St Agnes' Stand by Thomas Eidson, Michael Joseph, £9.99 SET IN "I HE SCORCHING desert of New Mexico Territory, Nat Swanson is a desperado on the run from the law. In a remote canyon, he stumbles across the survivors of a bloody ambush by the Apaches, whose unseen presence hangs over the tale like a threatening cloud. The seven orphans and three nuns land Nat, a sheep in wolf's clothing if ever there was one, on the horns of a dilemma.
His basic instincts tell him to save himself by abandoning the hapless survivors to their fate but other unseen forces are at work in this waterless waste. Thomas Eidson is descended from a frontier family who fought in both the American Revolution and on both sides in the Civil War. He can number homesteaders and Indian agents among his ancestors and is steeped in the lore of the Old West. Eidson hints that much of the ethics and sturdy backbone of the frontiersmen and women has been softened in a new generation raised on mindless TV soaps and greasy hamburgers.
Nat Swanson, despite his villainy, is not out of the ordinary. In fact he slowly evolves into an Everyman, grappling with forces beyond his comprehension. These arc embodied in the 67-year-old Sr St Agnes who refuses to let him wriggle off the moral hook.
This short, well-written book is cunningly multilayered. For some it will offer a ripping yarn of the Old West while others may find nuggets of wisdom from an era when rugged individuality still earned something more than six weeks of intensive therapy. As a fable or morality play, this is worth a careful read.