The King’s Highway, Gilead, Israel, 877 BC
1 Kings 16:32-3
Elijah bent his knees and grabbed the wineskin by its hind feet.
His brother, Nathan, took the front feet.
As they swung the skin up toward the open pannier, a shrill scream rang through the trees.
Elijah snapped his head back.
The wineskin slipped from his fingers and burst at his feet. The wine puddled in the grass.
Shielding his eyes from the sun, Elijah pivoted to the sound.
Where the road climbed onto the plateau beside a cluster of acacias, a little girl crawled through the grass, stirring bees and grasshoppers into the heat.
A thick man with red hair followed her.
Elijah took a step toward the child. “Nathan,” he whispered.
Nathan laid a hand on Elijah’s arm. “Dad will be right back.”
The thick man glanced up at the brothers in the oaks, shook his head, and touched the knife at his waist.
Elijah had once picked up a blade from beside the blacksmith’s forge and run a curious finger across its bright edge.
Dad had frowned. “Not for my son.”
The set of Dad’s jaw would be weapon enough to force the thick man to look down and back off, but Dad had crossed the meadow to buy mutton and flatbreads with hot peppers for Elijah and pickled cabbage for Nathan.
The little girl struggled to her feet and staggered away from a long line of girls. Dirt caked her face, more than the normal dust of the road, and red mud matted her hair.
The thick man smirked twenty paces behind her.
The girl lurched several paces toward Elijah and glanced back, eyes wide and staring.
The thick man’s muscles bulged like the arms of a blacksmith.
Elijah flexed his own arm. Skinny like Nathan and Mother, but when his beard came in, maybe he would have muscles like Dad.
The child couldn’t be ten years old. “Run, little girl. Run.”
Big brother Nathan wrapped his fingers around Elijah’s arm.
Elijah’s breath caught in his throat. He glanced across the meadow for Dad. “She needs help.” Elijah drew himself up to full height.
She clutched her throat and fell to her knees fifteen paces ahead of the thick man.
Nathan tightened his hold on Elijah’s arm. “That guy’s got a knife.”
She reached her frail hand toward the shelter of the oaks.
Elijah twisted out of Nathan’s grip and dashed through the grass.
The thick man commanded, “Stay back, boy!”
Elijah understood the man’s Aramaic, but he lowered his head and pulled the girl to him. Excrement tangled her hair. His feet had roused chamomile from the grass, but her stench overpowered the fragrance.
The dark voice of the thick man boomed. “Leave the girl alone.”
Elijah refused to look toward the voice or the feet which rustled closer in the grass. He steadied the girl by the shoulders, snugged an arm around her waist, and steered her into the shade of the oaks. She toppled limp against him and turned her coal-black eyes up to his face.
A newborn goat had more meat on its joints. Scratches and bruises covered her arms. This scrawny child needed food.
“Mother.” Elijah glanced at Nathan. “Dad will take her to Mother.”
The thick man strode into the oaks and struck the girl’s face, knocking her to her knees.
She wrapped her arms around herself and whimpered.
He slammed Elijah into the camel waiting for the wine that puddled in the grass. The knife in his belt flashed—as sharp as the tiny blade Elijah borrowed from his mother to open the veins of goats.
Elijah gulped. “Careful with that thing, mister—unh!” A prick tingled his throat, and foul breath invaded his nostrils.
The man’s fist jabbed Elijah’s chest. “Hands off, kid.”
Kid? Mother liked to caress his smooth cheeks and coo, “My baby boy.” But if that tickler wasn’t at his throat, he’d see what these skinny arms could do to this guy—why was Dad taking so long?
The slightest pressure with that fine edge, and Elijah’s life would drain out under this camel. He would never again feel Mother’s hand or hear his sister laugh. Never step out their door and inhale the breeze from the vines. And never marry Milkah, who tended sheep on the other side of the ridge.
Nathan stood in the pool of wine. “Sir… um. P-please… uh… my brother… um…”
Elijah winced. Big brother Nathan. Tall as a cedar, but he couldn’t scare a weasel off a hen’s nest.
Sweat beaded Elijah’s brow. He stood on tiptoe and jammed his head back against the camel’s ribs.
The beast commented with a roar and a cloud of gas followed by the plop-plop of pungent balls landing in a pile.
When Dad got back with the mutton and flatbreads, this guy—How long did Dad need to plan an attack on this stinking heathen anyway?
The camel puller whose wine soaked into the dirt slid into sight and eyed the other skin still laced to the packsaddle. Elijah had seen the square bales half as tall as a man that hung from the humps of the puller’s fifteen camels. He brought tin and textiles to sell in markets on the Nile. The wine was to drink while he crossed the Sinai.
The puller opened a lopsided grin which displayed orange teeth. “Them Kasran slavers don’t talk much, boy.” His woolly black beard wiggled with his words. “Last time I see one pull a shiv, he slit that Egyptian’s throat ’fore he could put a hand on his sword. That boy just lay down and gurgled.”
Elijah groaned. Typical camel puller. “Give me my wine, and I’m out of here.”
The thick man jerked Elijah’s tunic, yanked him away from the camel, and thrust him back again. He waggled his stinking face in front of Elijah’s nose. The point retracted, poked each cheek, and returned to Elijah’s throat.
Was Dad composing a greeting? He treated people with deep respect in the city and on the trail. But this monster deserved no manners.
Elijah raised his palms and stretched his long frame, but the jab of the blade rode his neck, ready to open him.
Dad brought his bulging biceps into view. “I’ll handle this.”
Elijah’s heartbeat slowed. He closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled the smell of his father’s goatskin vest, the aroma Nathan called “the field which the Lord has blessed.”
The thick man’s hand faltered.
Dad set his wide jaw. “You’re not in Kasran anymore, Red. I own this piece of the road.”
The blade maintained pressure.
Elijah sucked in his breath.
Dad handed the mutton and pickles to Nathan, planted his feet wide, and parked his barrel chest next to the slaver.
The man hissed and reinserted the knife in his belt.
Elijah slid to the ground, and Dad pulled him to his feet.
The thick man dragged the little girl sobbing and blubbering back to the trail.
“But, Dad, he’s taking her with him.”
His father pinched his lips together and rested his hand on Elijah’s shoulder.
Elijah pushed the hand away. “We can take that guy, Dad. Chase him down and make him let those girls go. Can’t we, Nate?”
Nathan opened his mouth wide and raised his eyebrows.
“No, son.” Dad shook his head. “He has red-haired helpers you didn’t see. Well-armed. Plus, the pullers.”
“Pullers?” Elijah tipped his head to the side.
“Slavers have been on the trail for centuries, and camel pullers are their fellow merchants. Attack a slaver, and pullers carve you.”
Elijah’s eyes widened. “Pullers.”
Nathan interrupted. “But, Dad.” He leaned in. “You own this piece of the road.”
“Mmm…. That lie made him think. Gave him time to decide he didn’t want a fight while his men were out of sight.”
When the last goatskin of wine was sold, Elijah collected the lead lines of five donkeys, and Nathan the other five.
“She’ll get away.” Elijah cocked his head at Dad. “In the night. The little girl will work the chain off her foot and sneak away in the dark.”
“No, son. She won’t get away.” Dad sighed and led them out of the oak grove. “Chain links break, but a girl never gets far. Slave traders pay slave catchers good money for children. They even pay for girls in pieces.”
Elijah took in a sharp breath.
He helped lead their donkeys through the Yarmuk River valley toward Tishbe, their tiny village. The sun rode high over the Mediterranean, casting short shadows ahead of him. A sand partridge jumped from under his feet and flew a few paces ahead. It scurried into the brush and slurred kwa-kwa-kwa as he passed.
Nathan threw up his hands. “But, Dad, didn’t Moses say, ‘Whoever steals someone . . . put him to death.’?”
“Son, those slavers and pullers know nothing of Moses.”
Elijah planted his hands on his hips. “We’ll get swords, Nate, and chase those guys off the road.”
“We’ll take lessons. That knife jumped in my face before I saw it. But we’ll learn. We’ll strike like . . . like . . . how’s that go about the Lord’s wind and fire?”
Nathan adopted a sing-song tone.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind.
Your lightning lit up the world.
The earth trembled and quaked.
“That’s us.” Elijah pumped his fist in the air. “Lightning for the Lord.” He pursed his lips and bobbed his head.
Dad chuckled. “Show me your lightning moves tomorrow when you pick grapes.”
Elijah glanced at Nathan. “That girl looked younger than Milkah. What if they kidnapped Milkah?”
“Milkah?” Nathan cocked his head and gave him a sly grin. “Who said anything about Milkah?”
Elijah let the beginnings of a smile play at the corners of his mouth. “I’m going to marry Milkah.”
“You wish.” Nathan rolled his eyes. “Why should she marry a village boy when she can have the butcher’s son in Jabesh? He’s got a beard, and he wears silk tunics.”
“Oh yeah? That beard better not come sniffing around our hills. If I even catch him on Milkah’s ridge, I’ll… I’ll…”
Behind him a donkey brayed.
Nathan snorted. “You’ll what?”