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.
Ax slung over his shoulder, Cooper marched into the thick forest. His boots crunched through the thick snow as he drifted further from the voices around the campfire. The bare branches filtered the sunlight and cast twisting shadows on the forest floor.
He paused in front of a tree and wrapped his bare hand around a tree branch. His fingers detected imperfections which would lead to rot and decay in the thick wood. With a shake of his head, he continued his search.
During his daily hunt for firewood, he scanned the ground for fallen trees and avoided cutting their live counterparts. Twigs were gathered from the forest floor for kindling, quick burning to ignite the campfire. He hacked the thicker branches to size, perfect for growing the young fire. His ax split the hefty trunk into logs for long, slow burning. His goal was volume and, thanks to Cooper’s manic energy, he had built a huge stack of firewood suitable for days of camping.
Not that he hoped they would stay in one spot for that long. Cooper wanted to go home. The sooner, the better. And to do that, he needed to get Travis moving since neither of the others were helping.
Andrea swore over and over she was not leaving the mountains. She wouldn’t go with them to the ranger’s station. She wouldn’t help them get to Charlotte. Nope, she planned to go as deep into the woods as she could. Avoid the flu or plague or whatever it was. Just disappear and ignore.
Fine, let her go. They didn’t need her. Didn’t want her.
And Meagan? She believed everything Andrea said. Saw no point in leaving. Nothing was out there. Nothing to go home to. She would go where the group went, but had lost hope.
But Travis believed. Or had believed until Mike died. He had wanted to get moving, to find others, to go home.
Now he sat in that shelter. Staring at his dead friend. Not saying a word. Not eating. Not moving.
Cooper slammed his fist against the trunk of a young oak tree, shaking snow from its branches. Screw all three. He could just take off right now and be at the ranger’s station in a few hours.
He craned his neck to look at the sun through the net of overhead branches. Lowering into the western sky, the sun would be behind the mountains before he closed half the distance. Hiking in the dark would be dangerous and foolish.
Fine, leave in the morning then. At daybreak. Send rangers back for them.
But what if no one was there? Could he really leave Travis in the mountains? And was hiking alone in this snow and ice prudent?
Sigh. He needed Travis. So he needed to get Travis moving. And if Travis hiked, Meagan would follow. Like a lost puppy, she would go wherever they went.
And Andrea? Would she stay? Who cared? Get lost in the woods. They didn’t need her gloom and doom.
Or she could come with them. He wanted to see her face when he proved her wrong. When he found the flu was not as bad as she said.
Resolved to break Travis’ lethargy in the morning, Cooper returned his focus to today’s hunt. He searched for a special piece of wood. Few imperfections. Straight. Proper thickness. Strong.
Cooper glided his hand off the oak’s trunk to a lower limb, sliding his fingers over the bark. The tree, growing under the canopy of larger trees, was tall and lean, stretching for the life-giving sun. Its lower boughs were not crowded with smaller branches, unneeded without sunshine this deep in the forest’s shadow, so this lower branch had few imperfections to weaken it. And, yet, it was hefty, strong, and tough.
He backed a step, gripped the ax handle firmly, and swung. With a few quick, clean hits, the branch fell to the ground. Bracing it on a fallen log, Cooper swung the ax several more times, producing two long, clean pieces of wood. The thickest portion was cut about two feet long while the next, thinner section was over three.
Cooper brushed snow off a nearby rock and sat. He pulled a knife from a sheath on his belt and admired the blade.
Growing up in Charlotte, Cooper rarely had handled knives. School strictly forbid students to have them, considered a weapon in the eyes of administrators.
But Scouting had taken him to a different world – a rural world. A world where a knife was a tool, not a weapon. He had learned to wield an ax with confidence and carve notches with a knife.
During his second summer camp experience, he met a boy who whittled figurines out of sticks. His hands were skilled and sure, easily transforming a simple chunk of wood into a dog’s face, a bird’s wing, or a fish’s body. He willingly taught Cooper how to hold the stick, how to read the grain of the wood, and how to guide the knife.
Ever since, Cooper practiced with his small Boy Scout pocketknife. Many projects failed as creations hours long in the making would split and crumble. A notch too deep, a push too hard, or a slash in the wrong direction.
But increasingly, Cooper succeeded. He could visualize an object buried in a block of wood, begging his careful nicks and slices to reveal its nature. He could focus his immense energy into tiny, deliberate steps. For hours, he could sit still moving only his hands and imagination.
Though doubtful of his interest in knives, his mother displayed a growing collection of his work to visitors. The more recent work was deeply intricate and carefully fashioned.
When his Christmas wish list developed, Cooper left off the usual electronics and games, asking instead for camping gear and a knife – a fixed blade hunting knife, the same as the one the boy had allowed him to handle. His mother, appreciating his art, became his ally, negotiating with his father, who was opposed in the beginning. They proposed terms – the knife would be locked up except under their supervision or during Scouting trips. Without hesitation, he agreed, knowing he couldn’t take it to school anyway.
Leaving for this trip, the first outing with the knife, he had gone to his parents’ room and promised his mother he would bring home new creations. She was sick in bed, having caught a flu bug floating through her office.
As he proudly slipped the knife onto his belt in the church parking lot, his father admonished him to be careful, saying Mr. Hamilton would confiscate it if he was being unsafe. As Cooper climbed into the van, he watched his father, coughing and blowing his nose, get back into his car and drive away.
Would he have changed his mind and stayed home if he had known how bad this flu was? And done what? What exactly would he have done? Cooper shook his head and focused on the task in his hands.
The blade bit into the wood of the longer stick, removing the bark in thin strips and revealing the white wood underneath. Pieces fell into a neat pile at his feet as he twisted the stick first one way and then another. He slid his hand along the shaft, feeling for rough edges to trim. Bit by bit, he expertly smoothed the wood until it took on a polished look. Once satisfied with the work, he carved a notch about ten inches from one end of the perfectly rounded pole.
The second, shorter branch took more time. Stripping the bark and creating the smooth rounded edges was easy, a repeat of the process on the first stick. A notch was also carved though this time in the center of its length.
Flipping the rod over, Cooper removed layers of wood, flattening the curve on the side opposite the notch. He flared each end, so that the ends were rounded poles but the center had a flat, wide, smooth surface.
Once flattened, Cooper began carefully carving letters into the surface. The sun sank and gloom deepened as the words took shape. His blade would flick shavings out of the crevices and then he would blow dust from the corners. Once the carving was complete, he leaned back and admired his handiwork.
He guided the two notches together, the center of the shorter stick fitting into the top third of the longer. The notches fit snugly, creating a firm perpendicular frame. He removed a coil of string from his coat pocket, measured out a length, and cut it with the knife. With skilled fingers, he quickly tied a square lash to bind the two pieces of wood together, a perfect intersection of wood bound as if glued.
Satisfied with his work, he stood and felt his way through the thick trees back to the campsite. The ladies were sitting around the outside campfire, adding firewood from the stack he had built. He skirted around the edge of the light, staying invisible to them, and crept into the shelter.
Cooper stepped over the sprawled Travis, snoring lightly in the floor, and approached Mike’s corpse. He removed the string from his pocket, cutting a new strip, and affixed his creation to the edge of the bunk with a diagonal lash. Stepping back over the sleeping Travis, Cooper added wood to the stone fireplace, bringing the dwindling fire back to life.
The fire brightened the room enough to make out the sleeping form on the floor. Travis was dirty and exhausted, worn out from his days-long vigil over his friend. Cooper vowed to return early in the morning to roust the older boy and force breakfast inside of him, but he would let him sleep tonight.
Looking higher, he could see only Mike’s hair sticking out from the wool blanket. Dead and free of the fever, he no longer fought the cover.
Beside Mike’s head, Cooper’s freshly carved cross was lashed to the support beam. It glimmered as the flames flickered, the lettering etched deep into the green wood: