The day he walked into town was hot and dry. My eyes stung as I pitched hay to the horses, clouds of dust and chaff billowing up around me. A shadow fell across the door and I looked out into the street as he passed. He stood over six feet, thick muscles bulging and black as Satan. I dropped my pitchfork and stared after him along with all the old geezers in rocking chairs lining the hotel veranda. I’d never seen a black man before.
“What are you staring at, boy?” Marvin yelled in my ear, thumping the back of my head until my teeth ached. “You got work to do.”
“But Marvin, look,” I pointed, cowering as he menaced me with a fist.
I went back to work. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Marvin watch the man, fuming. He was always in a lather about something. He stomped out. I heard him hollering up the street.
“Hey, you! What you want here?”
A rumble of a voice answered, soft and deep.
I slept in the hay with the horses at night. Marvin said there was no need for me anywhere else. Best I kept handy if someone wanted a horse in the night. That night, I pulled an old blanket around me and fingered the hole in my britches.
Where’d he come from? Why is he here? Ain’t it a terrible thing to have black skin?
A rustling in the hay close by startled me to my feet. Up and up I looked, first at a powerful dark hand and then past the thick chest to his face. Swallowing the lump of terror in my throat, I backed up a step.
“Marvin sent me here for the night,” he said. “Can I borrow some hay?”
I nodded. His sinewy arms pitched a pile of hay down beside me. He could tear me from top to bottom if he wanted.
Setting the pitch fork against the wall, he took off his hat and threw himself down on the pile. I sank down in mine slowly, shrinking under my blanket. He smiled over at me, teeth fairly sparkling in the dark. He held out his hand.
“I’m Justice Peace,” he said, grasping my hand and shaking it. “Who’re you?”
I stared at him. Marvin called me “boy” whenever he wanted me. He’d called me that for the past eight years. What was it that my mother used to call me, as she lay on her bed wracked with pain?
“Timothy,” I said, my hand still swallowed up in his. “I’m Timothy.”
Justice stayed and worked for Marvin. Marvin lorded it over the both of us, kicking and cursing us awake in the morning. Justice did the worst kinds of work, sweeping the veranda, emptying the chamber pots, taking the abuse and insults customers threw at him. All this even though Marvin knew he was a skilled worker.
The day after he arrived, a longhorn bull broke away from the livestock pen and charged a toddler that had wandered into the street. While everyone stared in horror, Justice whipped a lasso off a fencepost, swung it around his head and cast, landing it right under the brute’s hind legs. Quick as a flash, Justice jerked it tight, and the bull fell flat. He jumped to the animal’s side and tied him down the rest of the way. The street was eerily quiet as Justice walked back to the veranda with his apron still on, picked up the broom and started sweeping again.
Marvin disliked him the more for it and taunted him about his cowboy tricks.
“Why do you let him do that?” I blurted one night. “You’re twice as big as he is. You could break his neck, no trouble.”
“Is that what you want?” he asked.
“You bet,” I whispered. “I hate him. Every time I pick up the fork, I wanna shove it right through his fat belly.”
“Don’t, Tim,” he said, eyes sorrowful.
“You’re a weakling,” I spat and turned to the wall.
“Someday, Tim,” he spoke to my back, “I’ll stand up and fight. But it’s gonna be for something more important than my pride. ‘Cause the day I fight, is the day I’ll die. Bet on it.”
“No,” he said. “But it’s like this-one of me can’t fight and win. Someday, there’s gonna be thousands. That’s when we’ll fight and win. Meanwhile, I gotta do what the good Lord says. Love my enemy.”
It happened on the fourth of July. The town caroused and drank. Justice carried a keg up the steps. A painted girl passed by, and some drunken fool grabbed her by the hair and started dragging her off. She screamed and fought but no one helped. She was a whore so nobody cared. Justice laid down his burden and put a hand on the man’s arm.
“Leave her be.”
The man laughed and kept after her, trying to pull her in a doorway. Justice watched them, a decision weighing in his face.
Don’t! I wanted to yell. She’s nothin’ but a slut.
Justice grabbed him by the shoulder, swung him around and laid him flat in one blow.
People stared silently. Justice waited, face quiet and calm.
A man in the crowd pulled his gun and leveled it at Justice’s heart.
“Run!” I mouthed.
The gun exploded and Justice fell.
“Shoulda hung him. Wasted a good bullet,” the man laughed
I ran to Justice. He shook and struggled to breath.
“Get away, boy,” Marvin hissed, yanking my arm.
“Don’t touch me,” I screamed, grabbing Justice’s broom and charging.
“Tim,” Justice gasped, stopping me with his eyes, and died.
The broom hung in mid-air, then crashed to the ground. I knelt by his body and wept. The party had started again. The girl ran away. To them, he was no better than a pile of dung on the ground. To me, he was purest gold.