Mikey tossed the sticks aside. “We leave tonight?”
Gera put a finger to his lips, gesturing for quieter voices. He glanced behind, then faced them again. “But we don’t want people to notice you. I didn’t hide you in my trees all these weeks to send you into the hands of the queen. Can you follow two rules?”
Mikey saluted with a grin. “Whatever you say.”
Zophal shuffled backward, his face pointed toward the sky as he juggled pebbles. Then he froze. “What was that?” He closed his palm around the pebbles.
The others stood stock still while Zophal tip-toed around the nearest tree.
He returned with a shrug. “Sorry, guys. I guess I’m just not made for all this waiting.”
Gera squeezed his shoulder. “You’re not alone, Zophal. And tonight you will not be waiting. Now the first rule is, I need you to spread out far away from each other. Don’t bunch up. It draws attention. Second, no contact with anyone. Don’t talk to people. Don’t even look at them. Keep your eyes down, your mouth shut, and keep walking.”
He looked each young man in the eye. “Can you do that?”
Mikey grinned. “Unfriendly, but we can do it.” He accepted the skin from Imri and swigged a drink.
“It might save your life. Plus the lives of the others. Remember what the queen’s thugs did to Baruch and Ulam, and they’re still searching for that boy in the goatskin. I don’t want them to touch you.”
Imri stepped between Mikey and Gera. “We can keep our mouths shut, but how far do we spread out?”
“I asked Hodiah, and she showed me, ‘Your Word Is a Lamp.’”
Mikey’s brow wrinkled. “The psalm?”
Gera nodded. “Don’t laugh. She said after each man starts, if the next one waits until he has recited all 176 verses, the man ahead would be far enough down the road for safety. Can you do that?” Gera gazed at each man.
“‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.’” Zophah turned to Mikey. “Can you say the whole thing?”
Imri nodded and patted his belly. “But what do we eat?”
Gera stroked his chin. “Keren will bring bread and raisins. And small skins of wine. Fill your water skins this morning and sleep. You’ll start before sundown and arrive after sunup.”
“Send me first.” Mikey thrust his shoulders back.
“You are my lead man, Jeph. You know the route. To Jenin and then west.”
“I’m ready. Mouth shut, eyes down, and west at Jenin. Whose house in Megiddo?”
Gera stooped to the ground and made a crude map with his finger. “Do not turn at Megiddo. Go past the Megiddo cut-off to a tiny grove of date palms surrounded by pomegranates.” He pointed to the lines in the dirt. “Our friends in the Valley tacked a brown scarf to the trunk of a palm on the west side. That will be on your left. As far after the cut-off as from here to the village of Geba, your village.”
Mikey crouched beside him and repeated Gera’s gestures at the map. “Beyond Megiddo. Brown scarf on the left.”
Gera put his arm around Mikey’s shoulders. “You’re my man. After you get there, watch for the next men. Don’t let them pass you. Pull them into the pomegranate trees, and after everyone arrives, a guide will show you the cave.”
Mikey shook his head. “But, Uncle Gera, we can’t ask directions? Middle of the night? Jenin’s such a tiny place, and Zophal’s never been out of Samaria City. He’ll miss the turn and march right up to the fort.”
Gera ruffled Zophal’s hair. “You’re my city boy, aren’t you. May the Lord give you good eyes. After all my work to keep you alive, I couldn’t bear it if you hiked into the arms of those thugs who killed my Baruch.”
Imri stepped up. “I know that cutoff, sir. I’ll show him where to turn.”
“Good! We’ll send you right after Mikey and post you at the Jenin cutoff. I wonder how many others need you to show them that turn?”
“Others?” Mikey gripped Gera’s arm.
“Seventeen of you in all.”
Mikey’s eyes widened. He exchanged glances with Zophal and Imri. Imri shook his head. “Seventeen?”
Gera beamed. “That’s right. What you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell.” He lost his smile. “Boys, it must stay that way. I’ve hidden the others in twos and threes, and I’m not telling them how many you are. But Imri, you need to know how many to turn left at Jenin. And Jeph, you need to know how many to pull in at the palm tree. So, Imri, can you stand at the Jenin cutoff and direct the others?”
“I’ll stay right there and turn every man, Uncle Gera.”
“Hmm…” Gera shook his head. “Some of these boys come from villages, so you haven’t met them. You’ll need a password—no.” He rubbed his mouth with his hand. “No passwords. No talking to people.”
Mikey raised his eyebrows. “A blue patch on our shoulders? A scarf?”
Zophal held up Imri’s wrist. “A cloth on the wrist. Any color.”
Imri grinned. “That’s it. The left wrist. No moon tonight, but I can make out a little cloth tied to a man’s left wrist.”
Gera looked at each man. “So, do you agree?”
Mikey glanced at Imri and Zophal. “Agreed. Tell everyone to tie a small cloth on their left wrist and wear it past Megiddo, so I can flag them down at our palm trees.”
# # #
The next morning, Mikey arrived at the palms and pulled the other bubblers in behind him. He rubbed his back up and down against the bark of a palm tree. “Ah!” If he must hide, Mikey preferred to lie back in the tall grass let it tickle his face. He could take all afternoon to smell the wild blossoms of the grass and watch birds fight and clouds scud across the sky to drop their little storms. Sky stretched over palm trees, olive trees, and tall grass.
But caves had no sky. Caves smelled like rats and bats and moldy bread. If they had bread. He licked out the last drop from his skin of water. In a cave he would have to suck up yucky liquid that floated with slimy things whose only purpose was to crawled into caves, die, and pollute.
Sky. A man needed sky. Overhead, a swallow-tailed kite screamed at the kestrel it had fought off three times. The kestrel came back for more. Mikey peeked through the pomegranate branches. “Here’s Imri.”
Imri ducked into the trees, and Mikey turned him to face the fourteen others. He kept his voice low. “Imri is the man who waved you west at Jenin. Uncle Gera said our guide would find us here in the pomegranates.
“No talking. But if you have extra food, maybe hold it up for whoever’s hungry.” He yawned and then shook his head. “Someone needs to stay awake.”
“Shh!” Zophal pointed toward the road.
A little girl about eight years old skipped up to the intersection and pushed her scarf back on her head. Tight black curls fell around her face as she pulled a branch aside and squinted under the trees. She scanned the faces and locked eyes with Mikey. “Follow me.” This little child cannot be part of Uncle Gera’s team. Seventeen men would never trust their lives to a little girl.
She paused and re-tied the scarf over her curls.1 Then she struck off through the trees, and Mikey followed. He turned to Zophal. “We don’t have to spread out in the woods, but I need you to bring up the rear. Make sure everybody stays with us.” He and Imri followed right behind the girl and let the others trail them. Imri squeezed his arm. “Who is she?”
Mikey shook him off and took an extra stride that landed him beside the girl. “Who are you?”
She flicked him a sober glance. “No talking.” She led away from the road toward the gurgle of a stream that splashed over rocks and rushed down chutes. The men obeyed, so the only sounds came from the wind that ruffled through the leaves overhead, and the stream which splashed over rocks at their side. The girl paused. “No tracks by the bank, please.”
Mikey examined the ground. No path. They would make the first footprints.
She trudged ahead through thick bushes, keeping several paces from the stream. The morning sun reached through the trees and brought sweat to Mikey’s brow.
Mikey relayed her message and followed.
Uncle Gera had no control over the quality of his helpers way down here in the valley. This tiny, bossy girl could lead these seventeen independent men to safety or to a slow death. And even if safe, how could he and Imri help feed their families from a cave?
Sure-footed as a deer, their little dictator crossed on the large rocks and stepped into the stream. When Mikey put his feet into the water, they showed wavy but clear beneath the icy flow and unaccompanied by slime or pollutant.
Keeping to the center of the stream, their guide approached a large opening where the current gushed out of a limestone cliff. She led them into the dark. Mikey stepped out of the stream up onto the bank, and the men followed him. They all stood gazing back at the daylight.
The girl lingered in the water and pointed into the deeper darkness. “Stay back inside. No singing. No fires. This water is good to drink. Food comes soon.”
Finish up with Mikey whistling again?
1 Maybe a thought that shows that although he’s nervous about her, they can’t just sit there in the trees like sitting ducks. And she is wearing a scarf.