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The Dinosaur Hunter


I didn't go out to Pick's camp for another four days. Jeanette might have said we were caught up but I knew even as she said it, it wasn't true. The Big Man in the Sky had turned off his faucet. The Square C was drying out which meant we needed to stir the cows around to put them on some pastures that hadn't been grazed for a while. This fell mostly on me and Ray, Jeanette worrying over the plans for the Independence Day celebration.

Then word came of another murdered cow, this one south of Jericho on one of the Brescoe ranches. The modus operandi was the same, right down to the note from the Green Monkey Wrench Gang. which, come to think of it, we didn't receive with our murdered bull. I wondered if maybe the note had blown away or maybe the cow murderer hadn't come up with the idea of writing us a missive when he was on our land. When she heard about the new dead cow, Jeanette worked the phone, talking to the mayor and folks up and down the road on whether the state police ought to be called. I asked Jeanette what the consensus was and she said, "They'd send some kid up from Billings who wouldn't even know where to start. We've decided we can handle things just fine."

I started to remind her of my police background but shut my trap. Jeanette had not asked for my help which was tantamount to her saying she didn't need it. So I told her I was heading out to the dinosaur diggers. At the time, she was sitting at her kitchen table with a legal pad full of notes, a ledger, a calculator, and a telephone. "I'm glad somebody gets to have fun around here," she said as if going out there was my idea.

I went back to my trailer and packed a cooler of veggies, then grabbed two bags each of beans and rice from my stores, a couple bottles of gin and tonic water, and the usual toiletries I scrounged around until I found an old duffel bag and stuffed it with underwear, socks, work shirts, t-shirts, an extra pair of jeans, old running shoes, and a bandana. I found the old tent and sleeping bag Bill Coulter had given me when I'd first arrived on the Square C for the infrequent times I needed to stay overnight out on the far fringes of the ranch. I also retrieved a five-gallon water can from beneath the trailer and filled it. I loaded my favorite 4-wheeler with all my stuff and headed out. Ray opened the gate that led to the BLM. "I'll be out there pretty soon," he said.

"How about Amelia?"

He shrugged. "Who cares about her?"

"You do."

He frowned, then shook his head and said, "You're right. What do you think I ought to do about her, Mike?"

"I'd kiss her if I was you, Ray. And tell her how you feel."

"But I don't know how I feel. Not exactly."

"Well, just kiss her, then. It'll do for now."

My advice to the lovelorn accomplished, I drove straight to where the bull had been killed, thinking to look around for a note just in case the wind had blown it somewhere. The odds of finding it, even had it existed, were slim and I knew it. Sure enough, I poked around, found nothing, and gave it up and drove on out to the BLM.

When I arrived at their camp, I saw Pick and his ladies had constructed quite the complex. There were three of what I took to be personal tents, and two big canvas wall tents. Not only that, there was a windmill atop an aluminum tower about thirty feet tall. No one was around so I peeked into the wall tents to see the secrets of professional paleontologists. The first one contained bags of plaster, jerry cans of water, a variety of potions and chemicals and also picks, shovels, trowels, saws, hammers, ice picks, and other standard tools. The other wall tent held cans of food, breakfast cereal, flour, corn meal, powdered milk, and rice in plastic containers. It also had a refrigerator with room for not only my veggies but my tonic water. I followed its cord outside and found that it was attached through a box to the windmill.

I unloaded the rest of my traps off the four-wheeler, then motored on to the Triceratops site. No one was there but there was evidence it had been worked over based on two piles of dirt heaped at the base of the hill. There was also what I took to be bones contained in three foot-locker sized lumps of white plaster sitting in a small meadow of sparse grass beside the women's truck. I went over and pushed on one and it didn't move. Getting these things on the truck, if that was the plan, was going to take some heavy lifting.

Carefully so as to not disturb anything, I climbed up beside the dig. Littered around were ice picks, paint brushes, trowels, knee pads, and small plastic bottles containing an amber liquid. Looking closer at the dig, I could see the outline of what appeared to be bone, brown as tobacco. Whatever the bone was, it was big. I looked back at the trucks and the three big plaster casts and wondered how it was possible to get a bone like that out without busting it up.

"Halloooo!" came a yell and I spied Pick climbing out of a drainage. His shirt was soaked with sweat and his pants were filthy. "Come to help at last!" he said as he reached the trucks.

"Just tell me what to do," I replied.

He got a bottle of water from the back of his truck and drained it. "Laura will do that," he said. "She's in charge of the dig."

"Where is she?"

"I gave her and Tanya a little time off," he said, "so they went prospecting. That's what paleontologists most love to do, look for something new."

"Have you found anything new?"

"Well, when they get back, we'll ask them," he said, leaving unanswered whether he'd found anything. I didn't push him about it.

Pick sat in the shade of the truck and I joined him. "This is the life," he said. "This is what I live for, the thrill of digging into the past, the anticipation of what might be found, and every day something new and wonderful."

"I went to Bozeman one time," I said, "and stopped in at the Museum of the Rockies. They have a couple of Triceratops skeletons there as I recall. What good does it do to dig up another one?"

Pick looked shocked at my question. "What good does it do to read another book if you've already read a couple?" he demanded. "We're dealing with more than sixty-five million years, Mike. Those Trikes in Bozeman may have been separated by a thousand generations and evolutionary pressures may have changed their design a great deal. We learn something new with not only every skeleton but, really, every bone if only we care to look. I'm one of the few paleontologists who really, truly looks at every detail of every bone. A lot of them just go for the big picture but not me. I hold the bone and study it until I know the animal. It talks to me. Sometimes, it even comes to me in my sleep, tells me of its life and its death."

I didn't know what to say to that, which to tell the truth sounded genuinely squirrelly, so we sat quietly for a while until he said, "This big old Trike. I think it was a bull. That means it was a defender of the herd and fought all its life against predators. There are growths on his bones that indicate battle scars."

Pick didn't say much more, mainly because he soon fell asleep. I sat with him, relaxing, reflecting on the ancient animal that lay quietly above us, listening to the gentle wind, watching a hawk scouting for rabbits, and a rabbit with only its head out of its hole, watching for hawks. There was the smell of fresh sage in the air. I discovered I was enjoying myself immensely, sitting beside the dozing paleontologist while cottony clouds floated across the vast sky.

This was Montana, I thought. The real Montana.

Before long, the women arrived. They were wearing backpacks which looked to be heavy and I wondered if they were filled with bones. I stood up as they rounded the back of the truck. They were wearing the same kind of multi-pocketed shirts Pick favored, plus cargo shorts, snake gaiters, and hiking boots. I noticed Laura had nice legs but Tanya's were spectacular. In fact, she oozed sexuality like so many young Russian women.

"Wondered if you were coming out," Laura said, stripping off her backpack and putting it in the back of the truck. Tanya provided me with a shy smile as she unloaded her pack on the truck beside Laura's. Both women were careful not to disturb Pick who was still snoozing. "He is like a little boy," Tanya said.

"Mike, do you want to know what we do on a dig?" Laura asked and I told her I would be happy to be educated. She drained a canteen, removed a salt shaker from her backpack, sprinkled some in her hand, licked it off, and gestured for me to follow her up to the site. We settled around it on our haunches and she got busy telling me in some detail how a dig was photographed, mapped, and everything collected, even the smallest scraps. "You'd be surprised how some of those wizards in the lab --- we call them preparators --- can fit scraps of bone together like a jigsaw puzzle."

Laura glanced down at Pick, still sleeping, and Tanya who was removing some plastic zipper bags from their packs and placing them in a large plastic storage box. It occurred to me that maybe Laura was in the business of distracting me. If she was, I couldn't imagine why. I didn't much care what they found.

Laura started up again, explaining how her specialty was crafting an excavation plan and how the Hell Creek Formation was pretty easy to work in comparison to some where jackhammers were required.

"How about a backhoe?" I asked. "Or dynamite?"

She considered my question. "A backhoe would definitely help if the bones were deep," she said. "I've never used dynamite but some of the old-time dinosaur diggers did. Barnum Brown, maybe the most famous of them all, was quite happy to use it. He found the first T. rex, by the way, about thirty miles from here in 1906. Just think of it. No one knew there was such an animal. To see that skull come out of the rock and mud must have been astonishing. I sometimes wish I'd lived in those times. There were virtually no laws or regulations about digging and the ranchers didn't care. In fact, they helped Brown a lot by taking him to sites they knew about. He dug up the bones, carted them away to New York, and nobody said a word. Maybe because there wasn't a lot of money in it back then. In fact, hardly anyone would give a cent for dinosaur bones. Everything was done in the name of science."

"Have you ever sold bones?" I asked.

"No," she said, "I wouldn't do that, even if I was starving."

"How about Pick?"

"Only to support his research. I've forgiven him for it. Once you get to know Pick, you realize he's a genius even though he's got his peculiarities. There's nobody like him when it comes to finding dinosaurs, that's for sure."

Laura looked down at Pick who had come awake, yawning and stretching. Tanya was sitting beside him, quietly talking, then she offered him water. He accepted her canteen, licked salt from her hand, then pulled his hat over his eyes and settled back against the tire. "Is Tanya his girlfriend?" I asked.

"No, and neither am I," she said. "Pick is never in the moment, if you know what I mean. He's always a million miles away, or I should say 65 plus million years away. He mostly lives in deep time."

I'd heard that phrase a couple of times now. "Explain deep time," I said.

"Well, think of it this way," she said. "The more we understand time, the more we realize how connected it is. It's like a deep ocean. The water at the bottom is the same as at the top except they're in different places. But there's nothing to keep the water from changing places and sometimes it does, usually because of temperature or salinity changes or the pressure of the overlying water. Anyway, the important thing is that it goes from water we can see and touch to water beyond our reach. That's like present time turning into ancient time and vice versa. It's all connected. Pick sort of lives closer to the bottom of the ocean of time than we mere humans."

"OK," I said. "All this is too deep for me."

Laura laughed. "And for me. Maybe Pick will explain it to you. He's better at it than I am. I probably screwed it all up."

Laura showed me how to use the ice pick and trowel to carefully work around a bone and how to use the amber liquid in the plastic bottles, which was a glue called vinac, to harden the bone before it was removed. "If we have a stable bone, like a horn or a claw," she explained, "we just wrap it in aluminum foil and number it. If it's fractured, we apply a plaster cast. If it's a big enough bone, we dig around and under it, leaving just a little pedestal for the bone to sit on. Pedestaling is what the technique is called, as a matter of fact. We wrap it with aluminum foil and wet paper towels, put strips of burlap in plaster and lay them across the bone at a variety of angles to give the cast strength. After it hardens, we can flip the bone over and finish up. After that, it's ready for the lab. Of course, getting it there, heavy as the bones and the jackets are, is always a chore but we get it done, one way or the other."

"Where is this skeleton going?" I asked.

Laura gave that some thought, then said, "I don't honestly know. Somewhere where it will be appreciated, that much I can tell you. Pick sees to that." She pointed at a bone still in the ground. "That's a toe. Its shape indicates it was used for digging."

I looked at the bone which was about six inches long and shaped like an arrowhead. "What did it dig?" I wondered.

"We think Trikes liked to eat ferns. Maybe they needed to dig around the other vegetation to get at them or maybe they dug up the entire plant. They had a beak, like a big parrot, which I suppose was effective at chopping plants. Their molars were a little like a cow's or camel's."

"Did they eat grass?"

"There was no grass, at least not the kind we have now."

"You're kidding! No grass? I thought there was always grass in Montana."

Her eyes grew distant, a trait I’d noticed was common for paleontologists. "The world the Triceratops lived in, Mike, was a far different place than this one. Although the theropods, the meat-eaters, could probably live today --- meat is still meat and I guess they could eat your cows --- the plant-eaters would not survive. Vegetation and the seasons have just changed too much. Maybe that's why the theropods live on through the birds while there are no descendents of the plant eaters. It's sad, really. Can you imagine the millions of years it took to evolve a creature like this, just to have it disappear?"

"What killed them, do you think? I know you only care about how they lived but you must have a theory on why they disappeared."

"Oh, I think environmental and evolutionary pressures are the likely culprits. We also think there's less oxygen in the atmosphere now so maybe it just got too hard for them to breathe. Anyway, whatever it was, I don't think it was anything so dramatic as a meteor or comet, although such may have pushed them over the edge. Maybe a virus, even. I just don't know. No one does, no matter what they say."

I glanced down and saw Pick was awake and peering into the box where Tanya had placed the plastic sample bags. He took one of the bags out, pondered it, then put it back. The way he held it, I couldn't see what was in it, not that I would recognized what it was, anyway.

"What did you find this morning?" I asked.

"Just odds and ends," Laura replied. "You ready to help dig up this old boy?"

"Sure thing."

Laura called Tanya and she climbed up beside us. Pick wandered off and then things got quiet for the rest of the morning as the three of us dug and scraped. It was hard work and my fingernails, knees, and back took a beating. I looked up once and found both women smiling at me. "What?" I asked.

"You'd make a good grad student," Laura said. "You work hard and you don't complain much."

"I like that in a man, too," Tanya said, giving me a dazzling smile. I confess my heart sped up a beat.

After a while, Tanya got up from the dig, got her backpack off the truck, dropped in some water bottles and went off in the direction Pick had gone. I sat back, swigged some water, and appreciated her trim little figure until she'd disappeared around the hill. "Where's she going?" I asked.

"To find Pick," Laura said. "He'll be lost by now. She'll try to track him down or give him a call on the radio to figure out where he is. He never goes far. He always finds bones and that slows him down."

We dug, picked, scraped, and glued for a bit more, then Laura squinted at the sky where the sun had taken up station, seemingly not moving and just blazing down. "We need to put up an awning," she said.

We walked back to the camp and she got out a tarp and some poles, ropes, and pegs. It wasn't easy on the side of that hill but we managed to get the tarp up to provide some shade. When we were finished, Laura pronounced the working day over. "When you get too tired, you start to make mistakes on a dig," she said. "Want to go prospecting?"

That sounded like fun so I said OK. She filled a pack with water bottles and I did the same. She handed me a small digital camera, a pocket-sized notebook, a pencil, some plastic lock-type sample bags, a permanent marker pen, a two-way radio, and a hand-held GPS. After a quick lesson on the GPS, she showed me how to write up any finds I might make, then pointed at a low line of wedding-cake shaped hills. "Those hills look to have some Hell Creek Formation," she said. "Ever been on them?"

I had not, even though they weren't that far from the Square C. "They're on Haxby BLM," I said. "I wouldn't even think about going over there without permission."

"But we have a BLM permit," she said. "And we won't cross private land getting to it."

"You don't know the Haxbys," I replied.

Laura looked at the hills longingly. "I'm sure we'd find some good bones there."

I gave it some thought, mostly focusing on Laura's unhappy expression. "All right," I said, finally. "But if anyone comes around, let me do the talking."

This suited her so we hefted our packs, tested our radios, and off we went, first crossing a field of grass that stopped abruptly at a deep coulee that had been invisible until we were right on top of it. The badlands can fool you that way. What you perceive to be an expanse of flat land can suddenly drop a hundred feet straight down. More than one cow, trundling along, has lost its footing along one of those coulees and taken the tumble of death. We were more careful, clambered down inside it, then walked along its narrow bottom. There was a layer of cracked mud studded with some low reeds, clinging to life. Laura spotted a grayish outcrop of dirt and walked over to it, bent over and plucked out a bone. She showed it to me. "Theropod toe bone, probably Ornithomimosaur."

Quoting Pick, I asked, "Where's the rest of it?"

"That's always the question, isn't it?" She gave me a grin, which was nice. Even though we'd just spent all morning digging up bones and erecting an awning in the hot sun, and were now walking in the hottest sun of the day loaded down with packs full of water. Laura was cheerful. I have always believed cheerful is a fine trait in a woman. I reflected that Jeanette was hardly ever cheerful but I didn't care. I still loved her. Love is weird that way, ain't it?

We found a way out of the coulee and continued across the field until we reached the hills which proved to be steeper than they looked from a mile away. "I'll go that way," Laura pointed, "you go the other. See that first step? I think if there are any bones, they will be at that level. It's a bit too steep for me to try to go along there so what I like to do is walk around the base of the hill and look for float at the bottom. If I see anything that looks interesting, then I'll climb the hill up to the step to see what's there. You might try the same strategy or just make up your own There's no right or wrong way to find bones."

Although I wasn't certain it was a good idea for us to split up, considering that we were on Haxby BLM, I went along with it. I went off in the direction she wanted me to go and before long, I was thoroughly enjoying the pleasant stroll at the base of the hill which was actually several hills with low saddlebacks that didn't quite touch the sandy floor. I soon came across some float, clambered up to the shelf Laura had suggested, and was rewarded by a pile of shattered bones. There was nothing in the pile that had any shape, just irregular scraps, but there was enough of it to fill up several backpacks. I settled for logging the GPS coordinates in my notebook, photographing the site, taking a sample, and moving on, feeling very much like a true paleontologist. I searched all along the base, finding more float and scraps here and there. Though I climbed up to the step, I found no more piles of bones, just scraps including something that looked like a claw, although the tip was broken off. No matter that I had probably found nothing of importance, I had still discovered the remains of creatures which had lived very long ago. I sat down on one of the steps and just looked out at a land which should have been familiar to me but now seemed alien, as if I'd been plucked up and set down not only far away but long ago. Maybe I was getting a sense of deep time, I don't know.

I was startled by the clip-clop of a horse at the base of the hill and, when I looked down, I saw an equally startled rider. It was Carl Haxby, Sam's youngest son. "Hello, Carl," I said.

Carl finally found his voice. "What are you doing up there, Mike?"

"Looking for dinosaur bones. There are quite a few of them on this hill."

Carl briefly scanned the exposed brown dirt, the ancient gray mud, and the sagebrush of the hill, then shook his head. "All I see is Haxby property," he said. "Are you lost?"

It would have probably saved us all some grief if I had answered that I was indeed lost and would get my tail back to the Square C first thing but, instead, I said, "No. I know exactly where I am. I should have asked you before coming out here but I'm working with some folks who have a BLM permit and . . . well, here we are."


"On the other side of this hill is a young lady. She's a professional paleontologist. She's just looking for bones, Carl. No reason to get upset."

But Carl was upset. "I'll thank you to leave our property, Mike," he said.

He didn't curse, he didn't say he was going to climb up there and whup my ass, he didn't threaten to go burn down my trailer, he just said what he said, most calmly. He was also armed. There was a rifle, a thirty ought six, slung next to his leg. I climbed down until I was eye level with him and opened my backpack, showing him the fragments of bone I'd picked up. "This is all I'm doing," I said.

"You found those on our land?" he asked.

"On BLM land." I sat down on a rock. I had learned in my past life in the thin blue line that sometimes sitting down while talking to someone in a tense situation tends to have a calming effect. "I'll say it again, Carl. I should have asked before coming out here and I apologize. But, technically, BLM is not your land."

"I'll have to tell my dad," Carl said. "He's going to raise hell."

I took off my hat, wiped the sweat from my brow with my sleeve, and plopped it back aboard. It was hot and getting hotter and I needed to get going and probably so did Carl on whatever business had brought him out here. "All right," I said. "But be sure to tell him I apologize for not asking him first."

Carl backed his horse up, then swung it around. He nodded toward the plastic bags. "Could I look at that bone that was sort of like a claw?"

I stood up and handed it over. He studied the bone in his big, calloused hand. The Haxbys worked hard, all of them, and Carl's hands reflected that. "Looks like a broken bird claw," he said.

"Yep. Dr. Pickford --- he's the lead paleontologist --- says there were a lot of dinosaurs with claws out here. Sharp teeth, too."

"Then why does it look like a bird claw?"

"I don't know, Carl."

"Maybe there were big birds that didn't get on the ark," Carl offered.

"Could be," I said.

Carl cocked his head. "How did you get into this, Mike?"

"Jeanette volunteered me."

"You do what she says?"

"She's my boss."

"But you'd like her to be more," he said, smiling for the first time since he'd found me. When he saw my expression, which wasn't happy, he added, "Sorry. The Haxby wives gossip. I sometimes listen."

"Tell them I said I'm in love with her. That'll give them something to talk about for a long time."

He rubbed his jaw, then shook his head. "I'll do no such thing."

"I'll get off your land, Carl. Right now. I'll find the girl and make her leave, too."

He nodded, then said, "No need. As far as I'm concerned, you just asked for permission. Have fun picking up bones."

Carl rode off and I waited until he disappeared around the hill. Although I was relieved at the way things had turned out, I still felt like shit. The Haxbys had their ways and I didn't agree with all of them but they'd always been good neighbors. Now, I'd thumbed my nose at them in the worst way I could do it.

Wanting to get off the Haxby BLM as soon as possible, I crossed the hill at one of the low saddles. Laura wasn't in sight as I came over but I did spot some bones. They were horn chunks, probably Triceratops. I wrote them up in my log, and collected them. Then I slid down the hill, walked along it for a while before spotting Laura on one of the benches. She was sitting there, looking at something with binoculars. I turned to see what it might be and saw that she was looking toward Blackie Butte. "What do you see?" I asked.

Startled, she hastily put down the binoculars. "Nothing. Just looking," she said.

I climbed up beside her. "May I?" I asked, indicating the binoculars and she reluctantly handed them over. I looked at Blackie Butte and saw two people standing on a ledge about halfway up it. "Is that Pick and Tanya?"

"Yes," Laura said. "I'm glad Tanya found him. Lost as usual."

Laura had lied to me. She had definitely been watching the pair but, if so, why hadn't she said so? My first guess, me being a man, is that she was jealous that Tanya was alone with him.

"Look," I said, "one of the Haxby brothers caught me and he wasn't too happy about us being here. Let's go back."

"We have a permit," she said.

"Yes. That and permission from the rancher who leases the BLM is all that we need to hunt fossils on this land. We have one but not the other."

Laura looked at me. "Did you find anything?"

I showed her my plastic bags. Nothing interested her except the claw. "Nice," she said. "Where's the rest of it?"

I smiled. "I don't know."

"OK. Let's go back. I'm kind of tired, anyway." She rubbed her shoulder and winced.

I crouched beside her. "I used to know how to give a decent shoulder rub." When she didn't say anything, I took it as permission to proceed. She was muscular and some of those muscles were in knots so I had my work cut out for me. She leaned back into my hands.

"That feels good," she said and took off her hat and dropped her head forward to let me at her neck which was also in a big knot. I kept going until she said, "Thank you" and stood up. "Ready to go back?" she asked.

"Sure." If I expected any kind of reciprocity, that clearly wasn't going to happen. I reached for the binoculars, planning to see what Pick and Tanya were doing now but Laura quickly stuffed the binoculars in her pack. She headed down the hill and I followed her.

Excerpted from THE DINOSAUR HUNTER © Copyright 2010 by Homer Hickam. Reprinted with permission by Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved.

The Dinosaur Hunter
by by Homer Hickam

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 125000196X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250001962