The following is Chapter 1 of the forthcoming 11th Macduff Brooks novel.
MID-AUGUST AT AN ALFALFA FARM ON MILL CREEK, PARADISE VALLEY, MONTANA
“OSCAR! OSCAR MACPHERSON! WHAT HAS YOU so upset? Did you have an argument with that State of Montana water man? How many times have I told you to do what he says or you’ll go to jail? Sometimes you make me sick!”
“That ‘water man’ is going to be a dead man if he gives me any more trouble,” Oscar answered, pouring himself a large glass of Seagram’s 7 Crown, which he favored partly because it was referred to as the cheapest working man’s whiskey in America.
“What happened?” his wife, Mildred, asked. “I know you went out to check to make sure the diversion dam head gate was open and sending water to our fields. But we’re only entitled to so much, not all of it.”
“It’s been so dry I don’t give a damn about trout fry anymore. I need all the water.”
“You keep telling me that the trout will come back another year when we have a bigger August flow on the creek,” she said, not thinking the fry couldn’t grow back because they would all be dead in a matter of hours.
“The water man, as you call him, is Rudy Wentworth,” Oscar explained. “He has no business being on my property. He works for the Montana Department of Natural Resources as one of their water lease enforcement contacts. He says we’re required to leave so much water in the creek even though that means we hurt our crops. That’s wrong. All the damn water is mine!”
“I thought you challenged that a few years ago and the county or state or someone ruled that there has to be so much water in Mill Creek; that we can’t take it all so that every single fish died. Don’t you care about preserving the creek as a place people―at least the owners along the creek and their guests―can fish for cutthroat trout?”
“There are enough trout a dozen miles upstream from where the water becomes mine. The world won’t miss a few trout fry from my water.”
“What about the people downstream of us before the water flows into the Yellowstone River? They must have some right to have water.” Mildred asked timidly.
“Not unless I say so,” Oscar replied, his voice rising and his face a splotchy red among a week’s growth of gray whiskers.
“When do I get my dinner?” he demanded, slamming his hand down in the table. “I’m going back to the head gate of my diversion dam and open it up again.”
“Maybe that Wentworth man locked it this time. I don’t think he likes you.”
“He was locking it when I left. We had words. . . . I’m taking a metal saw that will cut right through the lock. I’ll bury the lock behind our garage.”
“I don’t want you to be arrested and taken to jail, Oscar.”
“The authorities won’t dare. There are too many flunkies I own in the legislature for Wentworth to dare and try anything more than closing the dam if he finds it open.”
“What will a judge say? Are they also on your side?”
“There’s only one judge in Montana that I worry about. The only one I haven’t funded for reelection. Almost all Montana judges are elected. That includes the statewide district courts and the Supreme Court. The important two Montana Water Court judges aren’t elected, they’re appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Money for judicial elections in Montana flows as freely as the water at our diversion dam. Payoffs aren’t unique to Montana, they exist in most every state. The only thing I worry about is the damn federal government stepping in to our own water use issues, or maybe Montana public opinion raising its voice so much at least some of the politicians change their stripes and listen.”
“You’re all fired up, Oscar. No more drinks and I don’t want you playing with that lock. I’m going to put you to bed as soon as you’ve eaten.”
Oscar was tired of having to deal with her. He silently finished his drink and ate his dinner, which ironically was grilled trout imported from Chile. He went to bed and remained awake, but he feigned sleep until his wife joined him and she quickly fell asleep. Oscar carefully slipped out of bed, dressed in the living room, picked up a few tools and a flashlight, and left without waking Mildred. A half-moon offered some light and it took him only five minutes to walk to where his diversion dam changed the flow of Mill Creek.
The lock that the water lease enforcement person had placed on the now closed diversion dam gate prevented all but a tiny trickle of water from entering the diversion channel, but the lock proved easy to cut through and within five minutes the reopened gate was allowing all the water in Mill Creek to be diverted from its natural channel to enter Oscar’s land.
Finished and pleased with himself, he sat down on a log next to the head gate and lighted a cigarette.
“Why was it so easy to deal with the water lease man who I’ve played a cat and mouse game with for several years,” he wondered aloud. “I am clearly the cat to Wentworth’s complacent mouse.”
Oscar continued talking to himself, “By morning there won’t be a drop of water in Mill Creek, which for hundreds of years had traveled the remaining two miles to where it entered the Yellowstone River. Once again, the owners of homes along that stretch will howl! Tough luck, my alfalfa is more important. After all, I have lucrative contracts to export the alfalfa to China.”
Watching the water change its flow to his fields, Oscar climbed and sat on an upper corner of the diversion dam gate. He lighted his second cigarette and took out a flask of whiskey and sipped. He knew he had consumed too much at the house but breaking the lock and seeing the water surge to his property was a minor celebration. He would deal with Wentworth the next day, after Wentworth discovered Oscar had opened the diversion dam gate, and for most of the night water had poured only onto his alfalfa lands. Let the mouse squeak all he wanted, Oscar thought.
After a half-hour sitting, Oscar was chilly and stiff from the discomfort of balancing on the narrow gate, struggling smoking several cigarettes, and frequently sipping whiskey. He glanced at his watch and guessed it would read a bit after midnight. More than a bit, it read 2:10 a.m. He had a busy day ahead and needed a few hours of sleep, which would come easily knowing how much water he had watched flowing to his land.
He heard a noise as he tried to place his left foot part way down on the gate where he might jump the remaining couple of feet.
Two minutes later his body lay motionless on the ground near the gate. The gate had been closed and water once again flowed on its normal course toward the junction with the Yellowstone River. The broken lock lay next to Oscar’s head and a loop of yellow string lay across Oscar’s chest.
In the morning, his wife Mildred woke at seven, as usual, and Oscar was gone, as usual. The kitchen was spotlessly clean; Oscar, after rising early so he could be out in his fields at sunrise, always cleaned up his own breakfast remains and dirty dishes to please Mildred and keep her from bitching. He would take a sandwich she placed each night before she went to bed on the front of the middle shelf of the refrigerator. Often, he would be gone all day, returning at about 4:30 p.m. to pour his first Seagram’s 7 Crown.
Mildred started her car to drive to Emigrant for some food she had forgotten yesterday at her weekly trip to Albertson’s in Livingston, where in the parking lot she had first quietly talked to a local lawyer about the procedures she would need to follow to divorce Oscar. When she crossed their diversion channel, she was surprised to see no water in the channel. Oscar had sworn he was going to remove the lock and open the flow from Mill Creek to their land, and to hell with the Montana DNR. He was not a forgetful man and she was surprised.
Her surprise continued when she reached where Mill Creek flowed under the East River Road. There was water flowing in Mill Creek that she expected by now would be spraying in high misty arches onto their fields of alfalfa.
First thing that evening she would remember to ask Oscar why he apparently changed his mind.
That evening never arrived for Oscar. He would not be commenting on why he may have changed his mind.
Each had gone their separate way.
M.W. Gordon, Author of the Macduff Brooks Fly Fishing Mystery Novels