Word count 5,526
#7 in The Surrogate Father and Adopted Son series
Part One – The Cattle Drive
“You ready to be a cowboy, Johnny?” Val snuck his arm along my shoulder.
I grinned. “We got hired on?”
“Yep, I know the trail boss. Clint Mason’s a good man who keeps a tight rein on his crew and gets the job done.”
We made our way to the mercantile to buy supplies for the cattle drive. I waited ‘til we were at the door. “Val, don’t you think if I’m going to be cowboying, I’ll need my own gun?”
He got that look, the one he gets when I’ve stepped over that invisible line of his.
“You’ll be working with JD Willis taking care of the remuda. JD got himself banged up bad in a stampede some years back, started by a hothead taking a couple of wild shots at a lone wolf. Best get on his good side and prove yourself with the horses before you wear one around him, okay?”
I sniffed and thought to argue some, but it wasn’t an outright no, and it would do no harm to weigh up this JD Willis geezer I’ll be working with, so instead, I asked a sensible question. “How much we getting paid?”
“The going rate.”
Boy, Val can be tight-lipped at times. He leaned down to talk quiet in my ear. “Best not discuss that out here when any Tom Dick or Harry could listen in.”
I was looking around for those three fellas when he dragged me into the store. We got ourselves the necessary supplies. Val got himself bullets and tobacco, and then he let me pick out some spurs, telling me I wouldn’t have the time with the remuda horses to always use the gentle ways Senor Alberto had taught me.
On the way out to the drive camp, I kept a lookout for any suspicious-looking hombres.
“Who you looking for, Johnny?”
“Them three fella’s you mentioned. Reckon it’s okay; can’t see as we’re being followed.”
He laughed and shook his head. “ ‘Any Tom Dick and Harry’ is just a saying meaning anyone.”
I squinted at him. The Anglo language sure has some odd ways of making a point. “So if there ain’t no Tom, Dick, or Harry, but there is a Clint Mason and JD Willis, who else are we going to be working alongside?”
He sighed as he does sometimes when I’m wanting answers from him. “You’ll call Clint Mr. Mason or boss, and JD he’ll tell you what you are to call him. I’ll warn you now I’m an angel in heaven in the patience stakes compared to JD. He’ll tell you himself he lost his left eye and ear when an Indian tried to scalp him.” He looked across at me to make sure I’d got that message. “Mr. Walter Ferguson is the cook. If you want to eat well, you’ll mind your manners around him. The rest of the crew’s made up of some old hands and a couple of youngsters like you. Then the ramrod is me.”
I grinned at that last piece of information; his scowl told me to keep my lip buttoned.
“Yeah, me and Clint Mason go back a while, but I’m warning you now, Johnny, don’t be expecting any special credit from me, and you’ll follow orders with no sassing. Comprende?”
The cattle had been rounded up from the smaller ranches in the area, and Clint Mason was hired to do the drive.
Mr. Mason called all the men together to introduce me an’ Val. “This here is Val Crawford, your ramrod on this drive. Me and him go back a while; he is tough but fair. The kid here is Johnny, who I’m told is good with horses. So that means young Wes, you’re promoted from the remuda to being a drover.”
A gawky, skinny kid bit taller than me but not much older let out a whoop. Guess that must have been Wes.
First thing I did was introduce my pony to his new herd. JD told me some were not much better than crow bait, but so long as they were good around cows, they’d do for the night herding.
He watched me as I went around saying hola to most of them. “Well, Johnny, I see Crawford was right about you having a way with horses. You know anything about mending tack?”
I climbed back out of the corral and looked him in his one eye. “Yes, sir, know some. You want me to get to it and show you?”
“No time like the present young’un, got some reins for you to start on.”
I sat crossed legged, sorting a mess of leather when the one called Wes sat himself down next to me. “Hi, kid. Name’s Wes. I was going to be on remuda duty ‘till you took that spot.”
I gave him a close look and couldn’t read any anger in him. He had a cheerful innocence about him. I also saw he had a gun worn too loose. “Name’s Johnny; pleased to meet you, Wes. This your first drive?”
“Oh boy, yes, looking forward to being a cowboy, got to be more fun than grubbing on a dirt farm.”
I had to smile. He was so open and trusting with me, a complete stranger. “That where your folks are, Wes, on a farm?” A lesson I learned early on was the answers you get to questions can be useful later.
“Yes, being a farmer wasn’t for me. Don’t want to be fenced in. I want to see places. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to do some horse-breaking—saw that one time. The cowboy got thrown, but he got back in the saddle. He dug in his spurs and hung on while that horse bucked and spun itself to a stand-still. You ever saw a wild horse being broken, Johnny?”
I did think to tell him about the quiet way but pursed my lips. “Nope.”
At that moment, the other younger one came over and stood over us. A few years older and heavier built than me and Wes, wearing his gun low and tied down, had a hard look in his eye.
Wes grinned up at him. “This here is Isham. You’ve been around some, ain’t you, Isham?”
“Yeah, some. You been around anywhere, Johnny?” He ignored Wes and looked down at me.
I recognised in him the aloneness that comes from being an orphan. There was also something of the dark about him. I kept a smile on my face. “Yeah, done some travelling along the border.”
He sat down next to Wes and slapped him on his shoulder. “Knew it didn’t I, Wes! Said there was Mex in you.”
It didn’t seem to bother either of them, so I relaxed and carried on sorting the leather. “So what’s the grub like?”
Wes laughed. “First lesson: don’t upset Cookie.”
I looked over to the old fella at the chuck wagon. Isham pushed my shoulder. “And no matter if the grub is cold and you don’t rightly know what it is, say thank you.”
A memory of being beaten for not being grateful for uneatable food at the orphanage came back. I nodded. I’d give these two a chance.
Those first days on the drive went by in a blur of dust, snatched meals, and work, all with a background noise of cows bellowing as if they knew what lay in store for them.
Val mostly kept company with Mr. Mason, JD and Cookie. I found myself missing his ornery self, especially after listening to Wes moan on about him being a slave driver. Wes could be funny, but boy, did he have a lazy side; and all his talk of being wild and free made me feel twice as old as him.
One morning there, I was tucking into breakfast when Mr. Mason and Val came over. I squinted up at Val; I couldn’t think of anything that warranted me getting an ear-bashing. So I kept quiet and waited.
Mason hunched down a cup of coffee in his hand. “You’re shaping up okay, son.”
I almost sassed back I wasn’t his son but caught Val’s eye and clamped my mouth shut.
“JD and Cookie tell me you’re a quick study, so I’m going to send you out with Val for the night watch. All you have to do is ride quiet. Nothing loud or quick to spook the beeves, okay?”
I looked from him to Val, who nodded at me. “Yes, boss, I can ride quiet.”
It was a long night. Lit by a half-moon and stars, me and Pintaro we rode quiet, and when a wolf howl echoed through the night, I crooned a Mexican lullaby to calm them nervous beeves. When Val put his hand on my shoulder and told me I’d done well, it gave me a sense of learning a new skill and maybe some pride in a job well done.
Amazing how quick things change. The herd was about to be driven through a canyon when gunshots rang out and all hell broke loose as those stupid cows turned to stampede in the opposite direction.
Isham raced back to me and JD and Cookie yelling it was damn rustlers and to get ourselves ready.
I looked at JD. “Ready for what?”
“To defend ourselves ‘gainst them stampeding cows that are turning back to trample us.”
Cookie yelled at me, “Johnny, Val’s told me you can use a gun—here, take this one. Don’t shoot anything but bad guys or mad cows.”
There I was with a gun about to face a stampede and rustlers, and I realised I should be scared, but I wasn’t. I was mad and ready to play my part in keeping the herd safe from rustlers. I trusted JD and Cookie would know what to do with the remuda and chuckwagon while I turned and galloped towards the trouble.
I remembered the stories JD had told me about other drives he’d been on, gruesome tales of cowboys dying under the crush of panicked beeves and how it was important to keep turning the herd. I fired at the first on-coming steer, I must have hit it ‘cos it bellowed and smart quick turned. I emptied the gun, firing at the ones following the leader and yelled and waved my hat to turn them away.
When all the noise and chaos was quietening down, a dust-covered rider found me herding the still skittish beeves and told me the boss wanted me back at the wagon. JD met me. “I’ll take your pony, Johnny; you get to the wagon. I need to warn you Val’s been hurt.”
I damn near fell out of my saddle. I don’t know how my legs kept me upright. The boss caught hold of me. “He’s alive, Johnny, but was shot by those wanna be rustlers. Cookie is tending to him.”
I blinked. “Not trampled? Shot?”
“Yes, shot twice, so it’s not good, but he’s a tough hombre; stayed in the saddle and took down the lead rustler. Come on, Johnny, he’s asking for you.”
Val was in the back of Cookie’s wagon and the sight and smell of blood took me right back to that time and place when I shot the man who had killed Mama. But this was Val and he was alive and awake. “Kid, I’m going to be fine. Cookie here has done a good job. He’s going to take me to the Van Hansen’s farm a few miles east of here to recover. Listen up, Johnny. I’m not going to be able to finish this drive, so you take heed of the boss and at the end of the drive, I want you to collect our wages and come back for me.”
My voice seemed to have got lost. All I could do was grip his hand as hard as I could and nod. I wanted to throw my arms around him, but I was now a man among men and couldn’t act like a little kid.
I ended up with a Colt and a gun-belt that JD cut down to fit me. That evening over our campfire Wes was jumping with the excitement of being in a gun battle, each telling of it getting more and more bloody. Isham would grunt and kept his head down, cleaning his gun.
When Wes finally fell silent, Isham asked me how good I was with a gun. I shrugged. “Val let me practice with his piece.”
He rolled a cigarette and looked at me and Wes. “Reckon after this I’m hiring out my gun on jobs that don’t involve herding dumb cows that stampede at the slightest loud noise.”
Wes clapped his hands. “We’re in on that ain’t we, Johnny?”
“Maybe.” I wasn’t going to tell them of my promise to go back to Val.
The Railhead – A busy, dusty Cowtown
At the end of the drive, we all lined up to collect our wages, with Cookie yelling for us to cut the wolf loose. Clint Mason called me over. “Johnny, I promised Val I’d trust you with his pay.” He held out an envelope with folding money inside. “It’s a temptation to be carrying this amount around. Why not leave it with me and collect it tomorrow? Have the night enjoying yourself. Just take care, boy; the other side of the tracks is designed to take money from the pockets of cowboys.”
I stood toeing the dirt, giving his suggestion some thought. Mason seemed like a straight-talking, honest guy, but Val was lying back there having taken two bullets and he’d trusted me with this task. “Thanks, Mr. Mason, but I made a promise to Val and I intend to keep it.”
He patted me on my shoulder. “Good boy.”
“I ain’t a boy, Mr. Mason.” I took Val’s share of wages and shook his hand. First thing was to find a livery and settle Pintaro in a clean stall with oats and spend time grooming him. Making sure we were by ourselves, I took the money from the envelope and hid it under the straw near his back feet, telling him to be a good fella, and I’d be back in the morning.
I knew there’d be horse apples to discourage anyone sneaking around and put the empty envelope in my saddlebag and left that hung over the stall door.
I wandered around the entertainments set up for cowboys to enjoy. It was the loudest place I’d ever been. Wes and Isham found me watching drunk cowboys being fooled by a crooked find-the-queen card game. I was just a little kid when my step-father used to show me how to work those tables. Wes was grinning and smelling of cheap hooch. “I’m going to get my fortune told; you’ll come with me, won’t you, Johnny? Isham here is too nervous to know about his.”
“Don’t need no gypsy woman conning me out of money with all that nonsense.” Isham turned away.
Wes took my arm. “Aww, come on, Johnny. You’ll protect me from the witchery woman.”
I shook my head at him but let him drag me into a tent. It was dark, lit only by a dozen candles that flickered and cast dancing shadows on the tent’s embroidered fabric. An old lady with a black lace shawl over her head indicated we should sit at the table opposite her. She had a large glass ball on a plate in front of her and spread her hands over it. I tried to hide a grin guessing this was going to be as honest as the card games.
“Pay the lady, Wes.” I nudged him; after all, this was his idea.
Wes scrabbled in his jacket for a couple of dollars and sat forward.
She took her hands off the glass ball and held both his. I couldn’t quite see her face, but I saw her flinch and a chill ran down my spine.
“I see a need for adventure.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Wes grinned. She turned slightly towards me and I could see her frown.
“I see a wild horse. You should take care when you come across it.” She let go of his hands and took mine.
Wes blinked. “Thanks, Ma’am; it’s in my plans to be a horse breaker.”
She didn’t even look at Wes; her black eyes were fixed on me. “You, I see much travelling before you reach your destiny. I see you as a bullfighter like those of renown in Madrid. Stay true to the goodness in your soul.”
She let go of my hands and placed them on the glass ball. It was me who dragged Wes out and I gave myself a shake for being a tonto for half believing her.
Isham was waiting for us. “So she told you you’re going to be rich and famous, Wes?”
“Naw, but I’m going to be a horse-breaker and need to watch out for a wild horse. Johnny here is going to be a bullfighter in Madrid. Where is that place?”
I sighed. “Madrid is the capital of Spain. Lots of bullfighting goes on there.”
Isham looked me up and down. “How do you know that, Johnny boy?”
“When I was a little kid, someone told me stories of Spain.” That was Mama telling me of her family history, another piece of my life I ain’t going to share with anyone.
Isham started walking away, talking to us over his shoulder. “While you two were in there, I’ve heard of a shooting gallery with prize money at stake. I intend to have me some of that.”
There was a crowd at the shooting gallery. For a dollar, you had to use the stallholder’s gun and try to hit six-bottle targets. If you did that, you got into the second round with a chance of winning the $50 prize money. The second round was something I’d never seen before, a mechanical contraption made six wooden painted ducks appear and disappear. So far, no one had managed to hit more than three ducks.
I watched as cowboys lined up to try their luck. Some acted like gunfighters, all fast drawing and speed, some taking their time. I could tell the gun pulled to the left. But when a person seemed to have a talent and got to the second round, the stallholder would make a show of re-loading six bullets just like a gambler working a sleight of hand trick.
I took Isham to one side. ”I ain’t sure how, but this is as honest as the card games here. There is no way anyone is going to get all six ducks.” Isham was all set to kick up a ruckus, but I grinned. “We could still make a few dollars.”
“You could bet on me getting at least four.”
“Hell Johnny, you sure? There’ll be a lot betting against a kid like you.”
I almost had second thoughts of using Val’s money as our bank, but sometimes me and common sense ain’t on first name terms. “Don’t worry. I can cover that, and don’t tell Wes. He’ll get all excitable.”
Wes was not completely useless, considering he had been drinking; he got three out of six. Isham got through to the second round and I saw him roll his shoulders and look around to see if the crowd were impressed. He got two ducks.
It was Isham who pushed me forward. “Go on, Johnny. Let’s see if Crawford taught you anything.”
I didn’t go for speed, made allowance for the pull and deliberately just clipped a couple to make them fall over. I watched as the stallholder re-loaded and saw that gambler’s tell. I just knew if the crowd started to mutter about the game being rigged, there would be an accomplice in on it ready to step forward and win the pot. Sneaky lessons learned from my step-father sure could come in useful.
I acted up a bit as a nervous kid licking my lips and flexing my hand and arm before I took the gun. A voice in the crowd shouted that the kid’s hand wasn’t strong enough and he’d bet $4 I couldn’t get at least 4 ducks. I recognised Wes shouting for me to go for it.
I let the noise of the crowd disappear and concentrated all my senses on where the targets would pop up. I hoped I was right thinking there was a slightly different sound just before a duck appear. I went for speed, four went down and I let my hand drop. “Sorry, got cramp in my hand.” All innocence.
All hell broke loose with whooping; I scooted out of there with Isham and Wes hot on my heels.
I got them to go into a cantina, knowing most of the cowboys we had taken betting money off would go to an Anglo saloon.
“How much, Isham?” Wes was ready to burst.
Isham emptied our winnings onto the table, Almost $45. “Hot dang! Almost as much as winning the prize money.”
The three of us grinned at each other, then Wes said it was me who won it. I shook my head. “Aww fellas, equal shares, okay? And the extra buys the beer.”
The Senor behind the bar fetched a jug of beer and three glasses and I politely said gracias and asked about food. Wes screwed up his face. I pushed him.
“Come on, Wes, if you’re going to travel through border towns, you need to know about good honest Mexican food.”
After we had eaten tamales and beans followed by churros and more beer, I needed the outhouse. When I got back, three pretty senoritas were clucking and fussing around Isham and Wes. “Johnny boy,me and Wes have agreed you deserve a reward for that shooting display, so let me introduce you to Rosita, who is going to keep you company…if you get my meaning.”
I tried to act like a man and not a boy, so I raised my hat and held the girl’s hand to kiss it. Wes slapped the table. “Whoa, Johnny, where you learn them manners?”
I just grinned. I wasn’t about to let on I had never tupped a gal, but I guessed neither had Wes. “Been around, Wes.”
All I can say is Rosita was a really good teacher. The next morning I went down stairs with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.
It took a minute for my instincts to pick up on danger in the cantina. There was a man seated at the back corner table, his hat pulled low to hide his eyes. Everything about him said trouble. A scruffy, worse for wear cowboy stood by the door. Wes and Isham both sat still at the table I’d left them at last night, their hands held up in full view.
I paused on the last step, angry with myself for not wearing my gun.
Scruffy spoke, “You, chico, owe me.”
I decided to act all sleepy and goofy, rubbed at my eyes and pushed my left hand through my hair. “You sure you’ve got the right fella? I don’t know you do I?”
“You pulled a con at the shooting competition. You stole my money in a crooked bet and worse, you took my place in Pardee’s outfit.”
I was genuinely confused. “Huh, what place with who?”
“Don’t act the innocent. I’m calling you out, boy. There’s a big difference between facing a man and a row of bottles.”
I looked at Wes and Isham, who weren’t saying anything. The older guy sat in the corner pushed himself up. “I’m Pardee and I’m recruiting guns for a fracas. Saw you last night, kid, and think you might have what it takes.”
He pointed at scruffy. “You wait outside while the kid puts on his gun. No need to shoot this place up.”
I found it hard to swallow and wished with all my heart Val was here. He’d know how to get me out of this. Dios, he wouldn’t have let me get into this mess in the first place. I took my rig from over my shoulder and fastened it tight around my hips, checked my gun was loaded, remembering Val’s advice about leaving the first chamber empty. Then drew it in and out of the holster a couple of times. My hand was shaking. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to die in a dusty street. Hell, Val was expecting me to get back with his pay.
Pardee was behind me, pushing me to the door, speaking quietly in my ear. “Stand with the sun at your back, think of that other gun hawk you’re going to face as one of those damn wooden ducks.”
Madre Dios. I looked back at Wes. He was ghostly white. Isham nodded at me, “You can do this, Johnny boy. He ain’t nowhere near as frightening as stampeding cows.”
I stood in that street and it was as if everything slowed down. I watched that other fella’s eyes and simply knew when he was going to draw. I was quicker and more accurate and I fell doing a tuck and roll, hoping to avoid any bullet meant for me. It was over and I wasn’t dead. Pardee walked over to the body and kicked the gun away from his dead hand. Wes was helping me stand up and talking, but it was as if I couldn’t hear him, I needed space, but Pardee was there telling me a gunman needs to be sure before he walks away and pulled me over towards the body.
He was dead, staring sightlessly up at me, blood pooling from his chest. “You could put another bullet in him, kid, make sure he stays dead. You’ve got talent and I’m the one to teach you how to be good at this trade.”
I shook my head and looked at Pardee and knew he had set me up for this gunfight as a test.
Pardee glanced at Wes and Isham. “You boys are just what I need. Meet me on the south road out of town.” He walked away without expecting me or the others not to follow his orders. He knew he was top dog just like that gunfighter I had seen a couple of years ago, all power and danger that everyone walks quiet around
Folks had begun to appear to gawk at the dead man and me asking who I was. It was Isham who said now I was a gunfighter and needed a full name. He put his hand on my shoulder. “This here is Johnny Madrid. He’s as fast a gun as you’ll ever see.”
I was going to be sick, my head was spinning and my guts churning. “Give me some space.” I pushed through the growing crowd and got to the livery and dunked my head in a water trough. Pintaro was pleased to see me and nickered as I pressed my head against his neck. After a minute or two, I sank to the floor, shivering and wrapped my arms around myself. Must have been like that for a while ‘cos Wes came looking for me.
“Hey, Johnny, me and Isham are about to ride out. You coming?”
My breathing was getting back to normal. “You ever shot anyone, Wes?”
He grinned and waved his gun about. “Took a few shots at the rustlers, but never done what you just did, Johnny. You were fast. Folks are already talking about Johnny Madrid.”
I knew it’d be no good telling him taking a life was ripping me up. I sighed, “I’ll catch up with you, Wes.”
Talking to him had made me make a decision between following the order Day Pardee had issued or keeping my promise to Val.
Pintaro had done a good job of keeping the money safe, ‘cos some sneak thief had been through my saddlebag and screwed up the empty envelope. I quickly saddled up and set off backtracking and watching out for anyone who might be on my trail. What with Val’s money burning a hole in my shirt and worrying that I didn’t even know the name of the man I’d killed—worse, I didn’t care—made it a long ride.
Val was alive and on the road to recovery. Mrs. Van Hansen had been fussing him and feeding him up. She said he had complained but knew he had needed it.
“Got your pay here for you, Val.” I handed over the cash.
He took it and sniffed the paper and raised an eyebrow. “Looks like these good American notes have seen better days.”
I looked down at my boots. “Yeah, well, I had Pintaro keep it safe.”
“And what were you doing while your pony was on guard duty?”
The thing with Val is he knows when I ain’t being truthful with him, so I told him a quick version.
“Me, Wes, and Isham won some money at a shooting gallery.” Well, that was true-ish.
“Spent the night upstairs with a working gal.” I risked a smile at him, and he just raised his eyebrows even more. “Her name was Rosita.”
I hugged myself. I didn’t want to tell him of the gunfight.
He reached over and held my arm, “And, Johnny?”
“Got called out.”
“What the dang blazes!!” Val shouted in my face.
I shrugged. “Dunno who he was, just a crazy cowboy who said he’d lost his money betting at the shooting gallery.”
Val sat back and got serious as he stared at me. “Go on.”
“Seems like I’d got his spot in an upcoming fracas that’s recruiting guns.”
“Who’s doing the recruiting?”
“Goes by the name Day Pardee.”
Val closed his eyes and I could see his jaw clenching. I waited for the dressing down I deserved. “I tried to talk my way out of it, Val, honest, but he wouldn’t listen. I was quicker than him, but mostly I think I was lucky ‘cos he was wound up with anger, and I had the sun at my back.”
He didn’t yell and tell me I was a damn tonto; instead looked kinda sad. “So you remembered what I told you about anger making you blind to consequences.”
We were quiet for a while, then he reached for my right hand. “You going to sign up with Pardee?”
I sniffed. “Wes and Isham have already ridden out with him.”
“But?” Val spoke so softly; he surely can read me.
“Aw, Val, I got things I need to do.”
“Like your gringo pa?”
I shook my head and felt my gut tighten. “No, no, still ain’t ready for that. It’s to right the wrong done to my Mama and step-father. I’m ready for that.”
Val gave me that look, the one he used when he wanted to be sure I was being straight up with him. “Give me a few days and I’ll ride with you.”
That would have been good to have Val ride with me, but I wasn’t that little orphan kid anymore and this was something I needed to do by myself. I smiled at him. Oh Dios, he was the best Papi a boy could have, trying to set me on the right path no matter how I bucked.
“It’s okay, Val, ain’t planning on using my gun, just need to set somethings right. Oh, and by the way, if you hear of Madrid, Johnny Madrid, that’ll be me.”
Epilogue from Val’s POV
Those damn stupid beeves all it took was a few wild shots and they were all set to stampede. I yelled orders to the young drovers trusting the older one to know what to do.
I’ve taken bullets before and I was damned if I was going to fall out of my saddle and get trampled. Next thing I remember was being in Cookies wagon with him pouring his cheap whiskey over me.
Then Johnny was there. That look of terror on his face was plain to see. I told him I’d be fine, to mind what the boss told him to help get the herd to the railhead and he had to promise to collect my wages for me.
I knew Johnny well enough to know he wasn’t good at taking orders but give him a job to do and he’d go at it ‘till it was done.
Well, he kept his promise. I got my pay, stinking of horse shit and boy sweat. Got a story of how the kid was lucky to be alive. Damn Day Pardee, the low down egg-sucking polecat. Johnny’s still too green to be mixing with him and his cutthroat outfits.
Turns out he’s decided he’s old enough to head out by his self. And how the hell did he get the name Madrid, Johnny Madrid?
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