Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


Boston Mickle had outdone himself this time, despite the fact that he seemed terrified of his guests. The meager plank table had been replaced with an actual rough wooden table, which had been intended for fossil examination and which, unfortunately, was not getting much use for that purpose. The pickle barrels and planks still remained, only now they were used as seats for the distinguished guests, who sat around the table in their buckskin finery. The table, intended as it was to be holding heavy fossils, was just barely up to the task of holding Mickle’s output. Its surface was entirely taken up with hen, duck, fish, potatoes, rice, dried apples and succotash, all procured by the death-delivering rifle, fishing line and picking hands of Jenks Dart. Mickle had kept the fire going all day to get them ready, but they did appear worthy of anyone’s appetite.

Charles Sternberg looked down the table and thought that was a good thing, for the man sitting at the end opposite Edward Cope did appear to possess sizable eating ability. He must have been nearly six and a half feet tall. He earned a pickle barrel all to himself, because he looked like he could snap the plank boards right in half. His name was Twobelly, chief of the Crows camped just across the Judith River.

"Twobelly!" Boston Mickle had repeated when told the chief was coming to dinner. "He sounds like my kind of man!"

The chief sat stiffly upright like an adult at a child’s table, his knees visible at the edge of the table. Two of his braves sat on one side of the table, one on the other. They were smaller than their chief, which just meant they were normally sized, but they had fierce names. The two across from Sternberg were Wolfbox and Enemy Hunter, and the one at his left elbow was Bearhead. Despite their names, they appeared jovial, laughing and joking in English that could use a little work but was perfectly understandable.

"We should be getting some snow fairly soon," Sternberg said to Bearhead, who smiled and nodded.

"I hope Sitting Bull comes through before we have to leave our camp," he said, his smile never wavering from his broad face. "I hope to kill a few of his braves."

Sternberg smiled back at him for a second until he realized what he had said, then he kept the smile on his face so as not to offend.

"The fish looks good, doesn’t it?" he said, and Bearhead nodded again.

"Thank you all for joining us today," Cope said, and Sternberg was relieved to turn his attention to his friend. "I hope you are doing well."

"Thank you," Twobelly said in a deep voice that boomed up from somewhere deep inside his massive chest. "Where is the man who carried the invitation to us?"

"He wished me to express his regrets," Cope said. "He had some business elsewhere and could not be here."

Dart was becoming more solitary than ever these days. He was the camp’s ghost guard, seemingly everpresent and ever absent at the same time. He had not seemed happy to have Indians in the camp, and nothing Cope could say would convince him to eat with them. He would be around if needed, was all he said.

"I am sorry he was busy, but we are happy to dine with a white man who is learning more about nature," Twobelly said.

"Well, let’s dine then, before we lose the light and this gets cold," Cope said.

They heaped food on their plates and began chewing. Sternberg ate several good bites quickly, because he feared that Cope could not bear to eat in silence, and would soon begin a conversation that would no doubt result in his food getting cold. He had barely gotten the fourth bite of hen swallowed when he thought his fears were to be realized. Cope cleared his throat and flicked his tongue around in his mouth, a sure sign that he was already bored and ready to start talking. Instead, he leaned his head to the right side and pulled out his upper plate of false teeth.

"Got some hen caught in there," he said to Sternberg, and tried to quietly slide the five false teeth under his dinner plate.

Sternberg heard the clank of metal on metal, as the Indians put their forks down on their plates and stared at Cope in astonishment.

"You pulled your teeth out!" Twobelly said. "Can you do that again?"

Cope had become fairly lax about dental care in the course of his numerous field expeditions, a laxness that had taken its toll in his mouth. Sternberg had privately chuckled that Cope seemed to have a tooth exchange going—for every few dinosaur choppers he might dig up, he was willing to leave one of his own. Cope laughed and wiped the plate on his napkin to make sure he wasn’t flinging bits of food. He covered his mouth and slid the teeth back in and smiled at the Indians. Then, with a flip of the tongue, he flipped the teeth out again, showing the gaps in the smile. The Indians roared with laughter, looking at each other in amazement. Twobelly nearly upended his plate and fell off the pickle barrel.

"Can you remove any other body parts, Mr. Cope?" he asked when his laughter had subsided enough to let him talk.

"Well, there’s this," Cope said, and put one hand around his right eye.

He squeezed his fist and a white orb shot out from his palm. The Indians, and even Sternberg, gasped until Wolfbox shot out a hand and grabbed it, revealing it to be a scoop of potato. Wolfbox tossed it into his mouth, chewed hurriedly and swallowed.

"You have to grow another eye, Mr. Cope!" Wolfbox said, and everyone laughed again.

"Why, I just did," Cope said, bringing his hand away to reveal his right eye, blinking and intact. "I am very fast."

Once the merriment settled back down, the paleontologists and their guests were able to finish the meal. Sternberg ate as fast as he could, but Cope seemed satisfied that he had amused his guests and did not move to speak until three apple pies were on the table. Their steam rose, spread its tantalizing aroma and disappeared into the twilight.

"This is as good a meal as I have had in a long time," Twobelly said, and Sternberg noticed he had lived up to his name during it.

Finally, once dinner was over, Cope settled down to business.

"I believe I saw some of your braves ride by here last night," Cope said. "They were coming from out there, where I saw a green flash of light. I have never seen anything like that. Can you tell me what it was?"

The braves looked at Twobelly, but he did not look back at them. He spoke as a man used to making his own decisions.

"I do not see what harm there can be in telling you, because we do not know ourselves. There are some strange things going on around here."

His voice nearly rattled the plates on the table now that their burden of food had been lifted and redistributed amongst the surrounding stomachs.

"But you must have some idea," Cope said.

His eyes were focused on Twobelly like he was some sort of new skull that had been unearthed, and there was not much on the planet that could gather his attention like that.

"We have found some tracks in the hills. They are the tracks of a man’s boot. We have found no more than that. But where we have found them, something has bothered the rocks."

"Bothered? Bothered how?"

"Bothered in the same way you leave the rocks. With chips and cracks and holes. Bothered like the way you left them at your camp lower down the river."

Twobelly did not sound angry when he said the rocks were bothered. Sternberg suspected the word he was looking for was "disturbed," but did not think it wise to volunteer this information. He was not sure whether he should be worried that the Crows had been investigating their old camps, but felt it best to also leave that alone.

"Sometimes at night we have seen a green light, and the next day we have found the boot prints and the bothered rocks. But that is all we know."

"So what do you think he’s doing?"

"We thought he was doing the same as you and the other white man. Digging up things."

Now it was Cope’s turn to nearly fall off the pickle barrel. Sternberg shared a long look with him, and could almost read his mind. Was Leidy back in the field? Did Marsh have two teams out here? What caused the green light? Did Marsh have a new technique?

"This could explain the lack of bones," Sternberg offered, and Cope was nodding before he was even finished talking.

"I have also heard that a Thunder Horse is walking the ground here."

"A Thunder Horse? A live dinosaur?"

"I do not know what is a dinosaur. I have only heard that some Piegans saw a Thunder Horse, but I have seen no tracks myself and do not believe it."

Cope snorted.

"Nor do I. Although that would be interesting."

Thomas Jefferson had thought as little as six decades before that giant mammoths and lions could possibly still be found in the west, which was one reason he wanted it explored. Lewis and Clark had not run across any and, Sternberg thought, it was unlikely that modern paleontologists would see a living Thunder Horse.

"I do know that the other white man is planning to try to get inside the stranger’s camp," Twobelly said.

Cope sat up straighter and clenched his chin, which made the hair on his chin twitch. He looked like an animal put on the defensive.

"He is? When?"

"I do not know. Soon."

"What do you mean, get into his camp?"

"I do not know. I have just heard that he is going to try."

"Charley!" Cope said. "He can’t get in there before us."

"I agree," Sternberg said.

"He is going to try."

"Chief Twobelly, will you help us try to get in, too? Can you tell us where he is and then help us get into his camp?"

Twobelly gave him a long look, and then shook his massive head slowly.

"That I cannot do. The other white man is working with the Sioux. What you would be asking is for us to go to war."

"War? I just want to get into the man’s camp."

"Being near the Sioux may be a small thing for you but it would not be so for us. There would be a war between us. I am sorry, but you do not seem to have horses or possessions enough to persuade me to change my mind."

Sternberg recognized the look on Cope’s face. It was the look that appeared when there was an obstacle to be surmounted. He knew it only from the field, and had only seen it when a fossil proved to be wrapped in a particularly tough bit of rock, but he had heard from others who knew Cope back east that it could also appear in other circumstances, such as when other scientists resisted his choice of a Latin name for a freshly discovered extinct beast. He knew the look could propel Cope to fantastic feats of digging, and had heard it could also lead to fantastic feats of persuasion. That might be the case with some learned researcher in Philadelphia, or against some mute beast encased in rock; it did not seem to be the case here, with Chief Twobelly. He would not be swayed by scientific arguments, and his face appeared to be carved in a type of stone more solid than anything visited by a scientist’s pick.

"Chief, as you wish. I do not seek to cause you to take up arms against your enemy. I only ask that you let me know if you learn when the Sioux might undertake this thing."

Chief Twobelly’s massive head nodded slowly.

"I have heard it said that you should never miss a chance to cause trouble for your enemy," Twobelly said. "I do not want to have a war now, but I should obey this wise saying."

His face slowly cracked into a smile, and Sternberg realized he was joking. The braves laughed nearly as loudly as they had when they witnessed Cope’s false teeth.


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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