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.
“Are we going to bury them?”
Travis sat in his sleeping bag peering out a small opening in the tent flaps. The rising sun was hidden behind the gray clouds, but enough light seeped through to illuminate the flurries drifting in the air. Despite the softly falling flakes, no snow had accumulated overnight to hamper their travels.
The cold breeze chilled his bare chest. He shivered and zipped the flap close, before turning to the boy stretched out beside him. In the darkness of the tent, Cooper was little more than a shadow burrowed in the sleeping bag. “You have the weirdest snore. I woke up twice thinking a cat crawled in and purred beside me.”
The younger boy wasn’t derailed that easily. “What if wild animals chewed on them or something? We gotta bury them.”
Travis picked up the neat pile of clothing he had organized the night before. Everything else, except food, was already packed in the backpack strapped to a tree outside. The food hung from tree branches in a bear bag, out of reach from prying claws. The food would be divvied up between the three of them and added to the top of the packs.
“We don’t have time. We’re going to hike as soon as we break camp.” He slid his arms through his thermal shirt and pulled it over his head. “Besides, the rangers will probably be back for them this afternoon. Tomorrow at the latest.”
“But what if we don’t find rangers? What if we don’t come back?”
“Of course we will find rangers. Why wouldn’t we?”
Cooper’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I heard you and Meagan talking last night.”
“Oh.” Travis slid out of his sleeping bag and dressed in his thermal pants layer, socks and hiking pants. He dressed slowly, buying time before having to answer. “We were just talking. Like scary campfire stories.”
Cooper sat up, the sleeping bag falling off to reveal a dingy gray t-shirt. His shaggy, blond hair was tousled, shooting in random directions. His blue eyes sparkled with anger in the morning glow. “Don’t treat me like a little kid. You don’t think I’ve been wondering since all of you got sick? Wondering if my mom and dad are sick? If my little sister is sick? If they’ve all died while I was out here in the woods? Wondering every time I sneeze or cough or feel a sore muscle if I’m about to get sick? Or, worse, that I might never get sick while everyone else dies?”
Startled by the outburst, Travis placed a hand on Cooper’s thin shoulder. He could feel the boy’s body quivering with anger, fear, or both. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Travis turned back to his unlaced boot and studied it for a moment. He took a deep breath and began tying the knot. “We’re all wondering, OK? I’m worried about my mom, too. It can’t be everywhere. How could it be? Wouldn’t it have started weeks before? With just a few people dying? And the number increasing slowly?”
A whispered reply came from the younger boy. “Maybe it did.”
Travis turned to look at him. “What?”
“If it had just been a few people at first, that wouldn’t be news, right?”
Travis thought through news articles he had seen in previous flu seasons. That 3,000 to 49,000 flu deaths a year are typical in the US alone, though few of the deaths made news. That sometimes vaccines, planned a year in advance, weren’t effective on the flu viruses virulent that year. Just a year ago, his school had closed for several days because so many students had the flu. “So maybe the first ones wouldn’t be news. But it would have been news while we were out here if it’s as widespread as you are saying.”
Cooper flopped back in his sleeping bag and stared at the ceiling. “Exactly. We’ve been out here. We’re still out here. We don’t know what’s happening back home.”
“Come on, Cooper. The rangers would have gotten word out on the trail. We would’ve heard.”
“Not if all the rangers are sick.”
Travis tied his boots and slipped on his coat. He raised to his knees, his hand on the zipper to open the tent, before looking back. “Maybe, Coop, maybe you’re right. Or maybe you’re not. But the only way to find out is to get hiking.”
Cooper lay still in his sleeping bag before agreeing with a shrug. “Will you make me two promises?”
Travis sighed and dropped his hand from the zipper on the tent. “What are they?”
“Promise not to hide stuff from me. No matter how bad you think something might be, tell me anyway. I can take it, OK?”
Travis nodded, an easy promise to make. “I can do that. What’s the second?”
“Just in case, you know, things have gone really bad out there.” Cooper drew a deep breath. “Help me get home. So I can know about my family for sure.”
Travis unzipped the tent and stepped into the brisk morning breeze. He stuck his head back inside the tent. “Deal.”
The campsite was quiet, the fire reduced to glowing embers. Travis stoked the campfire with some smaller branches. As the flames grew, he added larger and larger pieces of wood and hung a coffee pot to heat. Cooper joined him and prepared scrambled eggs, bacon and grits from their dried rations.
Smelling the cooking food, Meagan stumbled out of her tent, formerly Mr. Chapman’s, and yawned as she trod through the snow, empty coffee mug in her hand. They grunted “good morning” to each other as she poured a cup.
Cooper declared breakfast ready.They sat on rocks, plates balanced on knees, and ate in silence, each deep in thought about the hike ahead of them. Energy bars eaten on the trail would be lunch as they hoped to reach the ranger’s station by sunset.
Breakfast consumed, Cooper cleaned dishes while Travis and Meagan broke down their respective tents and attached them along with sleeping bags to their packs.
Travis began extinguishing the fire, smothering the hot embers in the snow. The snow he shoveled on the fire erupted in steam clouds until the water dimmed the glow. As the base of the fire cooled, he shoveled a dirt, snow, and water stew until the smoke ceased. As he worked, he looked up to see Meagan’s amused smile. “You know that can’t spread with all of the snow, right?”
Travis shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Mr. Hamilton was a stickler about cold out. I can’t leave until I can place my hand on it and not feel a bit of heat.”
Meagan opened her mouth to say something, but instead turned toward the sound of hammering. Cooper knelt in front of Mr. Hamilton’s tent, driving a wooden cross into the ground with a rock in his hand. He had lashed together two sturdy branches and then sharpened the base with his knife.
Satisfied with its placement, Cooper gathered three more crosses he had fashioned and walked to the tent he had shared with Will. Dropping to his knees, he picked up one of the crosses, balanced it in front of the tent door, and began pounding it into the ground with the rock.
With the campfire extinguished, Travis walked to Cooper and rested a hand on his shoulder. Cooper turned a tear-stained face up and whispered, “I had to do something.”
Travis nodded, seized the other two crosses, and carried them to Josh and Jake’s tent. He scrounged for a rock and sank them into the ground. Cooper joined him and touched the edge of the tent. His lips moved in a silent prayer.
Cooper wiped the tears from his face, nodded his thanks to Travis. The boys turned to see Meagan standing patiently beside their backpacks. They joined her, hoisted their packs, and walked toward the trail at the edge of the clearing.
Buried in unbroken snow, the path stretched into the woods until it bent out of sight three hundred yards away. Cooper took the lead, his boots kicking up the white powder. Meagan fell in behind him, trudging in his footsteps.
Travis brought up the rear but stopped as he entered the forest. He turned and stared at the campsite. Four backpacks remained lashed to trees, the supplies they left behind tucked inside. Three tents remained in the clearing, small wooden crosses at their entrances marking the canvas tombs. The bodies of their friends remained mercifully hidden from view.
He sighed, tightened the straps on his backpack, turned his back on the campsite, and hurried down the trail.