illustrated by quaedam
I came to St. Louis in April 1847 with a letter of introduction from my schoolteacher in my pocket and a rucksack slung over my shoulder. The rucksack contained all my worldly possessions, save for my savings, which were in a small pouch tucked into the lining of my coat. I had an appointment on the afternoon of the day I arrived with Edwin Thatcher, a well-established attorney in the city, and I hoped to be taken on as a trainee under his tutelage. I was nineteen years old.
Before I arrived in St. Louis that morning, I had never been more than thirty minutes’ ride outside of my hometown of Carlton, in northeastern Missouri, and I walked around with my jaw dropped, astonished by the sheer size of the place. I had never known that a city could be a living thing, but St. Louis thrummed, a hive of people and constant activity. There seemed to be construction on every block, and something to buy on every corner: fabric, hats, the season’s early produce. I lost myself in thinking how to describe it all to my family. And the sounds everywhere: talking, hammering, the warble of a piano through a cracked-open saloon door even though it was morning, and from somewhere behind me, a man’s voice calling out, “Hey! Hey there! You want to look out!” just before an enormous load of garbage was dumped upon my head.
Having grown up on a farm, I was far from inexperienced in unpleasant smells and sensations, but the scent of cow manure had nothing on a couple hundred pounds of fermenting city waste. I cried out involuntarily in disgust and shook my arms in a useless attempt to rid them of potato peels and drippings and God knew what else. The driver of the garbage wagon turned and noticed me for the first time at hearing my cry, but offered nothing more than a chuckle and a shrug at my misfortune before urging his team forward, as though this were something that happened every day. I was left gaping after him, soaked with every foul thing St. Louis saw fit to throw away.
“I tried to warn you,” said the owner of the voice I’d heard before. “Obviously you weren’t paying any kind of attention.”
The man who’d approached me looked to be my age or close to it and was handsome, with brown hair and bright blue eyes. He wore plain but clean clothing not dissimilar to what I was accustomed to wearing at home. He had freckles all over his face and was shaking his head in pity.
“I was distracted, I guess,” I said mournfully.
“I hope there’s somebody at home who’s handy with a scrub brush.”
Only then did the full weight of my predicament sink in. “I don’t have anywhere to live yet.” At the man’s confused look I added, “I only arrived in St. Louis this morning.”
“In that case, welcome to St. Louis! It’s not quite customary to dump trash on the head of a new citizen, but today’s your lucky day! There isn’t a single hotel in the city that’ll take you in looking and smelling like that. Hey, come back with me. I’ll take you back to Mrs. Badgely’s and we’ll get you cleaned up right quick.” He had a hint of an accent I’d never heard before, neither the Missouri accent I spoke myself nor my parents’ Kentucky twang.
He made to grab my arm and, obviously thinking better of it just in time, smiled and pointed instead. “Right this way, sir, if you please!”
I followed him, pathetically grateful. “I’m Ben Hadley, by the way, and I usually make a better first impression than this.”
“Charlie Atwood, and I would sure hope so,” he replied with a wry grin.
Mrs. Badgely’s was a boardinghouse on Spruce Street. The area was full of older houses than I’d seen elsewhere in the city, and Mrs. Badgely’s fit right in. The place could badly use some small repairs and a fresh coat of paint. Charlie led me through the side yard and left me by the back door, saying, “Wait here.”
When he returned, he was accompanied by a woman who could only be Mrs. Badgely herself, a large, scowling woman in a calico dress and bright plaid apron that clashed terribly. She had a large wooden bucket in each hand. “So you’re what the cat dragged in,” she said without humor. She filled the first of the wooden buckets from the pump while I endeavored to free the money pouch from my coat. I had only just tossed the pouch to the side when Mrs. Badgely dumped the first bucket of water over my head, and I shouted. Though it was close to noon and the sun was bright in the sky, the well water was not warm at all.
“Quit your hollering,” Mrs. Badgely said. Charlie was already pumping the next bucket of water as she spoke. Once it was full, they traded buckets, and she dumped the full one over me. “There, that’s the worst off you. Go on and strip down, then.”
She heaved a sigh. “Unless you’re some kind of circus curiosity you don’t have anything I haven’t seen before.”
There was nothing for it but to obey. I peeled off everything down to my underpants and hesitated until at Mrs. Badgely’s “Off, off!” I removed those as well. I stood shivering and naked in the side yard as bucketful after bucketful of frigid water cascaded over my head. Caught up in the business of keeping Mrs. Badgely supplied with water, Charlie was paying me no attention.
When she deemed herself finished, Mrs. Badgely went into the house and returned with a rough towel and a nub of gray soap. “I want you to scrub yourself until you can’t remember what you smell like, and then once more for good measure,” she said, and glared at me until I said, “Yes, ma’am,” with sufficient intent. Then she disappeared through the back door, holding my clothes out at arm’s length as though to keep the plague from catching.
Charlie looked away while I scrubbed myself with abandon, as much in an effort to warm myself up as to get clean. Only once I’d wrapped myself in the towel Mrs. Badgely had left me did he say, “She’s quite something, isn’t she?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I muttered.
“A fine specimen of womanhood,” he said. “So, Ben Hadley, tell me what you’re doing in St. Louis.”
“I’m trying to get taken on as an attorney trainee. I’ve got an appointment on Oak Street at two—” I stopped as my heart leapt into my throat. “Wait, what time is it?”
“Can’t be past one. Oak Street, you said? That’s not far.”
“Yes, but that was my only good suit!” I had other clothes in my rucksack, but not another suit that I could wear for an appointment with an attorney. I’d been planning on wearing my one suit for a while until I could afford to have another made. Never before in my life had I encountered a situation where, if my clothing became soiled, I could not simply wear something else until the other clothes had been washed and had time to dry. But even if we’d been in midsummer, the hottest sun couldn’t have dried my suit in the less than an hour between now and my appointment with Thatcher. I began to despair.
But Charlie looked thoughtful. “Maybe, if we’re lucky, you can fit into mine.”
We were within an inch of each other in height, and though Charlie was more wiry than I, I still said hopefully, “You have a suit I could wear?”
He nodded. “Come on, it’s worth a try.” I snatched up my money pouch and followed him inside.
Charlie’s room was up two flights of stairs. Though small, with barely enough room for the desk, chair, bed, and small wardrobe it contained, it had good light from the window, which faced south to overlook Spruce Street.
Charlie pulled the suit out of the wardrobe and tossed it to me. I was surprised to find that it was made of a nicer material than my own. My rucksack had happily protected my other clothing from being splattered, so I took a shirt and underpants from it then put on Charlie’s suit. The jacket strained over my upper arms, but the pants fitted perfectly.
“Christ, you’re built like an ox,” Charlie said with admiration. “You probably don’t want to move your arms too much, but I think you’ll do. Now come on, let’s get you to this appointment.”
“Hold on, let me take my bag.”
“Leave it. You don’t really want to take it to your appointment, do you? Let’s think of it as a deposit toward me getting my suit back.”
“You’ll get your suit back, don’t worry,” I said. I made sure that I had everything that I needed—my money pouch and the address for the appointment—but was forced to pause again, flushed with embarrassment. “I don’t suppose you can tell me how to get to Oak Street, can you?”
“I’ll do you one better than that,” Charlie said. “I’ll take you there.”
“You really don’t have to—” I began, but he spoke over my protests.
“You’re very nearly late as it is, and you don’t want to get lost. Anyway, it’s not far. Come on.”
Even more pathetically grateful than ever, I followed him out of the boardinghouse. I quickly saw that while Spruce Street was older and more run-down, it was on the border of a different, more affluent area of residential homes that gave way to an equally affluent business district. Shortly we’d arrived at Oak Street, outside the offices of Thatcher, Darleigh & Moore, Attorneys at Law.
“I can’t even begin to thank you,” I said. “What can I possibly do to repay you?”
“Why don’t you start by getting yourself hired, and then you can bring my suit back,” he said with a wink. And with that he headed off in the direction we’d come and left me to my fate.
The office of Thatcher, Darleigh & Moore, Attorneys at Law, was as impressive as anything I could imagine back east. I marveled at the thick imported carpet, dark wood paneling, and modern lighting. Coming off the street I’d entered into a main room with two desks, one of which was empty and at the other of which sat a weedy man who I took to be a secretary and whose nameplate identified him as Mr. Elwood Black. I guessed him to be about thirty. After explaining my business to him, Black gestured at the leather armchairs to either side of the door and told me to wait until Thatcher was ready for me.
As I waited, I examined the office in more detail. Bookcases stretched along both walls holding such an array of legal texts as I had only imagined being all in one place before, and I longed to read them all. My study of the law had thus far been restricted to what books the Carlton schoolteacher, Mr. Killian, had been able to procure for me, usually through friends and acquaintances passing through Missouri on the way to Oregon Territory. I was eternally grateful to Mr. Killian and his string of acquaintances, though I had to wonder at the number of intellectuals who had left their previous careers to seek their fortune out west. But not even this stream of literature had been sufficient to satiate my interest.
In the back of the office, a door creaked open. I caught a glimpse of auburn hair and a patrician nose before Thatcher said, “Mr. Hadley?”
“Good luck,” Black said drolly as I passed his desk. I shot him a look that I hoped conveyed my gratitude but most likely gave the impression that I was in pain, and went through Thatcher’s door.
“Take a seat, Mr. Hadley,” Thatcher said.
The bookshelves behind Thatcher’s desk were packed with even more tomes than the ones I’d seen in the main room of the office, and I caught myself staring. Thatcher had caught me, too, and was looking at me with amusement.
“So I take it from the way you were gaping at the wall behind my head that you’ve never seen a bookcase before.” He raised one eyebrow to let me in on the joke.
“Never one of that size or impressiveness, sir,” I said.
“And if I were to say that, if I were to take you on, I would expect you to become intimately familiar with the contents of each and every one of those books, what would you say?”
“That I would look forward to it, sir.”
Thatcher leaned over his desk and peered at me, taking my measure. Finally satisfied, he said, “And he means it!” He chuckled and sat back. “We could use that kind of hunger around here, Mr. Hadley. You start at nine o’clock tomorrow.”
I couldn’t help but say, “Really?”
“Your schoolteacher wrote quite the letter about you. If half of what he wrote turns out to be accurate, we’d be lucky to have you around.”
Thatcher gave me some practical details while I continued to stare in awe at having discovered another way in which I would never be able to repay Mr. Killian. I’d be working from nine in the morning until six in the evening, sometimes later, sometimes on Saturdays if the office was very busy. At first, I would largely be reading law under Thatcher’s supervision, but would be responsible for some practical duties as well. My salary would be small at the start, as was befitting a trainee. As I proved myself and as my responsibilities grew, my salary could grow as well. I simply nodded and yes-sirred all of it, incredulous that what I had so long hoped for was finally true. Come morning, I would be under the tutelage of a St. Louis attorney, on my way to becoming an attorney myself.
“Do you have any questions?”
I shook my head dumbly.
“Then we’ll see each other in the morning.”
After I’d already exited his office, Thatcher called after me. “Mr. Hadley?”
I turned back. “Yes?”
“A piece of advice: the next time someone offers you a job, instead of asking ‘really?’, why don’t you give good old ‘yes’ a try?” He winked and closed his door and I walked out into the streets of St. Louis, feeling like the luckiest boy alive.
When I made my way back to Mrs. Badgely’s, Charlie was waiting for me on the front step. “So did you get the job? Look at the way you’re smiling, of course you did!” He whooped.
“I start tomorrow,” I said, my grin growing even wider as I spoke.
“Congratulations!” he said. “Doesn’t give a body much time to get settled, though does it?”
I had to acknowledge the truth of that.
“How much are they paying you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I told him, and he whistled through his teeth. “That isn’t much,” he said.
“It’s just at the start,” I said, defensive. “Once I’ve been there longer and I’ve learned more, it’ll go up.”
“Sure, but what are you planning on doing in the meantime? You can’t even afford Mrs. Badgely’s.” He told me what he was paying for his room and board, and my heart sank. “And that’s about as cheap as you’ll find, unless you start looking over by the docks, which I don’t much recommend.”
I gnawed on the skin around my fingernail as I tried to work out what to do. I had some savings, but to my dismay a quick calculation proved that that would be gone within a couple of months at Mrs. Badgely’s rates, even on top of my stipend.
“So it’s settled, then,” Charlie concluded.
“That you’ll be staying with me.”
“I’ve already cleared it with Mrs. Badgely. She doesn’t care how many of us pack into a room as long as she keeps getting paid on time. She wanted to charge something crazy to cover your board, but I talked her down.” The amount he quoted me would allow me to leave my savings untouched, at least for now.
“You’d do that?” I said, astonished.
“I get my room and board for less out of the deal. What’s not to like?”
“But you don’t even know me!”
“I’ve got a good feeling about you, Ben Hadley.” He grinned. “So have we got a deal?”
Still gaping from the most recent great astonishment of my day, I took his hand and shook it.
“Excellent,” Charlie said. “Now, good sir, let me show you to our room.”
I’d paid only the slightest amount of attention to my surroundings when I’d been in the boardinghouse before, but was pleased by what I found when we returned upstairs. As with the outside of the house, Charlie’s room was worn but well kept and was quite adequately furnished with a desk, washstand, armchair, and a bed that was wide enough for two people to sleep without touching as long as neither of them kicked in the night. I’d shared a bed with my sister Mary Margaret for years before my youngest sister Kate was born and had never had any complaints. I had to hope that Charlie could make a similar claim.
“You can take over the desk, by the way,” Charlie said. “I mostly read in the armchair anyway.”
“I appreciate it,” I said.
“Of course you’re more than welcome to look for other housing, if you want,” he said. “But you should taste Mrs. Badgely’s cooking before you go. It’s suppertime now, as a matter of fact.”
Mrs. Badgely served supper promptly at five-thirty at a long table in the dining room downstairs. Charlie explained that you arrived late for meals at Mrs. Badgely’s to your own detriment, as the food was served out of large dishes that typically were depleted within a few minutes. True to what he’d said, the other boardinghouse residents were already helping themselves to the dinner, an excellent-smelling beef stew, by the time we arrived. We barely managed to claim the last few ladlefuls for ourselves. The food tasted even better than I’d anticipated, all the more so for it being the first warm meal I’d had since leaving Carlton the day before.
The other residents inhaled their food and vacated the table, which Charlie assured me was the norm. “I’m the only one who ever talks at meals,” he said. “Mrs. Badgely still hasn’t decided if she thinks I’m entertaining or annoying.”
“Annoying, to be sure,” said Mrs. Badgely, entering the room to clear the dishes. I leapt up to help her, which made her shoot me a look of grateful surprise. “But this one can stay.”
“Just trying to make up for arriving covered in garbage,” I replied.
After the dishes were done, Charlie and I returned to our room. Charlie collapsed into the armchair bonelessly and said, “So, Ben Hadley, what’s your story?”
I straddled the desk chair and told him.
My parents had been homesteaders from Kentucky, come to Missouri when they were newly married. They’d parked their wagon in what would become Carlton and built the farm where they’d raised me and my younger sisters, Mary Margaret and Kate. While I’d always done my share of the farm chores without complaint, the town schoolteacher, Mr. Killian, had instilled in me an unquenchable love of learning, and I suspected from an early age that I would not be content to be a farmer as my parents were. At fifteen I’d happened upon the idea of becoming an attorney and had known deep in my core that it was what I wanted to do with my life. Neither of my parents had understood my certainty that I would never be satisfied unless I could study the law, but they had supported me in my interests all the same. Though I’d inhaled every book on the law that Mr. Killian had been able to acquire for me, it had become clear that I would benefit greatly from reading law under the guidance of an experienced attorney, of which there was none in Carlton. We were far from wealthy, but my father had promised me that every dollar I earned from selling the wooden carvings I worked on over the long winters would belong to me and me alone and, what’s more, that he would match it. He honored that promise, and added to my savings with what other money he could. And so it was that when Mr. Killian finally secured me the interview with Thatcher I was able to pack up my belongings in a rucksack and come to St. Louis.
“What about you?” I asked Charlie once I was finished. “You’re not from St. Louis, are you?”
Charlie laughed. “Was it my accent that gave it away?”
“It’s not like anything I’ve ever heard before,” I said.
“That’s because it’s Irish by way of Pennsylvania,” he said. He’d been born and raised near Philadelphia, but both of his parents were Irish. The son of a doctor, he’d been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, and would have likely done just that had his mother not fallen ill with consumption. All the family’s money had gone toward treating her, bringing her to the best specialists, sending her on retreats to the mountains where it was thought that the clear air might bring her lungs relief, but to no avail. She’d succumbed three years ago, when Charlie was nineteen. Overcome by grief, Charlie’s father had followed her not six months after, leaving Charlie penniless and alone in the world.
“All my other relatives were in Ireland,” Charlie explained. “I’d never met them, and even if I were interested in going to Ireland, I didn’t have anything close to the money to pay the fare across the Atlantic.”
He’d completed his first two years of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, but after his parents’ deaths he could no longer afford to attend.
“I think if my father hadn’t died I would have found a way to pay for the rest of it,” Charlie said. “But I couldn’t stand to stay in Pennsylvania after my parents were gone.” He’d gradually worked his way west, working as a medical assistant in western Pennsylvania and Ohio before arriving in St. Louis. He’d come to the city six months ago, just as winter set in, found a job at a hospital here, and had decided to stay a while.
But Charlie’s ultimate goal, something he’d turned over in his mind over his years alone and become determined to accomplish, was to cross the country, to brave the mountains and the desert and see the Pacific Ocean with his own eyes, then to settle in one of Oregon’s fertile valleys and build himself a new life. He’d been saving everything he could for the past three years. Though I’d met him just at the best time of year for setting off for Oregon Territory, he couldn’t yet afford to make the journey this spring. He hoped that by spring a year from now he would have saved enough to buy a wagon and oxen and all the supplies he’d need for the trip.
I was momentarily silent when he’d completed his tale. It was painful to think of how things must have been for Charlie, divorced from the steady hand of parental guidance by no choice of his own. It made me grateful for my own family, and also made me all the more resolved to write to them regularly, so that distance did not needlessly diminish our closeness.
“I’m sorry about your parents,” I said.
Charlie shrugged expansively. “It’s been a long time,” he said. “I’m not sad when I think about them anymore. It was a different life.”
Still, I couldn’t help but be sad on his behalf as he consulted a heavy gold pocket watch that I felt certain must have been his father’s. “Jiminy, it’s late. Do you mind if we go to bed now? It’s only that I have to be at work early tomorrow.”
“Oh, of course,” I said.
“Do you have any preference as to which side of the bed?”
I shook my head. “Not at all.”
“If it’s all the same to you, then I’ll take the side nearest the door. It’s where I’ve been sleeping.”
“Fine by me.”
We stripped to our underclothes. Only then did I remember that I was still wearing Charlie’s suit. I hadn’t a clue what had become of my own soiled clothing.
“It’s hanging out back, I’m sure,” Charlie said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised, this time of year, if it’s not dry until tomorrow afternoon. You’re welcome to keep borrowing mine.”
“I really can’t think how to thank you for your hospitality,” I said.
“It’s not hospitality if you’re paying rent,” Charlie said with a grin. “But you’re welcome.”
Sitting on my side of the bed, I had a view overlooking Spruce Street, the flickering candlelight in windows down the street outlining the houses, and I thought how wonderfully strange it was to be preparing to sleep in a bed completely foreign to me. My whole life long I had slept only at my house or camped or, once a year or so, spend the night at my cousins’ house in Julep, one town over. Though as a child even sleeping in Julep or under the stars had seemed strange, those experiences had nothing on bedding down in a new city next to someone who, just that morning, had been a perfect stranger.
And yet, after knowing him for only a few hours, I already felt quite at ease around Charlie. I slid under the covers next to him and had only a few moments to marvel at how comfortable I was before I slid into sleep, exhausted.
Though Charlie had assured me that I was welcome to search for alternate accommodations, I felt no real need to do so. Even the most preliminary of searches proved that he was correct about the price at Mrs. Badgely’s being more than reasonable, and besides, I liked Mrs. Badgely’s. Her initial gruffness had quickly given way to matronly concern. The first night I stayed late at work and missed dinner, I was stunned to find that she had kept food in reserve for me. “I do it all the time for Charlie, when he works those irregular hours at the hospital,” Mrs. Badgely explained.
Mrs. Badgely’s kindness, prices, and cooking would have been enough on their own to convince me to stay, but Charlie cemented it. Far better than merely not snoring or kicking in his sleep, Charlie went out of his way to make me feel at home in my new city. On my first Saturday in St. Louis, Charlie took me on a walk around the city, pointing out the omnibus lines in case I should ever have business on the far side of the city, walking me through the park that flanked the Mississippi River, showing me the taverns and bars of our neighborhood. Left to my own devices I would have sequestered myself in our room and spent the entirety of the weekend working my way through the books Thatcher had given me to read by Monday, thinking of nothing but work for the entirety of the two days I was away from the office. For the first time in my life, reading law was my main responsibility, not something to be squeezed in between my farm chores, and I was fully prepared to throw myself wholeheartedly into my task. But there was plenty of time to complete my work even with the break, and I was glad to have spent time with Charlie, getting to know him better as well as the city.
I gradually settled into life in St. Louis. I began to recognize the businesses between Mrs. Badgely’s boardinghouse and Thatcher’s office, and to be able to navigate based on familiar places rather than having to ask for directions every time I had any business outside of those two places. After a week I began to believe that the desk Thatcher had allotted me was not going to be taken away from me at any moment. I reveled at being able to work at that desk—a heavy old piece of oaken furniture the likes of nothing I’d ever been able to touch before. The chair I sat in was leather and polished wood, nicer than anything in the whole town of Carlton, and I could pull down all those wonderful books that lined the walls whenever I wished. Thatcher provided the office with quill pens, ink, and paper, all of which I could use as much of as I needed.
I sat in the main room of the office together with the secretary, Elwood Black, who seemed annoyed by my very presence. I learned not to take it personally, as he treated the other men in the office with the same ill concealed resentment. Of the partners, Alexander Darleigh was frequently gone for months on end to visit his son in Boston and had little to do with me when he was in the office. That was fine. John Moore, the youngest of the partners, was friendly enough. He kept his door open and was happy to answer any questions he could. As for Thatcher, he always had plenty of work for me, and was equally forthcoming with praise as with criticism. I was never left in any doubt as to where I stood with him. It was gratifying to be treated in that way, to be made so clearly aware of where I had done things correctly and where I could improve. I felt that I was in exactly the right place, that I could not help but continue to get better at my work.
While my relationship to Thatcher was purely a business one, Moore made an effort to integrate me into the life he knew. He invited me to his church and to dinner with his family, but the ten years between us felt unbridgeable. He was married with small children and had grown up in St. Louis. He had had a lifetime to grow accustomed to the bustle of the city, whereas I was still astonished to find that even in the middle of the night there were people on Spruce Street. The clomping of horses’ hooves in the hours long before dawn was apparently ordinary and not a signal for alarm. There was no telling what business anyone could have on the streets at that time but people seemed to have such business regularly. In Carlton our lives had been governed by the needs of our animals and our farm chores, but there seemed to be no such governing rhythm here. I hadn’t woken so many times in the night in the entire time I’d lived in Carlton as I did during the first month that I lived in St. Louis, simply from the nocturnal noises of the city.
But that, too, passed, and after a few weeks I was able to sleep through all the noise of St. Louis as well as I had slept through the perfect silence of farm nights. By the time the days had turned from brisk to the slow-creeping heat of early summer, I was finally able to stop thinking about St. Louis by comparison to Carlton, and to begin knowing it as its own place, my new home.
Mostly Thatcher had me read books and treatises and summarize them for him orally. He maintained that an attorney must be greatly skilled at keeping a large number of arguments in his head. Mostly I believe he wanted to know how skilled an orator I was. But he also wanted to train my writing skills, as they would be necessary as well in myriad ways: taking notes when meeting with our clients, drafting leases and agreements, and eventually preparing arguments before a court. To that end, he’d told me to read and take a position on a number of recent Supreme Court decisions, which I should present to him in writing. I was determined to make a good impression on Thatcher with this exercise, and so I spent far longer on it than I originally intended to, laboring on it each night until my eyes could not stay open anymore.
One night after nearly a week of this, Charlie came home from the hospital and snatched my papers out from under my hands.
“What in the world? What are you doing?” I said.
“You’re done with the essay.”
“What? Give that back!” I snatched at the papers in his hand, but he danced out of my reach.
“Nope. You’re done. For tonight anyway.”
“Charlie—” I said warningly.
“I’ll give it back first thing in the morning, I promise,” he said. “But right now you are in desperate need of a beer.”
My annoyance at him faded. “A beer?” My father didn’t drink alcohol, and Carlton had been too small a town to have a tavern. I’d never tasted beer in my life and couldn’t help being intrigued by the prospect.
Charlie laughed. “Come on.”
He took me to one of the places he’d pointed out to me on our walk that first Saturday, a tavern called The Liberty Bell, and ordered us a pair of amber-colored beers. The first bitter sip surprised me, but already by the bottom of the glass I’d decided that beer would be something that I could get accustomed to. By the end of the second glass I was happily mellow, and by the end of the third I was laughing and plastered against Charlie’s side as he steered us home and poured me into bed.
We went to taverns regularly after that. Charlie had a great number of friends from the hospital, mostly doctors, who went out drinking regularly and subjected him to all sorts of good-natured ribbing, as though he were their younger brother. I was comfortable letting Charlie lead, having found that I was as universally well liked as he was as long as I was with him. I knew that I was welcomed as a friend of Charlie’s and not on my own merits, but that hardly mattered. I would not have come without Charlie anyway. It was being there with Charlie that made it fun.
I wasn’t lonely growing up in Carlton. I had my parents and my sisters, whom I greatly loved, though my sisters had been too much younger than me to have been my childhood playmates. There were other children who I knew from school, a few of them even my age or close to it, but I’d never been particularly close to any of them, and in any event our lives had been consumed by the demands of running the farm. But in St. Louis, for the first time in my life, I had a best friend.
On one of the first hot Saturdays of the summer, Charlie led me upstream along the banks of a creek that eventually fed into the Missouri River. After about an hour’s walk into the woods, we reached a place where the creek widened and the current slowed—a perfect place for swimming.
There’d been a swimming hole in Carlton, but everyone knew about it. On hot summer days you could count on every boy old enough to be allowed to run free being in that swimming hole, jockeying for space. That was not the case here. I’m not sure if Charlie was the only one who knew about that creek or if it had just fallen out of popularity—either way, we had it to ourselves that whole summer. We went many weekends, stripping off our clothes and diving into the green water that was only barely cooler than the air and treading water until we were exhausted.
We pulled ourselves from the water to lie on the banks on the thick soft grass and doze. I stretched my arms up to make a pillow beneath my head and looked up at the trees through half-closed eyes.
“It doesn’t get better than this, does it?” I said.
“Can’t think of much of anything better,” Charlie agreed.
The summer passed swiftly but happily. Charlie and I were almost always together for the long evenings and lazy weekend days. We went to bars and to taverns and to the fireworks show on Independence Day. He took me down to the Mississippi’s bank and with our hearts in our throats he and I snuck onto one of the river barges that had been left at the dock overnight. I’d never done anything even remotely like this, and in spite of my terror of getting caught I enjoyed every minute of it. As the rockets exploded in the sky above us I forgot my fear completely and lost myself to the moment, filled with adrenaline and vibrant joy and unable to think of a single place in the world I would rather be.
Just as rapidly as it had arrived, summer slipped into fall. I awoke in early September to find that the air had gone crisp overnight, the air seeping through the cracked-open window chilled. Soon I would become accustomed to winter again, but in the meantime I shivered through the night in spite of the heavy quilts Mrs. Badgely brought out from the basement.
About a week into the cold snap, I awoke one morning to find that I was not entirely chilled. Only my back was cold. The front of my body was as warm as if I’d been facing toward a hearth. I was pressed fully against some large, warm thing—which was, I saw when I opened my eyes, Charlie’s sleeping form.
Groggy with sleep, it took me some time to take stock of my position. When I did, I shifted away quickly, embarrassed at my inability to stay to my own side of the bed all of a sudden when it had not been an issue for the entirety of the first five months I’d slept there or, indeed, ever before in my life. Charlie mumbled and shifted but continued to slumber. I rolled over and went back to sleep, relieved that Charlie was unaware of how I’d infringed upon his space as he slept.
But that wasn’t the only time it happened. Every single morning for the next week, I awoke in the same position: curled around Charlie, our legs tangled together. Each time I felt myself surrounded by warmth, relishing the feeling until I came fully conscious and was embarrassed to have encroached upon Charlie’s space without his knowledge. Had our roles been reversed, I would not have minded myself—I was only seeking his warmth as the farm animals did, huddling together in the cold—but I hated to be so familiar with him when I did not know his feelings on the matter.
On the eighth day of this, I awoke in the same position as had become usual. As I began to carefully remove my right leg from where it was trapped beneath Charlie’s ankle, Charlie mumbled, “Don’t.”
I froze. “What?”
“Stay,” he said. “It’s warm.”
“Yeah. I’m going back to sleep,” Charlie said, and tugged my hand around his side, as it had been when I’d awoken. And so it was settled, and I slept all the more warmly the rest of that fall.
I had been in touch with my parents and sisters throughout the time I had lived in St. Louis. My parents wrote often, their letters warm and full of anecdotes about the farm and our neighbors and relatives, all of the subjects so familiar to me that they needed provide only the barest of details for me to understand them completely. But though I had read all of their letters eagerly and followed along with the change of seasons on the farm, I was nonetheless astonished when I received a letter from my parents at the end of November asking if I would be coming home for Christmas. I had not given the slightest bit of thought to the notion, which was staggering. I couldn’t believe that something so large as that could have slipped my mind.
I wrote back with great haste that I would be coming home for the week Thatcher was closing the office at Christmas, and would hope to see them by Christmas Eve. I was able to borrow a horse from Moore, whose wife had a new baby and whose family had no intentions of leaving their house for the Christmas week.
“What day are you leaving?” Charlie wanted to know.
“The day before Christmas Eve,” I said. It was a hard day’s ride to Carlton, but if I set off well before dawn I should be able to make it without having to stop along the way.
Charlie nodded. “I’ll wish you a pleasant time, then.”
Only then did I remember that Charlie’s parents were dead and that he was completely alone in the world. I felt like an utterly horrible person until an idea shot through my head. “You should come home with me! There’s plenty of room in the farmhouse, and my mother always cooks as though there are twice as many of us as there are. I’m sure my parents wouldn’t mind.”
“They doesn’t even know me,” Charlie hedged.
“Neither did you, when you took me in,” I pointed out.
We set out early on the morning before Christmas Eve. It was only a few days past the shortest day of the year, and frigid. As I was the one who knew where we were going, I rode forward in the saddle of our borrowed horse, grateful for the warmth of Charlie’s body behind me.
We arrived late in the evening, as I’d predicted, and Charlie immediately set to charming my family. Mary Margaret, newly twelve, was particularly enamored of him. As she fetched the bread and cheese for our supper and placed them in front of Charlie, her whole face turned prettily pink.
When it came time for bed, I retired to the small room that had been mine since I was a child, with the bed that had barely been wide enough for me even by the time I turned fifteen. I’d slept there every night for most of my life, well accustomed to the lumps of the mattress, and yet now I lay awake. My parents had prepared a pallet for Charlie in front of the hearth—the warmest place in the whole of the house, by far—and I could not begrudge him for staying there, even as my body stubbornly refused to go to sleep.
The floorboard outside my doorway creaked. “Hi,” Charlie whispered, bending down at my bedside. “Can I . . . ?”
I nodded my consent and he slipped into the bed beside me. After some careful rearranging, we had positioned ourselves so that we were both under the quilt and neither of us was in any danger of falling onto the floor, so long as neither of us moved. Charlie had tucked himself tight against my chest, my arm slung comfortably around his side. I splayed my hand and sighed against his neck as I drifted into sleep, at ease.
It was a wonderful week in Carlton, and it seemed that as soon as we’d arrived, we were packing to leave. My sister Mary Margaret was particularly sad to see him go. I suspected I would hear a great deal more about how very much she’d liked my friend in my mother’s letters.
Sad though I was to be leaving my family again, I was greatly comforted by Charlie’s presence on the horse behind me as we made the long ride back to St. Louis.
A couple hours into the journey Charlie broke the silence to say, “Thanks for inviting me. I’m glad I get to meet your family.”
“They were glad to meet you, too,” I said. “Especially Mary Margaret.”
Charlie laughed lightly. “Really, though. Thank you. It was good to get to see where you came from.”
“Certainly,” I said, matching the sobriety in his tone, both of us once again made aware of why he would never be able to return the favor, of the fact that his home was gone.
I settled back into work after the week in Carlton. Thatcher’s office was busy at the beginning of the year, but I hardly minded. There was little to do besides work now that Christmas was past and spring was still so many months distant as to seem barely more than a glimmer in our collective imagination. Only a few weeks past the winter solstice, the nights were so long as to seem interminable. I hated to go to sleep and wake up in darkness. I was grateful, though, to sleep warmly during the long nighttime hours. I hadn’t known how much more bearable sleep in the cold months would be with Charlie in the bed tucked against me, my arm around his chest or his body pressed against the length of mine, and I relished the feeling of our breathing slowing to match each other’s as we drifted into sleep.
I awoke in the middle of the night and found that I was cold. Charlie wasn’t tucked against me as usual. I thought perhaps he’d made a trip to the outhouse, sure to be miserable in the snow, but when I opened my eyes I found that he’d simply shifted away in the bed, his face settled into the slack lines of sleep. I wanted to pull him toward me but didn’t, for fear of waking him. I settled myself as close to him as I could and sunk into my pillow, closing my eyes and keeping still in spite of sleep eluding me.
We were quite close on the bed already when one of us shifted in his sleep and brought us into contact, the fronts of our bodies brushing against each other. Pleasure shot through me, hot and unexpected, and I sought out the contact again eagerly, rubbing my body against Charlie’s with purpose. Charlie gasped, his eyes open, and all of a sudden I knew that he had never been sleeping, that the reason I’d woken up in the first place had been because Charlie was awake. A rush of embarrassment filled me at having touched Charlie without his consent, but Charlie quickly put that embarrassment to rest, throwing his leg over me and flipping me onto my back. He supported himself on his arms and ground his body against me, and I realized that the slim hard line I felt through his underpants was his cock, as hard as mine. I ached for more and harder contact with him, straining upwards even as he ground down against me.
“Wait,” he said, and shifted off me. I strained toward him, but he was back momentarily, having freed his cock from his underpants. He lifted my hips to help me out of my own underpants and then thrust his body against mine. The sensation was incredible. I grabbed at his back and pulled him closer against me. As we hit a rhythm I panted and groaned, barely cognizant of the need to keep quiet so as not to wake the whole house. The sensation in my cock coursed through my whole body, building until I felt that I could not continue or I would explode, and yet I couldn’t have stopped for anything. It took me completely by surprise when my cock seized and then shot thickly between us, pulsing again and again until finally my hips stilled. Charlie continued a few moments longer until his whole body tensed as he added to the mess between us.
It had become unbearably hot under the quilts. I reached up to throw them off and Charlie rolled off me, breathing heavily against my shoulder. Finally he fetched a washcloth and cleaned us both off. Though his touch was gentle, I was surprised by how tender my cock felt now. Charlie returned to bed and curled against me for sleep, which I fell into almost immediately, exhausted.
I awoke reeling with the knowledge of the night before. There had been times in the past when I’d felt my cock harden, but had always simply waited for the hardness to eventually subside. And I’d sometimes awoken in the past to find that my underpants were tacky and wet, but the dreams that had led to this had always been hazy and undefined. I had never realized that one was the cause of the other, and that if only I’d thought to touch my cock as it throbbed I could have experienced a greater pleasure than any I’d previously known.
As we got ready for work and went down to breakfast Charlie didn’t say anything about what had happened. But that whole day my attention drifted as I found myself thinking of the memory of the night before, my cock hardening and making me shift uncomfortably, grateful that no one could see what was happening under my desk. All through the evening I was impatient for it to be time for bed, so that I could see if what had happened the night before would happen again. Meanwhile Charlie acted the same as always, cracking jokes at supper and sequestering himself in the armchair to study medical texts during the evening. To look at him I would not have thought that anything out of the ordinary had happened the night before, and I feared that the night before had been a one-time event, never to be repeated.
But as we were preparing for bed I caught his eye. As I watched he stripped off his trousers and then, slowly, his underpants, and I saw that he was as hard as I had been the whole day, his cock erect and flush against the flat plane of his body. I wasted no time in shedding my own clothes, and we fell into bed together, the pleasure even more sweet this second time than it had been the first.
We never discussed it, but it happened most nights. The lesser amount of sleep and the struggle to concentrate at work were worth it. That whole winter long, I looked forward to going to bed every single night.
My work became steadily more difficult as the winter wore on, but also more interesting. Gradually the balance of my tasks had shifted from largely theoretical to largely practical. Thatcher seemed to understand that my capabilities were limited only by the boundaries of my knowledge, not by my potential for learning or my enthusiasm. He was never hesitant with his criticism or his praise, and though I still had plenty to learn, it was growing evident how much progress I had made while under Thatcher’s tutelage.
Just as I’d improved at my work, I’d gotten better, too, at controlling how often I lost myself in the remembered pleasure of Charlie’s and my nights together. Though none of the urgency of those encounters had faded, and the pleasure of Charlie’s touch was still as great, months later, as it had been the first time, I was now able to master myself sufficiently as to think of him only a few times during the work day now, rather than near constantly, as it had been at the start. It was a good thing I’d managed this. I couldn’t see how I would have been able to make any progress in my work at all otherwise.
As winter wound down and the air began to hint of warmer weather to come, I began to dread the coming of spring. Charlie had said that he intended to stay in St. Louis until the spring after I arrived, and that would be this spring. Though I’d known from the start that Charlie planned to go west, I had been unable to anticipate how anxious the prospect would make me when the date of his possible departure drew near.
I avoided mentioning anything about Oregon Territory to Charlie. I didn’t talk about the ever-growing stream of settlers passing through St. Louis on their way across the state to Independence, though I compulsively followed the news about the westward expansion. I thought constantly about when Charlie would tell me, but convinced myself that so long as neither of us mentioned anything about him leaving, it could not actually happen.
In the middle of March, when the earliest wagon trains of the year were setting off from Independence, Charlie turned to me at supper and said nonchalantly, “I want to talk to you about something.”
My heart caught in my throat, I followed him down to the riverside park. We said nothing as we strolled along the river and I waited for Charlie to say what I knew was coming and tear my life asunder.
Finally he said, “Ben, I told you when I first met you that it was my plan to go west this spring. It’s been my plan for a long time.”
“I know,” I said, aching already.
“And I wanted to tell you that I’ve come to a decision.” He took a deep breath.
I held my own breath along with him, hoping to somehow freeze time in this moment, before I had to know that he would truly be leaving me.
“I’ve decided not to go west this spring.”
He went on to explain that he’d taken on some additional duties at the hospital, and had been given a commensurate salary increase. With the extra money he was now earning his savings would be in very good shape by this time next year, and he would be able to afford not only a wagon and team and supplies for the journey but also a good number of acres of fertile farmland upon his arrival in Oregon, putting him in far better stead than if he were to try to scrape his savings together now.
Even as I listened to him say all this, nodding appropriately, my entire body relaxed and my face stretched out in a foolish smile that I couldn’t hold back.
“It wasn’t the right time, anyway,” Charlie said flippantly, but he had just as wide a smile on his own face as I did.
We thrust against each other all the more enthusiastically that evening and I held him close against me, fiercely unwilling to let go.
Spring came early to St. Louis. I enjoyed it fiercely now that I knew that Charlie wasn’t leaving. I loved the feeling of the world coming alive again after winter, the first days when I could unbutton my coat in the midday sun without shivering. We were able to exchange the thick winter blankets for thinner ones by the middle of April. In spite of the fact that we had no reason to continue to sleep curled around each other now that the weather was warmer, Charlie and I did it regardless. We were long since accustomed to it by now.
The one-year anniversary of my arrival in St. Louis came at the end of April, and it did not go unnoticed. That day Thatcher called me into his office and told me that he and his partners had conferred, and all were in agreement that my performance thus far had been exemplary. I was welcomed to the office as a junior attorney, and my salary would be increased commensurately. Charlie celebrated by taking me out to a tavern and ordering rounds until we were spectacularly drunk, grabbing at each other’s shoulders to keep from falling as we wove through the city streets on the way home. We stumbled out of our clothes and fell into bed naked, enthusiastic and uncoordinated as we thrust against each other. Even the horrible headache at work the next morning and the undying nausea were worth it, not coming close to dulling my joy at the fact that all of the pieces of my life were coming together.
Moore had invited me to dinner with his family to celebrate my promotion, and so the following Saturday afternoon I made my way to Moore’s house. Moore and his family lived in an area of town I had not often visited: exclusively residential, filled with houses well beyond my means. The Moores’ house had a bright blue door in contrast to its painted-white exterior and was of a pleasantly large size for a family of five.
Mrs. Moore greeted me at the door. Moore was not a particularly tall man, and Mrs. Moore was exactly as tall as he was, thin and blonde and good-natured. Their two oldest daughters were present at the dinner as well, reminding me of my own sisters when they were small—Moore’s children were not yet school-aged. In spite of their youth, both of the girls were well mannered, behaving as they ate their steak and potatoes with the same obvious relish as the rest of us, for in addition to all her other commendable qualities Mrs. Moore had turned out to be an excellent cook.
I complimented Mrs. Moore on the cooking while we ate and, once the girls had been excused from the table, complimented both the parents on their children’s behavior.
“That’s all Mrs. Moore’s doing as well, I have to admit,” Moore said. “I mostly stay out of her way and let her rule the children with an iron fist.”
“An elegant iron fist,” Mrs. Moore corrected, with a wink at me.
“As though there could be an inelegant part of you,” Moore scoffed, squeezing the fist in question. “But Ben, in case I haven’t said it enough, congratulations on having become the newest, and currently only, junior attorney at the office of Thatcher, Darleigh & Me. We’re delighted to have you.”
The Moores raised their glasses to me. I raised mine as well and said, “The pleasure is mine.”
“Have you given any thoughts to your plans?” Mrs. Moore asked.
“In the sense of keeping your husband and Thatcher as happy as possible so that they don’t regret their decision, yes, I’ve given a great deal of thought to my plans.”
Mrs. Moore laughed. “I have no doubt that you’ll keep them happy indeed. I meant more along the lines of your personal plans, though. Do you intend to stay in that boardinghouse?”
“I assumed so,” I said, bewildered. I hadn’t even considered that my raise meant that I could afford other accommodations, because I had not the slightest interest in looking for someplace else to live. The thought of spending a night apart from Charlie made me panicked.
My panic must have showed on my face, for Moore said, “Don’t take my wife’s meaning the wrong way. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a single young man living in a boardinghouse while he’s working to establish himself. As a matter of fact, that kind of fiscal responsibility is commendable. But you’ll certainly have given some thought to the fact that you’ll be earning a much more generous salary as a junior attorney than you were as a trainee.”
I allowed as much.
“And while a boardinghouse certainly serves its purpose admirably,” Moore continued, “it is not, of course, the sort of place that a man could expect to live together with his wife.”
I stared at him in increasing confusion until Mrs. Moore outright said, “We’re wondering if you have a sweetheart, Ben.”
“Ah.” I felt foolish now for not having been able to follow the thread of their conversation. “No, I don’t.” My mind chose that very moment to turn against me, and I thought of Charlie in bed the night before, sucking wetly on my collarbone as he encircled our cocks with his hand and stroked. I adjusted in my chair.
“Well, are you after one?” Moore asked.
“One what?” I said distractedly.
“A sweetheart,” Mrs. Moore said, amused.
“Oh! Sure?” I didn’t mean for it to come out of my mouth as a question, but before the very moment that they’d asked the question, I could not honestly say that I’d ever given the matter any thought.
“Don’t be so nervous about it!” Moore said, clapping me on the shoulder. “We’re not trying to quiz you. It just seems to me that a young man of your age and occupation shouldn’t be without the companionship of a fine young wife if he doesn’t have to be.” He squeezed his wife’s hand in illustration.
“I suppose not,” I said.
“If you like, we’ll be happy to introduce you to some of the eligible young women we know,” Mrs. Moore said. “Only if you want us to, of course.”
They took pity on me then and the conversation turned to other matters. But though the remainder of the afternoon passed pleasantly, I was unable to stop thinking about what they’d said. I’d never had a sweetheart and had never felt the lack of one. In Carlton I’d been too busy concentrating on my studies and scraping together every penny I had to afford coming to St. Louis to think about girls, and I’d been busy in St. Louis as well. Aside from that, the women I passed on the street seemed like entirely removed from my life, well dressed and involved in their own affairs and already spoken for, generally uninterested in the likes of me. It had never been something that I had worried about before. But now that the Moores had called my attention to it, it seemed worrisome. Though I’d always assumed that I would get married someday, I’d reached twenty years of age without ever having considered the fact that if I intended to get married, there would have to at some point be a girl involved in the equation. And I would have to move away from the boardinghouse, and from Charlie. Truly there was no part of the idea of marriage that put me at ease.
I chewed on the matter the whole long walk from the Moores’ house back to Spruce Street. Having ascertained that Charlie wasn’t in our room, I sat on the front porch in the brisk spring evening air to wait for him. I didn’t have to wait long until Charlie came around the corner. Even though I knew he’d been at work since quite early that morning and had to be tired, he looked as handsome as always.
“Hi, Ben,” he said. “How was your dinner? And what are you looking all confused about?”
“Dinner was fine. Have you ever had a sweetheart?”
He laughed. “Sure. What’s this about?”
“Well, I haven’t. And the Moores were trying to see if I wanted them to introduce me to anyone. And I don’t know! When did you have a sweetheart? Was it here?”
“I think you’d know if I’d had a sweetheart in St. Louis,” Charlie said. “No, it was back in Pennsylvania, when I was sixteen. It didn’t work out.”
“Well, I left, for one,” Charlie said. “And she mostly liked the idea of me better than anything else. A strapping young future doctor sounds a whole lot better than a penniless young man who’s decided that he wants to go west, don’t you agree?”
“Maybe to her it did,” I said. “I like you how you are.”
“And a good thing, too,” Charlie said lightly.
But I was unwilling to put the matter to rest. “Don’t you want to get married sometime, though?”
Charlie frowned, considering. “I suppose I’ll have to, at some point. But I mostly try not to think about it, and I’d suggest you do the same.” He looked me very seriously in the eye. “Don’t let anyone get you too worried about it. Now can we go eat some supper?”
“Sure,” I said reluctantly, and tried to banish any lingering doubts from my mind.
As summer came into full swing, we made our way back to our creek at every chance we got. Even the creek water was warm, but it still offered some comparative relief from the sun’s heat. The grassy banks were cool enough when we lay on our backs relishing the few minutes before we were completely dry and had to return to the water. I liked to close my eyes, thinking of nothing more than the squelch of mud between my toes and how pleasant it was to be exactly where I was. Sometimes when I opened my eyes it was to find Charlie watching me, the heat making his eyes droop sleepily. When I caught him staring he usually gave me an easy smile and lay back down, pressing his arm against mine.
But this time Charlie didn’t look away. He was propped up on one elbow and watching me as though there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about it. Now he reached over and touched my stomach with his free hand. My breath stuttered at the contact. He began to rub up and down my chest, trailing lower and tantalizing lower but never low enough. We’d never done this in the daylight, never outdoors, and though we’d never seen anyone at the creek in all the times we’d come here I could not help but think that someone might see. Instead of making me want to stop it made me reach for Charlie all the more enthusiastically, tugging at his cock. I pressed my mouth to Charlie’s neck, licking and sucking, as we rubbed each other to completion, the sensation all the better for being tinged with the worry that we might be caught.
Too quickly we were spent, and Charlie rested his forehead on my shoulder as we returned to ourselves. We breathed together, enjoying the sensation of the grass beneath us, the mud between our toes, the faded hot summer sky. Once we could move, we returned to the creek and floated where it was deep, letting the water cleanse us.
We abandoned the blankets on our bed. It was too hot for blankets, too hot for clothes. I’d thought that perhaps the heat of summer would keep us from sleeping curled together, but that proved not to be the case. Even after we’d cleaned ourselves up we reached for one another, not even the sticky heat of thunderstorm weather enough to discourage us.
Moore had invited me to a Fourth of July picnic at his church, which was called Trinity Episcopal. It was a large white clapboard building with pleasant, shaded grounds around it on which someone had manage to procure and place an immense number of picnic tables. I had to wonder if the picnic tables and benches had not been built on the spot for this very event. It seemed that there could not possibly be that many picnic tables in all of St. Louis.
Women were crowded around a long set of picnic tables pushed together lengthwise, assembling the buffet dinner: fried chicken and corn and potato salad and every kind of pie you could imagine. Children hung around the edges, far enough away to avoid being roped into assisting their mothers but close enough to be the first ones to get at the food, once dinner was announced. Much as I liked the children’s plan, I ignored my stomach’s interested rumblings and went in search of the Moores. Happily, I didn’t have to go far. Mrs. Moore finished laying out her offering for the feast, a blueberry cobbler that I longed to steal away from the table and have entirely for my own, and was chatting with Moore and with another man as I walked up.
“Hadley!” Moore said. “Excellent timing. The food should be ready any minute now. Let me introduce you to my neighbor, Mr. Latham. Latham, this is Ben Hadley, our newest junior attorney.”
We barely had time to shake hands before a bell chimed and everyone was bowing their heads as the pastor gave thanks for the meal we were about to enjoy. The moment he said amen there was a mad scramble for the buffet line. I lost track of Moore and Latham but did end up in line behind Mrs. Moore, who said with a wink, “You might think it’s not church-worthy behavior to get in such a knock-down rush for a buffet, but I tell you, the way these ladies can cook, the good Lord himself would be elbowing people out of the way.”
Mrs. Moore was right. There really wasn’t a single bad thing at on that entire buffet table. I piled my plate as high as propriety allowed and followed Mrs. Moore to a picnic table, where we only barely made sure to save a seat for Moore before digging into our dinner. And oh, if I’d thought the food looked delicious, I’d had no idea how it would taste: like all the best meals I’d had in my life rolled up into one. Some of it might have been my hunger or the pleasantness of the day, perfect blue sky and not too hot for once in that sticky summer, but mostly the food was really that good. I eyed the buffet line, thinking of going back for seconds.
But after we’d finished eating, Mrs. Moore said, “Have you given any more thought to what we talked about at lunch a while back? There are some lovely young women here, if you’d like for us to introduce you.”
I froze. My impulse was to say that I appreciate the sentiment but that I’d rather not be introduced to anyone just now, thanks. There was no reason to force myself into anything. And yet, I reasoned now, if I didn’t let Mrs. Moore at least introduce myself to some girls, when would I ever talk to them on my own? I stood no chance of ever courting a girl if I didn’t at least talk to a few of them.
“That would be very kind of you,” I said, and allowed Mrs. Moore to steer me away from our table and toward a group standing under one of the shade trees, no small number of them young women. Mrs. Moore made the promised introduction, describing me as a colleague of her husband’s, the youngest attorney in the practice, which made it sound as though I were some sort of prodigy, the youngest of many and not of four. But I held my tongue and took the comment as Mrs. Moore had meant it, to my advantage.
Talking to the young women was pleasant enough except that the entire time I had the sensation of being sized up like a prized bull, each of them trying to determine if I met her particular mating criteria. I wished that Charlie were there. His presence would have put me at ease. As it was, I made my excuses as soon as possible and escaped to the buffet table, which had the look of a carcass after the buzzards had gotten to it, though there remained the occasional choice bit here and there. I’d managed to scrape together most of a plateful of food and had just rescued a salad egg from the refuse of the buffet when a girl said from behind me, “Tell me you didn’t just take the last salad egg.”
I turned, the salad egg in question perched on the edge of my plate, and took in the girl. She had on a blue dress and had deep brown eyes and shiny dark hair and an agitated expression on her face.
“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have taken it if I’d known how much it meant to you.”
“I should hope not. These are the first salad eggs I’ve seen in the better part of two years, and I was looking forward to that one very much. Listen,” she dropped her voice, “do you really want that salad egg? I mean, truly? Because if not, why don’t you just slide it right off your plate and onto mine?”
Until that moment her gaze had been directed at the egg, but now she looked up in entreaty. I hadn’t noticed the great difference in our heights until then.
“Nobody’s paying attention,” she added. There was nothing in her tone or demeanor to suggest that she was joking. In fact, as I hesitated, she positioned her plate beneath mine and waited.
“Okay,” I said, astonished at the fact that this was happening, and tipped my wrist so that the egg slid off my plate and onto hers. As soon as the transaction was completed, she snatched the egg off the plate, slurped it into her mouth, chewed twice, and swallowed with a look of immense satisfaction.
“Fantastic,” she said. “Pleasure doing business with you. Excuse me.”
And with that she whizzed through the remainder of the buffet, stopping only to collect the last of Mrs. Moore’s blueberry cobbler before she disappeared around the corner of the church, leaving me gaping in her wake.
I rejoined the Moores and their friends and ate my second plate of food standing up, listening to their conversation about an upcoming wedding between two people I didn’t know. Finally the friends wandered away and I was left with the Moores.
“So did you meet anyone interesting?” Mrs. Moore wanted to know.
“Everyone was very nice,” I hedged.
“You can be honest,” Moore said. “As long as you’re quiet about it, anyway.”
“Then no,” I said honestly. “Not that they weren’t nice! Just, not interesting to me.”
“There are plenty of other young women in St. Louis,” Moore said. “We’ll find you someone.”
“Although actually, I wanted to ask if you knew this one girl—”
“Hold on just a moment, Ben,” Mrs. Moore said, waving at someone over my shoulder. “Sarah, come over here and say hello!”
I turned, and there was the girl from the buffet line, making straight toward us. She hugged each of the Moores and said, “Hello again,” to me.
“Oh, have you already met?” Mrs. Moore said.
“Not by name,” Sarah said.
“Well then! Sarah, this is our newest colleague, Ben Hadley. Ben, this is Sarah Thatcher. She’s Edwin Thatcher’s daughter.”
“The one and only,” Sarah said. “Pleasure to meet you.” She dropped into a perfect curtsey as I bowed and gaped. I hadn’t been aware that Thatcher had a daughter, or even that he was married. I couldn’t recall Thatcher ever having mentioned a single detail about his personal life to me at all, being a clear proponent of keeping one’s work life and one’s private life separate, unlike Moore, whose daughters knew me by name. Before this moment I had known more about Alexander Darleigh’s personal life than I had about Thatcher’s, and Darleigh was in the office so rarely that I had only met him on a handful of occasions. It seemed astonishing, now, that Thatcher had had a daughter of nearly my own age the entire time that I had known him, and that this fact had not come up so much as once.
“Look at you!” Mrs. Moore exclaimed, looking Sarah up and down. “You’re the absolute picture of a finishing school graduate.”
Sarah made a face. “I have it on good authority that the only reason they allowed me to matriculate was so that they would not have to fail me and admit defeat.”
“Now, I don’t believe that for a minute,” Mrs. Moore said.
It turned out, however, that it was perfectly true. Moore later told me that Thatcher had exchanged no end of letters with Sarah’s finishing school over the two years of her attendance. There had apparently been some sort of disciplinary problem of which Moore did not know the specifics. Though surely the Moores knew Sarah better than I did, I wasn’t nearly as surprised as Mrs. Moore was to hear that there had indeed been disciplinary problems with Sarah. I couldn’t imagine that a girl who would ask a perfect stranger for a salad egg off his plate would have done well at finishing school at all.
The next time I saw Sarah Thatcher was a week later. She came to the office in the middle of the morning wearing an enormous hat that would have disguised her completely were it not for her obvious force of personality and for the fact that she barely took the time to greet Black and me before sauntering through Thatcher’s door without so much as knocking. Even after over a year in Thatcher’s employ I still barely dared to knock without invitation. When she emerged, Moore wandered out to chat with her for a few moments, and she asked after his daughters, hardly throwing a glance my way until she was halfway out the door. Only then did she say, “Mr. Moore, did you already invite Ben to the social next week?”
Moore snapped his fingers. “I haven’t, but thank you for reminding me. Ben, our church is putting on a dance next Saturday evening. You’re more than welcome, if you’d like to come.”
“I’d be happy to,” I said.
“I’ll look forward to seeing you there,” Sarah said, sauntering out onto the street.
Moore assured me that the church social was open to anyone who was interested in attending, so that night as we were pressed stickily against each other in bed, neither of us yet capable of moving, I said to Charlie, “Are you interested in coming to a church social with me next week?”
“What kind of church social?” Charlie said against my neck.
“It’s a dance.”
“I don’t dance,” Charlie said, licking at my sweat.
“You could come and not dance.”
“That just sounds like all kinds of fun,” he said dryly. “I think you’ll have to go by yourself for this one.”
The dance was in the church’s social hall. There was music provided by an enthusiastic four-piece band and there were refreshments and chairs along the walls for anyone who wanted to take a break from the dancing. I recognized a number of the girls the Moores had introduced me to at the Fourth of July picnic as well as the Moores’ friends, but Sarah Thatcher wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I danced with other girls, embarrassed at the fact that I had to ask some of them for their names and unable to keep from being disappointed that Sarah wasn’t one of them. I was curious about Sarah in a way that I wasn’t about any of the others.
I’d paused to fetch myself a drink when Sarah walked up to me. “We keep meeting at the refreshments table,” she said.
“I didn’t think you were here!” I said, attempting to sound delighted but ending up petulant.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting,” she said, with an amused glint to her eyes. “Finish up that lemonade and then let’s go dance, why don’t we?”
Even though it was an evening with a pleasant breeze blowing through the open windows of the social hall, there was no getting around the fact that it was the height of summer. A number of the women had stopped dancing due to the heat and were fanning themselves in the chairs along the walls. But Sarah showed no signs of fatigue, in spite of the fact that she and I both were sweating through our clothes.
“You wouldn’t believe how I’ve missed this,” Sarah said. “Do you know how much fun dancing is at finishing school? About as much fun as having a rotten tooth pulled.”
“Have you ever had a rotten tooth pulled?”
“No, but if it’s anything like finishing school dancing, it’s miserable.”
It seemed that Sarah’s mother had been the force behind Sarah going to finishing school. “My father couldn’t have cared less, but my mother convinced him that finishing school was the only way I was ever going to turn into a proper young lady.” She said the last in an exaggerated East Coast accent. “I think the truth is that her parents subjected her to finishing school when she was growing up in Philadelphia, and she wanted to make sure that I suffered the same as she did.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I survived the experience, didn’t I?” she said brightly. “Anyway, it’s over now. I’m back in St. Louis.” There was some part of that that she did not sound completely happy about, either, but before I could comment on it, she said, “Enough about that. My father says that you’re the most promising young attorney he’s seen in years.”
“He did? He hasn’t said anything like that to me.”
“Well, of course he wouldn’t. He doesn’t want you to go getting an inflated head. But he said it to me, when I was asking about you.”
“You were asking about me?”
“Well, I couldn’t just take Mr. Moore’s word for you, now, could I?”
“I guess not,” I said, caught between being gratified that she was interested enough to ask about me and worry that she’d been talking about me with her father. I couldn’t imagine that Thatcher would be thrilled to know that I’d attracted his daughter’s notice.
I had a moment of gut-dropping fear on Monday morning when Thatcher called me into his office. I hoped that he only wanted to discuss my work on a rental contract he’d asked me to piece together. And he did discuss that at first, but once that was done he said, “By the way, Hadley, I see that you and my daughter have been getting to know each other.”
I swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
“Good!” Thatcher said. “I’m glad to hear it. I think a young man of your caliber could be an excellent influence on her.”
I couldn’t believe I’d heard correctly. Only with great effort did I refrain from begging his pardon. “Thank you, sir,” was about all I could manage.
“Good man. Let me know when you’re done with the edits to that contract and we can finalize it.” He’d turned back to his papers, a clear signal that I was dismissed.
I went back to my desk and stared at my papers, dazed, unable to believe what I’d clearly heard. Thatcher had given me his permission to see his daughter.
I began to see Sarah regularly. She came by the office often, ostensibly to visit with her father, but she always spent less time in his office than she did talking to me about everything from current dress styles to current events. Occasionally she came late enough in the day that she and I left the office together and went for a walk in the park, her hand tucked into the crook of my arm. Even after four weeks of knowing her I had not so much as breathed a word about her to Charlie. But I convinced myself that because I hadn’t told him about her from the start, there was no good way of telling him now. I only hoped not to be caught out, which wasn’t a solution at all.
So of course it was on one of these occasions when she’d come to the office late in the day and we’d gone strolling in the park that we ran into Charlie.
There was no chance of us pretending that we had not seen each other. Charlie and I locked eyes immediately, and Charlie shifted course to walk toward us. Sarah didn’t notice him until he was nearly on top of us, but I watched every step he took in our direction, my stomach sinking.
“Hi Ben,” Charlie said. “I hadn’t realized you’d be in the park this afternoon.”
“Hi,” I said, and made the proper introductions. “Sarah, this is my roommate, Charlie Atwood. Charlie, this is Sarah Thatcher.”
Charlie’s eyes widened. The last name hadn’t gone unnoticed. “Very nice to meet you, Miss Thatcher.”
He bowed deeply and she curtseyed to match it, saying, “You as well, Mr. Atwood.”
“You can call me Charlie,” he said.
“Then I’m Sarah, of course. Would you like to join us? We were just taking a stroll.”
“I’d be delighted to,” Charlie said. The false note in his voice seemed obvious to me, but Sarah appeared to be oblivious, taking his proffered arm so that the three of us were promenading around the park together, with Sarah in the middle between us. Sarah carried the conversation with Charlie, having quickly discovered their shared connection to Pennsylvania. I’d never heard him talk about Pennsylvania the way he did with Sarah, all shared reminiscence about Philadelphia, only the good things about the city. He didn’t go into any of the specifics of how he’d come from Pennsylvania to St. Louis. To hear him talk to Sarah, I never would have thought there had been any great tragedy in his life. He made it sound as though he’d simply gotten a bad case of wanderlust and ended up in St. Louis by chance, a stopover on his way to even greater things out west. It made me surprisingly angry, to hear how he was reducing his story to something less than it was.
“Well, it’s been lovely, but I’m afraid I have an appointment to get to,” Charlie said. “Sarah, it was nice to meet you. I’ll see you later, Ben.” He gave a jaunty wave and left, heading in the direction that would take him straight back to Mrs. Badgely’s. The Thatchers lived in the opposite direction, and I walked Sarah home as I always did.
“I like your friend,” Sarah said after Charlie’s form had long since receded into the distance. “I’m glad we ran into him.”
“Me too,” I lied.
We promised to see each other again soon and I made my way home, dragging my feet but still arriving at Mrs. Badgely’s far sooner than I wished. As I’d feared, Charlie had been lying about having an appointment. He was waiting for me on the front porch. I succumbed to my fate and sat in the rocker next to his.
“So,” Charlie said, “when were you planning on telling me that you were courting your boss’s daughter?” He gave me a sharp, unpleasant smile, and I remembered why I hadn’t wanted to tell him about Sarah from the start. I hadn’t wanted to know how he would react when I told him.
But now it was so much worse than it would have been if I had told him everything from the beginning. I should have told him about meeting her at the Fourth of July picnic, and about dancing with her at the church social, and about Thatcher giving me his permission to see her. But I hadn’t done any of that. I’d known it was going to have to crash down on me eventually, and in spite of knowing it, I hadn’t made any kind of plan for what I was going to do when it did.
I told Charlie everything now, though it was far too late to do any good. Even as he let me talk, I never lost track of the tight set of his features, the stiffness of his posture.
“I should have told you before,” I offered lamely, at the end.
“You should have,” he agreed. “I would have thought I deserved to know, as your best friend.” He spat the words at me. Neither of us had ever used called the other his best friend before, and I hated that the first time I heard him say it, it was in the form of an insult.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
But he wasn’t in any kind of mood to accept an apology.
Charlie didn’t speak to me for a week. I didn’t see him awake at all for the first three days. He was working more than ever at the hospital, coming home after I was already asleep and leaving before I awakened. When we finally spoke again, it was in monosyllables, asking the other to pass the butter at supper.
“What is the matter with you two?” Mrs. Badgely said as we helped her to clear the dishes.
“Nothing,” we said in unison. I tried to catch Charlie’s eye, to enjoy even that small joke with him, but he avoided my gaze.
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” Mrs. Badgely said, but neither of us had anything else to offer after that.
I apologized to Charlie repeatedly and he pretended not to hear me. It was miserable.
After a week, though, there came a night when Charlie was home before dark. I was at the desk poring over a contracts text as he came through the door and sat on the bed, toeing off his shoes.
“Ben,” he said.
I closed the book and turned to look at him. He looked more tired than I’d ever seen him and a little sad.
“I shouldn’t have gotten as angry with you as I did,” he told me. “I was just hurt, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. This time it finally seemed to get through to him.
“I’m sorry, too,” he replied. “I expected things out of you that I shouldn’t have expected.”
Charlie read in the armchair for a while before readying himself for bed. I watched covertly as he stripped out of his jacket and trousers but slid under the covers with his undershirt and drawers still on. Neither of us had slept with clothes on in months, and I stared at him in confusion. But when I prepared for bed I kept my underclothes on as well, unwilling to go against his lead. As much as I wished for him to, he didn’t reach for me in the night.
I wanted, more than anything, for Charlie’s and my friendship to go back to the way that it had been. And in most ways, it did. We still went out to taverns together, still enjoyed Mrs. Badgely’s breakfasts and suppers, still talked to each other about our work. There was only one major thing that was different: Charlie slept with his clothes on now, even when it was too hot for comfort, and he hadn’t reached for me in the night since the day he’d met Sarah, not so much as once. I longed to bridge the divide between us myself, but didn’t dare. I understood that I was the one who had ruined this.
As summer wore into fall, Charlie began to spend more time at the hospital than ever. It wasn’t uncommon for him to come home only after I had gone to bed, and to leave in the mornings before I had awoken. He explained that the hospital had given him had the opportunity to complete his medical degree on top of his regular working hours. Much as I understood that it was a wonderful opportunity for him, and could hardly begrudge him for taking it, I could tell that the strain was wearing on him. He’d never had as solid a frame as I had to begin with, but where before he’d been lean, now he began to seem downright skinny. And the lack of sleep was showing in the rings beneath his eyes.
I wasn’t sleeping much, either. I was going to bed early enough, but I was restless, sleeping only fitfully once I did fall asleep. Particularly once the weather began to change, I missed the way we used to sleep, our bodies curled around one another, but it was hardly the sort of thing I could ask to have back.
Since I saw so much less of Charlie now, Sarah began to take part in some of the conversations that I would have had with him before. She was certainly capable of understanding everything I spoke with her about. She’d inherited her father’s sharp intellect, and had, as she put it, “spent more time hanging around Father’s office than Mother thinks is appropriate,” so even my discussions of law were not lost on her. She was everything I’d hoped to find in a partner, beautiful, spirited, and intelligent. It seemed incredible that there should be something about her that I found lacking.
Sometimes I forgot myself and spoke to her as if she were Charlie, and was surprised at her for not knowing things that I would never have had to explain to Charlie. She seemed to like learning about my family’s farm and our nights at the taverns near Spruce Street, and she laughed out loud at my tale of Charlie and me sneaking onto the barge two Independence Days ago. But I found myself jealously guarding some of my stories about Charlie for myself. I didn’t want her to know about the creek in the woods that Charlie and I had visited so often. And there were smaller memories I kept from her, too: the way Charlie teased me at supper at Mrs. Badgely’s, the way his eyes had sought me out every time I entered a room and I had done the same with him, the way the skin of his neck tasted in the night.
I missed Charlie constantly when I was with Sarah. I told myself that this was an ordinary part of growing up. Of course our friendship could not have stayed the way it had been at the start, when it had felt like we were the only two people in the world who mattered. I had to have known, then, that other people would come between us—that we would get married and have families, and Charlie would be on the far side of the country for all of it anyway. I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that this spring he would make the decision to stay in St. Louis another year. He would complete his medical degree in March and then set off for Oregon in April or early May, if the almanac’s prediction that it would be a long winter was correct.
The winter seemed long, even as early as December. Charlie had taken on extra shifts over Christmas for bonus pay, and so he declined to come home with me for Christmas this year. My sister Mary Margaret was particularly disappointed not to see him. And though I was accustomed to missing his warmth when I was in St. Louis, somehow it was all the more painful to be without Charlie at Christmastime in my childhood home, when last year his presence had filled me with such joy.
Time seemed elastic. In spite of the almanac’s prediction of a long winter coming true, the signs of spring arrived inexorably, far sooner than I could come to terms with them. Charlie was home even less than ever as he completed the last of the requirements for his medical degree. As far as I could tell he was barely sleeping. He wouldn’t be able to leave before late in the spring, I figured, with how long it was taking the ground to thaw this year. This was small comfort as the time of his departure marched ever closer.
Sarah didn’t fully understand my agitation. “You’ve known since the moment you met Charlie that he was going to be heading west,” she said. “You’re just having trouble coming to terms with it.”
I couldn’t think of how to explain that I didn’t think I would ever be able to come to terms with it. Charlie might not have been my only friend in the city anymore, but he was still my best friend, and the first true friend I’d ever had, and the thought of losing him to the far side of the country felt like something unhealable. I’d thought that this was a normal part of growing up, but it couldn’t be. I couldn’t imagine that everyone went through this kind of loss and came out on the other side unscathed.
When Charlie told me that he’d given his notice at the hospital and that he would be departing for Independence on April 24th to join up with a wagon train there, I marked the date in my calendar as though it were a day of mourning. As many times as I’d talked to Sarah about it, her eyes began to go distant when I talked about Charlie. I couldn’t blame her for not wanting to listen to me wring my hands incessantly. She had no ties to my pain. She hadn’t so much as seen Charlie again since the day that they’d met. Though I’d offered on a number of occasions that Charlie could join us as we promenaded in the park, he constantly gave his regrets.
After he completed his medical degree at the end of March, I began to see him slightly more often, but even the celebration of his having become Dr. Charles Atwood was more subdued than any of our past festivities had been—made all the sadder by comparison due to the fact that when we came home we were slept on the very edges of the bed, farther apart than we had ever been.
Sarah stopped by our office one morning at the end of April for no particular reason as far as I could tell. She exchanged pleasantries with me and Moore, as always, but didn’t stop into her father’s office. “I’m sure he’s very busy,” she said, in spite of the fact that that had never stopped her before. Only after she’d left did I discover the folded scrap of paper on my desk. I waited until no one was looking to read it:
Meet me at the park after work, if you’re free.
It seemed strange that Sarah would have been so secretive about a simple request for me to meet her, but I felt certain that she had her reasons. I left work as early as possible that evening and made my way to the riverside park where I’d strolled with her so many times before. It was a perfect spring evening, still early enough to see in the fading light of the sun, and pleasantly brisk. When I found her she was reading a novel, which she slipped into her handbag upon my arrival.
“Ben,” she said, standing to greet me with a kiss on the cheek. “I’m glad you could come.”
“Certainly,” I said, making to sit.
“No, let’s walk, if that’s all right,” she said. She was beautiful as always, her hair swept off her neck and high color in her cheeks.
I offered her my arm and after the slightest of hesitations she took it. “So how are you this evening?”
“I’m well, thank you. Ben, listen.” She dropped my arm. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Okay,” I said.
She was silent and then she screwed up her courage and said, “I really don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m getting married. To somebody else.”
I stopped and stared at her until I parsed. “What?”
“I’m eloping,” Sarah said.
I kept on staring at her, trying to make sense of what she was telling me. “What did—when? I don’t understand.”
“His name is Jefferson Williams. I met him in Philadelphia,” she said. “Not long after I arrived there, actually.” The side of her mouth tugged down wryly. “Do you remember those ‘disciplinary problems’ I had? It seems that finishing schools don’t much look kindly on their students stepping out with university professors. My parents thought the relationship was over after I came back to St. Louis, but it wasn’t. We never ended it.
“I swear I didn’t mean to lead you along. I thought you and I were just friends, at the start. When I realized that everyone thought we were together, I meant to clear things up. But, well. I’m a little selfish, actually. Right around when I was planning on telling you the truth, I got a letter from Jefferson. He’d been saving up all year long and as soon as the spring semester was over he was going to come out to St. Louis and marry me, and take me back to Philadelphia with him. He got tenure, you see, and he’d be able to support us both, and all I had to do was hold out until the end of the semester and then he’d come for me. It was easier to keep my father from suspecting anything as long as he thought I was with you. It sounds terrible now that I’m saying it out loud, that I was using you to keep my father from suspecting anything. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not really sure what to say.”
She looked miserable. “I don’t know, either. But Ben—I can’t actually make you do anything, but I’m going to ask anyway. If you ever had any feelings for me at all, please, would you keep this a secret until after I’m gone?”
“I don’t understand why you told me, if it’s important that it stay a secret,” I said.
“Because I didn’t want you to hear about it as gossip,” Sarah said. “Telling you seemed like the honorable thing to do, I guess. I somehow even thought that maybe it would lessen the blow, if it came from me. I don’t suppose that’s true.” She paused. “I’m sorry, Ben. I wish I could have been the girl for you. But Jefferson got there first, and for all that I like you, the idea of a life without him makes me feel like my chest is cracking open. I can’t bear it. I know my father expected you to ask for my hand, and I know it would have made him so happy. But if I were to stay with you, it wouldn’t be fair, you knowing that all the while I felt like this about somebody else. You deserve better than that. You deserve to have someone who can feel this crazy about you.”
Sarah looked as anxious as I’d ever seen her, her hands clasped tightly together. I should have felt as though my world were being torn asunder. But as I turned the conversation over in my mind, thought about everything she’d just said to me, it was the most curious thing: I felt calm, as though instead being of the revelation it was, Sarah’s speech were mere confirmation of something I had long known and come to terms with. It occurred to me, now that she’d said it, that I’d never actually considered asking for her hand in marriage. I hadn’t even mentioned her in a single letter to my parents. Perhaps I had known all along, deep down, that she and I weren’t meant to be. Sarah Thatcher wasn’t mine and she never would be, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit of loss.
I thought to say that I needed some time to think things over, but I didn’t, really.
“Sarah,” I said, prizing her hands apart to take them in my own. “I’m not mad.”
She stared at me, uncomprehending.
“I’m not. It’s all right.”
“I think you’re a lovely person,” I said. “Truly, I do. But I don’t think I’m in love with you.”
“If you were in love, you’d know it beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Sarah said.
“What does it feel like, being in love?”
“Oh goodness,” Sarah said. “It aches in your whole body when you’re away from the person. And you hurt when you’re with them, too, but it’s a pain you can’t get enough of. And you can’t imagine being able to live without them. I can’t, anyway.”
“I hope you’ll be happy with him,” I said.
“I will be,” she replied. “And I can’t be happy without him. It sounds miserable, but it isn’t, Ben, really. You’ll experience this someday.”
“I hope so,” I said, and smiled at her.
She returned the smile. “I know you will.”
As I stood there, with her hands in mine, I felt with growing certainty that I knew exactly what she was talking about, the sick feeling in one’s whole body. I didn’t have to imagine it at all. It seemed obvious to me now, something I should have known all along, but until that very moment I hadn’t known what to call it. And even as part of me protested that what I was feeling was an impossible thing, I knew what I felt in the deepest part of me, and was certain that it was true. I was in love with Charlie, and had always been. Small wonder that I had felt that my insides were being torn apart when he was away from me, when he would not talk to me. I’d been right to think, all those months long, that how I was feeling was not an ordinary part of becoming an adult and distancing oneself from one’s friends, because it hadn’t been that at all. I had been pulling myself apart from the man I was in love with. Of course I had been miserable.
“You’re really not mad at me?” she said wonderingly.
“I’m not,” I confirmed.
“Ben Hadley, you’re going to make somebody else very happy one day,” she said. “I have to go.” She stood on her toes to kiss my cheek for the last time, and I felt only the smallest bit of regret for what never could have been.
“Tell your professor that I wish both of you all the best,” I said.
“I will,” she said. “And I wish the same to you. Thank you. For everything.” And with a last, grateful smile she was gone.
I didn’t tell a soul about Sarah’s plans. I played dumb when I heard from Thatcher that she’d run off, offering platitudes about how I suppose she and I simply weren’t meant to be, doing my best to sound rueful and surprised.
“I actually thought that she was done with that madness,” Thatcher said bitterly. “I’m truly sorry, Ben. You deserve better than this.”
I hid my smile at how very much like his daughter he sounded in that moment. Any bitterness at Sarah having lied to me had faded away in the instant she’d confessed to me. My feelings for her now were only those of fondness and affection. The more I thought about her and her professor, newly married and on their way to Philadelphia, the more I found that I had truly meant it when I’d wished them nothing but the best. Without Sarah I never would have realized that I’d had it all wrong. The fact that Sarah was a girl and was lovely didn’t mean I was in love with her; the fact that Charlie was a man and was my closest friend in the world didn’t mean I wasn’t in love with him.
I’d been playing this knowledge over in my head for the three days since Sarah had helped me to realize it. I’d been incapable of seeing the truth for so long because I hadn’t even known being in love with Charlie could be a possibility. But now that the thought that I was in love with Charlie had broken through, I knew it to be true.
And the more I thought about it, Charlie’s hurt at my betrayal, the way his entire face had lit up whenever I entered a room, the way he’d reached for me in the night, all of these things supported my hypothesis that I was not, perhaps, the only one who felt this way.
But I couldn’t be certain, and regardless, no matter what either of us felt, it did nothing to change the fact that Charlie was leaving. The date of his departure was less than two weeks away. I could come clean to him, tell him how I felt and hope against hope that he would reconsider his plans, but it seemed horribly unfair to him. He’d already put in his notice at the hospital and made arrangements for his journey to Independence. And asking him to reconsider would mean not just delaying for another year, but changing his entire life goal, something that he had had since long before I had come into his life. I couldn’t ask that of him. And the idea of telling him how I felt only to let him go west anyway seemed horrible, too, that he should be burdened with that knowledge only once it was far too late for any possibility of happiness for us.
And so even as the date of Charlie’s departure came ever closer, I did not say anything to him about what had happened with Sarah, or about my feelings. All of the options seemed too miserable to bear. It was better to say nothing at all than to be cruel or to beg the impossible. I lay awake at night trying to memorize the lines of his face and cherished every moment of our last few meals, so that at least once he was gone I would have the small comfort of these memories.
It wasn’t until three days before Charlie was slated to depart that the solution finally presented itself to me, and I had to laugh at how obvious it had been the entire time.
Charlie was incredibly busy over the last days before his departure date, working his last few shifts at the hospital nearly back to back. Two nights before his departure, he didn’t come home until nearly midnight, but I was awake and waiting for him. I sat in the desk chair, not even the slightest bit tired. I don’t think I could have slept if I tried.
“You wouldn’t believe how much there still is to do,” Charlie said, kicking off his shoes and collapsing onto the bed.
“You’re carrying the whole place,” I said.
“You had better believe it.” Charlie propped himself up on his elbows. “What are you still doing awake?”
“There’s something I want to talk to you about,” I said.
“So talk,” he said. “It’s not like I was planning on getting any sleep tonight anyway.”
“You don’t get any sleep ever,” I countered.
“Touché.” He grinned. He was always good-looking but it made my breath catch how handsome he was when he smiled. “So what did you want to talk about?”
“I quit my job,” I said.
The grin turned to confusion. “You did what?”
“I quit,” I repeated. “Also, Sarah got married to someone else.”
Charlie sat up and flat-out stared at me. “What in the world?”
“It turns out she’d been seeing a professor from Philadelphia the entire time,” I said.
“I’m so sorry, Ben. That’s terrible.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said cheerfully. “Because it turns out I’m not actually in love with her.”
“Nope. I never was. And I quit my job because I realized something pretty important. Being an attorney in St. Louis isn’t what I really want.”
“But you’ve wanted to be an attorney since you were a child,” Charlie said.
“Oh, I want to be an attorney,” I said. “But it doesn’t have to be here. I can be an attorney anywhere. In fact, I bet they even need attorneys in Oregon.”
Charlie stared at me, comprehension dawning.
“I want to go to Oregon with you,” I said. “If you’ll have me.”
“Ben,” he said, strangled. “What would you—why?”
When I’d thought through how this conversation would go, I’d though that I would have to screw up my courage to tell him. But as it turned out, it was the easiest thing I’d ever had to say. “Because I love you.”
Charlie didn’t say anything. I pushed back the rush of fear and remembered that I had nothing to lose. No matter what I said, Charlie would still be going to Oregon. The only thing left to be determined was whether I would be going with him. I’d quit my job and left myself without even that security, but if Charlie said he didn’t want me to go with him, it didn’t matter. I would have to start a whole new life anyway if I did not have him. It didn’t matter where, but it couldn’t be in St. Louis. I couldn’t stay in this boardinghouse, this neighborhood, this city, when all of it would remind me of him.
“I love you,” I said. “I didn’t have any idea, Charlie. I didn’t know. I never would have had anything to do with Sarah if I’d known. It wasn’t anything like this with her. I just never thought—and I’ve missed you. The whole time I was with her, all the while I couldn’t help but wish it was you I was with instead.”
I looked to him in entreaty. He said nothing, until he slowly said, “When I took on all those hours at the hospital, it wasn’t because I needed the money. And even when I was completing my medical degree, it wasn’t only for the sake of completing it. I was trying to work so much that I couldn’t think about the fact that I couldn’t have you.”
“Charlie,” I said. The air seemed thick in the room, heavy with the weight of all we’d said.
“Come here,” he said.
I walked across the room to stand before him. He rose up to meet me. He was trembling.
“I’ve loved you the whole time,” he said. “From the very start.”
I laid my hands on his shoulders, curling one hand around his neck and card through his hair. Slowly he moved his head toward mine and our mouths found each other. We had never kissed each other’s mouths before, and it seemed incredible that we hadn’t. I had to wonder if I would have realized the truth of what lay between us earlier if we had. At first we were chaste, and then we began to kiss in earnest. I could feel the hard press of his teeth behind his lips. He slid his hands down my back and cupped my buttocks, pulling me close against him, and parted my mouth with his tongue. I groaned into the feeling and licked at his tongue, wanting all of him, still not quite believing that this was happening, that we were each other’s.
Charlie slipped his tongue out of my mouth, leaving me hungering after him. “Take off your shirt,” he said against my lips.
We didn’t waste any time. We unbuttoned shirts and fumbled out of trousers and fell onto the bed backwards, grabbing at each other. Charlie mouthed kisses against my neck and down my chest, pausing to suck at my nipples, each one. I arched off the bed at the sensation and babbled nonsense at Charlie, stop and never stop. His fingers stayed on one of my nipples until he slid down the bed, his mouth continuing lower and lower to suck kisses down my stomach, until he finally, unbelievably, blew a breath on my cock.
“Can I?” he asked, gripping my cock by the base.
“Yes,” I said, yes and yes and yes. He pressed kisses along my length, taking his time. I shouted as he took the tip of my cock in his mouth, sucking the wetness off, and then sucking more of me in. He held my hips down as I writhed and bucked and cupped my balls in his fingers, stroking them. The sensation was more than I could bear. Any more of it and I would come apart completely. And yet he never relented. He held me firmly, his fingers gripping my hip, as he sucked me, and I clawed at the mattress, touched his head.
“Charlie,” I said. “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie—”
I found release in his mouth, and he sucked me through it, eagerly and then gently as my hips began to slow. He moved back onto the bed beside me, looking satisfied.
I lacked the words or the breath or anything like the mental wherewithal to describe what it had been like, so I pulled him to me and kissed him. The taste of me was thick in his mouth, and it made me moan to know it—Charlie had wanted to do this, had done this for me.
And then he was off the bed and pulling on his shirt and trousers. My guts clenched in panic and I sat up. “What are you—”
“I need to get something from downstairs,” Charlie said, pressing a kiss against my mouth. “Wait here.”
Until the moment that he opened the door again I sat on the edge of the bed, terrified that he wasn’t coming back. But he returned, having been gone not more than a few minutes. I was so consumed by that relief that I did not, initially, notice the jar of cooking oil in his hand.
“What’s that for?”
“Trust me,” Charlie said, bending to kiss me. He put the jar of oil on the desk and took off his clothes, his cock still hard and red. Then he opened the jar and slicked his fingers and his cock and said, “Lie back.”
He lay beside me and kissed me for long moments, sucking at my tongue, nipping at my neck, before I discovered what he intended to do with the oil. His hand slipped between my legs and pressed lightly at my hole. Reflexively I clenched my buttocks together, but Charlie said, “Shh,” as one would to a skittish horse, and then said, “Trust me. This will be good.”
I relaxed my muscles and let him lift my leg to give him better access. He brushed his finger against my hole again, this time pressing the tip inside of me. I breathed deeply and tried to relax as slowly, slowly, he pushed until his finger was all the way inside. I’d never in my life considered this, but it was more strange than unpleasant. He gave me time to grow accustomed to it and then he began to thrust his finger in and out of me.
“Is that good?”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“I’m going to add another,” Charlie said. “Tell me if I hurt you.”
He slid his finger out and pushed into me again, slowly. I could feel the difference with two fingers but even so my body took it. Once he was completely inside me again, he crooked his fingers up and began to thrust. Suddenly, far from being unpleasant or even just tolerable, the sensation turned toward pleasure as his fingers brushed against some center deep inside me I had not known was there.
“What is that?” I gasped.
“Is that good?” Charlie said.
“Yeah,” I panted, my hips beginning to buck toward his hand of their own accord. “Yeah. Charlie—”
He held my hips down with his other hand and slowly slid a third finger in with the other two. I was writhing with how good it was now, being stretched open by him. My cock was already beginning to harden again. And suddenly the sensation wasn’t enough.
“I want you inside me,” I said. “Charlie.”
Charlie moaned. “Shit, Ben.”
“Come on,” I said, pushing myself harder against his hand. “Do it.”
“Okay,” he said. He pulled his fingers out and repositioned himself, leaning over me and hooking my legs up over his shoulders. My body complained at the contortion but I ignored it. I could feel his cock against my hole. “You have to tell me if it hurts,” he said. He kissed me and then began to push inside.
It did hurt. I hissed a little at the burn of it, but when Charlie tried to pull away I wouldn’t let him. I still wanted to feel him inside me more than I wanted the pain to go away.
“Are you all right?” he said.
“Fine.” I concentrated on breathing.
“Just stay still for a moment.” Sweat was gathering on Charlie’s forehead, and I could see how much of an effort it was for him not to move. But it didn’t take very long for my body to grow accustomed to the intrusion. I shifted my hips backwards experimentally, then rocked up toward him. The feeling of him being too big, too much faded, and I was able to be in awe of the moment. Charlie was inside of me, and we were each other’s completely. That was enough to make up for any lack of pleasure.
But soon there was pleasure too. We established a rhythm, rocking our bodies in unison, and Charlie found with his cock the place he had found with his fingers, brushing against it insistently until I had to clench my teeth shut to keep from screaming. Charlie kissed me as I found release all over my stomach, and even through the haze of my own completion I could feel him shooting inside me moments later, our hips slowing and finally stopping. He pulled out of me slowly, gently.
“You’re amazing,” Charlie said, pressing kisses to my neck, my mouth, my ear.
“I love you so much,” I said, nearly overcome. “And I’m sorry, still. About everything.”
Charlie tilted my head toward him so he could look me in the eye. He kissed me again. “Well, it’s a good thing you have the entire trip to Oregon to make it up to me.” And I knew finally, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I was forgiven.
I was surprised by how few material possessions I had to show for my time in St. Louis. I’d acquired a few suits in the meantime, some shirts, and a couple of books, but little beyond that. Nearly all of the other books that had cluttered our room at the boardinghouse had belonged to Thatcher, and I had brought them all back the previous morning, when I had gone to work and given my notice. Without them, the room was nearly empty already. I owned no more than would fit in the rucksack I had come with, two years before. It was astonishing how easy it was to pack up and leave a whole life behind.
But I had one more thing to do before I left Missouri.
Charlie agreed to postpone our departure to Independence for a week so that I could say goodbye to my family. I rode hard the next morning to make it to Carlton within a day. With every step the Moores’ horse took I was reminded anew of what Charlie and I had done the night before, and in spite of the discomfort of riding I was still warmed to my core, knowing that Charlie loved me as much as I loved him, that I was his.
My family did not truly understand why I was going to Oregon. “Seems like you’ve been talking about wanting to get away from farming your whole life long,” my father said. “And now all of a sudden you’re looking to become a homesteader?”
But I explained that I had been seized by a wanderlust the likes of which I never could have imagined, and that I would find work as a lawyer in Oregon, besides.
Though they did not pretend to understand what had caused this sudden shift in my thinking, and I could not have explained to them the true origin of my need to go west, they supported me in my decision nonetheless, and promised that they would write often as soon as I once again had a fixed address.
Charlie and I set out for Independence at dawn the morning after I returned from Carlton. I was sure that soon the enormity of what I had done would hit me: leaving my employment and St. Louis, leaving my family behind. I ached to think that I would likely never see my family, and already I was certain that I would miss St. Louis. Over the past two years the city had become quite dear.
But when I looked at Charlie standing beside me, his rucksack slung over his shoulder and the worry lines of the past months finally smoothing out of his face, I knew beyond any doubt that what I was doing was worth it. I’d finally found my purpose, and it was to be at Charlie’s side, journeying west to the new life we would build together in Oregon. There could be nothing better in this world than that.