americans’ invasion route into Cuba.
Cleary stooped to pick up a canvas-covered first-aid kit. He tossed it into one of the panniers and said, “Someone will want that in a couple of days.”
“There is a canteen here,” said Brown.
Cleary saw it dangling from a tree branch. “Leave it for now. We want medicine and food. If there’s room on the way back, we’ll pick up whatever else might be handy.”
They continued down the muddy path, watching for loose stones and puddles of rainwater. On the south side of the road they passed a small clearing of fresh-dug graves—dead men from the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, the Rough Riders. Beyond the makeshift cemetery they found discarded ponchos and bedrolls and Army wool shirts in piles of three and four. They collected a few more first-aid kits and wondered over the foolishness of soldiers throwing away sterile bandages and antiseptic dressings.
Days earlier, on June 22, a ramshackle flotilla of ships had dumped six thousand men and the implements of war onto a rocky beach at an inhospitable place called Daiquiri, seventeen miles east of Santiago. The beach was a narrow boundary of rock and sand that backed up to black cliffs and green jungle. There was no harbor. An iron pier that had once received coal deliveries for a local train now began receiving a trickle of blue-clad invaders. Most of the men of the U.S. Army V Corps rowed to the beach, and when their boats capsized in the warm blue surf, they swam ashore. Naked, laughing men helped pull in the Navy’s overloaded launches and cutters. Supplies were landed in random fits. Horses and mules were pushed out of the ships’ belly hatches; some of them recognized land, heard the encouraging calls of the soldiers, and managed to swim toward the beach. Many more drowned.
Except for the drowned livestock bobbing on the tides, the beachhead was fun—Coney Island with guns and camping equipment. Had the Spanish decided to oppose the landing with a few armed men up on the surrounding cliffs, it would have been a massacre.
Away from the beach and the blue water, there was less to laugh about. On Thursday, June 23, a column of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry trudged eleven miles west toward the larger town of Siboney. The terrain was hilly scrub. Mid-day temperature hovered near one hundred and twenty degrees. Fine volcanic dust—which in the afternoon rains became a sticky black mud—coated wet wool uniforms that were never meant for the Caribbean. The heat, the terrain, and the burden of heavy clothes, ammunition, first-aid packs, half-shelters, and horse-collar rolls of rubber ponchos and blankets became too much. Men started peeling off their shirts and dropping haversacks, blankets, and other equipment, leaving a trail of cast-offs for the rest of the army to follow or for the local Cuban rebels, los insurrectos, to grab. If they gave any thought to needing those cast-off things later, they probably assumed the Army would simply re-supply them.
Nearing Siboney in the early afternoon, they contacted the Spanish Army, and a brief exchange of bullets and bravado marked the beginning of the land war in Cuba. The small Spanish garrison pulled back without much of a fight, and the town was occupied by American soldiers still acting more like disgruntled tourists than righteous invaders. Most of the local inhabitants had been driven off or carried off by the Spanish, so the village had a ghost-town quality as the V Corps pushed in.
By the evening, seventeen thousand Americans had come ashore in Siboney and Daiquiri, and the vague outlines of an invasion force were beginning to emerge. A defensive line was established around Siboney. The town’s foundry and machine shop, both sagging beside a mangled railroad track, became part of the Army’s budding supply depot. A string of iron-roofed buildings between the machine shop and the beach became the base hospital. Long canvas surgical tents popped up beside the makeshift hospital. At the beach, a scow was anchored parallel to the shoreline and decked over with rough-cut lumber, to make a dock and gangway for cutters and launches bringing supplies and men from the offshore fleet.
During the night, Assistant Surgeon Duncan Cleary waded ashore with the 71st New York Volunteer Infantry.
Tonight, four days after landing, the black sky was lit with brilliant white stars and wispy streaks of the Milky Way. The westward-tilting moon eased the jungle’s darkness. Cleary kept his eyes on the trail ahead. After an hour, they came to a rough slope. They slipped their way to the bottom, using the more sure-footed mules as brakes, and stopped in a flat clearing. To the right, part of the thick foliage had been chopped away. Cleary played his lantern over the area. He stepped into the hacked clearing and looked behind a fat palm tree.
“My God, it’s a whole medicine chest. Who would leave this?”
Brown looked back toward the muddy slope and said, “Probably they could not carry it up the hill and left it here expecting to retrieve it later. I think there are not many wagons ashore yet. This is a heavy thing for two men to carry.”
“Our good fortune.” Cleary yanked the wooden chest around by one of its brass handles. He started to ask Brown to hold the lantern again, thought better of it, and placed it on the ground in front of the chest. He snapped the two brass clamps loose and opened the top. A deep tray of wooden compartments separated a neat collection of bright steel saws, knives, forceps, probes, and other equipment.
Cleary turned to Brown. “What do you need?”
“I have my traveling surgical set. Perhaps a needle case or two.”
Cleary stared at the coiled chainsaw and shuddered at the thought of having to use it, or worse, having it used on him. He handed two suturing kits to Brown, then lifted the tray out of the trunk. Underneath it were several packages of sterile-wrapped bandages and catheters, two large slings, rubber bandages, a portable irrigator, and what looked like a leather football sliced in half lengthwise. Cleary picked it up, read the tin label on its flat bottom, and said, “Esmarch chloroform dropper.” He passed it to Brown. “You take it. You don’t want to run out of anesthetic and have to work on wide-awake patients. I’m likely to be at an aid station doing bandages and splints. A glass dropper would never survive so close to the danger belt.”
Cleary was referring to the area behind the front-lines, which once had been occupied by doctors and litter-bearers who were relatively safe from the short-range muskets of the past. Now, in Cuba, the Spanish were firing powerful German-built Mauser rifles, which widened the “danger belt” behind the front, putting everyone at risk all the time.
Brown said, “You are a surgeon.”
Cleary wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement, so he went back to searching the chest. With the lid raised, two spring-loaded pins had popped up, unlocking a drawer in the front of the chest. Cleary pulled it open to find bottles and vials of various powders and oils. He made a face. “I can smell the iodoform.” He gave two vials to Brown and stuffed two more in his sack.
Brown, looking over Cleary’s shoulder, said, “Chloral and some cocaine.”
Cleary handed back three more vials. He picked up a small metal case, flipped the top open, and pulled out a thin glass vial. “Syringe and morphine kit.” He stuck two of them in his bag and passed two more to Brown. Then he stood up. “Guess that’s it. Unless you want a saw or trocar or something.”
“We should leave the rest for the men who left it.”
“Foolish men.” Cleary closed the chest and picked up his lantern. “Well, this little find has helped. Now if we can get hold of some food in Siboney, things will be looking up.” He smiled in Brown’s direction. ’Til the war starts up again.”
They went back to the trail and retrieved the sleepy mules. After a few steps Cleary said, “You know, the Army classifies all doctors as ‘surgeons.’ Even the contract doctors, and volunteers, and those of us who prefer the nonsurgical part of medicine. To be honest, I’m more comfortable with infections and fevers, though I’m just as able to close a wound or splint a fracture as the next man. I just don’t want to make things worse by poking around in someone’s skull or abdomen.”
“Myself, I like the mysteries and the miracles of surgery.” Brown paused. “And I am good at it.” He smiled at Cleary. “Though the Army does not much care. Do you know what it means to be a contract surgeon in this Army?”
Cleary was still thinking about the mysteries and miracles of surgery, and Brown continued, “Contract surgeons have the rank of ‘acting assistant surgeon’ but no status as officers. We are considered civilian employees. We are paid one hundred and fifty dollars a month—except when we are sick or disabled—and we are not eligible for any medical benefits. There is no tenure, and our contracts can be canceled without appeal. It is a somewhat precarious position to be in. Especially in the middle of a war.”
“Why did you come, then?”
Brown patted his goatee. “My mentor, I suppose. He thought I could learn valuable skills under the less-than-ideal conditions of war. Perhaps you know his name? Allen Wesley. Class of ’87 at Northwestern. He is chief surgeon and lecturer on surgical emergencies at Provident Hospital in Chicago.”
Cleary ventured a cautious question. “Is he colored?”
“He is. Nonetheless, he felt duty-bound to offer his skills and his service to the war effort. At this moment, he is back home examining recruits for the 8th and 9th Illinois.” Brown paused, then said, “I was not able to join the regiments in time, so Dr. Wesley suggested the contract path into the war.”
Cleary tilted the lantern toward Brown. “So he was one of your instructors? Where did you go to school? If you don’t mind my asking?”
“Washington. How did you like the city? Our train passed through during the night, so I didn’t get to see a bit of it. Must have been wonderful to have lived there for a couple of years.”
Brown did not answer immediately, but Cleary was beginning to get used to the lags that preceded many of Brown’s responses. Finally he said, “It is a very Southern city.”
The Fever Hut centers around a young Army surgeon, Duncan Cleary, in war-torn Cuba. During the 1898 American invasion, Cleary meets William Brown, an African American contract surgeon. An unlikely friendship develops as they struggle through war and disease. In occupied Havana, Cleary meets María Esparza, the daughter of a Spanish aristocrat. María’s brother, a bomb-maker with the Cuban rebels, appears in the city. He’s been shot, and he’s carrying photographs of the Maine. Her brother disappears again, María’s house is searched, and she is kidnapped. The photos and other clues lead Cleary to a foreign embassy, to a late-night rescue of María, and to a gunfight that threatens diplomacy and secrecy. Days later, a revenge attack on Cleary leaves him in desperate need of Brown’s surgical skills.
As yellow fever continues to plague Cuba, the Army sends Walter Reed to investigate the frightening disease. Cleary works with Reed and his assistants as they race against entrenched ideas, foreign competitors, and each other to find a cure and claim the glory its discovery will bring. It’s a dangerous race. Reed’s team is decimated, and Cleary almost dies. The Army’s experiments on Spanish immigrants spark ethical and diplomatic questions. Cleary recovers in time to help unravel the mystery of the disease and the infighting that delayed its discovery. Having survived war, disease, and conspiracy, Cleary, María, and Brown settle into new lives in twentieth-century Havana.
The Fever Hut relies on historical facts to dent the schoolroom mythology of Walter Reed and yellow fever, and on informed fiction to reimagine reasons for the sinking of the Maine and the mysterious death of one of Reed’s colleagues. I wrote this story because I had the scientific and historical knowledge to do so. Another scientist might have written a referenced review article for a professional journal, but I wanted to create something entertaining, informative, and maybe a little controversial.
Edward McSweegan is a writer in Rhode Island. His writing credits include numerous non-fiction articles and book reviews. A short story appeared in Science as part of the magazine’s millennial essay series, “Visions of the Future.” A medical mystery won First Place in a Writer’s Digest genre fiction contest and was published in The Year’s Best Writing. Two other mysteries were published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine. Additional writing awards include two First Place prizes and the Grand Prize in the Maryland Writers Association’s unpublished book contest. For six years he wrote a monthly newspaper column on infectious diseases. His website is edwardmcsweegan.com.
Embark, Issue 9, July 2019