Without warning, motivation, or reason, the reader is plunged into the seething caldron that is Death Valley, California. Predator and prey engage in a timeless struggle between survival and extinction—some less successfully than others. There’s more going on here, however, than nature’s dance of death. Dark forces are at work—darker even perhaps than the witches overseeing the caldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The schemers here plotting to exact bloody revenge are no harpies though; they are a nephew and uncle forebodingly named Cain and Abel. The young man makes the older recount a history of his family. It is a tale of rape, orphans, abuse, violent retribution, murder, and the magic of medicine men. As the talk turns from the past to the future, Cain becomes the leader and Able the follower. Readers soon realize that what lies ahead may well be even more frightening than what has been revealed so far. Those familiar with the Twin Rivers series will eagerly be compelled to continue; those unfamiliar will have been given a peek at the pernicious path that is sure to follow.
Death Valley, California
Furnace Creek, Death Valley, the hottest place on the planet, teems with uniquely tenacious life forms. Freed by luckless gold prospectors, thousands of wild burros roam the hills and valleys. Coyotes, sidewinders, lizards, and roadrunners leave grainy tracks in the desert sand. Sleek predator hawks soar overhead and strike silently and gracefully. Bald-headed vultures, their stomachs lined with corrosive acid to digest the bacteria and toxins of the dead, hover and patiently watch the flight of the raptors. On the desert floor, giant green cacti pierce the dry, dead air with prickly branches. Set deep and seductive in the thorn clusters, yellow blossoms buzz with insects and bees.
Shadows from a cacti dropped over a shallow pit shaped in the form of a grave—a mass grave. Slanting out of the center of the pit, the handle of a shovel pointed a thin finger to a pile of branches. Hidden in the branches, a black-tailed jackrabbit, its 7-inch-long ears drooping on the sand, was motionless as a fringe-toed lizard sped across the grave. From the sky, wings spread open and deadly, a dark body glided toward the earth, changing the pattern of light and shadow on the desert landscape. Protective scales dropping over its eyes, the lizard scurried wildly under the sand. Wings flapping, creating a cloud of sand particles and debris, the red-tailed hawk crashed into the grave. Its clawed feet dug deep, and talons closed around the lizard’s body. Slicing its sharp, hooked bill into the scales, the hawk began tearing apart the lizard.
The jackrabbit remained motionless in the maze of branches, its heart thumping a drum-like cadence that echoed over the desert sand. As the hawk flew off, a kettle of vultures swooped swiftly toward the shallow pit. Wings flogging, beaks striking furiously at head and eyes, the vultures crash-landed in the sand and fought viciously over the scant lizard remains.
The noise of the squabble echoed into the pile of branches. The jackrabbit’s ears flicked, and its body tensed. Its eyes opening wide, the rabbit took off in a blur across the burning sand. It had only gone a short distance when the wing shadows appeared again. The hawk’s talons closed around soft fur, and the rabbit was lifted swiftly into the air. The hawk rose effortlessly on hot air currents, the only sound a whisper of wings. In the background, the majestic peak of Funeral Mountain was ablaze with sunlight.
Miles from Funeral Mountain, the dilapidated, wooden dwelling tilted low to the ground. Wind and sand had blasted away the paint, and the roof was bare of shingles. The window frames were nailed shut. The door hinges were rusted and bent.
Hidden by brush, a smashed gate and fence posts marked the turnoff to the property. There were numerous “No Trespassing” signs and one poison “Skull” sign along the narrow dirt road that led to the dwelling. The sleek 1969 Poppy Red Ford Ranchero parked in front of the house was immaculate.
Much of the fence that bordered the house was buried in sand. Stumps of cacti, round clumps of chaparral, and a solitary Joshua tree constituted the backyard. The Joshua tree was burned and black and twisted in the form of a cross. Next to the tree, a wooden marker with a pointed tip protruded from the sand. Beyond the tree, the line of fence posts stretched into the desert. Two burros were tethered to the nearest post.
Except for a wide brown spot on its head, the smaller burro was entirely white. The larger burro was black. The ears on both burros pricked up when the screen door banged open. Abel Towers and his young nephew Cain stepped onto the porch. They walked to a round wooden table and two wicker chairs. An old cassette player with a row of elevated silver push buttons was the only item on the table.
Abel Towers carried a dark bottle of Moscato and two glasses. Abel was thirty-six years old. He was tall and had a muscular body, There was a deep tan on his hands, face, and bald head. Abel wore jeans and a gray T-shirt that had an image of hands closed in a prayer position. Pray for Salvation was written in black, block letters under the hands.
“This is your night,” Abel said, giving a glass to his nephew Cain.
Cain’s chalk-like skin texture was in sharp contrast to Abel’s dark tan, but he had similar facial features and the same muscular build. Both men had piercing green eyes. Cain also wore a Pray for Salvation T-shirt. Abel filled the glasses; a musky sweet aroma rose in the dry air. Raising his glass, he clinked it against Cain’s.
“Happy 18th birthday,” he announced. “Eighteen years ago in Twin River on this exact day you were born in the Catacombs of Rapture on Redemption Mountain. I’ll never forget that day.” Abel’s face beamed with pride. He and Cain gulped the wine. Abel refilled the glasses, and they sat on the wicker chairs.
“Let’s have another toast,” Abel suggested. “To our Step-mommy Irene Towers and Step-daddy the Reverend Jeremiah Towers.”
“But this is their home, Cain. They built the Holy Redemption Church in town. They brought your dad and me to Death Valley.”
“No, we won’t ever toast them!” Cain said sharply. “I know how those two hateful people hurt my dad.” Cain sipped the wine. “Tell me about my real grandma and my dad.”
“How many times . . .”
“I don’t care how many times. Concentrate and tell me everything until you get it right.” Cain sat back in the wicker chair. In the distance, heat lightning flashed thin, jagged lines through the darkening sky. The burros brayed back and forth and then lowered their heads and were quiet.
“Your dad and I were bastards,” Abel began. “The bad stuff happened when my ma—your grandma—was young. She was walkin’ home from school; three men stopped their car and kidnapped her. They kept her a week and raped her when they felt the urge. Anyone of them could have been our dad.”
“The voices told me there were two white men and a dark-skinned one—a medicine man from the San Bernardino Mountains. The voices also told me his Yuhaviatam ancestors were massacred by the state militia so that the miners could take gold from the mountains. The medicine man was one of thirty tribal members surviving to this day. He alone raped your mom.”
“No one knows about that, Cain. Mom was blindfolded the whole time and couldn’t know who raped her. So what you say . . .”
“What I say is true. My dad had the medicine blood in him, and now I have it. It’s strong. It lets you see the truth.”
“Then if you see the truth, you know how the three men released Mom near dead at a rest stop on old Route 66 near Barstow. A friendly tourist family found her and took her to the hospital.” Abel gulped the wine and refilled the glass.
“Later when Mom found out she was pregnant from the rape, she wanted an abortion. But her parents wouldn’t permit it. They said, ‘You can’t be killin’ God’s precious babies.’ They rushed her to the Reverend Dominick at the Oasis of Hope Church. That’s where your dad and I were born. Mom said we boys was cursed. She was in so much agony that she hung herself.
“And that’s not the worst of it. On his noon walks in the desert when it was roastin’ hot, the Reverend Dominick looked through his dark sunglasses into the burnin’ sky and talked with God. The day after the hangin’ God told him it was blasphemy what Mom did. So the reverend didn’t bury her the way you should. He took her far out in the desert. Left her there naked with the vultures roostin’ and waitin’ on the giant cacti.
“Your dad—he was named Cain just like you . . . he was handsome like you too. Your dad and I, we grew up at the Oasis of Hope. There were thirty of us. But the number always from day to day. Couples came, paid a lot of money, and left with their new kid. Your dad and I caused a lot of trouble. Other kids got adapted and loved, but no one wanted us.”
“The voices told me about the sidewinders.”
“Yeah, your dad could handle snakes. He had that gift with desert animals. When some of the bigger kids would push me around and call me a sand bastard, whatever that is, your dad looked out for me. He would put a sidewinder in the locker or slide it under the bed sheet. Sometimes the kid couldn’t move fast enough and got the fangs in his hand or arm. Everyone knew Cain had done it, but no one talked. The Reverend Dominick and Sister Christian tried to sell Cain and me cheap to anyone who came. But we scared the visitors.”
“What about Brother Saturday?”
“You don’t want to know ‘bout that.”
“Tell me,” Cain ordered. Abel filled his glass to the brim and gulped the
Moscato. Red drops fell on his fingers. He didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were on the horizon.
The sun dropped a golden glow over Funeral Mountain. The gold slowly darkened to a sandy-brown. Then as the sun lowered over the mountain range, the sky burned a bright crimson. Within moments, the crimson melted into a purple haze that lifted shimmering waves of heat over the sand. The Joshua tree turned electric, the charred cross emitting sparks that glowed brightly before dropping to the ground. Its wings slicing through the phosphorous glow, a lone eagle glided over the yard. Pulling at their tethers, the burros stomped their hooves in the sand and brayed a mournful sound. Crickets sounded in the yard.
“There’s no more beautiful place in the world,” Abel commented.
“Tell me about Brother Saturday,” Cain ordered again. Shaking his head, Abel spoke in a strained voice.
“Some of the children met with the Reverend Dominick and begged for help. Dominick done his long walk in the sun and talked to God, but when he returned from the desert, he done nothin’ to help the orphans. And his god done nothin’ neither.”
“Tell me about Brother Saturday.”
“Sure. I ain’t never forgot how Brother Stanley prayed so hard but never stopped doin’ what he done to us over and over again. Brother Saturday—that wasn’t his birth name—was a big man with rough calloused hands. He was strong too. On Saturday nights—that’s why we called him Saturday—he would come for us after dark. He would take us—it didn’t matter boy or girl—to the sandy oasis behind his hut that he decorated with flowers and candy and stale marshmallows that were hard to chew. He did painful things to us. I remember when I was pressed down how the sand felt so hot on my skin but the air around me was ice cold. I remember the whole time watchin’ how the stars twinkled in the sky. Then I had to close my eyes so tight that I didn’t see nothin’ else.”
“It was my dad who found out what Saturday was doing?”
“Yeah, I never told him. But he found out. He heard everything from the voices . . . like you do now.”
“You and Dad dug a hole in the desert?”
“Yeah,” Abel said. “When Brother Saturday came for me that last night,
Cain was ready. Brother Saturday took me to his quiet spot. He stuffed two of them marshmallows in my mouth and pushed me on the ground. As soon as he dropped down next to me, Cain hit him in the head with a shovel. Hit him really hard. I can still hear the clunk and see the hurt look on Saturday’s face. I spit the marshmallows on his bloody head, and me and your dad got busy. We dragged the body deeper and deeper into the desert. When we were so far out we couldn’t see the lights from the Oasis of Hope, we dug a hole and buried Brother Saturday up to his neck.
“I hadn’t seen it, but your dad had Brother Saturday’s straight razor in his pocket. He took it out and began to shave the hair off Saturday’s head. It was impossible to do it the right way because we didn’t have suds and water and Saturday had thick black hair. When Cain was done, there were deep gashes across Saturday’s skull. Blood and patches of hair were flowin’ down his face and drippin’ off his nose into the sand. We left Brother Saturday with the top of his head stickin’ out of the hole. He was swearing’ and threatenin’ us with hell fire and cryin’ and slobberin’ the whole time.
“That night everyone at the Oasis of Hope heard the moanin’ noise. It went on and on. Even during breakfast, we heard Brother Saturday callin’ us from the desert. To this day, I still remember that I couldn’t stop eaten’. I ate me stacks and stacks of pancakes. When the sun got higher and began bakin’ Saturday’s brains, the echo of noise got loud and scary. We orphans all stayed inside, and although it was hot like we were in a furnace, we shut the windows and played games, mostly card games like War.
“Sister Beth came and told us that the sky full of vultures led the searchers to Saturday. His jaw and rotten teeth was resting on the sand. Sister Beth said his brain was eaten by coyotes and then the skull was cleaned out by vultures. The coyotes had dug a deep hole tryin’ to reach Saturday’s tasty parts. They dug all the way to his stomach. They ate his liver and pulled out most of his intestines. Sister Beth said she was sorry they didn’t dig lower and eat his rotten thing-ee.
“She was sorry but she was smilin’ and cheerful when she told us that. Even though I knew the facts of the story better than anyone, I enjoyed hearin’ the way Sister Beth told it. I looked at the faces of the kids that Brother Saturday had touched. None of them was cryin’. But you could tell they wasn’t happy either. They just sat there quietly tryin’ to understand. But there’s no way to understand people like Brother Saturday, is there Cain?” A frown on his forehead, Abel stared at this nephew and waited.
Cain didn’t answer. He had an amused look on his face. The burros started to pull at the tethers and stomp their feet, kicking up sand. Cain stared into the desert shadows. Three sets of coyote eyes stalked back and forth and then were motionless. Drinking wine, Cain looked at his uncle.
“Why did you and Dad get thrown out of the Oasis of Hope?”
“It was lots of reasons. Your dad was gettin’ into trouble every day. Once he enraged Sister Christian, who never got upset over anything. She was so angry she hit him with the ruler and sliced him above the eye.”
“What’d he do?”
“It was in Bible class. We had daily scripture lessons. Your dad liked the story about the great flood that drowned all men and women and even the animals, except for one strong male and bitch of each kind. Your dad argued with Sister Christian that the ark would sink with all those animals eatin’ and excretin’ for six months. He also argued that predators hunted in the evening and ate the weaker species. Sister Christian tried to ignore him. She explained that God charged Noah to care for all the animals. She said that Noah didn’t sleep for six months because he had to stay awake and feed every last one of them. Your dad got a funny look on his face and said Noah wasn’t obedient to God and that during those six months he didn’t starve himself. Sister Christian asked him what he meant by that. Your dad said Noah ate chicks and baby lambs and gained weight on the trip. Of course, your dad was only jokin’, but Sister Christian booted him out of the class for a week.
“But that day when she hit your dad, he wasn’t jokin’. Cain was real contrary and lookin’ for trouble. It was when Sister Christian read from the gospel: In the beginnin’ was the Word. Out of nowhere, Cain shouted out that was impossible. Sister asked what was impossible. Cain said Word was impossible. He said men, not God, used words to lie and deceive. He said God and his fallen angel Satan did gigantic things that were beyond anything words could tell about.
“Before Sister could speak again, Cain shouted that if God or Satan ever accidently dropped a word upon a person, that person would be crushed senseless. This kind of talk angered Sister Christian. She picked up the ruler from her desk, walked down the aisle, and asked Cain, ‘If God didn’t use words, who were the priests and holy prophets talkin’ to?’ That’s when the whole classroom got real quiet.”
“What’d my dad say?”
“Cain didn’t say anything right away. His face turned different colors. You could see he was thinkin’ hard. Then he raised his voice and shouted, ‘There’s no way the priests and prophets were talkin’ to God!’ Who were they talkin’ to? Sister Christian asked. Cain shouted right away they were talkin’ to someone they loved more than God. They were talkin’ to themselves so they could look important and raise tons of cash for their church like the Reverend Dominick who wandered alone in Death Valley wearin’ his dark glasses and lookin’ into the sun and pretendin’ to talk to God! That’s when Sister Christian hit him in the face with the ruler.” Abel leaned back in the wicker chair. It made a creaking sound. A troubled expression on his face, he finished and gulped at the wine. Cain raised his glass.
“It’s crazy that a boy could use simple words to reason difficult stuff like that.” Cain laughed and drank Moscato.
“Your dad laughed the exact same way you’re doin’ now.” Abel studied his nephew. “You’re just like your dad.”
“I’m gonna do more things and be way better than my dad,” Cain said. “Tell me about the Reverend Towers.”
“Well, the day after the trouble, Jeremiah Towers and his wife Irene drove up in a Holy Redemption Church van.
Sister Christian had all the adoption papers filled out and ready. The Reverend Dominick himself put a hundred-dollar bill in Towers’s hand, but Irene wasn’t happy. She said, ‘It’s one-hundred dollars for each one of the sick bastards.’ The Reverend Dominick made a fist and you could see he was mad, but he put another hundred-dollar bill flat on top of the first one. Well Irene, she took the money right away. She slid the bills into her purse, snapped it shut, and pointed your dad and me in the direction of the van.
“So with no possessions at all, we left the Oasis and came here. We were on the porch like now except the Reverend Towers and Step-mommy Irene sat in the chairs which were new and had cushions. The reverend had a determined look on his face. Irene looked just plain mean. She told us she knew how badly we had acted at the Oasis. That we were the worst kind of sinners. She told us we would be saved because we would pray together at bedtime. God would save us, or He would kill us in our sleep. Then she played her cassette, and we listened for hours without eatin’ or drinkin’.”
On the horizon, flashes of lightning illuminated the grandiose peak of Funeral Mountain. Thunder cracked in the distance. Breathing deeply, sipping the wine, Abel hit the play button on the cassette recorder and leaned back in the chair. Gospel music drifted across the yard.
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide, and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
“That was step-mommy’s most favorite hymn,” Abel commented, humming the refrain with sincere enthusiasm. The burros began to bray. Cain reached over, turned the dial on the cassette, lowering the sound.
“Tell me what happened when we went to Twin River.”
The burros quieted, their tails low, their ears pricked to the sky. Abel stared at the black cross of the Joshua tree. The hymn was soft and low but vibrant in the dry desert air:
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze,
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended.
Abel filled his glass with Moscato and spoke in a flat, emotionless voice.
“I don’t like tellin’ about Twin River. The Reverend Towers’s brother died and left him a mansion and acres of land in Central Pennsylvania. So we moved to Twin River. In the beginnin’, me and your dad Cain were having the best of times. We were just kids, but as we growed up, your dad heard stronger voices, and we began to do some animal sacrificin’. The Reverend Towers was real busy too. He built Commandment Road on Redemption Mountain and put ten stone tablets along the road where everyone could see. It took him a year to build the Church of the Flamin’ Cross at the summit. Then he built the Flamin’ Cross itself—which is like a giant replica of that Joshua tree we got in the yard. The cross lit up the same time every night. It could be seen for miles blazin’ and beckonin’ his followers. With his prophesizin’ and shoutin’ the damnation of the three horsemen killin’ everyone, the Reverend Towers had a big group of worshippers. Of course, Irene helped him with the church plans, and she managed everything at the mansion.
“But step-mommy could never stop houndin’ and criticizin’ Cain. All that noise finally got to your dad. One evenin’ when we were at the Flamin’ Cross prayin’, he nudged step-mommy from behind and sent her flyin’ off the mountain. It took days to find her body. The Reverend Towers put her remains in the Catacombs of Rapture. He grieved her passin’ and spent a lot of time in the catacombs listenin’ to the sheaves.
“Your dad didn’t care about none of that. He was all fixated on this sweet girl Becky Wilson. I think the voices had picked her for the special ceremony. The voices also said she had to be pregnant, so you dad got Becky with child. But he done more than that. We found out that she had twin brothers in there. It was time for celebratin’ and getting’ on with the ceremony, but your dad suddenly disappeared. I was alone. It was a real bad time for me. Your dad taught me everything I knew. I missed him and wasn’t sure what to do. Did you ever have that feeling?”
“No,” Cain answered. “But I understand your meaning. It’s important to have someone in your life to look up to.”
“That’s you now,” Abel said. “You’re so much like your dad. You all I got now.” He gulped the wine; the hymn continued:
When the weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome;
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Abel refilled his glass; Cain spoke in a low, subdued voice.
“Growing up, the voices showed me pictures of wild dogs pulling apart my dad’s flesh. What happened to my dad?”
“The Reverend Towers kilt him. I don’t know how. As soon as the reverend told me what he had done, I knocked him off the cliff right there at the cross. The next mornin’ I found what was left of his body on the rocks and stuffed it ‘tween two big boulders. As far as I know he’s still there in the shadows of the Flamin’ Cross.” Abel nodded his head and smiled.
“You did good,” Cain complimented. “Now tell me about my mom Becky and my brother in Twin River. Explain to me why they’re still alive.” Cain hit the silver stop button on the cassette player, bringing a sudden silence to the porch.
“Sure, I’ll tell you about your mom and your twin who now calls himself Niles. I get all the current news from Stephon. I left him as caretaker for the reverend’s mansion and church.”
“Don’t you mean our mansion and church?”
“Yes, we own everything now,” Abel said. “But Stephon watches it for us. He’s been livin’ in the garage next to the mansion. I told him to kill some deer and fill the freezer with those dark-red tenderloins we both love to eat. I also told him to get the electric fixed and the lights ready on the Flamin’ Cross for our return to Twin River. He’s workin’ on it.”
“He’d better be working on it. We’re lighting the Flaming Cross the first night back.”
“Soon . . . in a day or two,” Cain said.
“What about the mass grave we dug in the desert?”
“Don’t worry. We’ll fill the grave. Then after I finish the Night Alter in grand-mommy’s bedroom, we’ll go to Twin River.”
“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout those plans.” Abel pouted.
“You’ll know when it’s time.”
“I’m wearin’ the Pray for Salvation shirt same as you. I can help with the Night Alter.”
“No, I’m doing it myself.” Cain sat quietly for a moment. “Continue your story. Tell me what happened with my mom and my twin brother Niles.”
“What happened was none of my fault. You and Niles was born in the catacombs eighteen years ago this day. You was fightin’ hard and kickin’ and your head popped out first. You was a big, strong baby. Niles was weak and came out later cryin’ and howlin’.”
“The weak got no place in our family. He should have been sacrificed.”
“I know that.”
“Right after you marked me on Redemption Mountain.” Cain lifted his T-shirt and touched the jagged lines of the cross cut into his skin. “Right then you needed to kill my brother.”
“I know that,” Abel said again. “I planned everything like your dad told me before he disappeared. I arranged for Nurse Shelly to be in the catacombs to help Becky. And Shelly done good. She brought both you Niles into the world. I left you with Becky and took Niles to the river for the sacrifice. Just when I was about to cut his throat with the Sharpfinger, Becky’s brother Wayne came out of the darkness and took him. I hurried back to Redemption Mountain for you and the nurse. I took you both to the mansion. I was gettin’ everything ready so we could leave Twin River.”
“What about my mom?”
“That night at the mansion I had my hands full with you and Shelly so I left Becky locked in the catacombs. I planned to get her the next day, but when I woke up, I seen this truck barrelin’ up Commandment Road. I jumped in the Ranchero, followed it to the summit, and hid.
“There was a gang of them in the truck. There was Wayne Wilson, Matt Henry, and Conner Brooks. And there was another person I ain’t never seen before. His face was all busted up and covered with bandages. He didn’t do much but stand there like a guard. Wayne had a crowbar and pried the door open. They went in and got your mom.”
“You didn’t stop them?”
“They all had rifles. I had nothin’ but my Sharpfinger.” Abel looked at his nephew, saw the bitterness flash across Cain’s face. “I swear I did all I could. I took a step out and shouted at them they were trespassin’. I had the Sharpfinger ready, but they began shootin’. I got in the Ranchero and raced off the mountain. I grabbed you and nurse Shelly and drove all night and all day. Finally, I reached the Death Valley. All that time I made certain Shelly fed and took care of you. Then when you were done feedin’ after ten months and didn’t need Shelly any more . . . well, she’s buried under that marker at the Joshua tree.”
“Where are Becky and Niles now?”
“Stephon tells me they both live with Wayne Wilson in the family house at Polecat Hollow. Wayne’s takin’ care of Niles and pretendin’ to be his daddy. That’s funny because Wayne ain’t got no daddy himself. I took care of that. But I remember Wayne’s daddy was a brave man. He didn’t holler or anything when I tossed him off the Thousand Steps. Wayne’s got good blood in him just like Niles. Niles, he’s a senior at Twin River. He’s grown up strong like you. He’s real important now.”
“What’d you mean important?”
“Stephon said Twin River High School won the Pennsylvania football championship. Niles was 1st Team All-State. Famous universities are wantin’ him.”
“That’s unfortunate for Niles,” Cain said. “He might be a big man now, but he won’t be attending any university.”
“Then you got plans for him?”
“Yeah, I got plans—the same plans you had. Except, I won’t fail. I’m gonna kill my brother and my mom. I gonna kill them just like my dad wanted. Did Stephon send the package like I asked?”
“Yeah, I’ll get it.” Abel went inside the house and returned with a large UPS envelope. Ripping it open, he pulled out an XL green-and-white football jersey.
“You wanted some clothes that Niles wore. This is his football jersey. Stephon took it right out of his home in Polecat Hollow. He said Niles had three jerseys just like it.” Abel handed the jersey to Cain, who held it against his chest. Number 34 was on the front. Cain looked at the back.
“What’s this Sweetness mean?”
“I don’t know,” Abel said. He reached in the envelope, pulled out a 5 x 7 picture, and studied it. His mouth dropped open. “Holy Hell!” he exclaimed. “He’s wearin’ that same jersey and looks just like you do now!”
“Let me see.” Cain took the picture and smiled. “You’re right, Abel. We’re identical. This will make our trip to Twin River much easier. Sweetness is what I’m gonna feel when I kill him.”
“Can I help? I promise I won’t mess up again.”
“Yes, you can help,” Cain said, nodding to his uncle. He put the jersey and picture on the table. “Let’s do the burros now.” Cain stood and stared at the dark clouds forming over Funeral Mountain. “There’s a bad storm coming tomorrow. It’ll give us the mayhem we need to get the bus and the kids at China Lake.”
“What bus?” Abel asked. “What kids at China Lake? I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that either.”
“That’s right. You don’t know nothing. When I explain things to you tomorrow, you’ll be real excited.”
Cain went inside the house and returned with a Coso weapon. The tomahawk was heavy. Cain had replaced the killing stone with steel, the edge razor sharp and shiny in the light. Brandishing the weapon, he and Abel walked across the yard. Both burros became agitated and stomped around. The black burro bucked, its hooves slicing through the air. The white burro brayed loudly.
“We only need one.”
“Which one?” Abel asked.
“Free the black one,” Cain said. Abel slid out the Sharpfinger and cut the rope around the burro’s neck. The black burro thudded hooves across the sand and disappeared. Moving quickly, Abel stuck the Sharpfinger in the head of the white burro. As its legs collapsed, Abel caught the body and held the burro upright in front of Cain, who stepped forward with the tomahawk.
“You got him tight?”
“I got ‘im, chokin’ tight.”
“Okay.” Cain swung, slicing through the mane. On his powerful second attempt, he severed the neck. Blood sprayed in the air, dropping dark splotches over their arms and across the prayer hands on their T-shirts. The headless burro fell heavily to the sand.
“Slick,” Abel said. He removed the Sharpfinger and lifted the burro by the ears. Streams of blood and a heavy mucus splattered the sand. “Now what?”
“Bring it over here,” Cain said, walking to the Joshua tree. “Stick the burro onto the marker of the nurse that fed me her milk. That way she’ll be remembered. Also strangers will be scared away.”
Abel turned the burro’s head toward the desert shadows and shoved it onto the pointed marker. The neck sank low, the tip of the marker snapping the jaws shut. Abel was laughing when he and Cain walked across the sand.
“Do you hear them, Abel?”
“The coyotes are out there waiting. They smell the blood and are getting restless.”
Cain climbed the porch steps. He put the Coso weapon on the table, took off the T-shirt, and wiped at the blood on his neck and arms. When most of the stains were gone, Cain slid the football jersey over his head. He flexed once, his chest and shoulder muscles stretching the nylon mesh fabric.
“Fits perfect,” Cain commented. “I’m gonna enjoy being by brother Niles. I don’t know why he calls himself Sweetness, but I hope he has a sweet girlfriend.”
“You can bet he does,” Abel said. “You can bet after killin’ Niles you’ll be tastin’ some of that sweetness . . . probably be tastin’ as good as the honey we steal from the bees deep in the cacti. We reach in there and might get stung sometimes, but there ain’t nothin’ better than that gooey, warm sweetness. That’s ‘cause the hot sun cooks the honey just right for lickin’ and slurpin’. Maybe you’ll let me taste some afterwards when you get done.”
“Maybe I will,” Cain said.
“I appreciate that. Gives me somethin’ to look forward to.” Abel had a look of anticipation on his face. “Wait here, Cain. I got to do one more thing for your birthday. It’s important.”
“You’ll see in a moment.” Abel walked inside the house and returned with a paper bag. He walked down the steps and hurried to the drooping burro’s head. Abel opened the bag and took out candles and matches. Leaning over, Abel lit the candles and began dropping hot wax on the blood-matted mane. He carefully stuck candles into the wax, some tilting at odd angles. When Abel had eighteen lit candles arranged in a circle between the burro’s ears, he called to the porch.
“Cain, I got it done. Come blow out your eighteen candles in one try so we can have good luck tomorrow.”
Walking down the steps, Cain saw the circle of light and laughed. There was no wind; the night desert was hot from the day’s burning sun. Abel stood at the marker with a wide grin on his face. When Cain reached the burro, he stopped in the candle’s fiery glow and straightened the green-and-white jersey. Abel started to hum in a low, haunting tone.
Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday, Cain Towers. Happy . . .
The humming sound tapered off to a whisper as Abel watched Cain lower his face into the halo of light. With a tremendous burst of air, Cain blew out the candles. Abel clapped his hands vigorously.
“What a birthday party!” he broadcast. “What a celebration!” Abel clapped his hands and laughed, the noise echoing across the desert sand. In the darkness around the yard, the pack of coyotes moved closer to the fence. Abel took the matches and relit the candles.
“It’s pretty with the yard all bright on your birthday,” Abel said.
Cain and Abel returned to the porch. Cain filled their glasses and sat on the wicker chair. As they finished the wine, they watched the coyotes inch closer to the bloody body of the white burro. Roaming loose in the darkness, the black burro brayed loudly and was suddenly silent. Candlelight reached past the fence into the desert gloom. The cross on the twisted Joshua tree was a black silhouette in the bleak sky. Cain sipped the wine and turned contemplative.
“Soon both burros will be skeletons,” he said to Abel. “At journey’s end, the bodies of the weak and the strong mix with the sand and the wind scatters the sand. But the Reverend Dominick walked the desert sand and stared into God’s sun and was blinded and saw things differently. He told my dad that his mom had transgressed and was now burning in hell.”
“I remember that. Your dad ran to me all upset. It was the only time I ever seen him cryin’. How would you know ‘bout that?”
“I was there. I heard the Reverend Dominick’s every word.” Cain stared at the astonished Abel. “Also I heard Sister Christian tell my dad he was better off living alone than with parents who had sinned against God. Sister Christian lectured him: Look at the birds of the air . . . and know that your heavenly Father feeds them. I ask you, Cain, are you not of more value then they? Therefore, do not worry.
“So I don’t worry about nothing. And neither should you, Abel. Just this morning I saw a hawk swoop down from the heavens and snatch a white-winged dove in flight. It’s clear the Father nourishes us predators. We survive because we kill off the weak.”
Cain watched as the coyotes trotted forward with bared teeth. The lead coyotes fought and snapped savagely at each other before biting into the burro’s flesh. One large brown coyote, its jaws dripping blood, trod wearily toward the marker and Cain’s flickering birthday circle of light. As it got within striking distance, the coyote crept low to the sand and cunningly paused at the edge of the brightness. Abel stood and pointed a shaky finger at the predator.
In a startling but graceful vaulting motion, the coyote leapt, clamped its jaws onto the burro’s head, ripping off the ear and a wide chunk of mane. Pieces of candle and flame were tossed high and spun hypnotically in the dark shadow of the Joshua tree cross. Some flames extinguished immediately; other candles stuck at odd angles in the sand and burned brightly. Its eyes gleaming, the coyote stared at the figures on the porch and chewed vigorously.
“You and I will be the predators tomorrow,” Cain commented. “We got to get the school bus, kidnap the school children, and present them lasting salvation.”
“Then what’ll we do?”
“We’ll bury them in that pit in the desert. Unlike the Reverend Dominick who gave your mom to the animals, we’ll have a proper burial for the children. Chasing down the bus, and doing the killing, and then digging the pit deeper will be strenuous work. We should rest.” Cain placed his empty glass on the table, and he and Abel entered the house. When they climbed the staircase to the second floor, the warped boards bent and made a creaking noise under their weight.
Cain stopped at the top of the stairs, pushed the door open, and walked into the Reverend Towers’s and Irene’s bedroom. Abel followed him and flicked the wall switch. Light from an extravagant crystal chandelier illuminated the room with a soft golden hue. The large dresser, body-size mirror, two chairs, and matching end tables were stacked in one corner.
“Why did you . . .” Abel began.
“I needed to move everything out of the way for the Night Alter,” Cain said. He and Abel walked to Towers’s sprawling king-size bed that was now in the middle of the room.
The ornate cherry headboard had a large cross protruding from a base of ballooning, swirling clouds. The cross rose high in the air, the top disappearing in the golden crystals of the chandelier. A heavy gray quilt with a brown border covered the mattress. Cain pointed to the quilt and the child-like Coso warriors that danced with raised weapons around the bloated bodies of Big Horn sheep. Sets of hands, palms stitched flat on the quilt, circled the warriors. Head up, ready to pounce, a lone mountain lion crouched beyond the reach of the hands in the top corner of the quilt.
“Do you remember the dancers?” Cain asked.
“Yeah,” Abel said. “We saw them in a cave in the Coso Range when we went trespassin’ out there in China Lake. They’re real old.”
“Sixteen thousand years old.”
“Yeah, like I said, real old.” Abel stepped closer to the bed and studied the figures. “I don’t remember seein’ the hands.”
“The voices told me about the hands. They’re needed for the Night Alter.”
“Why don’t I know nothin’ ‘bout the alter? We got the same medicine blood in our veins. Why don’t I hear the voices like you?”
“You’ll hear them soon enough, Abel. The voices speak to us only when we’re free of doubt. Some voices are wily and try to frighten us. They try to stop us from doing what needs to be done. So you have to listen carefully. You have to obey the right voice.”
“I don’t understand that. How can I be sure which is the right voice?”
“You’ll be sure because it’s the stronger voice. It’s the one that completes you, makes you whole.” Cain pointed to the quilt. “Ain’t the dancers and the circle of hands perfect? When you look at them, you understand what you must do.”
“I don’t understand nothin’.”
“You will, Abel. When it’s time, you’ll understand.” Cain walked across the floor; Abel followed him. When they reached the hall, Cain shut and locked the door.
“I don’t have no key,” Abel complained.
“You’ll use this one,” Cain said. He walked across the hallway into his and Abel’s bedroom. The light from the hallway illuminated two beds—mattresses ripped and leaking fluffs of cotton. There was a sweat-stained pillow and blanket on each bed. The table between the beds had an open Bible on the top. Step-mommy Irene’s stuffed cushion chair was overturned in the corner. The walls were painted with red-and-black graffiti. Abel walked to the table, placed the key in the open Bible, and closed it.
“There’s the key when you need it,” Cain said. “Now let’s get some sleep.” He sat on the mattress, kicked off his shoes, and lay down. Abel did the same, throwing the blanket over his chest.
“I’m damn tired,” he mumbled. “Now that you explained everything, I got no doubts in me and plan on hearin’ them voices tonight. I’ll probably be too excited to sleep.”
“How about I give you a pretty picture to help put you to sleep?”
“I like pretty pictures. They relax me.”
“Do you remember the Children of God section that the Reverend Towers built in the Catacombs of Rapture?”
“Sure, I remember. What a waste of money. There ain’t but one body in there.”
“Well, when we’re done in Twin River, the Children of God section will be full up.”
“Wow! How we gonna do that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Cain advised. “Just go to sleep.”
“Yeah,” Abel said. “It’ll be easy now that I got my sleepy picture to look at.” Stretching out on the bed, fluffs of cotton dropping on the carpet, Abel smiled and closed his eyes.
In the yard the candles stuck in the sand flickered bright and then turned dark. Chewing scraps of burro flesh, coyotes lurked in the shadows of the fence. A sidewinder wove a meandering sand trail to the Joshua tree. Moving its feet incredibly slow, a black Gila monster with orange markings the length of its body crawled out from under the porch. The desert was eerily tranquil. Moonlight flooded over the house and streamed dim rays through the bedroom window. The springs on Abel’s bed squeaked, and the deep gray quiet in the room was interrupted with a steady snoring, at times, snorting noise.