Here is a preview of Caleb Wygal’s new action/adventure novel, THE SEARCH FOR THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH, published by Franklin/Kerr Press.
5,451 Years Ago
A razor-sharp spear whirled through the air slicing a generous chunk of flesh and cartilage from A’ktun’s left ear as he fled for his life. The projectile landed in a stand of bushes while he ran as fast as he could through the dense undergrowth of the forest. Bloodied and in pain, he pressed forward.
He counted six chasing him. While his ear screamed in agony from where the spear clipped his flesh, their shouts were even louder. As he ran through the forest, dozens of birds and unseen animals on the forest floor scattered amid a cacophony of shrieks, growls, and howls.
A’ktun possessed one stone-tipped spear and an old dagger he honed from the bones of a giant bear he killed many years ago during his travels in the northwest. Despite his great skill with these weapons, he didn’t stand a chance against the half dozen armed pursuers.
He didn’t know why they were angry and hunting him.
At the point where the spear pierced his ear, the strange, perfect people had been hunting him for five minutes. He was thankful that he was in excellent shape.
Another spear whizzed past his head, missing by mere inches. They were aiming high, perhaps unaware of their own strength. It wouldn’t be long before they adjusted and targeted the easier to hit area of his torso.
He needed to lose these guys soon. They did not tire or slow. A’ktun knew a river flowed to his left. He angled in that direction with his pursuers close on his tail.
A’ktun crashed through another row of bushes, arriving at the edge of a swiftly moving river. Before he could consider the danger inherent in jumping into a body of water containing huge lizards with snapping jaws, he leaped off the bank and into the rushing torrent.
The natives emerged from the jungle as A’ktun’s head bobbed to the surface downstream. The two who still possessed spears flung them at A’ktun but missed their mark.
Before they began chasing him, he was searching for shelter from a pounding rainstorm, A’ktun had stepped into a grotto deep within a cave where a bizarre ritual had been in progress.
Orange and red embers from torches on the cave walls illuminated the grotto. A narrow walkway decorated with a yellowish metal rimmed a glassy pool of water reflecting the torchlight. Strong young men carried in their arms people who looked old, sick, and decrepit along the left side of the pool. They paused before entering the water and stripped off their garments, leaving them naked. The men lifted the older individuals into the waist deep water.
A’ktun stayed silent as he watched one aged man being carried into the pool. He didn’t want to alert them to his presence
Then a strange thing happened which defied explanation.
The carrier set the older man free. A’ktun watched as the elderly man dunked his head under the black waters and stayed there for several seconds before breaking the surface. After the water finished cascading off his head and shoulders, A’ktun saw that he had changed!
Before, the man looked close to death. Now he appeared more youthful and vibrant. The young-looking individuals looked upon their transformed bodies with awe and jubilation etched on their unlined faces. Their skin appeared smooth and flawless.
The young/old man climbed out of the pool. A woman wearing an intricate headdress made of multi-colored jewels and a shiny yellow material greeted him bearing garments dyed a deep shade of blue.
A’ktun yelped and interrupted the otherwise silent ceremony. Everyone turned in his direction. The woman pointed a finger at A’ktun and shouted something in a tongue he did not understand, but he took the command’s meaning: Get him!
That began the chase for his life ending with a jump in the river. As he floated to safety, A’ktun looked back and saw the inhabitants shouting curses in his direction. He took a deep breath and was relieved that he escaped death with only an injured ear.
He could disregard this one region as a place of future habitation for his people.
That didn’t mean he wouldn’t return someday himself to investigate further the miracles he saw in that cave.
Jan. 3, 1813 – off the coast of Nags Head, NC
In the War of 1812, America and her founding fathers battled against England to stay in existence. As that hard-fought year ended and the unfolding of a fresh one began full of hope, one Patriot struggled for its life.
A schooner floundered over and through one crashing swell to the next in the pre-dawn morning. A fierce storm arose after midnight, throwing the ship against wave after wave as never-ending sheets of rain cascaded down on the vessel.
The Patriot was famous for its speed. It served as a privateer during the War of 1812. The ship was refit in Georgetown the previous month where her guns were dismounted and hidden below decks. Because the English still patrolled the waters off the Atlantic Coast, they painted her name over to hide her recent activity. They held no rechristening ceremony for the new name. A fact that left many of the superstitious sailors on board nervous. It was bad luck to rename a ship without proper fanfare.
Their apprehension proved correct after the first salvo of cannon fire erupted from the mysterious ship off their stern. The initial shot missed. A second fusillade stuck true and smashed the Patriot’s main mast. The third and fourth volleys struck the ship broadside near the foredeck causing it to take on water. The vessel was adrift and at the mercy of the winds and currents.
Theodosia Burr Alston’s fear grew as the deck in her private cabin after the ship jolted in what would prove to be the vessel’s death sentence. At least the pounding rain subsided.
Dr. Timothy Greene, her caretaker for this voyage from Charleston to New York City, stuck his head in her cabin door and delivered the damning news. It was worse than she imagined.
“Mrs. Alston,” he removed his hat and held it to his chest, “I have just received word from Captain Overstocks, and I am afraid it is quite dire.” He reached out with one hand to grasp the entryway as the deck shook. “The captain says they destroyed our mast in a volley of cannon fire. Our ship cannot make it to land.” He fidgeted before saying, “But that’s not the worst. They appear to have found us, even in this deathly torrent.”
Theodosia looked up from the document on her writing desk with an expression, not of horror, but of acceptance. “Thank you, Doctor Greene. That will be all. May I suggest that you go make peace with our Lord,” she said with a dismissive hand.
He gave her a forlorn look. “Yes, Mistress.”
He disappeared as quickly as he appeared. She was alone in what was likely the last minutes of her life. A single tear rolled down her right cheek. After spending months tracking a long-hidden secret, she found a lead she could not chase to the end.
Death was a common theme throughout her life. Of her five siblings, she was the only one to survive into adulthood. Ten years ago, when her father Aaron Burr was Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, he took part in a duel with Alexander Hamilton. Burr survived, but Theodosia knew her dad had lived through a close encounter with death. Hamilton was not so fortunate.
The death of her son to malaria last summer hit Theodosia the hardest. After learning of her son’s terminal diagnosis from Dr. Greene, there was little they could do to ease his pain and suffering. It was then that she sought unconventional means. If she succeeded, she might help others. She needed her father’s support and influence to further her investigation.
Through her research, she learned something with the potential to solve a centuries-old mystery. Upon doing so, she crossed into a dangerous world for which she was unprepared. The purpose of this trip up the Atlantic Coast was to visit her father. He had connections and the means to help her.
She feared she would never make the next step. She hoped the message on the desk before her would reach him. She whispered a prayer with that desire.
She had written thousands of letters to her father during her life. This would be the last.
She picked up a quill and dipped it in an inkwell. The dark liquid it contained splashed about her small writing desk. Her last task faced great odds on ever ending up in her father’s hands, but she had to try something. She did not know if she would live to see the dawn but she had to try getting a letter to him. With a sigh, she ended her letter writing “WITH LOVE, THEO.” She left off her married name on purpose.
Theodosia carefully tore the page from her leather-bound journal and folded it in half before rolling it as tight. She held the bundle with one hand, reached up with the other, and tugged at the ribbon holding the hair in place. Her brown hair tumbled over her shoulders and down her back. She tied the bow around the rolled note in an elegant knot.
With shaking hands, she picked up an empty glass bottle sitting on her desk and tucked the paper through its opening. She placed the cork in the hole as snug as she could. She expelled a long breath.
Minutes later, the Patriot came to rest on the ocean floor nose-down and canted to starboard.
Theodosia Burr Alston’s cabin sat at a pronounced tilt. An air pocket remained in the corner over her bunk. The bottle with the message to her father floated at the surface of the water, in that pocket, bobbing and tumbling, up and down, back and forth, as the current shifted.
The combination of salty warm waters, shifting currents, small creatures who feast on wood and time caused the wooden portions of the Patriot to decay and waste away. Anything made of metal or ceramic moved and tumbled as the timber dissolved and came to rest in piles on the ocean floor.
The bottle began its underwater life a level below the junior officers’ mess hall. Because Theodosia sealed the bottle, it tried to float to the surface at every opportunity. Had that happened, the chance existed that her prayer would be answered.
Alas, that was not to be.
As the wood of the ship disintegrated, the plates, dishes, cups, and cutlery in the room above Theodosia’s cabin collapsed through the floor, pinning the bottle in place.
It remained there as the days stretched into weeks into months into years and into decades until . . .
. . . A gloved hand brushed aside several broken plates and grasped the bottle. The hand pulled it closer to a scuba diving mask for a better view.
Lucas Caine couldn’t believe his eyes. After careful research and a tip from an offshore fisherman, he and his business partner, Darwin Trickett, discovered what they hoped was the wreckage of the Patriot. Since the ship disappeared sometime around New Year’s Day in 1813, rumors and legends of what happened to the ship and its passengers swirled.
They discovered the ship in two-hundred feet of water in an area dubbed ‘The Graveyard of the Atlantic.’ Their first clue was a pile of ballast lying a depression. Upon closer investigation, they found the carcass of a ship covered by sand and other debris lying around the pile of rubble. Not much remained.
The answer to the shipwreck’s identity might lie in the bottle clutched in his hands. To this point, he and Darwin had no definitive proof that this was the Patriot.
The remains of the front half of the ship where the name would have been were no more. Lucas’s brother, Blake found a fork with, they think, a name engraved on it. Sailors during this period owned a fork on which they had their name inscribed. Lucas had to get the piece of cutlery back to the lab for further investigation and see if the name matched any sailor known to be aboard the Patriot.
Not much survived. A pile of ballast and other lumps in the sand were the only clues of a shipwreck. Lucas did most of the diving. Darwin stayed on board their ship to give support. His size made it difficult for him to maneuver through the sometimes-dangerous wreckages. Darwin was six foot, eight inches tall and weighed over three-hundred and fifty pounds on a good day. Lucas stood a few inches shorter, still six-three, but had a body honed from years of swimming.
They each recognized the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Their present roles in their company, Big Treasure Finders, Ltd., suited them.
“Lucas?” Darwin called through Lucas’s earpiece. “Lucas, what’s up? Talk to me.”
Lucas tore his gaze off the bottle long enough to take stock of his immediate surroundings. Small fish darted to and fro. Specks of algae floated in the water in front of his mask.
“Uh, yeah. I found something,” Lucas said.
“What is it?” Darwin giggled.
Lucas sounded like Mickey Mouse due to the mix of air in his tank, which included helium. Darwin found it hilarious because he was big Disney fan. Lucas answered, “A bottle.”
“A bottle? Neato. Fantastic.”
Lucas heard the sarcasm dripping in his friend’s voice. “Darwin, it’s not just any bottle. This thing has paper, a message perhaps, rolled up inside, sealed tight.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Nope.” Lucas checked his remaining air supply. He would have to stop on his way to the surface to decompress to keep from getting the dreaded bends. “Darwin, I’m headed your way. Air is running low.”
“Okay, get up here. Be careful.”
“Trust me,” Lucas said. “I will.”
A short while later, Lucas stood on the deck of their research vessel the Queen Anne’s Second Revenge. After he and Darwin, and the help from a few friends discovered Blackbeard’s lost treasure two years before, they went into business together searching for old shipwrecks off the Carolina Coasts and down into Georgia. Their venture was more expensive than they ever imagined. To date, none of those came close to holding or leading to what they found on their first adventure, but they’d done enough to stay in business. Barely.
They quickly realized that deep-shipwreck diving was hazardous. Every dive held many forms of peril. A person could run out of air if they got tangled or trapped in wreckage during a dive. Of the ten million certified scuba divers in the United States, only a few hundred risked their lives and dive deep for shipwrecks.
Lucas Caine and his younger brother Blake were two.
The bottle sat in front of Darwin and Lucas on a white metal table against the portside wall. Findings from Lucas’s dive littered the table’s surface. A bead of water on the green glass dripped onto the tabletop. The boat rocked on the water. Seagulls honked overhead.
Silence stretched as they regarded the significance of the bottle’s contents, Lucas said to Darwin, “Okay big guy. This is your area of expertise. Can we just uncork the bottle and see what the note says?”
Darwin stroked his bushy goatee. Lucas remembered that when he first picked Darwin up in Raleigh, North Carolina on their way to the Outer Banks to start the search for Blackbeard’s treasure, it had been four or five years since they’d seen each other. At the time, Darwin had large, unkempt afro, thick beard, Coke-bottle glasses, and ratty clothes, not because that was his choice of style, but more because he didn’t have the money to do anything about his appearance. After they discovered the treasure, Darwin got a makeover. He kept his hair cut tight around his skull, owned a pair of glasses that would cause him to stand out at New York Fashion Week, and dressed only in Brooks Brothers clothing.
He’d even lost weight, Lucas noted. At one time, Darwin’s appearance frightened small children. Now at thirty-years-old, he had a scholarly, welcoming exterior.
“Usually,” Darwin answered, “you uncork the thing and see what’s in it.”
It shouldn’t be that simple, Lucas thought, and then said, “I don’t know. If this came from the Patriot, it’s been down there for over two-hundred years. Wouldn’t the dampness and moisture surrounding the paper make the ink run? I mean, would we be able to read it?”
“Dunno. Might be okay.”
Lucas shook his head in consternation. “It seems like that’d be reckless. Popping the cork like that. Out here in the middle of the Atlantic.”
Darwin shrugged his shoulders. “We could wait until we get back to the lab where we’ll be able to control the atmospheric conditions. Keep it cool and in low humidity.”
“I prefer that way better.”
“If you say so, boss.”
Lucas and Darwin were fifty-fifty partners in their enterprise, but Darwin often let Lucas make the final call on important matters such as this.
Lucas smiled. “What did I tell you about calling me that?”
Darwin affected a look of innocence. “What? Boss?”
“Yeah that. Don’t call me that. We’re equal in this thing, remember?”
“I know,” Darwin laughed.
“Besides, it makes me feel old.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
The wreckage of the Patriot rested in shallow water twenty miles off the coast of Nags Head. For centuries, the shifting winds and currents caused the sandbars to shift. The warm waters of Gulf Stream coming up from the Caribbean and the frigid Labrador Current streaming down from Canada come together here. Their collision causes stormy, dangerous seas. Ships passing through this region extending from the Chesapeake Bay to the north and to the Outer Banks to the south dealt with rough seas and dense fog common to the area.
Hundreds of shipwrecks and thousands of skeletons litter the ocean floor in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. So many wrecks occurred here that the government required lifesaving stations placed every seven miles along the coast of the Outer Banks. These posts would later become the U.S. Coast Guard.
Lucas had to get special permits to dive there.
Over time, a shipwreck forms its own ecosystem. Tiny creatures attach themselves to steel and wood hulks. Those creatures draw predators that attract their own predators, and so on, all the way up the food chain. Open-water fish such as codfish, pollack, and tuna visit these wrecks to feast.
One thing Darwin and Lucas did after starting their business was to develop a rapport with the offshore fishermen. Shipwrecks become the lifeblood of fishermen. Fat fish makes the fishermen’s bank accounts fatter.
Fishing charter captains have their own secret spots. The secret spots made them rich. They build a collection of these sites as they operate. The fish are always there. They might discover these spots while scanning their bottom finder for sudden lumps out on the ocean floor. They don’t know what ship is down there, but they know these humps attract fish like moths to a flame. The captains don’t allow customers to bring navigation equipment with them because they don’t want their rivals to learn where their secret spots lay.
Darwin and Lucas were not direct competitors to these fishermen. They traded money or other favors for information about a potential wreck site. One of these tips led to the discovery of the Patriot.
The name etched on the spoon Blake found among the debris confirmed that this was, in fact, the Patriot.
After finding the shipwreck, Darwin and Lucas waited several days for the forecast to cooperate before coming back and attempting another dive. Despite having a modern vessel, the conditions in this part of the ocean could make life miserable for salvors such as themselves.
While they waited for the weather to clear, they returned to their headquarters in Morehead City. Once there, Darwin took the bottle to a special climate-controlled room they had installed during the construction of their office. This laboratory was like a rare-book room in a library: no windows, low humidity, and low temperature. Glass cabinets lined the walls while a long worktable sat at its center surrounded by chairs. A tall red chest sat in one corner, similar to a tool chest used by auto mechanics. It contained various implements for working on ancient and fragile artifacts: tweezers, magnifiers, surgical gloves, X-Acto knives, dental picks, brushes, and other small tools.
Darwin rested the bottle on the stainless-steel table. Their lead assistant and researcher, Lisa Kramer, had lined a metal ice bucket used for chilling wine with dozens of packets of silica gel. The same small, white packets that come in shoeboxes. The silica creates a moisture-drawing barrier around the bottle. They hoped that this setup would suck out any water remaining in the bottle. Then, they could withdraw Theodosia Burr Alston’s letter without worrying about wetness disintegrating the paper or causing the ink to run.
While Darwin and Lisa worked on preserving the bottle and its contents, Lucas reported their finding of the Patriot to the Society for American Archaeology, the World Archaeological Congress, and the Society for Historical Archaeology, the federal United States government, and the government of North Carolina. He gave the exact GPS coordinates and date of discovery. That way they would get credit for the discovery and hold the salvage rights.
The world of marine salvage could be cutthroat. Companies and investors often spent millions of dollars trying to track down vessels laden with gold and treasure. They made a risky choice when leaving the Patriot for a few days due to the weather. If other salvage companies caught a whiff of Lucas and Darwin found, then there would be half a dozen ships steaming toward the Diamond Shoals within a few days, regardless of the weather.
There are 7.4 billion people on Earth. Humans are all over the globe. However, vast areas from the jungles of Central America to the savannahs of Africa to the icy escarpments of Antarctica have gone unexplored.
While the archaeological world sends their resources to those zones to further our knowledge of the past, there are spaces tucked away, much closer to home, near where you live that are untouched.
One such place in North America has gone unseen by the outside world for over four thousand years. It is near a populated area. People who passed by this entrance since the exploration of the continent began never knew of its existence. No one knew that a highly secretive tribe lives inside this opening.
These people, they watch.
Their ears have ears.
The name “Lucas Caine” came into their hearing. Now they must learn more. And they will.
Because nothing stops this group of people. Nothing.