Chapter 1. of The Boy Who Closed The Sky
The Yarmuk River Valley, Elijah’s Backyard
The King’s Highway, Gilead
A shrill scream shot through the trees.
The wineskin slipped from his fingers, bounced off Nathan’s knees, and burst.
A robin fluttered up from the forest floor.
As purple wine puddled in the leaves, the camel puller sniveled.
“Supposed to last to the Sinai.”
Elijah turned his back on the puller and raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. Thin clouds dusted the top of a light blue sky over an endless line of camels splooshing through puddles from yesterday’s shower.
Where the path climbed onto the plateau, a child stirred bees and locusts as she crept through the grass.
A long line of children lifted faces to follow the girl as she pulled herself along on hands and knees.
Behind the child, a thick man with red hair sauntered through the grass. His headscarf and cloak shared the cut and color of Elijah’s. A leather belt like Nathan’s closed the man’s cloak. Except for his straight red hair, he could pass for a Gilead farmer.
Yet the back of Elijah’s neck tingled. Three months ago slavers had driven their captives along the trail, passing out of view as Elijah approached with Dad and Nathan.
The muscles on Dad’s forearms had raised rigid and defined. He had clamped his teeth together. “Do you see that, Lord? Do you see?”
But this morning, Dad had weighed the silver from three camel pullers and gone to bring lunch from Uncle Hiram’s across the meadow.
The slaver leered at the crawling child. In the far north, this man had welded these children into his chain and would sell them where they knew not one cousin nor one word of the language.
Back in his northern village, the slaver would entertain friends with fine wine, fresh fruit, and delicate meats.
Here in the south, the children he sold to farmers would work fast to avoid the whip, while those he sold to Asherah temples would serve clients with unspeakable perversions.
Elijah’s fists tightened into rocks. “Nathan,” he whispered.
His brother laid a hand on Elijah’s arm. “Dad will be right back.”
From behind them, the camel puller chuckled. “Ain’t your business, boy.”
The slaver glanced up and touched the knife at his waist.
Alone, the child struggled to her feet.
Several paces behind, the slaver smirked and tracked his run-away.
She glanced back at him then lurched toward Elijah, her eyes wide.
Dirt caked her face—thicker than the normal dust of the road—and red mud matted her hair. She couldn’t be a day past nine years old.
“Mother. We’ll take her to Mother.” Elijah stepped forward. “Run, little girl. Run.”
The slaver’s muscle bulged like a knot on an oak limb.
Elijah flexed his own thin, pale arm, but Nathan wrapped his fingers around his little brother’s wrist.
Ignoring Nathan’s hold, Elijah drew himself to full height and glanced across the meadow. “She needs Dad.”
The child fell to her knees and reached her frail hand toward them.
Elijah twisted out of Nathan’s grip and dashed to her, his feet rousing the scent of chamomile from the grass.
“Stay back, boy!” the slaver snarled.
Elijah stooped and pulled the girl to him.
Her stench overpowered the chamomile. Excrement tangled her hair.
The slaver’s heavy feet rustled in the grass, and his dark voice boomed. “Leave the girl alone.”
Elijah circled her shoulders with his arm and steered her into the shade of the oaks. The girl toppled limp against him and fixed her coalblack eyes on his face. Her robe was ragged and torn. Scratches and bruises covered her arms. A newborn goat had more meat on its bones.
He pulled her toward Nathan. “She’s hungry.”
The slaver strode into the oaks, grabbed Nathan by a shoulder, and tossed him behind the donkey.
He shoved Elijah to the ground and struck the girl in the face. She fell, wrapped herself in her scrawny arms, and whimpered.
A knife flashed, its edge as sharp as the tiny blade Mother loaned Elijah to open the vein of a goat.
Elijah gulped. “Careful with that thing, mister—uhh!” A prick stung his throat.
The man jerked Elijah’s tunic and slammed him up against the camel.
Elijah tried to back away, but the camel didn’t budge. The slightest pressure with that fine edge, and his life would drain into the dirt like the wine from the broken goatskin.
Foul breath invaded Elijah’s nostrils. A fist jabbed his chest. “Hands off, kid.”
Kid? His cheeks were still smooth, and he might not have Dad’s muscles, but if that knife weren’t so close, he’d show what these skinny arms could do. Why was Dad taking so long?
Nathan stepped out from behind the donkey and wiped blood off his mouth. “Sir… um. P-please… uh… my brother… um…” Nathan. Tall as a cedar and with a year’s growth of whiskers, but he couldn’t scare a weasel off a hen’s nest.
The slaver shoved Nathan back behind the donkey.
At the slaver’s feet, the girl sobbed.
As the camel puller slithered into view, he eyed the one full wineskin remaining on the packsaddle and opened a lopsided grin half full of orange teeth. “Them Kasran slavers don’t talk much, boy.”
His woolly black beard wiggled with his words. “Last time I see one pull a shiv, he slit an Egyptian’s throat ’fore he could put a hand on his sword. That boy just lay down and gurgled.” With a wink at the slaver, the puller stepped out of view.
The familiar aroma of Dad’s goatskin vest touched Elijah’s nose. His lips parted. Dad?
The blade point at his neck faltered.
“I’ll handle this.” Dad’s wrinkled sunburn came into view, and his deep baritone rumbled, “You’re not in Kasran anymore, Red. I own this piece of the road.”
Sniffles and a hiccup came from the little girl on the ground.
Elijah sucked in a breath. The set of Dad’s jaw was weapon enough to back most men down.
While he handed mutton and pickles to Nathan, Dad parked his bulging biceps and barrel chest next to the slaver.
The man hissed, slid the knife into his belt, and released his grip.
Elijah slumped to the ground.
The thick man yanked the little girl by her hair. He seized her twig of an arm and dragged her, sobbing and quivering, back toward the line of children on the trail.
Elijah pulled himself up and inhaled courage from Dad’s vest. “He’s taking her with him.”
Dad rested his hand on Elijah’s shoulder.
Elijah pushed the hand away. “We can take that guy. Chase him down and make him let those girls go. Can’t we, Nate.”
Nathan gawked in silence at the retreating slaver and the little girl.
“No, son. We can’t.” Dad returned his hand to Elijah’s shoulder and kept it there. “He has red-haired helpers you didn’t see. Well-armed. Plus, the pullers.”
“Pullers?” Elijah tipped his head to the side.
“Slavers and pullers have been on the trail for centuries. One hauls children, the other, tin and textiles, but they’re fellow merchants. Attack a slaver, and pullers carve you.”
Elijah’s eyes widened.
“But, Dad.” Nathan leaned into him. “You own this piece of the road.”
“Mmm…. That idea made Red think. Gave him time to decide he didn’t want a fight before his men got here.”
The slaver led his chain of captive children south.
More camel pullers stopped to buy Dad’s wine. In mid-afternoon, when camel pullers had bought the last of Dad’s twenty wineskins, Elijah and Nathan collected the leads of their ten donkeys.
“She’ll get away.” Elijah cocked his head at Dad. “In the night. The little girl will work the chain off her foot and sneak into the dark.”
“No, son. She won’t get away.” He sighed and led them out of the oak grove. Dad’s voice was flat. “Chain links break, but children never get far. Slave catchers haul them in, and slave traders weigh out good silver for them. They even pay for pieces.”
Elijah took in a sharp breath. If only he could have carried her home and fed her Mother’s flatbreads and mutton.
As Elijah and Nathan led the donkeys along the edge of the Yarmuk canyon, they kept Dad between them. The sun rode high over the Great Sea, casting shadows at their feet. A sand partridge flew a few paces ahead, scurried into the brush, and slurred kwa-kwa-kwa as Elijah passed.
Nathan threw up his hands. “But, Dad, didn’t Moses teach, ‘Whoever steals someone… put him to death.’?”
“Son, those slavers and pullers laugh at Moses.”
Elijah planted his hands on his hips. “We’ll get swords, Nate, and chase those guys off the road.”
“Swords?” Nathan’s mouth fell open.
“We’ll take lessons. That knife jumped in my face before I saw it. But we’ll learn. Then we’ll strike like… like… how’s that go about the Lord’s wind and fire?”
“‘Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind.
“‘Your lightning lit up the world.
“‘The earth trembled and quaked.’”
Elijah pumped his fist in the air. “That’s us, Nate. Lightning for the Lord.”
Dad shook his head. “Show me your lightning moves tomorrow when we pick grapes.”
King Omri – 1 Kings 16:23-38
Kidnapping – Exodus 21:16
Your thunder was heard – Psalm 77:18