"Mind your step, man!"
Davis Salinger thought for sure Andrew Besser would have seen the sidewinder under his left boot.
Andrew kangaroo-hopped over the snake, jolting his backpack and dropping his pick hammer as he landed on his right foot. He recovered the hammer and stuffed it in his waistband.
"Crotalus cerastes. Nasty little bugger. Good eye, doc. I'm afraid I had my eye on these sandy washes and cuts." Andrew waved a hand. "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. It's on this incline about 50 feet up from the reservoir."
The Diamond Valley area was a hotbed for Pleistocene or ice age mammals. During the excavation of the reservoir from 1993 to 1998 by the Municipal Water District, tens of thousands of fossils had been lifted from the site and transported to the San Bernardino Museum of Paleontology.
Davis wouldn't have flown out from Wyoming if Andrew hadn't crowed about a recent discovery in the berm line that stretched all credibility. Anything else worth digging up now reposed in the silt 250 feet beneath the reservoir.
"I wish you would just tell me what you found," Davis said, 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. I wasn't thinking about a find last time out here. Not like this one."
Andrew crab-stepped down the reservoir embankment, then hurried his pace before coming to a stop over a twisted clump of sage and tumbleweed. He pulled the brush away, exposing a cleft in the rock.
Davis followed Andrew's path to the spot and crouched to look 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. A lair or den that appeared to have been sealed off from the elements brought the hope that any fossils within might have survived serious degradation. What could possibly be inside that would generate this much urgency and excitement? North American lion? Cave bear? Sloth?
Andrew peered back at him. "Whatever you're thinking, you're not even close. 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. They kicked out over ten thousand years ago."
"Oh, is it? What about the relic population they found in the Ozarks? Radio carbon dating suggested 4,000 years. Whoops." Andrew cupped a hand over his mouth.
Davis's mind whirled. Now he had a very good idea of what Andrew had found. California held the record for this taxonomy, predominantly at La Brea. Was it possible that a breeding population extended into the recent past of prehistoric man?
Intrigued, Davis waved his hand, shooing Andrew forward. "Get going then. We haven't got all day to make history."
Andrew removed his backpack, and then crawled into the opening, pushing his pack ahead of him along the ground.
Davis followed with a flashlight between his teeth.
When they emerged after a few minutes in a cramped tunnel, they found themselves in a small but high-ceilinged cave. Roughly rectangular, the area took up about 300 square feet, barely big enough for a modest, modern-day kitchen.
Davis studied the matted wiry fiber in the crooks of 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?" asked Andrew 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. When I first found it and removed the slide material, it hit me like a face slap. I thought the beast was still home."
Beast? Davis rose to his feet and played the light around. Heaps of dusty fossils carpeted the floor. None of the bones appeared larger than finger-sized pieces. Most were splintered, crushed and fragmented beyond cursory identification. Predation remains. Surely this in no way qualified for a fully intact specimen.
Andrew wiggled his light from the back of cave. "Forget about that scrap." He bent down to pull back a dirt-covered tarp, then knelt and brushed the area lightly with a small brush. "Come see the jewel."
The skeleton lay on its side, legs extended, tail tucked. The skull was partially submerged in the soil, its jaws agape, showing prominent crowns and canine teeth--a typical rigor mortis death pose.
Davis dropped to his knees. It took two hands to steady the quivering flashlight beam. The skull looked huge and sloth-like, hardly typical of the wolf species, unless it was some freak giant.
"Canis dirus," said Davis in wonderment. "It's the largest dire wolf I've ever seen. The preservation is astonishing. Very little dehydration, decay and mineral leaching."
Andrew smiled. "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."
From the size of this specimen, David judged that, were it alive, it would have likely topped the scales at 250 pounds and been over eight feet in length, forty percent larger in mass than the common gray wolf. No dire wolf that he knew had ever taped out to those dimensions.
Two historic milestones were staring them in the face. The largest specimen ever found and, from the looks of it, probably the earliest.
Davis curled his finger under a femur and lifted. The caked earth cracked and the bone broke free. It was not as light as he suspected, so clearly it had partially fossilized. Andrew offered him a pair of magnifying goggles with which Davis studied the leg bone for a full five minutes before placing it back down in the depression.
"Well?" said Andrew. "What do you think?"
Davis blew out a long breath through pursed lips, barely containing his excitement. "It looks pristine. I need a complete DNA chain; that means mitochondria, and an intact resident nucleus. With Protocol 421, and a lot of luck and the correct mapping, it's possible. Actually, it could even be likely."
He licked his lips as the pulse bucked in his neck. His mind spun with all the implications of this find, should he get the laboratory results he hoped for. With effort, he brought his mind to heel, not wishing to get carried away with grandiose assumptions.
He rose and wiped his hands on his pants. "I'm not saying it's a sure thing--I've been down this road before with dismal results."
"Don't talk yourself out of it. 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 pull it off?" He pressed against Davis and shook his fist at the cave ceiling. "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. It's going to live!"
"Just call me Doctor Frankenstein." Could Davis really pull it off and bring back an extinct animal from the ice age? His body trembled just thinking about it. Calm down. Get a grip. He took a deep breath and glanced at the fossil. "What's the deal? I don't want to get you in trouble."
"The deal is we'll 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 to me." He plied his fingers into his temples, seemingly lost in thought for a moment. "It also means you can never set foot back in Southern California. We can't risk any association. 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 would be too obvious. Carefully coax one out."
"Can do. 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 walked in a stoop across the den floor, examining the splintered fossils that lay about like a jumble of jackstraws. The mat of rotted hair stuck to a rock protrusion indicated a scratching post of sorts. The animal would have naturally sought relief from the thick pelt in the summer heat.
He sat cross-legged next to a pile of bones and fingered the pieces. He found a kernel-shaped tooth, and then more popcorn-sized teeth littering the floor. He inhaled a sharp breath of surprise. Digging further into the sediment, he found two slim bones. He placed one of them over the top of his fist, aligning it perfectly. Metacarpal. A human hand bone. All of these fossils were out of place.
"How closely did you examine these predation fossils?" Davis asked.
Andrew wrestled with a tooth, using a small pair of needle nose pliers. "Didn't need to. Figured them for deer, tapir, antelope and the smaller taxon. You know, the usual fare."
Davis raked his fingers through the pile and panned 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-what?" Andrew crawled across the dusty floor and joined his light with Davis's. "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, the last age of the big mammals. 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 near 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, eying all the activity below. A two-legged meal wanders by and he pounces. He's an ambush killer like the Sabertooth cat, but 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 a foot."
"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 had. A slaughterhouse was not on the menu. The lair reeked of dismemberment and death, even if it had happened in the distant past.
Davis cleared his throat and spanked his hands of dust. "Whatever happened here is over. Let's get my samples and move out."
Andrew crossed himself as he stared at the remains. "Yeah, the sooner the better."