He sat in the saddle. The sun beat down. He was sweating even under his hat. He took it off and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. He almost wiped it against his uniform sleeve, but the thought of long hours trying to keep it clean in this dust and dirt bowl…
The dizziness came back. What in the heck was in that beer? Second Lieutenant Nelson swayed in the saddle. He stuck his hat back on his head. Sal-gal, his quarter horse, sensing something, whinnied at him. He patted her sleek, golden-brown neck.
“You’re right, Sal. We need to get back to camp. Won’t do to be out past curfew.” Nelson pulled her reins and she walked a few steps in the hard scrabble sand.
The dizziness came back, only worse. Nelson was sweating even more now and there was a pounding in his ears. His head was killing him, and he was bending over now, low over the saddle. Sal-gal stopped.
Clutching the saddle horn, Nelson felt the darkness overwhelm him. Still holding the reins in one hand, he slowly fell from the saddle. One boot was caught in the stirrup. He managed to pull his foot out of the boot before he completely passed out.
Sal-gal stood patiently next to her master. There was a little scrub grass close to the railway tracks and she moved over and started munching.
The bright desert sun was starting to descend in the sky. Two men dressed in striped cotton gowns with wrapped turbans on their heads, were using the railway ties as a walkway. They were busy chatting in Arabic and taking a walk before the evening meal.
Twilight was settling but one of the men spotted the horse standing motionless by the side of the tracks. The two started running toward the quarter horse shouting expletives.
“What son of a donkey would leave a nice horse like that out here alone?”
They ran toward Sal-gal who stood calmly and finally saw the young soldier lying in the sand. They ran to him. He was unconscious and very hot. One of the men retrieved the long leather boot from the ground where it had fallen. Together, the two of them lifted the young man up and pushed him over, facedown across his horse’s saddle.
They turned around, a goggle with speculation and led Sal-gal and her master back to their village. As they came into the village, heads began to pop out with a myriad of questions. Who is he, where is he from? The two men, Omar, and Mohammad waved the questions off and led the pony to Omar’s small home. Numerous hands came to help them lift and pull the young man off the saddle and into Omar’s dwelling. His wife turned from dinner and exclaimed, a hand over her mouth.
“He is sick, mother,” Omar said to her in Arabic.
Pointing with a long wooden spoon, she directed the men to the main bedroom, where they laid Nelson on a low bed.
Fatima put down the spoon and leaned over the young man.
“Undo the jacket,” she commanded her husband.
They carefully unbuttoned the brown light-wool jacket with its high collar and metal buttons. Omar undid the wide brown leather belt and laid it aside. He had to pull the leather strap from around the man’s chest to get it off him.
“He’s burning up,” Fatima told her husband. She yelled at the girls to bring her rags and cold water. They did and Fatima wrung the water out of the first rag. Carefully, she began to wipe the dirt and dust off the young man’s face. Dinner, for the moment, was forgotten.
Mohammad still stood outside holding Sal-gal with one hand. Omar came and spoke to him briefly.
“Can we put her in your barn? The man is very sick.”
With some reluctance, Mohammad agreed and started to lead the pony away.
“Can I help, father?” Azim, Omar’s oldest son, eagerly pulled at his father’s sleeve.
Omar smiled down in the dim light at his son, the one who always loved animals.
“Yes, of course, my son. Go.” Omar turned and went back inside his dwelling. Azim scampered after Mohammad and the pony.
In the small barn, Mohammad undid the buckle from under Sal’s belly. He and Azim carefully pulled the saddle off the pony’s back. Mohammad placed the saddle with care on the ground. He ran a hand over the smooth, tooled leather, admiring the silver metalwork.
“She needs water,” he told the boy.
Azim gathered up the reins and led Sal to the water trough where she began to drink heavily.
“Hum,” Mohammad said, “this is a very fine horse. We have hay. Maybe some oats for her too.” Azim was still holding the reins while Sal drank. The boy was mesmerized.
“She is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen,” he said dreamily.
“Yes, yes. Very fine. We need to get those reins off her.” Mohammad was a little impatient. His dinner waited.
Sal had a good drink. Mohammad approached her cautiously, and gradually lifted the leather head piece off from her ears and then pulled the metal bit from her mouth. He hung them from a peg.
“She needs to eat. And she is dirty and needs to be brushed down. You want to do that?” he asked the boy already knowing the answer.
Azim jumped up and down.
“Alright then. I will send my son and he will show you where everything is. And whatever you do, do not leave the door open for her to get out. Can you do that?”
Azim looked stricken. “No, no. I will guard her with my life.”
Mohammad almost laughed. “Well, hopefully it doesn’t come to that. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Keep the door shut.”
Mohammad had put a light rope around Sal’s neck with a hand lead. Azim got her over to the hay pile and she began to munch contentedly.
In a few minutes, Mohammad and his oldest son were back. They pulled out the grooming comb, brush and a small pail with cold water and rags. Mohammad left them with more admonishments about shutting the door behind themselves. The boys got to work with the rags and water.
Azim took the rag and gently wiped Sal’s face to get off the dust. She blinked at him with her big eyes and long lashes and kept eating. He started to talk to her in Arabic and stroke her mane.
The other boy began working the flanks.
“She is as dirty as a donkey,” he exclaimed.
“Don’t say that, she’s no donkey.”
“Okay, okay, Azim. No more remarks about your new girlfriend, okay?”
Azim didn’t even hear him. He was busy with the grooming brush and was working Sal’s entire side getting out the dirt. When the water was dirty, he picked up the pail and headed for the door.
“I’ll be right back.”
The other boy nodded at him. Azim made sure the door was completely closed. He threw the dirty water to the side and ran for the well.
The moon was rising in the sky and was bright, casting a clear light on the village square. Azim did something he usually would not be caught dead doing, he gathered the well bucket and pulled up water for his little pail. This was woman’s work, but at the moment, he didn’t care. He filled up his pail and walking as fast as he could go, without spilling, he got back to the barn. Setting the bucket down, he opened the door, put the bucket in and pulled the door shut behind himself.
Salim, the other boy was still there.
“You know, I’m getting a little tired of this. I hardly had any dinner. I think I’ll go. You?”
Azim shook his head, ignoring the growls from his own stomach.
“Alright then. She’s all yours. See you tomorrow.” Salim left.
Azim waited until he was gone then went and double checked that the door was shut. He finished with Sal’s flanks and got out the broad toothed comb and began on her mane. There were bits of weed and brush tangled in her hair. He carefully picked them out speaking to her in a low voice. He had worked for an hour when his father came in.
“Oh, doesn’t she look good!” Omar exclaimed. “Much better. Yes, she’s very beautiful.”
Azim’s eyes gleamed up at his father.
Omar patted his son on the shoulder. “Good work. But, my son, mother says you need to come home now. Tomorrow is another day. And, no dinner yet, yes?”
Azim’s shoulders sagged and he laid the comb back on its shelf.
Continue to Part II