Aside from hearing a dog barking from at least a half a mile away, the hike back was uneventful. Aaron stayed off the trails for the most part, instead running parallel to them at about 30 meters. As he approached the parking area, he chose to cut through the woods at a slant and come out on the forest road so that he would end up behind anyone hanging around the small lot. That turned out to be a wise choice, as a pair of hunters had decided to end their day by having a lie swap session over a few beers, sitting on the tailgate of a newer Ford pickup parked next to his clapped out Toyota. Of course.., he thought.
He ambled into the lot, really little more than a turnout off of the forest road, and headed for the passenger door of his little truck. The hunters conversation trailed off noticeably, as they both focused their attention on Aaron. He gave them a nod, and hoped they could just ignore him. Judging by the 4 empty cans on the ground, below their feet, it wasn't probable.
As he dug the single door key from the coin pocket of his Carhartts, he watched from his peripheral as the one closest to him set his beer down and ease off the tailgate, knocking the can over in the process.
"Hey man. Didcha have any luck out there?"
The word 'man' came out sounding like 'main'. Aaron glanced at him, then back to the beer can, now rolling back down the tailgate, foam dripping onto the bumper. "You spilled your beer", he said.
The guy looked around to his right, all but doing a clumsy 360. He shrugged, picked up the can and drained the half swallow that might have been left. Then he chucked the empty toward the front of the bed, bouncing the can off the rear window.
"You wanna beer?", he asked as he reached for the foam cooler sitting just inside the pickup's bed.
Aaron looked over at the other guy, who hadn't moved from his perch on the tailgate. He also hadn't stopped staring at Aaron since he had walked into the lot.
"No, thank you." He placed the ALICE pack in the bed of his own truck, tight with the bulkhead. He didn't bother to remove the sheathed recurve stave from the pack's frame.
Thankfully, he didn't recognize either of the men, but the Ford looked familiar. He glanced at the plate, and saw the vol tag attached just above the Virginia license plate. That's it... , he thought.
Aaron had thought it would be a good idea to join the volunteer fire department after arriving here with his wife from North Carolina. She had grown up here, and they had moved into a little singlewide trailer on her parents property well south of Pulaski. It hadn't been by choice - it was the only place for them to go after everything had gone to hell in the Outer Banks. It hadn't helped that her father downright hated him, either.
He had figured that showing some sense of community and civic duty would make inroads into changing that, and he signed up at an RFD fundraiser held at a church.
They had called him, and he joined after passing the physical, along with a basic standardized written test. At the time, he was a complete outsider, so he chose to just keep to himself. He faithfully went to the certification certification classes, even paying for his EMT B cert, although no one else on the squad had to pay for theirs.
He also attended every meeting, and spent more than the requisite time at the station doing his maintenance duties. He wasn't working - at least not regularly - so why not show some initiative? His downfall was his lack of interest in the extracurricular activities that went with the squad. Namely, drinking. Not just a few beers after the fire meeting, but twelve-pack-per-person throwdowns, usually involving pallet fires or some bar closing up early. It didn't take long for him to go from an outsider to an outcast.
It all ended when a squad member, whose day job was as a Sheriff's deputy, took it upon himself to run Aaron's backround. Getting fired from law enforcement was akin getting convicted of a felony, as Homeland Security saw disgruntled unemployed cops as a threat. Although there was no policy in the squad that marked him for dismissal, he was still removed from the call sheet and forced to relinquish his issued equipment. His father-in-law had laughed in his face.
These two weren't from the same squad he had been with, but they were of the same type. Locals from birth, just getting by, and only on the right side of the law by association. In other words - trouble. Time to go...
Hopefully they would be too drunk to remember him, or care. Beer Spiller was now leaning over the left side of Aaron's pickup, intently staring at a shiny spot in the all but empty bed. The other guy spoke up.
"You getcha a doggy deer?" He nodded at the ALICE pack, and smiled at Aaron.
Aaron grinned back at him. Then he walked around the front of his truck, got in, and started it. He watched as Beer Spiller stepped back and bumped into the side of the Ford. As he reversed back, he rolled the window down, stopped even with Tailgate Guy, and made sure he had the guy's attention.
"You boys take it easy," he said, still grinning.
Tailgate Guy looked at him blankly. "Yep. We'll be seeing you around."
That we will, Aaron thought as he headed down the road. That we will.....