The Men in White
As I slept by the well dreaming I was back in Nazareth and listening to Jesus quote Isaiah’s prophecy, my dreamscape darkened and I found myself wandering alone in the hills of Nazareth with only the moon to light my path. Suddenly, I awakened with a shadowy figure looking down at me. The sun was behind the stranger’s back. At first I thought it might be Decimus or Aulus rousing me from slumber, but then I heard a low, discreet whisper. Whoever it was, was speaking in Aramaic, the common tongue of Galilee and Syria. I sat up groggily, looked around, still cloaked in sleep, realizing that the other men were still asleep. It was a desert nomad! There were, in fact, a large number of desert warriors wearing white robes and pants mulling silently in the clearing, physical opposites of the darkly clad men encountered back on the road. By the time I had convinced myself that this was not another dream, the other men had been roused by the tip of spears and kick of boots into sitting positions. We were greatly outnumbered and totally disarmed. No one dare move in fear of being slaughtered on the spot. Another stranger, standing over me, turned around, and whistled loudly. That moment, six more of his cohorts brought the frightened Apollo and Ajax into the clearing and forced them to sit down. Now all of the surviving travelers to Antioch were present and accounted for.
“These stupid Romans,” the first man was saying. “Had we been Arabs, these fools would all be dead!” “Listen you fools,” he blared through cupped hands, “you are trespassing in the land of the Kafar.” “Up, up, up!” he clapped his hands.
All of us rose shakily to our feet.
“Are you not Arabs?” Decimus asked in a trembling voice.
“You people call us Nabataens,” he snarled menacingly, “but that’s a Roman name. I’m Abinadad, of the Kafar. Your people might have built that road, but we no treaty with Rome.” Walking over to the well, he jabbed a finger at it, announcing to everyone, “This is a Kafar well. You Roman dogs killed our kinsmen and have no your rights to our water. You should have taken the narrow road by the sea. Why shouldn’t we claim Roman blood?”
“Those men in black were your kinsmen?” Aulus asked in tremulous voice.
“No,” he spat, signaling to a tribesman, “bring in Khalif and Habib.”
At that point, two dead men were dragged into the center of the clearing with arrows in their chests. Caesarius whispered something to me then. I dare not look into my friend’s face, knowing his expression would mirror my own. Terror paralyzed my throat. I couldn’t believe the Lord would desert us now, yet I felt abandoned by God.
“You were on watch,” Decimus looked over at Apollo, “speak!”
“Lies! Ajax and I had nothing to do with that!” Apollo shrieked. “You think we’re foolish enough to fire on those men?”
“Yes,” Abinadad shook his fist in the Egyptian’s face, “and I have proof. We’re at peace with the desert Arabs. We’re not at peace with Rome. Those are Roman arrows in my men!”
“Impossible!” Ajax cried frantically. “We were fleeing the men in black. We’ve been here for hours. Apollo and I were on watch, and we saw no one approaching, until you rode up making this charge.”
“This was done before your reached the oasis,” Abinadad shouted accusingly. “We found our men on road. Only you Romans are stupid enough to mistake Kafar for Arabs. This has happened before. Last month, one of my brothers I sent for supplies was killed in Raphana by one of you pigs. You people think all desert people are the same!”
Ibrim became the latest hero in our group, brushing aside the spear, and stepping forth boldly to inspect the shaft, nock, and fletching of the missiles in the dead Nabataens chests.
“These aren’t Roman arrows.” He looked challengingly at Abinadad. “These are Arab.”
“How do you know that?” The Bedouin knelt down, himself, to inspect the arrows.
“Because I’m an Arab,” he answered coolly. “Look,” he said, pointing to each part of the arrow, “the fletching, shaft, and nock for Arab arrows are primitive. Let me show you the ones issued to us by the Romans at our fort.”
When he scurried over to his saddlebag on his horse in the nearby field, several warriors followed him. At this point, knowing full well that Ibrim’s fast thinking might prevent the Nabataen leader from putting us all to death, we silently cheered the little Arab as he presented the irrefutable evidence to him. The tall, darkly tanned nomad studied the features familiar to us—precise fletching and a nearly perfect shaft. The nock of the arrow instead of being a crude v at the butt of the missile was smoothly sanded for the string, which was a much finer twine in the Roman bow. The most telling proof was the bow itself, a sturdy composite weapon unlike the small, curved single wood weapon used by most Bedouin archers.
“Humph,” grunted Abinadad, “so it’s the Arabs. Why would they attack us? It’s madness. This will be a serious feud.”
Without so much as a nod, he pivoted sharply and stormed away. Decimus had frowned at the prospect of bloodletting between the tribes. He would, I imagined, report this altercation in this oasis and the possibility of war between Nabataens and Arabs. Like the rest of us, however, he kept his tongue, visibly relieved that these rude barbarians were filing out of the clearing.
“We should tell Aurelian about this,” Aulus muttered to the optio. “Those two dead men are a tribal matter, but that murder in Raphana might create problems for Rome. I’ve heard about their blood feuds. Now they’ll be up and arms with us. He can’t blame us personally, Decimus, but let’s clear out before he changes his mind.”
“Aye,” Decimus exhaled his words, “we’re at their mercy now. I never even heard of those people. They looked like Arabs to me, until their leader spoke Latin, as did some of his men. They’re different than those men in black. It appears as though Rome has a new enemy: the Kafar. I’m sure that’s not the first Bedouin killed in that town; that was just an excuse. It’s the imperial road bothering the nomads—at least that bunch. We’ve learned something important, Aulus. These folk are a warlike people, anxious to fight—all of them, not just the Arabs. I don’t care what they call themselves. Here in the desert, though, were the blood feuds in force, they were given evidence that Apollo and Ajax didn’t kill their men. It should’ve been evident to Abinadad, by the way our men are dressed, that most of them aren’t even Romans.” “Thank you,” he added, looking across the clearing at Ibrim. “That fellow frightened the rest of us, but you acted quickly and probably saved our lives.”
“I merely kept my head,” he replied, touching his forehead and waving his hand. “We are safe for the time being, but I agree with Aulus. The sooner we leave, the better. Of course, considering the desert people’s dread of the dark, we shouldn’t venture out in daylight. We can rest up until late into the night, then, with torches lit, head north. Hopefully, at the next oasis, we’ll reach the territory of a friendly tribe. We might even make it to Raphana before too long—anything to put distance between this hostile land and ourselves. I don’t trust Abinadad. He has a grudge to bear!”
“Aye!” Aulus and the optio agreed.
Decimus ran a trembling hand through his hair. Looking around the group, he exclaimed huskily, “I’m sorry men. For all its problems, the coast was better than this. Like you, I’m not familiar with the desert. This is a new road but an old, forbidden land. Rome has never been able to control its tribes. Look what I brought you too. Four of us are dead. We’re low on supplies. I barely know were we are. Had I the foresight to see what lie ahead, I would’ve waited for that road to be cleared or taken us back to the fort. But I’m not a prophet; I’m a mere man. Vesto, Enrod, Geta, and Langullus would be alive if we hadn’t taken this route.”
“It’s not your fault,” Aulus patted his back. “Who would’ve expected this kind of reception? None of us knew about this land. Even if we had a map of it, it couldn’t predict what’s going to happen on the road. In Galilee there was danger from our own auxilia. We didn’t know if our veterans would even make it on the coastal route. With that avalanche, the matter seemed decided.” “ So here we are,” he said, glancing at me, “strangers in a strange land.”
The optio had been badly shaken by our experience. I walked over to pat his shoulder, as did Ibrim—the hero of the day. Caesarius, who had gradually rose in the optio’s esteem, quickly offered support too, as did the others, though more reluctantly. No one could blame Decimus for his decision to take what seemed to be our only option. Aulus was right. For a short while, we discussed this crisis. Something had stirred up the men in black. We might never know what it was. Now, thanks to a drunken Roman, the men in white had been stirred up too. Once again, as Aulus and Ibrim suggested, we had to get on the road at night with the moonlit sky to light our path.
“The stars are not present,” observed Aulus, “it’ll be difficult to know the hours.”
“There’s still a moon breaking through the clouds,” Decimus said, pointing to the sky. “Let’s eat, forage for more grass for our mounts, and take turns getting some rest. This time, until we see the waning moon, the watch will be half on and half off. Then we pack up, light the torches, and get on the road.”
Decimus walked over to Caesarius, physically separating him from the group. “You don’t look good. Rest old man. They should never have made you and Langullus make this long trip.”
“I’m all right,” Caesarius replied quickly. “Like the others, I’m just tired.”
“Men,” Decimus called out hoarsely, “we need to keep our wits about us. Sleep with your hand on your sword. For those of you with bow a quiver, keep it at your side. Rufus, Abzug, Fronto, Aulus, and I will take the first watch. Ibrim—you, Caesarius and the lad, and you Apollo and Ajax, who’ve been on watch, get some sleep. Rufus, Fronto, Aulus and I will patrol the oasis. Abzug—you look after the horses and mules. Keep them secure and quiet. Feed the poor beasts as much of the local weeds and grass as you can find. Rufus—if you see a man in white or black in the distance, keep your head. Alert the camp. That goes without saying for the rest of you on watch. Keep your eye on these men, Aulus, especially the Gaul. I will keep an eye on all of us, awake and asleep.”
So much had happened to our small band in the last few days. Like Decimus, I was worried about Caesarius. The deaths of his two friends and our long, eventful journey had taken their toll. He moved like a crotchety old men, which he was, and yet he had seemed to age progressively since we left the fort. There was a noticeable limp in his step I hadn’t noticed before. His hands trembled constantly from fear or ill health, and there was a splotchy pallor to his wrinkly face and dark rings under his bloodshot eyes. These were, the thought stabbed me, the signs I had seen in Aunt Elizabeth before she died. There was, I reflected upon my aunt, the same look of death in Caesarius’ vacant gaze.