It had occurred to Lee that perhaps he wasn’t taking his life in the right direction. It was late afternoon on a stunning spring day, filled with warbling birdsong, clean air, and the strongest sunshine he’d seen in months, and yet here he was. ‘Here’ was where sailors’ gruff cursing drowned out the birds, the smell of stagnant river water, alcohol, and dead fish assaulted the nose, and thick tar-colored smoke crawled down the throat and shrouded the sun. ‘Here’ was quite possibly the seediest dock he had yet to see in St. Louis, and that was truly a feat.
Lee let out a great, huffing breath of air and tilted his head to rest against the wall of the alley that he currently occupied. This was not the best idea, seeing as his head hurt like all creation at the moment. He wasn’t sure if it was from the first fight, the one that had gotten him fired from his job at the stables, or the second, which had landed him in the alley. I try to joke around and vent some steam, and this is where it gets me, he though. Worst of all, he knew with painful clarity the consequences of his slip ups. His family needed all the money they could get, what with a brand new set of twins in the house. Now Lee had gone and lost them one of their few sources of income, and he doubted anyone else would be willing to give him a job. His father’s good name only got him so far.
The voice snapped him out of his grim reverie, and he looked up to see a half-remembered face looming over him. A man in well-worn travelling clothes with leathery skin and a grizzled beard to match stood just outside Lee’s little back street, looking at him expectantly. It took Lee a moment to place the vague sense of recognition, but when he did, it was with confusion. He had sold this man a horse two days ago, back when he still had a job.
“How can I help you, sir?” he inquired with a half-hearted grin, still slouched in the alley.
The man’s gleaming black eyes bored into him coolly, and Lee could feel himself being assessed, measured, and judged. He didn’t think he wanted to know the verdict.
“You’re looking like you want to be anywhere that ain’t here,” said the man in a surprisingly smooth, level drawl. As Lee scrunched his brow warily, the stranger continued. “Name’s Sam McCarthy. I make a living leading folks out to the west coast. Now you see kid, I’m headed to California and I’ll be needing a hostler. Think you can do it?”
Lee nodded dumbly, wondering if the blows he’d taken to the head had done some serious damage; people did not just up and ask strangers to go gallivanting across the country with them. “I’ve worked with horses my whole life,” he replied out of pure shock. “If that’s all you need me to do…” His words trailed away there, because sane people did not agree to such absurd propositions. Sane people did not ask people to move across the country with them at the drop of a hat, and sane people did not agree when decidedly in-sane people requested such things. This he knew. Today seemed to be a good day for poor decisions and big changes, though. “Sure.”
McCarthy gave him a satisfied grin, his eyes crinkling with amusement. “Wagon train’s heading out for Independence, then all the way down the California Trail. You’ve probably heard about the gold they found last year. We ain’t going for that. There’s plenty of other fools out there looking to strike it rich though, and they’ll be needing to buy everything under the sun. We’re gonna be the ones selling. Understand?”
Gathering his wits about him, Lee stood. “I reckon I do, sir.”
McCarthy nodded. “Good. We’re leaving from Franklin Avenue at dawn, whether you’re there or not.” His lips twitched upwards, and he extended a hand towards Lee. “I’m hoping you’ll be there, though. You don’t exactly look like you’ve got much going for you here, kid.”
Not sure whether to take offense or to laugh, because there was some truth to that, Lee settled for taking the proffered hand and giving it a firm shake. “The name’s Lee. Lee Brandt.”
With a terse nod, McCarthy was gone, leaving a stunned Lee to amble home as he mulled over what in God’s name he had gotten himself into.
His feet found familiar ground and began treading their way down the well-travelled path home. He was possessed of a detached certainty that he would walk this route tomorrow, as he had his whole life. Moving through all the clamor, grime, and vivacity that was his home, though, Lee couldn’t help but see everything with new eyes. What if he left this city at the edge of the civilized world? What would happen if he just packed his bags, turned away from his hometown, and never looked back?
The most probable answer was that some outlandish mishap would kill him before the year was out – he had heard all the stories from out west, after all – but Lee’s reputation as a reckless dreamer had not been earned through pessimism. Mad though some part of him said it was, the scheme was becoming increasingly appealing. No one in this town would give him a worthwhile job – he was far too infamous for that. Whichever way he looked at it, here in St. Louis he would just continue to drain his family’s resources as he slogged through a dead-end life. Down the other possible road, he saw wild fantasies of adventure in unknown territory, freedom from this town that knew him all too well, and money aplenty to send back home.
In the end, it wasn’t the most difficult decision to make.
What would be difficult, he decided as he came to a halt in front of his home, was breaking the news to his mother. Caroline Brandt was a whirling storm wrapped in an apron, all sharp words and blustery affection that she blamed on the Scots-Irish blood running hot in her veins. Though Lee towered a foot over her head, he had to admit that she was a terrifying woman. She was the sort who would just as soon cuff him around the ear as she would embrace him, and he could feel every fiber of his being cringing away even as he opened the door. His mother was sitting right in his line of sight, smiling at him benignly from her rocking chair.
“Lee, honey, Gracie and the twins were pitching a fit so we ate without you. The food’s still hot though, so-”
“Ma, I gotta tell you something,” he interjected before he lost his bravery. “I- I got an offer to head out west tomorrow with a wagon train looking to set up as merchants in California.” Lee said all of this in one breath, then inhaled and swallowed thickly. “And…” He paused and took another deep breath, trying not to look directly at his mother’s stunned face. “And I’m taking the fellow up on it.”
Lee could practically see the tempest building behind his mother’s eyes as her skin went from white to scarlet.
“Killian Joseph Brandt,” she hissed, and Lee recoiled from the invocation of his full name. Through either the force of rage and concern or some subconscious desire not to wake the twins, the woman’s voice stayed hushed, but her every word cracked like a whip and every glint of her eyes sparked like lightning. “I don’t know what in creation put this damn fool idea in your head, but if you think I’m letting you walk off on some harebrained-”
“Ma!” Lee cut his mother off for the second time that day, seeing his life flash before his eyes as he did. “I know it’s dangerous, believe me, I do, but this fellow knows what he’s doing and I just can’t stay here!” A moment too late, he realized that he was yelling loud enough to disturb the babies, but luckily no groggy wails echoed through the house. He took the momentary silence to collect himself, and then made his case. “I lost my job today, and there sure won’t be another one coming. You know what most of the folks ‘round here think of me. You’ve got the twins to look after, and Gracie should get the chance to go to school before worrying about money. There ain’t room for a full-grown son anymore.”
His mother pursed her lips and looked ready to reply, but heavy footfalls signalling the arrival of another stopped the both of them.
“Sep,” called his father gruffly as he came into view. Ordinarily Joseph Brandt was quite the taciturn man, possibly because he preferred to speak his native German rather than English. His wholly decent and assiduous nature gained him the respect of all who knew him though, and in all likelihood made Lee seem like even more of a disappointment. All the same, Joseph never looked upon his son with regret or condemnation, and he insisted on fondly calling Lee by his German nickname. “You are a man now, I know, but neither of us will be happy to see you leave. Do you really think this is what you have to do?”
Lee squared his shoulders and looked his father in the eye. “Yes, I do.”
Joseph held his gaze for a long moment before nodding and clapping him on the back. “You are stronger than you think, Sep, and quick as a steel trap. My parents were able to come to this country at your age, so if you think you’re ready to leave, then I won’t stop you.”
Those brief words of approval, coming from the man that was twice all other men in Lee’s estimation, made his heart feel fit to burst. He stood rooted to the spot, turning everything over in his head, as his father took his mother elsewhere to speak privately. Then with a gasping breath that was like having his head pulled out of ice water, Lee shook himself and headed to his room. Small and humble though it was – much like the rest of the house in fact – it was his space, and had been for years. Looking around it now though, he saw almost exclusively things that he could live without. Whatever he had gathered and hoarded in his room was without a place in his vision of a new life. He loved it all, but something inside of him had snapped any connection between his future and his past.
Picking up a sturdy canvas knapsack that had been stored under his bed, Lee began to collect the bare essentials and shove them inside. The room didn’t seem much changed by the time he was finished. All he had taken was some extra clothing, a pair of boots, the knife his father had given him when he turned fifteen, and a beaten journal that had been a gift from his mother years ago. He supposed he could grab some extra supplies the next morning, but if he was travelling with a group that could presumably provide for him, what more did he need?
Lee hunkered down on his bed dazedly, tracing grain patterns on the floorboards. His eyes drifted upwards a minute later as he heard the familiar creaking of his door hinges. Poking her frizzy head of brown hair into the room was his little sister, peering curiously at the rucksack by his feet.
“Well hey there little lady!” He beamed at her and threw his door open. “Come on in!”
“I heard what you said,” Gracie stated matter-of-factly, keeping her feet planted firmly on the spot. “Are you really leaving tomorrow Lee?”
“That’s right,” replied Lee with a wry smile and a nod.
The tiny nine-year-old looked pensive for a moment, then with every bit of impulsiveness as her brother, she set her jaw and declared, “Then I’m coming with you.”
Lee laughed and ruffled her hair fondly, knowing how much she hated the gesture. “Gracie you ain’t knee-high to a bug! I’ll tell you what,” he whispered with a conspiratorial grin, “you grow up, make yourself as big a menace as me, and then I’ll come and take you out west. But you’ve got your work cut out for you!”
With a devious smile, Gracie extended her pinkie. “Promise.”
“Promise,” Lee said with a wink before nudging her towards the room she shared with the twins. “Now get to bed.”
After that he lay awake for some time, eventually letting his his parents’ murmurs lull him to sleep. When he woke, it was with the jolting awareness of someone expecting great things from the day to come. Steeling himself for the farewells ahead, he slung his bag over one shoulder and stepped out of his room.
Both of his parents waited for him in the parlor, his mother clutching small bundle. “There’s some food in here,” she said hoarsely, proffering it to him, “and a blanket, and just a few other things I thought you oughta have.”
Lee accepted the extra pack and pulled his mother into a hug. “Thanks Ma,” he mumbled, not knowing what else to say.
The small woman held him fiercely for a moment before pulling back and looking at him harshly. “You’re a right fool.” Well there was no denying that. Lee nodded and laughed, though the sound was a bit tinged with sadness. His mother looked light she might cry. “Lazing around all your born days and then doing this all the sudden… A right fool.” She pulled him back into an embrace. “But I hope you know you can always come home.”
Lee smiled and gently disentangled himself. “Maybe so.”
“Sep,” said his father, stepping up. “You take care of yourself, and remember to write your mother.”
“I will Pa.” Lee couldn’t think of anything to say. There was simply too much, and if he started he’d never stop. So instead he settled for a heartfelt “I love you” and a kiss on his mother’s cheek before turning and striding resolutely out the door. He took a final long look around before breaking into a sprint. It would be far too embarrassing now if the wagon train left without him.
Lee flew past the buildings of his childhood without a second thought, not knowing or caring when he would see them next. As he careened around a corner and was met with the sight of forty-wagon train, Lee had eyes only for his future.
“Glad you could make it!” McCarthy called out from some way down the line. He began to approach Lee as he checked in with other party members. “The rest of the guys are raring to go, so I’ll explain all your jobs on the way. For now, just hop on somewhere.” He then left for the head of the train, bellowing out orders along the way.
Lee grabbed on tight to the nearest wagon’s rigging and hauled himself up, looking over the beaten road before him. A strange new feeling swelled in his chest, tugging at his core and foretelling of a life not yet lived. The biggest grin of his life split his face. Then at the crack of a whip Lee was rolling away, the sun warming his back and his face turned up to the western sky.