Wish You Well

  Atkins and Ross exchanged glares at the judge's choice of words, while Cotton put a hand over his mouth to hide his grin.

  Cotton continued. "Dr. Ross, you really can't tell us that today, or tomorrow, or the next day, Louisa Mae Cardinal won't be perfectly capable of handling her own affairs, can you?"

  "The woman I examined—"

  "Please answer the question I asked, sir."


  "No, what?" Cotton added pleasantly, "For this fine jury."

  A frustrated Ross crossed his arms. "No, I cannot say for sure that Miss Cardinal will not recover today or tomorrow or the next day."

  Goode heaved himself to his feet. "Your Honor, I see where counsel is going with this and I think I have a resolution. As of right now Dr. Ross's testimony is that Miss Cardinal is not competent. If she gets better, and we all hope she does, then the court-appointed representative can be dismissed and she can handle her own affairs from then on."

  Cotton said, "By then, she won't have any land left."

  Goode seized upon this opening. "Well, then Miss Cardinal can surely take comfort in the half a million dollars Southern Valley has offered for her property."

  An enormous gasp went through the crowd at the mention of this ungodly sum. One man almost toppled over the balcony rail before his neighbors pulled him back to safety. Both dirty and clean-faced children looked at one another, eyes popping. And their mothers and fathers were doing the exact same thing. The jurors too looked at one another in clear astonishment. Yet George Davis just sat there staring straight ahead, not one emotion showing on his features.

  Goode continued quickly, "As I'm sure others can when the company makes similar offers to them."

  Cotton looked around and decided he would much rather be doing anything other than what he was. He saw both mountain dwellers and townsfolk gaping at him: the one man who stood in the way of their rightful fortune. And yet with all that weighing down upon him, he shook his mind clear and roared, "Judge, he's just as good as bribed this jury with that statement. I want a mistrial. My client can't get a fair shake with these people counting Southern Valley dollars."

  Goode smiled at the jury. "I withdraw the statement. Sorry, Mr. Longfellow. No harm intended."

  Atkins leaned back in his chair. "You're not getting a mistrial, Cotton. Because where else you going to go with this thing? Just about everybody from fifty miles around already's sitting in this courtroom, and the next nearest bench is a day away by train. And the judge there isn't nearly as nice as I am." He turned to the jury. "Now listen here, folks, you're to ignore Mr. Goode's statement about the offer to purchase Miss Cardinal's land. He shouldn't have said it, and you are to forget it. And I mean what I say!"

  Atkins next focused on Goode. "I understand you have a fine reputation, sir, and I'd hate to be the one to taint it. But you pull something like that again, and I got me a nice little jail cell in this building where you'll be doing your time for contempt, and I might just forget you're even there. You understand me?"

  Goode nodded and said meekly, "Yes, Your Honor."

  "Cotton, you have any more questions for Dr. Ross?"

  "No, Judge," Cotton said and dropped into his seat.

  Goode put Travis Barnes on the stand, and though he did his best, under Goode's artful maneuvering, the good doctor's prognosis for Louisa was rather bleak. Finally, Goode waved a photograph in front of him.

  "This is your patient, Louisa Mae Cardinal?"

  Barnes looked at the photograph. "Yes."

  "Permission to show the jury."

  "Go on ahead, but be quick about it," said Atkins.

  Goode dropped a copy of the photo in front of Cotton. Cotton didn't even look at it, but ripped the photograph into two pieces and dropped it in the spittoon next to his table while Goode paraded the original in front of the jurors' faces. From the clucks and muted comments and shakes of head, the photo had its intended effect. The only one who didn't look upset was George Davis. He held the photo especially long and seemed to Cotton to have to work awfully hard to hide his delight. The damage done, Goode sat down.

  'Travis," said Cotton, rising and coming to stand next to his friend, "have you ever treated Louisa Cardinal for any ailments before this last one?"

  "Yes, I have. A couple of times."

  "Can you tell us about those instances, please."

  "About ten years ago, she was bitten by a rattler. Killed the durn thing herself with a hoe, and then she come down the mountain by horse to see me. Arm swollen to about the size of my leg by that time. She took seriously ill, ran a fever higher'n I'd ever seen. In and out of consciousness for days. But she came out of it, right when we thought she wasn't going to make it. Fought like a durn mule she did."

  "And the other time?"

  "Pneumonia. That winter four years ago when we had more snow than the South Pole. Y'all remember that one?" he asked the folks in the courtroom and they all nodded back at him.

  "No way to get up or down the mountain then. It was four days before they got word to me. I got up there and treated her when the storm ended, but she was already past the worst of it all by herself. Would'a killed a young person with medicine, and here she was into her seventies and not a drop of anything except her own will to live. I've never seen anything like it."

  Cotton went and stood over near the jury. "So, she sounds like a woman of indomitable spirit. A spirit that cannot be conquered."

  "Objection, Your Honor," said Goode. "Is that a question, or a divine pronouncement on your part, Mr. Longfellow?"

  "I hope both, Mr. Goode."

  "Well, let's put it this way," said Barnes, "if I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet against the woman."

  Cotton looked over at the jury. "Neither would I. No further questions."

  "Mr. Goode, who you calling next?" asked Atkins.

  The Commonwealth's attorney rose and looked around the courtroom. He kept looking and looking until his gaze reached the balcony, moved around its edges, and then came to rest on Lou and Oz. And then finally on Oz alone.

  "Young man, why don't you come on down here and talk to us."

  Cotton was on his feet. "Your Honor, I see no reason—"

  "Judge," broke in Goode, "now, it's the children that's going to have the guardian, and thus I think it reasonable to hear from one of them. And for a little fellow he has a mighty fine voice, since everybody in this courtroom has heard it loud and long already."

  There was muted laughter from the crowd, and Atkins absently smacked his gavel while he pondered this request for six rapid beats of Cotton's heart. "I'm going to allow it. But remember, Goode, he's just a little boy."

  "Absolutely, Your Honor."

  Lou held Oz's hand and they slowly walked down the stairs and passed each of the rows, all eyes in the courtroom upon them. Oz put his hand on the Bible and was sworn in as Lou went back to her seat. Oz perched in the chair, looking so small and helpless that Cotton's heart went out to him, even as Goode moved in.

  "Now, Mr. Oscar Cardinal," he began.

  "My name's Oz, my sister's name is Lou. Don't call her Louisa Mae or else she'll get mad and punch you."

  Goode smiled. "Now, don't you worry about that. Oz and Lou it is." He leaned against the witness stand. "Now, you know the court's right sorry to hear that your momma's doing so poorly."

  "She's going to get better."

  "Is that right? That what the doctors say?"

  Oz looked up at Lou until Goode touched Oz's cheek and pointed his face toward him.

  "Now, son, up here on the witness stand you got to speak the truth. You can't look to your big sister for answers. You swore to God to tell the truth."

  "I always tell the truth. Cross my heart, stick a needle."

  "Good boy. So, again, did the doctors say your mother will get better?"

  "No. They said they weren't sure."

  "So how do you know she will?"

  "Because... because I made a wish. At the wishing well."

  "Wishing well?" said Goode with an expression for the jury that clearly spelled out what he thought of that answer. "There's a wishing well round here? I wish we had one of them back in Richmond."

  The crowd laughed and Oz's face turned pink and he squirmed in his seat. "There is a wishing well," he said. "My friend Diamond Skinner told us about it. You make a wish and give up the most important thing you have and your wish will come true."

  "Sounds mighty fine. Now, you said you made your wish?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "And you gave up the most important thing you had. What was that?" Oz looked nervously around the room. "The truth, Oz. Remember what you promised to God, son."

  Oz took a long breath. "My bear. I gave up my bear."

  There were a few muffled chuckles from the onlookers, until all saw the single tear slide down the little boy's face, and men the snickers ceased.

  "Has your wish come true yet?" asked Goode.

  Oz shook his head. "No."

  "Been a while since you wished?"

  "Yes," Oz answered softly.

  "And your momma's still real sick, isn't she?"

  Oz bowed his head. "Yes," he said in a tiny voice.

  Goode put his hands in his pockets. "Well, sad fact is, son, things don't come true just 'cause we wish 'em to. That's not real life. Now, you know your great-grandmother's real sick, don't you?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "You make a wish for her too?"

  Cotton rose. "Goode, leave it be."

  "Fine, fine. Now, Oz, you know you can't live by yourself, right? If your great-grandma doesn't get better, under the law, you have to go live with an adult in their home. Or else go to an orphanage. Now, you don't want to go to no old orphanage, do you?"

  Cotton jumped to his feet again. "Orphanage? When did that become an issue?"

  Goode said, "Well, if Miss Cardinal does not make another miraculous recovery as she did with rattlers and pneumonia, then the children are going to have to go somewhere. Now, unless they've got some money I don't know about, they're going to an orphanage, because that's where children go who don't have blood relatives to take care of them, or other persons of a worthy nature willing to adopt them."

  "They can come live with me," said Cotton.

  Goode looked about ready to laugh. "You? An unmarried man? A lawyer in a town that's dying? You'd be me last person on earth a court would award those children to." Goode turned back to Oz. "Now, wouldn't you like to go live in your own home with someone who has your best interests at heart? You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

  "I don't know."

  "Course you would. Orphanages are not the nicest places in the world. Some kids stay there forever."

  "Your Honor," said Cotton, "does all this have a point other than to terrify the witness?"

  "Why, I was just about to ask Mr. Goode that," declared Atkins.

  It was Oz, though, who spoke. "Can Lou come too? I mean, not to the orphanage, but to the other place?"

  "Why sure, son, sure," said Goode quickly. "Never break up sister and brother." He added quietly, "But there's no guarantee of that with an orphanage." He paused. "So, that'd be all right with you, Oz?"

  Oz hesitated and tried to look at Lou, but Goode was too quick and blocked his view. Oz finally said quietly, "I guess so."

  Cotton looked up in the balcony. Lou was on her feet, fingers wrapped around the railing, her anxious gaze fixed on her brother.

  Goode went over to the jury and made a show of rubbing his eyes. "That's a fine boy. No further questions."

  "Cotton?" said Atkins.

  Goode sat down and Cotton rose, but then he stopped, his fingers gripping the table's edge as he stared at the ruin of a boy on the big witness chair; a little boy who, Cotton knew, just wanted to get up and go back to his sister because he was scared to death of orphanages and fat lawyers with big words and embarrassing questions, and huge rooms filled with strangers staring at him.

  "No questions," said Cotton very quietly, and Oz fled back to his sister.

  After more witnesses had paraded through court, showing that Lpuisa was utterly incapable of conscious decision, and Cotton only able to slap at bits and pieces of their testimony, the trial was adjourned for the day and Cotton and the children left the courtroom. Outside, Goode and Miller stopped them.

  "You're putting up a good fight, Mr. Longfellow," said Goode, "but we all know how this is going to turn out. What say we just put an end to it right now? Save people any further embarrassment." He looked at Lou and Oz as he said this. He started to pat Oz on the head, but the boy gave the lawyer a fierce look that made Goode pull back his hand before he might have lost it.

  "Look, Longfellow," said Miller, pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket, "I've got a check here for half a million dollars. All you got to do is end this nonsense and it's yours."

  Cotton looked at Oz and Lou and then said, "I tell you what, Miller, I'll leave it up to the children. Whatever they say, I'll do."

  Miller squatted down and smiled at Lou and Oz. "This money will go to you now. Buy anything you want. Live in a big house with a fancy car and people paid to look after you. A right nice life. What do you say, children?"

  "We already have a home," said Lou.

  "Okay, what about your momma then? People in her condition need a lot of care, and it's not cheap." He dangled the check in front of the girl. 'This solves all your problems, missy."

  Goode squatted down too and looked at Oz. "And it'll keep those nasty orphanages far, far away. You want to stay with your sister, now don't you?"

  "You keep your old money," said Oz, "for it's not something we need or want. And Lou and I will always be together. Orphanage or not!"

  Oz took his sister's hand and they walked off.

  Cotton looked at the men as they rose, and Miller angrily stuffed the check back in his pocket. "From out of the mouths of babes," said Cotton. "We should all be so wise." And then he walked off too.

  Back at the farmhouse, Cotton discussed the case with Lou and Oz. "I'm afraid unless Louisa can walk into that courtroom tomorrow, she's going to lose her land." He looked at them both. "But I want you to know that whatever happens, I will be there for all of you. I will take care of all of you. Don't you worry about that. You will never go to an orphanage. And you will never be split up. That I swear." Lou and Oz hugged Cotton as tightly as they could, and then he left to prepare for the final day in court. Perhaps their final day on this mountain.

  Lou made supper for Oz and Eugene, and then went to feed her mother. After that she sat in front of the fire for a long time while she thought things through. Though it was very cold, she led Sue out of the barn and rode the mare up to the knoll behind the house. She said prayers in front of each grave, taking the longest at the smallest: Annie's. Had she lived, Annie would have been Lou's great-aunt. Lou wished mightily that she could have known what the tiny baby looked like, and she felt miserable that such a thing was now impossible. The stars were fine tonight, and Lou looked around at the mountains painted white, the glitter of ice on branch nearly magical when multiplied as it was ten thousand times. The land could offer Lou no help now, but there was something she could do all on her own. It should have been done long ago, she knew. Yet a mistake was only a mistake if it remained uncorrected.

  She rode Sue back, put the mare down for the night, and went into her mother's room. She sat on the bed and took Amanda's hand and didn't move for a bit. Finally, Lou leaned over and kissed her mother's cheek, as the tears started to trickle down the girl's face. "Whatever happens we'll always be together. I promise. You will always have me and Oz. Always." She rubbed at her tears. "I miss you so much." Lou kissed her again. "I love you, Mom." She fled the room, and so Lou never saw the solitary tear leave her mother's eye.

  Lou was lying on her bed, quietly sobbing, when Oz came in. Lou did not even make an attempt to stop her weeping. Oz crawled on the bed with her and hugged his sister.

  "It'll be ok
ay, Lou, you'll see."

  Lou sat up, wiped her face, and looked at him. "I guess all we need is a miracle."

  "I could give the wishing well another try," he said.

  Lou shook her head. "What do we have to give up for a wish? We've already lost everything."