Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Fall 1999, Volume 17.1



James Barbour photo of James Barbour.

Rare Earth

—Especially for Mary  

James Barbour received his M.F.A. in Creative writing from Arizona State University in 1989. His work has previously appeared in
Weber Studies. "Rare Earth" is part of his as yet unpublished short story collection, Categories of Refusal. He has new work forthcoming in The River Review/LaRevue riviere, and Passages North
See other work by James Barbour published in Weber Studies: Vol. 13.2Vol. 15.2, and Vol. 22.2.


The August camp is pitched at the toe of the Rockies, where Montana's badlands begin. Helena is an hour's drive, so when it rains, or people get tired of each other, they can get away and not sulk, or drink too much. But dry weather is a safe bet in summer; there's been good digging since May.

At their latest site, Tom Bass, the chief archeologist, explains why he's going to cut through a thick layer of rock without excavating it. Mary Goddard seethes as Tom's rationalizations unwind. Don't get personal, she thinks, be professional, but at last she can't listen anymore.

"—This is vandalism."

"Get in the real, Mary," Tom says. "We aren't in a museum."

"Fine, then use dynamite. That'll speed things up."

Tom Bass stalks down the slope, his cowboy boots leaving exclamation points in the dust. On the ridge the work stops. The few diggers who've stuck out the whole season watch Tom stomp toward camp, then they turn and look at Mary.

Mary Goddard flips the hair out of her eyes. She throws a bucket of tailings from the dig onto the sifting screen, shakes it hard, then picks through the fragments of rock on the wire mesh. Her long hair comes undone and tumbles around her face, the ends sweat-damp. Mary thinks Tom's rashness is as much the enemy as weather, rock-hunters, or lack of funding, and he's in a big hurry. Tom's an ex-cowboy, and sometimes he wants to dig as if he were running a cattle drive—cut `em out, dig `em up, ship `em home. Mary's approach is gentler.

"…But that's a fossil-bearing deposit," Mary said, when he'd first mentioned digging through the fossil bed. She thought he was joking.

"It will take fifteen or sixteen days' work to excavate," Tom said.


"T. Rex is in there."

"It's waited millions of years. What's a couple more weeks?"

"He wants out, Mary," Tom said. Mary looked at Tom. Why did I bother, she thought.

"You're the boss," Mary had said. But they'd argued anyway.

The morning sun is hot on her neck, as Mary sifts the overburden away from pink sandstone and speckled igneous rock, looking for fossilized bone fragments the color of charcoal or broken beer bottles. Mary enjoys seeing new specimens come out of the ground, but finding them is hard work, and it isn't fast. Sometimes she thinks about her past as if it were an artifact too. Mary wonders how long she can keep working with Tom. She finds a chunk of the chalk-yellow limestone from the bed Tom wants to demolish. It's studded with bone fragments.

When Mary returns to the dig, Ben Atherton, the site manager, is straddling a jackhammer. The compressor comes up to pressure, then the chisel head bites into the ridge capstone; a discordant city sound pounding the Montana air. The limestone vibrates and rock chips dust Atherton, sticking in his beard and on his sweatshirt. Mary has to smile. Back in the seventies, Ben gave up surfing to dig dinosaurs. She went to graduate school with Ben when he still swam laps every day. Now his belly vibrates from the pounding. Ben's the master of any machine, and no one is as good at managing a dig. Lots of excavations are after him. But Ben's no deep thinker; he's Mary's opposite in many ways, and Tom Bass' complement. They've all worked summers together for the past four years.

Mary has slept with both men, at different times, but now her involvement is purely professional. She thinks there ought to be rules for working a dig. Number one would be you never rip through a stratum without excavating it, closely followed by the rule about digging with an ex-boyfriend. Or two of them.

Ben is taking a break when Mary climbs the ridge.

"Pleased with yourself?" she asks. Ben shrugs. Limestone chunks are strewn across the ridge, like broken concrete from a bombed-out building. Diggers cart the rock downslope to the tailings dump. The ridge is almost a foot lower than it was two hours ago.

Ben spits the dust out of his teeth. "I can see Tom's point. I can see yours," he says.

"There are fossils in this rock," Mary says, showing him the specimen she's found.

"Yeah, but what's Tom supposed to do? It's late in the season, and he needs something to show for this year's work."

"There's no guarantee that T. Rex is down there."

"None at all," Ben says, pulling a bandanna over half his face.

"Tell you what," Mary says, "leave the south end of this deposit intact. I'll excavate it."

"I'll put a crew on it."

"Want to do it myself."

"Tom OK that?"

"You're the site manager. Assign it to me."

"I don't know, Mary," Ben says, flipping the pressure switch on his jackhammer.

"Look, you guys have always said I'm one third of this outfit. OK, I want one third."

Ben doesn't say anything as he tugs his bandanna into place, but then he nods.

Sometimes at a dig the attitudes are as old as the bones. Mary isn't the only woman in camp. Three awestruck grad students watch her every move. She's tired of being a role model, but they're a relief from the interchangeably-named girlfriends who tag after Tom's grungy museum assistants. Mary's not as famous as Tom Bass, nor as sought-after as Ben Atherton, but she knows her stuff. But too often, when she's working, one of the men laughs at the wrong time. Pick, pick, pick, there's always something.

Right after lunch, the diggers make the long climb to the ridge. Mary's the first back at work, everyone else is still griping as they buckle on their carpet-layers' knee pads. She brushes the overburden of dirt away from the Cretaceous stone she's saved. Tom plays hide-and-seek with T. Rex down the slope where his horizon of sandstone breaks out of the ground. He watches Mary excavating her area, but doesn't say anything.

"What's so special about that deposition?" Mary asks, still steaming from the morning.

"Just got the right feel," Tom says, probing the sandstone. "Kind of place you'd run into a T. Rex. They're always alone."

Yeah, right, rugged individualists, Mary thinks. She makes careful taps into the limestone with a chisel, and is rewarded when a chip breaks off, exposing a dark smear running counter to the grain of the rock: a fossil, maybe a rib, or part of a femur, a big one, but not from a T. Rex. Mary begins to work around it. The rock is bright in the sun, and very hard. She blinks sweat all day.

The next morning Mary unzips the opening to her tent. She hears someone open the pull-tab of a can.

"Are we still out of water?" she asks, pulling on her jeans.

"Lord, Mary," Ben Atherton says, taking a swig of Olympia, "you wake up a mess." He's sitting on three cases of canned beer. Other stacked cases approximate tables and chairs in his open-sided tent.

"Look who's talking," Mary says. She went to field camp with Ben. After two months of climbing up and down red rock by day, and gargling wonder punch at night, they'd shared everything two young people away from home for the summer could share.

"Wagon came yesterday. I'm still conserving," Ben says, opening a clasp knife. He cuts the top off the beer can, then squeezes tooth paste onto his toothbrush. Mary watches as he rinses his brush with the beer.

"Get in late?" Ben asks through a mouth-full of toothbrush and Oly.

"I was helping Tom go through the new stuff." Like it's any of your business, Mary thinks.

"Small camp," Ben says.

"Thanks dad, next time I'll call," Mary says. She looks at the sudsy can of beer. "Why don't you shave," she says, sticking her toothbrush in her pocket. That's a joke. She can't imagine Ben Atherton looking like anything but a sheepdog in a baseball hat.

Mary grabs her only clean towel, then goes to look for some bottled water. She passes a hill of crushed empties. The tally for eleven weeks' work is sixty cases. They'd easily break last year's total in a few weeks.

The real, Mary thinks as she walks.

Everyone in camp is limited to one shower every other day. Mary bathes, the sky wide above the canvas stall, dawn like a John Ford movie. She towels off, thinking that for a few hours at least her skin won't feel sticky. They've salvaged a wash stand from an abandoned shack. While she brushes her teeth, Mary sees the damage the sun has worked on her face in the stand's broken mirror, and laughs about it with the other girls. They all growl like bears; grizzlies are supposed to be thicker than muggers around the Museum of Natural History, but they haven't seen any this season.

At not quite seven o'clock, Mary stands in front of the cook tent. It looks like it came from a safari movie, and smells of mildewed canvas and Army surplus powdered eggs; real appetite killers. Other diggers line up with their paper plates. The coffee is fresh, and cereal is safe.

Mary sees Tom working in his tent. He's got a Coleman lamp going, as he searches the new specimens for T. Rex.

"Any luck?" Mary asks. She puts her coffee cup down on his work table. Tom's eyes are red. He must have worked all night.

"Not yet," Tom says, "lots of herbivores. Signs of your friend deinonychus."

Mary crunches her Lucky Charms, pushing the marshmallow shamrocks to the side of her bowl. "Is your grant dependent on finding a tyrannosaur?" she asks.

"The Washington folks want something for their money," he says.

"You've promised?"

"Hinted. Come a long way from the first season. We need the money."

"You need the money," Mary says. It's his dig, and while everyone will share in the discovery, Tom's museum keeps the fossils.

Tom Bass doesn't say anything. Mary knows how Tom uses silence, knows from their days together, before he was famous, and she became a school teacher. His quiets are his best arguments. She finishes her cereal and coffee.

Boss Skerritt, the owner of the ranch land they're digging, sits on the hood of his jeep, sharing a beer with Ben Atherton. Skerritt owns several thousand acres of Teton county.

"Lot of damn trouble for a bunch of rocks," he says, kicking his long legs into space. That anyone would want to dig up the badlands is one of his continuing sources of amusement.

"I s'pose," Ben Atherton says with a big smile.

Mary's other friends from school excavate roadbeds in the path of advancing freeways, or are police pathologists. She's received baby pictures in the mail. Mary is a teacher at a community college for the nine and a half months she isn't digging. Her subject is natural science, but she squeezes in as much paleontology as she can. She's taught four years.

When Tom Bass first invited her to dig, Mary couldn't wait to get in the field. She wanted to roll in the sagebrush and scrape the school off. Mary was sick to death of explaining and re-explaining, tired of watching kids chew bubble-gum.

"It's just a stepping stone," Tom Bass said, picking dirt away from a tibia.

"Blow that steam off, babe," Ben Atherton said, not taking his eyes out of a trench that was three inches into the late Jurassic.

Funny thing was, by the end of the digging season, Mary missed her job.

The second year at the C.C., she was up for contract renewal. Mary said that she didn't care if they rehired her or not. But the night before they made the decisions, she couldn't get to sleep.

She was renewed without a dissenting vote.

"What about saving your money and coming up for a whole year?" Tom Bass said, long distance from his museum basement in Missoula. "—Wasn't that the plan?"

Conversations with ex-boyfriends I have had, Mary thought. "But I've got insurance!" she said. She heard one of Tom's cowboy silences, no less forceful for coming through AT&T.

"That's just stuff," Tom said at last.

"Sometimes stuff's important," Mary said, and hung up.

When Tom called in late April, Mary went north anyway.

This spring, Mary had dreaded the phone call she knew was coming. She wondered what she would say. When Tom called, all new locations, and grant money, he was half an hour working his way around to an invitation.

"Come on Mary, time to get back to the real," he said.

She tried a long silence on Tom.

"How's about it?" he asked after what seemed like a geological age.

"I published an article," she said.

"I read it, hon," Tom said.

She wanted to ask him what he thought. God, how she wanted to. Mary also knew that as soon as she did, she was committing to another season. Mary thought about her other options, weighing them against the dirt, the thought of camping out for two months. Tom Bass kept waiting.

Mary arrived a week late, just to make them sweat a little.

Off US 89, she passed two bear warning signs, as per instructions, and saw both Ben and Tom waiting at a turnoff. They knew her truck, and waved as she rolled down the dirt road. We'll see who's for real now, she thought. Mary stopped, and unrolled the window.

"What did you think of my article?" she asked, dust kicking up like the cavalry.

"You've cut your hair," they said.

She gripped the wheel hard, then pounded the horn. Ben and Tom both jumped.

In a week Mary excavated several square meters, exposing a jumble of bones, apparently several animals. Her excitement built with every scrape of her tools. From the claw and skull she's uncovered, Mary could tell they were deinonychus, a medium-sized early Cretaceous carnivore with a major attitude, that may have had a social structure, like a pack. Fragments of them kept turning up in the sifting screen, so Mary knew they were around.

Mary leans back from her work. The bones jut out of the rock, dark colored streaks sinking into the lighter matrix of the limestone. For scale, Mary sets a metric ruler next to a fossilized mandible.

"Ben," she shouts, "I'm ready for a picture."

Tom works a hundred yards away, his workers clustering around his battered Resistol hat.

"What'cha got here, Mare," Ben Atherton says. Mary creaks to her feet, her knees popping. She points to each of the specimens. Ben sets up a camera tripod, mounts the camera, then focuses it on the bones. "Love it, babe, just love it," he says.

Mary marks her excavation log, then begins to sketch the bones on graph paper. She doesn't record the find in the master excavation log.

"Gotta wonder why they didn't last," Ben muses, refocusing the camera.

"150 million years isn't so bad," Mary says. "How long have we been here?"

"Us?" Ben says, then sighs, looking across the landscape, "seems like forever." Ben winds the film in his camera. "Longer than you and I made it."

Mary looks down the slope. Everyone is out of earshot.

"You still sweet on Tom?" Ben asks, then snaps another picture.

"I'm sweet on both of you," Mary says, "But I'm worried about Tom."

"He is for sure getting rock happy," Ben says, capping the lens of his camera.

They hear a whoop from down the ridge, where Tom and the others are working. They wave for Ben to bring the camera. He hurries to their dig, and sets up, as the workers back out of his light. Ben drops the measuring chain, and adjusts the thirty-five millimeter's focus. Behind him, Tom Bass shifts from one leg to the other.

Mary watches and brushes off her jeans. "Is it T. Rex?" she calls.

Shoulders slump among the circle of watchers. Ben reverses his baseball hat and puts his eye to the viewfinder.

"False alarm, babe," Ben says, taking the picture. Tom Bass slaps his knee pads.

Mary looks towards the road and sees Boss Skerritt's jeep bounce along the potholes. She can almost hear him laughing.

Mary Goddard wakes before five. She hears thunder. Rain means no digging, but she's on to a good find, and hasn't yet protected it with plaster. She struggles into her clothes. It's gray twilight outside, dawn a half hour beyond the horizon still, but when the lightning flashes green for an instant, she sees the roots of the mountains, clouds above, with rain slipping out of the foothills. She takes a plastic bag from one of the work tables and climbs the ridge.

Tom is sitting near the dig. Mary laughs when she sees him.

"Little early for work," he says at last, smiling his embarrassed smile. He stands up, stretching his legs.

Mary lays the plastic across her fossils, anchoring it with loose stones. "Weather coming in," she says, the wind whipping through her dark hair. She folds her arms; it's cold on the bare ridge. She wishes she'd brushed her teeth.

"We'll lose a day," Tom says, like his dog has died.

Mary looks at the clouds spilling down from the mountains. What's there to say, you can't fight rain. "Uh huh," she agrees.

"Still pissed-off?"


"Walk with me?"

"Yeah, OK."

Beyond the ridge are a series of gullies, all springing off the main spur, like bites in a long sandwich. They climb down the slope, then the ground rises and they follow the crest line. Tom's eyes scan the surface for fossils; Mary watches for rattlers. They're winded, as they survey the ground they've covered.

"Looks like the Gobi," Tom says. "What'd we use to say? `We'll dig the Gobi, and do it right this time?'"

"Ben did dig the Gobi," Mary says. "And Omo Basin, and Ischigualiasto. I've got the postcards."

"Look," Tom says. The light is faint, then lighting flashes, and they see long stripes of yellow, and pink rock, unfurling through the gullies. Thunder and sage resonate. She sniffs the warm smell of rain, and tangy wet pine needles. Mary feels small. "I could follow that limestone across the county," Tom says.

"Reminds me of sex," Mary says.


"Sex gets you birth, gets bones, gets rocks. No sex, no rocks.

"Must've been some make-out," Tom says, laughing like a rustler.

"In class, once, I reduced a chicken bone with hydrochloric acid. It didn't connect with my students, so I dropped a piece of chalk into the beaker. They could tell it was the same stuff, and their eyes got real big. Gave them a little respect for chalk dust."

"Cool," Tom says.

Thunder crackles, and ozone is a stinging taste in the air. Tom laughs again. Mary looks at him, thumbs hitched in his jean's pockets, his cocky bad-boy stance, and she feels herself slipping. Tom looks at her, smiling his rare smile, and she's gone. She steps into Tom and digs her hands into his back pockets. Tom's never been slow to catch on. He drops his hat on the ground, then slips his arms around her and sinks to the ground.

There is a coherence to her love for cowboys and dinosaurs. They both are relics, and need careful handling. As he bucks his hips against her, panting "Darlin', darlin'," Mary pictures two coupling deinonychus. Mary knows even Tom wouldn't appreciate being compared to a dinosaur. She imagines their tails whipping back and forth, leg talons tearing thin, red-colored Cretaceous dirt. A raindrop falls startling on her cheek. Tom laughs in her ear, then shudders, settling on her, heavy as overburden, hairy, sweating and warm. Love-making is such a mammal thing. She's wondered if dinosaurs knew pleasure. Did their jaws gape; their claws spasmodically close, or was mating—she can hardly think of it as love-making—purely an instinct. There's only so much Mary can guess from looking at bones.

Tom kisses her neck, his arms brackets beside her face. His chin is like sandstone, and he's started to have bald patches on his head.

"What brought that on?" he asks.

Mary smiles and shakes her head. Fossils have no gratitude, and sometimes neither does Tom. She gets up, pulling her clothes on and trying to brush away the dirt that's ground into her jeans and jacket. The rain drops are falling in deuces and treys. Tom dusts off her seat. She stops his hand; he dodges her eyes.

"Better hustle," he says. They march out of the washes. The sun is behind them, just a few minutes above the horizon, throwing their shadows ahead across the yellow grass.

"Can you imagine a female Tyrannosaurus Rex?" Mary asks, when they're out of the rough ground. "You always call them `he.'"

"It is hard to picture one," Tom says, after thinking for a step.

"Funny, huh?" She'd like to pull his ear and whisper "funny" into it for an hour. But you can't do that with Tom; it's one of his major failings.

As they trudge into camp, Ben's sitting on his stack of beer cases watching the clouds. He sees them walking together, smiles a little, nods, and smiles again.

"It's not what you think," Mary whispers to Ben as she climbs into her tent. But he knows she's lying.

Ben hangs a sign on the cook tent: "Work rained out." After a second he adds "Enjoy."

The rain makes the ground hiss; drops track down the sides of her tent. In her sleeping bag, Mary feels tiredness in all her joints. As she closes her eyes, it seems as if she's slipping into the earth itself, past the A through C layers, then lower into the jumbled D to H range, pebble-choked, with conglomerates like caramel corn. Finally she passes into the K and L stratums, beach depositions, rich with ancient fossils. Bones appear whole and white, not as they are in the field. They mock her as she tries to identify them. She goes deeper and deeper, and the rock beds swirl.

It's past eleven when Mary wakes up. She has a look at her rocks, and waits for the ground to dry.

Ben's solution to all camp problems is to have a barbecue, so he's brought back a big buffalo roast wrapped in white paper. He digs a pit, filling it with mesquite charcoal, then tamps a wrought iron rotisserie into the ground. Ben catches one of Tom's workers, and together they push the shank through the meat. There's a suggestion of white at the edges of the coals as they hoist the roast onto the two supports. He brings the kid an ice chest full of beer, and shows him how fast to turn the crank. Ben wipes his forehead, pink blood in the cracks of his hands.

"You let this meat burn, I'll cut your balls off," he says.

As evening is beginning to fall, Boss Skerritt arrives, the back seat of his jeep full of watermelons. Ben puts a beer in his hand and invites him to stay. Both men pull the meat off the supports, swearing when they burn themselves. Boss Skerritt clangs a triangle, then sharpens a large carving knife with a steel.

"Wait a minute, try these," Ben says, rattling a box. He passes out obsidian knives to the dig workers. The dig members tear into the food, laughing when the stone knives slip out of their greasy fingers. Dark's arrived with that suddenness of the high plains. Tom Bass builds up the fire.

The meat is sweeter than beef, powdered with mesquite ash. Mary eats her fill quickly. She watches the red-lit faces around the fire. Skerritt's brought a guitar, and launches into a series of hokey cowboy tunes, then recites "The Ballad of Sam Magee." Ben counters with the Beachboys. Around the fire couples have paired up, sinking back into the darkness. The beer's taken hold of the boys, who laugh locker-room laughs. Tom Bass sits apart, a can of beer suspended between his fingers. Mary sees the firelight in his eyes, and how the lines have grown deeper in his face. Tom is watching her, a look that would be beseeching, on any other face.

He wants me to stay this year, Mary thinks. It's what he's wanted all along.

She knows she's not going to.

After nine o'clock, Ben walks to his tent, and returns with a big drum. Drums, that's what was missing, Mary thinks. Things are getting too hairy-chested. She gets up to leave.

"Evening, little lady," Skerritt says. In the firelight Mary sees some of the cowboy he was thirty years before.

"That's a great Rex Allen impression," she says. Tom shoots her a look; you don't piss-off the host of a dig site.

"Yeah, knew old Rex before he went Hollywood," Skerritt says. "He was more hat than cattle."

Here's another dinosaur we could excavate, Mary thinks. As she walks out of the fire's circle of light, one of the boys makes a joke. Pick, pick, pick, she thinks.

The moon silvers the rises of broken ground beyond the camp until they shine like molars. Mary starts climbing the ridge. The fire is a bright red heart in the night, with a drum for a pulse. There's no other light except the moon and the clamorous stars for as far as Mary can see.

A bear rests on the ridge, seeming to rise right out of her dig. It's only a hundred feet away. Mary freezes. It's a grizzly, its great bulk eclipsed in the shadow of its head and shoulders.

Mary urgently needs to pee. Everything she knows about grizzlies runs a fast lap through her memory, and the only thing that stands still is that they're fast, omnivorous, and take a lot of killing.

The grizzly rises to its hind legs. Its snout turns from side to side, sampling the air.

Let me be down wind, Mary thinks.

She waits, as a white cloud drifts through the night sky. She feels a breeze brush her cheek, carrying her scent away. The bear drops to all fours. Mary backs up, keeping her eyes on the bear, careful not to crush the sagebrush.

Mary hears the drum. So does the bear. She's almost off the ridge, far enough to think about running. She looks up and sees the bear, gigantic against the bright-lit night. Then it disappears beyond the lip of the ridge. Mary sprints for camp.

Mary's breath rattles like pebbles on a dirt road. She's run in among the parked trucks, still a long way from the fire, but close enough to smell the smoke, and hear male laughter. Right now, that's almost as bad as the bear. Mary recognizes Ben's Dodge truck. A tent is no place to sleep with a grizzly wandering around. She climbs in, shutting the door quietly. She curls up on the seat, smelling Ben's sweat on the upholstery, reassured for the first time in her life by a rifle rack in the rear window of a pickup.

"You saw a bear," Tom Bass says.

"Yeah, last night," Mary says. She's stiff from sleeping in the truck. The other workers stand in a nervous semi-circle. Bears have stopped being a joke.

"And you didn't tell anyone?" Tom says, madder than she's ever seen him. "—Man, this is unreal."

"If I had, last night, you'd have gone out and tried something macho."

"Hey, Tom, everyone's Ok, so no harm done," Ben says, always the peace-maker. But even Ben is angry. Everyone is angry.

Skerritt drives into camp, and Ben and Tom talk with him. Soon Mary sees his jeep bounce across the range toward the mountains, the same direction the bear went. She was scared last night, but doesn't want to see the bear become a rug. The other good news is that the grant people have arrived. Tom escorts the administrators along the work tables.

"Great timing," Mary says, as she mixes plaster-of-paris. White strips of plaster-soaked burlap cover her fossils. Mary chips away the stone beneath them. The plaster looks like bandaides on the rock; it's exactly how she feels.

"Safari jackets, cellular phones, and briefcases," Ben says, after the meeting. "Sheesh."

"How does it look?" she asks. Ben just shakes his head.

They work without stopping for lunch. By mid-afternoon, their arms and faces are streaked with plaster, caking their hands, but they've preserved all of Mary's deinonychus fossils, freed them from the rock, and crated them in peace-surplus ammunition boxes. Ben picks plaster out of the hairs on his arms.

"What's your arrangement with Tom about taking these?"

Mary packs foam peanuts in a crate. "We haven't talked about it," she says.

"Tom could get shitty," Ben says. "According to the state, he's liable for anything that's missing. I don't want to leave a law suit."

"You're leaving?"

"Next week. Digging season starting in Chile."

Tom usually closes camp a week or two after Ben leaves. He's early this year. Mary brushes her hands off on her jeans, her back hurting worse than before.

"…What's the word, babe?"

"I'll be back," she says. Mary runs down the slope, and her foot lands wrong. She nearly trips, and tears jolt into her eyes. She tells herself to stop, that she's not the type to cry, then wipes her eyes with her shirtsleeve. Mary looks at the ridge and its hacked-up excavation. This time she hoped she'd find a prize that she didn't owe to Tom or Ben.

So who's the rustler now, she thinks.

The tailings dump is a ravine, close to the dig, that's now nearly full of the rock they've removed this season. Standing above the tip, Mary sees the different colors of sediment splay down the slope. Tom walks along the bottom of the dump, a geologist's pick-axe in hand, stopping to tap at a rock, a nodule of the limestone she excavated. It's so quiet Mary can hear the fragments scatter and rattle among the other discarded stones.

She walks back to camp without saying a word to Tom.

Ben's put her crated fossils in the bed of her pickup, and left her a mushy note.

The film of the excavation and plastic-covered drawings rest on the seat. You beachball, she thinks, smiling; Ben will never change. She loves him still, but outgrew him years ago. Mary walks to her tent and kicks the pegs out, packs her gear, and carries it back to her truck. Dust churns as she starts the engine, and the badly-balanced load shifts in the back. She drives to Tom's tent. Mary gets out and hauls out one of the boxes, swearing under her breath as she wrestles it in front of Tom's work table. Her back hurts like hell. She lies down in the truck bed and pushes the other two boxes with her legs, cursing seriously, then the box moves on its own. Mary looks up. Skerritt lifts the crate off the tailgate.

"Hey there," he says, looking like he's an advertisement for something clean and outdoorsy. She stands up.

"You leaving too?" Skerritt asks. Out of breath, Mary nods, her hands on her hips. Skerritt lifts the other crate off the truck, setting it neat with the others.

"Least you've got something to show for your work," Skerritt says, offering her a hand as she jumps down.

"Damn straight," Mary says. It comes out stronger-sounding than she wants. Skerritt just smiles. He's younger than she thought. She looks for his jeep, frightened that she'll see a dripping bear hide on the back seat.

"I look out for a lot of things, not just my cattle," Skerritt says, leaning on her truck, his hat tilted back. It's a look Tom used to have, all boots and blue jeans, before the grant people bought him. Skerritt glances at the ridge's torn-up crest, then at Mary. "You wouldn't have done that," he says.

"No, I wouldn't."

"My cattle live off the land. Way I figure it, rocks are part of the land, too." Mary looks at Skerritt close. He's getting around to what he's wanted to say. "Yup," she agrees.

"Could always tell that you were careful," Skerritt says, tapping the crates with his fingers. "These are rare things." He clears his throat, then resettles the hat on his head. "This yellow rock you've been digging is all over my place," he says, his eyes light and whimsical. "Come and talk to me about next year."

Well I'll be, Mary thinks. She sees Tom walking toward them. Skerritt turns to his jeep.

"Son," Skerritt says, nodding to Tom. Tom looks at Skerritt, Mary's truck, then the stacked packing crates.

"What's this?" he asks.

"Your grant money for next year," Mary says. "Deinonychus—at least three adults."

Mary hands him her sketches and film. For a second she thinks he's going to criticize her, as if they were back in the lab, or the night after a fight, but it's just a relationship flashback. Like the other day. Mary feels so gone it could be tomorrow.

"Mary, hon…" Tom begins, then stops. He's never been good with words, just the gaps between them.

"That real enough for you?" Mary asks, opening the door to her truck.

Driving out of camp she sees Skerritt again. He shouts "Next year" to her. She waves yes back to him, then beeps her truck's horn all the way to the turn-off.


Back to Top