Elijah spun around.
A line of girls trudged toward him. Each girl stared down at the heels of the girl ahead. One long chain at the ankles linked them in a column that curved out of sight along the King’s Highway.
His brother, Nathan, ducked behind their donkey.
Elijah backed up to a camel to let the girls squeeze through, but the second girl in line stumbled into him. The odor of dried feces invaded his nostrils. He grabbed her shoulders to keep her from falling.
A thick hand knocked her aside and shoved Elijah hard into the camel. Another hand flashed a razor-edged knife.
Whoa! A blade like that could slice Elijah’s jugular as quickly as his knife at home opened the vein of a goat on butchering day. Elijah froze wide-eyed. “Careful with that thing, mister!” Teeth clenched, he pushed back against the camel.
From his seat by the trunk of an oak tree, Elijah’s father stood and turned his brown, wrinkled face toward the man with the knife.
“My son means you no harm.”
The hand rested against Elijah’s chest, and the blade pricked his throat.
His father stepped over beside them.
“Put your knife away.”
Elijah’s head pushed back between camel ribs, and the beast roared a complaint. It raised its tail and commented further with a cloud of gas followed by egg-sized pellets which collected in a short pile.
The camel’s owner looked their way. “Them slavers don’t talk much, boy. Just stand there quiet and leave the girl alone. Last time I seen a slaver pull a blade, he slit that Egyptian’s throat ‘fore the dog could put a hand on his sword. That boy just laid down and gurgled.”
The hands and the knife maintained steady pressure. Elijah’s face burned.
His father closed in, mingling his ragged brown beard with the short black beard of the slave trader. He spoke in a low voice.
“You hear me?”
The hands fell, the knife with them, and Elijah’s father took a half step back toward the trunk of the oak.
He kept his eyes on the slaver. “You’ve no call to pull a knife on my son.”
Elijah breathed deep. He wiped his hand across his throat and brought away a wet splotch of blood. “Filthy Midianite swine!”
The man flicked him half a grin. He perched the knife under Elijah’s nose and rolled the hilt in his palm. He sauntered past and never looked back.
The line of girls followed him, and one dragged her ragged robe across Elijah’s arm. Who were these girls? Torn sleeves. Dirt. Hair matted with mud or worse. Where did they come from? As they squeezed past, a few raised their heads, but not one met his gaze.
If only Mother could see them!
Elijah’s mother would wrap her arms around each girl and help her down the bank of the Yarmuk. Into the water and scrub, scrub, scrub. Then out and drape her in a fresh, clean robe.
But how would Mother mend their numb, empty stares?
Elijah’s father pointed to an incoming camel puller. The man separated his string of camels from the caravan and pulled them over behind the first three men who waited with camels by Elijah’s wineskins. “Look lively now with wine for these men. They have customers waiting.”
How could his father talk about wine or customers? Didn’t he see the pus oozing from that girl’s shoulder?
But Elijah’s father flashed a broad smile at the first man in line. “Do you carry spices?”
Elijah groaned, but the camel puller fell for his father’s ancient line. “For the Nile market.”
“Next week we celebrate the day we left the Nile.”
“The Nile? When were you at the Nile?”
“Thutmose was pharaoh. We left Egypt 621 years ago.”
Elijah’s father flashed a twinkle at Elijah and returned a full smile to the camel owner as he opened his hand for the man’s pieces of silver.
Elijah reached behind the donkey, Balak, and touched his brother on the shoulder. “It’s safe, Nate. You can come out now.” Nathan wanted to hide from new people, but brothers should stand together.
Nathan was smart. When he pruned vines, they gave more wine even than when their father pruned. Nathan was quick. With a sword in his hand, his general aversion to strangers might be an asset.
The two faithful brothers would prowl the King’s Highway. Drive off the slave traders and deliver the girls to Mother. March into Samaria and knock down the Baal temple. Shatter the Asherah poles. Crush the Molek furnaces. Chase the foreign priests back to Sidon.
The line of girls kept coming around the hill. How many were there? Dozens? Hundreds?
And no older than Milkah, the girl on the other side of their ridge. They all looked younger than Elijah. He stroked his chin. A beard would show up any day now.
The camel owner interrupted. “Days ’n’ days on the trail, boy. From them tribes up north. Your dad here been saying he’ll take you to that Asherah temple?” He leered. “Don’t you worry. Give ’em a week, and the older girls’ll have ’em cleaned up, ready to serve.”
“Serve?” Elijah’s father stood square in the man’s face. “That’s not what happens to these children.” He grabbed the man’s wrist and jammed pieces into his palm. “Keep your silver. Elijah, hold that wineskin.”
The camel owner raised his fist, but Elijah took three steps and glared in his face.
Nathan jumped to his side. “Little brother, if you need to insult this son of an Ishmaelite toad, please come up with something more profound than filthy swine.”
The man clamped his fingers around the silver. He jammed them into his pouch, thrust it deep inside his cloak, and snarled, “Miserable Hebrew dogs!”
Nathan stood straight and stared down at him. “Moses said, ‘Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, and cut down their Asherah poles.’”
The Ishmaelite blinked. He led his camels onto the highway and blended into the caravan.
Elijah bumped elbows with Nathan. “Thank you, brother.”
Elijah’s father took Nathan by the left arm and Elijah by the right. “Look at me, boys.”
“Yes?” The brothers spoke as one.
“Tomorrow evening. Okay? Tomorrow evening, I want you each to tell me David’s greatest moment.”
Elijah started with, “When he…”
But his father shook his head. “Tomorrow. In the evening.”
The final few in the long line of girls squeezed through. A thick-shouldered man strutted beside them.
“See that, Lord! It’s not right. Why do you let him live?”
Elijah glowered. “You don’t do right by these girls.”
The slaver smirked.
Something solid struck his right jaw.
The man flickered and danced in front of him. Then darkness folded in.