Darwin twisted around just in time to catch the strap of his pack as it slid downhill. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Covington. Now, about that fossil there. Strangest thing I ever saw. Let’s see if the earthquake shook loose any more bones. I think the earth is done misbehaving for the moment.”
Syms Covington, the brown-haired fiddler and cabin boy pressed into service as Darwin’s assistant, began digging in the soil near the latest find. He had become quite good at picking objects of interest out of the rocky soil. Darwin had even begun letting him label the specimens. In fact, Syms thought he might be doing a better job keeping his records than the naturalist himself.
On his knees now, Syms cast aside rocks and pebbles as he examined the ground around him. Darwin stood above, brown-haired and well-muscled with blue-gray eyes and ruddy cheeks. Slowly and methodically, Syms fanned his attention outward from the location of the last bone. Darwin took pains to look where Syms stepped, making sure that they didn’t overlook something right beneath their feet, and stood ready with the hammer. The small hole developing in his left boot was getting bigger, making him shift back and forth to center the pit over relatively big, flat rock. The day before a misplaced foothold drove a sharp splinter of granite into his sole. Darwin shifted his weight from left to right, dislodging some of the loose debris around them.
“Sir, why not step away and relieve the pressure on your injury,” said Syms, noticing Darwin’s change in stance. “There’s no reason to stay right here. If I find anything I’ll bring it over to you. At least take a drink from that flask you have there. It will remind you of home.”
“Damned if I want to be reminded of home, Covington! The tropical luxuriance in Valdivia and these long treks are making me long for holiday in North Wales. At least there a good, hot meal awaited me at the end of the day.”
“Sorry, sir. May I take your hole, sir?”
“My hole? What hole is that, Covington? You’ve barely begun to clear away the debris.”
“Sorry sir. I meant your spot. That’s what we call it in Bedfordshire, sir.”
“All right then,” said Darwin, throwing down the hammer. “As you were.” Darwin seesawed away, favoring the sole of his good boot, and within a few moments leaned up against a big black boulder perched precariously above the site of the dig. He took a long swig from the flask on his belt and stoppered it back up. Moving away and uphill from the boulder, Darwin haphazardly scanned the accumulated scree. He sighed heavily, and then drew something out of his pocket. It was a handkerchief, filthy and torn from long use. Back home he’d have thrown it away ages ago. Wiping the cloth on his forehead left a dirty smudge.
“Damned bloody voyage,” he exhaled miserably.
Suddenly, his attention was caught by a mysterious, shiny object, just to his left of where the talus met the valley shoulder. Could it be a piece of quartz glittering in the sun? Some fool’s gold? Or something else? Who could have visited this remote spot and left behind a piece of metal? It had taken nearly half the day just to reach this mountainside. And there would not be anything here which any but a fool naturalist could possibly want. Could there be?