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Doh-A-Deer, A Female... Dragon?

Part 1

Dilemmas

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I'm a freelance photographer, which may conjure up images of exotic locales and Pulitzer Prize winning images, but you'd be thinking of someone else. I do the occasional wedding or reunion, but mostly I do landscapes or animal photos for calendars and postcards. For excitement, I might take photos of businesses, houses or vehicles for sale - straight advertising. Romantic it isn't, but it puts food on the table. I leave the travel and adventuring to those who want it. I'll take predictable any day.

At least, that's the way things were up until a couple of months ago. My mother passed away last year, and my father followed her soon after. I moved to a different city to get away from the memories. It was hard trying to find a new market for my talents, so I figured I'd take a bit of a vacation. I packed my cameras and my camping gear and headed north. It took me three days and a canoe rental to get me to the middle of nowhere. I'd done some work for an outfitter a long time ago, and he gave me an open invitation to 'come back any time'. This seemed like as good a time as any.

I pitched camp in a clearing off the lake, and hid the canoe in some reeds. I wasn't worried about someone walking off with it, rather, I was trying to hide my presence a little, from the wildlife. I knew that the outfitter's blind was around somewhere, but I couldn't remember the exact location. I figured he wouldn't want me just moving in, anyway. Or so I told myself.

On my first day of exploration, I found a small, hidden meadow, about a mile from the camp. It was fringed with all manner of trees and shrubs, perfect for hiding me and my cameras, and had a stream running through it. I figured deer would be my best bet for images, but I might get a beaver or a muskrat, either here or at the lake.

I repacked all my cameras and was asleep hours before the sun went down, my alarm snuggled in the pack I used for a pillow. An hour before dawn, this far north, was closer to the middle of the night. I only had to crawl out of my sleeping bag to be ready to go the next morning.

I'd been lucky to find a spot that was perfect for my "new toy" - a time-lapse video camera. It took only a few minutes to set up and I set out for the other side of the meadow. I'd picked out a solid-looking tree for my perch, the afternoon before. I was settled with reasonable comfort just as the sun came up.

That's when I noticed two things. One, low voices heralded the approach of people - and there were eyes gleaming in the half-light, not three feet from me!

I don't know which scared me the most, the thing in the tree, or the men now under me. It didn't take me long to figure out that these guys weren't just here for the scenery.

"They'll be moving in soon. There'll be a couple of bucks for us, and the does'll make up the rest of our quota," one voice whispered. My breath caught. Even I knew that deer season was still months away. These guys were poachers! Had to be.

"We'll check the bear trap later?"

"Yeah." The poachers continued on in silence. And I wasn't planning on moving until I knew it was safe. Like until they packed up and left. Hopefully, it wouldn't take them long.

I couldn't see the men until they came out not too far from where I'd set up the video camera. I gasped. If they found the camera, it wouldn't take them long to come looking for me. I'd heard that poachers were notoriously camera-shy, but I really wasn't feeling brave enough to find out. How was I going to get myself out of this mess? I couldn't abandon my camera and I still had the eyes to deal with, too!

Slowly, I turned my head to see if they were still there. They were and they blinked. I took a deep breath and said as softly as I could, "Hey, little fella, looks like we're stuck in the same boat. I won't hurt you, but your mama may not know that."

I almost fell out of the tree when a voice answered, quite dryly, "My mother hasn't looked after me for almost three centuries." It was also quite clear, and very loud.

"Shhh. Not so loud. The poachers'll hear you!" I whispered urgently.

I felt its - his? her? chuckle right down to my toes. "No, they won't."

The first word that came to mind was - telepathy! Nah, that doesn't happen at this end of the millennium. I shook my head in disbelief.

The chuckle came back. "But you're hearing me, and they're not."

I thought about it for a long moment, then heaved a big sigh. This was obviously going to be the day that I should have stayed in bed. Either that, or my dreams were taking me on a weirder vacation than I planned. Take it at face value, kid, I thought, and be done with it.

Then something else occurred to me. What was IT?

The eyes twinkled merrily, to match the voice I was hearing. "I'm a dragon."

I almost fell out of the tree. "A what!!?" I squeaked.

"They'll hear you, you know," the voice said complacently. "At least, that's the closest comparison I can find in your histories. I'm a dragon."

I closed my eyes, trying to keep down an insane urge to giggle. A picture formed in my mind, one of a narrow snout, sinewy neck, and streamlined body - a female body. Sort of a cross between a crocodile and a pterodactyl. Not quite what I was expecting.

"That's about right," she said, "but I'm not fussy on the comparison."

"One man's science...," I thought.

"True."

So she could hear my thoughts. I grinned in rueful amusement. I have trouble thinking before I speak, never mind, before I think!

"So, what brings you here?" I asked silently, feeling rather foolish about having a conversation in my head.

"Same as you, a vacation. I..." The voice cut off abruptly.

I looked around for her, but my attention became riveted by the sight directly below me. It's funny how the barrel of a rifle looks a zillion times larger when you're looking down it, rather than over it.

"Well, well, well. What have we got here?" the man's voice purred dangerously. "C'mon down, fella. Reeeeal slow."

Fella! He didn't know! I was wearing a floppy hat that hid my hair, and an old set of combat gear, a relic from my time in the Army. Maybe that would buy me some time to escape, I thought.

Minutes later, just as plastic 'zip' ties held my hands in place behind my back, terror held my tongue. I kept my head down and did some furious thinking as I walked before my captor. How was I going to get out of this mess?

I knew the dragon was still around somewhere. I could feel her presence in my mind, but I didn't dare look around for her.

A sudden thought occurred to me. I could tell the truth! Not that they'd believe that I was out here to take pictures of a dragon, but they might think I was just crazy, empty my camera of film, and let me go!

The dragon chuckled. "Do you really believe that?"

I closed my eyes and almost fell flat on my face as I tripped over something unseen. My captor growled at me to keep walking, and gave me a vicious shove that almost knocked me over again. "No," I thought, "but I haven't got any better ideas. Do you?"

"Yup," came the thought, and then there was silence. We had arrived.

In a corner of the meadow, hidden unless you were almost on top of it, was a small cabin.

Three men came out as we approached. All of them carried rifles.

"What did you find?" one asked.

"Snooper in a tree," came the terse reply. "With this." He held up my camera.

"So you brought him here?" was the sarcastic response from another. "You stupid...."

" 'Cause he's a she!" my captor crowed, and ripped my hat off my head, allowing my long hair to tumble down.

"Well, that's a different thing..." the third man leered.

"Holy....." came the low-voiced epithet. "Look at that!"

'That' was the sudden appearance of a magnificent buck on the far side of the meadow.

The fourth man had gone to keep watch, while the other three interrogated me. It was his call that alerted the others. As they watched, a second buck appeared between the trees, apparently oblivious to the presence of the first.

The men went into what seemed to be a well-rehearsed routine. I was unceremoniously shoved into the cabin, and I could hear the click of a padlock making sure that I would be there upon their return. Then I heard nothing.

I had fallen flat on my face. That I wasn't chewing dirt, owed more to good luck than good management, on my part. I sighed, unwilling to go through the pain of trying to get to my feet.

How long I lay there, eyes closed, I don't know. A whirring noise, and the sound of small somethings, gravel?, hitting the ground, roused me. A feeder! Of course! It was eight o'clock!

"I'll bite. How do you know that?" a voice echoed in my head.

I rolled over and immediately regretted it. "Do you suppose you could get these ties undone?" I asked, feeling rather put out.

I could see the dragon, dragoness? I wondered.

"Dragon will do," came the reply. She cocked her head, consideringly. "I could. Did you want to keep your hands?" and she grinned, displaying a large snout and larger teeth.

I made a face. "Okay, so it was a stupid question." A thought occurred to me. "Are you responsible for the deer?"

She shrugged. "A simple illusion. But it won't hold for long. How do you know what time it is?" she asked.

My thoughts were running along a different line, so it took a minute for the question to register. "Oh, the time? Easy. The feeder just went off."

"The what?"

"That whirring noise. It was the feeder going off. Most outfitters have one year round, to attract the does. Where the does are, the bucks will follow," I explained absently. It was something I'd learned while working for the outfitter. "They're timed to go off at dawn, noon and at sunset." I thought for a moment. "What I need," I mused out loud, "Is a way to get untied, get out of here, and get word to the wardens about these poachers."

"The last is easy. I could take a message for you."

"What!!!"

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