Wish You Well

  pointed right at Hugh Miller as he spoke. "The reckless actions of Southern Valley killed Jimmy Skinner, you folks can have no doubts about that. Southern Valley's not even disputing it. They were illegally on Louisa Mae's property. They posted no warnings that the mine was filled with explosive gas. They allowed innocent people to enter that mine when they knew it was deadly. It could've been any of you. And they did not come forward with the truth because they knew they were in the wrong. And now they seek to use the tragedy of Louisa Mae's stroke as a way to take her land. The law clearly says one cannot profit from one's misdeeds. Well, if what Southern Valley did does not qualify as a misdeed, then nothing on this earth ever would." His voice up to this point had been slow and steady. Now it rose one delicate notch, but he kept his finger pointed at Hugh Miller. "One day God will hold them accountable for killing an innocent young man. But it's your job to see that they are punished today."

  Cotton looked at each and every juror, stopping on George Davis; he spoke directly to him. "Now, let's get to the nonlegal part of this business, for I think that's where the struggle you folks are going through lies. Southern Valley has come in here swinging bags full of money in front of you, telling you that it's the savior of the whole town. But that's what the lumber folks told you. They're going to be here forever. Remember? So why were all the lumber camps on rails? How much more temporary can you get? And where are they now? Last time I checked, Kentucky was not part of the Commonwealth of Virginia."

  He looked over at Miller. "And the coal companies told you the same thing. And what did they do? They came and took everything they wanted and left you with nothing except hollowed-out mountains, family with the black lung and dreams replaced with nightmares. And now Southern Valley's singing that same old tune with gas. It's just one more needle in the mountain's hide. Just one more thing to suck out, leaving nothing!" Cotton turned and addressed the entire courtroom.

  "But this isn't really about Southern Valley, or coal or gas. It's ultimately about all of you. Now, they can cut the top of that mountain easy enough, pull out that gas, run their fine seamless steel pipeline, and it might keep going for ten, fifteen, even twenty years. But then it'll all be gone. You see, that pipeline is taking the gas to other places, just like the trains did the coal, and the river did the trees. Now, why is that, do you think?" He took his time looking around the room. "I'll tell you why. Because that's where the real prosperity is, folks. At least in the way Southern Valley defines it. And all of you know that. These mountains just got what they need to keep that prosperity going and their pockets filled. And so they come here and they take it.

  "Dickens, Virginia, will never be a New York City, and let me tell you there's not a damn thing wrong with that. In fact, I believe we have us enough big cities, and a dwindling number of places like right here. Y'all will never become rich working at the foot of these mountains. Those who will claim great wealth are the Southern Valleys of the world, who take from the land and give nothing back to it. You want a real savior? Look at yourselves. Rely on each other. Just like Louisa Mae's been doing her whole life up on that mountain. Farmers live on the whim of the weather and the ground. Some years they lose, other years are fine. But for them, the resources of the mountain are never extinguished, because they do not tear its soul away. And their reward for that is being able to live a decent, honest life for as long as they so desire, without the fear that folks intent on nothing more than making a pile of gold by raping mountains will come with grand promises, and then leave when there is nothing to be gained by staying, and destroy innocent lives in the process."

  He pointed to Lou where she sat in the courtroom. "Now, that girl's daddy wrote many wonderful stories about this area, and those very issues of land, and the people who live on it. In words, Jack Cardinal has enabled this place to survive forever. Just like the mountains. He had an exemplary teacher, for Louisa Mae Cardinal has lived her life the way all of us should. She's helped many of you at some point in your lives and asked for nothing in return." Cotton looked at Bu-ford Rose and some of the other farmers staring at him. "And you've helped her when she needed it. You know she'd never sell her land, because that ground is as much a part of her family as her great-grandchildren waiting to see what's going to happen to them. You can't let Southern Valley steal the woman's family. All folks have up on that mountain is each other and their land. That's all. It may not seem like much to those who don't live there, or for people who seek nothing but to destroy the rock and trees. But rest assured, it means everything to the people who call the mountains home."

  Cotton stood tall in front of the jury box, and though his voice remained level and calm, the large room seemed inadequate to contain his words.

  "You folks don't have to be an expert in the law to reach the right decision in this case. All you got to have is a heart. Let Louisa Mae Cardinal keep her land."

  * * *


  LOU STARED OUT THE WINDOW OF HER BEDROOM AT the grand sweep of land as it bolted right up to the foothills and then on to the mountains, where the leaves on all but the evergreens were gone. The naked trees were still quite something to behold, though now they appeared to Lou to be poor grave markers for thousands of dead, their mourners left with not much.

  "You should have come back, Dad," she said to the mountains he had immortalized with words and then shunned the rest of his life.

  She had returned to the farm with Eugene after the jury had gone into deliberation. She had no desire to be there when the verdict came in. Cotton had said he would come tell them the decision. He said he did not expect it to take long. Cotton did not say whether he thought that was good or bad, but he did not look hopeful. Now all Lou could do was wait. And it was hard, for everything around her could be gone tomorrow, depending on what a group of strangers decided. Well, one of them wasn't a stranger; he was more like a mortal enemy. Lou traced her father's initials with her finger on the desk. She had sacrificed her mother's letters for a miracle that had never bothered to come, and it pained her so. She went downstairs and stopped at Louisa's room. Through the open door she saw the old bed, the small dresser, a bowl and pitcher on top of it. The room was small, its contents spare, just like the woman's life. Lou covered her face. It just wasn't right. She stumbled into the kitchen to start the meal.

  As she was pulling out a pot, Lou heard a noise behind her and turned. It was Oz. She wiped at her eyes, for she still wanted to be strong for him. Yet as she focused on his expression, Lou realized she had no need to worry about her brother. Something had seized him; she didn't know what. But her brother had never looked this way before. Without a word, he took her hand and drew his sister back down the hallway.

  The jury filed into the courtroom, a dozen men from the mountain and the town, at least eleven of whom Cotton could hope would do the right thing. The jury had been out for many hours, longer than Cotton had thought probable. He did not know if that was good or bad. The real card against him, he knew, was that of desperation. It was a strong opponent, because it could so easily prey upon those who worked so hard every day simply to survive, or upon those who saw no future in a place where everything was being carved out and taken away. Cotton would loathe the jurors if they went against him, yet he knew they easily could. Well, at least it would soon be over.

  Atkins asked, "Has the jury reached a verdict?"

  The foreman rose. He was a man from the town, a humble shopkeeper, his body swollen from too much beef and potato, and from too little effort with arms and shoulders. "Yes, Your Honor," he said quietly.

  Hardly a single person had left the courtroom since the jury had been given its charge from the judge and sent out. The whole population of the room leaned forward, as though they all had just been struck deaf.

  "What say you?"

  "We find ... for Southern Valley." The foreman looked down, as though he had just delivered a death sentence to one of his own.

  The courtroom erupted into sho
uts—some cheers, some not. The balcony seemed to sway with the collective weight of the decision of a dozen men. Hugh Miller and George Davis exchanged slight nods, lips easing into victorious smiles.

  Cotton sat back. The legal process had had its day; the only thing absent was justice.

  Miller and Goode shook hands. Miller tried to congratulate Wheeler, but the big man walked off in obvious disgust.

  "Order, order in this court or I'll clear it." Atkins slammed his gavel several times, and things did quiet down.

  "The jury is dismissed. Thank you for your service," he said and not very kindly. A man entered the courtroom, spotted Cotton, and whispered something in his ear. Cotton's despair noticeably deepened.

  Goode said, "Your Honor, it now remains solely to appoint someone to represent Miss Cardinal's interests and assume guardianship of the children."

  "Judge, I've just received some news that the court needs to hear." Cotton slowly stood, his head down, one hand pressed to his side. "Louisa Mae Cardinal has passed away."

  The courtroom erupted once more, and this time Atkins made no move to contain it. Davis's smile broadened. He went over to Cotton. "Damn," he said, "this day get better and better."

  Cotton's mind went blank for a moment, as though someone had smote him with an anvil. He grabbed Davis and had it in his mind to deliver him into the next county with his right fist, but then he stopped and simply heaved the man out of his way, as one would shovel a large pile of manure off a road.

  "Your Honor," said Goode, "I know we're all very sorry to hear about Miss Cardinal. Now, I have a list of very reputable people who can represent these fine children in the sale of the property that has just now passed to them."

  "And I hope you rot in hell for it," cried out Cotton. He raced to the bench, Goode on his heels.

  Cotton pounded his fist so hard on the mighty bench of justice that Fred the bailiff took a nervous step toward them.

  "George Davis tainted that whole jury," roared Cotton. "I know he's got Southern Valley dollars burning a hole in his pocket."

  "Give it up, Longfellow, you lost," said Goode.

  Neither man noticed the courtroom doors opening.

  "Never, Goode. Never!" Cotton shouted at him.

  "He agreed to be bound by the decision of the jury."

  "I'm afraid he's got a point there," said Atkins.

  A triumphant Goode turned to look at Miller and his eyes nearly crossed at what he was seeing.

  "But Henry," pleaded Cotton, "please, the children ... Let me be their guardian. I—"

  Atkins was not paying attention to Cotton. He too was now staring at the courtroom, his mouth wide open.

  Cotton slowly turned to see what Atkins was looking at, and felt himself feeling faint, as though he'd just seen God walk through that door. Lou and Oz stood mere before them all. And between them, held up almost solely by her children, was Amanda Cardinal.

  Lou had not taken her gaze from her mother from the moment Oz had led her down the hallway and into the bedroom, where her mother was lying in bed, her eyes wide open, tears running from them, her shaky arms finally reaching out to her children, her trembling lips forming a joyous smile.

  Neither could Cotton take his gaze from the woman. Still, he had unfinished business before the court.

  In a cracking, halting voice he said, "Your Honor, I would like to present to you Amanda Cardinal. The rightful and true guardian of her children."

  The sea of now-silent people parted and allowed Cotton to walk slowly over to mother and her children, his legs stumbling along, as though they had forgotten the proper motions. His face was smirched with tears.

  "Mrs. Cardinal," he began, "my name is—"

  Amanda reached out a hand and touched him on the shoulder. Her body was very weak, yet her head was held high, and when she spoke her words were soft but clear. "I know who you are, Mr. Longfellow. I've listened to you often."

  * * *


  THE TALL WOMAN WALKS ALONG A FIELD OF BLUE-grass slowly curving in the wind. The line of mountains sweeps across in the background. Her hair is silver and hangs to her waist. She holds a pen and a paper tablet and sits on the ground and begins to write.

  Maybe the wishing well did work. Or perhaps it was the unwavering faith of a little boy. Or maybe it was as simple as a little girl telling her mother she loved her. The important thing was our mother came back to us. Even as our beloved Louisa Mae left us. We had Louisa but a minute, yet we came close to having her not at all.

  The woman rises, walks along, and then stops at two granite tombstones with the names Cotton Longfellow and Amanda Cardinal Longfellow engraved upon them. She sits and continues writing.

  My mother and Cotton were married a year later. Cotton adopted Oz and me, and I showed equal love and affection to him and my mother. They spent over four wonderful decades together on this mountain and died within a week of one another. I will never forget Cotton's great kindness. And I will go to my own grave knowing that my mother and I made the most of our second chance.

  My little brother did grow into those big feet, and developed an even bigger arm. And on a glorious autumn day, Oz Cardinal pitched and won a World Series for the New York Yankees. He's now a schoolteacher there, with a well-deserved reputation for helping timid children thrive. And his grandson has inherited that immortal bear. Some days I want nothing more than to be holding that little boy again, running my fingers through his hair, comforting him. My cowardly lion. But children grow up. And my little brother became a fine man. And his sister is truly proud of him.

  Eugene went on to have his own farm and family and still lives nearby. He remains to this day one of my best friends in the world. And after his performance in that courtroom so long ago, I never heard anyone ever again refer to him as Hell No.

  And me? Like my father, I left the mountain. But unlike Jack Cardinal, I came back I married and raised a family here in a home I built on the land Louisa Mae left us. Now my own grandchildren come and visit every summer. I tell them of my life growing up here. About Louisa Mae, Cotton, and my dear friend Diamond Skinner. And also about others who touched our lives. I do so because I believe it important for them to know such things about their family.

  Over the years I had read so many books, I started to write one of my own. I loved it so much, I wrote fourteen more. I told stories of happiness and wonder. Of pain and fear. Of survival and triumph. Of the land and its people. As my father had. And while I never won the sorts of awards he did my books tended to sell a little better.

  As my father wrote, one's courage, hope, and spirit can be severely tried by the happenstance of life. But as I learned on this Virginia mountain, so long as one never loses faith, it is impossible to ever truly be alone.

  This is where I belong. It is a true comfort to know that I will die here on this high rock. And I fear my passing not at all. My enthusiasm is perfectly understandable, you see, for the view from here is so very fine.

  * * *


  I would be remiss in not thanking various people who helped with this project. First, all the fine folks at Warner Books, and especially my dear friend Maureen Egen, who was wonderfully supportive of my trying something different, and who performed a marvelous editing job on the novel. And thanks also to Aaron Priest and Lisa Vance for all their help and encouragement. They both make my life far less complicated. And to Molly Friedrich, for taking the time from her extraordinarily busy schedule to read an early draft of the novel and provide many insightful comments. And to Frances Jalet-Miller, who brought her usual superb editing skills and heartfelt enthusiasm to the story. And to my cousin Steve for reading all the words as usual. And to Jennifer Steinberg for her help.

  To Michelle for all she does. It is a well-known fact that I would be utterly lost without her.

  And to Spencer and Collin, for being my Lou and Oz.

  And to my dear friend Karen Spiegel for all her help and encouragem
ent with this work. You really helped make it better, and maybe one day we'll see it on the big screen.

  And to all the fine people at the Library of Virginia in Richmond for allowing me use of its archives, providing a quiet place to work and think, and for pointing me in the direction of numerous treasure troves: remembrances penned by mountain folks; oral histories documented by diligent WPA staff in the 1930s; pictorial histories of rural counties in Virginia; and the first state publication on midwifery.

  A very special thanks to Deborah Hocutt, the Executive Director of the Virginia Center for the Book at the Library of Virginia, for all her assistance with this project, and also with the many other endeavors I'm involved with in the Commonwealth.