The old trader looked into the fire and from the sparkling on his cheeks, Ayo was almost certain he could see tears. Neither spoke for a long time. Ayo sat with his head on his knees, pondering the story over and over in his mind and shocked that Beida, who had always seemed so cold and godless, had this deep emotion in his heart for a child he had never seen. He wrapped himself in a blanket and lay looking at the star filled heaven above and whispered, "If this child is alive, let me see him before I die!"
Dawn came with the noise and sounds of busy preparation for the next leg across the desert. This was to be a long rocky walk, the people said-rugged terrain, short stretches of sand, then more desert rock. The horses pulling the goods laden carts, the camels, donkeys and people slowly set off through a narrow pass as ghostly shaped sharp rocks leaped high into the air. They crossed a deep ravine of an old river bed now dry and sandy. Once not long before, the people said, there was rain and farming here, but not now for many years. Soon they came over a high ridge and looked out on a huge valley as far as the eye could see of desert covered with stones with all the sand blown away. In the distance they could see a large caravan coming toward them. As late evening came they met and pitched camp for the night. Everyone rushed about to find someone to talk to and hear the news of the great Roman Empire. Ayo was talking to some small children, trying out his Arabic on them, when suddenly Beida rushed up to him. He was wild with excitement. "Come quickly, you must hear this!" and he almost dragged Ayo as he ran after the trader, taking great leaps in the direction of a group of men huddled together eating from a huge bowl of food.
"They call his name Jesus," Ayo heard someone say. "He is the one spoken of by the prophets, many say." Ayo's heart leaped within him. He burst into the circle and cried out, "Where is he? Have you seen him? Did Herod kill him?" The old sun-baked man smiled, extended his hand in a motion for Ayo to sit down and spoke again, "I'll tell you all I know, the whole nation of Israelis in turmoil! Even the Roman officials are a bit concerned about it. This Jesus is like none other. There has been no prophet like him in all Israel. My brother first met the family when they were fleeing to Egypt from Herod."
"Oh, they didn't kill him!" exclaimed Ayo, moving even closer to the full-bearded and dusty old man. "No-he is still alive at last report, preaching and teaching in Galilee. But getting back to my story-my brother met the child, his mother, Mary, and Joseph, in the Sinai desert as they were on their way to Egypt. They were very poor and had to flee without anything. My brother let them travel with his caravan for days and was mightily impressed with the people. He gave them a place to stay and food and the father, Joseph, worked as a carpenter for my brother doing the best work of anyone. It was only after a great while that he discovered the child was the one Herod had sought to kill. His mother asked my brother not to tell anyone but he observed this Jesus as the most eager and brilliant child he had ever seen. For hours he would play with the child. The little lad would sit and talk about the law and prophets with wisdom that astounded my brother. He was crushed when the family left to return to Nazareth in Galilee. The little boy came to my brother the day they left and sat in his lap and said to him, "I love you. It is goodby for now, but we shall meet again."
I never heard another word about all this until last year when I was in Jerusalem. The whole place was alive with debate as to whether Jesus is the Messiah or another prophet. The people say all kinds of things about him, that he raised the dead, heals leprosy, opens the eyes of the blind, and even forgives sin. I can't confirm this as fact or not, but it is the same man my brother knew as a child and believed in, the name is the same, his parents, his hometown, the description of his looks, plus the age. Now, I'll tell you my most authentic knowledge about it and to me the most convincing. If you know a man as a trader... you know him, right?"
"Right!" everyone said and nodded with a grin. "Well, I knew this man named Zaccheus, a short, thin, sharp crook, if ever there was one. He lived in Jericho a short distance from Jerusalem and I would often go out to a party at his fabulous home. He was rich, cheating trader... like us all,"-and the old man laughed for the first time with a deep cackle. "Now Zaccheus was as crooked and self-centered as anyone who ever walked this earth. Oh, we had some wild times... but that was before... yes, before... You see, Jesus came through Jericho, and there was a huge crowd about him, pushing and shoving to be near him to see just who this Jesus really is and many hoping to see miracles. All the city religious leaders were there also. It was quite a crowd I heard. Now Zaccheus is quite short, so the fool climbed a sycamore tree to get a look at Jesus. He wanted to see Jesus and hear him speak, and was so disappointed that he could not get near. He really wanted to meet the man. As the crowd passed by he could see Jesus in their midst. At the very foot of the tree, Jesus stopped, looked up and called him by name! 'Zaccheus', he said, 'Hurry down, for today I want to visit with you in your home!' Now I believe every word Zaccheus told me, how Jesus knew him, I can't explain, but Zaccheus quickly climbed down and he said his heart was overflowing with joy as they went to his house. Many in the crowd, especially the religious leaders, wanted Jesus to have nothing to do with this, the most wicked man in the city. It was bad for his reputation, they said, but Jesus turned to them and Zaccheus said his words cut like a sword, 'I have come to seek and to save those who are lost!' Jesus spent the day with him, eating, drinking and speaking to him about the love of God. Now it's hard to believe, but did you know, Zaccheus gave away half of all his wealth! And he returned to everyone he had cheated from four times the amount!! Unbelievable. He sold his rich art work and golden cups and gave it all to the poor. He is now an entirely new man! He is a disciple of Jesus and goes about preaching. His house is now open for all the traveling preachers of Jesus to stop and stay at any time. I arrived there about three months after this and could not believe my eyes. There in the big plaza where we once had parties, were men and women studying the Torah and singing and praying. There was love greater than anything I have ever seen and I almost decided to follow them. I never saw Jesus, but a man able to do what he did to Zaccheus must be mighty, indeed. It would take God Himself to do it! I left immediately on this trip but day and night these things have been on my mind!" The old man's voice cracked and he got up, turned and walked into the night.
The next morning just at the moment of dawn they pushed on, the heavy loaded carts cutting deep ruts in the sand. Suddenly someone shouted and pointed ahead. It was indescribable, like a giant cloud from heaven to earth, brown and moving fast, but it was no cloud, it was sand! The thing he had heard about and had grown to fear. Ayo had seen thick dust before floating in from the desert, but never like this. Beida quickly began to tie the camels together and they rushed toward a rugged rock reaching high into the sky. But... they didn't make it.
Suddenly it struck. Sand burned into Ayo's skin, as the strong wind sent him falling to the soft ground. He held on as the camels pulled him forward. He could hear distant screams, he coughed, choked, and his eyes stung. Then he remembered to wrap the headwrap around his face. He dived away from the wind and quit struggling with the camels ropes. He stumbled and fell along for a long time, then finally the camels stopped but the storm continued. His mouth was dry and he was hot but he could not uncover his face. He remembered that the camels with their long eyelashes had protection from the sand and that they could close their nostrils against the sand to keep it out. He moved and bumped into a big rock. He stuck his face in the corner of a rock and began to breath better, hours passed and he lay still, and even fell asleep with his arms wrapped in the guide rope. When he awakened it was late evening and the sky was clear. Sand had almost completely covered him. He stood and began to brush the sand from his hair and clothes.. .then-he realized he was alone! He stood in deathly silence, not a sound could be heard, as he looked around. Mountains and valleys, small ripples, and big waves of sand-only sand. Ayo and two animals stood in the valley of tan, dry sand in the heart of the Sahara-lost and alone!
He began to try to decide how far he had gone with the camels in the storm but he couldn't remember whether it was minutes or hours, which way were they going? He had always depended on Yu, the camel man and Beida. He checked the supplies. One camel was laden with gold and brass ornaments, the other with ivory. No food, no water, no supplies, only riches! He began to laugh. "I'm rich, I'm rich," he cried. "Enjoy it while you can-death looks you in the face!" He laughed more than he had in weeks, more than since he left the village. In his search for God, he had found gold, he had not found God, and he couldn't buy anything with his gold! Then he felt the money belt around his waist and it was still there-but-what now?
He decided to make camp, moving behind a large rock pile that offered protection from the possibility of another storm. He lay down and then remembered a large piece of dried beef he had put in his money belt. He cut a small piece and chewed it, yet his mouth craved for water. His mind filled with thoughts: Which way do I go? Jerusalem? Ayo looked up at the sky and wished he knew how to contact God. He lay still in quiet silence and then drifted into a deep sleep.
Ayo awoke just at dawn and prepared to leave. He had remembered the direction the sun came up and that they walked with it to the right hand of them at dawn. He knew he must go on, there was no turning back now. He knew he must conserve his energy. The lack of food he could do without for days, but not water, so he rode on one of the camels throughout the morning, then afternoon. His mouth was now dry and cracking, two days without water, a sand storm and the burning heat, he was weak, dreamy, and everything began to seem unreal. He hung on to the camel as it made its way forward, night after night.
Then he couldn't tell whether he was dreaming or whether it was real, but he could see figures coming toward him and voices grew louder. It was real! People-men, women and children, and fierce warriors! He grabbed his sword and lifted it in weak defense, but there was no response and the warriors surrounded him. Ayo tried to speak but no words came forth. A hand reached forth with a flask of water. He grabbed it and began to drink. He smiled and wiped the dust from his face with the back of his hand and said "thank you" in Arabic and Greek. Then he looked at the people even closer and realized that these must be the fearsome Baba tribesmen. He had seen some in the big trading towns but this was their territory and they were light skinned, a white color, even whiter than Beida.
One man spoke in Arabic, "You may come with us. We are going to Botou by the river. We will do you no harm, peace be unto you my brother. Did you get lost in the sand storm?" Ayo, his voice still breaking, said, "Yes, I lost my caravan and friends. This is my first time across the desert and I've lost my way. Can you give me some water? I'll pay for it, and tell me which is the way to the Mediterranean Sea, to Cyrene!"
"Oh, friend, you are going the right direction. There is an oasis one day from here. You can reach it tomorrow night. Stay to the left of the mountain peaks. There will be caravans there that you can join, but it's dangerous from here on for the next few days before you reach the sea and Cyrene; many bandits, robbers, and the worst lot of humanity you've ever seen.
Everyone is after the gold traders have brought back from across the sand. Are you an escaped slave?"
"No," Ayo said firmly, "I'm free."
"Oh, no offense," the warrior said, "but traders in front of you will try to make you a slave. Come with us friend, we will help you."