Set in New Mexico, St Agnes' Stand is a classic story of the American West. Nat Swanson is on the run from a mob of Texas cowboys. He has killed a man in a fair fight, but the man's friends believe he was shot in the back and set out to string Swanson up for murder. A bullet in his leg slows him down and with the posse closing in, his chances of survival look dim. Trying desperately to get to sanctuary in California, he comes upon two freight wagons besieged by Apaches, and, against his better judgment, stops to help. He kills one of the Indians with his grandfather's antique crossbow, buying time for whoever survives behind the wagons. Thinking he's done his good deed, he continues his flight. One of those trapped, however, is 76-year-old Sister Agnes, who prays to God for a man to deliver her, her fellow nuns and the seven orphans they are transporting. Sister Agnes is convinced that Nat Swanson has been sent by God to rescue them. Swanson is equally convinced that the best they can hope for is not to be taken alive. And for five gruesome days in the blazing heat and dust, faith fights with humanity for the simple right to exist.
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Thomas Eidson is the author of four previous novels including the award-winning 'St Agnes' Stand', which has been optioned by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. In 2004, Ron Howard made his novel 'The Last Ride' into a feature film, 'The Missing'. Thomas Eidson lives in Boston, Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He was hurt and riding cautiously. Thoughts not quite grasped made him uneasy, and he listened for an errant sound in the hot wind. His eyes were narrowed—searching for a broken leaf, a freshly turned rock, anything from which he could make some sense of his vague uneasiness. Nothing. The desert seemed right, but wasn’t somehow. He turned in the saddle and looked behind him. A tumbleweed was bouncing in front of wild assaults from the wind. But the trail was empty. He turned back and sat, listening.
Over six feet and carrying two hundred pounds, Nat Swanson didn’t disturb easy, but this morning he was edgy. His hat brim was pulled low, casting his face in shadow. The intense heat and the wind were playing with the air, making it warp and shimmer over the land. He forced himself to peer through it, knowing he wouldn’t get a second chance if he missed a sheen off sweating skin or the straight line of a gun barrel among branches.
As his mule climbed, he slowly reached his hands back and pulled black shoulder-length hair out of the way behind his head, securing it with a piece of silk ribbon. Caught in this way, the hair revealed the finely shaped features of his weathered profile. His skin was a dark copper color and sun lines etched deep into the corners of his eyes and mouth gave his face the look of cracked rock when he smiled.
Without much motion, he slipped the leather thong off the hammer of the pistol hanging at his side, easing the weapon halfway up the holster to clear it, then settling it back down again. The sheer cold weight of it felt comforting.
He had been running for a week, and he was light on sleep and heavy on dust and too ready for trouble. He’d killed a man in a West Texas town he’d forgotten the name of—over a woman whose name he’d never known. He hadn’t wanted the woman or the killing. Nor had he wanted the hole in his thigh. What he did want was to get to California, and that’s where he was headed. Buttoned in his shirt pocket was a deed for a Santa Barbara ranch. Perhaps a younger man would have run longer and harder before turning to fight and maybe die; but Nat Swanson was thirty-five years that summer, old for the trail, and he had run as far as he was going to run.
A covey of mearns quail flushed near the ridge top and glided down the bright mountain air, disappearing in a thick stand of manzanita to his left. He reined the mule in and sat watching. The animal stood with its ears tilted back, then switched them forward and listened up the trail. The mule was desert-bred stock, and Swanson knew it sensed the danger as well as he. The uneasy feeling came over him strong again, and he blew out his nostrils to clear them and then breathed in, scenting the wind. Nothing. But there was something. Mearns quail didn’t flush easy in high winds.
It was early morning and he was perched halfway up a hardscrabble New Mexico hillside, following a deer path that stayed comfortably below the crestline where a larger pack trail ran. It was habit with him never to ride main trails or ridge lines even in the best of times, and this morning, with three riders tracking him, he wasn’t about to start breaking the habit.
He ran facts over in his mind. It didn’t figure that the men who had chased him across miles of hot desert on bad water had magically managed to get ahead of him. Even if they could have pushed their animals that hard, which he plain doubted, they couldn’t have guessed which arroyo he would take into the high mountains. No man was that lucky. There was no sense to it, and he was a man who liked things to make sense.
A sound from behind told Swanson the dog had worked its way up through the brush of the mountain. He looked over his shoulder at it sitting on its thin haunches, its eyes and ears fixed on the trail ahead; at least they weren’t coming at his back. He let the dog take a blow. It stood some six hands at the shoulders, deep-chested, maybe ninety pounds, narrow at the hips. Nature had left its tail long for balance, and somebody else had spiked its ears so they couldn’t be torn off in a fight. Great patches of bare skin showed on its haunches and shoulders where its thin hair had been worn off in sleep against the hard desert. It was as formidable a beast as it was ugly; a fierce and violent mongrel, able to take a man down and able to kill.
Five years before, the dog had thrown in with him in Arizona, swinging silently in behind his mule one sundown in a high mountain meadow a hundred miles from anywhere or anyone. That’s all he knew about it, excepting it was clean, didn’t beg, wasn’t friendly and didn’t make noise; those were things he understood and respected. It had bitten him once, and he had thought of shooting it more times than that.
When the dog was rested, he waved it ahead. It trotted past the mule and began to zigzag in the brush on both sides of the trail. Five yards from the hilltop, it froze. Swanson watched it for a few seconds and then swung painfully down, keeping his right hand free. When he reached the ground he pulled a leather pouch from behind the cantle of his saddle and slung it under his arm; then he loosened the straps holding a crossbow in place, listening hard as he worked, and slipped the weapon across his back. He checked the cylinder on his pistol and started up the trail.
Even hurt, he was deceptively light on his feet. He wore soft, mule- eared boots and moved with a grace and power that told of years not spent in a saddle but on foot in mountains like these. His buckskin leggings and his four-button blue flannel shirt were soft and noiseless as he walked. He knew the dog had a scent but the wind kept it confused, and he watched it now turning and sticking its nose up, then turning again. He continued climbing.
the dog was nowhere in sight as Swanson eased over the crest of the trail. The pain was bad in his leg. He lay still for a long time in a patch of dried hopsage and listened to the hills. No sound. The morning sun burned into him. He squinted his eyes and searched for movement. The wind had died. Just heat and dust and gravel. The flies and gnats hadn’t started in yet. The air felt pure and clean and hot. He crawled forward until he was overlooking a wide canyon that fell sharply away from where he lay concealed. At the bottom he could see a rocky flat and a dry riverbed; a line of stunted tamarisk trees, parched and almost leafless, bordered the waterless course of the river. Nothing looked alive.
He had not spotted them before he heard the popping of a musket. Seconds later, there was a louder, sharper bark from what sounded like a Hawken. He squinted and searched the canyon until he located the white smoke drifting in the air, and after a few minutes more of searching he saw the Indian who had fired the musket. Ten minutes later, he had marked the positions of thirty Apaches, and seen their prey.
Two freight wagons lay overturned in a V against a cliff at the edge of a narrow road. Swanson pulled a telescope from the leather pouch and scanned them. The remains of a water barrel indicated the standoff would be short, Hawken or not. The wood looked dry. But maybe whoever was behind the wagons still had water. For their sake, he hoped so.
He glassed the road again. It was going to be a game with only one end: the freighters were eventually going to go crazy from the heat, the thirst, the fear . . . and one night they were going to try and escape. They wouldn’t make it.
He gave them three days, maybe. They were probably Mexicans; two to a wagon and armed with muzzle loaders and single-ball pistols. The Hawken might mean their cargo was valuable. It didn’t matter. No one would come to help them. They knew that. They knew the Apache. Their people had brutalized one another from time out of mind. They were muerto. The best they could hope was not to be taken alive. He couldn’t help them.
He held the telescope on some rocks near one of the wagons. The Indians had started a landslide in an attempt to knock the closest dray off the road, but it had missed. The stones lay in a mass higher than the wagons. The Apaches had seen this and two stood behind the rocks motioning for a third to climb up and take a shot.
Swanson focused the scope on this Indian. He was wearing a red shirt strapped at the waist with a leather belt, a white breechcloth, bare legged with deerskin boots. He looked no more than sixteen, but from the easy way he carried the musket in the crook of his arm, the way he strode confidently up the rocky slope, it was obvious this was their marksman.
Swanson studied him closely: the respect he was being shown by the others, his arrogance, and the comfortable manner in which he handled the weapon said he knew how to shoot. With just yards separating the mound of rocks from the wagons, he was going to give the people behind the wagons jessy; it would be like plunking thirsty horses at a water hole.
Swanson didn’t love Mexicans, but he liked them somewhat better than a stacked deck. Even so, he figured it wasn’t his funeral. He was calculating on pulling back and staying out of the fight, when he saw the Indian in the red shirt, a cock-of-the-walk grin on his poxed face, standing on the road in clear view of the wagons, urinating; daring the trapped Mexicans to do something. He wasn’t twenty feet from the closest wagon. It seemed incredible. Swanson waited for the Hawken to bark; waited for the pissing Apache to fly backward, his chest blown open. Nothing happened.
He couldn’t figure it; why don’t they just shoot the sonofabitch, he wondered. Like jackrabbits cornered by the dog, they must be frozen with fear. That, or they’d already killed themselves. He had heard of that happening, though he didn’t know whether to believe it or not; it seemed impossible an armed man would shoot himself rather than die fighting. But long ago he had learned there was...
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