Wish You Well

  can't survive here without the gas folks, then I suggest you leave. Because you see, Miss Cardinal doesn't have that problem. Every lick of coal and gas could disappear from this earth tomorrow, and electricity and phones too, and she'd be just fine." He stared pointedly at the well-dressed man. "Now tell me, who's the stupid one?"

  Cotton told the children to climb in the car, and he eased himself into the driver's seat, even as the men pushed forward a bit, crowding him. Several of them moved back and blocked the rear of the car. Cotton started the engine of the Olds, rolled down the window, and looked at them. "Now, the clutch on this thing is right peculiar. Sometimes it pops out and this old girl jumps about a country mile. Almost killed a man one time when it did that. Well, here goes. Look out now!"

  He popped the clutch, and the Olds jumped backward, and so did all the men. The path cleared, Cotton backed out and they headed off. When the rock banged against the rumble seat of the car, Cotton pushed down on the accelerator and told Lou and Oz to get down and stay down. Several more rocks hit against the car, before they were safely out of range.

  "What about Louisa?" asked Lou.

  "She'll be fine. Travis is most always around, and he's

  * * *

  Wish You Well 301

  man not to be beat with a shotgun. And when he's not there, his nurse is just about as fine a shot. And I warned ♦he sheriff folks were getting a bit riled. They'll keep close watch. But those people aren't going to do anything to a helpless woman in a bed. They're hurting, but they're not like that."

  "Are they going to throw rocks at us every time we come to visit Louisa?" asked Oz fearfully.

  Cotton put an arm around the boy. "Well, if they do, I suspect they'll run out of rocks long before we run out of visits."

  When they got back to the farmhouse, an anxious-looking Eugene hurried out, a piece of paper in his hand.

  "Man from the town come by with this, Mr. Cotton. I ain't knowed what it is. He say give it to you quick."

  Cotton opened up the slip of paper and read it. It was a delinquent tax notice. He had forgotten Louisa had not paid her property taxes for the last three years because there had been no crops, and thus no money. The county had carried her over, as it did with all the other farmers in similar circumstances. They were expected to pay of course, but they were always given time. This notice, however, was demanding payment in full immediately. Two hundred dollars' worth of payment. And since she had been in default for so long, they could foreclose and sell the land far more quickly than normal. Cotton could feel Southern Valley's vicious stamp all over the paper.

  "Is something wrong, Cotton?" asked Lou.

  He looked at her and smiled. "I'll take care of it, Lou. Just paperwork, honey."

  Cotton counted out the two hundred dollars to the clerk of the court and was given a stamped receipt. He trudged back to his apartment and boxed up the last pile of books. A few minutes later he looked up to see Lou standing in his doorway.

  "How did you get here?" he asked.

  "I got a ride with Buford Rose in his old Packard. There are no doors on the thing, so it's a fine view, but you're only one jolt away from flying out, and it's pretty cold." She stared around at the empty room. "Where are all your books, Cotton?"

  He chuckled. "They were taking up too much space." He tapped his forehead. "And, leastways, I've got it all right up here."

  Lou shook her head. "I went by the courthouse. I figured there was more to that paper we got than you were letting on. Two hundred dollars for all your books. You shouldn't have done it."

  Cotton closed up the box. "I still have some left. And I'd like you to have them."

  Lou stepped into the room. "Why?"

  "Because they're your father's works. And I can't think of a better person to take care of them."

  Lou said nothing while Cotton taped the box shut.

  "Let's go over and see Louisa now," Cotton said.

  "Cotton, I'm getting scared. More stores have closed. And another bus full of people just left. And the looks folks gave me on the street. They're really angry. And Oz got in a fight at school with a boy who said we were ruining people's lives by not selling."

  “Is Oz all right?"

  She smiled weakly. "He actually won the fight. I think it surprised him more than anybody. He's got a black eye, and he's right proud of it."

  "It'll be all right, Lou. Things will work out. We'll weather this."

  She took a step closer, her expression very serious. "Things aren't working out. Not since we've come here. Maybe we should sell and leave. Maybe it'll be better for all of us. Get Mom and Louisa the care they need." She paused and could not look at him as she added, "Someplace else."

  "Is that what you want to do?"

  Lou wearily stared off. "Sometimes what I want to do is go up on the little knoll behind our house, lay on the ground, and never move again. That's all."

  Cotton considered this for a few moments and then said, "In the world's broad field of battle, / In the bivouac of Life, / Be not like dumb, driven cattle! / Be a hero in the strife! / Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant! / Let the dead Past bury its dead! / Act—act in the glorious Present! / Heart within, and God o'erhead! / Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us ... Footprints on the sands of time."

  " 'A Psalm of Life.' Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," said Lou without much enthusiasm.

  "There's more to the poem, but I've always considered those lines the essential parts."

  "Poetry is beautiful, Cotton, but I'm not sure it can fix real life."

  "Poetry needn't fix real life, Lou, it need just be. The fixing is up to us. And laying on the ground and never moving again, or running from trouble, is not the Lou Cardinal I know."

  "That's very interesting," said Hugh Miller, as he stood there in the doorway. "I looked for you at your office, Longfellow. I understand you've been over at the courthouse paying the debts of others." He flashed a nasty grin. "Right good of you, however misguided."

  "What do you want, Miller?" said Cotton.

  The little man stepped into the room and looked at Lou. "Well, first I want to say how sorry I am about Miss Cardinal."

  Lou crossed her arms and looked away.

  "Is that all?" Cotton said curtly.

  "I also came by to make another offer on the property."

  "It's not my property to sell."

  "But Miss Cardinal isn't in a position to consider the offer."

  "She already refused you once, Miller."

  "That's why I'm cutting right to the chase and raising my offer to five hundred thousand dollars."

  Cotton and Lou exchanged startled glances, before Cotton said, "Again, it's not my property to sell."

  "I assumed you would have a power of attorney to act on her behalf."

  "No. And if I did, I still wouldn't sell to you. Now, is there anything else I can't do for you?"

  "No, you've told me all I need to know." Miller handed a packet of papers to Cotton. "Consider your client served."

  Miller walked out with a smile. Cotton quickly read through the papers, while Lou stood nervously beside him.

  "What is it, Cotton?"

  "Not good, Lou."

  Cotton suddenly grabbed Lou's arm, and they raced down the stairs and over to the hospital. Cotton pushed open the door to Louisa's room. The flashbulb went off right as they came in. The man looked over at them and then he took another picture of Louisa in her bed. There was another man next to him, large and powerfully built. Both were dressed in nice suits and wore creased hats.

  "Get out of here!" cried Cotton.

  He raced over and tried to grab the camera from the man, but the big fellow pulled him away, allowing his partner to slide out the door. Then the big man backed out of the room, a smile on his lips.

  Cotton could only stand there, breathing hard and looking helplessly between Lou and Louisa.

  * * *


  IT WAS A PARTICULARLY COLD, CLOUDLESS DAY WHEN Cotton entered the courtroom. He stopped when he saw Miller and another man there, who was tall, portly, and very well dressed, his fine silver hair combed neatly on a head so massive it seemed hardly natural.

  Cotton said to Miller, "I was pretty sure I'd see you today."

  Miller inclined his head at the other man. "You probably heard of Thurston Goode, Commonwealth's attorney for Richmond?"

  "Indeed I have. You argued a case before the United States Supreme Court recently, didn't you, sir?"

  "More precisely," Goode said in a deep, confident baritone, "I won the case, Mr. Longfellow."

  "Congratulations. You're a long way from home."

  "The state was kind enough to allow Mr. Goode to come down here and act on its behalf in this very important matter," explained Miller.

  "Since when does a simple suit to declare a person mentally unfit qualify for the expertise of one of me finest lawyers in the state?"

  Goode smiled warmly. "As an officer of the Commonwealth I don't have to explain to you why I'm here, Mr. Longfellow. Suffice it to say, that I am here."

  Cotton put a hand to his chin and pretended to ponder something. "Let's see now. Virginia elects its Commonwealth's attorneys. Might I inquire as to whether Southern Valley has made a donation to your campaign, sir?"

  Goode's face flushed. "I don't like what you're implying!"

  "I did not mean it as an implication."

  Fred the bailiff came in and announced, "All rise. The Court of the Honorable Henry J. Atkins is now in session. All those having business before this court draw near and you shall be heard."

  Judge Henry Atkins, a small man with a short beard, thinning silver hair, and clear gray eyes, came into the room from his adjacent chambers and took his seat behind the bench. Before he got up there, he looked too small for his black robe. Once he got there, he looked too large for the courtroom.

  It was at this point that Lou and Oz crept in without anyone seeing them. Wearing barter coats and thick socks stuffed into oversized boots, they had retraced their steps across the poplar-log bridge and down the mountain, catching a ride on a track to Dickens. It had been a much harder trek in cold weather, but the way Cotton had explained it to them, the potential effect of this proceeding on all their lives was very clear. They sat slumped down at the rear, their heads barely visible over the back of the seats in front of them.

  "One week's fine with us," said Goode. "Miss Cardinal's affairs deserve to be attended to with all due speed and respect."

  Atkins picked up his gavel. "Cotton, I've been over to the hospital to see Louisa. Now, whether she has her senses or not, it seems to me those children are going to at least need a guardian. We might as well get it done as quick as possible."

  "We can take care of ourselves."

  They all looked to the back of the courtroom, where Lou was now standing. "We can take care of ourselves," she said again. "Until Louisa gets better."

  "Lou," said Cotton, "this is not the time or place."

  Goode smiled at them. "Well, you two sure are adorable children. I'm Thurston Goode. How y'all doing?"

  Neither Lou nor Oz answered him.

  "Young lady," said Atkins, "come up here."

  Lou swallowed the lump in her throat and walked up to the bench, where Atkins peered down at her, like Zeus to mortal.

  "Young lady, are you a member of the State Bar?"

  "No. I mean... no."

  "Do you know that only members of the Bar may address the court except in the most extraordinary circumstances?"

  "Well, since this concerns me and my brother, I think the circumstances are extraordinary."

  Atkins looked at Cotton and smiled before looking back at Lou. "You're smart, that's easy to see. And quick. But the law is the law, and children your age can't live by themselves."

  "We have Eugene."

  "He's not a blood relative."

  "Well, Diamond Skinner didn't live with anybody."

  Atkins looked over at Cotton. "Cotton, will you explain this to her, please."

  "Lou, the judge is right, you're not old enough to live by yourself. You need an adult."

  Lou's eyes suddenly filled with tears. "Well, we keep running out of those." She turned and raced down the aisle, pushed open the double doors, and was gone. Oz fled after her.

  Cotton looked back up at Judge Atkins.

  "One week," said the judge. He smacked his gavel and returned to his chambers, like a wizard resting after throwing a particularly difficult spell.

  Outside the courtroom, Goode and Miller waited for Cotton. Goode leaned in close to him. "You know, Mr. Longfellow, you can make this a lot easier on everybody if you'd just cooperate. We all know what a mental examination is going to reveal. Why put Miss Cardinal through the humiliation of a trial?"

  Cotton leaned even closer to Goode. "Mr. Goode, you could give a damn whether Louisa's affairs are accorded the respect they deserve. You're here as a hired gun for a big company looking to twist the law so they can take her land."

  Goode just smiled. "We'll see you in court."

  That night Cotton labored behind his piled-high desk. He mumbled to himself, wrote things down and then scratched diem out, and paced like an expectant father. The door creaked open, and Cotton stared as Lou came in with a basket of food and a pot of coffee.

  "Eugene drove me down in the car to see Louisa," she explained. "I got this over at the New York Restaurant. Figured you probably skipped supper."

  Cotton looked down. Lou cleared a place on his desk, laid out the food, and poured the coffee. Finished, she made no move to leave.

  "I'm pretty busy, Lou. Thank you for the food."

  Cotton went to his desk and sat down, but he moved not one piece of paper, opened not a single book.

  "I'm sorry about what I said in court," said Lou.

  "It's all right. I guess if I were you, I would've done the same tiling."

  "You sounded really good."

  "On the contrary, I failed utterly."

  "But the trial hasn't started yet."

  He took off his glasses and rubbed them with his tie. 'Truth is I haven't really tried a case in years, and even tiien I wasn't very good. I just file papers, write up deeds and wills, that sort of thing. And I've never gone up against a lawyer like Goode." He put his glasses back on, seeing clearly for perhaps the first time all day. "And I wouldn't want to promise you something I can't deliver."

  This line stood between diem like a wall of flames.

  "I believe in you, Cotton. Whatever happens, I believe in you. I wanted you to know that."

  "Why in the world do you have faith in me? Haven't I done nothing except let you down? Quoted miserable poetry that can't change anything."

  "No, all you've tried to do is help."