After Caesarius admonition to me about returning home, we both lapsed into silence, as had the other men after hearing Decimus’ warning about the new fort. Ironically, I, the greatest coward in the group, was unafraid of our destination. I was afraid of the journey, itself, not our arrival at the fort. I was, after all, not in trouble like the others. The only concern for me when our journey ended was being forced to go home. When I considered the dangers we had faced so far and those still ahead of us on the road, failure seemed much better than death.
For several hours, the only sounds to be heard were the clop of the horses and mules hooves and an occasional cry of sea gulls flying overhead as the road swerved seaward and we could once again see the distant whitecaps of the Great Sea. Waves lapped on the beach below, an endless white rim of sand stretching out on the shoreline, appearing and disappearing from view, as the road rose and fell, behind stands of cedars, cypress, and oaks. The rocking motion of the mule below me and the faint warm sea breeze caressing my face lulled me into a stupor. It was an uncomfortable ride at times, as we negotiated the narrow road. For the infirmed Langullus and Enrod, who was still on the mend, the torment of travel was especially bad. I thought about what Caesarius had said about going home. Both Decimus and Aulus had said the same thing. The optio’s warning to the auxilia, I sensed, might be a prod to get them all to behave. If it was true that Cornelius deferred judgment to avoid executing those men, why hadn’t he mentioned this before? In fact, I remember him questioning Apollo about the reason he and the others were being transferred to the new fort. This transfer sounded very much like punishment to me. With the exception of the Egyptian, who sloughed off his disgrace, the men resented this action. After hearing the general contempt my traveling mates had for Jews, I found it hard to believe that even Apollo, Ajax, and Ibrim, the biggest culprits, would suffer more punishment than expulsion from the Galilean fort.
Last night’s strong drink made the long, sweaty ride much worse for me. After what they drank again this morning, I could imagine how the others felt. My stomach was still queasy. My very thoughts made my head hurt. I relished the thought of slumber those moments—just a few winks, but if I fell asleep I might tumble out of my saddle and break my head. Following the advice Caesarius had given me earlier, I wound the reins around my wrists and kept my heels pressed against the mule. As it had happened repeatedly on our journey, the road swerved inland away from the sea, to avoid the rocky coast, but then returned to the narrow, precarious ledge, forcing us once again to ride single file. Suddenly, jarring us from torpor, we heard shouts in the distance. Aulus, who had ridden ahead to find a rest stop, was the bearer of grave news.
“Decimus,” he called out in gasps, “…there’s been a landslide…. The road’s impassable. It’ll take weeks to clear. I don’t know when it happened. We’re damn lucky we weren’t caught in it.”
The optio let fly a series of curses, shouted, “Halt!” and climbed angrily off his mount. “You know what this means, Aulus?” he gnashed his teeth. “Unless we go back, we have to go inland.”
“You mean that new road?” Vesto muttered in disbelief.
“Aye,” Decimus mopped his face and spat, “the desert route. I know nothing about that road. It’s not on my map. The only city I’ve heard about in that area is Raphana. We’ll have to rely on milestones.”
“I’ve heard about the road,” Caesarius exclaimed wearily, “and Raphana sits off of it, in the foothills of Lebanon.” “By the way,” he said for the benefit of everyone, “all main roads lead back to the sea.”
“Rap-han-a” Ibrim sounded out the word. “I’ve heard of this town. It’s much further than our destination. Are there even way stations on that route.”
“I dunno,” Decimus exhaled glumly, “but we have no choice.” “Let’s hope we passed a side road back there.” Searching the line of riders, he asked expectantly, “Did any of you see a milestone? If not a milestone, an unmarked detour—anything?”
Decimus gazed out at the sea a moment before climbing back onto his horse. Except for murmurs of disappointment, most of the men were silent. Then a memory flashed into my mind. I stirred on my mule, befuddled by exhaustion. With a ragged sigh, I mumbled wearily, “I saw it—a little stone with the word ‘east’ on it. The paint on the milestone looked brand new.
“How far back?” Ajax perked up. “A short distance, a long distance? How long ago? Where did the sun set in the sky?”
“It wasn’t too far.” I yawned. “I didn’t think much of it. It’s near the last grove of trees.”
“I never saw nuthin’,” Apollo grumbled. “You sure this wasn’t another one of your dreams?”
“Thaddeus has a good memory,” Caesarius came to my defense. “If he said he saw it, he saw it!”
“Think Thaddeus.” Caesarius reached over shakily to pat my arm. “Where was the sun.”
“There!” I motioned irritably.
Knowing it was not long ago, I had pointed to where the sun now sat in the sky. Sighs of relief were uttered down the line. Looking back from my mount, I could see Geta nodding to Langulus. Fronto called out cheerily, “That’s not long ago. It’s just a little ways.”
“All right,” Decimus barked, “about face, rein in your mounts—carefully men. We’re heading south.”
“You better be right!” I heard Apollo growled.
For a few moments, shielding his eyes from the sun, the optio searched for a place to turn around. “How Roman engineers were able to carve out such narrow, unfriendly routes is puzzling,” he muttered aloud. “Considering the danger and discomfort, a more important question is, “Why?”
We would soon get the answer when we began traveling inland. Though the matter had been decided, the men were filled with misgivings. Murmurs of protest were muttered back and forth, even by Aulus’ men.
“I dunno about this,” Vesto said, as he skirted the cliff. “None of us like the coastal road, but at least we have rest stops and towns along the way. We don’t have a map of the desert. It’s a desolate, forsaken land.”
“Vesto’s right.” Aulus called to Decimus. “Where are we going to get good and water? We’re heading into the unknown. Are there imperial way stations there?”
“Well, there has to be,” Decimus answered indecisively. “It’s a new road, but or engineers built it, so there has to be way stations. At least it’ll be on flat ground. This bumpy road’s dangerous. It’s hard on our men.”
“There’s oasis—islands of palms and acacias,” Caesarius replied in a gravelly voice. “I remember my optio talking about that route. The Syrian Desert is strewn with oasis filled with date palms and wells. I heard nothing about way stations, though. We should double-back at that last town and requisition supplies.”
“Humph, Caesarius is right. You men have any money left?” Decimus scanned the group.
This caused more grumbling among the men. Setting examples for the group, Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto poured coins into the optio’s helmet. Guiding his horse down the line, Decimus received donations from everyone, including me. I gave him all of the coins my father gave to me. What need had I of money if my bones bleaching in the desert. Without delay, Decimus ordered Aulus and Ibrim to ride back and buy food and wine, while we plodded more slowly south. First, however, the line of riders, which had been straggling over the narrow, rocky coastline, moved to a wide stretch in the road, before turning around. Awakened by the crisis at hand, our line tightened smartly. As our path again widened, when the road shifted inland, we again road in pairs, looking more like a Roman detachment than ragtag rabble. No one thanked me for remembering the detour. Most of the men had wanted to travel by sea, and the thought of riding into the unknown, as Aulus put it, filled them with doubts. And yet, in spite of our misgivings, a sense of purpose, even excitement filled us, as we waited at the milestone for Aulus and Ibrim to return. No one could have known about the peril waiting for us in the desert. We had to trust the optio’s decision. We had no other choice. After loading up the mules with supplies and resting a spell, we chattered nervously amongst ourselves, as we turned out mounts east.
“This couldn’t be any worse than that coast!” Aulus exclaimed.
“Aye,” Decimus tried sounding cheerful now, “for a change we’ll have a smooth ride and not worry about bandits ahead.”
“Or falling to our deaths,” snorted Vesto. “It’s good thing they cut that alternate route. I almost slipped off myself!”
Just a short while ago Aulus and Vesto had shown great uncertainty about the new route. The three Romans had put a good face on matters. Everyone appeared to agree with their assessments, as we followed Decimus’ into the unknown. For a short while, all was well. Passing through a rocky corridor, we discussed the matter with each other. Caesarius and I agreed that this might be good thing. The road had been hard on his tired bones. Both Langullus and Enrod were suffering from wounds, and there was always the danger of falling off a cliff and having our brains dashed on the shoreline below. I reminded him of the barren land on which Nazareth, my hometown, sat like an oasis. Gradually, the stark canyon gave way to rolling hills dotted with bushes and scrub oak. Finally, after being swallowed up again in the shadowy foliage of trees, I listened to the frightened murmurs of the men. Once again, the fear of bandits resurfaced in the ranks. Thoughts of men lurking in the forest, ready to ambush them any moment and the age-old terror of the unknown filled their rustic heads. Those moments, I recalled the trees behind my home and those days my brothers and friends romped in the hills. I could never be afraid of the cool, dense groves of olive, oak, and pomegranate trees.