After a short while, in which I must have fallen asleep, I opened my eyes and looked up with a start as we arrived on the edge of a great wasteland, blinded by the relentless sun. We were, Decimus explained, in a corridor of the Syrian Desert. In the distance, on the seaside of the corridor sat the mountains of Lebanon, their distant, verdant hills making our path look that much more desolate. To our right were barren, lifeless hills. Looking back at his startled men, as if this remarkable event was but a trifling matter, Decimus announced our immediate destination: “We have arrived at our most desolate location. Cheer up, men. This route’s better for our rear ends, backs, and our poor horses and mules. That coastal route was dangerous. There were many pitfalls ahead, both natural and man-made. In the flatlands we can see our enemies. They can’t jump out of nowhere and ambush us like they did by the sea. The next major city is Raphana. Keep your eyes open. Many of you are falling asleep.”
“Raphana,” I found my voice, “Jesus never mentioned that town.”
“Why would he?” murmured Caesarius drowsily. “I’ve heard about that hell-hole. Those people hate Romans more than do the Jews.”
“How far a way’s Raphana?” moaned Geta. “It’s really hot here, like we just rode into a furnace.”
“This is a furnace,” grumbled Rufus, “and there’s no imperial way station until we reach Raphana.”
“Yes, there’s a station there,” Decimus replied irresolutely. “There has to be. Surely, there’s one near a major town.”
“You mean you don’t know?” Aulus blurted. “We’re low on coins, Decimus. Our supplies will only go so far.”
In a hushed voice, Decimus chided his second-in-command.
“Our leader doesn’t have a clue.” Abzug groaned.
“Oh, this is just great,” Apollo muttered to Ajax, “no station and no protection from bandits. Why did the Romans build this link of the highway so far civilization?”
“There’s no bandits in the desert,” scoffed Ajax. “There’s no trees, hills or bushes to hide in. We have a much better chance of dying of thirst!”
“That’ll be enough of that.” Decimus, cried, galloping up in a cloud of dust.” “Shame on you!” he scolded them. “We’ve just started this leg of the journey and already you two are bellyaching. I want no more of that kind’ve talk!” “I warned you men,” he replied sternly, riding up and down the line. “You shouldn’t have drunk beer and wine. Alas, I did so myself. We couldn’t stay on the coastal route; it’s worse than I remembered. Now here we are on the edge of the Syrian Desert. This will be the longest but, considering the flat road and oases with water and date palms, not the worst lap of our trip. We might even travel faster and save time. Let’s try to keep our spirits up. We have brought extra water, but drink sparingly from your flasks. Unless I’m mistaken, there’s wells spaced out at intervals in this land, but no streams by the road.”
“There may not be bandits in this desert,” grumbled Caesarius, “but there are Bedouins!”
“Aren’t they the same thing?” I asked discreetly, conscious of the fact that Ibrim had belonged to such a tribe.
Rufus, craning his ear, turned in his saddle. “Did I hear the word Bedouins?” he asked in disbelief.
“You mean Arabs, don’t you?” Geta asked, reaching forward and tapping Caesarius with his whip.
“Yes,” Caesarius nodded wearily, “but not those friendly shepherds in Galilee and Judea. These are nomads, who hate the Romans, like those rabble-rousing Jews we left behind.”
Coincidentally, Ibrim was that moment calling attention to a cloud of dust in the distance. “Decimus,” he sounded the alarm, “look what you brought us to!”
“What? Where are you pointing?” The optio shielded his eyes from the sun.
“There sir,” he pointed a shaky finger, “like the jinn, waiting for wayfarers to plunder.”
At first, it didn’t register in our minds. None of us were really in shape for the long haul. The sudden rise in temperature had caught us all off guard, and we had just started this part of our journey with many leagues to go. Now another crisis, like the one at Ecdippa, loomed in the horizon. Caesarius words seemed almost prophetic. Though many of the other men had not put a name to this threat, in the distance, a band of camel driving Bedouins rippled as a heat chimera over the desert sand.
“Draw you weapons men,” ordered the optio, “they’re coming right at us.”
“They probably want our horses and mules,” Aulus uttered in a frightened voice.
“Or our heads!” Decimus replied. “So far they’re moving slowly toward us on those filthy beasts. We don’t won’t them to attack us. So make no unfriendly moves. They have the advantage: they outnumber us and have their backs to the sun.” “Ibrim speak to these men in their barbarous tongue,” he ordered the Arab, “but keep your bow handy. That goes for all of you carrying that weapon. Fronto, don’t show your spear; that would be an unfriendly gesture. Just hold it ready on your right side. The rest of you stay on your mounts. Don’t panic. These people are like wolves or wild dogs. They attack frightened prey.”
“We’re not animals,” protested Ibrim, “I’m certainly not!”
“Humph, maybe you’re not,” Geta announced, “you’re a Galilean, but I’ve heard about those desert people. Horses and mules are faster than camels. I say we make a run for it before its too late.”
Decimus rode up and gave him his whip. “You would say that!” he shrilled, lashing out several times. “I saw you and those other cut and ran in Cana. That’s behind us, Geta. You’re still a Roman legionnaire. Act like it!”
“Yes, Geta,” Aulus called out hoarsely. “Do you know what would happen if we tried to escape? Our horses might outrun them, but not the mules carrying our supplies. We’d perish on the desert without our pack animals.”
“That’s right Aulus,” Vesto said, his own eyes wide with fear, “before they take them from us, we’ll have to stand and fight.”
“Thaddeus,” the optio looked squarely into my eyes, “remember what I taught you? Do you remember what the Reaper did?”
“Ye-es, I guess. It’s like a dream,” I answered, fingering the hilt of my sword, “only this time I’m awake, it’s not a dream, and I know it!”
“What does he mean?” Rufus muttered to Enrod.
“I told you he was sleep-walking,” Geta cried hysterically, “it must’ve been a fluke. We’re all going to die and become shades. The Hebrew god is going to punish us for killing all those Jews.”
“Calm down.” Caesarius looked back, waving his hands. “You mustn’t show those savages fear.”
A hysterical laugh escaped my parched throat when I thought of what Geta had said. Langullus was even more terrified than Geta. “Oh, Curse you Decimus,” he wailed. “Curse the Galilean Cohort. A special curse for Cornelius for sending us north. I live all these years, get myself wounded, then cashiered, only to wind up a pile of bones in this gods-forsaken, dung-heap place.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” The optio stuck them both soundly with his whip. “So help me if you don’t shut up, I’ll run you through, myself!”
The Bedouins had stopped on the slope of the dune facing us, apparently, by their laughter, enjoying this scene. All fourteen of us turned on our mounts, Geta and Langullus included, to face our potential attackers. I was certain that moment that I would, like the others, in fact, meet the Angel of Death, and yet a strange calm fell over me. Though in my current state it could have been delirium, a voice inside of me seemed to say, “Fear not, Jude it’s not your time. Because of you, the others live!”
Suddenly, in an action that caused us to unsheathe our swords, one of the Bedouins climbed off his camel and began walking toward us. Almost immediately, as Decimus gestured frantically, we put away our swords.
“This is a trick.…What’s that fellow up to?.…What do we do now?” the men murmured amongst themselves.
“Silence!” Aulus whispered shrilly. “That’s a gesture of peace. One of us must go out and parley with that man.”
“Who would you suggest?” Vesto frowned.
Decimus turned to the Arab, who, clutching his bow in one hand and quiver in the other, was poised for action. “It’s time, Ibrim,” he spoke gravely. “Prove your loyalty. You’re the only who can communicate with those men.”
“I will go,” he said in a trembling voice, “but I might not come back. I may speak their tongue, Decimus, but I’m not one of them. My people were shepherds and merchants, not bandits. Those Bedouins might see me as just another Roman soldier.”
I had seen the Romans dismount whenever diplomacy was needed with townsmen. It was, as Aulus said, a gesture of peace. Nevertheless, with this bunch it looked foolhardy to me. Straightening his shoulders after handing the optio his bow and quiver, Ibrim stepped forward bravely to meet the advancing Arab about halfway between the two groups. We couldn’t hear their conversation, but the Bedouin pointed our way. Ibrim shook his head. He pointed again, this time shouting at the scout when Ibrim held up his hands in dismissal. Whatever the Bedouin was asking was unacceptable to our friend.
“Uh oh,” Rufus heaved a sigh, “he’s not long for this world.”
“It’s a nomad’s custom to parley,” Caesarius said with an air of authority. “I’ve seen this before: in Arabia and Perea. They probably want our mules and supplies. They’ll kill Ibrim then attack us if they don’t get what they want.”
After only few moments of pent-up silence, Caesarius words proved to be prophetic again. Turning on his heel, Ibrim began running toward us. Pandemonium broke among our ranks. The men were torn between fleeing on their mounts and standing firm to meet the inevitable charge. The Bedouin leader screamed at Ibrim, and a second Arab brought his beast forward with a lance raised to spear the fleeing man. Anticipating this turn of events, Abzug was ready. Lifting his bow, he took careful aim, and let fly an arrow. Meanwhile, even before the missile hit its mark, Aulus, Vesto, and the optio unfastened their shields from their horses, assumed a warlike pose, and Decimus shouting boldly, “For the eagles, for the empire, for Rome!”
Halting as Ibrim scuttled into our ranks, we witnessed what seemed like another miracle. The man brandishing the lance was hit squarely between the eyes, an incredible shot even for Abzug, who had mastered the bow. Our esteem for the normally spineless Abzug soared that moment as the little scout was handed his own bow and arrows by the optio. Tumbling off his camel, the dead Bedouin lie there on the sand, as the leader looked down at him then shouted an oath. At that point, after he climbed back onto his beast, he raised his fists and led his men in the expected charge. Slowed by the powdery sand, the Bedouins’ beasts moved as if in slow motion toward us.
“We can defeat them!” Vesto cried.
“Really,” Apollo looked at him in disbelief, “they’re on camels. They have the elevation on us. They’ll stick us like pigs.”
“Come on you cowards!” Aulus lurched forward on his horse.
“Yes, listen to me men,” Decimus tried rallying his troops, “those fools are fighting with lances, not bows. That’s all right if you’re on foot, but they’re struggling in that dune. We have swifter mounts. Let’s not wait for them to reach the road were they have equal footing. With our bows and swords, we can circle around them and pick them off!”
Gripped with terror, I giggled foolishly at the sight of the slow-moving beasts. The other men followed the optio’s example and surged forward. Caesarius also gave his mule the whip, yet hesitated briefly to give me much needed advice.
“Jude,” he called me by my proper name, “this time your not sleep-walking: stay put with the pack animals or flee!”
None of these choices were agreeable that instant, yet a feeling of well being I had experienced before flooded over me. Through me, I sensed, the Lord had protected us in Ecdippa. It was the only logical explanation. Perhaps He had been doing this all along. Unlike the last time, I had to force myself against my nature to play the hero. This time, instead of running into the hills as I had done in Cana, I galloped ahead of the others, emitting my own warlike cry, “Onward, for the Lord of Jews and Gentiles and for Rome!”
As the Bedouins became bogged down in the fine-grained sand, the camels panicked, as the horsemen circled the hill. The three veterans, who, like me, rode slower moving mules, were not enthusiastic about this enterprise. Caesarius, Rufus, Enrod, and the three Roman guards shouted at me to no avail. Like the “crazies,” those German warriors I would learn about in the legions, who ran madly into an enemy host, I lost my head completely, screaming and whooping as if I was bereft of my senses. My plan was to shock the enemy and instill fear in their superstitious minds. Had not Ibrim, an Arab, himself, believed I was possessed by a jinn? As Abzug, Ibrim, and Rufus shot arrows at the beleaguered Bedouins, Fronto let loose with a javelin, hitting one of them squarely in the chest. Meanwhile the Romans and other auxilia took sword swipes at the camels’ legs as they rode past, easily dodging the clumsy efforts of the lancers, throwing the gangly beasts into absolute frenzy. Considering the panic of the animals, my own puny actions had no effect whatsoever on the Arabs, yet I did something that I would later regret. When several of the Bedouins were thrown off their camels and the others, still precariously balanced on their mounts, were taken by their hysterical beasts in all different directions, the Romans, veterans and most of the auxilia dismounted and attacked the disoriented men, while Ibrim, Abzug, and Rufus chased after the others with their bows. Rufus, who was not a marksman with this weapon, missed his targets entirely, but Ibrim and Abzug boasted of three kills each. During the lop-sided melee, several of the Bedouins managed to escape, but the remainder were butchered on the spot. The leader of this band threw his lance aside and fought bravely with a curved sword, much like the ancient relic my father had once shown my brothers and me, but it was too unwieldy against the shield and jabbing gladius that was thrust directly into his stomach. Unfortunately, as Vesto gave the fatal stab, one of the lancers, who broke away from the slaughter, turned and caught the burly warrior directly in his bull neck. Everyone was too busy to notice but me. I had grown found all my protectors, including this man. I finally dismounted, hoarse from my caterwauling, uttering a fearful, throaty cry: “Death to barbarians!” What caused me to go berserk and actually run after Vesto’s assassin, however, was the sight of Rufus’ wounded brother Enrod lying dead in the sand, a broken shaft in his chest.
“By the Fates,” cried Aulus, “they killed Vesto. They got Enrod too.”
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeh!” I shrieked, charging after my prey.
Caesarius, I would learn later, had joined the slaughter reluctantly this time, calling frantically through cupped hands, “Jude, Jude, let him go! I told you to stay behind. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“What’s that young fool doing?” Geta shouted. “Hey, Jude, let the bastard go!”
“He’s gone mad this time,” observed Decimus in a constricted voice. “We never should’ve brought him along.”
Catching up with the robed figure, who, after throwing his lance, was virtually weaponless and for some reason unable to draw his knife or sword, I looked at him with every intention of running him through.
“Lo the, Reaper—this time wide-awake,” Apollo hooted, his own sword dripping with blood.
“Thaddeus,” wailed Rufus, “don’t let him get away. He killed my brother!”
“Kill him, kill the swine!” shrieked Ajax.
A voice in me that hadn’t been there before when I had been in my dream world blared in my head: “You’re not asleep. This is murder. Let him live!”
I began praying feverishly for God to get me out of this dilemma. Inexplicably, the Bedouin had stopped running and just looked at me with an expressionless stare. Suddenly, as if in answer to my prayers, he crumpled limply onto the sand. There was an arrow shaft in his neck that had broken off during the battle. He had what our people called the death stare. He was already dead.
“Thank you Lord!” I cried.
Bending down I did as my mother often did with a patient and checked his pulse. It had stopped. Out of habit, for I had been taught reverence for the dead, I shut his eyelids, light-headedly murmured the Shema “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is one,...”, stabbed the ground next to him to make it look good, then, on second thought, plunged the sword into his stomach to bloody my sword. Through the grime and dark tanned skin, I discovered, with a gasp, that he was just a youth, younger even than me. The defilement of stabbing the corpse and the fact he was but a boy gave me pause, yet I cried out for my comrades’ benefit, “Try to pull a knife on me, you filthy barbarian. I send you to the shades!”
I had ended my reverence to God with a pagan imprecation but I felt exhilarated. The taint of my actions was nothing compared to how I would feel if I had murdered the youth in cold blood. I had survived another attack. The Lord was with me. I had been delivered from committing a terrible dead. Unfortunately, I couldn’t share this feeling with the other men; after the deaths of Vesto and Enrod, they wouldn’t understand. I must, as the Greek actors say, play the part: Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper. With a fierce look on my face, clutching my gladius as it dripped on the sand, I managed a smile for them, though I felt no kinship with this group. Decimus and Aulus, who knelt down sadly on each side of their dead comrade, I’m sure, had killed out of self-defense, whereas the auxilia had savagely hacked their enemies to pieces. It was a horrible sight. To keep from vomiting, I closed my eyes or looked down at the sand. Beyond these two groups, having returned to the horses and mules, were Caesarius, Geta, and Langullus. At such a distance I couldn’t read their expressions, but I had glanced over at them often enough to know that they had merely gone through the motions. I doubted very much if there was even blood on their swords.
Rufus held up the head of a man. “This pig killed my brother. May he burn in everlasting torment.”
Rufus had thought my opponent had killed his brother, too. Looking down at the blood-spattered arena of death, Apollo cackled madly, tossing a second trophy into a pile of severed heads. Fronto, Ibrim, and Abzug, who had felled the fleeing Bedouins for sport, also brought back such horrors, bringing the total of the trophies to sixteen. Decimus and Aulus, in their grief, had let the men run amuck. Two of our dead comrades lay side by side, a Roman issue blanket on each of them. The impact of their deaths, which had triggered barbarian fury among the auxilia, affected the rest of us differently. The optio quietly grieved as he sat there beside his friend, staring in shock at the unmoving shapes. Aulus stood over him, his hand resting on his shoulder, also grieving, his lip curled in disgust. I was horrified by the carnage, but Decimus, Aulus, and the veterans were more outraged by what happened afterwards. For all the horror they had witnessed and inflicted themselves upon the enemy, the actions of the auxilia were viewed by Roman standards as overkill and unprofessional conduct for soldiers.
Rufus approached that moment, his hands bloodied, tears in his eyes as he knelt beside his twin brother. I could scarcely believe they were dead: the carefree, coarse, good-natured Roman and the quiet, polite-mannered Gaul. I couldn’t help asking God why Apollo or Ajax hadn’t been struck down instead. Jesus had always said that God’s ways are mysterious, but this seemed downright unjust.
“Do you feel better?” Aulus asked, as the Gaul wiped his hands on his tunic.
Rufus grunted. There was even blood splattered on his face. This friendly, happy-go-lucky young man had, like the rest of them, turned into a ruthless killer. The only Bedouin with his head still attached was the youth struck down by an arrow—my supposed victim. Perhaps they expected me to follow their example and cut his head off too, but the very thought of doing such a nasty thing sickened me. While everyone’s attention was focused on the decapitated men and grisly pile of heads, I dropped my sword as if it was a foul thing and stood apart for several moments.
“I will kill as many of those jackals as I can before we reach Raphana!” Rufus vowed.
“You will do no such thing!” Aulus retorted. “I’m sorry Enrod was killed, but this isn’t Galilee or the gentle hills of Lebanon. That kind of talk will get us all killed.”
Decimus blinked, his sense of duty awakened. “We’re all sorry lad. In his condition Enrod should not have joined the fight. He was a brave man. You too must continue to be brave.” Rising to his feet, he announced in a hoarse voice, “I’m not sure how many of those fellows escaped. Rome has never been able to tame this desert. I hope the defilement of their dead doesn’t bring down the wrath of the entire tribe.” “Fronto, Ibrim, Abzug” he gave them a studied look, “I see you also brought gifts.” “Was it necessary to cut off their heads?” His glance swept over the men. “Ajax even disemboweled one. It was only necessary to kill them, you fools. This isn’t the Roman way. We’re not savages!”
“They deserved it!” Rufus screamed.
“Hah!” Apollo held up a head. “They all did!”
“We shouldn’t have let the others get away.” Ajax said, scanning the horizon. “We should’ve killed them all!
“Awe, we got enough of them,” Fronto laughed nervously. “Ibrim and I got six of’em.”
“Why did you men do this?” I asked, trying not to look down. “It’s disgusting. It’s wrong!”
“That pig gutted one of them.” Geta pointed accusingly at Ajax.
Caesarius walked up then, alongside of the other veterans, intoning, “In the nomad’s mind what they did is dishonorable. To separate the head from he body is the greatest insult. You may have spooked this bunch, for they are very superstitious, but on flat ground, face-to-face, with swords in hand, they’re ferocious fighters. You men don’t want that! We Romans have never conquered the desert Arabs, especially those in the south. I’m no one to talk. In anger I killed unarmed Jews. But this is the desert; the Bedouins are not quarrelsome Jews. They’re Arabs, who you killed for sport, like Apollo, Ajax, and Ibrim who shot down those fleeing Jews—”
“Shut up you coward.” Ajax charged forward. “You ran from the fight. If we depended on you three we’d all be dead!”
“Halt, stand down you murdering dog,” Aulus said through clinched teeth. “I saw Geta, Caesarius and Langullus with their swords. This was nothing but a butchering site.”
Then it happened. Ajax finally crossed the line: “You want to cross swords me you broken down bag of wind. I think it’s about time we auxilia put you Romans in your place!”
Fronto, Ibrim, and Apollo shook their heads, but Decimus and Abzug took up defensive positions on each of Aulus. Though I protested weakly, Caesarius pulled me away by the edge of my tunic, until I was standing with Geta, Langullus, and himself, praying silently that the other auxilia stayed put.
Fronto lumbered over and spread out his huge hands. “Stop this Ajax. We’re not criminals. I don’t want to be a wanted man because you lost your head.”
“We all lost our heads,” Abzug said contritely. “It seemed right at the time, but Caesarius and Decimus are right. This is a mess. Now we must bury these men and the bodies of our friends.”
“Did you really kill that man?” Caesarius whispered into my ear.
“No,” I murmured, “he was already dead when I plunged in my sword.”
“That’s what I thought,” he sighed raggedly. “Tell no one about this. Decimus and Aulus wouldn’t care, but the other men won’t understand. You made quite a show, but it was a little excessive, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I confessed contritely, though I suppressed a smile.
Geta and Langullus were still too shaken to notice our secrecy. When it appeared as if Ajax might take on all three men, Langullus staggered out from behind the mules, dazed, clutching his sword.
“I’ve been a coward,” he said, heaving his shoulders, “we’ve all been cowards.”
“Get back here, you damn fool!” Geta cried, reaching out grab his tunic. “Ajax’s not going to fight. It’s three to one.”
This sounded reasonable to me, and yet Ajax was pumped up with anger now. The big Thracian stood his ground, glaring at the Greek. When Rufus, who had been standing in morning above his dead brother stepped forth to join Ajax, however, the odds changed drastically. Even though Abzug had made a fantastic shot in bringing down Ibrim’s potential assassin, the three men facing Ajax and Rufus were no match for the fierce auxilia, unless Fronto planned to act.
“We have to join them now.” Langullus motioned to us. “Come, Fronto won’t go against his kind. If they kill those men, they’ll kill us too. Let’s make a united front!”
“Oh, by the fates,” Geta groaned, “he’s right. There’s no way out. Let’s go Thaddeus. You’re no coward, neither are we!”
I should have been encouraged to hear Geta, one of my greatest critics, say such a thing, but it wasn’t true. I doubt very much that he even meant it. He and Langullus, like me, were terrified. Nevertheless, the miracle at Ecdippa, hitting that tree with Fronto’s spear dead center, and the spectacle I just made of myself on the dune had sealed my fate. I had a reputation to live up to. I was Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper. I was also a damn fool! Retrieving the spear Fronto had given me, I hefted it shakily over my shoulder, my gladius clutched in my other hand. Geta and Langullus had fetched their shields and clutched their swords as legionnaires marching into battle. Slowly at first, they quickened their steps, as if to get this business over with.
Recalling the Psalmist, I muttered his words feverishly while I trotted after them: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...” Suddenly I found myself in Decimus’ group, now greatly outnumbering our adversaries. The optio and Aulus, like Caesarius, Geta, and Langullus stood in the classical legionnaire stance (shields held high and gladius in the stabbing position), Abzug now brandished one of the dead men’s curved swords—a trophy of victory, and my plan was to throw the lance at one of them then race in and stab the other with my sword. Even with the odds in our favor and the other auxilia not supporting Ajax and Rufus, we knew that these men were formidable foes. Of the two, in fact, I feared Enrod’s twin brother the most. As unbalanced as it seemed, his motive was his honor—to avenge his dead brother, whereas the Greek, who had been put in his place before by Decimus, was merely upset. Neither of them, of course, were right in his head. What changed everything completely was so totally unexpected that Geta and I broke into hysterical laughter. Ajax’s mouth dropped in disbelief as the big Thracian stepped forward finally, sword and Bedouin lance in each hand, followed by Ibrim who raised his bow, arrow ready, aiming it squarely at Rufus, while Apollo arrived behind Ajax, lance pointed at his back, a dagger clutched in the other. Taking the cue, Geta, Langullus, and I changed our positions, until the ten of us surrounded the two men.
“All right,” the optio heaved a pent-up sigh, “I think this has gone on long enough. Ajax, you might be a murdering dog, but you’re not a fool. Even your cohort Apollo has turned against you. Before you move a fraction, Ibrim will send an arrow straight into your black heart. As far you, Rufus, Ibrim was smart to single you out. You’re in shock by your brother’s death. In your frame of mind, you’re the most dangerous. Even if he misses, though, our swords will finish you off. He wants to live. We all want to make it out of this desert alive.”
“I’ll stick you Rufus, so help me,” swore Aulus. “Drop your gladius. We need as many men as possible to get out of here. We need your sword arm. Please, don’t make us kill you!”
“Yes, Rufus, we all lost our heads,” Fronto said, the lance poised squarely him. “Enrod was a good man, and is this moment in the Elysian Fields. Unless you stand down, you’ll be joining him soon.”
Abzug, whose curved weapon was raised over his head and aimed at Ajax, directed his voice to the Greek. “I will cut you in two. Lower you sword, you idiot. Decimus isn’t your enemy. They were your enemies, but they’re dead. There’s a lot more of them out there too. Let’s concentrate on them!”
Ajax was the first to give up his war-like stance. Placing his weapon in its sheath, he stomped defiantly over to the horses and mules and sulked. Rufus, however, remained poised to make a sword thrust, until Geta knocked him unconscious with a club. This strange-looking weapon had belonged to one of the Bedouins and joined other foreign weapons (swords, lances, and daggers) collected that day. For the remainder of the day, everyone obeyed Decimus without question. He had, using short, gruff commands, shepherded his small band back into action, coaxing, threatening, and reminding us of the dangers of dawdling in this forsaken land. We were, as Langullus hoped for, a united front as we had been after leaving the Galilean fort, and yet there remained a trace of malice in the Greek’s eyes and a note of remorse in Fronto, Abzug, and Ibrim’s voices. Rufus was inconsolable. When we tried to talk to him, he hissed at us like a cat. Langullus, whose injuries had never properly healed, appeared to be suffering from the heat. Apollo, as before, had an inscrutable expression on his dark face, impossible to read, while Geta and Caesarius, like myself, wore looks of relief and were just thankful to be alive. In spite of the mood of some of the men, we worked as a team under Decimus and Aulus’ direction.
After heaping sand over the dead men with Roman issue shovels, which took us almost an hour, we climbed wearily back onto our mounts and continued our ride north. Already, this was turning out to be the most difficult leg of our journey. With the sun high in the cloudless sky, the temperature soared, and yet we had to move quickly. The desert was no place to be at night with nomads lurking about. There was no place to bury poor Vesto and Enrod in the sand on each side of the road. We were forced to ride on a ways with them strapped onto mules in search of an oasis to bury our friends. According to Caesarius, Decimus, and Ibrim, these patches of greenery were common in the Syrian and Arabian deserts. Of course, what was most important to us was whether theses oases would provide water for us and our horses and mules. Decimus explained to us that Roman engineers took these life-saving features into consideration when building Rome’s roads. If a spring wasn’t present, they would dig a well, and all Roman highways eventually passed a town. Until, we actually found such a rest stop, however, this was mere, unfounded, hearsay. Raphana was many leagues away. So far, Decimus decision to take this road seemed like an ongoing disaster. He had led us into harm’s way. Two men were dead. Everyone was dispirited after the attack. Along with hunger and exhaustion, we were fearful of dying of thirst.
Almost as important as these concerns, was the welfare of our horses and mules, without whom we would be as good as dead. We had a limited supply of water for them, and the supply of oats to feed them was running low. We needed pasturage. Above all, we needed water. I had grown fond of my mule, as I had for my previous mounts, and thought of him as a pet. I felt sorry him, as I did all the beasts, but at least they had a chance. If Decimus was wrong, we might all—man and beast alike—die of thirst. If the Bedouins wiped us out, they would take the horses and mules as contraband. Our unburied bodies would become bleached bones on the sand. Following our first skirmish, this seemed to be a definite possibility. There, ahead in the horizon or like phantoms at corner of our eyes, imagined or real, were the distant specks of nomads atop the dunes. At times, the wind would pick up and blow the fine sand into our eyes, reminding us of our folly. Most of the men had their own way in dealing with these particles, by either tying cloth around their faces, pulling a blanket over their heads, or, like myself, riding with their head down much of the trip with eyes closed, relying on the mount in front to guide them on. Finally, it appeared, as Decimus kept promising it would: an oasis, far ahead our straggling procession, glowing like a chimera by the road.