Elchanan realized that Avi had probably never climbed a tree before. But they were in grave danger
Elchanan’s palms stung. Mud and little stones from the scramble out of the cave’s second opening clung to his skin, but there was no time to stop to brush them off.
Follow the wide path until the fork. Then left. Narrow trail. He repeated Matt’s instructions to himself, over and over . Avi was running right behind him; Elchanan could hear the panting of his friend’s breath, the uneven pounding of his steps.
“Elchanan. Wait-a-minute,” Avi gasped. “This path — they’re gonna come after us. They’re faster than us. Stronger. We need to hide. Stefan… he knows we’re missing by now. They’ll be here soon, the path is too obvious.”
He was right. Elchanan had hoped they would get a head start, make it far enough before Ivan and Stefan realized what was happening, but the precious minutes he’d counted on had slipped away all too soon. Matt couldn’t hold him off for long; even now, Stefan could be hauling himself up out of the other entrance and coming after them.
He glanced around desperately. There was nowhere to hide; no convenient caves or rocks or clumps of bushes. Only trees, trees, and more trees, lining both sides of the path and stretching in every direction he could see….
“We’ve got to climb a tree,” he said. “High up, where they can’t see us… let’s see — that one over there should be thick enough to hide us.” He tested the strength of a low-hanging bough by clambering up the trunk and grabbing hold, putting his weight on it. It held. “C’mon, let’s go!”
Avi was standing, frozen, at the foot of the tree. “I… I can’t climb that,” he said, voice barely audible. He looked terrified.
Somewhere in the back of Elchanan’s mind, he realized that Avi had probably never climbed a tree before. But they were in grave danger, and the danger was growing with every moment that passed!
He dropped to the ground again. “I’ll help you,” he said. “Please. We need to. They’re coming after us. You go up, I’ll be right here to catch you. Okay?”
Even as he spoke, he knew it was ridiculous; if Avi lost his grip, they would both fall — he couldn’t possibly catch and support Avi’s weight midair. But his words, and the encouraging hand he’d placed on his friend’s shoulder, seemed to do the trick. Avi took a deep breath, looked up at the tree, and squared his shoulders. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
“We don’t need to climb very high.” Elchanan panted, giving Avi a leg up to help him reach the bough. “Just so we’re covered by the leaves. Even if they guess we’ve climbed a tree, they’ll never be able to search them all. We’ll wait until they pass and then we’ll figure out where to go….”
Avi climbed up slowly, deliberately, step by step. Elchanan followed, trying not to let his anxiety show at their slow pace. When Avi finally reached a spot some way up the trunk, where Elchanan reckoned he was hidden enough by leaves, he told him to stop and hide there.
“I’ll go further up the tree; there’s not enough room for the two of us here, but see, there’s a split in the trunk, you can sit there and all those branches should cover you,” he said. He clambered up beside Avi a moment to satisfy himself that they were far enough off the ground to be well hidden. “And look, you can see between the leaves what’s happening on the path. So we’ll be able to look out for them….”
Avi took a quick peek, and his skin took on a greenish tinge. “I-I can’t look down,” he stammered, looking sick.
Elchanan was alarmed. “You’re not going to… be sick or anything, are you?”
Avi closed his eyes, wrapping his arms around part of the trunk. “Not if I don’t look down.”
“So just don’t. Stay there. I’ll be a little higher up the tree. We’ll wait until they pass, and then…”
But there was no time to say anything more, because at that moment, the sound of angry voices wafted in their direction. Elchanan gripped Avi’s shoulder and whispered, “I’ll be back down when they’re gone!” and swiftly scaled the trunk until he found a similar spot to Avi’s: a sturdy bough with ample space to sit on, surrounded by leaves. He peered down through the cracks between the branches.
From his position, he had a breathtaking view of the forest. He was high enough to see the tops of several trees, and he could see the path they were on winding through the forest. He couldn’t see any sign of the forest ending, though; they must be deep inside it. He peered back in the direction where they’d come, and a flash of color caught his eye: There were people coming.
People… and voices. Coming toward them very fast.
“Where are those boys? How far could they have gone?” It was Ivan. Elchanan held on tight, fingers slick with sweat, and hoped Avi was okay.
Just pass us, just go past, just go already….
He turned to see the continuation of the path, trying to gauge how long they would have to wait until the men were far enough for them to safely come down, when something grabbed his attention.
Was that a movement?
“I’m sure they’re on this path,” another voice said, in Stefan’s guttural tones. “They wouldn’t leave it, they’d be lost in a moment.”
“Well, we’re going to have to find them, wherever they are,” Ivan snapped back. “Because otherwise…” He let the sentence trail off. There was a thick silence.
The three men drew nearer. Elchanan’s eyes squinted back to where he thought he’d seen something. Yes — there were people there. People coming! Down the same path, toward them…
It looked like a group. Several figures, dressed in dark clothing…. Was it the rest of the gang? Was the Boss there? Or could it be other people? Strangers? The search party?
The three criminals hurried forward. The men coming toward them were still far off in the distance, round a bend, and Elchanan was fairly sure that the two groups could not see each other. He wondered if Avi, lower down than he was, could see them.
“We could maybe… just tell the Boss that we did it. What he wanted,” Matt said, eventually. By now, the three men were almost below their tree.
Ivan stopped still. “Are you crazy? We’ve got to tell him the truth. And that’s that you, idiot, let them escape!” He shook a furious fist in Matt’s face. “I promise, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when he hears that….”
Elchanan’s mouth went dry. Would Matt be hurt because of them? Would he be… killed?
Then Stefan spoke up, firmly. “It’s not worth it. He’ll blame us too, Ivan. We weren’t meant to leave them untied with only one of us with them.” He paused for a moment. “What’s wrong with doing what Matt said? Tell him they’re gone, we took them to the river… all done. He’ll never see them again. He’ll never need to know the truth.”
Elchanan held his breath, straining to hear the answer, but before Ivan could reply, a clamor of voices came through the trees: “Aaaaavvvviiii! Elchaaaaaannnaan!”
His head whipped around. There, coming round the bend, was a group of frum men, Avi’s father among them. And Ivan, Stefan, and Matt were planted squarely in the middle of the path, facing them.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 884)
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