Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton (2017)
William Johnson is a spoiled college student in 1876 Philadelphia. His life is easy and free. His family are very wealthy and tend to over-indulge their wayward son his excesses. But great pride is still there in the uber-rich, perhaps even more so, and it’s this weakness that corrals William into joining an expedition, for a wager, into the Wild West with renowned palaeontologist, Othniel Charles Marsh. Spoilers abound.
Marsh is a strange bird who suffers from extreme paranoia. He is engaged in aggressive competition with his nemesis, Edwin Drinker Cope, as they battle to see who will be first to discover the most or more unusual dinosaur remains. The hostility between the two can be dangerous as William is to learn. For some reason, Marsh suspects William, right from the off, of being a spy for Cope. It’s for this reason that young Johnson finds himself abandoned in a remote outpost, certain that his substantial wager to spend the summer with Marsh in the wilds is lost.
Fortunately, Charles Cope is watching. He offers William the lifeline of joining him on his parallel expedition and Johnson readily accepts. He meets a varied contingent of students and old hands making ready to set out into territory still under the control of the First Nations people. There is Charles H Sternberg, a fossil hunter from Kansas, and friend of Cope; J.C Isaac a young man who narrowly escaped with his life after an earlier run-in with Sioux during which his companions died; three students, Leander ‘Toad’ Davis, George Morton and Harold Chapman, differing greatly in temperament; Little Wind, the Shoshoni scout, and the cook, Sergeant Russell T. Hill, a grizzled, ill-tempered man of uncertain background. They make a motley crew.
It’s as they set off into the badlands of Montana Territory that they hear of the massacre at the Battle of the Little Bighorn during which Custer and his entire troop was wiped out. The Sioux responsible are still on the warpath but not as far north as William and his comrades, yet. It makes for a nerve-wracking journey as they fight through rough country, all the while feeling that they’re being pursued by someone unknown.
When the group reach their destination and begin to dig out fossil after fossil, William gains something more than just toned muscles. He also discovers the real man within himself. It turns out that within the mind of the spoiled brat from the East, lies that of a decent and highly intelligent person determined to see his mission through. William grows to enjoy his role. He also begins to appreciate the austere beauty of the wilderness in which he temporarily resides.
Marsh appears. The feeling that the men had that they were being followed was correct. The kooky professor was tailing the group to see what they would find. William learns that Marsh is the one, in the war with Cope, who is imbalanced and dangerous. Cope is driven but Marsh is deceitful and murderous. Williams group have to scare Marsh and his companion off with gunshots to prevent the theft of some of their fossils.
Soon enough, their time is up. They pack up whatever they can transport and head for the nearest ferry, one day’s ride away. William, Toad, Little Wind and Cook set out then, to return to the site to retrieve the remainder of their finds, including some very valuable Brontosaurus bones. Unfortunately, Little Wind and Cook have already been paid for their labours and decide to abandon their mission. They leave William and Toad with nothing but the wagon and horse team. In the distance, they can see the campfires of thousands of Sioux. It’s not looking good. They push on regardless.
The two young idealists do manage to load the remaining fossils, but as they return they are attacked by a contingent of Sioux warriors. During their escape, they encounter Little Wind, also on the run from the Sioux. Cook has been killed and the three flee the assault, fighting all the way. Sadly, Toad doesn’t make it. He gets hit with so many arrows that William could drain pasta with him, if he had any. Still, he takes the corpse with him, even as the threat from the Sioux continues. Little Wind bravely leads the two, and the wagon with it’s precious cargo, as they successfully sneak off from their pursuers. It’s only after they have gotten clear of the pursuit that William realises that Little Wind is on death’s door. Into the wagon he goes, with Toad and the fossils, and on William goes in search of civilisation and salvation.
The town of Deadwood Gulch, better known as just Deadwood, is hardly civilised, but William does find himself there nonetheless. It’s a brutal place full of miners and gunslingers, famous as the home of Calamity Jane, not the cute and singing Doris Day version, but the manly prostitute one who shagged half the US cavalry. It’s also home to Broken Nose Jack McCall (killer of Wild Bill Hickok), and Dick Curry and his brothers, Clem and Bill. These are bad men who take a special dislike to our young hero. Jack is also thrilled to meet both Wyatt Earp and his brother Morgan, who have rambled into town and are looking for opportunities to make a buck.
As William has managed to retain his load of boxed fossils, the mining town of Deadwood comes to believe that the boxes contain gold. This puts William into some serious trouble as the Curry brothers turn their gaze to his hoard. It’s also at this time that William meets Miss Emily, a beautiful young woman travelling alone through the roughest parts of the nascent US. William is smitten, as is just about every other man in town. This just pisses Dick Curry off even more. When the Curry brothers try to steal the fossils one night, William shoots it out with them and kills Clem. Dick is not impressed and challenges William to a gunfight in the main street. The pampered boy from Philly has little choice, but does receive some good advice from Wyatt Earp, which stands him in good stead. It results in William not only surviving the quick-draw contest, but also wounding Dick Curry who runs off swearing revenge. But at least William is still alive and learning quickly.
After much haggling, William secures another wagon to carry his fossil boxes, and employs the services of both Earp brothers. Miss Emily also decides to join them as they leave Deadwood. It’s not a smooth journey as the Curry gang are waiting in ambush, with Persimmons Bill and his band of rogue First Nations warriors waiting a little further down the line where they regularly hunt pioneers. William didn’t reckon on any of this when he first set out on a nice train for his adventure.
He makes it! Damn if he doesn’t! The jammy son of a bitch! And he has a beautiful woman to boot. The cost? He has to give Wyatt Earp half his load of fossils. Not a bad price for getting to civilisation with your skin intact. In Cheyenne, William gets to enjoy the fruits of his labours, with Miss Emily, frequently and then again. He goes from being a soft-handed virgin of childish demeanour to that of a tough, experienced adventurer with blood on his hands. He also gets a lesson in women as he learns that the fairer sex is not always fair. Miss Emily is not all she seems and decides that her future will be rosier in the company of someone other than William. She leaves, taking a little piece of his heart with him but hell, hearts grow back, don’t they?
Needless to say, William eventually makes it home, with the most valuable of the fossils intact. He returns a hero, to his father at least, who is proud that his eldest son has been to the Wild West and returned safe and sound and with a much healthier perspective. He wins his wager, although does have to threaten his opponent to get it. Cope is delighted to receive the fossils and amazed that William made it back. Marsh also is astounded and angered at missing out on the Brontosaurus find. Cue fiddles and glorious music as William swaggers off into a Philly sunset like John Wayne in Hondo meets Rocky.
Dragon’s Teeth is a very enjoyable book. It mixes fact with fiction in the most delightful way. Actual characters from that turbulent time in the West are interspersed throughout to add drama and a sense of ownership. Broken Nose Jack McCall did exist and did kill Bill Hickok as stated in the story. There is no record of the Curry gang but no doubt there were many similar characters in the town of Deadwood. William ‘Persimmons Bill’ Chambers was also real, and really bad. The Earps and Calamity Jane we already know about. But both Cope and Marsh, the competing palaeontologists, were real. Crichton is careful not to inflate their adventures but does state in his afterword that the rivalry between the two was of the most dangerous sort.
In reading such a novel, we don’t only get a cracking plot and settings, we also get a better sense of how it was back then. Historical novels, like movies, are fantastic in taking us into the world of those who struggled through tough times. William Johnson is fictional, but how many other young men set off West in search of adventure and fortune. Most we will never hear of, and the landscape today is littered with their remains, never to be discovered.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, and nothing ain’t worth nothing if it’s free”.
Rebel Voice is a fan of the western genre and this novel ticks a lot of boxes. It was published posthumously by Crichton’s wife who has a short contribution at the end. It was Dragon’s Teeth, penned before Jurassic Park, that led the way for that global masterpiece. Crichton truly was a literary great and the world of stories is the worst for his no longer being in it. This offering stands as testament to his genius.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. This is a great novel that will effortlessly transport you into the Wild West of First Nations rebellions, outlaws, gamblers and lawmen, all set in the spectacular badlands of Montana and the Dakotas. For fans of the Western genre, this is a must. For dinosaur aficionados, this is a must. For adventure fans, this is a must. For all others, this is a must. Conclusion? This is a must.
Here’s another book review of Michael Crichton’s work: