Word Count 5,882
#1 in The Appaloosa Series
Set before The Homecoming/Highriders
Murdoch goes to West Texas looking for a 17-year-old Johnny.
The wire came 12 days ago. Paul O’Brien rode in from Green River with it.
A Maria Mannerino, my second wife’s name before our marriage, had been traced. She died just over a year ago in a west Texas town called San Del Rio; a full report to follow, no mention of Johnny.
I packed a saddlebag and rode out the next day. I arrived sooner than I thought possible. ‘Let Johnny be here’, I prayed these words over and over, ‘Let him be here’.
It’s a non-descript small western town: a main street with a boardwalk, hotel, saloon, a few shops. The land on the way here was reasonable, longhorn territory; not as fertile as mine in the San Joaquin. A mix of Mexican and Anglo here; this close to the Rio Grande only to be expected. She probably felt closer to her own people here.
It was a hard journey, some by stage, some on the trail on bought and sold horses. I think I will enjoy any bed tonight.
I tie the horse to the hitching rail outside the saloon. I’m planning on a drink and to ask for a room, and to find my son. That was my plan. Then I see him.
It’s been 15 years since he was taken from me. I had been on the verge of abandoning my search; this could be my last chance to find him. I need this boy to be him, to be mine. He is walking down the boardwalk—no, it’s more of a strut down the boardwalk. Hat pushed off his head, hanging down his back so I can see blue eyes and too long black hair. He never liked it being trimmed. That smile lights up his face. The baby I remember had a smile that could melt even my hard heart. He is not tall, he is slender, a boy on the brink of being a man. He is a handsome young cowboy.
After all the false leads, this boy looks like I imagined my second-born would look. I want him to be mine.
He is with an older man, taller, with that tough hard-working look about him. Both are wearing work-a-day clothes and gun belts. That gives me a jolt, but he is 17; not a child, and a gun is a tool that all cowboys must have.
He is not a small child. He is a young man. He is mine.
As they come closer I can see he has a black eye, the bruise now yellowing against his honey-coloured skin. My heart jolts again. How did that happen? All my old nightmares of pain and mistreatment my boy could be suffering…
He is laughing with the older man who has his arm around his shoulder. They are at ease, familiar with each other. He looks happy; my heart can’t stop thudding.
He is closer. He is mine.
Then I hear his voice, it has a Texas drawl to it.
“Come on, you promised, an’ I told ya there was no reason to fuss the Doc.” He has a teasing tone to his voice as he dances away from the older man backing into the batwing door to the saloon.
“Just the one, son. Who knows what trouble them young ‘uns will get up to if we are late.” The older man has called him son. Maybe just as older men do to youngsters. I can hear blood pumping in my ears.
He is my son. He is mine.
I follow them into the saloon and move to one side of the bar. I can see them reflected in the mirror behind the bar and take the opportunity to look more closely at the older man. A working man; weather-beaten face, blue eyes, brown hair with some grey. An easy smile. The bartender and the few customers have all greeted him and Johnny in a friendly way.
I realise I have been holding my breath, so I take a deep breath to calm myself. I order a beer and ask for a room, saying it’s for a couple of nights.
I force myself not to approach Johnny. It should be a private moment.
They have been joined at the bar by another older man. They are talking about breaking horses or horses breaking men. Johnny is laughing as the man he came in with reaches out and ruffles his hair.
That easy familiarity is what I should have had all those lost years.
That should be me. He is my son. He is mine.
They leave after one drink.
I am now undecided. Should I follow? All the way here I had a picture in mind of Johnny being alone after the death of his mother. He would be surprised and pleased I had found him to take him home to Lancer.
That is where he belongs. He is mine.
I decide to not charge in, all guns blazing, dishing out orders as is my way. I will get some information. Who is that man he was with? What sort of a life is my son leading?
As the bar-keep hands me a key he asks my name. Does Johnny know he is a Lancer? What would his mother have told him? Why didn’t I think on this before?
“Paul O’Brien,” I say.
Today is a better day. The weather’s good, the concussion and black eye that the stallion gave me are on the mend. More important, Pa is almost happy; almost back to who he was before.
I know he will never be quite the same, but we are all getting there.
Old Barney at the mercantile and his wife Effie made a fuss of me an’ him while we got in supplies. I know she has snuck a peach pie and some candy in among the other supplies and I grin at her.
We went across to the Doc’s. He declared me fit, saying he hasn’t known anyone with a harder head than me. Pa still had that worry look on him, so I teased at him until I got a smile and we went into the saloon to get a beer, saying howdy to Tate behind the bar and the old guys who hang out during the day. There was a stranger who followed us in, real big, big as a bear. He just stood quietly at the far end of the bar.
On the way down the boardwalk back to the wagon we run into Mz Adams and Jenny. Jenny sure is a pretty thing, all fair hair and freckles on her nose and blue eyes, and really sweet kissable lips. Her Ma, Mz Adams, is a widow and has a kindly way. She has been around a lot, worrying ‘bout us eating right and keeping house and such.
Jenny is 16 and going off soon to some fancy school for girls. Her Grandpa arranged it. Sure will miss her and I’m almost sure she will miss me.
Me an’ Jenny grin at each other as her Ma and my Pa act like they are even younger than us.
After polite talk and byes, Pa an’ me get up on the wagon; he lets me take the reins. I pull my hat low and look across at him. “She wouldn’t want you to be sad and lonely Pa. It’s okay,” I say.
“I know, Johnny. I know, boy. It’s too soon,” he says as he looks into the distance, lost in his own thoughts.
I let him be. It’s been hard, really hard for all of us, but I guess the older you are the longer it takes, and he has had to think about us an’ all, cos life’s gotta go on, ain’t it?
We pull up at the schoolyard. There she is, her nose in a book, black hair in braids. She looks up and smiles, those chocolate brown eyes all lit up. Lordy! Only 13 but so like Mama. Two boys are wrestling, rolling round in the dirt. I see Pa is about to holler but I let out one of my whistles. Poor ol’ Star, his ears go flat and he snorts in disgust. The boys have seen us and are using the excuse of patting dust off each other to keep their fight going. I remember being like that when I was 8—me an’ my primo and the Diego brothers got into all kinda scrapes and mischief.
Pa looks fierce at ‘em but hey, they are just kids doing what kids, ‘specially boys do at that age. They’re good kids really, twins, peas in a pod Pa says. Have a look like me, black hair and blue eyes. There we are, 4 mixed race kids, with a Gringo Pa, but it’s okay. Most everyone around these parts has a lot o’ respect for Pa, and Mama was friends with lots of the wives and womenfolk. And anyways, we ain’t the only ones with an Anglo and Mexican family around here. One or two incomers have been bigots, and Pa has told us now that war has finished it’s likely more folks will move from the east out here west with their ways, but we belong here and gotta be proud of our ways.
We are getting there. It’ll never be the same without Mama, but we are a close family. We will get there.
The room is basic but acceptable. I look out of the window and see Johnny and the man on a wagon leaving town. I run my fingers through my hair. The grey used to be light brown. My face is lined, a bitter look permanently fixed. I was happy once, years ago. I could be happy again if I had my sons back. But my eldest Scott was taken as a new-born baby by his grandfather after his mother died in childbirth to live in Boston and then went missing in that damn war, and Johnny was stolen from me when he was just 2 years old. But now I have found him. He is mine.
It’s too early for bed, too soon to start drinking. I have been warned by Doctor Jenkins to ease back and Paul O’Brien has raised his eyebrows at me when I break open another bottle of Glenlivet. A stiff drink helps me when those black moods descend.
I go into the afternoon sunshine and walk. I find the mission church. Is this where she is buried? I find no grave. I know nothing of Maria and Johnny since she ran away from Lancer. I looked myself when I could get away from the ranch. Then I hired professionals. Oh, there were presumed sightings I chased after, even contacted her kin who were no help, but a Mexican woman called Maria, with a son called Johnny or Juanito? It would take a miracle.
At last, though all my efforts have paid off. He is here, but he belongs at Lancer. He is mine.
I go back to the saloon and ask if they serve food or can recommend somewhere. The barkeeper says they do steak and potatoes; there is a restaurant in the new hotel at the other end of town, and a Mexican cantina for spicy food in the Mexican quarter near the mission. I say I’ll have his steak and potatoes and a beer, and take a seat at a table in the window.
I wonder where Johnny and the man have gone. Not too far, in that old wagon. He looked well and happy; He must have a job and a good place to live.
The steak was edible. I sit here with a beer; the saloon is filling up, a poker game starts on the next table. I ask to join. It’s not high stakes, just neighbours playing for bits and dimes. I say I’m a rancher from California looking to improve bloodlines. I remember Johnny was joking about horse breaking, so say, “…and if I come across a good horse for the line I have, that would be a bonus.”
One of the players looks up and tells me of Joe Madison. He is a horse trader, honest and straightforward. I say was that him I may have seen in here earlier with a young man, not more than a boy?
They tell me Joe has a family: Johnny the eldest, a girl Rosie and twin boys Eddy and Tom. They go on to tell how his wife died about a year ago and how hard the family took it.
My heart is pumping so hard I can barely hear the conversation. He is in a family.
The players are all nodding when one of them tells how Johnny is getting a reputation for having a special good way of breaking horses.
We play a few hands and I say it might be worth my while having a look-see, and ask how to find the Madison place.
That night lying in the bed after I had finished with the soiled dove I stared at the ceiling. How should I get to Johnny? And there are other children; if they are Maria’s they must be my step-children. I could fill all those empty rooms in the hacienda.
The next day I ride out to have a look at the Madison place. Looks like a mix of Mexican and Anglo, an adobe house with a porch along the front with a couple of rockers. It’s nowhere near as impressive as my hacienda. There are barns and corrals, it’s just a regular small working place.
There is activity at one of the corrals but not the usual noise I associate with horse breaking. Johnny is there in the corral petting a magnificent Appaloosa stallion. It looks like he is speaking to it as he slowly walks around it, touching it on its neck, then down to its back and hindquarters, then rubbing its nose and touching its ears. It is hypnotic just watching and Joe Madison and two other men are standing quiet and still at the fence.
After a while, Johnny turns away from the horse and walks away. My heart is in my mouth. I have seen men hurt bad enough to die breaking horses; a wild horse can bite and stomp on a man. They are not to be trusted. This horse, though, watches Johnny, its ears twitching, listening to his quiet voice. I am amazed to see it follow Johnny as he walks around the corral.
I am stunned. I have heard of horse tamers, or whisperers, but never seen one. Most are Indians and there are a couple in Mexico that my vaqueros speak of as mustaneros.
This talented boy is mine.
When he has climbed out of the corral the men congratulate him and I approach.
Doc has given me the okay to get back to work. Me an’ that stallion are gonna have a good talk an’ reach an understanding.
Don’t know how but I’ve always been good with horses. I’m told soon as I could walk I was always trying to get into the barns or corrals, driving Mama to distraction. But she, too, could sweet-talk even the most ornery horse. She could ride sidesaddle, like a real lady, and she had this traditional Spanish outfit for special occasions that looked like someone from a picture book.
I was an okay student when I went to school; but give me a pencil and paper and tell me to draw a picture, I’m real’ good, ‘specially drawing horses. I was the same age as the twins are now when Mz Tavenor the schoolmarm gave me an easel and a set of good pencils and told Mama and Pa to encourage me as I had talent. But it’s the real horseflesh I know I am good at and will make my trade, though I have kept at the drawing and I can now use paint. I gave one of my pictures to Jenny for her birthday a few weeks back. She got all teary like girls do and I said it wasn’t that bad was it and that made her laugh and then she kissed me.
So here I am with Blue—that’s what I’ve called this here stallion—after me telling him what a good fella he is and how he will have a fine life even if he ain’t no longer running wild. Well, we have now reached an understanding. He hasn’t head-butted me or tried to stomp me, so no more black eyes. I told him not to ‘cos it would worry Pa and he carries enough worry already.
There’s the stranger from yesterday watching me. A big man bigger than Pa, he has a way about him that speaks of being in charge. Not sure of him. He’s got a look in his eye like he’s sizing me up just as much or even more than the horse.
He’s telling Pa he is Paul O’Brien, a rancher in California, and he’s heard of how we are horse traders. Says how impressed he is with the horse and my way with it.
Pa introduces Mickey an’ Jose, our ranch hands, an’ then me and we all shake hands. Pa is saying how proud he is of me and my skill with horses. I say, “Aw Pa, it’s nothing”.
Boy, has he got huge hard hands, I wonder if he does blacksmithing. He says the stallion is real fine and is he for sale. Pa says yes, but he’s not yet fully broke and we were planning on taking him to the auction in Laredo.
So the dickering commences an’ I listen an’ learn cos Pa is really good at that. We have a contract with the army for horses. I don’t like to think about it too much, ‘bout what they must have endured in that war.
We go into the house and I fetch the lemonade and cookies Mz Adams had sent over to us.
He is studying my picture of Mama riding side-saddle, asking ‘bout it.
Pa tells that it’s me who is the artist. He has that proud look on him again and smiles at me. Darn, it makes me feel like a little kid and I put my head down all embarrassed.
The stranger who says he is Paul O’Brien asks who is in the picture, and Pa sighs saying his late wife. Mr O’Brien says sorry, but there didn’t seem to be any true feeling the way he said it. Says he also lost his wife Maria and looks back at the picture.
I get a chill down my neck like when I can feel a thunderstorm is on its way.
Pa is nodding being sympathetic like he is with all fellas, saying Mama was also Maria; she passed away just over a year ago. I don’t want Pa talking ‘bout Mama with this man so I butt in asking about his ranch and what has brung him to west Texas.
Tells us he has a cattle ranch in California and on a buying trip for new bloodlines.
He is looking real close into my face. I’m not sure what he thinks he will see.
He an’ Pa re-commence dickering over the stallion. I eat most of the cookies; it’s hungry work, working horses.
A good price is agreed once I have finished breaking ol’e Blue, which would take ‘bout a week I reckon. Hands are shaken on the deal.
He looks over at Mama’s picture and then at me, saying, “You have a look of your mother”.
I blink some, ‘cos that there picture it ain’t a real close up of her face. That picture is in Pa’s bedroom.
Maybe he is just seeing the Mexican in me.
Pa is saying it’s Rosita who has inherited her Mama’s good looks.
Mr O’Brien frowns and shakes his head. As he steps onto the porch he says how he was told in town of the family.
Pa gets that proud tone in his voice, “Yes, I have a fine family. ‘sides my son Juanito here, there is Rosita, and twin boys Eduardo and Tomas”, being real careful to use the Mexican versions of our names.
Mr O’Brien nods and says he will be back in a couple of days to pay for Blue and sign a bill of sale, mounts up and rides out.
I find myself glad he’s gone, he gives me a creepy feeling the way he seems to look right into me, but Pa seems happy cos it is a good deal on Blue, and business is business.
When I shook hands with Johnny, it took all the willpower I had not to take him in my arms and hold him tight.
I went through the motions of coming to a deal over the horse.
Inside it’s a homey place with signs of children, a few books, a box with wooden toys piled in. But on the wall, pictures—pencil sketches, but a couple of well-painted ones, including one of a Spanish woman riding side-saddle on a palomino. Maria rode like that. She had that tilt to her head, the same stature.
I am surprised that it’s Johnny who is the artist. I never imagined my son being artistic. But the skill with horses, that will be useful at Lancer.
He watches me. I can feel it…not quite trusting me. He is respectful of this Joe Madison, who he calls Pa, but it’s me who is his father. The boy is mine.
Seems Maria and this Joe Madison had themselves the family life that should have been mine. Why would Maria have been happy to stay here in this ordinary place when she could have had Lancer, with all those acres and the power and standing that went with it?
Joe Madison seems a likeable regular sort. Doesn’t fit in with the description of the gambler Maria ran off with.
I’m going to be around for some more days; I shall try to find out how they met. And I need to talk to Johnny. He needs to know he belongs to me. He is mine.
I go to the bank to arrange funds, telling the manager I have the authority to act on Lancer business, showing him a letter I have written and signed in my true name Murdoch Lancer. I say I expect the transaction to remain confidential; if word gets out Lancer is doing business, prices go up.
In my experience, besides saloons, the town mercantile is as good a place as any for gossip. San Del Rio Mercantile is the usual small-town store: outside, boxes of fruit and vegetables, inside, crammed with all manner of goods.
The old couple running it are pleased to see a new customer. I explain I am in the process of buying a horse from Mr Madison. I go on to say I saw Johnny breaking the horse in a most remarkable way. Well, off they go telling me Joe Madison is well-liked; how sad it was how his wife died. What good children he has, and how they seem to be recovering from their loss.
I am impressed that so far there has been a lack of discrimination towards a mixed-race family. I buy a new shirt and casually ask how long Madison has lived here. The old lady Effie taps a finger on her lips and closes her eyes in concentration. “Going on 14 years I reckon,” she says. “Johnny was just a toddler, cute as a button, still is,” and she and her husband laugh. Oh, I say knowing my son is 17, “so he is as young as he looks”. “Yes,” says the old man. “Turned 17 a fine young man. Real glad he didn’t go off to that war”.
I almost gasp out loud. He thought of going off to war? “He was only a child,” I say. The old man, Barney, he is off telling me how two local boys, friends of Johnny, went off to fight. Seems Joe talked Johnny into waiting until he was over 16 before he joined, but then his Mama died and he couldn’t leave then and now thank the lord the war is over.
I tell them it’s a fine stallion I’m buying from them and ask if Joe has always been a horse trader. I consider buying a new hat.
“That’ll be the Appaloosa stallion, is it? Heard Johnny saying what a looker he was,” says the old guy. “Far as I can remember that’s al’us been Joe’s trade.”
I buy the hat as well as the shirt and thank them. I want to find out how and when Maria met Joe but mustn’t appear too curious and cause suspicion.
The boy, my boy, is obviously settled and safe. All these years of worry about his whereabouts and safety…I used to pray he was safe until I could find him. And now I have. I need to find a way to tell him he belongs at Lancer, that he is mine.
I go back to the saloon and tell the bar-keeper I need the room until the end of the week. I have a beer and sit and think it through.
I know I am stubborn, have a temper, and am used to having folk dance to my tune. But going in there demanding my son? Even I know that won’t work. If he was living as an orphan things would be different. But he is mine. I must find a way.
Me and Blue are getting along fine. He’s gonna make a good addition to anyone’s line of horses. We know his bloodlines, coming like he did from kin in Mexico.
Tomorrow is Sunday and after the service at the Mission church, there is gonna be a celebration of the christening of one of our neighbour’s new baby. Worth putting on a clean shirt and tie for all the good food that’s gonna be there. I’ll get to dance with Jenny, get to hold her close and smell her pretty hair…I can hardly wait. I’m telling Blue all this nice and quiet like and I know he’s enjoying the talk and my fingers on his neck and ears. Tell him in a couple of days he’ll be off to California and whoee will he enjoy his self there with lots of pretty mares.
Be pleased to see Mr O’Brien gone. I don’t care for the way he watches me. It’s somehow different to the way folks watch me with horses—that I don’t mind too much. An’ I know girls look at me same as I look at ‘em, but most around here know Jenny is special to me. On my last birthday Pa took me to the saloon, and after the most ear-blistering embarrassing talk, I spent the night with Dolly, one of the saloon gals. I thought I knew what was what between a man and a woman, but boy I tell ya—I learnt a whole lot that night. Afterwards, Pa had a real serious talk about how to treat women with respect, and how once you meet the one for you, you know how that feels. I know him and Mama were true for each other. They would have these little smiles and gentle ways with each other.
Anyways glad Mr O’Brien is gonna be far away. Yesterday he was around when we collected Rosie and the twins from school said howdy real friendly-like, but the way he looks at us all…it’s a worry to me. I said as much to Pa cos he knows when I have a worry. Pa said Mr O’Brien is sad cos he apparently has lost his family; sure am sorry ‘bout that but don’t mean he can move in on us.
He asked Pa if I could go with him to help take Blue back to California. No way is that gonna happen. Pa explained to him we were too busy; my Abuelo and primo have sent word they are on their way with the next batch of horses that need breaking for that army contract.
He had a real grim look when Pa said he could get a hand from the Andrews ranch. It’s a quiet time for them and one of the fellas would sign up for the trip.
If only I could have got Johnny to come to California. Helping on the trail with the Appaloosa would have been a perfect time to talk, to tell him he belongs at Lancer with me; I am his father. I don’t know what happened to the gambler his mother ran away with, or how or when she met this Joe Madison, but that’s of no consequence. He has been found, and he is mine.
If only I had got word of her death when it had happened a year ago. Now he is almost a man, and not as easily handled as a boy would have been.
The Pinkertons had been unsuccessful. It was a private investigator I had been put in touch with on a business trip to San Francisco who found her; but the man got himself killed, so the news was late reaching me.
Today I am due to collect the Appaloosa but I am numb with shock. How can this have happened? Lord, has my blind stubbornness and arrogance led to this? Am I to blame? How could I be so blind and foolish?
A wire came, the telegraph operator all apologies for the delay and confusion. Seems it was sent from Green River but the sender’s name got confused with mine.
It’s from Paul. The Pinkertons sent a man in person with a report. They had heard of my journey here and they say this Johnny is not mine. They say they have proof my Johnny is going by the name Johnny Madrid. He is a pistolero in the border towns. Do I still want him? And Scott is alive— my eldest is alive—he is back in Boston recovering his health following being a prisoner for a year during that war. Do I want them to contact him?
My heart is beating so hard I have to sit with my head between my knees. That handsome talented boy is not mine. Mine is a border town gun-fighter.
I need to get back to Lancer as soon as possible. I will have the stallion. It is, after all, a good horse and I paid over the odds for it. I will arrange for a cowboy to fetch it. I will get home without delay.
I have wired back to the Pinkertons Yes to both.
They are both mine.
Well, Mr O’Brien came an’ went all cold business-like. Shook hands with us both, looking at me saying to have a good life and appreciate your family. As if I don’t, cos I surely do.
Today’s gonna be fun. Abuelo and my primo Juanito are here with some real fine horses for me and him to break.
Me and Jay, we’re like them little outlaw brothers of mine; we are peas in a pod.
He’s not my first cousin. His late Mama and mine were cousins. But it’s like Pa says, all of Mexico are cousins of one sort or another.
When he’s here, which he is at times convenient to him, we call him Jay and I get called JJ cos it’s too confusing having us both called Johnny.
He’s the one that set it right when my Mama was shot dead by a cowardly would-be bank robber. Jay tracked him down and called the cowardly bastardo out. Didn’t have any name on him; no one knew of him.
Everyone agreed it was justice, though we all still would have preferred it not to have happened in the first place.
My cousin Johnny likes it around here. Says he likes the quiet, though them two little outlaw brothers of mine can be noisy. He is even better with horses than me. Abuelo says we have inherited our good looks and talent from him. My Abuelo is what is known as a mustanero. He’s the one who is teaching us boys the secrets of working with horses.
My cousin Johnny, when he lives here with us, he goes by Mannerino, which was Abuela Louisa Maria’s name. Course now he’s trading as a pistolero he don’t want to draw attention to us, his family, so he leaves Madrid behind.
He is only a few weeks older than me, but years older in living. He has a sadness in him that started with his Mama and Papi being killed. Rosita tells him not to be sad when he’s here, and he pulls at her braids and laughs.
I’ve told him ‘bout Jenny and he grinned and took my head in a neck hold like we used to do when we were little ‘uns and he messed up my hair. But we go to the saloon together with Pa and Abuelo an’ I can visit some with Dolly.
We don’t talk of Madrid round Rosita and my little brothers, but we ain’t ashamed of him. There are good reasons why and in any case we are familia. He is ours.
Lancer 18 months later.
Damn back. That bullet that is “best left in” is causing cramps. I’m using a cane, limping like an old man. I need to be upright and in charge. Scott is due in on today’s stage.
Johnny, who knows? The Pinkertons wired weeks ago he had been tracked down to some uprising in Mexico.
I sent Paul’s daughter Teresa with two hands into Morro Coyo to meet the stage. I couldn’t bear the thought of riding in a wagon knowing what it would do to my back and to my disposition, which these days is worse than ever.
Since Pardee killed Paul and damn near did the same to me, I have taken her as my foster daughter. I’m not overly religious but feel I need to do some good deeds to balance the scales, so to speak.
The wagon is here. I can hear the vaqueros cheering. We are on the brink of losing to Pardee, but the return of the Patron’s son means something to them—the continuation of Lancer, which is their home and has been for most of them since before Catherine and I came here.
The door opens and I stand. God help me, there are two young men. That’s my Johnny, blacker hair and deeper blue eyes than that other boy. He has a hard edge to him, almost feral. For a moment there was a look of the boy, but it was gone in the blink of an eye.
One is an aloof dandy former soldier, the other an insolent gun-fighter. Still, they have the skills I need to fight off the land pirates and they are mine.
TBC in Ours
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