Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


A few tiny clouds low in the sky glowed pink. The sun was just setting behind the eerie hills, but O.C. Marsh could see no evidence of a ghost wall. It was just a normal sunset. His men had constructed a new beast, one with Old Whatchamacallit’s weird head and the purloined femur from Edward Drinker Cope’s camp, plus some sun-bleached bovine bones and a few other odds and ends thrown in for good measure. The mysterious rogue paleontologist seemed to have taken the bait. George Burgess had come into the camp in the afternoon, saying the Sioux had spotted him near the Big-Legged Duckbill Cow, as the men had taken to calling their creation. Marsh had called in the men from yet another fruitless dig site. They had bigger quarry to hunt now.

"So where is this ghost wall?" Marsh asked George Burgess, who was conferring with several Sioux.

The twenty or so Sioux were dressed in full warpaint, even though soon it would be dark and difficult to see all their finery. Burgess, too, was in warpaint, his face marked with stripes and splashes, his buckskin shirt festooned with multicolored braids of horsehair. The other braves looked natural in their costume, but Marsh thought it looked a little odd on Burgess. He looked like the other Sioux, of course, but there was something about his carriage that made him seem less like an Indian in warpaint than a man in costume. He’s a Yale man, all right, Marsh thought. Even out here, dressed like that.

"Try to go forward," Burgess said.

This was easier said than done. The Big-Legged Duckbill Cow had been planted in some flat land, near a series of hills but not too close, to make it easier to see into the man’s camp if he took the bait. Apparently he had quite literally done just that; he dug up the composite beast, every single speck of it, and then camped nearby, on the other side of the rocky outcropping, just at the base of where the sandstone began to rise precipitously. His camp was in a neat little valley, which made it impossible to see from where Marsh stood. The rock on the side of the most passable slope was brittle and granular, which made for slippery footing, even for good climbers. Marsh was not a good climber, so he motioned for Burgess to send two or three of the Sioux on ahead. He watched as they made their way up the sandstone face, their moccasins finding slots he would not have seen. They walked until their feet were a dozen feet or more above his head, and then they stopped in a ridiculous pose, their upper arms splayed as though resting on something.

"Why are you stopping?" Marsh called up.

He modulated his voice as best he could. He wanted the Sioux to hear him, but did not want to attract the paleontologist’s attention.

The Sioux warriors only looked back, nodding at George Burgess. They were truly stealthy. They would make no noise.

"Ghost wall," Burgess said.

"There’s nothing there!" Marsh said, his voice rising with annoyance. "They’re just standing there!"

"It does look that way, doesn’t it?" Burgess said.

He motioned for the Sioux to climb down. They lowered their arms and picked their way back down, moving as swiftly and silently as if they were ghosts themselves.

"Let’s go up ourselves," Burgess said. "It doesn’t look too hard. I think we can make it, but we should try before we lose the light completely. I’ll help you."

He took Marsh by the arm, but Marsh politely—but firmly—shook off his grasp.

"I can make it, thank you."

"Be careful," said a voice behind them.

It was Al Stillson. Marsh had thought twice about bringing Cope’s little spy along, but thought it best to keep him where he could see him. Left in camp, Stillson might have reported to Cope, and Marsh wasn’t ready to have that happen yet. Now he could see everything, but would have no one to tell.

"Don’t worry," Burgess said, and gave Stillson a gruff tap on the shoulder.

Marsh and Burgess picked their way up the sandstone. Marsh tried to remember where the Sioux had put their feet. It actually wasn’t that bad. The sandstone was flat in spots, places that made natural stair steps. Burgess moved ahead of him, picking out the steps. He had only to follow, putting his boots where Burgess’ moccasins had been. The watching Sioux braves began to get smaller and smaller, but then Burgess stopped.

"Don’t tell me," Marsh huffed in exasperation, his voice made husky by lack of breath.

"I can’t go any farther," Burgess said. "There’s something here."

Burgess was three feet ahead of him and two steps higher. He rested his hands on what looked like empty air. Marsh fumbled his glasses out of his pocket and strapped them over his ears. Burgess was pushing at the empty air, but his fingers seemed to be touching something; Marsh could see where the tips of his fingers moved as he pushed.

He began pounding on the air, an action which produced only muffled thumps. Marsh watched closely. Burgess’ fist stopped at the same place each time, not one jot before or after. What was it they did in France? Mime? He did not think George Burgess knew mime, and if he did he could not be this adept at it.

"Let me try," Marsh said, and Burgess moved obligingly out of the way.

Marsh huffed his way up the steps and hit the ghost wall, stopping so suddenly that he nearly lost his balance. The Sioux were right. There was something here, although what it was he could not tell. He looked around. The grass and rocks on the other side of the ghost wall seemed as sharp as the grass and rocks on this side, or at least as sharp as his eyes and glasses would render them. He pushed at the wall. It was smooth to the touch and seemed to have no temperature. Marsh put the fingers of his left hand on it and peered intently. The skin beneath his nails blushed, but he could see nothing at all that was touching them. He pulled his fingers back. They left no mark.

"Excuse me," Marsh said, and made a grumbling sound in his throat.

He pulled his head back and sent a small whitish wad of spit flying as hard as he could. It spattered on the rocks on the other side, yet when he touched the air again, the ghost wall seemed as solid as before.

"What could this be?" Marsh said, not trying to hide his astonishment from Burgess, who appeared equally baffled. "It’s obviously some kind of semi-permeable membrane, but that doesn’t do it justice."

"Ghost wall is the best description I can think of," Burgess said, and Marsh had no choice but to agree.

They heard a scuffling noise behind them, and turned to see Al Stillson, picking his way slowly up the rock steps.

"Don’t come up here," Marsh said. "You can’t help."

"But I think I can," Stillson said. "I just noticed something while I was watching you. This ghost wall doesn’t seem to go all the way to the ground."

He pointed at the ground to their left, where the smooth rock steps gave way to patchy scrub grass and loose gravel. A scorpion was crabbing its way up the hill. It shoved some small rocks aside and then passed where the limit of the ghost wall should have been, but clambered on its way unhindered. Small bits of dust and gravel fell further down the slope as it passed. They moved right underneath the wall.

"I’ll be damned," Burgess said.

He walked down and around Marsh and over to the scorpion, which scurried faster when it saw his looming form. He dug in the path of the scorpion like a dog trying to get under a fence, which was not far from the situation. He put his hands in the small trench he had made and pushed them forward, palms up.

"The ghost wall is touching the base of my thumb," he said after a moment.

His fingers wiggled free on the other side.

"What does it feel like?" Marsh asked.

"I can’t quite describe it."

He moved his palm along the bottom of the ghost wall. Marsh and Stillson could see the skin near his thumb moving, pushed down by an unseen force.

"I can feel a pressure. It’s not a wide wall, but it’s not sharp, either. It’s just there. It seems sort of ragged on the bottom, because before it was touching the rocks. It didn’t change when I moved them."

The scorpion had now made good on its escape, having scuttled under a lump of loose rocks on the other side.

"Good eye, Stillson," Marsh said, and Al Stillson smiled. "I guess we should start digging."


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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