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After spending most of the night tossing and turning, Pat had finally given in to the fact she wouldn’t be getting any rest. She’d rolled out of bed, her tangled sheets evidence of her sleeplessness. After a quick shower, she dressed leaving her house long before the sun was scheduled to make its appearance. Tossing her pack on the passenger seat, she drove to one of the few twenty-four hour restaurants in town and ordered breakfast.
Having plenty of time, Pat sipped coffee while staring out the window next to her table. The restaurant spanned the Rattlesnake Creek, the waters tumbling by underneath as they rushed to join the Clark Fork River a few hundred feet away. Pat had often considered what the possibility would be today to get the necessary permits to build in the same location and had concluded there was not much chance of it. She was glad the building had been erected long before the EPA and its endless list of reports and studies that preceded any construction near waterways. It wasn’t that she disapproved of the EPA and its work, but more that she found enjoying a meal as the creek flowed by was very soothing.
But this morning, Pat had been anything but soothed by the creek waters. She didn’t know why she had made the call the previous evening, other than it seemed like something she had to do. She was in turmoil, wondering if maybe she shouldn’t just call Sherry and tell her not to come. She had dug the cell phone out of her jacket pocket so many times that she finally placed it on the table beside her plate.
For the upteenth time, Pat’s inner voice repeated the long list of reasons going on a hike with Sherry was wrong. She was the coach, Sherry was a player. She had a morals clause in her contract, no off court relationships with players no matter how casual. Most likely Sherry would be let go from the Cougars in a few weeks, did she really want to start something that could be cut short so soon.
‘Am I starting something with Sherry?’ Pat wondered. She looked at her reflection in the window and saw a lonely woman staring back at her. When had she begun to look so sad? When had all the joy gone out of her life? Pat knew the answers. Almost five years had past since Karen left taking Pat’s broken heart with her. That was a long time to go without feeling anything for someone else. Sherry had somehow changed that.
“Do you need anything else, Coach?”
Pat turned away from her reflection to look at the waitress standing beside the table.
“I’m about to go off shift,” the young woman explained.
“No,” Pat told her, “I’m fine. I’m about to leave myself,” she was surprised to discover that she had been sitting long enough for the sun to start peeking over Mount Sentinel.
“Have a good day then, Coach,” the girl smiled brightly, hoping to boost the tip she might receive.
“Thank you.” Pat smiled back. One of the drawbacks to being the Cougar coach was everyone in town thought she had lots of money to throw around. Mac did pay her well but not that well.
“Where you off to today, Coach?” the restaurant’s manager asked as Pat stepped up to the counter to pay her bill. “Looks to be a good day for fishing or a hike,” he suggested, knowing Pat enjoyed doing both.
“Yes,” Pat handed the man her check and a ten dollar bill. “It looks to be a good day,” she said. Without answering his question, she turned to leave.
“You’ve got change coming,” the manager called after her.
“Give it to Jade,” Pat named the waitress. ‘Oh well,’ she thought as she calculated the amount of the tip in her head, ‘might as well keep the myth alive.’
Pat pushed open the heavy glass door and stepped out into the morning, taking a deep breath of crisp mountain air. A quick glance at her watch told her she had time to do a few errands before heading south to meet Sherry. “Shut up,” she growled to her inner voice as she unlocked the truck’s door. “I’m going so just shut up.”
The alarm sounded unusually loud in the quiet dorm room when Sherry forced an eye open just enough to locate its off button. “Ugh,” she groaned, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “Who hit me over the head last night?”
Throwing the blankets off, she scooted to the edge of the bed and slowly swung her legs over the side. It took several moments before she was willing to attempt to stand.
“Guess practice took more out of me than I thought,” she muttered, swaying slightly as blood started rushing around her now upright body. “The shower is going to feel really good this morning,” she told herself, shuffling over to the dresser for a fresh pair of panties and t-shirt.
An hour later, fully awake and looking forward to her day, Sherry zipped up the pocket of her pack. She had double check its contents of extra clothing, flashlight, and emergency supplies not wanting to forget anything. After the coach’s call, she had looked up the trail where she would be meeting Pat in her hiking book. It showed the main trail to be a two and a half mile loop gaining less than five hundred feet in elevation. But there was a much longer and steeper trail that branched off of it. She wasn’t too concerned about her ability to complete either trail but she wanted to be prepared just in case the weather changed or she was out later than she expected.
Sherry swung the pack onto her shoulder in an easy motion she had completed endless times before and started for the door, snatching her keys and jacket off the end of the bed as she walked by. Instead of the usually places in town, she’d decided to eat breakfast at a small family style diner Val had told her about one day when they were discussing places for the rookie to check out while in Missoula.
With her pack resting on the floor of the back seat of Val’s car, Sherry turned the ignition on. She chuckled when she saw the needle indicating the amount of fuel in the gas tank barely move above the E. “I swear, Val, I think the only reason you let me borrow your car is because I fill up the tank,” she told her non-existent teammate as she backed the jeep out of its parking spot. She wasn’t really upset, figuring a tank of gas was a lot cheaper than trying to rent a car or buy one for the short time she would be in town.
Leaving the parking lot, she pointed the jeep in the direction of a nearby gas station/mini mart. With only one stop, she could fill the empty tank and also pick up some snacks and prepared sandwiches to add to her pack. That would leave only stopping for breakfast before she headed for the trailhead and Pat.
Sherry reached for the radio knob. Soon country music filled the air and she began to sing along, a beaming smile spread across her face.
Pat had one foot on the back bumper of her truck as she tightened the laces on her boots. Her heart started to race when she heard the sound of a vehicle approaching, her inner voice shouting last minute warnings at her.
“Damn it,” Pat muttered, walking to the front of the truck to retrieve her pack from the cab. “There’s no reason for me not to be here,” she told the voice.
‘What if it’s someone else?’ the voice asked. ‘Someone you know?’
“What if it is?” Pat answered out loud. “So what? I’m here to go for a hike. Something I’ve done hundreds of times and there’s no reason for me not to be doing it again today.”
‘But today you’re not going to be alone.’“
I know,” Pat’s lip twitched into a grin she was unable and unwilling to stop.
‘It’s wrong’ the voice persisted.
“Shut up,” Pat growled, slamming the door shut just as a car pulled into the large parking area.
Sherry spotted Pat’s truck before she pulled off the road. She started to park beside it then thought better of that idea and pulled into the shady spot under a tall pine tree on the opposite side of the parking area. Turning off the engine, she opened the car door and climbed out. Pausing long enough to wave to Pat, she opened the back door and lifted her pack off the floor. Then she made sure the car was securely locked before trotting over to where the coach stood leaning against her truck.
“Morning,” Pat smiled when Sherry walked up.
“Morning,” Sherry smiled back. “I was surprised to get your call last night,” she said, wanting to get something clear before their day got started. “Are you sure you want to do this, Coach?”
“Do what?” Pat asked even though she knew what Sherry was referring to.
“You know,” Sherry shrugged. “Us hiking together, I thought you felt it was a bad idea.”
Pat hesitated before answering. She had thought that, in fact she still did. But there was something drawing her to the woman standing so near to her. “I won’t lie to you, Sherry,” Pat started slowly. “It could mean trouble if someone sees us and draws the wrong conclusions.”
Sherry wasn’t sure which conclusions would be the wrong ones but she didn’t ask, not really wanting to know the answer.
“But we came in separate vehicles and we just happened to meet at the trailhead,” Pat knew she was setting up a reasonable, if not quite accurate, explanation should one be needed. “We know each other, I doubt if anyone would expect us just to go our separate ways under the circumstances.”
Sherry nodded, letting Pat know she understood.
“But if you’re having doubts,” Pat offered, crossing her fingers and toes in hopes that Sherry wasn’t. “I’ll understand if you want to do just that.”
“No,” Sherry said, a little too forceful. “I mean,” she grinned sheepishly when Pat cocked an eyebrow at her. “I want to go with you. I just don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“You won’t,” Pat assured her in a soft voice. “I’d like us to go together,” she added, almost shyly.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Sherry asked, placing her pack on the ground so she could bend over and tighten her boot laces.
Pat found herself enjoying the view.
“I read about this trail,” Sherry said as she switched feet. “The book says it only gains four hundred feet in elevation so I don’t think I’ll have much problem,” she continued to tell Pat while she talk at her shoes. “I’ve been taking lots of short hikes like you suggested,” she straightened back up, pulling her pack up with her and settling it on her back. “I hardly have any trouble breathing now.”
“The book is a little misleading,” Pat explained as she led Sherry across the parking area to the trailhead. “It may only gain four hundred feet but it sorta goes straight up then levels off then comes straight down. That’s the trouble with those books, they don’t give the real picture.”
“Maybe you should write one that does,” Sherry suggesting, falling into step with Pat.
“Maybe I should,” Pat laughed, she’d had the same thought many times before. “The trail narrows as soon as we get up there,” she pointed up through the trees. “We won’t be able to walk side-by-side then. You want to lead or follow?”
It took Sherry less than a second to make up her mind. “I’ll follow,” she grinned. ‘The view will be much better,’ she added to herself.
For the first hundred or so yards, the trail was a wide, pine needle covered dirt path that wove its way through a forest of larch and ponderosa pines. Then the trees grew fewer and farther apart, replaced by clusters of wild berry bushes and open grassy patches of ground. True to Pat’s words, the trail began to narrow and steepened for the next half mile. It hung to the side of the slope as it zigzagged uphill. It wasn’t so steep that the women had to stop to rest as they climbed but it was steep enough that talking wasn’t very easy so they walked in silence.
Sherry stopped frequently to enjoy the green hillside dotted with wildflowers of every color in the rainbow and Pat would pause in her own steps, waiting patiently until Sherry was ready to continue. She knew how the player felt and didn’t begrudge her the time.
Before her injury, Pat had run the trails using the exercise as her unique way to train for the rigors of the season. She hated running laps on a track where the scenery never changed. By the time she reached college, she was running the mountain trails as if she had bionic legs. Which explained another NCAA record she had set; most minutes played. Few players could run up and down the basketball court for the full length of a game but Pat could and seemingly without breaking a sweat. It wasn’t until after her surgery and she started to use the trails as a way to rehab her damaged knee that she started to truly appreciate their beauty. Now a trail like this which could easily be hiked in a couple of hours might take her all day as she spent her time enjoying the blessings Mother Nature had bestowed.
A small meadow appeared opened alongside the trail and Pat halted their progress. Putting a finger to her lips to ask for silence, she pointed to the center of the meadow where a doe was munching on the dew covered grass. The deer lifted its head to study the intruders then, sensing no threat, she went back to her morning meal.
“She’s not afraid of us?” Sherry whispered.
“She knows we won’t harm her.”
“Come on,” Pat tilted her head up the trail. “There’s a place to sit not too far past that crest. My knee can use a rest,” she said, not complaining but stating the truth.
“Are you okay?” Sherry’s turned her attention to the coach. She hadn’t given Pat’s injury any thought, the woman never seemed to let any pain she was suffering show.
“I’m fine,” Pat started up the trail. “Just need to sit for a spell.”
Sherry took a final look at the doe before following Pat, noticing for the first time the slightest limp in the coach’s steps.
It took them twenty minutes to reach the crest where the trail’s slope gentled, the path leading through a meadow much larger than the one where the doe had been. They were above the tops of the trees at the start of the trail and Sherry saw that they had an unobstructed view of the Bitterroot Valley far below them. As she stopped to look, Pat continued on to where a bench had been placed alongside the trail.
The bench was a simple design of a log cut in half, the flat edge smoothed and covered in layers of lacquer to protect it. The rounded part of the log rested in two pieces of wood cut to cradle it. Another section of log had been sliced to form the bench back, smoothed and polished to match the seat.
Pat slipped off her pack as she neared the bench, dropping it on the ground beside it. As soon as she sat, she pulled her pant leg up over the brace it hid and began loosening the velco straps. She could feel the pain start to ease as soon as she slid the brace off the knee and down her leg to rest around her ankle.
“Can I help?” Sherry asked; concern clearly evident in the question.
“I’m fine,” Pat squinted as she looked up at the woman standing beside her. “Sit,” she commanded, “you’re standing in front of the sun.”
“Sorry,” Sherry slipped off her pack and joined Pat on the bench. “I thought the brace was supposed to help.”
“It does help support it when I walk,” Pat explained, rubbing the knee in an attempt to ease the aching. “But it also adds to the problem by having to keep so much pressure on the leg all the time. It’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. I just need to take the dang thing off once in a while to give the leg a break.”
Sherry sat back, willing to sit as long as Pat needed. “Nice of someone to put this here,” she ran her hand over the polished wood surface.
“Yeah, it sure beats sitting on the ground,” Pat said, bending over to her pack. She pulled a water bottle free, lifting it to her mouth and taking a generous drink. “Hungry?” she asked as her stomach made its feelings known. They were only a fourth of their way along the trail but she was starving after only picking at her breakfast earlier.
“No,” Sherry shook her head. “I had a big breakfast.”
“In town?” Pat rummaged around for the energy bars she carried.
“No, Val told me about a little place in Stevensville. I stopped there.”
Suddenly, Pat was no longer hunger. “You told Val about today?” her head whipped around, her eyes revealing her panic.
“NO,” Sherry’s head shook violently back and forth. “I would never do that, Pat,” she unconsciously used the coach’s given name but neither woman seemed to notice. “We were talking a couple of weeks ago and she was telling me about different places in the valley that I might be interested in seeing.”
Pat blew out a breath of relief. “Sorry,” she grinned, awkwardly. “Guess I’m more concerned than I thought.”
“It’s okay,” Sherry whispered. “I should go back,” she offered even though she didn’t want to leave.
“Stay,” Pat reached out, lightly placing her hand on Sherry’s arm. “Please, stay.”
Sherry nodded, her hand covering Pat’s.
The women stayed like that for several minutes until the cry of a crow flying overhead broke the spell.
As they reached the zenith of the hike and started downward, the forest closed back in around them. The trail narrowed and more rocks and small boulders appeared in the path.
“Hang on a sec,” Pat asked. Reaching back, she flipped open the clasps holding a pair of ski poles to the side of her pack. She pulled the sections of poles out to the proper length then wound them tight.
“I wondered why you carried them in the summer,” Sherry said as she watched Pat.
“I need the extra support on rough ground like this,” Pat explained. “It’s not a bad idea to have a pair handy,” she said, slipping her hands into the straps on pole grips. “They really help take the strain off your legs, especially going up steep hills.”
“Now you tell me,” Sherry reached down, rubbing her thighs that had already begun to ache after the steep climb at the start of the trail.
Pat laughed as she started down the rocky path. “The good news is, it’s all downhill from hill. ‘Course, sometimes the downhills are worse then the uphills. Which is another good reason to carry these.”
“Not funny,” Sherry groused as she followed. “Not funny at all.”
They hadn’t gone far when Sherry noticed another numbered marker alongside the path. She had noticed several before but Pat had not paid any attention to them. Her curiosity finally got the better of her. “What are those markers for?” she finally asked.
“What markers?” Pat asked as she almost impaled one with a ski pole. “Oh those markers,” she smirked. “Well, technically, this is a self guided trail that explains the benefits of fire on the forest. But the only way to get one of the pamphlets that explain what the markers are for is to ask the hosts of the campground you passed.”
“You’ve never asked?”
“Just never seemed to get around to it.”
“Maybe I’ll stop there on my way home today and pick one up. If you’re nice, I might even let you read it.”
“How far back to the trailhead?”
“About a mile, why?”
“Well, I noticed there was an outhouse there. And, I um…”
Pat stopped and turned to look at Sherry. “There are other options, you know.”
Sherry looked around, seeing nothing but trees, bushes and flowers, she stared at Pat. “What?”
“This is the woods, city girl,” Pat chuckled. “Pick a tree.”
“You mean just go out here? In the open?” Sherry squeaked.
“Sherry,” Pat looked at the player, bemused to see the look of bewilderment on her face. “How many people have we seen today? Not counting us.”
“Right. So go off into the bushes and find yourself a nice spot and just do it. Or go right here if you want, I promise not to look.”
“Um, okay,” Sherry looked around again. “But, I, um…”
“I don’t have any tissue.”
“Well, to be honest,” Pat leaned back using the ski poles to support her. “Unless I’m doing number two, I just kinda air dry. It’s better for the environment, less pollution, if you know what I mean.”
“Really,” Sherry looked at her, trying to decide if Pat was being serious or not.
“Look,” Pat lifted one of the ski poles, using it as a pointer. “Go down behind those bushes,” she pointed to an area several feet off the trail. “Find yourself a clear spot and dig a small hole with your boot. Then squat but make sure you lean back so you don’t pee all over your shorts and boots and get it over with. It’s too far back to the trailhead so you might as well take care of it now.”
“Um, okay,” Sherry stepped of the trail. “You won’t look?” she turned back to ask.
“I promise,” Pat held up her hand, palm facing the player. ‘But I’d like to,’ she thought. She turned and walked a few feet further down the trail to give Sherry some privacy.
As luck would have it, Pat heard voices coming up the trail as soon as Sherry disappeared behind the bushes. Suddenly, her concern that Sherry might be seen in a compromising position was more important to her than being recognized by whoever was approaching. Before she could go back and warned Sherry, a family rounded a bend in the trail and spotted her. She hoped Sherry would have the common sense to stay put until the hikers passed.
“Hi,” a young boy about twelve said as he was the first to reach Pat where she had stepped to the side of the trail. He darted by obviously in a hurry to be the first in the group to reach the top.
“Hi,” Pat answered but the boy was already several feet up the trail.
“Hello,” the boy’s mother said as she reached Pat.
“Nice day,” the father added as he passed.
Pat smiled and nodded, thankful she didn’t recognize any of them and they didn’t seem to know who she was. By the way they were dressed in new jeans and wearing regular street shoes, she figured they must be tourists staying in the campground. She also noticed they carried no water, something they would regret before they got back to their campsite. She watched them continue up the trail until they disappeared into the trees.
“Are they gone?” Sherry hissed from her hiding spot.
“Yes.” Pat answered. She didn’t have to wait long before Sherry popped up from behind the bushes.
“We haven’t seen anyone all day,” Sherry grumbled as she made her way back to the trail. “Then I dropped my pants and a circus goes by.”
“Hardly a circus,” Pat snickered. “It was only three people. It’s not like they had elephants and tigers with them. Or clowns. Or acrobats.”
“Shut up,” Sherry grunted, brushing past Pat and stomping down the trail.
“Sherry?” Pat called after the upset woman. “Sherry wait.”
“What?” Sherry stopped abruptly and spun around. When she saw Pat struggling to catch up with her, she could have kicked herself. “I’m sorry,” she started back up the trail to Pat.
“Hey,” Pat asked as soon as they met, “are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Sherry smiled, ashamed she had made Pat try to navigate the broken ground in a hurry. “I was just a little embarrassed when I heard them. It wouldn’t have been too fun if they had seen me.”
Pat wanted to reach out and touch Sherry to comfort her but she fought the urge. “Believe it or not,” she smiled. “It almost always happens like that. You’re out in the woods all day by yourself but the minute you drop your drawers is when someone will come by. Happened to me one day when I was way out in the boonies.”
“Yes,” Pat began to walk down the trail, this time at a more comfortable speed. “I’d been out all day, never saw another living soul. Then I get the urge and find me a nice secluded spot back in the trees and up the side of a hill. I dropped my pants and squat and what happens?”
“Someone came down the trail?”
“A guy came over the crest of the hill, walks down right past where I was peeing. Says hello and keeps right on walking.”
“You’re making that up.”
“Scout’s honor,” Pat looked back over her shoulder at Sherry. “It happened just like that. I was so embarrassed, I just stayed in that position for about a half hour. If a bear hadn’t come by, I’d probably still be there.”
“A bear? Now I know you’re making it up.”
“I’m not kidding. A young black bear ambled out of the woods, took one look at my lilly white fanny hanging out and took off running. I tell you, after that day,” Pat began walking again. “I have no shame. None what’s so ever.”
It didn’t take long for Sherry to burst into gales of laughter as she imagined the scene of Pat squatting in the woods while a hiker and bear interrupted her. By the time she composed herself enough to run after the coach. Pat was half way back to the trailhead, whistling happily as she walked.
Continued in Chapter Six
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