The Prophet and the Acolyte: Ammon Bundy's Fight to Take Back the West
Inspired by an esoteric Mormon ideology, Ammon Bundy had been a hero to people long before he led the takeover of the Malheur refuge.
Photos by Shawn Records
Wes Kjar rode shotgun as we drove away from the standoff, over the Stinkingwater Mountains toward Idaho. He was riding in a white Excursion filled with strangers, and worried about being arrested as soon as we hit a town, but he was glad to get away from the pressure at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He had spent almost every minute of the past week at the side of the movement's leader Ammon Bundy, watching from the center of the storm as guns piled up, volunteers rolled in, and the occupation headed down a road from which it would be very difficult to return peacefully. He was going home to take a break, but he wouldn't be gone for long. "I'm not an absolute person, I'm not religious," he said. "Just someone who's willing to die for something he believes in."
"But are you willing to live?" Steve Maxfield, the driver, asked.
Wes went quiet and looked out the window. A snowstorm set in, and Maxfield put on the four-wheel drive as we headed over a pass, high beams cutting only a few feet ahead into the dark.
Wes hadn't expected to end up at the center of something like this, his image appearing at the top of wire stories sent around the world, on the evening news, and even as the butt of jokes on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He was 31, from Manti, Utah, and when he heard about the standoff, he quit a gig on an oil rig in Colorado, where he'd been making nearly six figures, to drive his brand-new Jeep Wrangler through the night to Oregon. He had quickly been anointed Bundy's bodyguard, and in all of the pictures he stood with his sidearm like a lifelong acolyte next to a man who said his Mormon faith was what had led him and his followers to this point.
Everyone in the inner circle of the occupation was united by faith of some kind—to Bundy, it was a shared sense of a spiritual cause, and not Bundy's intense personal charisma, that explained his followers' loyalty and willingness to risk death or prison by his side. But Wes didn't think he still believed in God, and his relationship with the church was strained—he'd been engaged once, he said, only to have the Manti church hierarchy refuse to marry the couple in the local temple, because he and his fiancée had fooled around. So when Bundy and the rest of his inner circle bowed their heads to pray before every meeting, Wes stepped away. Yet he was there by his side at every press conference, guarding the door to the little office that had become the occupation's headquarters, and standing watch at night—waiting up, imagining federal officers battering down the door, and trying to think of what he would do when they came. "I will not point a gun at a federal officer," he had said, repeatedly, to anyone who would listen. But he was terrified about what violence would be unleashed if Bundy were killed. "They said, 'Will you catch a bullet for Ammon?' And I said, 'Sure, I can be a bullet-catcher.'"
The three other men in the car were all, like Wes, Mormons from small, insular towns in the red expanses of Utah. They had all met the Bundys and knew their faith and fervor. They had driven to Oregon to try to deescalate the situation, and possibly save the life of their friend and Bundy family loyalist Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, who by then had become famous for talking live on MSNBC about how he would rather end the standoff dead than in prison. Maxfield, a manic truck-builder, had loaded up his custom six-door Excursion and brought Jon Pratt, a tall, dark, and laconic former saddle-bronc rider whom Bundy respected a great deal, and Todd MacFarlane, a genial country lawyer who represented the Finicum family.
They had stayed for a few days, did what they could, but Bundy and Finicum could not be persuaded. When they first met Wes—who, though he was balding under his ever-present camo ball cap, seemed much younger than his 31 years—he'd been at the refuge for five days, and seemed to be straining under the pressure of guarding a man who had suddenly become the country's most conspicuous outlaw. "Man," he said, "you don't know what the stress of being around Ammon constantly is." On another day at the refuge, I'd overheard Wes talking to his father on the phone: "I'm doing good," he said quietly. "It only gets a little hairy at night, when the drones are flying around and stuff." He passed the phone to Bundy, who was standing in the doorway of a museum they'd commandeered as a meeting place, bearded and wearing the same flannel jacket and brown cowboy hat he wore every day of the standoff. He moved with the ease of the high school boxer he'd once been, and always spoke in the quiet, measured voice of someone who takes it for granted that he'll be listened to.
"He has a good heart," Bundy told Wes's father. "You should be proud."
Now Maxfield, MacFarlane, and Pratt were heading home, and Wes had hitched a ride. He relaxed as the storm cleared and we came out of the mountains into a valley of potato fields, putting more and more distance between ourselves and Harney County. He wanted to "spend the night in Salt Lake, go country dancing, drink some beers, meet some girls," he said. "Just unwind a little before we go back to all the paranoia and shit." We drove through the night, Pratt lying quietly in the back while the rest of us talked about trucks and horses, until we settled on the subject of armed politics. "So how did they know the American Revolution was justified?" Wes asked.
"It was about rights, but people lost their rights," Maxfield answered swiftly. "It's all in the Declaration of Independence." To him, the need to rebel then had been, as they say, self-evident, not a cause brought into existence by a magnetic leader, which is what the standoff at the refuge increasingly looked like. "The difference is the Mormon obsession with prophets!"
"I don't know if he's set himself up as a prophet," MacFarlane demurred, talking again about Bundy. "But this has been my issue all along. I never drank the Bundy Kool-Aid."
"He's set himself up as a prophet," Maxfield said, shouting now. "He is talking to God and he thinks that's what gives him the right to risk the lives of everyone who follows him."
At some point over the last hundred miles, Bundy had sent Wes a text. "Miss you already," it read. "Hope you're safe."
Ammon Bundy had been a hero to people like Wes long before he led the takeover of the Malheur refuge—and long before he was brought to a Portland jail, in late January, to await an array of federal conspiracy and gun charges, where he remains today. In April 2014, during a standoff at the Nevada ranch where he and his 13 siblings had grown up, his father, Cliven, had thundered about revelations commanding him to storm the gates of Lake Mead and seize the weapons of federal agents. Bundy, less publicly, had taken charge of giving earthly shape to those visions, marching with hundreds of armed protestors straight toward a defensive position held by a heavily armed federal tactical team. "You are on Nevada state property," he told the special agent in charge, echoing his belief that the federal government has almost no right to possess land. "The time is now. You leave." They left, with the world watching, and suddenly the family's divine mission became an underground movement.
Bundy—a rancher's son who was very much at ease around armed militants—was the perfect man to unite hard-line patriot militia groups, cowboys, and country folk who saw their way of life disappearing and blamed the federal government for it. Wes, like many of them, had been casting about for a cause: He regretted sometimes that he'd given the years he might have spent in the US Army to the church, serving as a missionary in Argentina, and he had for a while considered going to Syria, to volunteer with Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. Now Bundy had given him a chance to be a freedom fighter at home. "People back east, man, they don't understand this shit with the BLM," he said, talking about the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for management of much of the Western range. "For us out here, it's like our whole lives. And I just thought that if here he is finally making a stand, I would make a stand with him."
On the refuge, Bundy and his closest followers had settled into a tightly controlled little stone office building, where they prayed together, set up laptops to edit videos and broadcast messages on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page, and held heated strategy meetings—surrounded by dried snakes, Paiute artifacts, and books on lacustrine ecosystems left by the wildlife managers they'd evicted. Here, mostly outside the eye of the media and the other occupiers, the atmosphere was often fervid and paranoid. "We will keep him safe no matter what," I heard one of Bundy's longtime associates whisper into the phone one day. "We will keep him safe so that he can tell the world the truth."
"We don't believe that Ammon talks to God directly," Mel Bundy, an older brother of Ammon's, told me. "What we believe is that if you're living a lifestyle that is worthy enough to receive the inspiration of the Holy Ghost—that's what will lead you to make good decisions for the benefit of man."
Bundy spent most of his time building this movement. When I met him, a few days into the occupation, he was standing in the office leading an informal meeting with a group of sympathetic local ranchers, ranging in age from an 11-year-old redheaded boy in a Stetson and Wranglers to a crusty old cowboy with a big hat who kept interjecting to complain about how the media had made it look like no one in the county supported the occupation.
Bundy stood in front of a whiteboard diagramming his theory of government and God-given property rights. To him, God and the land were always linked, and a federal official who interfered with a citizen's right to use the land was breaking a law older than any government. "What happens when an individual goes up against the federal government?" he asked.
"They lose!" a woman called out.
"Exactly," he said. "You know, my dad says that going to federal court is like a man walking into your house and beating up your wife and children. And so you take him to court. And a man walks into the courtroom in a black robe, and they say all rise for the honorable judge, and it's the very man who beat up your wife and children." They nodded along solemnly.
Bundy insisted, following a long Mormon tradition, that the Constitution was a divinely inspired document. To him this meant it should be read literally, like scripture, and that a single paragraph of Article I restricted the federal government to owning land only in Washington, DC, and in a few other instances of lands deeded by the states. Their eventual goal was for all 28 percent of the American landmass currently managed by the federal government—including 47 percent of the contiguous West—to be "returned" to the people, and be governed by a frontier-era system of claimed property rights. This literal reading of the Constitution was shared by more secular-minded militia groups, and had provided a bridge between the Bundy cause and militias across the West. Bundy refused to recognize case law, and wasn't bothered that the Supreme Court had ruled on this question before, when in 1976 justices unanimously rejected an argument by the state of New Mexico that federal wildlife policy exceeded the government's legal authority. "Congress' complete authority over public lands," Thurgood Marshall wrote in his decision, "includes the power to regulate and protect wildlife living there."
From afar, and in news reports, the seizure of the refuge appeared to be a more or less random act of anti-government provocation. But for Bundy and his inner circle, the occupation had started a process that was carefully planned and almost unimaginably grand in its conception. Bundy had visited the county, and a 32-year-old Montanan named Ryan Payne had allegedly cased the refuge weeks in advance, choosing it "because it was far away from everything," Bundy told me. (Payne's lawyer did not respond to our request for comment.) The takeover, when it happened, divided the more organized and better-armed groups outside the immediate Bundy circle. "I was pissed, man," Brandon Rapolla, a former Marine and a leader of a militia umbrella group known as the Pacific Patriots Network, told me a few days after I arrived at the refuge. "Our rule has always been that we engage in defensive actions. We don't do offense: taking over buildings, endangering lives, things like that. But you know Ammon—he does things his way."
The refuge would be used as a base to create overwhelming armed resistance in Harney County. They would painstakingly persuade ranchers like the ones visiting the office to tear up their contracts with the BLM, as his father and LaVoy Finicum had already done. In their conception, the defiance would spread to neighboring counties and then across the West, until the BLM's back was broken and the entire federal range management system collapsed. From there, he envisioned an entire reordering and deregulation of American life. "I believe that the Lord didn't want man to be able to hoard land," he said after the ranchers left that afternoon. "And so he set these natural laws up where if you have land you have the right to it. But you have to use it and defend it."
Even skeptics who approached him could come away converts. One afternoon, a rancher named Buck Taylor approached Bundy, demanding an audience and wanting to persuade the occupiers to go home. Bundy agreed to talk. "That rancher is fucking going to tear into him in there," one of the occupiers told me. They talked for a while, and the next time I saw Taylor he was helping to shout down a man who questioned Bundy's interpretation of the Constitution, at a community meeting far from the refuge. "I'm drinking the Kool-Aid," he later told a reporter. People brought up Kool-Aid very often, in reference to Bundy. "We don't believe that Ammon talks to God directly," Mel Bundy, an older brother of Ammon's, told me. "What we believe is that if you're living a lifestyle that is worthy enough to receive the inspiration of the Holy Ghost—that's what will lead you to make good decisions for the benefit of man."
Bundy saw no difference between politics, faith, and daily life. Before Wes caught his ride out of the refuge, we'd spent the morning in the office with Bundy's wife and children, playing and joking with the kids as visiting militiamen and cowboys knocked on the office door, trying to get some face time with their leader. "I don't care about their backgrounds," Lisa Bundy, his 37-year-old wife, told me when I asked how she felt about a stranger serving as her husband's bodyguard. "If they're willing to give their life, I trust them." She was worried, but only for the family's safety—she had no doubt about the calling that had brought him to seize the refuge. "Before I came out here, I prayed a lot about what to do," she said. "I was going to come out myself just to get a feel for it, but Ammon was like, 'I need to see my family.' And of course, I trust him.
We crossed into Utah just before daybreak. "Hope you boys don't need beer," Maxfield said. "Because now we're under the Zion Curtain."
It may have been lack of sleep or the constant worry that federal investigators might well have already been at work building a case against him, but the interrogation from Maxfield had worn Wes down, and he began to question the justice of the standoff. "So what am I supposed to do," he said, talking to himself as much as to us. "Like, I left the church, I'm trying to do what's right in my own life, and now, I'm spending every minute with this guy who is basically acting like Joseph Smith."
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We came into Salt Lake City, and Wes began to experience something like a premonition. He started to sweat, his hands shook, and he seemed unable to talk about anything but the possibility of the standoff ending in blood. "I know I've only known him for a few days," he said. "But I've seen him in the darkest night, you know? I know how far he'll go."
He brought up something that surprised everyone: "And, like, even when the church called him, he was certain." He sketched, hazily, the details of a phone call he alleged he'd heard about, between Bundy and a representative of the Mormon Church, supposedly asking him to end the standoff. Pratt, whose great-great-grandfather had been an apostle of Joseph Smith and one of the grand figures of the early Mormon Church, spoke up. "I'm not saying we know," he said. "But maybe based on that call, he's thinking he's going to be excommunicated." The church had already issued a statement condemning the occupation, and maybe Bundy thought the church would abandon him, too.
Wes paused, trying to think things over from Bundy's perspective. "So if we could get a message to him from the First Presidency," he said, referring to the highest governing body in the church, "just to say, 'We love you, Brother, you aren't excommunicated, and we want you to resolve this before anyone gets killed'—you think that would help?" It seemed a very improbable idea—to arrive unannounced at dawn on a Sunday and ask to meet with representatives of a global religion—but they all thought it was worth a try.
"We just show up and say who we are," Pratt said. "You would be surprised at how closely the church is following this thing."
Maxfield, still driving, turned to Wes. "OK, so are we taking you home to Manti to get your stuff?" he asked. "Or do you want to go to Temple Square?"—the headquarters of global Mormondom.
Wes set his jaw. "Let's go to Temple Square."
The story of the church has often been one about control of the land, ever since Pratt's ancestor Orson led the first Mormon scouts into the Salt Lake Valley, in 1847. Three decades later, when Ammon Bundy's ancestors ventured down the Virgin River into what is now Nevada, they did so as a part of the project of building both a greater Zion for the religion and the hoped-for state of Deseret—which would allow the church to exercise temporal political power without the interference of federally appointed territorial governors. At the time, Mormons in the West were living through a period known as the "Raid," a quasi-invasion by federal authorities that had the effect both of quashing polygamy in the Utah territory and of breaking the church's ability to govern a society outside the stream of American life. Apostles and bishops were arrested or fled in advance of US Marshals, and the political offices they held were filled by federal appointees intent on breaking the political power of the church.
Two generations of Mormons were raised in the belief that service to the holy mission of the church was synonymous with defiance of federal authority. Statehood finally came, in 1896, but the Mormon duality between mistrust of federal authority and a deep belief in the divine mission of the United States is something church officials have had to deal with ever since. After the fight over polygamy, Mormon leaders reversed their approach, and have since worked determinedly to build an unobjectionable, mainstream church. The Bundy style of spiritual defiance is now a fringe element, but it's part of a history that no Western Mormons have forgotten, and that a few continued to embrace long after the church moved into the American mainstream. "There are some citizens whose patriotism is so intense and so all-consuming that it seems to override every other responsibility, including family and church," Dallin Oaks, one of the church's senior apostles, told a Brigham Young University audience at the start of a wave of anti-federal militia activity in the 1990s. "I caution those patriots who are participating in or provisioning private armies and making private preparations for armed conflict. Their excessive zeal for one aspect of patriotism is causing them to risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw from the society of the church."
We parked the rig just off Temple Square, in the gray, frigid Sunday morning silence. The spires atop the gigantic rectangle of the temple itself were still lit, the three closest to us representing the First Presidency, the battlements surrounding them symbolizing, as the church put it, "a separation from the world." Everything, down to the paving stones, was neat, modern, and tidy—an incongruous place for five grimy men in cowboy boots to show up expecting an audience with anyone.
We walked over to a monument where, on giant slabs, the church had inscribed its principles. Wes nudged me and pointed up to one with the heading liberty. We read an inscribed quote: the laws and constitution of the people, it said, should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh according to just and holy principles. that every man may act... according to the moral agency... given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.
"How did we just walk here and that's the first thing we read?" Wes asked. Belief, for the moment, came alive in his eyes. "That's not like a coincidence."
Pratt asked Wes to lead a prayer. He nodded. "Well, that'll be the first time in years," he said. Wes, who always seemed less free of the faith than he was defined by his rejection of it, teared up almost immediately as he spoke, his voice cracking on "Heavenly Father." It went on a very long time. He prayed for the safety of everyone at the refuge, for Bundy's family, for the success of what he'd now taken on as his mission, and "that you can heal the hate people have for one another in this country."
Pratt approached a pair of security guards, and he told them we were looking for an audience with the First Presidency. He was asking to meet with the highest authority in the complex hierarchy of the Mormon Church, a sort of triumvirate made up of a president and two counselors chosen by his divine inspiration. The guards, all older men in gray suits and severe haircuts, looked at him like he was insane.
"We are coming to you straight from the Bundy standoff," Pratt said, slowly. "And I know that's something the church cares a great deal about." (The church declined to comment directly for this story.) The security guards acknowledged the truth of this immediately, and we were suddenly surrounded. The guards took names, phone numbers, addresses, and information about their church membership, and the group stood massed in the cold, while well-adjusted-looking young families in their church best filed onto the square for Sunday services. One of the guards, the youngest, was clearly a fan of the Bundys, and had a hard time concealing it—asking which militia groups we'd had a chance to see up close, and saying, "You know we've got problems like they have in Oregon down here too." The others glared at him. They radioed urgently to church officials trying to figure out what to do.
"You have to understand, son," an older, balding man who'd come to take charge of the situation told Pratt. "There's a chain of command. You can't just show up and ask for a meeting."
"That may be," Pratt said. "But I'm pretty sure you're going to figure something out."
The bald man looked overwhelmed. "Can you at least help me out? Put a request through your stake president," he asked. "That'll get the ball rolling."
Wes nodded, declining to mention the issues he'd had with the church in the past. "I can try him." The bald man found the number to call. The request went from the stake president to the higher reaches of the church.
"I just have to ask," the bald man said. "Are you armed?"
"I have a knife I forgot about," Wes told him, feeling his pockets. "I'm very, very sorry."
"That's OK, son," the bald man said, and smiled. "I wasn't asking about a pocket knife."
They encouraged the group to sit through the weekly broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Wes sobbed in the pew while we listened to a homily on the virtues of humble leaders. "That theme wasn't a coincidence either," Maxfield said, as we walked out.
"I was just thinking about all the people I knew who could end up dead," Wes said.
After a few hours, we were eventually called up to an opulent, empty, and silent floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial office building. We were met by two extremely slick church officials who preferred not to be named or quoted directly. They were more at ease with the men in cowboy boots fresh from a range war than might be expected, and they spoke to Wes indulgently, like to a lost boy. Their clear preoccupation seemed to have been to get Wes, who they might plausibly have assumed was under federal surveillance, away from Temple Square as quickly as possible, but they sat with us for an hour and a half. They refused to involve the First Presidency directly, but they agreed to contact Bundy's stake president. The situation was very delicate, the contact to be made in secret. "He doesn't know that Wes is here or has done anything," MacFarlane said, talking about Bundy. "Do not screw this up," he told them, "because there will be consequences."
Outside, Maxfield was circling the square in the giant Excursion, growing more and more paranoid, texting pictures of a row of white vans that had massed a few blocks away. It now seemed likely that the FBI had been contacted, and by the time we left, Wes had resigned himself to being arrested. Maxfield brought the truck out front, and we hustled out the door and inside the car while it was still rolling.
We spent the night in a lonely motel attached to a gas station in Kanosh, Utah. Wes was unsettled, sure the church had put the police on his tail, feeling foolish for having entertained a rapprochement with the faith he'd tried so hard to reject, and torn up about what would happen when he saw Bundy. He was clearly worried that when he was looking the man in the face he wouldn't be able to frame the words. "You have to understand," he said. "I was his line of defense."
When the violence he'd anticipated finally hit the refuge, Wes seemed to unravel.
The next day, Wes asked Pratt to come back with him to the refuge. He wanted to say his piece, and get out of the situation before the violence came. In two weeks of spending time in the little stone office, I never saw any of Bundy's other followers challenge him, and no one was sure how he'd take it. Pratt had work to do, and a sick child at home, but it was the sort of request that couldn't be refused—a question that, if shots really were going to be fired, could turn out to decide whether Wes lived or died. He and MacFarlane exchanged a silent look, and he agreed. We rented a car in Orem, Utah, stopped at Sportsman's Warehouse to buy a locking case for Wes's AR-15, to be sure he'd be legal driving it home, and put Willie Nelson on the stereo. "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" played as we drove back up I-15.
Back at the office in the Malheur refuge, the room had been cleaned up, as though to show the occupiers were preparing for the long haul. Bundy and the rest of the core leadership had just finished their morning meeting, and the usual crush of hangers-on was trying to gain his attention. "Can we get some privacy in here?" Wes asked. He and Bundy went upstairs. After a few minutes, they thumped slowly back down. Wes looked disconsolate and exhausted. "All he said was you have to have faith," Wes said. "And you can't live in fear."
He left to pack. But the conversation had clearly had an effect on Bundy, too. He sat slumped over his desk, his big brown cowboy hat perched on his knee—the first time I'd seen him without it for more than a moment. He called Pratt and me over and asked what had happened. Pratt sketched the details, and Bundy smiled. "You went to church?" he asked me, seeming surprised. Pratt told him about Wes's premonitions of death and fear about how the occupation would turn out, but by the time we'd finished, he was back to his usual certitude. "We could stick our head in the sand and live happy," he told us. "Or we stand up and deal with it now when we have a chance. The Lord wanted us to do that, and that's what we're doing."
Wes got his AR-15, loaded up his Jeep, and went back to Utah.
When the violence he'd anticipated finally hit the refuge—when, on January 26, LaVoy Finicum was shot after he'd tried to run a roadblock and flee the FBI operation in which Bundy and his inner circle were arrested—Wes seemed to unravel. He was shaken by the thought that if he'd stayed he would have been in the convoy when Finicum was killed, and convinced, like many of the people who'd come into Bundy's movement, that the federal government had set out to deliberately murder a harmless cowboy. "I never intended to do a political thing like this," Finicum had told me a week before the shooting. "My dream was to ranch quietly up there with my children," he said. "And when the whole world goes under because it's going in the wrong direction, I'm going to be sitting pretty, because I'm out here with my cows, my family, my wife. And now, I'm one of the biggest targets in the United States—I don't know how many names you can call a person that's bad, but I think I've got 'em all."
This was the image of Finicum that Wes had in his head, and he began to talk in a way he hadn't before, about dark plots and government conspiracies. He seemed to regret leaving the spiritual fellowship Bundy had created. "People have the ability to say they want to be here, and whom they want to follow," Bundy had told me, talking about his influence over Wes. "And when there's that brotherhood and that agency, that's what keeps you caring for one another." Now he was alone with his rage.
Bundy and his followers were charged with an array of federal crimes, from gun charges to orchestrating conspiracies in both Nevada and in Oregon. Many of them face decades in prison. Cliven Bundy, who was arrested after he flew to Portland to attempt to visit his sons in jail, faces charges that could keep him in prison for the rest of his life. A thousand well-wishers and supporters from militia groups around the country showed up for Finicum's funeral, in Kanab, Utah. It was a Mormon ceremony, and Wes walked in the horse procession. MacFarlane, Pratt, and Maxfield were all there to pay respects. "It was [Finicum] I went up there to save," Maxfield told me. "But he thought Ammon was some kind of prophet."
A week after the funeral, Wes was arrested in Salt Lake City. He was driving a five-ton military truck towing a 53-foot trailer, containing rifles, camo gear, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, though he says he was moving apartments and that none of this was out of the ordinary for a country boy from Utah. He was charged with the same conspiracy crime as Bundy, and with bringing a gun into a federal building. He'd texted me about the church earlier that day—the faith that had been briefly reawakened on Temple Square had turned to a fury so deep he found it hard to express. "It's like I said," he told me the last time we talked about it. "I called, and ye answered not."
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