Midnight Tan

When Pa told me he hired a new ranch hand, I’d shrugged my shoulders and stuffed another bite of rice and beans in my mouth, a few grains falling back to my plate. He made mention of remembering my niceties, and I nodded while shoveling in more food. Never once did he mention the cowboy had skin dark as night.

“Have you ever seen one?”

“No. He looks like a Mexican with a tan,” my friend John said. “Do you think he can see his hand in the dark?”

I whopped him on the head. “Can you see your hand in the dark? Course not.”

When Pa told me he hired a new ranch hand, I’d shrugged my shoulders and stuffed another bite of rice and beans in my mouth, a few grains falling back to my plate. He made mention of remembering my niceties, and I nodded while shoveling in more food. Never once did he mention the cowboy had skin dark as night. So when John and I set out to play kick the can with some of the others, we hid behind the tool shed the second we saw the new hand.

John and I’d seen plenty of Mexicans, played with a few too. José always won when we played marbles. One day I’d win my aggie back, God willing. But Negroes weren’t too common in our state, and even less common in our corner of the desert.

“Let’s go talk to him.”

John yanked me back behind the shed. “We can’t do that. What if he touches us?”

“So.”

“So, they carry illnesses. You don’t wanna get sick.”

“Pa wouldn’t have hired him if he carried illnesses—not if he’s working with the herd. Come on.”

John picked up an old, half-rotted two by four and skulked behind me. As I approached the new hand, I turned my head and rolled my eyes at my friend, motioning for him to drop the unneeded protection. He shook his head and stood back.

“Hi there.”

The man tipped his brimmed hat as he continued to stare across the ranch.

“We’ve got lots of land. The cows like to hide some. I guess Pa hired you to help bring ‘em in.”

His eyes shifted, looked me up and down, then returned to their original position. “He did.”

“Name’s Will.” I held out my hand, but he ignored it.

“Matthew.”

“Where you from?”

“South… Will, you got a friend ready to beat my brains in.”

“John? Nah, he’s just scared you’ll make him sick. Wood’s rotten anyway.”

Matthew swung around, feet sliding in the dirt as he yelled boo. The two by four broke in pieces when John dropped it and ran all the way down the drive faster than a coyote chasing a rabbit. Ebony hands gripped leather-bound knees as the new ranch hand’s entire body shook with laughter.

I squinted and looked into Matthew’s eyes, sunlight haloing his head. “What d’you do that for?”

“Don’t need no hasslin’.”

“John’s no hassler; he’s just never seen someone like you before?”

“Thought I’d make him sick.”

“Probably his Pa talking.”

“How come you’re not scared?” He eyed my blond hair and blue eyes with a raised eyebrow.

“Pa only hires the best.”

“And my midnight tan?” He folded his arms over his chest, a giant bear that relaxed the more we talked.

I shrugged. “Is it a tan?”

“No.” He squatted next to me. “And the sun don’t hurt me like it does you.”

I reached my hand out toward his arm, “Really?”

He flinched but allowed me to touch his skin. It felt just like mine. “I wish I didn’t burn.”

Matthew stood up and returned to the fence. “Friend’s back.”

Turning around, I viewed John far off, hunkered down under a tree. Puffs of dirt bloomed around my boots as I sped to tell him about Matthew. Under the Mesquite, I bent over to catch my breath as I narrowed my eyes at my friend. “Scaredy-cat.”

“Am not.”

“Why d’you run?”

John scratched the dirt with his foot, scowling, and shrugged.

“Scaredy-cat.”

“Come on. Matthew’s nice. His skin feels like ours, and he don’t burn in the sun.”

“He doesn’t?”

“Nope.”

“I wonder what color he bleeds.”

“Red,” I scoffed. “What other color is blood?”

“I don’t know? Thought maybe he’d bleed dark rust color”

“You’re dopey.”

“Am not.” John dropped a can and kicked it.

“What’s your Pa told you?”

“About what?” He stopped and glared at me.

“About Negroes?”

“Same as yours I ‘spect.”

“Then you know they’re just people. Like us.”

John’s scowl deepened. “Pa says their scum.”

“Well, your Pa’s mean. Thinks that about Mexicans too.”

“So.”

“So, that’s why your Pa can’t keep good hands. They always steal from him because he passes up good people ‘cuz of their skin.”

“No, he don’t.”

A towering shadow covered our heads.

“Boys.”

We dropped our heads and stared at the dirt. Something in the tone of the voice humbled us both.

“Sorry I scared you back there, John.”

John turned his head away from Matthew.

“He’s a scaredy-cat,” I mumbled.

“Will,” Matthew said, “I don’t like name callin’. Been called too many myself.”

“Sorry.”

“Saw you kickin’ your can, John. You got a good leg.” He held out his hand toward the rusted tin. “Can I see it?”

John picked up the can and held it in his hands.

“He won’t make you sick. I touched him and ain’t sick.” I said, whispering toward my friend’s ear.

Handing the can to Matthew, he watched as the man dropped it back to the ground. “Kids back home like to lift their toes when they kick. Like this.”

The can flipped into the air and landed twice as far as it had for John. Kicking the can high and far wasn’t necessary for the game, but it sure meant something to us boys.

“Wow!” John turned to me. “That puts Tommy’s kick to shame.”

“Yeah.” My jaw hung as low as John’s.

“Can you show me that again?” he asked.

Matthew played a few rounds of kick the can with us before Ma rang the dinner bell.

We said our farewells to John and walked up to the house together.

“Ma makes the best food. You’re gonna love it.”

Matthew stood still and furrowed his brow. “Will, I wanna thank you.”

My eyes widened. “For what?”

“You reminded me that bigotry is often taught.” He slapped me on the back of my neck, and we started walking again. “John’s a good kid, just been fed a bunch of lies. It’s people like you that help to unravel them fibs.”

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The Exodus

The Exodus is a fictional short story based on occurrences that took place in Missouri after Governor Lilburn Boggs signed the Extermination Order against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838.

Elizabeth awoke to the frigid February air funneling into her home through the front door. An unfamiliar hand clamped over her mouth only a second later. Kicking and flailing, she reached for Ezra but failed to find the comfort her fingertips sought. Hot breath, wreaking of stale beer and tobacco, stung her nose as muscled arms dragged and then thrust her outside,  her hands and knees sinking into the snow. Beside her, her three young children fell.

“Ma?” Peter picked up his two-year-old sister and helped Elizabeth up. “Where’s Pa?”

Heartache set aside, Elizabeth grabbed the hands of her two children, trusting Peter to carry Clara, and ran for the darkened path leading from their property to the Beckers’. “Run, hurry!”

She and the children shivered as the night air whipped through thin clothes and the six-inch snow crunched under bare feet.

“Pa!” Emily cried great racking sobs as the sound of gunfire ignited her senses further.

Warm amber light soon reflected off the glistening ice, and the mob’s horses galloped from the scene.

“Pa.” Peter turned, running toward the glow, chest heaving, and Clara bouncing in his arms as tears flowed freely from everyone’s eyes. Slowed by the toddler he carried, Elizabeth caught him by the arm.

“Take your sisters and go to the Beckers’. I’ll see to Pa.” She stared into the eyes of her oldest, lit by the blazing house, barn, and night sky. “Don’t stop, just run. And don’t let go of your sisters.”

Peter nodded.

The Beckers’ house lay several miles to the north—the only family they could trust since the order for their religious group to leave the state had been given. The others were mostly gone. Rescuers from the neighboring state helped gather families and get them to safety—oxen, horses, and cows often driven to the brink of death. Carts overflowed with the few belongings people grabbed. Others fled with nothing. She and Ezra had planned to leave the next morning. Their meager cart now burned with the barn.

Step by agonizing step, Elizabeth found her way back to their homestead. Wind pricked at her frozen skin through her nightgown. Eyes watered not only from tears but from the cold, bristling air that surrounded her. Feet numb, she picked up her skirt and ran.

Swift legs carried her toward her goal. Refusing to consider Ezra’s death, she considered only the life ahead of them. Thousands of now destitute people migrated from settlements they’d once called home to the neighboring state. People—friends—slept in the yards of rescuers with hardly a blanket for warmth. But they had food. They would rebuild, she and Ezra together.

Inconsistent breaths entered and exited Elizabeth’s lungs as she careened around the house, knees landing in the melting snow next to Ezra. “Please Ezra.”

His eyes found hers. “Help.”

She gazed at his shoulder, blood oozing from the wound. “How? What do I do?” The words stung the tip of her tongue.

“My shirt, Elizabeth, help.” Ezra tried to sit up but fell back into the snow. The melting patterns proved it was not his first attempt.

“You’ll freeze.” Elizabeth removed her undergarment and pushed the waded drawers over her husband’s wound.

“Help me stand.”

Arms around her husband, she pushed, pulled, and lifted until he wavered on his feet instead of the ground. The paleness of his face brought her rushing to support him better.

“Where are the children?”

Tears welled in Elizabeth’s eyes as she prayed continuously for their young children. How had she left them alone in the dark?

“I sent them to the Beckers’.”

“They’ll make it. The Lord will see us through.”

Following her earlier footsteps, Elizabeth led her dying husband toward the Beckers’ home. His shivering weighted his body, each movement a struggle for both him and her. The full moon rose higher in the sky, lighting the bloody footprints of their children. They added their own as a testament of their persecution.

How had people come to hate them so much? They wished only to worship God as they desired—a right given through the Constitution but forgotten by mob and government. Hate legalized the extermination of human beings because of their religious beliefs. Though given until spring, no one stopped those who hunted early. Guards stood to keep them from food and warmth, not as protection. Only those leaving were permitted to pass.

Ezra fell to his knees and clasped her hands, his teeth chattering. “Go.”

She fell beside him, holding him in her arms. “I can’t leave you, Ezra.” Blood seeped from under his hand to her nightdress as they embraced.

“Go.”

Refusing, she wrapped her arms around him. “They’ll come. Someone will come.”

Moving behind him, she pulled him against her bosom, helping him to sit. She pushed her hand against his, her soaked drawers dripping blood down his nightshirt. His eyelids fluttered as he complained about the heat, a sign of hypothermia.

“Stay awake, Ezra.”

Pushing him forward and lifting him up, she raised him to his feet. He tried to fight her, to refuse, but her strength overpowered him. “You’ll walk or I’ll drag you!”

He shuffled his foot forward.

“You can’t die. Not today, Ezra. We’ve too much to do. I don’t build houses, and I can’t raise that boy without you. Take a step.”

He eased his foot forward again.

Elizabeth rubbed her own frozen hands down his arms, attempting to warm him. The sound of wagon wheels and horses broke through the deadly wind, whipping past her ears. Don waved his arms, calling lost words to them.

Needling breaths entered Elizabeth’s lungs, a wan smile crossing her lips. “They’re here.”

They fell to their knees; she supported her husband even then.

Jumping from their seats, Don and David Becker lifted Ezra into the buckboard, where blankets lay atop straw. Wrapping him tightly in a quilt, Don eased Ezra’s hand from the wound and packed it with clean cloths. “A miracle you’re alive.”

Elizabeth, helped into the wagon by David, curled into a blanket next to her husband as their friends layered three more on top of them.

“You should be proud of Peter, Elizabeth. He got your two girls to us before collapsing himself. The three of them are wrapped up warm. Mary’s tending to their feet now.” David said, then looked at his son. “Don, we need to leave tomorrow.”

“But…” With Elizabeth’s strength depleted, her teary eyes shifted between the father and son. “Ezra.”

Her husband still shivered next to her.

“He can ride in the wagon if you and your children will pull a cart.”

She nodded.

“Mary’s got clothes for you—and your boy and girls too. I’ve some leather strips for your feet. Wish we had more to give.”

“People have given less.” She said softly.

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