Steven Utley, Ghost Seas
excerpt: “The Dinosaur Season”
Author: Steven Utley
Publisher: Ticonderoga, 1997
On line: Mobipocket
Length: 167 pp., 316 kb
by Steven Utley
Angstrom awoke feeling as ancient and dried up as the Mesozoic Era itself. He was of good Scandinavian stock, but more than a quarter-century’s worth of dinosaur seasons spent under broiling suns had turned his fair skin the color of old brick. This morning, he felt the weight of every second of those seasons, and he thought worriedly, Am I coming down with whatever Terry’s got? Not now, please.
He listened to the soft, moist snores emanating from the lump on the other bed. You aren’t getting sick, Ang, he told himself, you’re just not getting enough sleep. He could not remember having spent a worse night in a motel. Terry’s trips from bed to bathroom and back had kept him teetering on the edge of consciousness deep into th e small hours of the night. Angstrom swung his bare legs over the side of the bed, stretched his arms high over his head, yawned. He felt brittle with fatigue.
He had just made up his mind not to wake Terry when the snoring lump gave a grunt and a heave and resolved itself into a bleary-eyed young man.
“Time to get up,” Terry said in a thick voice.
“For me it is. You stay in bed.” Angstrom leaned over him and lightly touched his forehead. It was hot against his fingertips. “No way I’m letting you spend the day in the sun. Go back to sleep.”
“Brian needs me.”
“Go back to sleep.”
“Znot fair,” Terry murmured, but he let his head sink back into his pillow and almost immediately began to snore again.
Angstrom took a quick shower and dressed for a hard day in the field. Old shirt, old pants, old shoes, he thought as he studied himself in the mirror. Old man. He stepped out of the room into the open-air sauna of a Central Texas summer’s day. It was only eight o’clock in the morning, but the air was already hot and heavy with humidity. Welcome to the Lone Star Steambath.
The motel sat at the edge of town, looking forlorn and excluded. The town itself looked as if it had been half asleep since the end of World War II. A University of Texas van sat in the motel parking lot, and as Angstrom entered the coffee shop he saw a waitress setting breakfast before George and Sally at a table by the big front window. There was no one else in the place. He sat down next to Sally and said, “Just get in?”
George shrugged and speared a sausage on his plate. “Just long enough ago to order breakfast. We finished setting up the horse exhibit real late last night, grabbed an hour or two’s sleep, left Austin just as rosy-fingered dawn was pushing back the night.”
Sally spread jam on a biscuit half and said, “Carol Harkavy wasn’t happy about having to hang around so late.”
“Just so long as she’s happy with the exhibit.” Angstrom ordered breakfast for himself, then sat back in his chair and smothered a yawn. “The dinosaur season’s off to a seriously lousy start this year. Terry’s down with a stomach virus or something.”
“Bet Brian’s happy about that,” said George. “They out at the trackway?”
“Brian is. Terry’s here.”
“How bad is he?”
“Bad enough. I want him to stay here today. If he’s not better by tonight, I’m sending him home.”
George’s egg-laden fork paused halfway between his plate and his face. “How?”
Angstrom jerked a thumb at the van outside. “We can draw straws for the privilege.”
“Well, I was hoping against hope.” George gestured at Sally and himself with his fork, and the glob of egg slid off the tines and landed wetly beside his plate. “By we,” he said to her, “ he means us.”
Sally made a small, plaintive sound. “I can’t wait,” she said, “until I, too, am a full-fledged scientist and don’t get so many privileges.”
Angstrom gave her a pitying smile as he stirred creamer into his coffee. “You won’t lose but a few hours if you turn around and come straight back. And being full-fledged wouldn’t make any difference in this case. Brian gets excited when he’s got dino tracks in front of him. Couldn’t haul him away with a team of oxen.”
“Brian,” George said around a mouthful of toast, “is basically excitable. Find anything interesting in Blanco County?”
Angstrom shook his head. “Some mosasaur teeth, and that’s all we have to show for the time we spent there. This year the floods’ve covered up more of Blanco than they uncovered. Anyway, Brian was hot to get to the trackway. He went on out to the ranch, and I put Terry to bed.”
“Brian can have his tracks,” said George. “I want bones. I want my own dinosaur.”
“Somewhere,” Sally told him, “there must be one with your name on it.”
“Well,” Angstrom said, “we’ll go on down to Big Bend day after tomorrow or the next day. Meanwhile, drink your water. Put some more salt on those eggs. It’s going to be a hot, hot day, and with Terry laid up, Brian’ll need your help.”
George said, “Thrill,” and drained his water glass. “When I was a kid, Mom and Dad always used to tell me to study hard in school or I’d be a ditch-digger all my life. So I studied real, real hard and grew up and decided to become a paleontologist. Since I became one, I figure I’ve moved about as much rock with my bare hands as there is in all of Brewster County, and sweated out enough salt to build my own life-sized model of Spindletop.”
They ate in silence for a time. Then George pushed his plate away, leaned back in his chair, and folded his hands across his middle.
“We had a visitor at the lab day before yesterday,” he said to Angstrom. “About half an hour after you three left, who should show up but our old buddy Polson.”
Angstrom groaned. “Did he get in?”
“Walked right in.”
Angstrom swore. “We’ve got some serious security problems at the lab.”
“Sally and I were both in the back crating horses.” George grinned. “He had a nice, long talk with Sally. At Sally, rather.”
She looked sheepish. “Well, I didn’t know who he was. I’m the new-hire, remember? George took one look at him and bolted.”
It was George’s turn to look sheepish. “Panicked. Sorry.”
“You didn’t let him near the specimens, I hope,” Angstrom said. “You didn’t let him see your maps.”
“Well, he may have seen the maps,” George said. “We had them spread all over the table in the front room, and there’s no telling how long he was there before he wandered back to bother us.”
Angstrom swore again. “That’s just great. Now we’ll probably have him underfoot all summer. Everywhere we go, there he’ll be, driving God’s own Winnebago.”
Sally said, “God’s own what?”
Angstrom looked at her. “Thought George would’ve told you about God’s own Winnebago. Polson’s got his own little mobile museum. He calls it God’s own Winnebago. It’s full of evidence, alleged, that people and dinosaurs co-existed, evolution’s part of some great evil conspiracy, I don’t know what all. He takes it out to Glen Rose and harangues the tourists as they go into the park to see the dino tracks. He’s associated with crackpot groups all over Texas and Oklahoma.”
“Well, he didn’t get near our eohippi,” Sally said. “I was standing between them and him the whole time.”
“She was standing there with a nail-gun in her hand the whole time,” said George. There was malicious glee in his chuckle. “Good thing for Polson it wasn’t Brian. Brian would’ve stapled him to a wall and hung an exhibit card around his neck. Homo not so sapiens, extinct.”
“Well, what did the man want this time?”
Sally said, “I sort of gathered he’d just got himself shown out of the Memorial Museum. He was all steamed up about conspiracy and the scientific establishment and stuff.”
“As usual. How’d you get rid of him?”
“Used a strong grease-cutter!” George said, grinning and leaning forward. “No, get this, this is the best part. Here’s this two-hundred-fifty-pound Pillsbury Doughboy in a bad suit, and here’s our own little Sally, everybody’s favorite hundred-twenty pounds of lady paleontologist–”
She looked at him indignantly. “One-twelve!”
“Right. One-twelve. Now. Sally listens to this sweaty madman rave for a full five minutes–”
“He sprayed me with spittle,” she said, “he breathed on me,” and horror was depicted in her countenance.
“–and then she looks him right in the face and tells him, ‘Excuse me, your fly is open.’ And he looks down and realizes that the whole time he’s been standing there yelling and waving his arms in the air, he’s had one tail of his shirt sticking out the front of his pants!”
Angstrom simply hung in his chair and howled laughter. “Oh, my heart,” he gasped, patting himself on the chest, “Oh, my!” He wiped away a tear. “Well done, Sally. I almost, almost feel sorry for the guy.”
“Brian’ll love it,” said George.
“No kidding. Brian could learn from it, in fact. Couple of years ago, he almost booted some colleague of Polson’s right out the door. I mean, tip of toe to seat of pants. What was that clown’s name?”
“Letz,” said George. “Lentz?”
“Lentschke. Came to the lab one day with a fish tooth or something he claimed he’d found lying inside one of the dino footprints at Glen Rose. I guess he thought it must’ve been lying there forever and we’d overlooked it or deliberately ignored it.”
“Sure,” George said, “it’s not like stuff ever gets washed down the Palauxy River and deposited on the trackway, right?”
“Well,” Angstrom went on, “Lentschke shoves this tooth or whatever into Brian’s face and asks him if he knows what it is. Brian had no idea who this guy was, so he answers, perfectly seriously, ‘Looks like a fish tooth to me, but I’m not sure. I’m an ichnologist, you want an ichthyologist’. Lentschke asks him one more time, and Brian tells him again, ‘I‘m just not sure, why don’t you take it across the street to the fish lab?’ So Lentschke leaves, and the next thing Brian knows, he’s being quoted in this press release from the major crackpot-science group in Dallas, headline: Top Scientist Baffled By Mystery Fossil! Two weeks later, Lentschke’s back at the lab on some fresh errand of mischief, and Brian practically vaults over the bench to get at him. I had to grab him and hold him, and I mean, hold him. Brian’s built like Tarzan. He‘d’ve kicked Lentschke’s butt to Waco.”
“Should’ve let him,” George said.
“Waco’s too close to Austin,” Sally said.
Angstrom looked at them reproachfully. “This was serious rage I’m talking about. We’re lucky the next press release didn’t say, Top Scientist Beats Man’s Head In.”
“Well, at least Brian seems to’ve made his point,” George said. “The guy’s never been back to the lab.”
A county sheriff’s office car pulled into the motel parking lot and drew up alongside the van. A thin sheriff’s deputy wearing mirror sunglasses got out. He started toward the manager’s office, locked looks with Angstrom through the window of the coffee shop, and came inside and straight over to the paleontologists’ table.
“’Scuse me,” the deputy said, “you the folks who’s with a Brian Barbee?”
“Better come with me down to the county courthouse.”
“Oh, no,” George said. “Brian’s gone and punched somebody out.”
The deputy’s head swiveled toward him. The big reflective lenses and the pinched mouth made Angstrom think of praying mantises. “Your Brian Barbee’s dead.”
* * *
Sheriff Boyd Daigle let his bloodshot eyes flicker briefly over George and Sally, and it was obvious to Angstrom that the man disapproved of the one graduate student’s beard and the other’s very presence. Daigle was about sixty years old, a big, knobby, sunburned man with a face like a dried apple. The main elements of decor in his office at the county courthouse were gunracks, stuffed birds, and deer antlers. He said, “ Thought there was one more of you.”
“My other grad student’s back at the motel,” Angstrom said. “He’s got a stomach virus. I left a message for him, if he wakes up.” He looked down at his own strong, leather-skinned hands. They seemed about half the size of the sheriff’s. “ What happened to Brian?”
The sheriff turned slightly in his swivel chair and nodded toward Sally. “Sure you want her to hear this?”
“Don’t stop on my account,” Angstrom heard her say. He looked around at her. She was as pale as chalk.
“Suit yourself, Miss Hoffman.”
“Hofner,” she said.
“Suit yourself, Miss Hofner.” Daigle transferred his attention back to Angstrom. “We got the body back just a little while ago and ain’t had time to do the autopsy yet. But it pretty much looks like somebody hit your Professor Barbee smack between the eyes with a blunt instrument. Dropped him like a poleaxed cow.”
Angstrom shivered. One of the graduate students sitting behind him groaned. He had no idea whether it was Sally or George. He swallowed hard and said, “Do you know who did it?”
“Well, we’re working on finding out who.”
Angstrom could think of nothing to say except, “Are you sure it’s Brian?”
“Ray,” Daigle said to a deputy who had been standing next to a file cabinet near t he door. Ray was an onion-shaped man with an unholstered pistol stuck into the waistband of his trousers. A convenient bulge of fat held the gun securely in place. He picked a large manila envelope off the top of the file cabinet and brought it over to th e sheriff. Daigle undid the clasp with a flick of a thumbnail as big around as a quarter and emptied the contents onto his desk blotter. There was a thick, sealed business envelope with $127.43 cash, $450 travel checks, visa, chevron, diam. shamrock and initials scrawled on it. There were two ballpoint pens, a wristwatch, a key ring with six keys on it, a pocket-sized notebook, and a worn brown leather wallet. Daigle scooped up the wallet in his catcher’s-mitt-sized hand and flipped it open to the driver’s license. He held it up so that Angstrom could see the picture on the license.
“I’m real sure, Professor Angstrom.” He closed the wallet and put it down. “This is all the loose stuff your friend had on him. There’s also a knapsack, toolbelt, and a U.T. van full of camping gear and things. The van’s still out to the Ullrich ranch.” He picked up the envelope containing the money. “All you scientists this well-heeled?”
“It’s the start of dinosaur season,” Angstrom said. “The field season. Brian and Terry–that’s Terry Sharp, my sick grad student at the motel– Brian and Terry were planning to spend most of the summer camped out at the Ullrich ranch. That money would’ve had to last them. Food and gas, mainly. A beer every now and then.”
“Would of had to be beer. Ain’t nothing else in the whole county.”
“Brian’s–Brian wasn’t much of a drinker.”
“I’m sure it’s just as well.” The sheriff shoveled everything back into the manila envelope and returned it to Deputy Ray. “Big man drinks a lot, he’s liable to be a handful for somebody. Now, near as the M.E. can tell, your friend was killed sometime late yesterday afternoon. Duane Ullrich’s boy, Ron, found him around dawn this morning. Ron was going fishing under the bridge down from where the dinosaur footprints is. Suppose you help me fit all this into a time frame.”
Angstrom said, “Brian and Terry and I left Austin on Tuesday. We spent the afternoon and the next morning looking around at several sites in Blanco County and camped out at one of them. We got here about three yesterday. Terry was starting to feel pretty bad by then, so I checked him into the motel with me. Brian took the van out to the ranch. The last time I saw him was just a little before four, in the parking lot.”
“Duane Ullrich says your friend come by the ranch about half past to say hello.” Daigle indicated Sally and George with a nod.
“What about these two?”
“They had an exhibit of horse fossils to finish for the Nature Center Annex in Austin. They weren’t able to leave town until early this morning. The original plan was for the three of us, George and Sally and me, to go on to Big Bend this weekend. Big Bend’s usually where we spend most of the season.”
“I been to Big Bend.” Daigle looked past Angstrom, at, it seemed to him, Sally. “Park or no, it ain’t the sort of place I’d pick for summer vacation.” The bloodshot gaze returned to Angstrom. “ Duane had his boy show Professor Barbee down to the creek, and then Ron walked back. It’s about a mile from the house to as close to the creek as you can get a vehicle in, unless you want to go all the way around and use the old county road. Runs behind the Ullrich property and brings you right to the old bridge. From where the van’s parked to where the footprints is is about another half a mile. Now, the plan was for all five of you to camp out there?”
“Everyone except me,” said Angstrom. “I usually get a motel room if there’s one close enough.”
“It’s the privilege of emeriti.”
The sheriff blinked. “Of who?”
“Emeriti. Plural of emeritus.” Angstrom gave the sheriff a wan smile. “Meaning, old buzzards like me.” Daigle did not respond to the smile, and Angstrom felt it go away. “Can we go out to the trackway, Sheriff?”
“I guess you have to. I guess the University of Texas will want its van back. But I better take you. We been over the area once already, but I don’t want it disturbed until we been over it again, real good.”
“I know how not to disturb an area.”
“Well, that’s good. Maybe while we’re out there, you can explain to me how Professor Barbee’d let somebody just walk up and hit him between the eyes.”
Everyone in Sheriff Daigle’s office was silent for a long moment. Finally, Angstrom turned in his chair, and to George and Sally he said, “I think you’d better go back to the motel and stay with Terry.”
The two graduate students exchanged glances, and Sally said, “Meaning, I should go back?”
“This is going to be unpleasant.”
“It’s already unpleasant. It’s already gone a long way past unpleasant. I’ve–I want to go with you.”
“Look,” said George, “I’ll go babysit Terry.” He looked almost hopefully at Angstrom. “Did you tell Terry in your note–about Brian?”
Angstrom shook his head. “I was hoping this’d all turn out to be a mistake.”
“Guess you want me to tell him, huh?”
“Use your own judgment.” Angstrom handed him the room key. “Do what you think is best. Only don’t wake him up just to tell him. If he’s asleep, let him go on sleeping.”
“Right. Well.” George puffed out his bearded cheeks and exhaled with a soft hiss. “Guess I’ll see you back at the motel,” he said. He turned, and was gone.
Sheriff Daigle gave Sally an unhappy look. “We’ve moved the body, but there’s lots of blood out there. Sure you want to do this?”
“Either order me to go back with George, or catch up with the times. I want to do this.” She waited for either Angstrom or the sheriff to reply, and then, when neither of them did, she said, “ Fine. I need a restroom.”
“End of the hall,” said Deputy Ray, “door on the right.” She left.
Daigle said, “She got something to prove?”
“She’s still hacked off about Antarctica.”
The sheriff raised eyebrows that were like tufts of steel wool. “Don’t get you.”
“A couple of years back, the professor she’d been working with at Texas Tech decided to go look for fossils in Antarctica. He refused to take her along. Said Antarctica was no place for a woman.”
“From what I hear, it ain’t.” The sheriff looked thoughtful for a moment. “She know Professor Barbee very well?”
“Of course. They’ve been working together at the Austin lab for almost two years.”
“I mean, did she know him really well?”
“Ah. No. I don’t think so. Brian has a girlfriend. Had a–oh, God, I forgot all about Larraine.” He looked at the sheriff almost pleadingly. “I’d better give her a call.”
“Let it wait a little while.”
“Sheriff, who do you think could’ve killed Brian?”
“Well, he just might of run into trouble with transients.” Daigle swiveled behind his desk and gestured at a large county map framed in glass on the wall. “I spend a goodly amount of time driving people to the county line and letting ‘em off. This is a, what you call a hunger county. There’s not many jobs here, and the ones there is is taken. So I just tell people moving through to keep right on moving. Mostly it’s younger people. Sometimes it’s families with children and if that don’t break your heart. But sometimes it’s somebody who’s just plain bad news.”
The sheriff’s chair squeaked a protest as he reached for a yardstick. He raised an amazing length of arm, and there was a small, hard click as the tip of the yardstick tapped against the glass.
“That there’s the Ullrich ranch,” he said. “And that–” click “– is the creek and the old county road. Folks like Duane, living out a ways from town, keep a loaded shotgun handy. For rattlesnakes and other troublemakers. But I don’t think a transient killed your friend. Ain’t no sign of a camp, for one thing. For two, hundred and twenty-some-odd dollars is a lot of money to pass up. Plus, they’d of taken everything else he had on him.”
“Then who else could’ve done it?”
The tufted steel-wool eyebrows met over the bridge of Daigle’s nose. “There’s people who’s involved in drugs.”
* * *
“Drugs?” Sally said. “ Serious, heavy drugs, out here?”
She and Angstrom were in the back seat of a county sheriff’s office car. The thin deputy with the mirror sunglasses was driving. Sheriff Daigle seemed to fill half of the cabin. He looked back at her and smiled sardonically.
“This is one of our slow weeks,” he said. “Last month, we caught two brothers running a speed lab in their barn. They still report stuff like that in Austin?”
“They love to report stuff like that in Austin,” Angstrom said.
Daigle nodded. “Good. I hate to think in the big city everybody thinks we got our thumbs up our behinds here. ‘Scuse my language, Miss. Out here, you got your people raising marijuana and running it all over the southwest. You got ‘em keeping open the lines of communication for the big-city family businesses, if you know what I mean. The ones that’s been involved in some bad crap or other ever since Prohibition days. ‘Scuse me. The central Texas drug pipeline runs right through this county. I got Texas Rangers and federal agents out here nearly all the time. There’s parts of this county that’s as bad as the old Jacksboro Highway up around Fort Worth ever was. I lost a good deputy over to Molley last summer. He pulled over this suspicious truck, and the driver shot him in the chest with a nine mil. My deputy put a forty-four magnum slug through the truck door as he was falling over backwards. Blew the driver all over the inside of the cab.”
As Daigle related this, it again seemed to Angstrom that he was studying Sally’s face, trying to gauge her reaction. She appeared unimpressed with the sheriff’s tales. She looked as tired and irritable as Angstrom felt.
“They report stuff like that back in Austin, too?” said Daigle.
Angstrom repressed a frown. “We were at Big Bend last summer and didn’t get the papers. What’s this have to do with Brian?”
“Ever’ so often,” Daigle said, “somebody from Austin or someplace decides to go off hiking or camping in these hills. I guess they stumble into one of the local grower’s marijuana fields or see something else they ain’t supposed to see. After a bit, somebody back in Austin gets to missing ‘em, and I got to go take a look. And never find a thing. If you know a nice, private place where you can plant a whole field of marijuana, you’re sure going to know places to stash bodies so they ain’t never found. I think your friend just showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Angstrom looked out his win dow as the deputy swung the car off the main highway, onto a two-lane blacktop. Most of what he actually knew about organized crime and drug-trafficking had been haphazardly gleaned over the years from television news programs and the opening paragraphs of newspaper stories, and it had become thoroughly mixed with images acquired in equally haphazard fashion from movies. He thought of organized criminals, if that was what one called them, as lupine men and occasionally simian men who wore dark shirts, light ties, and sharkskin suits. He could not imagine such men consorting with cowboy-hatted, cowboy-booted Bubba out on the ranch, stepping carefully around cowflops so as not to ruin their expensive shoes.
“Over there’s the Ullrich place,” Daigle said as the car passed a modest but well-tended house and outbuildings. “We’ll stop and have a chit-chat with Duane on the way back. Up here’s the turnoff to the creek.”
Angstrom said, “Is Duane Ullrich one of your local growers?”
The sheriff glowered at him, glanced ahead as the car slowed, left the blacktop, and began crunching over gravel, and then looked back at him with the glower still in place.
“Duane Ullrich and me,” Daigle said, “has been friends all our lives. He’s got no more use’n me for drugs or people who’s involved in drugs. His boy Ron’s okay, too. Now, if Duane was growing marijuana on his property, he sure wouldn’t invite a bunch of nosey sci’ntists to come walk all over the place. Duane guesses these footprints on his land is probably as good as the Glen Rose ones. He guesses he’ll get on television. Think so?”
“It could happen.”
“Well, there you are.” The sheriff smiled with satisfaction. “If you’re involved in drugs, television ain’t the kind of attention you want to attract.”
The car reached the end of the graveltop. The other University of Texas van and another county sheriff’s office car were parked on the pebble-carpeted rim of a long, rocky slope. At the bottom of the slope, trees marked the course of the creek. Two deputies stood waiting. The sheriff told his passengers to remain in the car for a minute, and both he and the thin deputy got out and walked over. The four lawmen talked and gesticulated. Angstrom looked at Sally. She sat grim-faced, staring out the window in the direction of the creek. He left her alone.
Daigle and his thin deputy returned. The sheriff opened the rear door on Sally’s side and said, “Let’s go on down to the creek.” The thin deputy opened Angstrom’s door for him, then leaned in through the driver’s door and came back out holding a pump-action shotgun. He saw the questioning look on the scientist’s face and said “Rattlesnakes.” It was the first thing Angstrom could remember hearing him say since breakfast. Breakfast seemed a hundred million years ago.
“Let’s reconstruct this,” the sheriff said as he and the two paleontologists and the thin deputy moved around to the front of the van.
“Professor Barbee parks and gets out. I guess he’s real eager, ‘cause he just grabs his knapsack and his toolbelt and heads for the creek.”
“He wouldn’t’ve been able to think about anything else,” Angstrom said. “He was very excited about this trackway.”
Daigle pointed downstream. “There’s the old bridge. Rickety old iron frame with wood planks laid crossways. Been standing longer than I have. Shakes and rattles in a medium breeze, and, ever’ spring, I keep expecting it to wash away. Me, I wouldn’t want to ride a bicycle across. But drug-runners is always barreling around on these old roads. I think your friend may of seen something illegal, maybe at the bridge. We found a place on the left bank where somebody slid down and then later climbed back up. One person, near as we can tell.”
“Why would drug-traffickers just leave Brian lying there?” said Angstrom. “I thought you said the idea was to not draw attention to a place.”
Daigle shrugged. “Professor Barbee must of weighed, what, two hundred pounds? Mostly solid pounds, too. It’s my experience a body always seems to weigh four times more dead than when it was alive. Maybe whoever killed him was in a hurry. Maybe it was hot like now, and they looked at how big he was and said, ‘Forget it’.”
They walked in file through sparse, calf-high grass, past slabs of rock like petrified mattresses, the deputy leading, the sheriff bringing up the rear. They passed through the trees, crossed the floodline, and went down a steep bank of dry, hard clay, onto a gravel bar. Beyond a narrow ribbon of virtually motionless green water was a long, low table of limestone. The limestone bore scores of impressions of three-toed, claw-tipped feet, some of them with spreads of eighteen inches. Angstrom drew a sharp breath, and for just a moment Brian was forgotten, heat, weariness, age, and everything else were forgotten, as a rapturous awe filled him.
They were right here, he thought. Eighty, eighty-five million years ago, they passed not fifty feet from where I’m standing — and he could see them as they passed — forearms tucked daintily against deep chests, great, tooth-filled heads and long, stiff tails held high as they walked, churning up the limy mud with those gargantuan chicken feet of theirs, masters of a world in which Homo sapiens existed not even as a gleam in some ratty little insectivore’s eye.
The moment passed, and Angstrom murmured, “Carnosaurs.”
“Beg pardon?” said the sheriff.
“A whole pack of carnosaurs.” He saw the blank look on the lawman’s face. “The big meat-eating dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus and its lesser cousins.”
Daigle seemed almost impressed. “We had T’rannosaurus around here?”
“Probably Acrocanthosaurus. One of the lesser cousins, but still a nasty piece of work.”
The sheriff spat to one side. “Guess we’re real lucky they’re all gone, then. Reverend Bradshaw says they all drowned in Noah’s flood.”
Angstrom regarded him levelly and said, “What do you say, Sheriff?”
Daigle matched his look. “I know you people think the world’s billions of years old and we all come up from lower animals. I believe in the revealed word of God. If it says everything was made in six twenty-four-hour days, that’s good enough for me.”
“I’m not attacking your faith, Sheriff.”
The sheriff shrugged and gazed at the trackway. “I got nothing against your dinosaurs, either. I saw the bones of some in a museum over to San Antonio last year. My grandson wanted to go. He loves dinosaurs. He was real impressed with the one with all the horns. And he asked me why Noah’d let a big, wonderful thing like that drown but save a lot of nasty little fire ants and scorpions.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I said to him, ‘Danged if I know’.” They stepped easily across the sunken creek, and then Daigle gestured at the ground. “About here’s where Professor Barbee dropped his knapsack and toolbelt.” He pointed toward the far end of the limestone bar. “Down there’s where he was killed.”
Angstrom looked downstream. He frowned and said, “Why’d Brian drop the knapsack and toolbelt here?”
“You’re the pee-aitch-dee,” Sheriff Daigle said. “You tell me.”
They walked carefully across the ancient churned-up surface. At the end of the limestone slab, the sheriff said, unnecessarily, “Here’s where Professor Barbee was killed,” and, just as unnecessarily, pointed to a large reddish-brown stain on the rock. Metallic-green flies buzzed about the stain and kept alighting on it. Angstrom saw Sally turn her face quickly and saw Daigle give his deputy a told-her-so look.
“Now,” the sheriff said, “here’s the part nobody understands. Here’s your friend digging at this end of the tracks, and he’s got a clear view of about a half a mile, from past where he come down the slope to past the bridge. And somebody still walks right up and knocks him in the head.”
Angstrom squatted beside the bloodstain and tried to wave the flies away. They easily avoided his hand and went on about their business. “The part I still don’t get is, if Brian was here, what was his equipment doing back there on the gravel bar?”
“It’s hot out on this rock. Maybe he didn’t want to lug around a bunch of stuff in the heat.”
“Then what was Brian digging with?”
“Whatever you use to dig with, I guess.”
“Sheriff, these tracks are still full of sand and grit from last month’s floods. Brian never touched them.”
Daigle opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, closed his mouth. He glared around at the ground for a second, then pointed triumphantly at a spot several feet away. “I ain’t entirely stupid,” he growled. “That’s fresh-chipped rock there.”
Angstrom moved crabwise to the place and ran his hand over it. He motioned to Sally, and she knelt beside him. The two law men hesitated for a moment before bending down to peer at the patch of rock between the paleontologists. The sheriff said, “ What is it?”
Angstrom gave him a grim look. “I think it’s what got Brian Barbee killed.”
Daigle peered some more. “So what is it?”
“What does it look like?”
The sheriff did not answer immediately. His face slowly folded itself into a complex system of ridges and furrows. At last he said, “A footprint. A real old petrified human footprint.”
“Wrong on all counts,” Angstrom said. “It’s not real, it’s no older than yesterday, and it’s not a footprint, human or otherwise. The depression that looks sort of like the bottom of a foot is just a shallow basin made by erosion. There’s none of the squishing that occurs when an object’s pushed down into mud and then pulled out. The toe marks were carved by the same person who killed Brian.”
The lawmen stepped back as the paleontologists stood up. Daigle’s expression was skeptical. The deputy gnawed the inside of a cheek for a second, then said, “There’s human footprints mixed in with the dinosaur ones up at Glen Rose.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Angstrom. “They’re fakes, too, the work of someone in the so-called creation-science movement.”
The deputy’s knuckles began to whiten on the shotgun. “Reverend Bradshaw from our church went up and seen ‘em, too. He preached about ‘em. They ain’t no more fakes than these.”
“It’s unweathered, fresh-chipped rock, Frank,” Daigle said to the deputy, very gently. “Even I can see that.” He looked unhappy as he turned back to Angstrom and sounded unhappy when he spoke. “You’re saying somebody killed your friend and then carved these toe marks.”
“It was probably the other way around.”
“Professor Angstrom,” said the sheriff, “I know a lot of fine people who hate your evolution theories even more’n I do. Ain’t one of ‘em’s ever struck me as being the least bit murderous.”
Angstrom looked the big lawman right in the eye and said, “Like I said, I’m not attacking faith here, just bad science. But you of all people should know that anybody who gets mad enough or scared enough can kill. Brian could be plenty scary. He was a strong, very physical man, something of a hothead, too. He despised the creation-science movement with what I can only describe as crusading fervor. He was an ichnologist. That‘s a paleontologist whose specialty is fossil footprints, only in his case, it was more, it was his passion. He was excited about this trackway. He’d’ve regarded these carvings as a desecration, just like he regarded the ones at Glen Rose. I think when he came down the bank and through the trees back there, he saw someone chipping at the rock here and knew immediately what was going on. I think he shed his equipment and came charging over like a mad bull. Probably he was screaming bloody murder. I think he‘d’ve done some serious pushing and shoving when he got hold of whoever was here.”
“And whoever was here,” said Daigle, “just hauled off and hit him with a hammer or chisel and then run off in a panic.” He nodded toward the bridge. “Run off that way, same way as he come in, so he must of had a car or something parked up there. Duane said the only person who come by yesterday was Professor Barbee. But if the person who made these marks didn’t come expecting to be attacked by your friend, why’d he go to all the bother of using that old back road?”
“So the toe marks would be here.” Angstrom made a gesture that took in the whole trackway. “A spectacular site like this is going to draw a fair amount of media attention. I’m sure the idea was for somebody to show up at about the time the television coverage was heaviest, point to the supposed human footprint, say, ‘Look what the scientific establishment can’t deny but won’t acknowledge.’”
“I guess it’d hurt your case some, huh?”
Angstrom shook his head emphatically. “Not in the least. Any reputable scientist would take one look at this alleged footprint and know it’s a fake. Creation science is long on this kind of thing because it’s short on everything else. Nothing its proponents could do to this site in an excess of zeal would hurt our case or help theirs.”
“The maps,” said Sally, quietly. Angstrom and the sheriff turned to stare at her.
“We had all our maps out in the front room,” she said, “where anybody who walked into the lab could’ve seen them. If he wanted to get even for what happened and strike a blow for the cause at the same time–”
“Oh, no!” Angstrom cried out. “Not him!”
“–all he had to do, if there’s anyone here who’s in the movement, was pick up the phone and get directions.”
“Polson!” Angstrom shrieked. “Polson!”
Daigle scowled. “Now who’s Polson?”
Angstrom beat his fist against the eighty-million-year-old rock. “Look for a man making a getaway in God’s own Winnebago.”
Copyright © 2007 by Steven Utley