This is Chapter One -- "Riverfront."
The other stories in the "Wayfarers" series.
Other recent stories in the "Queer Theories" series.
Features Justin Taylor, Brian Kinney, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: A boy has an encounter in a barroom. Pittsburgh, December 1858.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
Pittsburgh, December 1858.
"Hey, you," said the barkeep. "Take that boy out of this barroom."
"I'm waitin' on you to give me a beer -- and one for the kid, too. And one of them sausages," said the man. He was a rough-looking fellow, a riverman from one of the barges that plied its trade up and down the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
"I don't want a beer. Just let me go, sir," said the kid. "Please." The man had a strong hold on his arm and the boy looked decidedly unhappy at the prospect of sharing his time with the fellow. He was a sturdy boy of about 16, blond and clean-limbed.
"I don't want no trouble, Clyde," said the barkeep. "When I say to leave off that kid, I mean it. Or take your business elsewhere. That's all I need is for his folks to come lookin' for him here and then I get closed down."
"His folks won't come lookin'. He's been skulkin' around here for the last three days and nobody claimed him," said Clyde, keeping his grip on the boy. "Just gimme a bucket of beer and we'll be gettin' out of here. So, I'll be obliged if you'd hurry it up a tad."
"Please, mister," said the kid to the barkeep. "Make him let me go."
"Shut your trap! I'm gonna pay you for your time. More than you're worth, most likely." Clyde took hold of the bucket of beer and tugged at the boy.
"Excuse me, but I believe that the young fellow said that he wasn't interested in your company." A tall, thin man smoking a cheroot stepped out from the corner of the bar. He was dressed, as was his custom, in black, with an embroidered green and gold waistcoat and silk neckcloth that marked him as a bit of a dandy. He seemed out of place in this rather low taproom, but his very presence there also marked him as another thing as well. This small area of the docks was infamous as a haven for men looking for other than the usual entertainments of the local underworld.
"Mind your tongue, Irishman. This ain't any business of yours," the bargeman retorted. And he spit a squig of tobacco juice on the floor next to the tall man's polished boots. It was a foolish course of action. Because the next thing that Clyde knew, his wrist was in the Irishman's iron grip. He was thin, but he was also strong. He twisted the shorter, stouter man's arm until he released the boy and then the tall man pushed the bargeman -- and his bucket -- down into the sawdust of the barroom floor.
"It IS my business when you trouble my good boots with your filthy mouth. And I'd hate to see you do the same to this lad," he addressed the downed fellow. "Come on," he said to the boy. The Irishman put two bits on the bar and walked out. The boy quickly scrambled after him, afraid the bargeman would come to his senses and grab him again.
The tall man stepped his way carefully through the mud and slush. The weather had been dismal this last week, then a thaw had set in, warming the spirit, but dirtying the boots. The boy had to stretch his legs to keep up with the older gent. The man finally halted on a pine board walkway in front of another saloon and sporting house.
"Are you planning to tell me where you live? Or are we going to wander all over creation before you decide to confide in me?" asked the man.
The boy was lacking a proper coat and he shivered in the December air. "Don't have a place to live. I live on the streets."
The tall man stood back and looked down at the boy, long and hard. "That's your first lie. You don't live on the street. Look at your hands."
The boy looked at them and then looked up at the man. The man took the lad's smaller hand in his own. The Irishman's fingers were long and the nails clean, with just a trace of ink to be seen on his right hand. The boy felt a surge of feeling go through him as the man spread his fingers open over the boy's palm. "Grimy, but no serious dirt. Someone sees that you wash regularly. Even your neck is fairly clean -- for a boy."
"I'm... a runaway. From... from a ways back East."
"That's your second lie," the man said, greatly amused. "Look at your britches -- there's a bit of mud along the hem and the seat of your pants, but that material is fresh. And it's good stock. You've never slept on the street in your life" The man reached down into the boy's jacket and felt the shirt, the collar. "Well made. Well stitched. And fairly new. These clothes are not cast-offs. And your boots are good leather. You certainly didn't walk from 'a ways back East' in those boots. Maybe a mile or two, but no more."
The boy looked down at his feet in wonder.
"Are you going to tell me the truth now?"
"I...." The boy was confused. And embarrassed. "How do you know all that? I mean, about me? Are you a mind-reader?"
"No," said the tall man. "I'm a reporter. It is my job to observe and to take note of people. To understand when they are lying and when they are telling the truth. Some are difficult. They are practiced liars. You, on the other hand, are easy. You are a mere amateur at mendacity." The man took out another cheroot and lit it with a match he scraped against the hitching post in front of the sporting house. A fat man ambled down the boardwalk and went inside the place, the door swinging. The sound of a tinny pianoforte could be heard from within.
The man turned and walked on. The boy follow quickly, afraid of being left behind in the dark. They walked away from the river and up towards the town. The rank smell of the water and the wharves receded.
"Are you of a mind to tell me your business now? Because you've already put me off my game tonight. I would be very annoyed -- except that bargeman was so crude in his advances that it offended my senses. And he was ugly, too." The man touched the boy's pale face. His eyes were a deep blue. "It's an insult to Nature to pair Ugliness with Beauty. Otherwise I should have just let him take you off with him." The boy sighed and tried to look away, but the man held his chin. "You understand what he was planning to do with you? Don't you? Or are you dense?"
"No, sir," said the boy. "I know." His voice was small.
The man snorted. "Then why in thunder were you down there on the riverfront? Why?"
"I... I was looking for... a man. But not him. That's why I came back every night. But... he caught me up and wouldn't let go."
The tall man shook his head. "What's your age? And tell the truth this time."
"I just turned 17 -- a week ago." The boy hung his head. But he also glanced up at the tall man. He was handsome and clean, his chestnut hair well-groomed, his clothes neat and stylish. This was more what he'd been looking for. Not the rough characters by the docks and in that barroom. But he hadn't known where else to go. The riverfront had a certain reputation and the boy had counted on the truth of it to pull off his scheme. But perhaps he had gotten lucky this time.
"And this is where you seek your entertainment?" the tall man huffed. "Why not have your father take you to his favorite whorehouse if you are looking for sport? At least you would be safe and you could act the part of a man with an agreeable female. But down here on the wharf you could get your throat cut and they would never find the body until you floated to the surface come Spring!" The man was angry. His green and gold eyes flashed fire at the boy -- and the boy felt a lurch in his privates.
"My... my father would never go to a whorehouse!" The boy exclaimed. "He's a...." He paused. He was revealing too much.
"I'm certain you would be surprised just what many upstanding men of business do when they are away from their families and where they seek their pleasure. And I ought to know!" The man tossed his head. "Even a man of Society has his favorite sporting house -- perhaps more genteel than the ones in this neighborhood, but the commodity is the same. Tell your father that you are more than ready to make use of its services. And stay OUT of these saloons!" The man indicated the docks below. "They are for men of... a different bent." And the Irishman turned on his heel and stalked off up the boardwalk.
"No! Wait!" And the boy ran again to catch up.
The man glanced at his new companion. "Are you ready to tell me where you live? I'll make certain you reach it in one piece. But if I leave you here I can't give you the surety of that."
"I already told you -- I can't go home," the boy said in a low voice. "I've... quarreled with my father."
"A great sin, indeed!" the man mocked. "No boy has ever done that before! Disagreed with his old man!"
"I never have," the boy answered. "I've never defied him -- until now. And this is only the start of it. Because I can't do what he wishes me to do."
"To be like him. Or to become like him. Because I cannot."
Now the man sighed heavily. "And if I leave you where I found you -- what will you do?"
"Probably do what I've done the past two nights," the boy shrugged. "Go back and sleep in our carriage house and then leave before dawn. I spent all today in the Courthouse. It was warm there. I forgot to take my coat when I left home."
"That's good planning."
"I know. I'm a fool." The boy studied his boots to avoid the man's face. From the side it was all sharp angles and shadows, but from below it looked soft and gentle. The boy wanted to draw it -- but he'd forgotten his sketchpad as well. And his pencils.
"No, I think you are simply confused. That's a condition of Youth. I was the same at your age. More so, even." The man almost smiled. "Go back to your mother -- she must be worried about you. And make up with your old man. Wash your face. Sleep in your own bed. You are a spoiled rich brat, obviously. But that doesn't mean that your troubles aren't real to you. Deal with them. Bad things might have happened to you down here tonight -- thank your God that they did not."
"I told you -- I can't go home." The boy was shivering dreadfully now, from fear as well as from the cold. He hugged himself miserably.
Even the man was feeling this chill. It was only a week until Christmas and the man smelled more snow coming. His frock coat was made of good wool, but it was not enough to keep out the wind. He hadn't planned on a long discussion in the street. He'd planned on being back at his hotel, cozy in bed by this time of the night -- and with agreeable company.
"I guess I'll just go back to the barroom," the boy mumbled. "At least it was warm there."
The man seized the kid's arm roughly. "I told you to stay out of that place! Do I need to shake you to make you see sense?"
"What difference does it make? If I freeze to death it won't matter anyway!" the boy cried, pulling out of his grasp. "No one cares if I live or die!"
"You are certainly full of melodrama," the tall man replied. "Have you considered a career on the stage? You already make a fine damsel in distress! And you complain enough for one."
"Oh, shut up!" And the boy sat down on the filthy boardwalk. "Shut up and leave me alone! Just go away!"
The man took off his hat and ran his long fingers through his hair. This was a dilemma. But he couldn't very well leave the boy sitting there, in front of the whorehouse and within sight of the wharf. "I knew I should have stayed in and worked on that story," he thought, but it was too late now to turn back.
"Come along, then." He reached down and offered his hand to the boy.
"Really?" The boy took hold of the hand and the man dragged him to his feet.
The Irishman brushed off the boy's britches and straightened his thin jacket. "What were you thinking, going out in this season without a proper coat?"
"Not thinking, I guess," answered the boy, as they trudged uptown.
"Well, then, that's your first lesson of survival..." the man instructed "What did you say your name was?" The boy hesitated. "I can't call you 'Hey You' or 'Boy' -- like a dog. Unless you prefer that."
The boy swallowed. "Justin."
"All right then, Justin. Your first lesson of survival -- wear warm clothes. Your second lesson -- eat when you can. Have you? Eaten, I mean?"
Justin shook his head. "No. I forgot to bring any money. I stole some stale bread from the pantry this morning -- but that was all."
The man sighed again. He steered the boy down one street and then another and into a different saloon. This one was much brighter and cleaner. There was a long polished bar and many tables and chairs, most filled with fairly well-dressed men. Mirrors lined the walls and reflected the oil lamps, making the place seem full of light. A lady with yellow hair, bright earrings, and red paint on her cheeks came over straight away. Justin stared at the painted woman with great interest.
"Well, well, well. Brian Kinney. And what you doing in HERE?" she said.
"My friend here would like something to eat, Mae. If you please." And the Irishman shoved the boy into an empty chair at one of the free tables.
The woman laughed. "Can't resist picking up the strays, can you?"
The man -- Brian -- shrugged. "Why not? I was one myself."
"A little young, don't you think?"
"Old enough to eat. So how about some food?" he replied flatly. He sat down at the table next to Justin. "And a whiskey for me. A double. Neat."
The woman laughed again and disappeared.
"Is she a friend of yours, Mister...?"
"Brian," he answered. "I have lots of friends, all over this city. It helps in my work. People are information. That's another lesson. Words are currency. I deal in both. And Mae -- she's an old friend." Brian took out a small pipe and began packing it. "Mae hates the smell of a cigar -- besides I smoked the last one before. Like I say -- she's an old friend. We used to... we were employed at the same establishment. And now she owns this place. Quite an accomplishment for a lady."
Another woman -- dark and foreign-looking -- brought out a large plate of stew, with sliced bread and a mug of ale. Justin inhaled the repast while Brian smoked and watched in amusement. "Don't choke yourself," he interjected at one point, but the hungry lad hardly even paused to acknowledge the remark.
"He's a voracious one, that's for sure," said Mae, checking on her customers. "Good?" she asked the boy.
"Uh huh," he nodded, wiping the plate with the last piece of bread.
"And now what do you propose doing with him -- if I may ask?" the yellow-haired woman said to Brian.
"Damned if I know," said Brian, tipping his chair back. "Get him home -- if I can find out where that is. He's certainly not a denizen of the streets. His clothes are too good. But the brat won't give me the information. Will you, brat?"
Justin grinned over his now empty plate. "I'm fine right here!"
"He's a winning creature!" the woman exclaimed. "Don't get into difficulty, Brian. Hear me?"
"I won't," he replied. "I hope."
Brian finished his whiskey and considered his options, puffing on the pipe to help him think. He had a story due at 'The Clarion' on Monday morning, but he'd already done all the legwork. All that it needed was the writing. He'd been planning to spend most of the weekend on a bender and then use Sunday to sober up. It was his usual custom and the system worked well. That left the rest of the week for tracking down his sources and writing his daily copy. He rarely drank or caroused on a working day -- he had made that his habit when he began as a copyboy almost ten years before. The editor at that time, Joshua MItchell, had given him the position as a favor to a Mr. Reynolds, an old friend who had been Brian's mentor and protector, and Brian had never betrayed that trust. He had always kept his working life and his personal life -- what there was of it -- in separate realms. But he cherished his weekends. And now this Friday night was a lost cause.
If he could manage to pry the whelp's last name out of him, then tomorrow he could deposit him back with his family. His old man would probably take a strap to him -- did people of Society use their children that way? -- and his mother would cry over him and the adventure would soon be forgotten. And Brian could still salvage part of the weekend on Saturday night. A riverboat from Cincinnati was due to tie up sometime the next afternoon and a hand or two of Faro or Blackjack -- among other things -- would be a welcome respite.
But what an amusing brat this boy was. And as forward as a lord! "Looking for a man"! That's what he said -- and out loud! Yes, his parents would have quite a handful with him in the future. If he continued to show such... tendencies, they'd probably pack him off to Europe with an elderly tutor to try and get it out of his system. Then the boy would come home and marry the woman that they chose for him from their Circle and that would be that. Yes, Brian had seen enough of those types in his time. He had HAD enough of those types in his time! But rarely one so young -- or so vocal.
"Time's wasting," Brian said, standing up. He tapped out his pipe against the chair, the ashes falling into the damp sawdust. Most of the men of Pittsburgh liked to chew and they rarely used Mae's large brass spittoons. But Brian was a fastidious man, even for one who grew up in the slums. Chewing was a dirty habit and he hated dirt. Chewing and spitting. It made his stomach heave. He preferred a cigar on occasion, or else the pipe to help him think.
"You gentlemen come again," said Mae, pocketing the coins that Brian handed over to her. "I suppose I couldn't interest you in any other services of a more personal nature? On the house -- just for you, Brian."
"Not interested, Mae. But when the inclination takes me, you will be my first choice."
"So?" she said. "Finally give up on that rich gal? Or did her father take the boot to you?"
"She gave up on me, alas. But it was just as well -- as you know." Brian put on his hat. "Let's go, Justin," he said. "Before you eat Mae out of her livelihood."
"Thanks, ma'am," said the boy, politely. "The food was very good."
"And thank YOU, sir. I hope you can grace my establishment again real soon," Mae laughed -- and gave the boy a kiss on the cheek. Justin saw that she was painted and powdered even down into her ample bosom. She smelled like violet water. His cock gave a slight twitch as he looked down her dress. But it gave an even greater leap when Justin felt the tall man put his hand on his waist and guide him out the door of the saloon.
Continue on to "Wayfarers -- Chapter Two -- Clarke's Hotel" the next chapter in the series.
©Gaedhal, April 2003.
Send Gaedhal any comments, critiques, suggestions. I welcome all of your comments on "Wayfarers." Without your feedback I don't know if you are enjoying this new series!
Posted April 12, 2003.