Wish You Well
Louisa smiled. "They had what was called subscription school, Oz. A dollar a month for three month a year, and I were a right good student. We was a hunnerd people in a one-room log cabin with a puncheon floor that was splintery on hot days and ice on cold. Teacher quick with the whip or strap, some bad child standing on tippy-toe a good half hour with his nose stuck in a circle the teacher drawed on the board. I ain't never had to stand on tippy-toe. I weren't always good, but I ain't never got caught neither. Some were growed men not long from the War missing arms and legs, come to learn they's letters and numbers. Used to say our spelling words out loud. Got so the durn noise spooked the horses." Her hazel eyes sparkled. "Had me one teacher who used the markings on his cow to learn us geography. To this day, I can't never look at no map without thinking of that durn animal." She looked at them. "I guess you can fill up your head just about anywhere. So you learn what you got to. Just like your daddy done," she added, mostly for Lou's benefit, and the girl finally stopped complaining about her kerosene hair.
* * *
LOUISA FELT SORRY FOR THEM ONE MORNING AND GAVE Lou and Oz a much needed Saturday off to do as they pleased. The day was fine, with a clean breeze from the west across a blue sky, trees flushed with green swaying to its touch. Diamond and Jeb came calling that morning, because Diamond said there was a special place in the woods he wanted to show them, and they started off.
His appearance was httle changed: same overalls, same shirt, no shoes. The bottoms of his feet must have had every nerve deadened like hoofs, Lou thought, because she saw him run across sharp rocks, over briars, and even through a thorny thicket, and never once did she see blood drawn or face wince. He wore an oily cap pulled low on his forehead. She asked him if it was his father's, but received only a grunt in response.
They came to a tall oak set in a clearing, or at least where underbrush had been cut away some. Lou noted that pieces of sawed wood had been nailed into the tree's trunk, forming a rough ladder. Diamond put a foot up on the first rung and started to climb.
"Where are you going?" asked Lou, as Oz kept a grip on Jeb because the hound was acting as though he too wanted to head up the tree behind his master.
"See God," Diamond hollered back, pointing straight up. Lou and Oz looked to the sky.
Far up a number of stripped scrub pines were laid side by side on a couple of the oak's massive branches, forming a floor. A canvas tarp had been flung over a sturdy limb above, and the sides had been tied down to the pines with rope to form a crude tent. While promising all sorts of pleasant times, the tree house looked a good puff of wind away from hitting the ground.
Diamond was already three-quarters up, moving with an easy grace. "Come on now," he said.
Lou, who would have preferred to die a death of impossible agony rather than concede that anything was beyond her, put a hand and a foot on two of the pieces of wood. "You can stay down here if you want, Oz," she said. "We probably won't be long." She started up.
"I got me neat stuff up here, yes sir," Diamond said enticingly. He had reached the summit, his bare feet dangling over the edge.
Oz ceremoniously spit on his hands, gripped a wood piece, and clambered up behind his sister. They sat cross-legged on the laid pines, which formed about a six-by-six square, the canvas roof throwing a nice shade, and Diamond showed them his wares. First out was a flint arrowhead he said was at least one million years old and had been given to him in a dream. Then from a cloth bag rank with outside damp he pulled the skeleton of a small bird that he said had not been seen since shortly after God put the universe together.
"You mean it's extinct," Lou said.
"Naw, I mean it ain't round no more."
Oz was intrigued by a hollow length of metal that had a thick bit of glass fitted into one end. He looked through it, and while the sights were magnified some, the glass was so dirty and scratched, it started giving him a headache.
"See a body coming from miles away," proclaimed Diamond, sweeping a hand across his kingdom. "Enemy or friend." He next showed them a bullet fired from what he said was an 1861 U.S. Springfield rifle.
"How do you know that?" said Lou.
" 'Cause my great-granddaddy five times removed passed it on down and my granddaddy give it to me afore he died. My great-granddaddy five times removed, he fought for me Union, you know."
"Wow," Oz said.
"Yep, turned his pitcher to the wall and everythin', they did. But he weren't taking up a gun for nobody owning nobody else. T'ain't right."
"That's admirable," said Lou.
"Look here now," said Diamond. From a small wooden box, he pulled forth a lump of coal and handed it to Lou. "What d'ya think?" he asked. She looked down at it. The rock was all chipped and rough.
"It's a lump of coal," she said, giving it back and wiping her hand clean on her pants leg.
"No, it ain't just that. You see, they's a diamond in there. A diamond, just like me."
Oz inched over and held the rock. "Wow" was again all he could manage.
"A diamond?" Lou said. "How do you know?"
" 'Cause the man who gimme it said it was. And he ain't ask for not a durn thing. And man ain't even know my name was Diamond. So there," he added indignantly, seeing the disbelief on Lou's features. He took the coal lump back from Oz. "I chip me off a little piece ever day. And one time I gonna tap it and there it'll be, the biggest, purtiest diamond anybody's ever saw."
Oz eyed the rock with the reverence he usually reserved for grown-ups and church. "Then what will you do with it?"
Diamond shrugged. "Ain't sure. Mebbe nothing. Mebbe keep it right up here. Mebbe give it to you. You like that?"
"If there is a diamond in there, you could sell it for a lot of money," Lou pointed out.
Diamond rubbed at his nose. "Ain't need no money. Got me all I need right here on this mountain."
"Have you ever been off this mountain?" Lou asked.
He stared at her, obviously offended. "What, you think I'a hick or somethin'? Gone on down to McKenzie's near the bridge lots of times. And over to Tremont."
Lou looked out over the woods below. "How about Dickens? You ever been there?"
"Dickens?" Diamond almost fell out of the tree. 'Take a day to walk it. 'Sides, why'd a body want'a go there?"
"Because it's different than here. Because I'm tired of dirt and mules and manure and hauling water," said Lou. She patted her pocket. "And because I've got twenty dollars I brought with me from New York that's burning a hole in my pocket," she added, staring at him.
This gigantic sum staggered Diamond, yet even he seemed to understand the possibilities. 'Too fer to walk," he said, fingering the coal lump, as though trying to hurry the diamond into hatching.
"Then we don't walk," replied Lou.
He glanced at her. "Tremont right closer."
"No, Dickens. I want to go to Dickens."
Oz said, "We could take a taxi."
"If we get to the bridge at McKenzie's," Lou ventured, "then maybe we can hitch a ride to Dickens with somebody. How far is the bridge on foot?"
Diamond considered this. "Well, by road it a good four hour. Time git down there, got to come back. And that be a tiring way to spend a day off from farming."
"What way is there other than the road?"
"You really want'a get on down there?" he said.
Lou took a deep breath. "I really want to, Diamond."
"Well, then, we going. I knowed me a shortcut. Shoot, get us there quick as a sneeze."
Since the mountains had been formed, water had continued eroding the soft limestone, carving thousand-foot-deep gullies between the harder rocks. The line of finger ridges marched next to the three of them as they walked along. The ravine they finally came to was wide and seemed impassable until Diamond led them over to the tree. The yellow poplars here grew to immense proportion, gauged by a caliper measured in feet instead of inches. Many were thicker than a man was tall, and rose up to a
hundred and fifty feet in height. Fifteen thousand board feet of lumber could be gotten from a single poplar. A healthy specimen lay across this gap, forming a bridge.
"Going 'cross here cuts the trip way down," Diamond said.
Oz looked over the edge, saw nothing but rock and water at the end of a long fall, and backed away like a spooked cow. Even Lou looked uncertain. But Diamond walked right up to the log.
"Ain't no problem. Thick and wide. Shoot, walk 'cross with your eyes closed. Come on now."
He made his way across, never once looking down. Jeb scooted easily after him. Diamond reached safe ground and looked back. "Come on now," he said again.
Lou put one foot up on the poplar but didn't take another step.
Diamond called out from across the chasm. "Just don't look down. Easy."
Lou turned to her brother. "You stay here, Oz. Let me make sure it's okay." Lou clenched her fists, stepped onto the log, and started across. She kept her eyes leveled on nothing but Diamond and soon joined him on the other side. They looked back at Oz. He made no move toward the log, his gaze fixed on the dirt.
"You go on ahead, Diamond. I'll go back with him."
"No, we ain't gonna do that. You said you want'a go to town? Well, dang it, we going to town."
"I'm not going without Oz."
"Ain't got to."
Diamond jogged back across the poplar bridge after telling Jeb to stay put. He got Oz to climb on his back and Lou watched in admiration as Diamond carried him across.
"You sure are strong, Diamond," said Oz as he gingerly slid down to the ground with a relieved breath.
"Shoot, that ain't nuthin'. Bear chased me 'cross that tree one time and I had Jeb and a sack of flour on my back. And it were nighttime too. And the rain was pouring so hard God must've been bawling 'bout somethin'. Couldn't see a durn thing. Why, I almost fell twice."
"Well, good Lord," said Oz.
Lou hid her smile well. "What happened to the bear?" she asked in seemingly honest excitement.
"Missed me and landed in the water, and that durn thing never bothered me no mo'."
"Let's go to town, Diamond," she said, pulling on his arm, "before that bear comes back."
They crossed one more bridge of sorts, a swinging one made from rope and cedar slats with holes bored in them so the hemp could be pulled through and then knotted. Diamond told them that pirates, colonial settlers, and later on, Confederate refugees had made the old bridge and added to it at various points in time. And Diamond said he knew where they were all buried, but had been sworn to secrecy by a person he wouldn't name.
They made their way down slopes so steep they had to hang on to trees, vines, and each other to stop from tumbling down head-first. Lou stopped every once in a while to gaze out as she clutched a sapling for support. It was something to stand on steep ground and look out at land of even greater angles. When the land became flatter and Oz grew tired, Lou and Diamond took turns carrying him.
At the bottom of the mountain, they were confronted with another obstacle. The idhng coal train was at least a hundred cars long, and it blocked the way as far as they could see in either direction. Unlike those of a passenger train, the coal train's cars were too close together to step between. Diamond picked up a rock and hurled it at one of the cars. It struck right at the name emblazoned across it: Southern Valley Coal and Gas.
"Now what?" said Lou. "Climb over?" She looked at the fully loaded cars and the few handholds, and wondered how that would be possible.
"Shoot naw," said Diamond. "Unner." He stuck his hat in his pocket, dropped to his belly, and slid between the car wheels and under the train. Lou and Oz quickly followed, as did Jeb. They all emerged on the other side and dusted themselves off.
"Boy got hisself cut in half last year doing that very thing," said Diamond. "Train start up when he were unner it. Now, I ain't see it, but I hear it were surely not purty."
"Why didn't you tell us that before we crawled under the train?" demanded a stunned Lou.
"Well, if I'd done that, you ain't never crawled unner, now would you?"
On the main road they caught a ride in a Ramsey Candy truck and each was given a Blue Banner chocolate bar by the chubby, uniformed driver. "Spread the word," he told them. "Good stuff."
"Sure will," said Diamond as he bit into the candy. He chewed slowly, methodically, as though suddenly a connoisseur of fine chocolate testing a fresh batch. "You give me 'nuther one and I get the word out twice as fast, mister."
After a long, bumpy ride the truck dropped them off in the middle of Dickens proper. Diamond's bare toes had hardly touched asphalt when he quickly lifted first one foot and then the other. "Feels funny," he said. "Ain't liking it none."
"Diamond, I swear, you'd walk on nails without a word," Lou said as she looked around. Dickens wasn't even a bump in the road compared to what she was used to, but after their time on the mountain it seemed like the most sophisticated metropolis she had ever seen. The sidewalks were filled with people on this fine Saturday morning, and small pockets of them spilled onto the streets. Most were dressed in nice clothes, but the miners were easy enough to spot, lumbering along with their wrecked backs and the loud, hacking coughs coming from their ruined lungs.
A huge banner had been stretched across the street. It read "Coal Is King" in letters black as the mineral. Directly under where the banner had been tied off to a beam jutting from one of the buildings was a Southern Valley Coal and Gas office. There was a line of men going in, and a line of them coming out, all with smiles on their faces, clutching either cash, or, presumably, promises of a good job.
Smartly dressed men in fedoras and three-piece suits chucked silver coins to eager children in the streets. The automobile dealership was doing a brisk business, and the shops were filled with both quality goods and folks clamoring to purchase them. Prosperity was clearly alive and well at the foot of this Virginia mountain. It was a happy, energetic scene, and it made Lou homesick for the city.
"How come your parents have never brought you down here?" Lou asked Diamond as they walked along.
"Ain't never had no reason to come here, that's why." He stuffed his hands in his pockets and stared up at a telephone pole with wires sprouting from it and smacking into one building. Then he eyed a droop-shouldered man in a suit and a little boy in dark slacks and a dress shirt as they came out of a store with a big paper bag of something. The two went over to one of the slant-parked cars that lined both sides of the street, and the man opened the car door. The boy stared over at Diamond and asked him where he was from.
"How you know I ain't from right here, son?" said Diamond, glaring at the town boy.
The child looked at Diamond's dirty clothes and face, his bare feet and wild hair, then jumped in the car and locked the door.
They kept walking and passed the Esso gas station with its twin pumps and a smiling man in crisp company uniform standing out front as rigidly as a cigar store Indian. Next they peered through the glass of a Rexall drugstore. The store was running an "all-in-the-window" sale. The two dozen or so varied items could be had for the sum of three dollars.
"Shoot, why? You can make all that stuff yourself. Ain't got to buy it," Diamond pointed out, apparently sensing that Lou was tempted to go inside and clean out the display.
"Diamond, we're here to spend money. Have fun."
"I'm having fun," he said with a scowl. "Don't be telling me I ain't having no fun."
They headed past the Dominion Cafe with its Chero Cola and "Ice Cream Here" signs, and then Lou stopped.
"Let's go in," she said. Lou gripped the door, pulled it open, setting a bell to tinkling, and stepped inside. Oz followed her. Diamond stayed outside for a long enough time to show his displeasure with this decision and then hurried in after them.
The place smelled of coffee, wood smoke, and baking fruit pies. Umbrellas for sale hung from the ceiling. There was a bench down one wall, and three swivel chrome barstools with padded green seats
were bolted to the floor in front of a waist-high counter. Glass containers filled with candy rested on the display cabinets. There was a modest soda and ice cream fountain machine, and through a pair of saloon doors they could hear the clatter of dishes and smell the aromas of food cooking. In one corner was a potbellied stove, its smoke pipe supported by wire and cutting through one wall.
A man dressed in a white shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, a short wide tie, and wearing an apron passed through me saloon doors and stood behind the counter. He had a smooth face and hair parted equally to either side, held down with what appeared to Lou to be a slop bucket of grease.