The sound of buzzing woke me from my blank slumber. I could feel a tickling on my chin then the familiar humming sound. I jerked my head trying to shake off the flies bothering me, attracted by the dried blood on the corner of my mouth. My bottom lip was swollen, throbbing with pain.
My disoriented state made it difficult to tell where I was. I was on my feet, that much I knew yet I was unable to move. My arms were tied above my head around a tree branch. Luckily I was able to lean against the trunk for support.
I took in slow breaths, remembering how I ended up in this predicament. I heard a groan beside me yet felt no fear from it. I turned my head slightly seeing my companion. The younger of the two rangers was strung up the same way I was except he did not have the luxury of leaning on anything.
I noticed the huge splatter where his shoulder was, his exhausted face revealing his pain. His eyes were closed, his breathing shallow.
Regaining my senses, I searched around from my precarious position. The second ranger was lying on the ground with his back towards us, the slight movement of his blood-stained jacket revealing he was still alive, for now.
I studied the rope tied above me. I wiggled my arms, tugging to see if I could slip the rope somehow. It only caused the thick branch to bob up and down. The ranger next to me groaned.
"Stop it," he snapped. "I tried that already. The tree limb is too strong and so are the ropes."
I leaned back against the tree, sighing in frustration.
"Whatever you do, don't say a word," I heard the familiar voice whisper in my ear, causing me to glance over. Justin was hugging the tree as close as he could, using my form to camouflage himself from unwanted eyes. "I'm going up there to cut the ropes. Prepare yourself."
I was relieved to see the rat yet at the same time I wondered how someone his size could help me. This time I knew the poachers wouldn't let me just run away. They would come looking for me for sure.
Pausing, Justin dug his claws deeper into the bark then scurried up the tree as fast as he could. Just as he left my sight, the sound of other voices began echoing nearby followed by the sound of walking. The two poachers came into view leading the rangers' horses back into camp, the younger man especially thrilled by their find.
"Man. Here I was thinking we were going to have to carry everything back ourselves," he said. "Now we can pack everything up on the horses and we'll be outta here in no time."
The older, more stoic poacher tied the horse he was leading, ignoring his associate. Sensing he was being disregarded, the younger man continued. "We are getting out of here, right?" he asked. "I mean, it won't be long until other rangers start looking for us."
"We're moving but we ain't leaving," was the only reply.
"What do you mean we're not leaving?" sputtered the younger one. "How much more do we possibly need?"
The older poacher stretched his back, unconcerned by the protests. There was something cold about the way he acted unlike his more enthusiastic partner. His rough chiseled features only exaggerated his stiff demeanor despite being partially hidden behind a dark moustache. This was how he made his hard living.
"We still have a job to do," he answered.
A disgusted grunt replied him. "We still gotta do that? C'mon, Ray. It's bad enough we have to carry dead animals back, we gotta carry cages of live ones too?"
"They pay good money," the poacher named Ray answered. "They'll pay more if we bring 'em back alive."
The younger one shivered, making me curious. I remembered the paperwork I found in the tents. I wonder if it's N.I.M.H. he's talking about. I thought. I became infuriated at the reminder that these men were here because of a government agency.
I heard creaking above me. Justin, using his more rat-like talents, had started chewing through the ropes. In the excitement he had forgotten to pack his sword or anything that would have made the job easier.
The younger poacher reached inside his tent, pulling out a familiar item in his hands.
"Stan, will you stop playing with that stupid thing?" Ray barked. This time it was Stan's turn to ignore him. How they lasted a month in this wilderness without killing each other was beyond me.
He noticed my interest when I saw the camera, making an immediate bee-line towards me.
"Like I said, I figured you'd be back for this." Stan held up the camera. "Nifty thing too. You know the saying, finder's keepers."
He aimed at the ranger and me, pushing the button until the shutter snapped. One more still on the roll. "That's gonna make a fine souvenir," he said. "Not every day I catch fish as big as you guys. For obvious reasons I can't stuff you guys and mount you on my wall." He laughed at his joke.
"Let us go," the ranger next to me said. "It will only be a matter of time before other wardens come looking for us and find you."
"Oh yeah, like you and your friend did such a wonderful job," Stan replied as he snapped another picture. "I hardly think you're in a position to tell me anything."
He looked through the camera again, this time just to play around with the manual focus. "You know, I think I prefer the automatic cameras to something like this."
"And I prefer it if you'd shut your yap and help me pack this stuff!" Ray looked over to Stan as he pulled pelts from the line. His face and tone of voice was severe, but Stan took it all in stride.
Stan walked over, still fussing with the camera. If anything I hoped he wouldn't accidentally pop it open, ruining the film. With all the pictures he was taking, those would be the best evidence of all. Despite all the hard work law enforcement officials did, in the end criminals were always caught by their own stupidity. And nothing was more stupid than taking pictures of your own crime scene.
I looked up, seeing Justin crouched still. With Stan so close, he didn't dare make any move that risked putting me in any more danger than I already was. I watched the ranger on the ground. He was breathing slow enough before. Now I wasn't seeing any movement from him. The two men walked around the still figure as if he wasn't there.
It frightened me as to what was going to happen once they were no longer distracted with packing.
Justin continued working on the rope. I shook at my binds, hoping the extra struggle would snap the rope. All it did was aggravate the ranger, whose wounds had begun to ooze again.
"Will you stop that!" he snapped, trying hard not to yell loud enough to gain further attention. "What are you trying to do?"
"I'm trying to free myself," I growled back. "Maybe I can run off and get help. Where are your walkie-talkies?"
"Forget it," he answered. "They took them away. I certainly don't think you'll be able to get far enough before they shoot you."
"I don't think they mean to kill us," I replied. "If they did, they would have done so by now."
"Oh yeah? Tell that to Mike over there."
I looked over at the still body. As far as I was concerned he was still alive. I hung onto the hope that they wouldn't harm us.
"Hey, what are you two doing?"
Stan walked over, abandoning his work much to his partner's obvious chagrin. The camera hung around his neck like a medal. He came close enough for Justin to stop. This plan was not going to work.
"Well, I asked you two something," he said more sternly, this time coming closer than I had preferred. He went over first to the ranger. " Aren't you going to share with the rest of us?"
The ranger remained silent.
Stan turned, his stare making my skin crawl. "I guess your friend doesn't feel like talking," he started. "How about you? You got anything to say?"
"I think you should go back to your work before you get into trouble." I tried to avoid his gaze.
"Oh, I'll get to it when I'm good and ready." Stan pulled himself closer, his body beginning to touch mine. "So, what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" He leaned over, smelling my hair. I closed my eyes, hoping he wouldn't notice me shaking.
I hesitated to answer. "Uh... uhm... I'm a pho... photographer." His rancid body odor was causing me to choke. I swallowed hard to control it.
"So that explains the fancy camera," Stan answered, taking a step back, but not far enough. "You know, I don't know why you look worried. We're going to let you go when we're done. Just we have more important things to do right now."
I did not like the way that sounded. My fears were reinforced when he placed an arm around my waist.
"So, " he continued. "Aren't there more important things you'd rather be doing than hanging like this? A pretty thing like you?"
"Uh, yeah but not what you're thinking," I answered, cringing.
His eyes lit up as a small smirk crossed his face. "Oh yeah? What do you think I'm thinking?' He pressed me closely up against him. I let out a panicked gasp, something he enjoyed. "So how about giving me something to remember you by before I have to get back to work?"
He grabbed my face in a crude attempt to kiss me. I almost retched, giving out a hushed cry.
It was like he had gotten struck by lightning the way he jumped off of me screeching.
For an instant I saw a flash of brown, blue and pale yellow shoot down, lines of gushing blood appearing on his face. I fell back from the push, creating enough force to snap the half-eaten rope.
Even though I was expecting it my knees refused to cooperate. I fell to the ground, landing on my back. At the same time, Justin jumped off the screaming poacher. He ran over to me, trying to undo the rest of the ropes.
Stan held out his blood-stained hands away from his face, confused as to what happened. It never occurred to him that I would have a rat in shining armor ready to claw his eyes out.
The panic was the last straw for an already agitated beyond limit Ray. "What the HELL is going ON?" he screamed. Stan could only look at him, two sprays of claw marks scarring his face. Ray walked over to a tree, grabbing a rifle leaning against it. With a determined stride he went over to Stan, violently grabbing his collar.
"How many times did I tell you just to do what you're TOLD?" he yelled. "But NO, you had to go messing around and this is what happens." With one move he struck his partner in the face, knocking him down. "Now I'm the one that has to go cleaning up."
The enraged poacher first went to the ranger lying on the ground. Still holding the rifle, he grabbed the jacket, dragging the groaning, wounded man to the middle of the camp. Dumping him like a trash bag, he then went over to the second ranger.
Taking the rifle in both hands, he rammed the solid wood handle into the ranger's stomach. The ranger buckled, blood spurting from his mouth. The poacher slipped a knife from his belt, slicing the rope, causing the ranger to collapse to the ground. With the same callousness shown the first, Ray dragged him to where his partner lay, dumping him next to the other.
Then he turned to me.
The man had such rage in his eyes he didn't even notice the rat beside me tearing at the ropes. My weak legs refused to run and I was frightened beyond control. I stumbled, almost crushing Justin who jumped away in time. A blunt force hit the base of my spine, a scream escaping my throat.
He raised the gun again but this time I rolled out of the way, the handle hitting the ground. This only seemed to enrage him more. He grabbed the back of my jeans, pulling me towards him. He walked back towards the camp dragging me backwards.
I felt myself being yanked around, falling on top of the rangers. I scrambled off the men, ending up beside them. I was still trying to get up when I turned my head, watching as a black metal tube was placed right behind the first man's ear.
It was a sound I never want to hear again.
The shot didn't ring out like it did before. Instead, it exploded with a loud sickly thump as the ranger's head blew open, blood and brains splattering. I looked away as the rifle made its mark on the second ranger, I screamed when the sound came again.
I stood up only to have my legs swooped out from under me. The poacher put his foot on my back, pressing the air out of me. Sounds escaped from my throat that I didn't recognize, my screaming and moaning like that of a wild animal. The steel nozzle pressed against my head, right behind the ear as he had done so with the others.
Tears sprung from my eyes as I let out what I believed to be my final crazed moan. I closed my eyes tightly. Time seemed to stop as I waited.
I felt the muzzle slip but the shot rang out just the same. A bright explosion filled my closed eyes, white all around. I felt a sudden lightness as a warm wave of calm washed over me.
Then all went still.