Table of Contents
CARDS ON THE TABLEâREAD 'EM AND WEEP
There were few men in the West that Nathan Stone would trust enough to speak his heart and mind to, and know he'd get the honest truth in return, without frills or fancy talk. Texas Ranger Captain Sage Jennings was one of them. This grizzled veteran of a hundred battles against outlaws, and countless brushes with death, knew the score and shot straight.
“There's no end to it, Cap,” Nathan told him. “One damn fool after another, they pull their guns, and I have to shoot them to keep them from shooting me. Hell, I'm ready to stop the world and get off. How do I escape this reputation I don't want, never wanted?”
“You don't,” Jennings said. “This is the killing season, and the only law is a fast gun. You, my friend, are living under a blessing and a curse. The blessing is your fast gun that's keeping you alive. The downside is the curseâyour name and fame.”
It was a hell of a hand that Nathan Stone had to play ... a lone hand ... a gun hand ... with both hands trained to draw like lightning and shoot like the angel of death ... and a long trail winding through the most breathtakingly beautiful, superbly free, and savagely lawless wilderness on earth. With danger at every twist and turn and no end in sight....
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, June
Copyright @ Ralph Compton, 1996
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eISBN : 978-1-101-12790-2
This work is respectfully dedicated to Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Lightâhome of Loretto Chapelâin Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Special Thanks To
John Ed Willoughby, a Birmingham, Alabama, radio personality, who first told me about Loretto Chapel and “The Inexplicable Stairs.”
Richard Lindsley, of Loretto Chapel, who was kind enough to send me the story in its entirety. Mr. Lindsley took the time to supply me with the names of all those at Loretto at the time the famous spiral stairs were built. With the exception of Nathan Stone, all the persons referred to are authentic.
Rev. Hugh Feiss, OSB, library director/archivist, Mount Angel Abbey Library, St. Benedict, Oregon. The Rev. Feiss granted me the use of “The Inexplicable Stairs,” which is copyrighted material.
PROLOGUENewton, Texas. March 5, 1873
Astride a grulla and leading a packhorse, Nathan Stone rode in a little more than an hour before sundown. His hound, Cotton Blossom, trotted alongside. The procession passed several saloons, and that alone was enough to draw attention. Few men just off a long trail would pass up the first saloon, and it was enough of a curiosity to tempt some of the patrons away from the bar to have a look. Seemingly unaware of the spectators, Nathan reined up before the mercantile. Dismounting, he looped the reins of the grulla and the lead rope of the packhorse around the hitch rail. He then paused, as though allowing the men from the saloons an opportunity to size him up before he entered the store. While he didn't wish to be recognized, he dared not seem fearful.
Just a few weeks past his twenty-sixth birthday, his dark hair was well laced with gray. A dusty gray Stetson was tilted over his cold blue eyes. His polished black boots with pointed toes and undershot heels would have been the envy of any cowboy, but the buscadero belt with its pair of tied-down Colts said this hombre didn't earn his bacon and beans wrassling cows. His trousers were black with pin-stripes, while his shirt was almost the gray of his Stetson. There was but little to liken him to a man of the range except the red bandanna around his neck and the unmistakable effect of sun and wind on his hands and face. A long sheepskin coat tied behind the cantle of his saddle suggested he might have come from the high country. Stone entered the mercantile, and without command, the dog remained with the horses.
Nathan Stone preferred larger towns where he was less likely to be recognized, stopping only in the villages to replenish his supplies or to buy needed grain for his horses. When he left the mercantile, he purposely carried only a sack of grain under his left arm, for it was a situation he had come to expect. Men from the saloons had congregated across the dusty street, and one of them stepped forward. His right thumb was hooked under the butt of his Colt. He wasn't drunk, but he'd had enough to respond to the taunts of his comrades. He spoke.
“Ain't you Nathan Stone, the killer?”
“I am Nathan Stone,” Nathan said coldly.
“Well, I'm Vern Tilton, an' I think I can take you. Draw.”
“Tilton,” said Nathan, just as he had tried in vain to reason with other foolish challengers. “I have no argument with you and I have no reason to draw. Now back off.”
“By God, Vern,” one of the onlookers shouted, “he's scairt of you.”
“Damn you,” Tilton bawled, “you ain't a-gonna cheat me out of provin' I'm faster'n you. Pull your iron.”
He emphasized his angry words by jerking out his Colt. He was clumsy, painfully slow, and Nathan waited until the last possible second. He finally drew his right-hand Colt as Tilton was raising his weapon to fire. Tilton's Colt roared, blasting lead into the ground, as Nathan's slug ripped into his right shoulder. Tilton stumbled back and would have fallen, if one of his companions hadn't caught him.
“Take him,” Nathan said quietly, “and get the hell out of here. I could have killed him. I had every right, and next time, I will.”
They backed away but they didn't leave, for though it was nothing more than a village, there was a sheriff, and he arrived on the run. Taking just one look at the bleeding, swearing Tilton, he turned on Nathan.
“I'm Howard Esty, sheriff of this county. Now you shuck them guns.”
“No,” said Nathan. “I only defended myself, and any man that disputes me is lying.”
“Speak up, damn it,” Esty said, turning his attention to the townsmen who had begun edging away. “Who started this?”
“Vern pulled iron first,” one of his companions said grudgingly.
“Then take him to the doc and git him patched up,” said Esty. “And you,” he said, pointing to the injured Vern, “be thankin' your lucky stars you're still alive.”
They drifted away, some of them casting sour looks at Nathan and Esty. The sheriff was showing his years, gray hair poking through a hole in the crown of his Stetson. He was lean, his hands, face, and neck as leathery and weather-beaten as an old saddle. When Vern and his disgruntled friends were well beyond hearing, he spoke.
“There'll be no charges, an' I'm thankin' you for not saltin' Vern down for keeps. You'd of been within your rights. I'd not want you takin' this personal, but I'd be obliged if you'd finish your business at the store and ride on.”
“I aim to,” Nathan said.
He loaded the sack of grain on the packhorse, and returning to the store, brought out the rest of his purchases. He tied the neck of the sack, divided its weight behind his saddle, mounted, and rode out. Sheriff Esty watched him out of sight, sighing with relief. Nathan rode warily, for he didn't know where the bunch had gone who had prodded Vern Tilton into drawing. It was a town he wished to leave behind, and Cotton Blossom felt the same, for he had forged on ahead. Nathan rode a good ten miles before finding a decent place to make camp for the night. There was water from a seep that had pooled at the foot of a ridge, concealed by a heavy growth of willows. First Nathan unsaddled his grulla and unloaded the packhorse, allowing the weary animals to roll. He then quickly gathered wood, knowing it would be dark before he could boil coffee and broil his bacon, but he needed the food and hot coffee. Whatever the reason, a fire after darkâin Comanche countryâcould be the death of a man. Nathan chose a low place in the ground, kept the blaze small, and doused it when the coffee was hot and his rashers of bacon ready. He shared the bacon with Cotton Blossom and drank the coffee from the pot. There was little else to do except turn in for the night, so Nathan rolled in his blankets, his head on his saddle, a Colt near to his hand. He could count on Cotton Blossom alerting him to any approaching danger, but weary as he was, sleep wouldn't come. His mind drifted back to the afternoon shooting, to Vern Tilton, and he recalled something Wild Bill Hickok had once told him.