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.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
The rising sun, though still invisible below the horizon, reflected red and orange light off the clouds scattered to the east. The stars, brilliant pinpoints just moments earlier, disappeared one by one in the brightening skies. Heavy snow hung in the boughs of the trees, glistening in the growing daylight. The overnight winds had dropped to a gentle breeze. A branch shifted and snow plopped to the ground.
Travis’ reverie broken, he resumed stacking firewood near the roaring campfire. “Yeah, it’s beautiful.” He sighed and glanced towards Mr. Chapman’s body buried in the snow. The steady snowfall throughout the night covered their gruesome find, now barely more than a ridge in the white carpet blanketing the forest. “But Mike’s out there somewhere.”
“Maybe at the ranger’s station.”
Travis shook his head. “I doubt it. If he found rangers, they would have found us. They would have come right back up this trail.”
Meagan draped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “Then he found shelter. Waited out the storms just like us.” Travis grunted and turned away, so she tried again. “He’s a good friend, huh?”
“My crayon friend.”
“Crayon friend? Huh?”
“First grade. My mom had the list of supplies to buy, but she couldn’t afford them all, so she skipped the crayons. The teacher scrounged up this box of 7 or 8 broken crayons for me. I was going to make the sun purple because it was one of the colors. Mike was sitting beside me with this giant box of 64 brand new crayons. He pulled out a yellow, handed it to me and said, ‘The sun should be yellow.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”
“That’s a good friend.”
Travis swung the ax, splitting a piece of wood with a single stroke. “Yeah. The best. Shared crayons ever since. Got me into his kids’ soccer league even though my mom couldn’t afford the registration fee. Ate dinner at their house when she was working late. Took me to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.”
“We’ll find him, Travis.”
As he attacked the branches with his ax, Meagan assessed the growing stack of logs. “We aren’t moving out this morning?”
“I don’t think we can. Last night’s storm added at least a foot of snow.” He studied the snow-laden trail. “But with Mike out there. What if he’s hurt?”
She hung a pot to boil over the fire and counted the foil packets stacked on the boulder, their kitchen prep rock. “Do we have enough food to wait?”
Travis swung the ax and split another log. “It’s weird, you know?”
Shaken by the twists and turns in the conversation, she waited. When no answer was coming, she prodded, “Weird? How?”
He leaned on the ax as he studied the clear sky. “Mr. Hamilton tried to teach me how to read the sky. To know what weather was coming. Never really made sense to me when I could look at my phone and know.”
The first rays of the morning sun hit Meagan in the face. “Looks nice today.”
“But what if there is another storm coming? And another behind it? I don’t know what’s going to happen next, so I don’t know if we have enough food. I should have packed it all. So stupid.”
Meagan shook her head. “We all thought it would take a day. You’re the one who insisted on carrying several days of food. We wouldn’t be having breakfast without that.”
He looked up and held her gaze. “So, what should we do? Stay until the trail clears some and risk running out of food? Or try to break trail and risk getting injured on the trail? Because I don’t know the answer.”
“We go. I ain’t staying here.” They spun to see Cooper standing in front of the tent. “I can’t stay here. Not knowing he’s lying there dead under the snow.”
“Breaking trail in this mess would be a ton of work, Coop. And we could get hurt.”
Cooper glared defiantly back. “Be easier than yesterday. We can actually see the trail markers on the trees. No wind. No blowing snow. And we can tie ourselves together again if we hit rough patches. We can trade off the lead so we take turns breaking trail. And, tonight, we can be sleeping in a warm building after making plans with rangers to come get our friends.”
Travis started to protest when Cooper cut him off. “And we can find Mike.”
A half hour later, the sun was a brilliant yellow ball in the sky. Full daylight found breakfast cooked and consumed. Sleeping bags rolled. Tents dropped and folded. Backpacks packed. Fire extinguished.
Backpack on his shoulders and waist belt cinched, Cooper shifted his weight from foot to foot as he waited impatiently for the other two. As soon as they were ready, he turned and trudged down the trail, plowing through the powdery snow. Meagan fell into step a few feet behind him.
Travis paused beside the snowy burial mound. At its head, a wooden cross had been lashed together and driven into the ground. Somehow, Cooper had done that undetected while the others broke camp. He glanced up to see the back of the younger boy disappearing around the curve of the trail and nodded his thanks. “We’ll be back for you, Mr. Chapman. I promise.”
After the first half hour of hiking, Cooper reluctantly gave up the point position. Travis insisted that they rotate the arduous task of breaking through the heavy snow clogging the trail. Each step risked coming down wrong on a buried rock or log or sliding a foot deep into a hidden hole. Their progress was painfully slow as the day wore on and they marched in silence.
As the sun reached its zenith in the sky, Cooper noticed the smoke.
Travis was on his third turn at point, carefully choosing his footing with each step. Meagan was behind him with Cooper bobbing and weaving in the rear, begging to retake the lead and hurry their progress.
With their eyes focused on the uneven ground, Travis and Meagan had to look up and follow Cooper’s finger to see the column of smoke rising ahead.
Cooper didn’t wait to be asked, but plunged down the trail leaving the others to follow in his wake. They rounded a bend and saw the trail shelter well off to the side. Without the smoke, they would have marched past the hidden building.
A large campfire roared a welcoming heat. A backpack rested against the exterior wall. Just inside the shelter, a lone figure hovered, oblivious to their approach.
Cooper ran as fast he could toward the shelter, slipping and stumbling through the woods. Travis shouted, “Mike!” as he stayed on the younger boy’s heels.
The shadow in the shelter turned toward them and stepped into the light. She wore faded jeans and a red and white flannel shirt. Her hiking boots were scuffed and worn, but sturdy. Her short brown hair was flecked with gray. A pair of bright green eyes highlighted her ruddy face.
The boys stopped a few feet short as Meagan caught up behind them. Travis stepped forward. “Sorry, ma’am. We thought you were a friend of ours.”
Her voice was gravelly, the sound of a long-term smoker. “This friend. He your age?”
“Yes, ma’am. He’s gone ahead to get help from the rangers.”
She nodded and pointed inside the shelter. “Your friend is in here.”
Travis stepped around her and into the shadows of the shelter. Mike was stretched across a bunk along the wall, a gray wool blanket covering his legs. He turned his head at the sound of Travis’ entrance, his eyes glowing in the low light.
Travis walked across the small room. “Hey, buddy, we’ve been looking for you.”
Mike opened his mouth, but no sounds came out. He closed his mouth again and licked his chapped lips with a swollen tongue. Sweat dripped from his brow. He held his hand out, the fingers trembling.
Travis dropped to his knees and grasped his friend’s hand. The skin was papery and hot, the raging fever burning inside him.