If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.
Andrea ripped the shotgun from the stranger’s hands and tossed it onto the gravel road, the smoke curling from the end of its barrel. She tackled him to the ground and drove her right knee onto the back of his neck, shoving his face into the gravel. She slammed her left knee into the small of his back and gripped his wrists, twisting them and pinning his arms behind his back. He tried to kick her with his free legs, but the blows bounced off her.
“Travis! Snap out of it. Tie his damn feet together.”
Travis shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. He had been standing just a foot away from Cooper when the shotgun fired. He felt the heat of the blast as the deafening explosion tore through the air and dove to the side of the road in self-defense.
With a glance at Cooper’s crumpled body in the middle of the driveway, he shrugged his backpack off, pulled the coils of rope from the frame and entered the fray. He grabbed the right foot and was rewarded with a kick to the side of his head from the left. Shaking it off, he grabbed both feet, bent the legs at the knee, and then leaned with his body until the heels touched the guy’s butt. The boy screamed in pain, but the gravel muffled the shrieks. Travis sat on the bent legs and bound the two feet together.
Andrea shifted her body so Travis could tie the boy’s wrists to his ankles. As her weight lifted, their captive bucked and shook them off. He rose to his knees, but Andrea subdued him with a quick punch to his kidneys. He collapsed to the ground, and she twisted his arms until Travis could finish hog-tying him.
Exhausted from the struggle, Travis sat back on his haunches and wiped the sweat from his face. Andrea nodded her thanks to him as they watched their captor squirm. Meagan lay immobile on her makeshift stretcher, oblivious to everything, beside Cooper’s motionless body.
Focused on the struggle, they failed to notice the girl who approached and stood in the driveway with her hands on her hips. Her long dark hair glistened in the sun. Her tanned arms were strong, hands rough – the sign of someone comfortable with physical work. Her deep brown eyes glowered as she surveyed the scene. Travis took one look at her and could only think beautiful. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out, giving her the chance to take the lead. “What the hell did Mitch do?”
Andrea motioned to the trussed boy, still struggling against the knots. “You claiming him?”
She shrugged and flipped her hair over her shoulders. “Not really. He showed up here three days ago.”
Andrea nodded toward the house. “You live here?”
The girl shrugged again. “Friends of my dad. I stay here when he’s gone overnight.”
Andrea studied the girl. “When he is supposed to be back?”
The girl broke the gaze and looked back toward the park, her eyes glistening with moisture. “Two weeks ago. He’s a ranger and got called to cover for others who got sick. Then he got sick, too bad to come back home. And then he stopped calling.”
“And your dad’s friend? Can we talk with him?”
The girl shook her head again and sniffed deep, holding back tears that wanted to flow. “Dead. All of em. Him. His wife. His two little girls. Those two were so precious. I babysat them tons.”
“I’m so sorry. The flu?”
“The mom and girls, yeah. The dad came down with a severe case of lead poisoning. 9mm kind. After we buried his wife and kids, he told me he wanted some alone time in his workshop. And then, bam, I heard the gun.” She sniffled again and wiped her eyes with her shirttail. She pulled her shoulders back, signaling a change in direction. “Y’all hungry? Got plenty of food up in the house. They were preppers. Thought they would survive up here when the world went to hell. Guess they didn’t count on dying from some damn bug.”
“Food would be great, but we’re gonna have to carry these two up the house. Unless we should just leave this one right here.”
The girl shook her head. “Mitch is all right when you keep him on a short leash. Let the boys handle him and you and I will carry the stretcher.”
Travis turned to look at Cooper who had sat up during the conversation. His skin was pale and sweat was rolling down his dirt-streaked face. He raised a shaking hand and pointed at the tied-up Mitch. “That son of a bitch tried to shoot me.”
Travis nodded. “And he would have if Andrea hadn’t grabbed the gun when she did.”
After settling Meagan into a twin bed in an upstairs bedroom and dumping the trussed Mitch on a couch in the den, they gathered around a large, handcrafted dining table made from thick planks. A cast iron wood stove sat in the middle of the open first floor, enough heat radiating from it to keep the connected kitchen, dining room and den toasty warm. The surface of the wood stove served as a cook top, a large pot of soup nestled in place. After days of eating freeze-dried meals, they ate the large bowls of canned soup she served with gusto.
Sydney, the girl they had met on the driveway, explained that the house had a generator, but she used it only when necessary. Having been raised with an outdoor-loving father, she was comfortable cooking over fires.
After her father had left to travel to the park headquarters in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the electricity had faltered, beginning an on-again off-again cycle that became more off than on. Too busy caring for the increasingly sick family, they had worried little since utilities were often unreliable deep in the mountains. By the time the power had ceased for good, the first child had died and the mother and other daughter quickly followed. Once Sydney found herself alone, she was more worried about living than comfort.
The days alone made her more receptive to company, so she welcomed Mitch when he showed up in his pickup truck, low on fuel. His clothes were tattered, and he had been eating scraps for days. Fearful from the chaos he had seen on his travels there, he had taken up the security role they had met him in.
“So, what’s your plan now? Live here with the delinquent?” Andrea gestured over her shoulder toward Mitch, still tied up on the couch.
Sydney hung her head and studied her hands. “I figure my papa ain’t coming home, so been debating that with myself. Staying here is safe for now, but I need to find family. I have an uncle who lives outside of Charlotte. I’ve tried to call, but he never answered. And now the phones have quit. I don’t know if he is alive or not, but I have to try something.”
Mesmerized by Sydney and wanting to impress her, Travis spoke up. “We’re headed to Charlotte. Come with us. We can leave in the morning.”
Travis glanced over at Mitch. “We can borrow his truck.”
Mitch struggled to prop himself up on the couch. “You ain’t taking my truck.”
Andrea snorted. “Like it isn’t ‘borrowed’ already. Want me to get the registration? We can see if the name Mitch appears anywhere on it. Or, easy enough, just show us the keys. You have keys, don’t you, Mitch? Or will I find a screwdriver and a jimmied ignition?”
Mitch glared at Andrea. “Don’t matter. Ain’t nothing to the east. Remember, I came from Raleigh. Everyone out there’s dying.”
Sydney stood, gathered the soup bowls, and piled them in the sink. “Mitch showed up with it, so it’s his truck. But I know Mitch will drive because we’ll ask him nicely.”
Cooper looked dumbfounded. “He tried to shoot me.”
“And you were trespassing.” Sydney sat down and took Travis’ hand. Goosebumps ran up his arm at the contact. “I’ll go with you, but not tomorrow. We’ve got to get that girl upstairs ready to travel. And the rest of you need to get cleaned up and healed. Y’all look like hell. So we take a couple of days, rest up, get supplies loaded up from here, and then go.”
Confusion crossed Travis’ face. “Supplies? It’s just a four-hour drive to Charlotte.”
Mitch snorted, but quieted under Sydney’s glare. “You haven’t been out there. First, we need to gas up his truck which means both finding gas and getting it. No electricity, remember, so we have to siphon it. Once we get moving, it’ll be slow going. Wrecks in the road. And lots of bad people are out there. Mitch and Andrea can help us deal with them, but we’ll avoid as many as we can.”
Andrea shook her head. “Whoa, girl, I’m headed back into these mountains. My promise was to get them to the ranger’s station. I’ve already gone a mile further than I said.”
Sydney turned her gaze on Andrea. “Your choice if you feel these two boys will be safe without you.”
Andrea looked at Travis and Cooper and sighed. “You fight dirty, girl.”
“That’s what my papa always says.” Sydney’s sly smile returned. “Then it’s settled. We’ll take a couple days for Meagan to recover, organize supplies, and then head to Charlotte.”
Darkness settled on the quiet valley. Travis sat in a rocking chair on the front porch staring at the moon in the starlit skies. The cold air no longer felt threatening with a warm house to retreat to, so he enjoyed the sights and sounds of the mountains. No human lights or noise interfered until a creak indicated the front door opening and closing softly.
Cooper padded across the porch and settled into the chair beside Travis. After a few moments of sharing the night quiet, Cooper spoke up. “Do you remember the morning we left our campsite? Making me two promises?”
Travis remembered every detail of that morning. He remained haunted by the decision to leave Mr. Hamilton, Will, Josh and Jake’s bodies in their tents. Before leaving, he promised them the rangers would return to retrieve them and give them a proper burial. He had done the same with Mike and Mr. Chapman. He failed on all accounts.
A lot of broken promises on that trail, but he vowed to do everything in his power to keep his word to Cooper. “I remember. And I have kept nothing from you since that morning. You know everything I know, good and bad.”
“And the second promise. That no matter how bad things get out here, you will get me home. So I can find out if my mom and dad and little sister are still alive.”
Travis shifted in the chair so he could see the shadowy figure beside him. “I promised then and I promise now: I’ll get you home.”
Cooper nodded and rocked, the chair squeaking on the wooden porch floor.
Thank you for coming along on this Journey Through The Woods. Since our crew is safely out of those woods, we will be pausing the story for a while, but don’t worry – they will be back.
Can Travis make good on his promise to Cooper? Will Andrea stay with a group she never intended to meet? Will Meagan recover from her injuries? Will Sydney find her Uncle? And let’s not forget Mitch. Will he be even more trouble than he already has been?
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