|Publisher:||Morgan James Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
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Walter Graffenberger guided his silver 1999 Cadillac along a narrow, two-lane ribbon of road that cut through the heart of the Palouse, the expansive wheat country in southeastern Washington. Under his command the land yacht sailed across the rolling terrain and endless curves. He knew every feature of this two-hour drive. He made it a couple of times each month, commuting from his law office in Spokane to his weekend retreat in his hometown.
Walter's hands rested on the wheel. His eyes scanned the terrain, moving between the road ahead and the endless landscape of rolling hills, which alternated between the white patches of snow covering shady hillsides, the light green of emerging winter wheat, and the chocolate brown of overturned earth ready to accept the spring planting.
Despite the scenic beauty rolling past him, his mind was lost in the numbness of grief and anxiety. He played over in his mind the challenge that awaited him, and his spirit struggled.
An enormous responsibility now lay on his shoulders.
As the road neared the edge of a long plateau, he passed a sign that read, "Harvest 3 Miles." Drawing a deep breath, he sat up, focusing on the drive as the road crested the brink of a shelf of land then made a wide, sweeping curve. Next came the descent into the deep crevasse that exposed a ribbon of river shimmering from the last rays of a fading winter sun. In the distance Walter could see the silos — steady sentries on the outskirts of his destination.
He slowed his Cadillac to a stop at the flashing red lights of a railroad crossing. As the freight cars rolled past, his mind was forced back to a frost-covered night and the horrific scene of policemen, flares, fire trucks, and flashing ambulance lights — and the sight of that Toyota Corolla on its roof, crumpled almost beyond recognition. He could still hear the cries of anguished onlookers who recognized the vehicle and assumed the worst.
They were proven right.
The polite horn of the car behind him brought him back to the present as the last train car cleared the intersection and the barrier rose. He drove ahead and turned onto Main Street, glad to shed the memory. At least for now.
As he eased his car through Harvest, Walter managed a smile. Anyone who came through this little city would find it hard to remember the next day. It was one of the hundreds of small towns in the western United States that seemed disconnected from the rest of the world.
He was several hours early, so he pulled into Jerry's Big Stop and cruised up to a waiting gas pump. He worked his credit card through the slider, and as he poked the silver gas nozzle into the side of his car he sensed someone was watching him. A set of eyes peered at him from inside the dirty station windows. Then the doors swung open, and a gray-bearded man in a wheelchair propelled himself toward Walter.
"Is that you, Mr. Graffenberger? Hey, it's great to have you back in Harvest." As the man wheeled closer, his countenance changed. "I guess you're here for the funeral. I'm so sorry, Mr. Graffenberger. I mean, we all are. The whole town is pretty torn up by it."
"Thanks, Jerry. It's a tough day for all of us." Walter put his hand on Jerry's shoulder then looked out across the busy intersection and down Main Street. "Still, it's good to be back here. It's been almost a month, way too long. Any big news to share?"
"Naw, not really. Oh, Mayor Stallings may not run again on account of Harvest Drugs needing to move locations — dry rot in the ceiling beams, I think. Let's see, you heard about the fire at the fairgrounds?"
"Just a quick blurb in the Spokane paper. Tell me about it." Walter didn't much care about the fire, but he always looked forward to seeing Jerry and hearing all the latest Harvest news. He remembered when Jerry left for Iraq as a naive young kid fresh off the 3rd Street baseball diamond. He was also there when Jerry returned.
Without his legs.
Walter watched as Jerry rubbed his thighs to fight the pain that never left him. "How's business? Are you keeping your head above water?"
"Oh, yes, absolutely. I work hard, ya know. Gas prices are tough, but lots of people still rolling through town. Mr. Graffenberger, I can't thank you enough —"
Walter waved him off. "No need, Jerry. I'm glad you're doing well. You're important to this town, you know."
Walter had drawn up the papers that helped the young man buy the gas station on the north edge of town. Jerry had become sort of the official greeter for visitors to the area, almost all of whom were in desperate need of gas and a bathroom by the time they arrived.
Jerry talked on about life in Harvest, and Walter got caught up on the latest gossip, a welcome diversion from the main theme of the day. As Walter got ready to drive away, Jerry shouted after him.
"Be sure to stop by the Mill Stone. They have a new shipment of garden and lawn stuff — spring can't be long now."
Walter drove on for a few blocks, passing clothing and shoe stores, insurance and realtor offices, and the small travel agency that did great business each year right after the grain harvest.
Walter loved this place ... and these people. The residents of Harvest were heartland people with strong values and a love for small-town life.
He needed time to escape his growing anxiety so he parked halfway down Main Street. He was happy to lose himself as he strolled along the rows of shops and businesses. And to breathe deep. The smell ... that might be what Walter missed the most. Wheat land had its own sweet aroma. Main Street boasted no fewer than five farm implement outlets selling everything from combine parts to full-size threshers and repairing every imaginable piece of farming equipment. New Holland, John Deere, and CASE were the leading retailers here. The town's economy flourished or floundered on the Chicago Board of Trade's announcements of wheat futures and the unpredictable Northwest weather patterns.
Walter watched as the electronic marquee at the bank scrolled the latest wheat futures prices, just as it did every hour of every day. No wonder they held parades to celebrate the wheat harvest. How simple life was here. So many things causing controversy in so many other places seemed to be accepted in Harvest without any question. The three bars in town closed on Sunday, as did the car dealerships and most all shops. The local schools had Easter pageants, the Fourth of July parade was opened with a prayer, and the town put up a Nativity scene each year on the courthouse lawn without a protest. Amazing.
He walked on for several blocks and then paused in front of the windows of Harvest's only jewelry store. He liked to survey the modest collection of diamond rings sparkling under the garish array of lighting. As his eyes moved up the display, he caught his reflection.
He started ... then frowned.
While the image bore all the features of a successful country lawyer — thinning white hair cut short and combed back from his face, round spectacles, starched white shirt, gold cufflinks, and tailored suit — the features were lost in a somber grayness. Grief inhabited every wrinkle and crease in his sixty-three-year-old face. He had to look away.
Come on, Walter. You need to be strong today.
"Walter, hey, welcome back to Harvest!"
Walter turned at Carter Blake's booming voice. A broad-shouldered man in his fifties, smothered in a gray parka and fur hat, came toward him, accompanied by a smiling Cathy Blake, who stepped ahead of Carter and gave Walter a hug.
"Walter, it's so good to have you here."
"Hi, Cathy, hey, Carter. How are you folks?"
Carter slapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "Cold. Do you have time to grab a cup of coffee? The funeral is a couple of hours off." The three found a quiet table at the Combine Café next to the Mill Stone.
Carter warmed his hands on a large ceramic mug of black drip coffee. He sat back in his chair and shook his head.
"Well, I have to tell you this is a hard day. One sad day."
Walter nodded, not looking up. "I feel the same way, Carter. It's a day that'll impact all of us."
The comment hung in the air, and their silence was transformed into a moment of reverence.
Cathy stirred some lemon into her tea then looked up. "Will you be in Harvest for a few days, or do you have to go back after the funeral?"
"No, I'll be here for a couple of days. There is the disposition of the estate to deal with."
Carter and Cathy glanced at each other as though searching for permission to talk. Carter took a long sip of coffee.
"Walter, we saw Alex this morning. Had a nice chat, well ... cordial, I guess. I can't understand what went wrong with him —"
"— with all of them." Cathy raised her hands in frustration. "How can four children of such wonderful parents turn their backs on them like that? I'll just never understand it." She paused, fidgeting with her tea bag and stirring more lemon into her cup. "I assume they'll all be here?"
Walter nodded. He had confirmed with all four Roberts children that they would be there for two days. They couldn't understand what would take so long, but Walter insisted, and they agreed.
"You know how much I liked Alex when he was that little guy growing up around here." Carter sat forward. "I taught him to throw a baseball, you remember. Sam wasn't much for sports. I coached him every year he played. He was one smart and happy kid, so at home at the church and Sunday school. I don't think he missed a week I taught sixth grade at Resurrection. Such a nice kid then off to seminary, and then — what do you think happened, Walt?"
"I'm not sure we'll ever really know. His first three years went fine, according to Sam. But something snapped when Lori died, and I guess he never recovered."
"God rest her soul," Cathy whispered.
Carter put his arm around Cathy and rubbed her shoulder.
"And then there's the rest of them." Carter stared down at his coffee. "Each one seemed to drift away. All I can say is that it should be an interesting funeral."
"Now, dear, these are Sam and Lori's kids, and we need to make them feel welcome here. This is their home after all, regardless of how much they've turned away from it ... and us."
Walter reached across and squeezed her arm. "I know they'll appreciate that kind of welcome. I'm sure they're expecting the worst."
Dear Cathy, ever the sensitive one. He sat back and continued.
"Cathy, may I ask you a favor?"
She set her cup down and gave Walter a look of surprise. "Well, yes, Walter. Of course, anything."
"You know those amazing cinnamon rolls you bake?"
Cathy smiled at the compliment.
"Could you bring a batch by the house tomorrow on your way to church? I have a feeling they might be just what we need about then."
"I'm happy to do so."
As the coffee and conversation ended, the three of them rose and stepped out onto the sidewalk that glistened with ice. Walter watched as Carter took Cathy's arm, tenderness and love on display as he tucked it under his, and they ambled away in their half-embrace down the empty brick walkway.
Walter knew he had to watch his time, but he couldn't help but stop in at the Mill Stone.
The barn-like structure had dominated Main Street for more than sixty years. Walter's dad told him stories about when it was a blacksmith and tack shop. In the sixties its flat-front facade had been whitewashed and new lettering added to showcase its transformation into a combination hardware, lawn and garden, appliance, and even clothing store. Walter smiled at the thought of the days he'd spent getting lost among its mountainous racks of goods. A person could find about anything they needed on those soaring, dusty shelves of this Harvest icon.
Time will run out if I'm not careful ... just a quick look down a couple of aisles.
By the time he emerged onto the sidewalk, the afternoon was losing its light. Walter walked back to his car under the hiss of old-fashioned gas lamps sparking to life. They were added in the eighties in an attempt to turn Harvest into a tourist town. The tourists never came, but the gaslights remained. Each summer they supported dangling baskets of glorious nasturtiums, petunias, lobelia, alyssum, and ivy. Stripped of their floral glory, the baskets now hung empty and forgotten against the graying February sky, and the dim light of the globes added an eerie luminosity to the scene.
Walter had one last stop before the funeral. He drove past the Harvest Gospel Mission. For the first time in its history it was closed for the day. Just seeing the mission overwhelmed him. His grief welled up, and he struggled to steer his car to a parking spot. He was suffocating in emotion. How could he accept that Sam would never again be at the door with his welcoming smile and deep compassion?
I need to do this. Come on. Pull it together.
For several minutes he sat and prayed and grieved. Then, collecting himself, Walter made his way to the mission.
Carl Martinez was there to greet him. "I am so glad to see you, Mr. Graffenberger."
"It's good to see you too, Carl, and you know you can call me Walt."
"Yes, yes, you have told me. It just doesn't seem ... respectful. But, yes, I will call you Walt." A heavy-set Hispanic man in his early forties, Carl wore the one dark blue suit he had for special occasions. Carl was one of the most gracious men Walter had ever met. He'd worked alongside Sam for the past two years, and now he was stepping into the role of director of the mission.
Walter put his hand on Carl's shoulder. "How are you holding up?"
"I have no time to grieve, Mr. Graffen — Walt. You know the wheat prices were down last year. Many farmers lost everything. That sent so many people to us that I started to panic every time I heard the train stop."
Walter shook his head. "I can't believe they still haven't straightened that out, after all the time and money we spent." He'd worked for two years to help the city council correct an old law that required Burlington Northern Railroad trains to come to a full stop at the crossing on the north end of town.
"Unfortunately not. As soon as the train stops they jump out, and more and more it's younger men, women, and even small families. I've stood and watched them. It breaks your heart."
As a kid, Walter would run down to the tracks in the autumn to watch long trains pull hundreds of empty, red wheat cars. They rolled into Harvest, ready to be filled to capacity with the region's golden treasure. He used to cover his ears at the screech of steel train wheels against the tracks. That sound resonated for miles, but no one in Harvest minded. It was the sound of money.
It was so different now.
"I had hoped that the Farm Aid and other programs would help most of them hang on."
"No, they just keep coming. The trains are so dangerous, but still they come to find shelter, food — and hope. They are so scared, so discouraged. Most of them need the basic things: food, a bath, a cot, and a job. They put their trust in us, Walt. They trust the people of Harvest to give them the kind of stability and hope they lost by lousy weather or the dropping wheat prices."
"Or just plain poor farming."
"Do you still get the pros?"
"Oh, yes. A few still show up and dupe every kindhearted soul they can find and then move on to the next town. But they're the exception. Most of these folks are just searching for a better life. We do all we can. We have the recovery programs for the addicts, and for others we just try to restore a little dignity. It's a lot to try to do when you're just three blocks from the train stop. I don't know how Mr. Roberts did it all these years."
"Carl, you've done a wonderful job here. I know it can seem overwhelming, but you have a good board, lots of volunteers, and a town to support you. You'll do well. Just trust in the good people you have around you."
Carl's smile was warm. "Thank you. May I say that you almost sounded like Mr. Roberts."
"That's a real compliment. Thank you." Walter shook Carl's hand and hoped it would convey just a small bit of the confidence he had in him. Sam had hand-picked Carl when he was a recovering meth addict. To see him now was testament to the power of God to change lives, a power that Sam relied on for all his thirty-two years at the mission.
Walter looked at his watch. "We'd better be heading to the church. Do you need a ride?"
"No, I will lock up and walk. This is a day for long walks and lots of talking to God."
On the way back to the church, Walter made the short drive to Orchard Street. He eased past the Roberts home. Four cars were parked in the driveway.
Thank God, they're all here. Help me, Lord. I hope I can do this. They all know Sam's secret, and I pray that won't destroy everything we have planned. Help me honor Sam's wishes, Lord. I can't do this without You.
Walter drove on to the church and sat in his car for several minutes. All around, people dressed in their Sunday best were walking toward the Resurrection Christian Church.
The time he'd dreaded had arrived.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Four Gifts of the King"
Copyright © 2019 R. Scott Rodin.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
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