This story is by Jared Abraham and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Cowboys and Indians
Deepak kept to the shadows and looked ahead to see if his path was clear. Whenever the lights of a truck appeared, he ran for cover; after the lights faded, he crept forward again. Monday through Thursday, this trip only took twenty minutes; he’d already spent twice that long tonight. Can’t be too careful, he reminded himself. Being careless is what caused it last week.
When Deepak had first decided to come to Texas, all he knew was what he’d seen in the movies. In his favorite westerns, Texas was a wild land of desperadoes and gunslingers. There were dangerous villains, but there was always a good guy who was a faster draw and protected the town. Whenever he watched those movies, he found himself smiling as he touched his kirpan, imagining himself using the small dagger in a similar way. His Sikh faith emphasized the duty to protect those who needed protection, and he hoped he’d someday have the opportunity to act like the cowboys who wore white hats.
Last week though, Deepak had learned that a hat’s color didn’t matter. Exhausted after working the late shift, he’d ignored the loud crowd in front of Gina’s Bar, grouped around several tailgates. The bar was closed, but the cowboys had taken their party outside, drinking light beer brought in coolers to make their own last call.
“Go home, towel head!” a voice yelled from the crowd. Laughter exploded around him.
Glancing across the street, Deepak was surprised to see a man in a white hat pointing at him. Keep going. You’re almost home, he told himself. The next moment though, the crowd flowed his direction and soon he was surrounded. He tried to keep moving, but the crowd pushed him back, shouting, “go home terrorist” all around him.
“I’m not a terrorist!” Deepak screamed, but the shouts of the crowd swallowed his words. Stay calm. Think your way out, he encouraged himself but there was no way out. Someone shoved him from behind, and he stumbled forward only to be pushed again by someone else. His foot dropped off the curb, and he hit the ground hard. As soon as he was able to breathe again, Deepak shrieked, “I’m a Sikh, not a Muslim!”
No one cared.
Grasping one of the surrounding oversized buckles, Deepak pulled himself up. That got him a knee to the gut. He doubled over, but his turban was grabbed from behind, yanking him upright, and his arms were pinned behind his back. When he looked up, the man with a white hat stood in front of him, cracking his knuckles. “Please, don’t do this!” Deepak begged. The cowboy’s only response was to roll up his sleeves, revealing the tattoo of a snake wrapped around his forearm.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” the cowboy slurred, then he stepped forward and rammed his fist into Deepak’s face. Pain radiated from his jaw through his neck. He would have collapsed if he hadn’t been held up. Instead, he was punched again and again. He longed to use his kirpan, but he couldn’t get his arm free, no matter how much he struggled.
When he was allowed to fall, he crumpled into a ball, covering his head with his hands and pulling his knees up to protect his belly. It’ll be over soon; it’ll be over soon; it’ll be over soon, he repeated, as the beating continued.
Sometime later, Deepak woke in a pool of blood and urine. He hurt all over, but he thought his legs and arms would still work, so he rolled to his hands and knees and lay in pain. When the pain didn’t go away, Deepak pressed down and raised himself to his feet, then stumbled the short distance to his apartment. Slamming the door behind him, he fumbled the deadbolt closed, then leaned against the door until he caught his breath, wiping away a mixture of blood, sweat, and tears.
All that Deepak remembered from the next day was pain. The pain came as he dressed for his shift. The pain came as he wrapped his turban around his long hair. The pain came as he sprinted past Gina’s Bar. The pain came as he tried to restock the shelves. A different sort of pain stabbed through his heart as he sold drinks and snacks. Why did you leave Punjab? You’re better than this! he wondered between ringing up cowboys, who were the main customers in this small town. Several times, he nearly walked out of the store, but each time he repeated, you know why you’re here! Use this opportunity!
By the next Friday, Deepak’s bruises were bearable, if still painful. After closing the store, he took as much time as he could to get the store ready. The normal routine was too quick, so he swept the entire store. When that didn’t take long enough, he mopped the store, stopping to clean underneath each shelf. He restocked items that didn’t need restocking. He cleaned the bathrooms, even though he’d cleaned them earlier. When he couldn’t find anything else, he stepped outside, his heart hammering. He checked the street, ready to jump back inside, but no one was around, so he turned and locked the door. A shiver ran up his spine, but when he jumped around to scan the street again, no one was there. Taking a long breath, he set out, repeating, Be Careful! with each step.
Before Deepak even reached the dangerous stretch, he heard the sound of laughter. Peeking around a building, he saw a crowd of cowboys circled around several tailgates. They slapped each other on the back as stories were told, and booming laughter filled the night air. Perhaps they’d gotten it out of their system last week or perhaps they didn’t think that he’d be stupid enough to pass by again, but they didn’t appear to be waiting for him. Deepak chewed his lip as he observed the scene, then warned himself, If you’re easy bait, they might get interested. He could go the long way but that way scared him too, so he crouched beside the wall and decided to give it a little longer.
Just as Deepak was about to give up, the cowboys started shaking hands. Most had a stumble in their steps and several had to take a second try at climbing into their raised cabs. They likely would’ve all made it home safe and sound to terrorize Deepak next week, if not for the car that came streaking down the street. It crashed into a truck that had just backed out, hitting the driver’s door, then ricocheted into another truck’s bed.
A moment after hearing the screech of metal, Deepak’s bruised legs were running. The rest of the cowboys had gone toward the crash, leaving the path clear to his apartment. The entrance was right in front of him, but he slowed when he heard someone shout, “call 911! Billy’s hurt!” Looking back, the driver and passenger of the car had climbed out, but the truck was surrounded by a crowd of cowboys. I can’t keep running, Deepak realized as he took in the scene. This is my way out! He took a slow step forward, followed by another and another until he was running again, this time toward the cowboys.
Deepak ran through the outer crowd, his turban a streak of white through the dark hats. When he reached the truck, he saw that the driver’s door was completely crushed, so he ran to the passenger side, where two tall men stood. “Let me through! I’m a doctor!” Deepak yelled at their backs.
The cowboy on the left jumped when he saw Deepak. “You’re a doctor?”
“Maybe he is. Seems like most are these days,” the other said.
“He’ll probably just hurt Billy more. Get back at him for last week,” the first said, blocking Deepak’s way.
“Let me help,” Deepak plead. “He might not have much time.”
“There’s a lot of blood,” the second cowboy admitted. “I hope you’re really a doctor.”
Deepak scrambled into the cab, where he found a man with his head hanging to the side, held upright only by his seat belt. Even covered in blood, he recognized the snake tattoo wrapped around the cowboy’s forearm. Deepak hesitated, mentally shouting, Not you! He nearly climbed out of the cab and left him to his fate but then he saw the blood, soaking into the cloth seats, pooling in the floorboard. I hate you! But you’re blood’s as red as mine, he finally decided. Then, he raised his bruised arms to do what he’d been trained to do.
First, Deepak checked his patient’s vitals; he could hear him taking shallow breaths, and he found a weak pulse. Next, he checked for injuries. The left side of the cowboy’s head was a bloody mess, where the window had shattered, and Deepak couldn’t tell if the rest of the blood was only from that wound. Protect his spine, Deepak thought, as he considered his options. There’s too much blood for only these wounds. He tried to crawl over the man to see his other side, but there wasn’t room in the crushed cab. It’s the only option, he decided as he pulled out his kirpan.
Deepak sliced through the seat belt, then dropping the dagger, he held the cowboy’s neck steady and eased him down onto the truck bed. Sticking out of his side was a piece of metal, with a dark stream of blood flowing around it. Ripping off his own shirt, Deepak wrapped it around the metal and pressed down hard. It’s the best I can do, he reassured himself, as the sound of sirens came closer.
When the ambulance arrived, Deepak was glad to let the paramedics take over. The cowboy had lost a lot of blood, but he seemed stable. After the ambulance drove away, he walked back to the truck to retrieve his kirpan. A few of the other cowboys were still standing around the scene, but none paid attention as he walked by. Deepak found his kirpan on the floorboard, but as he climbed out of the truck, a voice behind him called, “hey Doc!”
Slowly he turned, hiding his kirpan behind his leg, just in case. Not again, he thought as he met the eyes of the cowboy walking toward him with several others following behind. Deepak recognized him as the man who had let him give aid to his friend. A few steps in front of Deepak, the man stopped, then stooped down and picked up a white cowboy hat. He turned it around several times. “This is Billy’s,” he finally said. His face contorted as he held back tears. Holding out the hat, he choked, “You should have it. After what you did.”
“Thank you, but I already have one,” Deepak answered, reaching up to touch his white turban, now stained with blood.
A smile cracked the cowboy’s chapped lips, and instead of offering the hat, he held out a callused hand. Deepak hesitated, remembering how hands like that had beaten him the week before. Nothing will change if you don’t let it, he finally realized, and he reached out his own hand. When they released, the cowboy stumbled away, leaning on a friend for support.
Deepak walked the rest of the way home with a smile, remembering that in some of the cowboy movies, the people in need of protection needed help to recognize who was on their side.