With his hand pushed against his aching jaw, Elijah marched through the market-day crowd and up to the 50 royal bodyguards.
From behind three tight rows came a barked command. “Open.” Three guards swung their shields left and three right.
Elijah sprang toward the gate. A donkey turned across his path, and he smacked into its load of onions. “Uhn!” The load tipped, and the donkey side stepped.
The woman leading the donkey turned and opened her mouth.
Before she could describe his clumsiness or the morality of his ancestors, Elijah grabbed the heavy onion sacks and pulled them back to the center of the packsaddle. He patted the donkey’s rump and spoke in the same tone he used while adjusting loads on Balak or Bilaam. “Sorry, fella. Better now?”
A cart of prickly pears blocked his next dash for the gate. Elijah pulled up with his knees pushed against the side board and his arms arching over the load of pears. “Ah!” He would never make it through that forest of tiny spines.
Elijah took a step back. Where to go? On the right, two solid-looking men held an intense conversation about the price or apples. On the left, huge sacks of pomegranates bulged out from either side of a donkey. Ahead, the shafts of the prickly-pear cart reached to the harness of a donkey. Elijah dove under the donkey and poked his head out the other side. His left knee slid through a pile of fresh droppings.
A mother with a baby on her back gawked down at him. She tugged two dirty-faced children by the hand. Elijah rose to his hands and knees, and looked them in the eye. The taller child reached for Elijah’s nose. “Gah-gah!” As Elijah patted the grubby cheek, he shook donkey dung from his knee.
Shouts came from behind. “Grab that goatskin!”
Elijah and lunged for the gate, but a donkey stopped in the opening with a load of sweet potatoes hanging from both sides.
More shouts. “Hey, you, stop!”
He nodded to the donkey’s owner and squeezed past the sweet potatoes. His sandals slapped the plank bridge, and he dashed down the hill into the trees, where he ripped off the goatskin and jammed it into his pack.
“Thanks, Lord. But neither dew nor rain—unless I say so—really?”
Elijah turned his back on the gate, stepped into the flow of travelers on the Megiddo-Beitshan road, and stretched his long legs into an easy lope toward the river. He passed traveler after traveler but kept his mouth closed, his eyes on the road—no longer his father’s friendly wine salesman.
But a set of familiar knees and elbows blocked his way. “‘Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee.’”
Elijah snorted. “I’m not your mother-in-law. Hey! You’re talking. You!” He threw his arms around Nathan. “Yesterday that guy knocked you out cold, and this morning you were just staring at the floor, not saying a word.”
He squeezed again, let go, and took a step back. “Look at you.” Nathan stood barefoot. “Your sandals. Are they in that bag? Let’s get out of the sun. I’ll put them on you.”
Nathan sat on a rock under an acacia tree and lifted a foot.
Elijah examined it. “No deep cuts.” He frowned in Nathan’s face. “Why didn’t Dad put your sandals on you?”
“Huh! You think our father wants to lose two sons in one day?”
He looked at the bottom of Nathan’s other foot. “So, you stuffed your sandals in the bag. Your feet must really hurt.”
Nathan cringed. “How’s your jaw? That guy tore you up so bad.”
“It’s still pretty sore.” Elijah tied Nathan’s sandals and stood. He tied the tunic and placed both hands on Nathan’s shoulders. He searched his face. “Is everybody okay? Why are you here?”
“Everyone is fine.” Nathan’s eyes flickered. “I’m here for Omar. I’m here for you.” A tear welled up, and he turned to watch a warbler on the upper limb of an acacia flip its long, tapered tail and call, zerlip, zerlip, zerlip. “Let’s get going.”
Nathan set a slow pace and didn’t complain about his sore feet, but after a dozen steps he asked, “Did you see the king?”
“Nate, I told the king, ‘as the Lord lives, we will have neither dew nor rain unless I say so.’”
Nathan wrinkled his nose. “‘Neither dew nor rain.’ One of your finer compositions.”
He took several silent strides. “But what did you mean by, ‘unless I say so’?”
“It just bubbled out. You were still in the house, so you didn’t hear Sheerah tell me I had nothing to say.”
“The shutters were wide open, Lijah. I heard Sheerah.”
“Well, all the way to the fort I was telling the Lord how wicked that priest is, but the Lord gave me nothing to say. No words. Then I got there and looked in the king’s face, and that’s what bubbled out.”
For several paces, Nathan looked thoughtful. “So, what did the king say?”
“I didn’t stick around to hear. You should have been there. Market day, right? I stuck my face into a load of onions and crawled through donkey dung. I could almost feel the guards grabbing my heel.”
Nathan stopped at a tiny path. “You know where we are?”
The path led through limestone houses, oaks, and acacias.
Nathan wagged his finger in Elijah’s face. “My little brother loped past the Well of Harod showing about as much respect as an uncircumcised Philistine.”
“This? Here? How was I…? I’m not as unlearned as you think. The Well of Harod is where old Gideon chose men who cupped water in their hands, but those who got down on their knees and sucked it in like I do—he sent them home.”
Nathan started down the road again. “Don’t give up your studies.”
“There are moments, Nathan, when I could wring your scholarly neck.”
Nathan jerked his face toward Elijah. “Where’s the goatskin?”
Elijah patted his pack. “Only wore it inside the fort.”
His brother’s face lit up. “So, they’re searching for….” Nathan faltered. “No. By now they realize there was a boy under there.”
“Not to worry. A guard ran by, and he passed me again as he walked back to the fort. He never glanced at me. Not once. That’s when I realized what David’s finest moment was.”
“That time he hid from King Saul by keeping the mountain between them. Remember?”
“You mean at Maon?”
“That’s the place.” Elijah beamed. “Saul and his men went along one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other.”
“Lijah, the only thing that saved David was the messenger who pulled Saul away to fight Philistines.”
“You mean David didn’t just stay behind the mountain?”
Nathan stopped. “Lijah, my fingers don’t tie laces, but sometimes your head doesn’t follow logic.”
Elijah opened his mouth, but Nathan put a hand over it.
“Our dad says, ‘Two little boys can hunt squirrels better than one.’ Well, the bodyguards heard those words from their own fathers. They’ve already put their heads together and decided to forget that goatskin. If you wait here, ten guards will snatch you before sundown.”
“I get it. So, we hustle.” Without breaking stride, Elijah reached over and slugged Nathan on the arm. “But, hey. You bring anything to eat? I’ve only got a fig and half a pita.”
“Raisins. And a few pitas.”
Nathan patted his bag. “Plus, a little water. We can refill our skins at the ravine.”
“The Kerith. Tastes better than river water.”
Elijah pulled his brother around to face him. “Nathan, you don’t understand. I’m going home.”
Nathan snorted, grabbed his arm and started him toward the river again. “You are not going home. Our father’s moth-eaten goatskin saved you for a few minutes. But the king’s men are still looking for you.”
“But tomorrow we load wineskins.”
“Ha! Our father’s been hauling wine to the King’s Highway since before we were born. He’ll think of something.”
Nathan propelled him by the elbow. “You’re going to listen for trumpets with me at the Kerith. I’m not letting you put our mother in danger. They’ll be asking for a tall guy with a big nose and a Gilead accent. Like the potter says, we’re all knees and elbows. Too easy to spot in a crowd, and we look just like our mother.”
“Mother.” Elijah frowned. “I promised her I would tell Milkah.”
“Do not even think about a visit to that young lady.”
Elijah gave it one more try. “And when we run out of your raisins and pitas?”
“Lijah, Lijah. After the Lord pulled our ancestors away from Pharaoh, a few complained about no garlic on their pitas. Now He rescues you from Jezebel, and you bellyache about raisins?”
If Nathan weren’t so stubborn, they could have gone home. The path through Tishbe had a few roots and rocks, but nothing like these jagged stones that bloodied his toes in the dark.
At home he would sit by Nathan on the limestone wall around the well and pull up a bucket. He would offer it first to his brother and then guide the cool, smooth flow down his own throat. But out here, he knelt, and the gravel bit into his knees. He rocked forward and felt in the stream for a place to rest his hands.
Nathan knelt beside him. The potter would laugh at their elbows pointed to the stars. They puckered toward the water—neither brother a candidate for Gideon’s elite.
He lowered his face into the brook. Mm… he slurped and rubbed water in his hair. Not the water of home, but better than the wind and dirt on the road from the fort. Elijah rocked back on his heels, pushed hair from his face, and blew water off his lips.
They crawled onto a ledge, curled up on the goatskin, and pulled Nathan’s wool cloak over them.
“Well, Nate, at least the king’s guards won’t be waking us.”