Bone Wars

Copyright 1997
ISBN: 0-671-87880-8
printing, June 1998

by Brett Davis

0671-87880-8.jpg (14959 bytes)ONE

Othniel Charles Marsh squinted at the heavens and saw a falling star flash like a water bug over a pebble bed of constellations. He couldn’t see it exactly; he had left his spectacles in his tent and had wandered out to relieve himself without bothering to fit them to his nose.

The meteorite was a cottony ball to his eyes, but his mind turned it this way and that and focused it into a pleasingly sharp image. He had seen falling stars before, had seen most things before, in fact, and so his mind was rarely at a loss to sharpen up the sometimes fuzzy pictures his eyes could gather. He found his wire frames generally uncomfortable in the field, especially in this sort of cold. Might as well fasten a tiny torture device to his face.

At any rate, sharp images were not necessary to find one’s way to a scrub bush suitable for his purpose. The sputtering fire, fueled by lignite coal dug from the surrounding rocks, illuminated only the raggedy straw-colored grass at the edge of camp, and he contented himself with the first bunch he came across.

He finished providing fertilizer for the bush and hugged himself under the armpits, shivering involuntarily. Summer barely over, and it was already cold at night. Summer gave up early in Montana, packing up and heading off further west or south to finish out its days in comfort before some of the hardy stock around here even knew it was gone. The fire was outmatched by the darkness, but it did the best it could, snapping and crackling occasionally with the effort.

Marsh had the slightest headache, a tiny sliver of pain that lived somewhere in the middle of his balding head. It had shallowed his usual deep sleep, waking him ceaselessly, reminding him that he was not back in Connecticut where he wanted to be but was out in the emptiness of Montana, where he did not want to be at this particular time. New Haven had fires and boxes of bones for intellectual pursuit; Montana had rocks, towering peaks of sandstone and shale that only grudgingly gave up their prizes, and not without considerable pain to the extractor. In his pain-flavored dreams he had heard the cries of the great beasts from the stones that rose above the camp like ancient fortresses. Even though entombed for millennia, the bones of the hulking reptiles had groaned in sympathy for his discomfort.

And then his bladder woke him up and he went outside, where the noises of the great beasts turned out to be nothing more than the whispers of the wind. He placed his pudgy fingers at the small of his back and stretched his head up toward the stars, trying to ease a kink out of his back, a throbbing cousin of the sharper pain in his head. No amount of blankets could make the ground in Montana comfortable, and he did not have as many as he would have liked. All he needed were aching feet and he would be well represented with pain.

He imagined he saw a thin wisp of gray smoke off in the distance, up the river. He would not be able to see such a thing even if it existed, but his imagination overrode his eyes and put it there just the same. The smoke marked the camp of Cope, the lair of the enemy. God had given boundless energy to Cope, which had taken him out into the field on numerous trips, more than Marsh could recount. Cope could dig all day, every day, and would dig all night if he could. He was formidable in the way a rat was formidable—small, but tenacious. Cope even resembled a rat to some extent. God had given Cope persistence, that could not be denied, but Marsh was comforted that the superior mind had been reserved for himself. Cope could dig up bones forever, but he couldn’t always tell what they were. He was like a child with a complicated jigsaw puzzle, quick to see patterns that were not yet clear, quick to cram pieces together and say he had solved it.

Marsh heard a rustling to his left, behind a stand of the stubby, stubborn pines that managed to scratch a living out of the thin soil. Gen. Custer was barely cold in the ground, and any rustling in these parts was cause for concern, lest other white men be destined to join his ghostly troops. The two armed soldiers that Marsh had cajoled the Army into loaning him were forty feet or more away, probably dead to the world. He had passed the sleeping form of one of them on his way to his nocturnal errand, and now wished he had awakened the man. He squinted into the dark, unable to see anything beyond the black wall of pines. He mentally ran through his speech, trying to get his sleep-addled brain to remember the key points to say to show that he was a friend of the Indian. He hoped it was a Sioux, rather than a Crow; it was easier to demonstrate his friendship for the Sioux.

"I didn’t mean to scare you," a thin voice said, and a small, dark figure stepped into view.

It was Stillson, a young man Marsh had hired in Fort Benton to care for the horse team. He would really have preferred someone larger, but then again he was running behind schedule and needed the large men out in the field even more, digging the bones. Stillson—and in the early hour he could not remember whether that was a first name or a last name—had shown himself without recommendations of any sort, but seemed good with the horses and was hired aboard. There were not many people willing to come into Indian country these days, so Marsh had decided to risk the hire.

"What are you doing creeping around at this hour?" Marsh asked, in a voice that started harshly but then grew quieter as he remembered the sleeping men in camp.

Now that he knew an Indian attack was not imminent, he didn’t want to wake them. They needed to be fresh in the morning.

"I believe it was the same urge as you, sir, but then I saw someone moving around, and you can’t be too careful these days, what with General Custer and all. So I decided to investigate. It was you, of course."

Stillson came forward and the fire strained to cast some light his way. Marsh squinted down at what looked like the flickering image of a human face. Then he remembered that this boy, not a man, really, just a boy, had a tendency to keep his face dirty. Even in town, when he came up to ask for the job, his cheeks had borne flecks and streaks of mud. These had only increased in size and shape as the party headed into the countryside. Water was scarce enough in this extreme land, but not that scarce, and now they were camped within spitting distance of the Judith River. The other six men he had hired were not exactly ready for a dinner party at Yale, but they at least managed to be only slightly grimy, not out-and-out dirty. Maybe Marsh could catch young Stillson standing beside the river one day, and accidentally bump him into it.

"Well, good night, sir," Stillson said in his boyish voice after Marsh had stared at him for several moments without saying anything.

"Wait one moment," Marsh said.

Stillson had faded back out of the reach of the fire, and Marsh couldn’t tell exactly where he was. This seeming invisibility had given him an idea.

"Stillson, do you see anything over there on the horizon? Up the river?"

"What sort of thing?"

"Any evidence of a fire. Smoke, or a glow, or anything like that."

"Hmmmm. No, sir. I don’t. It’s too dark."

"Stillson, have you ever heard of a man named Edward Drinker Cope?"

"No, sir."

Marsh stifled his momentary irritation. For all his failings, Cope was one of the premier naturalists in the world, although his work was constantly bettered by the likes of Marsh himself. Still, for such a prominent, albeit flawed, scientist to go so unnoticed by much of the population was an affront to Marsh. The public seemed content to be agog at the likes of George Armstrong Custer, who had displayed a talent only in getting himself killed.

"Mr. Cope is trying to dig up the same sort of bones that we are. The bones of sea reptiles, Pterodactyls, Titanotheres. Ancient horses big as elephants. Maybe even the bones of dinosaurs. Have you heard of dinosaurs, Mr. Stillson?"

"I believe I have, sir. Giant lizards."

"Sort of, yes. Anyway, I am trying to dig them up and so is Mr. Cope. I believe I should get to them first because I am a better scientist than Mr. Cope and could do a better job with them. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir. I hear you are a good scientist."

So the Stillson nose was brown from more things than dirt.

"Thank you. You seem to be good at slipping around at night, and you’re small. You can fit through the ravines up in the sandstone. I want you to do something for me. Wander around tomorrow up on those bluffs. Find Mr. Cope’s camp and let me know where he is and what he is doing."

No response.

"I’m not asking you to risk your life. Just find out where it is and see what you can see. And you don’t have to go tramping all over the world. It is nearly directly east of here, from what I have heard, and it’s probably not far from the river. That should narrow things down for you."

"Does this mean I still have to take care of the horses?"

"Of course. I don’t know how much we’ll need them tomorrow anyway. Just feed them in the morning and then you can slip off after that."

"I’m worried about being able to do both at once."

Finally it occurred to Marsh’s tired, pained mind what Stillson was driving at. Perhaps the lad had his hand out, but Marsh couldn’t see it in the dark.

"There will be extra pay in it for you. If you find him and give a good report, I will double what we agreed to."

Every aspect of paleontological research was getting more expensive these days. He had to pay for specimens against Cope, who had gotten his paws on his dead father’s money and was therefore able to pay a pretty penny. Now Marsh was even reduced to paying to find out what Cope was up to. It would be galling enough to pay to find out what a gentleman scientist was doing, but it was downright offensive to waste valuable resources on monitoring such as Cope. Still, it had to be done; it was the rat you didn’t watch that would bite you in the rear.

"Do you agree?"

"What about the Indians, sir? Double pay doesn’t help if I’m not here to spend it."

"I don’t believe there are many around here now. Take one of the soldiers with you if you are that nervous. I will also give you a letter for them, telling who I am and what I am doing. Rest assured it will be enough to see you through safely, especially if they are Sioux."

"You’re good with the Sioux, then."

"You could say that. Do you agree?"

"What if they can’t read?"

"Stillson, the fact that I am willing to pay you double indicates there may be some modicum of risk involved. Otherwise I wouldn’t pay you at all. If you are unwilling to perform this task, then say so."

"I’m not, sir. I mean, yes, I’ll do it."

"Good. In the future, just be forthright with me and don’t beat around the bush. Get some sleep now, and we’ll talk it over a bit more in the morning. I’ll tell you more about Mr. Cope so you don’t accidentally bother someone else."

He laughed, letting Stillson know that was a little joke. White people hadn’t come around these parts much since Lewis and Clark, especially not when winter was on its way and Sitting Bull and his deadly Sioux were still at large. Stillson barked out a half-hearted laugh. The boy was trying.

"Good night, then," Marsh said.

"Wait, sir. Are you sure the camp isn’t to the south a bit? Over there?"

Marsh could not see where Stillson pointed, or even if he was pointing. He saw nothing on the horizon, and nothing even in the foreground save for the feeble orange glow of the fire.

"I don’t think so. What do you see?"

"It’s hard to tell. Nothing really. It just looks like a faint green glow, shining through the cracks in the middle of one of those ridges. Like a tiny little smudge halfway up the hill."

That would be a good phrase to describe Cope, Marsh thought; a little smudge on the hill. But this could not be him, unless his earlier sources were all wrong, and he hoped that was not the case.

"Green, did you say?"

"Yes, sir, it looks that way. I can barely see it."

"Hmm. I cannot imagine anything he might be burning that would be green. Perhaps it’s a trick of the light, such as it is. The air up here can do odd things, you know."

"I know."

"Anyway, let’s get some sleep now. And, Stillson—"


"Please don’t tell anyone about our deal. They’ll all want to be out looking for Mr. Cope, and I won’t get any digging done."

Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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