icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Veterinarian, natural approaches to animal health and prosperity.

Gustafson Thanksgiving 2023 Conrad, Montana

 Novel Excerpt
From the Open Books novel 
Swift Dam  
 Sid Gustafson
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 belling¾seldom 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 sport¾sleep. 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. 
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 Hollanders¾Scandinavians 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 irretrievable¾the 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 cure¾the 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 happens¾"
    "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 clicked¾and 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. 

Bat and Sid, Windy Pass, Gallatin Crest, Montana, July 2020
Natural approaches to horse and cat health.
Natural approaches to animal health and prosperity. Dr Gustafson is a thoroughbred bloodstock agent and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. The application of behavioral science to the development of racehorses enhances optimal health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity. Behavioral, social, locomotory, training, and nutritional strategies enhance the prosperity, vigor, and health of competition horses. Sid develops racehorses in deference to the horse's perspective, achieving willing and winning equine partnerships with humans.
Dr Gustafson provides guidance for thoroughbred buyers interested in purchasing select yearlings sound of eye, wind, and limb. He will be available at Keeneland in September to evaluate and assess your yearling prospects' conformation, maturity, movement, and pulmonary health, along with their behavioral and genetic potential to win. swgustafson at yahoo

Sid Gustafson
1914 Springtime—Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Browning Montana
It was not unusual after that manifest turn of the century for a child to spend the entire wind-driven day alone in front of the mercantile. Odd thing was, the child was white as the vanishing snow, white and left to fend the spring wind alone with nothing but the clothes on his back and a dog at his feet. When evening stole away the day's breezy warmth, robed Indians drifted their various ways. The boy sat and waited, the dog warming his toes.
Tess Ground Owl took notice after a long day's work in the store. She stopped to look the little stranger over and help him find his way. She asked the boy his name. He stood up, as if to be inspected, but did not offer an answer. "Come child. Your name." Nothing. She tried coyote French, and then Blackfoot. No answer, as if he'd been told not to speak with strangers.
The reluctant boy struck a chord with Tess. He would not relinquish a word, nor accept her urge to follow along to her room in Sherburne's mansion, the nicest house in town. She lingered with him on the street half a twilight hour, hoping to wait out some information, any information. She squatted down to pet his dog, giving the boy's faithful companion a good rub. The dog wanted to play, but the boy remained dispassionate. A gray chill listed in, giving Tess cause to turn up her collar. The sun settled behind the mountains.
Wouldn't give her his name. Didn't seem from around these parts. No one around to claim him. Not a word. She'd had a child once, a child taken away, a boy that could be this age, a French father.
"Listen, dear child," she asked, "if nothing else, please tell me what direction in this world you came from so I know which folk to summon." Three languages again. She swept her arm to the east, to the south, to the west. Nothing. That left north. North. She eyed the boy, caught his attention and swept her arm up the Front, north. Her gesture touched the boy, his eyes following her hand. A smile, a nod, a subtle affirmation. He gave nod with each tongue; English, Blackfeet, French, as if even he might understand all three languages, like Tess herself. She spoke French after the birth of her son, before the smallpox hit her and her husband fled with their child, fearing for the boy's life more than hers, having seen the smallpox. Scars remain, the loss of her child the biggest scar of all.
"Ok'i," Tess said in her Blackfoot vernacular, as if somehow it was settled that the boy would now follow along having made the northerly connection. But no, the child, be he hers or the world's, held his ground. Tess's coyote French seemed to interest him the most, giving her hope. French could likely make him mine, she thought. Has someone heard my prayers and sent him home to me? Perhaps he is afraid of me because of my pocked face, my shriveled nose.
She started to say something—but his expression stopped her, as if to say no, I am not yours, I did not come for you, but for another. Tess folded her arms … trying once again to understand why her husband never returned. Her husband loved her. She knew he did. He knew she loved the child more than anything. She measured the boy's features, looking for something of her in him, something of her long-departed husband. She tried to think of something unique, some identifier that time could not transcenda birthmark, a scar, a deformity. Nothing. This boy had been spared of smallpox, but his parents likely had not.
He was a plain child, a bit light to have an Indian mother, skin bearing only a shadow of blood. She regretted not having treasured some feature. She remembered her child as a perfect child, and perfect he was until the day she fell ill. Next thing she knew, her son was gone. The French husband and his Métis people stole her child away to save the child, to save him from her smallpox.
She plied the boy with stories. She chanted. She sang, she laughed. She walked the street. In time, a rhythm entered her steps. She danced. She implored the boy follow along. A headstrong boy. Or maybe obedient. Perhaps that was it: obedience. He'd been told to wait for someone, a man. However willful, the boy came to admire her dancing. He looked her in the eye as she danced, appreciative of her intent to cheer him. If nothing, the boy knew she would help him find his way, even though it wasn't her way. Someone had another home in mind for the boy. This had all happened before. He was not the first boy she tried to make her own. She'd taken in a nephew. Tess bit her lower lip, motioned the boy stay put, and took off to inform the taxidermist. The crescent moon began its twilight descent, a butterfly chasing the sunken sun.
She looked about the town to see who might have watched her ply the child… no one, it seemed. Another boy orphaned in their street, nothing happening, reservation life some patched together thing, ancient ways half remembered, half lost; children forgotten, children abandoned. She looked back to the boy and smiled. She signaled 'be patient and wait, everything will be all right,' her gesture language his by now, linguists they were. He answered by petting his dog. He wouldn't be going anywhere. Reassured by the communication, Tess flipped her braids over her shoulders and trotted into the lilac night.
She stopped at the glint railroad tracks, her breath quickened by the whir of elaborated emotion. She not so much looked for trains as listened, her eyes fixed on Stuf's quarters. Before crossing, she turned and looked behind her—the town quiet and shadowless. An oil lamp flickered inside the building, illuminating the animals that hung from his walls. Encouraged, she stepped over the rails, crossed the open ground to the building, trotted up the steps and rapped. A long moment passed before his boots began their broken cadence across the floor. His gait had deteriorated, asymmetric as ever. Suspicious of callers at dusk, he cracked the door and peered over the security chain. "Who comes at this hour?"
"Napikwan waits for you in front of the store," Tess said, her singular voice identifying who she was.
"Napikwan?" the taxidermist answered, singing out the word in a language he seldom spoke.
"Yes. A boy pale as you."
"And you say he waits for me?"
"He waits for someone, but not for me. I tried to coax him home. But no, he wouldn't come."
"Wouldn't come with you?"
"Not this one."
"Why not?"
"Wouldn't say. Wouldn't say a thing, as a matter of fact. Wish I knew what he was all about."
"And you don't?"
"No, I don't," she echoed. "Not sure where he came from."
"He must have hinted at something."
"North. He nodded upcountry."
"When I pointed north, he nodded."
"What did his clothes say?"
"North too, maybe."
"Maybe he's Belly-Fat," Stuf said, referring to the Blackfeet term for an abandoned child.
"He's not fat. Thin as a rail."
"Belly-fat," Stuf repeated. "Life sprung from an unwelcome belly."
Tess's poxed nostrils snorted.
"I'll be down to get him."
"He has a dog."
"A dog. Maybe we can locate his people with the dog."
"Looks like any boy's dog."
'Stuf,' as the Indians dubbed the taxidermist, thanked Tess Ground Owl. He closed the door without ever having removed the chain. He often helped the orphans in town, especially the light-skinned ones, finding them shelter, and then a home. Tess stepped off toward town. Out the door behind her, Stuf followed the pad of her testy footsteps. Bundled in his Hudson Bay blanket, he hitched his bones across the rails to retrieve the child of his alleged ilk. He moved along brisker than usual, nearly as fast as the nimble Tess. She hurried ahead to make sure the boy had stayed put. He had, huddled with his dog in the last hold of twilight.
When Stuf approached, Tess motioned him toward the child and stepped down the alley to her house. Stuf announced his presence with an authoritarian cough, which was unnecessary. The boy had seen him coming all along. Stuf stepped a bit closer and stopped. He raised an arm and lifted his chin. The boy popped up and bounded Stuf's way.
Tess watched from the gable window atop the Sherburne mansion. The boy's antics confirmed her belief that the child was told to wait for a man. The taxidermist turned about and headed back to his shop. The dog pranced and barked, happy to be found. Stuf marched across town. The boy sprinted ahead to the next crossroad. He waited for Stuf to catch up and show the way. Cat and mouse they crossed Browning.
Stuf stopped at the Great Northern tracks bridging the world. He looked east. He looked west. He listened. Nothing. He scanned the heaven for the meteor shower, the vapor of his emphysema catching the last light of a fallen moon. The boy looked up and down the shiny ribbons of rail. He observed Stuf gazing starward. The old man moved his fingers along the constellations, as if to count them, making sure all were there. He looked down at the boy, smiling. The boy looked from Stuf to the stars. He had his ideas why men looked up to them, and what might fall out of the sky.
No trains and no meteors. Last moonlight, a warmth to the wind, Chinook wind, most welcome wind in the world. Taking the boy by the hand, Stuf stepped across the steel and moved through the night. He climbed the barren porch and stood at his door, taking one last long gaze at the Heavens. The boy sat, humming and waiting, closing his eyes… dozing against the doorjamb.
Stuf stared starward. Maybe it was too early in the night. The medicine man Many White Horses had told him to watch the sky; that a comet approached. There, a wisp off Cassiopeia's chair. He looked harder, wishing for new spectacles. The faraway galaxy Andromeda twinkled in the wetness of his eyes, Andromeda and not a comet. The worn man sighed. He pushed open the door. The boy tumbled inside to catlike catch his fall, Stuf's animals suddenly upon him. The boy crabbed across the floor, frantic to comprehend the dismembered beasts. The taxidermist lit a kerosene lamp. The wick light made the mounts jump, if ever so slightly, and all in unison. The boy crouched and watched all the unblinking eyes, quickly understanding their death.
The animals stilled when the oil-lamp's chimney heated up, stiffening the flame. Indeed, most of the critters stared from their heads alone, only a few whole, some of them halved. The boy came from a land of the living. He had not experienced this aspect of animal afterlife. He looked from one to the other; grizzly bear, elk, coyote, mountain lion, wolverine. All animals he knew in life, prairie rock chimney, eyes rimmed with fear, dead.
Yes, Stuf had the touch to imitate life. He hobbled under his animals as if they were nothing. The child caught his breath and stood. He inspected each beast, touching, smelling; learning firsthand his or her fixed predicament. The wall behind him sported deer, mountain goat, mountain sheep, fisher, badger, lynx, grouse. Wolf. Everything made sense but their death.
The old man busied himself in the kitchen at the opposite end of the long room. The kitchen window offered a faint panorama of the plains rolling east. He finished his fixings and set out a bowl of corned beef and frybread. The boy chinned himself up to the table, continuing to marvel at the animals surrounding him. He spooned delicately and chewed carefully, so as not to disturb the incomprehensible stillness hung upon the walls. Manners, the boy had manners.
The pine fire at the far end of the room popped. A fierce gust of wind arose, shaking the room, trembling the animals on the wall. The boy knew wind and dined on. He finished his plate and eyed Stuf for more. Stuf dished out another helping of corned beef and cabbage, beef and cabbage raised on the reservation, beef and cabbage replacing buffalo and berries. When the boy filled up, Stuf showed him outside, pointing him toward the crapper, a hand-motion where to find the paper. The boy nodded okay, their sign language fluent, the moon lost below the mountains, the plains dark, Milky Way bright.
Sitting on the wooden throne of the outdoor loo, the boy watched a falling star slice the deep curve of night. His dog wandered off into the blowing prairie. The wind clarified the sky. He spotted another falling star, and another, and felt the movement of the universe. A meteor shower ensued. Enchanted, the boy counted the fallen stars until he could count no more. When he finally returned, Stuf led him to the washbasin and coached his little hands into the water and scrubbed them good. He showed the boy how to wash his face and brush his teeth, something the boy was not wont to do. Gums tingling, face aglow, the child climbed atop a bed Stuf had arranged. He tucked the boy under his softest buffalo robe and rubbed the little man's back. Another orphan searching for a life. The youngster fell asleep. It had been a long day of which we know only the half.
With the boy sound asleep, the taxidermist slipped back across town with a satchel of chokecherry pemmican. He went to Tess's and awakened her nephew, Butterfly, a reliable message runner. He fixed the young man up with the ancient sustenance and a bottle of Cola. He gave Butterfly instructions to head to Summerhome and deliver a letter to Madge and Betsy Bird; orphaned sisters Stuf rescued some time back. The young man caught up two horses and rode off to the Milk River, bringing Stuf's message that a boy had arrived.
The sisters arrived two days hence, carted to town by their team of well-wintered mules. Tess had the Bird sisters' spring order of ranch goods waiting at the mercantile for them as Stuf had arranged. Butterfly loaded the supplies on their buckboard. The sisters settled their bill with Sweetgrass Hills' gold dust and liveried the hybrids at the stable down the street. The two walked across town invisible to one another, yet somehow irrecoverably intertwined. Having survived the Baker massacre together, they were never able to part. Betsy limped. Madge strode alongside, her head canted to accommodate her one-eye way of going. The ladies crossed the tracks and approached the taxidermist's shop, a stop they made every time they came to town to visit their benefactor.
They march in without knocking to size up the child-find. Clouded sunlight pitches the animated room like ship's stronghold. "Come in, ladies, come in," Stuf says. "Make yourself at home, as your home it once was."
"New blood, eh?" Betsy queries, levering past Stuf with a sharp elbow. She trips on a bear hide ball, catching her fall with her fake leg, pegging the ivory into the wooden floor.
"Returned blood, more than likely," Madge counters, loosening the string that holds the musselshell patch over her smallpoxed eye.
"The Catholic priest said a white savior might show up someday," Betsy put in. "So did the medicine man."
"Which medicine man?" Stuf asks.
"Buffalo Heart," Betsy replies.
"Yes," Madge adds.
"The beaver bundle man. Tess's grandfather, you know," Betsy says.
"The red papa," Madge clarifies.
"The dead papa, you mean. Black maybe, but not red. I still have his beaver bundle," Stuf puts in.
"We know you do. You just don't know how to use it."
"No. No one does. Not anymore."
"He might," Betsy says, putting her hand on the boy's shoulder. "This boy just might. The boy could learn. He might bring the buffalo back."
"A white boy bringing the buffalo back?" Stuf asks.
"Whiteman took them away," Betsy reasons.
"Oh, Stuf," Madge sighs. "Buffalo Heart entrusted you with the bundle for safekeeping. He knew what he was doing. You yourself were supposed to work the bundle during the wind and bone winter when our people became too sick and dead to work it anymore. You were supposed to bring us food to eat with the bundle. Even without the bundle, you and your government were supposed to feed us. You were supposed to bring doctors and medicine and you brought nothing. You took our buffalo away and left us to starve. Some bundle-keeper you."
Stuf winces at his failures, a pity that such smallpox epidemics had to happen at all. The Heavy Runner clan sick and hungry and camped on the Marias. American Indians dead and dying and freezing from the ravages the poxvirus. The healthier braves and horses were off to the Sweetgrass Hills hunting deer.
Stuf left the Heavy Runner camp the day before the massacre in a bitter snowfall, riding horseback to Fort Benton for medicine to minister the Whiteman's Plague that blinded Madge's eye and took Betsy's leg. The horses were sick as the people, glandered and dying and weak. The young Stuf was a practiced horsedoctor. He traveled for horse medicine and Indian medicine alike. Medicine, he'd left the camp to bring home the medicine, he, the minister of medicine. Open sores on man and beast, fever and delirium, scabs, emaciation and death. Smallpox in the people. Glanders in their horses.
Stuf was warm in a hotel bed in Fort Benton when the soldiers attacked, early morning sub-zero weather, Colonel Baker in a frenzy to extract revenge for a white rancher allegedly killed by a band of renegade Blackfeet, a rancher married to a Blackfoot woman, the mother of Betsy and Madge. White men bent on war, whitemen on the warpath. An Army of well armed and well fed men. The Indians sick and cold, their men off hunting, an already-surrendered, peaceful band of Indians. Sick and dying, massacred.
Next thing the US Army had the blood of some hundred and sixty dead Indians on their hands. The cavalry savaged the pitiful encampment, shooting Indians, women, children, the aged and afflicted. Then burning their tepees. Snuffing out the infants. Madge and Betsy's mother among the dead, their murdered father the cause of the attack, Indians orphaned, smallpoxed, too many dead. Innocent Indians, the survivors freezing and starving, sick and hungry. Bitter cold. Sweetgrass Hills wind. North wind. Massacred sickness, some killings nearly humane. The Baker Massacre, a permanent tragedy for two cultures expected to live together forevermore, two races forced upon one another by the scythe of time and squeeze of space, the last free-living natives in America—smallpox sick and massacred, free no more, identity vanquished.
Stuf arrived back from Fort Benton that evening to the slaughter's remains. A blue hue to the river valley, the acrid smoke of burning flesh heavy on the air, smells and sights of death. Too late for his whiteman medicine to do much good. Survivors wept and struggled to stay alive. He helped the children best he could. Then the women. By darkness he attended the gutshot Medicine Man sitting next to his burnt down lodge. The soldiers burnt down all the lodges. He doctored the mortal wounds with special oils, giving the injuries a final unction. Stuf began singing. He sang the bundle songs Buffalo Heart had taught him. They sang all the bundle songs, singing until Buffalo Heart could sing no more.
The wounded Medicine Man lay next to the lodge fire. His eyes held a twinkle that belied his impaled body. Stuf drained and dressed the gut wound and applied a compress. Within minutes, Buffalo Heart sat up, grabbed the bundle, and placed the sacred wrap on his lap. He opened the bundle, removed a pipe and tobacco, and sang a final song. Stuf joined him in the sacred song. Buffalo Heart loaded and lit the pipe. He puffed and passed the pipe to Stuf, who smoked. The old man keened lightly. He took the pipe and tobacco, replaced them in the pouch, and removed two iniskim from the leather pouch, fossilized mini-buffalo, a white and a black. He held them out, one on the palm of each hand. He then closed his hands, put them behind his back and brought his hands out knuckles up. He asked Stuf to choose. Stuf chose the right hand. Buffalo Heart rolled his wrist, opened his palm. It held the black and the white buffalo, together.
The Medicine Man nodded, sighed, and winced; transfer complete. He replaced the iniskim and rolled up the bundle. In a slight of hands, he handed the beaver bundle to Stuf. His spoke a last word 'Napikwan.' He died sitting up, knees locked, arms limp on his lap, the bundle in Stuf's hands, ceded.
Stuf looked down at the boy. He searched for a clue yet unseen; a dialect, an identifying mark or facial feature, a map to his past. There, a nick in the ear, tiniest little nick near the top of his left ear, the cartilage wedged and healed. Distinguished and distinguishing. All who loved him must remember the ear.
The sisters switched to their native tongue, words sharp and sure. The boy leaned into their conversation, lips sealed straight across, a squint to his left eye; a bright child possessing a knowing demeanor, however mute. Stuf looked up to his animals. The frantic inflection of the sisters' diction took him back to their childhood. Their dialogue provoked happy memories. He tried to forget their scabs and fever and the loss of their sister. He tried to disremember the ulcerated tongue of the medicine man, the ooze from his belly wound, his crossed legs and frozen toesMedicine Man dead, straight-up-sitting, dead. His people decimated, children orphaned. Blackfeet culture vanquished. The bundle held everything that remained.
The mounted animals loomed over Stuf like the sick hungry horses that lingered in the stench of massacre. Cottonwood riverbottom, slate light trapped in the back of his eyes, the smell of burnt flesh imbedded in the tissue of his sinuses. The lodges ransacked and smoldering, death everywhere. Smoke and suffering. Horses, wounded and glandered, gaunt and bleeding, redness flaming the snow about them.
They wrapped Buffalo Heart in a scorched buffalo robe and buried him in a tree. The bundle and Stuf escorted Madge and Betsy to a new home, this home that now harbored a boy, a new and different life with Stuf, a different world forever.
After the massacre, less-fortunate Indians ran away to die, the smallpox and violence too much to bear. Some fled with the Métis into Canada, to foment rebellion. A few went to work for ranchers, taking up with immigrant ways, denouncing their former freedoms. Others swallowed the tragedy and escaped to wherever they'd be left alone—Canada, Mexico, other reservations, other worlds.
"What's his name?" Betsy asked, catching her breath.
Stuf felt faint, flushed by the hazards of memory—a penetration his soul hadn't experienced in some time, decades now since Buffalo Heart had passed him the sacred bundle, uttering 'Napikwan.'
Stuf moved to his chair and sat, wheezing. He leaned back in his rocker to ease the heave of his lungs. Outside, clouds slid under the sun, dimming the room.
"His name, Stuf," Betsy ordered, fidgeting her ivory leg, remembering the smallpox and starvation as well as anyone could remember. She lifted her peg leg to a footstool and  tightened the laces that held the prosthesis in place.
Madge sat down and one-eyed the ceiling. "Oh my, my oh my," she said. "What have those lost souls sent us?"
The boy listened and watched. He understood something had once gone terribly wrong in their lives, something they all withstood together. As Betsy finished her lacing the room grew quiet. She rested her forearm across her knee. The boy's eyes held on the tusk. What animal shared such a shiny bone? No bone he'd ever known. Betsy took notice of the attention the boy paid her. "Yes," she said, "to know me you'll have to know the leg. Don't be afraid of it. Nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all." Their eyes met. She eased the column of ivory to the floor with a pleasing tunk and stepped to him, grasping him by the shoulder. The boy smiled, falling into her touch.
"Let's have it, Stuf," Madge requested, tracing the boy's collarbone from his neck to his shoulder with her thumb, relaxing the child. "His name and anything else you know about him." She fussed at his dark hair with her free hand, and then held his head in both hands, examining the shape.
Stuf sat forward. "He doesn't have any lice, didn't have any when he arrived."
She looked his way, and shook her head. "No, he doesn't have lice, but he has a name I bet," she said, giving the boy his head.
Stuf tapped at his teeth with the fingernail of his index finger.
"Luke," he announced, sitting to the edge of his rocker.
She sniffed, sensing a lack of conviction. "Luke? Did he tell you so?"
"No," he said.
"The only name he uttered was badger. A name he repeated each time I asked him his name."
"Badger, eh? So how do you Luke that? Badger is probably his dog's name," Madge asked. Sure enough, the boy's dog wagged his tail.
"I didn't exactly get Luke out of him outright," he admitted, looking away, speaking to the kitchen.
"How then?"
"When he wouldn't tell me, I read from the Bible. He looked up when I announced the Gospel according to Luke. That's all."
"Preaching to him from that bible, eh Stuf? You ought to know better," Madge scolded. "When the whiteman arrived we had all this land, and the whiteman had the bible. Now the whiteman has all the land, and we have the bible. Some trade. Forget that damn bible." She circled behind the child, her arm the radius of a doting orbit.
"No preaching, I'd not call it that. Reading, just reading to the boy. He's a good listener, I'll say that for him. A fine boy. A good listener. Luke."
Luke smiled and nodded to the sound of his name.
"Maybe he doesn't understand all that Bible talk, a forked sort of English."
"Yes, I thought of that. I read scripture to find out if he'd heard that forked sort of talk before. Once you hear it, it sticks with you, whether you like it or not, especially if read with a certain heat. Some folk have Bible teachings in them, others don't. If they know the bible, it helps trace origins, you know."
"Pft. Don't you wish?" Betsy said. "So, in the biblical sense, then, what do you make of the color of his skin here?"
"Well, skin's become sort of unreliable anymore."
"Really?" Madge asked. "You've come to believe that Indians come in a white color now?"
"Well, some do, or have, or will."
"Oh come on. You must have decided something a little more concrete than he's a white Indian, Stuf," Betsy prodded.
"No, he just kept right on a readin' his Bible, alienating the poor lost child," Madge put in.
"Madge, please. Be civil with Father. Stuf, what about your anthropology learning, your Darwin? All that high-minded science?"
"Couldn't bring myself to think of him as science. Madge is right, I just kept on with the Bible. He liked it, liked my reading. And from the way he listened, I suspect he is part Indian."
"From the way he listened?"
"You know, skeptical."
"So let me get this right. Even though he didn't tell you a thing about his family or people or anything like that, and he appears white, you think he might be part Indian because he listened funny as you read him the Bible?"
"Yes. That is correct. I figured you can only ask an abandoned child so much without making him feel like you might be the next to abandon him. I tried asking him softly, but he played it safe, didn't talk. He sensed I was trying to find someone for him, though. Content with that, he acted like he didn't have anything to say, like I should know what to do with him, that I shouldn't have to ask. That's when I sent word for you. My sense is that he should live with you sisters, that's all. God knows you two need a child."
"You just want a grandchild."
"Maybe. He knew I'd keep good care of him. He wouldn't speak, so I read. He listened, and listened carefully."
"And not a word out of him?"
"Not a word, save Badger."
"Badger. The dog, no doubt."
"And so you still—what has it been, three days now—don't know who he is, or where he's from?"
"What does that matter? He's a boy in need of a home. He won't stay with Tess. When no one else showed up, I sent for you two. I tried to find out more. Each day, instead of getting closer to what might be his ancestry, I got further away. What do you think? You tell me whom he came from. Tell me where, please."
"It might not matter, but then again it could," Madge said. "He seems to be under some sort of spell to not say much. Badger and that's it?"
"That's right, excepting all that talk he does with his body," Stuf said.
"What do you make of his voice?" Madge asked.
"He's an English speaker, alright."
"Maybe he speaks more than one tongue."
"Maybe. The Métis were through a week back, their carts howling louder than the wind, Métis from the North, yes ma'am. They traded in several languages, yes indeed they did."
"Métis, eh? Through last week?"
"Yes. Tess knows."
"She got to know them pretty well, I bet."
"I don't know how you mean that, Madge. Tess fixed them up with provisions like she does everyone, did the talking and trading she had to. Butterfly helped."
"Did you hear her talk with them?"
"Well, I suppose I did. I was around. They talked a lot, it seems. They spent a few days here."
"What were they speaking about?"
"Trade. Dealing. Money, you know."
"In what language?"
"What language? Well, all languages, you know what I mean. English, French, Blackfoot, whatever was handy. I didn't really pay all that close attention to which language, too much like my trading days, everyone spoke all the languages they needed to carry out their commerce."
"And what commerce was it brought them through?"
"Nothing in particular. You know the Métis. They remain the great nomads the Blackfeet and Sioux once used to be. Leaving Canada these days, they are, oui. Tried to make a stand up there. When that didn't work they started sifting down to settle whatever homestead or reservation wouldn't run 'em off." Stuf smiled at the thought of wandering Métis, their determination to live free.
"How was their skin?"
"Some of them are pretty fair, alright, whitefolk by all appearances. Others are dark, but not that dark, everything between. I suppose the boy could be of their blue-eyed mix-blood stock, Louis Riel's offspring perhaps." Stuf admired the Métis, he liked their independence. "Freestanding folk, those Métis. The boy could be Métis, fluent in their coyote French. English nouns, French verbs, nothing so cumbersome as prepositions or articles, the language of trade when buffalo migrated about the plains, a language vanished with the buffalo."
"Buffalo," the boy said.
"See there," Stuf said.
"Blackfoot, maybe there's some Blackfoot on his tongue," Betsy said hopefully, rubbing the boy's arms now, one, then the other. "Maybe he's been raised by those Bloods up North, init?"
"A white boy with those Bloods? Ha. Their Kit Fox society would doubtful allow that."
"It's in their stories. A white boy sent from some far reach to release the buffalo back out onto the earth."
"That's right."
"In our stories Napi is white."
"Those Bloods might have spit the boy out of some ghost dance then, init?"
"If he knows Blackfoot, maybe he came down through Waterton with the Métis. The Métis traded with Bloods before moving on down here to ply the Pikunni. You wouldn't think they'd abandon one of their own."
"What about the Heart Butte Blackfeet? Could they be up to something?"
"They could be."
"What about kidnapping or something? Maybe he's kidnapped and abandoned."
"A white child left to the savages."
"The boy knows the stars in the North. Knows 'em well," Stuf said.
"Must have came from the North, then." Betsy concluded.
Madge nodded.
"Lot of people up North."
"Over time."
"Through time."
"The Métis through the other day, and a lightskin sprouts out of nowhere?" Madge eyed the child, and then Stuf. "Same story as you, Stuf. Same story fifty-some years ago. Buffalo Heart divined you out of nowhere, smoked you out of the sky. Out of nowhere you came riding that elegant white horse. If my memory still serves me, Métis had been through a few days before your arrival. Out of nowhere you spoke the Blackfoot dialect of our Pikunni tongue, Napi's messenger himself come to save us."
"A fable," Stuf proclaimed.
"Ha," Betsy exclaimed. "What else were we supposed to think?"
"I told you that I learned the language living with the Blackfeet one winter at Fort Benton. We sat around all winter telling stories. A man named Blood and his wife Red Elk taught me all the Blackfoot I needed to know to barter furs, which is quite a lot more than you'd think. I learned some of the language listening to their stories. Other traders and Indians told stories as well. All winter long; stories. Three or four different tongues. Stories we needed to hear to get through the winter. Jimmy Schultz told stories in Blackfoot. He was a whiteman who knew Pikunni like his born language. After I heard him storytell, I knew one day I could speak fluent Blackfoot as well, and did. Buffalo Heart thought I was sent by Old Man with your language on my tongue, Napi at work."
"You saved us, Stuf."
"You saved yourselves."
"We know what happened, what you did for us. We'd be dead without you, and you know it."
Stuf fell back into his chair, his mind enfolded.
"So how do you suppose this blue-eye child ended up at our door?" Madge asked the animals. Luke looked to the caped animals. The cobwebbed glut of immortalized creatures remained suspended in muteness.
Stuf lifted his heels and resumed rocking. "Luke, how old are you?"
The boy flipped up two hands, five outstretched fingers, plus, one at a time, two more, first the thumb, then the index finger.
The boy spoke. "Seven."
His manner of counting out his fingers intrigued Stuf. The thumb as one, North European.
"Maybe we should ask if they want to take him in at the Holy Family Mission," Madge suggested.
"Forget that," Betsy said. Her walrus drummed the floor.
"What about Tess?"
"He didn't want Tess. You ladies take him on home with you, now." He is a fine boy. He is going to be just fine if you give him love and a home. That's all a child needs. That's all you needed."
"He might need a Dad."
"We'll find him a dad."
"I'm too old, my goodness, children."
"We'll see about that," Betsy said.
Abetted by the blur of her harlequin eye, Madge considered Luke. "Maybe someone will show up to claim him before long."
"If that time comes, fine."
"Who else knows?"
"Tess Ground Owl?"
"The merchant's clerk."
"She had nothing to do with his arrival?"
"No, other than welcoming him. She found him waiting in the wind after work, all alone, him and Badger. That's all I know," Stuf said, understanding there could be more. "He wouldn't go home with Tess. She tried hard, wanted him as hers."
Madge sighed. She replaced the shell over her wandering eye, took the boy's hands and squeezed them, her thumbs on the top of his wrists a certain Indian way. With a torn-pocket smile Stuf stopped rocking. He built himself out of his chair a joint at a time, pleased the situation was moving forward in the direction he'd divined. Goes around, comes around, he thought. The children he had raised couldn't refuse the boy.
"I'll help with the fathering," Stuf declared. He stood from the rocker—a half step to catch his balance—and hung his thumbs into his vestpockets. He coughed to clear his throat, took a breath, waggled his fingers, and sang.
"What will become of a boy as light as he?
 As light as me,
A boy as white and alone as me,
Arrived here from the land of the Cree." 
Madge looked to Betsy. "Let's be on, then."
The boy dropped off the stool to stand between the ladies. Forty glass eyes witnessed the delivery. The threesome shuffled across the gallery, Betsy's walrus rapping the floor with glee. The sisters sidled the boy out the door in a deft display of teamwork. Their elk-teeth bracelets clacked as they scooted him on his way—their way—elk teeth excited; a child sent to make the world new again, to make the world real.
The taxidermist followed them outside. Low-moving clouds garbled the sunlight. Verdant air, green hills, beckoning mountains yondera landscape of hope. "Speak only the Queen's English with the boy," Stuf joked. "For his good fortune, you know" he added, shooting a finger to the sky, chuckling. A wind gust took his hat, wheeling the straw past the threesome, spooking the mules.
The ladies held Luke in check until the animals relaxed. In unison, one at each arm, the sisters elevated Luke's ribby frame to the seat of the buckboard. His dog jumped aboard after him. The wood squeaked against the wind, wind cleansing the world. Unfamiliar with little-boy antics and wary of strange dogs, the span of mules pawed, Summerhome mules eager to get back to Summerhome grass.
Stuf lumbered by, chasing after his hat. The boy laughed. The sisters laughed, everyone laughing in the wind.
Madge wrapped the reins around her wrists and clucked the mules. The hybrids charged into their hames, glad to be on with it. They trotted their cargo out onto the green plains. White coulee snow melted into the grassy landscape. The boy sat and rode and watched—happily squishedstock-still except to point out an occasional bird the wind flew by.
Beyond the middle of everywhere, into the yawning shadow of the backbone of the world, the sisters began speaking Blackfeet. The mules racked, their attentive ears rolling back to detect any command that might be directed their way. The sisters weren't talking to the mules, and the mules soon knew it. A swift trip home, singsong excitement—words darting across the grassland like windswept larks. The mules trotted the trio down the long coulee to Summerhome on the South Fork of the Milk River.
By the time the women unloaded the supplies and unharnessed the mules, the boy had uttered wind and bird and grass in Blackfeet. It wasn't clear whether he had just learned the words, or knew them all along.
The sisters scurried about the twilight making everything right—a lyric dream of beautiful promise, lost identity eager to find a home.
Thus ended the brief orphanage of Luke Tailfeathers.

Sid's family of horse and man and dog

Montana Quarterly Magazine
Book Review, Spring ‘07

Horses They Rode
By Sid Gustafson
Riverbend Publishing, 288 pages
Reviewed by Justin Easter

Bozeman author and veterinarian Sid Gustafson has the rare ability to take you from your seat and place you directly in his novel.
He accomplishes this in Horses They Rode not with the all-too-common literary tactics we are used to, but through the use of fascinating imagery. While giving the reader familiar points in Montana to use as reference, Gustafson transports his readers into a different countryside than the one we see from our windows.
Gustafson brings his reader into a world where Indians and cowboys live together, and before the novel even progresses, the affect of this relationship, however strained, is evident to the reader. The nomadic qualities of Gustafson’s characters echo throughout the novel and resonate in any reader who has felt an itch for exploration.
If you are interested in opening a book that will captivate your imagination while encouraging introspection, you need not look further than Horses They Rode. You may put this novel down wondering about the spirit of the mountains, the relationships you have with people around you, or even the relationship you have with yourself. This is, of course, not surprising when you realize Gustafson is using his own experiences to masterfully shape his characters.
Expect to read one of the finer stories related to quickly dissipating Montana culture, and one of the most impressive novels written by a Montana author this year. Hold on to your emotions, because there will most likely be an instant when Gustafson is able to open your mind in a way that is truly fascinating.

Justin Easter

Bookmark and Share

Sid Gustafson DVM
Equine Welfare and Behavior

Thoroughbred Bloodstock Agent, Animal Behavior, Animal


click on Run Happy to see how the European horses fared in the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland

Bookmark and Share



performance-horse-veterinary-ethics.pdf (254 KB)

Performance Horse Veterinary Ethics