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Montana Nights
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Summer days in Montana. Miles of hard, baking dirt. An open waste inhabited only by rocks, scrubby weeds, and the ever-glaring white orb that was the source of so much lament. After his tenth summer in the Badlands, Grant had grown almost used to it. But it never ceased to amaze him how little his out-of-state colleagues knew about Montana nights.

Merciless heat by day, cold winds and near-freezing temperatures by night. Two more extremes to fight in this already inhospitable no-man’s-land. Little campfires would speckle the black desert night like hot stars, casting orange light onto the faces of the young people who surrounded them.

It was almost primeval, Grant thought, watching his students huddle close to the flames for warmth, nearly ape-like in the way they stooped, poking the coals with their sticks. Educated all, intelligent and skilled, but still so primitive.

Dirt crunched underfoot, and Billy Brennan appeared out of the dark at Grant’s side. “It’s cold this far from the fire,” he said, handing Grant a tin cup of hot coffee.

“Thanks,” replied the paleontologist, staring up at the million billion stars in the black velvet sky.

Billy was quiet, by now understanding these moods that took hold of his mentor from time to time. Conversation was useless when Grant was like this. So they stood on the hill, raising steamy cups to their mouths and appreciating the warmth that filled them. Their tins were soon empty, and Billy shivered.

“It’s late,” he murmured. “We should get back to the fire.”

Grant didn’t move. “It’s amazing, really,” he said at last, eyes as vacant as the desert. “Each day we struggle to prove how evolved we are, to prove our superiority—faster, smarter, better—yet a fire still makes dumb animals of us all.” He turned to stare at the camp a hundred yards away. “We’re screaming out our separation from our primitive ancestors, but to a predator we are nothing but meat. We can resurrect sixty-five million years . . . and how quickly nature reminds us of our shortcomings.”

“Dr Grant,” Billy whispered, touching the man’s arm.

“We’re here only by luck, Billy,” Grant said morosely. “Luck and fire.”

“Alan. Please . . .”

Grant blinked, and seemed to realize where he was. He looked at Billy, looked down at their hands clasped tightly together. He nodded. Billy led the way back to camp, around the smoldering piles of red coals, past quiet tents standing blue-white in the moonlight. He took Grant’s cup and held the tent flap open for him, then followed him inside.

Kisses burned hot in the cold Montana night, heat without fire, love without words. They moved together, flesh and bone and blood, simple creatures despite their complexities. Eyes mirrored lost ages as bodies arched to wordless whispers. Skin, sweat and dust. Mankind. Billy moaned, feeling Alan’s warmth inside him, and surrendered himself without shame. Two animals. Two insignificant specks on the evolutionary scale. One timeless instinct.

In these hopelessly human moments, Alan Grant forgot his misery.

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