Jabal Shamaal to the far right
In Part One we made camp at the top of Jebel Shamaal and then descended to the mountain’s base to plink bottles and rusty cans in the desert. On the way back up the hill to camp, a classic pellet gun war erupted with the usual disastrous results that your mother always warned you about.
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."
"Why didn't you say so? I'm coming down." Ben picks his way down the jabal in the deepening dusk. I follow, and sure enough, Landis is bleeding all over his T-shirt pressed over his right eye.
A frightened Walt is standing close to him, not sure what to do. Billy K. is doing that twitch thing with his back a few paces away.
"Landis! Are you okay?
He raises his head and with a lopsided grin says, "I surrender. You're a terrible shot. You missed my eye by two inches." He laughs faintly and then goes slack and begins to pass out before Ben catches him.
After a minute we get Jim to his feet and start back up to the top of the jabal. The sun is down, and the early moon is on the horizon. The stars are almost bright enough to cast a shadow, but it's still dark. We carefully pick our way over the rocks, up sand drifts and around thoroughly-dead woody shrubs bristling with sharp twigs as nasty as cactus.
Walt is a good scout for Ben and me as we guide Landis up to the summit. We stop for a moment, and Jim seems coherent. Billy K. is a bit behind us, and no one is thinking about him when we hear this stifled scream. "Arrrrgh…" and then a whispered "Ahh… Help… Ahh…"
We put Landis down and scramble over in the direction of the voice. There is a whimpering in the shadows, Ben lights a match, and splayed before us is K-Man.
He has stumbled on a root. Figured that he'd just jump over it - and launched himself onto a nasty, twiggy bush about the size of a patio table. He is suspended off the ground like one of those Indian holy men on a bed of nails. He can't talk very distinctly because his throat as well as the rest of his body is punctured by dozens of tiny cactus-like thorns.
"Ahhh, ahhh…" he moans, and the match goes out. He rasps, "Ahhh, ahhh…" in the dark.
Ben lights another match. We fully comprehend Billy's situation, sprawled face-down over this woody clump barely able to speak. We look at each other and dissolve into hysterics. It is the funniest thing that we have ever seen. Of course we have compassion for our fellow man, K-Man included, but when he groans, "Ahhh, ahhh…" again, we crack up even more.
Finally we regain our composure and apply ourselves. Ben will take an arm, I'll grab a leg, from the other side Walt will take Billy's shoulder, and we'll lift him up and off the bush. A perfect plan, but Walt loses his grip, and we sort of drag the K-Man over the spiny shrub. He is rolling around in the sand, cursing and pulling out thorns but it isn't as bad as if he had fallen into a real cactus. We go back to get Landis. When we tell him what happened, he starts laughing like a guy who didn't have a pellet in his eyebrow.
As the gibbous moon rises in the black sky, brilliantly diffused with all the stars and galaxies of the Milky Way, we reach our camp at the top. It's a fantastic panoramic view, but Landis needs some attention. We settle him down on a sleeping bag spread on a big, flat slab of rock. K-Man has recovered from his multiple punctures, so I ask him to gather some dry brush to make a fire behind some wind-sheltered rocks. He goes to it with a bitter vengeance against dry vegetation.
With a crackling blaze lighting us up, we stand around Landis. Ben uses his diving knife to cut some more salami, we pass around the water. Then he takes his knife and slices into a can of beans which he props next to the fire. We are watching the concoction heat wondering whether we should have removed the paper label which is now cindering its way into the beans. Landis moans.
By now I have a flashlight and Landis is sitting up on the rock. "We've got to do something," he says. "Look at it."
So we lay him back on the sleeping bag and peel the T-shirt from his eye. The pellet has flattened itself on the bone of his upper-right eyebrow almost exactly two inches above his eyeball which is considerably less durable. We can see the lump, but Ben pokes it with his finger, and Landis lets out a yell. "God, Landis, I'm sorry. It was definitely the Diana 35."
"A primo pellet gun, but we gotta do something," he whispers.
We think about what to do for a minute before Ben pulls out his diving knife and says, "I'll have to cut it out or you'll die of lead poisoning."
None of us, Landis included, has considered the lead poisoning angle until just now, and Jim is obviously conflicted but semi-convinced by this learned medical opinion. I'm thinking that surgical intervention might be a little sketchy, but we have to do something. I say to Billy K., "Where's that cough medicine you said you had?" He rummages in his pack and brings out the standard size, squared-off Aramco cough medicine bottle filled with a clear liquid and hands it to me.
You can't be too sure about the purity of these potions, so I take a swig-it's got a kick, hand the bottle to Walt who has a swallow and passes it to Ben. K-Man wants a hit, but Walt tells him it will inflame his puncture wounds.
Landis takes a pull, and then screams a little as I pour some tonic over his wound. I give him another taste. Ben wipes his knife against the leg of his jeans and says, "I'll have to sterilize the scalpel," takes the bottle and pours the contents over the blade.
We're gathered around Landis lying on the limestone slab. The fire is flickering shadows around the crest of the mountain, the moon is rising higher, and the horizon is nothing but darkness sprinkled with stars. There is hardly any breeze when Ben lights another match and ignites his diving knife. It bursts into a big flame with a great wooshing sound.
Landis is semi-dazed on his back, but his eyes get really big when Ben thrusts the flaming blade above his head and shouts out an oath to Odin, of all people. Then Ben waves his hand to put out the flame, but it persists, and flailing the knife wildly, he burns his thumb before it's extinguished. He puts a moistened fingertip to the steel, and it sizzles. The surgeon is ready to operate, and Ben approaches the terrified Landis.
I'm flashing on that picture from Bible class of Abraham sacrificing Isaac and in a rare moment of good judgment say, "We better not operate. It might get infected."
Ben seems to be a little disappointed, but he is actually relieved because he has no idea of how to dissect Landis' eyebrow to get the pellet out. He was planning to wing it after the first incision, "Okay, let's get him to the hospital."
As we gather our packs the wind kicks up and Billy K. throws a bush the size of a kettle drum onto the fire. It bursts into a giant fireball showering us with sparks and tiny embers as we start down the hill. The moon and our flashlights illuminate the way. Landis is leaning on Ben, Walt and I are leading the way, and no one cares where K-Man might be.
We make it down the hill okay and walk a bit on the dirt road before we see a Bedouin tent lit up with Coleman lanterns, a stake-body truck parked in front. A kid spots us coming and scampers off to get his parents. Two men come out from the tent, and they are highly skeptical.
We are all carrying rifles, I have a holstered pistol on my hip, and we are supporting Landis, the blood-red T-shirt pressed over his eye. It takes these guys about two seconds to realize that Landis needs help, and two minutes later we are all on our way to Dhahran in the truck. At the Main Gate, the driver knows the guard so we go directly to the hospital and appear at the Emergency Room about one in the morning.
Walt and K-Man immediately evaporate, and Ben stays with our stuff while I go in with Landis. Everyone is very helpful, they whisk him away and now all I have to do is call Max Landis and tell him why his son is in the ER.
This is sort of a problem because I can't very well say that Ben drilled him with an exquisite shot from a decent range. I can't blurt out that at least he didn't get hit in the eyeball. While the phone rings and rings, I consider the best way to break the news, and then a sleepy Max answers, "Who's this?
"Mr. Landis. This is Tim."
"Do you know what time…What is it?"
"Ah… Ah… Jim got shot in the head."
I probably could have phrased it better, but Mr. Landis was a fierce personality, and I got rattled. He is now completely undone and racing to the hospital. Ben and I decide that we are no longer needed and flee before Max arrives.
It turns out that the area above the eyebrow is riddled with countless muscles, tiny nerves, blood vessels and the like. Who knew? Extracting a lead pellet from the cranial brow is a delicate procedure. Had Ben operated, Landis would have had a dead right eyebrow for life, but somehow he would have pulled off that look.
The next morning, Smith is alone in his hospital bed, still breathing heavily through the ventilator mask when his dad comes in with a serious face and says, "I've got bad news. Something terrible happened to Jim Landis."
Magnified by his thick lenses, Smith's beady eyes grow narrow with interest and he says, "What happened?" Though the mask muffles his voice a bit.
"They were at Jabal Shamaal. Going back up to the top. Jim tripped and nearly shot himself in the eye."
To his Dad's great bewilderment, Smith starts to hoarsely giggle but stifles it - for about ten seconds - before he bursts out laughing so hard in the oxygen mask that he starts choking and gagging and almost asphyxiates himself before he can pull it from his face. He knows exactly what happened at Jabal Shamaal.
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
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