The King’s Highway, Gilead, 877 BC
1 Kings 16:32-3
Elijah tugged the laces loose on his donkey’s packsaddle, freeing its two goatskins of Tishbe wine. He gripped one by the front legs.
Nathan grasped the back legs. “Ready?”
Elijah grunted, bent his knees with Nathan, and helped swing the heavy load up toward the pannier on the hump of their customer’s camel.
A shrill scream rang through the oaks.
Elijah’s head recoiled, and the goatskin slipped from his fingers, bounced off Nathan’s knees, and burst at their feet. Their tenth sale of the morning.
As the wine puddled in the grass, their client spluttered. “’Sposed to last me into the Sinai.”
Elijah shushed him with a raised finger. He shielded his eyes against the sun and pivoted to the cry.
Thin clouds dusted the top of a light blue sky. Where the path climbed onto the plateau, next to a cluster of acacias, a little girl crawled toward him from a long line of little girls.
What were they doing out here on the trail? Hunched over on the path. Faces raised toward the child edging along on her knees.
Bees and grasshoppers stirred around her from the flowers of the turf.
A thick man with red hair and a leer sauntered after her.
“Nathan.” Elijah whispered.
Nathan laid a hand on Elijah’s arm. “Dad will be right back.”
Dad had collected silver from three camel pullers, left his sons to load the wineskins, and crossed the meadow to buy roast mutton and flatbreads with pickled cabbage for Nathan and hot peppers for Elijah.
Nathan murmured, “The guy’s got a knife.”
The thick man glanced at Elijah and touched the weapon at his waist.
Elijah had once picked up a blade from beside Tubal 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 was weapon enough to force most men to look down, back off. But Dad was on the other side of the meadow.
The little child struggled to her feet and staggered away from the thick man.
He smirked twenty paces behind her.
The girl glanced at him then lurched toward Elijah, her eyes wide. Dirt caked her face—thicker than the normal dust of the road—and red mud matted her hair. She couldn’t be ten years old. She shouldn’t be alone.
Elijah took a step toward her. “Run, little girl. Run.”
The thick man’s muscles bulged like a knot on an oak limb.
Elijah flexed his own thin, pale arm.
Nathan pulled Elijah back and wrapped his fingers around his wrist.
Elijah’s breath caught in his throat. He glanced across the meadow and drew himself up to full height. “She needs Dad.”
Nathan tightened his hold on Elijah’s wrist and sucked air between his teeth.
The child clutched her throat, fell to her knees fifteen paces ahead of the man, and reached her frail hand toward Elijah’s little grove of oak trees.
Elijah twisted out of Nathan’s grip and dashed to her, his feet rousing the scent of chamomile from the grass.
“Stay back, boy!”
Elijah understood Aramaic, but he lowered his head and pulled the girl to him.
Her stench overpowered the fragrance of chamomile. Excrement tangled her hair.
Feet rustled closer in the grass, and the dark voice boomed. “Leave the girl alone.”
Yet Elijah circled her shoulders with his arm and steered her into the shade of the oaks.
The girl toppled limp against him and turned her coal-black eyes to his face. Scratches and bruises covered her. A newborn goat had more meat on its bones. This child needed food.
Mother. We’ll take her to Mother.
The thick man strode into the oaks and shoved Elijah to the ground. He struck the girl’s face, knocking her to her knees.
She wrapped herself in her scrawny arms and whimpered.
The man jerked Elijah up, slammed him into the camel, and flashed his knife. The edge looked as sharp as the tiny blade Elijah borrowed from Mother to open the vein of a goat.
Elijah gulped. “Careful with that thing, mister—unh!” A prick tingled his throat. The blade. He tried to back away, but the camel didn’t budge.
Foul breath invaded Elijah’s nostrils. A fist jabbed his chest. “Hands off, kid.”
Kid? He didn’t have Dad’s muscles, but if that tickler wasn’t at his throat, he’d see what these skinny arms could do—why was Dad taking so long? The slightest pressure with that fine edge, and Elijah’s life would drain out under this camel like the wine from the broken goatskin.
Nathan stepped out from behind their donkey. “Sir… um. P-please… uh… my brother… um…”
Elijah winced. Nathan. Tall as a cedar, but he couldn’t scare a weasel off a hen’s nest.
The thick man shoved Nathan to the ground behind the donkey.
Sweat beaded Elijah’s brow. To escape the point of the blade, he 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.
The thick man growled. “I should slice your skinny throat. Teach you to leave a man’s property alone.”
Dad would take care of this stinking heathen when he got back with the mutton and flatbreads. But how long did Dad need to plan his attack?
The camel puller slid into Elijah’s view behind the man with the knife. “The kid’s father’ll be soon be back.”
The thick man grunted.
The puller eyed the one full wineskin remaining on the packsaddle and opened a lopsided grin of 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 square bales hanging from the humps of his fifteen camels carried tin and textiles for markets on the Nile.
The thick man grunted, shoved the puller aside, and thumped Elijah against the camel.
Was Dad composing a greeting? He had such a practical manner. Yet he took time to respect people in the city and on the trail.
This slave trader deserved no salutation. He waggled his stinking head in front of Elijah’s nose. “Hands off. Understand?”
Dad’s wrinkled, sun-burnt face came into view. “I’ll handle this.”
Elijah’s heartbeat slowed. He closed his eyes 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 on Elijah’s chest faltered.
Dad set his wide jaw and switched to Aramaic. “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 bulging biceps and barrel chest next to the slaver.
The man hissed and slid the knife into his belt.
Elijah slumped to the ground.
The thick man snarled and dragged the little girl sobbing and blubbering back to the trail.
Elijah pulled himself up. “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.”
“But, Dad.” Nathan leaned in. “You own this piece of the road.”
“Mmm…. That lie made Red think. Gave him time to decide he didn’t want a fight before his men got here.”
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.” He sighed and led them out of the oak grove. Dad’s voice was flat. “Chain links break, but a girl never gets far. Slave catchers haul them in. Slave traders weigh out good silver for children. They even pay for girls in pieces.”
Elijah took in a sharp breath. He refused to think of that frail little girl in pieces. If only he could have carried her to Mother.
He helped lead their donkeys along the edge of the Yarmuk canyon toward Tishbe. The sun rode high over the sea, casting short shadows before 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.”
“Swords?” Nathan’s mouth fell open.
“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 linen tunics.” He glanced at Elijah’s plain wool tunic.
“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?”