A frenzied pawing shook my body, bringing me out of a deep sleep. I turned over to meet Eddie nudging me to get up, the concern in his eyes raising an alarm. Something was wrong.
“What’s going on?” I asked the Border collie. “Another fox?”
Eddie whined again. “A fox I can handle. The rats awoke me with more pressing news.”
I sat up. “Something happened to the rats?” I asked with frightened excitement in my voice. “They’re okay, right?”
“Not for long if you don’t do something,” Eddie whined back. “The rats had gotten word that rangers are in the wood. We hoped the poachers had gotten their attention but they’re moving close to the valley away from them. The rats will not fare any better with rangers than with poachers. You have to go to lead them away!”
As he spoke I stripped off the gray long johns, not feeling the usual bashfulness I get when dressing in front of the dog. I threw on my white tank top, jeans and boots, lacing them up with haste. If the rangers were indeed close enough to the valley, they would immediately zoom into my campsite, risking the rats to exposure.
I had to lead them to the poachers, a much more important target. In fact, I planned to use the situation to kill two birds with one stone. The poachers would get arrested and I would get my camera back. I had to move fast.
Eddie bounded out of the tent with me following him.
All around was a flurry of activity with rats fortifying themselves against the impending threat. Woven blankets of twigs, grass and leaves covered their entranceways, windows and sports field. At best, the rangers wouldn’t notice anything unusual, although the rats would have to take their chances with the gardens.
Guards armed with lances took hidden positions all along the perimeter more for surveillance than to pick a fight. A familiar voice called my name, causing me to turn mid-stride. Justin ran up to me waving his hands. I bent down, holding out my arm.
“I’m coming with you,” he said. I was so distracted by what had to be done I didn’t react to the initial pain of feeling him scratch up my arm.
“How do you know where they are?” I asked.
“Crows,” was Justin’s simple answer as he stood on my shoulder clutching my hair.
“There!” he cried, pointing upward. Frantic crow caws came from above. Three crows circled overhead waiting for us. “Follow them,” Justin commanded. “They’re the ones who know where the rangers are.”
Digging my heels into the soft earth I ran into the wood, the constant crunching of leaves underneath us. I slowed our pace to avoid getting tripped by tree roots or low hanging branches.
Every couple of minutes, a flapping ebony crow would fly near us, cawing the direction we should take while his companions stayed above the trees.
“Slow down! Slow down!” the alarmed caw came. The crow landed in a branch above us, giving the last of his news.
“They’re up ahead.” The crow reported. “There are two of them on horseback. You can’t miss them.”
I nodded to the bird then turned to Justin “You might want to take to the ground,” I suggested. “I don’t think they’ll take too kindly seeing me run up to them with a rat on my shoulder.”
“Good idea. I’ll follow close,” Justin replied, scurrying into the bush.
I continued until I could hear the leaves rustling up ahead. Looking though the dense foliage, I made out two figures on horseback.
“Hello!” I yelled. “Over here!” I urged my tired body forward. Just as soon as I yelled the two rangers stopped, turning in my direction.
“Well, if it isn’t the photographer lady,” one of them started. “We were looking for you.”
“I’m sure you were,” I answered. “And boy am I glad to see you guys.”
A crow landed in the trees near us.
The two rangers explained how they had seen smoke coming from the area near the valley. Campfires are not allowed to be set outside the designated areas so they came to investigate. Since I was the only one assigned to be there, they assumed it was me. Just as they finished explaining what they were doing, I started telling my tale as to who wasn’t supposed to be there.
The rangers’ faces became grim. Poaching in protected areas was a federal offense carrying serious repercussions. Not only were illegal hunters dangerous to the wildlife at large, they were also known to be dangerous towards people as well. They had to be stopped.
“I know exactly where they are,” I replied. “The smoke you saw was from their camp. I tried taking photos but ended up losing my camera in the process.” I felt mortified stating the last line. I still couldn’t believe I was that stupid to lose my camera.
The two men nodded to each other. “You can lead but when we get near enough, we want you to head back to your camp. Camera or not, this can turn into a volatile situation. We don’t want you getting hurt.”
I nodded in agreement.
I felt relieved having the two rangers with me although I wondered how close Justin was. For a moment I was concerned about returning to the valley. There was still a chance the rangers would insist on wanting to know where my camp was. With any luck the poachers would keep the rangers busy so I could leave in my own good time.
We all heard banging and talking up ahead, causing all three of us to stop in our tracks.
“They’re not that far,” I whispered to the rangers. “Just go up over that small hill and their camp is there. There are three tents but only two men.”
The older ranger dismounted from his horse first. “We’ll handle it from here. Now get back and don’t forget your own deadline.”
“Yes sir,” I answered. The second ranger dismounted, speaking into his radio to their base. Satisfied with how everything was turning out, I felt well enough to let the rangers do what they had to do. I only wished I had my camera to photograph the moment.
Follwing the rangers’ commands I trotted in the opposite direction, my head filled with how I was going to explain this whole mess to my editor.
The sudden noise made me jump. Birds took to flight in panic as a cold sense of dread filled my entire being.
“Anna?” I heard from the brushes.
The rat came out cautiously from his hiding place. He heard the sound as we did. We turned back, the rat lifting his head to sniff the air. I could have sworn I heard a low moan being carried in the wind.
“I smell blood,” Justin whispered, the words making me shiver. “Something happened up ahead at that camp.”
“We have to go back,” I replied. “We have to see what happened.”
“Are you out of your mind?” the rat snorted. “That was not a firecracker that went off. It’s too dangerous. We must get back to the valley.”
“No, I have to see if the rangers are all right,” I answered, jogging a couple of feet.
“Get back here and let’s go!” Justin pleaded.
I fell to the ground at the sound of the third shot. “Uh, you’re right, let’s get out of here.” I told my body to move but it refused to budge. I shivered again, able to turn but I couldn’t take my gaze off the direction of the gunfire.
I shook my head and made my way towards the rat. I glanced down at him, noticing his eyes wide in fear as he backed slowly.
“What’s the matter?”
Blinding stars filled my vision, the ground rushing up with a violent force. A crushing weight pressed against my back as my arms were yanked with painful strength behind me. I raised my head, giving out a yell.
My cry was greeted with a stomp on my head, pushing my face against the dirt. A tooth went through my bottom lip, filling my mouth with the taste of blood. I coughed as I started to choke on the metal tasting fluid.
My arms were pulled so hard, I thought they were going to end up dislocated. The pulling compelled me to my feet, my head swimming as I tried to remain conscious.
“Now this is probably the prettiest catch I made all month,” the youthful yet surly voice replied in my ear. “So you’re the one we missed out on yesterday,” he continued as he tied my hands. “We figured you’d be back, just not with friends.”
He wrenched the rope, causing me to flinch as it buried itself in my wrists. I glanced over at him through closing eyes but I could not focus enough to get a good look. All I could do was spit up blood on myself.
Attempting a last desperate chance, I lurched forward away from him, trying my best to foolishly run away. He didn’t seem concerned with what felt to be a valiant effort, especially when I ended up falling to my knees not a moment later.
He came over and casually grabbed a fistful of my hair, pulling my head back. “You’re going to be a problem, aren’t you?” he replied.
“Go fuck yourself,” I snarled weakly.
He gave a teasing chuckle. “Well, with any luck, that’ll be your job.”
He raised his arm, bringing it down with sharp impact. A hard blunt object hit the back of my head, sending me into complete darkness.