I smelled the trouble before I found it. The scent of blood drifted in the wind. That breeze was one of the reasons I'd chosen not to run naked. That, and the fact that it didn't take much sunlight to bake my Scottish skin lobster red.
Now the dead fish in front of me made me doubly glad for my decision. If someone ran across me examining a salmon corpse while naked on all fours in the mud, I'd end up in a cage. Or a brawl.
I looked fool enough kneeling down, examining the salmon. Glassy black eyes stared back at me. Damn if the thing didn't look at me like this was my fault.
"Not me, boyo," I said. "I might like my sushi fresh, but not like this."
My finger traced the slimy fleshiness of its scaly body. It felt healthy enough, except for the small matter of brain matter leaking out of its battered head. I flicked a black splinter from my finger.
Something had smashed their skulls. But what? The power required for this kind of damage brought to mind a bear. Blacks weren't uncommon in these woods.
A twig snapped behind me. I spun around.
God, if William or Randall saw me now, they'd never let me live it down. I'd jumped like a tourist at the noise, which was probably nothing more than the wind or a rabbit.
And if it was more than a rabbit? Well, then that meant I'd had piss poor situational awareness. Either way, my brothers would expect a better soldier of me.
I could just hear Randall's voice in the back of my head. "Hard one, aren't you Bobby boy? Hunt desert foxes but get spooked by a rabbit? Piss poor example of the MacIntyre clan you are."
Never would have made this sort of mistake in the Regiment.
Of course, it had been a lifetime since I'd served. The bitterness at the thought surprised me. Past was the past and could not be changed. I'd thought the battles were behind me.
So what to make of this mystery? The fish was fresh kill, no scent of decay. Although the blacks loved the salmon, a bear wouldn't have just brained the spawning fish. The furry behemoths didn't kill for the sake of killing. No self-respecting black would have left it behind.
No self-respecting, healthy black. A sick or wounded beast couldn't be predicted.
Again, my head whipped around. Again, I saw nothing.
Nerves, Robert. You weren't this bad fighting for kith and kin in the desert. This is home.
Again the bitterness rose at how the Crown welcomed my family in service but not to live on their native soil. America was now native soil now, and this mystery in my family's territory rankled.
Still, a rabid bear might just consider this its home.
That would be a problem. I no longer ran with a rifle since I'd left the regiment. After my adventures in the desert, I didn't need reminders of those days. However, pressing my family's claim against a pissed off bear without a rifle would be a challenge. Not impossible, but no sure thing.
I considered going home. My brothers would welcome the challenge of a hunt. Hell, we could video it. Bear baiting might just have a retro charm. It could go viral.
But the dead fish didn't seem like a bear's work.
That left me with a choice. Start heading back the way I came or keep pressing on towards whatever sent dead salmon down the river like greeting cards.
When I got back to the cabin and told the story, my little brother Randall would be insufferable. He made sport of my ways, the fact that I honored even the most ridiculous rules like running unarmed in these woods. He called it foolishness. I saw it as honoring the land that welcomed a clan of outcasts into its bosom. Given the fact that Randall would never find himself unarmed in danger, I conceded the point to him.
Our older brother William would just nod, not say much. He made me look like a reckless version of Randall, spending his words like gold coins. Aye, he wouldn't say much but he'd give me a look and keep on wondering what left dead fish on our land.
For a certainty, I would be disappointed in myself. Even if I never told anyone of the moment I turned back, I would know. MacIntyres don't run from danger. That had been our family's creed since we'd fought for the Crown and since they'd cast us out for our tainted blood. Amazing we were still around to have such a philosophy. Getting home safely was a much more pragmatic principle to assure the family line.
But pride is pride. And by God, it helped us carve out a place in the New World.
I stood and continued my run.
The path was an old friend, like the route from bed to toilet. Staying on my feet didn't require me looking at the ground. I knew where the roots reached up and the dirt dropped down.
It almost felt like running on an indoor track. The trees still held their leaves, making a roof of gold and orange. It almost blocked the weak September sun out completely, giving me twilight at noon.
The cool air made the running easier, let me get at least a third more of the distance I got in the summer sun. Unless, of course, I wore a Camelpack. Another thing I'd left behind when I mustered out of the service.
A run should be something of freedom. Wind on the skin, dirt underfoot.
A run wasn't about dead fish.
But as I ran, I spotted two more salmon corpses bobbing in the water. It hadn't seemed worth getting into the frigid waters to check if they'd been brained as well.
I'm not CSI: Salmon. Looking up close at a couple more dead fish wouldn't tell me anything new. It just seemed like really long odds to expect another cause of death for the newest victims. At that point, I'd just head home and go to one of the casinos.
As much as I knew the paths, nature had its own ways. Autumn made the trees brittle as they got ready to sleep for winter. After that last fish, I missed the big bloody branch lying in the middle of the path. Wind and time had brought it down. Distraction kept me from seeing it.
I fell ass over teakettle. I'd had enough falls in life that I blew the air out of my lungs and slapped my palms against the soft dirt. My hip dropped down, taking the impact in the meat of the thigh muscle rather than breakable bone. The bruise wouldn't be pretty, but I didn't hear any sickening pop either.
In fact, I didn't hear anything.
That spooked me.
Normally, a forest spoke its own language and rarely whispered. I should have been hearing squirrels and the smaller animals fleeing the noise of my fall. Maybe more ambitious predators moving close or birds taking flight to observe a potential threat.
Now there was silence. The air was dead as the fish floating down the river.
Goose pimples rose on my flesh. In the wild, only something mean and dangerous inspired this sort of silence.
Get noticed, get eaten.
All of a sudden a rabid bear didn't seem like such a far-fetched possibility.
Falling like I did would surely get noticed, well and true. And it would have the added benefit of looking weak and tasty.
I pushed myself up, sucking in a little air as I put weight on my leg. The thigh throbbed. Better than a broken bone but a hell of a lot worse than a good massage.
The new pace of my run could only be called a trot but that would change. My leg would loosen up in a bit. It just needed some blood to flow through the muscle.
A quarter of a mile later, I knew I wasn't alone.
Sound carried well in the cold air and without anything to mask the sound, voices carried loud, if not particularly clear. Jogging instead of keeping my normal pace meant I didn't have a drumbeat pulse in my ears, so I heard the voices a good way out. And since I didn't move like a buffalo, I doubted anyone heard me. My jog became a walk.
Call me paranoid, but when there's weirdness afoot, I don't just rush into it.
I pined for my 1911. It might not have been much help against a bear but it could be a difference maker with a pair of men. Of course, I might just find some fly fisherman. Then waving around a pistol might be pretty embarrassing.
Another MacIntyre motto: Embarrassment is for the living.
Was that consistent with the notion of not shying from danger? I suppose the difference lay in embarrassment versus humiliation. I'd be embarrassed if I entered a potentially dangerous situation with an overabundance of caution. I'd be humiliated if I just simply fled that situation.
As I moved closer and the two men came into view, it became clearer I'd have been embarrassed. And probably put in cuffs. Which would be bad. I'm not the type that would do well in a cage.
Olive gray uniforms marked the men as game wardens. If they saw me waving a gun around, they'd arrest me in a heartbeat. So maybe my being paranoid about how to express my paranoia worked out.
I took deliberate steps, not slow but also not drawing attention. The effort seemed unnecessary. The rangers faced each other, talking with their hands as much as their voices. They wouldn't have noticed me doing a Highland dance.
I recognized their voices. The one with his back to me was named Will Vickers. They called his partner Scooter.
I didn't put much trust in anyone over eight who let other men call him Scooter. Hell, even if it's your legal name, a grown man can take any name he wants. This man chose Scooter. It said something about him, nothing good. It didn't help that Scooter looked a child next to his more seasoned partner. Vickers sported the honest leather skin of an older man who worked every day under the sun, while Scooter's baby-soft skin was pale in a far different way than mine. My flesh spoke of healthy Highland's milk, time spent under the sun giving it a healthy glow. Scooter's greasy skin told of more days at a desk than in the forest he was supposed to protect.
Then he had the black-blue ink of new tattoos. I'd gotten mine own done while hunting in the desert, an achievement I'd been foolish enough to think needed a memorial.
The markings looked familiar. What had the boy done to deserve remembering?
A low growl rumbled, deep in my chest. They couldn't hear it and I stamped it down quick. I took a deep breath before stepping forward. Being as how Vickers and the boy carried guns, I figured just springing myself on them might not be the best decision.
"Hallo," I called out.
My family deliberately held onto some of the old patterns of speech, no matter how long we'd been away from the land of our birth. It made us feel connected, like maybe someday we could return and find a place. Like how vampires carried the dirt of their homelands with them. Besides, the ladies couldn't resist the brogue.
Vickers spun towards me. Scooter's hand dropped to the butt of his pistol.
"Whoa, boyos," I said, holding my hands up in mock surrender. "You have me."
Vickers' lips moved, revealing teeth. I'm sure he thought of it as a smile. The rest of the muscles in his face remained tense and his eyes became narrowed.
"Hello, Allan," Vickers said. The flat voice matched his eyes. "Out for a run?"
"Aye," I said. "I needed a breather from home."
That explained my presence. I waited to hear from the government agents.
Their boots and pants hung heavily with water and mud. A trail in the riverbank led from the two men to the water. Of course, their duties might call for getting into the water. More disturbing was the net in the water. They might be looking into dead fish. After all, it that sort of thing was their job.
The impromptu dam created a huge salmon traffic jam, causing the river to look like it was made of fish. I might have thought Vickers and his partner came on the scene and chased some poachers off. But the Coho drowning in an ocean of air at Vicker's feet told a different story. Scooter held a black stick glistening with gore.
Jesus, I thought. What the hell are these fools doing on my land?
"Hey, Vic," I said, trying to keep some level of friendliness in the conversation. "How 'bout the boy quits torturing that fellow there?"
The older man moved his foot, as if to prod the salmon back into the water. Before he could, heavy pine slammed into the creature's head. It stopped moving with the wet crunch of its caved-in skull.
Vickers turned back towards his partner, looking at the heavily breathing young man like a puppy who just pissed the floor. Scooter's eyes shined bright with excitement.
I'd seen this look before, in the eyes of kids looking for a kill. Problem was, they weren't choosy about the victim. Scooter already showed himself capable of braining the fish. Would he be willing to take it to the next level?
Oh hell. The hairs on the back of my neck stood.
Recognize the things I can't change.
I wanted this to end without violence. The situation offered a couple of options. Moving forward I could get to Vickers, either strip the gun from him or at least direct its barrel down if he drew it. I might have enough time to get to Scooter.
Or I might not. That meant getting shot. Not the first time for me, as many a scar on my body would show. It hurt, and get hit the wrong way, it could be dangerous.
Another deep growl of anger started rumbling in my chest.
Keep it together, Robert.
Violence was only one path. It was familiar, an old friend.
An old friend.
That was the past. It needed to stay there.
I sucked a breath through my teeth. My sharp, clenched-together teeth.
In the forest twilight, they couldn't see my eyes closing.
Keep it together.
I couldn't change Scooter, but I could change me. Deep breaths and memories of sunny days could keep me together, even if I was balanced on a knife's edge.
"What's going on here, Vic?"
Deep breath in, those words coming out as through a bellows.
I told myself that I could not change what happened here. But Scooter hitting that fish--I'd just witnessed something more than wrong.
For now, I tamped down the anger and just kept Vickers between me and his partner. Thank God for amateurs letting their sight lines get screwed up.
"What's going on here, Vic?" I repeated. It took effort, keeping my voice low and calm.
Hell, I thought I needed to talk to them like dogs. That didn't inspire comfort.
"Department business," Vickers said, caterpillar mustache quivering as he talked.
"What kind of business is that?"
"None of yours," Scooter said.
I stared into his eyes. "Son, my family settled these woods before your great-granddaddy was a gleam in his father's eyes."
"They're not your private playground," Scooter said. "They belong to us all."
"Lucky for you. If they were, I'd be tempted to put you over my knee and show you some manners."
Damn. I needed to keep myself calm. Letting loose the anger might be satisfying, even justified, but it wouldn't be helpful. Still, I'd taken the step and committed myself. Again they felt like strange dogs, and with dogs, weakness would just invite trouble.
I stood at ease but tensed my muscles. Scooter flushed, hopefully from embarrassment but he no doubt lacked that common sense.
"Let me explain," Vickers said, holding his hands up. "These ain't your normal salmon."
"Eh?" I couldn't tell any difference between the dead fish and hundreds I'd pulled from the river before. "What? Are they bad seeds? Salmon from reform school?"
I chuckled at the pun, hoping I might defuse your situation.
"Hatchery fish," Vickers said, apparently thinking that explained the situation.
"And?" I asked. The word came out flat.
"We think some fish escaped from the hatchery. They're farm fish," Scooter spat. I swear it was the way I'd heard others talking about niggers and spics.
What the hell? These were fish he was talking about.
"And?" It felt like talking to some of my sister's slower children, only without the benefit of them being cute or blood.
"The fish from the farms," Scooter said, "They're not the same as regular fish. They haven't spent thousands of years being in nature. They're weak and coddled, then come into the rivers breed with the wild ones. Makes the whole species weaker. It's an affront."
Now I knew where I recognized Scooter's tattoo. A twisted tree. Oh hell...
"So you're going to that new church in town, Scooter?" I'd seen their followers; kids who wanted to relive the sixties. To them that meant not showering and worshipping some earth goddess.
He nodded, a fanatic's pride burning in his eyes. "My eyes have been opened."
"And open eyes means protecting the racial purity of fish?" I asked. At this point, there wasn't any way to hide my mockery. For God's sake, they were damn aqua Nazis. They killed the salmon over tainted blood. That was the exact same reason the Crown had sent my people packing across the sea.
Vickers raised his hands. "Your family's been here for years, Alan. I'd think you understand. What they're doing..."
"It's not right?" I replied. "Tell me something, Vic."
"How can you tell the hatchery fish from the wild ones?"
The doubt in his eyes told me everything. Christ, the waste. All the effort these fish took swimming up river and a couple of bureaucrats just trap and beat them. I started to turn.
"Don't move, McIntyre," Scooter called. I turned and saw him pointing his club at me.
Rage danced in front of my eyes, coloring the world red for a brief moment. I licked my lips, ready for what would happen if I let it.
It would be so simple.
No. I needed control. Going down that route was the same species of cowardice that running home would have been earlier.
"Boy, put that down," I warned after taking a deep breath. "You might get hurt."
A smart man would have seen I was on the edge. But instead of showing some nice, healthy fear, Scooter's face reddened again. This definitely wasn't embarrassment. The kid didn't have the sense he needed.
"This is holy work. Her work," he sputtered.
Bloody hell. I turned to his partner, hoping he'd take his partner in hand.
"How did you get involved in this, Vic? You gone earth mother too?"
The older man shook his head. "Might not agree with Scooter's religion but doesn't mean he isn't right about the fish. Besides, he's my partner."
"Vic, I'm going home now. I come back and this... abomination is still here, you and I have words. Then I go to the press."
"Your word against ours, Robert."
I thought of the dead fish down river I'd been collecting. I'd already seen splinters from Scooters nightstick in one fish. There'd be more.
"A MacIntyre's words are good around these parts," I warned.
I heard a rasp of metal on leather and then the snick of a round being jacked into place.
Damn. Who was the amateur now? I'd let Scooter get into my blind side.
"You're not interfering with this," the kid said. I swear his voice cracked. Instead of making me want to laugh, cold sweat beaded in the small of my back.
"Put the gun down," Vickers ordered.
"We can't let him stop the work," Scooter said. "You agreed with me. It's important."
"Put the gun down," Vickers repeated. I don't know if he heard quiver in his own voice. Hell, I almost felt sorry for the man. I'm sure all this sounded like a good idea at the time. Now Vickers was down the rabbit hole.
"If you don't care about the work, Will, think about your pension. If this gets out, they'll toss us out of the service. How's Barb going to take that? Your pension gone?"
"Lower your weapon," Vickers whispered, his voice carrying less force. He turned his head, refusing to meet my eyes.
Oh hell, he was considering what his partner said. Can't say I blamed him. I planned to turn him in for not just a crime but betraying his badge. He'd be thinking about his family and survival. Them or me. The choice on any battlefield. I don't know many people who picked the second option.
"Point a gun at me, you either pull the trigger or eat it," I warned.
The little bastard pulled the trigger.
The force of the round caught my shoulder and spun me around. Adrenaline masked the initial explosion of pain. But shock wouldn't last forever.
I ran. The same chemical flood keeping my shoulder from hurting also helped me forget the bruised muscle in my leg.
Bullets whizzed by. Hitting a moving target was hard. Since they couldn't put a kill shot in me while I stood still, I zigzagged away from them into the tree line.
More shots flew wide and heavy booted steps followed me.
Plunging deeper into the woods, I considered the situation.
A gun kept barking, the crack of splitting wood filled the forest. That waste of ammunition played to my advantage. I doubted either of the men carried more than one extra magazine and not extended ones at that.
That meant the more they shot and missed, the better my odds of survival.
Of course, those same odds called for a lucky shot hitting me. The law of large numbers worked both ways. So I kept my run crouched, offering as little of a profile as possible, moving from tree to tree.
I scrambled to a stop as the air in front of me broke and a round cracked into a tree. If I'd been a second later, the last thing I'd have heard was the soft thwock of my head splitting.
Survival required a better plan. A cliff-like hill shouldered by a ridge offered a possibility. If I could get down along the ridge, I might be able to slip back up and around the renegades. Then I could get back to the river.
Getting into the frigid waters was a last resort, but it would take me away quickly.
A part of me hated the idea of running. This madness could end quickly, the right way. All things being equal, neither of my pursuers could match me. But there was always the luck factor. Upsets happened.
Besides, victory could end up with its own uncomfortable questions.
Discretion was definitely the better part of valor. We'd meet again later.
Fair minded observers would call my next action more a dive than any real run. But the grade of the slope didn't allow for anything more graceful. Style points belonged in movies.
Telling the story later, I'd embellish. Telling the story later meant I'd still be alive and deserve to embellish.
I made it to the ridge, skidding ahead of a couple explosions of shots hitting the ground. Now I just hoped the physics of the situation were in my favor.
Something popped in my knee at the top of the ridge, hopefully nothing vital.
The first step didn't make me scream like a girl, so I kept running. A few yards ahead, an ancient tangle of roots looked remarkably like a cargo net from basic. Scurrying up it might lead to safety.
That plan survived two steps before the ground gave out.
My arms pinwheeled--all thoughts of presenting a low profile vanished--but what physics giveth, it taketh away.
I tucked, trying to take the fall as safely as possible with an arm wrapped around my head. It didn't protect from a rock gouging deep on my forehead, letting me see stars and feeling my stomach ready to vomit out the little bit of bacon I'd eaten for pre-run protein.
Those stars cleared away the second my right shoulder hit the ground. The adrenaline definitely didn't keep me from feeling the gunshot wound now.
Another hit to the forehead and then, almost as a mercy, darkness.
How long was I out?
I don't know, at least not in terms of time. My reference point was the time it took a couple of jackasses to get down the side of the hill.
When my eyes opened, Vickers and Scooter stood a few yards away from me. Either they'd decided they couldn't hit me from the top of the ridge, or maybe they'd put big boy pants on and wanted to look in a man's face when they shot him.
Like I said. Amateurs. A smart man would have put a couple rounds in my head and called it a day.
I lay there for a second, thinking.
When the wind shifted, I allowed myself a smile.
I kept my eyes closed as the two men talked. Let them work themselves up to the next step. Take all the time they needed.
Ah hell. They'd only been arguing a couple minutes and Scooter started lifting his gun up.
Elbows sinking into the mud, I pushed myself up and craned my neck.
"Be a man," I called.
Scooter blinked. "What?"
"Be a man. Come over here and look in my eyes if you want to kill me. You're doing this for your goddess or whatnot? Be a man!"
The boy just stood there, mouth open like the fish he'd been killing.
"What, were you hoping the fall did me? Going to come over here and poke me with a stick?" I goaded. Scooter flinched.
How far to push it?
The aches in my shoulder and leg, now with a thousand more from various cuts and bruises, made me want to push all the way.
"Grow a pair and some hair. Walk over here and put the gun against my head and pull the trigger. Christ, otherwise you're just going to wing me again."
Another exchange between Vickers and Scooter. The older man grabbed his shoulder but got pushed away. Scooter stomped towards me, his partner following.
I stood, gritting my teeth at the pain.
"Get on your knees," Scooter ordered.
"No, boyo. I don't kneel. You look in my eyes like a man doing this."
Scooter's Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he raised his weapon. The gun shook in his hand.
From the running? Or from looking his victim in the eye?
My lips spread wide. Some might have called it a smile.
I looked over his shoulder at Vickers. "You honestly think you're getting away with this?" I asked.
"Huh?" he asked, surprised at the question.
"I have your bullet in my shoulder. They find my body, run ballistics, your gun will come up. It's a government piece. They keep them on record.
"Or what? You're going to dig the round out? Carve me up like a deer? You ever hunted, boyo? Felt hot flesh under your knife. Hell, you even got a knife?"
The older game warden looked down. He pulled a hand from his pocket and sunlight glinted off a blade.
"Enough," he said. "Let's get this over with."
"You police your brass in the woods? You fired enough off. It'll just take one jacket getting found."
"He's stalling," Scooter yelled, his voice high-pitched. "Guess he's not as ready for this as he wants us to think."
The younger man dug the barrel of his gun in my forehead, still warm from the firing.
"Last chance," I said. "You do this, you've got my brothers to think about."
Vickers shook his head. "Nobody'll find the body."
"Nobody will need to," a voice called from behind the gunmen.
"Randall," I said, acknowledging my brother.
Seeing him standing there confirmed the wisdom of keeping my sweats on for the run. Randall looked a bit ridiculous, standing there without even his skivvies.
"Aye," he acknowledged.
"And don't be forgetting me." My older brother William walked the final steps down the hill as if he floated. He couldn't fall on an oil slick. Anyone watching him and listening to him would think leprechaun.
They'd be wrong.
Vickers' eyes flicked back and forth from me to my brothers.
I think the fact that they stood stark naked accounted for his inability to process.
"We've got enough bullets for all of them," Scooter said.
Okay, the kid just went up a few points in my stock. He was utterly wrong about the bullet count. But here are my brothers, bare ass and acting like it's a summer day, yet Scooter wasn't even blinking.
Seeing the joy in their eyes should have sent Scooter and Vickers running.
"No, you don't," Randall said. He licked his lips, baring his teeth.
Then his face changed. Randall's flesh rippled and his jaws widened. Bones cracked and fur began erupting from his skin.
William followed suit a second later.
"Wh..what?" Scooter asked.
"No. Not what. Were," I said. An old joke, at the expense of humans seeing the change.
Honestly, the human brain wasn't wired to process the change. Back in the Old Country, wolves ruled the night. Eighty pounds of muscle and teeth evolved to hunt. Their packs struck terror into villages.
Now imagine a creature three times that size, capable of standing on its hind legs with forepaws that still resembled human hands. Even more frightening were our eyes, still the blue or green we'd been born with and filled with the intelligence of man.
My body turned, squeezing out the deformed bullet from my shoulder. I tossed off my sweats, twisting and pulling the loose fitting clothing off.
"If... if you could do this...?" Vickers gasped.
There were plenty of answers I could give. I needed exercise. Being prey offered an interesting change of pace. The truth was, I just needed us away from prying eyes.
I didn't answer and just kept changing, taking it to the same halfway point between man and wolf as my brothers had.
The smell of human scat filled the air.
I'd expected the knock on the door for a few days now.
Taking my time, I finished drying the dish in my hands. My brothers probably heard the noise but I'm the diplomat. So I opened the door and looked at the group of suits walking towards the cabin.
Of the five, the pudgy blond at the lead seemed the least threatening. The two slabs of beef at the back of the group were all head and shoulders, no necks at all. Either one of them could bench press me with no problem. I wondered if the muscle came from some sort of magicks or just freakish genes.
They looked at me like butchers sizing up a cow. I respected that. I'd already decided to rip their skulls from their necks if necessary.
Probably best just to deal with the pudgy blond man at the door.
"Agent Toles," I said, nodding my head. "To what do we owe this pleasure?"
I pointedly refused to invite him in. Among those who held to the old ways, such a thing might be marked an insult. Thresholds represented protection. Refusing to ask someone said you saw them as untrustworthy. Toles, a human, did enough work with our kind to know the subtle slap in his face.
"You watch the news. You know about the missing forestry agents in the woods."
"And naturally you come to the neighborhood werewolves," I said. I kept my face neutral.
I'm the most diplomatic of my brothers. That meant I didn't initially rip off an interloper's head. I still didn't enjoy putting up with nonsense.
I reached into my pocket. One of the thugs behind Toles reached under his jacket.
Toles held up his hand.
I showed him my camera, the pictures we took. My wounded shoulder, the dead fish.
"So you killed them?" Toles asked.
I shrugged. "They were monsters."
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