Novel Excerpt






From the Open Books novel 
Swift Dam  
by
 Sid Gustafson

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Rain

Rain lulled them to sleep. The rain ceased and the sky cleared and in that hollow they slept. Silence held sway, save an occasional wisp of wind. 
    Later in the night, much later, the phone rang. And rang. The wife did not respond to nighttime ringings anymore. A certain part of Nan’s sleeping subconscious had learnt to block the bellingseldom any good coming from that phone at night. On she slept, peace as if she not only lived in harmony with her husband, but in harmony with the world.
Sheriff Oberly opened his eyes. It was his Pondera County cell-phone, the link to Dispatch. Not a lot of folks had the number. Nan’s hair lay across his face. He blew the tresses away and inhaled. He wedged his hand between the sheets and fingered the iPhone off the bed stand, sliding his thumb across the screen. 
    “Bird Oberly,” he answered, licking his teeth, muffling the device over his lips. He listened. This wasn’t Dispatch. The sheriff found himself fielding a missing-person report from a citizen. He slid his legs off the edge of the bed and placed the balls of his feet on the cold pine floor, flexing his toes. The seasoned sheriff concluded straightaway that his friend Doctor ‘Fingers’ Vallerone had driven into the mountains to spend the night, as had been his habit of late. He pinched the bridge of his nose to hear out the caller, Dr. Vallerone’s son, Ricky.
    The sheriff stood. He pictures the veterinarian parking his car at the base of Swift Dam. He imagines him sprawled out in the back seat of the sedan, fallen asleep under the monolith. On one of his recent sheriff runs to Swift Dam, he’d found him such. Oberly suspects Fingers might have dreamt through the rain, sleeping into the moonglow and now the moonshadow of Swift Dam. Nighthawking had become routine for Fingers of late. The veterinarian’s nocturnal journeys didn’t seem something law enforcement need be concerned. 
    For some reason, Ricky was determined to make a missing-person issue of this particular trip to Swift Dam, or wherever the veterinarian might have ventured. If not sleeping under Swift Dam, the veterinarian may well be out healing an animal in need. Sheriff Oberly might have expressed concern had he not known Ricky’s father so well. It wasn’t like Doctor Vallerone was some senile driving off and getting lost like he didn’t know who he was or where he was headed. No, Doctor Fingers Vallerone was the most lucid of moondrivers, a pastime his veterinary profession nurtured through the years. 
    Nonetheless, Vallerone’s youngest son insisted something was amiss, demanding official action be taken. Oberly ground his teeth. He did not appreciate being told how to proceed in matters of Pondera County law enforcement, not after three terms in office, and not about his friend Fingers Vallerone, even if the urging was from Vallerone’s grown son. 
    The sheriff watched his wife’s rhythmic breathing, jealous of her detachment. Oberly loved Nan. He tried to bring his breathing into cadence with hers, a calming technique the horse-medicine-man Many White Horses taught him long ago a respired togetherness. Perhaps Bird Oberly had been sheriff long enough. Despite all his law enforcement training to handle stress with finesse, here he sat losing his calm over a phone call. Ricky must have lifted the number from his father, his dad being one of the few citizens of Pondera County that Bird shared his cell.
    The call had taken Oberly out of a spacious dream, the water dream. The sheriff stretched. In the pauses of their many nights spent under the Rocky Mountain Front, Oberly and Vallerone came to share a multitude of notions. The two met travelling the backcountry ranches, stopping to visit whenever their paths crossed. They’d spent time together on the cattle-shipping circuit last fall, Doc writing the health certificates while Oberly performed the brand inspections Montana calves shipping out to fatten on Illinois corn. 
    The sheriff glanced at his window to get a feel for the time of night. The sonata of late-evening rain had hypnotized Oberly into a loving yen with Nan, whirling his internal clock askew. Over the years, Oberly had become wary of phone calls. He once dreamt of receiving a phone call, getting up and going so far as to solve the crime, only to awaken in Nan’s arms to discover it had all been a dream. 
    “You hearing me, Sheriff?” Ricky clucked. 
    This phone call was no dream. Bird extended his arm to visualize the iPhone screen. 4:12 am. He gazed back to his wife. He longed to re-spoon, to fasten and finish the water dream. If not children, the two had cultivated dreams through their years of marriage. Sleep had come to be the couple’s favored refuge and sportsleep. Unlike Vallerone, who appeared to favor sleeping solo, Oberly depended on his wife to mitigate the wrongs of the world.
    “I’ll check around, Ricky. See if I can locate your father. I’ll get back to you when I find him.”
    Bird ended the call and blocked Ricky’s number. 


Water

Fingers Vallerone parks under Swift Dam near the memorial erected by his two closest Indian friends, Howler Ground Owl and Many White Horses. It took three years for the two Blackfeet men to chisel and paint the pictograph on a boulder let loose from the Flood of ‘64, the same period of time it took the Pondera irrigators to replace the clay-footed barrier that gave way. 
    Vallerone steps out of his car and looks upward. He stares into the concrete face of Swift Dam. The geometric curve dizzies him. He fingers the words chiseled into the granite memorial as if reading Braille:

From water and mud Indians sprang. 
To water and mud many have returned. 
When the flow stops, the natives go with it. 
But the water flows on, and on.

    An artificial stream of water squirts out of the base of the dam, discharging the reservoir holding into a blue pool. The contrived water swirls to a ledge, spilling away to course the foothills a sterile streambed, water harnessed to irrigate monocultures beyond the reservation. 
    On the memorial boulder, a sheet of brass is fastened, tarnished with time. The engraved names fill with silt. Vallerone pulls a rag from his pocket and polishes the brass, taking care to shine Ivan Buffalo Heart’s name. With a jugular needle, he scrapes the silt out of the letters. Rain falls, a hard rain falling as if it may never stop, Vallerone witness to the cold rain. 

Above Swift, the Birch Creek drainages bear the precipitate waters that feed the reservoir. Diverse province of sheep and goat. Pristine realm of deer and grizzly. Sky of ravens and eagles a wilderness spared the industry of man, that Manifest Destiny ravaging the land beyond, a landscape once ruled by buffalo and wolves, tended by American Indians the time before dams. Fingers’ mind explores the drainages. Trips in and out with horses, children, and the Catholic. The time approaches where he may not be able to explore the backwaters anymore, evermore. He runs through each flow, his aging mind sharp, his memory a horse. 
    The soft-flowing South Fork waltzes through a grassy cottonwood valley before its run is buried in the reservoir. His string of horses conveys his brood of children through the drainage and into the wilderness. 
    Limestone waters stream down the Middle Fork, splashing off majestic cirques to join the South Fork. Fingers recalls trip after trip with horses into that amphitheater of stone, a precipitous nowhere land; province of wolverine, realm of lynx. The Middle Fork represents an empire of time dwelling place of the Blackfeet spirits of yore. 
    The North Fork of Birch Creek enters the western arm of the reservoir, a freestone stream cutting a linear path from Badger Pass. His family of man and horses and dogs traverse this eastbound route home, making the loop from the west side through Big River Meadows and up Strawberry Creek. Rocky Mountain water carves through overthrust after overthrust displaying the salty history of the world. Trilobites. Horses then and memory now carry Vallerone through beginnings of time. 

Early in Fingers’ healing career, Many White Horses showed him the history of the land written in rock. Together, they spent days riding their horses and searching through rock for elusive pearls of stone. Up the North Fork, they discovered the fossilized opalescent sea-worms and the pleated clamshells of Corbicula. They searched for Baculites compressus of iniskim fame, the buffalo-calling stones used by the medicine men to lure the buffalo. Eons of Birch Creek flow have exposed the fossils the Indians still seek for guidance. Tributary streams transport windswept mountain silt, carrying the ancient seabed from mountains to plains, minerals to grow the grasses that once nourished buffalo, range now grazed by cattle and horses. 

Wolves wander and pack together as they have through time, howling for lost brethren. 
    Fingers Vallerone howls in answer, he howls aloud the memory of the world the mountains hold, he howls for water that cannot flow. Wolves reply. 
    Vallerone howls in answer, he howls to know as wolves know, to learn, to see forever as wolves see, to hear. He transforms himself under the monolith, this concrete they call Swift, this pyramid they claim will be permanent this time, a construct that will not break and fold. 
    Vallerone knows better. He knows Father Time remains undefeated, his horses taught him, the wolves tell him so. Time wears by, time lit by a sliding moon, and Vallerone howls. 

In 1914, Swift Dam went up a stone and boulder at a time, altering the Birch Creek tide of life. The manifest irrigators arrived with destiny on their shoulders; Europeans, Belgians and New HollandersScandinavians with a knack and need to work land, the pastoral addiction to toil and sow; to take from the land, to stay and grow. They arrived with an itch for extraction, an obsession to make land arable. Arabilis, ‘to plow.’ 
    Water tripled and quadrupled the bounty extracted from a piece of land. Not without a price, no not without a price. The Earth and Indians pay the price. Father Time knows the price, Father Time and this man Artemus Vallerone, the man the Indians call Fingers.
    Instead of minerals ferried by natural flow to nourish the plains, the Birch Creek silt sifts to the bottom of Swift Reservoir. The flow of water stalls behind the earth fill. Life-giving particulates settle to the bottom. The floor of the reservoir is smothered in sandy hills, an artificial wasteland, a dead zone. No longer does the life-sustaining silt transcend the sacred cleft. No longer do these mountains mineralize the plains. The workings of time drift to the bottom of the reservoir to create the Sand Hills of Indian lore, Sand Hills exposed by the Flood of ‘64. 

Before the dam gave way, Howler Ground Owl and his family ranched the riverbottom where the Blackfeet people had resided for centuries, ranching in their blood. Ivan Buffalo Heart, Tess’ husband, tried to save Howler’s family when the dam gave way, but no one was to be saved, every riverdweller drowned. The wall of water vanquished life altogether under the dam, Howler’s children and wife washed away, Ivan with them.
    Howler and his sister Tess were spared. Tess had driven the family Jeep out of the riverbottom before Swift gave way. She travelled the high road toward Dupuyer as Swift dissembled, drowning her husband and nieces and nephews. She’d left to see the Hutterites to barter for fresh vegetables to feed her clan. Her people raised cattle the Moravian Anabaptists prized for their vigor, and they in turn cultivated the fresh vegetables and grains her family needed. These socialists cultivated the land while Tess’ nomads grazed cattle upcountry. The two cultures traded goods. 
    Tess drove for food. Howler travelled horseback above the floodplain, trotting up Sun Coulee to tend the ground-seeking cattle. Swift gave way. 

The Black Bag

Full moons. Full moons and phone calls. Phones ring and moon-drivers drive, car-sleepers seek to understand times past, and life in Pondera County clocks forward. The consolation tonight was that of all the troubles Sheriff Bird Oberly might be called upon to resolve, Fingers Vallerone driving off into a fullmoon night was probably the least trouble of all.     Vallerone’s youngest son hadn’t made this particular foray of his father’s an easy trip to ignore. 
Truth be known, the sheriff was pleased Ricky’s father was out there keeping an eye on the night. Through times past, the sheriff and veterinarian shared a certain watch over Pondera County darkness. Some wear dimness fashionably, especially moonlit dim. Vallerone reflected moonshine with elegance. In Oberly’s opinion, Fingers Vallerone played the most important night-wanderer since the Blackfeet Medicine Men of yore. Not only did Vallerone moondrive, he healed the animals and folk of the land, much as wandering healers have healed through time. 
    As long as domesticates have lived amidst mankind, gifted healers have restored the vigor depleted by human manipulation. Fingers mended and nourished animals up and down the Rocky Mountain Front, domestic animals living in a wild land not fully tamed. As he healed, he taught the animal keepers to see the world from their animals’ viewpoint, both the domestic and wild perspective. Alphonse Vallerone, a medicine man of the oldest order, an intuitive physician.
    The horse doctor began sleeping under the rebuilt Swift Dam when he found himself too exhausted to drive back to Conrad after his veterinary rounds to the West. Memories sleep with him under Swift Dam. Ever since he had searched for the survivors of the Flood of ‘64, he harbored a privation to revisit the boulder-strewn aftermath. 
    Mornings under Swift Dam became Vallerone’s affinity. He cherished dawn as the only part of the day that hadn’t been purged by Manifest Destiny, a time that held the glimmer of eras past, the quiet. Through the decades, darkness had become the veterinarian’s silent companion. His travel by night was rewarded with the reliable promise of morning. Witness to the lifting of darkness is a pleasure Doctor Vallerone will not be denied in his old age. He’d departed in the rain seeking moonlit darkness, and would return by sunlight.
    The sheriff snaked out of the bedroom so as not to awaken his wife. He listened, absorbing the anger in the son’s voice, anger about wealth, a short-changed son. Money caused much of Pondera County’s troubles, and money seemed the thorn here. Back in the day, the veterinarian informed his family and staff of his destination each time he departed. Then, it was important that his office be able to contact him should another animal in need materialize near his ministrations. In those days, rather than money being money, time was money. If the veterinarian could save a second trip 60 miles north by letting folks know where he was headed, all the better. Vallerone aspired to veterinary efficiency. For decades, he made himself available 24/7 to keep his agribusiness flowing. He worked hard to please his wife and raise his boys and get them through college, and had. 
    These days, Vallerone wanted left alone. When cell phones became popular, and then essential, Fingers Vallerone refused to acquire one. He had been through the ringer of techno-availability, if not the Golden Triangle pioneer of it. In the 60s he had a two-way radio built into his veterinary car. This device transformed his yellow Impala to animal ambulance. Vallerone became Dr. Available. His life became one travelling emergency after another at the behest of radio wave transmissions. 
    The cow doctor came to be called Grasshopper by the Babb Indians in Happy Valley, his radio antennae noticeable to these folk. The way he hopped around the countryside, the handle fit. In the 70s, as if the two-way radio of the 60s did not offer availability enough, he became the first veterinarian to have a mobile phone installed in his car, the first of its kind; push button dial, speaker, the works. Dr. Vallerone single-handedly managed the animal health of the Reservation borderland with Canada, and his phone facilitated the timely transport of healthy beef.
    Sheriff Oberly appreciated the relief the aging veterinarian must feel to at last be unavailable, to be irretrievablethe dream of many a country veterinarian through time the dream of many a Pondera County sheriff. Bird knew Vallerone had planned this fullmoon night to dream uninterrupted; to embrace a personal freedom denied in his home in Conrad. He took flight to locate the perspective he needed to carry on, a practice learnt from Indians. 
The son while not outright declaring it seemed more concerned about the black bag than his father’s well-being. Oberly surmised that Fingers had again departed with the leather bag a supposed bag of money the Pondera folktale that had not found credence with the sheriff, a full bag carted out of the bank to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Conventional wisdom holds that horse doctors have carried all sorts of bags through time that identifying tote of their healing profession, the collection of scopes, instruments, and galenicals that diagnose, relieve, and curethe doctor’s bag. Those were the days, practicing medicine out of a bag.
    The sheriff knew of another black bag, the bag that stored the harpoons and wide-gauge needles to administer the Sleepaway pentobarbital solution the “sleeping bag,” as Doc dubbed it, a bag black as bags come. Generally, when that medical bag surfaced, hush followed. That was the black bag Oberly knew. As close as the two night-lifers were, the sheriff had never seen any black bag other than the Sleepaway bag. It made perfect black-bag sense that Dr. Vallerone might not declare his intended destination if indeed he had to bring that wretched bag along. If he had departed on a mission to facilitate a crossover, the sheriff respected unavailability. Trips with the black bag in hand needed no probing from Bird Oberly. If Fingers happened off in the night with such a bag in hand, who could expect him to explain why and where? Not Indian O. The sheriff had no evidence regarding bagged money, dark or otherwise. Money had not been reported missing or mishandled, not by Dr. Vallerone. 
    Maybe Doc kept the Nembutal in the bank vault. Controlled drugs were, after all, to be kept under lock and key. His supply was once stolen from the vet clinic. And if the bag transported money, money for what? Sheriffs require motives. Oberly could find no motive for Vallerone to mule money, drugs, or anything else. What could money buy up Swift way, cash money at that? Horses could be bought for cash, cows not so easy. Hay, maybe the cash was for hay, as cash bought hay more easily than checks or promises bought hay. Vallerone was putting a little herd of cows together, after all. And then he had the thoroughbred band of hopeful racehorses to feed all winter. One needed to stockpile hay to run cows and horses in these parts, and hay cost money. 
    One jellyfish suggested the veterinarian was running livestock medications. The rancher upset that Doc wouldn’t supply him with prescription drugs as ordered insinuated Doc had a therapeutic drug cartel going, smuggling the goods down from Canada, a country where new drugs sometimes came sooner available than the more proven American drugs. Where animal drugs were needed in volume, animal welfare suffered. Oberly knew Vallerone would never support that. He taught folks how to ranch without drugs, rather than with them. He left pharmaceutical scrimming to the new veterinarians canvassing the landscape, veterinarians who slept with their phones turned off.
    Without a motive for the transport of money, the black bag was out of Oberly’s lean. The locals could speculate all they wanted about black bags. Until Oberly had evidence or a motive, he’d leave Vallerone’s alleged black bag uncharted ground. Vallerone was said to have money these days, more money than ever, but money hadn’t changed him like money changed others. Fingers had never been about money. As far as Oberly was concerned, he never would be; modest house, modest life; modest car, modest wife. Lived the same non-material life that he had before coming into his supposed publishing wealth. 
    Modest father. Immodest son. Black bag. 
    Oberly conceded that maybe the veterinarian was off with a black bag of some sort, but so what? Nothing new. Black bag or not, O knew that Fingers was off doing something he needed to do, be it dream or heal or facilitate deliverance. 
    Oberly’s house phone rang. He was too contactable. Ricky had all the phone numbers. Most everyone in Pondera County probably had them.
    The son started in with maladies: “He’s been sleeping a lot. He’s sick with something. You have to go find him.”
    “The old are said to need lots of sleep, Rick.”
    “He sleeps all day.”
    “Perhaps because he is up all night…”
    “He’s losing his edge. Dad has gone a bit off a bit; lately he has.”
    “Are you sure you’re okay, Ricky?” Oberly rejoined, putting a big U in the ‘you’re,’ suggesting the son’s mental health might be amuck rather than the father’s, a diversion measure he’d been taught at sheriff school to stifle morbid speculation. Oberly had become a well-educated, professionally-trained lawman, having attended many domestic-dispute workshops in his ascent up the muddy slope of law enforcement. He slid his arms into his bathrobe and walked into his living room, listening, always listening, a requirement of sheriff-hood. 
    The view relaxed him. His picture window revealed the splendor of the Rocky Mountain Front, the love bubble fallen low, its roundness plumped by some optical effect of atmosphere. In whatever silvered canyon Fingers had spent the night, he’d had a fine moon to rabbit his dreams. 
    The clouds must have cleared by midnight. With such luminosity it couldn’t have been such a long night, and certainly didn’t seem one now. The dreams dreamt must have been insightful. How could they have been otherwise? The shortest night of the year was a few weeks away, this morning’s sunrise not far off. With morning comes revelation, and promise. Enlightenment.
    The son begged: “Come on, sheriff. Get a search and rescue going. He’s been gone too long!”
    The sheriff remained silent.
    “I know your Indian people go off for days at a time without a second thought, but this isn’t the rez.” 
    At the same conferences that taught Tazering and cuffing, Oberly learned to ignore ignorant comments. If white folk considered themselves above the Indian, Oberly could play the Sitting Bull game, and play it well. People in Pondera County had to take care what they said and how they thought around Sheriff Oberly. This Indian could tell what white people thought, not because they thought out loud although they did enough of that but because Oberly could see what white folk thought by how they walked. Oberly knew kinetic empathy, the method by which wolves and horses communicate, a gesture language he attained fluency in long ago.
    In addition to understanding the language of movement like a horse, Bird Oberly had a memory like one. Few could put anything past Sheriff O. If one did, Bird could exact retribution like a mule an advantage to maintain lawfulness. If someone let slip with an apple comment around the sheriff, they could not expect leeway on any future points of the law. No rolling through stop signs, no led-footed travel, no drunken mistakes forgiven. Many did jail time for certain words uttered, certain thoughts walked. 
    The sheriff set Ricky’s kin comment aside, puzzled as to how Vallerone’s offspring could be prejudiced. Fingers Vallerone found asylum with the Indians, his preferred animal folk. Howler and Tess’ merger with horses beguiled him. In addition to practicing veterinary medicine, Vallerone observed and recorded the social nature of horses, the domesticated sharing of social constructs communal group survival with the grass people. His writing documented the merging of horses with humans. In the shadow of his veterinary degree, with the help of Many White Horses, Dr. V acquired a position instructing Equine Behavior at the tribal college in Browning. After learning the nature of horses from the Indians, he now taught them the evolutionary basis of that nature. The blending of horses and humans entranced the man. If Fingers wasn’t camped under the dolmen, he was under the spell of Howler and the thoroughbreds. 
    Perhaps the chestnut mare had foaled. Vallerone treasured watching each mare foal from a distance. He’d been known to stay afield for days waiting out a mare, a tough proposition, waiting out a mare. He hoped to find a correlation between how a mare taught the foal to be a horse in the first few hours of life, and how the foal performed later as a runner at the track. Fingers acquired a special spotting scope to observe the parturition of his mares from afar. He had come to know where and when they foaled in the open country of Tess’ range. Vallerone sought to raise a classic winner someday. He yearned to know what made a foal a runner. 
    It might have been too late in his life to cattle ranch, but to breed a Derby runner; it was never too late for that. Old men bred Derby horses, wise old men; horsemen. After he came into money, he journeyed to purchase gravid mares in Kentucky. Each year he found two or three Jockey Club mares in foal to the best stallions he could manage. Sometimes he picked them up in Canada or California. He purchased mares in pairs, sometimes a band of three or four. He picked up late foalers, broodmares well-suited to foal in Montana in May or June on green grass. He treasured raising the thoroughbreds with Howler’s band of Indian broodmares. He had bred and raised two ungraded stakes winners, no small feat from the hinterlands of Montana. Bigger races had so far eluded him, but the Kentucky Derby twinkled in his eyes.
    He persevered. For a song, he purchased mares deemed infertile by Kentucky broodmare specialists. For Vallerone, the mares produced. Green grass, a free-roaming herd, and his Caslick’s surgery cured many an infertile bloodhorse. He scrutinized trends. During certain years, valued bloodlines fell out of fashion to be let go softly. He treasured foaling on Front Range foothill grass. He theorized the best place for a Derby horse to learn the confidence and agility to run by and through other racehorses is at speed with the family band. Medaglia d’ Oro was born in Kentucky but raised in Montana to become a premier runner, and later a leading sire. Vallerone gave his foals the opportunity to hone a running style in the open country of their ancestors. By the time they made it to the track, they were all about run. Someday, someday. Vallerone dreamed someday.
The troubled son persisted. “Send a search party.” 
    “A search party?” The sheriff winced as he considered all the people he’d have to call to instigate a search party.     “What would your dad think of a missing-person’s expedition on his behalf? Not much, Ricky, not much, I’m telling you.” 
    Ricky tried to say something, but Oberly talked over him. “He’s likely just fine, the way I see it. We’ll wait him out. Give him some time.”
    “Easy for you to wait, isn’t it?” 
    “Be reasonable, Ricky. I’ve waited out many a man. Simpler than waiting out a woman.”
    “This isn’t about women,” Ricky sniped. 
    “Everything is about women,” the sheriff corrected. “Only a few hours until first light. Your father’s spent many a night under these stars. He’s either doing vet work, watching horses, or sleeping in his car. He’ll return in better shape than he departed, I assure you.”
    “He’d a told us had he planned on staying out all night.” 
    “You go find him, then. He’s camped under Swift. If you want him, drive out and get him. If he’s not there, I’ll go find him myself. How’s that?”
    “You sure know a lot about my father.”
    “I’m paid to know about the citizens of Pondera County.”
    “He’s seventy-seven. Not wise to gamble with a man’s life at that age.”
    “Penning them up at home is the bigger gamble, I’d say.”
    “If anything happens”
    “What can happen? People get sleepy as they age. They drive off to look their life over, reach back for time left behind. Your dad goes off like this often, and you know it.”
    “It’s freezing out there.”
    Oberly looked out there. Mountains attentive as his wife’s breasts, the moon swollen as she nestled behind the Front. Foothill grass flaxen as her hair. He walked to his weather station. “Forty-four degrees at my place,” Oberly reported. “Twenty mile-an-hour southwesterly wind, gusts to thirty-five. A Chinook of sorts, I’d say.”
    “Seventy-seven years of age.”
    “Gettin’ up there all right.” 
    “He could die out there.”
    “All find their time and place,” Oberly replied, knowing it to be a comment Fingers said over many a death. The veterinarian and the sheriff had shared death together many a night during their Conrad careers. Life and death beheld the pair more than life and death beheld average others. The sheriff and the veterinarian met time and again over death. They confronted death, and death them. Knowing death, they did not fear death as others feared death. They encountered more life than death, and in the end, life outlives death. 
    “You’ll regret saying that if Dad ends up dead out there.”
    “Not likely he’ll end up dead out there, Ricky, not likely at all. He takes pretty good care of himself. Especially at night. Always brings food, water, and blankets. His whole trunk is a first aid kit for man or beast. I know your father. He’ll be fine.” 
    “What is it that makes you so clairvoyant about my father, sheriff?”
    “We sometimes attend church together.” 
    “I heard you two worship Buddha.” 
    “And Crazy Horse. Others. Napi mostly.”
    Last year, Vallerone recruited a monk he’d met in Glacier Park to host a retreat up at the Pine Butte Nature Preserve. Oberly brought down some traditional Blackfeet medicine men, Many White Horses and others. They celebrated ‘religions of the earth people.’ Animal and parental connectivity took up the discussions. Oberly never knew his own father. His Uncle Howler threw in raising him, but he felt he never had a real father like other kids had a real father. The phone call was getting heavy. The sheriff realized he would not only have to deal with Ricky if Fingers did not emerge from the night by morning, he would have to deal with all of Ricky’s pencil-dick acquaintances. 
     “Out-all-night is where I draw the line these days,” Ricky declared.
    “Not out-all-night just yet,” the sheriff specified. “A few more hours of night remain. Dawn is his favorite space and you know it. Let him enjoy the daybreak.” 
    Oberly envied the lost doctor. He gazed to the Front. “A sweet moonlit night after such a cleansing evening rain. Ricky, do you see that moonset?”
    “No, I don’t see the moon. I don’t care about the moonset,” he replied. 
    People who didn’t pay attention to the moon disappointed Oberly. “I’ll start a search if he doesn’t arrive by… let’s say… noon.” 
    The sheriff grinned and pictured Fingers rolling into to town, his Crown Vic travelling low and dusted, his hair mussed, a smile ragged and real. If a vet call had drawn him into the night, there might be flecks of blood on his cheeks and clothes. If he’d been inside a cow to his elbows, blood sometimes remained on the back of his arms. Blood interested the sheriff. But Vallerone’s blood had always been cow blood, or horse. Animal blood dried to a different color than human blood, and from his encounters with Vallerone, Oberly had learned to distinguish human blood from other blood. Crime labs backed up this penchant of his a reader of blood, Bird Oberly.
    If not sleeping under Swift Dam, Vallerone might be tending a swift horse. Practiced ranchers knew where to find the seasoned veterinarian. He may not have enamored every client with his intuitive acumen, but for those ranchers with whom Vallerone clickedand there lived more than a few the horse doctor had a lifetime of work ahead. 
    At seventy-seven, Fingers remained game as ever to eye a lameness. He carried with him the tools to stitch lacerations, the drugs to painlessly slice into the next heifer to deliver the next newborn into a cold, hard world. Doc had long delved into those placental caverns where survival traits are handed down from generation to generation, and he will delve more before this story is told. He taught his ranchers the principles of genetics. To Dr. Vallerone’s credit, cesareans became a need of the past. Heifers were bred to birth easily these days, and only in rare cases of malpresentations, breeches, and the like, was Vallerone called in with the scalpel.
    In his travels to animals in need, Doc perfected moondriving. He had to, to survive. Before his Crown Victoria years of late, his vehicle of choice into the 70s was the Chevrolet Impala, the manual transmission model with the shifter on the steering column, a three-speed. Traction, Fingers Vallerone claimed the cars had better traction than the weak-travelling pickups of the day. He freewheeled his laden rig over the countryside from horse to cow, all those foothill ridges and prairies, all those snowy roads. His mission: bringing life into the world. Not dust, gravel, mud, blood, or night can keep Fingers Vallerone from delivering life. Being witness to all those first breaths drew him on, so many more waiting to breathe. All the suck reflexes he induced, all the ligatures he tied and salves he ministered, all those infusions and injections that healed and cured. Vallerone gave all, no better giving than helping the people of this world with their animals, no better vocation for this foothill veterinarian. Vallerone would know no other, save his prose. He embraced his work delivering life, all a doctor can ask the animals he tended fortunate, the ranchers more so. Saving lives fueled his human needs, most of them. 
    “Something might happen by dawn, sheriff. Something might have happened already,” Rick said. 
    “Nothing’s happened.”
    “Best you do something,” he commanded. “You could end up losing the primary on account of this bullshit you’re pulling!” 
    The election. Now, as added weight to his law enforcement duties, the sheriff had to deal with threats regarding the impending election. Oberly had had enough. “I’ll take care of it my way,” Bird stated. “Vote for whom pleases you. I’ve got your father covered.” Click.
    Let ’em vote me out, O smiled. Let some other fool field this moon work. Ranching is my destiny. Vote me out in the primary and don’t expect to hear the lame duck quack. As it was and always had been, Oberly needed his sheriff’s salary and benefits. Money, money to feed the needs of his younger wife, money saved for the family they both dreamed, clock-ticking, money to cobble together a ranch to raise the children amongst the animals on the land. Money, land, kids. The sheriff imagined finding a suitcase full of money in some borrow pit on his highway rounds, money looking for a home, money seeking family. 
    He walked back to the bedroom to watch his wife. He pondered other professions. It seems his sheriffing may be the cause of their barrenness, nights like this. He considered moving Nan to Birch Creek, a return to Indian living: training horses, herding cattle, mating heifers, making hay. Living alongside the animals on the land, answering to their needs rather than human desires, a dream of many a Montana man. Ranching would be conducive to fecundity, an erotic privacy deep and lost in grass.
    Doc and Oberly considered cobbling together a ranching operation. After the completion of their varied nighttime dealings with troubled folk and their troubled stock, they’d take in the air and consider joining the cattle-raising fray. Oberly’s salary could never fund a ranch, but Fingers veterinary practice had fiscal possibilities, especially of late. Oberly thought he might someday set up a headquarters at Howler and his mother’s place. They had the riverbottom acres, not enough land to carry a herd of cattle and horses year round, but a home place to harvest a hay crop to winter the herd, if only they could secure summer grass. 
    Dr. Vallerone had capital and collateral. He held deed on his wife’s residence in town, four lots with that view of the Rockies, plus a twelve-acre tract of commercial land surrounding his remodeled veterinary clinic near I-15. He and Maple possessed a string of rental houses, the houses where Vallerone housed orphans of the land through the years. 
Oberly thought a ranch possible for Doc, but at seventy-seven, it was too late. No, on reconsideration, it wasn’t too late. He was old, but not that old, not so old to not know how to enjoy hands-on ranching for another decade. Grandkids with a ranching interest could emerge. Vallerone had horses enough to ranch, and ranch big. 
    The wind softened. The sheriff walked into the den and sprawled out to wait the wandering Fingers Vallerone out. 


© Moronic Ox Literary Journal - Escape Media Publishers / Open Books 
In addition to being a longtime veterinarian and a university educator at the University of Guelph, where he teaches Equine Behavior, Dr. Sid Gustafson is a journalist for the New York Times, where he has a large and faithful following of readers.


​It had been a long snowy winter and spring. The rivers were late rising, and the mountains held onto a pure white snow-cover. Rain fell upon the deep winter snow the day before the Flood of '64. Waters rose, the rivers raged. The dam failed to hold the Birch Creek flow, and broke, giving way to a wall of water and drowning the Indians. 

​Veterinarian Alphonse Vallerone dreams out this novel of dreamers dreaming. He goes back 50 years to the day after the Flood, when he assisted the surviving Indians. Riding from one devastated ranch to another, he tends to the surviving yet devastated animals and tries to mend the grief wrought by the Flood. 

Underpinned by the lingering and harsh reminders of the Blackfeet Nation’s heroic, tragic, and vibrant past, Gustafson’s third novel chronicles the heartrending drama of the Blackfeet people.

Swift Dam celebrates the native land and the Natives who survive as they have survived throughout time, perilously. It is the story of a veterinarian who attempts to sustain and nurture life on the land, his empathy with the living, and his sympathy for the dead and dying.

“Sid writes with a dedicated sense of place and change. Swift Dam is native lore from the poetic heart of Montana, a water manifesto.”  
--Jim Harrison, novelist and poet, author of Legends of the Fall, Dalva, and Dead Man’s Float
Open Books author 
Sid Gustafson 
will read from his most recent novel, 
Swift Dam 
at 
Elk River Books 
on July 26, 2016