A Gun for Dinosaur
by L. Sprague de Camp
NOTE: Also available is the X-1 production of the story available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7edFWC-120
No, I’m sorry, Mr. Seligman, but I can’t take you hunting Late Mesozoic dinosaur.
Yes, I know what the advertisement says.
Why not? How much d’you weigh? A hundred and thirty? Let’s see; that’s under ten stone, which is my lower limit.
I could take you to other periods, you know. I’ll take you to any period in the Cenozoic. I’ll get you a shot at an entelodont or a uintathere. They’ve got fine heads.
I’ll even stretch a point and take you to the Pleistocene, where you can try for one of the mammoths or the mastodon.
I’ll take you back to the Triassic where you can shoot one of the smaller ancestral dinosaurs. But I will jolly well not take you to the Jurassic or Cretaceous. You’re just too small.
What’s your size got to do with it? Look here, old boy, what did you think you were going to shoot your dinosaur with?
Oh, you hadn’t thought, eh?
Well, sit there a minute . . . Here you are: my own private gun for that work, a Continental .600. Does look like a shotgun, doesn’t it? But it’s rifled, as you can see by looking through the barrels. Shoots a pair of .600 Nitro Express cartridges the size of bananas; weighs fourteen and a half pounds and has a muzzle energy of over seven thousand foot-pounds. Costs fourteen hundred and fifty dollars. Lot of money for a gun, what?
I have some spares I rent to the sahibs. Designed for knocking down elephant. Not just wounding them, knocking them base-over-apex. That’s why they don’t make guns like this in America, though I suppose they will if hunting parties keep going back in time.
Now, I’ve been guiding hunting parties for twenty years. Guided ’em in Africa until the game gave out there except on the preserves. And all that time I’ve never known a man your size who could handle the six-nought-nought. It knocks ’em over, and even when they stay on their feet they get so scared of the bloody cannon after a few shots that they flinch. And they find the gun too heavy to drag around rough Mesozoic country. Wears ’em out.
It’s true that lots of people have killed elephant with lighter guns: the .500, .475, and .465 doubles, for instance, or even the .375 magnum repeaters. The difference is, with a .375 you have to hit something vital, preferably the heart, and can’t depend on simple shock power.
An elephant weighs–let’s see–four to six tons. You’re proposing to shoot reptiles weighing two or three times as much as an elephant and with much greater tenacity of life. That’s why the syndicate decided to take no more people dinosaur hunting unless they could handle the .600. We learned the hard way, as you Americans say. There were some unfortunate incidents . . .
I’ll tell you, Mr. Seligman. It’s after seventeen-hundred. Time I closed the office. Why don’t we stop at the bar on our way out while I tell you the story?
. . . It was about the Raja’s and my fifth safari into time. The Raja? Oh, he’s the Aiyar half of Rivers and Aiyar. I call him the Raja because he’s the hereditary monarch of Janpur. Means nothing nowadays, of course. Knew him in India and ran into him in New York running the Indian tourist agency. That dark chap in the photograph on my office wall, the one with his foot on the dead saber-tooth.
Well, the Raja was fed up with handing out brochures about the Taj Mahal and wanted to do a bit of hunting again. I was at loose ends when we heard of Professor Prochaska’s time machine at Washington University.
Where’s the Raja now? Out on safari in the Early Oligocene after titanothere while I run the office. We take turn about, but the first few times we went out together.
Anyway, we caught the next plane to St. Louis. To our mortification, we found we weren’t the first. Lord, no! There were other hunting guides and no end of scientists, each with his own idea of the right way to use the machine.
We scraped off the historians and archeologists right at the start. Seems the ruddy machine won’t work for periods more recent than 100,000 years ago. It works from there up to about a billion years.
Why? Oh, I’m no four-dimensional thinker; but, as I understand it, if people could go back to a more recent time, their actions would affect our own history, which would be a paradox or contradiction of facts. Can’t have that in a well-run universe, you know.
But, before 100,000 B.C., more or less, the actions of the expeditions are lost in the stream of time before human history begins. At that, once a stretch of past time has been used, say the month of January, one million B.C., you can’t use that stretch over again by sending another party into it. Paradoxes again.
The professor isn’t worried, though. With a billion years to exploit, he won’t soon run out of eras.
Another limitation of the machine is the matter of size. For technical reasons, Prochaska had to build the transition chamber just big enough to hold four men with their personal gear, and the chamber wallah. Larger parties have to be sent through in relays. That means, you see, it’s not practical to take jeeps, launches, aircraft, and other powered vehicles.
On the other hand, since you’re going to periods without human beings, there’s no whistling up a hundred native bearers to trot along with your gear on their heads. So we usually take a train of asses–burros, they call them here. Most periods have enough natural forage so you can get where you want to go.
As I say, everybody had his own idea for using the machine. The scientists looked down their noses at us hunters and said it would be a crime to waste the machine’s time pandering to our sadistic amusements.
We brought up another angle. The machine cost a cool thirty million. I understand this came from the Rockefeller Board and such people, but that accounted for the original cost only, not the cost of operation. And the thing uses fantastic amounts of power. Most of the scientists’ projects, while worthy enough, were run on a shoe-string, financially speaking.
Now, we guides catered to people with money, a species with which America seems well stocked. No offense, old boy. Most of these could afford a substantial fee for passing through the machine into the past. Thus we could help finance the operation of the machine for scientific purposes, provided we got a fair share of its time. In the end, the guides formed a syndicate of eight members, one member being the partnership of Rivers and Aiyar, to apportion the machine’s time.
We had rush business from the start. Our wives–the Raja’s and mine–raised hell with us for a while. They’d hoped that, when the big game gave out in our own era, they’d never have to share us with lions and things again, but you know how women are. Hunting’s not really dangerous if you keep your head and take precautions.
On the fifth expedition, we had two sahibs to wet-nurse; both Americans in their thirties, both physically sound, and both solvent. Otherwise they were as different as different can be.
Courtney James was what you chaps call a playboy: a rich young man from New York who’d always had his own way and didn’t see why that agreeable condition shouldn’t continue. A big bloke, almost as big as I am; handsome in a florid way, but beginning to run to fat. He was on his fourth wife and, when he showed up at the office with a blond twist with “model” written all over her, I assumed that this was the fourth Mrs. James.
“Miss Bartram,” she corrected me, with an embarrassed giggle.
“She’s not my wife,” James explained. “My wife is in Mexico, I think, getting a divorce. But Bunny here would like to go along–”
“Sorry,” I said, “we don’t take ladies. At least, not to the Late Mesozoic,”
This wasn’t strictly true, but I felt we were running enough risks, going after a little-known fauna, without dragging in people’s domestic entanglements. Nothing against sex, you understand. Marvelous institution and all that, but not where it interferes with my living.
“Oh, nonsense!” said James. “If she wants to go, she’ll go. She skis and flies my airplane, so why shouldn’t she–”
“Against the firm’s policy,” I said.
“She can keep out of the way when we run up against the dangerous ones,” he said.
“Damn it!” said he, getting red. “After all, I’m paying you a goodly sum, and I’m entitled to take whoever I please.”
“You can’t hire me to do anything against my best judgment,” I said. “If that’s how you feel, get another guide.”
“All right, I will,” he said. “And I’ll tell all my friends you’re a God-damned–” Well, he said a lot of things I won’t repeat, until I told him to get out of the office or I’d throw him out.
I was sitting in the office and thinking sadly of all that lovely money James would have paid me if I hadn’t been so stiff-necked, when in came my other lamb, one August Holtzinger. This was a little slim pale chap with glasses, polite and formal. Holtzinger sat on the edge of his chair and said:
“Uh–Mr. Rivers, I don’t want you to think I’m here under false pretenses. I’m really not much of an outdoorsman, and I’ll probably be scared to death when I see a real dinosaur. But I’m determined to hang a dinosaur head over my fireplace or die in the attempt.”
“Most of us are frightened at first,” I soothed him, “though it doesn’t do to show it.” And little by little I got the story out of him.
While James had always been wallowing in the stuff, Holtzinger was a local product who’d only lately come into the real thing. He’d had a little business here in St. Louis and just about made ends meet when an uncle cashed in his chips somewhere and left little Augie the pile.
Now Holtzinger had acquired a fiancÃ©e and was building a big house. When it was finished, they’d be married and move into it. And one furnishing he demanded was a ceratopsian head over the fireplace. Those are the ones with the big horned heads with a parrot-beak and a frill over the neck, you know. You have to think twice about collecting them, because if you put a seven-foot Triceratops head into a small living room, there’s apt to be no room left for anything else.
We were talking about this when in came a girl: a small girl in her twenties, quite ordinary looking, and crying.
“Augie!” she cried. “You can’t! You mustn’t! You’ll be killed!” She grabbed him round the knees and said to me:
“Mr. Rivers, you mustn’t take him! He’s all I’ve got! He’ll never stand the hardships!”
“My dear young lady,” I said, “I should hate to cause you distress, but it’s up to Mr. Holtzinger to decide whether he wishes to retain my services.”
“It’s no use, Claire,” said Holtzinger. “I’m going, though I’ll probably hate every minute of it.”
“What’s that, old boy?” I said. “If you hate it, why go? Did you lose a bet, or something?”
“No,” said Holtzinger. “It’s this way. Uh–I’m a completely undistinguished kind of guy. I’m not brilliant or big or strong or handsome. I’m just an ordinary Midwestern small businessman. You never even notice me at Rotary luncheons, I fit in so perfectly.
“But that doesn’t say I’m satisfied. I’ve always hankered to go to far places and do big things. I’d like to be a glamorous, adventurous sort of guy. Like you, Mr. Rivers.”
“Oh, come,” I said. “Professional hunting may seem glamorous to you, but to me it’s just a living.”
He shook his head. “Nope. You know what I mean. Well, now I’ve got this legacy, I could settle down to play bridge and golf the rest of my life, and try to act like I wasn’t bored. But I’m determined to do something with some color in it, once at least. Since there’s no more real big-game hunting in the present, I’m gonna shoot a dinosaur and hang his head over my mantel if it’s the last thing I do. I’ll never be happy otherwise.”
Well, Holtzinger and his girl argued, but he wouldn’t give in. She made me swear to take the best care of her Augie and departed, sniffling.
When Holtzinger had left, who should come in but my vile-tempered friend Courtney James? He apologized for insulting me, though you could hardly say he groveled.
“I don’t really have a bad temper,” he said, “except when people won’t cooperate with me. Then I sometimes get mad. But so long as they’re cooperative I’m not hard to get along with.”
I knew that by “cooperate” he meant to do whatever Courtney James wanted, but I didn’t press the point. “What about Miss Bartram?” I asked.
“We had a row,” he said. “I’m through with women. So, if there’s no hard feelings, let’s go on from where we left off.”
“Very well,” I said, business being business.
The Raja and I decided to make it a joint safari to eight-five million years ago: the Early Upper Cretaceous, or the Middle Cretaceous as some American geologists call it. It’s about the best period for dinosaur in Missouri. You’ll find some individual species a little larger in the Late Upper Cretaceous, but the period we were going to gives a wider variety.
Now, as to our equipment: The Raja and I each had a Continental .600, like the one I showed you, and a few smaller guns. At this time we hadn’t worked up much capital and had no spare .600s to rent.
August Holtzinger said he would rent a gun, as he expected this to be his only safari, and there’s no point in spending over a thousand dollars for a gun you’ll shoot only a few times. But, since we had no spare .600s, his choice lay between buying one of those and renting one of our smaller pieces.
We drove into the country and set up a target to let him try the .600. Holtzinger heaved up the gun and let fly. He missed completely, and the kick knocked him flat on his back.
He got up, looking paler than ever, and handed me back the gun, saying: “Uh–I think I’d better try something smaller.”
When his shoulder stopped hurting, I tried him out on the smaller rifles. He took a fancy to my Winchester 70, chambered for the .375 magnum cartridge. This is an excellent all-round gun–perfect for the big cats and bears, but a little light for elephant and definitely light for dinosaur. I should never have given in, but I was in a hurry, and it might have taken months to have a new .600 made to order for him. James already had a gun, a Holland & Holland .500 double express, which is almost in a class with the .600.
Both sahibs had done a bit of shooting, so I didn’t worry about their accuracy. Shooting dinosaur is not a matter of extreme accuracy, but of sound judgment and smooth coordination so you shan’t catch twigs in the mechanism of your gun, or fall into holes, or climb a small tree that the dinosaur can pluck you out of, or blow your guide’s head off.
People used to hunting mammals sometimes try to shoot a dinosaur in the brain. That’s the silliest thing to do, because dinosaurs haven’t got any. To be exact, they have a little lump of tissue the size of a tennis ball on the front end of their spines, and how are you going to hit that when it’s imbedded in a six-foot skull?
The only safe rule with dinosaur is: always try for a heart shot. They have big hearts, over a hundred pounds in the largest species, and a couple of .600 slugs through the heart will slow them up, at least. The problem is to get the slugs through that mountain of meat around it.
Well, we appeared at Prochaska’s laboratory one rainy morning: James and Holtzinger, the Raja and I, our herder Beauregard Black, three helpers, a cook, and twelve jacks.
The transition chamber is a little cubbyhole the size of a small lift. My routine is for the men with the guns to go first in case a hungry theropod is standing near the machine when it arrives. So the two sahibs, the Raja, and I crowded into the chamber with our guns and packs. The operator squeezed in after us, closed the door, and fiddled with his dials. He set the thing for April twenty-fourth, eight-five million B.C., and pressed the red button. The lights went out, leaving the chamber lit by a little battery-operated lamp. James and Holtzinger looked pretty green, but that may have been the lighting. The Raja and I had been through all this before, so the vibration and vertigo didn’t bother us.
The little spinning black hands of the dials slowed down and stopped. The operator looked at his ground-level gauge and turned the handwheel that raised the chamber so it shouldn’t materialize underground. Then he pressed another button, and the door slid open.
No matter how often I do it, I get a frightful thrill out of stepping into a bygone era. The operator had raised the chamber a foot above ground level, so I jumped down, my gun ready. The others came after.
“Right-ho,” I said to the chamber wallah, and he closed the door. The chamber disappeared, and we looked around. There weren’t any dinosaur in sight, nothing but lizards.
In this period, the chamber materializes on top of a rocky rise, from which you can see in all directions as far as the haze will let you. To the west, you see the arm of the Kansas Sea that reaches across Missouri and the big swamp around the bayhead where the sauropods live.
To the north is a low range that the Raja named the Janpur Hills, after the Indian kingdom his forebears once ruled. To the east, the land slopes up to a plateau, good for ceratopsians, while to the south is flat country with more sauropod swamps and lots of ornithopod: duckbill and iguanodont.
The finest thing about the Cretaceous is the climate: balmy like the South Sea Islands, but not so muggy as most Jurassic climates. It was spring, with dwarf magnolias in bloom all over.
A thing about this landscape is that it combines a fairly high rainfall with an open type of vegetation cover. That is, the grasses hadn’t yet evolved to the point of forming solid carpets over all the open ground. So the ground is thick with laurel, sassafras, and other shrubs, with bare earth between. There are big thickets of palmettos and ferns. The trees round the hill are mostly cycads, standing singly and in copses. You’d call ’em palms. Down towards the Kansas Sea are more cycads and willows, while the uplands are covered with screw pine and ginkgoes.
Now, I’m no bloody poet–the Raja writes the stuff, not me–but I can appreciate a beautiful scene. One of the helpers had come through the machine with two of the jacks and was pegging them out, and I was looking through the haze and sniffing the air, when a gun went off behind me–bang! bang!Â
I whirled round, and there was Courtney James with his .500, and an ornithomime legging it for cover fifty yards away. The ornithomimes are medium-sized running dinosaurs, slender things with long necks and legs, like a cross between a lizard and an ostrich. This kind is about seven feet tall and weighs as much as a man. The beggar had wandered out of the nearest copse, and James gave him both barrels. Missed.
I was upset, as trigger-happy sahibs are as much a menace to their party as theropods. I yelled: “Damn it, you idiot! I thought you weren’t to shoot without a word from me?”
“And who the hell are you to tell me when I’ll shoot my own gun?” he said.
We had a rare old row until Holtzinger and the Raja got us calmed down. I explained:
“Look here, Mr. James, I’ve got reasons. If you shoot off all your ammunition before the trip’s over, your gun won’t be available in a pinch, as it’s the only one of its caliber. If you empty both barrels at an unimportant target, what would happen if a big theropod charged before you could reload? Finally, it’s not sporting to shoot everything in sight, just to hear the gun go off. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said.
The rest of the party came through the machine, and we pitched our camp a safe distance from the materializing place. Our first task was to get fresh meat. For a twenty-one-day safari like this, we calculate our food requirements closely, so we can make out on tinned stuff and concentrates if we must, but we count on killing at least one piece of meat. When that’s butchered, we go off on a short tour, stopping at four or five camping places to hunt and arriving back at base a few days before the chamber is due to appear.
Holtzinger, as I said, wanted a ceratopsian head, any kind. James insisted on just one head: a tyrannosaur. Then everybody’d think he’d shot the most dangerous game of all time.
Fact is, the tyrannosaur’s overrated. He’s more a carrion eater than an active predator, though he’ll snap you up if he gets the chance. He’s less dangerous than some of the other theropods–the flesh eaters, you know–such as the smaller Gorgosaurus from the period we were in. But everybody’s read about the tyrant lizard, and he does have the biggest head of the theropods.
The one in our period isn’t the rex, which is later and a bit bigger and more specialized. It’s the trionyches, with the forelimbs not quite so reduced, though they’re still too small for anything but picking the brute’s teeth after a meal.
When camp was pitched, we still had the afternoon. So the Raja and I took our sahibs on their first hunt. We had a map of the local terrain from previous trips.
The Raja and I have worked out a system for dinosaur hunting. We split into two groups of two men each and walk parallel from twenty to forty yards apart. Each group has a sahib in front and a guide following, telling him where to go. We tell the sahibs we put them in front so they shall have the first shot. Well, that’s true, but another reason is they’re always tripping and falling with their guns cocked, and if the guide were in front he’d get shot.
The reason for two groups is that if a dinosaur starts for one, the other gets a good heart shot from the side.
As we walked, there was the usual rustle of lizards scuttling out of the way: little fellows, quick as a flash and colored like all the jewels in Tiffany’s, and big gray ones that hiss at you as they plod off. There were tortoises and a few little snakes. Birds with beaks full of teeth flapped off squawking. And always there was that marvelous mild Cretaceous air. Makes a chap want to take his clothes off and dance with vine leaves in his hair, if you know what I mean.
Our sahibs soon found that Mesozoic country is cut up into millions of nullahs–gullies, you’d say. Walking is one long scramble, up and down, up and down.
We’d been scrambling for an hour, and the sahibs were soaked with sweat and had their tongues hanging out, when the Raja whistled. He’d spotted a group of bonehead feeding on cycad shoots.
These are the troÃ¶donts, small ornithopods about the size of men with a bulge on top of their heads that makes them look almost intelligent. Means nothing, because the bulge is solid bone. The males butt each other with these heads in fighting over the females.
These chaps would drop down on all fours, munch up a shoot, then stand up and look around. They’re warier than most dinosaur, because they’re the favorite food of the big theropods.
People sometimes assume that because dinosaur are so stupid, their senses must be dim, too. But it’s not so. Some, like the sauropods, are pretty dim-sensed, but most have good smell and eyesight and fair hearing. Their weakness is that having no minds, they have no memories. Hence, out of sight, out of mind. When a big theropod comes slavering after you, your best defense is to hide in a nullah or behind a bush, and if he can neither see you nor smell you he’ll just wander off.
We skulked up behind a patch of palmetto downwind from the bonehead. I whispered to James:
“You’ve had a shot already today. Hold your fire until Holtzinger shoots, and then shoot only if he misses or if the beast is getting away wounded.”
“Uh-huh,” said James.
We separated, he with the Raja and Holtzinger with me. This got to be our regular arrangement. James and I got on each other’s nerves, but the Raja’s a friendly, sentimental sort of bloke nobody can help liking.
We crawled round the palmetto patch on opposite sides, and Holtzinger got up to shoot. You daren’t shoot a heavy-caliber rifle prone. There’s not enough give, and the kick can break your shoulder.
Holtzinger sighted round the law few fronds of palmetto. I saw his barrel wobbling and waving. Then he lowered his gun and tucked it under his arm to wipe his glasses.
Off went James’s gun, both barrels again.
The biggest bonehead went down, rolling and thrashing. The others ran away on their hindlegs in great leaps, their heads jerking and their tails sticking up behind.
“Put your gun on safety,” I said to Holtzinger, who’d started forward. By the time we got to the bonehead, James was standing over it, breaking open his gun and blowing out the barrels. He looked as smug as if he’d come into another million and was asking the Raja to take his picture with his foot on the game.
I said: “I thought you were to give Holtzinger the first shot?”
“Hell, I waited,” he said, “and he took so long I thought he must have gotten buck fever. If we stood around long enough, they’d see us or smell us.”
There was something in what he said, but his way of saying it put my monkey up. I said: “If that sort of thing happens once more, we’ll leave you in camp the next time we go out.”
“Now, gentlemen,” said the Raja. “After all, Reggie, these aren’t experienced hunters.”
“What now?” said Holtzinger. “Haul him back ourselves or send out the men?”
“We’ll sling him under the pole,” I said. “He weighs under two hundred.”
The pole was a telescoping aluminum carrying pole I had in my pack, with padded yokes on the ends. I brought it because, in such eras, you can’t count on finding saplings strong enough for proper poles on the spot.
The Raja and I cleaned our bonehead to lighten him and tied him to the pole. The flies began to light on the offal by thousands. Scientists say they’re not true flies in the modern sense, but they look and act like flies. There’s one huge four-winged carrion fly that flies with a distinctive deep thrumming note.
The rest of the afternoon we sweated under that pole, taking turn about. The lizards scuttled out of the way, and the flies buzzed round the carcass.
We got to camp just before sunset, feeling as if we could eat the whole bonehead at one meal. The boys had the camp running smoothly, so we sat down for our tot of whiskey, feeling like lords of creation, while the cook broiled bonehead steaks.
Holtzinger said: “Uh–if I kill a ceratopsian, how do we get his head back?”
I explained: “If the ground permits, we lash it to the patent aluminum roller frame and sled it in.”
“How much does a head like that weigh?” he asked.
“Depends on the age and the species,” I told him. “The biggest weigh over a ton, but most run between five hundred and a thousand pounds.”
“And all the ground’s rough like it was today?”
“Most of it,” I said. “You see, it’s the combination of the open vegetation cover and the moderately high rainfall. Erosion is frightfully rapid.”
“And who hauls the head on its little sled?”
“Everybody with a hand,” I said. “A big head would need every ounce of muscle in this party. On such a job there’s no place for side.”
“Oh,” said Holtzinger. I could see he was wondering whether a ceratopsian head would be worth the effort.
The next couple of days we trekked round the neighborhood. Nothing worth shooting; only a herd of ornithomimes, which went bounding off like a lot of ballet dancers. Otherwise there were only the usual lizards and pterosaurs and birds and insects. There’s a big lace-winged fly that bites dinosaurs, so, as you can imagine, its beak makes nothing of a human skin. One made Holtzinger leap and dance like a Red Indian when it bit him through his shirt. James joshed him about it, saying:
“What’s all the fuss over one little bug?”
The second night, during the Raja’s watch, James gave a yell that brought us all out of our tents with rifles. All that had happened was that a dinosaur tick had crawled in with him and started drilling under his armpit. Since it’s as big as your thumb even when it hasn’t fed, he was understandably startled. Luckily he got it before it had taken its pint of blood. He’d pulled Holtzinger’s leg pretty hard about the fly bite, so now Holtzinger repeated the words:
“What’s all the fuss over one little bug, buddy?”
James squashed the tick underfoot with a grunt, not much liking to be hoist by his own what-d’you-call-it.
We packed up and started on our circuit. We meant to take the sahibs first to the sauropod swamp, more to see the wildlife than to collect anything.
From where the transition chamber materializes, the sauropod swamp looks like a couple of hours’ walk, but it’s really an all-day scramble. The first part is easy, as it’s downhill and the brush isn’t heavy. Then, as you get near the swamp, the cycads and willows grow so thickly that you have to worm your way among them.
I led the party to a sandy ridge on the border of the swamp, as it was pretty bare of vegetation and afforded a fine view. When we got to the ridge, the sun was about to go down. A couple of crocs slipped off into the water. The sahibs were so tired that they flopped down in the sand as if dead.
The haze is thick round the swamp, so the sun was deep red and weirdly distorted by the atmospheric layers. There was a high layer of clouds reflecting the red and gold of the sun, too, so altogether it was something for the Raja to write one of his poems about. A few little pterosaur were wheeling overhead like bats.
Beauregard Black got a fire going. We’d started on our steaks, and that pagoda-shaped sun was just slipping below the horizon, and something back in the trees was making a noise like a rusty hinge, when a sauropod breathed out in the water. They’re the really big ones, you know. If Mother Earth were to sigh over the misdeeds of her children, it would sound like that.
The sahibs jumped up, shouting: “Where is he? Where is he?”
I said: “That black spot in the water, just to the left of that point.”
They yammered while the sauropod filled its lungs and disappeared. “Is that all?” said James. “Won’t we see any more of him?”
“No,” I explained. “They can walk perfectly well and often do, for egg-laying and moving from one swamp to another. But most of the time they spend in the water, like hippopotamus. They eat eight hundred pounds of soft swamp plants a day, all through those little heads. So they wander about the bottoms of lakes and swamps, chomping away, and stick their heads up to breathe every quarter-hour or so. It’s getting dark, so this fellow will soon come out and lie down in the shallows to sleep.”
“Can we shoot one?” demanded James.
“I wouldn’t,” said I.
I said: “There’s no point in it, and it’s not sporting. First, they’re almost invulnerable. They’re even harder to hit in the brain than other dinosaurs because of the way they sway their heads about on those long necks. Their hearts are too deeply buried to reach unless you’re awfully lucky. Then, if you kill one in the water, he sinks and can’t be recovered. If you kill one on land, the only trophy is that little head. You can’t bring the whole beast back because he weighs thirty tons or more, and we’ve got no use for thirty tons of meat.”
Holtzinger said: “That museum in New York got one.”
“Yes,” said I. “The American Museum of Natural History sent a party of forty-eight to the Early Cretaceous with a fifty-caliber machine gun. They killed a sauropod and spent two solid months skinning it and hacking the carcass apart and dragging it to the time machine. I know the chap in charge of that project, and he still has nightmares in which he smells decomposing dinosaur. They had to kill a dozen big theropods attracted by the stench, so they had them lying around and rotting, too. And the theropods ate three men of the party despite the big gun.”
Next morning, we were finishing breakfast when one of the helpers said: “Look, Mr. Rivers, up there!”
He pointed along the shoreline. There were six big crested duckbill, feeding in the shallows. They were the kind called Parasaurolophus, with a long spike sticking out the back of their heads and a web of skin connecting this with the back of their necks.
“Keep your voices down!” I said. The duckbill, like the other ornithopods, are wary beasts because they have neither armor nor weapons. They feed on the margins of lakes and swamps, and when a gorgosaur rushes out of the trees they plunge into deep water and swim off. Then when Phobosuchus, the supercrocodile, goes for them in the water, they flee to the land. A hectic sort of life, what?
Holtzinger said: “Uh–Reggie! I’ve been thinking over what you said about ceratopsian heads. If I could get one of those yonder, I’d be satisfied. It would look big enough in my house, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m sure of it, old boy,” I said. “Now look here. We could detour to come out on the shore near here, but we should have to plow through half a mile of muck and brush, and they’d hear us coming. Or we can creep up to the north end of this sandspit, from which it’s three or four hundred yard – a long shot but not impossible. Think you could do it?”
“Hm,” said Holtzinger. “With my scope sight and a sitting position–okay, I’ll try it.”
“You stay here, Court,” I said to James. “This is Augie’s head, and I don’t want any argument over your having fired first.”
James grunted while Holtzinger clamped his scope to his rifle. We crouched our way up the spit, keeping the sand ridge between us and the duckbill. When we got to the end where there was no more cover, we crept along on hands and knees, moving slowly. If you move slowly enough, directly toward or away from a dinosaur, it probably won’t notice you.
The duckbill continued to grub about on all fours, every few seconds rising to look round. Holtzinger eased himself into the sitting position, cocked his piece, and aimed through his scope. And then–
Bang! bang! went a big rifle back at the camp.
Holtzinger jumped. The duckbills jerked their heads up and leaped for the deep water, splashing like mad. Holtzinger fired once and missed. I took one shot at the last duckbill before it vanished too, but missed. The .600 isn’t built for long ranges.
Holtzinger and I started back toward the camp, for it had struck us that our party might be in theropod trouble.
What had happened was that a big sauropod had wandered down past the camp underwater, feeding as it went. Now, the water shoaled about a hundred yards offshore from our spit, halfway over to the swamp on the other side. The sauropod had ambled up the slope until its body was almost all out of water, weaving its head from side to side and looking for anything green to gobble. This is a species of Alamosaurus, which looks much like the well-known Brontosaurus except that it’s bigger.
When I came in sight of the camp, the sauropod was turning round to go back the way it had come, making horrid groans. By the time we reached the camp, it had disappeared into deep water, all but its head and twenty feet of neck, which wove about for some time before they vanished into the haze.
When we came up to the camp, James was arguing with the Raja. Holtzinger burst out:
“You crummy bastard! That’s the second time you’ve spoiled my shots.”
“Don’t be a fool,” said James. “I couldn’t let him wander into the camp and stamp everything flat.”
“There was no danger of that,” said the Raja. “You can see the water is deep offshore. It’s just that our trigger-happy Mr. James cannot see any animal without shooting.”
I added: “If it did get close, all you needed to do was throw a stick of firewood at it. They’re perfectly harmless.”
This wasn’t strictly true. When the Comte de Lautrec ran after one for a close shot, the sauropod looked back at him, gave a flick of its tail, and took off the Comte’s head as neatly as if he’d been axed in the tower. But, as a rule, they’re inoffensive enough.
“How was I to know?” yelled James, turning purple. “You’re all against me. What the hell are we on this miserable trip for, except to shoot things? Call yourselves hunters, but I’m the only one who hits anything!”
I got pretty wrothy and said he was just an excitable young skite with more money than brains, whom I should never have brought along.
“If that’s how you feel,” he said, “give me a burro and some food, and I’ll go back to the base myself. I won’t pollute your pure air with my presence!”
“Don’t be a bigger ass than you can help,” I said. “What you propose is quite impossible.”
“Then I’ll go alone!” He grabbed his knapsack, thrust a couple of tins of beans and an opener into it, and started off with his rifle.
Beauregard Black spoke up: “Mr. Rivers, we cain’t let him go off like that. He’ll git lost and starve, or be et by a theropod.”
“I’ll fetch him back,” said the Raja, and started after the runaway.
He caught up with James as the latter was disappearing into the cycads. We could see them arguing and waving their hands in the distance. After a while, they started back with arms around each other’s necks like old school pals.
This shows the trouble we get into if we make mistakes in planning such a do. Having once got back in time, we had to make the best of our bargain.
I don’t want to give the impression, however, that Courtney James was nothing but a pain in the rump. He had good points. He got over these rows quickly and next day would be as cheerful as ever. He was helpful with the general work of the camp, at least when he felt like it. He sang well and had an endless fund of dirty stories to keep us amused.
We stayed two more days at that camp. We saw crocodile, the small kind, and plenty of sauropod as many as five at once but no more duckbill. Nor any of those fifty-foot supercrocodiles.
So, on the first of May, we broke camp and headed north toward the Janpur Hills. My sahibs were beginning to harden up and were getting impatient. We’d been in the Cretaceous a week, and no trophies.
We saw nothing to speak of on the next leg, save a glimpse of a gorgosaur out of range and some tracks indicating a whopping big iguanodont, twenty-five or thirty feet high. We pitched camp at the base of the hills.
We’d finished off the bonehead, so the first thing was to shoot fresh meat. With an eye to trophies, too, of course. We got ready the morning of the third, and I told James:
“See here, old boy, no more of your tricks. The Raja will tell you when to shoot.”
“Uh-huh, I get you,” he said, meek as Moses.
We marched off, the four of us, into the foothills. There was a good chance of getting Holtzinger his ceratopsian. We’d seen a couple on the way up, but mere calves without decent horns.
As it was hot and sticky, we were soon panting and sweating. We’d hiked and scrambled all morning without seeing a thing except lizards, when I picked up the smell of carrion. I stopped the party and sniffed. We were in an open glade cut up by those little dry nullahs. The nullahs ran together into a couple of deeper gorges that cut through a slight depression choked with denser growth, cycad, and screw pine. When I listened, I heard the thrum of carrion flies.
“This way,” I said. “Something ought to be dead–ah, here it is!”
And there it was: the remains of a huge ceratopsian lying in a little hollow on the edge of the copse. Must have weighed six or eight ton alive; a three-horned variety, perhaps the penultimate species of Triceratops. It was hard to tell, because most of the hide on the upper surface had been ripped off, and many bones had been pulled loose and lay scattered about.
Holtzinger said: “Oh, shucks! Why couldn’t I have gotten to him before he died? That would have been a darned fine head.”
I said: “On your toes, chaps. A theropod’s been at this carcass and is probably nearby.”
“How d’you know?” said James, with sweat running off his round red face. He spoke in what was for him a low voice, because a nearby theropod is a sobering thought to the flightiest.
I sniffed again and thought I could detect the distinctive rank odor of theropod. I couldn’t be sure, though, because the carcass stank so strongly. My sahibs were turning green at the sight and smell of the cadaver. I told James:
“It’s seldom that even the biggest theropod will attack a full-grown ceratopsian. Those horns are too much for them. But they love a dead or dying one. They’ll hang round a dead ceratopsian for weeks, gorging and then sleeping off their meals for days at a time. They usually take cover in the heat of the day anyhow, because they can’t stand much direct hot sunlight. You’ll find them lying in copses like this or in hollows, wherever there’s shade.”
“What’ll we do?” asked Holtzinger.
“We’ll make our first cast through this copse, in two pairs as usual. Whatever you do, don’t get impulsive or panicky.”
I looked at Courtney James, but he looked right back and merely checked his gun.
“Should I still carry this broken?” he asked.
“No, close it, but keep the safety on till you’re ready to shoot,” I said. “We’ll keep closer than usual, so we shall be in sight of each other. Start off at that angle, Raja; go slowly, and stop to listen between steps.”
We pushed through the edge of the copse, leaving the carcass but not its stench behind us. For a few feet, you couldn’t see a thing.
It opened out as we got in under the trees, which shaded out some of the brush. The sun slanted down through the trees. I could hear nothing but the hum of insects and the scuttle of lizards and the squawks of toothed birds in the treetops. I thought I could be sure of the theropod smell, but told myself that might be imagination. The theropod might be any of several species, large or small, and the beast itself might be anywhere within a half-mile’s radius.
“Go on,” I whispered to Holtzinger. I could hear James and the Raja pushing ahead on my right and see the palm fronds and ferns lashing about as they disturbed them. I suppose they were trying to move quietly, but to me they sounded like an earthquake in a crockery shop.
“A little closer!” I called.
Presently, they appeared slanting in toward me. We dropped into a gully filled with ferns and scrambled up the other side. Then we found our way blocked by a big clump of palmetto.
“You go round that side; we’ll go round this,” I said. We started off, stopping to listen and smell. Our positions were the same as on that first day, when James killed the bonehead.
We’d gone two-thirds of the way round our half of the palmetto when I heard a noise ahead on our left. Holtzinger heard it too, and pushed off his safety. I put my thumb on mine and stepped to one side to have a clear field of fire.
The clatter grew louder. I raised my gun to aim at about the height of a big theropod’s heart. There was a movement in the foliage–and a six-foot-high bonehead stepped into view, walking solemnly across our front and jerking its head with each step like a giant pigeon.
I heard Holtzinger let out a breath and had to keep myself from laughing. Holtzinger said: “Uh–”
Then that damned gun of James’s went off, bang! bang! I had a glimpse of the bonehead knocked arsy-varsy with its tail and hindlegs flying.
“Got him!” yelled James. “I drilled him clean!” I heard him run forward.
“Good God, if he hasn’t done it again!” I said.
Then there was a great swishing of foliage and a wild yell from James. Something heaved up out of the shrubbery, and I saw the head of the biggest of the local flesh eaters, Tyrannosaurus trionyches himself.
The scientists can insist that rex is the bigger species, but I’ll swear this blighter was bigger than any rex ever hatched. It must have stood twenty feet high and been fifty feet long. I could see its big bright eye and six-inch teeth and the big dewlap that hangs down from its chin to its chest.
The second of the nullahs that cut through the copse ran athwart our path on the far side of the palmetto clump. Perhaps it was six feet deep. The tyrannosaur had been lying in this, sleeping off its last meal. Where its back stuck up above the ground level, the ferns on the edge of the nullah had masked it. James had fired both barrels over the theropod’s head and woke it up. Then the silly ass ran forward without reloading. Another twenty feet and he’d have stepped on the tyrannosaur.
James, naturally, stopped when this thing popped up in front of him. He remembered that he’d fired both barrels and that he’d left the Raja too far behind for a clear shot.
At first, James kept his nerve. He broke open his gun, took two rounds from his belt, and plugged them into the barrels. But, in his haste to snap the gun shut, he caught his hand between the barrels and the action. The painful pinch so startled James that he dropped his gun. Then he went to pieces and bolted.
The Raja was running up with his gun at high port, ready to snap it to his shoulder the instant he got a clear view. When he saw James running headlong toward him, he hesitated, not wishing to shoot James by accident. The latter plunged ahead, blundered into the Raja, and sent them both sprawling among the ferns. The tyrannosaur collected what little wits it had and stepped forward to snap them up.
And how about Holtzinger and me on the other side of the palmettos? Well, the instant James yelled and the tyrannosaur’s head appeared, Holtzinger darted forward like a rabbit. I’d brought my gun up for a shot at the tyrannosaur’s head, in hope of getting at least an eye; but, before I could find it in my sights, the head was out of sight behind the palmettos. Perhaps I should have fired at hazard, but all my experience is against wild shots.
When I looked back in front of me, Holtzinger had already disappeared round the curve of the palmetto clump. I’d started after him when I heard his rifle and the click of the bolt between shots: bang–click-click–bang–click-click, like that.
He’d come up on the tyrannosaur’s quarter as the brute started to stoop for James and the Raja. With his muzzle twenty feet from the tyrannosaur’s hide, Holtzinger began pumping .375s into the beast’s body. He got off three shots when the tyrannosaur gave a tremendous booming grunt and wheeled round to see what was stinging it. The jaws came open, and the head swung round and down again.
Holtzinger got off one more shot and tried to leap to one side. As he was standing on a narrow place between the palmetto clump and the nullah, he fell into the nullah. The tyrannosaur continued its lunge and caught him. The jaws went chomp, and up came the head with poor Holtzinger in them, screaming like a damned soul.
I came up just then and aimed at the brute’s face, but then realized that its jaws were full of my sahib and I should be shooting him, too. As the head went on up like the business end of a big power shovel, I fired a shot at the heart. The tyrannosaur was already turning away, and I suspect the ball just glanced along the ribs. The beast took a couple of steps when I gave it the other barrel in the jack. It staggered on its next step but kept on. Another step, and it was nearly out of sight among the trees, when the Raja fired twice. The stout fellow had untangled himself from James, got up, picked up his gun, and let the tyrannosaur have it.
The double wallop knocked the brute over with a tremendous crash. It fell into a dwarf magnolia, and I saw one of its huge birdlike hindlegs waving in the midst of a shower of pink-and-white petals. But the tyrannosaur got up again and blundered off without even dropping its victim. The last I saw of it was Holtzinger’s legs dangling out one side of its jaws (he’d stopped screaming) and its big tail banging against the tree trunks as it swung from side to side.
The Raja and I reloaded and ran after the brute for all we were worth. I tripped and fell once, but jumped up again and didn’t notice my skinned elbow till later. When we burst out of the copse, the tyrannosaur was already at the far end of the glade. We each took a quick shot but probably missed, and it was out of sight before we could fire again.
We ran on, following the tracks and spatters of blood, until we had to stop from exhaustion. Never again did we see that tyrannosaur. Their movements look slow and ponderous, but with those tremendous legs they don’t have to step very fast to work up considerable speed.
When we’d got our breath, we got up and tried to track the tyrannosaur, on the theory that it might be dying and we should come up to it. But, though we found more spoor, it faded out and left us at a loss. We circled round, hoping to pick it up, but no luck.
Hours later, we gave up and went back to the glade.
Courtney James was sitting with his back against a tree, holding his rifle and Holtzinger’s. His right hand was swollen and blue where he’d pinched it, but still usable. His first words were:
“Where the hell have you two been?”
I said: “We’ve been occupied. The late Mr. Holtzinger. Remember?”
“You shouldn’t have gone off and left me; another of those things might have come along. Isn’t it bad enough to lose one hunter through your stupidity without risking another one?”
I’d been preparing a warm wigging for James, but his attack so astonished me that I could only bleat; “What? We lost . . . ?”
“Sure,” he said. “You put us in front of you, so if anybody gets eaten it’s us. You send a guy up against these animals undergunned. You–”
“You Goddamn’ stinking little swine!” I said. “If you hadn’t been a blithering idiot and blown those two barrels, and then run like the yellow coward you are, this never would have happened. Holtzinger died trying to save your worthless life. By God, I wish he’d failed! He was worth six of a stupid, spoiled, muttonheaded bastard like you–”
I went on from there. The Raja tried to keep up with me, but ran out of English and was reduced to cursing James in Hindustani.
I could see by the purple color on James’s face that I was getting home. He said “Why, you–” and stepped forward and sloshed me one in the face with his left fist.
It rocked me a bit, but I said: “Now then, my lad, I’m glad you did that! It gives me a chance I’ve been waiting for . . .”
So I waded into him. He was a good-sized boy, but between my sixteen stone and his sore right hand he had no chance. I got a few good ones home, and down he went.
“Now get up!” I said. “And I’ll be glad to finish off!”
James raised himself to his elbows. I got set for more fisticuffs, though my knuckles were skinned and bleeding already. James rolled over, snatched his gun, and scrambled up, swinging the muzzle from one to the other of us.
“You won’t finish anybody off!” he panted through swollen lips. “All right, put your hands up! Both of you!”
“Do not be an idiot,” said the Raja. “Put that gun away!”
“Nobody treats me like that and gets away with it!”
“There’s no use murdering us,” I said. “You’d never get away with it.”
“Why not? There won’t be much left of you after one of these hits you. I’ll just say the tyrannosaur ate you, too. Nobody could prove anything. They can’t hold you for a murder eighty-five million years old. The statute of limitations, you know.”
“You fool, you’d never make it back to the camp alive!” I shouted.
“I’ll take a chance–” began James, setting the butt of his .500 against his shoulder, with the barrels pointed at my face. Looked like a pair of bleeding vehicular tunnels.
He was watching me so closely that he lost track of the Raja for a second. My partner had been resting on one knee, and now his right arm came up in a quick bowling motion with a three-pound rock. The rock bounced of James’s head. The .500 went off. The ball must have parted my hair, and the explosion jolly well near broke my eardrums. Down went James again.
“Good work, old chap!” I said, gathering up James’s gun.
“Yes,” said the Raja thoughtfully, as he picked up the rock he’d thrown and tossed it. “Doesn’t quite have the balance of a cricket ball, but it is just as hard.”
“What shall we do now?” I said. “I’m inclined to leave the beggar here unarmed and let him fend for himself.”
The Raja gave a little sigh. “It’s a tempting thought, Reggie, but we really cannot, you know. Not done.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “Well, let’s tie him up and take him back to camp.”
We agreed there was no safety for us unless we kept James under guard every minute until we got home. Once a man has tried to kill you, you’re a fool if you give him another chance.
We marched James back to camp and told the crew what we were up against. James cursed everybody.
We spent three dismal days combing the country for that tyrannosaur, but no luck. We felt it wouldn’t have been cricket not to make a good try at recovering Holtzinger’s remains. Back at our main camp, when it wasn’t raining, we collected small reptiles and things for our scientific friends. The Raja and I discussed the question of legal proceedings against Courtney James, but decided there was nothing we could do in that direction.
When the transition chamber materialized, we fell over one another getting into it. We dumped James, still tied, in a corner, and told the chamber operator to throw the switches.
While we were in transition, James said: “You two should have killed me back there.”
“Why?” I said. “You don’t have a particularly good head.”
The Raja added: “Wouldn’t look at all well over a mantel.”
“You can laugh,” said James, “but I’ll get you some day. I’ll find a way and get off scot-free.”
“My dear chap!” I said. “If there were some way to do it, I’d have you charged with Holtzinger’s death. Look, you’d best leave well enough alone.”
When we came out in the present, we handed him his empty gun and his other gear, and off he went without a word. As he left, Holtzinger’s girl, that Claire, rushed up crying:
“Where is he? Where’s August?”
There was a bloody heartrending scene, despite the Raja’s skill at handling such situations.
We took our men and beasts down to the old laboratory building that the university has fitted up as a serai for such expeditions. We paid everybody off and found we were broke. The advance payments from Holtzinger and James didn’t cover our expenses, and we should have precious little chance of collecting the rest of our fees either from James or from Holtzinger’s estate.
And speaking of James, d’you know what that blighter was doing? He went home, got more ammunition, and came back to the university. He hunted up Professor Prochaska and asked him:
“Professor, I’d like you to send me back to the Cretaceous for a quick trip. If you can work me into your schedule right now, you can just about name your own price. I’ll offer five thousand to begin with. I want to go to April twenty-third, eight-five million B.C.”
Prochaska answered: “Why do you wish to go back again so soon?”
“I lost my wallet in the Cretaceous,” said James. “I figure if I go back to the day before I arrived in that era on my last trip, I’ll watch myself when I arrived on that trip and follow myself around till I see myself lose the wallet.”
“Five thousand is a lot for a wallet,” said the professor.
“It’s got some things in it I can’t replace,” said James.
“Well,” said Prochaska, thinking. “The party that was supposed to go out this morning has telephoned that they would be late, so perhaps I can work you in. I have always wondered what would happen when the same man occupied the same stretch of time twice.”
So James wrote out a check, and Prochaska took him to the chamber and saw him off. James’s idea, it seems, was to sit behind a bush a few yards from where the transition chamber would appear and pot the Raja and me as we emerged.
Hours later, we’d changed into our street clothes and phoned our wives to come and get us. We were standing on Forsythe Boulevard waiting for them when there was a loud crack, like an explosion, and a flash of light not fifty feet from us. The shock wave staggered us and broke windows.
We ran toward the place and got there just as a bobby and several citizens came up. On the boulevard, just off the kerb, lay a human body. At least, it had been that, but it looked as if every bone in it had been pulverized and every blood vessel burst, so it was hardly more than a slimy mass of pink protoplasm. The clothes it had been wearing were shredded, but I recognized an H. & H. .500 double-barreled express rifle. The wood was scorched and the metal pitted, but it was Courtney James’s gun. No doubt whatever.
Skipping the investigation and the milling about that ensued, what had happened was this: nobody had shot at us as we emerged on the twenty-fourth, and that couldn’t be changed. For that matter, the instant James started to do anything that would make a visible change in the world of eight-five million B.C., such as making a footprint in the earth, the space-time forces snapped him forward to the present to prevent a paradox. And the violence of the passage practically tore him to bits.
Now that this is better understood, the professor won’t send anybody to a period less than five thousand years prior to the time that some time traveler has already explored, because it would be too easy to do some act, like chopping down a tree or losing some durable artifact, that would affect the later world. Over longer periods, he tells me, such changes average out and are lost in the stream of time.
We had a rough time after that, with the bad publicity and all, though we did collect a fee from James’s estate. Luckily for us, a steel manufacturer turned up who wanted a mastodon’s head for his den.
I understand these things better now, too. The disaster hadn’t been wholly James’s fault. I shouldn’t have taken him when I knew what a spoiled, unstable sort of bloke he was. And if Holtzinger could have used a really heavy gun, he’d probably have knocked the tyrannosaur down, even if he didn’t kill it, and so have given the rest of us a chance to finish it.
So, Mr. Seligman, that’s why I won’t take you to that period to hunt. There are plenty of other eras, and if you look them over I’m sure you’ll find something to suit you. But not the Jurassic or the Cretaceous. You’re just not big enough to handle a gun for dinosaur.
About the Author
Lyon Sprague de Camp (November 27, 1907 – November 6, 2000) was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy, non-fiction and biography. In a career spanning 60 years, he wrote over 100 books, including novels and notable works of non-fiction, including biographies of other important fantasy authors. He “was widely regarded as an imaginative and innovative writer and was an important figure in the heyday of science fiction, from the late 1930s through the late 1940s.
About the Narrator
Ayoub Khote is a professional geek, a writer, a photographer, and a man with a voice others seem to like, even though he really can’t stand the sound of it. Ayoub’s début is with HG World, but he is also working on a smaller production, oddly enough also with a Scots accent, even though he’s a born Londoner!