Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis

FIVE

Black clouds of acrid smoke from the torch almost gagged him, but he dared not cough. Actually, it probably wouldn’t hurt much more than the torch itself. He might as well build a little railroad out here, ride up in the caboose and toot the whistle. Maybe O.C. Marsh himself would come out and help him climb down from the car.

Edward Cope hoped the exploratory pink glow of dawn would come soon; it was hard to see out here, even with the half moon shining. The moon lit the tops of the low hills but did nothing to illuminate the loose rocks or patches of scrub grass under his feet, patches just waiting to trip a man and send him face first into root or rock. That’s where the torch came in, although it presented problems of its own. It was too cold for snakes, so he didn’t have to worry about them, but it wasn’t at all too cold for Indians and he did have to worry about them, especially when he was carrying around a flaming orange target. Fling your arrows a foot to either side of the light, men, and one of you will get him!

This appeared to be where Stillson said the great skull could be found. The skulking youth had appeared near dinner time, again, which Cope was beginning to think was on purpose, and said Marsh’s crew had dug up the head of something out of Greek mythology. As if summoned by his thoughts, the boy’s ghostly face appeared before Cope’s torch.

"Thought you weren’t going to make it," Cope said.

"It’s not so easy sneaking out of camp with so many men around," Stillson said.

Cope suspected this might be a subtle criticism of his own severely understaffed operation, but he needed Stillson’s help so he didn’t complain.

"Can you see the top of that hill?" Stillson asked.

"Barely."

"It’s at the base of it. They covered it up with a little bit of dirt and rock but it’s still there."

Why didn’t they take it? Cope wondered. If only a little bit of dirt separated him from what sounded like a fine specimen of mammoth skull, or even Titanothere, he would be out here with torches.

"Let’s go."

They left the cover of the pines and crossed open ground. Cope kept the torch between them, which rendered it visible only from the sides, but also meant he got a face full of smoke.

"Here," Stillson said after a minute.

The hill loomed above them, the scrub grass on its top glowing in the moonlight like white fire. What Cope was after was in the shadows. Stillson had said the skull was under a thin layer of cover, so Cope hadn’t brought his shovel, only his pick. He used its flat side to brush the rock chips away until it made a familiar sound and scraped across something hard. Mineralized bone. No other sound like it. Bone. He put down the pick and used his hands for the rest. Stillson held the torch. Its primitive light revealed something more primitive still, a bone helmet with two bone tusks. The tusks rolled away as soon as he brought the skull out. They had apparently been trapped in the rock and slowly split away from the head. A smattering of teeth fell away, too, and Cope carefully collected them off the ground while holding the battered skull in one hand.

"Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio," he said under his breath.

Stillson laughed. Apparently the young man wasn’t the ill-educated desert rat Cope took him to be. Edward decided he needed to know more about his young informant, but now was not the time, not when such a specimen waited to be examined. Dawn was arriving fast, and Marsh’s pick monkeys would be at this thing again at first light, no doubt. Stillson held the torch out where he could see better, and Cope turned the skull this way and that in the flame’s light.

The skull seemed to come to life under the nervous twitching of the flame. Most of its left side was gone, but its right appeared intact. A ridge of light flickering across its one good eye socket made it look as if it were raising an eyebrow, to show it was annoyed to be brought back to the surface world after such a long rest. Cope’s fingers explored the skull. The rear portion of it lacked the distinctive saddle shape of the Uintathere, and it certainly wasn’t large enough or wide enough to be a mammoth skull. If he didn’t know better, he would say the skull came from a dinosaur, not a mammal, but then that wouldn’t explain the tusks. He felt the line under what remained of the upper jaw. There was no tusk socket, no good growth of bone to serve as an anchor. That would mean they probably fit the lower jaw, but Marsh apparently hadn’t found that piece.

"This makes no sense," Cope said.

"Why not?" Stillson asked.

"Why would these tusks, or tusk-like teeth, whatever, grow out of the lower jaw?"

"What’s wrong with that?"

"Stillson, if I were to punch you in the face, right in the mouth, which part of your face would hurt worse? Your upper lip, or your jaw?"

Stillson took a step back with the torch.

"I don’t know."

"Come back here, lad, I’m not going to really hit you. If I did that, though, your lower jaw would hurt more. It might even get dislocated. Its purpose is flexibility, so that means it’s also a little less sturdy, at least in most animals. Your upper jaw is molded into your skull, which is comparatively heavy. So why would you have your biggest digging devices or weapons attached to that lower jaw, where you’re just asking for trouble? This species would have gone extinct from jaw dislocation alone."

"Oh."

"This must be a mistake. The bones of one creature have gotten mixed up with another. This skull looks like the side of a Hadrosaurus skull, with the tusks of a primitive elephant stuck on the front."

"Maybe they died while they were fighting," Stillson said.

"Not a bad theory, except neither one ate meat."

"Maybe they were fighting over some grass."

"They lived hundreds of thousands of years apart, or more."

"Maybe it’s a mistake."

"That, I believe, is the best answer."

Cope examined the skull a minute longer and then stuck it back in its bed of shale. He rolled the tusks back where they were.

"Well, if it’s a mistake, it will be Marsh’s to make and not mine. I can hardly wait to read his description of this thing. Maybe he thinks he’s dug up a dragon or something."

He stood and dusted his hands off, and took the torch back from Stillson. It was now nearly light enough that he could put it out.

"Stillson, thank you for letting me know about this. I believe my camp will be moving a little closer up this way."

"But you said it was a mistake."

"It is. But I’ll be honest with you. Charles and I have not been having much luck lately. Actually, we haven’t had hardly any luck lately. We have found virtually nothing in the last week, and before that we found nothing to write home about, quite literally. We found a few interesting things further down the river but nothing much. In the last week even that has dried up. A tooth here or there, but that’s it. If I didn’t know better I would say someone has been to our site ahead of us and cleaned everything out. So, mistake or not, this thing shows there are at least bones around here. That’s good enough for me."

 

Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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