The Wild West Reckoning (Preview)

Chapter One

Cripple Creek, Colorado, 1874

“Listen. Do you hear it?” Frank held up a weathered hand, halting the horses that rode alongside him. His own horse, the black Andalusian, stilled at once, responding to him. Slowly, Frank lowered his hand and cocked his head to the side, feeling the wind as it bristled his open denim jacket and the whiskers on his chin.

“Hear what?” asked one of the young gunslingers at his side.

Frank pointed at the air as the steam train hooted once again.

“Cripple Creek. The train. I’m home again.” He laughed and tipped the reins of his horse, riding on. The two gunslingers, Marty and Austin, raced to catch up with him.

Frank’s eyes darted from the distant mountains to the dusty town that stretched out in front of him. The rugged landscape gave way to streets bordered by wooden buildings, saloons with their slatted doors swinging in the breeze, and horses riding along, neighing at passersby. Hardly a man passed that didn’t carry a weapon at his hip or wear a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

Frank smiled as he pulled his horse to slow to a trot. The Andalusian snorted in complaint, but one firm pat to the stallion’s neck calmed him.

“Home again, boy,” Frank murmured to the horse, who snorted once again as if in agreement.

It’s been a long time since I rode into this town.

Frank wasn’t sure whether to feel at peace or restless to be here again. It had been many years since he’d come back to Cripple Creek, and for good reason. He didn’t think his home would welcome the return of the Cripple Creek Bandit. He’d left long ago, once he’d started getting a reputation and his face had appeared on every wanted poster nailed to the walls and swinging saloon doors. His reputation had followed him around the state, and now, he was back.

The streets were busy around him. Cowboys and ranch hands hurried to do their business at the end of the day, railroad workers headed to the station with their palms covered in soot, and there was the occasional thief striding between them all, their hands reaching into others’ pockets.

The community had changed since Frank had left. It had grown into a place of commerce and was no longer the small backroad town it had once been. 

“Why are we here again?” Marty, the youngest of the gunslingers, asked. The kid adjusted the silver gleaming guns in his holster, angling his head back and forth and nearly tipping the white hat from his head. “If you came from here, then they’ll know you.”

“I’m a born rat, Marty. Haven’t you heard? All rats go home. Someday.” Frank couldn’t explain why he’d really come back. His sister Sarah had longed to see him again, and he was eager to see her too, but he’d avoided her for a while, fearing the sheriff would catch him if he returned. “Maybe I’m willing to brave the sheriff, eh? Gunfight in the street, what do you say?” He looked at his men, who chuckled.

“Marty will be the one cowering behind the nearest building,” Austin said, pointing his scarred hands toward the other rider and nodding his head back so that his long fair hair danced around his chin.

“Yeah, yeah, heard it all before.” Marty laughed off the words.

With the sun slipping beyond the distant mountains, they needed a place to stop for the night. Frank raised his hand and gestured to the nearest saloon with a hitching rail outside. The painted sign read, “The Rusty Spur.”

“Let’s get a drink.” As Frank stepped down from his horse, he looked around, noting the number of people that stared at him.

They weren’t looking at his clothes, with the denim jeans and the buckskin waistcoat he wore, nor the Navajo silver belt buckle inlaid with turquoise. They either stared at his face or the mounted silver guns on his hips.

They recognize me. My reputation… it’s followed me back here. He was known as a troublesome kid before he left, but these days, he was a dangerous bandit. He half-expected to see a sheriff marching toward him between the people.

“Go.” Frank waved a hand at his men again, who hurried into the Rusty Spur, not bothering to glance back at what was taking him so long. 

“Long time on the lam without a drop of scotch, eh?” Marty said to Austin. 

Frank froze as his eyes landed on a poster on the opposite side of the street, pinned to a store window. 

The wanted poster showed his face. It was the same strong jawline, weathered expression, and small dark eyes. He almost looked handsome in the picture. Frank chuckled and shook his head, turning his back on it.

Around these parts, people had a fascination for any outlaw. It seemed to ensnare people’s want for a good story. Frank knew he’d been part of many such stories, but they were always changed a little from reality—changed for the better.

Frank was a thief, through to the core. He’d once met a man who said if he cut Frank in half, “outlaw” would be printed on his bones. Sure, some tales said he was an outlaw with a heart, a man who would take on the commerce tycoons when they tried to undermine the working man, but Frank never saw it that way. It was simply the tycoon’s error to get in Frank’s path, that was all.

Frank patted the horse once, checked his guns were within easy reach at his hip, and swaggered into The Rusty Spur. It had been some time since he’d entered this saloon.

It was just the same. Just as dark and full of dust, with the occasional lantern pinned to the wall glittering orange. Faces swung toward him, raising from scotch glasses and beer bottles. Cowboy hats tilted backward, and a gun cocked. 

Frank rested a palm on one of his own guns, showing what would happen if any upstart dared take a shot at him. Hurriedly, the faces that had looked at him returned to their drinks, ignoring him. The tinkering sound of the piano from the corner that had paused at his entrance now struck up again, but faster this time, showing the player was eager not to be involved in anything.

Slowly, Frank walked forward, his boots thudding on the floorboards as he crossed toward Marty and Austin, who waited at the bar to be served.

“Well, tickle me with rattlesnakes. That’s a face I haven’t seen for a while.”

Frank leaned on the bar and turned to see the saloon keeper. Whiskey Jack O’Sullivan stood on the other side, his manner as gruff as it had always been as he poured out two scotches for Austin and Marty.

“What you doing around here again, Frank?” Jack nodded his head at the street. “Ain’t you seen your poster? Price on your head, you know.”

“Always has been. Whiskey sour, Jack.” Frank delved a hand into his pocket and dropped coins onto the bar, waiting to see what Jack would do next. They’d never been friends, but there had been a mutual understanding between them in the past. Jack didn’t report on Frank drinking there, and Frank didn’t cause trouble in his saloon.

Slowly, Jack smiled and took the coins. “You got it.” He turned away to get the whiskey sour.

“Quite a place here, Frank,” Marty said, elbowing him to get his attention fully. “What you got planned? Another job?”

“Must be something worth taking in a place like this.” Austin nodded in agreement. “Busy town.”

“It is now.” Frank glanced meaningfully at the door, thinking of how much it had changed. The streets were just as beautiful as they had been before, with the same wooden buildings, but there was something different about it. It had something to do with the way everyone in the street had looked at one another, almost fearfully. “I don’t know. Something has changed about it. The people, maybe.”

He looked around the room, hoping to make sense of what he had seen outside by looking at the people in here. All the cowboys refused to meet his gaze, though he thought he  had caught sight of two hustlers at a poker table eyeing him carefully, wondering if he could be taken.

Good luck to them. Never been beaten in a game yet.

Then his eyes fell on another and Frank froze, his gut tightening.

In the corner of the room was a face he hadn’t seen for many years. She wore a sage green and ivory gown, conservative, as her clothes had always been, but fitted well to her tall figure so it showed off all her curves in the right places. She sat forward, eyes wide as she stared at him. She was as elegant as he remembered her in his dreams, the same plump lips pressed together, and those emerald green eyes bored into him, pinning his body to the spot. Raven black hair was fixed perfectly behind her head in cascading curls.

Frank acted on instinct and raised his Stetson in greeting to her. She sat taller still but showed no other sign of responding to him. 

“You see our schoolteacher then,” Whiskey Jack said behind him as he placed the whiskey sour down on the bar. 

“Ava’s a schoolteacher now?” Frank murmured, unable to take his eyes off her across the saloon.

They’d been childhood sweethearts, but that was well over a decade ago. Much had changed. She’d grown older, and her face had taken on even more beauty than he had remembered. Desire curled in his stomach, and he felt a determination to cross the room and go to her.

The last time he had seen her, he’d turned his back on what had been between them. He’d been younger then, seduced by the promise of money that the outlaw life offered him. The last kiss he’d shared with Ava as he’d said goodbye was one he’d never forget. It had been scintillatingly passionate, his hands splayed across her waist and her pulling at him.

It was so long ago.

“Frank.” Jack’s words made Frank flick his head around. “Your men need paying for as well.”

Frank chuckled and handed over a few coins. “Marty and Austin. Be wary of them, Jack. They’re card sharks, if you give them half a chance.”

“They take after you then?” Jack laughed. “Many a man you’ve hustled here.”

“Just a few.” Frank couldn’t concentrate. All he could think of was Ava across the room and those dark green eyes. “Jack, get me a sarsaparilla.” He remembered her favorite drink. Jack put the glass beside his own, and Frank raised them both, spinning on the heel of his boot, ready to cross the room toward her.

The heat he’d felt still simmered there, deep in his gut, but then his eyes landed on the empty stool where she had been sitting. 

Ava was gone.

***

Ava pushed open the back door of the saloon and stumbled out into the street, grasping the flowing skirt of her gown around her knees to run faster.

I can’t believe it. It can’t be him. Snakes! What’s he doing back here? 

She’d always wondered what she’d feel if she ever saw Frank Thompson again. She had expected hatred to fill her up, but it hadn’t. There was anger, certainly, so much rage that her palms were clammy as she stumbled away from the saloon. Yet there was something else there, too; it was intriguing to see him again. 

The sun was slipping beyond the mountains and casting the streets in shadows. She darted between those shadows, running with such haste that she sometimes slipped in the dust, not looking where she put her feet. She skidded at the end of the street, taking a sharp corner and nearly running into a cat that hissed in complaint.

“Oops. Sorry, kitty.” She petted the cat hurriedly, which swiped in refusal of her kindness and jumped away. “That snake,” she muttered, running on as she headed across town. She ran around the railroad workers who were on their way to the train station and circled drunken ranch hands that whistled at her passing.

She didn’t bother acknowledging the whistle, for her mind was elsewhere.

He’s changed so much.

Frank had grown into his looks. Where his strong jawline and large cheekbones had been too angular in his youth, his face had matured, and he was now far more handsome than she remembered him. Those bold blue eyes had fixed her to the spot until he’d turned away and she had come to her senses.

I fell under his spell once. I will not be doing so again.

She was the schoolteacher now. She was respectable, and she intended never to give her heart again to the childhood sweetheart that had grown up to be a menace to the state, one of the most hot-headed and notorious outlaws this town had ever known.

Reaching the jailhouse and the sheriff’s office, she stopped and banged on the door. Yet there was no answer and, peering through the wooden slatted window, she saw it was dark and empty inside.

“Drunk again, eh?” She hurried around the building, grabbing her green skirt as she ran up a flight of stairs and headed to the apartment above the jailhouse. She knocked on the door with her fist, relentlessly. “Sheriff Anderson? It’s important. Open up.”

“Ava? Get away from here,” Anderson called from inside, his words slurring as he’d plainly been nursing a bottle of scotch again, as he did every night. “Don’t need you distracting me tonight.”

Confused, Ava frowned, uncertain of what he meant, then banged on the door again. This time, he responded to her bangs, and there was a groan inside. Finding the door unlocked, she thrust it open.

“Anderson!” she snapped and walked through the room, kicking open a door at the far end. “Oh God, this is how you spend your evenings?”

Sheriff Tim Anderson was barely awake, his body half in and out of an empty tub, fully clothed. He had a bottle of scotch in his hand and an empty beer bottle on the floor beside him.

“Ah, Ava.” He covered a hand over his eyes. “You tempt a man. Get out of here.”

She glanced down, confused by his words as she dressed so conservatively in her high-necked blouse and long skirt.

“There’s something you need to know.” She returned her focus to him. “Frank Thomas is back in town.”

Anderson instantly sat forward. He dropped the scotch bottle, which fell to the floor and rolled away. Ava reached out her heeled boot and stopped it from rolling any farther as he scrambled out of the tub.

“That man, he’s asking for trouble.” Anderson snatched up a pair of chaps, pulling them over what Ava realized was just long johns. “Where is he?”

“At the Rusty Spur. Perhaps you’re in no fit state to chase after an outlaw like him.” She leaned on the doorframe and folded her arms. “He’d knock you around as soon as look at you, and you’d go down without much of a fight right now.”

“I’m fine.” Anderson wrapped his holster around his hips and took out his gun. As he checked the bullets, he accidentally fired the pistol into the ceiling.

Ava covered her mouth when she heard to the shout from above.

“Ahh! Anderson! You drunk ass. That’s the third time this year,” a voice wailed from the upstairs apartment.

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry about that.” Anderson thrust his gun back into his holster. “I can take him, Ava. Show me where he is.” He slumped forward and fell face-first onto the floor.

“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Ava whispered as she nudged him with the toe of her boot. Anderson was out cold.

Chapter Two

“Royal flush.” Frank dropped the cards onto the table, being certain to keep the sleeves of his jacket past his elbows. 

Something he’d learned over the years of hustling men at cards was to keep his sleeves far away. It was the first place men went to, looking for hidden cards. By keeping his sleeves up, Frank always managed to persuade his opponents to believe he was being honest, while he actually palmed the cards and stuck them to the underside of the table with gum.

“Don’t believe it. Nah, can’t be.” A man whom others in the saloon had nicknamed Slick Willie tossed his coins onto the table, a strong string of curse words following.

Frank smiled and looked at his men behind him. Marty and Austin were laughing, whispering to one another about just how easy it was for Frank to take money from these men. He’d trained Marty and Austin well, but they both had the habit of getting into trouble by performing the wrong trick or dealing a deck with five kings by accident.

“Nah, do it again. You hustled me. I’m certain of it.” Slick Willie pointed a thick finger at Frank.

In answer, Frank lifted his whisky sour to his lips, downed it, then dropped the glass to the table and lifted his arms, showing his sleeves were raised. 

“You want to check my sleeves, Slick Willie? Unfortunate nickname you’ve got there. Don’t want to ask how you got it.” Frank affected a shudder, not only making his men laugh but others at the table, too.

One man watched Frank more than any other, and Frank returned that curious gaze. 

The stranger was very well dressed for a saloon. Tall and slender, with a black handlebar mustache, he was dressed head to toe in black with a silk top hat. He was a man that was easy to notice, though his dark eyes gave little away. What stood out as not belonging with his smart appearance were the heavy guns and knives he wore at his waist. His wrinkled hands suggested he was older than he looked at first glance. Slowly, he raised a cigar to his lips and puffed deeply, his eyes never once leaving Frank’s.

“You stare, stranger.” Frank collected the cards together. “Looks like it’s just you and me left. Want to play?”

“Yeah, why not. But… I’ll deal.” The stranger took the cards from Frank with a smirk, showing he had an inkling as just to how Frank had been hustling them all night. He shuffled the cards and dealt them out just as Jack came by and added fresh drinks to their table. When the stranger was distracted, talking to one of the burly men that followed him around, Jack leaned down to whispering to Frank.

“Don’t think you know who you’re playing with.”

“Who?” Frank asked, with barely any interest. All that mattered to him was that the stranger brought money to the table. 

“It’s Henry Blackwood.” 

Jack walked away before he could say any more. Frank’s eyes followed the gruff saloon keeper, wondering exactly what he’d missed.

“One minute, stranger.” Frank held up a finger to the man, then turned to Marty and Austin behind him. “You two, find out what you can about a man called Blackwood. Henry Blackwood. Ask around.”

“Don’t need to, heard it all already.” Marty shook his head and took off his low-lying hat, brushing out his brown hair with his hand.

“What?” Frank waved him on.

“Heard enough whispers tonight to know who he is.” He nodded at the stranger at the table. “Tycoon, big in business around here, they say. The kind of man that, when he walks down the street, people hide where they can. Not liked.”

“You don’t say?” Frank said with wryness. 

“Known for killing men to get what he wants.”

“Why isn’t he locked up then?” Austin asked, nudging Marty for an answer.

“Don’t know.” Marty shrugged. “All I’m saying is what I’ve heard. Look around. See how the men here watch him.”

Frank shifted in his chair, casting a gaze around the room. Now he saw what he’d ignored before, for he was so focused on his card game. Many men glared Henry Blackwood’s way, some daring to peer out from beneath the brims of their hats. What women had been here before had left long ago, leaving only the saloon girls behind that gave Henry as wide a berth as they could, all except one Henry kept calling back to him. Her fingers shook as she stood beside him.

“You ready?” Henry called to Frank.

He nodded his thanks to Marty and sat forward, lifting his whiskey sour to his lips again.

“Deal the cards.” 

They played their game, each taking it in turns to raise the stakes higher and higher, with Frank confident he had the winning hand. Their men grew more and more interested in the game, until Frank could practically feel Marty and Austin breathing down his neck.

“Got a proposition for you, Frank Thompson.”

“Ah, you’ve recognized me from all those posters then.” Frank chuckled. “I wondered if you knew who you were really playing with.”

“I knew.” Henry Blackwood spoke confidently and waved a hand at one of the men behind him. He was a bit younger, more Frank’s age, and looked restless, casting his eyes around the room. He opened a cigar box for Henry to take another, which he lit slowly, taking his time and delaying their game. “Wanted to meet you. Got a proposition for you.”

“What kind of proposition?” Frank asked, tapping the table with a finger, urging Henry to play his turn. He added more coins to the table, so Frank matched it. 

“I hear the Cripple Creek Bandit can rob a train with his eyes closed. That what they say?”

“I suppose they say I can rob a train with my arms tied behind my back, too.” 

Frank’s words made the man laugh, his great handlebar mustache quivering with the movement. “Perhaps they do.”

“You wanting a job done?” Frank recognized the opener. So many men had approached him in his time, but he didn’t always do what they asked. More often than not, Frank turned the tables and took for himself and his men what they needed without helping the arrogant man who thought he could order Frank around like a soldier. 

“I have a train coming into town in a week’s time. A week today, to be precise.” Henry moved the coins on the table to form a long train. “There’s gold and other such things on it, quite a wealthy prize.” He sat forward, tapping the table beside the money. “I’m looking for someone to rob it.”

“Your own train? Pff. Can’t you just wait until it stops in town?” Frank asked, smiling when he saw Henry sigh exaggeratedly. “I’m joking with you. You must want the insurance money. No other reason why a man would rob his own train.”

“Why I want it robbed is my business only.” Henry’s smile looked forced, like he was trying to be amenable. The skin around his lips pulled taut at the movement. “I’ll offer you a sum for the task. Should be simple for you and your men. One train, one day’s job, and I’ll set you up for life.”

“What’s the sum?” Frank asked, adding a few more coins to raise the bet between them again.

“Ten thousand dollars.”

Even Frank stilled. He heard Marty gasp behind him, and the hasty elbow of Austin who tried to shut him up. It was an obscene amount of money, enough to certainly buy him somewhere to live for a while if he fancied trying a life no longer as a bandit but as something else.

A tempting idea.

There would even be enough for Marty and Austin to do with as they wished.

“There has to be a catch,” Frank said slowly. “No man offers that much for an insurance job.”

“With what’s on the train, they do.” Henry smiled. “Believe me, it would be worth my while to pay you it. What do you say?”

Frank didn’t answer but raised his glass to his lips, sensing something had to be amiss. He never liked being ordered around by another regardless, but for a man he’d never met before to offer him such money as they played poker was insane.

“I haven’t lost my sanity yet,” Frank muttered and raised the bet in the middle of the table for the final time. “Can still tell dung from wild honey.”

“Can you?” Henry said with a laugh and put his cards down on the table, so their faces were covered. “What am I offering you, then? It’s pure honey.”

It’s dung. Something’s wrong.

“Let’s play for a minute.” Frank stayed calm, not moving in his seat. At his reluctance to submit, Henry shifted, nowhere near as comfortable in his spindly chair. The men around him exchanged uncertain glances, too.

Henry turned over his cards. “Straight.” He pushed them forward.

“Well, four of a kind beats a straight.” Frank dropped his own cards to the table. “Looks like I’ll take some of that money from you now.” 

He reached forward and gathered the coins, dragging them to his side of the table. A knife suddenly appeared there, the blade pressed firmly between his fingers. Henry released it. 

Frank didn’t pull back, never wanting to show fear. He simply raised his chin with something of a lazy smile, pretending he hadn’t been bothered.

“Poor aim, Blackwood,” he said, chuckling. “You missed both fingers.” He took the knife for himself and toyed with it in his hands. “Good knife. You should keep it.” He tossed it to the other side of the table, where it landed perfectly in front of Henry, mere inches from where his hand had been. “I don’t take kindly to threats.”

“Consider it an offer.” Henry stood slowly, buttoning up his smart black jacket. He took his silk top hat from one of his men, who had been holding onto it, and placed it back on his brow. “Think about it the next couple of days, but don’t take long. As I said, the train comes in just one week.”

“I’ll think about it.” Frank nodded, buying himself some time.

“Good. Goodnight to you.” Henry tipped his hat, appearing formal. His dark eyes lingered on all the money that now belonged to Frank before he turned and left, his men hurrying to follow him out. 

At the back of the group, just one man remained. It was the same one who had opened the cigar box. He looked at Frank with an uncertain gaze, then went after the others.

The moment the saloon doors swung shut behind them, Marty whistled and dropped into the seat beside Frank.

“What in rattlesnakes’ name was that all about?”

“I don’t know.” Frank gathered the money, giving some to Marty and Austin, who pocketed it.

“You’re a fool, Frank. A greater idiot than even I credited you for.” Jack appeared at the table again.

“The kindest man I know, Jack,” Frank joked and took a coin, tossing it into the air. “For the drinks.” 

Jack caught the coin but didn’t walk away. He gruffly grunted and shook his head.

“If Henry offered you a job, as I think he did,” as Jack paused, Frank looked at his men, warning them silently not to give anything away, “then don’t be fooled into thinking you can turn it down.”

“Why not?”

“The last man that refused Henry Blackwood ended up in the back of a wagon that rode itself into town, with a bullet between his brows.” Jack grunted and turned away again. “Two seconds back in town and you’re already up to your chin in dung.” 

He walked off, leaving Frank to slowly tap the cards on the table.

Frank looked around, making sure no one was watching before he pulled out the cards he’d stuck to the underside of the table and tossed them with the others. Austin laughed and gathered the cards together, easily covering up the ploy.

“Do you think he’s right?” Austin asked, nodding his head after Jack, who retreated back to the bar.

“If he is, then turning Blackwood down won’t be an easy thing.” Frank sighed heavily. “I don’t want trouble—not here, of all places.”

“Because of your sister?” Marty guessed. Frank narrowed his eyes at the young man, silently warning him not to say more. “Why can’t we talk about her?”

“It’s a rule. I don’t let anyone talk about her. But yeah, because of Sarah.” Frank sat back and rubbed a hand over his face and into his hair. “If I get myself into anything here, guess where any enemy will go first to hurt me. They won’t come for me, and they won’t come for you two either. They’ll go to her first.”

The idea crushed him. Sarah was an innocent and capable woman who practically ran the general store all on her own in these parts. She’d never needed another’s help, not since the day she could walk, for she was always eager to look after herself. Frank admired her greatly, and they’d made a deal, long ago. They left each other to their own business, and Frank promised never to endanger her.

I’d never forgive myself if I did.

“You think that’s the way a man like him would work?” Austin asked with interest, pointing out of the saloon doors in the direction Henry had retreated. “He’d go after your sister?”

“I’m certain. Anyone that rich knows how to make people dance for him, like puppets on strings. They go after who you love.”

Another face appeared in Frank’s mind. This had been his home once, and any connections he had here would be known. If he did cross Henry, then Sarah wouldn’t be the only one in trouble. Sooner or later, Henry would learn that Frank had had a love here once.

Ava would be in danger, too.


“The Wild West Reckoning” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

In the rugged frontier of the Old Wild West, infamous outlaw Frank, notoriously known as the Cripple Creek Bandit, is drawn back to his hometown. Reunited with his estranged sister and his first love, Ava, Frank’s hardened heart rekindles and his outlaw existence hangs in the balance. That’s when an enigmatic outlaw presents him with an offer too enticing to resist: the chance to partake in the ultimate train robbery.

But lurking beneath this opportunity lies a perilous trap, threatening everything Frank holds dear…

Ava, a beacon of virtue in Cripple Creek, finds herself torn as Frank resurfaces, awakening a long-buried flame within her. Transformed by his time away, Frank becomes an irresistible force, stirring emotions she thought long extinguished. Yet, news of his dangerous liaison with the untouchable Henry Blackwood fills her with dread…

Can Ava resist Frank’s allure and protect the town she loves from looming danger?

Hidden beneath his outlaw facade, Frank harbors deeper desires, known only to Ava. As Blackwood’s sinister plot unravels and Ava’s safety hangs in the balance, Frank faces an agonizing dilemma… Will he prioritize protecting the town that once condemned him, or will he shield the woman who has reached the depths of his soul?

“The Wild West Reckoning” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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