Leon Winfield Christmas had a habit of tapping his leg right before he did something impulsive.
“Lock the door!” his mother would shout. “Lee’s legs are trying to catch up with his mind again!”
When his legs did catch up, he was a sight to behold. Darting between the ruined outhouses that dotted the dead fields. Shooting Yankee invaders with a cedar branch. And taking General Grant’s unconditional surrender at the bank of the Amite river—the natural border of his father’s old cotton plantation, before the war took it all away.
Lee’s family had been spared the worst of the fighting. A few months before he was born, a Yankee scouting party had torched his father’s holdings, but at least the homestead had been spared. His mother, heavily pregnant and peering out the upstairs window at the men whooping and hollering, had counted her blessings. After Lee came into the world and grew in size, his parents fought to keep him close, fearful of what the woods contained. Twenty miles east, Union soldiers had set Baton Rouge ablaze, but not before emptying the jails. Prisoners had melted into the dense woodlands all along the Amite River, giving quarter to neither friend nor foe.
The war was eventually settled, and the South began the slow process of rebuilding. By the time Lee was twelve, his father moved the family deeper into the swamps of Livingston Parish, hoping to find peace and prosperity in one of the sawmill towns springing up all over Louisiana. His new home wasn’t on any map. It didn’t even have a name—not at first. The woods were known as Benfield’s Cut, and the mill workers began referring to home as Benfield, but no one knew its provenance, or cared, to be frank. There was enough to be getting on with. The settlement had started as a few rudimentary buildings—the sawmill itself, stables for the workhorses, shotgun houses for the young couples, dormitories for the unmarried men, a saloon, and the company store. But it soon grew as the lumber concern expanded to meet demand and more labor arrived. The first children born there necessitated the trappings of society: larger houses, a lawman, and a place of worship. There was even talk of a school. Mostly, though, the children were free to roam the woods by day, sharing tales of pirates and bandits when they gathered in the evening. And it was there, in the dirt clearing that formed the center of Benfield, away from the noise of the mill, that Lee Christmas first met Mamie Reid, the foreman’s daughter.
It was a friendship born of necessity, at least on Mamie’s part. Most of the other children in Benfield were either several years their junior or were old enough to have jobs themselves. Lee, on the other hand, was immediately besotted. He would sneak out of his parents’ house at night, tiptoe carefully across the creaking porch, and hurry over to Mamie’s place to slip love letters under her kitchen door.
At first, Mamie didn’t respond to his affections. She would see him the next morning and wave, and when they got to talking, she wouldn’t mention anything about the letters. Lee wondered if she felt the same way or whether she was just shy, but he persisted nonetheless. Soon, it became clear that Mamie’s mother, the indomitable Mrs. Reid, had clocked his intentions from the get-go. She had been intercepting his letters, fearful of the intentions of a rough kid with no prospects. It was only when Mamie had trouble sleeping one night and came to the kitchen to sate her thirst that she discovered a letter: its contents making clear both Lee’s feelings and her mother’s deception.
It all changed one summer morning as Lee sat on his porch, staying as still as possible in the breezeless humidity. His father had been up half the night, coughing. His mother wasn’t saying much, but he could tell she was worried. He had followed his father to the mill that morning, watching him take a docket from Mr. Reid and head up to the company doctor, out near the stables. On the way home, his blood pumping with the determination to confront his mother about his father’s illness, Lee ran into Mamie. Instead of her usual smile, her face was drawn, her eyes narrowed.
He stopped in his tracks when he saw the letter she gripped. He stammered a greeting as he wiped his brow. “Mamie, hi. I didn’t … I wasn’t…”
Her face scrunched even tighter. “You’re an idiot, Lee Christmas. You know that?”
“Um, I, uh…”
“And my eyes are green.” She stepped closer to him, nostrils flaring. “Not blue.”
Lee’s leg started tapping. With one swift movement, he encircled Mamie with his left arm, put his hand on the small of her back, and leaned in. Then he kissed her.
A moment later, Mamie wriggled away. “Not here,” she said, glancing around. “Meet me behind the sawmill in an hour. And don’t let Pa see you. You know the spot?”
He knew the spot, all right.
Soon they were arranging secret rendezvous, and stealing kisses in the woods behind the mill where Mamie’s father supervised and Lee’s father toiled. For most of their courtship, however, Lee’s father was unwell. He had to assume familial responsibility as his father’s condition deteriorated, working the schooners of Lake Pontchartrain as a ship’s cook.
The young couple saw less of each other. Mrs. Reid kept her daughter on a tight leash, and Lee manned the galleys of the Cileste, the Surprise, and the Lillie Simms, as they hauled charcoal across the lake to New Orleans. Separation only increased the young couple’s strength of feeling. Mamie and Lee were promised to each other, and nothing would stand in their way—a vow put to the test when Lee turned sixteen and his father succumbed to the illness that had been stealing him from the world one day at a time. His mother decided they would move to McComb, Mississippi, to be closer to her family. He begged Mamie to wait for him, fearful that her head might be turned by another, someone with money, and pledged to return with enough cash to build her a house and show Mrs. Reid he could provide for her daughter.
Despite the bluster, Lee was fearful. He didn’t know what awaited him in Mississippi, or whether he’d ever make anything of his life. He had no money, no connections, and no education, concerns that bounced around in his head as the Mississippi train pulled out of New Orleans, until a billboard caught his eye. It was map of North America, crisscrossed with railway lines both existing and planned. Some routes even went all the way up to Canada and down into Mexico. The legend made his heart skip a beat: Join The Railroad, And See The World.
Lee Christmas had no idea how true that would be.