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The Overmountain Men [Book 1 of the Overmountain Men Trilogy] [MultiFormat]
eBook by Cameron Judd

eBook Category: Historical Fiction
eBook Description: He was only a boy of ten when he survived a bloody massacre in Charles Town, but with Joshua Colter's survival came the will to fight and survive. On the land that has become his home, a mountain paradise the Cherokee call Tanisi, Joshua must face his destiny of being a leader in the bitter fight for land and power between the Cherokee, settlers and British royalty, or he will lose the only place he can call his own. In an age of revolution in the deep wilderness of the rugged frontier Joshua must test his loyality, strength and will to survive. THE OVERMOUNTAIN MEN is just the first chapter in an epic saga of love, hate and war from one of the leading authors of frontier fiction, Cameron Judd. They are the men and women who forged a nation, conquered nature and found freedom´┐ŻTHE OVERMOUNTAIN MEN.

eBook Publisher: E-Reads, Published: 1991
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2001


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1

Three years and seven months before Joshua Byrum gave the Roman coin to John Hawk, his life was still being lived far from the land of the Overhill Cherokees, and of their ways he had known nothing but what his father told him on his periodic visits home. And little enough that was; Jackson Bartholomew Byrum had no real affection for the Indians from whom he gouged his livelihood and talked only briefly of them.

Byrum's homecomings to the little clapboard house outside Charles Town, South Carolina, inevitably brought a mixture of blessing and tension to Joshua and his mother, Hester Byrum. For Hester in particular they were stressful times, for Byrum's habit was to get drunk and then make up for months without access to his wife's physical charms. Hester endured his rough, loveless molestations patiently and silently, even though she knew it was likely that Byrum was an unfaithful husband. He probably kept company with a Cherokee woman back across the mountains, the habit of many traders. She never asked him about it and would not as long as he came home with money in hand, for on that money and what food she could raise she and Joshua depended for life. As long as Jack Byrum provided sustenance, Hester would ask no more of him.

And her husband's visits, though trying, were after all brief enough to be endurable. After only a few weeks, sometimes just a few days, Byrum would be gone, heading back to the wilderness beyond the mountains, trailing behind him another string of packhorses laden with cheap trade rifles, beads, blankets, ammunition, knives, cloth, mirrors, kettles, and vermilion paint. Hester would watch him go, then kneel and kiss her son. "We have money and all is well," she would say. "We are together again, alone, and that is as it should be."

But one morning Jack Byrum rode home again, and matters were different from then on.

Joshua was the first to see him return. At age seven, the boy was already showing clear evidence of a special affinity for life outdoors. From dawn until Hester called him in after dark, Joshua spent most of his time outside the clapboard cabin, exploring the creek, the fields behind the farmstead, the weed-grown picket-fencerows, and the little cave out of which the spring bubbled. From time to time when he thought of it, he would lift his eyes toward the place where the road emerged between two low hills west of the farmstead and look for the approaching form of his father. Byrum's homecomings followed no obvious schedule and could come as often as three times or as few as one time a year.

Usually Joshua saw nothing but empty road between those hills, or some local rider, wagoner, or pedestrian. On this morning of Thursday, March 19, 1757, however, Joshua saw an approaching horseman that he recognized at once, despite the distance, and a second rider as well. For a full minute he stared, then turned and ran into the house. "He's coming, Mother! And there's another man with him!"

Hester put down the smock she was stitching and without a word followed her son outside. There was no need to ask to whom "he" referred. She stood in the front yard, her arm over Joshua's shoulder, and silently watched as Byrum rode through the crumbling picket gate. Her eyes trailed up and down the hefty length of her husband, then shifted suspiciously to the hulking slump-shouldered man with him.

Byrum nodded at his wife before he dismounted. "Hester," he said. Glancing down to Joshua, he said, "Hello, boy. Getting bigger all the time."

"I know how to set a rabbit snare," Joshua said, unveiling his latest accomplishment in hopes of praise.

Byrum did not listen. Dismounting, he waved back toward the big man with him. The latter had a full black beard, the bottom of which dusted his broad chest, the top growing out of his cheeks halfway up to his eyes, making him appear masked. "This is Henry Dorey, from North Carolina," Byrum said. "Him and me is partners together on a special job, and I've come from Fort Prince George to get you and Joshua. Henry, he came along with me for company."

"Get us? Why?" Hester asked.

Byrum led his horse to a rainwater rivulet, still filled from a dawn downpour. "I'm taking you and Joshua back with me," he said. "From now on, we'll be together. That's good, eh?"

Hester said nothing. Joshua, not sure whether to be excited or horrified by what he had just heard, looked up to his mother for guidance. She did not look back at him but stared wordlessly across at the western horizon. Henry Dorey was only now dismounting.

"It looks like another rain will blow in," she said at last. "Joshua, you help your father and Mr. Dorey see to their horses." She turned and walked back inside the house, having not yet kissed or even touched her husband.

Jack Byrum put on an expression Joshua could not read and watched her depart, then reached down distractedly to tousle his son's thick nut-brown hair. "You big enough to lead this horse into the barn, boy? Good... water it some more and feed it some. I'm going to go in and talk to your mother."

Joshua felt proud to have been given an important job but a little frightened to be left alone, even for a few moments, with the stranger Henry Dorey. He watched the big North Carolinian from the corner of his eye. Dorey looked down at him, and the black beard parted along the line of his mouth as he grinned. Dorey's teeth were yellow and crooked, worn down like those of an ancient dog.

"Think you'll like living among the bloody Cherokee, boy?" He dropped the reins of his horse and let the animal wander away from him to a patch of new grass that it immediately began to crop.

Joshua mumbled a meaningless answer and led the horse across the dirt lot toward the barn while Dorey filled and lit a long clay pipe he had pulled from beneath the matchcoat that draped his shoulders. When Joshua came out of the barn, he was shocked to see that Dorey was emptying his bladder against the side of the house. He turned and grinned at Joshua as he did so, sending smoke out between his ripe-corn teeth. Joshua felt a great burst of disgust but didn't let it show. He had learned long ago to hide his feelings when his father was home. "That makes a man feel better," Dorey said. "Put up my horse too, won't you, boy?" Rehitching his French fly trousers, Dorey walked around the front of the house. Joshua heard him stomp the mud from his feet onto the porch, then swing open and slam the door. Adult voices murmured inside; Dorey laughed at something Byrum said.

Joshua took Dorey's horse to the barn and did not come out again for a long time, even after he had finished tending the animal. Instead he walked to the open west door of the barn and looked out, staring at the horizon as his mother had, wondering what lay beyond it as he fingered the Roman coin hanging on the cord around his neck.

Jack Byrum took a long swallow of buttermilk and wiped the remainders of it from his beard onto a sleeve already thick with the residue of prior swipes. A tallow lamp sent pale, weak light across the slab table, which was spread with the remnants of a salt pork and hominy supper. Byrum resumed talking as Hester and Joshua listened silently and Henry Dorey picked scraps of meat from between his teeth. He had hardly spoken at all throughout the evening, but he had stared openly at Hester in a way that made Joshua feel defensive toward his mother.

"They're building a big diamond-shaped stockade and calling it Fort Loudoun, after the earl of Loudoun," Byrum said. "He's the new commander of all the British soldiers in the colonies, or some such. The Cherokees, they're happy as dogs in horsemeat to finally have a real fort there among them, and real soldiers. I'm happy about it too. Some of those red sods have been talking to the French on the sneak, trying to set up trade with them. We let that happen, and we're finished. The fort will go a long way to keep us and the Cherokees doing good friendly business.

"You'll like it there, Hester, don't you worry. The place is crawling with folks besides the Cherokees -- South Carolina provincials doing most of the building and the British regulars keeping it all supervised. Unakas, the Cherokees call the white folk. A lot of the soldiers are bringing their families in, so there's other white women, plus all the Cherokee womenfolk.

"The man in charge is named Demere, Captain Raymond Demere. Regular British and a soldier all the way. He put up with a lot from the man who designed the fort -- a German, name of DeBrahm. Demere called him a madman to his face one time, and he's right. Demere and him argued all the time -- it got so bad that DeBrahm moved out to one of the Cherokee towns and give out his orders from there. But things are better now. DeBrahm is gone. He run off this past Christmas. The big chief Old Hop took to calling him Warrior Who Ran Away in the Night."

Joshua asked, "Is it DeBrahm who hired you to bring the cannon to the fort?"

"No, that's Demere. Hell, DeBrahm didn't even want cannon in the place! But Demere's ready to pay me and Henry good wages to haul several in from Fort Prince George, though I don't believe he thinks we can really do it. And it's going to be a devil of a job, that's God's truth. The damned things weigh three hundred pounds and upward apiece, and there's no way to get a wagon through those mountains. But Henry and me and a string of good packhorses could move them mountains themselves if the money was good enough."

Hester spoke for the first time in an hour. "Why must you take me and Joshua with you? Why can't we stay where we are?"

Byrum's expression made it clear the question was not well taken. "You don't think a family should be together, Hester?"

"You've never thought so before now."

Byrum's face flushed so that it was evident, even in the feeble lamplight. "This is naught that we should be talking about before a guest, Hester. I'll charge you to keep your mouth shut about such matters."

Hester looked down at her plate. Joshua felt vaguely sick to his stomach.

Byrum smiled at his son, seeking to relieve the tense atmosphere. "You think you'd like to be raised among the redskins, boy?"

Joshua glanced at his mother, then nodded, fearing to do anything else. But there was more than forced agreement in his answer. The truth was that the idea of traveling across the distant mountains and away from this port-city area he had always known did have much appeal. Joshua knew little about Indians except that they were reputed to be the finest of woodsmen and hunters, and that was exactly what he hoped to be someday. To live among the Overhill Cherokees would mean exposure to their knowledge and skills, and probably, when he was older, access to their rich hunting grounds.

"See there, Hester? Joshua wants to go," Byrum said, and Hester nodded compliantly.

That night, before retiring to the barn -- for he had given up his bed to Henry Dorey -- Joshua found his mother alone behind the house. He crept up to her so silently that she was startled when he touched her arm.

"Jack, please -- can't you allow me even a moment's peace?" She looked surprised, pleasantly, when she saw it was Joshua.

Joshua said, "Don't worry about going over the mountains, Mother. I'll be with you."

"Aye, and that's the one comfort to me," she said. "You're God's blessing in a life that's had few of them." She knelt so her face was level with Joshua's and smiled at him. "Only seven years old and already so much a little man, ready to go into the wilderness. What a brave son I have!"

"Why don't you want to go, Mother? Haven't you ever wondered what might be there?"

"I know what's there -- wilderness and heathens who strip the hair from those they murder. The land across the mountains will be the death of me, if I go."

Joshua was chilled. "Don't talk so, Mother!"

Tears pooled in her eyes. "Forgive me for it, but I can talk no other way. The wilderness is a fearful place for me. I should never have married a man as drawn to it as Jack Byrum is." She stood, drying her tears, and took a deep breath. "But marry Jack Byrum I did, and go with him I shall, though I know as well as I know my own name that I shall not return. Now, be off to bed. The morning will come early."

That night Joshua lay awake a long time, thrilled at the thought of the adventure before him but afraid because of the grim way his mother had spoken. At last he went to sleep, nestling down in his blankets in the barn loft, listening to mice scampering in the straw.

After that night, Joshua seldom saw his mother shed tears about the change that had come sweeping into their lives. She became ever more resigned and quiet. Even when Jack Byrum went into Charles Town and sold the farmstead, Hester kept her emotions masked. When the family, along with Henry Dorey, rode away from their South Carolina home for the last time, Hester did not even look back.

The journey across to Fort Prince George, built four years earlier as South Carolina's westernmost outpost, was uneventful and finally dull, despite Joshua's initial eagerness. The negative impression made upon Joshua by Henry Dorey did not mellow with time, and the boy stayed close to his mother, feeling instinctively that the ever-staring Dorey was a threat.

Arrival at Fort Prince George itself was a time of excitement and welcome respite from long and uninterrupted travel. Even Hester seemed revitalized. But Byrum and Dorey grew more somber and intense after reaching the fort, for here their real job began, and they knew far better than Hester or Joshua how difficult it would be.

Soon enough it was clear to all. Joshua found the journey to Fort Loudoun heartbreaking, for he had inherited his mother's concern for animals, and the method Byrum and Dorey contrived to carry the cannon proved brutal to the packhorses they purchased. The two traders placed the cannon atop individual packsaddles and lashed them tight with belts around the straining animals' midsections. Then they drove the horses as hard as they could along the hundred and fifty miles of narrow mountain trails that led to Fort Loudoun.

The trails were often almost impossible for the cannon-laden horses to maneuver, and on several occasions a horse would fall, its back snapping with a sickening pop as the heavy cannons shifted. Joshua would cry when that occurred, and Hester would comfort him as his father or Dorey shot the hopelessly injured animal and shifted the cannon to a spare horse. Then they would proceed, leaving the carcass to the carrion birds. So went the grueling six-miles-a-day journey from its beginning until its welcome end, weeks later.

Arrival at Fort Loudoun, a large palisaded enclosure that stood on an elevation south of the Little Tanisi River where it met the Tellico River, so overwhelmed Joshua that he almost forgot the rigors of the journey. The fort itself was far more elaborate than Fort Prince George, and Captain Raymond Demere, in his officer's uniform, greatly impressed Joshua. Demere enthusiastically welcomed Byrum, Dorey, and their artillery. It was one of the few moments in his life when Joshua was truly proud of his father, despite the horror he still felt at Byrum and Dorey's brutality to the horses.

The cannon had been nailed up with steel spikes and were placed that evening into a large fire to soften the spikes for drilling out. Joshua, watched by his silent mother, danced in his excitement by the fire in the center of the fort, as lively as the sparks the flames spat skyward.

Everywhere Joshua looked he saw amazing things and intriguing people. The British soldiers looked dashing in their Prussian-style uniforms of red coats marked with the facings of the Forty-second Regiment. They wore tricorn hats, pipe-clayed white breeches, and gaiters. Scores of them circled in the light of the fire, some leaning on their eleven-pound Brown Bess muskets and watching the blacksmith tend to the heating of the cannon. Others were seated or reclining on the ground, smoking or picking their teeth with twigs. But soldiers Joshua had seen earlier at Fort Prince George. The Cherokees, who came into the fort from the nearby Overhill towns, were the people who truly fascinated him.

The younger Cherokees, those Joshua's age and even several years older, were brown-skinned from head to toe and wore no clothing at all. The men wore breechcloths, some with tasseled sashes that hung down their thighs. Most also wore leggins and had chests decorated with intricate gunpowder tattoos impressed into their skin, symbolizing valor and wartime achievements. A few men wore moccasins, but most were barefoot. Several of the oldest men had ornaments of silver hanging from their earlobes, which had been stretched and cut ornamentally.

The hair of the warriors was generally absent, except for one long braid at the crown of the scalp. This was greased heavily with bear oil. "They pluck out the rest by the roots," Byrum told Joshua when he asked. "And they flinch not a bit, those sods. Pain means nothing to them."

The Cherokee women for the most part had long braids of hair rolled into wreathlike piles atop their heads, held in place with silver brooches. Many wore colored ribbons or strips of cloth plaited into their hair or streaming from it past their shoulders. They wore knee-length skirts made of softened deerskin. A few wore short calico waistcoats, apparently obtained through British trade, and some wore nothing above the waist. The younger girls were entirely without clothing, like the boys. At first Joshua stared openly at the Indians' nakedness, for he was unaccustomed to it, until Hester scolded him in a whisper and made him ashamed.

Many of the Cherokee women and older girls kept close company with soldiers, and Joshua soon realized, to the extent he was able to understand such things, that these had been taken by the soldiers as mates or concubines. But there were also several white women and their children about, the recently arrived families of some of the soldiers. White and Indian mixed freely within the fort's boundaries. All in all, there was a spirit of unity between the Cherokees and the soldiers palpable enough even for young Joshua to detect.

He went to his mother's side and into her ear whispered, "I'm glad we've come here, Mother."

Hester Byrum smiled and patted his shoulder. As the red light of the fire smoothed away the creases around Hester's eyes and mouth and erased the eternal dark circles beneath her eyes, Joshua thought that his mother was the most beautiful woman he ever had seen.

Joshua and Hester spent the first night within the fort itself, sleeping on their blankets near a rocky promontory that jutted out of the ground between the parade ground and the officers' barracks near the north palisade. The scent of the dying bonfire lay heavily within the fort, mixing with the organic stench of the trench latrine. Where Jack Byrum was neither Hester nor Joshua knew; he had vanished earlier in the evening and had not returned for them. "Be patient," Hester said. "Your father is not a man to be rushed or told what to do. When he is ready, he will come for us." Joshua knew as well as his mother that Byrum was probably passed out over a jug of rum somewhere.

Drumbeats of reveille awakened Joshua the next morning. He rose, rolled up his blanket, and climbed atop the ledge, from where he watched the colors raised over the Prince of Wales Bastion on the northeastern corner of the irregularly shaped fortification. Afterward, he and his mother shared a silent breakfast of beef jerky and parched corn leftover from the journey across the mountains and watched the soldiers drill on the parade grounds.

Joshua and Hester slowly explored the fort and surrounding grounds together for more than half of the day, staying out of the way of the red-coated regulars who drilled, practiced with bayonets, stood guard at the big gates of the fort, and did the other duties of military routine. But the soldiers accounted for only a portion of the bustling activity inside Fort Loudoun. Children played near the barracks west of the parade ground, and soldiers' wives sat in the shade of the various log and clapboard structures within the fort walls and talked as they sewed, churned, and in some cases nursed infants hidden beneath discreetly placed shawls.

In early afternoon Joshua left his mother in the company of a plump, talkative soldier's wife named Christiana Cox and left for further exploration on his own.

The cannon were being emplaced atop high platforms at the fort's bastions. Joshua watched as one of the guns was rolled into place at the Duke of Cumberland Bastion on the southwest corner and looked for his father among the mix of regulars, South Carolina provincials, civilians, and Cherokees watching the work. He did not see him but did spot Captain Demere, who in the morning light looked more haggard than he had the day before. Joshua would later learn that Demere's health had declined under the strain of seeing to Fort Loudoun's completion, his only respite being that the cantankerous engineer DeBrahm was long gone.

Despite his eccentricities, DeBrahm had designed a fort that was sound if overly ornate. With Demere's more practical alterations, it was now an impressive fortification. Fort Loudoun's walls consisted of an ample palisade of logs sharpened at the top and angled slightly outward over a sloping earthwork. Loopholes for muskets were drilled through the palisade at regular intervals.

Such features were designed to make besieging the wall difficult and scaling it all but impossible. Even reaching the walls would be difficult. Outside the line of pales and beyond the earthwork was an encircling moat about ten feet wide and four feet deep, filled with honey locusts that formed an impenetrable barrier. The moat was bridged to allow access to the fort's big gate.

The soldiers' barracks stood along the west palisade. At the northwest-facing King George Bastion was a powder magazine, and nearby, an area sufficiently large to graze livestock for food in time of siege. The much-used parade ground was a rectangular area in the center of the fort. The guardhouse stood near the east gate, between the Prince of Wales Bastion and the blacksmith shop. Nearby was the well and garden area, and the fourth bastion, called the Queen Bastion.

The blacksmith shop was bustling at the moment. Joshua approached it. A group of Cherokees had brought in three trade muskets for repairs; one of the Indians was arguing forcibly with someone. Joshua moved around to see more clearly and realized the Cherokee -- who was a full head taller than his fellows, very scarred, and marked from long-ago smallpox -- was raging at none other than Jack Byrum. The sight frightened Joshua. The Indian had a tomahawk on his hip. What if he became angry enough to use it? Joshua knew little of Indians but had heard they were violent people.

The Indian and Byrum were arguing in a mix of English and Cherokee. Though he could not understand much of it, Joshua made out that the dispute was over one of the muskets, which the Indian apparently claimed was defective. Byrum, obviously the trader who had sold the gun in the first place, was just as vigorously alleging that any problem was the result of carelessness or abuse by the warrior himself, whom Byrum referred to as Bloody Eagle.

The fort blacksmith stood close by, listening to the argument with a growing look of alarm. At last he stepped forward, pulled Byrum aside, and spoke to him out of earshot of the Indians. Joshua, however, was close enough to hear what was said. "Byrum, you keep your head! If Bloody Eagle takes a dislike to you, he'll make you suffer for it, and the rest of us besides, no doubt. Tell him you are his friend, that you respect him, and that I'll see his musket repaired at your expense, or I'll wrap my hammer around your head. Do you understand me?"

Byrum snorted and grew red. "I'll not pay to repair the musket of that red sod! Go to Satan's blazes, the both of you!" With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, almost knocking Joshua over in the process, yet not even noticing him. A strong rum smell trailed after Byrum.

The blacksmith returned to Bloody Eagle, who stood very straight, arms crossed over his chest, looking down a long crooked nose at the smith. "You are as powerful in persuasion as you are in war, Awahili," the blacksmith said. "The gun shall be repaired as you wish. I am proud to repair the musket of the great Bloody Eagle... a gift from me to you."

The warrior's expression never changed, but Joshua read satisfaction in the dark narrow eyes. Bloody Eagle and the other Cherokees turned and walked away with great dignity.

The smith watched them go, shook his head, and turned to Joshua, who had come nearer. "If ever there's one to be careful about, it's the Bloody Eagle," he said. "He'd be glad to hang the scalp of any of us unakas from his pole any day -- and I'll not lose my hair because Jack Byrum is so rummy a fool. I plan to keep my thatch. How about you, young gentleman?"

"Yes, sir." Joshua wheeled and took off at a trot after Byrum, who was walking with an uneven drunken gait across the parade yard.

At that moment a loud boom echoed across the stockade from the direction of the King George Bastion. As the blast echoed away, Joshua heard a babble of voices, some sending up distinctly British cheers, others Cherokee war cries.

The first of the cannon Jack Byrum had brought across the mountains had been tested, and the results, it seemed, had been pleasing. Joshua smiled but then looked at his father and was shocked.

Jack Byrum had fallen to his knees in the middle of the parade ground, his hands flat on the top of his head. Joshua's smile faded; he ran forward. "Father! What's wrong?"

Byrum, startled by his son, looked up sharply. Suddenly he seemed embarrassed. "Nothing's wrong, boy," he said. "It's just that for a second, when them Cherokees yelled, as clear as day I could see that Bloody Eagle coming up behind me and..." He didn't finish, but shuddered and rose. "Where's your mother?" he asked. "It's time I took you home."

Joshua was crestfallen. "Home? Back to Charles Town?"

Byrum cast up his eyes. "Don't be a fool, boy. Your home ain't Charles Town no more. It's Tuskegee. You're going to live among the Indians, boy. You like that notion, eh?"

"Yes," Joshua said. "I like that."

But Byrum hadn't waited to hear the answer. He had seen Hester across the stockade yard, still talking to Christiana Cox, and had already headed toward her. Joshua followed.

For the next month Joshua Byrum's life was a blur of change. Greater even than he had imagined was the transition from South Carolina yard child to Overhill Cherokee trader's assistant, which was, in effect, what he became. His usefulness to his father was limited at best, but what jobs he could handle -- cleaning trade muskets, folding hides, polishing hatchets, stacking boxes and kegs -- he did with enthusiasm at the little complex of three log huts that composed Jack Byrum's trading center in the little town of Tuskegee, close by Fort Loudoun.

Hester, Joshua was pleased to see, adapted to her new life more readily than he had thought she would. Though his sensitivities were limited by his age, Joshua nevertheless was a good reader of his mother's mind and heart; when she was happy or when she hurt, he sensed it.

Such sensitivities Joshua certainly had not inherited from his father. Jack Byrum went through life virtually oblivious to his wife's feelings and needs. To him she was handy for preparing a good meal, warming his bed on cold nights, fulfilling his physical desires. Only one thing seemed to make him aware of his wife as a woman worthy of attention and protection, and that was the increasingly obvious efforts of Henry Dorey to steal her from him.

Dorey, whose trade store was in Tikwalitsi, Bloody Eagle's village, was not particularly focused in his amorous endeavors. He already had on his string at least two Cherokee women, one expatriated Creek girl, and the wife of one of the provincial soldiers, but he seemed particularly determined to steal Hester away from Byrum. Byrum at first ignored Dorey's lechery, for he had seen the man striving just as hard to woo the plump and religious Christiana Cox from her red-haired soldier husband -- but after a time, and several warnings that Dorey ignored, Byrum lost his patience. Though not prone to give much affection of his own to his wife, he was even less prone to let somebody else try to fill the gap. Joshua watched the growing conflict from the perspective of a child, but as he usually did, understood far more than the adults around him suspected.

Copyright © 1991 by Cameron Judd


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