*trigger warning: scenes following include that of attempted sexual assault*
The victims were struck from behind as they idled on their motorcycle just as the light turned green. Grainy footage from the gas station at the intersection shows a man in the flatbed of a dark Silverado swinging a long 4 by 4 and striking the individual at the rear of the motorcycle on the back of her head as the truck sped by. The oak 4 by 4 fell to the earth and was retrieved and checked for fingerprints, but without success. There were plenty of dark Silverados in the Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, and plenty more passing through. The individual at the rear of the motorcycle, Inola Romero, 22, a Paiute-Shoshone Indian from the Big Pine Reservation, was struck with such force that she died on impact. The individual driving the motorcycle, Kelly Bosworth, 29, of Lone Pine, is in critical condition, but her prognosis is grim. Inola’s forehead slammed so hard into the back of Kelly’s skull that the doctors say even if she survives, she’ll be a vegetable.
Cousins Earl and Vernon Taney parked at the Fr. Crowley lookout, their favorite spot in Death Valley, and climbed over the rail and followed the trail to an isolated outcrop of stone that jutted out like an eagle’s nose over the abysmal canyon. It was mid-April and the weather was pleasantly warm. Earl took a bottle of Gentleman Jack out of his backpack and the cousins passed it between them as the dusky sun painted the canyon in varying shades of maroon.
“It’s like all the devils of Hell are out to get me,” Vernon said. “It was my curse to have to love her, a lesbian who’d never love me in return.”
“What’s done is done,” said Earl. “Them lesbians are gone, and they aint comin back. We can’t do nothin bout it now. Shouldn’t uv made us mad. That’s what happens. Ladies should never make drunk men mad, not if they know what’s good for ‘em.”
On the night of the attack, Earl and Vernon met up with Inola and Kelly in the parking lot of Diaz Lake. Vernon had been in love with Inola since she came to work for him as a maid at the Comfort Inn. He was the Assistant Manager and lead maintenance man. Her long, luxuriant hair reminded him of the desert night, jet-black but shimmering with points of light. Inola knew Vernon was sweet on her, and wasn’t above flirting with him to get what she wanted. She knew that if she kept him intrigued, every so often he’d give her and Kelly free speed.
Long after midnight, in the back of the dark Silverado in the parking lot of Diaz Lake, Inola and Kelly took hit after hit on the glass pipe as Earl and Vernon got drunker and drunker on their Johnny Walker. Under the blanket draping the quartet sitting in the flatbed, Earl reached over and grabbed Kelly’s thigh, squeezing it tightly and slipping his fingers down to her crotch. When she looked at him in shock, he swept his hand up to her breast and twisted her nipple between his index finger and thumb.
“That hurts! What the hell are you doing?” Kelly roared walloping the side of Earl’s head with her palm.
“Speed aint free, baby,” Earl said grabbing her by the throat and pushing her down to the flatbed. When Kelly tried to fight back, he punched her in the stomach and rolled over on top of her.
“What are you doing, man?” Vernon said as Inola dropped the glass pipe.
“What does it look like?” said Earl. “That one’s yours, and this one’s mine.”
Like a coiled snake Inola suddenly struck, springing across the flatbed and pounding Earl’s face with her fists. Kelly struggled beneath Earl’s weight and would’ve escaped if Vernon hadn’t grabbed Inola from behind and held her arms to her sides. “That’s enough of this bullshit, Earl,” he said. “Come on, man, what the hell are you doin? Let her go.”
“She aint goin nowhere until she gives me what I want,” said Earl. “You should git some from yer girl while I’m gittin some from mine.”
Inola glanced back and saw a dark madness sweeping over Vernon’s eyes, like a sandstorm rolling in from the horizon. “Please let us go, Vernon,” she cried.
“This one’s mine, and that one’s mine too if you don’t do what I tell you to,” Earl said to his cousin while reestablishing full control of Kelly and putting his hand over her mouth.
Vernon wrestled Inola back down to the flatbed and straddled her as he drunkenly fumbled with the buckle of his belt. “Wait, wait just a minute!” Inola said. “Be patient, both of you, we’re gonna give it to you. But you guys gotta take it slow.”
“That’s right,” Kelly said when Earl removed his hand from her mouth and reached for the button fly of his jeans. “We’re gonna give it to you. Just let us help get those pants off of you.”
Earl rolled off of Kelly and leaned back as she helped him pull his jeans down, and Inola unbuckled Vernon’s belt and pulled his pants down as well. When both men’s genitals were exposed, Inola looked over at Kelly, and yelled: “Crush his balls, Kelly, do it now!” and the women squeezed as hard as they could as the men screamed in pain. Earl and Vernon punched at Kelly and Inola to make them release their grip, but the women held the squishy sacks firmly for a good half minute, until, finally, the men were able to break free. As Earl and Vernon recoiled in agony in the flatbed, Inola and Kelly leapt out of the truck, hurried to their motorcycle across the lot, and sped off.
“Let’s get ‘em!” Vernon said stumbling out of the back of the truck and limping over to the driver’s side door. “Let’s get ‘em, and get ‘em good!”
Vernon started the truck and took a hard left on the 395 while Earl, still hunched over in the back, slowly rose to his knees and wrapped his brawny hands around the long 4 by 4 that was pressed against the edge of the flatbed. A mile or so down the road the women came into sight in Lone Pine, idling on their motorcycle at a red light. When the light turned green, Vernon continued to accelerate, thinking he’d terrify the women by speeding past them before turning around and chasing them down, but Vernon just kept going after Earl swung the 4 by 4, for he could tell by the terrible thump that the women had been badly hurt.
In the days that followed, Vernon lived in terror that the sheriff would come knocking on his door. He was smart enough not to take his truck to work, and when news of Inola’s murder spread around the Comfort Inn, no one suspected him. Most of the maids thought the killer was Inola’s ex-boyfriend, evidently the jealous type, who she dumped for Kelly after she left the Reservation to move in with her in Lone Pine. The cops came by on one of Vernon’s days off, but they didn’t ask the Manager any questions about him or his truck.
After several weeks, Vernon felt confident that he and Earl weren’t on the radar of the police, but the dreams he had night after night of Angels of Vengeance with flaming swords keeping him out of Heaven grew increasingly intense, and no matter how he tried to justify what had happened—that Earl had killed the women, not him—he still couldn’t get any peace. He wondered if he was insane, or if it was real, when one of the avenging angels that haunted his dreams told him: “This world’s not the blink of a gnat’s eye in the expanse of God’s eternity. Every hair on your head is counted, Vernon, as is every one of your sins. Confess and repent! Ask for God’s forgiveness! It’s better to confess your crime and spend your mortal life in a prison cell than to conceal it and be forever damned in Hell!”
Earl knew that Vernon was more susceptible to the scare tactics of old-timey, fire and brimstone religion than he was, so he invited his cousin to their favorite spot in Death Valley so they could talk about what was troubling him over a bottle of whiskey.
“It’s like all the devils of Hell are out to get me,” Vernon said.
“Them devils is just in yer head,” Earl replied. “Aint nothin above, aint nothin below, aint nothin but the here and now.”
“You don’t think there’s gonna be a punishment for us, you don’t think we’re gonna have to pay up? You don’t think when we’re dead we’re gonna have to face up to those women, and to God?”
“We won’t have to face up to nothin but the dirt above our noses that we’re buried in. Aint nothin gonna happen to us when we’re dead, cuz when a man’s dead, a man’s dead, and that’s it.”
“I hope you’re right, Earl, but I just don’t know.”
“Watcha bin thinkin bout, Vernon? Clearin that conchiss of yers by tellin the coppers bout what we did?”
“I’ve thought about it, thought about it a lot, but you know that’s something I can’t do. Wouldn’t be fair to you.”
“Damn straight. That conchiss of yers aint nothin worth us goin to prison for. Yer conchiss aint nothin but a preacher’s trick they put in you to keep you down when they aint round to keep you down thimselves.”
Vernon took a big swig from the Gentleman Jack and stood up on the rock to take a piss off of it. Earl stood up with his cousin and wrapped his arms around him. “You know I’m always round if you got problems you wanna talk bout,” he said hugging him firmly.
“I know that Earl, thank you,” Vernon said patting his back before turning around to relieve himself. As the little yellow waterfall descended to the world below, Earl looked around to see if he and Vernon were alone. When he was satisfied that no one was anywhere on the trail or in the canyon, he lunged at Vernon like a linebacker and knocked him off the rock with his shoulder. Only the faintest, most astonished gasp emitted from Vernon as his body tumbled like a ragdoll into the darkening abyss.
“That’s what you git fer havin a conchiss,” Earl said.
As dusk was giving way to night, and the stars were getting brighter in the zenith of the sky, Earl finished off the whiskey bottle and followed the trail back to the empty parking lot of the Fr. Crowley lookout, where he climbed into Vernon’s dark Silverado. Starting the engine and turning to the left, he drove east on the 190, going ever deeper and deeper into the Valley of Death.
C. Barnes was born in Berkeley and raised in Denver. He was educated at UC Riverside and St. Andrews University in Scotland, where he studied History and English. He was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal and Next Generation Book Award for his essay, “Musings at the End of Modernity”.