Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


Edward Drinker Cope jabbed the tip of a cotton-gloved finger into the wall of sandstone, sending fragments skittering down. Nothing. What he thought was the tip of a fossil turned out to be just more rock. Further over was something more promising, a wall of sandstone and shale studded with tiny points of light. Could be nothing, could be the claws or vertebrae of a beast that died millions of years ago.

The way things had been going out here, it was likely the former. He decided to chance it. The ledge underneath his feet was only a foot and a half wide, the nearest cliff face behind him ten feet away. Below was nothing but air for five hundred feet, followed by razor-sharp rock and spiky pine for another hundred. The pines were mere green dots from this height. Fall down there and it would be easier just to wait for the ravens to locate all your parts. All around him, streams of rock grains shussed their way into the abyss, as if to show him how easy such a fall could be. Of course, this being the Montana badlands, there was another obstacle. Before him was a spike of rock, jutting out right at face level.

Going over it was impossible, but he thought he could fit underneath. Only one way to find out. Gritting his teeth, he took a breath, swayed his torso and head underneath the spike and rammed his pick into the wall on the other side. It was like driving a blow into water. The pick head disappeared up to the shaft, releasing a fresh flood of rock fragments. He felt the immutable pull of gravity, trying to show him those distant pines and razor-sharp rocks up close. It was not a warm day, but his body broke out in sweat. He saw the headline: FALL CUTS SHORT BRAVE GEOLOGIST’S CAREER. A mute parade of all the creatures whose bones he hadn’t yet found clumped before him, wagging their cumbersome tails, flashing their eyes; at the end of the line stood a chortling Othniel Marsh, gleefully writing down their names on a legal pad.

"Lord!" Cope said, and grabbed at the spike, the only other option besides falling.

His fingers scrabbled on its top, knocking dust and rock chips onto his face and moustache. He sneezed, which actually helped by driving his fingers harder into the rocks atop the spike. He sneezed again, and realized that he hadn’t fallen after all. The spike was sandstone, not shale, or he would even now be reunited with his creator, something he wasn’t quite ready to experience. Slowly, slowly, he eased back to the left of the spike. Now that he wasn’t going to fall, he didn’t intend to retreat. He pulled the pick out of its dusty sheath with a trembling hand and leaned against the rock wall, secure on the ledge, at least as long as the ledge remained secure. His knees were trembling, but there was nowhere to bend down and relax. He would just have to keep working. If he looked to the left, he could see a tiny portion of the Missouri River, near where it joined the Judith. The Missouri ran thin and shallow here, its mild demeanor making up for the violent upthrusts of rock all around it. The Missouri rolled on, indifferent to whether Edward Drinker Cope could see it or not.

"I thank you, Lord," he whispered, and closed his eyes for a moment.

When he opened them again he saw more rock, and nothing but rock. The light spots he saw in the black shale turned out to be shadowy depressions and nothing else. He had risked his life for shale pits. Perhaps the Lord had taunted him with near death, and no reward, to remind him of the puniness of his efforts. Ferdinand Hayden had found dinosaur bones in these very rocks two decades back, stacking them up at the Smithsonian like so much cordwood. Perhaps he had gotten them all.

He glanced up at what he could see of the sky. They called this the big sky country, but the black ravines offered him only slices of it. It was getting darker and colder, and it would not do to be caught in the ravines once the sun went down. They dug into the earth like dark veins, sometimes continuing like broad avenues for miles, sometimes narrowing to a few inches and coming to an abrupt end. Sometimes they stopped over empty space. He had gotten close enough to that already today.

He walked back up the ledge—slowly—until he got back to the top, where the horses waited with the rig. Charles Sternberg was waiting for him there, sitting atop the wooden plank. Sternberg was young but eager to look for fossils, so it was a shame their luck was not running high. Empty rags filled the back of the cart. On a good expedition, there would be huge bones stacked underneath them. On this trip, they slouched like flat ghosts.

"Thought maybe you wanted to forgo supper tonight," Sternberg said, his mouth tilting up faintly at the corners to show he was not altogether serious.

His shirt and vest were covered with tan streaks. He was lame in one leg and deaf in one ear, but he worked harder than most men who had all their senses and limbs working properly. He had been working a flatter section of hills and had collected more dust—but no more bones, Cope noted a little ruefully.

"I see you had fun today," Cope said.

"As much as possible," Sternberg replied. "I found a tooth. One single tooth. Herbivore, probably Hadrosaur. Fits in a pocket, easy to carry. And yourself?"

"Why, I found nothing at all but had adventures nonetheless. I nearly fell right off the cliff today, but the good Lord could not see his way clear to leave you in a helpless state without me around, so he plucked me back from the precipice. He rewarded me not with bones, but with my own life."

With a tug of the line, Cope nudged the quartet of horses forward. The empty cart rattled behind, as if in reproof.

"No disrespect, but perhaps you should pay me up front," Sternberg said. "In case the Lord changes his mind."

"I’ll think about it. But I thought perhaps I would work the lower ground tomorrow and you can take the ledges. Or maybe we’ll both work the ledges and we’ll see whom the good Lord prefers for company."

They rumbled away from the cliffs, down a broad, gentle ravine that looped around and headed back for the river. Once the cart got to nearly level ground, they could see smoke rising from the campfire.

"I wonder what Boston has cooked for us this evening," Cope said.

Boston Mickle had a round face, which Cope assumed meant he was a good cook, and indeed he had turned out to be that. He could do justice to whatever the guide happened to bring down.

"Perhaps Jenks has shot us a Titanothere for supper," Sternberg mused.

Cope heard his stomach rumble. No food had entered its domain since breakfast, and no water either. His eyes had gazed all day on empty sandstone and shale, a nourishment that did little to fill either brain or belly.

"I believe they are extinct," Cope said. "But I also believe I could eat one right about now."

Once they stopped the cart, Sternberg hopped out to unfasten the horses.

"No luck today, Boston," Cope shouted to the cook. "The land gives up its bones most grudgingly."

"Come over here and eat these sage hens and you’ll soon have some fresh bones to play with," Mickle shouted from the fire near the main wagon.

He hovered over the camp stove like a hairless bear, his face red with sweat. Jenks Dart, the guide, was nowhere to be seen, probably off hunting something else for breakfast. At the edge of the stove were two pies, sending steam into the air. Mickle’s meals were usually more fit for a Philadelphia drawing room than the badlands of Montana. Cope and Sternberg ate better than anyone in the territory.

"Not just yet," Cope said.

He and Sternberg walked the quarter mile to the river to wash themselves, then returned and rolled out the pickle barrels that doubled as seats. Jenks Dart had returned and nodded at them, but he was more interested in showing Mickle the latest beasts he had killed, so Mickle could figure out how to cook them. Dart was a tall man who said little but was quick with a rifle, capable of bringing down any critter that flew, walked or crawled. If future scientists uncovered fossils of this era, a good many of them would have been put there by Jenks Dart.

Cope had fetched his tattered Bible from his tent, and held it in his left hand as he thumbed its pages. Sternberg waited patiently for him to read. The young man never seemed to mind hearing the word of the Lord at the end of a long day, which made Cope glad. So many men his age did not care to hear it. Cope came to rest on a page at random and started to read.

"Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in the search of the depth? Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death? Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? Declare if thou knowest it all."

A rumble from his stomach drowned out the next verse, and Cope shifted uncomfortably on the pickle barrel.

"I declare that I knowest your food is getting cold," Mickle said with a chuckle, but Cope glared at him.

It was hard enough to take time out to be reverent without the cook making fun of you.

"It would not do you a great deal of harm to pull up a barrel and hear a bit of the word of God now and then," he said harshly, and Mickle’s face reddened beyond what the fire could do.

"I’m sorry. But please come eat, it really is getting cold."

Cope nodded to Sternberg and closed the Bible. The verses he had stumbled across were not that comforting to a paleontologist anyway. They were more than halfway through the hens and were starting to eye the pies when Dart wandered back into the camp. He had one hand on his everpresent rifle and the other gripped around the neck of what appeared to be a small, dirty person in the indeterminate years somewhere between boy and man. Dart had big hands and his fingers nearly met around the front of his captive’s skinny throat. The youth had a scruffy black hat shoved down over his unkempt black hair, and his face had not been acquainted with water in some time. Dart marched him to the makeshift dinner table, a rough plank stretched across two pickle barrels. He stood blinking at Cope and Sternberg. Cope put his fork down, a chunk of sage hen still on it.

"I don’t know, Jenks, that looks a bit big to eat," Cope said.

"You need to wash it off a little, too," Sternberg contributed.

The young man’s face was dirty but his eyes were bright, glowing with either fear or rage, or both.

"I caught him skulking around in the ravine over there," Dart said, motioning with the rifle. "He seems to take a great interest in the camp."

"He’s in dire need of entertainment, then," Cope said.

He brought his face in close to that of the intruder. The young man flinched.

"What’s your name, son?" Cope asked.

"Al Stillson. Sir."

"Are you by any chance an Indian, Mr. Stillson? Our cook is a little nervous about Indian activity."

"I am not."

"I thought you looked a little pale for that. So if you are not an Indian up to some mischief, why are you looking in on our camp?"

The young man shrugged.

"I was just wanting to see who were here, is all. Not many people come through these parts."

"You live around here, is that it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Right out here, in the middle of nowhere."

"Yes, sir."

Cope picked the fork back up and reclaimed the bite of sage hen, chewing slowly. He noticed Stillson was eyeing the plate.

"Don’t feed you too well in Mr. Marsh’s camp, do they?"

"Excuse me?"

"The soldiers at Fort Benton said nobody lives out here. The only other people out here besides the Indians are Mr. Othniel Charles Marsh and his crew. It is not unheard of for Mr. Marsh to spy on me. I’ve been expecting it, as a matter of fact. And here you are. You are being paid by Marsh, are you not?"

"No, sir."

"Jenks, I wonder if you can touch the tips of your fingers together."

Dart tried. The young man’s bright eyes grew just a little brighter, and a little bigger.

"Don’t be so slow, Jenks. Just go ahead and touch ’em together. In fact, see if you can make a fist."

The boy suddenly grabbed at Dart’s fingers with both hands, and simultaneously let out a blast of breath that ruffled Cope’s moustache.

"All right! All right! I’ll tell. You’re right. Mr. Marsh told me to come find you and see what you were doing."

He rubbed his throat. Cope nodded at Dart, and he removed his big hand entirely.

"I do not enjoy hearing lies," Cope said. "Do you understand that?"

The young man answered with a cough and a nod. Cope gave him a hard look for a long moment.

"Boston, get this young man a plate," he shouted finally.

The cook, pleased to be able to present his work to a new mouth, huffed and puffed busily around in his tent. He did not take meals with the prospectors, because he ate nearly all day, sampling bits of everything while he cooked. Dart ate by himself, too, out of habit. Mickle finally produced a clean plate, piling it with still-warm food and placing it carefully on the plank beside the others. Sternberg scooted over on the pickle barrel to make room, although the boy didn’t take up much.

"Have some supper with us," Cope said. "There’s usually more than enough to go around. Jenks, thank you."

"I’m going walking around," Dart said.

He cracked his walnut-sized knuckles, creating sharp reports that sounded like distant gunfire.

"I’ll make sure he doesn’t have some friends, hiding in the ravines."

The mysterious young Stillson ate ravenously, giving the hens no chance at all. Cope was glad; Mickle always appreciated hearty appetites, and a happy cook led to happy stomachs.

"Othniel really doesn’t feed you."

"No, it’s not that," the young man said between bites. "It just took a while to find you, and hiking these ravines makes you tired."

"Amen to that," Sternberg said.

Suddenly Stillson stopped and put his fork down and looked at Cope, his eyes narrowed.

"Why are you feeding me? I’m spying on you."

He didn’t wait for an answer before he resumed eating.

"Mr. Stillson, have you ever been to Kansas?" Cope asked.

Stillson paused for a second, and then resumed finishing off his hen.


"Well, I was out there a few years back digging up some fabulous creatures that swam in the prehistoric seas. It was a small group, and I ended up working with some men who were employed by your professor Marsh. I had identified some bones that I wanted, and showed them some that they could have, but when all was said and done and dug up they walked off with some finds that I had made."

Cope knew he should keep his voice down, but he couldn’t contain his emotion and it grew louder the longer he spoke. He could feel his moustache hairs fairly quivering with indignation. He was probably frightening the young man, which was not his intention, but he couldn’t help it. He noticed that any fear the boy may have felt was not enough to keep him from starting in on his slice of pie.

"I just want you to know the sort of man you’re working for. When did he hire you?"

"Three days ago, sir. In Fort Benton. To care for the horses."

Sternberg snorted, and patted the young man on the back.

"The horses! My word, son, you’re a bit small for that."

"I’m good with them, though."

Cope smoothed his moustache with his fingers, as if soothing the savage inner beast he had so recently disturbed.

"That’s no doubt true, but don’t you think it would be more exciting to uncover the mysteries of the ages? To dig up, with your own hands, the bones of some of the most fantastic creatures that ever walked the earth?"

His voice was rising again, but Cope couldn’t help it. His enthusiasm didn’t seem to be catching.

"I’m not sure I’d be all that good at digging, sir. I can’t tell the difference between the bones and the rocks."

Cope stuck his finger in the air. He always liked to lecture, and sensed an opportunity.

"Charley, do you have that specimen you uncovered today?"

Sternberg put down his fork and rooted around in the pocket of his vest. He produced a small cloth bundle.

"Here you go. The product of a whole day’s work."

Cope took it and hopped off his barrel. He walked around, eyeing the ground, before selecting something and picking it up. He walked back to the plank table, unwrapping Sternberg’s find as he came. Cope placed two small objects next to Stillson’s plate, and even in the rapidly fading light the difference was easy to see. One of the objects was sharp and sand-colored, obviously a rock. The other was darker, and although bits of rock clung to it, it was obviously much smoother.

"Which one is the fossil?"

It really wasn’t a fair opportunity. Only an idiot would point to the rock. He had the young man trapped. Stillson really had no choice. He aimed his finger towards the brown chunk, but Sternberg grabbed his skinny arm.

"No, no," Sternberg said. "Don’t touch. A gust of wind can break these things."

"Oh, let him touch," Cope said. "We can find more."

"The way it’s going, I wouldn’t be so sure."

Stillson ran a finger over the fossil.

"It’s a tooth," Cope said, and the youth nodded, as if seeing it at last.

Cope pointed up at the craggy rocks that glowed copper against the darkening sky.

"Three or four million years ago, these rocks weren’t here, young Al. All around where we are, right where we are standing, there was a great inland sea. Monsters that would make your head spin swam there in the deep, and the air was full of leathery creatures that looked like reptiles but flew like birds. And on the edge of this sea, reptiles the size of three grown men put together ate plants, and in turn were eaten by enormous meat-eating dinosaurs more ferocious than anything seen on earth today. When the sea dried up, and these creatures died out, some of their bones slowly turned into minerals. Those are what we find today. That right there comes from one of them," he said, pointing at the brownish lump. "It’s a tooth from a Hadrosaur, a creature that looked like a giant leathery duck."

For some reason, the boy did not seem excited. He kept his head down, looking at the fossil. When he was a young man, it would have taken a team of horses to have kept Cope out of the field after hearing a description like that. How the young had changed. The new generation was shaping up to be a real disappointment.

"I don’t know," Stillson said.

"I’ll be blunt with you," Charles Sternberg chimed in, trying the direct approach. "Mr. Cope had hired two other men to help us out, but they didn’t want to come out here because of the Indian situation. So right now it’s just him and me, and we only have four arms between us."

"Join us," Cope said. "We’ll pay you half again as much as old O.C. Marsh is paying you."

The young man was obstinate. He ran a finger over the fossil again, then said in a small voice, "I can’t. I’m sorry."

Cope considered whistling for Jenks and having him threaten the lad again, but that probably wouldn’t work and he really didn’t have the heart for it. He had no choice but to let the boy go, right back to the enemy camp.

"All right," Cope said. "Your loyalty would be more admirable had you chosen a more admirable person to be loyal to, but that’s your business. It’s dark now. You’d be as likely to bump into an Indian patrol as find your camp now. Spend the night here, and head out first thing."

The boy would have to be an idiot or suicidal to leave now, and he nodded his head to indicate he agreed. Cope was glad he had not lost all powers of persuasion.

"If you won’t help us dig, could you do us one thing? We’ll pay you," Cope said.

The boy looked at him suspiciously, like he knew what was coming.

"Slip off once in a while and tell us what Mr. Marsh is finding. You know where we’ll be, at least for the next couple of days. Don’t risk your life, just let us know what sort of stuff he’s digging up."

Stillson blinked a couple of times, considering.

"Remember what a really good dinner you had," Cope said. "There’s more where that came from."


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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