Metal Peace

by Rick Beck

Chapter 9

Death's Doorway

Next stop, Gen. Walker's ranch and the ever-present guard post to dissuade trespassers. Reporters, being reporters, parked in the driveway and waited for the guard at the guard post to call the house to see if someone might want to come down to explain the goings on.

The general said proudly, "absolutely not," being pleased with himself about getting Taz home with little resistance and tucking him in before the first report backtracked to his door.

"General, if someone doesn't go down there and make some kind of bargain with the press, they'll be there every time someone comes. I'll go down and tell them two of them can come up and take one picture of Taz. If they leave their questions, I'll see that they're answered. In return they'll agree not to stakeout the ranch."

"I guess I'm slipping, Kodak. Go ahead. Make a deal that gets rid of them."

Once on the mesa, Taz would have privacy. The trick was to get rid of them long enough for Taz to heal and return to his home. Then he'd decide who to talk to.

Kodak walked down until he faced the growing crowd of journalists in the driveway out of sight of the house. Being a member of the fourth estate, he knew they'd seize any bone that got them back to civilization with a picture of Taz.

"If you stop acting like you're trying out for the Lord of the Flies, I'll take one news team consisting of one journalist and one photographer to the house. You pick 'em. You get one still picture of Sgt. Tazerski. No more. Figure out the questions you want answered, write them down, bring them with you. I'll answer them, returning the answers to you within 24 hours.

"Pick the lucky duo and the rest of you can go. This will be the only offer. Refuse it, and you'll be out here until the cows come home.

Kodak turned and walked away as the guard waited for a choice to be made.

"Who the hell was that?" an indignant reporter asked. "Who does he think he is?"

"That's Kodak," an experienced journalist answered.

"Oh, that's Kodak? He's young."

Kodak smiled, hearing the exchange and remembering he'd been a celebrity for a minute once. He was back to being a photo-journalist, albeit unemployed at the moment, but he'd covered a lot of territory in his twenty-two years. It was nice that someone remembered.

Taz had settled into the guest room, which resembled his hospital room. Kodak explained the deal he made to rid the ranch of reporters.

"Can I have a glass of water first? My throat is dry. Give me the hat back. Nothing in the deal says I can't wear a hat, is there?"

"No, Taz, you do it your way," Kodak said.

Taz smiled when Kathleen delivered homemade ice cream with the water.

"Oh, Kathleen, how I've missed you," Taz said.

He did his best not to scowl too severely for the photograph but the shadow the bill of the baseball cap made hid the dark circles around Taz's eyes. Both Taz & Kodak knew the pursuit didn't end here. Taz had been found again and finally there was confirmation of it. This would only feed the desire for more information, but the press also knew they'd have to finesse their way into any interview. Everyone wanted to know where he'd been and what he'd been up to since he dropped out of sight.

Everyone knew Taz's disappearance coincided with him standing up the Congress of the United States. That was the story they wanted now that he'd been found. Getting it was going to take some work.

At first people were horrified that a soldier, a hero of the Vietnam War, would be so disrespectful. As time went on and the body count piled up, Taz was celebrated as the soldier who stood up the people responsible for the unpopular war, which meant Taz was heroic all over again.

As with his original fame, the story about his disappearance was complicated and without glamour. Taz's snubbing of congress was no more than a slip up precipitated by a soldier doing what soldiers do, dying for his country.

After witnessing the death, becoming part of it, Taz needed a drink. The trouble with Taz and drinking, he couldn't have just one, and thus congress had ended up being snubbed. Taz was gone.

Since it didn't make a good story, it would never interest reporters and Taz would never tell anyone that he sat holding a young soldier's hand for the last minutes of his life. Taz's life as a touring Vietnam War hero went straight down hill from there and he hadn't been heard from since.

People tend to believe what they need to believe. They want the facts to fit their narrative when possible. When the facts go astray, people pretend, molding things to fit what they choose to believe if they don't look too closely.

Even Taz's original fame wasn't what it appeared to be. Two unlikely pictures were taken by a rookie photo-journalist, Kodak, who had to do something to keep from pissing his pants during his first firefight in Vietnam. He clicked off several pictures and pissed his pants anyway.

Two of these pictures the inexperienced war correspondent took during his first firefight ended up on the cover of Time magazine in successive weeks. The second picture adorned the cover after both Taz and Kodak were lost on a mission. It became a national sensation.

The iconic pictures Kodak took were of Taz wielding his B.A.R. The publishing of the two pictures began the roller coaster ride of fame for Taz. The ride ended at Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he went to visit wounded soldiers a few hours before a banquet in his honor given by the US Congress was scheduled. Against the wishes of the staff, Taz sat with the dying soldier, when he should have been dressing for the formal dinner.

The ensuing drunk Taz went on was predictable if untimely. Disappearance without a trace only helped to heighten his legend as rumors flourished.

Gen. Walker made arrangements for Taz to dry out in private. Once he had, a discharge the general expedited arrived, and Taz and his constant companion Kodak flew to the general's Montana ranch, where Taz could recover.

The mysterious disappearance of Taz went full circle with Taz being shot at a time when he was finally ready to visit the hometown of Charlie, the soldier who died that day at Walter Reed. He promised Charlie he'd look up David, the man he stood in for the day Charlie died. As the time for that visit approached, Taz went out one morning to sit on the corral fence and he was rediscovered by the world.

The events from two years before were now woven into his shooting and reappearance. It made no more sense now than his original fame.

Taz was aware that his participation in the shootout at the courthouse was the closest thing to a heroic event he'd been involved in. He was a simple cowboy and his boss asked him to save the town, and he did. It was the same kind of thing he did as the 'fighting fool of 1st squad,' but he wasn't a soldier any longer. So the act was heroic, as well as perfectly executed, as the general's battle plans often were.

In Vietnam Taz stopped death dead in its tracks. He stood with his B.A.R. and fought like a demon. He shouldn't have survived the war, but he defied the odds. He kept the men of 1st squad alive by the force of his will and the firepower he wielded. The enemy knew him by name and cringed when they heard it. They feared him as well as respected him as a soldier.

Taz had no fear, being an invisible hero to everyone but 1st squad, until Kodak showed up to take pictures of his first war. Neither of their lives could ever be the same once the powers that be saw Taz as the face they wanted on the war they had a difficult time selling.

What people remembered about Taz was that he once was a hero who somehow slipped out of the limelight.

Now he'd been found. Without anyone knowing anything about his latest exploits. He was a sensation all over again. He was famous now because he was found.

It would require some skill and a little compromise before Taz and Kodak could disappear from view again. Hopefully that disappearance would occur before anyone found out the rest of the story.

Sooner or later some reporter was going to open his mouth in town as he purchases a pack of smokes or a gallon of gas, and he'll say something like, "I'm coving the story about the shooting out at Gen. Walker's place. The boy that was shot is a war hero, you know?"

"War hero hell? That boy saved this town. He took on a dozen desperadoes and blew their shit away, son. He might be a cowboy now, but he's deadly with that big gun of his."

By that time the boys hoped to be back on their mesa and out of view of the world once more. The other cowboys would protect them because they were one of them and they deserved their privacy if they wanted it.

"That's it," Kodak said. "You've got all you're going to get. If there are any future pictures of 'Mr.' Tazerski in the future, I'll release them. Should any of you try to freelance your way into a story, there will be nothing else. Respect his rehabilitation and give him room to heal, and we'll talk about another deal at a later date. Everything goes through me. Piss me off and you're out of luck.

"That's all for now," Kodak said, walking the reporters to the back porch.

A brown flash dashed across the porch, leaping into Kodak's arms.

"Hi, fellow. I missed you, too," Kodak said, as Tazerski smashed his little monkey face against Kodak's neck.

Two pictures of Kodak with the monkey were snapped.

Kodak glared. The two men moved back down the driveway. Kodak didn't stipulate that pictures of him were out of bounds. It was his mistake. He'd bought the time Taz needed to heal and that was good enough.

"Well, well," Dr. Westphalia said, entering Taz's room. "Last time I saw you, you weren't so pretty and pink, son."

"I understand you saved my life," Taz said. "Thanks. You were in the ambulance?"

"I was. I picked the front seat with some padding in it. This old backend isn't built for a jump seat any longer. I had to stop and have a piece of Kathleen's pie while they got you situated. I'll be here until you're out of the woods. It's safer for you to be here but that exit wound isn't healing well. I'll be keeping my eye on it."

"They say if it hadn't been for you, I'd be dead a few weeks now," Taz said seriously.

"All in a days work, son. Did what I knew to do. Had a lot of help from someone way more powerful than me. He decided it wasn't your time. Glad you're doing better."

"Don't remember much," Taz explained.

"Looks like we may ought to replace those bandages. We need to keep you as still as possible. A walk to the bathroom now and again should be okay for the time being.

Two weeks and three days after being shot, Taz was back on the ranch.

Taz stood to let Kodak shower him the second day back. He wasn't steady enough to stand up alone and Madge was out of the question. He remembered when Kodak showered him when he was too drunk to stand while he was in Vietnam. The memory made him smile.

Even taking as much caution as possible, the bandages still got wet. Dr. Westphalia came into the room each morning to supervise the bandages being changed and inspect the wound.

The exit wound in Taz's lower back was incredibly painful. While he resisted taking pain medication as long as possible, but if he wanted to sleep, he needed it. He refused to admit to being in pain ever since his father broke Taz's arm when he was a little boy. Sleep became more important than a determination to prove his manhood to a father he hadn't seen in years.

The house was geared up to aid Taz's rehabilitation and even the radio room went silent for the first few days. Crosby took to sitting on the back steps and pacing on the back porch, unaccustomed to not having something to do.

Madge took up residence in one of the front sitting rooms. She sat with Taz for long hours each day. Kodak and Madge picked up the ongoing game of rummy that Madge was winning. Taz slept because of the medication Madge put into his I V. while he slept, under doctor's orders.

The smells of the kitchen brought Taz's appetite to the surface. It was Kathleen's soups and blended cereals that got him interested in eating again. Just a few mouthfuls, but it was a good sign, although getting out of bed no longer appealed to him. Everyone was sure it was the pain.

By the time Dr. Westphalia checked the wounds each morning and Madge replaced the bandages, Taz was exhausted. It took more out of him each day. No one was happy with the direction his recovery was taking.

A ranch full of well-wishers waited to be able to welcome Taz home. They were told each morning to fall out and give him some more time to gain some strength. When he didn't gain any strength, all the cowboys got was a shake of the general's head to tell them to go back to work.

Cowboys paused when passing the back of the house to wonder what was going on inside.

Dr. Westphalia was in Taz's room several times a day, staying longer each time. The stress appeared on his face as he left Taz, shaking his head as he passed the general's office on his way to get more coffee.

It was the morning of the fourth day Dr. Westphalia stopped leaving Taz's side. It was what he was warned could happen. He'd have been happier without another fight for Taz's life, but the crisis came in its own time and Taz was once again lost to unconsciousness.

Gen. Walker stood beside Dr. Westphalia as he took Taz's pulse, once the morning bandaging ritual was over. Taz hadn't awakened for something that usually had him climbing the walls trying to resist the pain.

"I don't like it. His pulse is weaker. He should be gaining strength by now," Dr. Westphalia said. "His temperature is elevated today."

"What can I do?" Gen. Walker asked as Madge and Kodak watched from the foot of the bed.

"Wait," Dr. Westphalia said, looking up once he laid Taz's limp arm back on the bed. "Wait and pray. It's his fight now. All I can do is watch and wait."

Each cowboy knew his job and felt less like doing it,

once it became apparent Taz wasn't going to walk out on the back porch looking like his old self anytime soon. Some men didn't know anything about Taz's original fame. They all remembered the courthouse shootout, when Taz ended the fracas before going back to work.

The story was told and retold in the bunkhouse, after the event. Only half the cowboys had been in town and fewer witnessed Taz's courage under fire. Word spread fast on the ranch. Taz wasn't an easy man to know but he was a hard man to ignore. Wherever he was, he was noticed.

Now cowboys stood silent in the area behind the back porch, staring at the screen door that led into the house. They had no purpose. It's just where they stopped moving and at times there were several men doing nothing but waiting.

Most cowboys weren't certain about who Kodak was or where he fit into ranch life. They didn't know how Taz and Kodak fit together. Taz was a man who had earned their respect and if Kodak was all right with Taz, Kodak was okay with them. It was the cowboy way. Tend to the cattle and tend to your own business, and what soldier turned cowboy didn't have a boatload of could've been and shouldn't of.

"His temperature is still rising. He's developed an infection. I've pumped him full of antibiotics. It's so close to his vital organs it could be fatal. Getting his temperature down is essential. Start bringing me all the ice you have and make as much as you can," Dr. Westphalia explained.

There were ice packs and cold compresses as Taz fell more deeply into unconsciousness. Kodak sat in a corner chair as Dr. Westphalia listened to Taz's heart, checked his temperature, and applied antibiotics directly into the wound. More were injected, arriving from Billings.

It was late afternoon of the fourth day that teepees appeared in the area between the house and the bunkhouse. Medicine Band, Jeremy, and two dozen members of their tribe chanted and beat drums softly. The ranch stopped. Cowboys and Indians stood side by side, waiting.

"How do they know?" Kodak asked Gen. Walker, as he stood on the back porch, watching the solemn gathering. "Did you tell them?"

"My smoke signals are out of order. No, they know. They've adopted Taz. They believe he has a special spirit they need to honor. They're calling on the Great Spirit to heal him."

"I'm betting on Dr. Westphalia," Kodak said, going back inside, not wanting to talk to Jeremy or Medicine Band. When Kodak listened to what they had to say, he found himself doubting his Catholic beliefs, although he wasn't sure what they were.

Kathleen and Crosby were standing at the door to Taz's room. Dr. Westphalia held Taz's hand, taking his pulse again. Madge stood at the foot of the bed. Taz slept into the evening. He was burning up and the ice kept coming.

"I've done all I know how to do," Dr. Westphalia said to no one. "This is always the danger. He's a strong boy. You might want to say a prayer to get the only help we have left. The doctors in Billings say to just wait."

"Take him back to the hospital?" the general asked, never feeling more helpless. "I should have left him there."

"That madhouse? Lord no. He's just as able to fight here surrounded by friends. He wouldn't survive the trip at this point. No, we just need to wait. If the fever doesn't break by tomorrow… well, the infection is getting worse."

"And he'll keep getting worse, until he's dead," Gen. Walker said sadly.

"That's a possibility," Dr. Westphalia said. "I can't believe he's survived all this only for it to come to that."

A little before dark Medicine Band appeared at the door dressed in his best Shaman's regalia.

"Don't let him in here. No telling what kind of a thing he could be carrying. He's not clean," Dr. Westphalia complained, horrified at the sight of Medicine Band's appearance.

"You said you'd done all you can. Let him do what he can. It can't hurt now. They believe in Medicine Band's healing power. He claims to be Taz's spiritual guide," Gen. Walker explained.

"Damn heathens act like they own the place," Dr. Westphalia objected, making sure he had no contact with the Indian. "I don't know why you put up with them."

"Rumor has it I'm keeping my cows on their tribal territory," Gen. Walker advised the doctor, who glared.

"Tribal property, poppycock. They should be on a reservation where they belong."

Medicine Band moved to Taz's bedside, ignoring the doctor's objections. He chanted, encouraging smoke from the pot he carried to move over Taz, using an eagle's feather. He danced and the bells on his ankles jangled softly. Medicine Band sang lyrics from a song that had been sung for a thousand generations by the Ogallala people. Tom Toms could be heard in the hallway as other Indians sang so softly it was as if a light breeze had been let loose in the back of the house.

Medicine Band stopped his dance. He stopped his song. He used the feather to move smoke over Taz, giving so soft an invocation it could hardly be recognized as speech.

Kathleen, the general, Dr. Westphalia, Madge, and Kodak had all moved to the corner of the room near the right side of Taz's bed. Every set of eyes was mesmerized by the service.

Medicine Band abruptly stopped. The music being made in the hallway stopped and Medicine Band turned to exit the room. Before he hit the door the music had stopped. Not a sound could be heard as Dr. Westphalia peaked out the door to see where the Indians were.

"Damn heathens are gone. Where do they get to so damn fast. I don't like it, I tell you. It's not natural and you shouldn't tolerate it," Dr. Westphalia was unable to hide his bigotry for people whose land he stood upon and for whom he had no appreciation at all.

No one paid much attention to the doctor's displeasure. It was Taz they turned to now. He had not moved or shown any sign of understanding that he'd been put into the hands of the Great Spirit to resolve the damage done to him.

It wasn't for Medicine Band to sanction Taz's life or his dying. It was for Medicine Band to remove all obstacles to Taz moving onto the next level of life that was already his. It was the Great Spirit who knew what form that took and where in the universe Taz belonged.

No one said anything. Madge went to stand at the head of the bed. Kodak put his chair back beside Taz's bed. Gen. Walker had gone back to his office and Kathleen stood in the doorway as Dr. Westphalia took Taz's pulse.

"There's no change. That damn Indian can't do him any good," the doctor said, convinced Taz was on his own now. "At least he's resting easy. Shouldn't let that damn Indian in here to disturb him."

Kathleen shook her head and returned to the kitchen to see to it enough food was prepared to feed everyone. She didn't have to look to know that activity on the ranch had stopped. She could hear the silence. There were no sounds of cowboys working. Moving things around in the kitchen got her mind off the drama playing out a few feet away.

Gen. Walker sat alone in his office. His coffee had gone cold and his one a day cigar sat unlit in his ashtray. He kicked his boots up on his desk. There were no plans for a funeral. He'd been so sure having Taz home would make everything okay again.

Gen. Walker remembered the first time he met Taz, not knowing what to expect, but being in charge meant other people expected. He ordered. After the first meeting he saw that Taz would do whatever he was ordered to do, not because he believed in it, but because he was a soldier.

Gen. Walker found that he wanted Taz to believe in the orders he gave him. He remembered inviting Taz to eat with him, so they might get better acquainted. This was when Taz was going on tour representing the US Army.

The general liked to know what made men tick. He explained to Taz that hatred for his father was counterproductive. This was common sense and good advice. Then Taz told Gen. Walker about his father breaking his arm, because he wanted to ride a mechanical horse out in front of the A&P.

The general was so upset by the story that he put out his cigar in the middle of one of the finest cuts of beef in the Asian theater, not to mention what it cost to ship it there from his ranch. He'd never been caught so off guard by a soldier before or since.

In not so many words Taz told him he didn't know his ass from a hole in the ground. Taz certainly left Gen. Walker with something to think about. He attempted to show Taz that he could help him and benefits came with his cooperation. Taz wasn't going to ask for any special treatment and he wasn't interested in someone telling him what his life was about.

Intending to teach Taz a lesson, the general had learned one.

"Taz is Taz," the general remembered a member of 1st squad telling him, when he asked for a description of him.

Gen. Walker would have been upset with an ordinary soldier who failed to appreciate his words of wisdom. Taz told him the way it was, because 'Taz is Taz.' There was no disrespect in it. Taz was telling a truth about his life only he knew. The general spoke a hypothetical truth that was generally true and Taz straightened him out on that.

"No change. I was worried they might upset the boy. We need more ice."

"I'll see to it," Gen. Walker said having had his meat freezers turned into ice makers. "Doctor, you treated my father and his family. You've treated me and mine. As far as small town doctors go, you're the best there is. You willed that boy stay alive the day he was shot. I appreciate you staying to see to his recovery."

"Not like I have a thriving practice any longer. I have my patients from years past. I don't take on new ones. Everyone understands when I'm not available. It's not like I'm the only game in town any longer."

"What I don't understand, Dr. Westphalia, and I say this with all sincerity. I don't know how a man as smart as you are can be so full of shit when it comes to Indians. Those people have been dragged through hell and back, and somehow, through it all, all the hatred, all the mistreatment, they've maintained their dignity.

"A man like you should know better and if you don't know better, you should learn better. Those people have more right to be here than either you or I.

"I'll see to your ice," Gen. Walker said, standing up and walking past the stunned doctor.

Cowboys stood near the house, Crosby sat on the top step of the back porch, Rowdy and Boyd leaned on the hitching post in front of the bunkhouse. The Indians chanted, danced, and beat their drums softly as the time passed in a way that made it seem like the day might never end.

"How is he, General," a cowboy asked as Gen. Walker moved toward Rowdy to get the ice brought to the house.

"No change, son," Gen. Walker said, not stopping to chat before having second thoughts.

He stopped, putting his hand on the cowboy's shoulder, "All that can be done is being done. He's tough. He'll be chasing rustlers in no time."

This got a smile out of him as other cowboys remembered Taz going after the rustlers the year before.

It was in the middle of the night. Kodak's head had come to rest on the bed with Taz's hand in his. The ordeal had taken him beyond exhaustion more than once. Madge was seated near the foot of the bed. The house was bathed in a soft light for anyone who needed to move around.

Kathleen had fallen asleep in her husband's easy chair. Gen. Walker slept with his head on his desk. The only one still awake was Dr. Westphalia, who monitored Taz, determined to see the crisis through to the end.

Medicine Band sat in his teepee focused on his fire as he was one with Taz. His ancient song slipped softly from his lips as he envisioned the Taz who journeyed with him to the spirit world. Medicine Band wanted Taz to live as much as anyone, because his world made more sense with Taz in it.

It was before dawn, but not much, when Kodak felt Dr. Westphalia's big hand on his shoulder.

"What? What?" Kodak said, startled awake. "Is he…? Is he…?"

"It's 100. It started to come down an hour ago, when it was 103. The fever has broken. He should be okay for the time being. He's going to be all right."

"Oh, God," Kodak exclaimed wearily, crying into Taz's hand, unable to control his sobs.

It had been a long dark night.

"Thank God," Madge said softly. "Thank God."

Dr. Westphalia walked to Gen. Walker's office to stand in the door way. He was not very happy with the general. Gen. Walker was just sitting up from a fitful sleep. He didn't speak when he saw Dr. Westphalia standing there. He just stared.

"Go to bed, General. He's going to be okay. The fever has broken. It's 99.9 and coming down. It's been coming down for the better part of an hour."

Gen. Walker reached for his humidor and tossed Dr. Westphalia a cigar.

"Thanks, doc," the general said smiling and lighting his cigar.

"Don't thank me. I didn't have anything to do with it. That was between Taz and his maker. It wasn't his time."

"You give the big guy a thank you for me, doc. I haven't been on such good terms with him lately. I'm still pissed off about Vietnam. I've got to go a mite to forgive him for that one."

"In your own time, General. We don't get to know why things are the way they are, we just get to be pissed off if it suits us."

"Amen, doc. You need to go get some rest. You getting sick won't do Taz any good."

"You do the same, General. A lot of folks depending on you. Don't know I'd be so keen on the idea of coming out here every day for the likes of you," Dr. Westphalia told him.

"Yea, something about that kid. I don't know what it is. When solders, cowboys, and Indians all take to you, that's something, doc."

"You may add doctors to that list," the doctor said.

"Thanks for seeing to him."

"I'll see you later this morning, General. I might stretch out on your sofa for a few hours. I'm not as young as I use to be. These all nighters are a killer."

Kodak let go of Taz's hand and went into the bathroom to put cold water on his hot face. It was like the weight of the world was lifted off him. He came out and looked at Taz's peaceful face.

"I'm going out to let Medicine Band know he's going to be okay," Kodak said.

"Hon, you need to lie down. You're exhausted. You can't keep sitting up with him. You've been at it three weeks now. Lie down. I'll be here. I won't leave him. Then, when you get up, I'll go get some sleep."

"I might when I come back in," Kodak said, walking past Gen. Walker's empty office on his way outside.

Standing on the back porch, puffing on his cigar, Gen. Walker stood looking out across the empty space between the house and the bunkhouse.

"Where'd they go?" Kodak asked.

"They were gone when I came out," Gen. Walker said.

"I wanted to tell Medicine Band he is going to be okay."

"Me too. Gone. Back in the wind."

"Must have pulled out after the ceremony last night," Kodak said.

"Nope, they were there, beating their drums, and dancing when I got coffee about 3 a.m. I stood out here and watched for a few minutes."

"How do they know?"

"You asked me that when they showed up, Kodak. Beats the hell out of me. They know. How they know isn't something white men are meant to understand. They believe what they believe and it works for them. We should all be so lucky."

"So did Dr. Westphalia do it or did Medicine Band do it?" Kodak asked.

"I prefer to think Taz did it. It's less confusing to me that way. The longer I live the less I know. Dr. Westphalia told me he'd done all he could do yesterday in the afternoon. The rest is one of those great mysteries of life, Kodak. Let's go inside or I'm going to fall asleep leaning on this post. I need some sleep," Gen. Walker said.

Kodak ran out of steam before he got back to Taz's room. He collapsed on the cot set up beside Taz's bed. He didn't remember seeing Madge or speaking to her. He fell face down and didn't move all day.

The ranch once again started to move.

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