For earlier chapters in The Book of the Prophet Joshua, look here: 1, 2, 3, 4. The dove came to Rebecca. It met her outside the Great Inn at Nindad and led her to the east. It seemed
The dove came to Rebecca.
It met her outside the Great Inn at Nindad and led her to the east. It seemed an ordinary bird but was patient with Rebecca and her flock. It flew from tree to tree, always just ahead. It stopped when they camped for the night and woke them at dawn with its gentle cooing. Day by day, mile by mile, it led them east and south, into the heart of the Great Jaleena Swamp.
The path in was narrow, but sure, and she lost no one to its murky waters or devouring quicksand. When they came to the hidden island, the dove flew up to a sun-drenched break in the clouds and disappeared in a shaft of light. They no longer needed a guide, for they had come to their place of refuge.
There was shelter on the island. It could not be as old as the Scourge, but it was long abandoned. For some reason, they asked Rebecca to divide the buildings among them and to organize the cleaning and repair. Perhaps it was because she was older, or because she had spoken to the prophet. Regardless, she became the leader of their little community. She named it Bethel.
And so, it fell to Rebecca to confront the man who gave her freedom.
The old prophet sat on the trunk of a fallen cedar listening, with apparent frustration, to Rebecca’s complaints. Alfred stood to his left, that fine repeating rifle slung over his shoulder.
“I appreciate your difficulty,” she said. “But God led us here, and I can’t believe He would do that just to let us die of thirst. Our reservoirs are almost dry. If it doesn’t rain by this time tomorrow, we’ll have nothing left.”
“These men can’t drink swamp water, Rebecca,” Joshua said.
“Then take them somewhere else.”
“I can’t tell you that, father. But the God you preach is merciful. If He could lead us to Bethel, He can lead you somewhere as well.”
“He has. He led us here.”
Rebecca sighed. This was the third day in a row they had had this argument. Nothing had changed, except that the water in their old stone basins had dropped further towards the bottom.
“Surely you know what this feels like, father? My girls have seen rough treatment at the hands of men. Most of them saw it well before they were sold to the temple. They thought you set them free, but now here you come with a band of hard men—”
“They’re god-fearing men, Rebecca,” Alfred interjected.
“I know. I don’t mean it as an insult, Alfred, but they’re fighters—and these hard men, god-fearing though they are, are invading their refuge and demanding they give up what they need to survive. They’re afraid.”
“I understand that daughter, but what would you have me do? These men are fleeing the Serpent, just as you are. I have kept them down here, at the bottom of the island with the snakes and the biting flies. Only one goes up to Bethel at a time, and only for water. They have given your women as much space as they can.”
“It’s not enough.”
A silence stretched out between them, broken only by the buzz of mosquitoes. Then Alfred spoke.
“Maybe she’s right, Joshua. The boys are out hunting the swamp every day. I’m sure we can find another island.”
The prophet shook his head, then raised his hand.
“Leave me, both of you. I will pray. Maybe the LORD will answer.”
The silence of the swamp was not like that of the high desert. It was a chorus of life—croaking frogs, buzzing insects, calling birds, and the splash of nameless things in the distance. Joshua was never truly alone. He wiped the sweat from his face, cursed the stifling air, and knelt by the fallen cedar.
“LORD who rules heaven and earth, who saved Hadochee in the time of scourging and delivers your people from every enemy…”
The prophet stopped. He let the swamp sing for a moment and began again.
“LORD who sees all. I will not hide my heart from you. I am angry. Your people suffer. The Chief Justice is turning to the Serpent as surely as I live. If you only stretched forth your hand, the land would be cleansed, the people would be delivered. You bade me do that when I came to Nindad, and it was good. But now you cast me into the swamp to do what? To negotiate water rights? Why am I here?”
The LORD did not answer. A figure appeared before the prophet, a column of flame, shining brightly in the dullness of the swamp. It was only an angel.
“What does he ask?”
The angel’s face blazed with compassion.
“He asks you to wait.”
Behind Joshua, the other voice spoke.
“While the LORD waits, His people suffer. What is done to them cannot be undone.”
The prophet did not turn to that other presence. He did not even answer it. He looked at the angel and waited.
“What do you ask, Joshua?”
“I will wait, because the LORD asks. But must I also endure this one whispering in my ear?”
The angel looked up from the prophet, in the direction of the voice. When he spoke, his gaze remained fixed on whatever was back there.
“Yes. But not long. In the meantime, the LORD has another task for you.”
The prophet bowed, and the angel told him.
Alfred sat on an old camp stool and kicked his feet up on a conveniently shaped cypress knee. He surveyed the camp as he pulled a corncob pipe out of his pocket and packed it with strong tobacco. There were no more than two dozen men, most of them younger officers of the law. They all trusted him, or his reputation, or felt the same way he did about the prophet. Regardless, they had followed him into the wilderness. One, a lean youth with a face full of freckles, saw him packing the pipe and walked over with a twig from his fire.
“What’s the plan, captain?”
Alfred took a moment to get the tobacco lit and thanked the boy.
“I don’t know that there is a plan, Samuel. Joshua can’t seem to make up his mind.”
“But he’s the prophet.”
The lawman puffed out a cloud of acrid smoke and watched it swirl.
“A prophet’s just a man. If God doesn’t tell him what to do, he can be as lost as any of us. And that means, I suppose, we might have to make up his mind for him.”
The youth stared at him, then looked back at the others, gathered around fires looking hot and miserable, or trying to nap in their lean-tos, still hot and miserable. They had plenty to eat out here, but they could hardly afford to drink as little as they did, considering how much they sweated out.
“Okay, captain. So, what’s the plan?”
“Plan is, you talk to the boys and find out if anyone knows a good place to relocate. The ladies were here first. If Joshua can’t provide, we need to get out of their hair.”
Samuel nodded and went to do what his captain said. By the time he turned around, Joshua was standing in the middle of the camp. The others stopped talking.
“Joshua?” Alfred said.
“Come with me, all of you.”
The prophet started walking inland. Everyone followed.
It was not a long trek uphill, into the ruins, into Bethel. The women were out in the streets, passing time in their own way. They shrank back when they saw the men coming. Someone went to find Rebecca, and a moment later she came storming out of a small building to bar the prophet’s way.
“What are you doing? You can’t bring them up here.”
“This isn’t peace! They don’t need this.”
“They need that.”
They were standing in a small plaza, and he pointed to a dry, stone basin in the middle of it.
“The fountain? It’s dry.”
“Let me see it.”
Rebecca hesitated. Alfred was standing behind the prophet. She looked at him, but he just shrugged. She stepped aside.
Joshua walked past her and stared down into the dry basin. He knelt before the dirt-filled pit at the center where some ancient statue had once sat, and long ago been wrenched away. Then he whispered.
At first, nothing happened. Alfred stood beside Rebecca and watched, puffing on his pipe. Then there was a series of pops, then a gurgling sound, and water bubbled up from the hole. It was muddy and filled the place with a horrid stench. Debris poured out of the hole. The prophet backed up as the basin filled with a brackish pool.
There was more popping, and a sudden rumble, and a geyser shot fifteen feet into the air. The water that gushed out was pure and clear, washing away the foulness. The basin overflowed, water spilling over the lip of the fountain. Dirt over the half-buried paving stones was turned to swirling mud, washing across the square and filling a dry stream that wound its way down the path they had taken up the hill and into Bethel. Alfred had to dance to one side to keep his boots dry.
The water was a miracle, but the path it took had been made by man. As soil washed away, it revealed a stone channel that ran downhill, from the town at the center of the island all the way down to its muddy margin.
From that day forward there was clean water in Bethel, and in the camp below.
While the prophet Joshua waited on the Day of the LORD, the power of the Serpent swelled. His worshipers raided farm and village, taking what and whom they would, and rare was the Justice bold enough to stop them. They made new priests and built new temples. While Eli Short waited to see which god would rule Hadochee, Congress remained neutral. In their silence, the law of Serpent was supreme in all but name.
The first weeks of high summer stretched into months. Drought came and crops failed. Storms brought no relief, as lightning sparked fires and hail destroyed what was left. The people abandoned their homes. Some went to the temples and joined the plunderers. Others streamed south to High Jasper, hoping their rulers would have some answer, or would at least be in easy reach if they did not. But another portion, far smaller, made its way to the Great Jaleena Swamp.
Alfred and his men welcomed the refugees. Their camp grew into the beginnings of a town. As the town grew, disputes emerged. They demanded a Justice. They would have no one but the prophet. But Joshua was no Justice. He lived apart from the people and prayed. When their cries could be ignored no longer, he named Alfred his deputy. Alfred ruled well.
They named the town Ramah.
Joshua sat in front of his hermitage, roasting quail on a fire. The sun was just beginning to sink behind the trees. There were footsteps on the path below.
“Good evening, Alfred.”
The footsteps stopped. The prophet looked up at his deputy.
“It’s not that spooky, Joshua.”
“You do realize I’m pretty much the only one who visits you?”
The prophet grinned.
“Take a seat. Eat with me.”
Alfred’s face turned grim.
“Can’t. I’m here on business.”
“New refugees. They’ve got a leader they call their Justice, but I’ve never heard of him. His name is Bernard Matthis.”
Joshua turned one of the quail over before responding.
“I don’t know the name either.”
“I was afraid of that. He’s supposed to be out of New Wells, and he claims to have done there what you did in Nindad. He’s got women and children with him, and some of them look like they’ve seen things.”
“Do you think he’s lying?”
“Joshua, I know he’s lying. Or at least, he’s putting a good spin on the truth.”
“There’s not a temple in New Wells. Whatever he did there, it wasn’t killing priests.”
The prophet was silent.
“I just want you to talk to him. Tell me if I should let this guy in or send him somewhere else.”
“Where is he?”
“Not too far away. I had Samuel lead him and his people to one of the watch camps on a bank about two miles north of here.”
Bernard Matthis was a gaunt, big-boned man with a shock of yellow hair turning white with age. He had a falchion on his built, and looked like he still had the strength to use it. He had been leaning on a cedar but fell to the ground and stretched out in earth-kissing obeisance when he saw the prophet.
“Don’t do that. I’m only a servant.”
“So am I, great prophet, but I know what God you serve.”
“Then you know He’s jealous. Stand up.”
The man obeyed. He had dirt in his beard.
“Alfred tells me you call yourself a Justice.”
“The people call me that, father. I did what those who are Justices by law would not do.”
“I purged the land of the heathen.”
Joshua’s eyes fell on the falchion.
“You attacked a temple.”
“No, father. I visited justice on the Serpent’s worshipers in New Wells. I offered the people a choice: renounce the Serpent and follow God or be purged. Those who are with me did what was right.”
“Are you telling me you killed the rest?”
The man looked confused.
“I killed the ones who needed killing. I drove the rest out.”
“Why? They were unbelievers. They polluted the land with their idolatry.”
“But you left New Wells.”
“Left it? I burnt it to the ground. If they refuse to follow God, they will have no home in my land.”
Joshua said nothing. Bernard was tense. He looked like a man who was either going to receive the best news of his life, or a death sentence. Further down the bank, smoke rose from the camp and the rest of the refugees were talking. A baby cried.
“Send Alfred to me.”
The big man left. When Alfred came a few minutes later, he found the prophet staring off into the swamp.
“Well. What should we do?”
“Let him in.”
To Be Continued…