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.
Meagan’s screams reached Cooper’s ears, but by the time he turned, she had disappeared over the edge of the mountain. In his eagerness to reach the ranger’s station, he had been far ahead of the group.
Stupid. Stupid. Always keep the group together. Always.
Cooper’s boots pounded as he raced up the trail. Out of breath from his sprint, he dropped his backpack to the ground and asked, “What happened? How did she fall?”
Andrea ignored his question, her face pale as she yelled at Travis, “I need the rope. Hurry!” The older boy was standing speechless, staring down the slope at Meagan’s crumpled body. Loose dirt, pebbles, and broken tree stumps covered the steep slope between them. Climbing down without a safety rope was suicidal.
Andrea grabbed Travis’ shoulders and spun him away from her so she could grab the rope off of his backpack frame. “Travis. Focus. We need you. I’ve got to get down there.”
Cooper studied the slippery, steep descent. Each step invited a fall into the boulders and debris far below. Meagan’s body perched on a rock outcrop thirty feet below the ridge. If she woke up and moved, she would fall another hundred feet. “No, I’ll go.”
Andrea searched for something to secure one end of the rope, a ballast to break her fall if she slipped climbing down. “Can’t let you. Too dangerous.”
Cooper’s hand wrapped around her wrist, a steady pressure to get her attention. “We need you up here. You’re stronger, can handle my weight. I’m not sure I could hold you if you fell. And I sure as hell can’t pull both you and Meagan back up that hill.”
Andrea gestured in protest toward Travis, but her argument faded as she observed the motionless boy beside them. With his backpack still on, he stared over the edge making no movement to assist in the rescue. She resigned to Cooper’s logic. “OK, Boy Scout, you win.”
Cooper looped the rope around his waist and secured it, his hands shaking. Going down? Challenging, but Andrea could keep him from falling.
But coming up? With Meagan’s weight added to his? Could Andrea pull them both back up the hill?
With no movement from Meagan’s lifeless body below, he might come back up alone. Time to worry about the return trip later.
Cooper stepped over to Travis and unbuckled the waist belt on his backpack. “Dude, listen up. I’m sorry about Mike. It sucks. But right now – right this minute – I need you.” He glanced over at Andrea. “We need you. You listening?”
Travis’ gaze broke from the body below and he shifted his dull eyes to Cooper. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded.
“Good. Get that pack off. Help with the belay.”
Travis’ pack fell to the ground with a thud and he shuffled over to Andrea. She looked at Cooper and shrugged, a silent worry shared between them.
Maybe he’s in the game. Or maybe, just maybe, as I plummet to my death, I will realize what an idiot I’m being.
With the rope taut between his waist and Travis’ and Andrea’s hands, Cooper walked to the edge and stepped backwards over the drop-off.
People who have never been rappelling imagine kicking off a cliff wall and dropping through the air, the rope singing against a carabiner. Sure, you can do that. And it’s fun. But in a situation like this, you walk backwards down the hill, feet always planted on the ground. Moving fast increased danger. Step by step, inching down the mountain.
Pebbles loosened by his boots bounced down the hill, pinging off rocks and trees below. The loose dirt shifted, making his feet slide as they fought for purchase.
A tree branch poked his back, ripping a hole in his shirt. He cursed quietly and ducked under it. The movement shifted the ground below his feet, and he dropped to his knees. The rope tightened, pulling his body flat into the ground with an oomph. He slid three feet down the hill before the belay rope stopped his fall.
Shaking, he spit dirt out of his mouth. He whispered a silent prayer, raised his feet, and sunk the toes of his boots into the loose soil. As he straightened his body and leaned back, he could see Andrea’s worried face looking over the edge. He gave a thumbs-up sign.
But where was Travis? Is he helping? Is he focused? Or is Andrea the only thing between me and the valley floor? I don’t trust her as far as I can spit, but my life is in her hands. Great.
Andrea fed slack in the rope and he backed down the hill again, slipping and sliding. His feet searched for traction in the shifting soil.
Nothing to grip.
With dirt trickling down the hill, he slid his foot to the right and found a rock wedged into the ground. It felt solid. Maybe. He added his weight and it held.
One step at a time, Coop, one step at a time.
He leaned back letting his body weight sink onto the rock and lifted his left foot to step backwards.
The rock wasn’t deep enough. It had only been a few inches deep and his weight unearthed it. With his left foot in the air and the right foot without support, he dropped fast, away from the mountain.
I’m falling. Shit, I’m falling.
As a branch swept past his right side, he flailed a hand for it but missed. Panicked, he reached for anything – a branch, a rock – anything to stop his tumble, but nothing was there.
The belay rope snapped tight, stopping his descent as suddenly as hitting a brick wall. The whiplash threw his body forward and slammed him into the side of the cliff. His nose connected with a rock buried below the surface of the ground. The pain clouded his vision and blood flowed down his chin. His vision greyed. He fought to stay conscious.
Andrea stumbled in her efforts to stop his plunge, her feet sliding toward the edge. The belay rope slacked and Cooper fell another two feet, dragging his bruised body down the side of the wall. The rope snapped taut again and he smashed into the wall a second time.
Dangling on the side of the cliff, Cooper shook his head, slinging drops of blood across his shirt. His vision came back into focus. He wrapped his hands around the rope and fought to get his feet back under him. Planted and leaning back, he looked back up the hill. Andrea and Travis were leaning backwards against the rope, both gripping it firmly and holding his weight.
Attaboy, Travis, you’re in the game.
Shakily, he gave a thumbs up. Again.
That didn’t work so well last time.
He brushed his sleeve across his face, wiping the blood into the cloth. He spit into the dirt, his saliva coated in red. A vision of Mike coughing up blood in his final days flashed through his mind and he fought to focus. Slowing his breathing, Cooper stepped backwards again.
Deal with a bloody nose later.
He inched down the hill, step by step, until he saw Meagan come into view out of the corner of his eye.
The ledge she was on was a mere eight inches wide, but a small spruce grew up from the ground just below it. Meagan was wedged between the tree and the rock, but that was far better than on the boulders far below.
Cooper edged his boot onto the ledge and tested its strength. He decided it would hold both of them – driving memories of the traitor rock that had fooled him moments earlier out of his mind. He willed himself not to look down and called up the hill for some slack on the rope, enough to give him room to work.
Though, if he fell, would the slack pull them off their feet? The last catch almost didn’t happen and now they were closer to the edge. Besides, it hurt like hell. If it happens again . . .
Don’t go there. Think. Focus.
His whole life, Cooper had been battling his brain to focus on the task at hand. His mind liked to wander, flitting from one distraction to another. He would struggle to rein it in, centering his task in the swirl of his thoughts. As he stood on a ledge above certain death, that practice came in handy.
Ignore the noise. Focus. Focus.
He bent down and studied Meagan. Her legs were crossed, but appeared unharmed. Her right arm draped across her body and hand dangled in the air. The left forearm bent off at a strange angle. The break would need to be set, but only if she lived. The left side of her face was swelling and her nose was slanted sideways, blood dripping from it.
But no movement. No signs of life. He reached to the side of her neck and felt for a pulse. Slid his fingers and felt again.
Where was it? That beat?
He slid his fingers a third time and held them still. He stood, looked up the cliff, and shouted, “She’s alive.”