Hemet, California. August 1992.
One would have thought that a paleontologist with a keen eye for detail would have seen the sidewinder nearly under his boot, but it seemed that Davis Salinger had to watch both of their footfalls.
“Mind your step, man!” trumpeted Davis. “Serpent!”
Andrew Besser made a small kangaroo hop over the snake, to land with a thud, rattling his backpack and dropping his pick hammer. He recovered the hammer and stuffed it in his waistband.
“Crotalus cerastes,” said Andrew breathily. “Nasty little bugger. Good eye, doc. I’m afraid I had my eye on these sandy washes and cuts. These small canyon arroyos that wash down into the reservoir are where we have to look. I covered the entrance with some scrub and tumbleweed. Only problem is, this part of Diamond Valley all looks the same. But I know it’s on this incline about 50 feet up from the reservoir. There’s nothing up further on the hard pan flat.”
Davis knew that the Diamond Valley area was a hotbed for Pleistocene megafauna, having been excavated from ‘93 to ‘98 by the Municipal Water District. Tens of thousands of fossils had been lifted from the site during the excavation of the reservoir and then transported to the San Bernardino Museum of Paleontology. He wouldn’t have flown out from Wyoming if Andrew hadn’t crowed about a recent discovery. But to think that there was something actually left in the berm line stretched credibility. He believed the site to be played out. Anything left now reposed in the silt 250 feet under water.
“I wish you would just tell me what you found,” said Davis, watching his footing on some loose shale. “That’s if you find it again. You should have taken a GPS fix of the coordinates.”
“I told you it’s a surprise. And I wasn’t thinking about a find last time out here. Not like this one.”
Davis watched the paleontologist crab-step down the reservoir embankment and then hurry his pace. Andrew stopped abruptly over a twisted clump of sage and tumbleweed. He pulled it away frantically, pricking his fingers, until he had exposed a cleft in the rock. Davis trudged to the spot and looked at the opening, a natural fissure in the limestone.
Andrew pulled a penlight out of his pocket and grinned. “I told you it was here! Let’s giddy up. It’s about 15 feet in, toward the back of the den.”
Davis stared at the opening, now a believer. Most definitely a lair or den, it appeared to have been completely sealed off from the elements, and he suspected that any fossils within might have survived serious degradation. The only question that nagged him was the skeleton that now inhabited it. Postponing his entry into the abyss, Davis guessed aloud. “North American Lion? Cave bear? Sloth?”
Andrew shook his head, grinning like a cat eating shit. “Three strikes—you’re out. It’s recent, doc. Fully articulated. The matrix suggests 2,000 to 3,000 years old. But you’re going to have to lay your eyes on it to believe it.”
“That’s impossible for ice age megafauna.”
“Oh, is it? What about the relic population in the Ozarks? Radio carbon dating suggested 4,000 years. Whoops.”
Andrew had just played his card. Now Davis had a very good idea of what he had found. California held the record for this taxonomy, predominantly at La Brea. Was it possible that a breeding population extended into the Miocene that early? Intrigued, Davis waved his hand frantically, shooing the other forward. “Get going for gawd’s sakes. We haven’t got all day to make history.”
Andrew removed his backpack and pushed it into the opening. He ducked and squeezed through on a hands and knees crawl. Davis followed with a flashlight between his teeth. They found themselves in a small cave with a six-foot high ceiling. Roughly rectangular, the area took up 300 square feet, a kitchen-sized hovel. Immediately apparent were the mats of fiber that Davis caught in the crooks in his fingers as he pushed through. The soil smelled and felt of loam. But the odor that struck him numb was the scent of something recognizable—a muskiness bordering on decay.
“Get a whiff of that?” Andrew asked over his shoulder. “That’s hair—pelt. It’s all over the floor and stuck in the ceiling crags. You’d think the son-of-a-bitch was still in here. It’s dissipated a bit. When I first removed the slide material it hit me like a face slap. My ass puckered. I thought the beast was still home.”
Davis cautiously rose to his feet and played the light around. He saw heaps of dusty fossils carpeting the floor. None of the bones appeared larger than nubbins. Most were splintered, crushed and fragmented beyond cursory identification. Predation remains, he supposed. Surely this in no way qualified for the articulated specimen.
Andrew, from the back of the cave, wiggled his light. “Forget about that scrap. Come see the jewel.” Andrew bent to pull back a dirt-covered tarp. After he had it peeled back, he knelt and brushed the area lightly with gentle brush strokes.
The skeleton lay on its side, legs extended, tail tucked. The skull was partially submerged in the soil, its jaws agape, showing massive crowns and canine teeth – a typical rigormortis death pose.
Davis, in a nervous sweat, dropped to his knees and tried to steady his hand. His flashlight beam shimmied, requiring him to hold it with both hands. He marveled at the size of the skull. It looked massive, hardly typical of the species, unless it was some freak giant of nature.
“Canis dirus,” said Davis in wonderment. “It’s the largest dire wolf I’ve ever seen. The preservation is inexplicable. Very little dehydration, decay and mineral leaching.”
Andrew smiled idiotically. “Didn’t I tell you? I think the minerals in the soil acted as a natural preservative. I take it to be an alpha male, a pack leader. Or a damn rogue.”
Davis tried to remember his morphology. Judging from the size of this specimen, it might have topped the scales at 250 pounds and over seven feet in length when alive. No gray ever reached such proportions. Not with these massive fore and hind limbs. What was he thinking? No dire wolf had ever taped out to those dimensions! They had two significant historic milestones staring them in the face. They had found the largest specimen extent, and from the looks of it, probably the earliest.
Davis curled his finger under a femur and lifted. The caked earth cracked. The bone broke free. It was not as heavy as he suspected, evidence of only partial fossilization. Andrew passed him a pair of magnifying goggles. Davis studied the leg bone for a full five minutes before he placed it back down in the depression.
“Well?” said Andrew. “What do you think? Take your best shot.”
Davis blew out a long jittery breath. “It looks pristine. I need a complete DNA chain. That means mitochondria and an intact resident nucleus. From all accounts, this looks as viable as it gets. With Protocol 421, and with a lot of luck and the correct mapping, it’s possible. Actually, it is better than possible from what I am seeing here. It could even be likely.” He licked his lips, and could feel the pulse buck in his neck. The excitement factor had just gone off the scale. He brought his mind to heel, not wishing to get carried away with grandiose assumptions. He cautiously added, “Now I’m not saying it’s a sure thing—I’ve tried this before with dismal results.”
“Don’t talk yourself out of it,” said Andrew sternly. “There isn’t a biochemist or geneticist in the world that wouldn’t take a shot at this. Why do you think I called you out here? For the desert air? Jesus Christ, Davis, do you realize what this means if you can pull it off? You’re a rung up from Professor Archer and his Thylacine project. But you don’t need the Australian Museum, or any of those numb fucks. I’ve seen your abstracts. And believe me, you are not the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of pseudo-scientific piffle. You can do this again. It’s going to live!”
“Just call me Doctor Frankenstein. What’s the deal? I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“The deal is you take what you need. I’m the only one sanctioned by the Municipal Water District to be on this property. I have to transport the skeleton to the curator at San Bernardino. I’ll make up some excuse for the missing pieces—predation, washed away with the sediment. Hell, they’ll buy it. They’ll want to examine the site, and that means media and peer documentation. I’ll have to obliterate our presence here, enough to cover any signs of tampering. But leave that up to me. It also means you can never step foot back in Southern California. We can’t risk any association. Once we part company, you’re finished with me. You’re on your own and I don’t even want you sending a thought my way.”
“Agreed. I’ll need a femur and maybe a crown tooth. Don’t break the dentine. That will be too obvious. Coax a loose one out.”
“Can do. Davis, you’ll have to keep this under the radar on your end, too.”
“You don’t have to remind me. I’ve got raisins for testicles at the moment. I know the risk.”
Davis crawled across the den floor examining the splintered fossils that lay about like a jumble of jackstraws. He looked at a mat of rotted hair stuck to a rock protrusion and guessed it to be a scratching post of sorts. The animal would have naturally sought out relief by removing excess pelt in the summer heat. He sat cross-legged next to a pile of bones and fingered the pieces, examining them intently. He inhaled a sharp breath of surprise and dug deeper in the sediment. He found a kernel-shaped tooth, and then more popcorn-sized teeth, littering the floor. Digging further produced two intact metacarpals that looked suspiciously out of place. Then he realized that all of the fossils were out of place.
“How closely did you examine these predation fossils?” asked Davis.
Andrew Besser wrestled with the large skull, using a small pair of needle nose pliers. “Didn’t need to check them. Figured them for deer, tapir, antelope and the smaller taxon. You know, the usual fare.”
Davis raked his fingers through the pile and played the light over the den floor. “You should have checked,” he said. “But you were preoccupied and I can’t blame you.”
“What did you find?”
“These are all hominids.”
“Guh?” Andrew crawled across the dusty floor and joined his light with Davis’. “Jesus, what do we have here? I wasn’t even concerned. I mean—“
“You mean you weren’t paying attention. What we have here is an animal ecologically stressed to the breaking point—a survivor of the ice age, but a lone and desperate predator of the Miocene. Pretty obvious what was on his menu. I’ll bet the reservoir project unearthed a significant archeological presence in this valley.”
“More than a significant one. It was huge. We pulled up over 300 ancient settlements, mostly from the Cahuilla and Luiseno Indian culture group, dating back 7,000 years. There were hundreds of hot springs found in the area, and all the encampments were in close proximity to the water sources.”
Davis stared at his colleague in the refracted light. “I can see the scenario play out in my mind’s eye. Mr. Wolf sits up here on the valley slope, eyeing all the activity below. A meal wanders by, a two-legged one, mind you, and he pounces. He’s an ambush killer like the Sabertooth cat. He doesn’t have to work that hard at all. Hell, most of the megafauna have died out. All he has left are humans. The children are the easiest to pick off. Human settlement and intrusion is answered with annihilation. Poetic justice, wot?”
“So we have a man-eater,” said Andrew, drawing his lips tight. “Reminds me of the Tsavo lions. They got used to human flesh. I wonder what the tote is here. The bone bed goes down about two feet.”
“Dozens. Who knows, Andrew? Maybe hundreds.” Davis suddenly felt a wave a nausea course through his body. He had expected to find an extraordinary articulated skeleton and he did. A slaughterhouse was not on the menu. The lair reeked of dismemberment and death, even if it had happened in the distant past.
“And yea, it is full of the blood of the prophets,” said Andrew mystically.
Davis cleared his throat and spanked his hands of dust. “Whatever happened here is over. We have a task to perform. Let’s get my samples and move out.”
Andrew crossed himself, staring at the remains. “Yeah, the sooner the better.”