The Broken & The Foolish – Chapter Three

“I would rather not work in anything remotely close to a saloon. I hope you understand.”

Chapter Three

Stepping out of the dry goods store, I carried a new pack, clothing, bullets, and food stuffs. I wondered if I’d need a pack animal to carry more supplies for my travels, but the idea of having two horses seemed cumbersome. I would consider it again in the winter months.

I longed for summer’s spell of carelessness to arrive as a chilling breeze rushed down the street and stirred up my shoulder length hair. I winced as I thought about how long it would take to grow back.

I stared up at the blue sky and marveled at the fact that I was even breathing. Kindness lived in the woman’s failing heart; it was the only reason why I didn’t die alone on a river bank. I would never let go of my own kindness, for the sake of her memory and for the sake of my own family’s memory. I would simply do what I needed to for survival.

As I made my way back to the stables to fetch my horse, an entertaining idea infected my thoughts. I longed to pay those three boys a visit

I travelled for two days to return to the town where I first caught them roughing up the little boy. I kept my head down as I rode down the dusty street. A loud commotion at the end roped in my attention.

I approached a rowdy crowd surrounding a two-man fight. The three little bastards emerged from the gathering, jostling one another like unruly children.

I shook as I watched my tormenters roam free. Then I pulled my hat over my eyes and chewed a piece of beef jerky. The crowd cheered the two fighters on as they beat one another up in the center of the circle.

I turned my attention back to the devils running down the road. Their sloppy retreat stirred up a cloud of dust. I presumed that they were on their way home. It was around dinnertime by the looks of the sun’s low position in the sky. Their poor mamas likely slaved all afternoon to feed their evil little bellies.

I thanked the Lord for my good fortune in remaining childless, despite my busy time at the saloon. I no longer had anyone to answer to and no one to care for. I was truly free, yet there I was risking it all over again.

Up ahead, the three boys separated. Disappointed, I decided to follow the tall one. He seemed to be the leader of their pack, judging by his countenance. He was the one who kicked me the hardest, if I remembered correctly, and I was pretty sure he had also been the one to knock me out cold with my own pistol.

I kept my mount at a slow enough pace to not arouse suspicion from him just yet. I felt strangely powerful with the role reversal. I was the predator chasing the prey this time. I was about to teach him a lesson that he would never forget.

He veered off the road, glancing once over his shoulder before running across a field. I caught sight of the trail of smoke emerging from a little house in the distance. He was nearly home.

I urged my horse into a gallop. Hearing my approach, the boy stopped and spun around. He held his hands up in surrender; I caught the terror in his wide blue eyes as I pulled on the reins to stop my horse.

“It’s you!” he cried. “What the hell?”

“Surprised I’m alive?”

“I-I…”

“Not so nice being the helpless one now, is it?”

He visibly trembled.

I smirked, glancing quickly at his family’s farm. Perhaps I would get that pack animal earlier than I had planned.

“I should kill you, but all I want in return for the pain that you caused me is one of your horses.”

“But-“

“I will shoot you if you don’t move along and fetch me what I need. Go and get one of your horses. Come on!”

He nodded and turned on his heel toward the barn close to his house. My stomach fluttered as I followed him to the large stable on his family’s property. I hoped that they were all inside eating dinner, oblivious to the plight of their sick kid. If that was not the case, I would have to flee.

“I’ll, er, be just a second,” he said, glancing at me over his shoulder.

“Hurry now! If you try to run away and tell your family, just remember that I’m a good shot.”

After a few minutes, he led a beautiful bay mare out from the stable.

“She’s my Papa’s horse. Three years old and already broken in. Our best.”

I yanked the reins from his hand.

“Tell me, do you feel any remorse for what you did to me that night? Anything at all?”

He stared at me.

I bit down on my chapped lips as I saw the wickedness in his gaze. I had to swallow down my rage before I lost my mind and killed him. I stared at him until his cold glare wavered and he realized his predicament.

“You might want to do something better with your time. You know, before someone repays you an eye for an eye. Anyone else would have killed you for what you did.”

He nodded.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I almost lost my leg, you know. I should shoot you for that. After all, you beat me to a pulp all because I protected a little boy.”

Though my voice remained level, my hands shook.

He stared at his feet.

“My folks already lost two of my older brothers to pneumonia last fall. Please don’t shoot me.”

“Shame you didn’t die in their place.”

His face contorted in unmasked rage, but he held his tongue.

My finger rested on the trigger of my shotgun and I threw him a warning look. He would live if I shot him through the shoulder, but he’d still experience some of the agony he inflicted on me. He raised his chin and I removed my finger from the trigger.

I bashed him in the chest with the stock of my rifle. He fell back into to the dirt with a yelp.

“Take that, you little shit!” I yelled.

I rode away, leading the bay mare along with me. I laughed and shuddered simultaneously. He was probably going to rally his friends and try to catch me again.

Being followed into the night gave me a strange sense of purpose, but it was time that I stopped having to run for my life every time I chose to go into a town.

I did not want to be prey any longer.

***

A violet haze hovered over the blue grass as I floated over it like a fairy in a storybook. The beautiful blanket of fog lifted and I met a familiar set of predatory eyes. Max.

I reached for my handgun, but instead of trousers and a belt, I wore only a flimsy saloon dress.

I screamed as I backed into a wall. He stepped closer to me. I was trapped all over again.

I shot up from my nightmare’s hold, tripping over my makeshift tent in the process. Panting, I crawled out from under the rubble to breathe the mist of the early morning. I pitched the tent again.

I huddled inside, holding the rifle and listening for the inevitable sound of footsteps. After hiding out in my pathetic shelter for an hour, I figured out that the only threat was getting shit on by the birds that sang in the trees above.

I doubted Max would bother hunting down one scrawny girl for weeks on end, but I still worried that there might a chance he would catch up with me. If he was angry enough, he might try.

Ready at last to face the day, I crawled out from my refuge and greeted my horses. I whispered my thanks to them for being such faithful companions and then fed each of them a fresh apple from my pack.

I started a small fire and made myself a rather messy pancake with a bitter cup of coffee. I always used too much cream, so it ran out quickly.

“I need to learn how to fight,” I said aloud.

The mare snorted, while the gelding swatted at a fly that was about to land on his rump. It seemed like they both thought I was crazy.

“I won’t get myself killed. I’ll find someone… somewhat trustworthy to teach me defense skills. I already know how to shoot a gun, you know.”

I was crazy, but not stupid. I learned how to track and shoot from Papa, but there could be times when I would not have access to my gun. I could not afford to be physically vulnerable again.

I needed to shake up the world for being so unkind to girls. Stealing horses from little boys and dead cowboys was not enough. If outlawing was going to be my life, I had to master it.

I saddled up the bay mare and re-packed my supplies on the chestnut gelding. I alternated between the two horses for riding to make the long days of travel less grueling on them. I was not in a hurry to go nowhere. Moving forward was enough. I believed that I would find my purpose along the way.

I hadn’t set foot in a town or village in over a month. My supplies were running low and my desire to find someone to teach me how to fight was not going to go away. The problem was finding someone that I could trust. I worried that every man I spoke to could be a potential monster. My first kiss, my first time having sex, and my first love had all been with Max. I would never fall for fancy words and intense eyes again.

I had grown so accustomed to avoiding people that it was uncomfortable riding down the dusty street of the next town. I didn’t bother hiding my hair anymore, so people stared. I was proud to show the world my defiance of what it wanted for me. In a world where women were either wives or whores, I had chosen to be a man.

I found a stable and paid the stable master to keep my horses for the night. I longed for one night away from sleeping outside and it was my chance to enjoy some of civilization’s benefits. I placed my hands in my pockets like my Papa used to when he wanted to gather his wits. I grinned at the mere thought of eating a hot meal and taking a hot bath.

I walked into the inn and the man who greeted me took my payment for the night. To my surprise, he did not look at me like I was doing anything out of place.

“Ya mind sittin’ down here while I have someone prepare your bath?” asked the innkeeper.

“I’ll wait,” I said with a tired smile. “I’ll order a meal for the time being.”

“Sounds like a good plan, Ma’am. Your bath should be ready when you are finished your meal.”

Once my belly was full of potatoes, biscuits, and gravy, I walked upstairs and found the humble space. I set my pack down and went to the window to stare down at the street. My gaze was drawn to a man standing just below my window. He looked boldly up at me. Our eyes met and I was entranced by his unique, dark features. His thick black hair peeked out from under his top hat. I did not appreciate the half grin on his face. My Mama once told me that smirks hinted at arrogance and I did not care to know what he was feeling so overconfident about.

I closed the drapes and stripped down for my bath. I let out a delighted sigh as I immersed my tense body in the warm water. I dunked my head beneath the surface and felt myself melt into it. I stepped out feeling like a new person.

I dried myself off and collapsed into the soft bed, falling asleep as soon as my head burrowed into the pillow. I awoke several hours later to loud singing and hollering outside. I had slept more than just the afternoon away.

I wrapped a sheet around myself and then opened the drapes to watch the shenanigans taking place outside. Both men and women filled the streets singing and laughing at nothing noteworthy. I felt a strange urge to join them.

I longed to know what it was like to buy my own drink in a tavern and strike up a spontaneous conversation with someone who I was on equal footing with. I was not going to be bought and paid for by a hungry man this time. I would do what I pleased and leave when I wanted to. The mere idea sent the butterflies in my stomach to flight. It must have been how most boys felt when they left home for the first time to set out on their own.

I slipped into the clean set of trousers and a plaid shirt I bought at the last town. I looked in the mirror while brushing out my hair, which had grown out past my shoulders. I enjoyed the special shine it had after being washed.

I put my hat on and left the comfortable little room behind. I stepped out into the refreshing evening air and placed my hands in my pockets, feeling boyish and enjoying it. After making my living at the hell hole with Max based solely on my feminine charms, I was more than happy to embrace a more androgynous identity.

I smiled and tipped my hat at a group of laughing women passing by me. They all wore colourful, low-cut dresses, fancy hairstyles, and bouncing earbobs. I recalled how long it took for me to create such an ensemble before the crowds filled the saloon every evening.

“Nice hat, lady,” called a tall redhead from the group. “You should come with us to the tavern. You’re going the wrong way if you’re lookin’ for fun. Or trouble.”

I laughed and shrugged.

“You read my mind.”

“Where ya from?” asked another girl with very long eyelashes.

I stared at them so long that she frowned and looked away.

“A little town close to New Franklin,” I replied.

“I heard the story about Old Franklin,” giggled another lady.

“Yes, the darned place always flooded so they moved New Franklin uphill,” I said, grinning. “How about you girls? Do you work here in town?”

They exchanged delighted glances, some of them stumbling in the process. They had clearly been drinking for a while. I laughed with them.

“We work as painted ladies, but we’re strictly tavern girls. There is no prostitution here.”

“Glad to hear that. Men must be slightly less bestial here,” I muttered.

“Aw, let’s see if we can bring a smile to that pretty little face of yours,” said the redhead, patting my cheek.

The girls dragged me along with them into the public house. It was nice to be included. I had never made friends easily when I was in school and the girls back at the saloon were all fiercely competitive with one another. Max would hit us if we didn’t bring in the bare minimum of money to cover our supposed food, clothing, and boarding expenses.

I brushed thoughts of the past aside and took in the scenery of the tavern. I was the only sober person in there and that needed to change.

“I’ll buy you your first drink,” said the redhead with a wink.

“Oh, thank you.”

The kind lady with fiery hair ordered me some grog and I took in the strong ale scent before taking a sip. I enjoyed the taste as it rushed over my tongue. I loved the new little world where women could go out on their own and buy their own drinks.

“Maybe you should stay on and work with us for a while before you travel again?” said the redhead. “Your room would be free and the patrons would love you. I’ll bet you have a figure hiding underneath those men’s clothes. We could give you a dress or two to start.”

A flush covered my cheeks from the way that she studied me.

“I would rather not work in anything remotely close to a saloon. I hope you understand.”

She smiled sympathetically, patted me on the back, and made her way over to a group of gentlemen playing a game of cards.

I sipped my drink and watched the worldly people interact with one another around the room. I felt content from my safe perch as the alcohol slowly relaxed me.

As I drank my second glass of ale, my thoughts became less weighty and I began to notice subtle details around the room. I joined in with the others’ laughter as we watched a lively game of cards erupt into sarcastic jabs among the players.

In my peripheral vision, I saw a man sit next to me on the barstool.

“Ola, Miss,” he said.

I turned to see a familiar handsome face. Seeing him up close, I was able to take a better look at his features. I leaned forward and stared into his dark eyes.

“Are you an Indian?” I blurted.

He almost spat a mouthful of grog back into his glass.

“I am from the Great State of Norte de Mexico.”

“Where the hell is that?”

“You people call it Texas.”

He watched my mouth drop open in confusion and laughed again.

“I take it you are pretty sheltered.”

“I take it you’re pretty unabashed to stare at a stranger in her window.”

He threw his head back and laughed.

I joined him.

“What are you doing here all alone?” he asked.

“I’m an outlaw,” I said, casually taking another sip.

He raised an eyebrow.

“I’m looking for someone to teach me how to fight,” I continued. “Would you be interested in showing me?”

He laughed again and the whole room swayed. I set my glass down before I fell off my stool. It annoyed me that he seemed to think I was a joke, but I found myself drawn to the energy of his voice and his laugh. His thick accent was intoxicating. I owed him nothing. It was liberating.

“Would you laugh at me if I told you that I killed a man?” I asked.

He leaned forward, narrowing his eyes.

“Did you?”

“Yes.”

He stared at me.

I bit my lower lip, realizing my foolishness too late. I didn’t tell him because I was drunk, I told him because I was proud of it. It was something that should have haunted me, but it made me smile instead. Maybe it was the beer.

“You want me to teach you how to fight so you can fend for yourself out here. Is that it?”

“Somethin’ like that. I just don’t ever wanna be helpless without my rifle.”

“I honestly thought you were just a rebellious daughter running away from home for the night, or maybe a runaway bride?”

I rolled my eyes.

“Neither.”

“I hope you don’t plan on continuing this life. They hang female murderers, you know.”

“Well, the man I killed was a serial murderer.”

“Murdering a murderer does not cancel out the crime.”

I crossed my arms and stared at him.

“So, I can be tried and hanged as a citizen, yet I can’t vote as one.”

The handsome Mexican’s eyes danced as he studied me.

“This is the way of the world, my fair lady.”

“It’s why I cannot respect the world’s laws.”

“Careful.”

“Is it careless to ask important questions?”

“Perhaps it shouldn’t be that way, but life can’t be all things to all people.”

The haze of delight lifted as anger burned in the pit of my stomach. I glared at him.

“Are you going to help me out or not?”

“Maybe. Have you ever thought of getting a job?”

I threw my hands in the air. He did think I was stupid.

“I’m not doing that painted lady nonsense ever again. Last time I did that, let’s just say I got overworked with little pay.”

His eyes widened.

“I’m very… sorry to hear that. Here, have another drink on me.”

I shrugged and took a sip of the freshly poured grog. It was no wonder why Papa used to drink so often. It felt good.

Talking to the fella was invigorating, despite the heated nature of our conversation. I enjoyed how the intensity rose and fell as we danced around various subjects.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked.

“I drive cattle from Missouri to Texas. I’ll be leaving at the end of the week. I happen to work hard.”

His judgmental tone sent a wave of annoyance over me. My mood shifted once again from calm to fiery as I recalled how hard I once worked with Samantha and Becky to keep our farm going. Despite the various Bible proverbs about sowing and reaping, life did not always reward the diligent. If it had, I would have been at the farm that very moment reading a bedtime story to Becky. I wouldn’t have known what it was like to be kissed or touched by a man yet.

I swallowed past the lump in my throat and met my new companion’s gaze.

“Funny,” I said evenly. “I worked hard, too, but none of my crops survived and I had to become some devil’s whore so I could provide for my ill little sister.”

I slammed the glass of ale down on the bar and stumbled my way outside. I hadn’t paid good money to sit in a tavern talking to someone who refused to take me seriously.

“Wait, Senorita!” called the vaquero.

I rolled my eyes and looked away.

“The handsome ones are always the most patronizing human beings,” I huffed under my breath.

“Why, thank you.”

He heard me after all.

“Oh, shut up.”

He caught up with me, took my hand, and gently pulled me toward him. Though he was shorter than I, he was a very strong man. I wondered for a moment how it would feel for him to pick me up and carry me off to my room. I blushed at the stupid drunken thought and looked off to the distance.

He squeezed my hand.

“Always looking ahead to the next place, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Look, I’ll help you. Why don’t we both get a good night’s rest? I can teach you a couple of ways to defend yourself tomorrow. How’s that?”

I took a deep breath.

“Where should we meet tomorrow?”

“I’ll meet you in front of the inn at ten in the morning.”

“Very well. Good night.”

“My name is Alano.”

“I’m Mary.”

He smiled.

“Good night then, Mary.”

***

We met outside of the tavern. He approached me, tipping his hat.

“Good mornin’,” I said, returning the gesture.

“You are determined to behave like a man, aren’t you?”

“No. I prefer to act in a way that is most comfortable for me.”

I smirked at his perplexed expression.

“I take it you have a horse at the stable?”

“Two horses. I use one for a pack animal.”

“That’s a lot of animals for one girl.”

I crossed my arms.

“I’ve been managing well enough. I just need to know how to punch the daylights out of the next male that tries to attack me. I’d rather have a fightin’ chance on my own.”

“The easy solution would be to find a man to protect you.”

My pulse raced as we started to walk toward the stables.

“Alano, you are full of boring ideas.”

“That so?”

“If I wanted that, I wouldn’t be carving out an independent life for myself as I am now.”

“You’re running away from a lot, aren’t you?”

“Everyone is running away from something.”

“Not everyone.”

“Well, what made you travel all the way up to America? Did you do some outlawing yourself below the border?”

He rolled his eyes and looked away. I bit my lip to suppress a smile.

“Let’s get your horses and we’ll go outside town to teach you a thing or two about how to fight.”

“Great,” I said briskly, walking ahead of him.

I got my horses prepared with their respective gear and I led them out of the stable. Alano waited outside; he was already sitting on his quarter horse.

“Fine horses,” he remarked.

“I’d say thank you, but they’re stolen.”

I laughed as I mounted the mare.

He shook his head with a concerned look in his eyes.

“Now, that is what you’ll hang for.”

We rode about an hour out of town. It felt wonderful to ride away again, even though I was with a vaquerro with an outlaw past himself.

I admired the women I met from the last night for refusing to turn to whoring, but I wanted something more rewarding than serving drunk people at a tavern. I abhorred the idea of wearing a dress again. The garment itself represented things that I no longer wished to associate with.

“Here’s about right!” called Alano.

We slowed our horses to a walk as we approached a small lake. I felt very self-conscious as we dismounted and stood alone together surrounded only by nature. I was about to be in close quarters with a man whom I thought to be very attractive – a man I didn’t really know. He was very direct in the way he looked at me, which didn’t put me at ease.

“Why did we ride out this way?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“It was on the way to the ranch where I am staying. I could show it to you after if you like.”

“Maybe.”

“So, first thing’s first. Come over here and I’ll teach how you how to deflect a punch.”

We went back and forth a few times as he taught me how to throw, block, and dodge punches.

“You’re tall for a girl, but you’re also light,” he said. “You need to be able to incapacitate someone before they hit you or you’ll be done for. Unless they happen to be smaller than you, which is unlikely out here.”

“How reassuring.”

“Throw me a punch,” he said.

I punched and he dodged, but my upper cut hit him in the jaw. He jumped back.

I covered my mouth, laughing.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. This is good. Clearly, you know how to punch.”

“Thanks to you.”

“Do you know what you should do if someone pulls a knife on you?”

He pulled out a dagger from the elaborately decorated sheath attached to his belt.

“I need one of those,” I said.

“No, you don’t. The only reason why you should ever use a knife is for after a hunt. It is not wise to use it in a fight.”

“Is that what you use a knife for?”

“Trust me. If someone draws a knife on you, run. You shoot him if you can. If you don’t have a gun, flee. Do not draw a knife on him. Chances are, you’d both end up trying to hold your guts in after a messy fight.”

I crossed my arms and smirked at his dramatics.

“Graphic.”

“It’s reality, Mary.”

I cringed at the image that formed in my mind from his description. I was lucky that hadn’t already happened to me.

“Well then, how do you fight someone if they attack you with a knife?” I asked.

He crossed his arms.

“I was jumped by banditos when I was twenty. Do you want to know what I did?”

He paused for emphasis.

“Please, tell me.”

“I didn’t fight them. I let them take my things and that is why I am alive today.”

“What if I come up against a knife bearer who has a vendetta against me?”

“Oh, like the two people you stole horses from?”

“I killed the first one… with his own knife.”

I hated the way that he looked at me when I said that. It was the way that most men looked at prostitutes before they dragged them upstairs. My heart raced as he stared at me with the same intensity that he had the first time he saw me in the window.

“I am responsible for you now.”

I blinked, unsure if I had heard him correctly.

“What do you mean?”

He frowned.

“You heard me. It isn’t safe for you out here. It’s not safe for me either, but you travel around with your long flaxen hair and pretty face exposed to everyone. You already admitted that you have someone who wants revenge against you. You need protection, Mary.”

I threw my arms in the air.

“I doubt that kid would come after me over one horse!” I protested.

“You’re a woman, Mary, but you act like you’re still a child. Living with a man for protection is a wise decision that women do out here every day. You should know this.”

“Well, those women don’t know how to shoot like I do.”

“Many do know how to shoot. That won’t necessarily save them.”

I realized that I had, yet again, been foolish enough to trust someone that I didn’t know. Perhaps the alcohol’s effects from the previous evening still hindered my judgment. I should have ridden for the hills at daybreak.

I had a store of words that he deserved to hear, but we were alone and my guns were far out of reach.

I smiled and took a step backward.

“Thank you for the offer, but I really should be moving on now, Alano.”

His eyes softened.

“Don’t go, Mary. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s nice to have met you, but we must agree to disagree or this will never end. I need to go.”

“Stay here, and we’ll talk, you crazy woman!”

He still held the knife. I backed away, watching him closely. The urge to kill him surged through me, chasing away my fear.

“You want to possess me. Just like him,” I said.

“I’m not going to hurt you unless you do something stupid,” he warned.

“I just want to leave! I don’t want to fight you.”

“I’d be a fool to let you go out there alone. Where are you going? Back to that bordello owner? Or did you kill him?”

I started to walk toward my horse and he stalked after me. I already knew what was going to come next.

I was an idiot and he was a bastard.

“Don’t touch me!” I warned.

“I told you that I won’t hurt you!”

I jumped backward.

“Unless I do something stupid?”

He reached for me, but I leaped away with my eyes fixed on the saddlebags. I would find my loaded gun inside.

My chestnut gelding suddenly lunged forward with his ears flat against his head. The horse’s aggressive movement startled both of us.

Alano stepped away from me and swung his knife at the horse. Startled by the quick movement, my gelding reared, allowing Alano to get away.

“Look at this! A rogue horse,” he growled. “He’s a beauty, though. I could fetch a pretty penny for him.”

I ran over to the bay to retrieve my rifle, steadying her as I prayed that he would not hurt my chestnut. I spun around, gripping my rifle with both hands.

“Stand back!” I cried.

He shook his head slowly.

“Mary, don’t do it. You aren’t evil. You have just made a few mistakes. You can make the choice to not use that.”

My heart raced as anger surged through me.

“You know nothing about me.”

He took a step forward and I fired blindly. His body hit the ground as I closed my eyes.

He lay motionless a few feet away. His horse stepped over and nuzzled him, but he did not respond.

I mounted the gelding with a racing heart, holding on to the mare’s lead rope for dear life. My hands were weak from trembling, but I kept a firm grip on my weapon.

As much as I longed for him to still be alive, I could not risk helping him only to be snared.

I rode away from Alano with a terrible knot in my stomach. There was something uncanny about the magnificent animal that I was riding. I owed him my life.

I hugged his smooth neck and wept.

“You’re my angel.”

My eyes stung as my thoughts travelled back to the moment where I first laid eyes on Alano standing below my window. I reasoned with myself that my shot could not have been lethal due to its clumsiness. I probably hit one of his limbs. Perhaps he even feigned an injury to save himself from a worse fate.

He might have been a cad, but he was far from deserving of death. Perhaps God had been merciful for allowing my horse to charge him in the first place, for if I hadn’t escaped and we got married, I probably would have killed him in his sleep. 

Boy’s on the outside of heaven

Outside of heaven

But I could be wrong…

***

This marks the end of my sneak peek! If you would like to read the rest, you can purchase The Broken & The Foolish on Amazon in ebook or in print. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited! Check it out here. Thank you so much for reading! 

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