The King’s Highway, Gilead, Israel, 877 BC
1 Kings 16:32-3
Elijah grabbed one end of the wineskin, bent his knees, and lifted.
A child’s shrill cry shot across the trail.
The wineskin slipped from Elijah fingers and burst at the feet of his brother Nathan.
A boulder lodged in Elijah’s gut. Who was hurting? Shielding his eyes from the sun, he pivoted toward the valley where camels climbed onto the road.
There. Beside the caravan, in the heat. A little girl crawled through the grass.
Elijah’s breath caught in his throat.
The girl struggled to her feet and stumbled away from a long line of girls. Dirt caked her face. Red mud matted her black hair. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but only shuddered.
They needed Dad, but he was across the meadow buying mutton with hot peppers for Elijah and pickled cabbage for Nathan.
The girl fell to her knees.
“Nathan.” Elijah whispered. He ignored the pooling wine, Dad’s ninth sale of the day, and stared open-mouthed at the little girl. Elijah stood a head taller than Dad, and not a finger higher than Nathan or mother. His knees and elbows poked out at awkward angles, yet he pruned vines beside Nathan with swift, sure strokes. Although Nathan’s beard had come in thick and black a year ago, their mother could still stroke Elijah’s bare cheeks and coo, “My baby boy.”
Elijah riveted his gaze on the child. She tugged at his heart. Dad would be here to help any moment.
A thick man with red hair followed the girl. He looked up at Elijah in the grove and shook his head. Slaver. At home in Tishbe, Dad had growled the word through clenched teeth, and Mother’s lips had trembled.
The little girl stood and staggered toward Elijah, while the slaver sauntered twenty paces behind her.
She passed three camels and fell twenty paces from Elijah. She glanced back and cried out.
The slaver kept coming.
Elijah’s chest tightened. She wasn’t ten years old. “Get up, little girl. Run.”
Big brother Nathan wrapped his fingers around Elijah’s arm.
The girl reached her frail hand toward the shelter of the oaks. The thick man was fifteen paces behind.
Elijah’s muscles tensed. “She needs my help.”
“No.” Nathan tightened his hold. “That slaver—”
“She needs Dad.” Elijah twisted out of Nathan’s grip and dashed through the grass. His feet roused the fragrance of chamomile and turned daisies to the sun. Clouds of grasshoppers and bees stirred to life.
The thick man commanded, “Stay back, boy!”
Elijah spoke the slaver’s Aramaic, but he lowered his head and pulled the girl to her feet. She smelled worse than a camel. Excrement tangled her hair.
The dark voice boomed. “Leave the girl alone.” The grass rustled too close.
Elijah steadied her by the shoulders and snugged an arm around her waist. He steered her into the shade of the oaks, where 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. He glanced at Nathan. “Mother. Dad will take her to Mother.”
The thick man strode into the oaks and struck the girl’s face, knocking her to her knees. He slammed Elijah into the waiting camel and flashed a knife that looked as sharp as the blade Elijah used at home to open the veins of goats.
Elijah gulped. “Careful with that thing, mister—uhn!” A prick tingled his throat, and foul breath invaded his nostrils.
The man jabbed Elijah’s chest with his fist. “Hands off, kid.”
Kid? Elijah clenched his teeth. His beard might be late, but his skinny arms only looked weak. If that tickler wasn’t at his throat, he’d toss this guy on—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’s 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 puddle 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 fox out of a the goat pen. Sweat beaded on Elijah’s brow.
He stood on tiptoe and jammed his head back against the camel’s ribs.
The beast roared and commented with a cloud of gas followed by the plop-plop of pungent balls landing in a pile.
Dad should be back with the mutton and pitas. How long did he need to plan an attack on this stinking heathen?
The camel puller whose wine pooled in the dirt slid into sight and eyed the other skin still laced to the packsaddle. Square bales half as tall as Elijah hung from the humps of his fifteen camels. He brought tin and textiles to sell in markets on the Nile. The wine was to drink while crossing 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 put his knife in his belt.
Elijah slid to the ground, and Dad pulled him to his feet.
The thick man dragged the sobbing little girl 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 up.”
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?”