Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The History of My Horse, Saladin
By John Ross Browne (18211875)
[Born in Ireland. Died at Oakland, Cal., 1875. Yusef; or the Journey of the Frangi. 1853.]
IF there was any one thing in which I was resolved to be particular it was in the matter of horses. Our journey was to be a long one, and experience had taught me that much of the pleasure of travelling on horseback depends upon the qualities of the horse . Yusef had already given me some slight idea of the kind of horse I was to have. It was an animal of the purest Arabian blood, descended in a direct line from the famous steed of the desert Ashrik; its great-granddam was the beautiful Boo-boo-la, for whose death the renowned Arab chieftain Ballala, then a boy, grieved constantly until he was eighty-nine years of age, when, no longer able to endure life under so melancholy an affliction, he got married to a woman of bad temper, and was tormented to death in his hundred and twentieth year, and the last words he uttered were, doghera! doghera! straight ahead! All of Yusef Badras horses were his own, bought with his own money, not broken down hacks like what other dragomans hired for their Howadji; though, praised be Allah, he (Yusef) was above professional jealousy. There was only one horse in Syria that could at all compare with this animal, and that was his own, Syed Sulemin; a horse that must be known even in America, for Syed had leaped a wall twenty feet high, and was trained to walk a hundred and fifty miles a day, and kill the most desperate robbers by catching them up in his teeth and tossing them over his head. I had not heard of this horse, but thought it best, by a slight nod, to let Yusef suppose that his story was not altogether unfamiliar to me. Being determined to examine in detail all the points of the animal destined for myself, I directed Yusef to bring them both up saddled and bridled, so that we might ride out and try their respective qualities before starting on our journey. This proposition seemed to confuse him a little, but he brightened up in a moment and went off, promising to have them at the door in half an hour.
Two hours elapsed; during which time I waited with great impatience to see the famous descendant of the beautiful Boo-boo-la. I looked up toward the road, and at length saw a dust, and then saw a perfect rabble of Arabs, and then Yusef, mounted on a tall, slab-sided, crooked old horse, and thencould it be?yes!a living animal, lean and hollow, very old, saddled with an ancient saddle, bridled with the remnants of an ancient bridle, and led by a dozen ragged Arabs. At a distance it looked a little like a horse; when it came closer it looked more like the ghost of a mule; and closer still, it bore some resemblance to the skeleton of a small camel; and when I descended to the yard, it looked a little like a horse again.
A horse! retorted he, smiling, as I took it, at the untutored simplicity of an American; a horse, O General! it is nothing else but a horse; and such an animal, too, as, Ill venture to say, the richest pasha in Beirut cant match this very moment.
That there were points of some kind about him was not to be disputed. His back must have been broken at different periods of his life, in at least three places; for there were three distinct pyramids on it, like miniature pyramids of Gizeh; one just in front of the saddle, where his shoulderblade ran up to a cone; another just back of the saddle; and the third, a kind of spur of the range, over his hips, where there was a sudden breaking off from the original line of the backbone, and a precipitous descent to his tail. The joints of his hips and the joints of his legs were also prominent, especially those of his forelegs, which he seemed to be always trying to straighten out, but never could, in consequence of the sinews being too short by several inches. His skin hung upon this remarkable piece of framework as if it had been purposely put there to dry in the sun, so as to be ready for leather at any moment after the extinction of the vital functions within. But, to judge from the eye (there was only one), there seemed to be no prospect of a suspension of vitality, for it burned with great brilliancy, showing that a horse, like a singed cat, may be a good deal better than he looks.
And do you tell me, said I sternly, that this is the great-grandson of the beautiful Boo-boo-la? That I, a General in the Bob-tail Militia, and representative in foreign parts of the glorious City of Magnificent Distances, am to make a public exhibition of myself throughout Syria mounted upon that miserable beast?
Nay, as for that, replied the fellow, rather crestfallen, far be it from me, the faithfullest of dragomans, to palm off a bad horse on a Howadji of rank. The very best in Beirut are at my command. Only say the word, and you shall have black, white, or gray, heavy or light, tall or short; but this much I know, youll not find such an animal as that anywhere in Syria. Ho, Saladin! (slapping him on the neck,) whos this, old boy? Yusef, eh? Ha, ha! see how he knows me! Who killed the six Bedouins single-handed, when we were out last, eh, Saladin? Ha, ha! You know it was Yusef, you cunning rascal, only you dont like to tell. A remarkable animal, you perceive; but, as I said before, perhaps your excellency had better try another.
No, said I, no, Yusef; this horse will do very well. Hes a little ugly, to be sure; a little broken-backed, and perhaps a little blind, lame, and spavined, but he has some extraordinary points of character. At all events, it will do no harm to try him. Come, away we go! Saying which, I undertook to vault into the saddle, but the girth being loose, it turned over and let me down on the other side. This little mishap was soon remedied, and we went off in a smart walk up the lane leading from Demetries toward the sand-hills. In a short time we were out of the labyrinth of hedges formed by the prickly-pears, and were going along very quietly and pleasantly, when all of a sudden, without the slightest warning, Yusef, who had a heavy stick in his hand, held it up in the air like a lance, and darted off furiously, shouting as he went, Badra, Badra! Had an entire nest of hornets simultaneously lit upon my horse Saladin, and stung him to the quick, he could not have shown more decided symptoms of sudden and violent insanity. His tail stood straight up, each particular hair of his inane started into life, his very ears seemed to be torturing themselves out of his head, while he snorted and pawed the earth as if perfectly convulsed with fury. The next instant he made a bound, which brought my weight upon the bridle; and this brought Saladin upon his hind legs, and upon his hind legs he began to dance about in a circle; and then plunged forward again in the most extraordinary manner. The whole proceeding was so very unexpected that I would willingly have been sitting a short distance off, a mere spectator; it would have been so funny to see somebody else mounted upon Saladin. Both my feet came out of the stirrups in spite of every effort to keep them there; and the bit, being contrived in some ingenious manner, tortured the horses mouth to such a degree every time I pulled the bridle, that he became perfectly frantic, and I had to let go at last and seize hold of his mane with both hands. This seemed to afford him immediate relief, for he bounded off at an amazing rate. My hat flew off at the same time, and the wind fairly whistled through my hair. I was so busy trying to hold on that I had no time to think how very singular the whole thing was; if there was any thought at all it was only as to the probable issue of the adventure. Away we dashed, through chaparrals of prickly-pear, over ditches and dikes, out upon the rolling sand-plain! I looked, and beheld a cloud of dust approaching. The next moment a voice shouted Badra, Badra! the battle-cry of our dragoman, and then Yusef himself, whirling his stick over his head, passed like a shot. Badra, Badra! sounded again in the distance. Saladin wheeled and darted madly after him; while I, clutching the saddle with one hand, just saved my balance in time. Badra, Badra! shrieked Yusef, whirling again, and blinded by the fury of battle. Come on, come on! A thousand of you at a time! Die, villains, die! Again he dashed furiously by, covered in a cloud of dust, and again he returned to the charge; and again, driven to the last extremity by the terrific manner in which Saladin wheeled around and followed every charge, I seized hold of the bridle and tried all my might to stop him, but this time he not only danced about on his hind legs, but made broadside charges to the left for a hundred yards on a stretch, and then turned to the right and made broadside charges again for another hundred yards, and then reared up and attempted to turn a back somerset. All this time there was not the slightest doubt in my mind that sooner or later I should be thrown violently on the ground and have my neck and several of my limbs broken. In vain I called to Yusef; in vain I threatened to discharge him on the spot; sometimes he was half a mile off, and sometimes he passed in a cloud of dust like a whirlwind, but I might just as well have shouted to the great King of Day to stand still as to Badra, the Destroyer of Robbers. By this time, finding it impossible to hold Saladin by the bridle, I seized him by the tail with one hand, and by the mane with the other, and away he darted faster than ever. Badra, Badra! screamed a voice behind; it was Yusef in full chase! Away we flew, up hill and down hill, over banks of sand, down into fearful hollows, and up again on the other side; and still the battle-cry of Yusef resounded behind, Badra, Badra forever!
On we dashed till the pine grove loomed up ahead; on, and still on, till we were close up and the grove stood like a wall of trees before us. Thank Heaven, said I, well stop now! Hold, Yusef, hold! Badra, Badra! cried the frantic horseman, dashing by and plunging in among the trees: Badra forever! Saladin plunged after him, flying around the trees and through the narrow passes in such a manner that, if I feared before that my neck would be broken, I felt an absolute certainty now that my brains would be knocked out and both my eyes run through by some projecting limb. In the horror of the thought, I yelled to Yusef for Gods sake to stop, that it was perfect folly to be running about in this way like a pair of madmen; but by this time he had scoured out on the plain again, and was now engaged in going through the exercise of the Djereed with a party of country Arabs, scattering their horses hither and thither, and flourishing his stick at their heads every time he came within reach. They seemed to regard it as an excellent joke, and took it in very good part; but for me there was no joke about the business, and I resolved as soon as a chance occurred to discharge Yusef on the spot. Saladin, becoming now a little tamed by his frolic, slackened his pace, so that I got my feet back into the stirrups, and obtained some control over him. There was a Syrian café and smokehouse not far off, and thither I directed my course. A dozen boys ran out from the grove, and seized him by the bridle, and at the same time Yusef coming up, both horses were resigned to their charge, and we dismounted. Hallo, sir! said I, come this way! for to tell the truth I was exceedingly enraged and meant to discharge him on the spot.
A boy was immediately despatched in search of the hat. Meantime, while I was preparing words sufficiently strong to express my displeasure, Yusef declared that he had never seen an American ride better than I did, only the horse was not used to being managed in the American fashion.
No, said I, very few horses do. None but the best riders in America dare to undertake such a thing as that. Did you see how I let my feet come out of the stirrups, and rode without depending at all upon the saddle?
Most truly I did; and exceedingly marvellous it was to me that you were not thrown. Any but a very practised rider would have been flung upon the ground in an instant. But wherefore, O General, do you ride in that dangerous way?
Yusef assented to this, with many exclamations of surprise at the various customs that prevail in different parts of the world; maintaining, however, that the Syrian horses not being used to it, perhaps it would be better for me in view of our journey to learn the Syrian way of guiding and controlling horses; which I agreed to do forthwith. We then sat down and had some coffee and chibouks; and while I smoked Yusef enlightened me on all the points of Syrian horsemanship: how I was to raise my arms when I wanted the horse to go on, and hold them up when I wanted him to run, and let them down when I wanted him to stop; how I was to lean a little to the right or the left, and by the slightest motion of the bridle guide him either way; how I was to lean back or forward in certain cases, and never to trot at all, as that was a most unnatural and barbarous gait, unbecoming both to horse and rider. Upon these and a great many other points he descanted learnedly, till the boy arrived with my hat; when, paying all actual expenses for coffee and chibouks, we distributed a small amount of backshish among the boys who had attended our horses, and mounted once more. This time, under the instruction of Yusef, I soon learned how to manage Saladin, and the ride back to Beirut was both pleasant and entertaining.