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 materialized out of the darkness and into the campfire light, startling Meagan with his sudden reappearance. He had disappeared into the woods several hours earlier after yet another round of words with Andrea. They pushed each other’s buttons, challenging and grumbling, like a pair of cats hissing as they sized the other up. No one had drawn blood – yet.
She liked Andrea even if she was a little rough around the edges. It was nice to have another woman in the campsite. The boys were, after all, boys. Immature at times and prone to lots of bad jokes. Not unlike men, come to think of it.
But Andrea did not have to bait him so often. She picked and picked until she provoked an outburst. As much as Meagan liked Andrea, she didn’t want her to push the boys away. They did know how to survive in the outdoors. Andrea might know a lot about surviving in a battlefield, but that wasn’t the same.
As the afternoon wore on without sight of Cooper, her fear grew. Had he hiked out to find the ranger’s station on his own? Was he angry enough to abandon them? She realized how deep the fear had taken root when her body relaxed at his reappearance.
But not fully relaxed because Travis was still collapsed in grief. “How’s he doing?”
Cooper followed her gaze to the trail shelter and shrugged, “He’s hurting.”
He returned to dinner preparation, stumbling around the campsite as he started a pot boiling. The boy had boundless energy, chopping firewood, preparing meals, caring for Travis and disappearing into the woods for hours. Even when sitting, he couldn’t stay still, a piece of wood in one hand and that knife in another. Wood shavings piled at his feet as shapes emerged from mere sticks.
“When will he be ready to hike again?”
Cooper shrugged. “Whenever he’s ready. Who knows?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Andrea lean back on the log that was her seat, grunting as she crossed one outstretched leg over the other. “Well, you can’t let him wallow in pity too long.”
Cooper glared at Andrea and growled. “Wallow in pity? His best friend just died.” He stomped his feet and turned his back to the women, opening foil packets containing freeze-dried stew.
“So how long are you going to wait, Boy Scout?”
The boy spun back around, his eyes sparkling with contempt. “Cooper. It’s Cooper. Not Boy Scout.”
Andrea grinned mischievously and nodded. “OK, Cooper,” she emphasized his name, “What’s the plan?”
Meagan watched them spar, worried that Andrea would push too far. But she stayed quiet as Cooper drew a deep breath. The vacant look on his face answered the question. He didn’t have a plan. Travis made the plans, not Cooper. But Andrea’s goading forced him into a corner. His face brightened as the decision came to him. “Tomorrow morning, we head to the ranger station.”
Startled, Meagan glanced back toward the shelter. The fire, which she guessed Cooper had stoked, was burning brightly enough to illuminate Travis curled on the floor. From what little she could see, he didn’t look ready to hike. “Tomorrow? What’s the hurry? Why don’t we give Travis a few days?”
Cooper turned his focus toward her. “Because we don’t know what the weather will do. Today we were lucky – sunny and warm. That doesn’t last in January.”
She was tired of snow, but it didn’t scare her. “So what if it snows again? We’ve got food.”
“But it could rain. Icy cold rain. You want to sit out here in a driving winter rain?” Meagan shivered at the thought as Cooper continued, “Or it could sleet. Maybe we get freezing rain. Can you imagine sitting under these trees as ice-covered branches fall around us?”
Meagan worried Travis wouldn’t be ready by the morning, but Cooper was right. Hiking these trails would be bad enough with all the snow. Ice would just make them treacherous. And as much as she believed the horror stories Andrea was telling, she wanted to get out of these mountains. “Ok, got it. So do you want to leave at dawn so we have all day to get there?”
Cooper’s face tightened again as he focused his mind on the problem. “No, we need the sun to come up first. All the melting today will freeze up overnight and make the trail slippery. If we’re lucky, the sun will burn the ice away before we leave. Besides, it shouldn’t take us more than a few hours to reach the ranger station.”
Meagan glanced toward the shelter where Travis slept on the floor. “And what if he’s not ready?”
Cooper shrugged. “I’ll get him ready. Or I’ll carry him if I have to.”
Andrea snorted. Meagan cringed, knowing she would push Cooper again. “Carry him? Come on, little man, he outweighs you by 50 pounds.”
Cooper glared at her. “Maybe you could find some free time on your busy calendar, get off your ass, and help. I hate to disturb your master plan to disappear into these woods, but you could take a day and go with us to the ranger station. One day wouldn’t kill you and then you can go off on your own.”
Meagan held her breath as Andrea cocked her head and locked eyes with the boy. Was the fight coming? A full explosion? Instead, Andrea’s voice was level and calm. “Are you asking for my help?”
Meagan could feel the tension in the air as Cooper studied Andrea, looking for a trick. His eyes narrowed. “Yeah, I’m asking for your help. Just one day.”
Meagan studied her two companions glaring at each other across the campfire. Cats sizing each other up wasn’t right. More like two gunfighters in an old Western movie, circling each other warily with their hands on their pistols. It was just a matter of time until one would draw and shots would ring out.
But not today. A slight grin burst into a full smile. “Since you asked so nicely, sure. Glad to help.”
Cooper’s face couldn’t contain the shock. He was ready for a fight, not agreement, so he could only stammer, “OK, thanks.”
Meagan looked first at Cooper, standing idly with the soup ladle in his hand, staring with suspicion at Andrea. He appeared torn, happy for the help but not happy that he would have to endure her barbs for another day.
Andrea continued to smile, like she was celebrating a victory. Had she had planned the entire conversation? She had been clear, over and over, that she wasn’t going with them. She had her own plans, and it didn’t involve going back into civilization. Or, as she had described it, a collapsing civilization. Yet, she had goaded Cooper into asking her to join them.
Meagan opened her mouth to ask questions, but Andrea glanced at her and shook her head. She stood up and motioned toward Cooper. “So, are you going to stand there all night, or are you cooking dinner? I’m hungry. Let’s hustle, Boy Scout.”