Drak Bibliophile is to blame for this story.
“Oooowwww,” Raphael moaned. “Ooohhh, ugh, why did I ooooooowwwww.”
Rory shone her big flashlight farther into the cave and followed the moans and groans to Raphael’s sleeping chamber. The brown and green dragon lay on his back, a large lump in his lower abdomen. The whites of his eyes had turned a rather distressing yellow, like jaundice in a human, and his tail had gone flat. “Dude,” the park ranger exclaimed. “What’s wrong?”
“Ugh. I ate something bad. Really, really bad. And it won’t move. I need an herb-witch.”
Rory ventured closer and regretted it. The dragon’s breath stank, sulfur and rotten meat and sick scented, with a weird sort of spicy bit. She backed up again, not covering her nose but wanting to. “I’m in the middle of a missing person search, but I’ll see if Granny Jones is available as soon as I can.”
“Thanks,” Raphael panted. “Gregory’s gone north for the winter and I can’t move or I’d uuuUUUuuuuuugh—!” The muscles around the bulge rippled in what had to be a horrible cramp. That or— Rory backed up even faster.
“I’ll get Granny as soon as I can,” she called, rushing out of that part of the cave. She turned off her flashlight, trusting her memory to get out. Just as she reached the bend where the first hint of sunlight started to appear, she tripped. “Ow! Damn it, what’s that?”
Her light revealed a brilliant blue and purple backpack, one of the super fancy “gourmet” packs that held everything except what you needed in the mountains. What was Raphael doing with that? Unless Gregory had snatched it from a campsite. The grey and blue wyrm had a bad habit of picking up shiny things, and Rory shook her head. Might as well see if it belonged to someone who had reported a stolen bag.
Typical. The owner must have half of Whole Granola’s trail bar aisle in here. And no canteen, of course, as usual. People refused to believe that a little bottle of gourmet water was not enough for a five-hour hike, even in North Carolina and Tennessee. Rory grunted when she found the water bottle and filter. That was better, and really expensive, which matched the bag and the electronics. I hope the owner’s ID is not in the smart phone. That would be a real pain in the ah, here we go. She found a wallet and pulled out the driver’s license.
“Well I’ll be damned.” She looked from the card to Raphael’s cave and back. “No. He wouldn’t. He didn’t.” Except he had before and probably did. The bag smelled faintly of some kind of perfume or incense, not too different from what she’d smelled on the dragons’ breath. She put the card back and closed the backpack. “Oh Raphael, what am I going to do with you?” Get Granny Jones to start with, after she finished her quadrant search for the missing hiker who belonged to the backpack.
Rory returned that evening after sundown, Granny Jones close behind. “Now, young lady,” the older woman started, shaking a finger at the stocky forest ranger as she caught her breath. “You said that you thought you had an idea what’s causing Raphael’s distress.”
“Yes, ma’am. I hope I’m wrong, but I think, that is, I found a backpack and —”
“Quit beating around the bush and spit it out, girl.”
“I think he ate the missing hiker.”
The mountain granny gave Rory a long look over the top of her wire-rim glasses. “You think he ate a hiker.”
Rory nodded. “The lump in him’s about person sized, and the backpack belongs to the missing man.” That was, she assumed P Ammerman was a man. P used only a single initial as his legal name, but his address on the driver’s license was Boulder, CO, and well, even Rory had heard about Boulder’s little eccentricities and quirks, of which the university was the least.
The age-tanned woman planted her walking stick on the stone floor of the cave with a firm tap. “Sounds like Raphael. Devour first and ask later. Gregory would leave the valley at a time like this,” she tutted. “Dragons. I swear, some days they’re enough to make me give up wichin’ for a county courthouse job. Well, let’s go see if he’s still sick.”
He was. Rory gasped and regretted it instantly, fleeing for fresh air. A week-dead elk in August didn’t smell that bad! No wonder Granny had asked if Rory had an assafoetida bag with her. Rory stood at the side of the cave mouth and breathed through her mouth, then nose, smelling autumn and the evening breeze. After she recovered, she dug around in her day pack and found the little tin of menthol balm that she kept for working around dead things. She rubbed a dab under her nose. It stung, but she wasn’t going to smell anything else after a minute or two. Right. If Raphael did eat P Ammermann, which form do I need and how do I transport the remains back to the search point? And what sort of story will I need to come up with, since New Boss is a city-slicker who doesn’t believe in dragons? Had Ammermann believed in dragons? If not, that might explain how he(?) had ended up in Raphael’s cave, but not why Raphael had eaten him. If Raphael had eaten him. Maybe P had climbed up, took off his backpack, gone exploring, saw Raphael being sick, panicked and fled farther up the valley. In that case, they should have found P already, because the trees gave way to Knob’s Bald and the chopper crews had looked the balds over really carefully.
Rory returned to the sleeping cave. Raphael now lay on his stomach, forelegs folded back, mouth open and green tongue stuck out. “It will taste foul, so swallow it quick and I’ll give you a mint water chaser. Spit it out and I’ll hit you with my stick and Miss Rory will write you tickets for littering, eating tourists out of season, and failure to properly dispose of solid waste.”
“Aaaaahhhhgh,” echoed through the cave and Rory fought down a grin. Granny tossed a fist-sized wad of something into Raphael’s maw. He swallowed and grimaced so hard his nostrils tried to climb off the end of his muzzle and over his eyeballs. “Uuurgh.”
“If it tastes good, it won’t work. Now drink.” She poured a gallon jug of liquid into the open mouth.”
Raphael swallowed and lay still.
Granny Jones walked toward Rory, rolling like a sailor because of her bad hips. “Young bucks never will learn. Eyes were bigger than stomach, and he’s allergic to patchouli and vetiver. Or the fake patchouli and vetiver.” The herbwife pulled a small box out of her pocket and took out a pinch of snuff. She laid it on the back of one hand, sniffed, then blew into a large polkadot handkerchief. “The plastic pants are not helping.”
Plastic pants? Rory tried to make sense of the words, but her brain balked. “So, dare I ask what he ate, ma’am?”
“An animal rights activist with less brains than a gnat has feathers. You can get the whole story later, after the remains pass. We should leave him alone for the next,” she turned around and studied Raphael’s midsection by the light of her flashlight. “Four hours. Come back tomorrow would be a good idea.”
“Will he survive, ma’am?”
The old Welshwoman pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “Him? Oh sure. But he’s not going anywhere for a while. And he’ll be staying away from polyester and that expensive stretchy stuff. Seems the activist was wearing a man-girdle.”
Rory blinked again. It just kept getting better and better. What had P Ammermann been thinking? The Chatalaccia National Forest was not a fashion show. City people. Granny Jones walked past and Rory followed, trying to imagine hiking in a girdle. Nope. She endured “foundation garments” when she’d been in high school and had no desire to try them again, no matter what her mother and aunt said about modern materials.
“Ma’am, what did you give Raphael?”
Granny stopped for another helping of snuff. “A bolus of ‘sang, Solomon’s Seal, two kinds of mint and a handful of healing earth. It should ease the pain and speed passage of the blockage. It’s a good thing dragon guts are so tough, or you’d be adding a death-by-hiking-boot certificate to your paperwork.”
Since Rory was already contemplating a mess of mammoth proportions, she snorted. “In a way, it would be easier if he’d been eaten by a bear.”
“So report that.”
“Not fair to all the bears my new boss will want caught and inspected for human remains.”
Granny Jones blew into her handkerchief. “Portable X-ray machine? Or the hard way?”
Portable x-ray was the hard way, and if Rory ever caught the genius who came up with that idea . . . “Shoot and gut. But that’s for tomorrow.”
“Yes, it is. Get this stove-up old lady back to the trail, please, so I can get some supper and neither of us have to see what the dumbest dragon in Appalachia spits out.”
Two days passed before Rory made it back. Her work-mate Alfonse Norbert Deschutes, better known as Frenchie, trailed behind her. “So, Raphael had something to do with Ammermann’s disappearance?”
“Yeah. Ate him.” She stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Ammermann was male, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, at least anatomically, according to the search information and the family’s description of him.”
“Thanks, anyway apparently he barged in on Raphael and bad things happened.”
Frenchie covered his sunglasses with one hand as he climbed. “Raphe could have eaten someone no one wanted found, like Old Man McPhee or Wild Waldo. But nooooo, no, he has to eat someone half-way notable just as I’m breaking in a new supervisor. What did I do to piss off the forest gods?”
“It was the bean-burgers. The forest gods are rejecting our burnt offering,” Rory said with a grin, knowing he couldn’t see her face.
“Those were not my choice! I told Clay that we needed at least one piece of animal protein or bad things would happen.”
Your lover, your problem, Rory thought. She’d reached the lip of Raphael and Gregory’s cave, cupped her hands, and called, “Hallooo the den!” Frenchie took off his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm, revealing sweat-curled hair.
“Hallooo the woods,” Raphael called back. “Um, I tidied everything up for you.”
The two rangers shared a look of relief. Fewmets did not smell like flowers after rain, to put it mildly. Frenchie bowed and made an elaborate “after you” gesture. Rory pretended to curtsy and led the way into the den. Raphael met them half-way. He pointed to a pile of clothing and a second stack, this one of bones, beside the expensive backpack. “Sorry, guys. I lost my temper a little.”
Frankie started cataloguing the remains as Rory took notes. “So, Raphael, what happened from the beginning?”
Raphael tipped his head to the side and half-closed his yellow eyes behind green primary lids. “I’d been basking, and came inside to get something to eat. I heard someone panting, really huffing and puffing, coming up the trail and put the meat back. It was an hour by sun after noon, give or take.”
“Got it. Then what?”
“This guy? I think he was a guy.” Raphael’s eye ridges rose a little and his nostrils pinched shut. “He smelled like those outhouse cakes Gregory stole ten years ago. Well, he marches up to the cave without asking permission or calling. I decided just to hang back and see if he’d go away. That’s what most people do. Instead he took off his pack and finished the water in a big bottle, then stowed it. Put the wrapper from his snack in a pack pocket. Hey, I like tidy, tidy’s good.” Raphael drew his head back a little, raising a hump in his long neck. “But he didn’t leave. He started walking back into the cave. Without a flashlight or light stick. That usually doesn’t bode well, and I eased into the inner den.
“He found me. And started talking! ‘Do you eat meat?’ He wanted to know. No sheep Sherlock, of course I eat meat!” Raphael sounded offended and Frenchie hid a laugh behind a cough. “What was I supposed to say, ‘oh no, I’m a grazer’? So I said yes”
The yellow eyes opened wide, the pupils wide with indignation. “The jerk starts lecturing me! Tells me I need to have more respect for the rights of herbivores and second-order animals, that I lived in prime grazing and foraging country, and had I ever tried eating plants because I would like them and it is so easy to live on a pure vegetable diet and then he started telling me how wrong it was to shed blood and how meat is murder and that deer are people too and think about the fawns I’d orphaned and—” Raphael stopped.
Rory and Frenchie lowered their hands from their ears. Raphael had started bellowing, bringing down dust and scaring the bats. “And you lost your temper?” Rory prompted.
“A little. He would not shut up! And he had me cornered. So I ate him. He tasted terrible, at least the wrapper did. What ever became of good wool wrappers?”
“Ah,” Frenchie managed to choke out, “he probably thinks shearing the wool is mean to sheep.”
“Huh” the dragon snorted. “Sheep are too stupid to notice. The wrapper and the scent-marker he’d rolled in made me sick. Really, really sick.”
Ya know, Rory thought as she finished her notes, bear is sounding better by the minute. No, mountain lion, because they wouldn’t be hunted and people tended to be more worried about the cats than the bears. “You didn’t take anything from his pockets or pack?”
Frenchie answered first. “There is no way he could have had anything in pockets.” He held up an acid-rotted pair of some fashion designer’s idea of cargo pants. “Purely decorative. The kind of thing some moronic metrosexual who wears a girdle in the woods would wear.”
“What? I’m gay, I can say it.”
Rory held up her hands in a warding off gesture. “OK, not going down that road. Here’s the story. Raphael, you did not eat Ammermann. You found the remains and flagged me down. I didn’t have time but came back with Frenchie. A mountain lion got him. There’s an old mountain lion warning for this area I can wave at the boss if he argues. You collected the remains and we picked them up. We will not discuss why they are rather clean.”
“That’s because buzzards found them first and caught Raphael’s eye,” Frenchie said. He pointed at the dragon. “Right?”
“Right, buzzards. And I had to move the remains because of the storm two nights ago.”
“So I scold you for moving the remains, warn you about getting a ticket for interfering with a missing person investigation, and none of us speak of it again.”
“Er,” Raphael shifted from forefoot to forefoot. “What about Granny Jones?”
Rory shed her bag, crouched down, and began hunting through it for the necessary packaging materials. “What about her? No one believes mountain grannies.”
“Especially not Mister New Boss. Trust us Raphe, you could barge into his office, breathe mist, carve your name on the wall paneling with one talon, and tap dance on his desk and he’d swear nothing had happened.”
Raphael sighed, exhaling a puff of woodsy-smelling mist. “Oh. One of those. My condolences.”
“Thanks. Buy us a beer some day.”
The humans loaded the remains into the appropriate containers and sacks, reminded Raphael of the story, and started back to the waiting pick-up. “How long has it been since Raphael ate someone?” Rory called. Frenchie had gone a few meters ahead, in case one of them tripped on the narrow, slick trail.
“If what Bear told me is right, thirty years. That shine-maker, the one who drank too much of his own brew and was running around buck naked? He was the last one. Apparently humans taste worse than deer, and eating intelligent creatures is frowned upon.” He snorted. “Which explains Ammermann.”
“No argument here.”
“So,” she asked after they’d reached the truck and started driving back to headquarters and radio reception. “Elk burgers sound good?”
“Very good. I’ll tell Chuck to bring a salad and beer and meet us at six.”
“Works for me. Elk’s good eating.”
“What about Moose or Masons?”
“Arrrrrgh! That’s horrible! You are a sick man, Ranger Deschutes.”
Frenchie flashed a cheesy grin, then returned his eyes to the road.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.