Bone Wars

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

by Brett Davis


And I thought I would be lonely out here! The scenery is fine, although harsh, but not harsh enough to keep bone diggers away. The professor of Copeology at Yale is here, although he is trying to keep things quiet. Mr. Marsh did not come out here with his usual fanfare. He probably does not want the Indians to bother him again so that he gets sucked into all those political matters like he did two years ago.

I am pleased to hear thee are doing well. Tell Julia to put that gopher in alcohol if she wants to keep it and I will help her draw it and describe it when I get home. I will leave it up to thee as to whether she can keep it in the house. Thee are probably doing better than I; I have seen more fossils in Philadelphia than I have out here. Marsh dug up some sort of skull and bones, although I think it was mixed up and he did not think much of it. I have been tempted to go dig it up myself if he left it there, so at least I would have something.

Our cook and guide seem worried about the Indians but I have come across only a few and all peaceable, so thee should not worry. The newspapers in Helena and elsewhere have published some cock and bull stories about Sitting Bull and the Sioux but nothing has happened here. Some Piegans came by one afternoon but they were pleasant and we have heard nothing more of them.

The landscape here makes one tend to think, especially in the absence of bones to dig or hostile Indians to avoid. I miss father; it is just about a year now since he left us. Did thee realize that? One year gone, and his physical presence is little more than the bones that I seek here, yet he lives on in my mind. If I came across his skull, would I revere it as his or ponder what it would mean for his brain size and eating habits? I do not mean to make morbid jokes, but I tell thee my devotion to both science and human feeling would require me to do both at the same time. That is my way of praising God to the fullest. I know it bothers some that I no longer go to the meetings, but I cannot abide that all men must teach religion or they are good for nothing. It is absurd to think this, and becomes more so when we consider the limited state of all mankind’s knowledge. If my theories are true and if my findings are correct, atheism will receive its death blow. This would be hastened along if God would assist me in finding fossils here, but it is not in my ability to know His will.

If things continue as they are, we will not remain here much longer. We will first—

Edward Drinker Cope held the letter to the plank as a strong gust of wind roared through the camp, rattling Boston Mickle’s pans. The camp was higher up from the Judith River than usual, which meant less of a ride to the bone-hunting grounds but also left it more open to the elements. A lone outcropping of sandstone rose behind the east side of the camp, but it was wide open for the other directions. The moon was nearly bright enough to allow him to write without hunching near the fire, but the cold made it necessary if he wanted to put down words without his hands shaking. Jenks Dart had seen a boat captain on the river who offered to take mail, so he decided to write to his wife to take his mind off the lack of activity in the field. It had only succeeded in focusing his mind on exactly that.

He looked up until the gust of wind had passed, and from the corner of his eye thought he saw something strange to the north of his camp. A green flash, out on the horizon, bright enough to leave an afterimage on his eyes when he blinked, but fast enough that he couldn’t tell how far away it was. He had been out in the west numerous times and had never seen anything like that. In fact, he had never seen anything like that back east, except for perhaps once in Philadelphia when a fireworks show had gone awry, sending green-burning flares out low across the sky. He still decided this was unique; those green lights had lingered longer than this flash. Cope got up and folded his letter, nearly forgetting to sign it.

Cope folded the letter and tossed it in Dart’s tent, pitching it atop his blanket so he would see it. The lanky outdoorsman tended to focus intently, but only on things that were directly in front of him. Even while signing the letter and throwing it in the tent, Cope didn’t take his eyes off the horizon, hoping for a repeat. Charles Sternberg came out of his tent while Cope wandered by.

"Ho!" Sternberg said. "Are you sleepwalking now?"

"Did you see that green flash?"


"You’re from out this way. Can you see the northern lights from here?"

Sternberg eyed him with bemused suspicion.

"Not usually."

"There was a green flash on the horizon, right over there."

Sternberg squinted, and then shook his head.

"Just moonlight out there now, it looks like to me. The northern lights last for a while, when you can see them. I’ve never heard them described as a flash."

"Well, it was there."

"I didn’t say it wasn’t."

There was a shout from the darkness around the camp. It sounded like Jenks Dart. Cope and Sternberg exchanged glances and then ran around the tents to see what it was. Neither one had a pistol, but Cope grabbed his pick on the way past the pickle-barrel table. It probably wouldn’t do much good, but it was better than nothing. They ran as fast as they could in the dim moonlight until they got to a trail that ran past the north edge of the camp and eventually led to the river. There was a rolling sound, like water rushing. Dart was standing at the camp-side edge of the trail, yelling as horses shot past. Cope could not see the riders, could only make out man-shaped legs dark as shadows along the horses’ white flanks.

"Slow down!" Dart said, holding his everpresent rifle by the middle and waving it like a flag pole. "Give somebody some warning!"

The riders did not hear him, or did not heed him if they did. They stormed down the road and out of sight, the horses’ hooves sounding like distant drumming before fading entirely.

"Jenks!" Cope said once the horses were gone. "What’s going on down here?"

"I almost got run over by those damned Indians!" Dart shouted. "They come barreling up the trail like it’s broad daylight and everybody can see them!"

"What were they running from?" Sternberg asked. "Or were they chasing something?"

Dart was out of breath from shouting.

"I don’t know," he said in a more normal voice, although one ragged with little gasps. "I didn’t see anything in front of them, so I guess they were running."

Sternberg looked down the trail.

"I don’t see anything after them, either."

Cope peered off into the darkness. They were on lower ground now, and he couldn’t see the murky horizon, could only see the road rising before them and the moon riding high above it.

"Which way does this trail run, Jenks?" he asked.

Dart pointed north. Cope looked in the direction of the long finger. It was where the glow had been. Maybe the Indians knew something he didn’t. If they knew anything at all about it, they knew more than he did.

"Did you get a good look at them, Jenks? What sort of Indians were they?"

Dart was now back to normal, was once again the unflappable outdoorsman, ready to tangle with any man or beast.

"They looked like Crow to me."

"Do you know where they are camped?"

"Of course. There are a lot of them, hundreds. They’re on the other side of the river, near Fort Claggett."

Fort Claggett sold some of the same supplies and foodstuff as Fort Benton, only it had half as much stock and sold it for about twice the price. Cope had bargained furiously for his horses and supplies in Fort Benton, and aimed to steer clear of Claggett as much as possible so as not to wipe out what savings he managed to achieve.

"Are they peaceful?"

"Except when they run up and down the road like maniacs," Dart said.

"I tell you what, Jenks. Go down there tomorrow and ask some of them to visit me. Ask them for some of the ones who were running on the trail tonight."

Dart did not look very happy about the assignment, but Cope ignored his sullen look.

"Maybe we’ll get Boston to cook them up a little dinner," Cope continued. "And shoot something good if you can."

"If I can?" Dart said.

He looked slightly hurt.


Copyright 1998 by Brett Davis

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