Ford rode behind his brothers, watching their bodies sway in the rhythm of the horses. They were travelling along the fence line, checking for the loose section Evan had noticed last week. Ford felt lucky to be with his oldest brothers, just him and them. He was getting their undivided attention for once and it felt good. Guthrie and Hannah were back at home, working on a school project and Crane had gone to talk to Mr. Kolby about buying some more ewes to increase their herd. Evan and Daniel had gone along, to eyeball the beautiful Kolby sisters. That left Ford to help out Adam and Brian with the fence line. He remembered not so long ago when they had considered him too young to really help out; they always left him behind, like Guthrie. But now, after he'd finally shot up and could do a man's work, they included him in all the ranch chores. Ford loved it. And today, without any of the others, Adam and Brian were taking time out to show him things their dad had taught them, like tracking strays and learning the lay of the land. He knew a lot from watching them over the years, but it was nice to have their undivided attention and personal lessons just for him.
"See that, Ford," Brian called out as he pointed to a track on the ground, "What is that from?"
Ford bent low over the side of his horse and looked at the print. He smiled when he realized he knew what it was. "It's a cougar track. But it's been here for a few days, it's not that fresh so we should have nothing to worry about." He straightened up and saw Adam and Brian staring at him, smiling.
"That's right, Ford. Good." Adam praised him, smiling warmly.
Brian licked his thumb and gave Ford thumbs up in his traditional way, followed by a wink and grin.
Ford couldn't keep the smile off his face as a relished in the praise. He ducked his head, embarrassed and pleased at the attention all at the same time.
Brian's smile widened at Ford's shyness and he chuckled, "Come on kid. Let's get moving."
They continued their journey along the fence line, checking for the break Evan had seen. Adam kept glancing at the sky. It was getting dark and the clouds were heavy with an upcoming storm. Forecasters had said they would be getting a big one later today and the snow would fly thick and steady.
"First storm of the winter." Brian commented, noticing Adam's gaze.
"Yup, let's get this done so we can get back before it starts. Weather guy said we should have some time yet, but once it starts it's gonna be laying fast." Adam reminded them. They nodded in agreement and continued on.
Suddenly all three of them heard a terrible ruckus start up. All senses on alert, Brian took off after the source of the noise, Adam and Ford following closely behind. They were riding along a wide, flat ridge on the side of Table Mountain which overlooked the steep drop off below them. The brothers each recognized the sounds of a cow in distress. Now where was it and what had happened to it?
"There!" Adam was the first to spot it. Ford and Brian followed his finger to where it pointed down the cliff edge to another narrow ledge below. There was one of their cows, bellowing in distress, lying on the ledge. She was struggling to get up, but it was obvious that she had hurt her leg. The brothers dismounted and peered over the edge of the steep cliff, pondering the situation.
"Well, looks like I'll have to climb down there to her."Adam decided.
"Come on Adam, she's hurt anyhow. We're just going to have to put her down. No sense in you risking your neck to get to her." Brian argued
""That's almost 400 pounds of beef down there, Brian. You know how much money that is. I've got to go and see if we can rig up a way to get her up. I think I can climb most of the way down to her. We can tie off the rope to me just to be safe. It'll be fine."
Brian shrugged, "Okay." He knew that look of determination in Adam's eyes. There was no way Adam would be dissuaded besides, he was right. They couldn't afford to lose any cattle if they could help it. Brian pulled off the rope tied to his saddle and Ford moved to help him uncoil it. They tied the end of the rope around Adam's waist and wrapped the middle around a sturdy tree as an anchor. Ford wrapped the other end of the rope around his waist to hold Adam steady. Brian moved to the edge with Adam, he would hold the rope there, and feed it down to Adam as needed. Ford was stationed back by the tree.
"Okay, bro, you start climbing and me and Ford and that tree over there will hang onto you from up here." Adam nodded and began picking his way down the cliff face. Brian held the rope taut, watching from the edge, as Adam climbed down. Ford hung onto the rope back near the horses, closer to the tree.
"How are you doing, Adam? Can you find your way down to her?"
"Yeah, I think so. It's kind of a downhill path the whole way, but not steep enough that I can't make it." Adam was carefully picking his way through.
Ford was holding the rope around his waist as Brian lowered it down. There was a steady tension on the rope as he and Brian held some of Adam's weight. Suddenly the rope pulled tighter around Ford's waist and the weight on the rope increased tenfold.
"Adam!" Brian yelled. Ford was preoccupied just holding on.
Adam dangled over the edge, feet waving in the air. "I'm …okay...just slipped. Give me… a sec… get my footing." Adam swung around, dangling from the rope.
"Hurry up, Adam!" Brian grunted, the effort showing in the way the muscles corded and bulged on his neck as he struggled to hold his brother's weight. Ford too, pulled with all his might. The strain was so great, Ford wasn't sure he could hold on much longer. His hands ached from the rope burns; he was glad he had his gloves on. Ford's arms burned with the effort, but he had no choice but to hold on, not with Adam hanging out in the air the way he was. Hurry up, he mumbled under his breath. He pinched his eyes closed with the effort.
Suddenly he found himself tumbling backwards, the rope sliding rapidly through his hands, all tension suddenly released. Ford found himself lying on the ground, momentarily stunned. He had time for one thought through his mind, what just happened? Then the realization hit him and he jumped to his feet, racing to the now vacant cliff edge. There was only one reason why the rope would be slack. As he ran by, he noticed the rope lying on the ground, the end frayed and torn. It must have broken between him and Brian, the force sending both his brothers over the edge.
"Brian, Adam!" He skidded to a stop on his knees and looked down the ledge in horror. There, on the ledge with the cow, lay Brian, groaning. His arm was twisted funny under him and blood was already seeping out from several cuts. "Brian!" He yelled again. Adam, where was he? Ford scanned the drop off, fear gripping him and making his throat close. Oh God, where was Adam? "Adam!" He yelled, hysteria bleeding through his voice. There! He saw him now, lying on another ledge, below where Brian and the cow where. He wasn't moving. "Adam, Brian!" What should he do? He turned around, scanning the ground for anything that would help and then turned back, looking at his brothers on the ledges again. The panic rose in him, and he pulled at his hair in frustration. Why did it have to be him that was here? He didn't know what to do. Why couldn't it have been Crane or Daniel here today? They'd have known what to do. Tears ran down Ford's cheeks and the hysteria filled him. He continued to scream his brother's names in a futile effort to get their attention.
Down below on the ledge, Brian lay stunned. All he was really conscious of was pain. Slowly other sounds and sensations came into focus. He was aware of his arm pinned under him and the pain it caused; he heard the bleating of the cow and above it all, another sound cut through him. Brian! Called the frantic voice from above. The sound of his little brother, the panic echoing in his voice, cut through the pain and disorientation. "Ford," he mumbled, then louder, "Ford!" He rolled over to free his arm. There, that was better, but just a little, it still hurt. "Ford!" he called again, hoping his voice would cut through Ford's hysteria.
Ford finally heard Brian's call. It pulled him out of his panic and he stopped crying and shouting. "Brian, how bad are you hurt?" he called.
Brian took a deep breath and called back, "My arm, Ford. I think it's mostly just my arm."
Ford stood and pulled his jacket tighter around him. The air was getting colder. He looked around trying to figure out what to do. Running for his horse, he pawed through his backpack which was hanging over the saddle horn, searching for supplies to help Brian. He pulled out a small first aid kit and a spare shirt. What else could he use to help Brian? A few snowflakes swirled down around him. The saddle blankets! One of them could keep Brian warm. He unsaddled Adam's horse and took off its blanket. Then he raced to the edge again.
"Hang on Brian; I'm coming down to you."
"No Ford, it's too dangerous! Go for help." Ford ignored him. He knew how unsafe it was; didn't Adam just fall doing this same thing? But he was sure he could reach Brian and help him, if not Adam, and he wasn't going for help until he did. He tucked the mini first aid kit into his jacket and wrapped the blanket across his shoulders. He picked his way carefully along the narrow sloped path. He moved slowly, very aware of Adam having fallen from here. His palms were sweating and his heart pounding. He could hear the cow still bleating weakly. Once, he glanced over the side and saw the distance to the ground. It made him stop in his tracks. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all; he closed his eyes for a moment, leaning against the cliff wall. When he opened them, he looked up to see how far he'd come. Maybe he should just turn around. Snowflakes were flurrying around him now. He stood there a moment, debating. Then he heard the feeble call from his injured brother.
"Ford? Where are you?" Brian couldn't see him from this angle. It must be terrifying for him.
"Here, Brian. Almost to you." He pushed himself to continue. Brian needed him. He pressed his body into the bank, the rocks snagging on his clothing. He felt like he was trying to merge with the rock wall. He didn't look up or down anymore, just right in front of him, one step at a time. "I'm coming, Brian, but it's hard. It's so narrow here." He called, to reassure Brian, and if he was honest, himself too.
"Go slow, Ford, go slow buddy. Hug the rocks, Ford." Brian lay there, in pain and terrified that he'd lose his kid brother on this ledge. All he could do was call out encouragement and advice. And in the back of his mind, he thought about Adam. Was he still alive? Brian pushed the thought away. He couldn't go there now. Ford, that was what he needed to think about. The cow made herself known again with a new bleat. Thank God she wasn't positioned between him and where Ford was coming down. He hoped she stayed over where she was and didn't move any closer. She could push him right off this ledge.
Ford continued down and suddenly, without warning, found himself on the very ledge Brian was on. He'd made it! "Brian!" He called out, hurrying to his brother's side as he pulled off the blanket. Brian looked awful; a huge gash was across his cheek, leaking blood down his neck and onto his plaid Jacket. His arm wasn't under him anymore, but lay at an awkward angle by his side. More blood was dripping out of his sleeve and through a hole in his jeans. "Where does it hurt the most, Bri?"
"Arm." Brian gasped. His eyes shone with pain and discomfort, but also relief at seeing that Ford made it safely. And if he had to be honest, he was glad to not be alone anymore. Brian grasped Ford's arm with his good one and squeezed. "Glad to see you, Ford."
"Me too," Ford allowed himself time for a quick smile, then got to work, "Okay, Brian. Let's check out your arm. It looks broken. At that angle…" he didn't finish. Brian knew anyhow what he meant. "Let's place it over your chest and strap it in place, okay? That way it won't be jostled around." Ford carefully laid the arm over Brian's chest and using his belt, he managed to strap it in place. Brian tried to hold in his moans, but by the time Ford was done, he'd turned a gray ashen color. "Brian? You okay?"
"I just feel really weird, Ford."
"Probably shock. Here." He pulled the blanket over his brother, tucking the edges around him so it wouldn't blow off. "Now, let's fix your cheek." Ford reached into his jacket and pulled out the first aid kit. His fingers were getting numb, the cold wind increasing.
As he fumbled around with the box, Brian worked up his courage to ask, "What about Adam, Ford, can you see him?"
Ford leaned over the edge. Adam lay far below them on an even skinnier ledge. He wasn't moving at all. Ford leaned back to make his report. He hated to tell Brian the bad news. Brian looked bad and Ford wasn't sure how much his brother could take. "I don't know Brian. He's down there on another ledge, but there's no way to get to him. He isn't moving or awake, but I don't see any blood." He shrugged helplessly.
"Can you tell if he's…breathing?" Brian had trouble even voicing the words.
Ford shook his head sadly, "No. He's too far away and he's got on his heavy jacket. I don't think I can tell if his chest is moving when he's so bundled up."
"Try again." Brian's voice pleaded with Ford. Ford nodded and leaned over. He studied his brother's chest. As much as he hoped to be able to see his chest move, he really couldn't tell. He was just too far. He pulled back and lied to Brian.
"I think I saw his chest move." He felt bad, lying not being something he did easily. But right now, Brian needed something to hold onto. "Now let's take care of your face." He went to work applying a pad of gauze to Brian's cheek and taping it in place with medical tape. He was just finishing when the cow tried to get up again and moaned, reminding them of another problem that needed addressed.
Brian tried to twist around to look at her. "Help me sit up will you Ford?" Ford did, being careful not to lose the blanket. He positioned Brian with his back to the rock wall. The cow was about 6 or 7 feet away from them. A little too close for comfort on this tiny space. "Ford," Brian said, his voice low and serious, "There's no way to help her now. Not with me and Adam hurt. You 're going to have to put her down." Ford started to shake his head no, but before he could utter a word, Brian went on, "If she moves, she could push me right off this ledge, Buddy." Ford steeled himself. He knew what had to be done. He nodded in agreement.
"When I get back to the top, I'll use the rifle."
"Good boy," Brian praised him. "Ford, I need you to go for help now. You've done all you can for me and Adam needs help right away. Go home to Hannah and have her call the search and rescue. You know where you are, right?" When Ford nodded, he continued, "Yes, you sure do. And you can find your way with no problem. Hurry home and get back as soon as you can, the storm's coming you know." Just as he said it, a gust of wind whipped past, carrying more flurries along.
"Brian, don't you think you might be able to climb up?"
Brian shook his head, "Not with this arm, kiddo. This isn't an easy climb… even with both arms. And to tell you the truth, I'm feeling a little… dizzy right now, maybe it's the hit on the cheek …or the pain in my arm, I don't know, …but I wouldn't want to attempt the climb this way."
"Will you be okay here till I get back? You won't fall or anything will you?"
"Nah, if I'm sitting back against the wall like this, I'm not going to fall. I think I'll be okay." Brian reassured his brother.
"You warm enough?" Ford asked as the cow mooed again.
"Sure. This blanket is good enough." As he said it though, he couldn't hide the shiver that went through him. Ford shucked off his coat without farther ado and draped it over Brian. "No Ford, you need it."
"I'll be fine. I'm the one headed home to the warmth, remember? And look I can always take the other horse blanket off your horse and use that, okay?" He said to placate his older sibling.
Brian reluctantly nodded his agreement. "Hey look over at Adam once more before you go, ok?"
Ford nodded and did just that. He studied his biggest brother carefully. This time he thought he actually may have seen his chest move for real. Otherwise he looked the same. "He's the same, Brian, but I saw him breathing for sure this time."
Brian nodded stoically, "Okay then. There's nothing we can do for him now. Go get help, Ford." Ford nodded and started past Brian, but was stopped by a hand on his arm. "Ford, be careful, buddy. Don't hurry up the slope. Take your time there, and on the steep parts of the trail, just hurry when you get to the flat lands. OK?" Ford nodded. Suddenly Brian grabbed him in a one armed hug. Ford squeezed him back. "I love you kid, be safe you hear?"
"I will, Brian. Don't move around now, ok? Be back soon." He reluctantly broke contact with Brian and began the trek up the cliff. It was really cold now, without his jacket, but he wouldn't let Brian know. His fingers felt frozen as he climbed. The snow swirled around him, more than flurries now. Soon it would start to lay. It was a difficult climb, but uneventful. Once at the top, he took a moment to rub his hands together and stick them under his armpits in an effort to get some feeling back in them.
"I'm up, Brian. I made it." He called down. He moved to the saddle and pulled out Brian's shotgun from its holster. He made his way to the edge, making out the cow on the ledge where he'd left it. He took a deep breath. Living on a ranch, he'd seen this done many times before, but it was not the part of ranching that he liked. "Brian, I'm going to take care of the cow now. You ready?"
"Yeah, go ahead."
Ford sighted the rifle down at the cow. He drew in a deep breath. "Sorry sweetheart. There's nothing we can do for you now. I gotta help my brothers." He pulled the trigger.
The shot echoed through the canyon. Ford lowered the gun as a feeling of sadness swept over him. He would have loved to have found some other way, but he knew there was none. This was the first time it had fallen to him to do this, though. With six older brothers, someone else had always been the one to do the deed if needed.
"Ford, you okay up there?" Brian called.
Brian could hear the dejection in his voice. "You did good kid; you did what you had to. Now you need to go."
"Okay Brian, I'm going."
"Ford, I'm proud of you kid." Brian's praise floated up to Ford. Despite all that was happening, Ford smiled. "Now go kid. Be safe."
"I'll be back soon, Brian. You stay safe, too." Ford called down to him. Then he pulled off the saddle off Brian's horse, grabbed up the blanket and wrapped it around himself. He tied the two remaining horses to a tree, then hopped up on his own horse and started down the trail, which was quickly becoming snow covered.
He hoped he could find the way home in the worsening storm, and that his brothers would be okay. Adam, he thought, be okay, Adam. He prodded his horse into a quicker walk. He needed to hurry.