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.
“Ranger’s station – dead ahead.”
The ache in Cooper’s arms and back slipped from his mind as he looked through the trees and saw the building Travis spied. Throughout the day, they rotated stretcher duty – two of them carrying Meagan while the third took a rest. They maintained a slow pace, careful to avoid tripping over rocks in the trail or slipping on icy patches, so a three-hour hike became six. Cooper tried to carry an equal time, but his energy level was no match for the strength of Andrea and Travis, both bigger than he was. In his exhaustion, he could only imagine how tired his companions were.
A half hour before spotting the ranger’s station, they reached the intersection between the Chestnut Branch Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Their spirits soared knowing they had a short two-mile hike to go. But even that celebration seemed small compared to the feeling that overcame Cooper as their destination came into view.
He wanted to run through the woods to the building and restrained himself to stay with his burden-carrying friends. They followed the trail to the gravel road that would loop them back to the ranger’s station. The campground areas, closed for the winter, were to their right. During the summer, campers and their horses would crowd the popular campground. The parking lot on their left would overflow with cars, hikers and families off playing in the woods. But, today, only sounds of nature floated through the empty park.
They entered the gravel road beside a gurgling creek, turned left, and walked the short distance to the empty parking lot and ranger station. Two snow-covered cars, untouched for days and belonging to hikers who had entered the woods a week or more before, sat forlornly in the parking lot. Whether those hikers were still alive was impossible to know, a depressing image for Cooper of more dead bodies rotting in the mountains.
At the end of the parking lot were bathrooms. To the right was a set of information boards with the usual rules and regulations posted. They partially obscured a low slung building with a covered porch and a pair of garage doors. The building was lifeless and dark, a seasonal ranger station closed in the deep winter months.
They had discussed that possibility many times, common in the sprawling national park. Only the biggest of the visitor centers were open year round. When the busy summer and fall tourist seasons ended, the seasonal staff went home and the year-round rangers spent days patrolling their routes. The odds of a ranger sitting at this station in January were nil.
But beside the information board was their real hope – a pay telephone. Several times on the trail, they tried and failed to get calls out with their cell phones. Between turning the phones on to check for a signal and the brutal cold temperatures, the batteries were long depleted. But a pay phone was a lifeline.
They crossed the parking lot and set the stretcher down on the gravel. Cooper bounced on the balls of his feet, the excitement overwhelming him, as Andrea, grinning, picked up the receiver and pressed zero. He waited for her to speak, but instead her smile faded. She depressed the switch hook with her finger and dialed 911. Cooper’s anxiety grew as she depressed the switch hook three times in rapid succession, her face clouding as she listened through the handset. Slowly, sadly, she hung the handset up. “Nothing. No dial tone.”
Despair threatened to overtake Cooper, but he fought for hope. “Doesn’t matter. We are almost at the park entrance. The interstate is just two miles down the road. And there has to be houses between here and there, right? We’ll find something.”
Without waiting for a debate, Cooper slung his backpack on and marched down the gravel road. Andrea and Travis lifted the stretcher and followed. Within minutes, they exited the park at a crossroads. No buildings occupied the corners, only farming fields nestled in the mountain valley. Homes dotted the landscape, but the houses sat dark with no signs of life. Cooper told himself those were all summer homes, people living in the warmth of Florida during winter. They can’t all contain dead people. He crossed the intersection and began the two-mile march to the interstate.
On a normal day, he would have never noticed the house tucked well off the road down a lengthy gravel drive twisting through the trees, but smoke curled from its chimney. Smoke meant warmth and real food and soft beds and people. Real people who could help Meagan and end their journey. Real people who would welcome some banged-up hikers with open arms.
Fresh tire tracks stretched through the remaining snow on the ground, another sure sign of life. Not made today and nor the day before, but since the storm. Someone was in the house. All they needed was a phone and a place to wait for a ride. Who would begrudge them that?
He dashed up the driveway, gravel kicking up behind his shoes, leaving the others trudging toward the house. He saw an empty rocking chair on the wide covered porch, creaking in the winter breeze. Two other chairs sat around a small table, a perfect summer spot to sip lemonade and enjoy the mountain air. A coffee mug rested on the table.
Along the edge of the house, children’s bicycles sheltered under an overhang. A swing set was in the backyard. The house felt warm, inviting, and filled with family.
Focused on the house as he sprinted up the drive, Cooper didn’t see the man behind the tree. He materialized from the shadows and chambered a shell in the shotgun in his hand, the ratcheting sound clacking through the quiet afternoon. He leveled the gun at Cooper’s chest as he skidded to a stop. “Get out of here, boy. You ain’t welcome here.”
Despite the cool air, the shotgun bearer wore a dirty white cotton tank t-shirt. His sinewy arm muscles rippled, reflecting various tattoos. His blue jeans were several sizes too big and sagging, held up by a belt cinched around his waist. His cropped hair and green-gray eyes were menacing. But he was younger than Cooper had first thought, closer to Travis’ age than Andrea’s. “I said get. You and your friends.” He waved the shotgun toward Andrea and Travis as they caught up.
Cooper held his hands up, showing them empty and no threat. “Look, dude, we just need to use a phone. Meagan here is hurt. We get some help and then we’re gone.”
“Phone don’t work. Hasn’t in days. And ain’t no ambulance to get here anyway. So just take her and go.” He pointed with the shotgun to the road below them.
They could find another house. Someone else. But Cooper wasn’t ready to yield. “Come on. She’s hurt. We need a little help.”
“I said get out of here, squirt.” The young man stepped forward and shoved the muzzle of the gun hard against Cooper’s chest, sending him tumbling backwards. He tripped over his feet and fell, landing on his backpack. Like an upside down turtle, he struggled to regain footing. As he stood, the barrel of the gun again poked his ribs.
He opened his mouth to protest as Andrea came around his side. She grabbed the barrel of the shotgun to push it upwards and away from her young protégé. The stranger, furious and scared, pulled the trigger.
The blast from the shotgun was deafening though they all heard the sickening sound of a body falling to the ground.