Nathan has cared for horses all his life, but Haji is the first he’ll train on his own. When the Arabian stallion arrives at the Bitter Coffee ranch, Nathan thinks he is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. And then he lays eyes on Haji’s handler, Yousef. Nathan has much to learn about horses, about pride, and about love, but with the ranch’s hopes riding on Haji, he’ll also learn that all things have their price.
To an owl or an eagle or even the lark, man must seem a rather pitiful and forlorn creature; he is condemned to crawl the earth alongside only two friends. The dog and the horse are the only exceptions to man’s universal unpopularity. Man points with pride at these two contrarians and naively believes that both are equally proud to call him friend. “Look at my two companions,” says man, “they are dumb, yet loyal.” I have always maintained that they are tolerant at best, and if man didn’t feed them, they would quickly join ranks with the majority.
I have nevertheless depended on the tolerance of horses and dogs since my childhood. I believe with all my fiber that until a man has loved an animal, a large part of his soul remains unawakened. Even now at my advanced age if I were deprived of the gratification of caring for either dog or horse, I would lose all that I hold dear. I should feel as adrift as a Muslim who had lost touch with Allah.
Horses in particular have been as much a part of my history as breathing. I define every phase of my life by which horse I owned then, or ones my father owned. Some were intelligent, some valiant, while others were rogues. None were alike. Some won the big handicap races and some won the smaller unimportant races. My family’s red and blue colors have swept past grandstands from Santa Anita to Bay Meadows. Some horses my father brought from the Eastern Seaboard, where old money and long bloodlines defined the sport. But one horse my father brought all the way from North Africa.
That stallion’s name was Haji.
When he came to the Bitter Coffee ranch, I was a straw-haired boy who had recently graduated high school, with a lanky body and wide, blue eyes. He was an Arabian stallion, part royalty and part desert whirlwind. I was awed by his self-possession, and I couldn’t help wondering what he thought of me.
He arrived at daybreak, descending the ramp from a two-horse trailer with the slow and dignified steps of Bonaparte in exile. With his head held high and nostrils flaring, he breathed the thin air of the Nevada high desert for the first time. Like me, he was a bit slender in the chest, but unlike me, he had strong legs as clean as limestone.
Sword Bearer, out of Cairo, had sired him, and noble blood flowed through his arrogant veins.
He was a sorrel, and his reddish coat gave off a golden sheen in the strong morning sunlight. Once his hooves stood on solid earth, his body shivered and his lungs let out a rush of air, as if letting me know he craved the freedom of open space again after being cramped in a ship’s hold and then in that trailer for so many thousands of miles. I heard a ring of certain gratitude in his undulant murmur.
Then I laid eyes on Haji’s handler. He had made the long voyage with the horse. The dawn’s rays lent his flowing white robes and tarboosh a shimmering orange-yellow hue, and I found myself momentarily stunned with a frozen gaze. Was it the splendor of the light reflecting off his flowing gown that dazzled me, or simply that this young man would wear a dress in broad daylight? Or could it have been his face, that porcelain-smooth skin the warm color of creamed coffee, accented by pitch-black eyebrows? His coloring was similar to the Mexican ranch hands who worked for my father and yet somehow softer. Whatever the cause, my compulsively chattering mind gave pause, and I was mentally whisked into a space of pure silence, broken only by the pulse beating at my temples.
My father walked to the thoroughbred and held the animal’s head steady, gazing into those large moist eyes. It was clear to me that the horse knew men. In his three short years, he had probably been around more men than his own kind, and from the bold stare he gave my father, I sensed that Haji understood that men were there to serve him, that we were his servants.
A tremor ran through the stallion, and he grew impatient. He shook his head free of my father’s grasp, bent the sleek bow of his neck, and kicked at the ground with a hoof. I instinctively knew that it was not that my father was a stranger but that Haji didn’t trust a man who did not smell of the earth. Even though my father owned a seven thousand acre ranch, he was a businessman and spent his time in his office or traveling.
My father stepped to the handler and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You must be Yousef. Welcome to the Bitter Coffee. Nathan will show you to your quarters. Come up to the house for breakfast after you’re settled.”
“Yousef,” I repeated in my head several times as I moved forward and grasped Haji’s halter. I felt foolishly happy at how the sound of it tumbled through my head. The stallion did not flinch at my touch, and as he took in my smell, he blew a snort into my straw-colored hair to warn me he felt nervous. I laughed, a low gentle sound which seemed to set him at ease.
The handler pulled a carpetbag from the horse trailer and stood beside me. As I glanced into Yousef’s cautious eyes, I inhaled his spicy fragrance, a mixture of horse and something else I could not identify, something vaguely like toasted sugar.
I tugged at the halter and both Haji and Yousef followed, flanking me all the way to the stables where I had already prepared the stallion’s stall. Haji stared straight ahead, glancing neither to one side or the other as if he were walking alone, like abdicated royalty, and we were merely servants trailing in his wake. He must have felt forlorn in this country of different sights and smells. It would be my job to manage him, and that included making him comfortable in this new environment. I felt much pride in that. Haji was my first horse to train. All my life I had cared for horses, learning their needs and habits, but always under the guidance of the foreman until now. Because of financial hardships, my father had let the foreman go. Haji was my responsibility, and Yousef would answer to me.
I could tell the stallion found the stall to his liking. The stable harbored a dozen other horses in a long row of stalls, but Haji’s quarters were separate from the others and twice as large.
Yousef seemed equally pleased with his own quarters next to the tack room, and though he didn’t say a word, he seemed surprised that he was given a room to himself. When he slid the tarboosh from his head, I realized he was much younger than I had first thought. I now guessed he was only a few years older than me, perhaps twenty, twenty-one at the most. And right then, he looked far more beautiful than moments before and seemed in desperate need of a friend.
I told him my name: Nathan. He repeated it twice and told me his name in broken English: Yousef Ruta. I knew then that it would be my job to teach him how to speak my language, which would be no small task. With hands waving and pointing to my own pants and shirt, I indicated he should change into more suitable work clothes and join me for breakfast at the house. It took several attempts, but he finally smiled and began to pull the white robe over his head. Much as I wanted to stay and see if the rest of his skin had the same warm coloring as his face, I turned and hurried out, giving him his privacy.
Later, after Yousef had changed into working clothes which included a shirt with flaps that hung to his knees and we had feasted on flapjacks, Yousef and I returned to Haji’s stall. While Yousef separated the good straw on the floor from the straw already soiled with urine and manure, I began to brush the stallion with clean, even strokes from mane to tail. As I worked, I felt anger rising within Haji, but I was not prepared when he bent his neck around and gripped my arm above the elbow with his teeth, biting down with enough force to make me yelp before flinging me against the wall.
I crumpled to the ground and lay in the trampled bedding for a moment, looking up into Yousef’s dark eyes. A wave of shame washed through me. I scrambled to my feet and marched to the tack room, selecting a riding crop that I had never needed before now.
I approached the stallion with a brush in one hand, the crop in the other. I spoke to him in soothing tones, telling him that he might have Sword Bearer’s blood, but I had a whip and I knew how to use it.
I began to brush him again while continuing to use soothing tones. But once more, I felt his anger swell. His hooves stomped, and his head turned with teeth bared. This time, however, I was expecting him. I struck his muzzle with the whip, hard and without mercy. I think he was more startled by the act than by the pain. The alchemy of his pride transformed the pain to rage that must have blinded him. He tried to bite again, and I struck his soft muzzle with all the force I could muster. He tried to whirl away from me but Yousef jumped to help and we held him firm. He reared upward, cutting the air with his hooves. Plunging, he felt my crop bite his muzzle again and again.
At that point, Yousef pushed me back toward the far wall and began to sooth the horse with caressing hands. The stallion slowly calmed under his touch.
When Haji became composed, Yousef lifted my brush from where it had fallen and began to brush Haji’s withers with a kind of intimate knowledge of how this horse wanted to be treated: that is, without any sense of possession.
I felt the sting of resentment, but then, more slowly, comprehension took its place.
Yousef waved me over. With he on one side of Haji and me on the other, I mimicked his strokes with my bare hands. The horse now accepted the soothing touch of my hands. Across the horse’s back, Yousef smiled at me in a way that made my stomach do a slow somersault.