Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


"Well, did we have a good night’s sleep?"

Al Stillson had hoped to sneak back into camp and be found with the horses, like he had been there all night. The birds had barely noticed it was dawn but O.C. Marsh was already up, sitting with the flaps of his tent pulled way back to let the sun shine in, whisking dust off an ancient leg bone with a shaving brush. The bone would have looked like it belonged in a chicken leg except it was dark brown and mottled. If it had been gnawed on, it happened a long time ago.

Marsh had hired guards but didn’t seem to use them as sentries. Stillson hadn’t seen either one as he came into camp. Apparently they had been hired purely for their guns. It was just barely daylight and already the camp was alive with activity. Marsh had selected a flatter section of land for his camp, some three miles upriver from Cope’s meager accommodations. Stillson had wandered in quietly, but apparently Mr. Marsh’s ears were better than his eyes.

"Good morning, sir," Stillson said, and Marsh frowned.

"Young man, didn’t you come from the direction of the river? Did you know there’s water in the river? Did you think to perhaps dip your face in that water to experience its cleansing effect?"

"No, sir."

The fastidious Marsh gave him a look that contained more than just a hint of disgust, but he soon let it pass when he remembered what young Stillson had been up to.

"Were you able to find Mr. Cope’s camp?"

"Yes, sir."

He paused, wanting to see how badly Marsh wanted the information. Edward Cope used a plank set over pickle barrels for his camp table, but Marsh had brought along an actual table, an oak drawing-room refugee that looked alien in the midst of the dusty tent. The table itself was a very efficient dust-gathering device, but Stillson had noticed that Marsh wiped it fastidiously every morning and evening. Marsh set brush and fossil to the side of the table, so he could lean on his elbows and give full attention to Stillson’s report.

"Pull up a chair, please," he urged. "Tell me what you found."

He had brought along chairs, too, stained dark to match the table. Tiny leering faces were carved into the ends of the arms.

"They’re camped about three miles from here, down the river. Where the bluffs are higher."

"How many are there?"

"Just two. Just Mr. Cope and Mr.—" he started to say Sternberg, but then remembered that he shouldn’t know their names. He didn’t want to imperil his steadily growing revenue stream by revealing to Marsh that he had been caught.

"—and another man. And a cook and a scout."

Marsh gazed off into the distance as he pondered this information.

"Just two men, you say? That’s odd. He can usually scrounge more than that, and he got here before me. And a scout, you said? Did anyone see you?"

Stillson shook his head.

"So a cook and a scout, but not a very good scout. Did they seem to have found anything? Did you see any great bones lying around their camp?"

"No sir. In fact, I overheard them talking. They said they aren’t finding anything."

Marsh mulled his over for a while, but slowly a smile crept onto his pudgy face. His brushy moustache and beard nearly hid it entirely, but couldn’t hide the smile wrinkles around his eyes.

"Well, this is not bad at all, then. I was worried I would get here late and not come away with much. Cope had the lead, but as usual managed to squander it."

Stillson rose to go.

"I’d best see to the horses, sir."

"Yes, do that, please. Some of the men are going to take the rig about two miles north, so please get them ready for that. But you look tired. Where did you sleep?"

"In one of the ravines. Under some bushes. It wasn’t bad."

"Goodness. It can’t have been comfortable. I can barely sleep in my tent. I didn’t mean for you to work that hard at it. See to the horses and get yourself something to eat. And then take a nap. That’s an order. You won’t need to go back to keep an eye on Cope until tomorrow."

"Yes, sir. Thank you."

Marsh was so merry at Cope’s predicament that it seemed a good time to ask for some pay up front, perhaps a little extra for the fictitious night spent in a ravine, but no sooner had Stillson risen from the chair than Marsh was back brushing the fossil. He eyed it with such a joyous intensity that Stillson thought it best not to disturb him.

He got the horses harnesses to the cart and ready for their daily job, which was not really very onerous. They walked to the digging site, waited around until dusk and then carried it back. They had been in camp less than a week, but the cart never seemed to be very full. The horses got good rations and lots of time off in return, so Stillson figured they had one of the best jobs in the camp. He finished the task and wandered back to his tent. It was the smallest in the camp but plenty big for him. Marsh had planned on using it to store tools, but gave it to Stillson once he was hired, since he didn’t have a tent of his own.

Inside he wiped off his face, although he kept a small box of dirt nearby in case he needed it again. He lifted up the folded blankets he used for sleeping to expose a small plank of wood, about a foot long and eight inches wide, covered lightly with dirt. Underneath it was a battered notebook. He pulled out the notebook and replaced the plank and the blankets, and then stretched out on top of them. He hadn’t jumped ship to join Cope’s camp because he didn’t want to lose the notebook. He pulled a small pencil from his pocket. He kept it sharp with his knife, but didn’t do a very clean job. The pencil looked like a small animal had gnawed at it.

Al Stillson had never met a real scientist before, but Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were not what he would have expected. He had thought scientists rarely left their dusty laboratories, where they pored over ancient texts and examined the bodies of dead animals. There was Charles Darwin, of course, who had gone off in his boat and kicked up quite a fuss, but when he conjured the image of a scientist Stillson still pictured someone like Isaac Newton, relaxing in his finery under a tree, waiting for the apple to fall.

Othniel Marsh looked more the part, sitting at his fine oak table brushing up his fossils. Stillson suspected he would have worn evening dress to the field if he could have, but the dusty conditions would not allow it. Cope looked a little less scientific to Stillson’s eye. Marsh had described Cope as looking sort of like a rat. He parted his hair in the middle and brushed it back. His moustache flowed into his beard, and both flowed away from his face. The general rearward sweep of his hair made him look as though he constantly faced into the wind. Stillson thought this made him look more like a badger than a rat, and an angry badger at that.

Then again, Cope was the only one who had talked to him in any sort of scientific terms at all. Marsh, for all his airs, had said virtually nothing about the bones he sought but instead seemed more interested in Cope. Cope had at least spun his vision of the inland sea and its giant reptilian residents; Marsh had described Cope as if he was a dinosaur, a frightening beast to be avoided.

From what little Stillson had seen, the science of paleontology was not drastically different from ditch digging. At the business end it seemed to involve a great deal of sweating and no small amount of swearing, at least judging by how the deed was described by Marsh’s men. He suspected it was not that much different with Cope, although there was probably considerably less swearing.

Sternberg had told him, before going to sleep, that there was much more to it than that. He had described the museums back east, where the bones were reassembled into some semblance of how they must have been in real life. The scientists were forced to imagine the flesh and muscles, and sometimes were forced to imagine missing parts of the skeletons. In some cases they were forced to conjure nearly the whole animal from just a few brittle bones. They were helped along by artist’s sketches, but even the puniest of bones were magnificent enough all by themselves.

"Mr. Cope can do this better than most," Sternberg said. "I’ve heard that he can identify and picture a completely new dinosaur just from a vertebra or a bit of a skull, or even a tooth. He can look at a tooth and see how it fit into a jaw, and from the shape of the jaw he can imagine what the rest would be like. Sometimes he’s wrong, but usually he’s right. Marsh can do that, too. But you won’t get Cope to admit it."

Sternberg had explained all this in low, resonant tones, while Stillson sprawled in a spare tent to the left of him, a tent that belonged to a camp worker who had abandoned them. Edward Cope slept on the other side of Sternberg, if what he did could be called sleep. The excellent meal he had eaten seemed to disagree with him at night. He snorted like a horse and bucked in his sleep. Stillson felt sorry for his wife back home. She must have bruises up and down her legs if he kicked that way when he was there.

"It’s like all the beasts we dig up during the day attack him at night," Sternberg said, and from outside the tent it did sound like Cope was being mauled in his sleep. "I’m deaf in this ear, so I sleep on this side of him, but it doesn’t seem to help much. He’s loud enough for two ears."

Cope’s kicking and snorting kept them awake for a long time before exhaustion took its toll, so while they waited to drop off Sternberg told him the story behind the rush to Montana. The beds around the Judith River had been explored some decades before, and had yielded some good bones, but had then been left alone for a long while. Then one afternoon in the spring a priest who had been doing some missionary work among the Crow and Piegan Indian tribes happened to go for a walk through the ravines. A huge storm had come through the area a week before, washing rocks and silt towards the river and also uprooting what appeared to be a column of smooth rock, unlike any rock the priest had seen before. It was three feet long and knobby on both ends. He kept track of the occasional news of scientific findings, and correctly reckoned it a dinosaur bone.

A certain professor Othniel Marsh at Yale was known to pay good money for such bones, so the priest sent it to him, with the thought that the proceeds could extend his time in the field. Somehow another scientist, a Mr. Edward Cope of Philadelphia, got wind of it and cabled to the priest that he would pay more. The bone was already on its way, but the priest sent along a cable instructing Mr. Marsh to forward it to Mr. Cope. He wrote that he was sorry for the trouble, but the Lord’s work sometimes had to go to the highest bidder.

"Of course, Cope suspects he opened the box," Sternberg said. "There were some scuff marks where it was sealed, but we don’t know if the priest did that, or Marsh. Looked at one way, Marsh got the best end of the deal if he did open it. He saw the bone and discovered where it came from, but he didn’t have to pay for it. Just between you and me, if the situation were reversed, Ed Cope would have opened that box."

Just as he said that there was a ferocious exhalation and a thump from inside Cope’s tent. Stillson half expected Edward to leap out of the tent, shouting that his good name had been defamed, but he was still just wrestling with his nocturnal attacker.

"The bone was a femur from the rear leg of an animal, but it didn’t seem to fit with anything anyone had found before. It wasn’t from one of the Hadrosaurs and didn’t seem to match any of the meat eaters like Laelaps. It was something from a big plant eater, a heavy one that walked on all fours and couldn’t rear up on its hind legs. We still don’t know what it is. So here we are."

A mysterious femur, found easily in rocks from whence other good bones had come; Edward Drinker Cope did not need to hear much more. He had arranged to go, and Sternberg had begged to go with him.

"He had been back in Philadelphia, doing some desk work," Sternberg said. "He lives there most of the year, but I don’t think that sort of work agrees with him. He likes to be out in the field. I met him in Omaha and we rode the train together to Utah and then took a coach into Montana. When we got to Helena the Army men said we would be crazy to come out here after what happened to Custer. Cope would not hear of it. He said the Sioux would be too afraid of the Army to try anything more, and so far he’s been right. We’ve had a few Sioux come by, enough to scare off the two other men Cope hired. But we’ve had no trouble, and Cope loves it here. He’s probably worth a million dollars in scientific knowledge but he’s hanging all over these hills like he’s some kind of monkey. I’m more than a decade younger than he is but I have trouble keeping up with him."

"Why is he so afraid of Mr. Marsh?"

Sternberg laughed.

"He’s not afraid of Marsh. He just doesn’t want him to find any bones first. They don’t get along. They used to, though. Can you imagine that?"

Stillson shook his head, which made a rustling sound on the blanket. He was lying on his back with his face barely sticking out of the tent, just far enough out that he could see the stars. They seemed vast and awesome, and supremely unconcerned with whether Cope and Marsh could find ancient bones. Charles Sternberg spoke from within his tent. Stillson couldn’t see him at all, could only hear his voice, a calming counterpart to the violent barks and snorts that emanated from Cope’s tent.

"Yes, they were friends, less than ten years ago. They went looking for fossils together in New Jersey once. I think they found a Mosasaurus and some other things. Do you know what a Mosasaurus is? It’s an ancient seagoing lizard that’s sort of like a cross between a snake and shark."

Stillson tried to picture that, which was difficult. He had seen snakes but had never even seen a picture of a shark. The beast his imagination conjured resembled a stretched-out goldfish with big teeth and pop eyes.

"They also named some of their early findings after each other. I think Marsh actually named a type of Mosasaurus for Mr. Cope, and Mr. Cope named a Colosteus for Marsh. That wasn’t that long ago, but those days are gone. I shudder to think what vile creatures they would try to name after each other now."

Stillson figured Marsh would have some sort of rodent in mind for Cope, although he might also find a cross between a snake and a shark acceptable.

"What happened between them?"

Sternberg waited a little while to answer, and Stillson thought he had perhaps fallen asleep. Cope had settled down, making the night a good deal quieter.

"I don’t know, to be honest, but it’s not doing either one of them any good. I leave it to them to have their fights back east. I just dig up the bones."

"How did you get started looking for dinosaur bones?"

"It’s kind of an odd job, isn’t it? My family moved from New York to Kansas when I was about your age. We were farming and ranching, but I didn’t care much for that. I got so tired of fooling with the goats and the cows and the horses. I like my four-legged animals long dead and in the ground. I barely like to handle the horses we have here. But there I was. I started seeing things in the rocks, odd things I couldn’t place, but I didn’t have time to fool with them much. Then one night I had a dream. I was walking by a big, slow river, and I came upon a huge tree, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. So big it could block half the sky. It had leaves a foot across, and the moon lit it up really nice. I couldn’t recognize much in the dream, but I did see this particular hill, that’s shaped kind of like a cone. The next day when I woke up I walked out to that hill. There was no river, there was no big tree, but I found that hill and walked around it, just looking. I found a place where the hill was split open in the side, probably from frost. There had been a lot of ice and snow already that year, and it was playing hell on the rocks. Inside that break was a fossil leaf there, a foot across. A foot across."

"Wow," Stillson said.

"It was just a dream. Don’t read too much into it. But I figured if I was dreaming about this stuff, I sure must be interested in it. So I quit ranching and started digging. That was just at the beginning of this year. I was desperate for support so I wrote to Mr. Cope and asked him to fund me. I told him why I wanted to do it, pretty much just like I told you, although I didn’t tell him about my dream. He didn’t know me from Adam but he sent me three hundred dollars and I’ve been at it ever since. When I found out he was coming here, I begged him to let me come along. He did. Thank God."

His voice drifted into silence, just as that leaf had drifted into mineral immortality. Stillson had fallen asleep then, too, and writing about sleeping was making him drowsy again. He closed the notebook and replaced it under the plank, carefully brushing some dirt over it. He stretched out on the blanket and went to sleep with his hat still on his head. No monsters came to him in his dreams, and he didn’t see any trees.


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

Return to Baen Books Home Page

Baen Books 03/08/02