Katie and Rachel struggled against the weight of John and Dog. They were descending the north side of the ridge they had just climbed and the trees grew thicker and larger, forcing them to constantly navigate a weaving trek. Neither spoke as they worked together, both completely focused on getting to the waiting Jeep as quickly as possible.
Frequently they paused long enough for Rachel to breathe several times into John’s lungs, then she’d leap to her feet and they’d move another hundred yards before repeating. They began switching off rescue breathing when Rachel became lightheaded. Dog lay on the canopy, whining as he watched them work on John.
They followed the tracks John, Katie and Dog had left when they climbed earlier. Where the ground was sheltered by the forest canopy the trail was clearly visible, but when they crossed open areas enough new snow had fallen to completely obscure all signs of their passage.
On the drive in, John had commented about the depth of the snow on the road and Katie was concerned that enough additional had fallen to make it impossible even for the Jeep to move. As they approached the waiting vehicle her fears weren’t allayed as it was blanketed in a fresh coating and drifts had formed on the road, covering the rear bumper.
“I’ll keep breathing. Get it started,” Rachel said when they stopped a few feet from the Jeep.
As she bent over John, Katie dashed forward and pushed snow out of the way so she could open the rear hatch. A small shovel was clipped to the inside of the cargo area and Katie set to work clearing snow away from the exhaust pipe as well as digging out the bumpers and tires.
Rachel scooped Dog up in her arms and Katie held the rear hatch open while she gently deposited him into the cargo area. He shifted around to ease his pain then lowered his head with a whine. Closing the back, Katie moved to the driver’s door and started the engine before opening the rear door closest to where John lay.
“How are we going to do this?” Rachel asked as they stood and looked down at him. “He weighs as much as both of us put together.”
Katie looked around for a moment then climbed across the Jeep’s back seat and opened the far side door.
“I’ll get his back and shoulders up and in, resting on the seat, then come around to the other door and pull if you manage his hips and legs,” Katie said, squatting by her husband’s head.
Rachel nodded and kneeled, wrapping her arms around John’s hips as Katie hooked her hands into his vest. Together they lifted, both nearly falling over when they succeeded in raising his body off the nylon canopy. With grunts of exertion they managed to stand and Katie slowly stepped backwards, pausing when she bumped against the side of the Jeep. Carefully she turned and rested John’s shoulders on the edge of the seat.
“Got him?” She asked before letting go.
Rachel braced herself before nodding. Katie raced around the back of the vehicle and jumped in the far door, scrambling across the seat and grabbing John under the arms and pulling. With Rachel pushing, they finally got him fully across the rear seat, both of them breathing hard from the exertion.
Folding his legs inside, Rachel closed the door as Katie backed out and closed the other. They dashed around opposite ends of the Jeep, Rachel climbing in back as Katie slipped behind the wheel. Propping John up, Rachel pressed her mouth firmly to his and exhaled several breaths before pausing and pressing her ear to his chest.
“You know how to drive in snow?” Rachel asked when she saw Katie watching her in the mirror.
“I grew up in it, but its been a long time,” Katie answered, shifting into drive.
The Jeep was still in four wheel low from when John had driven them in and she hoped it would have enough traction to get them turned around and back out of the mountains. It took some doing, and several times Rachel thought they were stuck, but Katie eventually got them heading in the right direction.
16.3 miles. That’s how far they’d come on this road, which was really no more than a partially cleared trail through the forest. Clearing the trip odometer, she stepped on the gas and they slowly began moving forward.
The going was slow, the snow now at the mid-point of the front bumper. Somehow the Jeep managed to gain enough traction to force its way through, bulldozing as it went. Katie glanced up in the mirror when John coughed.
“Is he awake?” Katie asked, returning her attention to the road.
“No,” Rachel said, wiping more frothy blood off his lips and chin before struggling to sit him up higher in the seat.
“Should I stop?”
“Keep going. I can handle him and the sooner we get to a lower altitude, the better.”
Rachel struggled to lift John’s upper body. She had to settle for propping him up and using a seat belt to keep him in place, her arms wrapped around his chest as Katie drove. She looked over the seat back into the cargo area, Dog meeting her eyes and whining softly.
She wanted to cry for Dog and for the man she loved, but somehow managed to control her emotions. Knowing she would lose it if she didn’t distract herself, she asked Katie to tell her how they’d found her. Happy to have something to worry about other than John and the snowbound road, Katie started talking, telling the story from when John found her in the caverns in Oklahoma.
“Martinez is alive?” Rachel stopped her when she got to the part about reaching Tulsa. “And for that matter, you’re way healthier than you should be.”
“John thinks it may have something to do with either the virus or the vaccine,” Katie said, grimacing as the Jeep bounced hard when it hit a deep hole hidden beneath the snow.
“Maybe,” Rachel said, thinking about it. She had to pause to breathe for John again. “I suppose that’s possible. If Martinez is still alive and actually on her feet, with a bullet still in her, it’s something not normal. Honestly, I didn’t think you would make it either.”
“That would have solved your problems,” Katie said, immediately shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“That’s OK,” Rachel finally said in a low voice. “I’d feel the same way if I were you.”
It was quiet in the Jeep for a few minutes.
“What was the plan once you found me?” Rachel asked, wanting to change the subject.
“Get to Australia somehow. John has a friend there who offered to take us in. We just don’t know how we’re going to get there. Yet.”
They fell silent as Katie kept pushing through the deep snow. There were a couple of times they lost traction and came to a stop, but she reversed a few yards before nailing the throttle to blast through the deep drift that had halted their progress. Two hours later they reached the narrow track that would become a state highway to the south.
It took nearly two more hours to reach Ketchum, a small ski town they had passed through early that morning. Snow was beginning to fall heavily again, a strong north wind driving it in their direction of travel.
“We’ve been losing altitude the whole time we were driving. Is he any better?” Katie asked, looking in the mirror.
“Not really,” Rachel said. “We need to find some oxygen and if we could find a ventilator that would be ideal. It will create constant, positive pressure with pure O2, which is exactly what his lungs need right now.”
“So we need a hospital?”
“Even an ambulance would probably have what we need,” Rachel said after a moment. “But a hospital definitely will. And we need to find a portable unit that’s battery powered. Plugging in won’t work anymore. By the way, are we going to have a lot of infected in town?”
“There were a few when we came through earlier,” Katie said as they rolled past a sign welcoming them to Ketchum.
“Do you see any now?” Rachel asked.
“Not yet. Can they survive this weather? It’s…” Katie glanced down to check the temperature display on the dash. “Wow, it’s 19 degrees. Got to be like zero with the wind chill.”
“I have no idea. They’re just humans, so without heavy winter gear they shouldn’t be able to survive in this. But I don’t think we should bet our lives on that. I’ve seen them survive a lot of things they shouldn’t have been able to.”
“Noted. OK, hospital. Is he going to be OK?”
“As dangerous as this is if untreated, people recover quickly. As soon as we can get enough O2 going, his lungs will start clearing and he’ll wake up. Tired, weak, probably cranky, but he’ll be fine if we can find what we need. And if you don’t see a hospital an urgent care will do,” Rachel said. “What we really need isn’t going to be at a corner drug store. And don’t forget, if you see an ambulance it should have it too.”
“How’s he doing?” Katie met Rachel’s eyes in the rearview mirror. She had just asked, but the panic and fear over seeing her husband in such a bad state was all she could think about.
“High fever and every breath is rattling and his heart is racing.” Rachel was more worried than she was letting on. She knew how strong John was, and for him to be sick enough to pass out and remain unconscious she was afraid they wouldn’t be able to get it under control in time.