The Good, the Bad, and the Utahraptor
by Jennifer Lee Rossman
No one could say for sure exactly when the dinosaurs started appearing outside the little mining town of Hell Creek, nor where they’d come from. Rumors of cattle found dead with long slashes across their hides went back to the 1850s, but the raptors had been showing up more often in the last few decades, even coming into town when food got scarce.
People said they came from under the ground, down from the depths of Hell itself, and that the miners’ dynamite woke ’em up. Rosita’s abuela said they were descended from some kind of feathered lizard god.
Rosita didn’t particularly care about any of that. She just wanted to ride one.
They weren’t so different from horses, she reckoned. They were about the height of Ellie, her daddy’s piebald mare, just with two legs instead of four, and she’d been riding Ellie since before she could walk. She’d even helped her brothers break wild mustangs a couple times.
And so maybe the raptors had knives for claws and mouths fulla sharp teeth, and maybe they were fiercer predators than even the mountain lions and bears. But people had domesticated the wolf, hadn’t they? How were raptors any different?
Far as Rosita knew, no one had ever ridden a raptor. No one had even touched one, at least not anyone who’d lived to tell about it. What a sight she’d be, all dressed up and sitting atop an iridescent murder-bird while she did her trick shots.
The Wild West shows would have to hire her then. She’d get out of Hell Creek, see the world, and send her pay back home. The farms and mines weren’t turning much of a profit since the raptors started killing the cattle and scaring folks who tried to go to the mines.
So Rosita set out early one morning, rope in one hand and Daddy’s Colt revolver in the other ’cause she weren’t no fool. If things didn’t go well, she’d have to defend herself. A dead daughter wouldn’t earn a cent on the show circuit, not unless they mummified her, and Rosita didn’t think her mama’d go for that.
She wore her brother’s hand-me-down boots, and set her best grey Stetson on her head as she hiked out to the craggy red rocks on the edge of town. A pack congregated out in the open like they owned the place, because nothing was foolish enough to go messing with them.
Rosita stood a ways back, examining the pack as they fought over the remains of something that might have been a deer. Good; they’d be full and less likely to attack.
Or so she hoped.
Their faces looked like a gila monster’s, scaly with yellow eyes and gaping mouths, but a coating of feathers covered their bodies and made ’em look all soft and beautiful. Most of the half-dozen were a gray-blue with a purple sheen, but one, standing on the periphery like she didn’t quite fit in, had pinkish highlights that gleamed in the sunlight.
“That’s the one,” Rosita whispered. But she stayed put. It was easy to think she’d be successful if she didn’t actually try it, if she stayed far enough back that the raptors looked like colorful little turkeys.
When Rosita was a young’n, the sheriff had brought a dead raptor to the school to show the kids, to teach ’em they was right to be afraid. She’d never forget the sheer mass of it, half a ton of muscle and razors. Even dead, the beast had dominated the room, the threat of disembowelment lingering in its glassy eyes.
She knew she shoulda turned and ran back to town, practiced her trick riding with Ellie and found some other way to make it into the show, but she tightened her grip on the rope anyway and slowly made her way toward the pack.
The pink one saw her first, her head turning sharply and her gaze meeting Rosita’s. Her long back legs flexed as she crouched, looking ready to spring into action.
A wave of panic went through Rosita; what if the deer hadn’t been enough food for the lot of them? She’d never outrun one on foot. Maybe she shoulda brought Ellie, but her parents couldn’t stand to lose their best horse and their second-best daughter. Not on the same day.
The raptor took a slow step forward, then another. By now the two were close enough that Rosita could see a slash of red across the animal’s neck. Injured, probably in a fight with another raptor.
“You ain’t nothing to them,” Rosita said softly. “Are ya?”
The raptor tilted her head and gave a little warble.
“They cast you out? On account of you not being a good hunter, not being pretty like your sister?”
Only a dozen yards separated Rosita and the raptor. She’d never been so close to a living one before, but from this distance she could see the animal’s chest expand with every deep breath, and the sickle claws made for tearing flesh.
Rosita took a step back. The raptor kept coming.
Wrapping her fingers around the Colt’s grip, Rosita wondered what would happen if she shot it. She wouldn’t miss, but would the sound draw the others or scare them off? Would she have time to get away?
She backed slowly into the shade of a rocky outcropping as the raptor advanced, and felt the cool sandstone against her back. Nowhere to run, she started spinning her rope the way her daddy had taught her. The raptor’s attention was briefly drawn to the circle of rope turning overhead, and Rosita let it fly.
The raptor cried out in panic as the loop slipped over her neck, and she jerked, inadvertently tightening the lasso. The fibers burned Rosita’s palm as the raptor pulled at the slack, calling out in alarm and distress.
Rosita’s blood turned to ice at the sight of the pack at high alert, all eyes looking directly at her. She dropped the rope and pulled back the hammer of her revolver. She prided herself on taking quick shots, but her life had never depended on it before.
She took a breath, steadied her aim —
A low whistle sounded in the distance. The train was coming in to town.
Every raptor swivelled toward the sound, the leader called back with a chirp, and off the pack ran to chase the locomotive.
The raptors easily kept pace with the train as it slowed on its way into Hell Creek. They woulda followed it all the way to the station, but the passengers didn’t like that so much and had taken to tossing hunks of meat off the train to appease the critters.
It’d become a big to-do in recent months, with people traveling from all over just to see the raptors racing the train, and ain’t nobody would dare try to rob a train that came with its own security raptors.
Rosita rode out to watch, studying the stretch of track where they threw the meat. Smooth terrain, no big rocks or cacti. When the train wasn’t around and the raptors were off terrorizing farms, she and Ellie practiced matching the speeds. Then she brought in Timmy, her brother’s wildest stallion, to stand in for the raptor, and they spent weeks doing the most dangerous stunt she’d ever tried.
It all worked in theory. Now to add the raptors.
Ellie seemed to know this wasn’t another training run, and held her ears flat against her head as they waited for the train.
“Me too, mija,” Rosita whispered, running her hands through Ellie’s mane. Would the horse act the same around raptors as she did with Timmy? Would she run away to safety like they practiced? Would she even let herself be ridden so close to a vicious predator?
The train’s whistle announced the impending moment of truth. Rosita squeezed her legs and leaned forward, gently urging Ellie toward the tracks.
They timed it perfectly, with Ellie breaking into a run as the train started to slow, matching the pace of the raptor pack. Between the wind and the roar of the locomotive, Rosita couldn’t hear a thing. And she loved it.
This was exactly the kind of stunt they did in the traveling Wild West shows. Horses and riders racing trains, defying death, maybe even re-enacting great battles of the War Between the States.
The meat throwing began.
One by one, the raptors caught a piece and fell back from the pack to devour it by the tracks, until only the pink one remained, her stronger and bigger pack mates having muscled her out of the way. She still had a bit of the rope looped over her neck, though the end had been chewed short and ragged.
Rosita waved her hat to the folks in the train, the signal for them to stop feeding the raptors, and edged Ellie closer. At first the horse balked, so Rosita waited and tried again. The raptor had to smell them approaching, but the entirety of her attention was on the train window and she paid them no mind.
Ellie and the pink raptor ran in almost in tandem, hooves and claws pounding the earth, mane and feathers flapping. Their heads and backs were nearly level; Rosita couldn’t have planned it better.
She slipped her feet out of the stirrups and pulled her knees up under her, no easy feat on a galloping beast made of muscle.
No turning back now.
She took a shaky breath and leapt to her feet. The wind took her hat, but Rosita had no time to mourn its loss. The next minute or so was pure chaos and instinct.
She threw herself off Ellie, trusting the horse to flee to safety. Her chin struck the raptor’s head as she tried to grab onto the feathered critter.
Then came the pain in her chest. Sky and ground and sky again tumbled over each other, limbs crushing against limbs as raptor and rider lost the fight against balance and momentum. Rosita held onto the rope for all she was worth, and the two of them skidded on the ground as the train sped away.
Next she knew, Rosita was on her back and a claw was passing just inches from her face. She took that as a good sign; the raptor must have been disoriented, else she’d have been dead.
Rosita forced herself to her feet. The raptor hunched down, ready to strike but breathing heavy.
“I’m unarmed, mija,” Rosita said quietly, trying to keep her voice steady even though she was pretty damn sure she’d broken at least one rib. She’d been so preoccupied with whether she could ride a raptor that she didn’t stop to think if she should. “I can’t fight back. But I don’t think you’re in much of a state to fight yourself.”
Her own injuries were from the tussle, but the raptor’s were in various stages of healing. Cuts and bites on her neck and back, a patch of missing feathers, a forearm that didn’t bend quite right…
“You can kill me if you want, but it won’t make them accept you.”
The raptor tilted her head to one side. Rosita wasn’t so foolish as to think she actually understood, but they were both clever girls. Even if the raptor didn’t know Rosita was trying to reason with her, the human’s nonsensical chattering seemed to at least convey the absence of a threat.
“Or,” Rosita said, taking a tentative step forward, “you can let me ride you outta this town and you and I will make something of ourselves.”
The raptor watched her warily, toothy mouth open in a soft hiss, but made no move to strike. Rosita reached her hand out and gave the raptor’s scaly nose a quick pat before retreating.
It was hardly as impressive as riding one, but she’d just become the first person she knew of who’d touched a living raptor and kept all their limbs.
That seemed like a good first step.
About the Author
Jennifer Lee Rossman is sometimes too preoccupied with whether or not she could make Jurassic Park references, and doesn’t stop to think if she should. She is autistic, queer, and disabled, and so are most of her characters. Read more of her work at jenniferleerossman.blogspot.
About the Narrator
Sandra is a New York born and raised voice actress with a background in literature and writing. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she one-eighty’d so hard she’s finally in them and never leaving.
Some games Sandra’s voiced for include Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy and the critically acclaimed Wadjet Eye Games adventure RPG “Unavowed” as Mandana. Catch her on Twitter or Facebook under the handle “DustyOldRoses,” obsessing over good food, good games and the color pink.