It took a second or two for it to register that I was no longer in the warden's office. It came with the cold realization that I was alone. She had gone. That hurt more than anything those men could do to me.
I was laying on the dirt floor where I'd been unceremoniously dumped, but I wasn't sure of how much time had passed. The original trip had taken the better part of a day to get from the jumping off point to my campsite. How long had the dream trip lasted? I had no idea. I dozed off again.
A while later, I tried to roll over but found that I couldn't move very far. My bound hands prevented me from doing too much or going too far. The pain also brought me back to reality. I managed a sad little chuckle. So much of my life had been spent wishing to have a storybook adventure, that it took only a slight bump on the head for me to start imagining things like telepathic dragons. Boy, it's time to get a life, kiddo!
"On a good day, you're an idiot, girl," I chided myself. "Now you've gotten yourself into a bind. How are you going to get out of this one?" I managed to do some inelegant wriggling and ended up sitting crosslegged on the floor of a very small room. A bench that apparently served as both chair and bed, a card table, now folded up, and a camp chair were the only furnishings. Unless you counted the garbage stashed underneath the bench. Yech. But what could be used to make my escape? The first thing I had to do was to get untied.
I considered trying to get my hands in front of me, like I'd seen done in the movies. Unfortunately, I'm not built like the movie actors. My backside was too wide to allow my arms to pass around them. I sighed. Heck of a time for me to consider going on a diet, I mused.
I took a deep breath. Okay, now what? I wiggled closer to the bench. Maybe there was something sharp in the garbage underneath. No such luck. But I did manage to use the bench to help me to my feet. It may not have been much toward getting me free, but it made me feel better to be upright.
Once I was on my feet, I could see out of the opening in the wall. It faced the meadow, now brilliantly lit with the summer sun. I judged it to be about ten, maybe a little after. There were still shadows beside the trees, not completely under them. The light wasn't harsh enough to be noon or early afternoon.
I remembered the stag that the men had gone to destroy. Part of me hoped that the beast would escape. Part of me considered them an illusion, not real and not worth my worry. I shook my head, trying to clear it.
That was a mistake. I sat down with a thump. A sudden thought occured to me.
Had they found my video camera? Not that it would help if they didn't. At best, I figured I'd be found by the legitimate owners of the cabin in late summer or maybe early fall, depending on how often they came to check on it, or how early they planned to use it. If it didn't rain between now and then, well, I might have a chance of having it found and used as evidence.
Wait a minute. This was an outfitter's cabin, a legitimate one. I wasn't on park property. So any hopes of the warden's coming to my rescue were just as much fantasy as the trip. I sighed. I was still faced with the problem of getting untied and out of here before those men came back. Think, girl, think.
How much time did I have? I'd been asleep for a couple of hours, that much I knew. How long did it take to chase down a buck? How long did it take to come back with it? Were they already on their way back? I stared at the wall opposite.
Heat would burn the ties, they were plastic. But where to find the heat? I didn't normally carry matches with me. Hope flared, and then died, as I kicked at the garbage one more time. Nothing.
I could wear it away, I supposed, but on what? I didn't see anything sharp enough, or handy enough for me to reach. Frustration drove me up and to the door. My first kick unbalanced me, and I fell squarely on my backside. That obviously wasn't an option.
It was beginning to get uncomfortably warm, and my thoughts were starting to molder into nothing.
The feeder went off again, interrupting my trance. Noon! Already? I painfully rose to my feet. My arms were aching from both the bonds and the strain of their position. I propped myself up against the wall, and stared out of the blind. Surely they'd have caught the deer by now? I mused. Assuming that the dream had been just that - a dream. I frowned.
If it hadn't been a dream, then the non-appearance of the men was even stranger. I was gone and then returned, so to speak, and I fell asleep. When I awoke, it was twoish, by my reckoning. I wondered what was keeping them. The wait was maddening.
I don't know how long I stood there, propped up against the wall of the blind, staring out at the meadow. I remember thinking that I'd heard a helicopter, but shook it off as wishful thinking. No one knew where I was, much less that I was in trouble.
The men were halfway across the meadow before it registered that they were there. The most enthusiasm I could muster was to turn to face the door. It was shoved open with an impatient hand.
Everything exploded. I heard a voice shout "Down", and a violent shove to my back sent me to my knees. I felt like I'd been badly used in a game of leapfrog. There seemed to be men everywhere, and not just the four returning poachers. Someone came up behind me, and I heard a male voice curse. My bonds were cut, and I fainted.
When I awoke, it was to find myself in a comfortable bed. My arms felt like they didn't belong to me, and I wasn't sure I could feel my hands at all. I lay quietly for a moment, thinking about all that had happened. And it galled me. I must have made some sort of noise, because a face swam into view.
"Good. Feel up to answering some questions?" It was the park warden from my dream.
I grimaced. "No, but do I have a choice?" I asked. I wasn't a good enough liar to hide the truth, and no court would accept my story. They'd have me locked away! So much for my reputation, I thought sourly.
He glanced at me, startled, as he pulled a chair closer to the bedside. "Okay," he said slowly. "You were out on a couple of nights camping, right?"
"And the men found you and tied you up. How long were you there?"
I took a deep breath. "I'm not sure. I heard a feeder go off twice. Maybe five, six hours. Maybe more, maybe less.
"How did they find you?"
I told the warden of my morning's excursion, omitting the part about talking to the dragon.
He stared at me for a long moment and then leaned back. "You won't have to go to court about this, if you don't want to. You shouldn't have to testify. We found your videocamera."
I stared blankly at him. No court appearance? No having to tell my story?
He chuckled at my expression. "The video camera caught everything. Including you being herded into the cabin. The official story is that we were doing a routine check on that area and decided to land in the clearing for lunch."
I thought for a moment. "How do you explain the number of men you had with you? Isn't that a bit much for just a 'routine check'?"
He grinned. "Not when you combine the check with a deployment exercise. I grabbed a bunch of the guys and we decided it was a good day to play hooky from everything. So we grabbed the helicopter and picked a clearing at random. You know, just in case we had to go there to fight a fire or something one day."
"So how did you find me?"
"Most of the official story is that one of the guys noticed a garbage bag on the ground. It hadn't been broken into. The owner is a friend of his and knows better than to leave that kind of stuff lying around. He got suspicious and looked in, and there you were. One of the others found your camera, just as the guys came back, looking madder than wet hens. We left the camera going, and now it's all on tape. Including you being carried from the cabin." He chuckled. "Nice touch, that."
I glared at him. "Okay, I don't mind helping catch poachers, but next time you get to be tied up."
He grinned. "A friend wants to see you," he announced.
I could hear claws clicking on the linoleum floor. A sudden weight at my feet had me looking down. I glanced suspiciously at the warden. What did he see?
"Same as you. Me," came the mental reply. She sounded angry. She walked daintily up the side of the bed. "You're a fool, you know."
I shrugged. So what else is new?
"No, I mean it. Here's a friend who sees the same things you do, who believes in what you do, and the best you can do is worry about your reputation! When was the last time you went camping with a friend? When was the last time you went anywhere with a friend? You didn't come up here for a vacation, you came up to work! By the Great Dragon's Beard, is that all you have to do with your life? Don't you know any people?"
I shrugged again.
"You've been kidnapped and hog-tied...."
A chuckle from the warden drew my attention. The chuckle erupted into a laugh. "Hog-tied?" he finally managed to splutter.
I gave him a sheepish grin. "It's something my dad used to say." It was the first time in a long time that I mentioned my dad. I started to cry.
It took a while for the tears to stop, but no one said anything about it.
"Now, you - " the dragon glared at the warden, "are going to do the paperwork you've been avoiding." Her head swung toward me. "And you, are going to have a nap." With that, she plunked herself down on my chest, very much like a cat, and closed her eyes.
I suddenly felt very tired. I looked up as the warden rose. He was grinning. "Bossy little thing, isn't she?"
I smiled sleepily. "Yeah," I managed before sleep overtook me.