On the second day, they found the bones. Sun-bleached half-moons rising out of the dust. The canyon sat low against the horizon. Evening redness turned the land to shape and shadow.
“I told them. I told them it would be here. Didn’t I tell them?” Doctor Valentine brought a rough hand along his brow. Smearing the red earth and sweat together like war paint. His chambray shirt stuck to his skin.
The kid stabbed his shovel into the dirt, hitting rock, a sharp bell chime over the desert. Somewhere a coyote called. The oxen raised their heads and moved closer to the wagon. He leaned on his shovel, dust settling on his small face. Where the doctor kneeled, the great rib cage looped up and out of the earth in a pale arch all the way to where the massive skull and jaws remained. Whatever it was, it had died on its side. The kid looked at his blood-blistered hands. He thought of the scales of Japanese fish in a painting he had seen at the museum back West. He dug a dirty nail into the blister and watched as the wound drained down his wrist like watery wine.
“What we doin’ now?” the kid asked.
“We must cover it with a tarp. If it rains it’ll wash it back into the earth.” Doctor Valentine pulled himself to his feet.
“It ain’t gonna rain.”
“We must cover it.”
“I’ll get the tarp.”
* * *
Wind rattled the canvas against the bones. The rigging they had used to nail into the earth tapped out a lonesome tattoo. They sat outside of their tent beside the wagon and oxen eating hard bread and beans.
“We’re almost out of water,” the kid said, spitting a thin shell of bean-skin into the flame.
“They thought me mad as a brush for coming out here.”
“The steers won’t pull if we ain’t got water.”
“Told us we would never find anything, didn’t they?” Doctor Valentine let out a mad cackle and somewhere carrion birds took flight, their invisible wings beating in the black.
The kid sighed and lay on his side. A chill finger ran with a bead of sweat down the neck of his shirt and pooled in his breeches. Firelight reflected the perfect glass circles of Doctor Valentine’s spectacles. Sweat ran down his temples in rivers.
“And now I say to you, my boy: One day there will be bones like this on display all over the world. Bigger than this, maybe, although I would be lying if I said I hope not; and then lying twice if I said that too. The wonders just a dig below the Earth. The sagas.”
The kid looked up at the spilled ink of the sky, listening to the doctor but not saying much back. He picked out the stars in their hundreds. Then they came in their thousands, as his eyes adjusted and the flame from the campfire grew low. Clusters of asteroids thrown across the universe like chips of ice. White hot and pale cold. The Milky Way unfurling itself in a blue spiral, its yellow eye like the jewelled glyphs of pharaohs long dead in their tombs below the sand. Polaris hung in the North like a watchman.
The kid sat up on one arm.
“How do you know when they came from?”
“Them bones. How do you know when they came from?”
“Do you mean which part of history?” Doctor Valentine asked, leaning forward. His eyes behind the spectacles were now red and dim.
The kid nodded unsurely.
“We don’t. Not yet, not completely. But I suspect it was a time before Man. Before the likes of you and I. Maybe this here land may have been swamp and jungle.”
“Naw, nothing grows out here,” the kid said.
“No, but once it may have. Once it may have been as lush as the rainforests of South America. Rivers torrenting through all that green. Waterfalls dropping into mist. Rainbow shadows over the water. And then rising through it all, wet leaves clinging to its back…” Doctor Valentine pointed to the bones opposite them in the dark.
“Before any man?” the kid said, raising one eyebrow.
“I think so, yes. Before us. Before what the Germans had called Homo neanderthalensis.”
“Are you listening, boy? I’m telling you that great beast lying there, that pile of bones and teeth roamed the Earth when the ground we lay on was a forest and no Man nor his cousin walked. A time before.”
Doctor Valentine looked up to the sky and the kid saw the eldritch light of the stars shine madly in his spectacles like two silver dollars.
* * *
The next morning the kid woke to relieve himself. It came out slow and stinging. Pooling in the dust in a fine yellow spray. He tried to spit but had nothing.
“We need water,” the kid said, kicking the rusty bucket they had cooked their meal in.
Doctor Valentine did not answer. He lay on his side on the roll matt, his ribs rising and falling slowly. The dead whistle of his breath was like the sound of a prison train. Ashes from the fire blew onto his trouser legs.
The kid turned him over.
His face rolled up to look at him. Blistered. Sun broken. In the corners of his mouth were thick pockets of spit, the kind mad dogs have, foaming along their jowls.
“Are you dead?” the kid asked.
Doctor Valentine did not reply. His breath hissed in and out of his rusty lungs. His eyes watched the kid, yellow. Then they rolled over, turning to the bones so that the kid could only see the off-white of his sclera. The doctor pointed a thin, waving finger.
“You want me to dig?”
The eyes rolled back like marbles. He blinked twice.
“Shit. Then what? You’re dying. I’ll die too.”
Doctor Valentine closed his eyes, his chest heaving. The spit in his lips bubbled. He pointed his shaking finger again.
* * *
He dug all day. The sun a molten coin blazing down on him. When he could, he worked in the shade of the tarp, careful as the doctor had taught him. He brought the brush along the divots the ribs sat in, ushering the dirt away and then digging some more, carefully. Sweat ran into his eyes and when he wiped it away with the sleeve of his shirt, the small grains of sand cut his eyelids, dry and moistureless. He looked over to the doctor again, laying in the dirt and sun. He had paid the kid more than the Texans had for protecting them against Comanche. The kid spat into his hands. It was like spitting dust. He wasn’t sure if it was worth it.
The first oxen died three hours after sunrise. Sinking to the dust with a horrid grunt; its boiled brain running from its nose in a dark paste. Flies clung to its open eyes. The kid watched the shape of the doctor through the gaps in the bones. His chest rising and falling. He had placed the tarp over him instead now so that he lay in the shade. The doctor had tried to argue, the kid had seen it in his eyes. Those yellow eyes behind the spectacles, bloodshot and dry. He had argued but he was glad. The kid was sure of that.
The kid’s tongue began to swell after midday when the noon sun was at its highest and there was no breeze. It was like trying to swallow cotton wool. Soon he was having visions. Desert visions. The bones he dug for moved. Tendrils in the heat. He dug quicker to keep up with them. Catch them before they escaped. The dreams came on like a tide, low and high, ebbing and rising. He was not sure of his reality when the sun sank below the hills.
* * *
In the evening, he drank the dead ox’s blood. He drank it right from a wound he made with his serrated knife, dragging it across the throat and watching as it spilled out in a warm jet that the sand drank in hungry gulps. When he was done, he brought some to the doctor in the tin bucket they had cooked their dinner the night before; his mouth and chin crimson, his throat and shirt a butcher’s apron.
“Here, drink some.”
The doctor did not open his mouth.
“Drink some or you’ll die.”
Doctor Valentine’s eyes did not move from the kid’s bloody face. He raised his finger and pointed at the bones.
“Rain.” He hissed. The word falling out of his blistered lips like a broken tooth.
The kid held the bucket to the doctor’s lips and looked to the sky. Dark clouds were harrying from the west. “If it rains, we’ll live.”
Doctor Valentine closed his eyes and pointed to the bones.
* * *
Thunderheads boiled above in the near dark. Cool air jetted into the kid’s face. The blood had dried black and cracked along his cheeks and neck like the red veins of volcanic rock. His shovel rose and fell. Drifts of earth flew over his bare shoulder and were lost in the wind. The bones showed no sign of rising out of the dust. They seemed to reach down forever. He dug until his hands were skinless and the dirt from the ground and his blood had congealed into a paste. He threw away the shovel and dug with his elbows, lying on his knees, pawing at the bones like a dog. When the first fat droplets of rain fell, he dreamed he was dead and the dull pitter-patter on the back of his head and neck were the beaks of vultures tearing at his flesh.
The rain came on strong and quick, tearing through the valley. The tarp sprang up and was blown away. Tin buckets rolled, sloshing with rainwater and oxblood. Papers, books, a few dollar bills scattered in the damp wind.
The kid tried to dig, his hands burying into the wet earth. It was a cool, soothing feeling like touching a woman in a bath. The water ran along the bones, brightening them, freeing them of dirt. It glistened on the razor teeth, dripping along their curve. Soon the rain pooled into the land they had excavated, running down the low hills of the canyon, into their camp, and bubbled over the bones. Sucking it back into the earth. The kid sloshed franticly in the water, red from the dirt and his blood. Lightning splayed across the sky like a blue vein, the water glowed and he could see briefly, through all the murk, how deep the bones went. He sank to his knees.
When the water was up to his chest, he dragged himself out, gripping one of the great ribs and floundering onto the wet ground by the camp. He lay on his back beside the doctor. They watched the bones together, as the red earth and water rose to reclaim them.
* * *
The kid stood over the dead camp. He watched the shapes of the loose oxen as they drank from rain-filled craters in the distance. The sunken bones, just white mounds now, poked quietly through the ground. When the next wind blew no one would know. The kid turned, sinking into the saddle. He thought of how Doctor Valentine told him that the bones were old. From a time when Man was barely a dream in the ether and Earth was home to nothing that walked upright.
He buried the doctor amongst the great fossil, wondering if he had changed that saga, and who would find it next.
Joshua Nagle lives in a small coastal town with his partner, where he is completing his first novel. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Consequence Magazine, Litro Magazine, Cerasus, Underwood Press, and BULL. You can follow his writing on Twitter at @JoshuaJNagle.