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.
Cooper stumbled over a rock buried in the snow and fell to his knees. With a gloved hand, he brushed clear the crystallized frozen breath that clung to his eyebrows and hood wrapped around his head. He stared into the driving flakes, hoping to spot a painted blaze on a tree. Getting lost in these woods in this weather would be a fatal mistake.
Am I still on the trail? Or have I wandered off again?
Earlier in the morning, the light flurries had been non-threatening, but they had increased into a blinding snowstorm in just a few hours. They had unwittingly started their travels just as Mother Nature was unleashing another winter storm across the mountain ridges. Temperatures plummeted and stiff winds whistled through the trees.
Shivering, Cooper placed his gloved hands in the drifts in front of him and pushed with his numb fingers. His leg muscles protested and knees popped as he struggled to stand. Travis came up behind him, grabbed his backpack frame, and lifted him to his feet.
“You want me to take the lead for a while?”
Cooper shook his head, determined to find the trail shelter. An hour ago, they agreed to forgo reaching the ranger station in the storm. Setting up the tents in the relentless wind would be difficult, so they had focused on finding one of the many shelters built along the Appalachian Trail. In the summer, late arrivals often found the shelters overflowing with weary hikers, particularly on the many rainy evenings. No such crowd problem existed in early January, but the lack of visibility was frightening.
“I can make it. Just a little further.”
If I haven’t passed it. Can’t see more than a few feet. God help us if I don’t find it.
Cooper stepped forward and placed a hiking boot on yet another icy rock buried in the fluff. He slipped, struggled, found a footing, and lifted his other boot. Wary of falling again, he inched his way, step by step, down the trail.
Peering into the dim light, he spotted the familiar white rectangle signifying the Appalachian Trail painted several feet off the ground on a tree trunk. Relief swam through his body. Too exhausted to turn and talk, he drew Travis’ attention to the trail marker by reaching out and patting it as he continued down the trail.
The white blazes were designed for easy viewing in the lush green forests of summer, not during heavy snow. Trail maintenance crews would repaint many in the spring before the crowds of through-hikers descended. For now, the paint was faded and chipped. Sometimes, a blaze was painted on a rock, useless now buried under inches of snow.
The trail itself would be a foot-worn path of rock and dirt amongst green undergrowth in the summer. But the snow covered the trail the same as the forest floor, camouflaging it. Without a clear view of the painted markers or the visible wear of the trail, they could wander deep into the forest and freeze to death.
Wary of getting separated, Travis had taken a climbing rope and connected the three at their waists as the snow intensified. When Cooper turned, Travis was barely visible through the mist and snow, but the tugs on the rope signified that he was there.
Meagan was not even a shadow behind Travis. The last Cooper had seen her during an earlier break, she had only nodded wearily to questions, the snow clinging to her hat, face, and backpack.
Stumbling down the trail, Cooper saw an outline of something large. His hope grew that they had found the shelter, its roof a protector from the weather. But as the shadow took shape as a giant fallen tree blocking the trail, his spirit was crushed.
He stopped and waited for his partners to join him. Together, they studied the obstacle.
The tree had fallen uphill, left to right across the trail. The trunk of the tree was barely visible several feet in front of them through the thick branches. Looking up, the falling snow stinging his eyes, Cooper couldn’t make out the tips of the branches towering overhead. If they tried to climb straight through the branches, they would have to disconnect from each other. The backpacks would get snagged and make passage impossible. Cutting a path through the limbs could take hours and darkness would shroud them before they cleared the tree.
If not through, around. We can just walk around.
To the right, they would scramble up the hill over rocks and snow until they found the top of the tree, and then drop back down on the other side through the brush. The sprawling limbs would make the path wide and hazardous. Any obstacles, hidden in the maddening fog, would compound the danger.
The only remaining choice was to go left, around the root ball, wherever it might be. The trunk disappeared in the mist off the side of the trail, making it difficult to determine how wide the detour might need to be. The terrain sloped away meaning a scramble down the mountain to the roots and then a climb back up the top on the other side. But as they approached the bottom of the tree, the branches would be thicker and stronger, safer to grasp and steady their descent.
It might be twenty feet. It might be fifty. But somewhere to their left, the tree ended and they could walk around.
As long as other trees had not fallen across it. Or a jumble of boulders blocked the path.
Cooper, being the lightest, volunteered to go first. They untied the rope that kept them together on the trail and used it as a belay line to support him if he fell. Secured to Travis by the safety rope, the younger boy inched his way down the side of the tree. Hidden rocks tripped him up. Small trees and brush clogged the path. More than once, he tripped and fell, the safety rope growing taut and keeping him from sliding down the hill. He would stand, brush off, and continue working downhill until the base of the tree came into sight.
The tree’s massive root system stood vertical, a giant wall looming in the fog providing relief from the howling winds. They supported the trunk high in the air, allowing for an easy passage underneath before clambering back up the hill.
Cooper removed the rope, hollered up the hill, and Travis recoiled it. Meagan was next, still supported by Travis. Cooper ate an energy bar and rested, his back against the root ball that protected him from the wind. He stared into the fog, waiting to glimpse Meagan. When she materialized through the mist, he ran to her, and guided her to the makeshift shelter. She collapsed beside him, exhausted.
Cooper untied her and retied the line to his own waist. Unlike the other two, Travis would have no one above him controlling a safety line. If he fell and slid down the mountain, the smaller Cooper would have to stop him as he passed. Being well aware of the risk, Cooper braced himself against the tree.
Travis began his descent. As the rope slacked, Cooper would pull it around his waist and coil it beside him, keeping the length feeding to Travis as short as possible. His hands and face were numb. He fought the ice-caked rope as, inch by inch, Travis crept down the mountain. He slipped, stumbled, and slid, but never fell. As he stumbled into view, Cooper felt the stress seep from his tired shoulders.
Once at the bottom, they had to climb back up the hill on the other side of the tree. Cooper, the most rested now, would go first. He would then use the safety line to assist the others back up the trail.
After enjoying the windbreak provided by the rootball, the wind sliced through Cooper as he opted to crab going up, balanced on his hands and toes. With a wider stance, he had less chance of falling. The wind and cold nipped at his face, his nose growing numb. He would stop, flap his arms to accelerate the blood flow, and resume climbing once he could feel the ground under his fingers.
The risk was missing the trail. A scant foot wide, it was barely noticeable under the foot of snow that had piled up. If he climbed past it, he would have to descend again to find safety.
And if I can’t find it?
Each flat spot became a possibility. Crawling on hands and knees, Cooper would inch away from the tree to see if the flatness continued as the trail would, or if it would slope again. Disappointed time after time, he would return to the tree and continue climbing up the hill. His hands grew colder. Breathing became more difficult. The sky grew darker. The snow fell even harder.
Finding another flat spot, Cooper crawled away from the tree. Lots of rocks, but no hill. More flat. A tree to the side. A white blaze four feet up. Cooper hugged the tree and fought back tears. Once he regained composure, he shouted over the wind for Meagan and Travis to join him.
They scrambled up the hill, supported by the safety rope. Climbing on hands and knees was faster than the descent was by foot. Reassembled, they huddled together and shivered. A fierce blast of wind hit their faces and they ducked into their coat collars.
Cooper stared down the trail which disappeared in the blinding snow just a few feet away. “What if we have missed the shelter? I don’t know how much further I can go.”
Travis shrugged. “Then we set up tents, build a fire, and wait until morning. Right here. The tree blocks the wind. The branches give us fuel for the fire.”
Meagan nodded. “We’re cold. Tired. We could wander off the trail. I vote to stay right here.”
“Ok, Meagan and I will get the tents up. Coop, you get a fire going.”
Cooper stood and shook the snow off his coat. He clapped his hands together to get blood flowing. Spying a snow-covered log on the edge of the trail, he decided the trail itself would be a perfect fire pit. Normally a violation, but no one was out here to see.
He dropped to his knees and brushed snow away until he uncovered the rocky surface. Removing his gloves, he built a small pyramid of twigs with shivering hands. He lit a wooden match from his backpack, but the winds gusted and extinguished it. When he tried to retrieve a replacement match, he could not feel them with his numbed hands.
Frustrated, he sat back on his haunches, cupped his hands, and blew warm air across the fingers. Slowly, feeling returned so that he could separate a second match from his small bundle. Lighting it, he cupped his hand around the precious flame. He guided it to some stripped birch bark, the flame eagerly lapping the papery texture. He slid the birch under the pile of twigs and soon had a small fire going. The wind battled the infant fire, but he sheltered it with his body and fed larger and larger branches to it. Soon he had a blaze that could withstand the gusts.
With the fire established, he looked around for a boulder to serve as a kitchen prep area and cleared snow from it. Retrieving his backpack, he unpacked foils of freeze-dried food packages and a pot to cook them in. He added more wood to the fire and erected a small overhanging branch that would hold the cooking dinner. Snow was packed into the pot to melt over the fire for boiling water.
His body thawing, confidence grew. They would eat and go to sleep inside the tents quickly, but he was determined to make dinner as comfortable as possible. He turned to the log at the side of the trail and brushed snow off it. Squeezed together, two could sit on it, but he needed a third seat.
Just as he had resigned himself to standing and eating, he spied another snow-covered log just a few feet up the trail. It looked longer than the first log, maybe even 6-feet long. If it wasn’t frozen to the ground, he could clear it off, drag it over to the fire, and they would all have comfortable seating. He stumbled the few feet down the trail, dropped to his knees, and swept a layer of snow off of it.
The log wasn’t smooth. Snow was caked in dips and crevices. He used his fingers to dig away the powder, but was surprised to grab cloth.
A flag? A coat?
He lifted the frozen cloth, breaking bits of ice away from the surface. As darkness spread with the approaching evening, he struggled to make sense of what he was exhuming. His fingers wrapped around a new piece of fabric. A different texture. A different color. The ice clung stubbornly to it, so he grabbed it with both hands and pulled, revealing what lay buried underneath.
Travis was inside the tent, unrolling their sleeping bags, when the scream hit his ears. He scrambled outside and looked over to see Meagan doing the same. Scanning the campsite, they spotted Cooper sitting in the snow a few feet beyond the fire. He had his knees pulled up to his chest, rocking back and forth, wailing at the top of his lungs.
They raced over to him and dropped beside him. “Coop. What’s wrong?”
Cooper moaned, a pitiful and soulful sound. He unwrapped one arm from his legs and raised it, a shaking finger pointed at the mound in the snow. He opened his mouth, but only a groan escaped.
Travis followed the finger to the uncovered mass. He crawled forward, pulled back the cloth, and stared into Mr. Chapman’s frozen face.