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"We have gained half an hour anyhow," Jerry said, as they galloped up the ravine, "and I reckon by the time we overtake them we shall find them stowed away in some place where it will puzzle the red-skins to dislodge us. The varmint will fight hard if they are cornered, but they ain't good at advancing when there are a few rifle-tubes, in the hands of white men, pointing at them, and they have had a lesson now that we can shoot."
The ravine continued to narrow. The stream had become a mere rivulet, and they were high up on the hillside.
"I begin to be afeared there ain't no place for making a stand." Here he was interrupted by an angry growl, as a great bear suddenly rose to his feet behind a rock.
"You may thank your stars that we are too busy to attend to you," Jerry said, as they rode past within a few yards of it. "That is a grizzly, Tom; and an awkward beast you would have found him if you had come upon him by yourself without your shooting-iron. He is a big one too, and his skin would have been worth money down in the settlements. Ah, there they are."
The ravine made an abrupt turn to the west, and high up on its side they saw their three companions with the five horses climbing up the precipitous rocks.
"How ever did they get up there?" Jerry exclaimed.
"Found Indian trail," the chief said. "Let my brothers keep their eyes open."
They rode on slowly now, examining every foot of the steep hillside. Presently Hunting Dog, who was ahead, uttered an exclamation. Between two great boulders there was a track, evidently a good deal used.
"Let Hunting Dog go first," the chief said. "Leaping Horse will follow the white men."
"I reckon that this is the great Indian trail over the pass," Jerry said to Tom, who preceded him. "I have heard there ain't no way over the mountains atween that pass by Fremont's Buttes and the pass by this peak, which they calls Union Peak, and the red-skins must travel by this when they go down to hunt buffalo on the Green River. It is a wonder Harry struck on it."
"Leaping Horse told him to keep his eyes open," the chief said from the rear. "He knew that Indian trail led up this valley."
"Jee-rusalem! but it's a steep road," Jerry said presently. "I am dog-goned if I can guess how the red-skins ever discovered it. I expect they must have tracked some game up it, and followed to see where it went to."
The trail wound about in a wonderful way. Sometimes it went horizontally along narrow ledges, then there was a bit of steep climbing, where they had to lead their horses; then it wound back again, and sometimes even descended for a distance to avoid a projecting crag.
"Ah! would ye, yer varmint?" Jerry exclaimed, as a shot rang out from the valley below and a bullet flattened itself against a rock within a foot or two of his head. The shot was followed by a loud yell from below, as a crowd of mounted Indians rode at full gallop round the angle of the ravine.
"Hurry on, Hunting Dog, and get round the next corner, for we are regular targets here."
A few yards farther a turn of the path took them out of sight of the Indians, but not before a score of bullets came whistling up from below.
"The varmint have been riding too fast to shoot straight, I reckon. It will be our turn directly."
Just as he spoke the chief called upon them to dismount. They threw their bridles on their horses' necks, and descending to the ledge they had just left, lay down on it.
"Get your revolver out, Tom, before you shoot," Jerry said. "They will be off before you have time to load your rifle again."
The Indians were some four hundred feet below them, and were talking excitedly, evidently hesitating whether to follow up the trail. The four rifles cracked almost together. Two Indians fell, and the plunging of two horses showed that they were hit. In an instant the whole mass were on their way down the valley, followed by bullet after bullet from the revolvers which Leaping Horse as well as the whites carried. Anything like accurate aim was impossible, and no Indian was seen to fall, but it was probable that some of the bullets had taken effect among the crowded horsemen.
"Go on quiet now," Leaping Horse said, rising to his feet. "'Rappahoes not follow any farther. One man with this"--and he touched his revolver--"keep back whole tribe here."
Half an hour later they joined the party who had halted at the top of the track.
"It air too bad our being out of it," Ben said. "I hope you have given some of the varmint grist."
"Only five or six of them," Jerry replied regretfully, "counting in the one Leaping Horse shot at the village. Tom here did a big shot, and brought one down in his tracks at a good four hundred yards--as neat a shot as ever I saw fired. The chief he accounted for another; then atween us we wiped out two down below; and I reckon some of the others are carrying some of our lead away. Waal, I think we have shook them off at last any how. I suppose there ain't, no other road they can come up here by, chief?"
"Leaping Horse only heard of one trail."
"You may bet your life there ain't another," Harry remarked. "They would never have used such a dog-goned road as this if there had been any other way of going up."
"Camp here," the chief said. "Long journey over pass, too much cold. Keep watch here at head of trail."
"That is a very good plan. I have heard that the pass is over nine thousand feet above the sea, and it would never do to have to camp up there. Besides, I have been looking at the sky, and I don't much like its appearance. Look over there to the north."
There were, indeed, evident signs of an approaching change in the weather. On the previous day every peak and jagged crest stood out hard and distinct in the clear air. Now all the higher summits were hidden by a bank of white cloud.
"Snow" the Indian said gravely; "winter coming."
"That is just what I thought, chief. At any rate we know where we are here, and there is brushwood to be gathered not far down the trail; and even if we are shut up here we can manage well enough for a day or two. These early snows don't lie long, but to be caught in a snow-storm higher up would be a sight worse than fighting with red-skins."
From the spot where they were now standing at the edge of the ravine the ground sloped very steeply up for some hundreds of feet, and then steep crags rose in an unbroken wall; but from the view they had had of the country from the other side they knew that behind this wall rose a range of lofty summits. The Indian trail ran along close to the edge of the ravine. The chief looked round earnestly.
"No good place to camp," he said. "Wind blow down hills, horses not able to stand against it. Heap snow tumble down from there," and he pointed upwards. "Carry everything down below."
"Well, if you think we had better push on, let us do so, chief."
The Indian shook his head and pointed to the clouds again. "See," he said; "storm come very soon."
Even in the last two or three minutes a change was perceptible. The upper edge of the clouds seemed to be suddenly broken up. Long streamers spread out like signal flags of danger. Masses of clouds seemed to be wrenched off and to fly with great rapidity for a short distance; some of them sinking a little, floated back until they again formed a part of the mountain cap, while others sped onwards towards the south.
"No time," the chief repeated earnestly; "must look for camp quick." He spoke in the Indian tongue to Hunting Dog, and the two stood on a point where the ground jutted out, and closely examined the ravine up whose side they had climbed. The chief pointed farther along, and Hunting Dog started at a run along the Indian trail. A few hundred yards farther he paused and looked down, moved a few steps farther, and then disappeared from sight. In three or four minutes he returned and held up his arms.
"Come," the chief said, and taking his horse's rein led it along the path. The others followed his example, glad, indeed, to be in motion. Five minutes before they had been bathed in perspiration from their climb up the cliff; now they were conscious of the extraordinary change of temperature that had suddenly set in, and each had snatched a blanket from behind his saddle and wrapped it round him. They soon reached the spot where Hunting Dog was standing, and looked down. Some thirty feet below there was a sort of split in the face of the cliff, a wall of rock rising to within four or five feet of the level of the edge of the ravine. At one end it touched the face of the rock, at the other it was ten or twelve feet from it, the space between being in the form of a long wedge, which was completely filled up with trees and brushwood. A ledge ran down from the point where Hunting Dog was standing to the mouth of the fissure.
"Jee-rusalem, chief!" Ben exclaimed. "That air just made for us--we could not have found a better, not if we had sarched for a year. But I reckon we shall have to clear the place a bit before we take the critters down."
Two axes were taken from one of the pack-horses.
"Don't cut away the bigger stuff, Ben," Harry said as his two mates proceeded down the ledge, "their heads will shelter us from the snow a bit; and only clear away the bushes enough to give room for the horses and us, and leave those standing across the entrance to make a screen. While you are doing it we will fetch in as much more wood and grass as we can get hold of before the snow begins to fall."
The horses were left standing while the men scattered along the top of the ravine, and by the time Ben shouted that they were ready, a considerable pile of brushwood and a heap of coarse grass had been collected. The horses were then led down one by one, unsaddled, and packed together in two lines, having beyond them a great pile of the bushes that had been cut away.
"I am dog-goned if this ain't the best shelter I ever struck upon," Jerry said. "We could not have fixed upon a better if we had had it built special," the others cordially agreed.
The place they occupied was of some twelve feet square. On either side was a perpendicular wall of rock; beyond were the horses; while at the entrance the bush, from three to four feet high, had been left standing; above them stretched a canopy of foliage. Enough dry wood had been collected to start a fire.
"Don't make it too big. Jerry, we don't want to scorch up our roof," Harry Wade said. "Well, I reckon we have got enough fuel here for a week, for there is what you cut down and what we brought, and all that is left standing beyond the horses; and with the leaves and the grass the ponies should be able to hold out as long as the fuel lasts. We are short of meat, but we have plenty of flour; and as for water, we can melt snow."
Buffalo rugs were laid down on each side by the rock walls, and on these they took their seats and lighted their pipes.
"I have been wanting a smoke pretty bad," Jerry said; "I ain't had one since we halted in that there canon. Hello, here it comes!"
As he spoke a fierce gust of wind swayed the foliage overhead and sent the smoke, that had before risen quietly upwards, whirling round the recess; then for a moment all was quiet again; then came another and a stronger gust, rising and gathering in power and laden with fine particles of snow. A thick darkness fell, and Harry threw some more wood on the fire to make a blaze. But loud as was the gale outside, the air in the shelter was hardly moved, and there was but a slight rustling of the leaves overhead. Thicker and thicker flew the snow flakes in the air outside, and yet none seemed to fall through the leaves.
"I am dog-goned if I can make this out," Sam Hicks said. "We are as quiet here as if we were in a stone house, and one would think there was a copper-plated roof overhead. It don't seem nat'ral."
The others were also looking up with an air of puzzled surprise, not unmingled with uneasiness. Harry went to the entrance and looked out over the breastwork of bushes. "Look here, Sam," he said.
"Why, Harry, it looks to me as if it were snowing up instead of down," the miner said as he joined him.
"That is just it. You see, we are in the elbow of the valley and are looking straight down it, into the eye of the wind. It comes rushing up the valley and meets this steep wall on its way, and pushed on by the wind behind has to go somewhere, and so it is driven almost straight up here and over the hilltops behind us. So you see the snow is carried up instead of falling, and this rock outside us shoots it clear up over the path we were following above. As long as the wind keeps north, I reckon we sha'n't be troubled by the snow in here."
The explanation seemed satisfactory, and there was a general feeling of relief.
"I remember reading," Tom said, as the others took their seats again, "that people can stand on the edge of a cliff, facing a gale, without feeling any wind. For the wind that strikes the cliff rushes up with such force that it forms a sort of wall. Of course, it soon beats down again, and not many yards back you can feel the gale as strongly as anywhere else. But just at the edge the air is perfectly still."
The miners looked at Tom as if they thought that he was making a joke at their expense. But his uncle said:
"Yes, I can quite believe that. You see, it is something like a waterfall; you can stand right under that, for the force shoots it outwards, and I reckon it is the same sort of thing here." The chief nodded gravely. He too had been surprised at the lull in their shelter when the storm was raging so furiously outside, but Harry's illustration of the action of rushing water enlightened him more than his first explanation had done.
"But water ain't wind, Harry," Ben said.
"It is like water in many ways, Ben. You don't see it, but you can feel it just the same. If you stand behind a tree or round a corner it rushes past you, and you are in a sort of eddy, just as you would be if it was a river that was moving alongside of you. Wind acts just the same way as water. If it had been a big river coming along the valley at the same rate as the wind it would rush up the rocks some distance and then sweep round and race up the valley; but wind being light instead of being heavy is able to rush straight up the hill till it gets right over the crest."
"Waal, if you say it is all right I suppose it is. Anyhow, it's a good thing for us, and I don't care how long it goes on in the same way. I reckoned that before morning we should have those branches breaking down on us with the weight of snow; now I see we are like to have a quiet night."
"I won't answer for that, Ben; it is early in the day yet, and there is no saying how the wind may be blowing before to-morrow morning. Anyhow, now we have time we may as well get some of those bundles of bushes that we brought down, and pile them so as to thicken the shelter of these bushes and lighten it a bit. If we do that, and hang a couple of blankets inside of them, it will give us a good shelter even if the wind works round, and will help to keep us warm. For though we haven't got wind or snow in here, we have got cold."
"You bet," Jerry agreed; "it is a regular blizzard. And although I don't say as it is too cold sitting here by the fire, it won't cost us anything to make the place a bit warmer."
Accordingly the bundles of wood they had gathered were brought out, and with these the screen of bush was thickened, and raised to a height of five feet; and when this was hung inside with a couple of blankets, it was agreed that they could get through the storm comfortably even if it lasted for a month.
They cooked their last chunk of deer's flesh, after having first prepared some bread and put it in the baking pot among the embers, and made some tea from the water in the skins. When they had eaten their meal they covered themselves up in buffalo robes and blankets, and lighted their pipes. There was, however, but little talk, for the noise of the tempest was so great, that it was necessary to raise the voice almost to a shout to be heard, and it was not long before they were all asleep.
For hours there was no stir in the shelter, save when a horse pawed the ground impatiently, or when Hunting Dog rose two or three times to put fresh sticks on the fire. It seemed to Tom when he woke that it ought to be nearly morning. He took out his watch, and by the light of the fire made out to his surprise that it was but ten o'clock. The turmoil of the wind seemed to him to be as loud as before, and he pulled the blankets over his shoulder again and was soon sound asleep. When he next woke, it was with the sensation of coldness in the face, and sitting up he saw that the blankets and the ground were covered with a thick coating of fine snow. There was a faint light in addition to that given by the embers of the fire, and he knew that morning was breaking. His movement disturbed his uncle, who was lying next him. He sat up and at once aroused the others.
"Wake up, mates," he said; "we have had somewhere about eighteen hours' sleep, and day is breaking."
In a minute all were astir. The snow was first shaken off the blankets, and then Harry, taking a shovel, cleared the floor. Jerry took the largest cooking-pot, and saying to Tom, "You bring that horse-bucket along," pushed his way out through a small gap that had been left in the screen of bushes. The wind had gone down a good deal, though it was still blowing strongly. The snow had drifted against the entrance, and formed a steep bank there; from this they filled the pot and bucket, pressing the snow down. Tom was glad to get back again within the shelter, for the cold outside was intense. The fire was already burning brightly, and the pot and a frying-pan were placed over it, and kept replenished with snow as fast as their contents melted. "We must keep on at this," Harry said, "there is not a drop left in the skins, and the horses must have water."
As soon as enough had melted it was poured into the kettle. There was some bacon among the trappers' stores, as they had calculated that they would not be able to hunt until out of Big Wind Valley and far up among the forests beyond. The frying-pan was now utilized for its proper work, while the pail was placed close enough to the fire to thaw its contents, without risking injury to it. Within an hour of breakfast being finished enough snow had been thawed to give the horses half a bucket of water each. In each pail a couple of pounds of flour had been stirred to help out what nourishment could be obtained from the leaves, and from the small modicum of grass given to each animal.
"It will be a big journey over the pass, anyhow," Harry had said. "Now that we are making tracks for the settlements we need not be sparing of the flour; indeed, the lighter we are the better."
The day did not pass so pleasantly as that preceding it, for the air was filled with fine snow that blew in at the entrance and found its way between the leaves overhead; while from time to time the snow accumulating there came down with a crash, calling forth much strong language from the man on whom it happened to fall, and shouts of laughter from his comrades. The party was indeed a merry one. They had failed altogether in the objects of their expedition, but they had escaped without a scratch from the Indians, and had inflicted some damage upon them; and their luck in finding so snug a shelter in such a storm far more than counterbalanced their disappointment at their failure.
"Have you often been caught in the snow, uncle?"
"You bet, Tom; me and the chief here were mighty nigh rubbed out three years ago. I was prospecting among the Ute hills, while Leaping Horse was doing the hunting for us both. It was in the middle of winter; the snow was deep on the ground in the valleys and on the tops of the hills, but there was plenty of bare rock on the hillside, so I was able to go on with my work. While as for hunting, the cold drove the big-horns down from the heights where they feed in summer, and the chief often got a shot at them; and they are good eating, I can tell you.
"We hadn't much fear of red-skins, for they ain't fond of cold and in winter move their lodges down to the most sheltered valleys and live mostly on dried meat. When they want a change they can always get a bear or maybe a deer in the woods. We were camped in a grove of pines in a valley and were snug enough. One day I had struck what I thought was the richest vein I had ever come on. I got my pockets full of bits of quartz with the gold sticking thick in it, and you may bet I went down to the camp in high glee. A quarter of a mile before I got there I saw Leaping Horse coming to meet me at a lope. It didn't want telling that there was something wrong. As soon as he came up he said 'Utes.' 'Many of them, chief?' I asked. He held up his open hands twice.
"'Twenty of them,' I said; 'that is pretty bad. How far are they away?' He said he had seen them coming over a crest on the other side of the valley. 'Then we have got to git,' I said, 'there ain't no doubt about that. What the 'tarnal do the varmint do here?' 'War-party,' the chief said. 'Indian hunter must have come across our trail and taken word back to the lodges.' The place where he had met me was among a lot of rocks that had rolled down. There had been no snow for a fortnight, and of course the red-skins would see our tracks everywhere, going and coming from the camp. We were on foot that time, though we had a pack-horse to carry our outfit. Of course they would get that and everything at the camp. I did not think much of the loss, the point was how were we to save our scalps? We had sat down behind a rock as soon as he had joined me. Just then a yell came from the direction of our camp, and we knew that the red-skins had found it. 'They won't be able to follow your trail here, chief, will they?' He shook his head. 'Trail everywhere, not know which was the last.' We could see the grove where the camp was, and of course they could see the rocks, and it was sartin that if we had made off up the hill they would have been after us in a squirrel's jump; so there was nothing to do but to lie quiet until it was dark. We got in among the boulders, and lay down where we could watch the grove through a chink.
"'I don't see a sign of them,' I said. 'You would have thought they would have been out in search of us.'
"'No search,' the chief said. 'No good look for us, not know where we have gone to. Hide up in grove. Think we come back, and then catch us.'
"So it turned out. Not a sign of them was to be seen, and after that first yell everything was as quiet as death. In a couple of hours it got dark, and as soon as it did we were off. We talked matters over, you may be sure. There weren't no denying we were cornered. There we were without an ounce of flour or a bite of meat. The chief had caught up a couple of buffalo rugs as soon as he sighted the red-skins. That gave us just a chance, but it wasn't more. In the morning the red-skins would know we had either sighted them or come on their trail, and would be scattering all over the country in search of us. We agreed that we must travel a good way apart, though keeping each other in sight. They would have noticed that the trails were all single, and if they came upon two together going straight away from the camp, would know for sure it was us making off.
"You may think that with so many tracks as we had made in the fortnight we had been there, they would not have an idea which was made the first day and which was made the last, but that ain't so. In the first place, the snow was packed hard, and the footprints were very slight. Then, even when it is always freezing there is an evaporation of the snow, and the footprints would gradually disappear; besides that, the wind on most days had been blowing a little, and though the drift does not count for much on packed snow, a fine dust is blown along, and if the prints don't get altogether covered there is enough drift in them to show which are old ones and which are fresh. We both knew that they could not make much mistake about it, and that they would be pretty sure to hit on the trail I had made in the morning when I went out, and on that of the chief to the rocks, and following mine back to the same place would guess that we had cached there till it was dark.
"I could have done that myself; one can read such a trail as that like a printed book. The worst of it was, there were no getting out of the valley without leaving sign. On the bare hillsides and among the rocks we could travel safe enough, but above them was everywhere snow, and do what we would there would be no hiding our trail. We agreed that the only thing was to cross the snow as quick as possible, to keep on the bare rock whenever we got a chance, and wherever we struck wood, and to double sometimes one way sometimes another, so as to give the red-skins plenty of work to do to follow our trail. We walked all that night, and right on the next day till early in the afternoon. Then we lay down and slept till sunset, and then walked again all night. We did not see any game. If we had we should have shot, for we knew the red-skins must be a long way behind. When we stopped in the morning we were not so very far from the camp we had started from, for if we had pushed straight back to the settlements we should have been caught sure, for the Utes would have been certain to have sent off a party that way to watch the valleys we should have had to pass through. We lay down among some trees and slept for a few hours and then set out to hunt, for we had been two days without food, and I was beginning to feel that I must have a meal.
"We had not gone far when we came across the track of a black bear. We both felt certain that the trail was not many hours old. We followed it for two miles, and found it went up to a slide of rocks; they had come down from a cliff some years before, for there were bushes growing among them. As a rule a black bear will always leave you alone if you leave him, and hasn't much fight in him at the best; so up we went, thinking we were sure of our bear-steak without much trouble in getting it. I was ahead, and had just climbed up on to a big rock, when, from a bush in front, the bear came out at me with a growl. I expect it had cubs somewhere, I had just time to take a shot from the hip and then he was on me, and gave me a blow on the shoulder that ripped the flesh down to the elbow.
"But that was not the worst, for the blow sent me over the edge, and I fell seven or eight feet down among the sharp rocks. I heard the chief's rifle go off, and it was some time after that before I saw or heard anything more. When I came to I found he had carried me down to the foot of the slide and laid me there. He was cutting up some sticks when I opened my eyes. 'Have you got the bear, Leaping Horse?'
"'The bear is dead,' he said. 'My brother is badly hurt.'
"'Oh, never mind the hurt,' I said, 'so that we have got him. What are you doing, chief? You are not going to make a fire here, are you?'
"'My brother's leg is broken,' he said. 'I am cutting some sticks to keep it straight.'
"That brought me round to my senses, as you may guess. To break one's leg up in the mountains is bad at any time, but when it is in the middle of winter, and you have got a tribe of red-skins at your heels, it means you have got to go under. I sat up and looked at my leg. Sure enough, the left one was snapt like a pipe-stem, about half-way between the knee and the ankle. 'Why, chief,' I said, 'it would have been a sight better if you had put a bullet through my head as I lay up there. I should have known nothing about it.'
"'The Utes have not got my white brother yet.'
"'No,' said I, 'but it won't be long before they have me; maybe it will be this afternoon, and maybe to-morrow morning.' The chief said nothing, but went on with his work. When he had got five or six sticks about three feet long and as many about a foot, and had cut them so that they each had one flat side, he took off his buckskin shirt, and working round the bottom of it cut a thong about an inch wide and five or six yards long. Then he knelt down and got the bone in the right position, and then with what help I could give him put on the splints and bandaged them tightly, a long one and a short one alternately. The long ones he bandaged above the knee as well as below, so that the whole leg was stiff. I felt pretty faint by the time it was done, and Leaping Horse said, 'Want food; my white brother will lie quiet, Leaping Horse will soon get him some.'
"He set to work and soon had a fire going, and then went up to the rocks and came down again with the bear's hams and about half his hide. It was not long before he had some slices cooked, and I can tell you I felt better by the time we had finished. We had not said much to each other, but I had been thinking all the time, and when we had done I said, 'Now, chief, I know that you will be wanting to stay with me, but I ain't going to have it. You know as well as I do that the Utes will be here to-morrow at latest, and there ain't more chance of my getting away from them than there is of my flying. It would be just throwing away your scalp if you were to stop here, and it would not do me a bit of good, and would fret me considerable. Now before you start I will get you to put me somewhere up among those stones where I can make a good fight of it. You shall light a fire by the side of me, and put a store of wood within reach and a few pounds of bear's flesh. I will keep them off as long as I can with the rifle, then there will be five shots with my Colt. I will keep the last barrel for myself; I ain't going to let the Utes amuse themselves by torturing me for a few hours before they finish me. Then you make straight away for the settlements; they won't be so hot after you when they have once got me. The next time you go near Denver you can go and tell Pete Hoskings how it all came about.'
"'My white brother is weak with the pain,' the chief said quietly; 'he is talking foolishly. He knows that Leaping Horse will stay with his friend. He will go and look for a place.' Without listening to what I had to say he took up his rifle and went up the valley, which was a steep one. He was away better than half an hour and then came back. 'Leaping Horse found a place,' he said, 'where he and his brother can make a good fight. Straight Harry get on his friend's back.' It was clear that there weren't no use talking to him. He lifted me up on to my feet, then he got me well up on to his back, as if I had been a sack of coal, and went off with me, striding along pretty near as quick as if I had not been there. It might have been half a mile, when he turned up a narrow ravine that was little more than a cleft in the rock that rose almost straight up from the valley. It did not go in very far, for there had been a slide, and it was blocked up by a pile of rocks and earth, forty or fifty feet high. It was a big job even for the chief to get me up to the top of them. The snow had drifted down thick into the ravine, and it was a nasty place to climb even for a man who had got nothing but his rifle on his shoulder. However, he got me up safely, and laid me down just over the crest. He had put my buffalo robe over my shoulders before starting, and he rolled me up in this and said, 'Leaping Horse will go and fetch rifles and bear-meat,' and he set straight off and left me there by myself."
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