SWEAT BLINDED HIM as Jack pumped up the seven-percent gradient. Hilda was already at the top, standing next to her bicycle. She grinned at him as he stopped on the level top. His heart pumped from more than the exertion as he took in her tall, Viking figure, the high cheekbones, anthracite skin, and the fine, black hair protruding from her helmet in a ponytail.
“You didn’t walk that one,” she said. “You’re getting stronger.”
“How do you do that? We only got used to the altitude yesterday.” He took off his helmet to run a handkerchief over his short, sandy hair. His jersey was soaked, and the beads of sweat ran down his biceps and off his elbows.
“Lower gearing and a longer crankarm. Maybe we should stop at a bike shop in Spokane to get you a new crankset.” She reached out and stroked his arm. “And you are still recovering. This time last year, you could not even walk.”
They scanned the valleys below them as he caught his breath. The jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains stretched south to Mexico and north to Canada, each with its own set of glaciers.
“If this is what we fought for, I feel like my contribution was too small,” he said.
“Me, too. So different from the Alps or Afghanistan. Look at Montana: it’s like a brown ocean, just below us.”
The two recently retired Army officers had spent most of their respective careers overseas. The two Army brats had grown up on a succession of bases and forts, and had never seen so much of their own country as they had in the last two months.
He put his helmet back on. The crisp air at two thousand metres quickly cooled the sweat and filled their lungs. Each took a long drink from their bike bottles.
“Exactly when do you have to be at Lewis-McChord?” he asked. Hilda was scheduled to take a temporary replacement job for a nurse at the Madigan Army Medical Center on the sprawling base south of Seattle.
“End of next week. Coming all the way?”
“I’d love to, but I did promise Micky that I would ride to the Okanagan to see him.” Micky had been Jack’s Canadian counterpart when they both were stationed with NATO forces in Germany.
“You do that. I’ll be busy checking in and getting up to speed the first week or so.”
“Where do you want to camp tonight?”
“Let’s pamper ourselves with a day in Whitefish at a hotel. Reward for your climbing the Going to the Sun Highway.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He swung onto his bicycle and began the breakneck descent on the west face of the mountain.
The next morning, the sun climbed over the pass and shone in the window. Hilda revelled in the clean sheets and the smooth, warm skin of the man next to her. She heard the change in his breathing and pressed up against his back.
“Is that Polish or Urdu?”
“Animal grunt of pleasure.” He rolled to face her.
Up close, she could see the small scar that ran from his left eye to his sideburn. She ran her finger over it, and over the purple ones on his left shoulder.
“You have quite a collection of scars, in addition to the ones I know about.” Hilda had seen an improvised explosive device (IED) tear apart Jack’s Humvee in Baghdad, throwing him against a building and killing the other six men inside. That her Humvee ambulance was following his truck was the reason he survived to be evacuated to Germany. “I’ll bet each has a story.”
He ran his hand over the scar running down her right arm, and the one above her left breast. “You have a collection yourself. Shall we trade stories?” He grinned.
“Sure. You start – with that one.” She tickled him where a faint scar crossed his ribs. When they stopped laughing, they swung out of bed and sat on the edge. They took turns pointing to scars on each other.
“Baghdad. You know about that set.” He pointed to her shoulder.
“Outside Erbil. The first time.” She touched the one on his right thigh.
“Mosul. The second time.” He stroked the faint scar on her left side.
“Bar Kunar.” She tapped the faint one that tickled him.
“Stuttgart. Bar fight.”
“And that one on the chest.”
“Another bar fight. Korea.”
“Do you have a drinking problem?” She smiled.
“No, but the customers do. It’s not like the civilian police in small towns. On an Army base, every bar fight includes people who know how to fight back.”
“Don’t I know? I sorted out the casualties.”
He ran his hand down her leg from above the knee almost to her ankle. “That doesn’t look like a gunshot or shrapnel.”
“Leopard in Sikumbi.”
“Where is Sikumbi and what the hell were you doing there?”
“In Zimbabwe. I was visiting the ranch where my grandfather grew up. A young leopard jumped me. He died, but on the way down, his claw opened my leg.”
Jack did not ask for details. Someday they would come out. They sat in silence for a while, arms around each other’s waist.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“Always. Sometimes even for food.” He nuzzled her shoulder….
Three days later, they camped in a Forest Service campground by the Siwash Creek in Tonasket, Washington. They broke camp the next morning in silence, and rode to the intersection of Winesap Road and US-97. With their bicycles parked on their Click-stands, they paused, unwilling to leave. Beyond the tracks and the trees at the end of the road, the Okanogan River flowed gently south to join the Columbia River, a day’s ride away. The sun promised a warm day, especially now that they had dropped away from the glaciers on the mountains.
“This is different,” she said. “I’ve always ridden alone before. Why do I not want to do it now?”
“It is more fun with a friend, isn’t it?”
“Yes. When will I see you again?”
“Let me know where you are, and I’ll catch up. Are you still planning to cross the country eastbound after the regular nurse comes back to work?”
“Yes. We’ll have plenty of time to arrange to meet.”
“I’d like that.”
They embraced and kissed, drawing surly stares from an elderly couple on the corner. After snapping their Click-stands to their bikes, Hilda rode south to her new job. Jack turned north toward the Canadian border.
© 2021, JT Hine