"Hey Josiah, think God would mind if we took a break?" Nathan asked as he put down this hammer.
Josiah looked up from the pew he was trying to fix and took a rag out of his pocket to wipe his brow. "No I donít suppose he would at that." Both men had spent the better half of the day trying to make a run down church look like a house of the lord. "And in this heat, Iíd say he might recommend it. Besides, these bones could use a rest."
Nathan smiled at the reply, thankful for the break. He liked to help out whenever he could but even he had to admit they had put in a long day. "What do you say to joining Chris, Buck and the others at the saloon?" Nathan asked as he put his tools away.
Josiah chuckled, revealing a friendly smile and a sparkle in his eyes. "Ah yes, getting in touch with spirits of a different kind. Now that I could go for!" He put the rag back in his pocket and ran his fingers through his graying hair. He walked towards the door and was greeted by a soft yet refreshing breeze.
Nathan laughed, "I thought you might say that." and followed his friend out the door.
The two men had been friends for going on two years now. Nathan had met Josiah shortly after being freed from slavery and was understandably distrustful of strangers. Yet Josiah was different. It could have a lot to do with his being a preacher but Nathan believed it ran deeper than that. Josiah was a good man, believing that all men were created equal and should be treated as such. Not that Josiah didnít have his demons to reckon with, but he was a truly spiritual man and had helped Nathan when others refused. For that he would always be grateful.
"Well, well, what have we here?" Ezra stated in his southern drawl, looking up from his poker hand. "More contributors to my future winnings?" The mere thought producing a charming yet slightly devious smile. Ezra loved to play cards, and played to win.
"Not if I have anything to say about it." Josiah replied, taking one of the empty seats next to Ezra. "I plan on changing your luck!"
To this challenge Ezra merely raised his shot glass, tipped it at Josiah and replied in an amused tone. "I surely invite you to try, as our young friend JD here has not been able to accomplish such a task as yet."
JD grimaced at this remark and poured himself another shot from the whiskey bottle he and Ezra had been sharing. He wasnít accustomed to liquor but he didnít dare turn it down in the company of the other men. True, he was young. With dark brown hair and a face that reminded you of someoneís sweet younger bother, but he had come out west to become a man and thatís just what he was going to do.
"Just you wait." He answered, trying to exude a confidence he didnít truly feel. "My luckís gonna change any minute now!"
Nathan returned from getting his own whiskey bottle just time to hear JDís boast and replied, "Yeah probably from bad to worse!" The ribbing produced laughter from three of the men but JD was not amused. "Laugh all you want." He threw back at Nathan, "I might just surprise you." And with that he downed his shot and poured another.
"Come on JD." Nathan chuckled, "You know weíre just teasing, besides you know itís nearly impossible to win against Ezra cause the man cheats!"
"I resent that implication!" Ezra shot back, beginning to deal the next hand. True, he had been known to put the odds in his favor once or twice in his past but the thought of cheating these men somehow seemed wrong to him now.
"You may resent it," Josiah replied, giving JD a mischievous wink, "Donít mean it ainít true. Now deal them cards and start sharing those winnings." Josiah poured Nathan and himself a drink, picked up his dealt hand and asked, "Where are Chris and Buck at? We thought they were here,"
Ezra looked up from his card just long enough to nod his head at the back of the saloon to indicate where the two men were seated. "Back there with Vin. Now are you going to talk or are you going to play?"
Nathan studied his cards and moaned," I think weíre playing right into Ezraís hands!" This time JD gladly joined in the laughter.
Chris poured another round for the threesome and nodded in the direction of the card tables. "Looks like the gangs all here."
"Yup." Vin replied. "All present and accounted for." With this he smiled and removed his hat, letting his brown curls fall onto his shoulders.
Vin was a handsome man who often invoked giggles and stolen glances from ladies. Yet with his laid back persona this often went unnoticed. One might say he was the boy next-door type... but they would by wrong. Vin was a wanted man for murder. He did not commit the crime but there was a bounty on his head nonetheless. Something Vin was eager to rectify.
"Now all we need are some beautiful ladies to complete the festivities." Buck quipped to the others.
Where Vin may have let ladiesí advances slide, Buck would not. He was the quintessential ladies man... possessing roguish good looks, a charming demeanor, and a smile that could melt the coldest of hearts. Buck rarely had trouble finding a companion.
"Trust Buck to think of the ladies first."
Last, but certainly not least, was Chris. He was, by right, the leader of this group of seven. With his dark blonde hair and piercing eyes he, too, was to sight to behold. Yet, behind those eyes, lay something troubled. As if he had a secret pain that he fought hard to keep from surfacing. Chris had suffered a great loss with losing his wife and son to a fire and the pain he harbored was a secret the only truly shared with his long time friend Buck.
They were seven very different men with very unique backgrounds and their own burdens of pain and secrets. Yet they had been bonded together by the one characteristic they all shared. Compassion.
True to his word, Josiah had successfully changed Ezraís luck, winning the last two hands. This turning of the tides annoyed Ezra greatly, as he hated to lose. As he watched Josiah scoop up the pile of winnings from the middle of the table he took another drink. He began to rethink that "no cheating" policy. Oh well, he thought, easy come, easy go.
The next hand was about to be dealt by a nearly broke JD when sounds of gunfire rang through the air. It had come from outside the saloon. Immediately the seven men stopped what each was doing and gathered by the front door.
"What the hell do you think is going on out there?" Chris asked the group.
"Only one way to find out." Vin replied and headed for the exit. As the rest pulled out their guns and began to follow suit JD turned to Josiah and whispered," I was praying for a way out of the card game but I didnít expect gun fire!"
Josiah turned, patted him on the back and answered, "Well my friend, the lord works in mysterious ways."
As the men entered the street more gunfire rang out.
"Take cover!" Chris shouted and the men quickly did so. Buck found himself behind a stack of large rain barrels with JD and Nathan. He thought to himself that he was glad to at least have Nathan to back him up. JD meant well but the kid was still green and probably couldnít hit the broad side of a barn.
Chris had taken cover with Vin behind a parked wagon to the right of the saloon. From his hiding spot he could see Josiah and Ezra trying to survey the situation from behind a large watering trough. Chris made eye contact with Ezra and motioned to him to get ready to cover him. Ezra nodded and passed the message on to Josiah.
Chris then called out to Buck, who he could not see. "Buck? Ready?" That was all Buck needed, as the two had fought together many times in the past. Chris steeled himself and then gave the nod to Ezra and Josiah.
As yet more shots were fired Vin whispered to Chris," Be careful."
To this Chris answered, "I always am."
He then stood up and tried to get a handle on the situation before someone decided to target him. He could see only four men but was sure that there were more hiding. One of the men seemed to be the unlucky target of all the flying bullets. Chris was pretty certain the man was having probably one of his worst days and had a sinking feeling he was about to as well.
"What do you see?" Chris heard Vin ask.
"A bad situation." was his reply.
Just then one of the men spotted Chris and shouted at him. "You and your friends best mind youíre now business unless you want this to be your last day on this earth, cowboy."
ĎCowboyí Chris thought. He shouldnít have called me that. ĎTime to end thisí.
Placing his right hand on his gun, to show he meant business, Chris hollered, "I suggest you put the guns away mister or else me and my friends will be prying them out of your dead hands!"
"Nice response." Josiah whispered to Ezra.
Ezra nodded in agreement. "Sounds effective."
Yet to the sevenís dismay Chrisís response was met with an "I warned you cowboy!" With that the man fired a shot that whizzed just left of Chrisís head. He ducked back to safety just long enough to yell, "Letís do it!"
With that all hell broke loose. Buck, eager to repay the man who had shot at Chris, bolted up and took aim at the first man he saw. It wasnít the man he wanted, but he would do.
Josiah and Ezra appeared from their spot and began firing as cover while Chris and Vin slowly began to advance on the strangers.
Nathan also took his turn and managed to take down a man who had been growing dangerously close to their hiding spot.
"Good shot friend. We owe ya." Buck whispered over his shoulder.
"Yeah, well you can get the next one, Buck." Nathan answered and prepared for another shot.
JD had yet to make a contribution to the shoot out and was trying to get his courage up. He took a deep breath and thought to himself- here we go! With that he stood up and frantically searched for a target. His gaze fell upon a grim looking man peering from behind a water barrel. To him one man was as good as another and fired at him.
To his delight and surprise the bullet found itís mark and the man fell to the ground dead. In his shock JD stood there staring at the dead man in a mix of disbelief and pride. It was the mistake of an inexperienced fighter. Another man, coming out of a doorway, targeted JD. The bullet missed its intended destination, but only by inches.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, BOY?" Buck screamed and pulled the young man to safety. "You donít stand there and give them a target!"
"S-sorry JD stammered. "But I got him."
"So what do you want, a medal?" Buck spat back. "Huh? Cause I could pin it to your dead chest!" Damn kid, Buck thought. He doesnít even have enough sense to keep his fool head down.
"Go easy!" Nathan directed at Buck. "We all make mistakes."
Buck shot Nathan a dirty look but let it drop. They still had a fight on their hands.
Meanwhile, Josiah had managed to wound another of the enemy and was aiming for the death shot. The man tried to get up and twisted as to get a better view of his situation. This allowed Josiah a perfect shot and he finished the man off. Sometimes, he thought, it really doesnít pay to turn the other cheek.
Chris and Vin had succeeded in gaining ground and Chris began looking for the man who had shot at him. It took a few seconds but he finally came into view. Chris readied himself to return the favor but the man spotted him and ducked back down. DAMN! He thought, and scanned the street for a better vantage point at which to take the man out.
Just as Chris thought he could settle the score, he heard one of the men yell out, "Jake, it ainít worth it. Letís get the hell out of here." With that the strangers began to retreat, firing a few lasts shots over their shoulders as they ran.
"Well, how do you like that!" Ezra said to Josiah with disgust, losing his aim on his intended target. "They start this most unpleasant confrontation, then turn tail and run!"
"Yup." Josiah replied, lowering his rifle, "But at least we sent a few to meet their maker."
"Not a sufficient amount, as far as Iím concerned." He curtly answered, swiping at his coat in an attempt to remove some of the dust and dirt.
Once again the seven men all gathered together in a group. Though this time a little more tired and a lot more dusty.
"So Chris," Buck inquired of his friend. "What do you suppose provoked that outburst?"
Chris placed his gun back in its holster and took a quick inventory of his body parts. Yup, still all there. "Beats me Buck. I just hope they donít come back for an encore."
"Amen to that brother." Josiah added.
A thoughtful look came across Vinís face and he said, "That one guy said it wasnít worth it. What do you suppose he was trying to do that wasnít worth it?"
"Good question Vin, and that guy over there may have your answer." Nathan replied as he pointed to the man that had been the original target.
He was laying in the middle of the street clutching his shoulder and moaning. Nathan, having a talent in the ways of healing, immediately ran over to attend to the wounded man.
When he arrived at the stranger he knelt down beside him and began to assess the damage to his shoulder. Heíd taken a bullet, that was for sure, but Nathan had seen worse. If he would get the bullet out and dress the wound he was pretty sure the man would be just fine.
The others joined Nathan and Chris knelt down beside Nathan and asked.
"How bad is it?"
"Not too bad. It looks worse than it really is. Could you help me get him to a room? We could take him to mine at the boarding house. I can attend to him there."
"You bet." Chris replied. "You get him under the chest and Iíll lift the legs." Together they carried him off.
As they walked past the others JD muttered, "It sure looks bad." In a split second Buck had JD by the collar, pulled him close and looked him dead in the eyes.
"You take a good look boy?" he spat. "Thatís what happens when you donít stay out of the way of bullets!" He then threw him back and stormed off after Nathan and Chris.
JD stood there speechless for a moment just staring after Buck. Josiah and Ezra shared a knowing glance, both aware how much it bothered Buck that JD was not as seasoned as the rest of them.
JD came out of his trance and turned slowly towards Josiah and Ezra. His expression a mixture of hurt and shock. With a wounded voice he whispered." But I got him. What did I do wrong?"
Ezra stepped forward and replied, "You nearly got shot."
Josiah threw a disapproving look at Ezra. He then walked over to JD and placed his hand on the young manís shoulder and told him," Donít worry about it kid, you did your best. Buck was just concerned for you."
The hurt was then replaced by anger and JD shouted, "Well he sure has a funny way of showing it! Besides who asked him to be concerned? I can take care of myself!" He then brushed Josiahís hand away and continued," And donít call me kid!" With that he spun around and walked off.
Ezra, continuing to brush off his coat, snickered and remarked, "Well preacher, that sermon fell upon deaf ears."
To this Josiah threw up his hands and sighed, "You canít save Ďem all."
It wasnít until the next morning that the wounded man regained consciousness. He awoke to find two men he had never seen before standing over him. For a moment he thought that it was the men who had been trying to kill him and he began to struggle to get up.
"Whoa there mister, youíve been shot and need to take it easy." Nathan tried to put the man at ease. He was worried moving would reopen his wound.
The man looked at him suspiciously for a moment, and then the memories began to flood back. He remembered other men. Men that had seemed to be fighting off his attackers.
His gaze darted from one man to the other and he then asked, "Are you two of the men who scared those hellions off?"
It was Chris who have him his answer. "Yes sir we are. You seemed a bit out numbered. Thought you could use some help."
The man nodded and then grimaced as pain shot through his shoulder. "Yeah, I sure did. If it wasnít for you men Iíd probably be dead. Thanks for the help."
"Well," Chris replied, "We hate to see and unfair fight. Makes us want to even up the odds."
At that the man laughed, then again reacted to the bolt of pain shooting through his arm. Nathan tore some fresh bandages and began to change the wound. "Iím Nathan and this here is Chris. Mind if we ask your name?"
"Oh, yeah, sorry. Nameís Robert... Robert Taylor. And thanks for fixing my arm, Nathan."
"No problem. Glad to help. It should heal just fine." Nathan assured him.
Chris ran his fingers through his hair and posed the question, "Robert... if I may ask, what reason did those men have for wanting you dead?"
Robert paused for a moment before answering. "They donít have a reason. Granted, they think they do. You see, the one you talked toÖ Jake... he thinks I killed his brother. But I didnít do it. I swear! I donít even know who him or his brother are. They got the wrong man!"
Chris glanced at Nathan to see his reaction to the manís answer, but he was busy tending to the wound. "O.K., well, youíre safe for now so you just rest up and weíll talk more later."
The man nodded and relaxed back into the bed. He was still weary from blood loss and would welcome some more rest. Nathan finished up and both he and Chris lift the room.
As they walked down the hallway Nathan turned to Chris and seeing his puzzled look asked, "You donít believe his story, Chris?"
"Didnít say that. Just seems strange to have that many men after you for something you didnít do."
"Well," Nathan answered, "Maybe it was just like he said... they got the wrong person."
Chris paused for a moment, then nodded his head slowly. "Yeah... maybe."
Chris and Nathan walked over to the saloon where they instinctively knew the rest of the men would be. He could use a drink, Chris thought, and he imagined so could the rest of the men. Sure enough, when the two entered the establishment the rest of the gang were there. Once again, all were present and accounted for.
Though they were all there, the men were divided into two groups. Buck, Josiah, and Ezra were at one table, leaving JD and Vin at another. To Chris this made it apparent that the squabble Ezra informed him had occurred earlier was not yet settled.
Chris and Nathan took seats at Buckís table and Chris then turned to call over the other two. "Come over here you two, we got some news on our patient."
Vin stood up and began to walk over but JD hesitated. Chris noticed this and added, "Come on JD... this involves us all."
JD reluctantly moved to the other table, stealing an anxious glance in Buckís direction. He was not eager to be yelled at again so soon, but he neednít have worried. Buck was ignoring JD completely.
There was a tension in the air that they all could not help but notice. Chris sighed impatiently. "Look, yesterday was a hell of a day, I agree, but we have more pressing issues than hurt feelings!! Letís all get the hell over it and move on!"
The silence still hung thick in the air until Ezra broke it with a sarcastic, "Yes, gentlemen, do kiss and make up." This snide remark hit a funny bone in the seven and the tension was broken with guffaws of laughter.
"All right then." Chris continued. "The man in questionís name is Robert Taylor. He says one of those men believes him to have murdered his brother and is now seeking a little justice."
"Jesus!" Vin replied. "Are we sure we were for the right man?"
Nathan responded, "He says he didnít do it. That heís wrongly accused."
"Oh, well thatís different if they got the wrong man." Vin said as he lined up the seven shot glasses on the table and began to pour some whiskey.
"How so?" Ezra retorted, rolling his eyes. "They all say they didnít do it!"
To that Chris nodded and said, "He could be just trying to save his hide."
Vin slammed his drink down and squared his jaw. "Well, I for one am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Just Ďcause youíre accused of murder donít make it so."
Chris pondered on Vinís statement for a moment. He had been the only one of them that Vin had confided in about being a wanted man. He knew and trusted Vin, and if he could be wrongly accused then maybe this Robertís story wasnít so far fetched. Chris promised himself to keep more of an open mind about this situation.
"Iím with Vin on this one." Buck added, then drank his shot. "I mean those other men were the ones shooting up a storm out there at the guy. There had to have been nearly ten of them and only one of him. Not very fair fighters if you ask me. And if I know anything about unfair fighters, itís that theyíll be coming back for Robert. Heís gonna need some people on his side."
Josiah shook his head in disgust. "Besides, even saying the man is guilty, it donít give those men the right to take the law into their own hands."
"Yeah!" JD exclaimed. " Thatís why we have judges. If the manís going to hang for a crime he should have at least either confessed or had a trial."
Ezra looked up at JD with a glint in his eye and with an amused tone replied, "Well, well, our young friend here may have just given us a solution to this most enigmatic predicament."
A puzzled look came over each manís face, but two fold on JDís. First, because he wasnít entirely sure what the hell Ezra had just said and secondly, if he had given a solution to something, he did not know it.
"What do you mean Ezra?" Chris asked, not understanding, as many times before, what was going through Ezraís head.
Ezra replied in an exasperated tone, "Why it is obvious gentlemen. When these gun men return we merely tell them that the accused has confessed his crime and that we intend to hang the man for his shameful deed."
"Obviously." Josiah quipped sarcastically, having no idea what Ezra was getting at.
"Ezra, have you lost your mind?" Nathan shot back. "First we save the man, and now weíre gonna hang him? What kind of solution is that?"
Shaking his head in disgust Ezra sighed and answered. "Really gentlemen you have no vision. Now listen...."
Just as predicted the band of troublesome men returned the next day with more reinforcements to finish the task they had so rudely been interrupted from. The outlawsí leader was a formidable man named Jake. He had dark hair, coal for eyes and a permanent scowl.
He had chased a man to this God forsaken town two days ago to settle a personal score. The man had killed his brother... or so he had been told. Either way, he was a shoot first, ask questions later kind of man. He planned to hunt this man down and kill him just the same and if it was the wrong man he'd just start over with another suspect.
As they neared the town for the second time his mind wandered back to two days ago. It still infuriated him that those men had interfered with his business. Damn cowboys! More guts than brains.
ĎOh well,í he thought, after Jake had finished what he set out to do he decided to teach those boys a lesson. Especially the cocky one with the line about prying their guns from their dead hands.
Jake lit a cigarette and prepared to render a little justice. "Come on boys!" He shouted back at his companions. "It's time to hang us a murderer.
"Here comes trouble." Vin called back to the rest of the men as he peered through his looking glass.
Josiah double-checked his shot gun and turning to Buck beside him remarked, "Let's send us a few demons back to hell."
Buck smiled at this. "Amen brother!"
A few minutes later both groups were staring each other down in the main street. The tension could be cut with a knife, or a bullet, but both parties were showing restraint thus far.
As the two groups faced off any towns people on the street began to head for cover. Four Corners was no stranger to gun fights and its residents knew the beginnings of one when they saw it.
Jake was the first to break the silence. He threw down his cigarette and spoke directly to Chris.
"I've come for the man you are hiding. He murdered my brother and I plan on making him pay at the end of a rope. If your smart, cowboy, you'll co-operate. If not... you'll die."
Vin leaned over to Chris and whispered, "Hey Chris... did he just call you a...."
"Never mind Vin." Chris interrupted. "Let's just do this thing."
Chris stepped forward and gave this dark stranger his meanest glare. "We understand this man we have committed a terrible crime. We don't harbor criminals in this town... nor do we let people take the law into their own hands. He must be punished... true... but we are the law in this town and if there is going to be a hanging it'll be done by us."
This response took Jake by surprise. He was expecting interference from these men, not to do the deed for him. Still, he didn't trust these men. They'd interfered before. They may try again, unless theyíd actually wised up.
"You want to do the hanging?" Jake laughed bitterly. "Why? He kill your brother too?"
"Nope." Chris replied. "But like I said, if it's gonna get done it'll be by us or not at all."
Jake pondered this situation before him. As long as the man got hung what the hell did he care who did it. Also, this way no one could come back and try to blame him for killing the guy. Yet Jake was still suspicious... it seemed too easy.
"Fair enough. But you ain't gonna do it without me and my men coming along." Jake shot back, motioning to the burly men that stood silently behind him.
At this Chris smiled and replied, "We wouldn't have it any other way."
JD and Ezra proceeded to fetch the prisoner, Robert, from the cell they had put him in. Once retrieved, they placed him on a horse for the ride just outside of town where hangings used to take place on a regular basis before the seven came to town.
As Robert was placed on the horse he glanced up at Jake, who watched him like a hawk, and whispered to Ezra, "You sure about this?"
Ezra merely replied, "Sir, we have a firm handle on the situation, I assure you." And with that they rode off to execute a hanging.
They arrived not five minutes later at the hanging site. Vin and Ezra led Robert's horse to the hanging post while Buck strung the rope.
Jake watched this all with a sense of both slight distrust and great amusement. Getting these men to do the dirty work for him made this event all the more pleasurable.
Robert's horse was led to the post and Buck placed the rope around his neck. Next Josiah walked up to Robert and, producing a bible from his coat, began to read his last rites.
"What the hell is that?" Jake barked at Josiah
Josiah stopped the rite, turned slowly and replied, "The man has a right to die free of his sins. To go to God's kingdom."
Jake paused a moment and then growled, "Well hurry up then! I ain't got time for this!"
"There's always time for salvation my brother." And Josiah finished up the rites.
The time was here. Chris leaned over to Ezra and whispered, "This had better work."
"Or what?" Ezra asked
"Or you're next." Chris returned
Buck looked over at Chris and waited for the go ahead. Chris said a silent prayer. That was more Josiah's field but he figured they needed all the help they could get. Chris let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding and gave Buck the nod.
Buck nodded back and in turn gave the horse Robert was sitting on a hard slap, followed by a loud whoop. This did the trick, and the horse ran off leaving Robert dangling by the rope.
Robert dangled there for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually only a few seconds. Then with a sudden snap the rope broke and Robert fell to the ground with a thud.
"Jesus!" Vin yelled. "The rope broke!"
"Oh God! What do we do now?" JD yelped, his face a mask of horror.
"Well, there's only one thing to do." Ezra replied. Stony faced, he pulled out his pistol. "Put the man out of his misery." And with that, Ezra shot the man.
There was stunned silence for a moment until Jake asked, "You sure he's dead?"
Chris gestured towards the dead man and said, "You want I should ask him? The man's been half hung, then shot. How many lives you think he's got?"
Jake nodded and replied, Good point. Ain't no one live through that." He then tipped his hat at the seven men and said, "Thanks for the show. Most entertaining." He then got onto his horse and he and his companions proceeded to ride off.
Once the men were a safe distance away Nathan ran to Robert. He checked for a pulse and was relieved to find one. "You O.K. Robert?" He asked. Robert rolled over and replied in a hoarse voice, "I think so."
"We did it!" JD shouted with great relief.
"We sure did, kid." Buck replied. "You did great. Really believable." And patted him on the back
JD beamed "Thanks Buck! Yeah I was pretty good wasn't I?"
Buck chuckled. "Don't push it kid."
"Nice work with the rope Buck." Vin commented as he walked up to him. "How'd you know how much to weaken the rope?"
Buck paused for a moment and then with a sheepish expression whispered. "Ahh... actually... I didn't. I sort of guessed."
Vin looked at him for a moment then tipped his hat "Nice guess."
"Well, well, gentlemen can I put a scam together or what?" Ezra boasted with a Cheshire grin.
"You're truly my hero, Ezra." Josiah deadpanned.
"Why thank you, Josiah. It's nice to know my talents are appreciated. And are you not grateful I still had, in my possession, some blanks left for my gun?"
"You know it." Chris answered.
Nathan helped Robert to his feet. The man was still unsteady from the ordeal, but was able to walk, with a little help.
As they all mounted their horses for the ride back to town JD piped up."Where are we going now?"
They all looked at each other and in unison replied, "SALOON"
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