The Border collie didn’t wait to shake the night’s sleep off of him. The whole tent vibrated, waking me in fear that it would collapse.
“What the heck are you doing?” I screeched, pushing the dog out. Eddie sat down, looking back over his shoulder. He panted a happy grin, his tongue flopping to one side.
I squinted, waiting for the haze to lift from my head. I could tell from the partial opening that dawn was just breaking. The air was colder than last night, causing an involuntarily shiver to wave through me. I folded my legs up to my chest, hugging my knees, rocking back and forth to get warm.
Feeling good and ready, Eddie stood, slapping my face with his dusty tail. He exited the tent, leaving me alone to wake up.
I picked up the knocked over black canisters of film, placing them back on the aluminum frame seat. I didn’t feel any better than the day before. In fact I felt a little worse for wear.
I slept like a rock but my sleeping arrangement felt one too. It didn’t help either that Eddie hogged up most of the precious space. I ended up crunched in a corner. Every painful move reminded me there is only so much cushioning a sleeping bag can give to woodland ground. I wondered if I would be able to make it through the day much less the remainder of the trip.
Still in long johns, I crept out of the tent, stretching with very stiff joint popping in protest. Wiping the crud from my eyes, the horrible taste in my mouth reminded me of the river in the valley. Like an idiot, I didn’t check for the nearest source of running water before setting camp. Now I would have to move. I wasn’t going to use my drinking water to brush my teeth.
I looked back at the tent and all my scattered supplies. A heavy sigh lowered my shoulders.
After a breakfast of granola bars, I decided to take some more photos before I tackled packing up camp. I put on the same clothes as the day before adding my flannel shirt. Until the sun warmed the valley, the morning was going to be chillier than I would have preferred.
As I hiked, Eddie trotted alongside me, not his usual bundle of uncontrolled energy. I figured he wore himself out with the novelty of being in the middle of the woods yesterday. I was actually able to take pictures of some of the regular wildlife, tiny chickadees, hyper chipmunks, paranoid squirrels, and even a fox with what looked to be a vole in his mouth. The forest was alive with morning rituals.
I was glad I took the walk before moving camp. I didn’t want to waste time not working. I was hoping I could get my photos before the deadline, allowing me to leave early. Yes, that would be good.
Something caught Eddie’s attention causing the dog to jump ahead of me. I continued to concentrate on snapping pictures until he let out a soft whine. Now he had my attention. The Border collie was fussing with an area under a bush, digging away. As leaves and branches flew all over the place, I came over, kneeling down. I attempted to see beyond the dog without getting too close.
“What are you doing, Eddie?” I asked the dog who ignored me. “I don’t need you messing up something you’re not supposed to.” I inched closer noticing the widening hole. “Oh great. You better not be digging some animal up!”
The dog disregarded me as I looked around for a stick to poke him with. I never knew Eddie to go hunting as opposed to just chasing after animals but I didn’t want him to start now. And I didn’t want to be there when he decided to kill whatever it was he was after. With my luck, it would be some kind of endangered species there was only two of.
Eddie stopped his digging. He furiously sniffed into the hole, snorting a couple of times then whining again. Now I was curious instead of angry. This didn’t look like a dog that was hunting. The dog scraped his paws against the earth until his muzzle could fit through the hole.
Intrigued, I started taking pictures. If I was just going to stand there and watch, I might as well work.
Eddie sat down, giving up. Staring at the opening he whined, wagging his tail with apprehensive sweeps. I grew tired of waiting for what seemed to be a never-happening climax. I called Eddie to head back to camp. He wouldn’t move.
“I’m leaving without you,” I threatened as a turned away from him, hoping he would follow. He didn’t even turn his head. “Okay, I’m leaving!” I loudly called, taking a few stomping paces away from him. I walked a couple of more steps, finding myself growing impatient. “Eddie come!” I commanded in my meanest voice while I slapped my thigh.
A moment, then I heard rustling behind me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Eddie trot up with a very satisfied look on his face. Smugly, I went to look away when I did a double take.
Eddie had something in his mouth.
His excited mismatched eyes looked up at me, his toothy grin blocked by what looked to be a bundle of rags. Eddie lifted his head as if he wanted to show me what he had. I reached out to take it until it squirmed.
“Holy!” I yelped, almost dropping my camera. Eddie wagged his tail, pushing his face and whatever it was in his mouth closer. Putting the camera’s strap around my neck I reached over with both hands, hoping I could coax the dog to give me whatever animal he had without him accidentally biting down.
The brown fur moved again, turning its face towards me. My hands stopped instinctively the minute I realized what it was.
Eddie had a rat in his mouth.
I gathered every bit of strength trying not to freak out. Eddie dug a rat from underneath the bush and was carrying it around like a parcel. I didn’t know what to do next. What if the thing was sick, or worse, rabid? I would have to rush Eddie back to ranger headquarters and run to the nearest vet.
Oh no, I might have to get those shots in the stomach too. I started to get queasy. Rats aren’t a favorite animal in any household. Sure there are people who keep them as pets but those rats are different from wild ones.
All I knew about wild rats was what I knew from New York. They live in the subways, grow as big as cats and were known to attack people and kill babies if left unchecked. Never mind they were dirty too. Don’t tell me about how clean rats are. How clean can an animal that lives in sewer get? And here was Eddie with a damn rat in his mouth!
I just stared at the confused dog. He started whining, moving forward. I inched back not wanting to touch anything then it hit me. The rat was still alive.
Eddie stood there drooling, almost pleading with me to take the thing. My next move surprised even me. If Eddie wanted me to have it so much, then I should take it. The animal looked hurt, it’s back leg crusted with blood. No animal should suffer, even if it is a rat.
Looking away, I cupped my hands underneath the dog’s mouth. He promptly opened his jaw letting the body fall.
The rat was large for my hands, its head and back legs dangling over. I cradled it in the crook of my arm as I struggled off my flannel shirt.
As I wrapped her up, I got the impression that the dirty green cloth she wore looked like an oversized shirt. My brows furrowed as I shook my head. Maybe this wasn’t a wild rat at all instead someone’s pet that escaped. Who else would put a shirt on a rat? The rat squirmed, opening her eyes slightly. I was expecting her to panic but she didn’t.
“Don’t worry,” I said, trying to calm the rat down when I was the one who needed calming. “You’re safe now. I’m going to take you back to camp.” I blocked it in my mind that I was carrying a rat, concentrating on the fact that it was a wounded woodland animal that needed my help.
Eddie kept his eyes on the bundle I held while we walked back. I still couldn’t believe what I was doing. Just as we were nearing camp, Eddie spun back in the direction we came from. He started barking, making me jump. I worried when he wagged his tail, whining again.
“Oh no you don’t,” I interrupted. “What do I look like, a wildlife rehabilitator? One rat is enough!” To my relief, Eddie decided to scamper ahead to camp. I glanced down at my new companion, sleeping away. I grimaced. Why did it have to be a rat? No one is going to believe I nursed a rat back to health. Well, at least I was going to try to do just that.
Defeating the purpose of the small chair, I placed all my camera equipment on the ground, putting the flannel shirt in its place. Searching the tent, I came across a blue plastic box with a red cross sticker on the cover. I grabbed the first aid kit, placing it next to me. Opening it. I took out a cotton swab, peroxide, and tweezers. Placing them into the open lid, I went to tend to my patient.
I took care in unwrapping the flannel, revealing the large brown and tan rat in the green, oversize shirt. She opened her liquid amber eyes, showing no fear. Maybe she knew I was helping her. I looked at the leg knowing it had to be cleaned. With one hand, I fumbled with the peroxide bottle, dabbing the swab in the solution until it was soaking.
“Uh, this might hurt a bit,” I warned, as I was about to touch the swab to the leg. She flinched just once as I lightly stroked the fur, cleaning off the crusted blood, allowing me to see the wound properly. Satisfied that the cut didn’t seem too bad I cleaned it once more, grabbing some gauze for a final bandage.
When I was done, the rat lay in a pile of flannel, her left leg wrapped in a thick bundle. I thought I overdid it with the wrapping but I didn’t want it to get infected. I smirked at the irony of the scene. Here was a rat, the very symbol of disease and I was worried about it getting sick.
The rat, weak from her ordeal, shifted her weight in an attempt to get comfortable then closed her eyes. I sat there watching the sleeping rat, growing tired myself.
It was just hitting the afternoon and my stomach was rumbling with hunger. I opened the flap only to be startled by Eddie. He was standing right by the door almost as if waiting for me to come out with a diagnosis.
“She’s fine, I think.” I was afraid to pass the animal without giving an answer. Eddie wagged his tail, contented. My brow furrowed again as I stared at the dog. What’s going on here? Shaking my head, I went to make myself a little lunch. It was obvious my hunger was making me delirious.
After a modest sandwich, fruit, and bottled water, I started to make headway in repacking all of my gear, leaving the tent for last. As always, items that I was able to fit in one container would no longer do so. I ended up spending a lot of time arranging and rearranging.
When it was time for the tent to be taken down, I took a look at my new roommate. The rat was still sleeping but more soundly, obvious she had tried moving the bandaged leg. I was glad she didn’t chew the gauze off. I was afraid that would be the first thing she would have attempted.
I wondered how I was going to do this. I couldn’t carry the rat and take down the tent at the same time. I had to move her, but where? I remembered the two packs outside. If I put the flannel shirt on the backpack until I got the tent folded, she would be okay. I trusted Eddie to not bother her.
I slid my hands under the shirt causing the rat to stir. She did not struggle as I cradled her in my arms, maneuvering out of the tent. I kicked at the rectangular camping backpack until it was flat on its back. Just as careful as the first time I placed down the bundle.
Tucking the shirt around her some more I stepped back to start pulling the tent apart. As soon as my back turned, Eddie walked over, nuzzling the rat with his clammy nose. I couldn’t help but be amazed. The rat didn’t look bothered at all by the shuffling dog, staying wrapped in the shirt as I shoped she would.
Finishing my chore, I placed the rat on the ground, putting on the heavy backpack. Once ready, I settled her in the crook of my arm, making the hike slow and easy. I knew I was wasting precious time, losing a lot of film opportunities, however it didn’t bother me as much as it should have. Rat or not, I felt responsible for the little girl’s life and I was going to see it through.