Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis

FOUR

Sounds of shouting woke him from his sleep. He sat up and rubbed his eyes and started to leave the tent, almost getting beyond its flap before he remembered his box of dirt. He spat on his fingers, dipped them in the dark brown contents and then smeared them across his cheeks. He was getting used to the feel of dirt of his face. It had a comfortable weight that made him feel protected.

One of the soldiers was walking towards his tent when he came out.

"Come on, little man! Big news at the dig. Marsh wanted me to send for you. Get on my horse."

Stillson clung precariously to the horn of the soldier’s saddle as his big gray horse trotted across the pocked ground for what seemed like forever. His feet couldn’t reach the stirrups and flailed unanchored at the horse’s sides. Montana had never seemed so vast. Stillson was glad as they neared the ad hoc quarry where Marsh’s crew had been digging; he didn’t think he could have held on much longer.

He had never been to a dig site, and was sort of glad, after seeing it. The men seemed entirely focused on the work. There was no luxury of any kind to distract them, no shelter except the shade of the cart. It made the camp seem like a hotel by comparison. O.C. Marsh stood at the pit’s side, pacing the periphery, watching as four of his men tugged and strained at something in the loose shale.

"Pull!" Marsh shouted. "Pull!"

He looked like he was nearly ready to get in there himself. Stillson saw a furious storm of dust, as the men pulled at something, and then they stepped back and let the dust clear.

"That is fabulous! Fabulous! Good work, men!"

The skull of a loathsome monster beamed out from the pit of black shale, which was at the base of a gentle rise. The earth all above it was scarred with the bites of pickaxes, and the ground in front of it was trampled where the men had hauled it out. Its bones were battered, some were obviously missing, but it was still frightful. A long, slender half-skull, one of its eye sockets obliterated, was capped near the mouth by two curving teeth, one of which was broken off in the middle. The teeth were nearly long enough to be tusks, as if the beast was some sort of predatory elephant. Stillson stared at it, mouth agape. Charles Sternberg hadn’t told him they were digging up monsters that looked like this. He tried to imagine what such a creature would look like encased in flesh, but his imagination wasn’t up to the challenge.

"Look at this, Mr. Stillson!" Marsh shouted gleefully at him as he hopped down off the horse.

Marsh extended an arm to the hideous skull like a carnival barker showing off his prize freak. Stillson walked closer, staring in fascination. The skull pointed straight ahead, like the beast was about to leap from its underground lair and eat the entire camp. The diggers stood around it, their sweaty faces displaying broad smiles. They looked like hunters he had seen in pictures from African safaris, only their quarry was long dead.

"Isn’t it amazing? Come closer, my dear Stillson," Marsh said.

Stillson complied, never taking his eyes off the wonderful beast. Marsh put an avuncular arm across his shoulders, pushing him into the paunch of his belly.

"This is what it’s all about, young man. That creature there is probably a ferocious predator, and we are the first living men to see it. Not one living being has set eyes on it from the day it died until now, and here you are to witness it."

Stillson nodded and smiled. Well, maybe paleontology was a little better than ditch digging.

"Shall we look for more of it?" one of the men asked, and everyone else laughed. "There are probably some nasty claws back in there, as well."

Edward Cope would have been in there after it without hesitation, but Marsh looked up at the sky and shrugged.

"No, that’s discovery enough for today. It’s getting a bit late. Let’s knock off and get an early start tomorrow. Good work, men."

The men laughed again. They seemed to be in unusually merry spirits. Perhaps they had hidden some liquor in their collection bags. The soldier was waiting to give Stillson a ride back to camp, but he opted to jump in the cart. The cart was not at all comfortable, but at least he wouldn’t have to worry about falling out of it. It would ordinarily house some bones wrapped in burlap bags, but there didn’t seem to be any bones around except for the monstrous head, and that was being left behind. There was lots of room in the cart. Marsh sat on the platform in the front of the cart, next to the driver, a usually taciturn man named Digger Phelps. Everybody must have been into the liquor; Phelps and Marsh smiled like they were off for a ride in the park.

Marsh turned around so he could face Stillson.

"What did you think of our find today?"

Stillson shrugged and smiled.

"It was wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like it."

Marsh laughed.

"Neither has anyone else."

Phelps laughed at that.

"I believe I told you to take the day off after seeing to the horses, didn’t I, Mr. Stillson?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have you made any plans, by any chance?"

He didn’t like where this was going.

"No, sir."

"Would you do me a favor, then? Have a look in on Mr. Cope’s camp. Since we made this fantastic find, I want to know if they have found anything similar. Just give a look around and tell me what they’re doing. And for God’s sakes don’t let them catch you. We’ve got a big lead on them now. I don’t want any word of this to get out until I’m ready."

"Yes, sir."

"And, Stillson—"

"Yes, sir?"

"Please don’t stay out all night again."

 

Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

Return to Baen Books Home Page

Baen Books 03/08/02