Chris woke to the smell of coffee and the sounds of soldiers preparing for another day on the trail. Rubbing a hand over his eyes, he sat up and stretched, then glanced anxiously over at Vins bedroll. Relief flooded him when he saw the tracker still asleep, curled on his side, his long hair falling across his face.
"Reckon he aint moved all night," Buck said quietly, noting where Larabees gaze had fallen. "Hate ta wake him. Still looks exhausted."
"Got no choice," Chris said with obvious reluctance. "We gotta put an end ta this one way or another. And the sooner, the better. I want outta these damn mountains, and I want Ford and his boys the hell away from this territory. And Im pretty much past carin how that happens." He glanced again at Vin and shook his head slowly. "He cant take much more of this. And I cant take much more of seein what its doin to him."
Buck eyed his friend sadly, easily able to see the toll this was taking on him. Hell, he knew how hed feel if it was JD
"Get some coffee, pard. Ill wake Vin, see if I cant get somethin down him, too."
Chris nodded his thanks, then smiled slightly. "Be careful, Buck. Youre runnin outta places for Vin ta hit ya."
Buck laughed lightly. "Well, maybe on second thought Ill let Josiah do it. That bite marks doin fine. Reckon its time for another."
"Hey, Chris!" JD called, hurrying to the fire. He was frowning deeply, obviously puzzled, and shaking his head as he glanced back over his shoulder at the horses from which hed just come. "Youre not gonna believe this! It doesnt make any sense!"
"Sit down, JD," Chris ordered. "Its too damn early ta be movin so fast."
"But it doesnt make any sense!" the boy repeated, dropping down to the ground at Bucks side and staring at Chris in confusion. "I mean, hes fine and all, been watered good, but I just dont understand it!"
Larabee bowed his head and rubbed his eyes, breathing deeply to restrain his impatience. "JD, you wanta start at the beginnin? Some of us arent quite awake yet."
"Its Peso," the boy said quickly, worriedly. "Hes been ridden! And not too long ago, either. He was rubbed down, but not enough that I couldnt tell. And his saddle blankets still damp, too. But it doesnt make any sense!" he repeated, shaking his head stubbornly and staring up at Buck. "I mean, hell, who coulda ridden him? Its not like he lets just anybody on him! If any of the soldiers had tried, weda heard about it. Wouldve had ta be one of us, but we were all asleep Oh, shit!" he breathed excitedly, his eyes widening. "You dont suppose a Comanche came down and got him"
"JD, son," Buck broke in, "if a Comanche had got him, hed still have him. They dont usually bring horses back after goin through the trouble of stealin em. Sides, I dont figger even the best Comanche horse thiefd be able ta get his hands on Peso without losin an arm."
Chris glanced at Buck, then turned slowly back to Vin, studying the sleeping tracker through narrowed, angry eyes. "Unless this particular Comanche had blue eyes," he muttered through clenched teeth. "Goddamn it, Tanner, why cant you behave?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin sat by the fire and cradled a cup of coffee in less than steady hands, his head bowed. He was tired beyond words, exhausted in body, mind and soul, yet, even so, felt better than he had since this whole mess had started. He was drained of all anger, all hurt, all rage; even the screams had gone silent. He wasnt sure if that was a good sign or a bad one, but took some comfort in the fact that he no longer felt brittle enough to break. He was just finally, mercifully numb.
Funny what making a decision would do for a man
Chris sat across the fire from him and studied him in silence, noting the change in him and frowning at it. He couldnt say Vin looked at peace; he didnt. He just looked empty. Hell, even his eyes, which for days now had held nothing but the raw agony ripping apart his soul, were dull, drained of life, maybe, but also drained of that hellish pain that had torn into Chris each time he saw it. It wasnt an improvement, but it would do.
"Dont suppose youre gonna tell me about it," he said at last, his voice quiet enough to be heard only by the two of them.
Vin took a sip of coffee, idly wondering at the strange feeling that held him. He knew he was here, on solid ground, yet he felt distant, detached, almost as if he were floating outside himself. His body felt like a dry husk, with an odd lightness in his bones and in his head. He decided it probably wasnt good, and surely wasnt something he should mention to anyone. Especially Nathan or Chris.
"Tell ya bout what?" he asked in that soft, raspy drawl. Hell, even his voice sounded light
Chris heard no lightness in the trackers voice, only the thickness and slight slurring of utter exhaustion. "Takin Peso out last night when you were supposed ta be sleepin."
He lifted his head with some difficulty and narrowed his eyes against the too-bright light that surrounded Larabee. "Jist felt like a ride," he sighed, amazed at how much breath it took just to support his voice.
Nope, this definitely wasnt good
Chris swallowed hard against his own fear, not liking at all the look of the man across from him. Vin was breathing too deeply, as if he couldnt get enough air, and looked bewildered about something. He would narrow his eyes one moment, squinting as if against a bright light, then open them wide the next, as if struggling to hold them open. And with a startled flash of recognition, Chris realized that the sharp, all-seeing hunters eyes had lost the ability to focus.
"Why dont you let JD ride up with you this mornin?" he suggested quietly, working to hold his voice even, to keep the fear from it. "Hes been gettin restless, pesterin the rest of us with questions about the trail an all." It was a lie; JD had been steady as a rock, surprising them all. "Maybe you can keep him busy. Keep him quiet."
Vin nodded slowly. "Reckon I could," he said softly. "Boys a good learner. Reckon theys some things up here I cd show him. Git him outta yalls hair."
Chris exhaled slowly, not sure whether to be pleased or not. Under any other circumstances Vin would have seen right through the request, would have spotted immediately the concern behind it and rejected it in no uncertain terms. That he agreed, however, and seemed not to suspect anything except that they wanted to give him JD for a while worried Chris no end.
Tanner was slippin away
"Dont suppose youve eaten at all?" he asked, steeling himself for the inevitable explosion of that prickly temper.
But none came. Instead, Vin only shrugged slightly, very slightly, and licked his lips. "Aint hungry," he rasped softly. "Sides, aint no sense eatin if Im only gonna throw it up again."
Chris sighed and stared at him in exasperation. "Whatre you gonna tell Nathan when he asks? And you know he will ask."
Vin shrugged again. "Tell him I aint hungry. Tell him there aint no sense eatin if Im only gonna throw it up again."
Chris had to chuckle. Typical Tanner answer
Vin took a sip of coffee, then fixed a steady if less than focused gaze on Chris. "Need ta know somethin," he said softly, getting Larabees whole attention immediately. He licked his lips slowly, trying to keep his thoughts clear. "The other night, up on them rocks, ya said ya trust me." He swallowed hard, half dreading the answer. "Need ta know if its true."
Chris met those dull, exhausted eyes, and seemed to hold them up with his own. "Its as true now as it ever has been, Vin," he said quietly, firmly. "I know youre bein torn six ways from Sunday here, I know your souls been peeled raw and left ta bleed in the dust, and I know right now youre so tired its all you can do ta breathe. But," he leaned forward, pinning that lost, bewildered blue gaze with his unwavering green one, "I also know that even in the sorry state youre in right now, youre still worth more than any other man alive. Yeah, Vin, I trust ya. I aint got a doubt in the world about ya," he said softly. "Im worried as hell about ya, but I dont doubt ya. And I cant imagine I ever will."
Vin shivered as those words, and the feeling behind them, seeped in and found the hollow, aching empty places in him, lending him a strength and steadiness hed not felt in days. It was a long speech for Larabee, probably one of the longest hed ever heard the man make. But he needed every word, and gathered them all greedily to him, like a starving man suddenly given an abundance of food. He wasnt whole yet, not by a long shot, but, with Chriss faith in him as firm as ever, he at least had some hope of getting there.
"M obliged ta ya fer that," he rasped softly, his voice shaking. "Aint got the words ta tell ya what it means."
Chris nodded slowly. "Im gonna tell ya somethin else, Vin. You gave me your word about not killin Ford, and so far youve managed ta keep it." He smiled thinly. "Its been close a couple a times, but you aint killed him yet. So now Im gonna make a promise ta you. Were gonna get outta this, and were goin home. All of us." His eyes bored into Tanner, sealing his word. "I dont care what it takes, Vin, I dont care what I have ta do, or who or how many I have ta kill, youre comin home with us, and youre comin alive. Im not gonna bury you up here, and I for damn sure aint gonna haul your dead carcass across that goddamn desert."
Vin stared at him for long moments, almost believing him. Then, as it always seemed to do at the unlikeliest times, his wry sense of humor surfaced, and a shadow of the familiar lopsided grin touched his mouth. "Might wanta reconsider that," he drawled quietly. "Cd be five hunnerd dollars richer."
Chris laughed and shook his head. "Shit, Tanner, I dont care what the sovereign State of Texas says, you aint worth five hundred dollars and we both know it! I figure a bounty that high just goes ta show how goddamn good you are at pissin people off!"
The grin continued to ghost Vins mouth and gave a faint light to his faded blue eyes. "Hell, Larabee, yer one ta talk," he rasped. "I reckon the only reason youve lived this long is cause God n the Devilre still fightin over which one has ta take yer sorry ass when ya die. Shee-it," he drawled, dragging out the word, "you jist might live forever."
Chris tried to scowl, but found it battling with a grin. Unable to do one and unwilling to do the other, he merely shook his head and finished his coffee, intensely grateful for that flash of humor. It cropped up at the strangest times, but it always meant Tanner had some fight left in him.
"Tell you what," he said at last, "you sit here, finish your coffee, take it easy. Ill get Peso saddled and ready for you."
Vin frowned slightly and narrowed his eyes against the light that still shone too brightly. "Yaint gotta do that"
"Yeah, I do," Chris said honestly. "Youre exhausted, Vin. Hell, you look like shit! Right now a damn breezed blow you over, and you for damn sure aint in no state ta wrestle with that cougar you call a horse. So just sit here and rest while you can. Cause I know once we hit that trail, Im gonna have ta shoot you ta get your ass outta the saddle." He saw the old, familiar stubbornness cross the trackers face, and sighed. "Cmon, Vin, please?" he asked softly. "If youre not gonna eat, at least rest! You know you need it, since you didnt get any sleep last night."
Vin gazed at him, eyes still narrowed and unfocused, then sighed and nodded. "Reckon I am a mite tired," he allowed.
"Yeah," Chris breathed, wondering how the man could even manage to sit up. "I reckon you are." He rose to his feet. "Ill letcha know when Pesos ready." He cast a last anxious look down at his friend, then turned and walked away.
Vin closed his eyes and bowed his head, sitting hunched over his coffee cup, and drew the quiet around him like a blanket, knowing it would soon be gone. It would be so easy to stay here, to tell Chris and the others what he had done and bring all this to an end. But he couldnt. Not yet. Red Stick needed time, and he had to give it to him.
Hell, he owed him that much, at least
He felt more than saw the shadow that fell over him, the unwelcome presence that shattered what little quiet he had found. He knew without looking up whose shadow it was, knew simply by the change in the air around him.
"Yaint quittin on me now, are ya, Tanner?" Ford jeered, shoving his thumbs into his gunbelt and staring down at the younger man. The tracker looked like a pale, empty shell, ready to crumble into dust. "Hell, boy, we still got work ta do! Or have ya fergot about them redskins yer leadin us to?"
Vin looked up slowly, and waited for the familiar sick hatred, the crush of pain and the deafening screams to engulf him as he met Fords mocking gaze. To his surprise, and relief, none came. He felt only the same odd lightness, the emptiness, the detachment that had been with him all morning, and gave silent thanks. He knew they were signs that something was badly wrong with him, but they were highly preferable to what he had known before.
Ford scowled as Tanner said nothing, merely returned his attention to his coffee and sipped slowly from it, looking for all the world as if he didnt even know the sergeant was there. "Goddamn it, you are crazy, arentcha?" he asked in astonishment. "Well, shit, if this dont beat all! Stuck up here in these God-fersaken mountains with only a lunatic tracker ta lead us!" He spat into the dirt. "Larabee know yer mind is gone?" he taunted cruelly, waiting for a response. Still Tanner drank his coffee in silence, infuriating the soldier. "Goddamn it, boy, you look at me when Im talkin ta you!" he shouted suddenly.
Vin sighed softly, tiredly, and slowly lifted vacant blue eyes to Ford, finding a strange kind of solace in his utter exhaustion. All feeling, all emotion, was gone from him now, giving him an odd equilibrium. All about him was light white, bright and shimmering making Fords darkness almost a mercy. He couldnt even hate the man right now, simply didnt have the strength. And that, too, was a blessing.
"I aint fergot nothin, Ford," he said at last, his soft voice hoarse. "Aint fergot what you done, aint fergot what I done, aint fergot what I gotta do." He swallowed. "Caint fergit when its gnawin at my soul."
"What the hellre you talkin about?" Ford asked with a short bark of contemptuous laughter. "Whats gnawin at yer soul? A few dead Injuns?" He laughed again and shook his head, staring down at the tracker. "Shit, Tanner, aint like theys people!"
Vin closed his eyes and winced as the words sent a dull pain through his chest. They were people. They were Nemenuh, the Human Beings. And their blood was as red as any white mans. He swallowed again, then drew a slow, deep breath, waiting for the screams.
But they never came.
Ford grinned cruelly and squatted before the tracker, studying him intently. "Sides," he added quietly, "I know you, son. Killins what you do, its what yer good at. Aint that why yer wanted in Texas?"
If he expected to hit a nerve, to force a reaction, he failed. Vin only opened his eyes and struggled to fix them on the man, almost relieved when the effort failed. He was finally rid of that face
"I cd kill ya right now," Ford went on, patting his gun, "an couldnt nobody do a thing ta me. Hell, Id be five hunnerd dollars richer! I cd put a bullet in yer brain, haul yer body back ta Texas an walk away with all that money in my pocket. Hows that sound?"
Vin frowned as anger stirred within him. "That money blongs ta Chris Larabee," he said coldly. "Done told him I want him ta claim it. Aint nobody but him takin me back, aint nobody but him gittin that bounty. If ya want it, yer gonna have ta kill him, an you aint nowheres near good enough ta do that. Sides," he fixed resigned eyes upon the soldier, "we both know yaint gonna kill me now. Ya caint. Ya need me ta find Red Stick fer ya. Kill me, ya lose him. If ya want him, ya gotta let me live." He grinned suddenly, and damn near giggled. "Hell, I reckon you been bargainin with the Devil, too!"
Ford rose slowly to his feet, suddenly and deeply uneasy. "Shit, you really are crazy!" he whispered. When Tanner raised those wide, unfocused blue eyes to him, still grinning, Ford swore and turned, walking away as quickly as he could.
Vin watched him leave, then shrugged and went back to his coffee.
He looked up at the quiet voice and squinted, able to make out a tall, dark figure through the white haze of light dancing before him. Nope, this definitely wasnt right. Nathan wasnt gonna be happy at all.
"You all right?"
He frowned, considering the question. If he told the truth, theyd have him stripped down, staked to the ground and dosed with laudanum in five minutes. But if he lied, Chrisd see right through him. Hell, Chris could probably tell just by looking at him.
Shit, didnt seem fair, a man askin a question when he already knew the answer jist ta see what a fellerd say
"Ya got Peso saddled?" he asked instead, deciding to ignore the question entirely. "Didnt bite ya, did he? Gits a mite fractious in the mornin."
Chris stared down at his friend, wondering why he hadnt passed out yet. Damn stubborn tracker
"Naw, he didnt bite me. Seemed ta want somethin, though."
Vin nodded. "Apple. Shoulda sent one with ya." He sighed and dumped the cold remnants of his coffee onto the ground. "Well, reckon its time ta go." He braced himself to stand, hoping the ground really was where he thought it should be. Sure as hell wouldnt pay to fall down in front of Larabee. Man could be downright vicious when he was worried.
Chris held a breath as Vin rose slowly to his feet and reached out quickly to grab his arm when the tracker started to sway. "You all right, pard?" he asked softly, his heart slamming into his throat. Vin was white as a sheet, and those damn eyes
"Jist git me ta Peso," Vin whispered, leaning heavily against his friend. Breathing was harder than it shouldve been. Hell, everything was harder than it shouldve been! "Caint walk too good, but I cn ride."
"Please, Chris!" he hissed sharply, clutching at the older mans arm. "I got no choice! Were runnin outta time" He bowed his head and raised a shaking hand to his eyes, then ran it over his face. "I know I look like shit," he breathed. "Hell, I feel like it, too. But I gotta do this! At least fer a while, jist long enough " He lifted his head, and fought to focus his eyes on his friends face, finally succeeding. "Please! It wont be fer long, I promise!"
Chris hated it, but knew he had no choice. Vin would get to Peso if he had to crawl; he could see it in the set of his jaw. "You know JDs gonna be up there with you, right?"
Vin nodded, and wished he hadnt as dizziness washed through him. "Yeah," he breathed. "I remember. N Ill let him help, I promise."
Chris continued to stare at him, increasingly frightened for him. "The minute you fall off that damn horse," he growled, "were stoppin! If I have ta hog-tie ya. You hear me?" When Vin mumbled an answer, Chris sighed sharply. "Goddamn you, Tanner"
"Reckon he will," Vin said with a weak grin. He felt his friends grip on him shift, grow firmer, and realized he must be nearer falling than hed thought. "Might better go now," he breathed, "whilst Im still standin."
"You aint standin, Vin, Im holdin you up." Nonetheless, Chris began leading him slowly, carefully to the horses. "Can you get up in the saddle?"
Vin managed to look insulted. "Is crawlin inta that saddle long fore I ever knew ya, Larabee! Hauled mself up with bullets, broken bones an Lord knows what all. Hell," he straightened as much as he could and glared up at the gunfighter, "half-dead n unconscious, Im still a better ridern youll ever be, n dont you fergit it!"
Chris grinned slightly, knowing he was all that kept the obstinate tracker from sliding to the ground in a heap. "Yeah, sure, Vin," he said, still guiding Tanner forward, "whatever you say. Now, if we could just teach you ta walk!"
+ + + + + + +
True to his word, Vin did ride better than he had walked, though even he had to admit that wasnt saying much. The light that had bothered him all morning grew steadily worse, searing into his eyes and heightening the unrelenting ache in his head, even with his hat pulled low. His vision continued to swim in and out of focus and dizziness washed through him with a maddening frequency. But he had the consolation of knowing he didnt need to study the trail too closely; hell, didnt have to study it at all.
Because he wasnt following a trail anymore.
JD kept a close, worried eye on his friend, and now and then reached out to steady him in the saddle. Vin assured him he was all right, but the boy knew better, and that knowledge gnawed at him. Still, he had managed to get Vin to drink water when no one else had, and simply by tricking a man he would have sworn could not be tricked. He had delayed drinking himself, and when Vin had noticed and chided him about it, JD had merely shrugged and said he didnt see any need to drink if Vin didnt. And what pleading from Nathan and threats from Chris hadnt accomplished, JDs guile had. Vin drank, goaded into it by a sense of responsibility for the boy who looked up to him and took his example from him.
And who smiled secretly at succeeding where the older, bigger and more intimidating men had failed.
As they rode on, however, JDs smug satisfaction with himself gave way to bewilderment. They were entering a part of the mountains he knew, a part he had ridden with Vin several times. He had regained his sense of direction, and the confusing twists and turns that had so unsettled him yesterday gave way to familiar terrain where he felt much more comfortable. And though he was relieved at riding through passes he knew, he could not help feeling puzzled.
Because the trail they were riding now led not up and into the mountains, but down and out of them.
"Uh, Vin," he began hesitantly, unable to stand it any longer, "I know I shouldnt question you and all, but " The exhausted, unfocused blue eyes slid to him and he swallowed heavily, wondering how best to put this. "I mean, Im not doubtin ya, but Well, its just "
Vin reined Peso to a halt and shifted slightly in his saddle, reeling even from that scant movement. He exhaled unsteadily and pushed his hat back, wiping a pale and shaking hand across his brow. "Yknow where we are, JD?" he asked softly, tiredly.
The boy swallowed and nodded, his wide eyes fixed upon the older man. "Hortons Pass," he answered quietly. "Leads over to Mustang Ridge. Take the switchback down to Gila Canyon, and ya follow that around to the big wash " He swallowed again, made nervous by that strange, unwavering gaze. "Then down through the foothills and on home," he finished softly.
Vin nodded. "Glad ta see ya remembered. Always said yer a good learner."
"But whatre we doin here?" JD asked sharply. "Ive been watchin ya, Vin, and youre not followin Red Sticks trail! Hell, youre not followin any trail at all! Youre just leadin us outta the mountains!"
Tanner sighed and bowed his head, closing his eyes as exhaustion washed through him. "How long we been ridin now?"
"How long, JD?" he asked softly. "I aint been keepin track."
JD stiffened and his eyes widened as fear took root within him. Vin never kept track of time; he didnt have to. He had an innate, instinctive sense of it that the boy had always envied. For him not to know
He edged his horse closer, studying the man before him. Vin was actually holding himself in the saddle now, and shaking visibly from the effort. He was deathly pale, and breathing seemed to be an effort in itself. He wasnt sweating near enough to JDs eye, and that sent the boys stomach into a slow, sick roll.
"About five, six hours now," he murmured. God, where was Nathan?
Vin nodded faintly. "Long enough, I reckon," he breathed, his eyes still closed. "This seem a likely place ta stop ta you?"
JD glanced about. Good, fairly even ground, rocky ledges above that would provide shade from the sun His eyes fixed on a familiar rock formation nearby, with a small stand of trees about it. "Angel Spring," he murmured.
Vin sighed in evident relief. "Is hopin Is right," he whispered. "This is it, then. This is where it ends."
JD leaned over and grabbed the trackers arm. "Vin!" he called sharply, his fear growing. "Youre not makin any sense! Red Stick didnt come this way, and you know it!"
Tanner laughed quietly. "I know. Whyn the hell ya think I brung us this way?" He lifted his head and opened his eyes, fixing them on the boy. With an effort, he straightened in the saddle, taking a deep, slow breath and releasing it. "Its over, JD," he said quietly, calmly. "Or it will be real soon. I aint gonna let him kill em, n I aint gonna let him kill yall. Im goin over ta the spring. You go git the others, bring em over. I aim ta tell Ford its over."
"Hell kill you!" the boy spat, digging his fingers into Vins arm. "Damn it, Vin"
"Better me than them!" Vin said harshly, his eyes glittering. "Hell, what else am I sposed ta do? Let him kill em? They got kids, JD! That lil girl who lost her doll aint but three" He broke off suddenly, but not quickly enough.
JD stared at him, going very still inside. "Howd you know that, Vin?" he asked quietly. When the tracker dropped his gaze, JD blanched, remembering how he had found Peso this morning. "Damn!" he whispered in shock, his eyes wide. "You went to em last night"
"You trust me, JD?" Tanner asked very softly.
The boy swallowed hard and nodded, his chest growing tight. "You know I do, Vin," he said firmly, without a trace of hesitation or doubt.
Vin smiled at that. "Heart as big as Texas n good as gold," he breathed. "They dont come no bettern you, kid, yknow that? Now, you gon git the others, all right? And dont tell em nothin of whatcha know. Dont want Ford takin it out on nobody but me. Dont want no more innocents sufferin cause a somethin I done."
JD shook his head slowly, his eyes wide with fear for his friend. "Vin, dont"
"Too late, kid. I already done it. Caint undo it now. Gon, bring em ta the spring. Reckon we cd all use a drink." With that, he started Peso forward, leaving JD no choice but to do as he was told.
The boy watched him a few moments, then, with a heavy, fearful heart, turned his horse and rode back to the others. An awful dread was building in his gut and he found himself swallowing against a rising nausea. He didnt know what Vin had done, but he knew with a terrible certainty that, whatever it was, Ford wouldnt like it.
Whatever it was, Vin expected to die for it. That was why hed made sure JD knew where they were. Because Tanner didnt think hed be leading them home.
Chris reined to a stop as JD rode up, and Ford signaled his soldiers to a halt. JD guided his horse slowly toward Larabee, ignoring the big sergeant altogether. His nervousness showed plainly on his face, in his expressive eyes, and it sent a cold chill down Chriss spine. He watched the boy intently, trying to find any clue as to what had happened. Instinctively, all his fear centered upon Vin.
"JD?" he asked quietly when the boy stopped before him.
"There theres a spring just ahead," JD said with a slight quiver in his voice. "Vin says were stoppin here. Says he figures we could all use a drink." He swallowed again, staring into Chriss eyes and praying the man would know something was wrong. "Hes already there, waitin."
Chris was on the verge of asking exactly what Vin was waiting for, but something in those eyes stopped him. JD was afraid no, terrified and that meant it had something to do with Ford.
Ya said ya trust me. Need ta know if its true.
He heard the softly drawled words from this morning again, and very nearly groaned.
Shit, Vin, whatve you done?
He swallowed hard, then nodded, his face setting with resolution. "Come on, then," he said, spurring his horse forward. "Lets not keep the man waitin."
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