It was Eddie who gave me the most educated answer about the phenomenon before me. Animals could always talk. Every species of animal has a separate language. Related animals could communicate with each other with more ease than others. It was humans who never managed to understand anything.
This was way beyond learning a language, though. I had been immersed in a giant universal communicator, now able to understand any animal that wanted me to understand it. It was unnerving.
With every bird song I was now hearing words. With every animal call, I was hearing names. If I read about a situation like this in a novel I would have immediately dismissed it as magic. I believe less in magic than I believe in talking animals. And now animals were talking.
We settled on a compromise, the rats and I. They would allow me to finish my work in peace provided that I take no pictures of them or their lair. The rats also gave me advice and vantage points for some awesome pictures I would not have gotten otherwise.
To repay them I made it a habit of giving them food each time I made a meal. The granola bars were a favorite, as I’d always have a young rat or two coming over trying to snag an extra ration. Nothing like a little sugar to make you a kid’s best friend.
We went on with our normal routines acting like neither of us existed to the other. That lasted the whole of ten minutes before rats were lining up to watch me work. Every step of the way I had a pair of eyes on me. Even I couldn’t help being distracted by these little “human” rats creating their living entirely from the landscape. I wanted so much to take pictures them and their amazing setup. Resisting the urge was difficult.
Justin endeavored to keep his people from getting too caught up with me. Regardless of what was going on they had much harder work ahead of them than I did. But the poor leader couldn’t quite get everyone to cooperate. I reassured him that everything would get back to normal the day after tomorrow. Yet as much as it was uncomfortable for the rats to share the Valley openly with me, there was an unexpected benefit.
As dusk began to overtake the Valley, I was writing in my field journal, organizing canisters when a sleeping Eddie, without warning, snapped his head up.
His ears pointed forward, eyes focused in an area right outside of the farm area. I didn’t see anything, as neither did the rat sentries posted. Eddie got up in a partial crouch, cautiously making his way towards the area of his malcontent. I put my pen down to watch the Border collie stop, sniff, then move some more.
“Eddie?” I called concerned, a sound that caught the guards’ attention. The dog stopped, crouching even lower. He let out a low growl. As if it were a signal, the working rats dropped what they were doing and immediately headed inside their underground home. If Eddie was growling, there had to be a good reason.
Like a flash of lighting, Eddie jumped up in an ambush. His disappearance into the tall grass was followed by a yelp and a snarling too high pitched to be his.
I stood up with my flashlight shining, my heart thumping in my chest with worry. Eddie leapt again, barking a warning. With another snap another yelp echoed. A snarling, cat-like head popped up. Caught in the beam of my light, its eyes shone with an eerie glow. Turning away it scampered off with the barking Border collie at its heels.
The chase didn’t last as the dog had no intention of killing his quarry. Satisfied he had scared off the fox Eddie licked his chops, proudly trotting back towards camp. I caught the sound of faint applause and cheering. Some rats had gathered on a high stone, watching the spectacle. They whistled and hooted, cheering the dog. Now that fox will think twice before stalking these rats again.
The dog came back to the camp gloating how he didn’t have a scratch on him. “I bet the fox wasn’t so lucky,” I replied as I petted him.
“Oh, it only sounded worse than it really was,” Eddie answered. “I have to give the fox some incentive to look elsewhere for hunting.”
“I’m sure you did.”
The rats, in their constant obsession with my campsite, came over to thank the dog personally for his courageous act. Eddie relished the attention. I smiled, excusing myself into the tent as I still had work to do. I didn’t want to get too wrapped up. I wrote a couple of more pages when I heard the flap of the tent open. A sparkle of light caught my attention. I knew immediately it was Justin. No matter how little light there was the amulet around his neck never stopped sparking.
“Anna, I would really like to speak with you if I can,” he said with all politeness.
I closed my journal, turning to my little companion. “Sure, I was just about finished anyway.”
Justin jumped onto the aluminum frame chair, sitting down in front of me as it was more comfortable to speak at eye-level.
“I can’t explain why supposedly random acts are occurring for the purpose of bringing you here but that’s what seems to be happening.”
I was already confused by his words.
Justin continued. “You see, Nancy was part of a team that was sent out to find truth in a rumor we had been hearing for about the past month.”
“What did a little bird tell you, literally?” I asked, hoping to ease the growing tension with the bad pun. Justin only proceeded to look distracted and serious.
“There are people in these woods, people who are not supposed to be here. They’ve been leaving a trail of discarded skinned bodies as they move.”
“Poachers?” I added. “There’s a big rule against hunting and fishing in this area.”
“So you can understand my concern, our concern. It was the reason we took such precautions with you this morning. We had to be sure you weren’t one of them.”
I unconsciously rubbed by wrists, remembering well. “So what did this party of yours discover?” I asked.
Justin’s face grew long. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t know anything,” he replied with sad disappointment. “Nancy turned out to be the only survivor. Even then that was close to not happening.”
A gasp got caught in my throat.
“She told us all she knew. It seems the reason she survived was because she never went into their camp. All we know is that there are two individuals setting up trap lines and collecting bodies every morning. The team was caught rifling through clothing trying to find some identification as to out who these people were.” Justin paused. “They were shot.”
My lips tightened at the words. Justin noticed my conflict, stopping, genuinely concerned.
“I remember how Eddie was acting after I had the rat in my arms. I yelled at him to stop pointing wildlife out. Now I realize that he must have noticed the other wounded rats as well. I had left them there to die.”
Justin placed his hand on my cheek. “Please, you could not have known,” he said. “Judging from what Nancy had described, they had taken the worst of it. They were most certainly dead already. Don’t blame yourself.”
His soothing words made tears fall but they stopped just as quickly.
“So you thought I might have been one of them,” I said. “Now I really don’t blame you.”
“We were terrified when we first saw you setting camp, even more so when we saw you carrying Nancy. Eddie didn’t help matters either.”
“So what happened then?” I asked all curious, sniffing. “You just walked up and Eddie let you pass?”
“Something like that.” Justin shrugged. “He wasn’t threatened at all. He was actually glad to see us because he figured we were Nancy’s family. It was when we started to go through your things that he became a bit agitated.”
“God forbid he try to stop you from tying me up.”
“He tried to talk us out of it. We explained our concerns. He agreed to stay out of the way until we were done.”
I sighed, a smirk crossing my face. “Some guard dog I have.” I looked at the rat wondering what the point of the conversation was, not that I minded talking to him. “So, what does all this have to do with divine intervention for lack of a better phrase? You said that it wasn’t coincidence I was here.”
“No I don’t think so. The fact that you’re a photographer makes it even more so.”
I could hear the request coming up. I resisted the urge to blurt what he wanted from me.
Justin stood on the fabric, puffing his chest out with his most authoritative demeanor. “On behalf of the Rats of Thorn Valley, I am making a formal request to have you search out these people to document their crimes. We do not have the resources to take on poachers and even less to prove to the outside world that they are even here.”
My jaw dropped. “You want me to go chasing after poachers? Are you out of your mind? Who do I look like to you, Rambo? I hardly think they’ll let me walk onto their compound, allowing me to take photos so that I can turn them in.”
Justin noted my objection. “We would not put your life in danger like that,” he said. “We know for the most part where they are. When they are out checking their lines you can go into their camp. We’ll warn you when they’re coming back. Please consider doing this. If they come across you while you’re working on your assignment, it will be as dangerous a situation regardless.”
“And people don’t care about a bunch of dead rats.” I replied, weighing his concerns.
Justin paused. “I know of one who would, but not the way you would think. It’s because of him that we are even here.”
“Some day you will have to explain that to me.”
Justin was right. Even if I refused the request, it would be dangerous having poachers in the woods with me. Poachers are not fond of witnesses to their crimes. This way, I’ll be able to expose them to the public without getting myself into trouble, hopefully.
I started thinking about the implications of what I was considering. I would have to spend all day tomorrow doing this, which meant not enough time to collect more photos for my original purpose. Though if this did pan out, it would be more important than any article about wildflowers.
Poachers are ravaging our protected lands. What could be a more important reason to prove there needs to be a serious movement to keep our wilderness areas safe? And the thought of my new friends being captured or killed was unacceptable. I was now morally obligated to accept Justin’s mission.
“We’ll start tomorrow,” I answered, bringing a concerned smile to the rat’s face. This may be the answer he wanted but we both knew we had a grim task ahead of us.