Wish You Well

  "I believe you. Now, you've heard Lou testify as to being knocked down while she was outside the mine. Whenever you were waiting outside the mine, that ever happen to you when the dynamite went off?"

  Eugene was shaking his head before Cotton finished his question. "Little bit of dynamite I used ain't have nowhere near that kind'a kick. Just getting me some for the bucket Use more dynamite come winter when I take the sled and mules down, but even that wouldn't come out the mine like that. Lord, you talking three hunnerd feet in and round two curves."

  "You found Jimmy's body. Was there rock and stone on it? Had the mine collapsed?"

  "No, sun. But I know he dead. He ain't got no lantern, see. You in that mine with no light, you ain't know which way in or out. Mind play tricks on you. He ain't prob'ly even see Jeb pass him heading out."

  "Can you tell us exactly where you found Jimmy?"

  " 'Nuther hunnerd twenty feet in. Past the first curve, but not the second."

  Farmer and merchant sat and stood side by side as they watched Cotton work. Miller fiddled with his hat and then leaned forward and whispered into Goode's ear. Goode nodded, looked at Eugene, and then smiled and nodded again.

  "Well, let's assume," said Cotton, "that Jimmy was close to the dynamite charge when it went off. It could have thrown his body a good ways, couldn't it?"

  "If'n he close, sure could."

  "But his body wasn't past the second curve?"

  Goode stood up. "That's easily explained. The dynamite explosion could have thrown the boy past the second curve."

  Cotton looked at the jury. "I fail to see how a body in flight can negotiate a ninety-degree curve and then proceed on before coming to rest. Unless Mr. Goode is maintaining that Jimmy Skinner could fly of his own accord."

  Ripples of laughter floated across the courtroom. Atkins creaked back in his chair, yet did not smack his gavel to stop the sounds. "Go on, Cotton. This is getting kind'a interesting."

  "Eugene, you remember feeling bad when you were in the mine that day?"

  Eugene thought about this. "Hard to recollect. Maybe a little pain in the head."

  "Okay, now, in your expert opinion, could the dynamite explosion alone have caused Jimmy Skinner's body to end up where it did?"

  Eugene looked over at the jury and took his time in eyeing them one by one. "No, suh!"

  "Thank you, Eugene. No further questions."

  Goode approached and put the palms of his hands on the witness box and leaned close to Eugene.

  "Boy, you live with Miss Cardinal in her house, don't you?"

  Eugene sat back a bit, his gaze steady on the man. "Yes, suh."

  Goode gave the jury a pointed look. "A colored man and a white woman in the same house?"

  Cotton was on his feet before Goode finished his question. "Judge, you can't let him do that."

  "Mr. Goode," said Atkins, "y'all might do that sort of thing on down Richmond way, but we don't in my courtroom. If you got something to ask the man about this case, then you do it, or else sit yourself down. And last time I checked, his name was Mr. Eugene Randall, not 'boy.' "

  "Right, Your Honor, certainly." Goode cleared his throat, stepped back, and slid his hands in his pockets. "Now, Mister Eugene Randall, you said in your expert opinion that you were two hundred feet or so from the charge, and that Mr. Skinner was about half that distance from the dynamite and such. You remember saying all that?"

  "No, suh. I says I was eighty feet in the mine, so's I was two hunnerd and twenty feet from the charge. And I says I found Diamond a hunnerd and twenty feet from where I was. That mean he be a hunnerd feet from where I set the dynamite. I ain't got no way to tell how far he got blowed."

  "Right, right. Now, you ever been to school?"



  "No, suh."

  "So you never took math, never did any adding and subtracting. And yet you're sitting up here testifying under oath to all these exact distances."


  "So how can that be for an uneducated colored man such as yourself? Who's never even added one plus one under the eye of a teacher? Why should this good jury believe you up here spouting all these big numbers?"

  Eugene's gaze never left Goode's confident features. "Knowed my numbers real good. Cipher and all. Take-away. Miss Louisa done taught me. And I right handy with nail and saw. I hepped many a folk on the mountain raise barns. You a carpenter, you got to know numbers. You cut a three-foot board to fill a four-foot space, what 'xactly have you done?"

  Laughter floated across the room again, and again Atkins let it go.

  "Fine," said Goode, "so you can cut a board. But in a pitch-dark twisting mine how can you be so sure of what you're saying? Come on now, Mister Eugene Randall, tell us." Goode looked at the jury as he said this, a smile playing across his lips.

  " 'Cause it be right there on the wall," said Eugene.

  Goode stared at him. "Excuse me?"

  "I done marked the walls in that mine with whitewash in ten-foot parcels over four hunnerd feet in. Lotta folk up here do that. You blasting in a mine, you better dum sure know how fer you got to go to get out. I knowed I do 'cause I got me the bad leg. And that way I 'member where the good coal veins are. You get yourself on down to the mine right now with a lantern, mister lawyer, you see them marks clear as the day. So's you can put down what I done said here as the word of the Lord."

  Cotton glanced at Goode. To him the Commonwealth's attorney looked as though someone had just informed him that heaven did not admit members of the legal Bar.

  "Any further questions?" Atkins asked Goode. The man said nothing in response but merely drifted back to his table like an errant cloud and collapsed in the chair.

  "Mr. Randall," said Atkins, "you're excused, sir, and the court wants to thank you for your expert testimony."

  Eugene stood and walked back to his seat. From the balcony Lou observed that his limp was hardly noticeable.

  Cotton next called Travis Barnes to the stand.

  "Dr. Barnes, at my request you examined the records pertaining to Jimmy Skinner's death, didn't you? Including a photograph taken outside the mine."

  "Yes, I did."

  "Can you tell us the cause of death?"

  "Massive head and body injuries."

  "What was the condition of the body?"

  "It was literally torn apart."

  "You ever treated anybody injured by a dynamite explosion?"

  "In coal mining country? I say I have."

  "You heard Eugene testify. In your opinion, under those circumstances, could the dynamite charge have caused the injuries you saw on Jimmy Skinner?"

  Goode did not bother to rise to offer his objection. "Calls for speculation from the witness," he said gruffly.

  "Judge, I think Dr. Barnes is fully competent to answer that question as an expert witness," said Cotton.

  Atkins was already nodding. "Go on ahead, Travis."

  Travis eyed Goode with contempt. "I well know the sorts of dynamite charges folks up here use to get a bucket of coal out. That distance from the charge and around a shaft curve, there is no way that dynamite caused the injuries I saw on that boy. I can't believe nobody figured that out before now."

  Cotton said, "I guess a person goes in a mine and dynamite goes off, they just believe that's what killed him. You ever seen such injuries before?"

  "Yes. Explosion at a manufacturing plant. Killed a dozen men. Same as Jimmy. Literally blown apart."

  "What was the cause of that explosion?"

  "Natural gas leak."

  Cotton turned and looked dead-on at Hugh Miller.

  "Mr. Goode, unless you care to take a shot, I'm calling Mr. Judd Wheeler to the stand."

  Goode looked at Miller, betrayed. "No questions."

  A nervous Wheeler fidgeted in the witness box as Cotton approached.

  "You're Southern Valley's chief geologist?"

  "I am."

  "And you headed up the team that was
exploring possible natural gas deposits on Miss Cardinal's property?"

  "I did."

  "Without her permission or knowledge?"

  "Well, I don't know about—"

  "Did you have her permission, Mr. Wheeler?" Cotton snapped.


  "You found natural gas, didn't you?"

  "That's right."

  "And it was something your company was right interested in, wasn't it?"

  "Well, natural gas is getting to be very valuable as a heating fuel. We mostly use manufactured gas, town gas they call it. You get that from heating coal. That's what fuels the streetlights in this town. But you can't make much money with town gas. And we have seamless steel pipe now, which allows us to send gas in pipelines a long way. So yes, we were very interested."

  "Natural gas is explosive, right?"

  "If properly used—"

  "Is it, or isn't it?"

  "It is."

  "Exactly what did you do in that mine?"

  "We took readings and did tests and located what appeared to be a huge field of gas in a trap not too far underneath the surface of that mine shaft and about six hundred feet in the mine. Coal, oil, and gas are often found together because all three result from similar natural processes. The gas always lies on top because it's lighter. That's why you have to be careful when you're mining coal. Methane gas buildup is a real danger to the miners. Anyway, we drilled down and hit that gas field."

  "Did the gas come up in the mine shaft?"


  "On what date did you hit the gas field?"

  When Wheeler told them the day, Cotton said loud and clear to the jury, "One week before Jimmy Skinner's death! Would somebody be able to smell the gas?"

  "No, in its natural state gas is colorless and odorless. When companies process it, they add a distinct smell so that if there's a leak people can detect it before it overcomes them."

  "Or before something ignites it?"

  "That's right."

  "If someone set off a dynamite charge in a mine shaft where there was natural gas present, what would happen?"

  "The gas would explode." Wheeler looked like he wanted to be blown up himself.

  Cotton faced the jury. "I guess Eugene was real lucky he was so far away from the hole where the gas was pouring through and his lamp flame didn't ignite the gas. And he was even luckier he didn't strike a match to light that fuse. But the dynamite going off sure did the trick." He turned back to Wheeler. "What sort of explosion? Big enough to cause Jimmy Skinner's death, in the manner described by Dr. Barnes?"

  "Yes," Wheeler conceded.

  Cotton put his hands on the frame of the witness box and leaned in. "Didn't you ever think about posting warning signs telling people that there was gas there?"

  "I didn't know they dynamited in there! I didn't know they used that old mine for anything."

  Cotton thought he caught Wheeler shooting an angry look at George Davis, but he couldn't be sure.

  "But if anyone went in, they might be overcome by the gas alone. Wouldn't you want to warn people?"

  Wheeler spoke fast. "The ceilings in that mine shaft are real high, and there's some natural ventilation through the rock too, so the buildup of the methane wouldn't be so bad. And we were going to cap the hole, but we were waiting on some equipment we needed. We didn't want anybody to get hurt. That's the truth."

  "The fact is, you couldn't post warning signs because you were there illegally. Isn't that right?"

  "I was just following orders."

  "You took great pains to hide the fact that you were working in that mine, didn't you?"

  "Well, we only worked at night. Whatever equipment we carried in, we took out with us."

  "So nobody would know you'd been there?"


  "Because Southern Valley was hoping to buy Miss Cardinal's farm for a lot less money if she didn't know she was sitting on an ocean of gas?"

  "Objection!" Goode said.

  Cotton steamed right on. "Mr. Wheeler, you knew Jimmy Skinner died in that mine explosion. And you had to know the gas played some role in it. Why didn't you come forward and tell the truth then?"

  Wheeler fidgeted with his hat. "I was told not to."

  "And who told you not to?"

  "Mr. Hugh Miller, company vice president."

  Everyone in the courtroom looked at Miller. Cotton stared at Miller when he asked his next questions.

  "You have any children, Mr. Wheeler?"

  Wheeler looked surprised, but answered: "Three."

  "They all doing well? Healthy?"

  Wheeler's gaze dropped to his lap before he responded. "Yes."

  "You're a lucky man."

  Goode was addressing the jury with his closing argument.

  "Now, we've heard far more evidence than is necessary for you to find that Louisa Mae Cardinal is mentally unfit. In fact, her own lawyer, Mr. Longfellow, has conceded that she is. Now, all this talk about gas and explosions and such, well what does it really have to do with this case? If Southern Valley was somehow involved in Mr. Skinner's death, then his survivors may be entitled to damages."

  "He doesn't have any survivors," said Cotton.

  Goode chose to ignore this. "Now, Mr. Longfellow asks whether my client is an appropriate party to be buying land up here. Fact is, folks, Southern Valley has big plans for your town. Good jobs, bring prosperity back to you all."

  He got real close to the jury, their best friend. "The question is, should Southern Valley be allowed to 'enrich' all of your lives as well as Miss Cardinal's? I think the answer to that is obvious."

  Goode sat down. And Cotton came at the jury. He moved slowly, his bearing confident but not threatening. His hands were in his pockets, and he rested one of his scuffed shoes on the lower rail of the jury box. When he spoke, his voice leaned more southern than New England, and every single juror except George Davis hunched forward so as not to miss anything the man said. They had watched Cotton Longfellow bloody the nose of what they assumed was one of the finest lawyers from the great city of Richmond. And he had made humble a company that was as close to a monarch as one could get in a country of democracy. Now they undoubtedly wanted to see if the man could finish it.

  "Let me give you good folks the legal side of the case first. And it's not complicated at all. In fact it's like a good bird dog, it points straight and true in one direction, and one direction only." He took one hand from his pocket and, like a good hound,