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01 The King’s Highway

Elijah and his brother Nathan eased a wineskin off their donkey and swung it up toward their customer’s camel.

A chain clinked.

You hear that?” Elijah stiffened.

They stopped the skin in mid-swing and settled it back onto Balak, their donkey.

Elijah turned into the hot, dry breeze.

Behind him an endless caravan of camels shuffled through the waving grass of the plateau. Their huge leathery pads kicked the dust of the path into a low cloud. One gave a slight moan. Another grunted.

Elijah stepped over next to the swaying camels. They exited his cluster of oaks under a low-hanging limb where a warbler flipped his long, tapered tail. “Zerlip, zerlip, zerlip.” Beyond the oaks, the line of camels sank into a depression in the plateau. He shielded his eyes from the morning sun and pivoted toward the distant valley where the camels climbed into his section of the King’s Highway.

There, beside the camels.”

A line of girls trudged toward him, chained at their ankles. Torn sleeves. Faces caked with dirt. Hair matted with mud or worse. Each child stared at the heels of the girl ahead.

Nathan,” Elijah whispered, unable to tear his gaze from the girls

Nathan covered his mouth with his hand and gasped.

Nate, we’re in the way.”

Nathan ducked behind Balak, and Elijah spread-eagled against the camel which he had denied its wineskin. Elijah cringed. Dad’s ten donkeys still blocked the path.

The first girl stopped at the donkeys. The next girl stumbled into her and fell against Elijah.

Phew. This kid smells worse than a camel.

He grabbed her shoulders to help her stand with the others.

The little girl looked up, but a stocky red-haired man knocked her aside and shoved Elijah hard against the camel’s flank.

A razor-edged knife flashed. Whoa! That blade could slit Elijah’s jugular as fast as his knife severed the vein of a goat.

Careful with that thing, mister.” Elijah clenched his teeth.

Hands off the merchandise, kid.” The man jabbed Elijah’s chest and pricked his throat with the blade.

Elijah stood on tip-toe and jammed his head back against the camel’s ribs. The beast roared and commented at the other end with a cloud of gas followed by a familiar plop-plop of pellets landing in a pile.

A camel puller who waited to buy a wineskin stepped in. “Kasrans don’t waste time on talk, right, Red?” His long black beard wiggled with his words. “Last time I saw one pull a blade, he slit that Egyptian’s throat before he could put a hand on his sword. That boy just lay down and gurgled.”

Elijah blinked. He raised his helpless palms and stretched his long frame. But the jab of the blade rode his neck, ready to open him.

Nathan cleared his throat. “Sir…. Um.” He left the shelter of Balak’s rump. “C-could you please… uh… sir, my brother didn’t… um….”

Elijah winced. May the Lord bless his big brother Nathan. Tall as a cedar and only a few years from a beard. He could quote the teachings, writings, and prophets word for word, but he couldn’t scare a weasel out of a hen’s nest. Sweat beaded on Elijah’s brow.

I’ll handle this.” Dad sat on a rock behind Elijah with a set of scales to weigh payment. He rose. Dad stood a head shorter than Elijah or Nathan, but he carried an armload more muscle. He parked his bushy brown beard next to Red’s shoulder, right in Elijah’s view.

My son means you no harm, Red.”

In spite of his fear of the blade, Elijah raised eyebrows at Dad. The most respectful and politest of men, Dad made friends with neighbors in the village, merchants in the city, and camel pullers who paused under these oaks. A camel puller might label a stranger “Red” without asking his name, but for Dad to use such rude talk could only mean trouble.

Red’s knife maintained pressure on Elijah’s throat.

Put your knife away, Red.”

Red blinked.

Dad spoke in a low voice. “You’re not in Kasran, Red. I own this piece of the highway. You’re not the big man in the village here. You can stop playing like my son is damaging your property. These pullers are not your audience. Every one of them is my friend. Put your knife away, or we will tear you into tiny pieces.”

Red flinched. He lowered his hands and slid his knife into his belt. His crooked smile faded under Dad’s stare, and he turned to go.

Dad kept his eyes locked on him.

Elijah breathed deep. He wiped his hand across his throat and brought away a wet splotch of blood. He glared at the retreating Red and spoke in the same low voice as his dad. “Filthy swine.”

Red whipped around, but Dad stopped him with his eyes. He flicked a crooked grin up at Elijah and turned away. He shoved Balak out of the path and strutted off.

The little girls followed Red, their chain clinking, their ragged robes brushing Elijah’s arm with filth. There must be forty or fifty girls shuffling past.

Elijah’s eyes filled with tears. I wish we could take them to Mom, Nate.”

Nathan leaned across the wineskins on Balak and rested his chin in his hands. “Mom would wrap her arms around a girl and help her down the bank of the Yarmuk. Into the water, and scrub, scrub, scrub.”

Mm-hm.” Dad nodded. “And then drape her in a clean tunic.”

A few of the passing girls raised their heads, but none met Elijah’s gaze. How would Mother mend their empty stares?

As Red retreated, the knife on his hip gleamed. Elijah touched a finger to the tiny hole in his throat. That blade almost bled his life out under this putrid camel, so he never again could step out their front door and gaze at the sun on the vines. Never feel his mother’s hand on his cheek. Never marry Milkah the shepherd girl.

Dad?”

Dad’s breaths came deep and long. “Yes, son.”

Um, thank you.”

Dad laid his hand on Elijah’s shoulder and looked deep in his eyes. “I thought I was going to lose you, son. I really did.” A tear peeked over his eyelid, but another puller led twelve camels out of the caravan and parked them behind the three strings already waiting to buy Dad’s wineskins. Dad poked at his eye and waved his arm. “Nathan. Elijah. Wine for these pullers. They have customers waiting.”

Still the girls dragged by. Pus oozed from one girl’s shoulder. Was Dad blind? He’d been dealing wine from that rock since before Nathan was born, but he couldn’t sell with these pitiful children stumbling past. Could he?

Yet Dad forced a smile and picked up his scales. He looked up at the first man in line, the puller with the beard that wiggled. “Do you carry spices?”

Elijah groaned at Dad’s antique opener, but the puller bit like a bream swallowing a mayfly. “For the Nile market.”

The Nile, eh? Next week we celebrate the day we left Memphis.”

Memphis?” The puller tilted his head. “When were you at the Nile?”

Thutmose was Pharaoh. We left Egypt five hundred seventy years ago.”

Hmpf.” He snorted. “Hebrews.”

Dad winked at Elijah and Nathan. “Load a full skin of Tishbe wine for this man.” He beamed a broad smile at the camel puller and extended his palm.

As the puller dropped silver into Dad’s open hand, he eyed the girls trudging by. “Don’t be afraid, boys. These girls have been days and days on the trail from tribes up north. Ask your father to take you to the Asherah temple.” His beard wiggled. “Not to worry. Give them a week, and the older girls will have them cleaned up.” He leered. “Ready to serve.”

Serve?” Dad stood square in the puller’s face and rumbled. “That’s not what happens to these children.” He grabbed the man’s wrist and slapped the pieces back into his palm. “Keep your silver, mister. Hold that wineskin, Nathan.”

Dad knew little girls didn’t belong on a chain. He knew the Lord watched this evil. Why did he wait so long to show his anger?

The puller raised his fist, but Elijah took three steps and leaned into him.

Nathan jumped to his side. “Moses said, ‘Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, and cut down their Asherah poles.’”

The puller blinked. He clamped his fingers around the silver, jammed the pieces into his pouch, and thrust it deep inside his cloak. “Miserable Hebrew dogs.” He stomped onto the highway with his string of camels and blended into the caravan.

Chin up and chest out, Elijah bumped elbows with Nathan. “Thanks, Nate.” He stole a glance at Dad, the friendly wine salesman who morphed into an irate zealot.

Dad took Nathan by the left arm and Elijah by the right. “Boys.”

“Yes?” They spoke as one.

Dad wore his “teachable moment” face. Elijah hid a grin. Lesson on the way.

Tomorrow I want you each to tell me David’s greatest moment.”

Elijah squelched a groan. While fifty pitiful little girls dragged past, Dad rescued him from a slaver’s knife, then he saved Dad from fighting a puller. He rolled his eyes. “King David? What’s he got to do with anything, Dad?”

Son…” Dad unpacked his slow-down-Elijah look. “…learn to consider your way. Reflect on King David’s life and tomorrow tell me what you find.”

Elijah tapped his foot on the ground. Reflect. Consider. Think before you act. He kept glancing around at the donkeys, the wineskins, the camels, and the passing girls. Right, Dad. Right.

The final few girls in the long line squeezed past Elijah, and a second Red strutted behind them. Why did the Lord let this arrogant lowlife live?

Elijah glowered. “You don’t do right by these girls.”

The second Red laughed.

Elijah lunged.

Something solid struck Elijah’s jaw. He hit the ground, and darkness folded in.

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