A scream pierced the hot breath of the highway.
Elijah dropped his end of the wineskin against his brother Nathan’s knees. It twisted and burst, spilling its wine into the dirt.
Nathan stepped back. “What…?” He stared at the pooling wine, rubbed his chin, and raised one eyebrow at Elijah.
A hawk hoping for a free breakfast dived at a kestrel rising with a mouse in its claws.
Elijah tugged on his ear. Maybe the cry had come from a hawk.
Or a camel. Elijah reached toward the endless caravan on the path beside him. The hair on their legs brushed his fingers as they padded past. They moaned or grunted, but a frightened camel had once screamed as it dashed between Elijah and Nathan.
Behind Elijah, a camel puller cleared his throat. Another shifted his feet.
Elijah turned and faced Nathan and the pullers. “Sorry, Nate.” Back to work.
The camel pullers glanced from Elijah to Nathan to Dad.
Dad held a set of scales to weigh the pullers’ silver. His lips parted in the beginnings of a scowl. His eyes on Elijah.
Elijah scrubbed a hand over his face. He had destroyed Dad’s ninth sale of the day. That wineskin should be resting in the pannier on the camel’s hump, but its wine soaked into the red dirt, and three pullers from the caravan waited to buy. He rubbed his palms together and turned to the other skin on the donkey’s packsaddle. He would get a better grip.
The scream came again.
Goosebumps rose on Elijah’s arms. He shielded his eyes from the morning sun and pivoted toward the valley where the camels climbed onto this part of the King’s Highway.
There. Beside the camels. A little girl floundered in the dust. She stumbled away from a long line of girls.
Elijah’s breath caught in his throat. Mother and Dad had told him about slaves. But not this. Torn sleeves. Faces caked with dirt. Hair covered in mud.
The girl fell to her knees.
“Nathan,” Elijah whispered, unable to tear his gaze from the child on the ground.
She stood and staggered several steps toward Elijah.
A thick man with red hair strode around the line of girls and followed her.
“Slaver.” Mother had said the word once. Her lips had trembled. Dad had clenched his fists.
The little girl glanced back and cried out. She stumbled to her knees again and crawled toward Elijah.
The slaver sauntered after her.
Elijah’s chest tightened. He should race out and pick her up, yet both his feet seemed stuck in thick clay. Get up, little girl. Run.
She lurched to her feet, wobbled into the shade of the oaks, and toppled limp against him.
He steadied her by the shoulders. A newborn goat had more meat on its knees. Red mud and excrement matted her black hair. Scratches and bruises covered her arms. The poor little girl smelled worse than a camel.
She turned her coal-black eyes up into Elijah’s face.
Mother. Take her to Mother.
The slaver knocked her aside and slammed Elijah into the waiting camel. A razor-edged knife flashed.
Elijah gulped and pictured his own blade at home as it severed the vein of a goat. “Careful with that thing, mister—uhn!” A prick tingled his throat. Foul breath invaded his nostrils. A fist jabbed his chest.
“Hands off, kid.”
Elijah clenched his teeth. 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 a plop-plop of pellets landing in a pile.
A camel puller who waited to buy a wineskin showed his few teeth to Elijah. “Them Kasrans don’t talk much, boy.” His woolly black beard wiggled with his words. “Last time I see one pull a blade, he slit that Egyptian’s throat ’fore he could put a hand on his sword. That boy just lay down and gurgled.”
The slaver grabbed Elijah’s tunic and jerked him away from the camel. “You like the girlie?” He thrust him back against the camel. “Chain links break.” He dragged the words out and waggled his foul-smelling face in front of Elijah’s nose. “But a girl never gets far.” The knife point left, poked each cheek, and returned to Elijah’s throat. “She’s mine.”
Elijah raised his palms and stretched his long frame. But the jab of the blade rode his neck, ready to open him.
Nathan stood. “Sir…. Um.” He left the shelter of their donkey’s rump. “P-please… uh… my brother… um….”
Elijah winced. May the Lord bless his big brother Nathan. Tall as a cedar and with a proud new beard. He could quote from the teachings, writings, and prophets, but he couldn’t scare a weasel out of a hen’s nest. Sweat beaded on Elijah’s brow.
“I’ll handle this.” Dad pushed up from his rock seat.
Elijah closed his eyes for a moment, and his heartbeat slowed.
Dad stood a head shorter than Elijah or Nathan, but he carried an armload more muscle. He parked his barrel chest next to the shoulder of the slaver. “My son means you no harm, Red.”
Elijah sucked in his breath. Dad’s respectful manners helped him make friends with merchants in the city and camel pullers on the highway. It might feel normal for one of lesser standing to label a stranger “Red,” but for Dad to make such a rude entry could only mean trouble.
The blade maintained pressure on Elijah’s throat.
“Put your knife away.”