A new piece of flash fiction. The prompts: (1) a photograph of railroad tracks leading toward a mountain; (2) has to contain the phrase "I didn't see this coming;" and (3) must include a reference to the extinct dog species Borophagus, which apparently looked a little like a hyena on steroids. Maximum 500 words.
The tracks led straight into the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, through dynamited rock cuts. Soon they would curve into the sky, following the ridge, before plunging into the valley that held Frame Strike Mine.
Frame Strike dated from Gold Rush days, now forty years past, and in any case Carlson wasn’t interested in gold. Frame Strike hadn’t brought up much gold – some silver, more copper, but copper was plentiful in Arizona and didn’t pay for keeping miners busy. The mine closed, the valley abandoned – until Heinrich Jaeger found Miocene fossils scattered in the limestone outcroppings like raisins in fruitcake.
Carlson felt the engine straining as the ascent began, and looked down into his hand at the shiny enamel surface of a tooth. Borophagus – the bone-crushing canid predator that lived here ten million years ago. A young paleontologist seeking a research project could do worse than a rich, unstudied deposit of mammalian fossils.
Carlson spent the next hour studying Jaeger’s letters, reading their stilted, precise English. “Assemblages nearly intact, close to surface… Remarkable preservation… minimal degradation from weathering.” When the train squealed to a halt at the station in the old miners’ village, Carlson was the only one who got out.
Camp conditions were primitive. Jaeger lived in a tent, its space more devoted to books than comfort. He seemed hesitant to talk to Carlson – odd, considering the pages of correspondence they’d had over the preceding months.
“Superstitious Mexicans and Indians,” Jaeger scoffed, when Carlson asked him about the work crews. “As likely to feign illness as do a day’s labor. Afraid of the dark, most of them.”
“You have them in the mine?”
“The richest fossil layers are there. Why not use what has already been uncovered for us?”
“Can I see the dig?”
Jaeger shrugged. “Come. It is a short walk.”
It was dusk when they got to the mouth of the mine, yawning black and empty, darkly beckoning.
“Have the workmen quit for the night?”
Jaeger frowned. “Three men were here earlier, their shift ends at nightfall.” He walked to the cave mouth, where a lantern hung, glimmering in the half-light, lifted it, called into the blackness.
“Come up! You must meet Dr. Carlson…” He paused, and his breath caught, as if he’d gagged.
“What is it, Jaeger?” Carlson said, and stepped to his side.
“I didn’t… I swear, you must believe me… I didn’t see this coming,” It sounded like a plea.
The bodies of three workmen lay fallen on the floor of the cave, near the mine shaft. Their throats were torn out, arms and legs gnawed on, bellies ripped open. The nearest lay awkwardly, like a damaged doll, his femur neatly bitten in half. His unseeing eyes stared at the two scientists.
Carlson rounded on Jaeger. “The teeth… bones… they’re not fossils, are they?”
Jaeger swallowed. “How could I have known?”
The only response came from deep in the cave, where a guttural growl gave them all the answer they needed.