Dismal Mountain

Dismal Mountain

by John Billheimer

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"In Dismal Mountain, Owen Allison returns yet again to the familiar hometown hills of West Virginia. Within minutes of his arrival he's embroiled in a battle with cheating hospital administrators and a shady land development company. When construction dumping threatens the family hollow near Barkley, Owen's Aunt Lizzie grabs her rifle and sets out to stop it. Shots… See more details below


"In Dismal Mountain, Owen Allison returns yet again to the familiar hometown hills of West Virginia. Within minutes of his arrival he's embroiled in a battle with cheating hospital administrators and a shady land development company. When construction dumping threatens the family hollow near Barkley, Owen's Aunt Lizzie grabs her rifle and sets out to stop it. Shots are fired, a trucker is killed, and Aunt Lizzie swears she pulled the trigger. But Owen thinks she's hiding something - perhaps out of a stubborn sense of family loyalty - and he intends to find the truth before she's forced to face the consequences." "Can Owen clear his aunt's name, in spite of her best efforts to stonewall him, as well as figure out a way to stop the harmful dumping before it's too late for all the Allisons? If anyone can successfully navigate the bureaucratic mess and deal with the colorful local scoundrels, it's Owen Allison."--BOOK JACKET.

Editorial Reviews

Harriet Klausner
. . . exciting and relevant . . . highlights the environmental vs. economy issue.
Kirkus Reviews
Billheimer's latest takes up right where Highway Robbery (2000) left off. Still working on a reconciliation with ex-wife Judith, California highway engineer Owen Allison flies home to cope with the latest family emergency: His mother's been diagnosed with cancer and won't consent to surgery or chemotherapy. Meantime, another environmental crusader—this time, his aunt Lizzie—takes up arms against another despoiler of the West Virginia landscape—the Mountain View Development Corporation—which has lopped off half of Dismal Mountain to build a still-vacant shopping mall, and now threatens to fill in Doubtful Hollow with the remains of said mountain. When dump-truck driver Sam Mattingly meets his maker on his first run into the hollow, Lizzie is right at Sheriff Thad Reader's doorstep eager to make a confession as full of holes as a revenue agent running from a moonshiner. Owen's brief attempt to see what's really being dumped in the hollow lands him in St. Vincent's Hospital with assorted bruises and fractures, and coincidentally brings him face-to-face with Kate O'Malley, the latest of his former girlfriends to cross his path. But Owen's dalliance is different this time, as he revisits the person he was and the choices he made in the company of the woman who left him to become Sister Mary Perpetua. There's a little too much recycling here, but, still, Billheimer has hit a rich enough vein to mine for quite a while as he continues to explore the delicate interaction between progress and preservation in rural West Virginia.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
West Virginia Transportation Inspector Owen Allison Series, #3
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.64(w) x 8.68(h) x 1.13(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Return of the Native

    The light commuter plane was buffeted by so much turbulence that Owen Allison found it difficult to read, so he watched the terrain below through the bouncing window. The West Virginia landscape was crisscrossed with tree-topped mountain ridges, as if God had wadded up his plans for a level forest and tossed the crinkled remnants into the Ohio River valley. Late summer leaves and late afternoon shadows obscured the winding roadways and other signs of civilization in the hollows below the ridges. One rounded knoll, a reseeded and reclaimed strip mine, lower than the surrounding peaks, looked like a pale green sombrero from the air.

    The plane lurched toward a tiny airport set precariously on a lopped-off mountaintop, and the pitching and tossing of the descent caused Owen to shut his eyes and clutch his armrests. His mother would be down below, waiting, with some secret she'd found impossible to share over the phone. There were certain words she couldn't bring herself to say. In her lifetime, she'd survived scarlet fever, buried a stillborn child, and fed hot meals to divers dragging the river for her husband, but she still used code words for anything the least bit unpleasant. Owen guessed that the unspoken word behind her current concern was cancer, probably a recurrence of the colon cancer she'd fought off five years earlier, but all she would say on the phone was that she'd had a tiff with her doctor and it would be best if he could come home for a bit.

    The plane bounced twice on the runway,swerved, and then righted itself, drawing a round of applause from the other four passengers. Owen opened his eyes and scanned the glassed-in airport window for a sign of his mother, but the glare of the setting sun off the windowpane made it impossible to see inside.

    As Owen stepped down from the plane, Ruth Allison appeared in the terminal doorway, clutching a pale-blue cardigan around her shoulders. She looked frail to her son, but it might have been the severe way she'd swept her gray hair back into a tight bun, or the way the oversized cardigan dwarfed her hunched shoulders.

    Owen crossed the tarmac and hugged his mother, then took her by the hand and led her to the long aluminum bin that served as a baggage-claim area. "I've got a surprise for you," he said as the electric cart hauled the baggage wagon up to the bin.

    The kennel was the last piece of luggage to be unloaded into the bin. Owen opened it and a small black-and-white dog burst out, tail wagging, and stood on its hind legs, pawing the air in front of Ruth.

    "Oh my land, you've brought Buster," Ruth said. She bent and gathered the excited animal into her arms. "But you still don't cut him like a poodle."

    "Those frilly cuts don't suit his name or his personality." Owen had brought the dog because he didn't know how long he was going to be needed in West Virginia, and he didn't want to leave it in California for an indefinite period. He could see from the smile on his mother's face that it had been exactly the right thing to do. Ruth had kept Buster for two years when Owen was working for the Department of Transportation and living in a succession of Washington, D.C., apartments. When he'd severed ties with the federal bureaucracy to restart a consulting business in the San Francisco Bay Area, he had reclaimed Buster, causing separation anxiety in both his mother and the dog.

    Ruth hoisted Buster to face level, nuzzled his nose, and then carried him to her blue Toyota, which was parked in a handicapped space right in front of the airport. She handed Owen the keys, saying, "It's getting on toward dark. You better drive." It was the first time in his memory she hadn't insisted on driving on her home turf.

    As Owen loaded his garment bag into the trunk, he saw his mother snatch the blue-plastic handicapped symbol from her rearview mirror and stash it in the glove compartment. When he slipped behind the steering wheel, she had Buster in her lap, scratching his stomach.

    Owen fastened his seat belt. "How are you feeling, Mom?"

    Ruth concentrated on Buster's stomach. "Let's not talk about me. The doctor will see us first thing tomorrow."

    The dog lay on its back, pawing contentedly at the air. "I'm surprised you didn't leave Buster with Judith," Ruth said. "Everything's all right there, I hope?"

    Judith was Owen's ex-wife. Like cancer, divorce was another word foreign to his mother's vocabulary. "Everything's fine. But she's traveling a lot." He started to add, "And I don't know how long I'll be staying here," but thought better of it.

    "I keep hoping you two will get back together."

    "We're working on it. You'll be the first to know if we do."

    "Better be quick about it, then."

    Owen slowed the car and looked at his mother. "Is there something you're not telling me?"

    Ruth looked out at the passing birch trees. "Nothing that won't keep until tomorrow."

    Owen wound his way down the mountain road and picked up a brand-new freeway that had cut the travel time to the local airport in half for anyone who could stomach the mountaintop takeoffs and landings. The freeway replaced a meandering series of roads that followed creekbeds and old rail lines deep into the heart of coal country. To straighten out the new right-of-way, the Highway Department had gouged wide swaths through the mountains, so that drivers were walled in on one side or the other by exposed cuts that left horizontal seams of shale and sandstone stacked as high as fifty feet under a fringe of oak and sycamore trees.

    The rugged, ribbed texture of the exposed sandstone, washed with occasional rivulets of stream water, often had the feel of a massive sculpture. When Owen pointed this out to his mother, she stared at the passing wall, frowned, and said, "It was lots prettier before they cut into it and took the trees away."

    Ruth rested her head against the passenger window, and Buster slipped from her lap to the floor of the car. Owen saw his mother's eyes close, and they drove in silence through the twilight. When they were only a few miles from the exit that would take them home to Barkley, Ruth stirred and said, "Better prepare yourself for a shock."

    Owen rounded a curve and came face-to-face with an enormous cut in the mountainside just beyond the Barkley exit. The cut created a sandstone-and-shale wall as high as a ten-story building. At the foot of the wall, workmen were constructing a series of long, low rectangular buildings. Dwarfed by the arching wall behind them, the buildings looked like the molding on a gigantic knickknack shelf.

    Owen took the freeway exit and pulled off the road onto the construction site, parking under a large sign flanked by two white-ribbed columns. The sign announced:


    Blank spaces under the Rexall Drugs letters suggested that the shopping center wasn't fully subscribed.

    "My God," Owen said. "They've sliced away half of Dismal Mountain."

    "That's the shopping center your Aunt Lizzie was fighting. Still think the sandstone looks like a Nevelson sculpture?"

    Owen had to duck below the windshield to see the top of the cut. "The way Aunt Lizzie described it, I thought they were just going to lop off the top of the mountain, like they did for the airport."

    "They wanted the parking lot level with the freeway."

    "But they've sliced the mountain right down the middle." Owen tried to envision the shape of the mountain before they'd blasted away the front half. "That's bound to have created more fill than Lizzie was expecting."

    "A lot of things didn't work out the way Lizzie expected."

    "I couldn't believe that clipping you sent. She really shot a man?"

    "She was protecting her property. She says he fired on her first."

    "What does the sheriff say?"

    "He's not saying much. I was hoping you'd talk with him. You and he worked well together last time you were in."

    "We didn't exactly work together, Mom."

    "Don't sell yourself short. Whenever I see him, he always asks after you."

    "I'll talk to him. Does Aunt Lizzie have a lawyer?"

    "I suggested Judith, but Lizzie says Guy Schamp is all she needs." Ruth shook her head. "Guy's older than Lizzie. There's still time to talk to her, though. Her trial's two months off."

    "She's not in jail, then?"

    "No. They waived time and set bail so she could go on running her hospice. It's a good thing. I may be needing it soon."

    Owen glanced over to see if his mother was making a bad joke. Even as a boy he'd understood that Aunt Lizzie's hospice was a place where nobody ever got well. "Don't talk like that," he said, easing the car away from the construction area.

    "I told Lizzie you were coming in. She wants to see you."

    "Good. I'd like to see her."

     "She always liked you."

    Owen guided the car under the freeway to a narrow two-lane road along a creekbed. "I always liked her, too."

    "Will you be able to stay until her trial?"

    "I'm here for as long as you need me."

    "What about your risk evaluations?"

    "My work'll keep." He'd just finished a job helping the California Department of Transportation assess the earthquake readiness of their highway bridges. Between his own tardy billing and the state's slow payment schedule, he still had three months' pay coming. Of course he wasn't likely to generate any new consulting business while he was in West Virginia, but at least he'd have enough income to keep him afloat.

    The winding road meandered past a series of small houses wedged between railroad tracks, a creekbed, and steep, tree-covered slopes. Dresses and faded denims hung from makeshift clotheslines in front of several of the homes, alongside card tables holding toys and tools, propped-up pictures of Jack Kennedy, Elvis, and Jesus Christ, and hand-lettered YARD SALE signs.

    "A lot of yard sales for a Tuesday evening," Owen commented.

    "Hard times for miners right now," Ruth said. "There's a temporary injunction against mountaintop removal for strip-mining."

    A man wearing an undershirt and paint-splattered shorts stopped folding his yard-sale card table to watch them pass in the early fall twilight.

    "What about the underground mines?" Owen asked.

    "They're still operating. In fact, the state's producing more coal than ever. But they've mechanized so many of the mines there's not enough work for the miners."

    "I guess a mine's gotta do what a mine's gotta do," Owen drawled in his boyhood twang.

   "It's not funny, Owen."

   "I meant it as irony, Mom. You remember irony."

    A hint of a smile formed around Ruth's mouth. "Didn't that go out when wash-and-wear came in?"

    Owen glanced at his mother. It was as close as she'd come to smiling since the baggage attendant had unloaded Buster.

    The hill crested, and they began seeing a few isolated homes set on cleared knolls or half hidden at the end of steep driveways. Satellite dishes and separate garages marked the owners of the homes as solid citizens who would donate their used clothing to Goodwill, miner's relief, and church rummage sales rather than hang it in their front yards for passersby to purchase. As the slope leveled out, houses began to accumulate, paved side streets sprouted, and a road sign announced:


    I did live here and I am home, Owen thought. Four blocks beyond the sign, he turned into a cul-de-sac and pulled up in front of the two-story frame house that had been his boyhood home.

    The second the car door opened, Buster leaped from Ruth's arms and made a beeline for the house, where he rooted under the front porch and emerged with a tennis ball that had turned brown from neglect. He brought the ball back to the car, laid it in the street, and nudged it with his nose so that it rolled to Owen's feet as he unloaded the trunk. Owen picked up the ball and bounced it high off the concrete porch steps. Buster scurried under the airborne ball, caught it before it hit the ground, and returned it to Owen's feet.

    "If you start that, he won't let you stop until he's worn you out," Ruth said.

    Owen bounced the ball off the steps again and Buster repeated his retrieving act. "We've got nothing but time, Mom."

    "Isn't it nice to think so." Ruth took Owen's briefcase and carried it toward the house. "Bring your suitcase in when Buster's finished with you. You can have your old room back. It's good to have you home. Both of you."

The table in the examination room was empty except for the doctor's nameplate, which read J. BAKER MORTON, MD. Owen and his mother sat side by side on stiff green institutional chairs. The wall they faced held two posters showing cross sections of male and female torsos with all of their organs exposed.

    Doctor Morton looked to Owen like an overweight elf who had been drummed out of Santa's Workshop for being too large and too serious. When he talked, he lowered his head and appeared to be addressing the fingers laced across his stomach. From time to time, he would peek out over his bifocals just to make sure he still had an audience. His voice was a low, expressionless drone that filtered through a walrus mustache, and it seemed to Owen that he must have given the same talk a thousand times before in exactly the same words.

    Owen's mother sat impassively at his side. She must have heard the speech at least once before, but Owen, hearing it for the first time, struggled to sort through the medical terminology and the dry drone to understand what was being said. His mother's CA-125 levels were abnormally high, and a CAT scan showed a growth on one ovary. Given her history of colon cancer, the growth was almost certainly malignant.

    "You're sure it's malignant?" Owen asked. He wasn't surprised by the statement, but he wanted to interrupt the doctor's speech, just to slow the droning flow of information.

    The doctor's expression didn't change. "I'm sure. Of course, if you'd like a second opinion—"

    "That won't be necessary, Doctor," Ruth said. It was the first time she'd spoken since Doctor Morton had entered the room.

    "Surgery is indicated," the doctor continued, "followed by aggressive chemotherapy."

    Owen absorbed the technical details of the chemotherapy until he felt he had to interrupt the drone again. He asked the one question he needed to have answered: "What are the odds on a successful outcome?"

    The doctor raised his head and his voice lifted half an octave. "There's been some success with the procedure. Since there don't appear to be any extraperitoneal metastases, I'd say a twenty-percent chance of surviving at least five years."

    The doctor was trying to sound positive and upbeat. But to Owen, who dealt in probabilities daily, it was a death sentence. "A twenty-percent chance," he echoed. "Of survival."

    The doctor nodded.

    Owen took his mother's hand. She barely reacted. He asked the next obvious question: "And without surgery?"

    "We'll make your mother as comfortable as we can. But I really think you should try the operation. We need to remove the growth as soon as possible."

    "Then why haven't you?"

    The question seemed to take the doctor by surprise. He peered over his bifocals at Ruth Allison, then looked back at Owen. "Your mother says she doesn't want the operation."

    "Please don't talk about me in the third person," Ruth said. "You make it sound as if I'm already gone."

    It was Owen's turn to be surprised. "But Mom. Why not operate?"

    "You heard the doctor. All that fuss. More surgery. A hysterectomy. Chemotherapy. Vomiting. Diarrhea. For a twenty-percent chance of success."

    "Against a hundred-percent chance of failure if you don't operate."

    "I just don't want to be a bother to anyone."

    "Oh, for Christ's sake. You're not a bother. Either way, you're not a bother." Owen turned to the doctor. "Define success."

    The doctor clearly wasn't used to questions. "Excuse me?"

    "If everything goes well, what kind of a life can Mom expect? Will she be fully functioning. The way she is now?"

    "Oh, better than now, I should think," the doctor said. "The pain will have gone away."

    Owen looked at his mother. "You didn't tell me you were in pain."

    "You think I'd go to the doctor on a whim? It comes and goes."

    "Mom, you've got to have the operation. Even a slim chance is better than none. Think of it as buying hope." Owen couldn't imagine facing the future with no hope at all.

    Ruth didn't respond.

    "You must have gone over this with George. What did he say?" Owen asked.

    "Your brother has troubles enough of his own."

    "Your brother gave her the same advice you just did," the doctor volunteered.

    "Then I don't understand what's holding you back," Owen said. "Is there anything we can do to improve the odds?" he asked the doctor.

    While the doctor considered the question, Ruth Allison said, "There's prayer. We can pray. But I can do that without your knives and chemicals."

    "But prayer with surgery is likely to produce a better outcome than prayer without surgery," Owen said. "Why not give God a better chance to help?"

    "God sets the odds," Ruth said.

    "That's easy enough for him," Owen said. "He knows the outcome in advance. We mortals aren't that lucky."

    "The growth is fairly well isolated," the doctor said. "I should think that improves the odds that the surgery will be successful."

    "Mom, do this for me. And for George. Please."

    Ruth held up both hands in surrender. "All right, bring on the knives and needles."

    The doctor smiled, nodded, and scribbled on several sheets of paper, which he handed to Ruth one at a time. "Take the top form down to the lab for a blood workup. Give the blue one to my desk nurse so that she can schedule surgery. Tell her to make it as soon as she can next week. Then sign the bottom sheets and bring them in with you when you come for the operation."

    Owen looked over his mother's shoulder as she glanced at the forms and stacked them on her lap. He felt exhausted and helpless. He was convinced that surgery was the right decision. If the doctor was correct, though, the right decision might not make much difference.

    While his mother was having her blood work done, Owen visited the hospital cafeteria. He fed two quarters into a vending machine, punched in the code for his selection, and watched while the spiral mechanism brought a Milky Way bar to the front of the machine, where it stopped just short of dropping into the delivery tray. He swore and smacked the front of the machine with his open hand, but the candy bar stayed stuck in the delivery mechanism. He pulled hard at the COIN RETURN lever without getting his money back and was about to smash his forearm against the machine when he looked around to see if anybody was watching and saw a white-robed nun approaching.

    "May I help you?" the nun asked.

    "The machine's gobbled my money without delivering my candy bar," Owen said, thinking the nun was a part of the hospital administration.

    "A Milky Way, was it?"

    Owen nodded.

    The nun stepped between Owen and the machine, crossed herself, kissed the crucifix on the rosary attached to her belt cord, closed her eyes, bowed her head, and joined her hands in prayer. Then she rubbed her fingertips together and delivered a sharp karate chop to the side of the machine.

    The candy bar thunked into the delivery tray.

    The nun stepped aside. "The Milky Ways always hang up like that. The trick is knowing where to hit it."

    Owen laughed and bent to pick up the candy bar. "Maybe you ought to fix the machine."

    "Are you kidding? I get a lot of converts with my little `Miracle of the Milky Ways.'"

    "Then maybe you ought to rig the Hershey bars to hang up as well. You could double your chances at converts."

    "I'm not sure God would approve of such trickery."

    "It's not exactly loaves and fishes, is it?"

    "To make it work, I'd have to spend my day lurking around the vending machine." The nun crossed her arms under the folds of her white robe. "You don't recognize me, do you?"

    Owen studied the nun's face for the first time. Something about her gray-green eyes was familiar, but he couldn't place them in his memory.

    "Maybe this will help." The nun removed her white headpiece and ran her fingers through tight red ringlets.

    Owen stared at the red hair. "Kate. Kate O'Malley."

    She held out her hand. "It's Sister Mary Perpetua now. But you can still call me Kate."

    Owen covered her hand with both of his. "I haven't seen you since that disastrous night in Milwaukee. I had two tickets to a Harry Belafonte concert and was going to treat you to a plush dinner."

    "And your roommate's car broke down."

    "And we walked to a movie instead."

    Kate nodded at the candy bar in his hand. "And dined on popcorn and Milky Ways. We saw Cabaret."

    "A terrific movie." Owen shook his head. "But I still can't watch it without wincing. I was mortified. I really wanted to impress you."

    "Oh, you did. A literate engineer who could quote me poetry."

    "When I got back to Marquette for my senior year, you weren't at Cardinal Stritch anymore."

    "I was marching to a different drummer."

    "I found out." Owen remembered pounding his dorm wall in frustration.

    "I know. I still have your letters."

    "You never answered them."

    "I'm sorry. The order was a lot stricter then."

    An older nun passed by and glared at Kate. She laughed, smoothed her hair, and replaced her headpiece.

    "So you came back to West Virginia after all," Owen said. "Have you been nursing here ever since the convent?"

    Kate smiled. "Actually I'm an M.D. The order has three hospitals. I've cycled between them. But I've been here at Saint Vincent's for the last five years."

    "An M.D., not a nurse." Owen shook his head. "I just can't keep from embarrassing myself with you."

    "I had you at a disadvantage. I've gotten to know your mother. And your great-aunt. I help out at her hospice. If I hadn't known you were coming, I wouldn't have recognized you either. I like the beard, though. It's very becoming."

    "You must know Mom's doctor."

    "Baker Morton? Yes. Of course I know him."

    "How is he?"

    "Bake? He's the best you'll find. Your mom's in good hands."

    "I just thought ..." Owen hesitated, wondering how to phrase his reservations. "Well, you know. His bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired."

    Kate skewered him with her eyes. "And you wondered why, if he's any good, he's stuck here at this hick hospital?"

    "I didn't say that. I worked here once, you know. The summer after high school."

    "Then you know we've got a lot of top-notch personnel. Doctors like it here. They don't have to deal with a lot of hypochondriacs. When miners come in from the hollows, they're really sick. Any hospital would be happy to have Bake."

    "He didn't give Mom much of a chance."

    "I'm sorry." Kate put her hand on Owen's forearm. "How are you with death?"

    It was the first time anyone had said the word "death" out loud. Owen realized he couldn't imagine what it must be like to face it. "I'd rather not find out."

    "In my job, I see a lot of it. Sometimes it can be a welcome release."

    "Mom doesn't seem to need a release."

    "Not now. But she may. Let me know if I can help."

    "Help with what?" Ruth Allison asked. Neither Owen nor Kate had seen her approach.

    Kate's hand was still on Owen's arm. He covered her hand with his and she released her grip. "Mom, I used to date this woman. At Marquette."

    "My goodness, Sister," Ruth said. "You never told me."

    "I didn't make much of an impression," Owen said.

    Kate put on a sour face. "That's not true at all."

    "Give me another chance," Owen said. "Do they let you out for dinner?"

    "Lunch is better. Just call me here at the hospital."

    "We'll be back on Tuesday," Ruth said. "That's when they've scheduled my operation."

    "I could use some company then," Owen said.

    "Tuesday's good," Kate said. "That's my day for administrative details. You'll be a welcome relief."


Excerpted from Dismal Mountain by John Billheimer. Copyright © 2001 by John Billheimer. Excerpted by permission.

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