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"Journey Through Hell."

By

J.L.Kramer

I.




The torrid heat of the midmorning sun, the silence that had
been their constant companion as they struggled through the soft
sand of the pass erupted into gunfire.



All had been quiet save the sounds of their passage; trace
chains rattling, horses blowing, the curses of the drivers, and the
occasional hoof striking a stone hidden beneath the soft sand...



Grant Collins wheeled his horse around and raced back to
the wagon train he was leading. Dread rode with him.



Like the others, he had grown complacent with the peace of
everyday travel. Now that false sense of security had vanished.



"God," He wondered half aloud. "What have I done?"



He had fought Indians and seen people die before, but this
was different, this time, he was the leader...



As he raced to the center of the fight, Grant Collins horse
stumbled, ran on a few more paces, then folded up beneath him.



"Damn it!" He cursed, his rifle blasting even as he kicked his
feet free of the stirrups and readied his body to leap.



Mass confusion surrounded him. The wagons had been
stopped. Men, women and children were scrambling to escape the
deadly barrage, but for many, it was already too late. Death had
come swiftly on the wings of bullets, arrows and Apache war
lances.



"Damn it all to hell!" The words spurt from his mouth as
Grant came off the side of his dying horse, rolling as bullets
buzzed past his ears like angry hornets.



As he started to come to his feet, pain stabbed through his
arm as an arrow sliced along the side of his right shoulder.



Fear gripped his soul, and his breath came in great gasps. It
seemed so unreal, yet the blood trickling down his arm, and off his
hand, told him differently.



"The rocks..." He shouted above the din to the others. "Get
to the rocks!"



Forcing himself to his feet, Grant looked into the ugly face of
death. Before his eyes, an Apache knife glinted in the bright
sunlight.



Moving and slashing through the stifling air, the cold steel of
the blade cut through Grants shirt, sending a small trickle of hot
blood running down his belly and into his pants.



His rifle was gone, lost when he'd hit the ground rolling, but
Grant still had his forty four, and instinctively his hand moved
toward it.



Too late! The knife slashed again, ripping the air and
sending new chills dancing along Grant Collins spine.



Leaping back and aside of the heavy blade, Grant Collins
reached out and caught the reddish brown arm as it passed in front
of him. For a brief moment then, as he fought to maintain his grip,
he stared into the black, deadly eyes of the enraged animal that
would take his life if he let him.



Grant Collins heart raced as he viewed the Apache in a
shocked haze. It was his worst nightmare come true, only this was
not a dream. It was real.



He could see the Indian before him, smell the dust and
smoke, taste the foul breath of the beast as they struggled for an
advantage, and he could hear the savage grunts...



Twisting and jerking, Grant Collins brought pressure down
hard on the Apache's elbow until the knife fell, yet he was still not
out of trouble. The Indians dirty fingers gouged at his eyes,
clawing his face.



Twice, Grant Collins threw his elbow into his attackers
stomach to free himself, but the Indian held on. Finally though,
through brute strength, he managed to throw the Indian off him.



Turning on well worn heels, he readied himself for the
Apache's next charge. This time his pistol was in his hand.
"Bastard!" Grant hissed, as his pistol bucked in his hand.



What to do, where to go? Grant Collins mind spun as he
retrieved his rifle and started forward. Out in the open was no
place to be, but he had to risk it if he would save those who were
still alive.



"Get to the rocks!" He shouted, roughly jerking women and
children up from where they lay cowering and shoving them
toward a nest of boulders. "Move it, damn it!"



All around him was a scene of confusion and terror... Gunfire
and screams... Burnt powder smoke!



How many Apache's were out there, Grant Collins couldn't
guess. His instincts told him there were too many to hold off for
long. He had to get those he could under cover immediately, and
let God help those he couldn't reach.



Grant Collins pistol barked, then barked again. He watched
a dusty body fold up and lay still. Whether dead or just wounded,
he didn't try to speculate. The Apache was out of it. There were
too many others to contend with and the odds too long.



"The rocks!" He shouted to anyone who could hear him
above the chaos. "Hurry!"



The Apache's had caught them flat footed. Their first deadly
burst of gunfire took a deadly toll. How many men remained, Grant
didn't know, but as his eyes took in the grizzly scene, he knew
there weren't many left.



Not many at all, he thought grimly, as he moved from wagon
to wagon, trying to save those he could reach. Not many at all.



The firing held steady for well over an hour, then the roar of
madness settled into a long day of sniping and mini rushes that
brought the Apache's ever closer.



Sweat trickled into his eyes, stinging them. Around him lay
the dead and the dying. Both men and animal writhed in pain or
lay staring with terrified, unseeing eyes.



Grant Collins knew he had done everything humanly
possible. He had saved those he could. It wasn't enough though.
He felt beat and helpless, responsible for the lives of those who
had perished.



As the hours ticked by, less and less firing came from their
side, testifying that the men and women of the train had given their
all.



Moans from the injured and dying filled his ears. Behind him,
children cried out with fright, and the women he had managed to
reach prayed for a miracle.



Well, he thought gravely as he reloaded his rifle, they'd need
one!



As long as they were alive, the Apaches would remain. "And
when they come again," Grant muttered to himself, as he tried to
tune out the screams of downed animals. "they'll finish the job."



"God, what have I done?" He asked silently, looking to sky.



The heat of the day grew almost unbearable, adding to the waiting, the tenseness and the expectancy of yet another attack.



It was nerve wracking, but at last, mercifully, the sun began
it's downward slide toward the distant hills.



A cooling breeze came up, giving relief to the sun weary
survivors.



Taking stock of the situation, Grant Collins could only shake
his head. Behind him were four women and a handful of children.
All of them were scared and bloodied. If not by real wounds, then
by the emotional trauma of what they had just witnessed.



He knew they had to move, but where? How? They needed
food, water and a better place to make a stand. More importantly,
they needed bullets. His were almost gone, and without more
ammunition they couldn't hold off another attack. Not for long at
least.



Time dragged on as Grant Collins worried about the women
and children in his care, the Apache's, and the desperate need for
the miracle the women had been praying for. Without one, they
stood little chance of survival.



Through the night, he told himself bitterly, if we live that long,
there's a good chance we'll be all right, but in the morning...



Grant Collins was a practical man. He knew what would
happen when the sun arose on a new day. It would be hell on him
if he were taken alive. The Apaches would torture him slowly to
see how much of a man he really was...



It would be even worse for the women, and he shuddered at
the thoughts that came to mind.



No, he told himself, he wouldn't let that happen to them, not
if he could help it.



The children? Who knew what an Apache would do to
children. They might simply cut their throats or smash their heads
in with a rifle butt... they might rape the girls, kill them and take the
younger boys to raise as one of their own... Who knew?



The day turned cloudy gray as darkness closed in. All the
heat that had beat down upon them vanished and it steadily grew
cooler. Almost cold after the heat of the day.



Grant Collins injured arm hurt like hell. He felt like hell for
that matter, but there hadn't been time to look at the wound. He did
so now, gingerly pulling at his bloodied shirt.



"Here, let me!" Katherine Rice said, moving up to him with a brave smile that couldn't hide her fear.



"It's just a scratch." Grant's low voice assured her.



"Just the same, let me..." Her hands were gentle, soft and
warm as she cleaned his wound with a little water from his
canteen. "That was quiet a scratch." She commented, as she
finished bandaging his arm with a piece of her petticoat.



"Thanks!" Grant replied softly.



"We're not going to get out of here alive, are we?" She
asked quietly, her head bent low.



The others had moved off to see to the children, so they sat
alone, looking at one another in the faint light.



"We're not dead yet! As long as we're alive we have a
chance." He said it, but Grant Collins didn't believe it. Tomorrow,
they would all die. Some would be luckier than the others. They
would die quickly. Not him though, he'd be the last one to go, if he
could manage it.



"I'm going out there." He said, with a wave of his hand
toward the wagons.



"Why?"



"We need things before we can get out of here."



It was a foolish thing to do, but Grant Collins knew he was
right. They needed supplies and it was up to him to get them.



"All right, what do you want me to do?" Katherine asked. It
wasn't in her nature to question his reasons for wanting to go out
there where so much death lie. If he said they needed things, then
she would do what she could to help him.



"Just keep your eyes open, and don't blow off my head when
I come back."



"How will I know it's you?"



"I'll..." Grant thought about whistling to signal his return, but
changed his mind. It might work once, but after that he would have
to worry about the Apache's catching on and using it to breech
their defenses. "Never mind, I'll just call out when I am ready and
hope for the best."



"All right."



"And listen to me..." His mind was working quickly with
thought. "If the others find out I am gone... you're gonna have to
make them understand, that I will be back. Keep them quiet above
all else."



"I will." She said, then added more softer. "You be careful."



Blackness surrounded Grant Collins as he moved out on silent feet. His vision was good, yet he had to take his time to
avoid the scattered goods and the bodies that lay over the battle
field. Each careful step though, brought him closer to his goal.



As he moved, Grant Collins couldn't help but wonder how
much time he had before being discovered. The thought nagged at
him as he reached the nearest wagon and quietly slipped inside.
He didn't know exactly what he was grabbing and stuffing into the
two sacks he'd found. It didn't matter. Anything he could get would
help.



His fingers found a can of something, another, and still
another. When his fingers touched a sack, he knew he had found
coffee. He could smell the aromatic beans when he lifted the bag,
and for a moment, he stopped.



Coffee... God, how he wished he could be sitting back
enjoying a cup right now, but he knew that wasn't to be.



Passing to the next wagon, Grant Collins found three rifles,
two boxes of shells, a canteen and more food supplies.



He wanted more. Needed more in fact, but he was getting
nervous. He'd already been gone too long as it was, and he knew
he had to get back before the others missed him.



Katherine Rice knew where he was, but could she convince
the others that he hadn't abandoned them? That was the question
he didn't want to test.



Ducking low as he exited the wagon, Grant Collins found
three more full canteens and a pistol, which he quickly added to
his sacks.



Now came the hard part, he told himself, as he moved
toward the rocks on silent feet. Getting back without getting my
head blown off by one of the women.



"Kate" He called softly. He could almost feel the expected
shot slamming into his body as he flattened out on the ground, but
none came and he heard her quiet response.



"Yes, it's all right."



As he raised up to move, Grant Collins let his eyes drifted
back to the wagons he had just left. Motion, ever so slight, caught
his attention, but as he studied the scene with more care, he could
find nothing out of place.





Had he seen something, or was the dim moonlight playing
tricks on his eyes? Clouds perhaps, throwing shadows as they
passed overhead?





"Are you all right?" Katherine Rice asked, as he dropped
over the rocks with his burden. "I was getting worried."



"I've got to go back." Grant whispered to her. He was
breathing heavily from his exertion. All his muscles ached and he
knew without seeing that his wound had started bleeding again.



"But..."



"We need more than I got." Grant Collins told her.



"All right," Katherine Rice replied equally as soft. "Just be
careful." She had no liking for what he was doing. It frightened her.
Like the others, she knew they had little, if any chance of survival
without Grant Collins leadership.





Together, they waited silently until Grant Collins breathing
slowly returned to normal. It was pleasant, Grant thought to
himself. Being with her like this... If it were only another time,
another place, but it wasn't, and he shook the thought from his
mind. They were in a fix, and it was up to him to get them out of it,
if he could.



"Keep alert." He warned her as he got ready to move once
more.



"I will, and you be careful and come back to me... us." Why
she said it, Katherine Rice wasn't sure, but she liked the man she
had just been sitting with. She had felt a closeness between them
and that was something she hadn't felt in a long long time.



A slow half hour passed as she waited tensely. Her hands
gripped the rifle Grant Collins had brought back on his first outing.



Silence and nothing more was her only companion. Then
night exploded with a thunderous roar.



Katherine Rice's breath caught, and she jumped in fright with
the sound of the heavy gun, followed by a faint gasp of agony, and
yet another ear deafening roar of the heavy gun.



What had happened, she didn't know for sure, but he was
coming, running toward her with bullets smacking the ground
around him.



"What happened?" She breathed. "Oh, My God, you're
hurt!"



Katherine Rice moved to help Grant Collins as he tumbled
over the rocks, but he turned swiftly and shot into the darkness at
the winking Apache rifles.



"Here, let me have a look." She said to him softly, when
quiet returned to the night. "Where?"



Grant Collins shuddered as her hand found the wound. It
had been close, He told himself. Too damn close! Luckily for him,
he had found that shotgun.



Again he shuddered and her hands became gentle as she
carefully slipped a pad torn from her dress up under his shirt. It
wasn't much, but in the darkness, she could do little else.



"It's not much, but it should stop some of the bleeding." She
said softly. She could sense the pain with in him, the exhaustion.
All day long he had been moving and doing...



"Thanks." He told her, his voice weary.



"Why don't you try and sleep a bit... I'll watch. Anne, Mary
and Ruth will help too, and then there is Tommy Anderson... He'll
help as well. He's only fifteen, but he can keep watch. I know he
can shoot, his father told me so." Katherine Rice went on,
expecting an argument, but there was no need. Grant Collins'
eyes were already closed.


II.




They came up the pass with the first gray of morning. Grant
Collins cursed himself for having fell asleep, but he had to admit,
he did feel better for having done so. Not that it was going to help
them any.



"Easy now, wait for them to get closer." He told the others,
standing up as the long line of Apache's advanced on them. Thirty
or more...



Grant Collins was ready to face what couldn't be avoided,
yet he knew he could never stop that many.



"White eyes!" Grant's rifle had started to come level when
the lead Apache called out. "You are a great warrior, but my
people say you are but one man, four squaws and seven
children. You are hurt... you are dead, but you do not know it yet.



"Rest, White eyes. We will leave you. If the desert does not
kill you, then perhaps Tiaz will catch you and let you prove how
much of a man you are before you die."



Grant Collins listened, they all listened. Their eyes took in
the lead Apache called Tiaz. The Apache was going to toy with
them. He was going to make their death worse than if he had just
attacked and killed them, yet he was also offering them a chance
to prove themselves. It was a slim chance at best, but never the
less, it was a straw with which to gather hope.



"Vamanose!" Tiaz called and the long line of warriors started
forward.



"Oh, God, they're leaving." Grant Collins heard one of the
women behind him say. "We're going to..."



"Oh, My God, no!" Another gasped out.



As the Apache's rode passed the wagons, they were set
alight with torches. The fires licked, danced on the slight breeze
that carried the heat to Grant Collins and the others twenty yards
away, then spread until it billowed upward.



"No! God, no!"



Grant Collins heard the gasps of the women behind him,
followed by the deafening silence of hearts as they crumbled to
ash. All the hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow, all...



Above the crackling of burning wood, came a faint cry. Grant
Collins heard it, they all did. Yet, their minds refused to
acknowledge what they heard.



It couldn't be, Grant Collins told himself, but the scream from
behind him told him it was true.





"My baby, he's alive!"



Grant Collins was on his feet instantly. "No! Come back
here!" He shouted, as the woman scampered from behind the
rocks and started running toward the furthest wagon.



At any moment, he expected to see her shot down by a
hidden Apache, but no shot came.



"The rest of you stay put!" Grant shouted to the others, then
he was running after the woman.



Reaching the wagon at the same time, Grant Collins bodily
tossed her aside and crawled inside. Blinding smoke greeted him,
choked him as tongues of fire singed his flesh. Instinct told him to
flee, but he was there, and if there was any chance of saving the
babies life, he knew he was going to do it.



"Cry, damn it, cry!"



Panic filled Grant Collins brain as he searched. The need to
flee the hell that engulfed him fought with his desire to find the
baby if he could.



Outside the wagon, he could hear the woman's scream of
anguish, yet from with in, Grant thought he heard a faint coughing
sound.



"Shut up, damn it!" He screamed at the shrieking woman.
"Shut the hell up!"



It came to him then. A very slight sound above the crackle of
flames and the noise outside. Stumbling, crawling on hands and
knee's, gasping air that choked his lungs, Grant Collins searched
the wagon with hands and tear filled eyes.



At last, his hand felt wood. It moved under his touch, rocked,
and he felt certain that he had found a cradle.



"Please, God, please..." Grant Collins breathed. His eyes
stung and watered as he tossed half burned bedding aside. His
lungs begged for fresh air, but at last, his hands touched warm
flesh, and he heard the babies choking screams of terror.



Tucking the baby close to his chest, Grant Collins began to
move, ducking as a piece of burning canvas fell on his back,
showering him with hot, clinging sparks. As he staggered toward
the rear exit, his only thought was to escape.



Grant Collins clothes smoldered with the heat of the fire as it
grew ever more intense. Never before in his life had he experience
the terror he felt now.



"Oh, God!" He was outside, free of the hell.



Grant Collins lay choking, gasping fresh air into his starved
lungs, not caring what happened next. Hands pulled the baby from
his arms, while others slapped at his smoldering clothing, sending
waves of pain coursing through his body.



"What the hell are you all doing out here?" Grant snarled at
the others as he finally rolled over and rose to his knee's. "I told
you to stay put, to keep watch. If they had come back, you would
all be dead now, or worse!"



The others could only look at him, shocked by his sudden
outburst. "Damn it!" He continued, yelling at them. "If you want to
keep your pretty little asses alive, then you'd better start listening
to what the hell I have to say!"



They shrunk from him, retreated slowly toward the rocks. As
he followed them back on now trembling legs, Grant Collins began
to feel the guilt. He had seen the women lower their eyes, and
worse yet, he had seen the fear in the children’s eyes as they
backed away from him.



Never before had he spoken to a woman like that. Hell, he'd
never spoken to a man that way, unless the man needed a
dressing down.



"Shit!" Being tired and hurt was no excuse for being
disrespectful to a woman, he told himself. They had only been
trying to help.



Back amongst the rocks, Grant Collins found he couldn't
look at them for the shame he felt. He knew they were just as tired
as he was, and some of them were hurt as well, but none of them
had complained. They were all scared, and looking to him for a
way out of the mess they were in. A mess that he had led them
into in the first place.



Could he, Grant Collins wondered? Could he get them out
alive? If he had been alone, he might have given himself a
chance, but four women and seven, no eight, children...



Could they make it? Could they take what was yet to come?



Grant Collins had no answers for those questions. All he
knew for sure, was that the odds were long and stacked against
them.



"I'm sorry," He said, sinking down to a rocky seat. "I guess I
lost my head for a minute back there."



"It's all right." Katherine Rice said, as she and several of the
children gathered around him. "You were right. We should have
stayed put."



"No, I was wrong. I shouldn't have yelled." He told her. "You
were just doing what you thought needed being done. I am sorry."



Laying his head back, Grant Collins closed his eyes as he
tried to make his plans. Thoughts of what lay ahead tugged at his
heart. He knew the area. Knew it well in fact, but still, could he
save these people?



He knew where all the water holes, tanks and hidden seeps
were located, but the Apaches knew too. Would they be waiting
with rifles in hand, ready to make sure they didn't get any water?



Grant Collins didn't care if he died in the struggle to come,
but he wanted these women and children to have a chance to
grow old.



"I'm a fool!" He said the word suddenly.



"No, Mister Collins, you're a brave and caring man." The
children had moved away, but Katherine Rice sat on the ground
beside him, tending to his burned hands.



Her words startled him. His fatigue was so great that he
scarcely noticed her cleaning and bandaging his wounds.



What had started out a wagon train of thirty seven men,
women and children had been reduced to four women, seven kids,
a baby and himself. The baby and himself, not part of the original
count.



"Why the hell didn't I know about the baby?" He asked
sharply, more to himself than to anyone in particular.



"How could you know? You were a busy man, Mister Collins.
You can't expect to know every little detail about the people you
are working with." Katherine Rice told him quietly.



"How can you miss a baby though?" He asked back, sitting
up and shaking his head. It didn't seem possible that he, or
anyone for that matter, could miss a baby.



"Ruth didn't join her husband until the morning we left. By
then, you had your hands full."



"Yes, but..."



"It really doesn't matter now, does it?" Katherine asked,
offering him a smile.



"No. He's here now, and we have to deal with him, but why
didn't Ruth tell me about him last night? I could have..."



It still bothered him. With all the problems they had to face,
the presence of a baby made things more difficult.



"I thought he was dead." Ruth Harkley said quietly, having
overheard the talk. "I know it sounds terrible, but I saw one of them
climb into the wagon after... after they killed my Frankie, and I..."



"It's all right." Grant Collins said soothingly, as he reasoned it
out. She had seen her husband die. Then she had seen the
Apache crawl into the wagon. Adding those details to the fact that
baby hadn't cried out in close to sixteen hours... what else was she
suppose to think?



In all likelihood, the baby had cried out during the attack.
With their wagon being the furthest away, the screams of the
frightened, the dying, and the sounds of guns slamming back and
forth, it was no wonder that no one had heard the child.



The noise of the battle would have been enough to drown
out his tiny voice. Then, by the time the guns fell quiet, the baby
had probably cried itself out, at last falling into an exhausted sleep
until it was awaken by the fire and smoke that had filled the wagon
this morning.



A fool, that's what I am, Grant thought bitterly. A fool to not
have known about the baby, and an even bigger fool for riding into
an ambush.



I'm just a damn fool, and twenty six good people are dead
because of it.



"Damn it!" Grant Collins cursed aloud, startling the women
and children. Looking up at them, he flinched with pain as he
balled his burned hands into a fist.


III.




His foray last night had netted them four canteens. Two of
them were full, one half filled, and the other empty, but it would
come in handy if they made it to water.



Along with them, Grant Collins had managed to retrieve
some guns, several boxes of shells and some food goods, but it
wasn't enough. If only he had gotten more on that second trip, he
chided himself silently. Something other than the trouble he had
ran into. Getting a knife stuck in the back of his shoulder and a
split lip wasn't going to help them get out of here alive.



There had been two of them. One climbing in the front, the
other through the rear of the wagon. Grant Collins had seen the
one who came in the back. He had watched the Indians face
vanish in a spray of blood and bone fragments, blown away by the
first barrel of the shotgun he had found.



Even before that one hit the dirt outside the wagon, Grant
Collins had felt the knife of the second Apache. He had twisted
and gasped in agony as the blade was withdrawn from his back.
Then he had turned and fell backward with the force of a blow that
smashed his lips.



Grant Collins had landed hard on the wagon floor. A groan
had escaped his lips, and then the shotgun had roared again in his
hand and he was once more showered with blood.



That had been last night, Grant Collins told himself, and it
didn't help one damn bit to dwell on it. He needed time to think, to
plan what they were going to do once they started out across the
desert.



"Find some shade," He told the others with a glance from his
brooding eyes. "we'll rest up a bit before we move out."



There was no need to hurry. They were all tired, and before
they got through, they'd be thankful for what little rest they could get.



As he let his eyes pass over the women and children, Grant
Collins realized the situation wasn't all bad. In spite of the wagons
having been set afire, the majority of the burning had been
confined to the tarps, clothing and other quick tinder that the fire
could reach. Some of the wagons hadn't burned much at all, and
there might be things they could salvage from them.



More importantly, Grant Collins discovered as he went out
amongst the wagons, that there was still water in one of the
barrels. Not a lot, but enough to let them rest a day or two before
having to move on.



"Kate," He called out.



The cold, bitter reality of what had happened, was finally
beginning to sink in, yet he could tell the women were trying to
keep up bold faces for the children's sake.



"How about setting up some coffee and a little food?" He
asked her. "I think we could all use some."



"Good idea." Kate replied, looking at the others, then out to
where he stood examining one of the wagons.



"Tommy, how about you starting a fire for me?" She asked
the boy, putting an arm around his shoulder. He was scared, but
Kate knew he wanted to help, to show Grant Collins he wasn't a
boy anymore, and was capable of doing a man’s job.



"Yes, Ma'am, I'd be glad to help out." Tommy replied readily,
moving off to find tinder.



The coffee was good, but they all picked at their food. Still,
when they were finished, their spirits seemed to lift a little. Yet,
Grant knew their heads would fall again. All they had to do was to
look out at the wagons, to see the carnage of their lives and loved
ones.



This was only a first step, but one that was necessary, in the
direction of getting on with living.



Getting to his feet, Grant Collins moved off by himself for a
short time. He wasn't sure he could physically do what he was
planning, but he knew he had to attempt it. Not for himself, but for
the sake of the others.



Going to a wagon, Grant Collins rummaged around until he
found a shovel, then headed toward the far side of the pass. The
bank there was partially undercut, and there was a hollow where
run-off water pooled during heavy rains.



"Mister Collins," Young Tommy Anderson said, coming up to
where Grant had started digging into the hard earth. "I can help, if
you let me."



"It won't be pleasant." Grant replied, leaning on the shovel
and meeting the youth's sad eyes.



"I know, but my folks..." A tear ran down the boys cheek, and
Tommy quickly turned his back on Grant to wipe it away.



"It's all right to cry." Grant Collins spoke softly as he moved
nearer to Tommy. "I lost my folks when I was about your age, and I
cried for days after."



"Really?"



"Yes, Tommy, I did, and I'm not ashamed to admit it either.
Crying doesn't make you any less of a man. It just shows that you
have feelings and cared for someone or something."



With a nod, Tommy let his tears run freely as he began to
dig. It was a grim job, and once the women realized what Grant
and Tommy were doing, they tried to help as well.



Still, even with the help of the women, it took well into the
night before they had the bodies removed to the burial site.



"That's all for now." Grant said, calling a halt for the night. He
could feel the pain coursing through his muscles, and he could
see the exhaustion on the faces of the others. "We'll cut the bank
tomorrow. Rest a bit more, then make our start."



While the women went off to look after the children and start
their supper meal, Grant Collins and Tommy went through the
wagon to see what they could salvage. They didn't find much, but
Grant knew it was more than they could carry.





They found a knife, and extra rifle, a couple more boxes of
ammunition, some more canned goods, a slab of salt pork, two
more canteens, medical supplies, spare clothing for the women
and children, sewing supplies and a length of rope.



"Is this stuff gonna help us, Mister Collins?" Tommy asked,
when they finally gathered up what they had and started back
toward the rocks.



"It won't hurt." Grant responded with a forced smile. He was
thinking again of the problems they faced, and he wasn't sure they
were up to the challenge.



"You're quite a man, Mister Collins, I hope you know that."
Anne Fossy said to him, as she handed him a plate of food. The
others joined her and each gave him a gentle hug. Then to
Tommy's dismay, they hugged him as well.



"You didn't have to do that for us, but we're grateful that you
did." Mary Branson added, expressing how they all felt toward
what he and Tommy had done. "We know you've got enough
trouble on your mind already and... Well, my husband was
amongst those we buried, and I'll rest easier knowing we did what
we could for him."



"It's not much..." Grant started, fumbling for the right words to
say.



"It means more than you'll ever know, Mister Collins." A tear
showed in the corner of Ruth's eyes as she spoke. "Thank you!
Thank you very, very much... and thank you too, Tommy."



Sleep came hard for Grant Collins and the others. In their
minds the could still hear the screams of the dead and dying. They
could still see the faces of their loved ones, the faces of the
Apache's...



Sunrise came and slipped into the noon hour before Grant
threw aside his shovel and stepped back to look at the crude mass
grave. His hands were bloody and the wounds on his body had
started to bleed once more, but it was finished and he bowed his
head and said a rough sort of prayer.



"Lord, you gave these people to us, and now you have taken
them back. We ask that you watch over them. Keep them until it is
our time to be with them again. I've never been much at praying,
God. I guess you know that, but now I am asking you to show us
the way. Help me, Lord. Help me get these good people through to
safety. They are your children, and I know you will not lead them
astray... Not if it's your wish that they go on living."



Grant Collins eyes drifted up the trail and he hurriedly added
his "Amen", then turning, he addressed the others. "Lets all go
back to the rocks and rest a little before we go."



Taking an arm, he gently urged them to hurry.



"What is it?" Kate asked, looking at his concerned face.



"There's an Apache up the trail a bit. He's just watching us,
but lets not take any chances." Grant told them as they started
back toward the rocks.



"It's not fair! Haven't they caused us enough misery and
pain?" Ruth's voice quivered as she spoke. She was beginning to
show the strain, and Grant Collins looked at her with deep
concern.



"They don't see it that way." Grant spoke to her, but
everyone listened. "They see us as their enemy. A threat to their
way of life. But they also see us as weak."



"But..." Tears began to flow from Ruth's eyes as she started
to protest the injustice.



"Come on, Ruth," Anne Fossy spoke softly as she put her
arm around the woman and led her away, much to Grant's relief.
"we'd better see to your little one."



Despite his concern for Ruth, Grant had to admit that the
women had held up as well or better than many would have under
the circumstances. Even the children had held up well, helping
wherever they could. Perhaps they would make it after all, he
thought hopefully.



"Kate, will you see to filling the canteens?" Grant asked
quietly, while she and Mary cleaned and bandaged his wounds.
"We'll be leaving here when the sun goes down."



"I'll take care of them right now," Kate told him with a forced
smile. "Mary can finish putting you back together."



The water in the barrel was gone with the supper meal, but
with all the canteens full, they could make the first stage of the trip
fairly easily. The second and third stages wouldn't be too bad
either, providing the Apache's left them alone. It was after that, that
the real problems began.



Once the third stage was over, they faced twenty miles of
blistering hot sand, and even surviving that, they still had two more
stages to conquer.



Ten miles to the seep, Grant Collins thought, as he started
from the beginning for the sixth time. Twelve more to Sandoval's
ruined adobe.



The breed who had lived there was gone, killed by Tiaz for
having helped a white man escape, but the well was still there. It's
water was fresh and cool, and there was shade tree's to rest
under.



After that, it was five miles to Baker's spring hole. Then
came the twenty mile stretch of sand and the hidden tanks at the
foot of the mountains. "If we make that..." Grant said half aloud.
"It's still another fifteen miles to the "Agua at Three Rocks."



Lapsing back into his thoughts, Grant Collins found doubts
creeping back into his mind. Even if they made "Agua at Three
Rocks", they still had one final hike to face before they reached
the safety of Bart Perry's ranch.



"A journey through hell." Grant whispered to himself. "Eighty
two odd miles or so of pure hell... ungodly heat, little if any water
for them in some places, and next to nothing to eat along the way.
And all of it on foot!"

IV.




The sun had been down a little more than an hour when
Grant Collins stood up. "We best get ready." He told the others.



It was somewhere around nine O'clock, he believed, but he
could not see the face of his pocket watch to be sure. It was cool.
That was all that mattered as they began there "Journey through
hell" as Grant called it.



Each of the four women, Tommy Anderson, and Grant
Collins would carry a small pack on their backs. They didn't have
much to take with them, but it was all they could carry, and it would
have to see them through if they were to survive.



As they passed the crude mass grave site, each of them
stopped and said their final farewells, then moved on.



Grant Collins led the way, Ruth and her baby next, followed
by Anne and the children, with Kate and Mary bringing up the rear.



"God, I hope you were listening." Grant Collins breathed
softly, as he waited for the others.





He had thought about their chances a great deal while he
sat waiting for the sun to go down. He knew nothing about kids,
and little more about women, but looking at them now, he hoped
they were up to the challenge ahead of them.



Tommy Anderson, at age fifteen, was the oldest of the
children. Then came two girls, both age thirteen. Another girl who
was twelve, a nine year old boy, a little girl age six, and finally
Alexander, a tough as nails five year old boy.



Of the women, Kate seemed the strongest, followed by Anne
and Mary, but knowing little about any of them, Grant with held his
final judgment.



It was Ruth who concerned him most. Ruth and her baby...



The baby, Grant realized, would be their biggest problem.
The little tyke made an enormous amount of noise, and every
Apache in the country could hear him putting up his fuss. Not that,
that mattered, Tiaz and his followers already knew where they
were.



Still, a baby... the heat, the sand, the lack of food and water...
How could he possibly survive?



Grant Collins cleared his mind from further thought as the
others gathered about him. It was time.



The going was fairly easy at first, but when they left the pass
and entered the semi soft sand of the desert region, it slowed them
down considerably.



"How we doing?" Grant asked, when they made their second
rest stop of the evening. As near as he could figure, they had
covered a little over six miles. "We're about half way." He told
them, his eyes piercing the darkness to study the women and
children.



This first leg of the journey was the most important one as
far as Grant was concerned. It was to be the measuring stick with
which he could judge their overall chances of making it out alive.



So far, he reluctantly admitted, things were going better than
he'd hoped, but they were still a long way from meeting their first
goal.



When they moved out again, Grant Collins set off at a slower
pace. Twice more he had to stop to let everyone catch up. They
were all getting tired. The children beginning to lag and fall behind
as the sand pulled at their young legs, draining them of energy.



"Catch up now." He urged them. "It's only a little further.
Then we can all rest."



When they finally neared the seep, the sun had already
been up for an hour and their spirits were dragging.



Calling a halt, Grant Collins moved forward while the others
lay down where they were and tried to rest.



It looked quiet enough, still he spent a slow half hour
studying the place before returning to the others.



"It looks safe," He told them. "but lets not take any chances.
Mary, you watch the right, Anne, the left, and Kate, you watch our
backside. Tommy..."



"Yes, Sir." Tommy spoke up, stepping nearer to where Grant
stood.



"You come up front with me."



The seep lay amongst a jumble of rocks and scattered
brush. The outer layer dry and thorny, the inner green and alive
with life.



Little shade was to be found unless one could crawl under one of the brush, and that was risky at best. Snakes could often be
found there, shading themselves from the sun.



The water, what little there was, was cool and sweet,
seeping to the surface from some unknown source. It was an oasis
for the weary traveler who knew of its existence and it was life
itself for the creatures of the desert.



"Try and get some sleep." Grant told them, after they had all
had a little drink. He knew it would take hours to fill their canteens,
but then they had time. He didn't plan to set out again until the sun
was nearly down.



"I'll take the first watch." He told them once they had settled
down. "Then I'll wake Tommy. Kate, Anne, then Mary will follow.
Each of you will have a two hour shift." Grant added as he turned
to find a good spot from which to keep watch. "And don't do any
needless moving around. This is prime snake country."



"What about me?" Ruth Harley asked. "I can keep watch
too."



"You've got your hands full the baby. Besides, you'll need to
conserve your strength more than the rest of us, nursing the way
you are." Grant blushed as he spoke. What the hell did he know
about babies and nursing mothers?



"I can do my share!" Ruth protested, not wanting any special
treatment or to be left out of what needed to be done. "The others
will help me with the baby, won't you?" She added, glancing at the
other women.



"All right," Grant relented, as the women answered Ruth's
question with approval and ending the conversation before his
face got any redder. "You can work it out with the others, but right
now you and that baby get some sleep."



He would have argued the point further, but good sense told
him it would do no good. The one thing he absolutely knew about
women was that you couldn't argue with one when they thought
they were right, and Ruth thought she was right in wanting to help.



"Any more questions or complaints?" Grant asked, but none
came forth. "All right, get some rest."



Time passed slowly. The others finally settling down to catch
what little rest they could. For Grant Collins it was more time to
reflect, time to plan, but more so, it was a time to watch. He had
seen the three Apache's sitting just out side of rifle range with in
the first half hour of their arrival at the seep, but he had kept quiet,
not wishing to alarm the others until there was need to.



His heart had leapt into his throat, but as the time ticked by
and they failed to move, he breathed a little easier.



Tiaz, he figured, was keeping to his word, leaving their
deaths to the desert.



"Seen anything?" Tommy asked, coming up to where Grant
sat. He had said two hour shifts, but he had sat for three and a half
hours, wanting to be sure of the Apaches and wanting to give the
others as much rest as they could get.



"Buzzards, heat waves, and those three Apache's sitting out
there, just watching us." Grant replied, pointing out the Indians
with his finger.



Tommy took an involuntary step backward, his eyes going to
the Apache's, then to the lone buzzard soaring high overhead.
Lastly, he look at Grant Collins' face. The man looked tired, but
unafraid, and Tommy's nerve steadied.



"What should I do, keep my eye on them?" Tommy asked,
hesitantly.



"Just watch, Tommy." Grant Collins replied with a tired, but
sincere smile. "Keep an eye on them, but also watch all around
you." Grant continued, not sure if Tommy would understand.
"Those three Apache's out there, their testing us. You see, if you
only watch those three out there, others can sneak up behind us
while your attention is drawn to the three in front. Do you see what
I mean?"



"Yes, Sir, I'll watch good, Mister Collin, and I won't let you
down." Tommy answered somberly, not yet sure what Grant was
trying to tell him.



"I know you won't, Tommy, but you call me if anything
happens." Grant said, passing Tommy his watch. "Two hours, then
wake up Kate." He added, and started to turn away, but stopped
and turned back to the boy.



"I'll let you in on something, Tommy." He told the boy.
"Those Apache's out there are just watching us. Maybe later on, if
they think we're going to make it out of here, they'll attack us. Right
now though, they just want to watch and see how we make out."



Grant Collins left it at that and sought out a place to bed
down. It was hell lying where he was, even the little bit of shade
he'd found couldn't block out the heat of the day.



Sweat stung at his eyes and ran down his neck. Sleep, he
told himself, would never come, but he did. All of the exhausting
hours of the past few days, the physical exertion and the loss of
blood, finally caught up with him, and he slept a troubled sleep.



The smell of coffee and salt pork awoke him. It was nearly
dark, and considerably cooler, as he stood and shook out his
boots. "Alls quiet." Anne Fossy said, moving toward him with a cup
of coffee in her hand. "They left a little while ago."


V.




The coffee was hot, strong and bitter, like he liked it. As he
drank it, Grant Collins could feel the renewal of life flowing through
his weary body.



The food smelled equally as good to him, but he passed on
it even though his stomach growled. There was little enough as it
was, and the others would need it more than him before it was all
over.



Their meal was finished, the packs a bit lighter, Grant set off
at a steady pace designed to eat up the miles as best they could.
The children were tired. They all were, but they made four good
miles before they started to lag and fall behind.





"Close up!" Grant called softly as he waited, urging them
onward. They were trying, but he knew if they had to struggle here,
where the travel was still fairly easy...



"Close up now, close up!" He called again.



When he halted a couple of miles further with the sun
beginning to creep up over the horizon, Grant Collins let his mind
see what lay ahead of them.



Sandoval's well was in a quiet hollow that at first appearance
looked serene. It wasn't. It was the center of hell. The heart of
Apache country.



There were shade tree's there, or what passed as tree's, and
if his memory served him right, they would find most of the adobe
house still standing. One wall was partially caved in, and the roof
had been burned, but they could make a stand there if need be,
but he doubted they would have to.



Hours later, Ruth stumbled beside him and he caught her
up. They had been at it for over nine hours, and they still had close
to three miles to go before they reached Sandovals. "Here," He
said steadying her. "let me carry the baby for awhile."



All of them were plodding along now, and the children had
begun to whine and grumble.



"It's not much further." He told them, taking Ruth's baby into
his clumsy hands.



Mary Branson smiled as she came up to him. The baby was
strange to him. So tiny, yet some how there was something nice
and...



"I'd better take him." Mary said, her smile replaced by a look
of concern. "You might need your hands free."



Grant Collins stood, unsure of the sudden change that had
come over Mary. "Behind you." She said, taking the baby from his
arms.



There were six of them, almost naked, sitting their horse just
outside the reach of his rifle. They watched the scattered
procession as they struggled to reach the point where Grant stood
waiting.



"Let them watch." Grant said, as he eased himself down to
the ground. "We'll take a rest."





Slowly, the others sat down beside him. They were all beat,
and like him, they were too tired to care about the Apaches. Not
even when the six started to ride wildly around them, did they
move or say anything.



Finally though, Grant Collins pushed to his feet. The sun
was getting hotter by the minute, and he knew they had to get out
of it before it sapped what little strength they had left.



"Lets go." He said quietly, waiting for the others to struggle
to their feet.



Starting out anew, with eyes that watched the Apache's
stopped their circling and follow, the group moved on. It was nerve
wracking for the women and children, but the Apache's showed no
intent of attacking until they neared Sandoval's ruined adobe.



There, one suddenly charged, sending chills along the
spines of the women and children. Grant Collins stood and waited,
his rifle held ready in sore sweaty hands.



"Steady now," He told the others. "they're just trying to spook
us."



At the last moment, as Grants rifle came level, the Apache
veered off, and the column continued on to the adobe.



It was already noon. They had made poor time, and they
were whipped as they fell, exhausted, into the shade of the tree's,
or hurried as best they could to the cool water of the well.



"How long can we keep this up?" Grant asked himself, as he
moved around the yard checking on the others. "Not long
enough." He answered himself cynically.



Rounding the backside of the adobe, Grant Collins head
snapped upright. In his path stood Tiaz, the Apache leader, his
black eyes staring his hatred of the White eyes before him.



"You do well, White eyes," Tiaz spoke fair English, but the
words were like poison in his mouth. "to make it this far... Any
Apache child could do this though, and make better time of it. You
are dead White eyes."



"Soon you will face the waste sand. Your squaws and
children will see the vanishing water. They will run toward it, only
to find that it is a mirage. They will forget to care. Lay down like old
dogs and beg for death to come quickly, but it will not. They will
suffer, and you will suffer watching them die."



Grant Collins studied the deep brown face before him. There
was a scar above one cruel, black eye, and there was death in the
rippling muscles of the Apache. Grant knew what Tiaz said was
true, but he refused to admit it. Instead, he said nothing as the two
men measured their strength and wills against the other.



Finally, Tiaz spun around, and with a call of "Vamanose,"
three others joined him. Then they were riding off into the
shimmering heat waves leaving Grant staring dumbfounded.



He's right, he told himself. "There's not one chance in hell..."
Grant said aloud, as he picked up a handful of sand and threw it
angrily back to the earth.



"Who are you talking to?" Kate asked, startling him as she
rounded the corner of the building to see him standing and staring
out into the desert. "I thought I heard voices."



"Tiaz was just here." Grant told her, and saw the fear raise in
her face. "He wanted to tell me that we haven't got a chance in
hell. Wanted me to know that he was out there, watching and
waiting for us to die... maybe he's right, maybe we don't have a
chance."



"You got us this far didn't you?" Katherine Rice asked. "We'll
make it. I know we will!" She added, taking his arm and leading
him back to the others. "Get some rest, I'll bring you some food
and water in just a bit."



The heat of the day fogged Grant's brain. He was tired and
disenchanted at their chances of getting through the sands alive,
and his short talk with Kate only added to his misery. She didn't
understand, none of them did. They had no idea what it was going
to be like to have to try and walk across those twenty miles of
waste sand, no...



Grant Collins awoke with a start. Darkness had fallen while
he slept, and for a minute, he just sat listening, his breath coming
rapidly, his heart beating like a drum in his chest.



What had awaken him, he didn't know. A nightmare perhaps,
or was it something real? Something out there in the darkness...



Hurriedly, trying to make as little noise as he could, Grant
Collins slipped on his boots and faded away into the night
shadows where he knelt down beside a bush.



Clouds covered the moon, blackening for a time at least, the
hollow as he peered about him.



What was it? What had awaken him? He wondered again,
as he tried in vain to spot something other than the shapes he
knew to be the women and children.



Fifteen minutes passed and he neither heard nor saw
anything unusual. Nothing was out of place with his memory of the
old ruin, yet he still wasn't convinced it was safe.



A crawling sensation was running the lenght of his spine,
and the hairs on the back of his neck were standing straight up.



What is it, he silently asked himself? Still, he could find no
answer.



Straining his ears, Grant Collins listened a moment longer
for some out of the ordinary sound. Nothing, and yet his sixth
sense warned him of danger somewhere out beyond his view.



Lifting himself up a half an inch, Grant froze in place as a
wraith slipped past him. A ghostly shadow that made no noise as it
moved toward the women and children.



Grant Collins moved. "Krckk..." It was just a little sound. A
rock grating under his boot heel, but it was loud enough to alert
the Apache ahead of him.



There was no time for grappling, no chance for silence
anymore...



As the young Apache lunged at him, knife held low for a
killing thrust, Grant Collins instinctively drew and fired. The orange
wink of death shattered the night. The Apache took the heavy
caliber slug in his chest and crumpled to the ground.



"Get up!" Grant shouted, running toward where the women
and children were rising with their fear. "The house!" He shouted
at them, helping them to their feet.



Two more phantoms showed out of the darkness, and Grant
Collins fired hasty shots in their direction. "Get to the house!"



The women and children were moving now, hurry toward the
ruined adobe. Behind him, Grant Collins heard the bark of rifles
and felt the angry whine of a bullet as it zipped past his ear and
thudded into the thick wall of the adobe.



A fraction of a second later, he heard a scream from inside
the house, then the sharp bark of a forty five caliber pistol.



Ducking his head low, Grant Collins plunged into the ruin as
another shot clipped past his head.
Burnt powder smoke drifted to his nostril, and he looked into the
blackness, sensing more than seeing that everyone was all right.



"What happened?" He asked softly, but he already knew the
answer as his boot toe found the body on the dusty floor.



"He was waiting when I came in," Anne Fossy said, visibly
shaken. "I... I shot him!"



"Shh, now." Mary Branson soothed, putting her arm around
Anne and talking to her softly.



There was nothing Grant could do, nor did he have time to
offer his comfort. Two more Apaches showed themselves as they
rushed the adobe where the wall was broken down.



Moonlight lit their faces briefly, and Grant Collins let them
come on. Waiting until they had almost reached the shadows of
the adobe, then his pistol bucked in his hand.



At the same time he fired, a rifle barked nearby him. Then all
was quiet.



"You do that well." He said to Kate, who still held her rifle
ready.



"My father taught me when I was just a little girl." She
replied, her eyes still focused out into the hollow.



"It's alright, now," He told her, his hands gently taking the
rifle from her hands. "They're gone."



As they continued to watch, the night became utterly still
except for the occasional croak of a desert frog or the buzz of
some winged insect.



"Do you think they will come again?" Kate finally asked,
break the silence between them.



Grant Collins thought about his answer for a long ten
seconds. "Not anymore tonight." He told her, then added. "Why
don't you all try and get some sleep. I'll keep watch just to be
sure."



"But..."



"It's all right, we'll be staying here for a day or so. We all
need the rest."


VI.




One at a time, Grant dragged the dead Apache's out of the
adobe and lay them along side the two who had charged the
broken down wall of the adobe. Finished, we went back inside and
sat down beside Kate.



Again, they sat quietly, each busy with thought, each feeling
the others presence. They had all settled down, their fears giving
way to their exhaustion.



"Do we have any chance at all, Grant?" Kate asked softly.



It was the first time Katherine Rice had used his first name,
and Grant liked the way it sounded on her lips. Earlier, she had
been so strong, but now sitting so near, she sounded soft, almost
vulnerable.



"There's always a chance." He told her. "As long as we're
alive, we have a chance."



Grant Collins paused a moment, his ears straining to hear
the night sounds of the hollow. "Tiaz said he was going to let the
desert kill us. This bunch that came tonight... I doubt he sent them.
They were probably just young bucks out to make a name for
themselves and if I miss my guess, there'll be hell to pay in his
camp come morning."



"You sound like you know him, like him even." Anne Fossy
said, getting up from where she had been sitting.



Grant Collins sighed his replied. "I know him all right. I've
fought against him once or twice, and there are few better at his
kind of warfare... As far as liking him goes...I don't, but I do respect
him."



"You can say that, after what he's done to us?" There anger
and bitterness in Anne Fossy's voice.



Hidden by the darkness of the ruined adobe, Grant Collins
shook his head. He knew further pursuit of the conversation was
dangerous, yet he wanted them to understand how things were.



"Let me tell you about him, then maybe you'll understand a
bit better." Grant said quietly. "Tiaz is of a mixed race, and
because of that, he's had to be tough. Tough on the whites,
Mexicans, and even tougher on his own people.



"He's had to fight for everything he gets," Grant continued.
"and he is stronger because of it. Those young bucks that came
here tonight went against him and if there are any of them left, he'll
punish them.



"Strange as this might sound, Tiaz is a man of his word after
a fashion. He rules with an iron fist, and he's smart. He knows the
White eyes well. He was educated by the missionaries and he's
scouted for the army a time or..."



"But if he's part white and educated, why is he doing this to
us?" Kate interrupted. "Why does he hate us so much?"



"It's hard to say why people do what they do, but in this
case, I think I understand." Grant replied. "You see, Tiaz's mother
was a Mexican woman who was captured by the Apache in a raid.
His father was a half breed Apache. The son of a captured white
woman..."



"Tiaz despises the Mexicans because a Mexican army patrol
caught his band up in the mountain.



"What happened?" Ruth Harkley asked, coming over and
joining them.



"It was a complete surprise and only a handful of them got
away. Tiaz was one of them. Anyhow, as the story goes, the
Apaches ran with the Mexicans following close behind them, or so
they thought."



"Tiaz hadn't been running. He had sent out word to the other
bands and was just biding his time. Then he led that Mexican army
straight into hell."



"He wiped them out... One hundred and seven of them."



"Oh, My God." Mary Branson breathed, as she too, joined
the others.



"That was the beginning. For a long time after that, Tiaz just
raided and killed in Mexico. Then a pair of white hide hunters
caught his wife and small son. They killed the boy. Slit his throat
while his mother watched. Then they used her until they were tired
of her... what they did to her afterward was unhuman."



"And he blames all white people for what happened, is that
it?" Kate asked.



"Partly," Grant replied. "but there’s more to it than just that.
Tiaz was off scouting for the army at that time. When he found out
what happened to his wife, he went crazy with grief. Then he went
cold. He tracked those two that had killed his wife and child and
when he caught them, there wasn't much left of them for the
buzzards to feed on."



"The army was sent after him, to bring him in to face murder
charges..."



"Murder charges?" Kate gasped. "After what they did to his
wife?"



"I agree," Grant said softly. "but Tiaz isn't a white man, so
the laws are all against him. In the eyes of the white man he's
nothing more than a killer."



"Who knows maybe he is. He certainly has left a trail of
death and destruction behind him since that happened."



Grant Collins stood up, feeling the weariness with in him.
"It's late, you all best get some sleep." He told them. "I'm going out
for a look see, so don't go blowing my head off when I come
back."



"I'll watch for you." Kate volunteered.



"All right." Grant replied, as the others moved off to try and
get some sleep.



The sky was already beginning to show trace's of gray as he
slipped out to make his scout. The hollow lay empty. Other than a
spot of blood here and there, there was no sign of last night fight
or its aftermath.



How many Apache's had been there, or how many had been
killed, Grant Collins had no idea. It was rare when you really knew.
Somehow the Apache's always managed to spirit away their dead
leaving you wondering.



Grant Collins felt the chill run the length of his spine. It was
true even now... The bodies of the four he knew for sure had been
killed were gone!





Slowly, carefully, he began a study of the hollow. Nothing
stirred except his keen eyes moving from side to side. He saw nor
heard nothing that didn't belong, and after a slow hour, he called
to the others.



Minutes later, coffee was on and he could smell the good
odors of food cooking. He could see the children playing and
laughing like there were no troubles on earth.



How great it would be to be a child again, Grant thought,
smiling at the sight. Children, it seemed, adapted well to almost
any situation, and made the best of it.



"Quite a sight to see, isn't it, Mister Collins?" Anne Fossy
said, startling him.



"If only we could all be like children..." Grant replied
absently. His mind had already gone to what lay ahead of them
and their prospects of making it.



They had food for a couple of days yet, and if nothing
happened, they might rest up enough for the hard trek across the
sand.



The sound of approaching horses sent his heart leaping into
his throat. Twice, he had to try before words came out of his
mouth, and when he finally did, he was yelling for everyone to get
inside the adobe.





"Inside! Everyone inside the house!" He shouted.



This is it, he told himself. Tiaz had come to finish the job.



"Kate load for us, and watch the roof. Anne, you and Mary
watch the back of the place. Tommy, you stay with me." Grant
Collins shouted his orders. He was thinking again, and he told
himself if this was to be it, they would at least be able to put up a
fight.

They had shelter and a clear field of fire...



"What about me?" Ruth asked, momentarily distracting him.



"Take care of the children." He said, turning to her.



"But I can..."



"This is no time to argue." Grant snapped. "If you have a
gun, use it if you have to, but keep those children down and out of
the way."



Grant Collins saw the dust long before they saw the rider top
out on the crest of the hollow. "Hold your fire, until I tell you to
shoot." He told the others.



He could see Tiaz in the center of the band as they pulled
their ponies to a halt, dust settling around the horse hooves. Had it
not been for the danger they represented, they would have made
a magnificent picture sitting there with the sun coming up behind
them.



"White eyes," Tiaz called out, walking his horse forward
slowly. One hand held the reins, in the other he held his war lance.



Grant Collins watched him come on, his heart beating hard
in his chest. He saw him stop when he was with in fifty feet of the
dwelling...



Tiaz was measuring them. Like a good general, Tiaz was
searching for that edge that would give him a victory without
having to pay too high a price.



"You fight well in the darkness!" Tiaz called.



Behind him, Grant Collins heard a rifle's hammer eared back
and he spun, jerking the rifle from Ruth's hand.



"No!" He hissed. "He's just hear to talk!"



"How can you..." She burst into tears and Kate folded her
into her arms.



"White eyes," Tiaz called again, and this time Grant Collins
stepped to the doorway. "Your eyes are like those of a hunting
panther, and your ears like the wild mustang. Those you killed
were young and did not listen to me when I told them you were a
great warrior who would be difficult to kill."



The Apache leader moved his horse nearer to where Grant
stood. Briefly, their eyes met and held. Then Tiaz continued.



"If I had been here last night, I would have killed you, but you
would have known it was me, for I would want you to see me as
my knife slid into your soft belly." The Apache paused to let his
eyes take in the surrounding hollow. "You have food and water
here. I will give you more. Rest White eyes, for I want to see how
you handle the sands."



Tiaz wave his lance above his head in a slow circling motion
and Grant Collins watched as a young warrior rode down off the
crest of the hollow carrying a haunch of meat wrapped in hide.



When the meat was dropped at Grant's feet, Tiaz went on. "I
want to watch you suffer, White eyes, as the sun burns your flesh
and your skin shrivels on your bones."



"Your tongues will dry out and turn black. The desert will turn
you mad, and I will be there to see you die!"



"And what happens if we make it across the sands and to
the Agua at the Three Rocks?" Grant asked, his eyes meeting the
black eyes of the Apache leader.



"You are a fool! You will never make it that far." Tiaz spoke
his contempt, but Grant pressed him.



"What will happen if we make it?"



"Then I will say you are indeed a great warrior," Tiaz replied.
"and I will come and kill you myself."



"What of the women and children?" Grant Collins stepped
further outside and into the sunlight. "Does Tiaz make war on the
helpless? Is he so weak that he has to kill sheep instead of
tigers?"



It was a slap in the face and a risk that could bring the
Apaches down upon them now, but as long as they were talking,
Grant Collins wanted to know where exactly they stood.



"They will all be dead before you leave the sand, White
eyes. It is written on the winds." Tiaz spat the words. "But if you
live, I will show you how I kill tigers."



"No!" Grant Collins anger showed in his words. "Tiaz is
wrong. They will not die in the sand. They will live because they
are strong like the Apache. What will Tiaz do then?"



"We shall see, White eyes." Tiaz replied, avoiding the
question. "Eat now. Rest! Gather your strength, so I may watch the
tiger die a slow death. My people will bother you no more!" With
that, he raised his spear high over his head, and galloped his
horse to the top of the crest. The others took one last, hate filled
look, then turned and followed their leader.


VII.




There it was. Grant Collins knew where they stood now.
They all knew! Tiaz meant to kill them all, but first he wanted them
to suffer.



Bitterly, Grant turned to go back inside, but the others were
coming out now, so he just sat down where he was.



His spirit was gone. He had hope Tiaz would let them live, or
at least let the women and children live if they made it across the
sands and to the Agua at the Three Rocks, but now...



Kate sat beside him, letting her head rest against his
shoulder. It was dead quiet. No one felt like talking, not even the
children.



They had all heard Tiaz say they would die, and they were
beginning to realize just how hopeless the situation was.



Mechanically, they went through the motions of eating the
food they had started to prepare before the Apache's had come.



"Is it that bad?" Anne Fossy asked when Grant put his half
eaten plate of food aside.



"No. I guess I'm just not hungry right now." Grant sighed.



"I know what you mean." Anne told him, placing her hand on
his shoulder and gently squeezing it. "No one else felt much like
eating either. What do we do now?" She asked.



Grant Collins remained silent for a long time as he gave the
question thought. What could they do? All hope was gone... or
was it?



What had he told Kate? As long as they were alive, there
was a chance. They had guns, and they could fight if it came to
that. If only they could make it across the sands...



Suddenly, Grant Collins felt better. It wasn't in him to quit.
He'd never known what the word meant, and he wasn't about to
start finding out now.



Grant Collins head lifted. Turning first to Anne, then to Kate.
"We do what Tiaz said, we eat his food, rest up, then head out
across the sands."



For two days, they rested, eating from their food supplies
and stocking up on water as best they could.



"Drink your fill, then drink some more." Grant told them
thinking of the sands. "It will help."



It was peaceful in the hollow around Sandoval’s well. The
children playing games, the women smiling and talking, but just
below the surface lay the memory of their loss.



At night, one or more could be heard trying to hold back their
tears.



Grant Collins avoided the others as best as he could. Not
out of meanness or lack of sympathy, but out of guilt. He blamed
himself for the ambush and the loss of so many good people, yet
Kate found him often, and they spent precious minutes enjoying
simple small talk.



Neither ever really said much, it wasn't necessary, just being
together brought them both a measure of peace.



"It's time." Grant told them on the afternoon of the second
day. "Pack whatever we got left, and drink your fill. Then we'll go."



It wasn't the way to go, traveling in the hot sun, but Baker's
Spring hole lay only five miles away, and Grant Collins had hopes
of reaching it before the sun went down or just after. And he had
hopes of getting a shot at some extra meat, and he wouldn't be
particular what it was, just as long as it was edible.



No one talked as they moved out, the hot sun upon their
backs. No one gave thought about Tiaz or his band of Apache's.
This was the part of the journey they had all dreaded, and each
step held both triumph and fear.



Perhaps, for some or all of them, this would be the last leg of
the journey called life. Each one knew that out on the cruel sands,
they might meet with their final resting place, but they all had
hope, faith in their God above, and trust in the man who led them.



As the miles slipped slowly past, the sun gave way to the
coolness of dusk, giving them the energy to reach the promising
cool waters of the spring hole.



"I'm going on ahead." Grant Collins told the others as the
drew nearer. "I want a chance to scout the area out and maybe get
a shot at something extra to put in the pot. Just follow along at
your own pace. Watch for my fire."



The plan was to make a brief stop to replenish their water,
eat a fast meal and rest awhile before tackling the twenty miles of
loose ankle deep sand and the blistering heat they would face
come morning.



"All right." Kate replied, speaking for the others as well.



Thirty minutes after he's left them, the women and children
jumped, startled by the angry whine of a rifle being fired in the
distance.



Fear gripped them as they pressed slowly forward... What
would they find? Would Grant be waiting for them, or would Tiaz
and his Apache's be there to kill them?



Katherine Rice's heart pounded in her chest as a rifle spoke
a second time. They were closer now, and she quickened her
pace, clutching her rifle firmer into her hands. She had to know...



"Kate," Mary Branson called to her. "You're going to fast!
The children can't keep up."



"He'll be there waiting for us when we get there." Ruth
Harkley added, coming up beside her where she stood waiting for
the others to catch up. "He's all right, I know he is."



"Fire!" Tommy shouted excitedly. "I see a fire."



All eyes lifted to where his finger pointed. It was there. A tiny
flame winking in the gathering darkness, then they were all moving
again.



Grant Collins met the weary travelers at the edge of the
spring hole and led them in. Over his small fire roasted a pair of
desert jacks and a small rattle snake. He had been lucky, and
because of his luck, they would eat and still retain some of their
carried stores.



"Smells good." Kate commented, giving Grant a little smile of
relief.



"I'll get some coffee started." Ruth volunteered, handing her
young one to Mary.



"Good Idea." Mary told her, hoisting the infant in tired arms
over her head and down.



"Sorry I spooked you all." Grant smiled. "Sound travels a
long way out here." He told them in response to their questioning
eyes, as he found a seat amongst the boulders.



It was higher up from where the others sat, resting and
eating. Through out the trip to the spring hole, Grant had let his
eyes search the country side for the Apache's that always seemed
to be shadowing their every step, but he had not seen any and it
left him wondering.



Had the Apache's left them, and gone on to the other side of
the sands to wait for them, or were they hidden in some unkown
shelter with in the sands?



Grant Collins was still pondering over his questions when he
heard footsteps behind him and he turned to see Kate. He knew
her walk by now, and he welcomed the sound of it. She gave him
strength when she was near, and somehow she eased some of
the pain he felt inside. The guilt that tormented his soul.



"Come join us for a little while." She smiled at him, reaching
out and taking his hand. "The others want to know something
about you, like where you're from and that sort of thing."



"Not much to tell, and it's pretty boring stuff." Grant told her,
as she tugged at his arm. He didn't feel like talking, but he let her
pull him up and lead him back to the others.



"Here he is." Kate smiled, to the others as they entered the
circle of light from the small fire.



"Well," Anne started, "lets hear about you, Mister Collins. We
know you are a guide, and that you are a brave man, but tell us
the real story behind the man."



"Like what?" Grant squirmed a bit, then grinned sheepishly.
"Like I told Kate, it's pretty boring stuff." He was unaccustomed to
getting attention from women. He knew his face was shading red,
and he thanked the darkness for covering his embarrassment.



"Where you from, Mister Collins?" Ruth Harkley asked.



"Here, there and everywhere," Grant replied. "I guess my
home is where my hat happens to be hanging at the time, but
originally I came from New York."



Katherine Rice sat on a rock, listening with interest. Yet,
looking at him, she felt a twinge of guilt run through her. What right
did she have to be thinking about him, the way she was? She
knew the answer though. She was falling in love with Grant Collins.



"And what did you do in New York?" Mary Branson asked,
interrupting Kate's thoughts.



"Well, mostly I got into trouble." He teased, then his
statement got serious as his life came flooding back to him.



Thinking on it a moment, it seemed to Grant that all he had
ever done was work, sweat and bleed for someone else's benefit.
That's why he had left, because he wanted something for his own.



"As far as work goes," He told them. "I did a lot of different
things. I was a store keeper for a bit, a blacksmith... I unloaded
ships cargo, and right before I left to make my own way in the
world, I was working as a night guard at a lumber mill."



"Did you leave the city to find yourself?" Anne asked
seriously.



"I don't know, maybe..." Grant hesitated, then went on. "Jobs
like those I worked, are all right, I guess, but I wanted to see more
of the world, and I wanted a chance to be my own boss for a
change."



He answered more questions, but when thirteen year old
Molly asked him if he'd ever been married, Grant Collins looked up
at the night sky and put a close to the chatter. "Its getting late,
we'd better be moving out soon if we want to get halfway across
the sands by daylight."



"I guess you are right." Kate agreed, as she gracefully rose
to her feet. She wanted to hear the answer to Molly's question, but
she didn't press him, knowing as well as the others that they had a
long, hard journey ahead of them.



The wind had begun to pick up, and it bothered Grant as
they started across the twenty miles of sand.



Tiaz's words, "It is written on the wind", haunted him, and he
wondered if the Apache's knew something he did not.



Was it possible that they were walking into a dust storm, He
wondered? Was that why he hadn't seen the Apaches shadowing
them as they walked?



Grant Collins shrank from the idea. To cross the desert
sands on horse was difficult enough, but their lives depended
upon their ability to make it across on foot...



A dust storm could, and probably would, spell the end for
them, unless they could find shelter.





Glancing up at the dark skies, Grant noticed a haze that
hadn't been there when they started out, and he unconsciously
picked up the pace. Soon, however, the others began to lag and
fall behind, and he had to stop and let them catch up to him.


VIII.




They made three miles, a bit more perhaps, then the wind
began to pick up. Tiny particles of sand lifted high into the air,
stinging their faces and biting into their exposed flesh. Try as they
did, they could not escape it. All they could do was hang their
heads and keep moving.



Another miles passed slowly and Grant Collins knew they
could go no further. The children were lagging further and further
behind and the risk of becoming separated from one of them
increased with each step.



Around them, the wind was beginning to howl, and the night
stars were disappearing before their very eyes.



"Shit!" He cursed bitterly, as he waited for the others to catch
up again. "The plates! Get the plates out and start digging!" He
shouted above the rising din.



Desperation showed in his voice and the women moved
quickly to comply. "Throw the sand up in front of you, like this."



The idea was to build up a bank in front of them, so the wind
would carry the majority of the blowing sand up and over them, but
as he tossed the sand ahead of him, the wind caught it and blew it
back into his face.



"Just dig, dig or we're all dead! Did until you have a trench
big enough to lie down in." The dust choked him as he shouted at
the others. It was a race against time, one that if they lost, spelled
the end for some or all of them. "Ruth, over here!" Granted
shouted, finishing his trench. "Lay down in here, lay on your side."



When she had, Grant covered her and her baby with his
coat, then moved to help the others. "Kate! Anne! Check on the
children, make sure they are laying on their sides and that their
faces are covered."



Grant Collins only thought was the here and now. If they
lived through the storm, then he could think of tomorrow and face
whatever challenges it presented. He knew the storm would set
them back, perhaps doom them to failure, if it hadn't already, but
he pushed the thought from his mind.



The dust and the blowing sand became fiercer with each
passing minute. It was stifling, and they had to fight the urge with
in themselves to get up and run, to try and escape from the
tempest that raged just over their heads.



Sand trickled into their trenches, settling heavily upon them,
creating a feeling of being buried alive, and they had to resist the
panic that threatened to overwhelm them.



Hour by frightening hour, the storm raged. Sand got into their
clothing, into their eyes, nose, mouth and ears. They gasped for
air that wouldn't come, prayed and tremble with their fears, and
then as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.



Sucking in the fresh air that greeted him, Grant Collins
struggled from his shelter and began pulling bodies out of the
sand. Kate was free, so was Mary, and together they managed to
get everyone free.



Above them, the stars had returned, appearing in the gray of
approaching morning. They were alive, but now they faced the sun
and it infernal heat.



"We have to get moving, it's going to get hot as hell in a few
more hours." Grant told them, as he considered, then rejected
going back to the spring hole.



They could make it back to the spring hole, he knew, but
what if when they got there, the sand had filled it in? They would
be doomed, their strength gone and no where to go.



Slowly, the others staggered to their feet and Grant Collins
led the way, yet they made no more than a mile before they were
finished.



"Come on, keep moving." Grant urged them.



Another half mile and they were scattered once more. The
sun had come up and the heat of the day began to build.



"You're doing good, keep it up, we're going to make it." He
called, as he waited for them to close up, yet no amount of cajoling
or pushing could make them move any further.



It's no use, he told himself as he waited, swaying on his own
tired feet, for them to catch up. They would suffer now as Tiaz had
promised they would, and he was powerless to do anything about
it.



Taking a plate from his pack, Grant slipped to his knee's and
started scooping up the sand. There was no hurry in him. He was
dead tired, but he slowly began to hollow out a trench.



The others stared at him as if he had lost his mind. "Just
enough to get out of the sun a little." He mumbled more to himself
than to anyone, but it reached all of their ears.



Grant Collins knew their water would go quickly, but it
couldn't be help. The dust storm had taken too much out of them.



As he dug, Grant let his eyes survey the others. Beat, all of
them. They were only women and children, and yet, where a
lesser man might have given up, they were still fighting to live.



"That's it," He told the others who wearily tried to help. "take
your time."



Grant Collins dug for what seemed like hours, but at last he
put the plate aside and after checking on the others, he crawled
into his hollow and laid down.



Their shallow pits would shield them from the sun for a time,
but there would be no escaping the heat. They would just have to
endure it as best they could.



"Just a little rest," Grant told himself, as he closed his eyes,
but soon he slept an exhausted sleep.



The sun beating down on his face awoke him. It was hot,
well over a hundred degree's by Grant's estimate, and that spelled
trouble for them all.



Wearily, he staggered out of his hollow to go check on the
others. They were still with him, still alive, and he felt relieved.



"Use the water sparingly." He cautioned them. "Drink only
when you can't stand it anymore."



The sun burned their skin, made their heads feel like they
would explode at any moment, but there was nothing they could
do to escape it as they suffered in their pits.



The air was stifling, the sand beneath them, hot and almost
unbearable. Repeatedly, Grant had to force himself to stay put. He
wanted to run, to hide from the living hell that held him, yet reason
told him there was no escape except the coming of nightfall.



"How’s the baby doing?" Grant asked Ruth, concern showing
on his haggard face. The children were suffering more than the
women, and the little girls more than the boys. Three of their
canteens were already empty, but he knew they had to have the
water.



"He's having trouble breathing, and I am a bit worried." Ruth
answered, looking up at him.



Grant Collins heart went out to her. To lose a husband was
one thing, but to lose her baby would be even worse, yet there
was little he could do to help.



"Please? We've got to do something." Ruth Harkley pleaded.



"Here," Grant said, taking a somewhat soiled bandana from
his pocket and giving it to her. "pour a little water on it and place it
loosely over the babies face. When the water evaporates, it will
cool the air a little..."



Getting up, Grant placed his vest across the pit. It didn't
cover much, but at least it shaded Ruth and the babies head.



The baby and Ruth taken care of as best he could, Grant
Collins found his pit and dozed for a short time.



When he awoke again, it was a trifle bit cooler. The sun no
longer beat directly down upon him though it still shone brightly.



Thirst was on him. His lips dry and cracking, his throat sore
and parched. He had water, more than any of the others, because
he had faced the desert before and knew what lay ahead of them,
but he wanted to conserve it for the children.



One sip, he told himself, through the fog that clouded his
thinking. One small mouthful and no more.



The hours dragged along so slowly, then at last, mercifully,
the sun began to sink low in the bright blue western sky. The
coolness they had prayed for during the long, agonizing hours
came to them on a whisper of a breeze...



Grant Collins sat up in his hollow. His mind was daze. His
movements lethargic, as he half staggered, half crawled to check
on the others. They were in bad shape, the children looking more
dead than alive, but they were still with him, even the baby.



"We've got to get moving now." He croaked, as they
gathered around him in the last of the daylight. Their canteens
were empty, except for what his held, and a small amount that
remained in Kate’s.



"One sip," Grant told them, offering his canteen to the
children first.



Though the water was hot and stale, it eased some of their
thirst and gave them back a tiny bit of energy. Grant Collins knew
it wouldn't be enough.



Through out the night, they trudged on with no thought of
where they were going. They were just following the tall, dark
figure in front of them.



Miles drifted slowly passed on hours that seemed to drag on
forever. They fell, struggled back up, then staggered further, only
to fall again, but they kept at it until Grant stopped to let them rest.



Grant Collins mind was a blur with thoughts and questions
that he couldn't quite seem to find the answers to.



How far had they come before the sand storm hit them, he
wondered, scratching his bewhiskered chin? How far did they
have to go before they made it to the tanks?



Did they have a chance? How much longer could they go
on? What if the tanks were dry? What if Tiaz was waiting for them?
The questions screamed for answers, but he couldn’t come up with
them try though he did.



"Think, damn it, think!" Grant breathed, as he waited for the
others to catch up with him.



He had been rationing the water as best as he could, giving
them each a small sip at every third rest stop, but as he watched
them struggle toward him, his thoughts turned grim. They'll never
make it, he told himself, yet he urged them on.



The mountains, black slumbering shapes against the night
sky, were growing ever so slowly in the distance. Grant Collins
knew they were gaining ground, though slowly it was. By his
estimate, they still had five or six good hours of walking before the
sun came up, but he knew they would never make it free of the
sands in that time.



Sloshing the water around in the canteen, Grant Collins
made his decision. It was a gamble, but they had to have water.



"Kate." He called out, waiting and watching as she came up
to him. "Keep them moving. I know their dead on their feet, but
keep them going. Head straight at that highest peak, and no
matter what, stay in line with it."



"Why?" She asked, not understanding. "Where are you
going to be?"



"I'm going on alone, Kate. We can't make it tonight, and we'll
need water if we're going to have any chance at all. Just keep
them moving until the sun has been up for two hours, then dig in
like we did yesterday." He could see the doubt in her eyes.
Thoughts that he was abandoning them were written on her face
and it hurt him.



"I don't know if I can make it, but I have to try. If I do, I should
find you sometime around two or three in the afternoon, maybe
sooner... Kate, it's our only hope." He added, handing her the
canteen.



"But..."



"Listen to me, Kate, the rest of you too. I'm not running out
on you! I'll be back. If not, then I'll be dead, because that's the only
thing that will stop me. Without water, we're all finished." Grant
was doing his best to ease the hurt and betrayal they were feeling.



"Kate has what little water there is left, but you'll have to
save it until you stop in the morning. Take a sip then, the rest
sometime around noon."



"I won't lie to you... we're in trouble. Bad trouble, and some
of you might not make it if we don't get water soon."



"You've got to hang on, fight for it. No matter how bad it gets,
keep telling yourself, I'm going to make it. Then believe it!" Grant
said, as he faced them all.



Four women and a handful of children. They should have
given up back at the wagons when they lost everything worth living
for, but they didn't. Their husbands, fathers and mothers, their
loved ones were all gone. They were dead tired, but they were still
game, still willing to fight on.



When they had rested for half an hour, Grant Collins
gathered up the empty canteens, then took Kate aside. "If I'm not
back by the time the sun starts to set, you'll know something’s
happened to me. I'll be dead, so you will have to lead them."



"The tanks are there, three of them, and you can't miss
them. There's a trail leading right up to them."



Even in the shape he was in, Grant Collins figured he could
make a mile per hour through the sand that dragged at his feet.



Twice, during the first hour, he fell, staggered up and moved
on, falling four more times over the next hour, and six the hour
after...



Grant Collins lost track of the number of times the sand
pulled him down, but when he fell the last time, he skinned his
hands and knee's on gravel mixed with sand.



He lay there, resting, his mind trying to absorb something
that just wouldn't come to his tired brain. At last, with the sun
peaking over the horizon, it came to him.



He'd made it! He was out of the deep sand.


Staggering to his feet, Grant Collins looked numbly at his battered hands. Burned, blistered and scraped by gravel, they were bleeding, but the pain failed to reach him.



"You can do it," He muttered to himself with words that
sounded almost garbled. "you're almost there."



Moving on a few paces, Grant Collins stopped and looked
back the way he had come. He was hoping to catch a glimpse of
the others, but he knew they couldn't have kept up to the kind of
pace he'd set for himself.



His legs were wooden, but the harder packed sand and
gravel made it easier for him as he started on and upward. The
foothills and peaks growing larger with each staggered step. Then
he was there...



He came to the first tank suddenly. It looked empty, but
digging out some of the sand that filled the bottom, Grant Collins
managed to get a mouthful of muddy water. He held it, savored it.
Let his dry mouth absorb it, then at last, let it slowly trickle down
his moisture starved throat.



The second tank was half full, and after having filled the
canteens, Grant Collins sipped at the cool water, resting and
looking out into the shimmering sand.



What of the others, he wondered, were they still alive? How
far did they get? Could he make it back to them in time?



Getting up to his feet, Grant Collins started up the trail to the
last tank. It was the largest of the three, slightly higher up,
sheltered by rocks and cooled by evaporation. It was three fourths
full, and he eased himself down to drink another long sip.



Zing!



A bullet kicked up dirt near his face, showering him with tiny
fragments of rock and sand. Grant Collins eyes watered and he
swore bitterly. He wanted another drink. Needed it in fact, but he
wasn't going to die for it.



As he rolled to the safety of a huge boulder, a second shot
slammed the area he had just vacated. A third bullet clipped his
boot heel, and he knew it was time to go.



Standing up behind the sheltering rock, Grant Collins let his
eyes carefully search for the unseen marksman. Nothing moved,
no sound, save the pounding of his heart reached his ears, yet he
was not fooled. He knew the Apaches too well, knew they were
just waiting for him to stick his head around the corner of the
rock...



"Bastards!" The word echoed up through the hills. He was
thinking of Tiaz as he moved quickly to the trail and started
downward, the canteens bouncing along on his back. "Lying Son
of a Bitch!"



Grant Collins stopped mid stride, his right foot still hanging in
air. Two Apache's were coming up the trail. There was no time to
aim. It was do it now or die, and he wasn't ready to die just yet. His
pistol came to hand and he felt it bucked twice against his hand.



There was no need to check, he knew his aim and he had
saw the dust fly when the slugs took the two in their chests. They
were dead and out of it, but he knew there were others to contend
with.



Burnt powder smoke drifted to his nostril as he ducked and
turned and started back up the trail. The turn saved his life. He felt
the bullet whistle passed his ear as he turned...





Grant Collins heart pumped wildly and he felt the fear. It was
unreal, like a bad dream, but this was no dream. He watched as if
in slow motion the Apache leap at him from the rocks above, and
he watched in horror, as sunlight glint off steel.



Grant Collins instinct for survival took over again and he felt
his pistol buck in his hand. He saw the blood spill from the wound
his bullet created, then he was moving once more. Running.



Shots whined and slammed off the rocks around him as he
ran upward. How many Apaches remained, Grant Collins had no
idea. All he could do was keep moving until he found a place to
make a stand.



Searing hot pain shot through his leg, and he went down just
short of the third tank. He couldn't tell how bad he was hurt, nor
was there time to check it out. He had to move. Starting up, Grant
Collins let himself drop straight down again.



Out of the corner of his eye he had seen the young buck lift
himself for a shot. Rolling, Grant heard the shot cutting the air
above him, then he brought his own gun to bear. He saw the
Apache dusted, the bullet hitting solidly in the center of the chest,
then he was up and moving once more. The wounded leg all but
forgotten.



As he passed the water tank, Grant Collins spotted two more
Apache's, but they weren't coming for him. "Damn it!" He cursed,
and he hastened his pace. The horses, why didn't I think of them?
He chastised himself as he ran... "If only I can reach them before
the Apaches..."



The trail curved downward, and Grant Collins rounded the
bend in time to see the two Apaches heading for seven wild
looking mustangs.



Firing as he ran, Grant saw one go down, but the other
raced on, zig zagging in and out between the rocks and brush.



Grant Collins knew he was losing the race, but even worse,
he was losing his one sure way of saving the others.



Stopping dead in his tracks, Grant Collins emptied the
remaining shells in his pistol at the fleeing warrior, but young
Apache ran on.



"Damn it!" He couldn't believe it... how? How could he have
missed? Fumbling with shells in his belt, Grant Collins started to
reload, his eyes tracking the Apache. He was not going to make it.
He was...



To his surprise, and utter disbelief, the young Apache
stopped in mid-stride, turn to look his way, then toppled to the
ground and lay unmoving. Dead!



Grant Collins wasted no more time with his reloading. His
mind was racing as he ran down to where the horse were tied.
Tiaz, or at least some of his younger brave's had given them all a
chance to escape, to live...



The horses shied from him, not liking his unfamiliar scent,
nor the smell of blood that lay heavily upon him. "Whoa there," He
soothed. "easy now."



It was a struggle, but Grant Collins held on, speaking softly
to them until at last, he managed to bring them under control.



It took only a matter of minutes to fashion a lead rope for the
six horse he would lead, then he was up on the back of the mean
looking beast he had chosen to ride.



Grant Collins steadied himself for the bucking that he knew
would come. It did, yet under his weight and strong hand, the
animal soon gave over to his control.



"Get up there." He shouted, wiping away the tear of joy that
ran down his cheeks. "Move along!"



Riding straight into the sand, Grant Collins set the horses
into a mile eating pace. He didn't try to save the animals, there
was no time, he had to get back. He had to find the others, find
them alive and well...



An hour, he rode into the hot desert sand and he had still not
caught sight of the others. Fear touched his soul. Reason told him
they should have made it to where he now sat resting the horses,
yet they hadn't.



In his mind, Grant Collins heard the demons that told him
they were all dead, but he refused to believe that. They've got to
be here, he told himself, as his eyes scanned the sands.



"Just a little further..."

X.




Moving on and fighting the urged to shout, to call out for
them, Grant Collins topped out on a sandy ridge. His heart leapt
into his throat. He had found them, and they were alive, or at least
some of them were.



"Thank you, Lord." He whispered softly, then let out a wild
yell as he pushed the horses of the ridge.



Katherine Rice was the first to see him. Stumbling to her feet
to greet him as he pulled the horse to a halt and dismounted. "Oh,
Thank God!" She breathed, leaning into his arm. "I've been so
worried... we're out of water."



The others were staggering drunkenly up to him and Grant
Collins quickly unhooked the canteens from around his back. God
indeed had been kind to them. They were all alive, yet they were
physically exhausted and half crazed with thirst.



"Go easy on it at first." Grant told them, taking them in one at
a time. "Just sip it, let the water trickle down your throats."



None of them seemed to notice or feel the near noon time
heat except Grant. They were saved. The water and the horses
giving them renewed hope. They sipped, drank, talked idle chatter
and drank some more. Finally, Grant broke up the reunion, telling
them to get ready to move.



"There is shade, and more water than we've seen in a long
time back at the tanks." Grant Collins spoke with confidence, yet even as he spoke, he let his eyes drift across the sand.



Though the others were overcome with the water he'd brought
and the prospect of being saved, Grant Collins had not forgotten
the trouble they were in. Tiaz was still out there, and if by chance
he discovered they had horses...



"Lets move it, we still have a long way to go, and don't
forget, Tiaz is still out here somewhere."



They were sobering words that brought the others back to
the reality of their situation. Their eyes drifted to the sands, then to
Grant.



"They'll attack us now that we have the horses, won't they?"
Ruth asked, speaking what they were all thinking.



"Yes," Grant nodded. "Mount up!"



The trip to the tanks was uneventful, yet Grant Collins was
worried. His nerves on edge. He listened idly to the others as they
talked, and watched as they played and splashed in the water, but
at last his nerves wore thin and he snapped at them.



"Get some rest! This isn't a damn picnic!" Adding in a softer
tone, he said. "You've seen the dead Apaches on the trail, so you
know we're not out of this yet."



He could see the hurt on their faces and in their eyes. They
had been through so much, and now that they were closer to
being saved, he was dashing their hopes.



"I'll take the first watch." He told them, then let his eyes
sweep the landscape.



Grant Collins sat where he could watch the approaches to
the tanks, but his mind was on Kate who was sleeping peaceful
beside him.



He had not known many women, yet it felt right to have her
near him. He knew Kate's story, and it wasn't fair. She was going
to San Antonio to marry a man she'd met only once before. The
only thing that they had in common was their mutual loneliness,
and that just wasn't enough, not when... not when Grant really
loved her.



"Mister Collins?" Tommy Anderson's voice cut through
Grant's thoughts. "I've been watching too, and I seen some dust
moving this way."



"Where?" Grant asked, waking Kate in the process. He
spoke to her quickly, then he was gone, following young Tommy.



A fool, a damn fool, he thought to himself as he hurried
along the trail to where Tommy had seen the dust cloud. How
could I have been so careless? How could I have not seen them
coming?



"Damn it!" Grant Collins cursed angrily when they came to
the place where he had tethered the horse. They were too late!
Two Apache's were leading the horse away. Damn, he raged at
himself, a fool, a God damn fool!



They were still alive, but now they were back to walking
again, and it was his fault.



Dejectedly, Grant Collins turned and started back to the
others. He felt drained, cheated, yet as he moved, he eyes
detected another dust cloud moving their way, and the bitter
feeling was replaced by cold fear.



"Come on." He told Tommy. "Up, everybody up!" Grant
called, shaking bodies as he moved amongst them.



"What is it?" Anne asked, wiping sleep from her eyes.



None of them had got much sleep, but as they looked at
Grant's face, they knew there was trouble coming.



"Apache's!" Grant told her, told them all. It was a good place
to make a stand, but if he'd had a choice, Grant Collins would
have preferred something less exposed. There were too many
approaches, and too many rocks to offer the Apache's cover in
which to move up and behind them.



"Tommy, you watch from up by the third tank. Anne, you go
with him. If you see something, give a holler. The rest of you
spread out and stay out of sight." He spoke quickly, issuing his
instructions.



Sweat beaded his brow. It was hot. God awful hot, even
here, away from the sands. "No one shoots till I do." He hissed at
them.



Moving up and climbing a higher boulder, Grant Collins
watched the Apache's approach. His heart pounded wildly as his
keen eyes picked out the Apache leader.



If it comes to it, Grant told himself, Tiaz has to go first, yet as
he studied the Apache more closely, it appeared that Tiaz was
expecting to find the tanks unoccupied.



They hadn't even bothered to send out a scout, and Grant
wondered at that. Was it possible that the Apache's who attacked
him weren't from Tiaz's band? If so,...



Grant Collins watched as Tiaz dismounted. He saw him
check the first tank, then climb to the second tank. Tiaz was
whistling as he stopped to take a long drink and fill his water
pouch. It was unreal. So...





Grant Collins could not believe that the tall Apache had not
yet seen their tracks upon the trail. Even more incredible to him
was the fact that Tiaz had not seen the two dead Apache's that lay
just a hundred feet up the trail.



"Tiaz!" Grant called out as he stood up. He wanted the
Apache's to know they were here. Had they remained quiet, the
Apache's would have all dismounted and spread out. This way,
they were still bunched, and that gave Grant an edge for a short
time. "The tiger still lives, and so do the others." He called down.



He had expected the Apache to jump, run, or do something,
but he was greatly disappointed. Tiaz just stood there a second,
then looked up, his black eyes taking in Grant.



Grant Collins knew he should kill him now while he had the
drop on him, yet he couldn't shoot the man down in cold blood. In
battle yes, but not cold...



"So, the tiger has crossed the sands! You are indeed a great
warrior, but you have a long journey ahead of you still. Tiaz can
wait as the buzzard waits for death to come." The Apache spoke
with quiet assurance, his eyes never wavering from those of Grant
Collins.



"Tell your people to come and drink if they wish," Grant said
looking down at Tiaz. "this is a place of life, and life giving, but
there has been death here as well today. Six Apache's... I will
show Tiaz where they lie, for they died like true warriors and
deserve respect and burial."



"White Eyes is a fool, but your words are good. They were
young and no longer listened to Tiaz... Now they will listen to no
one but the Great Spirit."



Grant Collins nodded his understanding, then disappeared
from the rocks for a minute. When he showed again, he was
walking down the trail to face the man who would kill him if the
desert didn't.



Still, Grant Collins felt a kinship toward the Apache. Tiaz was
fighting for what he believed in, for his way of life, and to some
degree, Grant was doing the same.



As he walked toward him, Grant remembered the first time
he had faced the tall Apache. He had been young and foolish
then, riding out into the desert on some crazy whim, and it had
almost cost him his life.



Tiaz and four other Apache's had come out of a draw right in
front of him, early one morning. Guns had slammed back and forth
as Grant raced away, but he didn't get far. His horse died, and he
took shelter in a nest of boulders. There, they fought it out until
Grant managed to escape during the night.



Billy Baker found him three days later, bloody and half dead,
out of water and out of his mind with thirst. He had picked Grant
up, and taken him back to his hideaway where he nursed him back
to health.



It was there, at Bakers hidden seep, that Grant Collins
recovered, learned of the desert, and came to know the old man
he loved as one loves a father.



People look on the desert as a place of evil, a hot desolate
wasteland where nothing can live. Grant himself, had felt that way,
but he came to know differently. There is beauty and life in the
desert. One only has to open his eyes to see it.



Baker had shown him how to find water and plants that were
good to eat. He had explained which plants were good for
medicinal purposes and he had revealed other secrets of the land
to him, as together they roamed the desert. Billy Baker talking and
Grant Collins listening and learning.



For nine months they stayed at the hidden seep where Grant
began to build his house. Baker couldn't understand why Grant
wasted his time building a house out of rocks when he wasn't
going to live in it, and Grant couldn't say why himself for sure.



Perhaps it was his close brush with death, or the desert
itself...



Somehow it had changed him, set off a yearning with in him.
His heart and his soul cried out for a belonging, a need to have
roots, to settle down, to build and grow with the country instead of
always passing through it.



"You have to learn to be one with the desert." Baker said
one night before they left on one of their hunting and exploring
trips. "If you try to buck it, it'll kill you." Why Baker said that, Grant
didn't know, yet somehow he felt they were words to remember.



The same night Baker had shared those words of wisdom, a
wind came up, and Grant heard the low, mournful call of the Old
ones for the first time. He could hear them moving out in the
blackness, their moccasins treading on sand and gravel as they
made their way past the little stone house, and it brought a chill to
him.



He didn't know about ghosts, and he wasn't sure if he
believed in them or not, but who was to say what was what? Grant
didn't claim he had all the answers, in fact, he actually knew very
little about life when it came right down to it. He knew only those
things which affected his own little world, plus the stories others
had shared with him.



Lying in his blankets, Grant huddled with his nervousness,
listening and wondering as the old man slept peacefully. Finally he
could stand it no longer, so he got up and stole outside. It was
pitch black, but he could hear the wailing better, the footsteps, and
once he could have sworn he saw someone, or something, pass
him in the darkness.



When he came back inside, Baker rolled over and informed
him. "It's only the wind whistling through the tree's." But he looked
far from believing it himself as he added. "The walking sound you
hear is nothing more than brush rubbing against the rocks on the
ground."



The next day Baker and Grant Collins left the hidden seep to
explore and hunt up a little extra grub. Billy Baker rode off in one
direction, Grant in another. "Meet you at the spring hole." Baker
said in parting, with a wave of his hand. It was their regular
meeting place, and generally safe because of its remoteness, but
not on that fateful day.



Billy Baker had arrived first at the spring, leaving Grant an
eighth mile behind. Grant saw Billy dismount, look around, then go
for his gun. There were nine of them... nine Apache's rising up out
of the rocks and dirt. Billy never had a chance.



Even as Grant Collins raced his horse forward, he heard the
shots, saw Billy falling, and then his own rifle was blazing.
He fired until his rifle was empty, then grabbed for his pistol, but it
was no use. Billy was beyond help, and now the Apaches were
coming for him.



Three Apache's died, following Billy into the hereafter as
Grant raced away, but the others followed. His mind was blank as
he rode. His best friend and teacher was dead, and Grant Collins
didn't know what to do, so he turned to the one constant thing in
his life, the mountain seep and the stone house.



The Apache's followed. At the seep, they fought it out. Two
more Apache's died before the others withdrew. When they had
gone, Grant Collins sat alone, feeling the loss of his friend.



For three days, he sat waiting for Billy Baker to come back,
though he knew he never would. Finally he got up. went back to
the spring hole and buried his old friend, then began a life of
drifting.



Eventually he wound up at the army outpost, where he sat
around until Major Williamson spotted him and asked if knew the
area.



"Do you want a job, Mister Collins? I need a guide and I
need one who knows the area in and around the desert. Do you
know it?"



Out of work and out of money at the time, Grant signed on
as guide, and it was here amongst the tanks that he faced Tiaz for
the second time.



Ten troopers died in a bloody fight that day. Tiaz had led
them to the tanks, to the water, then he and his warriors had shot
the holy hell out of them. Yet, after the burying of their dead, they
prepared to set off into the sand after Tiaz.



The young Lieutenant wanted to follow the tracks, but Grant
Collins said no. "He wants you to follow him, Lieutenant. This is
his country, and he'll lead you straight to the doors of hell, then
open them for you! No, Sir, the parties over for the day, and we'll
go this way."



The two men looked at each other, one driven by pride, the
other by his knowledge of the desert and his will to go on living. "I
think you are wrong, Mister Collins. I think we can catch them, but
the last thing the major said to me before I came out here, was not
to argue with you." The young Lieutenant reluctantly went on. "If
you tell me to go a certain way, I have orders to listen and follow
you, so very well, lead on."



Grant's third time in facing Tiaz netted him a bullet in the leg
and a month in recovery. It was then that he met John McBride,
and agreed to lead his wagon train in the spring. And now... now
he was fighting to save what was left of it.


XI.



The two men, both warrior in their own right, measured one
another. They stood for what seemed to the women, an eternity.
Then Grant Collins pointed up the trail and Grant told Tiaz where
to find the dead Apache's.



When the dead had were removed, Tiaz grunted and turned
to Grant. "Perhaps you will make it, and perhaps I will be waiting
on the other side to kill the tiger."



"Tiaz!" Grant called as the Apache turned to go. Waiting until
Tiaz turned back to stare at him coldly, Grant spoke boldly. "We
have faced each other before. Perhaps it is written that we shall
both live..."



Returning to the others, Grant Collins sat down. He was
totally worn out, and with in seconds he was sound asleep. When
he woke, he felt the chill of early morning, but it felt good,
refreshing.



After taking one fast look around, Grant Collins went out to
hunt up some extra food. He knew where to look. The memories of
old were still fresh in his mind, yet as he walked into the
mountains, Grant wondered if any of the past remained.



He found his answer, a mile and a half later, when he came
to the tiny seep. It was still there, untouched by man, forgotten by
time, but not by Grant. His memories were deep rooted, sad, yet,
at the same time, there were also good memories lingering here
and in his heart.



"I've come back, Billy." Grant spoke softly. "I never thought I
would, but there are folks who need my help, and I've got to see
them through.



The sharp click of a hoof striking stone reached his ears,
and he settled down to wait. He had time, the others would not
miss him unless one of the women woke early, but he didn't have
to worry about that. An hour later, he was back at the camp with a
small desert sheep roasting over his tiny fire.



"Where did you get it?" Tommy asked.



"At a place I know, back in the mountains." Grant answered,
roughing up the youth's hair. "Maybe I'll take you there sometime...
would you like that?"



They waited another two days, resting, ever watchful for the
Apache's, and making the small talk that people just getting to
know each other often talk. Grant felt sorry for them, there had
been no time for them to grieve over their losses, and he knew it
weighed heavily upon them, yet he was powerless to ease their
pain.



Twice, he took Tommy back to the hidden seep to hunt for
additional food. The first netted them a long walk together, but on
the second trip they got a pair of Jacks for their fire. "You did
mighty good." Grant said, and smiled at the boys excitement of
having bagged his first rabbit. There was peace with in. Maybe it
was some ingrained instinct, but he enjoyed being with Tommy.
He liked teaching him the things a boy needed to know, and just
sharing time with him.



When he was with Kate, his heart fluttered, and he found it
hard to think straight. He was in love with her, there was no
denying it, yet the feelings he felt bothered him. Is this what love
does to a man? He asked himself. Was he feeling the years of
loneliness, the need to belong somewhere, a yearning to have a
wife and son with which to pass on his own acquired knowledge?



Grant Collins could not answer the questions, but perhaps,
he decided, they did not need to be answered, but accepted as a
part of how life was supposed to be.



Tommy asked questions too, and it made Grant smile as he
told the youth about his life, the desert, and the hidden seep. "The
Apache's know of it, but they rarely go there. They say it's the
place of the Old Ones... the ones who came before them, and they
say it's haunted by their spirits."



"Gosh!" Tommy gasped. "Really?"



"That's what they say, and who's to argue with them. They
been here longer than any of us."



The day finally came when Grant had to make a decision. It
was time to be moving on again. Their food was getting down to
nothing, the coffee gone, but more influential to his decision was
the fact that the water in tanks was going down fast.



"We better get started." He said as he stood and took one
last look around. In the distance, huge black clouds were
gathering, and he could hear the low rumble of distant thunder.



"We're all set." Kate told him. He knew they were waiting for
him to lead out, but the coming storm made him uneasy. He
hesitated a moment longer, reflecting on what was and what had
been.



"Forget it! We're not going..." Grant told them, and as he
watched, the sky was lit by lightning that slashed its way across
the heavens. "Not out there at least." He added. The last thing he
wanted was to be caught in another storm. Yet he didn't want to
stay here amongst the high rocks where lightning tended to strike.



"Where are we going then, if not out there?" Mary asked, as
he began walking.



"My house!" Grant Collins, replied turning back to see their
shocked surprise.



"What...?" Anne gasped.



"It's a long story, and we'd better keep it till later. Right now
we best move before we get caught by the rain." Grant told them
as he started out again.



They made it to the hidden seep as the rains opened up,
and Grant and Tommy ran the last fifty feet to the stone house. "It
is a house..." Ruth Harkley exclaimed. She and the others stopped
and stared with wondering eyes.



Leaving them standing with their mouths agape, and rain
soaking their skin, Grant and Tommy stepped inside. "You gonna
tell them?" Tommy asked, his face beaming in the growing gloom.



"I guess I'd better." Grant grinned.



After he had a fire started, Grant told the others the same
story he had shared with Tommy. Outside, the storm raged, but it
wouldn't last, it never did. The tanks would fill up, the desert itself
would drink of the precious liquid... seeds would sprout, plants
would bloom and for a time, the real beauty of the desert would be
visible.



"Get some rest." Grant said, when he finished his tale. "We'll
spend the night and start out tomorrow afternoon." His plan was to
stop back at the tanks, wait and rest there until the sun went down,
then strike out for the "Agua at the Three Rocks."



"Do you want us to take turns watching?" Kate asked.



"No, we'll be safe enough here." He told her with a smile.



They slept the night away, idled the morning away with small
talk, then Grant led them back to the tanks. There, they waited and
rested, leaving when the sun had all but slipped below the
horizon.



It was cooler than the days before, and Grant Collins was
thankful as he set off at a good pace. The rest and food had
helped a great deal, and they made good time, but even walking
through the night, it was nearly dawn before they reached the
"Agua at theThree Rocks."



Grant took the first watch, waiting until almost noon before
waking Tommy. Then he found a patch of shade and laid down. It
was an unsettled sleep he slept, for this place too, had bad
memories for him. Memories of a butchered man, his son, and the
mutilated remains of his defiled wife.



A hand touched his shoulder and he jumped, coming wide
awake as his hand reached for his pistol. It was Kate, and he
looked at her for a long moment, trying to see if there was danger
nearby. "What is it?" He asked softly, his tense muscles beginning
to relax a bit.



"It's time to eat." She told him quietly, her eyes watching him
as he stood and stretched. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."



"It's all right."



The sun was still up, but he wanted to get an early start.
There was no more water between here and Bart Perry's ranch,
yet there were places they could stop and rest, places they could
defend if it came to that, and Grant had a feeling that it might. Tiaz
would never let them go, not now, not after having crossed the
sands.



Grant Collins stopped often, talking to them, letting them rest
their aching bodies while they caught their breath. They were so
close now...



If only they could slip past Tiaz in the darkness.



It was a pipe dream! Grant knew it, and maybe the others
knew as well, but they didn't talk about it. Instead, he encouraged
them, yet his mind kept busy with thoughts of what he'd do if the
Apache's did come.



At midnight, he called a halt in a brushy, rocked choked
hollow. Two hours rest, then they would be off and moving again.
By sun up, they would begin to see the dim shapes of Bart Perry's
ranch building, and a couple of hours later, they would be sitting
safely at his table.



Though the children dozed nearby, the knowing they were
so near to the end of their ordeal, made it hard for the women to sit
and rest.



"How much more do you figure, Mister Collins?" Mary
Branson asked, her impatience growing. "I mean after we get
started again."



"Three, maybe four hours... it depends." Grant replied, his
mind still busy seeing what lay ahead of them.



Tomorrow...



Tomorrow they would either die or make it to the safety of
Bart Perry's ranch.



"I guess we should get started." He told them an hour later.



As he started out, Grant Collins had to hush them. "Keep it
down."



They all could feel the excitement. It was hard not too, they
were getting closer with every step they took, yet he wanted to
pass as quietly as he could.


XII.




The sun came up, and a half hour later Bart Perry's ranch
came into view. Behind him, Grant heard the others come to life,
their heads lifting to look at the dim shapes and tiny finger of
smoke that arose from one of the far away buildings.



"We made it!" Ruth Harkley exclaimed breathlessly, as they
marched onward. It was hard not to run. They were so close...



"We haven't made nothing yet." Grant Collins reminded them
all. Even now, so close, he refused to let down his guard.



They made it a few more feet, then they all stopped, stunned
and frozen with renewed fear. Out of a draw, a hundred and fifty
feet in front of them, rode a dozen Apache's.



Grant Collins felt his muscles tighten. He heard the others
gasps, and knew the absolute devastation they were suffering. After
all their struggles, the hell they had gone through... to have it end
here, like this...



"No! It's not fair!" He heard Ruth Harkley cry out.



The Apache's came on, walking their horses. When the
distance was cut in half, they stopped, and for a long moment the
two parties just looked at one another. Then Tiaz dismounted and
started forward on foot, and Grant Collins stepped out to meet him.



As he walked, Grant had to force himself to stand up straight
and walk a steady line. He didn't know what was going to happen,
but he wasn't going to show how beat he was. If he was going to
die, then Tiaz would die with him.



After twenty paces Grant Collins stopped and waited. He
was no longer sure he could go on without staggering, and he
wanted to show the Apache strength. Tiaz stopped as well, the
distance only fifteen feet between them.



The silence was death itself as the two men looked at each
other. Tiaz's fierce black eyes showed his hatred of the White eye,
but also a grudging respect for the one he faced now.



"The tiger still lives... you are strong like the Apache." Tiaz
said at long last, pointing at Grant with his lance. "Your women
and children are strong as well, like the mountain. They live as you
live... Apache!" Tiaz continued, and Grant Collins waited, poised
and ready, wondering where all this was leading.



"White eyes," Tiaz gestured again with his lance. "you say it
is written that we both shall live... Tiaz says you are wrong. We
shall both die, but let us both hope our sons will grow strong
before that time. Tell your children of the desert, and of the
Apache who gave you back your life." With that, Tiaz turned and
started back to where the rest of his band waited.



Grant Collins heard the sharp click of a hammer being drawn
back and he turned to see Tommy Anderson bringing his rifle to
his shoulder. "Don't Tommy!" Grant said softly, but firmly as he
moved between him and the back of Tiaz. He knew how the boy
felt, but this was their chance to live.



"But they killed my Pa!" Tommy Anderson cried, and the
tears streamed down his cheeks. "I can't just let him ride off... How
can I do that?"



"I know, Tommy, and it isn't fair, but if you shoot Tiaz after he
has given us our lives back, we're all dead." Grant spoke easy,
moving nearer to the boy with each step he took.



"Tommy," Anne called softly, moving closer to the boy as
well. "If you can't think of the others, then think of the baby. I know
it hurts, we all lost people we loved and cared about, but we had a
chance to know and love them. The baby has never had that
chance."



Tommy Anderson looked at them, the tears running down
his cheeks freely. "It's all right, Tommy, let it go. Let the pain and
hurt out." Grant Collins said softly, moving up to take the rifle from
the boys shaking hands.



The boy sobbed uncontrollably then, and Anne Fossy
cradled him into her arms. They all cried, except Grant. He was
feeling what they were all expressing as he watched Tiaz riding
away, but he couldn't let go, not yet...



Two hours later, they staggered into Bart Perry's ranch yard.
Ranch hands came running to greet, along with Bart Perry and his
wife. They all gathered into one group and the yard became a
confusion of voices.



All the questions, answers and tears were too much, too
soon, for Grant Collins, and he just walked away, going over to
dunk his head in the water trough. He was tired, but it was over...



"Looks like you been through hell." Bart Perry said, coming
over by him.



"Yeah, we've been through it all right... only I didn't have
anything to lose." Grant Collins replied bitterly. "They lost it all,
their families, their goods and their dreams... all I lost was a
horse... a damn horse!"



Bart Perry studied Grant Collins before he spoke. "They
didn't lose it all." He said gently. "They had you, and you brought
them through. That's something most men couldn't have done...
not one in a hundred, I'd say. Why don't you come up to the
house? You look like you could stand a stiff drink and a hot meal."



Later, after the drinks were downed, Bart Perry asked the
question Grant had hope to avoid, not that it was a secret. It just
tortured his mind. "How many did you lose out there?"



"Twenty six," Grant said softly, sadly. "all of them good
people. When it happened they gave as good as anyone could
have hoped for... better in fact."



For three days, they did nothing but convalesce at Bart
Perry's ranch, eating drinking, resting, talking and sharing their
mutual grief.



Grant Collins could not help feeling their pain, but his own
pain, the guilt that had plagued him ever since the massacre,
forced him to avoid the others as much as possible. He did
however, have long talks with Bart Perry, arranging with him to
have the women taken to Demlow, where they could catch a stage
to wherever they wanted to go.



Bart Perry was a knowing man who understood what Grant
was feeling. "Damn it, man," He tried again to get through to Grant
Collins. "it wasn't your fault."



"It wasn't?" Grant's humorless laugh was directed at himself.
"I'm the one who led them... led them right into a ambush, and I
never had a clue until it was too late!"



"Yours wasn't the first wagon train to get ambushed..."



"No, but..."



"What do you think would have happened if you'd know the
Apaches were waiting for you?" Bart questioned Grant, but didn't
wait for an answer. "Sure, you would have had a chance to get
set, but they would have hit you just the same, and those four
women and the children you brought in wouldn't be here right now.
Tiaz and his band would have stayed until every last one of you
were dead."



"He could have did that anyhow, but he let us go... Why?"



Grant Collins stared off into space, trying to find the answer
in his own mind.



"I don't know, Grant," Bart admitted. "but I suspect he didn't
want to pay the added price it would have cost him to kill you and
the women."



"That's bull!" Grant shot back. "If we would have had the
chance to make a stand, it would have cost him more than it
already did." Grant Collins knew Bart Perry was trying to ease
some of his hurt, but nothing could stop the torment, nor the
nightmares that came to him when he closed his eyes now.



"Maybe you're right," Bart Perry replied. "but you think about
it. Sure, he would have liked killing you, but to do that, he would
have had to risk getting his own people killed by women and
children, and that would have been hard for an Apache to
swallow."



The day finally came when the others were getting ready to
leave. Anne, Mary, Ruth and the children came to him to say their
goodbyes, and to thank him for all he had done for them. "I know
you think it's your fault, Mister Collins," Ruth Harkley said as she
kissed his cheek. "but we don't. You saved us, saved my baby,
and I'll never forget that, nor you."



Kate came to him last. He had stayed away from her as
much as he could, his heart breaking all the while, but now he had
to face her. He was sweating with the heat of the day, but also with
his dread, as they stood gazing into each others eyes. They made
small talk, both avoiding what they knew had to come. Finally,
Kate leaned into his arms, tears falling from her eyes, her body
trembling slightly.



Grant's arms wrapped her tight against him and his lips
found hers briefly. Time lost all meaning to them as they clung to
these last precious moments together. Lifting her chin, Grant
Collins gazed longingly into her dewy eyes that forced his
thoughts to spill from his heart.



"I love you! You know that, don't you?" Grant said to her.



"Grant..." Kate faltered. "I know, but I'm engaged to Scott
Williams. If only I had met you before..." She broke off. It was all so
unfair. In time, Kate tried to convince herself, she might forget her
love for Grant, but she knew it was a lie. She could never forget
him, nor did she want to. She loved him with all her heart and soul,
yet she felt duty bound to marry the man she had made a promise
to.



"Did I hear someone mention Scott Williams?" A young
cowhand ask, then carried on without waiting for a reply. "Damn
shame! Pardon my language, Ma'am, but that's what it was... that
horse kicking him like it done... and I heard tell he was planning on
marrying soon. Doc said he never knew what hit him 'cause it
broke his neck... Sorry, Ma'am, guess you didn't need to know
that." The young cowhand apologized, tipping his hat and starting
away, only to stop. "Say, you wasn't..."



"No!" Grant spoke up. "She's engaged to marry me, that is, if
she will have me."



Katherine Rice stood there, her mouth hanging open. She
was in shock. The man she had promised to wed, a man she didn't
love, was dead. After all they had been through, so much heart
break and misery, was this only another trick the fates were
playing on them?





Looking at Grant Collins, she knew it made no difference as
long as this man, the one she would always love, was beside her.



"Yes," She breathed, fresh tears in her eyes. "I love you so
much, Grant Collins!"



"Tommy!" Grant called, loosening his grip on her. "Kate, he's
all alone now and..."



"Yes, of course!" Kate stopped him from having to ask. "I want him to be with us too, Grant. Go get him before he leaves!"


The End.




------
"You cannot worry about that which you cannot control."


Related Items

Comments

The following comments are for "Journey Through Hell"
by sgt_cook

Phew
Admittedly, this wasn't an extremely long story, but it took me a while to get through. So here we go.

There were a bunch of grammatical errors in the piece. Typos too. Too lazy to point them out.

You kept mentioning Grant Collins as opposed to a pronoun. Was there a reason for that?

In the part near the beginning where Grant recovers things from the burnt wagons, wouldn't the shells have exploded?

It seems a little sudden that Katherine's soon-to-be husband just up and died. I realize it's the story's clincher, meant to tie up the romantic loose end, and that no message of his death could've gotten out earlier, but it still seems too sudden.

That's all. This was a great story, very fast-paced.

( Posted by: Washer [Member] On: June 26, 2003 )

More
Two more things. I don't think the analogy Tiaz kept making with the tiger is right. Tigers are Asian after all.

The representation of the Apache seems pretty stereotypical. I usually get very frustrated with people trying to be politically correct, but this seemed a little too much for me. I've met a few Native Americans before who were very into nature, and sounded like hippies, but even though this is modern day, and the Iroquois as opposed to Apache lived on the land where I live now, I don't think they would be that caracitured. (I don't remember the actual spelling of that word.) It reminds me of one world in Tad Williams' Otherland series, where one of the main characters wound up in a kitchen that was made into a world, and the Indian Matches were made into people. Just kind of cartoony like that. I dunno. Sorry to be so negative.

( Posted by: Washer [Member] On: June 27, 2003 )

what I thought
I believe that this was a pretty good story. The romantic part was a little too played out and perdictable. Not to mention the romantic part was pretty dull. Tiaz represented a very strong and good character. He was unique in his own way and I liked that. The story was a bit unrelistical, but good in it's own way. Over all, it's pretty good.

( Posted by: lovechild2006 [Member] On: April 17, 2004 )





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