Bodie’s headlamp illuminated the underground stream as it cascaded over the edge and into darkness. A muffled roar echoed from far below. His skin prickled.
With its ceiling many feet above them, the cavern spanned wider than any part of the cave he remembered from just an hour or two earlier. The floor of the original passage had nearly disappeared. Only a narrow ledge remained, maybe six inches wide along the left side of the cave. With his light, Bodie followed the ledge to a dark hole on the other side of the black chasm.
“Help!” Bodie yelled. His voice echoed back.
He listened quietly, then yelled again. No response. He hoped that meant that Sergeant Hernandez and the others were ahead in the cave, maybe even safely outside—not lying at the bottom of the chasm. Bodie scooted back to the judge.
“What do you think?” asked Bodie.
The man was quiet for a moment before responding. “Well, I’m pretty sure this is the way we came in. So we’re not lost.”
“But this hole wasn’t here before,” said Bodie. “Do you think the earthquake made a crack this big?”
“Doesn’t seem likely, does it? How deep is the hole?”
“I couldn’t see the bottom with this light,” said Bodie. He thought for a minute, then picked up a rock the size of his fist and tossed it over the edge.
“One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two,” Bodie counted until the rock splashed below. He hesitated. “No way.”
He edged closer to the ledge, picked up another rock, then dropped it. “One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two.”
He crawled back to the judge. “In physics class, we learned that an object falls at thirty-two feet per second. So,” said Bodie, thinking out loud, “if the rock took two seconds to hit the bottom, then the hole must be sixty-four feet deep.” He looked to the judge. “Can that be right?”
The man sighed. “I think it’s thirty-two feet per second per second. A falling object doesn’t just fall at thirty-two feet per second. It actually gains speed—accelerates—at thirty-two feet for each second it falls. That means it falls thirty-two feet in the first second, sixty-four feet in the next second, ninety-six feet in the third second, and so on.”
Bodie hesitated. “You mean it’s almost a hundred feet to the bottom of the hole?”
“Well, maybe,” replied the judge, “depending, of course, on the accuracy of your measurement of time. And maybe, to be really accurate, we should factor in the speed of sound. You know, to account for the time between the actual splash and the time we hear it. Do you remember the speed of sound? I don’t.”
When Bodie tried to imagine a formula for calculating the depth of the hole, his forehead throbbed. “Never mind,” he said. “Let’s just agree that it’s really deep, okay?” He scooted away from the hole a little farther, then sat against the rock wall, arms wrapped around his knees.
“The earthquake must have exposed a huge cavern below the cave,” reasoned Bodie. “The ceiling of the cave below us collapsed, turning the cave we were crawling through into this hole. Could that be right?”
“At this point I can’t think of a better explanation,” said the judge. “Unfortunately, we’re on the wrong side.”
Bodie cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled again. He held his breath, straining to hear even a faint response above the sound of rushing water. Nothing. “Now what?” Bodie asked, as much to himself as to the adult.
“Well, let’s take an inventory,” said the judge. He turned his daypack upside down, and the contents clattered onto the rock floor in front of him. Bodie did the same. Between them they had a long, stout rope, a few carabiners, and several spike-shaped bolts, as well as bottles of water, a first-aid kit, and flashlights with extra batteries.
They discussed their strategy. Each had done some simple rock climbing in the past, but with safety harnesses and expert supervision. Edging across the narrow ledge would be simpler, but riskier. Bodie picked up a bolt. Not finding a hammer, he grabbed a grapefruit-sized rock and searched the wall until he found a crack. Into the crevice he wedged the pointed end of the anchor. He pounded it, and echoes boomed with each strike. After the spike was well into the rock, Bodie grasped the end with his thumb and forefinger and tried to shake it. Satisfied that the anchor was firmly embedded, he threaded the rope through the anchor’s hole and tied it securely.
They agreed that the judge would go first. Barnes tied a bowline knot in the rope, then slipped the large loop around his chest, just under the arms. Bodie held the extra rope around his rump and braced himself. He knew he might not be able to stop the judge if he fell, but he hoped he could slow the fall before he reached the end of the rope.
Judge Barnes stepped onto the ledge and inched his way across. On the far side of the chasm, he pounded another anchor into the rock and tied his end of the rope to it.
Bodie undid his own end, looped it around his chest, and tied a bowline knot. Suddenly, the thought of falling paralyzed him. His legs felt numb. They wouldn’t move. What if he couldn’t do it?
“It’s easy,” said the judge. “Just be careful. And take your time.”
After a moment Bodie pressed his face and body against the rough rock wall and firmly gripped a jagged outcropping. His other hand found a convenient crack in the wall. He eased his feet along the ledge, then found new handholds, one after the other. Once his hands had a good grip, he moved his feet farther along the ledge.
“You’re doing great,” said the judge. “There’s no rush—just take your time.”
The words reassured Bodie, but his heart pumped full blast. The trick, they had agreed, was to focus on the ledge and the handholds, to keep moving forward and not think about the cavern below.
He was halfway across the ledge when the earth rumbled. He closed his eyes and held his breath. Fingers on each hand clutched gritty stone as he pressed his face and body against the wall. The earth vibrated. Rock fragments and dust sprinkled his face. Suddenly, the wall buckled. Big chunks of stone popped loose and fell. A section of the ledge under Bodie broke free. His fingers ripped from their holds. He slid downward, bouncing roughly away from the jagged wall.
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