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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died: A Hawthorne Tale

This is how the Gowan gang died.

They ambushed Hawthorne near Greek Pass, a desolate cluster of rock and hard-packed dirt in west Texas. It was a perfect spot for a bushwhacking. The six of them set up in the high rocks in the morning hours, and by early noon Hawthorne came through.

He rode a tall Morgan, gray like his clothes, and just as rough-looking. He held reins in one hand and rested a rifle across his lap.

The rifle didn’t help him. The Gowan gang didn’t give him a chance to use it. As he ambled his horse through the pass, they opened fire.

Chet Gowan saw at least two bullets strike the rider in gray, one in his left thigh and another low in his torso. Several bullets hit the horse. The animal fell, pinning Hawthorne  under it.

The bastard still managed to return fire. He’d lost the rifle, but that damnable Schofield was in his hand and he somehow managed to kill two of Chet’s men in the span of five seconds.

But DeMarcus, the big-muscled former slave and Chet’s second-in-command, was wily enough to come down the outcropping of rock from behind, and while the rest of the gang distracted Hawthorne with a barrage of rifle fire, DeMarcus snuck up and whacked him on the skull with his rifle stock.

The once-six but now-four men gathered then, whopping and hollering. To their minds, they’d dispatched a living legend, an unholy sonofabitch whose name was spoken in hushed tones among gunmen, murderers, and all manner of ne’er-do-well. Losing two friends was worth it.

Chet Gowan kicked the unmoving Hawthorne in the head. He looked at the jagged white scar on Hawthorne’s forehead, cut in the rough shape of a cross, and felt a slight chill of apprehension. He shook it off.

There was immediate talk of killing him, but Chet vetoed the idea. He elected to take Hawthorne out to the high desert and leave him tied there to die of thirst and exposure. It was what Hawthorne had done to Chet’s brother, Chet explained, and he wanted to scar-faced bastard to experience the same slow, agonizing death.

The gang wasn’t overly fond of the idea and balked about it. But a murderous glare from DeMarcus convinced them of the plan’s merits.

They draped Hawthorne’s unconscious body over a horse and lit out.


A white-hot sun burning into his brain brought Hawthorne back to life. He opened his eyes, close them again immediately as the ungodly glare nearly blinded him.

He took an quick inventory before moving. His head throbbed and his face felt burnt and raw from the desert sun. He was monstrously thirsty. The shallow wounds along his torso and thigh ached, but not nearly as bad as the pain in his skull.

He opened his eyes again, wincing, and saw that they’d tied his wrists with frayed rope to the dead stump of a desert willow. In every direction he could see, there was nothing, nothing but dry scrub and flat yellow dirt and sand.

He pulled against the bonds, but the rope stretched less than a millimeter along the stump.

Hawthorne laughed weakly at his predicament.

He faded out.

When he came to again, the sun was still high in the clear sky and the furnace-like heat of it pounded him into the ground. He pondered the likelihood that he would die here, tied to a dead stump in the middle of the desert. Already, most of the pain was gone and it occurred to him that dying might be acceptable now.

But his mind turned, as it always did, to all the wickedness of the world, all the suffering and the monsters that roamed this land, natural and otherwise.

Hawthorne’s bloody work was not done. It would never be done, but he couldn’t stop now. And if he was going to live, he had to act, while he still had the strength.

Slowly, methodically, he began pulling the rope back and forth along the stump.

It took hours, days, lifetimes. He closed his eyes, sawed his arms back and forth, thinking of nothing. The sun burned and the muscles in his arms screamed and he kept sawing the rope against the stump and his mind went somewhere else, somewhere remote and empty.

Yet another lifetime later, he felt some give in the rope, felt it loosening against the stump.

He pulled hard, a snarl of desperation on his lips, and the rope snapped.

The relief he felt was tempered by exhaustion. He willed his body to move, to get up, but his muscles wouldn’t respond. He lay there in the sand and faded out again.

This time when he awoke it was night, and bitterly cold. He sat up, head spinning. A moment after that he made it to his feet. Every muscle in his body clenched in agony. He ignored the pain, stood straight.

The desert was dyed blue in the moonlight, and stretched out in every direction. Hawthorne looked at the stars, got his bearings.

They’d taken his gun, his hat and his boots. It didn’t matter. He started walking.


And kept walking.


He walked the entire night and into the next morning. He found some condensation cupped in the crotch of another dead tree, just enough to wet his teeth, and the ugly cold gave way with the sunrise to an even uglier heat. It beat down from the sky and reached up from the ground, smothering every breath and burning the sweat from his pores before it had a chance to form. By mid-morning, he didn’t have enough moisture left in his body to sweat at all.

His brain felt like it was being boiled. His lungs burned and his tongue swelled in his mouth. He kept walking.

When the sun was once again directly overhead, he started seeing the demons.

It started with peripheral glimpses, flashes of furtive movement that would vanish before he could focus on them. Then they started appearing closer, peeking scaly, horned heads out of the sand before disappearing again. One stood staring at him from less than fifty feet away, pointing at him with gnarled fingers and laughing. When Hawthorne came closer, the demon transformed into a stunted, deformed tree.

He staggered along, not slowing for them, not acknowledging them. He knew it was what they wanted and he wouldn’t give them the pleasure.

Evening came, and with it the Devil.

Hawthorne wasn’t surprised. The Devil stood by a desert willow in full bloom, his arms crossed, smiling. He wore a good suit, black with a red vest, and a short-brimmed hat. He looked like an older, more respectable version of Hawthorne.

With the sun sinking, Hawthorne and the Devil spoke. They traded insults. The Devil told a joke. Hawthorne didn’t laugh. The Devil cajoled. Hawthorne threatened.

And it all came down to the inevitable.

The Devil called forth three demons, stinking of brimstone, and they descended on Hawthorne, screeching. Fire shot out of their hands. Smoke billowed from their mouths.

Hawthorne fought. Flames scorched along this shoulders from the fingers of one demon, but he shut out the pain of it and smashed his fist into the creature’s mouth. Another came at him with wickedly long claws stretched; Hawthorne caught its wrist, broke one of the claws off, plunged it into the demon’s stomach.

The fire-shooting hand of the first demon had fallen off. Hawthorne didn’t question. He snatched it up and aimed the fingers at their former owner. Fire belched out and enveloped the demon’s head. It dropped.

Hawthorne stuck the claw into the last demon’s chest, and turned to face the Devil.

The Devil was backing away, his face distorted by fear and confusion. Clearly, this wasn’t the way he’d imagined the situation playing out.

Hawthorne grinned, his lips splitting, called the Devil and sonofabitch, and stabbed the claw in his neck.

Blood sprayed and the Devil clutched his throat, gurgling, and fell dead.

Hawthorne stood over the corpse, breathing hard and ragged. He was soaked in demon blood, and knew he’d been gripped by a kind of madness. He’d killed the Devil, with made him wonder if he was the new King of Hell now.

He closed his eyes and got his breathing under control.

lowranceHeath Lowrance is the author of THE BASTARD HAND, CITY OF HERETICS, DIG TEN GRAVES, and the Gideon Miles novella MILES TO LITTLE RIDGE. He also pens a Kindle-exclusive series of weird western stories about the mysterious gunslinger called Hawthorne. He lives in Lansing, Michigan.

When he opened them again, he found he was surrounded not by demons but by dead men. One’s head was blown off. The other three bled from stab wounds.

The Gowan gang.

Hawthorne looked at his hands, saw he was holding a spent shotgun and a hunting knife.

He laughed a hoarse, slightly mad laugh, but got himself under control quickly. He was in the Gowan gang’s camp, and a warm fire crackled and the smell of a roasting wild pig set his empty stomach rumbling.

He found a full canteen under DeMarcus’ body, drank a few measured sips to avoid being sick. He pulled a chunk of meat off the spit and shoved in in his mouth and chewed slowly and deliberately. Then he drank more water.

He didn’t bother to bury the corpses. In the morning, after he’d found his boots and hat and gun, he rode off on Chet Gowan’s horse and left them there to rot in the desert.

And that’s how the Gowan gang died.