A Cord of Three Strands

For once, he didn't have no dog in this fight. Which was all well and good but he was in the middle of it just the same. And wanting to be somewhere else…anywhere else.

The two dogs were Daniel and Ford, and Evan was stuck between both literally and figuratively. In the middle age-wise and in the middle of their argument. Not by his own choice, but there just the same.

He got along great with both of 'em most of the time. He'd even go so far as to say they were his best friends as well as his brothers. And they usually got along pretty well, too. But Ford occasionally got his shorts in a twist about Daniel, and Daniel wasn't always real good about blowing it off. Evan had tried to bridge the gap. He'd talked to Ford and then tried to explain to Daniel that Ford was mostly just feeling his oats and testing boundaries—and that it was way safer to do that with Daniel than their older brothers. But Daniel still sometimes let Ford get to him and reacted anyway. And since Evan wasn't real famous for holding his own temper, he didn't figure he could fault him for that really.

But right now, he was not happy about being out here with them. The family had been scouting the herd in the lower grazing for nearly a week and going back to the house at night. Adam, Brian, Crane, and Daniel came out every morning, and Evan, Ford, and sometimes Guthrie joined them when they got home from school. But now it was the weekend, and Adam had decided he wanted to finish up before Monday. So they'd brought the camping equipment, Hannah and Guthrie had joined them, and they'd all come out Friday morning for a long weekend to get it done. Best reason in the world to skip school in Evan's opinion.

But Daniel and Ford had been knocking heads off and on all week about nothing real important as far as Evan could tell. Sniping at each other without the usual tease and that generally led to a real argument eventually. Their older brothers were tired of refereeing, and Adam decided it was time for them to work it out. So he'd sent them out on circle—together. Which would make them work it out—together. And hopefully, they'd get past the problem—together. Unfortunately, Evan was sent with them. He had no idea what Adam was thinking since Evan was more likely to knock 'em into next week just to get 'em shut up. Which would mean they'd probably make up so they could be mad at Evan—together. Then again, if they finally quit arguing, Evan might be willing to risk it.

He glanced over to where they were on foot trying to get a cow out of some thick bushes. Angry comments rang across the distance. Evan shook his head in frustration and rode in the opposite direction as their argument continued.

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Daniel pushed against the cow's backside, fed up with Ford and his smart-aleck mouth. "Would you just pull?!"

"I am pulling!"

"Yeah, well, you can't prove it by me! Move, cow!"

"You know, you could try putting a little weight into this!"

"Ford! Just—" The ornery animal finally decided to cooperate and squirted forward causing Daniel to fall flat. Ford started laughing as he danced out of the cow's path. Daniel picked himself up and brushed the dead leaves off his shirt. "Pretty funny, huh?"

"No, of course not." But Ford's amusement could not be hidden. "Here, let me—" He reached to help.

"Just leave me alone, Ford. Just leave me alone.

Daniel started to walk away when he felt a deep rumble. His eyes flew to Ford as the ground started jumping under their feet. Daniel glanced around quickly. Where was Evan?! As he turned back to Ford, the ground disappeared, and he was suddenly falling, tumbling head over heels. He couldn't tell if the jolting was from the earthquake or the collapse, but he felt every rock and tree and bush as he fell. And then—

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A sound woke him. He took a deep breath and coughed as dust entered his lungs. Another groan and he realized vaguely that he was making the noise. Ford opened his eyes and found himself face down in a pile of rocks and dirt. He tried to figure what happened as he stretched fingers and feet to see what was working and what wasn't. A sharp pain in his left ankle, but otherwise it seemed to be just soreness—everywhere—from the...

The fall. The earth had dropped right out from under him and Daniel when the quake hit. Daniel! They'd been not five feet apart. They'd fallen together—Ford had seen him go down! Where was he?

"Daniel?" He coughed again to clear his throat. "Daniel?!" Ford pushed up to hands and knees, feeling a layer of dirt and small stones slide off. "Daniel?!" He looked around and then up toward the sky. He was about twenty feet below the surface. Evan? He'd been riding in another direction as Ford and Daniel worked the cow. How big was the cave in? Had Evan fallen, too? Just as he was about to call out, he heard Evan from above, sounding frantic.

"Daniel?! Ford?! Can you hear me?!"

"Evan!"

"Ford, you okay?!" Evan appeared above him.

"Pretty much. I don't know where Daniel is."

There was a pause then, "Can you move?"

"Trying that right now; hang on." Ford walked his hands forward and pulled his legs out of the rubble. The ankle was throbbing, but he resolved not to think about it. He needed to find Daniel. Once Ford was loose from the rubble, he called out again, "I'm free. I'll see if I can find him."

"I'll go this way."

Ford took a careful survey of the craggy ravine, trying to puzzle out the shadows in the narrow rays of sunlight. The crevice seemed huge, disappearing in both directions but maybe fifteen feet wide at this point. The huge debris piles contained dirt, rocks, trees, bushes, and even big boulders. Crawling over and around the mess, Ford knew he'd been lucky and prayed that Daniel was alive. God, please, let him be alive! The recent arguments weighed heavily on Ford, and he needed to apologize. But they had to find him first. Then…there he was, maybe ten or fifteen feet away. "Evan! I see him!"

Hearing a faint reply, Ford scrambled closer, trying to be careful of his bad ankle. Every now and then, it banged on something, and he bit back more than one curse.

"Daniel?" All he could see was head, shoulders, and chest. The rest lay buried in a big pile of dirt and rocks. Fortunately, Daniel's head and chest were partially protected by a small ledge in the rocky wall above, and that may well have saved him. Shallow breaths rose and fell and when Ford checked Daniel's pulse, it was steady and even, if a bit slow. Thank God! There was a small cut along his left brow that hadn't bled very much. "Daniel?"

"Ford?" Evan called down again, his voice a lot closer and more concerned.

"Here. He's out cold. Ya see me?" He waved an arm.

"Yeah."

"Toss me a canteen, will ya?"

"Be right back."

Ford flipped a couple of rocks from Daniel's side to assess his chest. His respirations remained shallow, and Ford worried there might be busted ribs. Dirt covered his brother from just above the waist, but Ford was able to squeeze the rib cage. A sudden intake of breath and a pronounced flinch resulted. The ribs were at least bruised and maybe broken. "Daniel?"

Evan called out from above, "Ford, I've got the canteen and a rope. Wave for me again; it's hard to see you in the shadows."

Ford threw up an arm, and the canteen landed surprisingly close. He pushed to his knees and bridged the five feet or so to where it landed. "Got it." When he turned back, Daniel was awake, confusion on his face.

"Hey." Daniel sounded puny.

Ford grinned in overwhelmed relief. "Hey, yourself. Welcome back."

"Thanks." Daniel eyed the steep walls. "Earthquake?"

"Yep. How ya feeling? You've been out for a while."

His eyes seemed to focus internally for a second. "Not bad. You?"

Ford decided not to mention his ankle to Daniel either. They had bigger problems. "All right."

Daniel's eyes roved over the walls. "I bet this was a cave or an old mine, and the quake caused the tunnels to fall in."

"We need to get you dug out—you're half buried. And I think you might have some cracked ribs. Evan?"

"Yeah?"

"He's awake, but he's stuck; we're gonna need something to dig him out."

A pause then, "I got an ax on my saddle. I'll get it and come down. I've already got the rope tied—"

Daniel called out, a little breathless. "No! Evan, go for help; find the guys. I'm okay here."

Another pause from above, "But—"

Another rumble…an aftershock! Ford threw himself across Daniel's head and shoulders and wrapped his arms around his own head, trying to protect them both from more falling debris. The roaring and shaking seemed to go forever. When it finally faded, Ford tried to take stock again. Feeling Daniel squirm, he pushed up.

"Daniel? Ya okay?"

His brother coughed and shook his head free of the cobwebs. "Yeah. You?"

"Yeah." He glanced around to check if the walls seemed any more or less stable, but he couldn't see much difference—just more rubble as far as he could tell. Then he remembered they'd been talking to Evan when the aftershock hit. Their brother should be calling down to check on them—except he wasn't. He glanced at Daniel and then back up to the rim. "Evan?"

They waited for a response. Daniel's eyes showed worry, and Ford called out again. "Evan!"

Ford glanced around but didn't see or hear any sign of their brother. Had he fallen in or had something happened up top? Ford was worried and turned back to Daniel, wanting reassurance that Evan was all right.

Daniel lay with his eyes closed. "Ford, we're in big trouble here. You need to find Evan." Quiet, intense.

Ford blinked. "We get you out, we can both look. We'll find him faster that way."

Daniel flinched. "I can't— I can't feel my legs."

Ford's heart flip-flopped. No. No way. Daniel might be—! No! Ford bit off that thought before he could finish thinking it. No, Daniel was…stuck, and Evan was missing! But Daniel wasn't panicking, and he didn't need a scared kid brother freaking out on him. Ford took a deep breath to try and slow his racing heart. Just keep it together, kid. "Okay. Okay, let's think about this. It could just be pressure on your back and legs. The weight. It isn't for certain—" Stop! If he didn't say it, maybe it wouldn't be true. "We'll just dig ya out, and it'll be fine. I know it will."

Daniel winced slightly but kept control of his voice. "Ford, listen to me! You need to find Evan. I'm sure more of the surface collapsed in that aftershock, and he was right there talking to us! He might've fallen in and be hurt bad—worse than me. Ya have to find him. Now!"

Ford felt torn, but Daniel was right. He was at least stable, but they had no idea where Evan even was. Ford's first aid studies kicked in, reminding him they needed to prevent dehydration and shock. Ford finally nodded and opened the canteen before lifting Daniel's head to give him a long drink. Daniel nodded and pulled his head back. Ford took a long swallow before tightening the cap again. "Okay. I'll find him; you wait here."

Daniel breathed a small laugh. "Yeah."

Ford's lips twitched at the dark humor, and then he twisted around to hands and knees. He squinted through the gloom and took the path of least resistance. "Evan!"