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Book Jacket

1595542965
Trade Paperback
400 pages
Jul 2007
WestBow Press

Mountain Top

by Robert Whitlow

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter One

"What are you going to do about the letter?" the voice on the phone demanded. "If it fell into the wrong hands, it could cost us millions!"

"I shredded it," the man sitting behind the expensive desk replied without emotion.

"Did anyone on your staff see it?"

"No. I open my own mail."

"But he could still talk."

"Of course, or send a letter to someone else. But I have a plan, and when I'm finished, no one will believe anything he says. It's not going to be an issue."

"You'd better be right. That's why you're in this deal--to make sure everything goes smoothly on the local front. How is our friend in Raleigh doing?"

"Ahead of schedule. But he's low on cash."

"Again? That was quick."

"It doesn't take long when you have his habits. He wants to see you."

"Okay, buy him a plane ticket, but I'm going to lower his limit."

"Not too much, or I'll have to give him a raise on this end."

***

Sam Miller did some of his best work while asleep. Several nights each week, he had night visions more vivid than movies and spiritual dreams so real he could smell the fragrance of heaven. Muriel never stirred. She had to get her rest so she could fix his breakfast. Sam's lawncare equipment ran on gasoline; he needed eggs, sausage, and biscuits with gravy before facing another day.

Sam rolled over and opened his blue eyes. He ran his hand over his closely cropped white hair and reached for the tattered notebook on the nightstand beside the bed. Some of the pages listed information about customers: the Smiths wanted their grass cut and patio edged before a party on Friday night, the Blevinses had decided to plant day lilies along the back of their property line. Other sheets recorded what Sam had seen and heard during the night: faces of people who lived in Shelton with diverse needs that ranged from salvation for a wayward child to money for an overdue car payment. Several pages contained crude drawings of strange images without easy interpretation. Notes, questions, and Bible verses filled the margins.

Beside the notebook was a picture of Sam and Muriel taken forty-three years earlier. It was their second wedding anniversary. Sam, wearing his Marine Corps dress uniform, stood unsmiling and stern next to his short, curly-haired wife. The soldier in the photo didn't have the large, round belly of the man in the bed nor the twinkle that lit his blue eyes. Those changes came later. Muriel's light brown hair remained curly and her figure trim, but her tanned face was now lined with wrinkles that were the road map to a hundred different ways to smile.

Sam sat up and rested his feet on the threadbare rug that covered part of the bedroom floor. He opened the notebook to a blank page. At the top he wrote the date and the words Within three months you'll see your son. He shuffled into the living room. Family photos on the walls recorded the life of Matthew Miller from cradle to manhood.

Tragedy was no stranger to the Miller family. Matthew, an Army medic, had died in Somalia. His pictures stopped with a grainy photo taken at dusk in front of a field hospital. Mountains without trees rose in the background.

Sam went into the kitchen and looked out the window above the sink. Muriel could wash a fifty-cent plastic plate and enjoy a million-dollar view. Their small house rested atop a knoll positioned like a step stool before the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the early light, Sam could see heavy frost on the grass and wispy ice on the trees in the distance. He leaned over and smelled the crisp morning air through a narrow gap at the bottom of the window. Weather ruled his business, and winter's schedule was less rigorous. When spring arrived, daffodils would jump out of the ground in clumps of yellow celebration all across the backyard, and Sam would be out the door to greet them with the first rays of the sun.

Sam always made the morning coffee. He could drink it strong and black, but Muriel liked it so diluted with milk and sugar that it could be served to a child. Sam made the coffee weak. Later, he'd get a strong cup at the Minute Market. The coffee started dripping into the pot, and he returned to the bedroom. Muriel was out of bed and wrapped in her housecoat. Sam leaned over and kissed the top of her head. She responded by patting him on his fuzzy right cheek.

"It's time for my bear to come out of hibernation," she said. "Are you going to shave this morning?"

"Yep, then take tomorrow off before church on Sunday."

***

Sam showered and scraped his chin free of stubble. Buttoning his shirt, he could smell the sausage in the skillet. Muriel rarely bought sausage at the store; she canned it fresh each fall like her mother and grandmother before her. Sam didn't raise pigs, but he knew a man who did. Homemade sausage seasoned with the perfect blend of sage and pepper couldn't be compared to meat from a factory wrapped in a plastic tube. The smoky smell of sausage in the skillet reminded Sam of boyhood breakfasts cooked on an open fire in the woods. His stomach rumbled in anticipation.

The cupboard at the Miller house didn't look like a grocery store shelf. Mason jars of green beans, tomatoes, okra, squash, and yellow corn cut from the cob filled the narrow space. Sam's garden was legendary. Two acres on the flat spot at the bottom of the driveway produced more than enough to feed the Millers and provided extra income through the sale of fresh produce to Sam's customers. Mrs. Sellers loved to eat Sam's sun-ripened tomatoes like apples.

Sam came into the kitchen, gave Muriel a hug, and rubbed his cheek against hers.

"How's that?" he asked.

"Much better. The biscuits are in the oven."

"I want to take a sausage biscuit to Barry Porter," Sam said. "He's going to deliver two loads of pine bark mulch to a job this morning."

Sam sat at the small kitchen table and watched Muriel's morning routine. Every movement had meaning. She didn't waste energy or ingredients. Sam picked up a jar of molasses and tipped it so the amber liquid rolled to one side.

"How is Barry's boy doing?" Muriel asked.

Sam returned the molasses to its place on the vinyl tablecloth.

"He ran off with a married woman to Florida. He's eating slop and calling it steak, but I saw him turning toward home the other night. I'm going to remind Barry to keep looking down the road and welcome him back when he repents."

Muriel opened the oven door and took out four golden biscuits. When Matthew was a teenager, she baked six to eight biscuits that always disappeared before the male members of the family went out the front door.

"Why don't you take Barry two biscuits?" she suggested. "You eat one, and I'll nibble on the other."

Sam scratched his head. "Only one for me? I don't want to pass out while spreading the mulch around Mrs. Smith's patio. I need all my strength to lift that shovel."

Muriel turned her back to him as she put the sausage on a clean serving plate and sprinkled flour and pepper into the skillet for the gravy.

"I'm thinking about the extra weight these biscuits and sausage are causing around that stomach of yours," she said. "You know your cholesterol is inching up, and Dr. Murray told you to watch your diet."

Sam's mouth dropped open, and he stared at her back for a moment. "Are you serious?"

Muriel turned around with a serious look on her face. "I love babying you, but sometimes I feel guilty fixing what you want all the time."

Sam grinned. "Don't worry. The gravy cuts the calories in half."

"We won't argue about it this morning, but I'm not fixing fried chicken tonight. I found a recipe for broiled chicken that sounds real tasty. It uses some of the herbs I dried last summer."

"Sounds great. The touch of your loving hands is the key to a good meal."

Muriel shook her head. "For a country boy, you're a smooth talker."

After all the food was on the table, she sat down across from him. They bowed their heads.

Sam prayed for Barry's son, moved into his usual blessing over the meal, and concluded with, "And Master, please take all the cholesterol out of this fine breakfast. Amen."

"Your health is not a joke," Muriel said when he finished. "I want to keep you with me as long as possible."

Sam reached across and put his weathered hand on top of hers. "And I don't want either of us to leave a moment before Papa's perfect time."

After breakfast, Sam put on a heavy coat and went outside while Muriel washed the dishes. The sun was a large yellow ball in the east, and the frost was in full retreat across the yard, exposing the dead grass. Without any wind blowing, the mountain air would warm up rapidly. The coat, hat, and gloves would keep Sam comfortable until he started working. He filled an orange cooler with water from a back porch sink supplied by pipes prevented from freezing by thick insulation wrapped around them.

Sam kept the utility trailer he used to haul his equipment in a small storage shed. Parked in front of the shed was a dented red pickup truck with the words "Sam Miller - Lawn Maintenance" written on both doors in white paint. Underneath was Sam's phone number. The boy who painted the advertisement on the truck did a neat job. Three years later, the letters and numbers were only chipped in a few places.

Sam unlocked the door of the shed and went inside. The familiar odors of gasoline and dry grass greeted him. Sam owned a large commercial mower, a regular push mower for trimming, and an edger. He did all the maintenance on the equipment himself. The past week, he'd rebuilt the engine in the commercial mower so it would be ready for the spring season. He placed a rake, shovel, mattock, and other hand tools in a rack toward the front of the trailer and secured everything with a strap. He reached into his pocket for the keys to the truck so he could back it up to the trailer. As he stepped away from the building, movement at the bottom of the driveway caught his eye. A Barlow County sheriff's car turned into his driveway. Sam walked around the side of the house. The car pulled up to his front door and stopped. Two deputies got out.

"Morning, Sam," the older of the two men called out. "Cold enough for you?"

It was Lamar Cochran, the chief deputy. Sam and Muriel had known the Cochran family for years. Lamar, a large man with reddish-brown hair, looked almost exactly like his father.

"Howdy, Lamar," Sam said. "Not too bad. Who's your running mate?"

"This is Vic Morris," Cochran replied. "He grew up in Hendersonville and joined us a few months ago."

Sam wiped his right hand on his pants and extended it to Morris.

"Good to meet you," Sam said.

Morris hesitated a moment before shaking Sam's hand.

"Don't have any biscuits to offer you," Sam said to the two men. "Muriel won't make any extras because she knows where they'll end up." Sam patted his stomach.

"Uh, that's all right, Sam," Cochran replied. "I need to talk serious with you."

"Come inside. I'm always here to help."

Sam turned away and climbed the three steps to the front stoop.

Cochran glanced at Morris and sighed. "Okay. I guess it won't hurt. Where is Muriel?"

"Cleaning up after me, of course," Sam replied, opening the door.

The three men entered the small living room. Sam stuck his head in the kitchen.

"Lamar Cochran and a young deputy named Vic Morris are here," he said.

Muriel wrapped her housecoat more tightly around herself and came to the doorway. Cochran nodded to her. Muriel gave him a big smile.

"Hey, Lamar," she said. "How's your mama? I haven't seen her in quite a while."

"Not doing so well. Her sugar is messing her up big-time, and my brother and I had to put her in the nursing home. That way, there is someone to watch her diet and give her the right medicine."

"I'll have to get down to see her--"

"Don't, Muriel," Cochran interrupted, looking at the floor. "This isn't a social call."

Sam tilted his head to the side. "What do you mean?"

Cochran nodded toward Morris, who pulled a sheet of paper from his back pocket.

"Mr. Miller, this is a warrant for your arrest," Morris said. "We're here to take you to jail."