Excerpt from “Badhoof”

Excerpt from “Badhoof”

Tore Everson snapped a few pictures and noted the GPS coordinates. He reached back and pulled out a quart-sized plastic bag from his back pocket and scooped soil and rocks into it. Sealing the bag, he climbed out of the steep gully, pebbles tumbling back down with each step. At the top, he stood up straight and put his hands on his hips, catching his breath. The sunlight tilted from yellow to orange. The landscape: short grass, sagebrush and gentle swells of land cut by unseen networks of gullies. Within his sight, three outcrops of harder, older rock reached up from the high desert scrub.

He stretched his arms out. Looking at the barren, silent, arroyo scarred land he tried to hold the earth’s circumference and its layers beneath. At his feet, the earth was more sand than dirt and tinted red. Further down, sedimentary rock stacked by erosion of the Rocky Mountains and deposits from an ancient sea. Further still, the Gammon Shale Formation, smaller sister formation to the Bakken.

He turned around, scanning the landscape and spotted the jeep a half-mile away and walked. Along the way, a rock turned into a killdeer, tempting him with a broken wing display. He smiled and looked around for the chicks but saw nothing. Approaching the jeep he unhooked his tool belt holding a rock hammer, chisel, toothbrush, spray bottle, calipers, field notebook and GPS locator. He tossed everything in the back seat, pulled out a quart of water and took a long pull. It was still hot in the late afternoon and he was tired from hiking and kneeling and knocking rocks loose with the hammer. He leaned against the jeep, brushed the dust from his legs, unlaced a boot and emptied it. A few pebbles bounced out. He pulled out a mason jar from a small cardboard box, dumped the bag of sand and pebbles into it and screwed the lid on. Back in Missoula, jars from previous digs sat on a sagging shelf in his office. While writing or grading papers he would take one down from the shelf, twist off the lid, roll it around and try to recapture an echo of the smooth sky and the quiet land, the bulk of the earth and the day moon’s distance.

The Jeep started up, breaking the silence. Tore eased it onto the fire-trail and set off back to camp. He bumped along the twin ruts, dust lazily rising behind him. It was later than he anticipated, but there was enough time. Tore constantly braked and snapped the wheel to navigate dips and cuts in the trail which snaked around the networks of gullies and cuts. The water-flow system started as shallow indentations in the soil, growing and combining into gullies ten feet deep with steep walls. Four years ago he and two graduate students spent hours digging out their truck after a storm washed out a trail. Easy to miss such dangers at night.

A couple miles along the trail he noticed a drill rig far off to the left. He’d missed it on the way in that morning. The drill looked like a latticed steel obelisk, about seventy-five feet high. Surrounding the drill were trailers, storage sheds and trucks. He gripped the steering wheel tighter. In past years the drilling had been further north in the Bakken. He didn’t think shale oil extended this far south or if so, that there was profit in the effort.

It was dusk when he saw the RV and tents. A few yards away from the camp was an arroyo where the team was digging up a young Thescelosaurus.

Gloria and Jasmin waved as he cut the engine. Gloria, in her sixties, thin and spry, wore jeans and khaki top and red and farmers hat. Jasmin, one of Ben’s grad students, young, about five-six in t-shirt and jeans, her long jet black hair tucked under a baseball cap. He grabbed his equipment from the back seat and walked to the circle of chairs around the small fire pit and camping stove. George, Gloria’s husband, about six feet tall and a big belly, stepped out of the RV wearing a loud, flowery camp shirt. He turned on a string of white Christmas lights under the awning attached to the RV’s door. Randy, a graduate student in his early thirties, popped up out of the arroyo a few yards away. He was stocky with a blonde beard and dusty covered t-shirt and jeans.

Gloria mixed a salad in a big bowl at a folding table. Next to her was a cooler and six chairs set around a shallow fire pit and a gas camping stove that boiled a pot of water and pasta. Tore walked over and leaned on one of the chairs.

“How’d it go?” asked Gloria.

“Okay. I mean good. New site looks promising. How’d we do today?”

“We’re just about done. Maybe we’ll finish by midmorning?” said Jasmin, looking at Randy, who nodded in agreement.

“Great. I want to thank all of you. Its been a difficult, but successful dig already and there’s still eight days left.”

The dig had been mediocre and he could not afford mediocre at this point. He contemplated a theory that the Upper Midwest was picked over, scraped clean by intense people with rock hammers and laser focus over a century and a half. He sighed, knowing that wasn’t true. Every day new rock was exposed and there were always unseen cuts and rock faces. He scowled and rubbed his boot back and forth over the dirt.

“I’m going to check the site before it gets dark,” he said and walked away from the camp towards the arroyo.

Constant travel from the dig had worn a trail into the arroyo. They had been using a cut that was a less steep than the surrounding walls. Tore descended the side about fifteen feet, kicking up stones and dust along the way. He followed the wash for thirty yards or so. The walls tinted blue from creeping darkness.

Kristin, another graduate student, knelt beside the Thescelosaurus. Most of the skeleton was exposed and a tent erected above it. It had been an easy excavation so far. The body was lying almost parallel to the wall, so they didn’t have to remove much material above the fossil. Kristin, another graduate student, her long lanky frame sprawled out near the fossil, her head almost at the level of the bones. Alternating between a toothbrush and dental pick she etched away tiny amounts of the slightly softer rock surrounding the fossil.

“How’s it looking?” he said, lifting up a corner of the tent, examining the bones.

“Fine.”

Tore looked at the young dinosaur, its spine and neck arched and its one front arm stretched out like it was grasping something.

“Quiz time. What can we infer about the cause of death?”

“Not much, other than it didn’t die from a predator. The skeleton is too complete and intact. Bones look healthy, no evidense of disease. Maybe drowned in a flash flood or something and covered by debris.

“That sounds about right. You pass.”

He looked around at the sky and deep shadows.

“Let’s quit for the day. You can’t see anything,”

“Alright,”

“Think we can finish tomorrow?”

“I think so,” she said, groaning as she slowly stood up.

“You’ve done a good job on this.”

“I should hope so, its been easy so far.”

“I know. Let’s eat. It’ll be here tomorrow.”

“You always say that.”

“Its always true.”

They walked back through the wash and its banded walls and climbed up the cut to the top and back into the present.

Tore sat down in a folding camping chair and looked at the gas stove and boiling pasta. Gloria and George brought out a package of sausauges, cut them up and put them over a frying pan over the other burner of the stove, it was their turn tonight. Maybe Alberta next year, Tore thought, shifting the sand and gravel under his boots. Escavate shit fossils while surly oil rig workers looked over his shoulder and olged his female grad students. The five-year appointment was up. Stellar teaching evaluations, careful original analysis of existing fossils, reviews of others works, none of that equaled tenure. He needed something big, literally, to show the tenure committee next year, preferably with sharp teeth. Maybe a trip to Patagonia next year.

They ate dinner: pasta and sausages with either white or red sauce, adding a couple paper packets of salt and pepper. Night fell and black ate up the world beyond the circle of chairs.

“Excellent. Thank you to Gloria and George for a wonderful meal. I believe its your turn tomorrow night students.”

The students nodded.

“Weird how camp food always tastes so good,” said Randy.

“Because it makes us remember what it was like when every meal either a gift or spoils from a fight.”

“Probably because you usually expend a lot of calories in the ourdoors, hiking or whatever. You’re just really hungry. Any garbage will taste good. Like tonight.”

“Kristin,” Jasmin snapped. Tore leaned forward in his chair.

“What?” said Kristin.

Randy laughed and walked to his tent.

“Everything was wonderful,” said Jasmin to George and Gloria who sat unaffected.

Tore echoed the sentiment.

A few seconds later Randy emerged carrying a paper sack.

“When we were in town yesterday, I bought some supplies to help us celebrate the midpoint of the dig.”

He took out plastic shot glasses, a metal flask and pint of whisky. The group groaned. He pulled over a cooler, put a cooking pan on top. He pulled up the chair and poured shots of cheap whiskey and a dash of hot sauce.

“And on top a dash of 151.”

Everyone groaned and laughed nervously.

He lit the shots with a cigarette lighter, picked up the pan and held it aloft.

“These are Prairie Fires,” he blew out the shots and walked them around.

Jasmin protested but took one.

Kristina looked them over for a second and chose the tallest one.

Gloria gave a stern look to George. He glanced at her.

“Oh, screw it,” he said and took one. Gloria huffed and shook her head when offered.

“That’s cool, more for me,” said Randy.

Tore sighed and smiled. He took one and stood up.

“This is really more like high desert than prairie, Randy. But anyway, thank you all again for the effort and skill you’ve brought to this year’s dig. I’ve always said digging up dead bodies is more fun than burying them. Cheers!”

The group echoed the toast and they took their shots.

After a few minutes George and Gloria said good night and headed into the RV. The four remaining walked to the edge of the gully and laid under the clear, silent sky and passed the flask around.

“Flash floods come down these arroyos constantly exposing, then destroying fossils. A professor of mine wrote a book about the Badlands. And he said, ‘The fossils beneath us, eroding every moment from wind and water. Their secrets only available a brief time before eroding away into final death. Their truths and mysteries offered by wind and water then taken just as quickly. The Badlands are an ocean with its dead suspended beneath.'”

“That’s lovely,” said Jasmin.

“Question to the group: why are you here?” said Ben

“For the babes,” said Randy.

They laughed, then there was a silence.

“Sometimes,” Jasmin said beginning in a whisper, “I look at the unwanted cats and dogs up for adoption and the headlines with numbers of dead and I slip into the infinite suffering of the world. And I need a break, so I dig and scrape and preserve and reconstruct creatures and tell their broken stories.”

“Well said,” said Ben.

“Its very Zen, digging.” said Kristin “looking at rocks all day then finding one that’s interesting and feeling out the differing gradients with a hammer and chisel, like a paint by numbers statue. My mind quiets and I’m focused on a goal with lots of repetitive, careful movements.”

“I know this is very immature,” said Randy. “but I just want to find the biggest carnivore ever. I want it to be five stories high and three feet dagger teeth and tentacles and it died with a whole brontosaurs in its mouth.”

“And I too want to find Randy’s Brontomuncher.”

“Is that it?” asked Jasmin.

“Nietzche said, ‘Don’t steal my solitude without offering true company.’ Fossils offer both with their silent mystery.”

Away from the fire, the stars puncturing the clear purple-blackness. A meteor flashed over them.

A faraway rumble shot through the earth. Jasmin sat up and Kristina pulled up on her elbows to listen. A series of distant guttral bellows. Seconds later, a gun shot.

“Buffalo?” said Randy?

“Buffalo,” said Ben, “I heard them a couple times last week.”

“Here?” said Jasmin.

“Yeah, they’re around. Not every year, but—”

“Should…should we worry about this?”

“No. They’re far away and they stay away from people. Learned their lesson.”

“Why is someone shooting at them?”

“Don’t know,” said Ben, distant, “Might be shooting at something else.”

“Sounded like it was from a different direction than the buffalo,” said Randy.

“Unrelated incidents? In the middle of nowhere? Unlikely,” said Kristin quickly.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Ben. “Anyway, they’re miles away. Sound carries out here.”

Tore put his arm behind his head. “One of the creation myths of the Sioux, is that a star fell to earth and seeded the prairie grass and the sage. And the grass dug deeper and deeper into the Earth and was eating it up. To protect itself the Earth made the buffalo out of the rock and soil and the buffalo ate the grass. But the buffalo ate too much and so the stars and the earth agreed to create humans to steward both the grass and the buffalo.”

“You just made that shit up,” said Randy.

“No.”

“Yeah you did.”

“Alright, I made it up. It was very beautiful though wasn’t it?”

Jasmin sat up and gasped. She looked at Tore and laid back down shaking her head and smiling, “I love creation myths,” she said.

“They’re as good as anything science has,” said Randy.

“What?!” said Kristin

“Just sayin’.”

“So the Big Bang doesn’t explain anything?” Kristin said.

“It explains nothing ultimately, like any scientific theory, it just tells us how to subdue and enslave.”

Tore got up and brushed the dust off his khakis.

Kristin continued, “No. Science is a tool. What people do with it–”

“Alright. Big day tomorrow. Don’t stay up too late figuring it out. Otherwise, ‘F’s for the lot of you.”

The students groaned. The argument faded away as Tore walked to his tent.

 

***

 

In the morning, Tore shivered in the chill air as he started the fire. He slid the iron frying pan on the steel frame, separated strips of bacon and placed them end to end on the pan. After the bacon was done he cracked eggs over the snapping grease. The graduate students emerged slowly. They drank coffee, ate and talked about the Buffalo from the night before. Tore looked at his notebook and the schedule for the rest of the dig.

Dark smoke rose behind low set of hills to the northwest

“Isn’t the new site in that direction?” asked Jasmin.

Tore nodded looking at the smoke.

“What’s over there? That smoke is really black.”

“There’s a well over there. I assume they’re burning off natural gas. Looks like its on the way to the new site. If we finish up today we can check it out on the way. So, let’s try to finish up today.”

The group hiked down into into the ravine. Kristin and Tore removed the tarps covering the fossil. Kristin and Randy removed more rock from around the fossil, leaving a pedestal of rock supporting it. Tore went back to camp where he and Jasmin prepared two ten gallon buckets of Plaster of Paris and cut burlap strips.

George and Gloria helped move everything down into the ravine. Tore inspected the fossil one last time and they covered the fossil in toilet paper, then dipped the burlap strips in the plaster of paris and wrapped it up. Forty-five minutes later they carefully pushed the fossil off its pedestal and turned it over. They repeated the procedure for the exposed portion.

“Good job everyone. I think we did it. Now we wait again while it sets.

He looked over again to the smoke.

“Okay,” Tore said, gathering everyone’s attention. “who wants to pack a lunch and go with me to check out the new site… and that smoke?”

Tore and the grad students clambered into the jeep and drove. They bounced along the dirt roads, the sun directly overhead. Tore eased up on the gas, realizing he was going too fast.

They rounded the low, hills and gullies in the lightly tracked fire trail, the sagebrush sweeping the bottom of the jeep.

“Didn’t expect to see any frackers around with oil so low,” said Ben.

Randy nodded, “Fucking frackers, earthquake causing water poisoning muck fuckers,”

“Very poetic,” said Ben, “would you like to walk so you will not be transported by their evil product?”

Randy laughed and leaned back. “I think I’ll judge in comfort.” His voice breaking as they hit a rut.

The smoke was dissipating, a grey-black brush stroke slashing across the gradient of deep blue to almost white at the horizon. It spiraled up from base of the drill tower.

There was no activity. No one walked out to see who was coming. Tore let the Jeep roll to a stop about fifty yards away and put the jeep in neutral. Two pickup trucks, a black late model Ford and an older red Toyota were parked near an office trailer. A grey, lopsided storage shed sat next to the trailer. One of the double doors was off its hinges. To the left of the drill tower was a fenced area with various tanks and pallets of supplies.

Tore did an equation in his head about the dangers to his students. He turned to face them

“Look, this is too dangerous-”

“We signed waivers remember? Somebody might be hurt,” said Jasmin. Kristin and Randy agreed.

Tore looked at his students and sighed, “Is everyone sure they want to stay? If not, just say so,”

“Let’s go,” said Jasmin.

Tore looked at the burning tower.

“Okay, let’s take it slow and careful. I’m going in first, stay by the jeep until I say so.”

Tore put the jeep in first, pulled ahead and cut the motor just outside the worn circle of dirt of the site.

Tore exited, walked around to the back of the jeep and pulled out the 30.06 rifle. There was only what was in the rifle, maybe four rounds, he chastised himself for forgetting ammo this year. And when was the last time he cleaned it? He put the strap over his shoulder and moved forward.

A gust rustled the grass and sent a dust devil, like a jin, morphing and jumping from left to right behind the rig. The three students exited and followed a few yards behind Ben.

The Ford had two flats and the hood and the panel above the front left wheel were crumpled.

A burned body lay to the right of the drill tower.

 

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