The Roman Escorts
There would be one more incident before we reached Antioch. It seemed almost surreal, much like one of my dream experiences. After riding for a long while, in which I learned that Jewish guards told bawdy tales too, I grew drowsy. The couch ahead of us rattled on without stop for several hours and the guards took turns riding fore and aft of our procession. A few times I rode back to check on my other mules, and I once rode ahead of the procession until Absalom ordered me back in line. Everything was going well as I dozed in my saddle. Laban, who rode beside me then, would nudge me once and awhile, but finally I actually fell asleep.
I don’t remember the transition from wakefulness to slumber. It happened so subtly that when I heard shouting and commotion around me it felt like a dream. When I opened my eyes, I saw Laban, Absalom and the other guards engaged in a melee with a band of Greek auxilia. This realization didn’t come at once. I recognized the assortment of uniforms typical of those types of soldiers. They wore a variety of armor, helmets, and weapons. It was obvious they were Greek by their language. What designated them, however, as auxilia were the words: “You Jewish dogs won’t serve in the army but you’ll guard a rich Pharisee! Give us your horses and mules. You can walk to Antioch!” I would learn later that they had followed our Roman escorts, aware of who sat in the couch. Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah, who looked like Jews, were therefore easily recognizable. For this reason it was, for the rest of us, guilt by association. Not only were we greatly outnumbered by the auxilia but we were in the middle of nowhere. The nearest imperial station was hours away.
So far no blood had been shed. The leader of this band, a swarthy, olive skinned fellow who looked more like a Nubian than a Greek, waved a curved Nabataen blade and continued to shout his requirements. We were to climb off our mounts, the rich Jews must get out of the coach, hand over the carriage, animals and goods, and walk away. Or, he added after a pause, we can stand and fight and be slaughtered like pigs. To be stranded this far from a town or Roman protection seemed dangerous but not nearly as dangerous as staring death in the face. Despite the leaders threats, however, Elisha, himself, was behaving stubbornly and the two main guards, Absalom and Laban, like me, refused to give up their mounts. It was obvious to all of us that under the pretense of righteous indignation at the Jews special treatment these men were merely thieves or we would already be dead. Laban whispered to me those moments, “it would be worse if they were conscripts.” I loved my mule but would I fight to the death for him?
For a few moments, as we hesitated, the other guards remained mounted too and the men in the coach wouldn’t budge. It seemed profoundly foolish to me even though I was party to the delay. What was the Pharisee thinking? When the dark leader galloped up to the carriage and began pounding on the side with his fist, Absalom’s natural protection for his master and his associates took effect.
“Wait,” he called out, “don’t harm them. We have other valuables. Elisha has gold. Will that suit you?”
Elisha remained silent. I’m quite certain he was upset, and yet he didn’t protest as the leader thought this over.
“He’s right,” Laban spoke up, “gold is more valuable than horses and mules. What would you want with that big coach?”
“Listen,” I raised my hand, “it’s not true what you said about Jews, at least not all of them. The Romans won’t let us join the army, even if we wanted to join. I know; I tried and I was treated badly. I wound up being sold as a slave. Our religion has too many restrictions. We are obliged to worship our God only and do what he commands, which includes not eating pork and other foods. The men in the carriage are not the rabble who curse Roman soldiers and their auxilia. They support Rome and they support you. Please, take the gold, but leave us our horses and mules. Leave those old men alone.”
The leader nodded. “Humph,” he muttered aloud, “it’s true: gold is more valuable than horses and mules.”
My heart had been beating so loudly, I could barely hear my own words, but now I felt light-headed with relief. Elisha now stepped out of the carriage with the bag of gold. The leader motioned for one of his men to retrieve the offering. What decided the issue, though, came unexpectedly from the distance when a signifier’s horn blared. I recognized it immediately: help had arrived. The Fifth legion, we would soon learn, on its way to the East, crested a distant hill. Before the man could fetch his gold, Elisha retracted the offer and scurried back into the couch. As the legion approached, voices erupted “You there, what are you doing. What is your standard? Centurion send a force after those men!” The Greek auxilia, lightly armed, had a head start on the Romans, and quickly fled the scene.
Elisha stuck his head out of the couch, “That was quite a speech, Thaddeus. If those Romans hadn’t appeared it might have worked. I’d be out of half my profit but we wouldn’t have to walk and face more bandits on the road!”
“It’s all I could think of saying,” I replied, trotting up to the carriage. “I’ve looked into the faces of those kind of men. Murder wasn’t there goal. They merely wanted plunder, but if those Romans hadn’t shown up and we had balked, they would’ve killed us all and took what they wanted.”
“Will it worked,” Elisha said, climbing shakily back out of the coach.
Jacob, Nedinijah, and the two servants followed him out of the carriage. As the legion, its standards fluttering in the breeze, approached, an officer with a gilded, red plumed helmet, and scarlet cape broke from the ranks, riding up in a cloud of dust. Because the carriage had stopped on the side of the highway, the Romans easily marched past, as their leader looked down from his mount. As a show of respect, we dismounted to stand by the Pharisee.
“I am Fabius Valerius, legate of the Fifth Legion,” his deep voice resonated. “We knew what was afoot from the top of the hill. Who were those men?”
“They didn’t give their names sir,” Elisha bowed deferentially. “They looked like auxilia that have turned to banditry. I’ve seen it before.”
“Aye.” Fabius frowned severely. “If it were possible Rome would not trust the likes of those, but we’re short of men—citizens to be precise. None of those dandies in Rome or the provinces want to serve. The Latin league is a ghost of its former self. Where is your escort?”
“They left this morning,” Absalom exclaimed, “stole away like jackals in the dark.”
Fabius seemed to think this over a moment then replied, “We’ll be marching through Antioch, and you could ride with us. Of course that would just slow you down. Would you like it if I sent some of my men ahead as escorts?”
“Yes,” Elisha bobbed his head, “we have our own guards but, considering the unrest, we’d appreciate additional men.”
Because that rogue auxilia might be lurking about, everyone thought Fabius’ offer was a great idea. I didn’t realize then how much it would change my friendship with the Jewish guards. I assumed that they would, as military men themselves, have much in common with the Roman escort. I also thought that my effort to protect Elisha and his friends would help me regain the Pharisee’s good graces, especially after Fabius was giving us added protection for our trip. I was, I would soon find out, wrong on both accounts. I had learned much about the Gentile mind, but I had underestimated the narrow-mindedness of Jews.
That first hour, of course, after the legate came to our rescue, I was confident that my status would improve with both the Pharisee and my fellow guards. We would be like one big, happy family again. An order was given by Fabius to the first centurion to pick six mounted legionnaires. It was done rather pompously for our benefit. Since infantry moved much more slowly on the march than horsemen or carriages, we would proceed first. In effect, as Laban pointed out, we had an entire legion behind us as protection as long as we didn’t travel very fast.
Resuming our journey as instructed by the legate, we moved in front of the legion with a clear road ahead. Upon the signifier’s horn, Fabius barked the order to resume the march. Gradually the slowly moving legionnaires with the their banners and remaining cavalry riding alongside to guard their flanks fell back further and further as we continued our journey, becoming a speck in the distance, until we were alone and the marchers disappeared entirely from view. For a short while it almost seemed as though the legate had played a joke on us. The promised escort failed to arrive. Then suddenly, Absalom reported seeing clouds of dust on the highway and called a halt to the coachmen to allow the men to catch up. Soon the riders were closing in, their helmets glistening and caps fluttering in the wind. The legate had assigned Roman cavalrymen, not auxilia, to us. Because of the substantial number of guards watching over Elisha and his men, we no longer worried about bandits or angry Greeks, especially with an entire legion marching on the same road.
During this special time, the Romans introduced themselves to us. Elisha had been so happy at the prospect of a second escort he forgot to ask them their names, but, as we rode south, introductions were exchanged between the Romans and the Pharisee, scribe, steward, and guards. The four Romans were in high spirits because of this break in the rigors of the march. At this point, I identified with Elisha’s guards, and had every intention of sharing the duties of protector and sentry with them. When the Romans chatted with us, I joined in as just another one of the men, a status that was unclear in my previous company of men. Always to Decimus, Aulus, and the auxilia I had been, in spite of my efforts, the wet-behind-the-ears Jew. The optio was always protective of me as had been my friend Caesarius. Though my Jewish friends thought I told tall tales, they never made fun of me. More importantly, they had begun accepting me as one of them on equal terms. Marcellus, the leader of the four legionnaires, who, like Absalom, was merely the dominant personality of the group, reminded me of Cornelius, the prefect of the Galilean Cohort.
One night, as we sat around the campfire after the Pharisee and his associates turned in, we discussed the reason for Fabius’ presence on the Roman frontier. Marcellus’ dark eyes caught the glow of the blazing fire. After sharing a swig of Absalom’s flask, his deep voice lulled me into drowsiness. “The Parthians and the Romans contest the Eastern provinces. Right now, because of recent Parthian raids, a Roman presence is required near the frontier. This means building additional forts and patrolling the northern border of the East…” On and on the details of border policing was given by Marcellus to saddle weary men. Soon, because of the wine and my sleeplessness caused by my concern for my family, I began to nod off. I don’t know how I managed not to fall off the log. What jolted me awake was the voice of Absalom next to me and a jab in the ribs.
“Psst, Thaddeus,” he whispered, “that’s rude—wake up!”
“Whew! I must’ve drifted off,” I mumbled, shaking myself awake.
“Tell our Roman friends about your exploits!” Laban called across the flames.
To make up for my rudeness, I gathered up my wits, sorted through my thoughts, and told them the story I shared with Elisha’s guards. From the moment I bid my father and oldest brother goodbye in Sepphoris, through the long journey in which I slew six men at the first imperial station, and the trip through the desert, including our battles, in which I killed three more villains, until my ordeal after the bandits attacked our company and hauled me off into slavery, I recited my odyssey from memory, almost non-stop. Sobered by their apparent interest, I attempted to paint a picture in their minds. With the same exaggerations I made for Elisha’s guards, I embellished certain events. Remembering how it tainted my account with the guards, I left out those details that made me look like a coward or a fool. Unfortunately, in my haste, I blundered into the miraculous nature of an event, which Decimus and Caesarius had advised me to avoid. Unlike, the Jewish guards or the auxilia I rode with, the Romans didn’t interrupt me, waiting politely until I reached the end. For all their criticism, the Jews had accepted my story, but disbelief registered on the Roman’s faces. Octavius, a wiry-looking fellow with small, darting black pupils, doubted my account at the imperial way station completely.
“See here my good fellow,” he said reproachfully, “that first battle you fought was impossible! In all my years with the Fifth, I’ve never heard of such a thing. You couldn’t have been asleep while you killed those men!”
“Yes, Thaddeus,” Nabalus, a portly, beefy jowled soldier, who reminded me of Aulus, laughed at the thought, “Ho-ho, a slight fellow like you, killing six men in his sleep. That’s quite a tale!”
“I said I thought I was asleep,” I tried to clarify. “I’m telling the truth.”
“So explain to us,” Sergius, a gray-haired veteran, challenged. “How did you manage this? You, a wet-behind-the-ears Jew, given god-like powers? No one, even Caesar, could perform such a feat!”
Caught off guard, I sputtered, “It-it’s not impossible. It was a miracle. Eyewitness saw it. It happened just like a said.”
“All right, Thaddeus.” Octavius leaned forward, slyly. “So tell us—where are these eyewitnesses? They’re dead aren’t they? Dead men make poor witnesses. You said you were asleep. Perhaps, in fact, you dreamed all this up.”
The Romans laughed at his play on words, but the Jewish guards, who had heard my story before, were silent. There were frowns on Absalom and Laban’s faces during this exchange. Had I embellished the facts too much? What a fool, I am! I cursed myself, after seeing their disdain. Though Elisha’s guards accepted my story, what made me think Roman soldiers would believe my tale? I could think of nothing logical to say. Remembering something Jesus told me, I blurted, “All things are possible with the Lord. God watched over us that night. He’s been protecting me ever since!”
“Ah, that explains it.” Nabalus snapped his fingers. “His God saved him. Tell me Thaddeus, did you pray before you killed those men?”
“No,” I spat irritably, “I didn’t pray. I wasn’t afraid. I thought I was asleep. Why would I make up such a tale? God let all those other men die, yet let me live. I don’t know why He kept me alive. I’ve been haunted by this question ever since.”
“Humph,” Marcellus muttered, cocking an eyebrow, “I don’t believe in the gods. They never did anything for me.”
“Aye,” Octavius set his jaw, “it’s nonsense. You live, you die, you rot. The gods have nothing to do it, because they don’t exist. Life ends at the grave.”
“Oh, I believe in Mithra,” Sergius piped, looking around the group. “That’s a soldiers god, but I doubt very much he can protect us in this world.”
“Right!” Nabalus nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the next world that counts, not this one. It’s a big comfort when facing death in the battle.”
My ears pricked up suddenly. “What did you say?” I bent forward to focus on the tipsy legionnaire.
Nabalus repeated his words lowly as if I was addled in the head. Everyone laughed heartily. I was surprised that Elisha didn’t demand we keep it down. It was as this point that I once again broke a cardinal rule. I was, after our first discussion, eager to change the subject, and the temptation to talk about my invisible God was always great.
“You believe in an afterlife,” I began carefully, “and that your god is a savior?”
“I do,” Nabalus jerked his head up and down, “saved in the blood of the bull.”
Sergius nodded his head too. It’s difficult to explain my next emotion. I had no idea then that Jesus, my brother, would essentially be a blood sacrifice, for he once explained to me during a walk in hills of Nazareth that we were saved by living righteous lives. How could any member of our family understand the notion germinating in my mind? Yet here it was, years before the resurrection, in crude fashion, the notion of salvation from a more primitive manifestation of God. What struck me as significant then, however, was that word “save.”
“Do you believe you should be righteous in order to go to paradise?” I posed the most important question.
“I surely do,” Nabalus set his jaw. “I never killed a man that didn’t need killing nor stole another man’s woman when he was alive.”
Once more Sergius agreed. The circle of men burst to guffaws. Ignoring the humor in Nabalus’ reply, though, I posed the most important question: “Did you know Nabalus and Sergius that the Greeks and Romans worship an unknown god?”
“What in blazes is he talking about?” Octavius looked at Marcellus.
The other Romans also murmured amongst themselves, while the Jewish guards shook their heads in dismay.
“I heard about this god,” Marcellus said thoughtfully. “It demonstrates to me how muddle-headed the Greeks are about such matters. We Romans included it on the list just to be polite.”
“No, it was added to the Greeks pantheon because of a need in pagans,” I blurted, “reassurance of one god, not hundreds of lifeless stone idols. Though it’s thought out crudely, Mithra is just one more example of a universal god we all share.”
“Hey, Thaddeus,” Absalom whispered shrilly into my ear, “stow it. They’ll never accept our religion!”
“It’s too late,” observed the guard beside me, “he really stepped into it this time. Let’s see if he can get himself out.”
“No,” cried Absalom, slamming his fist down on my knee, “he’s said quite enough! That stuff doesn’t even make sense to me. Elisha would think he’s a heretic if he heard this talk.”
Reacting to the commotion in our corner of the circle, Marcellus stood up in my defense. “The lad obviously can’t hold his wine, but that nonsense bothers you much more than it bothers us. We Romans have seen every manner of deity, some of which are far stranger than your god. All men think their particular god’s the best.”
Hoping that this meant he forgave my indiscretion, I stood up, walked over and, in the Roman fashion, gripped his forearm. “I should not have brought that up. The other Jews don’t believe that. It’s something my brother believes. I beg the pardon of my Jewish and Roman friends.”
“You didn’t do anything that serious lad.” Sergio stood up, stretched and swaggered over to pat my back. “What you Jews believe is better than what some of those filthy Syrians believe. They sacrificed children, not bulls, to their gods.”
I shuddered at the comparison. As I looked down at Absalom, Laban and the other Jewish guards, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. It was they, not the Romans, that were confused, agitated, and irritated by what I added to our religion. The Romans merely thought I was tipsy or addled in the head. I had noticed, as we gathered around the fire, a forced effort on the part of the guards to be polite to Flavius’ men. Except for Absalom and Laban’s efforts to be cordial, however, the Romans had sat down on one side of the ring and we on the other. There was, therefore, at the very beginning, a predisposed feeling of distrust, even hostility between Gentile and Jew. Now, sober or not, I had, in less than a hour, not merely offended my friends but made them resent the Romans that much more.
Now that the Roman escort were all standing, they saluted us cordially then ambled off to their tent. I was left with the Jewish guards who had witnessed a side of my eccentricity I had rather they hadn’t seen. When the Romans were safely out of earshot, Abasalom took me to task.
“Thaddeus,” he said with great conviction, “never bring this up again! I may not be a good Jew; in fact, until your talks about the Holy Scriptures, I was pretty ignorant, but I don’t appreciate you comparing our god with Mithra or that unknown god of the Greeks. We’re the chosen people; you said so yourself, when we discussed Abraham, Moses, and King David. Those men are Gentiles—pagans. They’re nice fellows, we must get along with them, but they’ll never join our faith, especially when you throw in that rubbish about the unknown god.”
“I should’ve keep my mouth shut,” I confessed miserably. “That stuff’s even hard for me to believe. I don’t know why I brought it up, but it was a mistake. I promise never to mention it again!”
“Well, that’s good enough for me.” Laban sprang up and shook my hand. “You’re a good lad—a bit soft in the skull, but you’ve a good heart. When you get home to your family, get your head straight. You’re damn lucky to have a place like that to go. There’s nothing wrong with being a carpenter, Thaddeus, but don’t let that brother of yours put anymore nonsense into your head.”
Laban tapped my forehead to make his point. I resented Laban’s condescending words and gesture. The other guards gave me expressions of irritation, disbelief, and disgust. Absalom appeared to display all three.
“For now,” he said, a snarl playing on his lips, “a word to the wise: don’t preach to Gentiles. These Romans had a sense of humor, but not all Gentiles are so polite. It’s bad enough that our god is invisible—we accept that, but that nonsense about the unknown god only confuses their infidel minds.”
I said nothing this time; I was much too upset. Indeed, I took great offense at the reaction of these men. I thought that these hardened guards were more open-minded, but underneath they were still small-minded Jews. I had been reminded about Roman cynicism too. I should have known better, and wasn’t surprised with their reaction. Except for Sergius and Nabalus’ belief in Mithra, which had seemed to be significant at the time, I really had nothing in common with them. They at least hadn’t taken me seriously and, like Decimus and Aulus, accepted my differences, whereas Elisha’s guards had been shocked and dismayed by what I said. If I was close enough to Nazareth, I would have struck out at first light on my own. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even in Galilee yet. I needed my protectors and my benefactor (if that’s what he still was). I would try to make peace with all of them. Perhaps time would heal the rift. I regret saying that I wasn’t sure about the universal god, whom I merely dubbed “unknown.” It was central to Jesus’ interpretation of our faith. I only said that to appease Absalom, and it only made me seem more foolish to these men. What I wouldn’t do was apologize for who I was. I had come a long way from the backward, timid soul who left his family in Nazareth. I wasn’t going back to being that person again; I was simply going home.
During the remainder of the journey, the Jewish guards were civil enough to me but it seemed forced, perhaps to impress the Romans, who found me amusing after that night around the campfire. My “farfetched tales” had caught up with me. Elisha’s guards began treating me like an outsider. From that day forward, our campfires were reserved for drinking and bawdy jokes, with no more serious discussions or outlandish statements made by me. Ironically, I was more comfortable now around the Gentiles than the Jews. Elisha, himself, spoke very little to me, but for appearances sake greeted me occasionally when we came face to face. Once, when I apologized for causing him distress and asked him if we could make peace, he gave me a withering look, and replied “Peace? There’s no peace in a reprobate’s heart!” At least he didn’t call me a heretic. I knew, of course, that if I admitted I had been tainted and sought purification in the temple, all might be forgiven, but a simple apology wouldn’t do. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t also angry with his guards. Perhaps he didn’t expect all that much from hired swords. I knew nothing of his family. Had he thought of himself as a father figure to me? If so, I was a dreadful disappointment.
Unlike the down-to-earth personalities of Decimus and Aulus, the handpicked Romans loaned by Fabius were young and arrogant. Despite their sense of humor, a proper distance was maintained between Roman and Jew during our journey. I didn’t notice this until after that night around the fire. Though they might think I was a bold-faced liar about my exploits, the Romans didn’t take my religious discussion seriously, yet it was my preaching, not my exploits, that bothered the Jewish guards the most. It seemed as if I lost ground with each group—Jew and Gentile alike, until the following day, as we rode along quietly on the highway leading to Antioch, when Marcellus galloped up. With his cape flowing and armor glimmering, he epitomized the mounted Roman knight. I would learn later from him how significant were legionnaire cavalry. It was the duty of the non-Roman auxilia to ride along the flanks of a march in support of the infantry, but Marcellus and his friends were part of special mounted force in Fabius’ legion. That day, when he motioned for me to break formation and ride with him, the Jewish guards were surly, riding along glumly in line. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of their futures that bothered them or maybe they were still troubled by what I said last night. The other guards, who had given me hostile looks before, were face forward, but Absalom and Laban, who had been riding close by, glared fiercely at me as I followed Marcellus to the end of the march.
“Tell me the truth,” he spoke discreetly, as if his words might be carried in the breeze, “did you really kill those six men? Do you people really worship the unknown god? The other Jews appeared to believe that story about the killing yet were shocked by your claim. I might not share the hatred for your people I saw in Cilicia, but I don’t care for Jews in general, never have. You’re different, Thaddeus...Even if you didn’t kill all those men, you’re not like other Jews. I can see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice.”
“Marcellus.” I looked over at him. “If you can judge men by their eyes, what do you see when I tell you this: “I killed all those men, because my god has protected me throughout my long journey. Why I don’t know, but I know he’s the unknown god of the Greeks and Romans. Why would I tell such an amazing thing, if it weren’t true? Jesus, my brother, once told me that you can tell by someone’s expression and movements whether they’re lying. Do you think I’m telling the truth?”
Marcellus thought a moment, then gazing ahead to the procession, nodded faintly. I could scarcely believe my eyes.
“I won’t admit that to the others,” he said after an intake of breath. Exhaling, he added with deliberation, “...I saw an empty pedestal in Rome. I didn’t read it, but it seemed strange, as I rode past, sitting there between two of Rome’s gods. I can’t even recall who the other deities were, there’s so many of them, but I remember that pedestal. I heard the Jewish god is invisible and has no name. This has always struck me as very strange—”
“If there’s only one god,” I replied carefully. “Why does he need a name? If he’s all seeing and everywhere, like the wind or stars in the sky, he needs no earthly monument, but trust me Marcellus, our god isn’t really invisible. He walked in the Garden of Eden. He fashioned man in his own image. This is what our holy scriptures tell us. The reason that he’s thought to be invisible is that we aren’t allowed to see his face. That’s why Moses, our great leader, hid his face before the burning bush—”
“Burning bush?” Marcellus gasped.
“Yes,” I nodded enthusiastically, “that was one more manifestation of god. God is everywhere and in everything...He’s universal!”
“Ho-ho, you have the gift of speech,” he said with a laugh. “Are you trying to make me a Jew?”
I smiled at his question. “Jesus once reminded me that once we were all not Jews. Noah wasn’t a Jew and neither was Enoch, who was taken straight up to heaven without dying. Adam and Eve, the first couple weren’t Jews. Therefore, you don’t have to be a Jew to believe in the one god.”
The greatest heresy had slipped off my tongue: our god is not merely unknown, he’s universal. I knew I had made an impact upon this man. I now believe that some men and women are predisposed to accepting wisdom. Marcellus was such a person and a Roman at that. Giving his horse a slight kick, he galloped ahead, calling back from the corner of his mouth, “More about this later. Not a word about this to anyone.”
“Of course!” I replied in a constricted voice.
I wasn’t sure why it mattered to me or why I wanted this Gentile to believe in my god. Was it to save his soul or just to show off? I liked this fellow. He was nothing like some of the other Romans I had befriended. Though his mannerisms reminded me of Cornelius, I never knew a Roman who expressed interest in learning about my god. I wondered if it was just idle curiosity. Perhaps he was just toying with me like some of my previous traveling companions. I would soon find out.
When I returned to the procession of Jewish guards, Laban gave me a suspicious look. Absalom turned in his saddle and glowered at me. In the past two days, a distance had grown between the Romans and the guards. It was an unspoken hostility not apparent at first, the first glimmer appearing during the first campfire we shared together.
“Pretty thick with that Roman, aren’t you?” Absalom snarled.
“He wanted to talk to me,” I replied defensively. “What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s beginning to seem,” he spat angrily, “you’re more Gentile than Jew.”
“Nonsense,” I bristled, “ever sense that night by the fire, Elisha’s guards have treated me like an outsider, you especially, Absalom. The other Romans don’t like any of us. Marcellus is the only one in our group who’s decent to me.”
“What did he say to you?” Laban joined in gruffly. “You talkin’ heresy again?”
It was as if the rustic Jew had read my mind, so I reacted rashly, “I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business.”
“Watch you words lad,” Laban said venomously, “you’re taking to your betters.”
I looked around at both of them, taking in the other guards as well. “Oh, I thought you were better than me, but I was wrong. You’re not my betters. You’re narrow-minded just like most of the other Jews in my life. The only open-minded and pure-hearted Jews I know are my parents and oldest brother.”
“You mean that heretic Jesus,” Absalom sneered. “Are you certain Thaddeus that you’re even a Jew?”
A sudden wave of rage came over me that moment. Almost instinctively my hand went to my sword. Both of the guards saw my reaction and immediately burst into laughter, which made me even angrier. If Octavius hadn’t spotted this potential altercation, I don’t know what I would have done. Octavius’ high-pitched call alerted the other Romans, including Marcellus, all of whom galloped quickly up to the scene.
“What’s going on here?” barked Octavius. “Why’s Thaddeus drawing his sword?”
“I’m all right,” I tried to reassure him, “—a slight disagreement.”
“It’s none of your affair,” Laban growled, “mind your own business!”
“What sort of disagreement?” inquired Marcellus. “And it is our business. We didn’t ask for this assignment, but we’re here on behalf of the Legate of the Fifth Legion. We’re representatives of the Emperor. I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head!”
Absalom gave Laban a warning look, forcing himself to respond politely, “We appreciate the legate’s kindness. It’s been a long journey for Thaddeus and us. We simply had a difference of opinion.”
Marcellus nodded curtly, but didn’t press the point. “Thaddeus is a good lad,” he changed the subject. “He has a good heart. He would make a fine soldier, if he didn’t have a family waiting for him in Nazareth.” “Let’s keep our tempers in check.” He gave me a studied look.
Though I didn’t mean it, I mumbled an apology to both the Romans and Jews. All this took place as we continued our march. In a delayed reaction, Elisha had stuck his head out the window to ask one of the Romans what was going on. He was not angry, just curious. I didn’t catch Sergius’ reply, but I could hear the Jewish guards grumbling under their breaths: “Representatives of the Emperor? Hah—what horse dung!... Those Roman dogs!...Who do they think they are?” Those fools, I told myself. These were imperial guards. I cringed at their seditious talk, which became progressively worse. Fortunately, Absalom had the presence of mind to quietly scold the men, but I knew the warning Marcellus gave Laban only made matters worse. Once again the irrational desire swelled in me to strike out on my own at the first opportunity. What calmed me like a warm wind on a cold day was the realization that we were but a few days ride to Antioch where I would bid goodbye to my benefactor and head home. I still wasn’t sure what would happen in the city when I broke company with Elisha and his guards. Would I attempt the coastal route home, and be able, through Elisha or perhaps Marcellus influence, accompany a small Roman escort to Galilee? Surely, the landslide that had blocked this road should have been cleared by now. I might even have to travel alone. If I took the coastal route, it would much safer than the highway through the desert but it would take my mules and me a much longer time. The quickest way, of course, was by ship, and that was out of the question if I couldn’t take along my mules.