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A Little Brother to the Bear by  William J. Long
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K'DUNK THE FAT ONE

[129]

K
'DUNK THE FAT ONE, as Simmo calls him, came out of his winter den the morning after the Reverend James had stirred the sod of his first flower bed. It was early April, and the first smell of spring was in the air—that subtle call of Mother Earth to her drowsy children to awake and come out and do things. The Reverend James felt the call in his nose and, remembering his boyhood, as we all do at the smell of spring, resolved to go fishing after he had finished his morning paper. His wife felt it, went to the door, took a long breath and cried, "Isn't this just glorious!" Then [130] she grabbed a trowel—for when a man must off to the brook for his first trout a woman, by the same inner compulsion, must dig in the earth—and started for the flower bed. A moment later her excited call came floating in through the open window.

"Ja-a-a-a-mes? James!"—the first call with a long up slide, the second more peremptory—"what in the world did you plant in this flower bed?"

"Why," said the Reverend James, peering quizzically over the rim of his spectacles at the open window, "why, I thought I planted portulaca seed."

"Then come out here and see what's come up," ordered his wife; and the surprised old gentleman came hurriedly to the door to blink in astonishment at three fat toads that were also blinking in the warm sunshine, and a huge mud-turtle that was sprawling and hissing indignantly in a great hole in the middle of his flower bed.

A sly, whimsical twinkle was under the old minister's spectacles as he regarded the queer crop that had come up overnight. [131] "Whatsoever a man soweth, whatsoever a man soweth," he quoted softly to himself, eyeing the three toads askance, and poking the big turtle inquisitively, but snapping his hand back at sight and sound of the hooked beak and the fierce hissing. Then, because his library contained no book of exegesis equal to the occasion, he caught a small boy who was passing on his way to school and sent him off post-haste to my rooms to find out what it was all about.

Now the three fat toads had also smelled the spring down in a soft spot under the lawn, whither, in the previous autumn, they had burrowed for their winter sleep. When the Reverend James stirred the sod, the warm sun thawed them out and brought them the spring's message, and they scrambled up to the surface promptly, as full of new life as if they had not been frozen into insensible clods for the past six months. As for the big turtle, the smell of the fresh earth had probably brought her up from the neighboring pond to search out a nest for herself where she might lay her eggs. Finding the [132] soft warm earth of the portulaca bed, she had squirmed and twisted her way down into it, the loose earth tumbling in on her and hiding her as she went down.

When the sharp feminine eyes swept over the flower bed they detected at once the hollow in the middle, showing careless workmanship on the part of somebody. "That hole must be filled up," promptly declared Mrs. James; but first, woman-like, she thrust her trowel deep into it. "Aha! a rock—careless man," she gave judgment, and took another jab and a two-handed heave at the hard object. Whereupon out came the big mud-turtle, scrambling, hissing, protesting with beak and claw against being driven out of the best nest she had ever found so early in the season. That night there were curious sounds in the grass and dead leaves—rustlings and croakings and low husky trills, as the toads came hopping briskly by twos and threes [133] down to the pond. From every direction, from garden and lawn and wood and old stone wall, they came croaking and trilling through the quiet twilight, and hopping high with delight at the first smell of water. Down the banks they came, sliding, rolling, tumbling end over end,—any way to get down quickly,—landing at last with glad splashings and croakings in the warm shallows, where they promptly took to biting and clawing and absurd little wrestling bouts; which is the toad's way of settling his disputes and taking his own mate away from the other fellows.

Two or three days they stayed in the pond, filling the air with gurgling croaks and filling the water with endless strings of gelatine-coated eggs—enough to fill the whole pond banks-full of pollywogs, did not Mother Nature step in and mercifully dispose of ninety-nine per cent of them within a few days of hatching, and set the rest of them to eating each other industriously as they grew, till every pollywog that was left might truthfully sing with the cannibalistic mariner:

Oh, I am the cook and the captain bold

And the mate of the Nancy brig,

The bos'n tight and the midshipmite

And the crew of the captain's gig.

For every pollywog represented in his proper person some hundred or more of his fellow-pollywogs that he had eaten in the course of his development. But long before that time the toads had left the pond, scattering to the four winds whence they had come, caring not now what became of their offspring. It was then that K'dunk the Fat One came back to the portulaca bed.

Mrs. James found him there the next morning—a big, warty gray toad with a broad grin and a fat belly and an eye like a jewel—blinking sleepily after his night's hunting. "Mercy! there's that awful toad again. I hope"—with a cautious glance all round—"I hope he hasn't brought the turtle with him." She gave him a prod and a flip with the trowel to get him out of the flower bed, whereupon K'dunk scrambled into his hole under an overhanging sod and refused to come out, spite of tentative pokes [135] of the trowel in a hand that was altogether too tender to hurt him. And there he stayed, waging his silent warfare against the trowel, until I chanced along and persuaded the good lady that she was trying to drive away the very best friend that her flowers could possibly have. Then K'dunk settled down in peace, and we all took to watching him.

His first care was to make a few hiding holes here and there in the garden. Most of these were mere hollows in the soft earth, where K'dunk would crouch with eyes shut tight whenever his enemies were near. His color changed rapidly till it was the same general hue as his surroundings, so that, when he lay quiet and shut his bright eyes in one of his numerous hollows, it was almost impossible to find him. But after he had been worried two or three times by the house-dog—a fat, wheezy little pug that always grew excited when K'dunk began to hop about in the twilight but that could never bark himself up to the point of touching the clammy thing with his nose—he [136] dug other holes, under the sod banks, or beside a rock, where Grunt, the pug, could not bother him without getting too much out of breath.

We made friends with him at first by scratching his back with a stick, at which pleasant operation he would swell and grunt with satisfaction. But you could never tell when he would get enough, or at what moment he would feel his dignity touched in a tender spot and go hopping off to the garden in high dudgeon. Then we fed him flies and bits of tender meat, which we would wiggle with a bit of grass to make them seem alive. At the same time we whistled a certain call to teach him when his supper was ready. Then, finally, by gentle handlings and pettings he grew quite tame, and at the sound of the whistle would scramble out from under the door-step, where he lived by day, and hop briskly in our direction to be fed and played with.

Though K'dunk had many interesting traits, which we discovered with amazement as the summer progressed and we grew better [137] acquainted, I think that his feeding ways and tricks were the source of our most constant delight and wonder. Just to see him stalk a fly filled one with something of the tense excitement of a deer hunt. As he sat by a stump or clod in the fading light, some belated fly or early night-bug would light on the ground in front of him. Instantly the jewel eye in K'dunk's head would begin to flash and sparkle. He would crouch down and creep nearer, toeing in like a duck, slower and slower, one funny little paw brushing cautiously by the other, with all the stealth and caution of a cat stalking a chipmunk on the wall. Then, as he neared his game, there would be a bright flash of the jewel; a red streak shot through the air, so quick that your eye could not follow it, and the fly would disappear. Whereupon K'dunk would gulp something down, closing his eyes solemnly as he did so, as if he were saying grace, or as if, somehow, closing his eyes to all outward things made the morsel taste better.

[138] The red streak, of course, was K'dunk's tongue, wherein lies the secret of his hunting. It is attached at the outer rim of his mouth, and folds back in his throat. The inner end is broad and soft and sticky, and he snaps it out and back quick as a wink or a lizard. Whatever luckless insect the tongue touches is done with all bothering of our humanity. The sticky tongue snaps him up and back into K'dunk's wide mouth before he has time to spread a wing or even to think what is the matter with him.

Once I saw him stalk a grasshopper, a big lively green fellow that, in a particularly long jump, had come out of the protecting grass and landed on the brown earth directly in front of where K'dunk was catching the flies that were coming in a steady stream to a bait that I had put out for them. Instantly K'dunk turned his attention from the flies to the larger game. Just as his tongue shot out the grasshopper, growing suspicious, jumped for cover. The soft tongue missed him by a hair, but struck one of his trailing legs and knocked him aside. In an instant [141] K'dunk was after him again, his legs scrambling desperately, his eyes blazing, and his tongue shooting in and out like a streak of flame. Just as the grasshopper rose in a hard jump the tongue hit him, and I saw no more. But K'dunk's gulp was bigger and his eyes were closed for a longer period than usual, and there was a loud protesting rustle in his throat as the grasshopper's long legs went kicking down the road that has no turning.

A big caterpillar that I found and brought to K'dunk one day afforded us all another field for rare observation. The caterpillar was a hairy fellow, bristling with stiff spines, and I doubted that the tongue had enough mucilage on it to stick to him. But K'dunk had no such doubts. His tongue flew out and his eyes closed solemnly. At the same time I saw the caterpillar shrink himself together and stick his spines out stiffer than ever. Then a curious thing came out, namely, that K'dunk's mouth is so big and his game is usually so small that he cannot taste his morsel; he just swallows mechanically, as if [142] he were so used to catching his game that it never occurred to him that he could miss. When he opened his eyes and saw the caterpillar in the same place, he thought, evidently, that it was another one which had come in mysteriously on wings, as the flies were coming to my bait. Again his tongue shot out, and his eyes closed in a swallow of delight. but there in front of him, as his eyes opened, was another caterpillar. Such perfect harmony of supply and demand was never known to a toad before.

Again and again his tongue shot out, and each shot was followed by a blink and a gulp. All the while that he kept up his rapid shooting he thought he was getting fresh caterpillars; and all the while the hairy fellow was shrinking closer and closer together and sticking his spines out like a porcupine. But he was getting more mucilage on him at every shot. "That caterpillar is getting too stuck-up to live," presently said little Johnnie, who was watching the game with me; and at the word a hairy [143] ball shot into the wide mouth that was yawning for him, and K'dunk went back to his fly-catching.

It is probably this lack of taste on K'dunk's part that accounts for the astonishing variety in his food. Nothing in the shape of an insect seemed to come amiss to him. Flies, wasps, crickets, caterpillars, doodle-bugs, and beetles of every description were all treated alike to the same red flash of his tongue and the blinking gulp. A half-dozen boys and girls, who were watching the queer pet with me, were put to their wits' end to find something that he would not eat. One boy, who picked huckleberries, brought in three or four of the disagreeable little bugs, known without a name by every country boy, that have the skunk habit of emitting overpowering odors when disturbed, thinking that he had found a poser for our pet; but K'dunk gobbled them up as if they had been set before him as a relish to tickle his appetite. Another brought potato bugs; but these too were fish for K'dunk's net. Then a third boy, who had charge of a kitchen garden, [144] went away wagging his head and saying that he had just picked something that no living thing would eat. When he came back he had a horse-radish bottle that swarmed with squash-bugs, twenty or thirty of the vile-smelling things, which he dumped out on the ground and stirred up with a stick.

Somebody ran and brought K'dunk from one of his hiding-places and set him down on the ground in front of the squirming mess. For a moment he seemed to be eying his proposition with astonishment. Then he crouched down and the swift red tongue-play began. In four minutes, by my watch, every squash-bug that stirred had disappeared, and K'dunk finished the others as fast as we could wiggle them with a straw to make them seem alive.

We gave up trying to beat him on variety after that, and settled down to the apparently simple task of trying to find out how many insects he could eat before calling halt. But even here K'dunk was too much for us; we never, singly or all together, reached the limit of his appetite. Once we fed him [145] ninety rose-bugs without stopping. Another afternoon, when three boys appeared at the same hour, we put our catch together, a varied assortment of flies, bugs, and creeping things, a hundred and sixty-four head all told. Before dark K'dunk had eaten them all, and went hopping off to the garden on his night's hunting—as if he had not already done enough to prove himself our friend for the entire summer.

Later we adopted a different plan and made the game come to K'dunk on its own wings, instead of running all over creation ourselves to catch it for him. Near the barn was a neglected drain where the flies were numerous enough to warn us to look after our sanitation more zealously. Here I built a little cage of wire netting, in which I placed a dead rat and some scraps from the table. When the midday sun found them and made them odorous, big flies began to pour in, with the loud buzzing which seems to be a signal to their fellows; for in ordinary flight the same flies are almost noiseless. Once, [146] however, they find a bit of carrion fit for their eggs, they buzz about loudly every few minutes, and other flies hear them; whereupon their quiet flight changes to a loud buzzing. So the news spreads—at least this seems to help the matter—and flies pour in from every direction.

At three o'clock I brought K'dunk from his meditations under the door-step and set him down in the cage, screening him with a big rhubarb leaf so that the sun would not dazzle his eyes too much. Then I took out my watch and sat down on a rock to count.

In the first ten minutes K'dunk got barely a dozen flies. They were wary of him in the bright light, and he was not yet waked up to the occasion. Then he crouched down between the rat and the scraps, worked a hollow for himself where he could turn without being noticed, and the red tongue-play began in earnest. In the next half hour he got sixty-six flies, an average of over two a minute. In an hour his record was a hundred and ten; and before I left him he had added two dozen more to the score of our enemies. [147] Then the flies ceased coming, as the air grew cool and I carried him back to the door-step. But that night, later than usual, he was off to the garden again to keep up his splendid work.

When the summer glow-worms came (lightning-bugs the boys called them) we saw another curious and pretty bit of hunting. One night, as we sat on the porch in the soft twilight, I saw the first lightning-bug glowing in the grass, and went to catch it as a jewel for a lady's hair. As I reached down my hand under a bush, the glow suddenly disappeared, and I put my fingers on K'dunk instead. He, too, had seen the glow and had instantly adopted jacking as his mode of hunting.

Later I caught a lightning-bug and put it in a tiny bottle, and dropped it in front of K'dunk as he started across the lawn in the late twilight. He saw the glow through the glass and took a shot at it promptly. As with the hairy caterpillar, he shut his eyes as he gulped down the imaginative morsel, and when he [148] opened them again there was another lightning-bug glowing in the grass just where the first had been. So he kept the tiny bottle jumping about the lawn at the repeated laps of his tongue, blinking and swallowing betweenwhiles until the glow-worm, made dizzy perhaps by the topsy-turvy play of his strange cage, folded his wings and hid his little light. Whereupon K'dunk hopped away, thinking, no doubt, in his own way, that while lightning-bugs were unusually thick that night and furnished the prettiest kind of hunting, they were very poor satisfaction to a hungry stomach,—not to be compared with what he could get by jumping up at the insects that hid on the under side of the leaves on every plant in the garden.

It needed no words of mine by this time to convince the good Mrs. James that K'dunk was her friend. Indeed she paid a small boy ten cents apiece for a half dozen toads to turn loose about the premises to help K'dunk in his excellent work. [149] And the garden flourished as never before, thanks to the humble little helpers. But K'dunk's virtues were more than utilitarian; he was full of unexpected things that kept us all constantly watching with delight to see what would happen next. As I said, he soon learned to come to the call; but more than that, he was fond of music. If you whistled a little tune softly, he would stay perfectly still until you finished before going off on his night's hunting. Then, if you changed the tune, or whistled discordantly, he would hop away as if he had no further use for you.

Sometimes, at night, a few young people would gather on the porch and sing together,—a proceeding which often tolled K'dunk out from under the door-step, and which, on one occasion, brought him hopping hurriedly back from the garden, whither he had gone an hour before to hunt his supper. Quiet hymns he seemed to like, for he always kept still as a worshiper,—which pleased the Reverend James immensely,—but "rag-time" music he detested, if one could judge by his [150] actions and by the unmistakable way he had of turning his back upon what did not appeal to him or touch his queer fancy.

One evening a young girl with a very sweet natural voice was singing by an open window on the porch. She was singing for the old folks' pleasure, that night, some old simple melodies that they liked best. Just within the window the piano was playing a soft accompaniment. A stir in the grass attracted my attention, and there was K'dunk trying in vain to climb up the step. I called Mrs. James' attention quietly to the queer guest, and then lifted K'dunk gently to the piazza. There he followed along the rail until he was close beside the singer, where he sat perfectly still, listening intently as long as she sang. Nor was she conscious that night of this least one among her hearers.

Two or three times this happened in the course of the summer. The girl's voice seemed to have a fascination for our homely little pet, for at the first sweet notes he would scramble out from his hiding and try to climb the steps. When I lifted him [151] to the porch he would hop along till close beside the singer, where he would sit, all quietness and appreciation, as long as she sang. Then, one night when he had sat humble and attentive at her feet through two songs, a tenor who studied in New York, and who sometimes gave concerts, was invited to sing. He responded promptly and atrociously with "O Hully Gee,"—which was not the name of the thing, but only the academy boys' version of a once popular love-song. Had K'dunk been a German choir-leader he could not have so promptly and perfectly expressed his opinion of the wretched twaddle. It was not the fool words, which he could not fortunately understand, nor yet the wretched tingle-tangle music, which was past praying for, but rather the voice itself with its forced unnatural quality so often affected by tenors. At the first strident notes K'dunk grew uneasy. Then he scrambled to the edge of the porch and fell off headlong in his haste to get down and away from the soul-disturbing performance.

[152] The sudden flight almost caused a panic and an awful breach of hospitality among the few who were quietly watching things. To cover an irrepressible chuckle I slipped away after K'dunk, who scrambled clear to the pie-plant patch before he stopped hopping. As I went I heard the gentle Mrs. James, soul of goodness and hospitality, coughing violently into her handkerchief, as if a rude draught had struck her sensitive throat; but it sounded to me more like a squirrel that I once heard snickering inside of a hollow pumpkin. However, the tenor sang on, and all was well. K'dunk meanwhile was engaged in the better task of ridding the garden of noxious bugs, sitting up at times, in a funny way he had, and scratching the place where his ear should be.

It was soon after this, when we all loved K'dunk better than ever, that the most astonishing bit of his queer life came to the surface. Unlike the higher orders of animals, K'dunk receives no training whatever from his elders. The lower orders live so simple a life that instinct is enough for [153] them; and so nature, who can be provident at times, as well as wasteful, omits the superfluous bother of teaching them. But many things he did before our eyes for which instinct could never account, and many difficulties arose for which innate knowledge was not sufficient; and then we saw his poor dull wits at work against the unexpected problems of the universe.

As the summer grew hotter and hotter K'dunk left the door-step and made for himself a better den. All toads do this in the scorching days—hollow out a retreat under a sod or root or rotten stump, and drowse there in its cool damp shade while the sun blisters overhead. Just in front of the door-step some broad flagstones extended across the lawn to the sidewalk. The frosts of many winters had forced them apart, some more and some less, and a ribbon of green grass now showed between many pairs of the stones. Where the ribbon was widest K'dunk found out, in some way, that the thin sod covered a hollow underneath, and he worked at this until the sod gave way [154] and he tumbled into a roomy cavern under one of the flagstones. Here it was always cool, and he abandoned the door-step forthwith, sleeping through the drowsy August days in the better place that his wits had discovered.

Now K'dunk, with good hunting in the garden and with much artificial feeding at our hands, grew fatter and fatter. At times when he came hopping home in the morning, swelled out enormously with the uncounted insects that he had eaten, he found the space between the flagstones uncomfortably narrow. Other toads have the same difficulty and, to avoid it, simply scratch the entrance to their dens a little wider; but dig and push as he would, K'dunk could not budge the flagstones.

He scratched a longer entrance after his first hard squeezing, but that did no good; the doorway was still uncomfortably narrow, and he often reminded me, going into his house, of a very fat and pompous man trying to squeeze through a turnstile, tugging and pushing and tumbling through with a [155] grunt at last, and turning to eye the invention indignantly. To get out of his den was easy, for during the long day he had digested his dinner and was thin again; but how to get in comfortably in the morning with a full stomach,—that was the question.

One morning I saw him come out of the garden, and I knew instantly that he had more trouble ahead. He had found some rich nests of bugs that night and had eaten enormously; his "fair round body" dragged along the grass as he crawled rather than hopped to his doorway, and his one desire seemed to be to tumble into his den drowsily and go to sleep. But alas! he could not get in. He had reached the limit at last.

First he put his head and shoulders through, and by pulling at the under side of the flagstones tried to hitch and coax his way in. All in vain! His fat body caught between the obstinate flags and only wedged tighter and tighter. The bulging part without was so much bigger than the part within that he must have given it up at a glance, could he only have seen [156] himself. But he worked away with wonderful patience till he knew it was of no use, when he pushed himself out again and sat looking into his inhospitable doorway, blinking and tousled and all covered with dust and grass roots. As he sat he kept scratching the place where his ear should be, as if he were thinking.

In a moment or two, as if he had solved the problem, he turned around and hitched his hind legs into the hole. He was going in backwards, but carefully, awkwardly, as if he were not used to it. This, however, was worse than the other, for his obstinate belly only wedged the tighter and, with a paw down on either side of him, every push lifted him up instead of pulling him down. He gave up quicker than before, because his head was out now and he could see better how he was progressing. At last he lay down, as if he had solved the problem, and tried to squirm through his long doorway lengthwise. This was better. He could get either his hind legs or his head and shoulders through; [157] but, like the buckets in the well, when one end was down the other end was up, and still his fat, obstinate body refused to go through with the rest. Still he seemed to be making progress, for ever teeter of head and legs worked his uncomfortable dinner into better shape. At the end he wedged himself too tight, and there was a harder scramble to get out than there had been to get in. By a desperate push and kick he freed himself at last and sat, all tousled again, blinking into his doorway, meditating.

Suddenly he turned and lowered his hind legs into the hole. He was more careful this time, afraid of being caught. When he had dropped through as far as he could go, he sat very still for some moments, supporting himself with a paw on either side. His jaws opened slowly—and full of wonder at a curious twitching motion he was making, I crept near on hands and knees and looked down into his wide-open mouth. There was his dinner, all sorts of flies and night-bugs, coming up little by little and being held in his great mouth as in a basket, [158] while his stomach worked below and sent up supplies to relive the pressure.

Slowly he slipped down as the stones began to lose their hard grip. A squirm, a twist, a comfortable roll of his stomach, a sudden jounce—and the thing was done. K'dunk was resting with a paw on either flagstone, his body safe below and his mouth, still wide open above, holding its precious contents, like an old-fashioned valise that had burst open. Then he swallowed his disturbed dinner down again in big gulps, and with a last scramble disappeared into his cool den.

That night he did not come out, but the second night he was busy in the garden as usual. To our deep regret he deserted both the door-step and the den with its narrow opening under the flagstones. It may be that in his own way he had pondered the problem of what might have become of him had the owl been after him when he came home that morning; for when I found him again he was safe under the hollow roots of an old apple-tree, where the entrance was [159] wide enough to tumble in quickly, however much he had eaten. And there he stayed by day as long as I kept tabs on him.

There was but one more interesting trait that I discovered in the last days of the summer, and that was his keenness in finding the best hunting-grounds. Just behind his den in the old apple-tree was a stone wall, under which insects of all kinds were plenty. K'dunk's den was on the east side, so that the sun as it set threw the cool shade of the wall over the place and brought out pet out earlier than was his wont. In some way he found out that the west side of the wall caught and held the sun's last rays, and that flies and all sorts of insects would light or crawl on the hot stones to get warm in the late afternoon. He made a tunnel for himself under the wall, just behind his den, and would lie close beside a certain gray stone on the west side, his gray color hiding him perfectly, picking off the flies as they lit with the quickness and certainty of a lizard. When bugs and insects crawled out of their [160] holes to sun themselves awhile on a warm stone, K'dunk, whose eye ranged up and down over his hunting-ground, would lie still until they settled comfortably, and would then creep cautiously within range and snap them up with a flash of his tongue that the eye could scarcely follow. In a dozen afternoons, watching him there, I never saw him miss a single shot, while the number of flies and insects he destroyed must have reached up into the hundreds.

In the same field four or five cows were pastured, and on pleasant days they were milked out of doors instead of being driven into the barn. Now those who have watched cows at milking time have probably noted how the flies swarm on their legs, clustering thickly above the hoofs, where the switching of a nervous tail cannot disturb them. K'dunk had noted it too, and often during the milking, when the cows were quiet, he would approach a certain animal out of the herd, creep up on one hoof after another and snap off every fly within reach. Then he would jump for the highest ones, hitting [161] them almost invariably, and tumble off on his back after a successful shot. But in a moment he had scrambled back on a hoof again and was waiting for the next fly to light within range. The most curious part of it all was that he attached himself to one cow, and would seek her out of the herd wherever she was being milked. He never, so far as I observed, went near any of the others; and the cow after a time seemed to recognize the toad as a friend, and would often stand still after being milked as long as K'dunk remained perched on one of her hoofs.

As the summer waned and green things disappeared from the garden he deserted that also, going wider and wider afield in his night's hunting. He grew wilder, too, as all things do in the autumn days, till at last no whistle, however loud, would bring him back. Whether the owl caught him, or whether he still looks forward to the long life that Nature gives to the toads, I do not know; but under the edge of the portulaca bed, as I write, is a suspicious [162] hollow that the frosts and snows have not quite concealed. I shall watch that in the spring with more than common interest to know whether K'dunk the Fat One remembers his old friends.


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