A voice hollered from behind me. “How far are you headed along this trail?”
I turned behind me to see whether Ethan or David asked the question. Perhaps they were asking the anchor man at the back of the pack, but since the inquiry was directed broadly, I waited for someone else to answer. The Lumberjack never did.
I finally offered a response to the silence as a courtesy to our new companions. “I don’t know how far we’re hiking, but I have to get back to town tonight. I’ve got to be at work in the morning.”
“Where do you work?” Eric asked. I elected to not mention I worked for the forest service.
“I’ve got a gig with the federal government. It’s good, I like it, but I’m still pretty new there.”
“Oooo,” Eric practically hissed, “government work. That sucks.”
“It’s not bad, really.”
“Better you than me.”
I didn’t expect I would enjoy the lull in our chat as much as I did, but the companionship lost its luster about the time the cattle gate closed. I could hear Ethan and David’s voices, but just slightly and I couldn’t make out their topic or content. Whatever it was, they were laughing more than me and Eric. Maybe later I could get the details of the conversation from a certain someone close on the heels of the giggling duo when we drove back home.
Finishing a stretch up a steep incline, I huffed and puffed more than I wanted to be for the grade of the trail, and apparently Eric noticed. When I stopped to catch my breath and take a drink of water, he leaned close whispering, “Hey, I’d love to get you away from this group and make you breathe hard for me.”
Oh, geez, no. I prepared my polite and decisive rejection ready for delivery when a doe appeared slightly ahead to my left. I gasped when I saw her just off the trail; I held my breath so as to not startle her.
“Yeah I could make you do that, too.” He added to his previous proposition.
“Look,” I whispered to him, pretending to ignore his offer, trying to distract him by the wildlife. Not surprisingly, he showed no interest.
“Cool,” he replied, still standing too close to me. I desperately wanted to push him away or even move myself, but not startling the deer took priority.
I glanced back to see Ethan and David looking off the opposite side of the trail into the woods. I followed their sight line to her fawn, eating grass just inside the nearest cluster of trees. I glanced back over at the doe, who since spotted us and she radiated concerned about the growing crowd of onlookers and her offspring on the far side of the trail.
Ethan and David approached us with the Lumberjack close behind and before long, our small mob contemplated whether to stay or advance, against which the doe clearly stood upright and tense, instinctively contemplating what to do next.
“How about the three of us head out and check out the baby over there, and Eric, you and this guy can go track mom into the forest?”
Were they actually considering disturbing the mother and fawn? I adored watching the fauna, however pursuing either of them into the woods lacked both responsibility and consideration for the wildlife, as if the trio could have been any less respectable in my opinion. Besides, I’m sure the deer would run much faster than any of us, especially three stoners.
“I think we should just let them be.” I recommended.
“C’mon, babe,” Ethan suggested, “we’ll just follow him a little ways and do some exploring of our own.”
No, I really thought that would be a horrible idea, besides the fact that I hated to see the doe and fawn separated. Truthfully, all of their ideas and propositions turned my stomach. I looked at the Lumberjack hoping he’d offer us an exit strategy, but he still said nothing.
“You know, I think we need to head back down ourselves. We still have a drive ahead of us and I think I’m going to let nature be.”
“Okay,” Eric agreed, “but if you get a break in your week, we’ll be here at the campground at the start of the trail. Come on up and hang out.”
“Great, thanks. I appreciate the offer.” I had zero interest in returning to the forest for these potheads. As I glanced back at the doe, she cleverly and urgently left us behind in our cluster and dashed towards her fawn. The two of them continued deeper into the forest, and even though the young hikers possessed little ability to keep pace with the animals, I felt relieved for the deer to have made their escape. I looked back at the Lumberjack and noticed he, too, made his escape, leaving me to play catch up all the way back down the trail.
“Bye, babe,” David hollered at me as I turned to follow the Lumberjack out of the woods. I heard the trio laugh, and if I turned back around, I expected to see them lighting up again.