The Coastal Route
We arrived in Laodicea, a city that would become important in my years as a disciple of Paul. At this stage in my life, I knew only that we had to travel through it to reach the imperial way station in order to requisition stores. When we arrived, hungry and travel worn and looked down at the beautiful seaside town, it was rejuvenating. We broke into friendly banter that moment now that we had reached the first major milestone in our journey south. Though smaller than Tarsus and Antioch, it’s white temples and sundry buildings stretched into the surrounding hills and down the seashore jewel-like against the evening sun, now setting in the west. Disregarding the standard policy for official military business of going directly to a Roman way station, which was a league down the coast, we stopped by a shop and purchased five flasks of quality wine. Pooling our meager wages, we also purchased fresh lamb, bread, and vegetables to supplement what we would later requisition. We were fortunate to arrive just before the shops closed for the evening. Fronto bought sweet meats from a vendor on the street, which would provide us with a fine dessert. Too often the imperial storeroom would dole out foul-tasting Syrian wine and food. We would, of course, receive our supplies from the duty officer, but tonight, instead eating the dried fish, cheese, and stale bread issued, which was the normal meal at imperial way stations, we would eat fresh food and drink Greek wine and, upon arriving at the way station, pack the issued rations away to snack on later between stops.
On the way through the remainder of town, after using the cloaca and ignoring the unfriendly glares of townsfolk lining the street, we began drinking almost immediately. Because of our dirty, motley appearance, mismatched attire, and mix of horses and mules in our band, we probably looked like a band thieves, rather than soldiers of Rome. Fronto and Rufus were boisterous, shouting insults to surly onlookers. Ibrim playfully swatted a man with his whip. Until we reached the city limits, the auxilia continued to behave badly. Aulus and I tried calming them down to no avail. Luckily for us we didn’t run into magistrates or Roman legionnaires in town. That night, after setting up camp, we built ourselves a roaring fire, cooked ourselves a decent supper, and got properly drunk on good Greek wine.
Out of military habit, we were able to set up camp, but the results were much to be the desired. Aulus made sure that he and I shared a tent, hastily raised on poles with half of the required tent pegs provided for the trip. Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim planned to sleep out in the open if they were too drunk. Tied expeditiously to nearby saplings, the horses and mules were allowed to forage in a nearby field. Because of the attitude of the men, I suspected there would be no sentries tonight. We had, Fronto boasted tipsily, a night of festivities ahead of us. Rufus and he would swap bawdy tales, and I could tell some of those stories they liked so much. I was sure Ibrim would say some strange things as he had before, and even Aulus, after emptying half his flask, might share a few jokes. As we laughed at each other’s foolishness, the fire ring provided by the station was filled with the available lumber and kindling lying about the camp. The sharpened stick for the fire spit was speared with hunks of lamb, dropped in its supports, and turned by each of us as we ate fresh bread, ripe plums, and drank our wine.
That evening, after the sun had set and we had eaten our fill, I realized that I was the most sober of the bunch. The truth was, I could scarcely talk, and when I was asked to expound more tales of my demigod brother I humored them by telling them about the sermon he gave to the townsfolk after returning from his trip. It must have sounded like gibberish. In spite of my excellent memory, I barely remember the words. I do remember looking around and seeing the other men, even Aulus, lying on the ground were they tumbled, too drunk to make it to their pallets. I also remember being sick and vomiting my dinner in the nearby woods. Even in my drunken state I was worried about the lack of security in our camp. Not long after I attempted to rouse Aulus, a sentry from the Imperial station did, in fact, appear on the scene, scolding us severely for our laxity in camp.
“Whose in charge here?” he barked, looking with disgust at my friends.
“No one,” I answered with a belch. “We’re being transferred to the Galilean Cohort.”
This was, of course, a lie, but it seemed insignificant considering the trouble we might be in. Walking around with a snarl on his bristly face, he kicked each of them with his boot, and then when that didn’t rouse them, prodded them with his sword.
“This is disgraceful,” his voice rose in indignation. “You have posted no guards. You haven’t even set up camp properly, and not a one of you could, if he had to, stand a post.
“That’s not necessary,” I remember saying, as I tapped them one-by-one. “These men have been through a terrible ordeal. We’ve lost over half our number in the desert. I almost became a slave. You’d be drunk too if you were treated like those poor men. I’m young; it doesn’t matter so much, but what do they have to look forward to?”
I had been sober enough to deliver a fine speech. For a moment, as he walked up to me as though he just might just rap me with the flat side of his sword, I forget my own prowess with the gladius and cringed with fear. But then, after sheathing his sword, he studied me a moment. His chiseled features, which seemed set in anger, softened, until I saw the vaguest inkling of a smile.
“How old are you?” he asked, glancing back at the others.
“Oh, I’m not so young,” I squirmed under his scrutiny. “I’ve seen more than eighteen summers. What I’ve gone through has added years onto my shoulders. I even have the makings a beard.”
My effort at being droll that moment caused him to utter a sour laugh, but he wasn’t amused.
“What’s a lad like you doing with the likes of them?” He motioned with his head. “Auxilia!” he spat the words. “Never known one yet who wouldn’t knife you then steal your last mite.”
“They’re good men,” I came to their defense. “They’ve been through hard times. We all have. Please don’t report them to your superior.”
“I’m the superior of this station,” he stuck out his jaw. “After waking me up in the middle of the night, one of my men reported that there were no sentries in your group. I don’t care if you men drink yourselves into oblivion. You must post guards!”
“I’ll stand watch sir!” I piped, clicking my heels together smartly.
I noticed at that point, by his helmet and scrolled cuirass, that he was an optio. An expression of incredulity came over his face now as he considered my statement. It seemed as if my fear had sobered me up enough to stand at attention, chest thrust out, and eyes forward, yet the hard-bitten Roman looked me up and own as if I had lost my wits.
“In your condition you really think you could stand a post until morning?” He asked with a straight face.
At first, I thought he might shake his head and walk away. Then, when I failed to answer, he broke into knee-slapping mirth. I was so greatly relieved I didn’t care that it was done at my expense. I’ve been laughed at by better men than you, I told myself, joining in his banter.
“No,” I answered, playing the game,“...I’ll be unconscious by dawn. I must rouse some of the others, so we can take turns.”
“What?” he cried. “You think you can awaken the dead?”
The optio inspected the sleeping men again. Three of them—Rufus, Fronto, and Ibrim—lie pell-mell around the fire, mouths agape and snoring loudly, lying exactly where they fell. Aulus, the only one who made it to the tent, lay half in and half out, still clutching a flask. When one of his men appeared that moment, he joined in the mirth.
Between guffaws the optio managed to ask, “What’s your name lad?”
“Judah bar Joseph,” I blurted. “I mean Thaddeus Judaicus—my Roman name.” I added, cupping my mouth. “You see I’m drunk sir,” I quickly apologized. “Excuse my mistake.”
“Hah! That’s a Jew name,” the second Roman cried. “By Jove,” he pointed accusingly with a grin, “you’re a Jew!”
“Is that true lad?” the optio raised an eyebrow. “Don’t lie to me. That was a slip of the tongue.”
“All right,” I confessed, “I’m not a Gentile, but I’m a loyal Roman.”
“Are you serious Jude Thaddeus?” he asked, after considering my revelation. “…You people hate us. You’ve rebelled enough. What would possess a young Jew to join up? The legion’s no place for a Jew. You’re not even required for the levy. There’s no such thing as Jewish conscripts. Are you daft?”
The name he labeled me with, Jude Thaddeus, would be used in later years. Now, encompassing my two sides, Jew and Gentile, it seemed strangely appropriate. The words now poured out in my own defense: “I wanted to be soldier scribe. I’ve done well as soldier, killing many men. After being captured by bandits, I was sold as a slave then purchased by a rich merchant, who gave me my freedom in order to make me a proper Jew. Yet I opted for the army. When I finally arrived in the Antioch, Aurelian, prefect of the fort, wanted to hire me for his staff. Unfortunately, I had been summoned to return home to my family business. I’m returning this very day with my friends to Nazareth, but someday I plan to rejoin. A man is born into his race, but its up to him which master he serves!”
It was the most controversial thing I had ever said. My family and neighbors would have been shocked at some of things I had said and done in my misadventures as a Roman soldier; now, to impress these Romans, I had boasted killing men and vowed allegiance to Rome. Nevertheless, it was immediately effective. The capricious mood of the station guards, so typical of Roman soldiers, changed that moment. My words, which seemed like heresy to me now, had cut short their laughter and turned their smiling faces to looks of esteem. Reaching out one-by-one to grip my forearm, they appeared to acknowledge my loyalty to the legions.
“My name’s Argos,” the first Roman introduced himself finally, “and this is Salva, one of my men.”
Salva bowed differentially. I was speechless, bowing in return, touching my forehead, as I had seen Ibrim do, to show my respect.
“My men will widen their patrol tonight,” Argos explained indulgently. “You sleep it off with the other slackers.” “Take my advice young man,” he said in parting before he and Salva disappeared into the darkness, “go home to your people. The Roman army’s no place for a Jew!”
“Argos,” Salva could be heard in the distance, “I think I’ve heard everything now: a Jewish soldier of Rome!”
The rude station guards were typical of Rome’s soldiers, and yet my Roman protectors said basically the same thing. I was, in spite of my comportment, barely able to make it to my pallet, yet the words spoken by Argos were imprinted in my mind—Go home to your people. The Roman army’s no place for a Jew!” Recalling the title he gave me, I giggled foolishly, swiping at imaginary foes with my sword.
“Jude Thaddeus,” I murmured drowsily, “I like the sound of that—just right for a warrior Jew.” “Take that you swines.” I hacked at the darkness. “Death to infidels. You’re tangling with the Reaper…A lot those sonsabitches know!”
Amused by this turn of events, I made water on a nearby tree, crawled into the tent next to Aulus, and fell into a deep untroubled asleep. There were no prophetic visions or dark images in my head this time, just that nonsensical fabric of dreams that are quickly forgotten the following morning. The urgency of my helping Jesus with the family business had not left me. My first thought, in fact, was the foolishness of our actions last night, yet matters could have been worse. When I awakened, I was the only riser. It was the first time I had experienced this phenomena since leaving home. Everyone had drunk heavily last night. After drinking, eating too much lamb, and cramming my stomach with Fronto’s sweetmeats, I had finally thrown up, an event that reduced the ill effects of the wine. When I confronted the station guards, it gave me a level of sobriety over the other men who drank themselves to oblivion around the fire. Because of my purge, I was not lying unconscious like the others on the ground. The problem that hour was to rouse the men and get us back on the road. Though I joined in eagerly with them yesterday when I was handed my own flask of wine, I had great misgivings this morning about the precedent we had set. Is this what our journey south would be: one long, meaningless drinking bout until I parted with my friends and returned home?
Wasting no more time deliberating, I walked around gently kicking and shaking my friends. Aulus, who lie half-in and half-out of the tent, appeared to be in the exact same position he was in last night. He was snoring heavily and muttered groggily when I gave him a shake. Though grumbling and making snorting noises, none of the men were motivated until I shouted “Wake up, it’s time to break camp!” shrilly through cupped hands. Though I was, myself, feeling some effects from last night, I managed, as they stirred, to lead the horses and mules one-by-one to the water trough provided by the station. It appeared as if they had eaten enough of the wild wheat growing in the field. Decimus had once explained to us that not all imperial stations provided fresh mounts, so I was glad to see the horses, as well as my mules, fit and ready for the march. Unfortunately, my traveling companions weren’t. It was only after I had led the final mule back and tethered it with the others, that one of the men stood up, cursing loudly about a ringing head.
“Someone stole my wine!” Fronto roared. “I had another stowed in my saddle bag. Those Roman dogs!”
“No one took your flask,” I called cheerily, as I returned to camp. “I had a discussion with the optio and one of his guards. They were angry that we hadn’t posted a guard, but I calmed them down. We must grab a bite to eat and get back on the road heading south.”
“Who made you the leader?” he grumbled. “You drank as much as me. Why’re you grinning like an ape?”
“Because,” I replied, sticking a finger in my mouth, “I was sick. We all drank too much wine last night. I got rid of most of my mine. You men promised me that we would have a speedy journey home. I’d like to reach the next imperial station before dark.”
“Oh, is that right your highness.” He bowed comically. “I forgot you’ve been favored by the prefect. Perhaps we should take a vote.” “Hey, men,” he bellowed, looking around the camp. “Everyone who wants to put Thaddeus, the Jew, in charge, raise your hand.”
“Leave him alone,” Aulus called weakly, “he’s the only one us worth a mite.”
I ran to him that moment, concerned that he might be ill. He was having trouble just sitting up. I needed help with the overweight Roman, but Rufus and Ibrim could scarcely rise up themselves. Reaching down, with Fronto’s belated help, I raised him slowly to his feet.
“Are you all right?” my voice trembled.
“I’m fine Thaddeus,” he murmured hoarsely, “...just a damn fool. I let things get me down.”
“You’re a fine soldier,” I reassured him, “I’m proud to ride with you.”
“Aye.” Fronto seconded. “I’m a damn fool too.”
“No,” I said, patting his shoulder, “you’re all good men. I will miss you sorely when I return to the shop.”
“You’ll not be happy, whittling wood,” the Thracian said glumly. “It’s in your blood. You’re a natural. I’ll never forget what you did that night. Six men were struck down by one sword. Look at you. Thaddeus; you were captured by cutthroat thieves, sold into slavery, and bought by a rich Pharisee. Aye, fortune blessed you, yet you gave up a life of ease to ride with us.”
Though that was only partially true, what he said about fortune was one hundred percent correct. I’m not sure whether or not Fronto was referring to God when he said fortune blessed me, but I realized now that He had been watching over me all along. In my darkest hours, I had doubted him and not given him credit for saving my neck. Now, I found myself in need of God’s help. I had four debilitated men, two of which were not fully conscious, to get ready, on their horses, and on the highway so that we might reach the next milestone before dusk.
After much effort, Fronto and I got Rufus and Ibrim onto their feet, while Aulus walked shakily to the station for stores. I had absolutely no intention in trading in my mount, and there was nothing mentioned about fresh horses, which pleased me very much, since this would take that much more time. When Aulus began walking back with a large sack of provisions, I took part of his load. I noticed, to my dismay, that there was more wine in one of the sacks, but said nothing. If the men wanted more wine they would simply buy it on the way. What I was most concerned with was Aulus’ color. I had seen the shadow of death before: in my childhood friend Nehemiah and in Caesarius’ face: an ashen shade, with bloodshot eyes. Aulus moved sluggishly as they had. I handed him a piece of cheese, hunk of bread, and flask of water, but he refused politely, taking only a swallow of water after stuffing the food into his saddlebag along with the flask. After Fronto and I loaded the tent, equipment, and provisions onto the mules and made sure that Rufus and Ibrim made water and ate the frugal morning meal, we stood there wolfing down our own morsels of food. I was thankful that Fronto had heeded my plea. He seemed in a hurry now. During those moments, as I tethered the mules’ reins and harnessed the guide line to my saddle, the big Thracian shepherded Rufus and Ibrim onto their horses and told them to stay put. It took two of us to get Aulus on his horse. He sat shakily on his mount and was in no condition to lead us the rest of the way nor were Rufus and Ibrim, who would need watching too. Because I took control of the mules, which always followed behind horsemen, the honor of leading us would go to Fronto, the second most sober member of our group.
“I’m sorry I was such a grouch,” he said, struggling onto his horse, “You gotta get home. I know that. We’ll make better time when we’re back in Galilee. I’ll take the guideline when you get tired.”
“Thank you, Fronto.” I replied contentedly. “The delay’s my own fault. I could’ve taken a ship, but I was worried about my mules. The truth is I have no desire to travel on ship. My brother asked God to still the waters. I might not be so blessed.”
“Well,” Fronto called back cheerily. “We had a late start, but it’s not yet noon. Even if we don’t reach the next station by sunset, we should find another town.”
“It could be worse,” I piped, patting my mule. “I could’ve taken a ship, but, given my luck, it might’ve sunk. On the other hand, if it’s a choice between a ride through a dirty, dusty desert filled with bandits and a long, crooked road, with towns along the way and the sweet smell of the sea, I’ll take the coast!”
Fronto laughed for my benefit. Like the others, he was feeling the effect of last night. Because I had to watch the mules, I asked Rufus to watch Aulus. He rode in front of him and could see the expression on his face. Unfortunately, however, he and Ibrim were barely able to stay in the saddle themselves. My greatest fear at this point was that the old Roman would fall off his saddle as Caesarius had done—this time tumbling over a cliff into the sea. When I called a temporary halt and suggested that we tie him to his horse, Aulus, himself, came awake and balked at the notion.
“Calm down, Thaddeus,” he said weakly. “I’ll be all right. I overdid it last night—too much wine and food. Don’t worry, lad, I’ll be all right.”
“Then one of us should be on your right,” I insisted. “This stretch isn’t so narrow. While I tow my mules, you men could ride two-by-two.”
“Very well,” Rufus heaved a sigh, “it’s all the same to me.”
“I’ll ride on Ibrim’s right,” Fronto said, backing up his horse. “He’s ready to fall out of his saddle too.” “You feeling better?” He paused to study the Gaul.
“Better,...not good.” Rufus grunted.
“I know what you mean,” he said with a shrug. “We’ve all been foolish.”
“Well, I don’t need a baby sitter,” Aulus grumbled. “Ibrim’s in worse shape than me.”
Ibrim said nothing as Fronto shifted to his right.
“Please Aulus,” I reasoned sternly. “Face it: you’re not well. At least wrap the reins around your wrists. There’s no soft sand to tumble onto here, only rocks. Some of the shoreline has cliffs!”
The procession halted a moment. Aulus looked back at me, a frown playing on his sallow face. Rufus reached over protectively to place the reins in his hands. With some effort, Aulus did as I asked. I noticed, after following my own counsel, that Fronto, Gaul, and even the wobbly Arab did the same.
“All right, no more dawdling,” Fronto barked. “We gotta a long ride to the next station. Let’s keep moving.” “Wake up Ibrim,” he snapped. “Keep that strap on your wrists. Hold fast to your reins!”
With that said, we gave our beasts a kick and resumed our journey south. For the longest period of time, in what seemed to be a test of endurance, we trudged along the coast, rarely speaking to each other. I heard a few complaints, a great amount of grunts and groans, and one loud oath from Fronto when his horse was startled by a dog running across the road. No one would be in the mood for conversation, until we stopped for the night. It was fortunate that I was sick and purged myself before I fell asleep. Aulus, Ibrim, and, to a lesser degree, Rufus, would feel the effects of our festivities for several hours. By a process of elimination, Fronto had become our leader, which made good sense, since he was by far the biggest member of our group, and could hold his wine. I was quite happy that the big, normally good-natured, Thracian had taken control of our group. Considering how little time I spent in my effort to join the army and the many years my friends had served in the service of Rome, I belonged at the rear of our procession watching the mules. They were my responsibility, no one else’s, but I hoped that Fronto would keep his promise and take over the line for a while. For more leagues than I wanted to count, he prodded us along, making sure our stops were just long enough for us to rest a spell, eat our rations, feed and water the horses and mules, then get back on the road. During the long ride south, Fronto, with Rufus and my help, kept Aulus and Ibrim in their saddles, which was not easy when we reached the steepest portions of our trip. There were times when we looked over the side and saw a sheer drop to the rocky shoreline below. Rufus managed, in spite of his own discomfort, to remain a buffer between the tottering Aulus and those steep cliffs on our right, and Fronto reached over on occasion to grip Ibrim’s tunic to hold him steady on his horse. Meanwhile, I was being worn out by the constant effort of towing the mules and managing my own mount.
Finally, at our third stop of the day, in which we took advantage of a roadside well and watered both ourselves and the horses and mules and snacked on our rations, Fronto took over the towline when we got back on the road. By that point, Ibrim was in much better shape and Aulus, though he still required close watch, seemed less wobbly on his horse. When I took my place next to the Arab, I was, in effect, leading the march. It was my job to keep the pace and watch out for the next milestone along the road. Unlike Fronto, though, I would not bark at the men when they didn’t move fast enough. The Thracian was still in control. In fact, before we made camp for the night, Rufus, then Ibrim, himself, at Fronto’s insistence, took turns towing the mules.
We arrived near the town of Tripolia, travel-worn and out of sorts. No one cared what lie over the hill. We had reached the first imperial station since leaving Laodicea. The temptation of Greek wine and rich food were always waiting in nearby towns, but tonight we needed solid Roman rations and a good night’s sleep. There would be no reverly this time, especially for poor Aulus, who had to be carried to his pallet. After a sparse, hastily eaten meal, we sat around the fire discussing the fate of our friend, now sleeping fitfully in his tent.
“He doesn’t look good,” came Fronto’s gravelly voice. “After that business in the desert he was never the same.”
“Humph,” grunted Rufus, “no one’s been the same. He drank too much wine last night, more than even me. That didn’t help.”
“We all drank too much.” Ibrim stared blankly into the fire. “Thaddeus was lucky he got sick.” “Next time I act foolishly,” he added, raising up two fingers, “I’m doing it myself.”
“That’s disgusting.” I made a face.
“It works,” he said, tossing a twig into the flames. “If I had been conscious, I would’ve done it last night. This morning I thought my head was going to explode!”
“Not a bad idea,” Rufus replied thoughtfully. “I’ve seen Romans stick feathers down their throats to make them vomit, but fingers are better.”
“Disgusting,” I insisted. “...What about you Fronto?’ I looked across the fire. “You didn’t get that sick.”
“Oh, I felt sick.” He laughed softly. “I just didn’t show it. I also didn’t drink as much. Aulus out drank us all!”
The question hung unspoken a moment as we thought about our friend: “Would the old Roman survive the long trip?” Glancing back at the tent, I chose my words carefully, “...If Aulus will come home with me, I think my mother might be able to cure him. If not her potions, my brother’s prayers should work. Jesus has a special relationship with God. He once told me that the faith of a mustard seed could move mountains.”
“A mustard seed?” Fronto made a face. “You have a very strange god. Why would he bother with that broken down old soldier?”
“That’s very unkind,” I bristled. “Do you remember the incident of the sparrow? According to Jesus, God watches over all of his creation.”
“Bah,” spat Fronto, “He hasn’t helped us so far!”
“He saved my life!” my voice creaked up a notch. “All along, from Galilee through that awful desert, he kept me from harm. Considering the odds against us, I think he watched over you and the others too.”
“Words!” Rufus said with great bitterness. “Why did my brother Enrod die? He was a good man. So was Vesto. Those desert people nearly wiped us out. None of our men deserved to die in that stinking place!”
“You don’t understand my faith,” I tried explaining. “....We take the good with the bad. Job, a righteous man, was tested by Satan and proved to be worthy. Good men are tested, some of them die, but if we try to live a good life we are rewarded.…The body dies, yet we live...”
My voice trailed off in wonder. Not yet comprehending Jesus’ doctrine of eternal life, I thought about I had just said. What was I trying to say? The four men looked at me with dumbfounded expressions.
Ibrim studied me a moment. “Thaddeus, that doesn’t make sense. I’ve listened to you talk about your god, whom I think is a fine fellow, but he has done very little for you. That other Jewish fellow you mentioned, Elisha, saved you. My people have hundreds of gods, not one of them worth a mite. I believe in what I see. If it’s Aulus time, he will die,” “and that’s that!” He snapped his fingers.
“How do you explain me killing all those men at the imperial station?” I tried a different tact. “You really think I could’ve done that all by myself.”
“Yes.” Ibrim nodded. “I’ve seen stranger things before.”
“He’s a natural warrior,” cried Fronto, “just stubborn. I once saw a gladiator kill ten men!”
“Ibrim! Fronto!” I raised my hand in dismissal. “You’ve never seen anything like that—neither of you. Ibrim, you told me you thought I was possessed by a jinn. What is it, man—luck or the Jinn? It can’t be both. If my god can’t do it, evil spirits can’t either.” “Trust me.” I stood up, looking around the group. “My mother can help Aulus. She pulled Reuben, my family’s onetime enemy, and my friend Uriah from death’s door. She’s been treating townsfolk for years with her potions and herbs. After Jesus saved that sparrow, he changed. His prayers began helping others too. You’ve never seen anyone pray like him. He told the storms to cease, brought back the Pharisees son, and—something I saw with my own eyes—opened the skies over Nazareth to put out the widow Mariah’s fire—all through prayer. When I return home, Aulus is coming with me. You men are welcome to our hospitality. I want you to meet my family and my family to meet you. Mostly, I want you to meet Jesus, my brother...You’ve never known anyone like him!”
That night, after the others crawled onto their pallets, I was tempted to sleep in the open next to fire as some of the men did last night. Aulus groaned and muttered to himself in his sleep. It upset me very much, especially when there was nothing that I could say or do. The second tent wasn’t much better; the auxilia snored loudly and often made wind. For a long period of time, I sat there by the fire, wondering if my boast had been foolish. What if Jesus resented my presumption? What if my father was ill, as I suspected, and mother had no time for my friend? My family might be going through hard times right now. For that matter, our neighbors wouldn’t like me bringing a band of unwashed Gentile into town. Our association with soldiers had been bad enough for us. Because we befriended the guards assigned to our town, we had been called collaborators. Now I was bringing auxilia to Nazareth. With the exception of Aulus, these men weren’t even Romans. They were loud, unruly, and uncouth men. Of my four friends, I worried about Fronto and Ibrim the most. Fronto would suffer no fools. Ibrim, if given the chance, would say the most outlandish things. Only Rufus held his tongue in mixed company. If Joseph was still living at home and James happened to be visiting when I returned, I might have a serious problem. My older brothers wouldn’t take kindly to their presence in our home nor would the town elders approve. As always, I had been impulsive and stupid. Aulus was very sick. I wanted to help him, but I shouldn’t have promised that to the men.
As I lay down on my blanket by the fire, I was resigned to the fact that Aulus might not last through the night. In spite of my fears and misgivings, I tumbled into a troubled, fitful sleep.
Once again, after many weeks, I dreamed I was standing in front of my house afraid to go in. I saw Jesus alone, working tirelessly in the shop. This time there was not one living soul about. I wanted to go inside the house but it was too terrible to consider. I refused to consider the obvious implications. “Jesus!” I called this time. The second time I tried getting his attention my voice caught in my throat. “Oh, Jesus!” my mother shrieked from inside, “come quickly!” Jesus ignored my presence entirely and ran into the house...That was all this time. I awakened from my brief nightmare perspiring and out of breath. I had lain close to the fire, but I had broken into a cold sweat. Jumping up upon shaky legs I stood there, staring into the darkness, feeling helpless that it was going to take so long. Pacing back and forth for several moments, I clinched my fist, muttering to myself, “I’m such a fool! I’m such a fool!” I could have taken a ship. I would be home in a few days, but no I had five mules and wanted to ride with my friends!
As I stood contemplating the dark, I was suddenly shaken. The imperial way station at which we requisitioned supplies had been small, having only three guards, two of whom appeared to be old men. There had been no optio, just a surly youth with buckteeth, who didn’t believe we were Roman soldiers until Fronto showed him the requisition. We had been so exhausted we barely ate our rations and drank only a few swallows of wine. But that was before sunset. Now there was blackest night, with only a smoldering fire for light. We were on our own out here. What had happened to these men, I wondered, as I prudently tossed branches and twigs into the ring? Our journey south was nothing like our journey north, when I rode with nine energetic, if not argumentative auxilia and veterans, presided over by three strong, hard-bitten Romans who managed to hold together the fragile alliance, in spite of Apollo and Ajax’s efforts to tear us apart. In the end, which came finally in the desert, we were united, fighting like brothers against overwhelming odds. Now, we had no optio (Fronto could hardly be considered a leader), and the last Roman appeared to be at death’s door. Everyone, including the Thracian, was going through the motions, just to get by. Not only were we down to five travel worn, dispirited men, but we hadn’t posted sentries around our camp, because no one cared.
Here we were, I thought, with a shudder, in the middle of nowhere, without so much as a lantern to light our camp. That moment, as I considered the dangers of our position, I heard a voice. It was muffled and indistinct at first. Startled by this sound, I pulled my sword. Crouching down, I looked cautiously around the camp.
“Thaddeus! Thaddeus!” Aulus called faintly from his pallet.
Running over and throwing open the flap, I looked into the tent. Realizing it was too dark to see, however, I ran back to the fire ring and lifted up a burning branch to use as a torch. In the eerie glow, lying where we dumped him, his black pupils glazed and face covered with perspiration, Aulus reached out plaintively. “Water lad,” he pleaded, “gimme water.” Scurrying frantically around the camp a moment until I found a flask, I placed it in his trembling hands, watching expectantly as he guzzled it down then splashed water over his face and neck.
“Listen lad,” he said hoarsely, “this illness will pass. It’s the fever. I got it in that infernal swamp in Egypt. It comes and goes. I heard what you promised those men, but it’s not necessary. I’ll be back, fit as a mule in a few days. When we ride into Tripolia our next stop, find an herb dealer. Black wart root is a sure cure for swamp fever. Already I’m feeling better, but black wart will hurry things along.”
“Praise God,” I muttered thankfully, “it’s good that you sweat Aulus. I’ve seen my mother treating townsfolk, and this is a good sign. I’ve heard of this fever; it can be treated. We didn’t know what was wrong. Now it has a name: swamp fever. Potions can cure ill humors and poisons of the blood. We’ll find a physician in that town.”
“Black wart root.” He exhaled raggedly. “That’s all I need.”
“Of course,” I replied, gratified that he seemed better. “You must be famished. We requisitioned rations this evening.”
“Well,” he said weakly, “I could used a bite of cheese and bread.” “I’d like to turn over my pallet. It’s soaked with sweat.”
Startling me half out of my wits, the shadowy hulk of Fronto stood silhouetted against the fire. “Here, I’ll give you a hand,” he said, reaching down, as I helped Aulus to his feet. Rufus, who must also have been awakened, appeared that moment, as did Ibrim, blinking stupidly in the light.
“By the gods,” Rufus said in disbelief, “we thought you were done for. Look at you standing on your feet.”
“Sit him down here away from the fire,” I directed, pointing to a log. “Aulus is hot enough. One of you please fetch our bag of food. I hope we still have some fruit.”
After he sat awhile enjoying the night air and munching on his bread and cheese, we guided him back to the tent.
“This isn’t catching Thaddeus,” explained Aulus. “It’s not the plague. You can sleep next to me if you wish.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “you were thrashing around quite a bit earlier. I’m going to bed down out here. Someone has to be on watch.”
“That’s right,” Fronto slapped his forehead, “we didn’t post sentries.”
“Incredible,” grumbled Aulus. “What have we come to?”
“All right.” The Thracian shrugged. “When we reach the station near Sidon, we’ll take turns. We have four good men we can rotate.” “No offense, Aulus,” he said, guiding him gently onto his pallet, “you just rest.”
“No offense taken.” Aulus laughed wanly. “It would be different if the station was close by. Those guards at this station are useless. Humph! Old men and a boy—what’s the army coming to?”
“Ah, he’s coming around,” teased Ibrim. “That’s proof he’s going to be all right.”
I looked around at the others. “In Tripolia, we must find a physician. Aulus needs a special medicine.”
“Black wart,” muttered Aulus, “that’s all I need!”
Aulus slept peacefully that night, as did we all—comforted by the apparent improvement of our friend. After a hasty meal, we broke camp, did our business, and climbed cheerfully onto our mounts. Everything seemed much better now that the Roman might be on the mind. The old soldier still needed watching as he sat on his horse and I wouldn’t feel comfortable until we had purchased some black wart root. Unfortunately, after Rufus and I rode ahead to find this drug, we could find no physician or herbalist. Tripolia, a sleepy town, much smaller town than Antioch or Laodicea, still appeared to be asleep. Considering the hour, this was probably true, but I still felt like pounding on a few doors. I was very disappointed, and Aulus wasn’t happy with our report, but I promised him we would find his medicine in the next town. Sidon was a fair-sized city, Fronto declared. Surely we could find black wart root there.
The ride to Sidon, which required two rest stops, brought back our fears temporarily when Aulus became querulous, which grew to delirium at times, until he had rested up enough to be helped back onto his horse. When we reached our next station, however, our optimism returned. Not only were there several guards, who regularly patrolled the camps, but Sidon was nearby, right over the hill. While the others stayed in camp with Aulus, Fronto and I rode into town to find a physician or herbalist.
At first no one in the seaside town had heard of black wart root. We had a difficult enough time just find a physician at the late hour. Then, right before sunset, we found a shop on the corner of town where a one-eyed Syrian sold all manner of pharmacopoeia I recognized immediately from my mother’s collection of herbs.
“You wish to inflame the passions, get rid of illness, or poison a friend?” his voice trilled. “Uthmar has what you need.” “Come, come,” he beckoned a long finger-nailed hand, displaying yellow teeth as he smiled. “Uthmar has many wonderful herb to make one happy, well or dead!”
Under normal circumstances as Jew, I would have shrunk from this evil place, but these were not normal circumstances. I was no longer a typical Jew, and I had no compunction against dealing with this man, especially with the big Thracian by my side.
“We need black wart root,” I informed him coldly. “Were you serious about selling poison to customers? I find that hard to believe.”
“If the Romans get wind of it,” Fronto growled, intersecting two index fingers, “it’s the cross!”
“Ho, ho” Uthmar forced a laugh. “It was a joke. All my friends and neighbors know my wit. You seriously think I would break the law?”
“Yes, if you don’t get caught.” Fronto plunked down a few coins. “Black wart—now!”
“Oh yes, for the fever.” he rubbed his grimy hands. “I have a fresh batch.”
“All right Uthman,” Fronto gave him a wry look,“we won’t tell the Romans about your black art.”
The dark, ugly root looked like one of the items my mother found in Nazareth’s hills. Uthmar advised us to boil it in water and make the patient drink it three times a day, until the fever passed. We thanked him cordially, took our precious root, and began looking for fresh vegetables in town. When we returned to camp, we didn’t mention the wine Fronto purchased and hid in his saddlebag. We agreed that, until we made better progress in our journey, wine would be reserved for celebration, perhaps when we reached Galilee or one of the major towns. Fresh leeks and a handful of overripe fruit supplemented our moldy bread and dried pork (which I pretended was lamb) issued by the stationmaster. Though we had more protection here, we had been issued better food at the last station. What made up a little for the paltry stores was the availability of fresh mounts this time, which I declined, and the normal issue of spirits, which Fronto sparingly doled out. Everyone promised to forego festivities and rest up for the journey ahead.
Following Aulus instructions, I cut off a small piece of black wart root with my knife, placed it in Aulus helmet after removing its lining, and boiled it over the coals. Though he claimed it tasted like camel piss, Aulus drank it without protest. We had, he pointed out, as I wrapped it carefully in the cloth Uthman gave me and tucked it in my saddlebag, enough root to cure a company of men. The truth was, of course, Aulus still looked sickly after the fever left him. During the several stops and few overnighters we complimented him on his color and spunk, but we knew he was not the same Aulus who left Galilee months back. During our short breaks, we tried to keep it brief to meet my time constraints. Everyone knew I about my bad dreams and my concern for helping Jesus in the shop. During our overnighters, however, we made the best of our time. I told them more about my people’s history, occasionally adding an anecdote from my childhood, and Ibrim would say something strange or Fronto share a coarse tale, but the Roman remained silent and listless, speaking only when prodded. Rufus, the only one in the group affected by my attempts to share my faith with them, still thought Jesus was a demigod like Hercules or one of his tribal gods.
When we reached Ptolemais then turned east, we had arrived squarely in Galilee. By then, root or no root, Aulus was a mere shell of a man. Though it broke my heart, I wouldn’t repeat my boast about my mother’s cures nor would I imply that Jesus could save him by prayer. I had every intention of asking them for help, but I was afraid Aulus might not make it. Even during our celebration at the last imperial camp, the Greek wine we allowed ourselves, couldn’t drown the truth: Aulus days seemed numbered. Would he fall dead off his mount as had Caesarius? With each mile, he struggled just to hold onto his reins.
With the greatest anticipation, as we traveled through Galilee, I also wondered what awaited me in Nazareth. Was my father ill? As my dream implied, had my other brothers flown, leaving poor Jesus to mind the shop alone? And what would the townsfolk think of my friends when we rode into town? …. I would soon find out!