Mardi Gras In Flight
Robert Allen Lupton

Naked and hanging by my thumbs from a rubber tree wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend the morning. The Togon, the rainforest tribe I encountered yesterday, weren’t as friendly today as they seemed last night. I blinked my eyes to clear the honey they’d poured over my head. It tickled as it ran down my body and pooled at my feet.

Little feet scampered across my skin as the forest insects welcomed the unexpected feast. Flies, bees, butterflies, and multicolored beetles pushed and shoved each other for a choice droplet beaded on a chest hair. A swarm of hummingbirds flashed in circles around me and feasted on gnats and flies. The little predators threatened and chased each other, but the honey smell was too strong and not a single one flew away. The buffet was open.

My feet began to itch. I strained my neck to see my toes. A variety of spiders and scorpions fought over the bugs and small vermin gathered there. I felt a snake slither up my leg after a mouse. I jerked to dislodge the snake and almost ripped my thumbs off. A scorpion missed its prey and embedded its stinger in my second toe. I took it like a man and screamed.

The flying insects reacted to my scream and briefly took flight. The hummingbirds descended in mass and feasted in the target rich cloud of bugs. I stopped screaming and spit out the flies who sought shelter in my mouth.

Hummers are aggressive, violent, relentless, and always hungry. If the little bastards were as big as eagles, mankind wouldn’t have survived long enough to make fire.

I lifted my feet one at a time and shook them, but it was futile. The creepy-crawlies covered them the instant they touched the ground. I kept trying. There wasn’t anything else I could do.

I shook my head and blinked my eyes clear one more time. Suddenly, the scorpions, rats, and mice scampered away from me. I could feel the honey cool on my feet and when I looked down the bugs were gone. The flying insects vanished and I was alone. What the hell? Were the Togon coming to apply more honey or kill me quicker? Wasn’t I dying fast enough to suit them?

I listened for footsteps, but jungle men move silently and I didn’t hear anything. A skittering, There was a skittering like the sound of a small brook tumbling over rocks. I didn’t see anything. The skittering grew as loud as a strong wind in a grove of aspen. Before long it was louder than a diesel engine.

Then I saw the first army ant. Crap. Army ants are the Mongol hordes of South America – ferocious, relentless, and omnivorous. The lead ant caught a spider and held it by one foreleg. The spider disappeared under a carpet of reddish-brown bodies.

I put as much weight as I could stand on my thumbs. The clever knot grew tighter the harder I struggled. I stood on my toes and stretched my fingers, but I couldn’t get any leverage.

While I thrashed around and the ants marched toward me, a hummingbird landed on my nose. I crossed my eyes and focused on him. He didn’t have a long sharp beak. His face was long and reptilian and his body was covered with scales instead of feathers. I shook my head. He licked a glob of honey from my face, disdainfully took flight, and hovered a foot in front of my eyes.

It was a dragon, a five inch dragon. This was the greatest discovery ever made. I’d be famous if I wasn’t about to be ant food. I flicked my eyes toward my bound thumbs and the dragon streaked above my head and back in less than a second.

I said, “Nice to meet you. Wish we could be friends, but I don’t believe I have the time to get to know you. You should fly away before the ants get here.”

The dragon hovered and I my mind began to itch. It wasn’t unlike the feeling of all those bugs crawling over my body, but the itch felt kinder, and somehow without malice. A vision of me running naked through the jungle with remnants of the ropes on my thumbs appeared in my head. The little dragon landed on my shoulder.

I blinked. The dragon hovered and stared at me. I said, “Oh, hell yes. If you made me see that, then yes, please yes. Get me loose.”

The dragon darted upward. The tide of ants moved slowly but relentlessly. The ants took time to devour the feast of insects, arachnids, and small animals who’d stayed focused on my honey-coated body and hadn’t run away.

My thumbs were on fire. The ants must have surrounded me and climbed the tree. I could feel them rip at my thumbs. I thrashed uncontrollably, screamed, and strained against the rope. The rope broke and I fell forward and caught myself on my hands. The ants were less than five feet in front of me.

There weren’t any ants on my thumbs, but the ropes were burned through. The flames still flickered and blistered my hands. I shoved them into the dirt and smothered the fire. The dragon tapped my nose twice. It was time to run. I ran and the little dragon rode on my shoulder. His sharp claws hurt, but it was a small price to pay. I ran with one eye on the forest and the other eye focused on the dragon-projected images in my mind.

Either the little beast was guiding me to safety or else the Togon dosed with me some hallucinogenic concoction before they left me as an offering for the ants. I’d worry about that later. I glanced at the purple, green, and gold dragonet on my shoulder. He didn’t look like a hallucination. Blood dripped from where his tiny claws gripped my skin. He didn’t feel like a hallucination. Screw it. I decided I didn’t care.

The dragon mentally led me across streams, along animal trails through uncut forests, and finally up a rocky escarpment to a small cave under a granite outcropping. The ants could climb the rocks, but since they can’t eat stone, they probably wouldn’t bother. My dragon guardian angel was clever.

I was exhausted. She rested in a small nest on a rocky ledge and I realized she was a she. I’d thought she was male, but she was female. She snorted when she sensed my realization and small tendrils of smoke drifted from her nostrils. She turned her back and if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear she was pouting.

The sounds of the jungle woke me. The full moon cast enough light into the shallow cave for me to see. The dragon watched me from her roost. I was thirsty and she projected the image of a stream a few paces to one side of the cave. I made my way in the moonlight, drank deeply, and returned to the cave.

We practiced communicating with each other. Vague emotions and images were replaced by vivid thought pictures and words by morning. I asked if she talked to the Togon and a vision of repugnance filled my head. The Togon were a brutal people who considered all creatures, including dragons, as food.

It was easier for me to focus my thoughts to communicate with the dragon if I spoke out loud. “My name is Patrick. What’s your name?”

“No name. No name.”

“You need a name. I can’t call you the little dragon. Purple, green, and gold? You’re Mardi Gras. That’s your name.”

Mardi Gras said, “Eeep,” and snorted a short flame. I sensed warm contentment and happiness. It made me drowsy, but I asked one more question. “Why me? Why help me and talk to me?”

Mardi Gras projected visions in my mind. No, not visions, she recalled my memories and let me look at them. Dragons from my childhood paraded one after the other. Cartoon dragons, movie dragons, songs, book covers, and television shows sped by one after the other. There were terrifying dragons, funny dragons, friendly dragons, dragons of every shape and size, and even a sea serpent or two. She believed I’m predisposed to like dragons and she was right.

I reached to pat her head and she hunched her shoulders at me and spit a small blast of flame. “Okay, I get it. No touching. Sorry”

She eeeped again, turned around like a dog settling down and lay where she could watch me.

Like always, it rained before sunrise. It’s the rainforest. I shivered and Mardi Gras told me to build a fire. I gathered dry wood while she flitted about and terrorized the local insect population.

I finished my carefully stacked wood pyramid. Mardi streaked down, hovered in place, and belched a tongue of fire as long as my hand. She led me to an acai bush and a papaya tree. Food and fire, what more could I want. Clothes and weapons would be nice, but yesterday I was tied in up in the jungle and today I was warm, well fed, and with my new friend. I couldn’t complain. Life was pretty good.

We talked. I spoke out loud and she didn’t, but her words appeared in my mind as clearly as if she whispered them directly in my ear. I heard her as if she spoke with a child’s voice. “Pat Rick, why the forest people leave you for the ants?”

“I’m a biologist and I’m here to take samples of plants and animals before the rainforest vanishes. The Togons believe I’m with a lumber or oil company. I’m not. There are countless species in the jungle. I want to save as many as I can. Some may contain strong and powerful medicines.”

Mardi projected a dark cloud at me and hissed, “Am I medicine?”

“No, you’re a blessing. You saved me. You’re intelligent. You can talk. Our scientists will be excited to meet you and learn about your kind?”

She flitted away from me. I knew she saw my mental image of caged monkeys in a research facility. I tried to stop it, but I can’t control what I think and the image of a poor monkey being poked and prodded leapt into my forebrain.

She hissed and said, “Mardigras don’t like no scientists. Mardigras stay here. You go away.”

“I can’t leave. I don’t know where I am. I need things to survive.” I projected shoes, and the vision of a safari leader complete with pith helmet, boots, jodhpurs, and a bandana around his neck. I put a canteen by his side, a holstered revolver around his waist, and slung a rifle over his shoulder.”

“Mardigras maybe so help. Then you leave.”

She flew outside the opening and chirped three times. A dozen other dragons hovered around her. The little dragons did an aerial ballet. They hissed, growled, and spurted small gouts of fire and smoke, but no images appeared in my mind. After a bit, Mardi dashed to me and I saw a clothed dead man in my mind. He wasn’t dressed like Stewart Granger, but he did have a hat and sandals.

I followed her and a reddish-brown dragon to the body. She said, “This is my mate. He stay with us. He don’t like scientist.”

I tried to project welcome, friendship, and gratitude. “It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

A rush of fury and rage flashed in my head and he darted away. “His name is Mate. He don’t like you.”

I scrubbed the sandals with dirt. I could already feel the fungus grow between my toes. I brushed deadman’s hair from the wide brimmed hat and held my breath while I pulled the polyester pants and shirt off the fleshless corpse. The rainforest recycles the dead in a matter of days. The clothing was surprisingly clean. Polyester is inedible, but the insects scoured the plastic clothing clean of every scrap of edible material.

I left the underwear. Even a naked man in the jungle has some standards, but I took his pocket knife, a handful of coins, two rusted keys, and a belt buckle. The belt must have been leather and its remains were probably fertilizing a monkey puzzle tree by now.

I followed Mate and Mardi to the cave. An orange Amazon tree boa, dangled from a low hanging papaya, dropped to the fertile rainforest floor, and slithered through the opening.

Mardi went crazy. The image of the boa swallowing purple and gold eggs filled my mind. The two dragons screamed for help and we rushed into the cave. Two thirds of the boa’s six foot length slithered up the wall toward Mardi’s roost.

The dragons were tiny swordsmen who bobbed and weaved around the boa’s head. The snake curled tightly and cocked its upper body like a cobra. It swayed and dodged the dragons’ thrusts and ripostes. Mardi dashed close and belched fire at the snake. The boa struck at her as she retreated and Mate clawed the back of its head. His small claws didn’t penetrate the orange scales. The snake flipped its head upward and tossed Mate across the cave.

He spread his wings, but couldn’t stop himself before he hit the cave wall. He slid to the floor and didn’t move. Mardi and the snake were face to face. The snake struck and Mardi flitted to the side and spit fire.

The snake closed its eyes against the tiny flames and repositioned its body for its next strike. Mardi was the mongoose in this battle. She could only be wrong once. The first time she dodged the wrong way, she was dead. She was fearless and fast. She spun around the snake’s head, clawed it from behind, flitted away, and attacked from another direction before the snake could move.

The boa struck at random and stunned Mardi. She made a terrible landing and rolled on the cave floor.

All this happened while I ran the six steps across the cave to the boa. I picked up Mardi, placed her on her ledge, and grabbed the boa by the tail. The snake reversed itself and struck my hand. Tree boas aren’t poisonous, but their teeth are razor sharp. It bit between my thumb and forefinger and coiled itself around my arm and hand. I dropped to my knees and beat the snake against the rocky floor. The snake’s coils covered my arms like a foam pad. I felt pressure, but no pain as I hammered the snake against the crumbling granite. The snake clenched itself so tightly around my arm that I felt its bones break.

Suddenly the coils relaxed. The boa was dead. I uncoiled it and used the rusty pocket knife to pry open its jaws. My mind was flooded with happy thoughts. “Thank you, thank you. Safe eggs. Safe eggs. Thank you, thank you.”

Mardi flew to Mate and nudged him to his feet. She flitted back to the snake and circled its head. She hovered and spewed a gout of flame into the dead face, landed, turned her back on the creature, and kicked dirt over its body.

I held my bloody hand and used my sweat-stained hat to apply pressure. I said, “I’m bleeding.”

Mardi took flight and I sensed she wanted me to follow her. “Wash and bandage. Wash and bandage.”

I bathed my hand in the cool stream. The small rivulets of blood vanished quickly in the fast moving water. Even though the boa wasn’t poisonous, but its mouth was probably a breeding ground for a million different bacteria and viruses. There were young willows along the stream. I wrapped my hand in willow leaves and tied them in place with young vines. I chewed some of the bark. It works like aspirin.

It was the best I could do. My hand would no doubt rot off in a few days if I didn’t die from some type of exotic fever first. I rebuilt the fire and Mardi coughed it to light. I skinned and cooked the snake. I shared it with Mardi, Mate, and the small squadron of little dragons. They loved it. I forced it down. It didn’t taste like chicken.

The next morning Mardi showed me her three bright yellow eggs sprinkled with purple dots. They were jellybean sized Easter eggs. She said, “Hard to keep eggs safe from snakes. Mice and rats eat eggs – so do bats. Big spiders the worst. Sneaky. We have to watch all the time. Good you kill snake.”

I held my breath. I was terrified I might cough or sneeze and blow the fragile nest and eggs off the narrow ledge. I stepped a safe distance away and asked, “How long before they hatch? Do the other dragons have eggs?”

“Two weeks – they hatch. Don’t fly – two more weeks.” She darted to my toes and touched nine of them. “This many eggs.”

“Why can’t I talk to Mate? I can hear you, but I can’t hear him?”

“You belong me. Mine. He like you now, but he have to find his own friend.”

She said friend, but I saw an image of a small boy petting a dog. I’d fantasized about being a kept man, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.

Mate entered the cave and several dragons followed him. There were sixteen counting Mardi. “How many more of you are there?”

“No more, everybody here.”

“Are there other tribes?”

“Don’t know tribes. Everybody here. No more.”

Sixteen total dragons was beyond endangered species level. I pictured passenger pigeons, dodos, and a lonely Tasmanian tiger and Mardi understood the images. “Most eggs get eaten. Not hatch.”

Small wonder. The rainforest is shrinking. Human population pressure and greed destroy square miles every day. The demand for lumber, fossil fuel, and condos on the Amazon wreak havoc on the area. I’d hated the pillage abstractly from my privileged middle class pedestal, but time in the squalid jungle encampments gave me a different perspective. I still don’t like it, but when a man can’t feed his children, it’s hard to tell him not to chop down a tree and sell it. I took situational ethics in college. There’s a difference between a tribe of illiterate tribesmen fighting to feed their families and a multinational conglomerate fighting for a quarterly report two points higher.

I created a new non-profit on the spot and appointed myself CEO and chief field operator. Dragon Rescue was in business. My first job was to convince the dragons they needed to be rescued.

I wanted them out of the jungle and somewhere safe. I’d never get them through customs. The government would seize the dragons and send me to jail. I’m too pretty to be in jail and I was never good at defending myself. Should I leave them alone or try to find a place where they’d be safe.

The stench of diesel smoke filled the cave and made my decision for me. The roar of engines and the sounds of bulldozers and chainsaws startled the birds into flight. A parade of animals ran past the cave entrance. Prey and predators ran side by side like they were fleeing a forest fire. In a way, that’s exactly what they were doing. All animals are friends when fire fills the forest.

I ran against the tide of refugees. Mardi went with me and Mate stayed with the eggs. Twenty minutes later, I saw the crew. Three bulldozers and a dozen men with chainsaws. A small army of barefoot men loaded the lumber onto a series of rusty flatbed trucks. The trucks began the journey to one of the portable river-driven lumber mills scattered like ghettos through the once pristine forest.

I couldn’t fight a couple of hundred men. Several had guns. Guards were posted along the perimeter of the work area to protect the workers from the occasional ocelot or jaguar who decided he’d had enough. The Togon and other tribes occasionally resisted the destruction of their homes. The lumbermen dealt with them without mercy.

My eyes teared and Mardi hovered and licked the salty drops from my cheek. I made a totally unscientific calculation and figured the deforestation would reach the dragons’ caves in three days – four days tops. Even if none of the bastards searched the caves, the habitat destruction would totally screw the dragons. Time to decide, fight or flight. I decided to do a both.

I whispered, “I’ve got an idea. Call the other dragons.”

“Eeep.” In less than three minutes, six of the little beasts fluttered and darted around my head. I said, “Wait until dark. We can slow them down. Pay attention. Mardi tell them what to do.”

I pictured an engine compartment. The differences under the hood of a truck and bulldozer didn’t matter for my plan. They both have wires, lots of wires, computer chips, and fuel lines. I visualized wires melting, computer chips bursting into flame, and ruptured fuel lines pouring liquid fire over batteries, carburetors, alternators, and transmissions.

The dragons were excited and wanted to kill the machines right away, but I convinced Mardi to wait until the crews shut down for the night. The men worked through the twilight and the moon was a cat’s smile in the clear sky when the bulldozers and trunks became silent. The men left the machines in place and walked to their camp.

Glints of faint moonlight reflected from rifles or helmets along the forest perimeter. Guards were still posted, but they’d never see the little dragons. I told Mardi about the guards, but she didn’t care. My pride of dragons flew toward the equipment. I hid in the dark, waited, watched, and thought good thoughts.

At first, I didn’t think it would work. I didn’t see a single spark from under a single hood. Without warning, I sensed excitement and a bulldozer erupted like a bomb. Next, two trucks exploded. Three more bulldozers burned brightly when flames reached their diesel tanks.

The camp was like an anthill. Men ran in every direction, but most ran away from the fires. The guards played their rifle-mounted lights through the smoke filled clearing, but they never saw the little dragons.

I didn’t have a watch, but by the time the moon moved a finger’s width, flames illuminated the metal skeletons of the bulldozers. Another truck burst into flame every few minutes.

The fires were bright and hot, and I moved away from the clearing and started to retrace my way to the cave. I didn’t want to be here when the sun came up. If I got lost in the dark, Mardi would find me.

A jeep roared through the carnage and skidded to a stop less than fifty feet from me. Four armed men jumped out and sprayed the area with their lights. I huddled down. Still is invisible in the forest’s dark shadows. Their shouts betrayed their whereabouts and it was clear that they didn’t see me.

Suddenly, I saw the Jeep from overhead. Mardi streaked through the air and darted under the hood. She burned the wiring harness in a dozen places. The Jeep sputtered and died. The headlights went out and one of the men shouted, “What the devil,” and ran toward the Jeep.

I watched through Mardi’s eyes. Gasoline dripped from a melted fuel line. I whispered, “Fly, Mardi, fly.” She made it to the forest before the jeep exploded. The closest guard didn’t have time to change expression before the flames engulfed him. Parts of the Jeep rained into the trees. A small piece of hot metal sliced my shoulder and I reached to brush it away the pain.

Something smashed into the back of my head and the sun was up when I woke. The dragons were in the trees around me. I sat up and Mardi landed on my shoulder. There was a lump where a piece of Jeep hit behind my ear.

I crawled to the edge of the cleared area and looked at the soot covered remains of thirty or more vehicles smoldering as the fires guttered out. The stench of burning rubber was strong.

The men wandered around and tried to look busy. A man in a bright yellow baseball hat drove up in a functional Jeep and stood on the hood. “I’ve radioed for new equipment. It will take a couple of weeks. We’ve got plenty of wood and handsaws. We will work every day, but not today. Today, we find the bastards who did this. Divide into groups of ten and search the perimeter. There’ll be a trail. Find it.”

Time for me to leave. I told Mardi to lead me to the cave, but not until we were sure we wasn’t being followed. I traveled as quickly as I could. Sometimes there were seven dragons with me and sometimes there was only one, but I was never alone.

I only stopped to eat and drink. As the sun grew low in the western sky, Mardi reported no one was on my trail. I hollowed out a space under a fallen tree trunk, crawled underneath, and covered the entrance with thorns and branches.

I stretched to loosen up the next morning. I took my clothes off one piece at a time and shook out the assembled insects who’d moved in during the night. I was putting my pants back on when I saw the jaguar. She was large, female, and hungry. I felt around for anything I could use for a club and then tried to shift positions to reach my pocket knife.

The jaguar came closer. She radiated calm and projected stillness, but she flowed toward me without seeming to move. She was slow and I didn’t feel threatened. Her stare was hypnotic. She gathered her legs to spring. I knew I should run, or stand, or shout. I should do something.

The jaguar leapt and Mardi challenged her in mid-flight. My purple, green, and gold guardian singed the whiskers from one side of the jaguar’s face and the cat spun in the air and landed with her tail toward me. Another dragon blasted a tiny gout of flame in front of my eyes and startled me into action.

I shouted and waved my arms. I feigned an attack and the jaguar retreated without taking its eyes off me. The dragons buzzed around its face like flies around a melted candy bar. The cat swatted at them, but they were too quick. Whenever it snapped at one dragon, another darted in and scorched its face.

I picked up a strong branch and threatened the cat. I swung and the jaguar batted my club aside, but it didn’t attack me. It continued to back away and swat at the dragons. Mardi darted directly in front of the cat’s face and hovered less than an inch from its mouth. She sent a blast of flame into its nostrils. It hurt me to watch. The cat whined and covered its face. She made two more fruitless swings in the air, turned, and ran.

When my heartbeat returned to normal, I followed Mardi toward the cave. The dragons constantly patrolled to ensure I wasn’t being followed. They’re better than drones – quick, fast, intelligent, and they don’t need recharging. They feed themselves and don’t crash into trees because of operator error.

I stopped for a drink and Mardi told me an armed man was on the other side of the creek. He was about three hundred yards ahead of me. The stream passed near the cave and Mardi was terrified he’d find her eggs.

She projected visions of me drowning the man or crushing his head with a rock. I appreciated her enthusiasm, but I kept seeing him shoot me. She sent one of the dragons to bring more dragons from the cave. Her aggressive courage was contagious and I hurried after the soldier.

I had no idea what I’d do when I caught him, but it would be fine as long as I figured something out before I got killed. Mardi flew ahead and spoke into my mind. “We’ll chase him toward you. You hit him with big stick.”

I said, “How will you chase him?”

She laughed and said, “Watch.”

I picked a large tree to hide behind, selected a branch the size of a Louisville Slugger, and said, “Tell me when.”

Mardi said, “Mate say there’s another person, a female, and the male follows her. She same as you. She got almost no clothes. We chase her toward you, okay?”

“No, but ask Mate to follow her so I can find her later.”

Mardi flashed me images of the dragons’ encounter with the soldier. One dragon hovered in front of his face and set his moustache on fire. He swatted out the flames on his upper lip. Mardi flew behind him and ignited the hair hanging out of the back of his helmet.

The soldier threw his helmet on the ground and pounded the back of his neck. Mardi flew in front of him and he crossed his eyes to see her. She eeeped at him and scorched his eyebrows off. The other dragons swarmed him and blasted him with bursts of flame. They turned him toward me and herded him more efficiently than a trained corgi. He left his helmet behind and ran. He tripped in a small creek and dropped his rifle in the water. He didn’t try to pick it up, but crawled out of the water and staggered toward me.

Mardi flew above the man and told me where he was. He thrashed his hands like a man fighting a swarm of bees and flailed at the small flames like a man who’d dropped a lit cigarette in his pocket. I cocked my bat. Mardi said, “Now,” and I stepped out from behind the tree and swung for the fences.

I hit him square on the nose and his feet flew forward into the air until he was parallel with ground. He didn’t get back up. Mardi sniffed the man and said, “Smell dead. We go now. Animals come. We go.”

I took his clothes, his boots, a machete, four rusted rifle shells, four hundred dollars US, and a pocketful of Brazilian Reals worth about two hundred bucks. His backpack held a change of clothes, a broken cell phone, a liter of water, and a dozen energy bars. A compass and leatherman were on his belt. Tom Hanks should have been so lucky.

I carried the booty away from the body and put on clean socks and the boots. I put on the backpack and strapped on the belt. “Mardi, take me to the woman.”

She landed on my shoulder and said, “Everyone watch eggs except Mate. Follow the river. Woman slow. Catch soon.”

“Can you talk to the woman?”

“No, only to you. Maybe so Mate talk to her.”

I recovered the rifle from the stream, but I didn’t stop to dry it.

The woman sat on the ground behind a tree. Mardi flew from my shoulder and I stopped a few feet away. She was barefoot and wore a sweat-stained bra and once white panties. She said, “You’re dressed like one of them, but I keep seeing images of you in my mind. I see you feeding me, giving me water and clothing, and helping me. Why is that?”

“I’m a biologist, not an oilman or lumberjack. I came to find medicines, but I found more than I bargained for. The Togon took my clothes and left me for army ant food, but some friends helped me get away. My friends and I killed the man chasing you and I took his clothes.”

“What friends? I don’t see anyone.”

“Mardi, show her.”

Mardi called Mate and they darted to the woman and hovered a couple feet from her face. “Meet two of my friends, Mardi and Mate. I’m Patrick. Could I offer you some clothes? They aren’t much, but they’re better than what you’re wearing.”

She was mesmerized by the two dragons. I saw flashes of purple, green and gold in her eyes. Mardi burped a small gout of flame and the woman flinched and fell over backwards. “Wow, little dragons. I never met a man with dragon wingmen or one who offered me clothes for a pick-up line. Why do I see you in my mind?”

The red and black dragon can communicate with you. The brightly colored one is Mardi Gras. She talks to me. Relax. By morning, he’ll learn enough English to speak to you. Their cave is less than ten minutes from here. Come with us.”

She did. The clothing made her more comfortable. She didn’t ask any more questions until she’d eaten and rested. She watched the dragons flit through the cave and crawl into the crevasses where eggs were hidden. “Those are dragon nests, aren’t they? How many are there?”

I explained what Mardi told me about eggs, baby dragons, predators, and the shrinking rainforest.

She said, “My name’s Carla. The forest is the reason I’m here. A group of us came down on spring break. Four of us decided to stay and protect the trees. We hid in the jungle, sabotaged equipment, fouled their water supplies, and did anything we could to slow down the destruction. The guards found our camp three days ago. My friends got away, but I didn’t. They took my clothes, put me in a tent, and posted guards. I tried to run twice. They just laughed and threw me back in the tent. I understand a little Portuguese and I learned they were saving me for a man called the Colonel. He was supposed to arrive today.”

“The Colonel?”

“I don’t know who he is. He could be some local militia leader, the owner of the lumber company, or the king of France. I only know the men in camp wouldn’t let me go, but they had orders not to hurt me until he arrived. Two nights ago, the bulldozers and trucks started exploding all over the compound. My guards ran one way and I ran the other.” She pulled a thorn from her big toe and said, “It would have been nice to have sandals.”

“The dragons set the equipment on fire.”

“Well, Patrick, I guess you and your friends have saved me twice. Thank you. Any idea how to get us out of this jungle?”

“Nothing solid. I hope we can find a boat. If we steal a truck, we’ll have to stay on the roads. That won’t work. Even with a mini-dragon escort, it’s a long way from here to the States. I don’t have any paperwork and there’s at least a dozen borders to cross. Then there’s the dragons. I can’t put them in a bird cage and waltz across Central America. The first border guards we encounter will take them from us.”

Mardi and Mate snorted fire at my mental image of sweat-stained cigar-smoking men leering as they separated dragons from each other and distributed them to men in white lab coats. “Relax, Mardi. We won’t let anyone take you.”

“Mardi stay Pat Rick.”

“Yes, Mardi stay with Patrick.”

“Carla, we can’t leave them here. The jungle is shrinking. The prey and predators are forced into smaller areas every day. There’s less food for everyone and more competition for the dwindling supplies. The Togon, the animals, and the other tribes are being corralled into an arena where the strongest will survive until the corporations cut down the last tree. I won’t leave the dragons to face that. For God’s sake, they’re five inches long and spiders eat their babies. We have to help. I sent Mardi to find a boat. We can drift with the logs and the dragons can warn us to abandon the river before we come to a lumber mill or work encampment.”

Carla told me about her life. She grew up in a part of Texas called the Big Thicket. There are lots of trees. Her family owns two sections. A section is a square mile. One half section is planted in roses, lots of roses. The other section and a half is still in old growth oak and evergreens. It backs up to the Big Thicket National Preserve. Sounded like a good place for dragons to me.

I tried to dry and clean the single shot rifle, but the bolt was already rusted closed. I couldn’t force it open. The rifle needed to be soaked overnight in gasoline or a petroleum solvent before it could be fired. A rifle that won’t fire is a club. I leaned it against the wall and went to sleep.

Mate and Carla were able to talk to each other the next morning. It was strange to hear one side of their conversation. Carla talked to her dragon out loud, the same way I talk to Mardi. I could hear her, but I couldn’t hear Mate. She told me to call him Baron. “Look at his coloring. He’s the Red Baron.”

In was ten days before the eggs would hatch and two weeks before the babies could fly and feed themselves. The bulldozers rumbled and belched smoke before noon. We didn’t have ten days. If the soldiers found the man I’d killed, we probably didn’t have even one day. It was time to leave.

We wrapped the eggs in moss and torn strips of clothing and put them in the backpack. Mardi reported a Togon village two days away beside a stream that meanders to a river that, like all rivers, leads to the sea. There were six dugout canoes.

Marching through the rainforest is an exercise in persistence. It’s always wet, the insects are merciless, and the vegetation is covered with thorns and burrs. It was easier with a dragon on my shoulder. Mardi guided us along animal trails. We didn’t encounter army ants, jaguars, armed men, or native tribes. The little self-propelled scout drones did a great job. We stopped the second day in the foliage across the stream from the Togon village.

After dark, Carla and I picked a canoe. The stream was about ten feet wide and I sent a small squad of dragons to the grass and wood huts on the far side of the village. They set two of the huts on fire. The Togon camp came alive. People ran toward the burning huts. The Togons didn’t try to put out the flames, but they hurried to salvage what they could.

Carla and I splashed quietly across the stream. We pushed the canoe into the stream and she climbed in with the backpack. I shoved the other five canoes into the water. There was a teepee shaped pile of paddles on the bank. I took four of them and tossed the others in the water.

I told Mardi to set a third hut aflame. She did. Carla and I paddled downstream like the devil himself was after us. We passed the empty canoes in no time. Carla said, “Tell the dragons to burn the other canoes.”

“Not unless we have too, but I’ll tell her to have a dragon stay with the canoes. The Togon need those canoes to survive. Unless they come after us, let’s leave them alone. We’ve burned three of their huts, that’s enough.”

The screams and shouts faded away long before the yellow glow from the fire disappeared from the bottom of the low hanging clouds. It began to rain. Mardi called the dragon scouts and rear guard to join us in the canoe and we huddled together and floated with the stream.

Shortly after the rain stopped, the bow of the canoe spun a quarter turn and our speed doubled. We’d reached the river. At the first hint of sunrise, we beached the canoe and covered it with brush. People don’t see you it you travel at night. Carla and I staggered into the cover of the rainforest. We didn’t pretend to make camp. We just held each other and went to sleep.

Before I dozed off, Mardi posted dragon to watch our canoe and Baron stood guard from the trees above us. I buried my face in Carla’s hair. It smelled of smoke, river water, and sour sweat. It was wonderful.

I was starved when I woke up to the lazy drone of the rainforest and the quiet gurgle from the slow moving river. There was plenty of fruit to eat. Our clothing was still wet and beginning to chafe. Carla and I took off most of it and spread it on the bushes to dry. I was embarrassed, but mold grows in the rainforest and wet skin and clothing are like petri dishes.

We put dry our clothes on just before the afternoon rain. At sunset we pushed the canoe into the river. The moon was high when we saw the lights on the boat moored in the center of the river. Technically, I guess it was a motor yacht because there were two small boats hanging on davits above the main deck. We floated into the shadow of the trees and waited.

Mardi flew to the yacht. First, she hovered at the stern and reported the name of the vessel, Senhora do Coronel. My Portuguese was good enough to know the yacht was called “The Colonel’s Lady”. Three men drank on the rear deck. They spoke English and Mardi relayed every word.

“The men captured one of those bitches from America who thinks they can do anything they want, but she escaped three or four nights ago. She burned your bulldozers and two dozen trucks. Some of your men are missing.”

“I pay you to not let things like this happen.”

“Si, but I can’t be everywhere. You have two hundred men and one little girl does this must damage. I think maybe you should pay me more money. As for the missing men, the jungle takes what she wants. Stupid and careless people don’t live long out here and you don’t hire your workers for their brains.”

“What are we going to do?”

The Colonel answered, “Mr. Carson, my men radioed that your new bulldozers and trucks have been delivered. If the woman and whoever helped her aren’t dead, my soldiers will find them.”

“Easy to say. What if they don’t?”

If she makes it to civilization, I’ll charge her with the murders of your men and the destruction of your equipment. Our jails are dangerous and she’ll never survive to stand trial.”

The Colonel’s servant, Manny, opened another bottle of cachaça, alcohol made from fermented sugarcane juice, and the three men regaled each other with lies of conquest and treachery until they staggered off to sleep.

Baron repeated everything to Carla. She was terrified and I was terrified for her. The Colonel was right. If we spent a week on the river or in the jungle, his men would find us. I whispered, “They’re drunk. Let’s throw them overboard and steal the yatch.”

“Can you pilot a boat?”

“I don’t even know if I can start the engine, but I don’t have any better ideas.”

We floated the canoe across the water and tied it to the yacht. I climbed the ladder mounted on the stern and Carla climbed after me. Mardi searched the rooms. What to do first? Do I free the anchor, start the engine, or start tossing drunks overboard. We talked and decided it would be easier to keep the Colonel and his drunken companions from climbing back on board than it would be to fight them on deck. Even a drunk can shoot a gun.

Manny was no problem. He woke up enough to help us walk him to the side and he fell over the rail. He sputtered when he surfaced facing away from us and drifted downstream into the darkness.

Carson, the businessman, was our second target. He refused to wake up until he shifted around and put his hand on Carla’s butt. That got his attention. He hugged her to him and nuzzled her neck with his scraggly face. Carla said, “Wake up, baby. Walk with me.” He followed her from of cabin and across the deck. She shoved him overboard and he screamed like a banshee when he hit the water.

There was movement in the Colonel’s cabin. He stumbled from his room with a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other. “Carson, where are you? Carson?”

The Colonel staggered to the open deck, tripped over a chair, bounced off the table, and scattered beer and cachaça bottles across the fiberglass floor. The faint glow of the running lights made the boat a beacon in the darkness and moths, mosquitos, and beetles clouded the air. The insects instinctively avoided the dragons, but clustered around the Colonel like children around an ice cream truck.

He put down his knife and tried to stand. Blood covered his face and the insects fought over the sticky sweetness. He cursed and swatted, but the bugs were relentless. The Colonel sat on the deck and fired his pistol in the air. The single shot reverberated through the forest and down the river. The moths and beetles disappeared, but the mosquitos ignored the noise.

Carla and I were on opposite sides of the open rear deck. I crouched in the shadow of a lifeboat and she hid along the edge of the bridge, the small control room rising about eight feet above the deck. If the Colonel simply walked around the bridge, he’d find both of us. We’d be easy targets if we charged across the open deck.

I whispered to Mardi and she passed my message to Carla through Baron. “Wait. He may pass out. Time and patience.”

Mardi didn’t agree. She was furious and urged me to attack. Baron hissed, “Kill him. Kill him now.”

I thought calm thoughts. The Colonel wiped his bloody face on his sleeve, levered himself upright, and walked toward me. He used the deck rail to maintain balance. “Carson,” he shouted. “Where the hell are you? Manny, I cut my face, help me. Somebody answer me, damn it.”

He swore at the silence and moved toward my hiding place. I dropped to the deck and slid over the side. I held an upright post on the deck rail and prayed he wouldn’t see me. He stopped right above me, retched, and vomited over the side. I hugged the side of the boat and the cachaça infused spew missed me. A few drops of blood dripped on my face. Mardi darted in and licked it off.

The Colonel spit a few times, coughed, and continued around the bridge. He turned the corner nearest the prow and I pulled myself on deck. “Carla, he’s coming for you. You need to move.”

The image Mardi projected showed Carla move toward the Colonel, not away from him. I whispered, “Wrong way. Wrong way.”

Carla turned and tripped over a turnbuckle. She fell to the deck and the Colonel was on her before she could stand. He kicked her in the side and then in the knee. “Little bitch,” he screamed and kicked at her head, overbalanced and fell backwards. He fired the pistol when his hand smashed against the fiberglass, but he didn’t drop it.

Carla tried to crawl away, but the Colonel caught her by an ankle. “I’ve got seven more shots. Drunk or not, I won’t miss seven times from three feet. Be still.”

I felt her fear and pain through my dragon connection. “I’m coming.” I climbed on top the bridge and crawled across it. I weaved around the antennas, horns, and lights which festooned the roof and peered over the edge. Carla and the Colonel faced each other. His gun was in her face and he held her ankle with his other hand. His face was black with blood and he ignored the cloud of mosquitos. He said, “Ah, minha pequena menina, filthy as you are, you are indeed a pretty little girl. Such a waste to kill you quickly, but you understand it’s for the best.”

She spit in his face. He never flinched. He extended his gun and pointed it between her eyes. Fear and anger flashed in my mind. Baron darted to the pistol and Mardi flashed to the Colonel’s face. They burped fire simultaneously. The gun fell to the deck and I jumped off the roof and smashed my feet into the Colonel’s shoulders. I almost missed and my feet only grazed his back.

I hit deck hard and it knocked the wind out of me. The Colonel spun around, crawled on top of me, and put his hands around my throat. The stench of his scorched mustache was strong and almost covered his vile breath. I fought to pull his hands away, but he was stronger than me. I gasped for breath. Mardi ignited his hair, but he ignored it. Baron spewed a gout of flame into one of the Colonel’s eyes. I couldn’t breathe. All I could see was his white teeth gleam in his blackened and bloody face.

A pistol shot rang out and the Colonel released me and jerked his body upright. His eyes rolled back and he tilted against the deck rail. Carla was on her knees with the pistol in both hands. She reached toward him and fired six more times.

His dead body slumped against the rail. Baron sniffed, snorted, and pissed on the Colonel’s burning hair.

It took an hour to get the engines started. We weighed anchor and turned toward the sea. Carla said, “You steer. I’ll wash down the deck after you help me throw this bastard in the water.”

“Won’t someone find the body?”

“Oh, hell no. The crocodiles will eat him before daylight.”

We reached the ocean about noon the next day, stopped, and used some of the Colonel’s cash to fuel up and buy supplies. We used spare clothing to make dragon nests in one of the staterooms and left the portholes open so the dragons could fly in and out.

There were maps in the stateroom along with GPS navigation equipment. We stayed in sight of shore and started north. There was paint in the storeroom and the first night I painted out the name of the boat. The second night, I wrote the name, “Dragonfire”, on the stern. I smeared mud over the boat identification number and we bought fuel at small marinas and avoided large cities. We picked up an American flag in Panama and flew it day and night.

We traveled slowly. I didn’t want to attract attention and I wanted the baby dragons to be old enough to escape if we ran into trouble. The first egg hatched off the coast of Costa Rica and the last one somewhere along the Yucatan peninsula. The babies were the size of a thimble and mottled brown in color. Mardi explained the babies become vibrantly colored when they mature. “Fire breath comes after babies fly. Don’t want baby burp to burn the nest.”

The babies flew before we reached the southern Texas coast. During the evenings, we tied up close to shore and left the lights on to attract insects for the dragons to eat. The babies were like lightning bugs. Every small flicker was another bug roasted in flight.

Six weeks after we fed the Colonel to the crocodiles, we anchored off the coast of Padre Island. Carla said, “I was worried the Mexican authorities. The Coast Guard patrols this bay constantly. We need to get off this yacht before they check out paperwork. I’m too pretty to be arrested for piracy.”

A small fleet of private ships and boats filled the bay like an overcrowded trailer park. We put one of the small boats in the water, cranked up the outboard engine, and Carla motored about a hundred yards to a semi-yacht named Alamo’s Revenge. It flew a large Texas flag. We choose Alamo’s Revenge because we were able to see the white-haired couple on deck. Women are less threatening, so Carla made contact. Baron went with her.

She hailed the ship and introduced herself. “Our cellphones, credit cards, and identification were stolen when we went ashore in Belize. Could I use your phone to call my father? He lives in Natchitoches.”

The woman handed her cellphone over the rail and said, “Hell, honey, we’re from Fort Worth. Help yourself.”

We joined Dave and Big Marge Davis for a steak dinner. The next morning, they bought Carla a phone at Walmart and put a hundred dollars credit on it. “You folks mail us a check when you have the time. We’re headed east in the morning. There’s a jazz festival in Morgan City. Jambalaya and Abita beer – here we come.”

Carla’s dad met us in Port Aransas the next morning. It was shockingly easy to enter the country. We tied our dinghy up at the marina, walked to the end of the pier, met her dad, Carl, and got in his car. Carla told him to stop behind a vacant gas station about two blocks from the marina.

“Why we stopping here?”

“Dad, you’re going to love this.”

Mardi landed on my shoulder and Baron landed on Carla’s. Two dozen rainbow-hued little dragons flittered and darted around us. A bright yellow and white one hovered in front of his face and blasted a burst of fire over his head.

Carl said, “Holy Crap. A dragon, a little dragon. It looks like a little dragon. Right? Wait, I can feel her in my mind. She likes me. Carla, where did you find these? Are they real? Can I keep her?”

“Yes, Dad. They’re real. I’ll tell you all about it on the way home. You can’t keep her, but she can keep you. All the dragons are coming with us and so is Patrick. We’re going to get married.”

I interrupted, “Who said we were getting married.”

“Mardi did. You good with that?”

“I understand Natchitoches is beautiful in the springtime.”

“I’ll take that as yes.”

Carla’s dad tried to focus on the flock of tiny dragons. He shook his head and said, “We’ll need a bigger car. I’ll call her Rose, like the Yellow Rose of Texas. Is that okay.”

“Dad, that’s up to her.”

We don’t have any pests in our rose fields and we sleep with our windows open all year. Dad built a two-acre greenhouse and keeps it full of tropical plants. East Texas gets cold in the winter. We homeschooled both of our children until they were old enough to understand not to talk about dragons to the other kids. Tommy’s dragon is Flash and Princess is his sister’s dragon.

There are over six hundred dragons. They live nine months a year in the Big Thicket Wildlife Reserve and in the greenhouse when the cold winds blow down from Nebraska. Mardi Gras tells me that some of the young ones range as far east as Mississippi and north into Oklahoma and Arkansas during the warm months.

Some of the young ones don’t come back because they find nice dragon-friendly people and stay with them.

I called my dad in Memphis and said, “Pay attention, the next strangely colored hummingbird you see in your yard may not come to your bird feeder, but watch it closely and think calm pleasant thoughts. It can tell if you like dragons and you never know. Just saying.”