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Three hours from Dallas, 1964.
“Sure beats the 38th Parallel, don’t it?”
Wansup Shim nodded slowly in agreement, still blinking to adjust to the sun. Sensing the Major General’s pride, he attempted to feign excitement at the dreary vista emerging before him. Just a few hours prior, the sights and sounds of Dallas had nearly made him dizzy. Blonde women. Cadillacs. Gas stations and golden arches. Alas, Robinson had driven on as storefronts gave way to silos and highways dwindled into dirt roads. Wansup glanced mournfully at the pickup truck, knowing fully well he had nowhere to go. Not once had he questioned the Robinson’s remarkable proposal for Wansup to leave the war-torn outskirts of Seoul and join him on his sprawling ranch. But Wansup’s gunslinging fantasies evaporated at the sight of the tractor slumped in the half-plowed field and the lethargic mare grazing beside it. Still, he knew to be grateful. His old army general had not merely led him from one desolate hellscape to another. Paul Robinson offered opportunity and safety; it would be greedy to want adventure, too.
“A three-point drawbar,” Wansup recited. “It’s about a yard long, and it hooks up to the back of your trac –”
“I know what it is,” drawled the salesclerk. “We’re sold out here, but you can always head down to Valera.”
The clerk glanced up from her tabloid, her eyes growing wide. She had never seen an Asian person before, much less one speaking better English than hers.
“It’s the nearest town, about 10 miles east,” she recovered. “It’s not much there, but the depot should have it.”
Wansup prayed she’d returned to her magazine as he mounted a horse for what was then the second time in his life. Robinson had demanded he return home right away, but surely a General should trust his Captain to hold his own? Robinson’s old, brown Stetson dipped over his eyes and his bare ankles knocked against the metal stirrups, but Wansup couldn’t help but smile. The sun was high, so he turned around and followed his shadow east.
He knew he could not outrun them. Wansup heard the charging hoofbeats and the riders’ cries crescendo to a deafening thunder, and his heart sank with the realization that the old mare didn’t stand a chance in escaping them. He’d seen enough Westerns to know what happened next: They circled, kicking up a swirling column of dust that closed in like a fortress. Wansup looked to the sky and longed desperately for home.
The dust cloud scattered. He heard a second gunshot, then a third, and gaped with bewilderment as the masked gang dispersed. A thin man in a white ten-gallon hat cantered toward him, his smoking revolver still pointed high. He holstered his weapon and pulled up next to Wansup, who remained still. His giant hat obscured his long, gaunt face, save for his pale eyes and large, radiant teeth.
“I thought you were Clint Eastwood,” Wansup said breathlessly.
“I wish,” the man laughed. He paused. “Not sure what to make of you.”
“My name is Wansup Shim. I’ve come from Korea.”
“I’m Tom.” The men shook hands.
“Are you the sheriff?” Wansup asked.
“No, I...” He stopped. “...No, but I like to keep an eye on things.”
Wansup didn’t reply.
“You’re a long way from home…”
“...Wansup,” he provided. “I also go by ‘David.’”
“David. From the Bible,” Tom smirked. “Any of y’all pray to Jesus back home?”
“The missionaries did okay,” said Wansup simply.
Tom chuckled. “You’re a funny one, David. Let’s get you sorted out.”
Wansup always wondered why the Major General kept him close around camp, letting Wansup eat in the officers’ mess hall and ride beside him in the Jeep. But as Tom aggressively haggled with the clerk at the depot, securing the tractor drawbar for an almost benevolent price, Wansup recognized the gratitude one could feel towards a translator.
“What do you say we get you a proper hat and boots?” Tom asked, flashing a bright smile.
“I don’t have enough money,” Wansup lamented.
“You can’t ride in that goofy hat and lawyer shoes,” Tom laughed, gesturing at Wansup’s polished Oxfords. “I’ll tell you what, Korean cowboy. These are on me.”
The clerk shot Wansup a hesitant look.
“Don’t be a racist pig,” Tom glowered at the shrinking employee. “Let’s show our friend David a nice Texas welcome.”
Wansup’s protests faltered at the sight of the crisp black hat and stiff brown boots. “I’ll pay you back later, I promise,” he insisted.
Tom’s pearly grin nearly reached his watery blue eyes. “I know you will.”
“I should really be getting back,” Wansup declared, suppressing a hiccup.
“Do you say that after every drink?” Tom teased, pouring more whiskey. Everyone in America regarded Wansup with curiosity, but only Tom cared enough to hear his story. He seemed fascinated by Wansup’s relationship with Robinson and had countless questions about the ranch.
“There’s really not much there,” Wansup maintained. “Your life seems far more exciting.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Tom mused. “Not much to show for this life on the road.”
Wansup thought of the ranch house, of Robinson asleep in the master bedroom, of moonlight traversing the dust-coated floors. He clicked his boots pensively on the barstool. “I’ll raise enough money to bring over my wife and children, and then I guess we’ll head someplace else. Maybe Dallas.”
“Families! What a pain,” Tom cried. “That’s why I don’t have one. And look at me, I go where I want, do what I want, and sleep where I want. Your Major General wouldn’t approve. But I’m not living for anybody else. This is all mine.”
Wansup considered Tom’s words. “I guess I’ll stay for another.”
“You’re going to be just fine,” Tom replied.
Wansup stumbled as he finally left the bar, but the stars helped him navigate with ease. As the big house appeared before him, illuminated under the night sky, he felt that Tom was completely right.
— Staff writer Allison Chang’s ‘19 column “Kowboy” is a fiction series that imagines what her maternal grandfather might have experienced had he chosen to stay in Texas, where he first immigrated from South Korea in 1964, instead of moving to New York City.
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