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.
Andrea’s eyes widened as she jerked her head toward Travis. “You speak?”
Travis ran a hand through his grungy, black hair and forced a harsh laugh. Since finding Mike on his deathbed, Travis closed his mind to everything happening around him and focused on his friend. When Mike died yesterday morning (was it really just yesterday?), the pain enveloped him and eclipsed every other thought. Sitting alone in the shelter last night, eating breakfast this morning, hiking the trail today – all were vague memories in a dense fog. As he shuffled down the trail, his mind protested with every clump of his boot.
What’s the point of getting to the ranger’s station?
No point in trying.
Meagan’s scream had pierced his veil of pity and rattled his brain. The view of her crumpled body below shocked him. And seeing Cooper slip during his descent – the way he fought and persevered – was an electric jolt through his body.
Not everyone’s dead. Cooper’s not. Andrea’s not. And, by God, Meagan’s not. I’m sorry Mike, but I’ve got to live.
“If we pull her up like that, we could kill her. Or paralyze her.”
Thirty feet below them, Cooper had tied the rope under Meagan’s arms and then attached the end to his own waist. The hastily assembled plan was for Andrea and Travis to hoist Meagan up the slope while Cooper guided her body. No matter how careful they were, the journey would be bruising.
“Cooper can’t be much help. He will be fighting for his own balance, so we will have to lift both their weights. If we slip, . . .” Travis made a whistling sound and then slapped his hands together, making Andrea flinch.
She rubbed her hands together as she peered at the rocky descent below them. “But we have to get her up here. She’ll die for sure down there.”
“We do, but there’s a better way.” Travis pulled the ax off of the side of Cooper’s backpack and trotted down the trail toward a grove of young trees. He wrapped his hand around the first one, shook his head, and repeated until the fourth tree. The edges of his mouth inched up in the slightest smile as he swung the ax at the tree’s trunk.
Andrea leaned over the edge of the cliff and spied Cooper waiting below, shuffling his feet despite the narrow ledge. “Hang on, Coop. We have a plan.”
“A plan? What is it?”
“Hell if I know,” she muttered under her breath as she watched the first tree drop to the ground. Travis sized up several more trees before selecting his second victim. With a few fierce swings, he felled it. He soon added a third.
Travis dropped to his knees and rubbed the bark. He looked up at Andrea and grinned. “Strong. About three inches thick. Perfect.”
“Perfect for what?” asked Andrea, but Travis was already cutting branches away from the main trunk. He shuffled on his knees, stripping branches as he went, until he had an 8 foot stretch cleared. He stood, grabbed the ax, and swung. With a few strokes, he had separated the strong base from the weaker top of the tree. What remained was an eight-foot long pole.
Andrea joined him as they fashioned the second tree into a similar pole. When they did the third, they cut it shorter – six feet – and then Travis cut that into two sections each a yard long.
He leaned back on his haunches, a smile shining on his face. The dullness in his eyes had lifted. The brown sparkled in the early afternoon sun. “See? These will work, right? Now we a need a pair of heavy shirts or a blanket. Or coats.” His face brightened further. “Yeah, coats. They will work.”
“Work for what?”
Without answering, Travis drug the pared trees to their backpacks. He dug through his pack and removed the heavy winter coat he had worn earlier in the week. “Do you have something like this?”
Puzzled, Andrea opened her pack and removed her own coat. She mimicked Travis’ actions – zipping the front closed and pulling the sleeves inside out so they were tucked inside the coat.
Travis threaded the first pole through the right sleeve of his own coat and then through Andrea’s coat. The second pole slid through the left sleeves. Lashed to either end of the long poles, the two shorter poles worked as a spreader and forced the jackets taut. He leaned back on his heels and announced with pride, “A jacket stretcher.”
Andrea smiled and nodded her head. “Not bad, Boy Scout.”
Even with a stretcher, Meagan would jostle across the boulders as they pulled her up the hill. But they would bind her body to the makeshift stretcher, protecting her from the worst bounces.
Lowering the contraption to Cooper was easy, heavy enough to slide down the hill but not so heavy to risk pulling them over the side. Cooper rolled Meagan onto the stretcher, tied her down, and then waited while Andrea and Travis hauled the stretcher back up the hill.
Once Meagan was on flat ground, Travis untied the rope from the stretcher and tossed it back down the hill. Cooper secured the rope around his waist, hoisted Meagan’s pack onto his back, and crawled back up the hill. Since the younger boy could see where to plant his feet, the trip up was much easier than down.
Within minutes, they were lying on the trail, huffing from the exertion. Despite the cool air, sweat ran down their faces. They watched the setting sun as they rested, accepting the fact they faced one more night in the woods. Carrying the stretcher on the trail would be difficult enough, but stumbling in the dark risked another injury.
Cooper sat up and rubbed the dried blood off his nose and mouth as Andrea tended to Meagan’s wounds. Travis scanned the exposed trail, high on the ridge where wind would batter their tents. “Let’s carry her down just into the edge of the trees and set up camp.”
Once moved into the darkness of the woods, Travis gathered firewood and built a fire, Cooper prepared dinner, and Andrea monitored Meagan. As the last of the sun faded, the three of them sat on logs enjoying the warmth of the fire and hot food. Meagan continued to sleep on the improvised stretcher.
Travis folded the trail map and slid it back inside his backpack. “Tomorrow. If the weather holds, we should make the ranger’s station by early afternoon. We’ll take turns carrying the stretcher.”
Cooper polished off the last of his stew, raised his plate, and licked it clean. “Good to have you back, Trav.”
“Good to be back.”