After three hours of carrying the banner at the head of the three ox-drawn carts, ten-year-old Yishak made his first of three fatal errors. He put the banner down. The banner was simply made – a square, woolen cloth, hung on a short piece of wood, tied atop a long wooden pole. The cloth bore the black painted image of a jackal’s head in profile on the yellow-white background. The lower corners curled up to cover some of the image. It was shorter than a man and remarkably light due to the foreign wood. Yishak’s job was simply to carry the banner and lead the carts. But, the screaming sun and the waves of heat, like nausea hanging in the air, beat him. Yishak set the banner down in the first wagon and set in motion the events that would claim the first life – that of his father.
Yishak walked alongside the wagon, claiming the slim band of hard shadow afforded by the high sun. His calloused feet denied the searing earth, but there was no remedy for the blaze of light. The driver looked forward, dabbing disinterestedly at his sweaty face. His drab robes were visibly stained with the dust of the road caught in the damp cloth. He was a man in his middle years, tired, but not worn through. Wrinkles folded his dark skin around his eyes and mouth. Some disappeared when he smiled, others deepened.
Twice a month he made this trip from Sodom with goods for sale and trade. He hauled textiles, figs, various grains and legumes, and even some livestock, mostly the older animals past their prime for milk or egg production. These were known to be tough meat, maybe suitable for a stew or pie. Somewhere on his route, however, someone would be desperate for meat, and would trade high. Perhaps a slave or daughter. This was how The Jackal operated – find the needy, fill their need, and burn them with a hard trade.
The oxen finally completed the long climb out of the green valley. Looking back toward Sodom was a study in layered colors – a brilliant white orb in a cobalt sky above the gray-brown rocks at the rim of the valley above the dull green of the low brush growing up the sides of the rift above the bright quilted colors of the crops and grazing lands in the lush plain below – greens and yellows mixed with a blue flower and an orange grass. These were the colors of Gods planted and organized by the hands of man.
“Why don’t you carry the banner, boy?” heaved the heated man.
“Too heavy,” came the obvious answer. The boy’s voice seemed light as air. The man’s solid as the earth. “Besides, there’s no one up here to see it.”
“You better hope not.”
The boy had prepared his lightning quick reply. “I can grab it when I see someone coming.”
“You dishonor The Jackal by failing to do your duty, boy. If he finds out, we're both in trouble."
Under the plodding sound of the oxen’s steps, beneath the crunching of the wheels and the creaking of the cart, silence and a dull look toward the ground were the only answer.
After some time, Yishak offered that he would carry the banner soon. He just needed a short rest after the climb. He walked along at the slow pace of the oxen, hand on the side of the cart, keeping his feet in the band of shadow slithering over the earth like a serpent.
“Get your banner, boy!”
A hesitation. A murmer of acknowledgment. And, as the truth of a boy would dictate, an excuse. “I’ll just get a drink and then I can carry it again.” Yishak pulled a skin from the cart, pulled the stopper and stood as he stabbed back at his thirst.
Eyes closed in the sweet moment with his head tilted back, he heard a distant cry and a heavy thud nearby. In slow realization, as if the air around him were thick, he saw men running toward the wagons and the drover of the lead wagon on the ground next to him. “Papa,” he shouted as he shook the man. The head lolled to the side, revealing a gush of blood feeding the greedy ground.
Yishak staggered back and dropped his waterskin. The men were closing, and one swung a great sling around his head. The rock flew toward the man driving the second cart, narrowly missing him as he jumped down with his staff. He joined the third drover seeking cover behind the carts and shouting. “Jackal! Jackal!”
Yishak ran. With the carts between him and the robbers, he scampered into the distant boulders unseen. He watched the man with the sling miss again. His partner had pulled a long knife and ran toward the two drovers. They attempted to run back down the road. The sling took out one, sending him careening head first to the ground where he lay motionless. The man with the knife caught the other. A scream echoed across the rocks and then fell into a soft weeping. The knife quickly cut all sound and the hot air sat again in disinterest.
The two thieves congratulated each other and began looking through the carts. They’d tied the scrappy livestock together and taken a few other hand items, when they came across the banner in the first wagon. The man with the sling lifted it and showed it to the other. The second shook his head and spoke. They both looked to the rocks, eyes scanning past Yishak. They turned and looked the other way, and back down the road. The first man shook his head and threw down the banner. He dropped his bounty and began walking back the way they had come. The second man shouted again and held out his hands. He pointed to the three dead men and back to the carts. No, shook the head of the first man. He turned and walked away his hands over his ears. The second man took a few steps, then grabbed the train of sorry goats and sheep to drag after him.
The westward peaks cut the sun before Yishak moved from his refuge. He dripped with sweat. With one eye up the road, he approached the body of his father. The rock had hit the eye and nose area, crushing them inward. Yishak looked, trying to remember his father’s unmarred face. He couldn’t. With his foot, he pushed the head to the side again, hiding the chasm in the face. There, through the swelling, he could just make out the rare smile with one corner of the mouth curled. He turned away and grabbed his waterskin. It was empty now and he threw it.
After checking the other two drovers, both dead, he climbed onto the first cart and snapped the reins, as he’d seen his father do. The oxen began their slow walk. Yishak pulled left and the oxen started their turn. But, the narrow road prevented a full turn and the oxen stopped when faced with the rocks. He pulled back on the reins. He got out and pushed on the fronts of the oxen. He even pulled on their tails. Other than a irritated kick that struck the front of the wagon, he could not make them move. Finally, as the Hay Merchant’s Way began to shine down its smear of white from the heavens, Yishak walked back down into the fertile plains. The scent of blood and sweaty oxen soon gave way. The cool air brought sweet smells of figs and fruits to him. The smells of home, welcoming back a very wayward son.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish