Jabal Shamaal
Jabal Shamaal - Photo by Roland W. (Dick) Brooks

Smith is in the hospital. Despite half a summer spent in the sun, he's as pale as a Norwegian in winter. Beneath his sweaty brow and coke-bottle Buddy Holly glasses, an oxygen mask obscures the rest of his face. He's got double-pneumonia at least, the doctors are frightened that he might have a virulent variation of Valley Fever. I tell him that our plan is in action. He pulls his ventilator mask to one side to confide in me that it's only mononucleosis that he got by making out with Sally G. and then starts coughing uncontrollably. As if there was an ice cube's chance in Qatif that she would even be seen talking to him. He puts the mask back on, calms down and mutters, "Have a blast." I leave his room and wander off in a futile search for Sally G.

The next morning we assemble at Ben Michael's house where I meet up with Jim Landis as well as two other miscreants, Walt and Billy K., aka K-man, whom I barely know. We have water and packs of supplies like tuna fish, Danish salami, baked beans, Mars bars and pistachio nuts as well as pellet guns, a BB gun, a bunch of firecrackers and bottle rockets, and, unknown to us, K-Man has one large cough syrup bottle of medicinal alcohol.

Mansoor, who drives Dhahran taxi #10, picks us up. He is a cheerful, big-boned Taifi who is always glad to abet our adventures: drop us off at Half Moon Bay, take us to Qatif or Hofuf to go diving in the wells. He thinks that it is a great idea to drive us to Jabal Shamaal.

All five of us hop into the big Chevy Impala. The jabal is a little north of Dhahran on the Ras Tanura road, we drive a bit, and then Mansoor hangs a left and fish-tails the cab two miles down the sand road with Radio Bozuki at full blast. He drops us off near the jabal, promises to pick us up tomorrow about four and rides off thinking, These American kids are crazy. They want to spend an August day in the desert? He cranks his AC to high.

At 450 feet Jabal Shamaal (Midra ash-Shamaali) is the tallest free-standing peak on the eastern coast of the Gulf from Kuwait to Abu Dhabi; the smaller Jabal Junubi a few miles to the south was the second tallest until a dozen years ago when a cartel of opportunists leveled it to the ground to sell its rock. But that is another story.

Massive, basically conical mountains standing alone in the desert, they were both capped with limestone that had once blanketed the land, now eroded hundreds of feet down to the desert leaving the twin pinnacles.

We make our way up to Jabal Shamaal's broad base and cross to the slope, checking out the caves and jackal dens along the way. Climbing over great broken slabs of limestone, tasting bitter, red berries from an unknown plant, snapping off and crushing between our fingernails  tiny, pungent wild peppers, scanning the ground for arrow heads and flint hand-axes like some of the Exploration guys had found in the Rub' al-Khali. We heard that there was a cave with a ceiling covered in stone-age stick figures. Lizards skitter off into the rocks, we round the edge of a broken cliff and surprise a giant vulture resting in the shade. With a great flapping noise it unfolds its eight-foot wing span and flies off. K-man lifts his pellet gun for a shot, but Ben waves him down, and we watch the great bird soar into a thermal and ascend in a wide corkscrew pattern until it is only a black speck in the sky.

Finally at the top, we put down our packs and pass around the canteens. We can see everything in every direction. Jabal Dhahran to the east, far below tiny cars and trucks ply the two lane blacktop, to the west there is nothing but endless desert stretching thirty miles into the horizon. South stands Jabal Junubi, and farther on there are rocky ridges drifted with sand and scrubby bushes that meld into the desert floor.

Ben is a tall, rangy guy with an infinite enthusiasm for skin diving and outdoor misadventures of all sorts. Dressed like all of us in cut-off Levis and a white T-shirt, he whips out the diving knife strapped to his calf and carves off hunks of salami which makes us even thirstier. Better have some pistachio nuts too. The Mars bars are soft and all but melted into pudding, but we tear open an end of the wrapper and squish out the chocolate like a tube of frosting. Now we are ready for the shooting expedition. We have four single-shot, spring-powered pellet guns well made by the Diana company in Germany, and I have a holstered gas-powered, repeating BB pistol as well as a variety of fireworks.

Making our way down the jabal, we spread out into the surrounding desert. Ben, Landis, the missing Smith, and I are life-long friends who have spent days together skin diving, camping out or roaming in the desert. Landis is an athletic kid with a great wit and, for some reason not apparent to any of us, considered quite good-looking by the girls. Walt and Billy K. didn't get out of camp much. Walt is short, stocky, and even-tempered, but K-Man is a bit twitchy. Invited as a favor to Landis who has the hots for Billy's sister, the lanky kid's eyes dart around so much that you wonder if he is looking for some demon about to pull the tilt switch. At 17, he is a year older than us but acts like an adolescent. He also has a way of contorting his back every once in a while as if his spine is having a hiccup.

Walt and Billy K. blast away at every lizard, dung beetle and grasshopper they encounter without hitting any of them. In search of bigger prey, the three of us walk on. Landis is the first to catch the scent, he signals to us to spread out and quietly we creep up on our victim. Not fifteen feet away in a patch of sand fringed with salt grass, unaware of its impending fate, a weathered Tuborg ginger-ale bottle is pinned neck down in a gnarled bush. Landis fires first. His pellet pings the glass and ricochets, I follow with the same result, and then Ben, who has a Diana 35, the most powerful pellet gun, hits the bottle straight on. End of the hunt. We inspect the carnage and search for more species that we can endanger.

Not five minutes later Ben spots a rusted, gallon-size ghee can thirty feet away hiding in a pile of broken rocks. He fires immediately before it can bolt and we follow suit. After a fusillade of pellets and BBs, Ben finally hits the can in the seam and splits it open. Before we can inspect the trophy, K-Man starts hollering. We turn to see him a dozen yards behind us jumping up and down, shouting "Snake! Snake!"

We run over to find Walt poking at the creature with a long stick. It is a snake all right – about a foot long, skinny as a fat pencil. It coils and wiggles and snaps its jaws in defiance, spitting out its tongue.

"Jeez, it's a pit viper," I say.

"Let's kill it," says Billy K. and shoots his rifle. Walt fires too. And the unharmed viper slithers quickly into the rocks.

K-Man drops his rifle, goes down on his knees and lunges after the snake, "I can get it."

Landis comes out of nowhere and knocks him to the ground. "It's a pit viper, damn it!"

Thinking, His sister will kill me if I return him with a paralyzed central nervous system.

"What's a pit viper?" he says.

Landis rolls his eyes, and we crack up. K-Man says, "Is it like a cobra?" This is even funnier.

We disperse to walk quietly around in the desert, comfortable with its stony ridges drifted with sand, sprouting tufts of stunted grass. Shallow ravines eroded into the earth to reveal different layers of time – bands of tiny pebbles interspersed with layers of dark mud or pale chert peppered with tiny shells. Then there are those big dried-out bushes, practically dead, that make you wonder how they ever managed to grow to the size of a refrigerator. If you linger and stare at one of those bushes for a few minutes, you will begin to notice the teeming world of bugs, flies, hopping creatures, beetles and ants that live together beneath its shade.

Eventually the sun begins to set, and we drift back to the jabal. Billy K. is still a little antsy. By now he is shooting at large boulders that are impossible to miss. Ben and I take the lead and are about forty yards up the slope when K-Man shoots Ben in the back.

It's not really a big deal. The range was long, and it didn't more than sting him but it ignites a pellet gun war.

To those who ran in different circles when they were young and aren't conversant with the etiquette of a pellet gun war, the object isn't to hit the opponent in a vital area but to get fairly close, and if there is a shot at an exposed shin, take it.

So Ben shoots back at K-Man, and Walt returns the favor. I fire off the repeating BB pistol, a hopelessly inaccurate weapon, but its hail of BBs makes Landis and Walt duck. Ben fires again and hits Billy K. in the thigh. He starts jumping around and twitching his spine at the same time. We all break out laughing. Ben shouts, "Let's twist again, like we did last summer," and then Landis wings a pellet my way.

It's getting darker. I'm half way up the hill but wedge myself into a cleft of the mountain and lay out my fireworks on the chest-high rock ledge in front of me. I balance my bottle rockets pointing down and light off all five of them. It's glorious. In the dying light they streak down and explode all around our enemy. Ben keeps shooting, but he's three against one, so I fire another round of BBs and then start lighting the fireworks in front of me and throwing them down the hill like grenades.

You should know that there are three kinds of firecrackers. Ladyfingers, which are tiny one-inch-long noisemakers virtually useless unless you light off a whole string in the movie theater.

Then there is the standard firecracker about as big as your little finger, packed in strings of twenty for three riyals. Each firecracker contains a significant amount of gunpowder, and any semi-industrious kid can break open a whole string and collect a pile of the explosive – the first step to creating an ingenious exploding device.

At the top of the heap is the Blockbuster. The size of a Cuban cigar, this is a serious piece of ordnance easily capable of launching a galvanized-steel garbage can lid several feet into the air. At five riyals a piece, they are saved for special occasions. I've got three of them as well as two strings of firecrackers on the ledge right in front of me.

I light a Blockbuster but accidentally light the fuse near the middle, and the front half of sizzling fuse falls off. It's now a short-fused bomb, and I quickly throw it into an arc where it explodes just over Walt's head and briefly silhouettes him in a bright flash. I laugh.

I look down. The other part of the burning fuse has fallen on the string of firecrackers and BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. They are exploding, pinning me against the rock; wedged in, I can't run, and they are blowing up in my face. A Blockbuster goes off amid the exploding firecrackers, and the sonic boom nearly bounces my head off the rock. I see the remaining Blockbuster with a sputtering fuse roll off the ledge into the cracked fissure I'm standing in. I plant my hands and leap vertically just as the giant firecracker goes off. It's my turn to be lit up like an epileptic puppet in the sudden flash.

Down below they think this is hysterically funny. Ben does too, but he lets off a round at them anyway. They return fire, and the skirmish resumes for about half a minute and then from below there is some whispering. They aren't shooting back.

Walt shouts, "Landis is hit."

"Oh sure. Nice try," Ben yells back.

"No, really. He's bleeding all over."

To be continued next week.  

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Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.

ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories by Tim Barger
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
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