Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


Al Stillson guided the horse down through the ravine, heading for the river. Walls of yellowish sandstone rose up on either side, their flanks dotted with shadows and dark pits of shale. These rocks seemed to be what were driving the paleontologists crazy. Othniel Marsh brooded in his tent, staring at the few tiny bones his men were able to find. At times he looked like an ancient seer, trying to divine the future with chicken bones, although his were fossilized. Edward Cope, being a man of action, preferred to rave along the rock faces. He never cursed, but he beseeched the Lord loudly, asking for more discoveries.

Stillson had not had much call lately to act as a double agent. There was not much to spy after, and he feared for his bankroll the longer the fossil drought continued. On his one trip to Cope’s camp in recent days, Stillson had been badgered about what Marsh had done with the mysterious skull he dug up. Was he writing a paper on it? Stillson didn’t know. He hadn’t seen it again.

In the end, it was Marsh who asked him to run the errand to the trading post called Fort Clagett, to see if Cope had attempted to have a message delivered from there to the telegraph office back at Fort Benton. The Missouri River was too low for boats to make it back there, and Benton was too far a ride for such an unpromising mission, but Marsh thought Cope would get an overland delivery via the local trading post. Stillson had been puzzled by this. If anyone knew nothing was happening, it was Marsh. Cope was finding even less than he was. One of Marsh’s assistants had told him that Marsh was as crazy for bones as Cope, but Stillson hadn’t quite believed it. The man was Sam Sharp, who had a scruffy beard, a high forehead and usually a distant look in his eyes. In fact, he looked something like a younger version of Marsh. He wandered up one day while Stillson was preparing the horses.

"I hear you might be keeping tabs on Mr. Cope," he said.

Stillson tried to avoid meeting his eyes. Marsh had told him to keep quiet, and he didn’t quite trust Sharp. Sharp looked like he was always into something.

"Could be," was all he could think to say.

"You better watch out," Sharp said. "I worked for Marsh for a while and then I worked for Cope. Now I work for Marsh again."

Stillson looked at him now. Sharp was staring straight at him, but it wasn’t an intense gaze. He looked about half asleep, as usual. What was most unnerving about the look was it was deceiving. The other members of the camp said he was a sharp cardplayer and a crack shot with his rifle despite his dopey look.

"Why did you switch?"

"Never you mind. Just know that it’s not a course of action I recommend. You don’t just go back and forth between these two. That’s like getting caught between two rocks. They’ll grind you into flour. I advise you to pick one and stick with him. I’d go with Marsh, if I were you. He’s raging ambitious."

"But Mr. Cope seems so much more—" Stillson said, and stopped, realizing he had already revealed too much.

"Energetic? Yes, he’s that. But a slow fire sometimes burns longer, young Stillson. Don’t forget that."

He hadn’t. The slow fire that was Marsh was apparently heating up, and had sent him to check for any telegraph deliveries involving bones. Cope could not possibly have sent anything out, but Stillson wasn’t going to argue because a trip to Fort Clagett was a nice break. It would mean seeing someone other than the surly men in camp, and the moody Marsh. He might even try to get a drink, since the men in camp didn’t want to waste any of their whiskey on him and wouldn’t surrender their bottles.

He was beginning to think he had not chosen the correct route. He thought this ravine continued on a broad path all the way to the river, but it was beginning to show troubling signs that it did not. There were more rocks in the path, and they were getting bigger, as if they were drawing strength from the nearing waters of the Judith. The horse was having to step lightly around them, a slow prance that was beginning to make Stillson feel a little nauseous. The sandstone began to close in on them, a giant tide flecked with the green of the scrubby pines that hung on the sides of the stone like nesting birds. Stillson thought he saw something flash to his left, up on the rocks, and for just an instant tugged on the reins as he looked up. At that same instant, the horse put one hoof directly on a large stone.

Stillson felt a rush of movement and a flash of light. He had the vague and unpleasant sensation that his feet were over his head, and he felt something warm and wet. Was he swimming? Had he taken a dive? There was a man reaching to help him, reaching to pull him out. He could not make him out clearly. It was like staring up at a giant from the bottom of a well. The man reached towards him and he saw another light, this one less intense than the light that had flung him in the water. His head felt even warmer, but no longer felt wet. He felt hands moving over his head. The man was looking at him strangely. He wore a long dark duster but a hat that did not match it. The hat was the color of straw, the color at the center of leaves at this time of year in eastern Montana. Or was that his hair? The man’s hand moved in front of his face, and he closed his eyes.

It was well past afternoon when Stillson opened them again. The horse stood nearby, staring at him for lack of anything else to do. Its reins were tied around one of the better-rooted scrub pines, which held it in a completely uninteresting part of the trail. There was no grass for the horse to nibble, no rocks to kick at, nothing but the pine tree itself, and even it was too high to reach. The sun had already relinquished its place at the top of the sky. This meant that he was running very late. He had hoped to get to Fort Clagett and back in one day, but now that was impossible. Stillson moved to get up but found that harder than he imagined. His arms and legs felt heavier than the rocks around them. He heard the sound of horses’ hooves, approaching rapidly from the way he had come. Stillson just managed to turn his head to look. His horse looked that way, too, glad to have something happening. There were a lot of horses and coming their way as fast as they could without hitting the stones in the road. From the sound, they were better at that particular skill than Stillson and his horse had been.

Stillson tried to shout but couldn’t find words in his throat. He lay there instead, a large rag doll propped up against a wall. It wasn’t like they could miss him. He heard the hoof beats begin to slow as the sandstone walls closed around the intruders. The problem wasn’t that they wouldn’t find him, it was that they might step on him. Finally the hooves stopped thumping altogether and he heard the sound of two human feet hitting the ground. It was easier to roll his eyes than to move his head, so he just looked up. A tall man was striding towards him. He was an Indian, dressed in traditional garb except for his feet, which were shod in cowboy boots.

Stillson felt fingers against his face again, saw the Indian’s face up close as he examined whatever the damage was.

"Are you all right?" the Indian said. "What’s wrong with you?"

His English was perfect, betraying no pauses as the mind hunted for words. Stillson looked at him. Well, I was riding into Fort Clagett to see if we had intercepted any telegrams from a rival paleontologist, but I got distracted and my horse stepped on a rock accidentally and I fell and hit my head, and a strange man came along and then I passed out but now you’re here. He thought all of that but none of it made it past his lips. The Indian looked at him a minute more and then walked back to his men, who were waiting on their horses at the point where the walls began to narrow. Stillson could not make out what they were saying, and was not even sure it was in English.

In a moment he returned, with two other Indians. Stillson had not done proper studying of his Indians, but he believed them to be Sioux. This was good, he thought. Professor Marsh seemed to have a soft spot for the Sioux, so maybe the feeling was mutual. He felt hands lifting him up, saw someone take his horse’s reins off the pine tree. The Indians were quick. In no time at all they had stripped two small pine trees of their limbs and strapped them to his back, and then strapped the whole arrangement to one of the Indian horses. He had seen Indian children carried this way, tied to the back of a horse so tightly they couldn’t fall off. It did not make him feel grown up to be carried in such a manner, but he couldn’t even stand, let alone ride a horse. He hadn’t been doing that so well when he was hale and hearty.

The tall Indian issued a stream of commands to his fellows. Apparently they were going to cease what they were doing and do something else, was all Stillson could make out from watching the Indian’s hand gestures. It appeared that two of the Indians were to carry on in the direction they had been heading, but everyone else was going back the other way.

Stillson felt a surprisingly smooth hand on his cheek and looked up into the tall Indian’s face. He felt ridiculous strapped to the horse.

"Don’t worry, young miss," the Indian said. "We’ll make you well."

Stillson swallowed and blinked. Had the dirt been knocked off his face in the accident, or did the Indian just have very discerning eyes? Whatever the reason, his secret was out.


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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