“But I am going to be a grandfather soon.”
“Wasn’t Moses ninety years old when he went to war against Midian?” the Zionist asked.
“I suppose that he was,” Tevye answered.
“And Joshua was seventy when he led the Jews into battle against the seven Canaanite nations.”
“Joshua wasn’t a broken-down milkman like me.”
“Isn’t it written, `In a place where there are no men, be a man?'”
When did you become such a Biblical scholar?” Tevye asked.
“I studied in heder, remember?”
“Why did you stop?”
“The rebbe would tweak my ear when I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Is a pinch in the ear a reason to abandon the Torah? Our forefathers had more mettle than that.”
“I’ll show you what mettle we have,” Ben Zion answered. He called to his friends to mount up. Then he swung a bullet belt over Tevye’s shoulder, and with a smile, helped him into his saddle. Bat Sheva and Hava watched from the doorway of Hodel’s house as their father rode off with the rifled shomrim.
“I don’t believe it,” Hava said. “It’s Tata!”
After a few nervous moments, Tevye brought his steed to a gallop alongside the others. He remembered, of course, how to ride, but the jolts to his spine were painfully new. With each bounce in the air, he felt another disc slide out of place. Nevertheless, Tevye found himself enjoying the ride. Blood rushed through his veins. The wind swirled around him. The hooves of the horses thundered over the earth. If Ben Zion had yelled out a war cry, Tevye would have yelled out too. In the adventure, he forgot about his mourning for Tzeitl. Suddenly, for the first time in ages, he felt like a young man with his whole life just beginning anew.
Like soldiers of fortune, the Jews rode along hillsides and streaked across valleys. The horses were just beginning to work up a sweat when they reached the well at the southern border of the kibbutz. The area around it was completely deserted. Sitting tall in his saddle, Ben Zion scanned all of the hillsides.
“It may be an ambush,” he said.
Everyone gazed over the mountainous terrain. Rifles were pointed in every direction. Tevye mimicked the others, not knowing if his rifle was loaded. Ben Zion slid gracefully down from his horse and told Tevye to follow. With far less elegance, Tevye let his boots plunge back down to the earth.
“You load a rifle like this,” Ben Zion said, taking Tevye’s rifle and sliding a bullet into its chamber. “To shoot, you cock the hammer, aim with one eye, and fire.”
Ben Zion pulled the trigger. The rifle roared. The bullet splintered the trunk of a tree a short distance away. “You try,” he said, handing the rifle to Tevye.
Tevye took the rifle, slid a bullet into the chamber, cocked the hammer, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. His shoulder jerked with the explosion. The crackle of the rifle echoed in his ears like the bark of an angry dog. This time, the tree stood unscathed.
“You shut both of your eyes,” Ben Zion said. “Try again.”
Once again, Tevye took aim. Slowly he squeezed the trigger. This time, he was braced for the recoil. To his surprise, a chunk of bark flew off of the tree.
“Mazal tov!” Ben Zion said. “You stay here and guard the well, while we scout the area.”
“Alone?” Tevye asked.
“You have the rifle. If the Arabs come back, fire a shot in the air to alert us. We will be within earshot.”
“What if they shoot at me?” Tevye asked.
“Shoot back. Most Arabs are cowards. Usually, at the sound of gunfire, they flee.”
Tevye did not feel reassured. With his mazal, if there were only one brave Arab in the world, he would be the one who returned to the well.
Ben Zion swung up to his saddle. “Yalla!” he called. He spurred his horse, and everyone rode off, leaving Tevye alone. Clutching his rifle, the milkman scanned the surrounding hills.
“Vayzmeer,” he mumbled aloud. The Yiddish expression of worry sounded strangely foreign in the Biblical hills of the Galilee. Tevye realized that to become a real part of the Land, he would have to learn everyday conversation in Hebrew. Once again, Tevye made sure the rifle was loaded. His eyes roamed over the countryside for signs of the enemy.