This is Chapter Fourteen -- "The Lesson"
The other stories in the "Wayfarers" series.
Features Brian Kinney, Justin Taylor, William Reynolds, Thayer, Ferguson, Bob, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Brian teaches Justin a lesson -- and learns one himself. Pittsburgh, February 1859/St. Louis, August 1843.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
"Keep up your guard, Justin! Don't drop your shoulder or you'll open yourself up!"
"I'm trying!" gasped the boy. "It's hard to remember everything at once, Brian!"
"You'll remember fast enough if my fist connects with your pretty little snout!" the tall man laughed.
"Stop! Please -- I need to rest a moment." Justin put down his wrapped hands and bent over, trying to catch his breath.
Thayer, the old ex-boxer, immediately stepped in and leaned over, patting the boy's sweat-slicked back to encourage him. "The lad's just a bit winded is all." And Justin straightened himself up ever so slowly.
Brian took Justin by the hand and led him off the canvas, sitting him on a low stool. Brian folded an old horse blanket around Justin's shoulders so that he would not catch a chill in the drafty room. "I think that is enough for today's lesson," the man said, rubbing the rough blanket against the boy's damp skin. The old blanket smelled like a manly concoction of sweat and rubbing alcohol.
Justin nodded. "Sparring sure gets you into a lather!"
Brian smiled and raised an eyebrow. "That... and other things." Brian unraveled the rags that protected the boy's knuckles from around his hands and discarded them on the sawdust covered floor.
Justin grinned back, massaging the feeling back into his stiff fingers. "That Minnie sure was right about you, Brian. You ARE a big, bad man!"
"I thought you were well aware of that already?" Brian picked up a large sponge out of the bucket and squeezed the water in it over his head and bare torso, rinsing off the perspiration. He leaned back his head, dousing his face with the cool liquid. Brian was dressed only in a pair of old britches and his naked flesh was flushed and hot from working in the ring with Thayer and then the short session with Justin.
Justin stared at Brian, feeling the lust already rising into his loins. He moved closer to the tall man until his body was touching Brian's. "You wouldn't really punch me in the nose, would you, Brian?" Justin inquired softly.
"Not intentionally," Brian answered. He ran a finger along the boy's firm jaw. "Which is why you must always keep your guard up, Justin. It wouldn't do to go home tomorrow with a black eye -- or worse! Then you would really need to explain to your mother where it is you have been going every weekend for the past two months!"
Justin took the wet sponge from Brian and dipped it into the bucket of cool water. The water had a strong oak smell from the rough wood. He sponged himself off and then pushed his long yellow hair back from his face with his right hand. Justin was also stripped to his britches, but he couldn't help but compare his own thin, pale chest and child-like shoulders to Brian's smooth, muscular body and hard, strong arms. Justin knew that the Irishman had been coming to Johansen's Sparring Academy for many years now to spar with Thayer or one of the other trainers or ex-boxers who spent their days there, working out continually to build up his strength and develop his lean but powerful physique. Brian had begun to bring Justin with him shortly after the New Year, usually on Saturday afternoon or early on Sunday before Justin was expected to return home.
Justin had been spending most of his weekends away from home ever since Christmas and his mother had come to accept that fact. Justin would not even hint at where he went or who he was with, but Jenny Taylor feared the worst -- the influence of a bad woman. When she stated as much to her son, he laughed and would say only that he was staying 'with a friend' and comment no further. Justin and his mother had had many words over it, but they had since come to an impasse which Jenny Taylor had been afraid to break. Her son had been vehement in his threats to run away for good if his mother tried to hinder him or lock him up again! And Justin's father, always preoccupied with his business, was none the wiser -- at least not yet.
Brian had put the boy into the ring that very first Saturday in January that he'd brought Justin with him to watch him sparring with the other men. The tall Irishman had chased the kid around the ring for a half hour or so to work up a good sweat, and that had now become their custom. After the sparring session they would usually repair to the bath house to refresh themselves, have a beefsteak dinner and a beer at Mae's Rosebud Saloon, and then return to Brian's room at Clarke's Hotel for further physical exertions of a different kind.
Thayer had helped train Brian when he had first started coming to the Sparring Academy, during the first year of his employment at 'The Pittsburgh Clarion,' and now he enjoyed giving young Justin pointers and encouraging him, too. The battered old boxer showed the boy how to take a stance in the ring, how to protect his face and his brisket from the counter-punch, and how to move his feet without tripping over them.
Yup, thought Thayer, he's a scrawny lad, but no scrawnier than Brian had been at a like age, and with a heap more spunk in his spirit. Of course, Brian had been a sickly sort of kid who'd seen a lot of trouble in his short life. And he'd been so much less sure of himself than the privileged and pampered Justin Taylor. It had been a point of pride to Thayer to take Black Jack's nance of a son and over the years build him up into a fine specimen of a man, which Brian certainly was nowadays. Yes, and with a powerful right, too. He was Black Jack Kinney's pup, that was for certain! If only the man would pile on 50 or 60 more pounds, why, they would clean up in the boxing ring, Thayer was sure of it! That would stop the mouths of a lot of men in this town who still saw Brian as Reynolds' Boy, that it would.
And Brian was very protective of his own Boy. He would not allow anyone other than Thayer or himself to mix it up with the kid on the canvas. Brian did not trust anyone else not to hurt Justin, even inadvertently. But Brian also wanted his young lover to be able to defend himself -- if things ever came to that. As cocky and confident as he was, Brian knew that Justin had so far lived a sheltered and coddled life. But the tall reporter also knew that it would not always be so, especially if Justin was destined to be a man apart, like Brian was himself.
"Mr. Reynolds! I bid you welcome to my establishment, sir!"
"Mr. Ferguson," the tall gambler nodded, looking around the spacious room. A pair of young fighters were sparring in the main ring, while other pairs, along with their trainers, were at work in the corners. Reynolds had been told that Ferguson's Athletic Club was the premiere boxing academy in St. Louis and he wanted to see it for himself.
"What can I do for you, sir?" asked the florid Scotsman. Everyone in the boxing fancy knew William Reynolds, even if only by reputation. He was elegant and obviously successful, dressing in only the most expensive broadcloth even in the heat of a Missouri summer. Ferguson knew that the man expected first rate treatment wherever he went -- and that he usually got it. Men in the sporting world respected a fellow who could live by the cut of the cards or a well placed wager and Reynolds was a man at the top of his game.
But Ferguson also felt intimidated by the gambler's superior demeanor and the way he was sizing up his establishment. The Scotsman wondered what the gambler wanted at his place. There were no big matches coming up at this time of year that Reynolds might be trying to garner information about.
And the fellow had his Boy with him. Ferguson had heard about him, as well. Reynolds' Boy. Some story about a poker game in a whorehouse where the gambler had won the laddie with a hand of four jacks. Some said that the game had been rigged, too. That was another thing about Reynolds and all gamblers -- you never knew if they were on the up and up.
The Boy gazed around the room apprehensively. The Scotsman had no taste for boys himself, but he had to admit that this one was a tempting piece, with silky golden brown hair, full red lips, and black lashes longer than any female's. The proprietor of the boxing club had lived too long on the Frontier, where women were often in short supply, to begrudge a fellow his small vice, especially not a fellow like Reynolds, who was rumored to be as handy with a pistol as he was with a deck of cards.
"I wonder, Mr. Ferguson, if you might do me a slight favor? I have recently arrived in this city from Cincinnati and was directed to your establishment." The gambler took out a good Havana cigar and handed it to his Boy, who deftly clipped off the ends with a pair of gold-plated scissors, put the Havana in his mouth, lit it, stoked it, and returned it to his master. It was an impressive performance. Ferguson's eyes lingered on those extremely red lips that had puffed the cigar.
"Yes?" Ferguson cocked his head. He couldn't imagine what favor the gambler could possibly want from him.
"I shall come directly to the point, sir. I would like for you or one of your expert men to give my Boy here a few lessons in the pugilistic arts." Reynolds nudged the lad forward, but he would not look up at Ferguson. His delicate face was red with embarrassment. "Take off your jacket, Brian," the gambler ordered. "Show the man what you are made of."
The lad shrugged off his brown corded jacket. Underneath he was wearing a fine white lawn shirt with lace trim and tiny pearl buttons. A fancy silver and gold bracelet hung loosely on his thin wrist. The boy stood and hugged himself, his eyes trained on the hard dirt floor.
"Your shirt as well, Boy," the gambler instructed. The lad looked up, his eyes begging the man. But then he slowly unbuttoned the shirt and slipped it off. A number of fresh-looking bruises bloomed along his ribs, which stood out painfully on his meager torso.
Ferguson frowned as he perused the Boy's body. Someone had used the lad for a few rounds of sparring, that was certain. He glanced at the gambler, whose face was impassive. Would this well-dressed slicker do this to his Boy and then show it off to a total stranger? The Scotsman took a deep breath. "No offense to you, Mr. Reynolds, but I canna teach this laddie boxing!"
"And why not, may I ask?" said Reynolds, his eyes steely.
"Well, look at him!" Ferguson replied. "He's... he's just not the manly sort!"
"All the more reason for him to learn to defend himself," Reynolds countered firmly. Now Ferguson could hear the anger in the tall gambler's voice. "That is why I have brought him here. He got into a bit of difficulty the other day. Some toughs accosted him when he was out on his own. They roughed him up in broad daylight and not a single person in your fair city came to his aid." The gambler took a few agitated puffs on his cigar before he continued. "And since I cannot be with him every moment of the day, as much as I would like to be, I want him at least to be able to fight back if he is attacked again. My Boy is no one's easy prey, Mr. Ferguson." The gambler reached over and toyed with a lock of the lad's long, golden brown hair. "A bully will usually retreat when he discovers that his target can retaliate. I don't expect you to turn my Boy into a fighter, sir, but I want you to teach him how NOT to be a victim."
All the while the lad stood there shivering, although it was a humid August day. Ferguson felt sorry for the lad. What kind of a life must he be living? Perhaps the only one he knew, if the stories were indeed true. But he also seemed well aware of what he was and to have accepted that pitiable Fate. Perhaps Ferguson could, in fact, instill a little confidence in Reynolds' Boy. It would be a challenge, but the Scotsman had never yet shirked a challenge!
"Take off your boots, laddie," said Ferguson. The Boy glanced over at his mentor, as if asking permission, and then he pulled off the boots and set them down carefully, side by side. "Climb up into the ring."
Again, the lad hesitated, but he did as he was bid. The other men and boys had stopped what they were doing by this time and come over to idle and watch the spectacle of Reynolds' Boy standing half-naked in the ring. The gambler, meanwhile, stood back and gazed, his smooth countenance betraying none of the anger that had been in his voice.
"You must keep your paws up to protect your face, like so," said Ferguson, standing before the boy on the canvas. Ferguson held his arms up to shield his body, his fists balled tightly. "That way they canna hit you in the jaw or the nose." Ferguson jabbed at the lad gently, not even coming near to his head.
But the Boy cowered back, covering his face with his hands, as all the men laughed and jeered.
Ferguson sighed. "Don't do that, laddie. You have to FACE your opponent. Stare him in the eye. Let him know that you aren't afraid of him!"
"Let me run home! My kid sister should be able to give the brat a good fight!" called out one of the young sparring partners. "She's almost 7 years old!" And all the men roared with laughter, while Reynolds' Boy put his head down in humiliation.
"I suppose you think you are an amusing fellow," said the gambler. He set his cigar down on a ledge and walked towards the ring.
"Not as amusing as watching Ferguson trying to box with that nance!" the young man guffawed.
"Perhaps you would like to spar with me, then? Perhaps you would find THAT amusing?"
The fellow gaped, slackjawed, at the gambler. With his fancy duds and his clean white hands he didn't look the type to work up sweat under any circumstance.
"Do it, Bob! Go ahead!" The other idlers encouraged their friend. This might be as diverting as watching Ferguson trying to work the Boy.
"Sure, mister," replied Bob. "What about a wager? A penny a knockdown?"
Reynolds narrowed his eyes at the young man. "What about two bits a knockdown?"
But the young man balked. "That's a might steep." But his pals nodded at him. Bob was young and strong and a regular at the Athletic Club. They knew him for a first rate brawler.
"Are all of you fellows in, then?" asked the gambler, reaching into his waistcoat and pulling out some coins.
"Sure, mister!" They all exchanged glances. They might win enough change off this dandy to go on a real spree, especially if the gambler held up for at least a couple of rounds.
Reynolds reached up and took Brian's hand, gently helping him down from the ring. "Hold my coat, Boy. I don't want it to fall on this filthy floor." He took off his black frock coat and then his waistcoat. The other men noted the fine embroidered work on the waistcoat and also the fine quality of the linen shirt that Reynolds stripped off. His hairy torso looked harder than they had imagined. He handed the shirt to his Boy, who stood back while his master took off his boots. Those boots were polished to a mirror-like shine.
Bob scrambled into the ring, anxious to show off in front of his cronies. He was of medium height, with a broad chest and bandy legs. But when Reynolds stood up next to Bob, a head taller, his body lean, straight, and well-proportioned, it looked like an aesthetic mismatch. Ferguson, standing next to Brian, shook his head knowingly. But Bob's compatriots hooted and called out to their friend, certain that he'd prevail over the fancy stranger.
Reynolds watched as young Bob hopped about the ring, grinning at his pals. He jabbed in the direction of his opponent, attempting to intimidate Reynolds with his bold moves.
"Brian!" Reynolds called out to his Boy. The gambler was positioned well back of Bob, his guard held high. "Remember what I told you about the inclination of a bully? You must strike quickly and show that you are no man's easy mark!"
And with that Reynolds stepped in and caught the prancing Bob directly in the jaw with a hard, swift right, dropping him to the canvas with a heavy thud.
"Sweet Lord!" swore Ferguson. The Boy next to him held his hands up over his mouth.
Reynolds stared down at his unconscious foe. "I believe he owes me two bits," said the gambler, climbing out of the ring and stepping down to the floor. "And you may also collect from these gentlemen, Brian." He indicated the idlers, who stood with their mouths gaping.
Bob's cronies muttered under their breath as Reynolds' Boy gathered up their coins and delivered them over to his master, who was buttoning up his shirt.
The tall gambler put his hand on his Boy's shoulder and squeezed it. "So, Brian," said the man, smiling. The Boy smiled back at him. "I believe that ends our lesson for today."
"It's a powerful cold night. Should I put some more wood into the stove and stoke it up, Brian?" asked Justin, taking off his coat and hanging it by the door.
"You may if you are planning to spend some time sitting on the settee," Brian replied. He'd already shaken out his greatcoat and stripped off his jacket and trousers, leaving on only his long shirt. He lit the candle next to the bed. "I think I'll put out that extra quilt instead. Sara mended it and it looks as good as new." Brian opened the press and took out the folded quilt. "Help me lay it over the bed, Justin."
Justin took the end and pulled it across the bed, smoothing the ends down and straight. "It looks nice and warm, Brian!" The boy pulled off his boots and woolen socks, then tossed his britches and blue wool shirt on the chair. He wriggled himself under the pile of quilts and blankets, warming a spot for himself.
Then he watched as Brian took an old piece of red flannel and drew a brick out of the embers inside the Franklin stove. He wrapped the brick carefully in the flannel and carried it to the bed. Justin lifted up the covers and Brian set the brick against the bottom of the bedstead. Justin pushed his feet against it and felt the heat radiating from it.
"That feels grand!" he said, as Brian climbed into bed beside him.
"Already stealing all of the warmth, are you? You're a treacherous pup!" the man complained. He pushed the boy's feet away with his larger ones.
"I think there's enough for both of us," Justin asserted, pushing back. "And if there isn't, then I'll make certain that you are plenty warm, Brian. There are other ways than a heated brick, you know!"
"Are there?" Brian breathed. "Perhaps you had better demonstrate your methods."
Justin smiled and turned his body against Brian's. The room was lit only by the dying glow of the stove and the flickering candle, which seemed to cast their movements up on the wall and ceiling in large relief. "Look, Brian! Our shadows!" Justin lifted his hand and darted it this way and that, watching its image over their heads.
Brian made a fist and played at sparring with his companion's hand. "Don't knock out my poor shadow, Justin, or you shall have a devil of a time reviving him!"
Justin placed a quick kiss on his lover's lips. "I'll try not to damage you, Brian."
"I thank you for that." The man leaned back against the pillow and sighed in contentment, allowing himself to feel at peace, if only for a moment. It was not a sensation that he often allowed himself. No, not since he'd been a trusting boy and had not realized just what twists and turns the world had in store for him. He saw Justin as just such another trusting lad and Brian prayed that his innocent nature would not be shattered too soon. No, please -- not too soon!
He felt Justin's hand slowly caress him underneath his shirt, kindling a different kind of heat within his body. Then he felt the boy's hot breath against his neck, against his cheek, against his lips. Yes, it was amazing the kind of heat that could be generated on a freezing February night. And what kind of hope could be kindled in a heart that had forgotten how to hope. Yes, that was a lesson that Brian was more than willing to re-learn.
©Gaedhal, August 2003.
Posted August 7, 2003.