New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.
If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.
The two boys sat in the snowdrifts outside Mr. Hamilton’s tent mourning his death. Tears flowed as they swapped tales about him. Reluctant smiles appeared as they laughed at some forgotten memory, but were wiped away moments later by the aching loss.
Once the boys had grown quiet, the stories exhausted for now, Travis crawled into the tent and searched the backpack. He retrieved Cooper’s medicine, well-worn trail maps of the park, and Hamilton’s cell phone. With one last glance at the corpse, Travis zipped the tent closed and whispered a prayer.
He grabbed Cooper’s hand in his own and pulled the younger boy to his feet. They walked over to the campfire and added logs. The heat of the roaring fire chased away the chill.
Travis sat on a rock in front of the fire and studied the cell phone. By troop rules, the boys could not bring their own electronics so they would enjoy nature without distraction. The adults, however, carried theirs in the event of an emergency, though they often hiked far enough from civilization that cell signals didn’t reach. Travis turned it on, noted the lack of signal, and turned it back off to save the battery.
Cooper spoke, his cracking voice still raw from emotion, “Mr. Chapman tried his phone, too. Didn’t work.”
“Where is Mike’s dad? Is he ok?”
“He was sick, but he and Mike went for help.”
Travis released his breath, aware he had been holding it in fear of a worse answer. “I was scared you would say he died.”
Cooper poked the fire with a stick, nodded his head toward other tents and mumbled, “No, but they did.”
Travis stared in shock. “Who?”
“Josh and Jake Sutton died Saturday afternoon. And Will passed just before sunrise Sunday.”
Joshua and Jacob were fourteen-year-old identical twins who loved playing practical jokes. Their favorite pranks played on their indistinguishable appearance.
At the beginning of the week, the troop stopped at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the park’s entrance. Josh walked up to the information desk and asked several weird questions about bears. How do the bears know where the park boundary is? Can you pet bears you meet in the woods? And so on.
Five minutes after Josh had walked away, Jake approached and asked the same questions, word for word. Though perplexed why a boy would ask the same questions twice, the ranger politely responded, oblivious of the joke.
Fifteen-year-old William Chang loved the high adventure trips, especially the annual summer white-water rafting. He also liked playing penny poker and dreamed of playing the World Series of Poker. Once he had taken everyone’s money, he would entertain the boys with card tricks.
Travis’ last memory of them was around the campfire Wednesday night. Will was trying to entice everyone into a card game while Josh and Jake were trying to confuse Will which one still had any money to lose. They were all laughing and telling jokes as dinner was being prepared.
How could three laughing boys be dead?
“So Mike and Mr. Chapman left you here all alone?”
“No.” Cooper continued poking the campfire with his stick. “Friday night, after Mr. Hamilton died, Mike and I were tired and depressed. Neither one of us had slept more than an hour or two since Wednesday. Mike pulled out his dad’s trail maps and talked about going to get help. He figured going back to our van at the Smokemont Ranger Station would take too long, so he tried to decide between Cosby and Big Creek. He figured Big Creek was the best choice since it was on the Appalachian Trail.”
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddled the Tennessee / North Carolina border with over a half-million acres. Two major entrances handled most traffic. On the west side of the park, the Sugarlands Visitor Center sat outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. On the east side of the park, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center was in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Numerous smaller visitor centers and ranger stations were scattered throughout the park. The best known are Cades Cove and Cataloochee.
Long-term hikers, however, secured backcountry permits that allowed them to explore the wilderness deep in the park. The boy scout troop had entered the park from Cherokee, ventured up US 441, and parked their van at the Smokemont Ranger Station. They hiked into the Northeastern part of the park over the next several days. Returning to the van would be a 2-3 day hike.
Mike had decided, however, to head for the Big Creek Ranger Station. Though the station was remote, it was within a day hike of their campsite. It also was the northern entry point for the Appalachian Trail into the park, on the state line within a short drive of Interstate 40. Overall, that made Big Creek an excellent choice with easy access for emergency workers to stage and come in.
Cooper sat the stick down in the fire and sighed before continuing. “At sunrise, he was getting his pack together when Mr. Chapman stumbled out of his tent. He looked awful. His skin was real pale and sweat was dripping off of him, but he said he couldn’t let Mike go alone. Mike kept arguing he could get there faster by himself, but they finally took off together.”
The young boy squeezed his eyes shut, fighting against the sadness overwhelming him. “That afternoon, Josh and Jake died. Within minutes of each other. What makes it worse? I don’t know who died first. I could never tell them apart. Isn’t that stupid? Two of my friends died and I can’t tell them apart.”
Travis added more firewood and let the fire build back up, waiting while Cooper composed himself to finish the story. “Will was the worst. He kept screaming it hurt and he was throwing up blood. I couldn’t keep him covered up because he kept saying he was too hot. When he would go to sleep or pass out or whatever, his chest rattled when he breathed. I was laying there with him in our tent when he went silent. The rattling just stopped.”
Travis stared at Will and Cooper’s tent, imagining the horror of Will’s last night. “I’m so sorry, Coop.”
“Then it was just you and me. Made you drink water a lot. Kept the fire going. Sometimes, I would doze off in Mike’s sleeping bag and kept waiting for Mike to come back and get mad at me. But they didn’t come back. No rangers appeared. No helicopters overhead. Nothing.”
Travis studied the map in his hands. “Mike should have been able to get to the ranger’s station Saturday afternoon. Even if they waited for sunlight to return, they should have been here by Sunday morning.”
“Maybe the ranger station was closed. He thought it might be a seasonal station.”
“He still should have found someone. A ranger’s residence. Other campers. Something. Besides Mr. Chapman’s cell phone would work there.” Travis pointed at the map. “And the Waterville Power Station is just outside of the park. Someone has to be working there. Would have only been a short hike further.”
Cooper stared into the flames. “So that means something happened to them.”
What would a real man do? Wait here in the campsite? Go to the ranger’s station?
“Two possibilities. They got there or they didn’t. But if we head in the same direction, we will either catch them on the trail or meet the rescue party coming to us, right?”
Cooper’s confidence waned. “I guess so.”
“Nothing here for us, so we need to get moving. Too late today and the snow will make hiking slow, so we leave at sunrise. Take one tent and sleeping bags in case we have to sleep on the trail. Take enough food for a few days. Will be as safe as staying. Sitting here isn’t getting anything done.”
“I thought if you were lost in the woods you sit tight.”
“Coop, we aren’t lost. We know where we are. And we know where we are going. It’s a well marked trail. I will even leave a note here explaining where we are going.”
The younger boy’s face relaxed and he nodded agreement. They sat in silence, enjoying the warmth of the fire, as Travis studied the map.
Over the sound of the wind in the trees, a new noise drifted from down the trail, the opposite direction they planned to travel the next day. A creature moving through the woods. Branches on the ground cracking under feet. The boys stood and stared into the forest.
“A bear?” Cooper asked nervously.
“Nope. Remember, mama bears have their cubs right about now, so they are deep in their dens.”
Travis thought about it for a minute. “Ok, papa bear is a problem, but he should hunker down for the winter, too.”
“Coop, there are no mountain lions in this area.”
“Uh-huh, I heard people saying they were here. They had seen them and everything.”
“Come on, Coop, that’s as likely as Bigfoot.”
Travis regretted his comment when horror crossed Cooper’s face. The boy grabbed his axe and held it with both hands. “Bigfoot? Oh, no, Bigfoot is the worst of them all.”
A female voice called out, solving the mystery. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
“Bigfoot. Ha!” Travis grinned and hollered in reply, “We’re here. Come on!”
The boys raced to the edge of the campsite as a weary hiker appeared around the bend. She was in her mid 20’s, fit and outdoorsy. She wore well-worn hiking boots, the tops covered by ski pants preventing snow from dropping inside. In each gloved hand, she carried a walking stick for balance on the slippery trail. A bedroll stuck out from the top of her backpack. Her blond hair dangled from under her knit hat and over the collar of her coat.
She walked into the campsite and introduced herself, “Meagan Denisco. Glad to find someone on the trail.” As she was setting her backpack against a tree, she eyed the coffee pot hanging over the fire. “Please tell me that coffee pot is full.”
Cooper danced on his feet in excitement. “Oh, yeah. Well, half full cause Travis here has had some, but I got plenty more and can make more so don’t worry. Here let me find a cup.” He raced off across the snow, bouncing in glee.
Meagan reached into the top of her pack and produced a mug. “It’s OK. I have my own.”
“Oh, yeah. You have your own mug. You would out here hiking. How stupid of me. Let me pour it for you.” Cooper raced back, grabbed the mug, and stumbled his way toward the fire.
Quizzical, Meagan turned to Travis. “Is he always like this?”
“Yeah, but he’s super excited that you got here. Where’s the rest of the rescue team?”
Her puzzlement only grew. “Rescue team? What rescue team?”
Cooper approached with a full coffee mug. “You aren’t a ranger?”
Meagan shook her head. “No, sorry, just a hiker.”
Cooper was crestfallen. “You’re out here by yourself?”
Tears formed in Meagan’s eyes as she sat down hard on a rock beside the fire. “No. There were four of us. But they all got sick. I did what I could but . . .”
Travis was shocked that other hikers might have suffered from the same illness. “Did they die?”
Meagan nodded and sipped her coffee as she stared into the fire.
“All three of them?”
“Yes. I tried for three days but then they couldn’t keep going. It was awful. They were my best friends from college. Every year we got together for a girl’s week – hiking in the wilderness. And this year . . .”
Cooper dropped into the snow and crossed his legs. “Were you sick?”
Meagan shook her head. “No, never.”
“Just like me. I never got sick either. But Travis did. I thought he would die, too.”
Meagan looked at the older boy, still standing at the edge of the fire ring. Her gaze swept across the campsite and absorbed the quiet tents. “What about everyone else?”
His voice hushed in horror, Travis answered, “Four dead. Two left Saturday morning to get help but we haven’t heard from them. And then Coop and me.”
Meagan’s face revealed she had never thought of the illness as widespread either. “What the hell is going on?”