The Malefactors by A. H. Holt

The Malefactors
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Christian Fiction
Time Period – Life of Jesus Christ
Location – Jerusalem, Israel
Description – An epic tale spanning the lifetime of its characters. Set in Israel during the time of Christ, the story follows the life and times of two thieves. Jerusalem as its background, the story moves from the brutal life of a highwayman to the warmth of family and to the ultimate betrayal and a shattering revelation.

Hashtags

#Bible #Christ #Jesus #Biblical #Love #Family #Palestine #Two Thieves #Thief #Jerusalem #Brutal #Betrayal #Revelation #Rome #Israel #Jews #Roman #Crucifixion #Historical #Suspense #Action #Adventure #Crime #Treachery #Procurator of Judea #Pilate #Tiberius #Pilate #Caesarea #Galilean #Golgotha #Galilee #Christian Fiction #Christian

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First Chapter

The hot, high sun of late afternoon beat relentlessly against the craggy rock cliffs overlooking the empty Roman road west of Jerusalem. Argubus the cripple seemed barely alive. He lay snuggled into a niche under a wide-overhanging cliff, high above the north side of the highway.

Many, many hours the old man spent sitting quietly, watching the road below, ever on the lookout for travelers. His lot, among the many followers of Barabbas, was to watch for some victim for the small robber band hiding in the bush filled wadi below. It was a trying, tiresome task, but one that him paid well. For Barabbas was generous in the division of spoils.

As he lay half-dozing in him as Argubus the Prophet. He the hot shade, Argubus’ thoughts were of the clever ways of his life. In the teeming city, people knew forever warned anyone who would stop to listen to his tirades of the anger God felt for his chosen people. They committed many sins.

Most mornings found him at the entrance of David Street. He marched up and down before the gate, waved his arms about and loudly prophesied the forth-coming curses that would soon be visited upon all Jewry by a vengeful God. He told his listeners of a God angered with his people for collaborating with the Romans—for allowing graven images to be displayed in the Holy City and for their many, many sins.

After his harangue, Argubus would go through the crowd holding out his beggar’s cup, seeking coins—coins he loudly proclaimed he would use to help the poor. He stared into the face of each person, a wild look of madness in his yellowish-brown eyes. The grim and fearsome expression on his sun-darkened face intimidated many out of at least one small coin.

When he gathered sufficient contributions, he would then leave the city, announcing to everyone in hearing distance that he was going into the desert to commune with God. He promised he would return the next morning to reveal his message to the people. Many scoffed at the old man’s preaching of doom, yet others believed and were fearful.

Argubus chuckled to himself as he thought of the foolishness of the devout. Especially those who believed him and gave of their small possessions, for he was a wealthy man according to the standards of his followers. He thought gleefully of a small hoard of coins hidden in a rock cleft directly behind where he sat. It was only a small sample of his treasure. He started to reach for the coins, to know the joy of holding their round smoothness in his hands, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small dust cloud rising far up the road.

Keeping his head down, he crawled to the far side of the overhanging rocks. Staying bent close to the ground, he scurried down the steep path to the ravine behind the cliffs.

“Josias, Josias, hurry to the lookout and see who comes.”

Alarmed and excited, every member of the waiting band dropped what they were doing and rushed to gather around the old man. He waved one arm toward the lookout post.

“Go and see for yourselves.”

Josias, leader of the band and Emilack, the youngest member, rushed to climb the cliff path to the spot overlooking the road. Josias pushed his long hair away from his face and held one hand over his eyes to shade them as he cautiously peered over the rocks. The caravan was hidden from his view by a bend in the road. He motioned for Emilack to drop down lower in the rocks to assure he could not be seen.

The two men chafed at the long wait. Finally, the approaching caravan came near enough so they could examine it. Made up of a string of pack asses following a richly dressed merchant, the train moved slowly. The man rode on a fat black mule with richly caparisoned harness. Six poorly armed guards marched on each side of the merchant. The men moved dispiritedly, as though they were exhausted from a long day’s march.

Josias crowed with delight as he turned to Emilack. “Look, my friend. The caravan will be rich. Watch the way the guards walk—they’re exhausted. They’ll be no threat to us and there are no soldiers within miles. This could turn out to be an afternoon well spent.”

Still keeping their heads low, he and Emilack rushed back down the path to the waiting men. Motioning for them to come close so he would not have to shout, Josias ordered, “You men see to your weapons and get mounted. We’re going to take that caravan. It looks as if it was made for us.”

After a great scurrying about, Josias and ten well-armed men mounted their small but sturdy horses and rode to the narrow pass west of camp. Argubus returned to his lookout—he knew his part well. The robber crew hid themselves in the rocks and brush and waited impatiently for the old man’s signal to attack.

Argubus looked up and down the road again, to make sure no Roman Patrol rode within sight. As the caravan came abreast of the opening of the wadi that hid Josias’ band, the old man screamed the signal to attack. The men swept down on the caravan guards, scimitars swinging. It was over in no more than an instant and the tired guards were dead.

Josias himself held the merchant with his sword point in his throat. He ordered his men to clear the road of all evidence of the raid. Working in tandem, the men dragged the bodies of the slain guards into the broken rocks and brush and tipped them over into the ravine.

When the bodies lay all piled together, Josias’ men broke the rim of the ravine and pushed dirt over the dead guards. Finally, the robbers lead their own horses and the heavily laden mules through the mouth of the wadi and out of sight of the road.

Simon of Cyrenia sat his mount quietly, watching the eyes of the robber who still held his sword at his throat. Other members of the man’s band rummaged through his merchandise. His chest swelled with anger to know that the robbers touched his possessions, but he was cautious. Wisely reasoning that if the robbers planned to kill him he would already lie dead, he kept silent. All he could do was wait and see what would happen.

Tired of the golden-haired bandit grinning at him, Simon finally said, “I shall inform Rome of Pilate’s inability to make his province safe for honest merchants.”

“And well you may someday, my fine merchant,” Josias said, smiling at the anger so plain to hear in Simon’s voice. “If it happens that our master sees fit to hold you for ransom instead of taking your life.”

Simon of Cyrenia was one of the most successful traveling merchants in the Empire. He began his work young and seemed naturally shrewd to all those who dealt with him. Many named him a worthy descendant of Phoenician traders.

Usually he gathered costly items along the Southern Mediterranean Sea, conveyed them across the old Syrian caravan routes to Damascus and from there took them to Antioch and Corinth. He sold these goods to the wealthiest residents of those cities. Men and women demanded the best of the Empire’s offerings. Everything Simon offered his customers was of great value. The robbers shouted with joy as they opened the packs and examined their loot.

When it was full dark and safe, the men set out on a familiar path, leading the laden animals around the city to Gihon. From that place they could smuggle goods into Jerusalem by a secret door in the side of Nehemiah’s tunnel.

Moving everything in the packs took many trips by all members of the band that could be spared from guard duty. Carrying the heavy packs on their shoulders, the men splashed their way through the cold waters that flowed under the city’s walls. As soon as the merchandise all lay safely hidden away, Josias turned Simon over to two of his most trusted men.

“Take this merchant to the hidden valley, Micah. You and Elias stay there to guard him. Keep careful watch as you turn west of Mount Guarantania and Jericho. There will surely be Roman patrols moving about in that area. Take care you do not ride into them. This man will bring us a rich ransom.

“Don’t you dare forget to blindfold him when you get close to the mountain. He appears sharp and will probably remember everything he sees on the way. It wouldn’t do for him to remember the road to our valley.”

Barabbas watched Josias’ face as he recounted step by step every minute of the successful raid and described the valuable merchandise the men hid in their secret place. The bandit leader tried to keep a scowl on his leathered face, but could not contain an occasional grin. He was undeniably pleased with the returns from the attack on Simon the Cyrenian’s caravan.

He felt dismay however, when he learned that Josias decided to hold the merchant for ransom. It was Barabbas’ policy to kill everyone in a caravan. That policy served him well and kept his band in safety for many years. Only Josias dared to resort to holding his victims for ransom.

“You will let your greed for gold be our downfall, man. You’re a fool to hold men captive instead of killing them.” Barabbas began to shout angrily to Josias as soon as he rode into the hidden camp.

Josias showed no fear of Barabbas. Dismounting, he dropped the reins of his horse and approached the bandit chief. “Master, please listen to me. This is a truly wealthy merchant. He is far different from the usual petty traveling peddlers we find. His family will pay well for his release.”

“Yes, I suppose they will at that. But what of the day you hold a friend of Caesar or another official of the empire?”

Grinning impudently, Josias said, “That time Master, may be the day we have our fill of excitement.”

Barabbas stared at Josias thoughtfully. He valued the man greatly, but feared that his shrewdness and lack of fear would someday take him too far. He could endanger the entire band.

 “Meet me at the summit beyond Rimmon at dark tomorrow. We will ride to the valley and see this merchant. I, Barabbas, shall decide his fate.”

A little after moonrise the next night, Josias and Barabbas heard the challenge of a guard as they made their cautious way along a steep, rocky defile afoot, leading their horses.

“Halt where you are.”

“It is I, Barabbas, and one of my captains.”

“Enter Master, and peace be unto you.”

A small fire guided their way to a cave-like shelter. The opening was hollowed out from the limestone cliff by some ancient river. All the men of the band except the guard at the narrow entrance and one other man slept beyond the fire, rolled in their blankets.

Without a word of greeting to the man beside the fire Barabbas announced, “We will sleep the night out here, and tomorrow I will talk to the prisoner.” Taking his own blanket from the back of his mount, he joined the men who lay around the fire and soon fell asleep.

There was a great stir in the camp when the men wakened and realized Barabbas joined them in the night. Lucius, the captain of the band, feared the bandit chief’s visit. His band had found little luck in the last few weeks. He felt tremendous relief when after breakfast Barabbas covered his face with a scarf and called for Josias’ prisoner to be brought before him. Lucius’ heart swelled with pleasure when he noticed the serious look on Barabbas face.

I hope he’s so angry with that Josias he kills him as an example—right here before my men. If he does it here, it will make the cowards even more afraid not to obey my orders.

Following a guard, the prisoner emerged from an adjacent cave to stand before Barabbas. Turning to Josias and speaking pleasantly, Barabbas said, “Tell me about this fine prisoner we have here.”

“He calls himself Simon of Cyrene, Master. He is surely a merchant of great importance.”

“Is this so?” Barabbas said, laughing a little. “We shall see. Were his possessions many, my friend?”

“Yes, his goods are on their way to the usual place to be sold. I am convinced they will bring a tremendous price. Here is a heavy pouch of gold I realized from selling the fine animals of his caravan.”

Pulling a rolled sheepskin from a fold in his robe Barabbas said, “Good, let us write a demand to his steward for ransom. Here, use this fine sheepskin. To what relative shall we send our ransom demand, Simon of Cyrene?”

Simon’s voice trembled with anger. He held himself proudly, and stared into Josias’ eyes, “Write it to my son, James of Cyrene.”

“You will be pleased at the high value we set upon you Simon of Cyrene.” Barabbas turned to Josias, saying, “Captain, write the ransom for five hundred shekels.” He laughed aloud when he turned back and saw the expression of smoldering anger on Simon’s face.

Barabbas handed Simon his own business seal, stolen from the merchant’s personal possessions. “Here Merchant,” Barabbas said, “Stamp the demand at the bottom with this, so it will be recognized by your son.”

When Simon finished placing his seal on the document and handed it back to Barabbas, the bandit chief asked, amusement apparent in his voice, “Are you sure your son will think you worth such a sum?”

Simon turned away, pretending interest in the fire and refused to respond to the man’s crude humor.

Rolling the piece of skin tightly and tying it with a strip of rag, Barabbas summoned one of his men. “You will take this message to Cyrene. There you will find the house of Simon and give this to his son’s hand. The man you seek is known as James.”

Leaning forward, he stared into the man’s eyes. “Do not fail me. If you do you know I will punish you and all those you love. Remember what I say, I know where your family lives.”

Without another word, Barabbas stepped to the other side of the fire. Still masked, he confronted Lucius. “I am disappointed in you and your men, my friend. I will give you only a few more weeks to do your part.”

He turned away from Lucius without waiting for an answer and joined Josias at the horses. The two men immediately set out for Jerusalem, leaving Simon of Cyrene to wait in captivity for the many months it would take the messenger to deliver the message and return with the ransom.

The eastern band of Barabbas’ men, under control of Barsubus the Philistine, known to his men as Lucius the Hawk, because of his prominent nose and vicious ways, operated along the old King’s Highway in Perea. This was a vast, thinly populated area of wild and desolate country. There were many places to hide and escape if chased by the Roman Legion. The country, filled with rocks and gorges, contributed more to the band’s success than the wisdom of their leader, for although Lucius was noted for his savagery, he did not have the cunning of Josias.

After Barabbas and Josias left the camp, Lucius sat in the shade of an acacia tree, nursing his jealous anger over Josias’ success. “He’s got the best place to operate. Old Argubus advised it. Damn both of them any way.

“I’ll show them, I’ll pull the biggest robbery ever heard of, bigger than Josias ever dreamed. Salem has gone to Gadara to watch for the next large caravan coming in this direction. He’ll have plenty of time to ride ahead and warn us so we can get set.

“We’ll give Barabbas something to brag about of us. It will be a relief to stop him always talking of the exploits of that infernal Josias and his men.”

Lucius’ very jaws ached when he thought of the insult he suffered when Barabbas chided him for his poor showing with his men looking on.

 Josias and Argubus throw it up to me every time I see them. That Josias might not brag much, but he has a lofty air. He walks around with his head up in the air as though he thinks he’s better than anyone else—that’s worse yet—I’ll find a way to get even with him someday.

Far into the night Lucius schemed and plotted future deeds. He planned how he would execute the biggest robbery the Empire ever experienced. It would be so big it would bring out a whole legion from Rome. Then he, Lucius the Hawk, bandit leader, would have followers of his own. He would be able to get out from under the heavy thumb of Barabbas.

Lucius schemed on, completely unaware of his shortcomings. He never knew that Barabbas only kept him around because of his murderous ferocity. His activities often kept Pilate’s Legion searching the hills east of Jerusalem, leaving the road between Joppa and Jerusalem clear and enabling Josias to overcome many travelers.

It chafed Lucius greatly that he must await Barabbas’ orders as to what caravan he

might raid, and what merchant he might attack. He shook his head in bitterness as he thought of the ignominy. He could feel the shame in his gut, pressing, pressing against him.

Attack this one, it is poorly guarded. Do not attack that one–that one is a favorite of Rome or do not dare touch this other one, or this man is owed a favor. He did not need this rigid control, he could decide for himself. He could decide just as the upstart Josias did—and he would do it soon.

The headquarters of Lucius’ band lay well hidden in the foothills east of the Jordan River. The camp was in a small clearing amidst a jumble of rocks, locust trees and wild grapevines. It gave the band almost impenetrable cover. A spring furnished unlimited sweet water and some small caves in the stone wall more than filled the need for shelter during falling weather.

A merciless leader, the men of the band and their women feared Lucius’ unpredictability. Oftentimes he got the idea that one of his men may have complained to Barabbas of his cruelty. The thought didn’t bother him overmuch. He knew Barabbas had grown soft and would have little heart if it ever came to a fight between them. Lucius believed he would easily kill the bandit chief in hand to hand combat.

Late one morning, after dreaming into the night how he would glorify himself, Lucius was awakened by the high sun reflected on mica flecks in stones at the cave’s entrance. It was much later in the day than he usually rose.

Throwing aside his blankets and moving closer to the small campfire, Lucius chuckled as the women scurried to prepare his breakfast, thinking he was still in the bad mood of the previous night. He looked around the camp. Men were posted at the valley entrance and atop a high pinnacle of rock. Without instruction, they watched the road.

“Are there travelers on the road?” he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to the man on lookout.

“I see no one, Master.”

The man’s answer greatly amused Lucius. He required his men to call him master whenever Barabbas wasn’t about to hear them. It helped somewhat to overcome his feeling of inferiority to the man who owned him, for Lucius was a slave.

Early in the afternoon, one of the lookouts rode into the camp with news of a large caravan heading to Jerusalem from Damascus. He described the caravan as well laden with goods and heavily guarded.

Jumping up to face the man, Lucius shouted, “Did you count the guards?”

“Yes Master—I counted twelve. They were well armed with spears and swords. Each of them carry one of those huge Damascus shields.”

“Were they mounted?”

“No Master, they are not. Only the merchant was mounted. He rides like a Samaritan. Two guards walked ahead of the caravan and the rest followed behind. Those men drove twenty heavily-laden pack asses before them.”

Turning to his men, Lucius raised his voice to say, “Prepare for an attack at first light. I will ride ahead and spy out their camp.”

Salem, the lookout that brought the message, stepped out of Lucius’ reach and spoke softly, “Master, it would be better for us to ride now and attack as they make camp. Those guards are all tired to exhaustion from their long march. We would have a great advantage over them. Also, we would have the entire night to escape.”

“You would give orders as Barabbas?” Lucius jerked around to face the man, yelling in his anger and astonishment at such temerity.

Cringing farther away, Salem said nothing more. He hurried to join the men who were busily stuffing food into their saddlebags. When they finished they brought the hobbled horses closer to camp, and made ready to ride. There was none of the normal jesting and laughter. Few of the men relished the idea of attacking so strong a force.

It took only a few minutes for the men to lead their horses away from the camp far enough to reach a flat area. Once the reached the plain and all were mounted, they spurred their horses to a gallop and headed for a hill several miles to the west.

When he reached the brow of the hill, Salem held his hand high, signaling for the men behind him to stop. Stretching out his arm, he pointed to the group of animals, off to the side of the roadway. A large fire revealed the outline of men huddled close together partly within the circle of light. Another, smaller fire glowed nearby. It undoubtedly provided warmth for the merchant.

Without dismounting, Lucius leaned forward to speak softly, “Withdraw out of sight in that hollow to the right. That’s well out of sight of the merchant’s camp. We can’t risk a fire. Even if they didn’t see it, they would smell it. You can sit close together to keep warm. Get some sleep if you can, and be ready to attack at first light.

“I’m going to check the area and make ready for a surprise attack at dawn.”

The men sat huddled together in the darkness of their hiding place, glumly muttering about “lambs led to the slaughter.”

Raising his head, Salem spoke softly, but loud enough for all to hear, “Surely Lucius is demented. He is planning for us to attack a caravan with more guards than he has followers.”

“I wonder about him of late,” Aaron of Judah muttered, “He has done some strange things since we were sent here from the Joppa road.”

A deep voice from the shadows said, “We were only sent here because Barabbas trusts Josias more that he does Lucius.”

“Shh—keep your voice down—he comes.” Salem cautioned.

Lucius dismounted and thrust the reins of his horse to the nearest man without looking at him. In a harsh whisper, he demanded, “Are all of your weapons sharpened? Have you checked your shield bucklers? You know a loose buckler can cost you your life—check them now—all of you.”

“All is in readiness, Master.” One of the men answered for the group.

In the semi-dark and cold of the early morning, ten reluctant highwaymen mounted their horses to follow Lucius as he rode over the hill and onto the sandy edge of the highway. Holding their animals in to move quietly, they headed for the camp of the Samaritan.

Lucius, overbold and dreaming of his forthcoming triumph, allowed his horse to wander from the sandy roadside onto the main track. The animal’s shod hooves struck the stones of the road. The sharp sound awakened one of the soldiers who guarded the camp.

The man jumped up and screamed a warning to the rest of the guards as he grabbed for his weapons. “We’re attacked. Prepare to defend the camp.”

All surprise was lost. Lucius spurred his horse over the rocks and into the camp shouting for his men to attack.

“Kill them, kill them all.”

His men, lacking confidence from the start, followed him to the edge of the camp, but once there, most of them turned aside, urging their horses into the rocks and trees away from the road, desperate to escape what appeared to be certain death. A tall Syrian slammed the side of his spear against Lucius’ head, unhorsing him.

Much later, Lucius stirred and tried to move. His head hurt as if it would split. His arms were bound behind his back. The shaft of a broken spear passed though the bend of his elbows. Groaning, he opened his eyes. Three of his men lay dead. Their bodies still sprawling where they fell. He could see no other prisoners.

Bitterly, he swore to himself. “The rest of the cowards ran away.”

The tall Syrian, evidently the leader of the guards, was shouting at the merchant. “Let us kill the vicious scum and have done with it. That will surely be his fate if we take him to Jerusalem.”

“No,” the white bearded Samaritan ordered in a soft but stern voice. “That is the way of the ungodly. We will turn him over to Pilate’s jailers when we reach Jerusalem. If there will be blood shed let it be on their hands.”

“It would be better to kill him now.”

The old man still shook his head. “No. I’ll hear no more of it.”

Much to the disgust of the guards he ordered, “Get shovels, you men. We’ll bury these souls here.”

The merchant stood by until the three dead highwaymen were well covered in a common grave. He added greatly to the chagrin of the guards by bowing his head to say some sort of prayer to his strange god.

The Syrians muttered among themselves about the strangeness of Jews. The tall guard said to the others, “They’re always praying to some god men cannot see—a spirit they call their Lord. I’m convinced they are fools—they’re all fools.”

That night, the caravan camped near another that traveled north, in a smooth flat area hard by the sweet wells of Jericho. Still bound, Lucius leaned against the rough trunk of a palm tree, unable to sleep for the torture of the tight ropes and the hard spear shaft pulling against his back.

“Shh–.” A voice whispered close behind him.

Lucius felt a hand on his bare forearm. Almost immediately, he heard the whisper of a sharp knife against the rope and his bonds fell away. His savior touched his arm again and motioned for him to follow. After crawling some distance away from the sleeping guards, his liberator rose and ran ahead of him. Lucius ran at the man’s heels.

Soon the man stopped beside two saddled horses waiting in the dense blackness of a vineyard. Once mounted, he and Lucius whipped their horses so that they ran wildly between the rows of vines. Soon they emerged onto a deserted roadway and turned south to race through hidden paths. Finally, they reached the safety of the hideout, in the rocks west of Guarantania.

Obed, one of the newest and youngest of Lucius’ followers, sat beside a small fire. The rest of the band sat in a group behind him, their heads hanging dolefully, refusing to meet Lucius’ eyes.

Lucius said nothing, but his eyes and expression clearly expressed the disgust he felt for men who would desert him. Wordlessly, he leaned from the saddle to grab a sword and spear from the nearest man. Strapping the sword around his waist he looked over the men’s heads and barked an order in a voice that dared anyone to disobey him, “Get ready to ride.”

Turning his horse, he spurred away, leading the band west. After a series of long night marches they finally reached a remote hideout in the desolate hills west of Gennesaret in Galilee. Lucius was afraid of returning to Jerusalem. He knew the guards and the Samaritan they attacked could give the Romans a good description of him and probably of several of his men.

He was even more afraid when he thought of the anger of Barabbas. He dreaded their next meeting. He knew Barabbas would rage over the abortive robbery attempt. He would be furious over the loss of men, and more than furious at Lucius’ failure to gain control of the rich train. Lucius brooded; knowing his failure would do nothing but increase Barabbas’ confidence in Josias.

He is Barabbas pet—the perfect Josias of Bethany—he will be even more the pet now. It is Barabbas fault. He should not have given me such cowards as followers. This was not my fault. We would have won the train if the fools had not run away. But I will be blamed—I know I will be blamed. Then he will think Josias is even more perfect.

Places to Purchase

Amazon
Smashwords
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Lulu
Pocket Book (4.25 x 6.875 in) – Coming Soon.
US Trade (6 x 9 in)
Hardback (6 x 9 in) – Coming Soon.
Hardback with Dustcover (6 x 9 in) – Coming Soon