Story Excerpt

Bonehunters

by Harry Turtledove

 

Junior and me, we got up into the Black Hills country and the Badlands not far away. Yes, thank you, I know that’s not the kind of place where you want to end up. What do you mean, how come I’m looking at you like you’re some kind of natural-hatched fool? How else am I supposed to look at somebody who’s a natural-hatched fool?

Tell you what you can do, though. You can buy me a drink, and you can buy one for Junior, too. That’ll go some ways to makin’ amends. Or you can try the two of us out in the alley and see how you fancy that. Maybe you’ll have more sense after we bite some chunks out of you so it can get in.

Ah, thank you kindly. Much obliged. See? You ain’t a great big fool, anyways.

What d’you mean, do I know Junior’s a native? He’s my hatchling. I’d cursed well better know. No, I didn’t spawn him. We can’t breed with the natives. Anybody who tells you we can is a gods-damned liar. Junior’s my hatchling anyway. He’s been with me since he was tiny. Neither one of us’d know what to do without the other now.

Have I got that straight, Junior, or am I wrong? There! You see, stranger? He feels the same way I do, and as long as he does it’s no consarned concern o’ yours a-tall.

What d’you mean, he talks all mushy? You ain’t been out West real long, have you? He can’t help the way he sounds. It comes from the way his mouth is shaped. You can’t make proper native noises, neither.

You wouldn’t care to? This here’s the West, pal. You may need to one fine day, and sooner than you reckon, too. You just never can tell.

And I’d be farther along in my story if you didn’t keep bangin’ your teeth. You want I should tell it or not? Oh, you do? Well, then, I will—long as you keep your biter shut, I will.

We were by the Black Hills, like I told you. This was in the days when there was still a native kingdom there. No, Junior’s not from them parts. We met up years and years ago, a good bit farther south. You got to understand, this was before they found there was gold in them thar hills. Nobody cared about the natives running things there, on account of nobody reckoned the land was worth anything.

Ever see the Badlands? They look the way your hide does after you get over rinderpest, all bumpy and wavy and slaggy. I heard one fella say they look like what would’ve happened if the gods beat some of the white of the World Egg into peaks and let ’em get hard out there. I mostly don’t hold with that kind of language my ownself, but it does get the notion across.

Or it would, except the Black Hills, they’re home to different gods. You’ll have seen the stereoscopes if you ain’t never been there yourself, am I right? Sure I am. Them great big heads, all sharp teeth and eyeballs, carved into the mountainside . . . Shingto and Fferso and Incol and Oosev, those’re their names. You better learn ’em, too, before you go into that country.

It’s impressive work. It’d be impressive for us, and we’ve got iron and steel and gunpowder. The natives, they used bronze and stones and lots of people and lots of time. Nobody knows how long ago they made ’em. Nobody knows how long it took, neither. The natives don’t remember, and we ain’t found out.

No, Junior and me, we didn’t go up there just to see the sights. You travel for the sake o’ sightseein’, you got to be rich. Do I look rich to you? Does Junior? Didn’t think so. We were there for whatever work we could find, hunting or herding or playing guide for hornface hunters after a trophy.

Wasn’t my first trip there. I’d been in those parts years before. I knew my way around pretty good—for a fella whose scales are green, anyways. The natives, what they can do, you wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it for yourself.

It’s like they were hatched there or somethin’, you say? Oh, you’re a regular cutup, you are. They gods-damned well were hatched there. No, don’t get your feathers all ruffled. You don’t make any more stupid jokes, and I won’t sit on ’em. How’s that for a bargain?

Suit you? All right, then. I’ll go on with my yarnin’. . . .

*   *   *

It was a daytenth before sundown when Junior and me, we came within hailing distance of Fort Ironclaw. Folks who’ve never been anyway near Fort Ironclaw call it the Gateway to the Black Hills. Anybody who’s ever seen it—soldier or traveler, don’t matter a pinfeather—calls it that horrible shithole plumb in the middle of nowhere.

Which it is. Soldiers don’t get sent to Fort Ironclaw on account of they’ve won a promotion. They get sent there to work off their sins from somewhere else.

Somebody in the fort winded a horn while we were still a long ways off. I couldn’t spy anyone on the stockade yet. Hells, I could hardly see the gods-damned stockade. The sentry, he must’ve had hisself a spyglass with some juice in the tube.

We kept walking. Heads popped up on the stockade when I got close enough to make ’em out. You may have been a busted egg to get exiled to Fort Ironclaw, but you don’t dare stay sleepy once you wash up there. The natives would’ve liked nothing better than to swarm over the fort, and everybody in there knew it.

One of the sergeants bellowed at us through a big leather loudhailer: “Who comes?”

I didn’t have a loudhailer. What kind of use’d I have for one? I cupped my hands in front of my snout and hollered back: “Rekek and Junior. Don’t you recognize us, Snegor? I sure know your voice.”

“Keep on comin’. We won’t shoot you yet,” Snegor said, as full of himself as any sergeant ever hatched.

“They’re itchy about me,” Junior said quietly. You can follow him fine once you get used to how he talks. Wasn’t anybody ever gonna be more used to it than me.

“You hush. Long as you’re with me, everything’s jake,” I told him. He’s a native, of course. Anybody can see that, and hear it. But, like I say, he’s been with me since he was fresh out of the egg. No matter that his hide’s brown and he’s got feathers in funny places. No matter that he talks a little strange. He makes better people than most ordinary folks I know.

If you don’t know him, though, he just looks like a native. At the edge of the Badlands, that’s plenty to make soldiers hop and scratch.

We were inside easy rifle range when Sergeant Snegor picked up the loudhailer again. By then, I could spot the soldier with the spyglass. Reckon he could count my feathers, and Junior’s, if he was so inclined.

“You are who you say you are,” Snegor allowed. He sounded as if admitting it pained him, but admit it he did. Somebody else up there said something to him; I couldn’t make out what. Snegor went on, “Feel like hiring out for some guiding?”

“Mebbe,” I answered. You never want to sound eager, especially when you are. Lean times lately. “Might depend on who wants to pay me to do it. Will depend on where he wants me to guide him to.”

“His name’s Otnil. He’s a perfesser, from one o’ them fancy schools back East,” Snegor said. “He’s after old bones, if you can believe it. Anybody wants to know what I think, he’s crazy as a bedtick, but who the hells wants to know what I think?”

He was shouting this, y’understand, through that big old loudhailer of his. I could hear him. Junior could hear him. If any natives were close by in the Badlands, they could hear him. And for sure everybody inside Fort Ironclaw could hear him, including Professor Otnil. Well, Snegor never was the brightest candle in the chandelier.

“I’ll talk with him. See what he wants. See what he pays,” I said. I’d heard of these bonehunters before, but I’d never met up with one. They get as excited about the old skulls and teeth and things that weather out of the sides of bluffs and creekbeds as regular folks would over gold and silver. Maybe crazy as a bedtick wasn’t so far wrong after all.

By then, Junior and me had come up to the ditch around the fort. It was dry; you don’t get a whole bunch of rain in those parts. But it was deep, and it was full of pikes pointing straight up. Natives attacking the fort couldn’t jump down in there and commence to undermining the stockade.

I sat back on my tail and looked up at Snegor. “Well? You gonna let us in so’s we can palaver with your perfesser?”

“Oh. Right.” Yeah, Snegor was dim. He started bawling orders. The drawbridge creaked down. Inside the fort, a squad of riflemen stood ready in case a swarm of riled-up natives tried following Junior and me. But it was just the two of us. Our toeclaws clicked on the sun-faded planks when we walked over the bridge. Soon as we got inside, more soldiers started hauling it up again.

Of course the flag flew over the fort. Soon as we got inside, Junior and me, we both set our left hands on our snouts for a heartbeat or two to show our respect. Wasn’t any breeze to speak of; the red and green stripes hung limp against the pole. But that flag flew everywhere from sea to salty sea, except for a few little places where the natives still hung on. It deserved respect, by the gods.

I looked at things that way, anyhow. If Junior felt any different, he kept his trap shut about it.

*   *   *

Sergeant Snegor took me to Lieutenant Diffi. Diffi also knew me; he took me to Captain Jawj. Jawj kinda hissed when he saw me. He knew me, too; he did that with everybody. He hated the whole gods-damned world, Jawj did. He’d been a colonel in charge of a couple of brigades in the big war back East. When the war ended, so did his fancy rank. He was lucky to wind up in charge of a dusty little fort at the edge of the Badlands instead o’ counting cannon balls and coils of rope somewhere.

He understood that as well as anybody could. Only he didn’t reckon it was the good kind of luck.

“You’ll show crazy Otnil where the bones are at?” He sounded sour as an esrog. He mostly did. A lot of officers, if that happened to them, they’d drink and drink and never stop. Not Jawj. He never touched the stuff. I got to say, stayin’ sober didn’t improve him none.

“That’s right, Longfeather,” I said. Longfeather was what the natives called him in their language. His crest really did stand up when he was in a temper, and he was most of the time. I went on, “I will if he pays me decent, anyways, and if he treats Junior good.”

Jawj looked at Junior like he was measuring him for a pyre. He had no use for natives, Jawj. Junior could see that. He looked back at Jawj the same way. Junior don’t back away from nobody; it ain’t in him.

Jawj snarled something under his breath. He gestured to Lieutenant Diffi. “Take him to the crazy huzzard,” he said. “Take ’em both. Get ’em the hells out of my sight.”

“I’ll do it, Captain.” Diffi saluted. Being a soldier means taking guff no freeman’d ever put up with if the fella dealing it out didn’t outrank him. I don’t know what a lieutenant’s pay is. Not as much as Diffi deserved—you can bet on that.

He took us to the officers’ quarters. That’s where they’d stashed Otnil and the rest of the diggers. One of the junior smart boys looked up from the dice game they had going and said, “He isn’t here. He’s over in the stables, checkin’ on that drosaw with the sore arm.”

“Over to the stables, then,” Diffi said, and over to the stables we went.

Along the way, I asked him, “This here Otnil—he’s a drosaw doc, too?”

“He fancies that he is,” Diffi answered, and bit down on whatever he was going to say after that.

Stables smell funny, like drosaws and like drosaw shit, which smells a bit like the critters it comes out of but more like moldy, rotten grass and leaves. Not near so sharp a stink as from what comes out of my cloaca. But people eat meat, mostly. Our droppings smell like what raptors and rannos leave behind. I am glad we use flags instead of piles of poop to mark our territory, I will say.

First time I set eyes on him, Otnil was poking and prodding at a cut on a drosaw’s arm. The duckbill didn’t like it much. They’re skittish around people; they can smell that we eat ’em. If this one lashed out with its tail, it could send Otnil into the planks of the stall wall, or maybe through ’em.

The perfesser wasn’t tall or strong, but he had hisself a big, round head. Folks who say they can tell what you are by the bumps on your skull would’ve had a tough time with him, on account of he had no bumps to speak of. A lot of brains, though, leastways if you went by what was wrapped around ’em.

“Professor Otnil? . . . Professor Otnil?” Diffi sounded more respectful than he did talking with Captain Jawj. Otnil went on poking at the drosaw till he finally noticed somebody was trying to get through to him. When he did, Diffi went on, “Professor, this here is Rekek. He knows his way around these parts, Rekek does. If you’re after bones, he can point you at ’em.”

Otnil focused on me. It was almost like being looked at through a magnifying glass, he stared so hard. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Master Rekek,” he said and held out his left hand. It had drosaw blood and maybe pus on it, but I ain’t fussy. I clasped with him. He had a fair grip for a little fella, he did. Then he dipped his head toward Junior and asked, “Who’s your colleague?”

A lot of ordinary people, they pretend not to notice natives unless they can’t help it. I liked Otnil better on account of he wasn’t like that. “This here’s Junior. He’s my stepson. Been with me near as long as he’s been out of the egg,” I said, and I bet I sounded as proud as if he was my own spawn.

“Rekek Junior, I am pleased to meet you, too,” Otnil said, and crack my shell if he didn’t clasp with him same as he did with me. I didn’t know then that Otnil made a point of getting on with the natives. They aren’t our kind, he’d say, but that doesn’t make them knaves or hatchlings. He’s right, too. If only more people believed it.

“Pleased to meet you, Professor,” Junior said. I raised him to be polite.

The perfesser had no trouble with how he talked; he must’ve heard the like often enough before to get used to it. He asked, “How much do you know about the paleontological past of this part of the country?”

“About the what?” Junior and me, we said it in chorus, like. You asked me, I would’ve guessed Otnil stole a word from some native language nobody talks any more. I would’ve been wrong, but I didn’t know that then.

“About its ancient past, as revealed in fossils and other traces,” Otnil said grandly. He had a way of talking, all right, the perfesser did.

“I can find you old bones, where they weather out of bluffs and banks and things,” I said. “This is about the first time I ever heard they was worth even as much as a crap on the ocean, though.”

“Is it? Is it?” The perfesser swung my way. When he stared at me, his pupils went from slits to circles so big and black that they filled up his eyeballs and swallowed all the yellow there. I set myself, on account of I was afeared he’d jump on me and commence to chawing. But he didn’t—quite. In a low, deadly voice, he asked me, “You haven’t been hanging around with that scoundrel of a Trinka, have you?”

“Don’t reckon I ever met or even heard of anybody by that name,” I answered. Junior dipped his head to show he hadn’t, either. “Who is the nasty little son of a mammal, anyways?”

Well, I made Otnil laugh, gods damn me if I didn’t. I didn’t know then how hard that was. He answered, “Trinka fancies himself a paleontologist, too, the ignorant, arrogant . . . son of a mammal’s a good name for him, Rekek. He’s so sneaky, he’d grow hair if only he could. He and his band of bone thieves prowl around spots where I’ve been digging, looking to steal what they can and describe it in print before I’m able to. But he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does, and you can count on that.”

Wonder what Trinka’d say about you, I thought, but I had too much sense to come out with it. Instead, I said, “What do you know?” That’s safe enough most any time.

Not in that stable. Straightaway, Otnil answered, “I know for a fact that he mounted an ancient plessy skull at the end of the creature’s tail instead of on its neck. I know because I saw him do it with my own two eyes.”

“How about that?” I tried for another safe play. Still plessies in the ocean to this day. They look like snakes that swallowed a giant dinner plate and then grew paddles on it. People hunt ’em same as they hunt mossies, for the fine oil and meat they yield. But they’re dangerous critters. Sometimes folks kill them, and sometimes they kill folks.

“So you see he is a blowhard, an ignoramus, a fraud who does not deserve to come within miles of important fossils,” Otnil said.

I wondered what Trinka’d say about that, too. But Trinka wouldn’t be paying the freight for Junior and me. Otnil would. Which reminded me . . . “What kind of wages you aim to give us, Professor?”

He named a number. It wasn’t a great big number. Otnil, he had money. He just didn’t fancy parting with it. I must’ve looked unhappy, ’cause he said, “And a bonus for every fossiliferous site you and Junior lead us to. If you find me fine fossils, I shall be generous. By the World Egg, I shall!”

Junior and me, we were Eggers, too. But Eggers can cheat just like anybody else. I oughta know. Still, I believed Otnil here. He sounded as crazy as a feller who falls tail over snout for some chorus girl with a fine rump and fancy feathers.

“Reckon we got ourselves a deal,” I said. “Only what’s that long word you used mean? Fossiliferous?” No, I wasn’t sure I was sayin’ it right.

“It means ‘fossil-bearing,’” he answered. “Take me where my associates and I can do some proper excavating.”

“The best places I know, they’re on native land. Will the king and his people be all right with you comin’ in?” I asked. The natives don’t like what you do, they’ll try their best to kill you and eat you. They ain’t cannibals; they never eat their own kind. They like the taste of us, though, when they can get it. We’ve made the price of that meat pretty gods-damned expensive.

Professor Otnil waved my worries off to one side. “Don’t you fret,” he said. “I don’t steal from natives, I don’t cheat them or rob them, and I’m not after gold. King Red Cloud knows that about me. He’s let me know he’ll let me work on his land.”

Our mouths don’t work for native words any better than theirs do for our lingo. Mostly, we just translate their names into regular talk, the way the perfesser did. Sometimes they sound funny, but at least you can wrap your tongue and teeth around ’em.

“Here’s hoping you’re right,” I said. “Junior and me’ll be puttin’ our necks on the block along with yours.” We clasped hands again. The deal was done. I hoped I wouldn’t be too sorry it was.

 

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Copyright © 2019. Bonehunters by Harry Turtledove

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