Chapter 1: The Red Stallion
Thursday, May 17, 1984
As Colson Grey approached the door, putting a deliberate hand on the knob as though gentling a horse about to buck, he stopped, his posture stiffening to an even harder stance, and he took a barely heard breath before he stepped inside.
So this is where the queers go, the thought dropping through his thoughts like an anvil into the bottom of his stomach. He saw one thing: the bar, and headed for it, not daring to look left or right, and slid onto an empty stool that looked isolated enough from the nearest denizen, a shadow in black leather, fortunately turned away from him, the man deep in conversation with someone out of range of his peripheral vision.
"Whiskey," he croaked, his throat sandpaper-dry, and the young—way too young—tender, dressed in a too-brief tank top that showed much too much of his defined pecs and the shadowy rise of his nipples, sparkled at him, "Sure enough," and poured him a Jack Daniels, giving him a brief but appraising glance.
"You're new here," the bartender persisted, moving a half an inch closer, which caused Colson to flinch and lower his head a corresponding half inch to avoid the view of the bartender's inviting body. "I'm Wayne."
"Howdy, Wayne," he choked after gulping half his shot, and did not offer his name. Colson had driven four hours into Tourmaline, to the gay bar that was advertised in the paper, his heart in his throat. He still didn't know quite why. To look at the queers? To try to figure out if he was one of them? To put Adam's ghost to rest, he said to himself, setting the glass neatly on the bar in front of him. "Another one of those, Wayne," he said, his voice even drier and more raspy than before. Somewhere on the right of him, he saw bodies in red and black and blue, moving on the dance floor further inside the bar, and the jukebox was playing a rapid country violin song whose name he never knew. He didn't turn his head to watch.
"You're a talkative one," Wayne commented, his manner still open but calculatedly cooler, to communicate to Colson that he was just doing his job.
"Say enough to get the whiskey in the glass," Colson groused, annoyed that he hadn't yet provoked the kid to frowning at him and backing away.
"He'll have another on me," said a deep voice behind and to the right—the direction he refused to turn, and he heard and felt another man slide onto the stool beside him, his head coming up that requisite inch or two needed to catch a glance without actually appearing curious. He inhaled, cautiously, and smelled only the swirling ambient smoke of the bar and the tang of his whiskey in his mouth.
"I can buy my own," he argued as his glance came up, and he stopped speaking then, getting a glimpse of deep brown eyes and almost-black hair tumbling out from under an iron-gray Resistol.
"Sure you can but that wouldn't hardly be a friendly gesture," the deep bass was rich with humor, unoffended by his gruff reply, and before he could retort with another argument a large square hand was thrust at him and he had no choice but to shake it. "Name's Bill Early."
"Colson," he choked out. "Grey. If yer buyin me a drink cuz—," he started, wildly defensive as he felt hemmed in by the conventions of acquaintance in this horrifying place he never dared breach in the past.
"Buyin you a drink cuz I wanna make sure I got someone ta drink with," Bill interrupted, nodding firmly at Wayne. Colson was at a total loss, his mouth opening slightly to object once again, but no words emerged.
Bill laughed, apropos of nothing. "You look like someone hit you over the head and dumped you in the front door, Grey. Don't tell me you never been to a gay bar before."
Colson cracked a ghost of a smile. "Nope, never been," and in tacit acceptance of Bill's existence, picked up the shot Wayne had poured for him and downed it rapidly. He was starting to feel like he could make eye contact...but not yet, not quite. "Pour me another Wayne," he rasped once more, his voice carrying a bare hint of desperation.
"Well hell, we got us a virgin, Wayne, you know what that means." It was then that Colson's head came up, and his gazed fixed on the relaxed cowpuncher straddling the stool beside him.
"Don't fuck with me, Bill Early," he growled, his voice a hot threat.
"Easy does it Colson," he raised a hand, less threatened than Colson's voice might otherwise indicate. "It's just that we got a tradition here at the Red Stallion...first whiskey is on the house." He smiled a disarming grin that could have been a come on or could have been merely the charm of a salesman.
Colson unclenched his right hook and set it on the bar in plain sight, unfurled, feeling like a dumbass country boy. "Oh. Sorry. Um...thanks."
Wayne smiled hopefully. "An Bill here owns the joint so what he says goes," he added rapidly, setting up another shot for Colson.
"I like to make sure the customers are comfortable, specially the new ones, know what I mean?" Bill looked a little more closely at Colson. "Make sure they...fit in."
Colson's mind cleared suddenly of the gathering fog of whiskey, and blinked several times, then his eyes latched on to Bill's. "Whaddaya mean, fit in?"
"This here's a gay bar, friend," Bill said, the word rolling out of his mouth as easy as a prayer on Sunday, and got a bit louder and stronger, the sound of a proud owner protecting his territory. "And those rather well endowed fellahs standin around the pool table are the bouncers. That way if any good ol' boy comes in to ruin our queer good time, they get a nice bounce out the door. You wouldn't be here to ruin anyone's queer good time would you Colson?" He gestured easily to a crowd of men watching the billiard table intently—by mere size, any of them looked like they could lick Colson in a nasty fight.
Colson's mouth fell slowly open. Of all the things he feared would happen here, this was not it: being asked to prove he had a right to be in a queer bar!
"Nope, not here to ruin anyone's...good time," he said. "Just...lookin around."
Bill's eyebrows shot up at that. "First time eh?" the territorial tone in his voice softened.
Colson nodded, still trying to get command of his voice, the whiskey helping him only slightly. "Saw an ad in the paper, figured I would see how different this was from a...you know, a regular bar."
Bill leaned in a little more closely...confidentially, not quite intimately.
"You ever been with a man, Colson?" he asked, his voice soft, barely heard over the manic violin, Colson grateful that the inquiry did not carry the way Bill's other pronouncements had.
"Um. Yeah." His face burned hot, then, and Bill sat back, seeing all he needed to see.
"You ain't never told anyone that I'll bet. Give the man another whiskey, Wayne. Well don't worry none about that Colson, there ain't anyone here that I haven't personally checked out, and when someone I don't know—like you—comes in the door they get the same treatment. After a couple a shots that is." His grin widened once again.
Colson, completely unnerved by the casual openness of the bar owner, the venue, the entire atmosphere—how could this exist only a few hours from home, where no one ever spoke of these things, never mind imagined them?—and thought of the only defense he could.
"You queer?" he challenged, tossing the words at Bill as if they were daggers.
"You bet, friend. What's the matter, do I look too straight to you? You look pretty fuckin straight yourself if you don't mind my sayin."
"Well, yeah," he replied, having lost any further eloquence in his fourth shot of whiskey. "So do those guys," he jerked a thumb at the bouncers.
"Well if that's the type you like we got plenty of em. We got ol' Wayne's type too, that like to parade around like prize heifers at the 4-H too." He gave Wayne a warm smile, and Wayne blushed, taking a few steps back to give the men privacy.
"Uh. Right." Colson kept his eyes deliberately away from the barely-clothed chest of the bartender, his eyes wandering just barely enough to take in the glittering gold ring in his left ear and what he could swear was eyeliner on Wayne's eyelids. He fixed his gaze on a place between his half-finished fourth shot and the bar owner, and cleared his throat.
Bill Early placed his hands side by side on the bartop and pushed himself to his feet, turning to greet a new arrival, whom Colson did not see approach, tilting his own hat back slightly to make a show of thanking Bill for "checking him out." In actual fact, Colson felt a far greater sense of security at knowing the bar owner was watching all unfamiliar faces, and had assured him of at least some level of discretion and privacy here. As Colson turned slightly in the chair to thank him he saw the big man's arms slip around the middle of a slim dancer who had just emerged from the dance floor, long blond hair dripping sweat, felt as much as heard the wet smack of lips, and his throat went completely dry once more while Bill and his lover exchanged a hot kiss not a foot from him. He froze, sweat beading on his forehead, his face blazing hot, by the time Bill broke the kiss and swung the smaller man around, clinching him in a possessive embrace around the shoulders.
"This here's my partner, Gene. Say hi to Colson Grey, Gene, he's pretending he's the only straight man here."
The blond let out a soft chuckle, almost a giggle, his voice tenor, high...a little too high for his looks. "Oh, like Bill here." He patted Bill's plaid shirt fondly and flopped onto a stool. "Nice to meet you Mr. Grey. Gene Autry."
"No shit," Colson stammered. "Like the..."
"Yeah, distant third cousin on the distaff side and my momma HAD to name me Gene too, but I can't sing for shit. I sure can dance though!" The blond tossed his head, a little Mary in his behavior, obviously some sort of a put-on manner for him. Bill patted Gene's shoulder then leaned back over the bar toward Wayne. "Just beer for sweetums tonight, he's watching his girlish figure."
Colson's head swam. This was too much. First, watching—or hearing—this big cowboy macking on the gorgeous blond dancer, whose looks drew even Colson's slow gaze, then the intimate language...it was like some sort of weird dream, like the ones Adam used to imagine...two men living together, having a sweet queer life where no one interfered, and no one bashed you to death for it...
He clutched his shot glass, his belly tightening with the intensifying urge to bolt, when the main door of the bar slammed and in came a hot fury, dressed all in black, topped by a black, narrow brimmed hat. "Goddammitall!" he swore, fighting with the door as he lurched in through it. The man—whoever he was, was already quite drunk, and made for the empty stool to the left of Colson so abruptly that Colson rose, alarmed, to his feet, just in time for the front of his shirt to be grabbed by the lurching, beer-soaked newcomer.
"Hey Pete, you don't look like you need any more a those," Bill boomed, still patting Gene Autry's shoulder in a more or less automatic fashion, as if the motion would cool his lover off from dancing.
Colson staggered back and landed heavily back on his own barstool, feeling the whiskey like an anesthetic, distancing himself slightly from the rapid development of things around him, but Pete still clung to him, and as he straightened up and peered up at Colson (he was a full head shorter than Colson when standing straight up) his face showed a fresh, purpling bruise under one eye. Colson winced.
"Somebody hurt you boy?" he said, forgetting his paranoiac protectiveness in a sudden sympathy for the drunk youth, noting quickly that his shirt and jacket were dirty, and he had several cuts and scrapes on his hands and face.
"Damn asshole threw me out," he groused, steadying himself unselfconsciously on Colson's shoulder as he tried to balance on his stool.
"Oh honey," Gene sighed. "He ain’t worth it."
"Damn straight," Bill chimed in. "Course I coulda told you he had a fast hand and a short fuse, Pete. Let's get you cleaned up."
What happened next shocked Colson. He stood up, his hand tightening on Pete's shoulder. "I'll do it. You stay with yer man, Bill."
The bar owner's eyes twinkled a little and he smiled. "Good man, Grey." Using a firm grip, Colson maneuvered Pete up out of his stool, now showing little resistance, and handed him the remainder of his shot of whiskey. "Here, drink this, then let's wash you up, all right?"
The dark-eyed youth peered at Colson, taking the shot from his hand and downing it in a practiced gulp, making Colson look a bit more closely. Too young to be taking his whiskey that quick, he thought. Under the long sleeved black shirt, Pete felt slim, frail, and Colson had a moment of worry that he might have more bruises than just the ones he could see. Pete made a vague gesture of handing the shot glass back to Colson, weaving back and forth, unable to hold himself steady on his feet, even with Colson's firm arm holding him, and Colson set the glass down. "Which way's the gents?" he asked Wayne, and followed where the bartender pointed, dragging as much as leading Pete down a hallway away from the dance floor.
Colson manhandled Pete into through the door, fortunately unoccupied at the moment, and managed a good look at him as he did. Small-framed, smaller than Adam, he noted quickly, no more than five six or five seven. His clothes, though dirty, were quite new—a sleek bolo tie neatly cinched in a silver brooch that could easily cost Colson two months' pay. Used to handling large, ungainly stock, Colson propped Pete up against the sink and unbuttoned his shirt cuffs, sliding them up. As he had suspected, the boy was a mass of bruises. He hadn't been punched—he had been beaten. "Ah shit..." he said softly. "Pete what'd this dude do to ya?" and turned the hot water tap to high.
"You don' wanna know..." Pete murmured...then lifted his drowsy head and blinked, trying to focus on the unfamiliar face. "Hey, who the hell are you?"
"Name's Colson, boy. Just dropped in for a shot or two and you sat on my lap."
"Oh." Pete blinked several more times as Colson pulled several paper towels down from the dispenser and wet them.
"Lift yer head, let me clean yer face," he said gruffly, made defensive by the innocent confusion of the youth, whose fury had given way to the aches and pains of the beating he must have just sustained.
As he applied the wet towel to the swollen gash on Pete's cheek the boy said "Did we fuck?"
Colson stopped dead. "Uh. Whut?"
"Did we fuck? I can't remember."
"Hell no, if we had I'd sure remember," Colson growled. "Never met you before."
"Oh," Pete said, wincing as Colson picked up the handful of towel again and applied it gently to his bruise.
"You might need a stitch, boy. Gotta take a look, see if you got any other bad ones." He cautiously loosened the tie, as Pete's head fell back slightly. He was still weaving a bit, but holding on to the sink now, keeping him from slipping or falling over. Very nearly dead drunk now, and feeling it, Colson concluded, and slipped the crisp new shirt off his shoulders to reveal a tshirt dotted with blood from oozing scrapes. "Damn looks like you got thrown down a flight of stairs, boy."
"Two," Pete murmured, his eyes now tightly closed. "Wilson is a big guy, uh er—what'd you say yer name was?"
"Jes call me Cole. Who is this Wilson fellah? He gonna come after you?"
"After he threw me out of his apartment? Don't think so, er, Cole. Oh damn that hurts. Think my wrist is sprained."
Colson maneuvered Pete out of his t-shirt so he could inspect the other bleeding cuts and bruises, and just as he was gingerly pulling it over his head a half-wasted patron stumbled in through the door. "Hey, you ain't supposed ta be fuckin in here, get a room!" he sneered.
"Fuck off," Colson growled. "Boy's hurt." He steadied Pete with his arm as he moved to step between the boy and the equally-inebriated busybody, who suddenly lost interest and weaved his way to the urinals, fumbling with his belt.
Colson was quickly growing more and more concerned about Pete, who had actually not looked quite that damaged when he came in the bar...but perhaps the shock which had borne him away from the scene of the beating had begun to wear off. He knew what that was like.
Pete thrust his hands into the hot running water, splashing some up onto his face and chest now, growing a bit more alert. "Thanks a lot for helpin me Cole, I do 'ppreciate it."
"No problem. But Pete...he do anything to ya...down below?" Colson winced slightly, not really wanting to know.
Pete stared a long moment at Colson, his face dripping. "Oh...you mean did he rape me? Nope, not this time. Just knocked me up and made sure I wouldn't be too pretty for a while. But that's that. Married man an all, and he thinks he got a right to tell me not to fuck anybody else...who does he think he is..." he filled his cupped hands with hot water and splashed them up onto his narrow chest, making little trickles of blood run down and soak into the waist of his pants.
"Jesus Christ boy," Colson shook his head. Catching glimpses of beefcake Wayne at the bar in his barely-there tank top, listening to Bill smooching his little boyfriend were one level of shock, but helping a man whose boyfriend had just beat him up and tossed him down the stairs was a whole lot more queer life than Colson had bargained for when he headed southeast on to the 666 and on to Tourmaline this Thursday night.