From the Anthology 

Veterans’ Voices

Finding Fossils

J.W. Rose

Us kids called it Dead Horse Canyon, but it was only a ravine carved by rainwater and snowmelt, a knife cut through a layer cake of sandstone, limestone, and shale. Like Superman’s sanctum from the real world, it was our Fortress of Solitude. Sandstone crumbled, limestone cracked, and shale shed brittle flakes under glooming branches. Okay, it was a crappy sanctum, but it was our sanctum. Just ours. 


Dead Horse Canyon sounded ghastly and grandiose. Horse bones should have scattered the ravine, but we found none and felt gypped. Anyway, our Grandma named it years ago after a mare from Wilde’s Stable strayed to the ravine’s treacherous edge and fell to its death. We cousins would fall, too, if we weren’t careful, she said, but Jesse, Zach, and I were of a certain age and not cautious. Nothing could hurt us, not really. We were invulnerable to Grandma’s wisdom.


We pretended the nameless horse attempted a crazed daredevil leap across the ravine. “Heigh-ho, Silver!” we yelled and screamed aloud neigh as we scampered a toe’s-width from the sandy edge. I slipped once in gravelly chunks and landed with head and arms hanging over the emptiness. I jackknifed upright like a surprised cricket and didn’t notice until later a dirty skin flap hanging from my bloody right kneecap. I sawed it off with my pocketknife. No biggie.


Saturdays, we trooped down Mount Nebo. Just like Dead Horse Canyon, it wasn’t more than a hill with an audacious Biblical name, the Mount of Transfiguration. Down and across the road we went to where local yokels rode their noble steeds kept at Wilde’s Stable and through the hoof-beaten meadow. Over the far fence, a path wended through high grass, and we pelted full-out to escape deer flies – nasty buggers – and then sauntered about a mile through dappled beeches to the ravine. 


We took the steep path on the far north ridge of the ravine. Then down the slope we bounced and caught saplings to control our fall, and walked down and around to a pitiful rill that dripped and pooled in the ravine’s bottom. It was cool down here, away from the summer sun. We scrambled up the ravine’s sides in a game to grab roots, hanging like warty arms through the overhang. Never could reach the highest ones where the slope angled the most. 


One weekend, Zach asked for a used tire from his dad, Uncle Matt, for a tire swing over the ravine. Uncle Matt had a ton of old tires by his driveway. No, maybe two tons. But Uncle Matt nixed that idea when Jesse told him what we wanted it for. Jesse talked too loose sometimes. Uncle Matt was a long-distance trucker, so we waited until he left for a long haul and took one, anyway. Zach figured he might forget and wouldn’t even notice it missing, at least for a while. Just thinking about swinging over the emptiness above the ravine made my heart thud. I practiced my Tarzan yell, and so did Jesse and Zach. Howler monkeys had nothing on us.


We wrangled the tire to Dead Horse Canyon down the long way through the brush from Cliff Road and found a military green tarp laid out with a bunch of equipment. Someone had invaded our retreat. A metal whang on a rock made us glance up. A guy hung over the steepest side of the ravine by a rope looped to a tree and he sat in a chair made of cords. Chopping at the rock with a hammer with a narrow head, his leather gloves teased stones from the soft shale and put them in a leather sack tied to his belt. 


The man spied us and waved, and we waved back. Zach shouted what darn fool thing he thought he was doing. Wait a minute, he said. The rope from the tree snaked through a metal figure eight on his chest and down to the ground. That’s how he controlled his descent, one hand on the rope above him and another on the rope below his butt as he slid down to us. That looked cool, like a spider sliding down. 


He unhooked the line and said, “Hi, I’m Peter Carrick.”


“I’m Gabe ... Gabe Von Dorn, and this here’s Zach and Jesse Denning,” I said. “We’re cousins.” 


He was a geologist for the gas company and knew all about the ravine. The rock layers were an ancient seabed, he informed us, and said he was looking for fossils. From his pouch came little rock palm trees called crinoids and stone clamshells named brachiopods. What he wished he could find was a trilobite fossil. He had searched the area all summer every free weekend he could. 


“Trilobites,” he said, “look like giant pill bugs and lived in the sea hundreds of millions of years ago.” 


“So you’re a like a rockhound sniffing out these bugs?” said Zach.


“Yep, you can spot them in the limestone and shale. Shale is the best rock to get fossils from,” Peter said. “But carefully, because it’s so brittle.”


“Why’s it so brittle?” I asked.


“Shale is a rock made from the bottom mud of the sea that was here.”


“Bull puckey,” said Jesse. “There’s no sea around here. There’s only river mud, and that can't make rock. It’s too squishy.”


“Not true,” said the rockhound. “Hundreds of millions of years ago, there was a sea here, a shallow one, that covered the whole Cincinnati area, including parts of Indiana and Kentucky. Everything here was underwater, and trilobites swam in that sea. They hid in the bottom mud from sea monsters trying to eat them and got trapped and died. Then the tides covered their bodies more and more with layers of silt. Over millions of years, the mud would get thicker and heavier and pressed down hard, so hard it squeezed outthe water and turned the mud into shale rock. And the trilobites in the mud turned into rock, too.”


It sounded crazy, giant bugs swimming in the bottom of an old ocean right where we stood, and I told him so. He asked me what I thought crawdads were. Weren't they big underwater bugs? That threw me and got me wondering. I reckoned he was right, crawdads were like the trilobites.


“All right,” I said. “That’s cool. Come on, guys, let’s find one.”


We spread out to the dark gray seams of shale and looked for likely knobs in the rock. We discovered one and teased out the flakes of rock around it with our penknives and fingernails to expose the hidden fossil. We only found the clamshell thingy, a brachiopod.


Peter called us over to a thick seam he had worked.


“Look at this. This trilobite is curled up like a poked pill bug.” The trilobite was a ribbed pebble an inch across. “That’s what they did when frightened.”      


“It’s called an enrolled trilobite. There may be more here. The kind I want to find is stretched out flat. It’s called a prone trilobite.” He winked. “That’s the best kind.” 


We helped him look for more, but had no luck finding anymore enrolled trilobites, much less a flat one. The sun got low, and we went home to eat supper and played fence tag until dark.


Before bedtime, I looked up trilobites in Grandma’s old Encyclopedia Americana. The rockhound wasn’t lying. Trilobites were old as dirt. They lived in the Ordovician period from 450 to 500 million years ago. Their fossils were found in the limestone and slate of the eastern part of the Cincinnati Arch he told us about. I tried to imagine that long ago time by picturing the Earth revolving around the Sun backwards, faster and faster. It made my head dizzy thinking about the Earth spinning into a blurred ring.


The encyclopedia also said isotelus maximus, common to the Ordovician rocks of the Cincinnati area, was the largest trilobite. Some were over eighteen inches long. The enrolled trilobites could pop up from an eroded shale bed, but usually inbroken pieces. To find prone trilobites, you have to dig in fresh shale because erosion disintegrates them.


I yearned to look for more fossils, but it rained the next weekend, so we stayed on the hill and played Stratego and Risk. Aunt Sarah, Zach’s mom, got a load of books from her brother downriver. They both bought used science fiction books and swapped them back and forth to double their take. She let me read them, too. I got lost in Doc Smith’s Lensman series all week. 


Next Saturday arrived, and we went back to the canyon to look for trilobites again. We found the rockhound at the bottom of the ravine. Well, not him, his body. He lay in a puddle with a web of rope draped on him where he fell to his death. Dead, just like a stupid horse. It had been a week since it happened and he smelled bad, but not as bad as when Grandma’s dog found a skunk. We could stand it.


We had a cousin’s pow-wow on the best course to take. 


“If we tell anyone about the body, our folks will never let us come back here,” I said. “They’ll say it isn’t safe.”


“Guess they'd be right,” said Jesse.


"Well, yeah?" I said. "You can stop coming with us, then."


“Hey, that’s not fair.”


“Then shut up, Jesse,” said Zach. 


I looked up at where Peter fell from and saw scars in a shale layer two thirds up the bluff's face. I had an idea and hiked up the ridge, telling the guys I’d be back. At the overhang, an oak with one branch hung low over the ravine. Rubbing from a rope had broken the bark. I reckoned I could climb out on the branch and I straddle-scooted above the ravine. Zach and Jesse were directly below me, arguing about something, but I couldn’t hear. I leaned out and checked the rock seam. There was something big and knobby in the scarred shale. Definitely worth a try. 


“Guys, Rockhound found something up here,” I shouted. “Bethe got all excited and forgot where he was. With the rain, he slipped and fell.”


“Yeah, so what?” said Jesse.


“Jesus Christ, Jesse," said Zach. "Ya dense? He wants to go get it.”


“And I betcha I will, too. Bring me his sack and hammer, Zach, and the rope, too. Jesse, hang out down here. You can be our lookout man.” 


Using the rope meant for the tire swing, Zach and I tied knots every couple of feet in the rope to give support for my feet. I shinnied out and tied off around the branch, clutched the rope, and stepped off the branch. As I scooted down, the rope twisted and swung me. Zach tried to steady me from above, but it didn’t work. I yelled for Jesse to grab the loose end and pull it taut. He flailed me twice against the bluff from losing his footing until he braced himself on a sturdy limestone shelf.


I was still above the stone scar and shinnied down two knots. It was a fossil all right. The smooth cephalon (what Peter called its head) of a big trilobite poked out and its rocky eye stared at me. 


Removing the fossil was slow going with only one hand free. I switched my grasp on the rope several times to keep from getting too tired, but I managed to pull the trilobite out of the slate. My arms and legs ached, but I had done it. I put the trilobite in the rockhound’s leather bag with the hammer, its tail sticking out of the flap, it was so big. Hand-over-hand and gripping the knots with the soles of my feet, I inch-wormed to the floor of the ravine. 


At the bottom, I pulled the fossil from the bag. The trilobite was over afoot long and looked like a flat accordion. Peter would have been over the moon. My chest hurt, but I don't know why.


We swore a pact of secrecy with pinky fingers hooked one to another, standing in a circle around his body. Folded like a baby in the womb, we pulled him onto the tarp and dragged him further up the ravine. The tarp made it easy. There was a sandstone hollow on the left slope, almost a cave. His arms trapped the trilobite I laid on his stomach. We wrapped him in the tarp and rolled him under the overhang. Hand-sized stones crumbled the sandstone above the hollow and covered him.


We buried him to become a fossil one day like the ones he showed us. We were serious, dead serious as only young boys can be. No joking around, just the hard work of covering his body. 


I imagined his heart turning to stone, matching the stone bug on his chest. Someday, someone or something will find fossilized Peter and his trilobite. If the Russkies start an atomic war, I read only cockroaches could survive. I wondered what a big-brained cockroach of the far future would think. It wouldn’t have a clue. I liked that, making Peter a mystery.


Solemnly, Jesse said it was disrespectful leaving his body in the ravine and said a quiet prayer. Zach just looked disgusted with him and spit. I shrugged. It was done. Okay, maybe Jesse had it true that it wasn’t right to leave him like that, wrapped up like a secondhand mummy. Maybe we shouldn’t have done that. 


But it was the best thing to do.