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The two boys were paying little attention to their charges. Achmed leaped over a slab of rock as he darted between two sheep to the far side of the gully. He roared with laughter and then yelled again at his cousin Mohammed, who had stumbled and fallen. It seemed no matter how hard he tried, Mohammed could not master these tricky slopes that were his cousin's playground. More than anything, Mohammed wanted just once to out-jump and out-run Achmed. He may be almost a year older, Mohammed rationalized to himself, but he can outrun me through these rocks only because of he's spent most of his life up here with his smelly sheep and goats. Things would be different on the streets of my city. Besides, he smiled, being able to run like a mountain animal isn't as important as other things - his sisters all say I am more handsome, particularly Katarina.
Big for his age at twelve, Achmed outworked most of his father's hired hands, and was proud that his father considered him a man and gave him much responsibility. He loved his family and his home, but, even though he would not admit it to anybody, he was jealous of his visiting cousin. He was envious because Mohammed not only lived in the city in a big house with servants, but his father was the leader of the frontiersmen, the Cossacks and everybody knew he was the most important and feared man in the province.
Despite his nagging envy, Achmed looked forward each year to early summer when his uncle brought Mohammed to spend the holiday. Even though his uncle stayed only a few hours, he came with gifts for the entire family and, before leaving, would pluck Achmed from the ground and take him for a whirlwind ride through the valley on his giant white stallion.
Besides his veiled resentment of Mohammed, Achmed had another perceived problem; being the youngest of six children. The other five were girls. Since he was after all his father's pet, this bothered Achmed only when his sisters persisted in treating him like a child and, worse when they doted on Mohammed and told him how cute he was. But because he could physically intimidate his cousin, envy notwithstanding, he secretly enjoyed having Mohammed around each summer. By taking great pride in showing Mohammed how to gather and drive the sheep, and how to tend the other animals, it enabled Achmed to brag to his sisters that he was certainly somebody special, definitely not their little brother. And because many people said they looked more like brothers than cousins, he also loved to show everybody how he could outwit his little brother and beat him in games such as they were now playing.
Mohammed could not keep up and had disappeared from sight. Probably fell again, thought Achmed, or was he hiding on the other side of the gully? As Achmed scanned the rocky slope his attention was caught by something near the top of the rise; a wagon stopped up on the high trail, the driver apparently watching him. Suddenly, a wheel collapsed, sending the rear of the wagon down over the edge of the rise. The driver jumped to the ground and tried to halt the slide of the wagon with his body. Mesmerized, Achmed watched as the man and his mule strained to stop the wagon's backward motion, only to have the rim of the road crumble and break away. The traces snapped, the animal lurched forward, and the wagon slowly toppled over the edge, the driver disappearing beneath it. In an instant, a cloud filled with dirt and rock grew until it seemed the entire upper slope was cascading down the wash directly toward him. Achmed knew he was trapped; his only hope was to get beyond the far crest of the gully. His screamed warning to Mohammed was lost in the thunderous roar.
Mohammed, exhausted and out of breath, had been hiding behind a huge slab of rock when the deafening noise started. The ground began to shake and, before he could react in any way, his feet were swept from under him, causing him to fall beneath a rocky outcropping just before the avalanche roared past. In the lee of the sheltering ledge, he escaped the main rockslide but was caught in the spreading dirt and rubble. Quickly covered, he panicked at the thought of being buried alive and kicked and clawed with all his strength. Finally freeing his arms, he pushed the dirt from his face and gagged as he spits the choking grit from his mouth. Crying, the tears caking the dirt in his eyes, Mohammed kicked even harder to free his legs. His shame at crying quickly turned to anger - anger at himself - when he realized what his father would say, and how he would be teased by Achmed and his uncle if he was seen crying.
Hearing a cry and thinking it was Achmed, he grabbed at the ledge in front of him and scrambled upright. He heard the cry again, but then realized it wasn't human, it was a half-buried sheep just a few feet away. Thankfully, the deafening roar had stopped and the sun could be seen again through the settling clouds of dust. Squinting through the haze he yelled Achmed's name again and again, but the only sound came from the few surviving animals on the far side of the gully. Mohammed retched when he realized that most of the flock was probably buried under his feet, and his cousin might be with them. His first reaction was to run - run to his uncle's farm, about three kilometers down the valley. But the thought of his father stopped him; I must at least try to find Achmed. Father must be proud of me!
Still sobbing, he wiped his face and mouth on his sleeve and stepped carefully through the fallen rock. Moving toward the bottom of the wash he saw some splintered wood and a broken wagon wheel protruding from the rubble. Totally confused and not knowing where to begin, he began pulling at pieces of wood. He stopped when he thought he heard his name being called. Nothing. He screamed Achmed's name again and again and then listened. From almost below his feet he heard a faint voice, "Mohammed, Mohammed, I'm here...under the wheel. I can't move. Be careful...I'm hurt bad."
"I'll be careful, don't worry. Keep talking so I know where you are."
But the silence from beneath his feet led Mohammed to scream his cousin's name repeatedly. Digging with a piece of broken wood, he exposed a cavity below the wheel, in which he saw Achmed's ashen face. Seeing his closed eyes Mohammed yelled over and over, "Oh no, no, don't be dead, don't be dead!" For what seemed an eternity Mohammed dug and pried and pulled. His hands were bloody when he finally made an opening large enough to drag Achmed through. Eyes now partly open, and obviously, in great pain, Achmed mumbled that he couldn't move his legs and then lapsed again into unconsciousness. Mohammed shook Achmed in panic when he realized his cousin might really die before he could get help.
A strange animal noise caused him to look up, and he was surprised to see a large mule angling down the rocky slope toward them. Not having seen the incident that started the avalanche, Mohammed had no idea where the mule came from but shuddered with relief when he realized that the mule might help him save his cousin. If only he could grab the dangling reins. Remembering a piece of leftover lunch bread in his pocket, he offered it and found the animal to be quite friendly, and easily led by the broken harness.
Mohammed was drenched with sweat when he finally succeeded in wrestling Achmed's lifeless body onto the mule. He lashed him in place as best he could with part of the reins and, shaking with fear and exhaustion grabbed the mule's collar and began the long descent to the valley below.
Originally published: Tuesday, March 20, 2007; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019