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Slim's Sister








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

Bruce Burt! the murderer! Of all things in the world that he should be
"The Man from the Bitter Roots"--dining at the Strathmore--the guest of
Winfield Harrah! Weren't people punished for murder in the West?
Sprudell had intimated that he would hang for it. Helen's grey eyes were
big with amazement and indignation while she watched him being seated.

She saw the widening of his eyes when he recognized Sprudell, the quick
hardening of his features and the look that followed, which, if not
exactly triumph, was certainly satisfaction. Involuntarily she glanced
at Sprudell and the expression on his face held her eyes. It fascinated
her. For the moment she forgot Bruce Burt in studying him.

She thought she had read his real nature, had seen his dominant
characteristic in the blatant egotism that had shown itself so strongly
in his elation. But this was different, so different that she had a
queer feeling of sitting opposite an utter stranger. It was not dislike,
resentment, fear; it was rather a sly but savage vindictiveness, a
purposeful malice that would stop at nothing. In the unguarded moment
Sprudell's passion for revenge was stamped upon his face like a brand.
Helen had thought of him contemptuously as a bounder, a conceited
ignoramus--he was more than these things, he was a dangerous man.

But why this intense antagonism? Why should they not speak? Sprudell had
not told her of a quarrel.

"Who are those men!" he asked in an undertone, and she noticed that he
was breathing hard in an excitement he could not conceal.

As she named them in turn she saw that Bruce Burt was regarding her with
the puzzled, questioning look one gives to the person he is trying to
place.

The one stipulation which Bruce had made when he consented to meet the
"Spanish Bull-dog" was that his name should not be known in the event of
the match being mentioned in the papers; so Harrah had complied by
introducing him to his friends by any humorous appellation which
occurred to him. It proved a wise precaution, since directly Bruce's
challenge had been sent and it was known that he was Harrah's protege,
the papers had made much of it, publishing unflattering snapshots after
he had steadily refused to let them take his picture.

It was true enough, as Helen had said, he had whipped the "Spanish
Bull-dog," loosened his tenacious grip in a feat of strength so
sensational that the next morning he had found himself featured along
with an elopement and a bank failure.

They called him "The Man from the Bitter Boots," and a staff artist
depicted him as a hairy aborigine that Winfield Harrah had had captured
to turn loose on the Spanish gladiator. Which humor Bruce did not
relish, for Sprudell's taunt that "muscle" was his only asset still
rankled.

The betting odds had been against him in the Athletic Club, for Bruce's
size ofttimes made him look clumsy, but if Bruce had a bear's great
strength he had also a bear's surprising quickness and agility. And it
was the combination which had won the victory for him. Unexpectedly, with
one of the awkward but swift movements which was characteristically
bear-like, Bruce had swooped when he saw his opening and thrown the
"Bull-dog" as he had thrown "Slim"--over his shoulder. Then he had
whirled and pinned him--both shoulders and a hip touching squarely.
There had been no room for dispute over the decision. Friends and foes
alike had cheered in frenzy, but beyond the fact that the financial help
which Harrah promised was contingent upon his success, Bruce felt no
elation. The whole thing was a humiliation to him.

But Harrah had been as good as his word. They had filed in to Bruce's
top floor room one evening--Harrah's friends headed by Harrah. They had
seemed to regard it as a lark, roosting on his bed and window-sill and
table, while Bruce dropped naturally to a seat on his heel, camp-fire
fashion, with his back against the wall, and to their amusement outlined
his proposition and drew a map of the location of his ground on the
carpet with his finger.

But they had not taken much interest in detail, they were going into it
chiefly to please Harrah. Bruce saw that clearly and it piqued him. He
felt as though his proposition, his sincerity, counted for nothing, but
while it nettled him more than ever, it put him on his mettle.

Bruce's brief acquaintance with Harrah already had opened up new vistas,
shown him unknown possibilities in life. They were sport-loving,
courteous, generous people that Harrah drew about him--merry-hearted as
those may be who are free from care--and Bruce found the inhabitants in
this new world eminently congenial. He never had realized before how
much money meant in the world "outside." It was comfort, independence,
and most of all the ability to choose, to a great extent, one's friends
instead of being forced to accept such as circumstances may thrust upon
one.

Bruce saw what anyone may see who looks facts in the face, namely, that
money is the greatest contributory factor to happiness, no matter how
comforting it may be to those who have none to assure themselves to the
contrary. There may even be doubts as to whether the majority of rich
invalids would exchange their check-books for the privilege of being
husky paupers in spite of the time-honored platitude concerning health.

Yet Bruce could not help a certain soreness that all he had fought for
so doggedly and so unavailingly came so easily as the result of a rich
man's whim.

Laughingly, with much good-humored jest, they had made up the $25,000
between them and then trailed off to Harrah's box at the opera, taking
Bruce with them, where he contributed his share to the gaiety of the
evening by observing quite seriously that the famous tenor sounded to
him like nothing so much as a bull-elk bugling.

Harrah's subscription which had headed the list had been half of his
winnings and the other half had gone to his favorite charity--The Home
For Crippled Children. "If you get in a hole and need a little more I
might dig up a few thousand," he told Bruce privately, but the others
stated plainly that they would not commit themselves to further sums or
be liable for assessments.

Bruce had gone about with Harrah since then and with so notable a
sponsor the world became suddenly a pleasant, friendly place and life
plain sailing; but now every detail had been attended to, and, eager to
begin, Bruce was leaving on the morrow, this dinner being in the nature
of a farewell party.

To see Bruce in the East and in the company of these men on top of
Dill's telegram was a culminating blow to Sprudell, as effective as
though it had been planned. Stunned at first by the loss of the
water-right which made the ground valueless, then startled, and
astonished by Bruce's unexpected appearance, all his thoughts finally
resolved themselves into a furious, overmastering desire to defeat him.
Revenge, always his first impulse when injured, was to become an
obsession. Whatever there was of magnanimity, of justice, or of honor,
in Sprudell's nature was to become poisoned by the venom of his
vindictive malice where it concerned Bruce Burt.

Bruce had altered materially in appearance since that one occasion in
his life, in Sprudell's office, when he had been conscious of his
clothes. Those he now wore were not expensive but they fitted him and
for the first time in many years he had something on his feet other than
hob-nailed miner's shoes. Also he laid aside his stetson because, as he
explained when Harrah deplored the change, he thought "it made folks
look at him." "Folks" still looked at him for even in the correct
habiliments of civilization he somehow looked picturesque and alien.
Powerfully built, tanned, with his wide, forceful gestures, his utter
lack of self-consciousness, there was stamped upon him indelibly the
freedom and broadness of the great outdoors.

He was the last person, even in that group, all of whose members were
more or less notable, who would have been suspected of a cold-blooded
murder.

Against her will Helen found herself looking at him. It seemed
unnatural; she was shocked at herself, but he attracted her
irresistibly. Her brother's murderer was handsome in a dark, serious,
unsmiling way which appealed to her strongly.

She tried to fix her attention upon the food before her, to keep up a
conversation with Sprudell, who made no pretense of listening; but just
so often as she resolved not to look again, just so often she found
herself returning Bruce Burt's questioning but respectful stare.

Helen took it for granted that his object in coming East was to meet the
"Spanish Bull-dog," but Sprudell knew better. He had seen enough of
Bruce to guess something of his fixity of purpose when aroused and
Dill's telegram confirmed it. But he had thought that, naturally, Bruce
would return to the West at once from Bartlesville to try and hold his
claims, from which, when he was ready, through a due process of law, if
necessary, Sprudell would eject him.

To find him here, perhaps already with formidable backing, for the
moment scattered Sprudell's wits, upset him; the only thing in his mind
which was fixed and real was the determination somehow to block him.

A vaguely defined plan was already forming in his mind, and he wanted to
be alone to perfect it and put it into immediate execution. Besides, he
was far from comfortable in the presence of the man who, temporarily at
least, had outwitted him, nor was he too preoccupied to observe Bruce's
obvious interest in Helen. He made the motion to go as soon as possible
and in spite of his best efforts to appear deliberate his movements were
precipitate.

Bruce found it impossible to keep his attention upon the conversation at
his own table. After his first surprise at seeing Sprudell his mind and
eyes persisted in fixing themselves upon Sprudell's companion. He could
not rid himself of the notion that somewhere he had seen her, or was it
only a resemblance? Yet surely if he ever had known a girl with a
profile like that--such hair, such eyes, such a perfect manner--he would
not have forgotten her! Was it the face of some dream-girl that had
lingered in his memory? It was puzzling, most extraordinary, but whoever
she was she looked far too nice to be dining with that--that--. His
black brows met in a frown and unconsciously his hands became fists
under the table.

He felt a sharp pang when he saw that they were preparing to go. Why
couldn't it be his luck to know a girl like that? He wondered how it
would seem to be sitting across the table from her, talking intimately.
And he found considerable satisfaction in the fact that she had not
smiled once at Sprudell during the conversation. He would not have said
that she was enjoying herself particularly.

Then she arose and the gloves in her lap fell to the floor. He had an
impulse to jump and slide for them but the waiter was ahead of him.
Sprudell looked back impatiently.

"Thank you so much." She smiled at the waiter-fellow and Bruce knew her.

Slim's sister! There was no mistaking the sweetly serious eyes, the
smiling lips with which he had grown familiar in the yellowish picture.
She was older, thinner, the youthful roundness was gone, but beyond
question she was Slim's sister!

She passed the table without a glance and in something like a panic he
watched her leave the room. He would never see her again! This was the
only chance he'd ever have. Should he sit there calmly and let it pass!
He laid his napkin on the table, and explained as he rose hastily:

"There's someone out there I must see. I'll be back, but don't wait for
me."

He did not know himself what he meant to say or do, beyond the fact that
he would speak to her even if she snubbed him.

She had stepped into the cloak room for her wrap and Sprudell was
waiting in the corridor. Immediately when he saw Bruce he guessed his
purpose and the full significance of a meeting between them rushed upon
him. He was bent desperately upon preventing it. Sprudell took the
initiative and advanced to meet him.

"If you've anything to say to me, Bruce, I'll meet you to-morrow."

"I've nothing at all to say to you except to repeat what I said to you
in Bartlesville. I told you then I thought you'd lied and now I know it.
That's Slim's sister."

"That is Miss Dunbar."

"I don't believe you."

"I'll prove it."

"Introduce me."

"It isn't necessary; besides," he sneered, "she's particular who she
knows."

"Not very," Bruce drawled, "or she wouldn't be here with you." He added
obstinately: "That's Slim's sister."

Helen came from the cloak room and stopped short at seeing Bruce and
Sprudell in conversation. Certainly this was an evening of surprises.

"Are you ready, Miss Dunbar?" Sprudell placed loud emphasis upon the
name.

She nodded.

Sprudell, who was walking to meet her, glanced back at Bruce with a
smile of malice but it was wasted upon Bruce, who was looking at the
girl. Why should there be that lurking horror and hostility in her eyes?
What had Sprudell told her? On a sudden desperate impulse and before
Sprudell could stop him, he walked up to her and asked doggedly, though
his temerity made him hot and cold:

"Why do you look at me as if I were an enemy? What has Sprudell been
telling you?"

"I forbid you to answer this fellow--" Sprudell's voice shook and his
pink face had again taken on the curious chalkiness of color which it
became under stress of feeling. Forgetting prudence, his deferential
pose, forgetting everything that he should have remembered in his rage
at Bruce's hardihood, and the fear of exposure, he shook his finger
threateningly before Helen's face.

On the instant her chin went haughtily in the air and there was a
dangerous sparkle in her eyes as she replied:

"You are presumptuous, Mr. Sprudell. Your manner is offensive--very."

He ignored her resentment and laid his hand none too gently upon her
arm, as though he would have turned her forcibly toward the door. The
action, the familiarity it implied, incensed her.

"Take your hand away," Helen said quietly but tensely.

"I tell you not to talk to him!" But he obeyed.

"I intend to hear what Mr. Burt has to say."

"You mean that?"

"I do."

"Then you'll listen alone," he threatened. "You can get home the best
you can."

"Suit yourself about that," Helen replied coolly. "There are taxicabs at
the door and the cars run every six minutes."

Bruce contributed cordially:

"Sprudell, you just dust along whenever you get ready."

"You'll repent this--both of you!" His voice shook with chagrin and
fury--"I'll see to that if it takes the rest of my life and my last
dollar."

Bruce warned in mock solicitude:

"Don't excite yourself, it's bad for your heart; I can tell that from
your color."

Sprudell's answer was a malignant look from one to the other.

"On the square," said Bruce ruefully when the last turn of the revolving
door had shut Sprudell into the street, "I hadn't an idea of stirring up
anything like this when I spoke to you."

"It doesn't matter," Helen answered coldly. "It will disabuse his mind
of the notion that he has any claim on me."

"It did look as though he wanted to give that impression."

Bruce was absurdly pleased to find himself alone with her, but Helen's
eyes did not soften and her voice was distant as she said, moving toward
the nearest parlor:

"If you have anything to say to me, please be brief. I must be going."

"I want to know what Sprudell has told you that you should look at me
almost as if you hated me?"

"How else would I look at the man who murdered my brother in
cold-blood."

He stared at her blankly in an astonishment too genuine to be feigned.

"I murdered your brother in cold-blood! You are Slim's sister, then?"

"I'm Frederic Naudain's sister, if that's what you mean--his
half-sister."

The light of understanding grew slowly on Bruce's face. The revelation
made many things plain. The difference in the name accounted for his
inability to trace her. It was easy enough now to account for Sprudell's
violent opposition to their meeting.

"He told you that it was a premeditated murder?"

Watching him closely Helen saw that his tanned skin changed color.

She nodded.

"Why, I came East on purpose to find you!" he exclaimed. "To make
amends--"

"Amends!" she interrupted, and the cold scorn in her voice made the
perspiration start out on his forehead.

"Yes, amends," he reiterated. "I was to blame in a way, but not
entirely. Don't be any harder on me than you can help; it's not any easy
thing to talk about to--his sister."

She did not make it easier, but sat waiting in silence while he
hesitated. He was wondering how he could tell her so she would
understand, how not to shock her with the grewsome details of the story.
Through the wide archway with its draperies of gold thread and royal
purple velvet a procession of bare-shouldered, exquisitely dressed women
was passing and Bruce became suddenly conscious of the music of the
distant orchestra, of the faint odor of flowers and perfume, of
everything about him that stood for culture and civilization. How at the
antipodes was the picture he was seeing! For the moment it seemed as
though that lonely, primitive life on the river must be only a memory of
some previous existence. Then the unforgettable scene in the cabin came
back vividly and he almost shuddered, for he felt again the warm gush
over his hand and saw plainly the snarling madman striking, kicking,
while he fought to save him. He had meant to tell her delicately and
instead he blurted it out brutally.

"I made him mad and he went crazy. He came at me with the axe and I
threw him over my shoulder. He fell on the blade and cut an artery. Slim
bled to death on the floor of the cabin."

"Ugh--how horrible!" Bruce imagined she shrank from him. "But why did
you quarrel--what started it?"

Bruce hesitated; it sounded so petty--so ridiculous. He thought of the
two old partners he had known who had three bloody fights over the most
desirable place to hang a haunch of venison. "Salt," he finally forced
himself to answer.

"Sprudell told me that and I could not believe it."

She looked at him incredulously.

"We were down to a handful, and I fed it to a band of mountain-sheep
that came to the cabin. I had no business to do it."

"You said that he went crazy--do you mean actually?"

"Actually--a maniac--raving."

"Then why do you blame yourself so much?"

"Because I should have pulled out when I saw how things were going. We
had quarrelled before over trifles and I knew he would be furious. You
can't blame me more than I blame myself, Miss Dunbar. I suppose you
think they should hang me?" There was a pleading note in the question
and he wiped the perspiration from his forehead while he waited for her
answer.

She did not reply immediately but when she finally looked him squarely
in the eyes and said quietly: "No, because I believe you," Bruce thought
his heart turned over with relief and joy.

"What you have told me shows merely that he had not changed--that my
hopes for him were quite without foundation. Even as a child he had a
disposition--a temper, that was little short of diabolical. We have all
been the victims of it. I should not want to see another. He disgraced
and ruined us financially. Now," Helen said rising, "you must go back to
your friends. I'll take a taxicab home--"

"Please let me go with you. They can wait for me--or something," he
added vaguely. The thought of losing sight of her frightened him.

She shook her head.

"No--no; I won't listen to it." She gave him her hand: "I must thank you
for sending back my letter and picture."

"Sprudell gave them to you!"

"Yes, and the money."

"Money?"

"Why, yes." She looked at him inquiringly.

Just in time Bruce caught and stopped a grin that was appearing at the
thought that Sprudell had had to "dig up" the money he had returned to
him out of his own pocket.

"That's so," he agreed. "I had forgotten. But Miss Dunbar," eagerly. "I
must see you on business. Your brother left property that may be
valuable."

"Property? Mr. Sprudell did not mention it."

"I suppose it slipped his mind," Bruce answered drily. "You'll give me
your address and let me come to-morrow?"

"Will you mind coming early--at nine in the morning?"

"Mind! I'll be sitting on the steps at sunrise if you say so," Bruce
answered heartily.

How young she looked--how like the little girl of the picture when she
laughed! Bruce looked at his watch as he returned to his party to see
how many hours it would be before nine in the morning.

* * * * *

The shabbiness of the hotel where Helen lived surprised him. It was
worse than his own. She had looked so exceptionally well-dressed the
previous evening he had supposed that what she called ruin was
comparative affluence, for Bruce had not yet learned that clothes are
unsafe standards by which to judge the resources of city folks, just as
on the plains and in the mountains faded overalls and a ragged shirt are
equally untrustworthy guides to a man's financial rating. And the musty
odor that met him in the gloomy hallway--he felt how she must loathe it.
He had wondered at the early hour she'd set but when Helen came down she
quickly explained.

"I must leave here at half past and if you have not finished what you
have to say I thought you might walk with me to the office."

"The office?" It shocked him that she should have to go to an office,
that she had hours, that anybody should have a claim upon her time by
paying for it.

Quizzically:

"Did you think I was an heiress!"

"Last night you looked as though you might be." His tone told her of his
admiration.

"Relics of past greatness," Helen replied smiling. "A remodelled gown
that was my mother's. One good street suit at a time and a blouse or two
is the best I can do. I am merely a wonderful bluff in the evening."

Bruce felt that it was a sore spot although she was smiling, and he
could not help being glad, for it meant she needed him. If he had found
her in prosperous circumstances the success or failure of the placer
would have meant very little to her. He must succeed, he told himself
exuberantly; his incentive now was to make her life happier and easier.

"If everything goes this summer as I hope--and expect--" he said slowly,
"you need not be a 'bluff' at any hour of the day."

Her eyes widened.

"What do you mean?"

Then Bruce described the ground that he and Slim had located. He told of
his confidence in it, of his efforts to raise the money to develop it,

and the means by which he had accomplished it. Encouraged by her
intelligent interest he talked with eager enthusiasm of his plans for
working it, describing mercury traps, and undercurrents, discussing the
comparative merits of pole and block, Hungarian and caribou rifles. Once
he was well started it seemed to him that he must have been saving up
things all his life to tell to this girl. He talked almost breathlessly
as though he had much to say and an appallingly short time to say it in.

He told her about his friend, Old Felix, and about the "sassy" blue-jays
and the darting kingfisher that nested in the cut-bank where he worked,
of the bush-birds that shared his sour-dough bread. He tried to picture
to her the black bear lumbering over the river bowlders to the service
berry bush across the river, where he stood on his hind legs, cramming
his mouth and watching over his shoulder, looking like a funny little
man in baggy trousers. He told her of his hero, the great Agassiz, of
his mother, of whom even yet he could not speak without a break in his
voice, and of his father, as he remembered him, harsh, silent,
interested only in his cattle.

It dawned upon Bruce suddenly that he had been talking about
himself--babbling for nearly an hour.

"Why haven't you stopped me?" he demanded, pausing in the middle of a
sentence and coloring to his hair. "I've been prattling like an old
soldier, telling war stories in a Home. What's got into me?"

Helen laughed aloud at his dismay.

"Honest," he assured her ruefully, "I never broke out like this before.
And the worst of it is that I know with the least encouragement from you
I'll start again. I never wanted to talk so much in my life. I'm
ransacking my brain this very minute to see if there's anything else I
know that I haven't told you. Oh, yes, there is," he exclaimed putting
his hand inside his coat, "there's some more money coming to you from
Slim--I forgot to tell you. It isn't a great deal but--" he laid in her
hand the bank-notes Sprudell had been obliged to give him in
Bartlesville after having denied finding her.

Helen looked from the money to Bruce in surprised inquiry:

"But Mr. Sprudell has already given me what Freddie left."

"Oh, this is another matter--a collection I made for him after Sprudell
left," he replied glibly. It was considerable satisfaction to think that
Sprudell had had to pay for his perfidy and she would benefit by it.

The last thing that Helen had expected to do was to cry, but the money
meant so much to her just then; her relief was so great that the tears
welled into her eyes. She bit her lip hard but they kept coming, and,
mortified at such an exhibition, she laid her arm on the back of the
worn plush sofa and hid her face.

Tears, however embarrassing, have a way of breaking down barriers and
Bruce impulsively took in his the other hand that lay in her lap.

"What is it, Miss Dunbar? Won't you tell me? If you only knew how proud
and happy I should be to have you talk to me frankly. You can't imagine
how I've looked forward to being allowed to do something for you. It
means everything to me--far more than to you."

Bruce remembered having seen his mother cry, through homesickness and
loneliness, softly, uncomplainingly, as she went about her work in the
ugly frame house back there on the bleak prairie. And he remembered the
roars of rage in which Peroxide Louise had voiced her jealousy. But he
had seen few women cry, and now he was so sorry for her that it hurt
him--he felt as though someone had laid a hand upon his heart and
squeezed it.

"It's relief, I suppose," she said brokenly. "It's disgusting that money
should be so important."

"And do you need it so badly?" Bruce asked gravely.

"I need it if I am to go on living." And she told him of the doctor's
warning.

"You must go away at once." Brace's voice was sharp with anxiety. "I
wish you could come West," he added wistfully.

"I'd love it, but it is out of the question; it's too far--too
expensive."

Bruce's black eyebrows came together. His poverty had never seemed so
galling, so humiliating.

"I must go." She got up quickly. "I'm late. Do my eyes look very badly?"

"They're all right." He turned abruptly for his hat. He knew that if he
looked an instant longer he should kiss her! What was the matter with
him anyhow? he asked himself for the second time. Was he getting
maudlin? Not content with talking a strange girl to death he would put
on the finishing touch by kissing her. It was high time he was getting
back to the mountains!

He walked with her to the office, wishing with all his heart that the
blocks were each a mile long, and in his fear lest he miss a single word
she had to say he pushed divers pedestrians out of his way with so
little ceremony that only his size saved him from unpleasant
consequences.

It was incredible and absurd that he should find it so hard to say
good-bye to a girl he had just met, but when they reached the steps it
was not until he had exhausted every infantile excuse he could think of
for detaining her just an instant longer that he finally said
reluctantly:

"I suppose you must go, but--" he hesitated; it seemed a tremendous
thing to ask of her because it meant so much to him--"I'd like to write
to you if you'd answer my letter. Pardners always write to each other,
you know." He was smiling, but Helen was almost startled by the wistful
earnestness in his eyes. "I'd like to know how it feels," he added, "to
draw something in the mail besides a mail-order catalogue--to have
something to look forward to."

"To be sure--we are partners, aren't we?"

"I've had a good many but I never had one I liked better." Bruce replied
with such fervor that Helen felt herself coloring.

"I don't like being a silent partner," she returned lightly. "I wish I
could do my share. I'm even afraid to say I'll pray for your success
for, to the present, I've never made a prayer that's been answered.
But," and she sobered, "I want to tell you I do believe in you. It's
like a fairy tale--too wonderful and good to be true--but I'm going to
bank on it and whatever happens now--no matter how disagreeable--I shall
be telling myself that it is of no importance for in a few months my
hard times will all be done."

Bruce took the hand she gave him and looked deep into her eyes.

"I'll try--with all my might," he said huskily, and in his heart the
simple promise was a vow.

He watched her as she ran up the steps and disappeared inside the wide
doors of the office building--resenting again the thought that she had
"hours"--that she had to work for pay. If all went well--if there were
no accidents or miscalculations--he should be able to see her again
by--certainly by October. What a long time half a year was when a person
came to think of it! What a lot of hours there were in six months! Bruce
sighed as he turned away.

He looked up to meet the vacant gaze of a nondescript person lounging on
the curbing. It was the fourth or fifth time that morning he thought he
had seen that same blank face.

"Is this town full of twins and triplets in battered derbies?" Bruce
asked himself, eying the idler sharply as he passed, "or is that hombre
tagging me around?"





Next: A Practical Man

Previous: Millions!



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