Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


He moved about as fast as the clouds that flirted with the moon above, and tried to mimic their silence. When his feet or hands had occasion to crack a twig, he would wait for minutes to pass before moving again. A real Sioux brave could do this at three times the speed, and with less noise, but he felt he wasn’t doing too bad for a Yale graduate. He was near the camp, could hear the men sleeping. One of them made as much noise sleeping as two regular men did awake, but he had been warned to expect that. Two of his braves waited on horses three hundred yards back. They were there if trouble arose, but could not come closer without turning their presence into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

George Burgess crept around a patch of scrub pine and saw the fire and the tents. He heard regular snores—and, from the one tent, snorts and coughs—but didn’t see any people. Professor Marsh at least kept up the pretense of having guards, but this camp was wide open. He had seen a crude map of the camp, drawn with the small index finger of Alice—or rather Al—Stillson. It showed the fossil storage tent to be on this side, which was fortunate. It was the side of camp bordered by the last hunches of a ravine and the beginnings of a meager pine wood. These benefited the campers by blocking the wind, and they benefited an intruder by affording him places to hide. The cart used daily in the field was parked on the open side of the camp, near the sleeping tents. Getting to it would have been much more of a challenge, one he was glad not to have.

Burgess made it to the fossil tent by feel, keeping his rifle slung under his right shoulder. The moon was out, but it was keeping company with the party of clouds tonight and could not be bothered to assist him. The tent had been thrown over the wooden sides of a collection cart, but had not been cinched too tightly because the wind wasn’t too bad here. He was able to slide under the tent side and stand up inside it. He leaned his rifle against the cart and let his fingers roam across the bottom of the cart bed. This was probably not such a good idea. Scorpions or other creepy crawlies could mistake the cart for a hotel made especially for them, what with its warm piles of folded rags. He hoped the eight-legged residents of the camp were sleeping as surely as the two-legged ones.

He came across tiny hard objects that felt like rocks. This was close, but wasn’t exactly what he was pursuing. Finally he felt a long lump at the edge of the cart, wedged in the groove where the cart’s side met the bed. It was nearly three feet long and knotted on both ends like a club, and was swaddled in rags like a baby. This had to be it. With agonizing slowness he drew the lump out and held it, marveling at its weight. Crazy Horse once said he believed his bones would turn to stone upon his death. This bone proved that could be true. He cradled the bone like an infant and slid out from under the tent flap, retrieving his rifle as he did so. Burgess almost laughed at the thought that he was a god of thunder; he had a thunder stick in one hand and the bone of a Thunder Horse in the other. His amusement lasted until he was back around the edge of the pines. He felt something cold on his neck, something cold and metallic and round.

"Turn around very, very slow," a voice said.

It was low and gravelly, the sort of voice he felt as well as heard. He obeyed. The moon obligingly peeked around a cloud just as he turned. It showed him a man as tall as he was, with stringy hair and a new beard. The man held his rifle in one huge hand, keeping its barrel in constant contact with Burgess’ throat.

"Drop it or kiss your head goodbye," the man said.

Burgess let go of the bone, giving it a little nudge as he did so. One of its rounded ends thumped against the man’s foot. His immobile face cracked into a grimace and he looked down in pain, just for one second. That was long enough for Burgess to swing his own rifle around, one handed, and knock the man’s barrel aside. He had hoped to knock the gun clean out of his hands, but he had underestimated the man’s grip. The man recovered instantly and brought the rifle barrel up to Burgess’ lips. Burgess did the same with his own gun.

"I hope you didn’t break that bone," the man said slowly.

He spoke slowly because he was watching the intruder carefully, waiting for the slightest opportunity to blow his head off. Burgess did not blink, but stared hard into the man’s left eye. He dared not shift his gaze from one eye to the other; one would have to do. In the time it took his vision to shift across that mere inch, he could be dead. His arm was tired of holding up the rifle with no support, but he could not think of that now. The other man’s rifle barrel was close enough to kiss, and he gave no indication of being weary of holding it.

"I have no quarrel with you," he said. "Give me the bone and let me go."

"What is your name?"

"Sitting Lizard. Of the Sioux. May I ask yours?"

Their conversation proceeded slowly, as if both men had trouble with English.

"Jenks Dart. I work for the man who owns that bone."

Burgess became aware that a large cloud was approaching the moon, which would drop the rifle-toting combatants back into darkness. He did not glance up at the moon to verify this, because had he done so he would have been instantly dispatched to a place where he wouldn’t care at all about the weather. Either the Happy Hunting Ground, or Heaven or Hell, depending on whether the Sioux or the Methodists were correct. He could only sense the impending darkening of the moon, and knew then he wouldn’t be able to look this Jenks Dart in the eye, and that was worrisome. That was when the trigger would have to be pulled, and he really didn’t want to do that. He was sure Jenks Dart wouldn’t mind.

"I will bring the bone back," he said. "The man who wants it only needs it for a little while."

"I don’t think so. I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you."

O.C. Marsh had a plan, but it was complicated to explain just at this moment. He had told Burgess about an earlier success with something he had called "Old Whatchamacallit," a slapped-together make-believe beast he had buried to fool the man who was even now snorting and kicking on the other side of the pines. Marsh was growing increasingly disgusted with his own inability to find bones, and with the inability of the Sioux to keep track of the speedy third bone hunter. Why not put together a bigger, more elaborate Old Whatchamacallit, and see if this mysterious scientist could be tricked into digging it up?

"Then I and my men will march in there and see about this ghost wall," Marsh said.

The problem was he didn’t have enough bones to make a really attractive fossil find. He fetched his men to dig up the first Old Whatchamacallit, although he seemed angry it was still there. Then he decided he needed another bone, a leg bone he said would be in Cope’s camp. He had seemed angry at Al Stillson for some reason, and had determined to send him on the errand. Burgess had thought about Alice Stillson’s face, so soft without its covering of dirt, and had instead volunteered to do it himself.

"Stillson can give you a layout of the camp," Marsh had told him. "But don’t tell him why you’re going. He is not to be trusted."

So here he was, rifle in face, arm getting tired, no bone. Alice could probably have done a better job after all.

"I don’t think you want to kill me," Burgess said.

"No? You’re a Sioux who attacked a white man. I’d be doing General Custer a favor."

They stood in silence for a long moment. The clouds rolled in, and Burgess could almost feel the metallic rasp of Jenks Dart’s trigger moving to ignite the blast.

"How long have you been out here, anyway?" Burgess asked.

"Long enough."

"I’ll bet just since earlier this year. You’re not one of the Army men from Fort Benton. I’ll bet you came here with another Army, didn’t you?"

Dart’s left eye twitched. Burgess tightened his own finger’s grip against his trigger.

"I’ll bet you came here with a general you didn’t like very much. I’ll bet you got out while you could. I’ll bet you looked back and were glad you got away before that general got killed by the Sioux."

The eye was very nearly a slit.

"Damn you," Dart said. "I’ll pay you back for what you did to Custer."

"You don’t care about him. You wouldn’t have left if you did."

"I care about him more than I care about Sitting Bull. I’ll leave your body for him to find."

"And that will be the last thing you do. Sitting Bull needs me. He will come here looking for me. When he doesn’t find me he will be looking for you. He will be looking for any remnants of Custer’s Army."

It was getting dark now, very dark. The clouds were upon the moon. Burgess’ trigger was pulled nearly as far as it could go without firing. Jenks Dart’s was no doubt at the same place. All his education and training, all for nothing, and he, a Yale graduate, to die at the hands of a dirty deserter over a dinosaur bone. He should have been a missionary after all.

"Might there be any money in this for me?" Dart said after a long pause.

Burgess couldn’t help himself. He blinked for the first time.

"I’m sure that can be arranged."

" ’Cause I need money to get away from here. My pay has been a bit slow in coming."

"I guarantee you we can arrange something."

Just as the light of the moon dipped them both back into the night’s darkness, Jenks Dart said, "I’m going to put my rifle down now. I suggest you do the same."

Burgess’ arm trembled when he lowered the gun, from exertion spiked with fear. He managed to keep a steady grip when Jenks Dart shook his hand, and managed to keep his breath from rattling when he finally exhaled.

"Custer was a bastard," Dart said, and they both laughed.

"The bone is broken," Burgess said when he picked it up again.

It was split in two halves, nearly in the middle. He was not surprised. Marsh had impressed upon him the fragility of even the sturdiest-looking bone, and had said they could break even when handled with great care. They were not likely to withstand being thrown on someone else’s boot-clad foot.

"I’m sorry."

"It’s done," Dart said. "They come back into camp happy about having a tooth or a scrap of anything, so I don’t see why having a big bone in two pieces should matter. And anyway, they won’t be looking at it for a while. They’ll probably think the cart just broke it. You are going to bring it back, right?"


Dart helped him get the two pieces back as close together as they would fit, and then wrap them in the rags.

"Maybe Mr. Marsh will be happy with this," Dart said.

"How did you know Marsh is the one who wants this bone?"

"Who else is there?"

Sitting Lizard felt his way back through the ravine to the waiting braves, his Thunder Horse bone and thunder stick once more in hand. He had nearly made it when he felt the presence of someone else behind him. Burgess stopped and took a deep breath. He did not need another death-defying encounter this evening. Surely one had been enough.

"Who’s there?" he asked quietly.

Turning around in the ravine at this point was difficult, and he didn’t want to break the bone further. He felt something pushing past his leg, something big, and nearly yelped in fear. Then he felt hands patting his chest, rubbing across his face.

"Are you unharmed, Sitting Lizard?" Alice Stillson asked, her voice carrying a healthy trace of fear.

She was about the only one who thought of him as an Indian out here, it seemed. The Sioux gave him the name Sitting Lizard somewhat grudgingly, Marsh didn’t use it, and even he thought of himself as Burgess. The moon would not cooperate and let him see the face of his only true believer, and he wished it would.

"I’m fine. I’m fine, Alice. What are you doing here?"

"I watched everything. I followed you from camp. I was in the pines back there. I was just about to blow Jenks Dart’s head off."

He leaned his rifle against the ravine and wrapped her in the crook of his arm. She squirmed in next to the dinosaur bone. He could feel wetness on her cheeks when their faces touched. She would have to put some more dirt there.

"Hold on," he whispered, and set the bone down carefully. There was no need to break it into thirds.

His braves would be getting restless, but there was still time. He held Alice Stillson in his arms and kissed her face and kissed her mouth. Her hat fell off and she didn’t move to retrieve it. The moon still didn’t come out, but now he was glad.


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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