I deleted this chapter. (But refer to the slaver’s obedience to Dad in the next dialogue.)
Dad spoke in a low voice. “You’re not in Kasran, Red. I own this piece of the highway.”
The blade fell away from Elijah’s throat.
The slaver slid his knife into his belt. His crooked smile faded under Dad’s stare, and he turned to go.
But Dad kept his eyes locked on him.
Elijah breathed deep. He wiped his hand across his throat and showed Nathan a wet splotch of blood. “Filthy swine.”
The slaver whipped around. But Dad stopped him with a glare.
The lone little girl looked up at Elijah and whimpered, but the slaver dragged her by the wrist. He flicked a crooked grin up at Elijah, and strutted off.
“She’ll get away from him. In the night, she’ll get free again and sneak away, won’t she, Dad?” Elijah stared after the girl and, like a blind man, patted the air beside him. “Dad?”
Dad took his hand. “No, son. She won’t get away. Slave catchers bring the girls back. Mercenaries. Some are Hebrews. The slavers pay good money for a live girl. They even pay for a girl in pieces.”
The line of little girls followed between the swaying camels and Elijah. The chain at their ankles clinked, their ragged robes brushed Elijah’s arm with filth. There must be fifty girls who shambled past in this hot, dry wind.
He should stop them. Snatch the knife and knock the slaver to the ground. Free the little girls and haul them home. He and Nathan had speed. Dad had muscles and smarts. Instead of hauling wineskins to camel pullers, they should rescue little girls from slavers.
Elijah’s eyes filled with tears. “Nathan, don’t you wish we could take them home to Mother?”
Nathan leaned across a donkey’s packsaddle and rested his chin in his hands. “One by one. She 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.”
Each child stared at the heels of the girl ahead. A few girls raised their heads, but none met Elijah’s gaze. How would Mother mend their empty stares?
A second thick man with red hair strutted beside the line of girls. A knife on his hip gleamed. Elijah touched a finger to the tiny hole in his throat. One slice, and he would be bleeding his life out under this putrid camel. Never again to step out Dad’s front door and gaze at the sun on the vines. Never to feel his mother’s hand on his cheek. Never to hear Milkah the shepherd girl laugh like a bell.
Dad’s breaths came deep and long. “Yes, son.”
“Um, thank you.”
Dad took Elijah by the wrist and looked deep in his eyes. “I thought I was going to lose you.” 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 waved his arm at the pullers. “Nathan. Elijah. Wine for these pullers.” He poked back the tear and swiped at his nose. “They have customers waiting.” His ninth sale soaked into the dirt at their feet. But he had eleven more wineskins to sell.
Still the girls dragged by. Pus oozed from one girl’s shoulder. Dad had been dealing wine from that rock since before Nathan was born, but how could he sell with these pitiful children stumbling past?
Dad forced a smile and picked up his scales. He turned to the first man in line, the puller with the beard that wiggled. “Do you carry spices?”
“For the Nile market.”
As the puller dropped silver into Dad’s open hand, he eyed the girls trudging by. “Days and days on the trail from them tribes up north. Don’t let the mud keep you away, boys. Ask your father to take you to the Asherah house.” His beard wiggled. “Give ‘em a week, and the older girls’ll have ‘em 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.”
The puller raised his fist, but Elijah took three steps and leaned his shoulder into him. He squinted up at Dad. What made the friendly wine salesman morph into an irate zealot? And why now? He knew little girls didn’t belong on a chain, and he must have felt the Lord watching. When the girl stumbled in, why didn’t Dad leap up from his rock and denounce this horror?
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 and Nathan might be young, but they were quick. Really quick. They should use their speed to do some good. Even out here on the highway.
He peeked at Dad and rehearsed what Dad liked to say whenever he unpacked his slow-down-Elijah look. “Reflect. Consider. Think before you act.”
Elijah tapped his foot on the ground. Right, Dad. Right. He kept glancing around at the donkeys, the wineskins, the camels, and the passing girls.
The final few girls in the long line squeezed past Elijah, and a third red-haired man swaggered behind them.
Elijah glowered. Why did the Lord let this arrogant lowlife live? “You don’t do right by these girls.”
The man laughed.