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One lovely spring morning, a shepherd stood on a hillside and looked out at his grazing sheep. He counted them. He frowned and scratched his head. Two of his sheep were missing. "I will guard them well tonight," he said to himself.

But just before dawn the next day, he fell into a light sleep. When he awoke he saw that once again two sheep were gone. "Tonight I will be especially watchful," he said to himself. But again, as the dawn light crept over the mountainside, he closed his eyes. When he opened them, to his dismay he saw that two more sheep had vanished.The next day a gypsy climbed up to the hilltop to visit with his friend the shepherd. "You look so sad, my friend," said the gypsy. "What's wrong?"

The shepherd told the gypsy of his woes. "I'm afraid the thieving dragon comes each day at dawn to steal my sheep. If this goes on, I will lose my whole flock."

The gypsy had heard tales of the thieving dragon. "Ahh," he said thoughtfully. "I will help you. Tonight I will come to your house. Please prepare a supper and make certain to have a good round cheese. After supper, I will tend your sheep. I will catch the thieving dragon for you."

With this advice, the gypsy walked off to prepare for his adventure. First he cut a branch from a weeping willow. This he whittled down to a slender rod. When he returned to his camp, he searched until he found a heavy iron rod. That evening he set off for the shepherd's house.

The two friends enjoyed a pleasant meal. Well after the sun had set, the gypsy stood. Taking his wooden rod and his iron bar and a big round of cheese, he strode into the night, off to the lonely hillside.

Beneath the starry skies, he sat and listened to the soft bleating of sheep. He built a roaring fire and listened to the sound of the crackling wood. He watched the stars blinking and twinkling. Late into the night the gypsy listened to the quiet grazing of the animals. He concentrated on the many sights and sounds around him. And in this way, the gypsy stayed awake.

Just as dawn came, an enormous shape appeared on the hillside. The gypsy smiled to himself. "Ah yes, it is the thieving dragon," for he could see the fierce nostrils and the creature's scaly body in the glow of firelight and dawn.

"What do you want?" the gypsy called to the dragon.

"Two sheep for my breakfast," roared the ferocious dragon. The fire from his breath singed the whiskers on the gypsy's chin.

"These are not my sheep," the gypsy called. "They belong to my friend the shepherd, and you are not permitted to steal any more of them."

The dragon roared. "I shall take as many sheep as I like. No one is strong enough to stop me!"

"Well, we shall see about that!" said the gypsy as he stood. "I am stronger than you. Of that I'm certain."

"Ha!" bellowed the dragon. "Prove your strength."

The gypsy stepped forward and showed the dragon his two sticks. "See here," he said, "I have two sticks. Let us see which of us can throw his stick highest into the air." With this he handed the dragon the iron bar. "You go first, if you please."

The dragon seized the iron bar and flung it into the air. Up and up it went, higher and higher, until at last it began its descent and fell to the ground with a thud.

The gypsy smiled mischievously. "My turn," he said. And he held the willow rod as if it weighed a great deal. He whirled it. He twirled it. He whirled it again. "Now look up," he called to the dragon, and as the dragon stared upward, the gypsy dropped the stick behind his back.

The dragon stared and stared. "I see nothing," he said.

"You see," the gypsy said, "I have thrown my stick so high it will never come down. Now, do you believe I am stronger than you?"

"Of course not!" roared the dragon. "One test does not prove your strength."

"Very well. We shall have another contest. But dragon, if I win this one, will you believe me?"

"I will," the dragon said haughtily.

And so the gypsy picked up the round cheese. "Do you see this stone?" he asked. The dragon nodded. The gypsy took the cheese in both hands and began to squeeze. He twisted the cheese and turned it, and grunted and groaned and squeezed. The dragon's mouth fell open as the cheese began to sweat watery milk from its skin. At last it crumbled into hundreds of pieces.

The dragon hissed flame.

Then the gypsy picked up a stone the size of the cheese and handed it to the dragon. "This one's for you," he said.

The dragon took the stone between his two front paws. He twisted and turned the stone, and grunted and groaned and squeezed with all his strength. Nothing happened.

At last he threw the stone to the ground. "You win!" he hissed, in anger and in fear. "You are stronger than any creature I have ever known. Do not harm me. I have an old mother who lives in the cave on the far side of this hill. It is she who forces me to steal sheep."

"That is not true," said the gypsy.

"Come, I will show you," the dragon begged.

"Carry me on your back," the gypsy said. "But don't forget how strong I am. I could kill you with one blow if I wished."

The gypsy climbed upon the dragon's scaly back. Off they went to the cave on the far side of the hill.

"Who's there?" called the dragon's mother when she heard footsteps approaching the cave.

"Someone stronger than any creature in the world," the dragon said sadly. He told his mother of the gypsy's feats.

"Ahh," sighed the old mother. "I once knew another gypsy who was just as strong. I know these gypsies. It is true. I suppose we shall have to obey his wishes."

For a moment the gypsy felt sad for the poor old dragon, but when he looked inside the cave, he saw dozens of sheep.

"You have plenty to eat, Mother Dragon," the gypsy said.

The old mother winked. "Ah yes, that is true," she said. "But tell me, gypsy. Where did you get your strength?"

"From my father, Mother Dragon. My father who taught me what true strength is," and this time the gypsy winked. He turned and left the cave and walked quickly back to the shepherd's hut. "Your flock is safe," he told his friend.

The shepherd was so grateful that he gave his friend a basket of cakes and fruit. The gypsy took it home and shared it with his family, changing their usually simple fare into a feast, fit for fire-breathing dragons - but fitter still for those who, like the gypsy, know how to outsmart dragons.