Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


O.C. Marsh yawned and gave a luxurious stretch before remembering he should not be in a good mood.

Cope had fallen for his fake monster head, which lightened his spirits a little. He and his men had assembled an ad hoc beast out of spare fossils, after failing to find any good ones in the area. A partial Hadrosaur skull, truncated Titanothere tusks and assorted unfossilized teeth from cows and rodents had merged to form what the men dubbed "Old Whatchamacallit," the newest ancient beast to be discovered in Montana. Marsh had hoped Edward Cope would steal it outright, write a paper about it, and telegraph the news back east. The man at Fort Benton’s telegraph office was standing by to copy any such messages for Marsh’s viewing pleasure in just such an eventuality. So far, Old Whatchamacallit was still there, one of his men reported, but Cope had definitely had a look at it.

He would probably get so excited he would move his camp here, and that was fine. Fun and games could not conceal that the storied Judith River beds were not what Hayden had made them out to be. He had done well here, but so far that experience had not been duplicated. Marsh’s men had spent less than a week in the field, true, but they could usually come up with something better than a wacky skull they made themselves. Any halfway decent effort around here should turn up more than the exceedingly infrequent fossils they had found. Hayden had reported the inland sea was generous with its leftover bones, but one could not have told that from Marsh’s first dig site. Less than a quarter cartful of fossilized bone was unearthed, and most of those specimens were shattered or decayed. In some places, the men reported what appeared to be signs of fresh pickwork, where the rock appeared to have been shaved away. But that couldn’t be. No one was out here, no one but Cope, and he was no doubt busy with Old Whatchamacallit. Stillson said Cope was complaining about the dearth of bones, too, and he had been here since late August.

Stillson. Al Stillson, mystery boy with the dirty face. Cope’s look at Old Whatchamacallit was proof enough that the unclean lad was a double agent. This angered Marsh a little. Was there no such thing as integrity in the young people anymore? Did loyalty extend only so far as there were dollars to back it up? On the other hand, this situation could be a boon. Before, he could only use Stillson to keep an eye on Cope, and that was meant sending a part-time lad to do a man’s full-time job. Now he could do even better. He could use Stillson to steer Cope wrong, steer him into barren bonefields. This could completely obliterate whatever time advantage Cope once enjoyed by getting to the field earlier. Cope had done a fast one on him by stealing away that missionary’s femur, but the beast it belonged to was still in the ground, still up for grabs.

It was still up for grabs, but why did he have to grab it personally? Why had he even come here? There was so much work to do back home. The Peabody Museum was under construction at Yale. It was just a building right now, and not even a finished one, but his job was to make it great. Boxes of fossils were arriving from all over the country, and even other parts of the world. There were so many bones to examine and catalogue and name. The thought of the monographs yet to be written was staggering. That was the best kind of work. Any brute could dig up bones, but it was the rare brute that could put them back together and chart out a connection between one ancient beast and another. Darwin had looked in the distance and seen the lay of the land; Marsh was finding all the steps that led from here to there. As if he didn’t have enough to do there, his new home, too, was under construction. Good old Prospect Street. He would have plenty of room when it was finished, and it was likely to hold nearly as many fossils as the Peabody Museum.

All that to do and yet here he was, flat on his back on scratchy blankets on top of lumpy ground, and in the cold air to boot. But he had to come. The men were skittish about Sitting Bull, and no one could do better with the Sioux than he could. He had thought his expeditions with the Yale students would have been his last long field trips, given how much work remained to do. Yet here he was out here again, all because of the foolhardy Custer, and not even decent bones to show for it.

But where to look for them? Closer to the river? Further away? To go further east was to risk trouble with Sitting Bull, who was rumored to be heading this way. But going north had been a mistake, and there was little time to make mistakes. So east it was, redskins or no redskins.

One of the soldiers, a man named Dyson, parted the tent flap and looked tentatively inside. His eyes looked unfocused, as if he was just waking up. The soldiers were getting more sleep than anybody else in the camp.

"An Indian is here to see you, sir," Dyson said.

Marsh sat up and shoved his blanket aside. This was a fine way to start the morning.

"An Indian? Where is he?"

"By the north edge, sir. Blank is keeping a rifle on him."

"Sioux? Crow? Piegan?"


"For God’s sake, unless he’s got a bloody hatchet in his hand, take the gun off of him. Tell him I will be right there."

Marsh struggled into his pants and boots and wool shirt, and grabbed his black jacket off the back of his reading chair. He wet his fingertips with his mouth and smoothed his moustache. He generally did not need to worry about the sad wisps of hair that clung to his head, soon to be as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. Edward Cope had him bettered in the hair department, there could be little doubt about that.

He parted the flaps of his tent and walked briskly into the camp. Past the cooking tent he saw Jed Blank, the other soldier, standing nervously next to a tall man with dark skin and jet black hair. The man held the reins to a horse that looked too small for him. Blank and the Indian were not talking. Blank did not lean on his rifle but kept it dangling loosely at his side, his middle finger supporting the back of the trigger guard, his index finger dangling near the trigger. This proximity to death did not seem to bother the Indian in the slightest. He looked as relaxed as if he was waiting for breakfast. Marsh hoped he spoke English; he was not yet awake enough to try to muddle through in Sioux.

"Stillson!" Marsh shouted. "See to this man’s horse."

Stillson scuttled up to the Indian and took the reins, but the Indian kept his eyes on Marsh.

"Greetings, sir," Marsh said, speaking slowly.

He extended a hand to the Indian. The Indian did not smile, but his face seemed to lighten almost imperceptibly, and he gave Marsh’s hand a couple of quick pumps. He had a good grip.

"Professor Marsh, I believe. You look well, sir. I recognize you from campus."

Marsh could not help but look surprised. The Indian’s English was perfect, probably better than Blank’s.

"You—you went to Yale?"

"Indeed I did, sir. I studied government and politics, which I regret kept me out of your classes. I heard nothing but good things about them, so it’s no doubt my loss."

"I’m glad you heard good things, but I must confess this is a bit of a surprise."

Marsh turned to the soldier, whose eyes were firmly locked on the Indian, awaiting any sign of impending violence.

"Blank, I don’t believe we will need you further. You don’t happen to have a raiding party waiting to murder us, do you?"

"Indeed not."

"See there, Blank? Run along now."

He grasped the Indian gently by the arm and led him towards the middle of camp. The diggers gaped as they passed. If the Indian had looked like he was waiting for the morning meal, he might as well get it.

"Would you care to join us for breakfast, Mr.—"

"I have two names, sir, you may choose whichever you like. My name back east is George Burgess. My name out here is Sitting Lizard."

"I don’t pretend to be on such good terms with Indians that I can bandy about their tribal names with ease, and I don’t care to call you Mr. Lizard. May I call you Mr. Burgess, then?"

The Indian laughed, a healthy basso rumble.

"Please call me George. I would be delighted to eat breakfast with you."

They ate under a large tent, at another well-appointed oak table that would not have looked out of place in any New Haven restaurant. The cook, a man so wiry he never seemed to actually eat his own food, scowled as he served coffee and dried apples. He had no choice but to serve the Indian, but that did not mean he had to look happy while doing it. A few minutes later he came back with flapjacks, a special item Marsh requested for his surprise special guest. The cook’s scowl had only intensified at the extra work required of him, since Marsh couldn’t very well serve only the Indian the pancakes, so the cook had to make them up for everyone.

George Burgess was sitting close enough for Marsh to see him clearly, and he watched him carefully, although he tried to do it as surreptitiously as possible. Burgess was quite at home with eastern-style dining, despite his Indian garb. He had no problems with knife and fork, and even partially extended his little finger while sipping his coffee. When the men’s eyes happened to meet, they exchanged delicate smiles and looked away.

"So," Marsh said, after the cook had graced them with his latest and best scowls while cleaning away their plates. "It is unusual for a man such as yourself to attend Yale. How did that come about?"

Marsh had taken care to phrase his question as inoffensively as possible, and had spent a good portion of his eating time fashioning it in his mind. He seemed to have done an adequate job. Burgess smiled.

"First off, I am a full-blooded Indian, of the Sioux tribe. My mother died soon after I was born, and my father was killed not long after in a skirmish with a Crow tribe. A traveling group of Methodist missionaries was passing through right about that time. I was having some health problems—I believe I had caught pneumonia—and they persuaded the tribe to let them take me back east. Two of that group were named Burgess, a man and wife. They adopted me once I recovered. I grew up in Illinois. I was treated like anyone else, more or less. My parents had hopes that I might become a missionary as well, but I fell prey to a lower calling and studied politics and government at Yale. But somewhere, tugging at the back of my mind, was the thought I would need to return to my real people. I am not really a white Methodist, after all. I am a Sioux Indian, and I could not ignore the degradation of my people. These are hard times for the Sioux. After graduation I came back west, and here I am."

"And what is it you do, exactly, Mr. Burgess?"

"George, please sir. I serve as an emissary, although to be honest I am not particularly trusted by either the Sioux around here or the U.S. Army. I just do what I can."

Marsh stroked his moustache and sipped his coffee. He wondered if the newspapers in New Haven knew about this young man, and what he was doing. It would make a fine story.

"George, I have enjoyed meeting you and hearing your story, but I am not sure why you are here. I have no quarrel with the Sioux."

"I know. We all know what you did for Red Cloud. That’s why I came to visit with you. To be honest, some of the Sioux here wanted to raid your camp and ask the questions on their terms. I reminded them of Red Cloud, and said we could just walk in and talk to Professor Othniel Marsh, and he would answer honestly."

"Call me O.C., please. What do you wish to know?"

"Why is there so much attention being paid to this area right now? You well know that previous searches for bones have been nothing but covers for gold hunts. I do not believe there is any gold here. Yet there is much sudden interest. Sitting Bull may come through here soon. Is this part of some plan to capture him?"

Few people could understand the desire to dig bones out of the ground. It was rarely assumed to be an activity carried out for its own sake, and Burgess was right—some fossil hunts were nothing but a cover for gold searches. But surely his modest operation could not give anyone that impression, and Cope’s certainly couldn’t. Cope had barely enough men to set up a camp, much less dig for gold.

"George, I assure you I am here because I received a significant sample of bone from this area. I am following up on that and nothing more."

"And the other gentleman? The one with the small camp down the river from you?"

"Much as I would like to tell you he is the vilest scoundrel imaginable, out to plunder any and all, I must confess that he is here for the same reason I am. We have both seen the bone sample, and are seeking the dinosaur it came from."

Burgess finished his coffee and set the cup on the table. He looked hard into Marsh’s eyes.

"And the third gentleman? The one whose camp seems to shift all the time?"

Marsh sat back in surprise, causing the chair’s legs to dig into the ground. He very nearly turned over, but managed to catch himself and only spilled a few drops of coffee across his clean shirt.

"Third man, did you say?"

"Yes. He travels fast, but I do not know how many horses he has."

Third man? Who could that be? Ferdinand Hayden was not in the field anymore, and neither was Joseph Leidy. Leidy had complained to anyone who would listen that he couldn’t buy specimens like Cope and Marsh, and so he had opted out of paleontology altogether, contenting himself with creatures he could study under a microscope. It wasn’t likely he was back out here. Who else could it be? Who else was there?

"Where is this third man?"

"So I take it by your words you’re not familiar with him?" Burgess asked.

"No, I am not. Where is he?"

"I told you, he moves around. Not just his digging locations. He moves his camp. He moves it nearly every day. One day it may be a mile from where it was the day before, the next it could be ten miles away."

"Well, how big is it? Who’s in it? You probably know every bush that my men relieve themselves on, so you must know something about this man."

Burgess leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table.

"Virtually nothing. A man of our tribe named Running Horse did manage to spy into the camp one day from a tall pine tree. He saw what looked like a big piles of bones scattered around the camp. He called them the bones of the Thunder Horse. Do you know what that is?"

"Yes," Marsh said. "I’ve heard the term."

Hayden had said some Indians thought the Thunder Horse came to the earth during storms to help them hunt buffalo. When he had dug up fossil bones the circumference of a man’s waist, the Indians assumed he had stumbled across the remains of a Thunder Horse.

"That’s all he could see. We do not know if he is digging up only bones or if he is after something else. He usually camps under large rock formations, so no one can see down into where he stays. Running Horse got lucky that day, but we have not been lucky since."

"Why not just sneak up on the camp?"

"Some of my tribespeople have attempted just that. They say it cannot be done. The camp is protected by a ghost wall."

"A ghost wall?"

"That’s what they call it. It is a wall that simply keeps them from moving forward. It has no color, it cannot be seen, but no one can walk through it."

"And this is around his camp."


Marsh snorted and put his coffee cup down.

"Oh, come on, George. I’ll bet that wall does have a color, and it’s green. He’s paying your men to shut up and protect him."

There was a flash of anger in Burgess’ civilized eyes.

"That is not true. No one has spoken to him, and certainly no money has changed hands."

Marsh gazed absently at the tent flap. The cook brought fresh coffee, and Marsh hoped it would help him think.

"You keep talking about one man. How do you know there’s only one? Surely he’s not out here by himself. Has anyone seen him at all?"

"No. We have come across the remains of some of his camps. We have found only one set of boot tracks at each of them. He is a tall man, and his boots have ridges on the bottom."


"Like snake tracks."

"Have you found any horse tracks? Cart wheel tracks?"

"Nothing. That is why I do not know how many horses he has. There are his boot tracks, and not many of those. And nothing else."

Marsh lapsed into thought again.

"George, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know anything about this, and I certainly wish I did. Are your people keeping track of him every day?"

"As best we can. No offense intended, but we keep track of all white people, after Custer. There is much to do, and in fact I must go now. I thank you very much for the excellent breakfast. I will tell my people that you and the man with the small camp—"

"Edward Drinker Cope."

"I will tell them that you and Mr. Cope are after nothing more than bones, and will not be a threat. As for the other man, it seems that no one knows."

Marsh rose and shook hands with George Burgess, and courteously held the tent flap open for him.

"George, would you mind telling me where it was that Running Horse saw those Thunder Horse bones?"

"I would, but actually I don’t know myself. I heard that story second hand. And I wouldn’t bother trying to find it, if I were you. Running Horse said he went back the next day and the camp was gone, and so were the bones."

So at least somebody was getting bones out of the Judith beds.

"Will you be paying a visit to Mr. Cope? He might prefer a midnight raid to a nice breakfast visit."

Burgess paused, and looked strangely at Marsh.

"Come to think of it, I believe I heard something on campus about you and Mr. Cope. You are not friends. Is that correct?"

"That would be a very diplomatic way of putting it."

"Would you like for me to arrange for a raid of Mr. Cope’s camp? I’m sure it can be done."

Marsh looked at him for a moment until his visitor’s face broke out in a broad grin.

"George, don’t tempt me like that unless you mean it. But are you going to speak to him?"

"I’m a little pressed for time. If you will guarantee he is only after bones, I will not bother him. Of course, if you don’t want to do that, since you don’t like him—"

Marsh patted his arm.

"Oh, no, no. I can guarantee that. Cope is my problem, he shouldn’t be yours."

"Thank you. Good day, then, sir. It was nice to meet you."

"It was nice to meet you as well. I’ll pass along your kind words of the pancakes to my cook, and they will no doubt put a smile on his face. And speaking of faces, the young man with the dirty one will have your horse waiting."

Burgess gave a small wave and began walking out of camp. Marsh noted that the soldiers kept their rifles handy, although they didn’t raise them.

"Oh, George."

Marsh walked as fast as he could to catch up with the long-legged Indian.

"Let’s not make this a one-time visit. Please drop back by—soon, if you can—and let me know what this fellow is up to. If you can find out."

George nodded.

"If I can find out, I will."

Marsh let him walk out this time, and stood looking after him until he was just a blurry shape on the horizon. So there was yet another team in the field, and a quick one at that. Maybe this could explain the fossil drought. The dinosaurs died, and their bones lay in the rock for millions of years, slowly turning to stone themselves. In time, skulls became separated from vertebrae, hands bade goodbye to arms, teeth scattered like pebbles. Above them the mammals grew more numerous and complicated, until one mammal rose on its hind legs until its brain grew large enough to comprehend the mysteries happening right under its feet. And then everything had to happen in a flash. If one big-brained mammal didn’t get the bones out of the ground fast enough, another big-brained mammal would come along and dig them up, assign them a Latin name and write a paper about them, probably in so much haste he would get some of the particulars wrong. The slower big-brained mammal would like to investigate links and study as many big fossil fragments as possible in order to make a careful, definitive conclusion, but the first big-brained mammal had rendered that nearly impossible. And now yet another fast-moving big-brained mammal had come along, making the first two look sluggish indeed.

He watched the men get ready for the field, watched Al Stillson hook the four horses to the bone cart. Probably another fruitless day ahead, especially if they hit upon ground already covered by the new bone digger in the field. Then an idea occurred to him. His moustache slowly turned up into a smile. Edward Cope was a fast bone digger, and faster still to cable news of his findings to Philadelphia. But out here he was short handed, and as it turned out an even faster paleontologist had appeared on the scene. Only Cope didn’t know he existed. So what would happen if a slow, methodical paleontologist from New Haven joined forces with a fast digger? Surely the stranger would see the sense in signing up with one of the premier scientists in the country. Surely he would see the sense in putting his speed in the service of Othniel Charles Marsh


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

Return to Baen Books Home Page

Baen Books 03/08/02