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THE QUEST OF THE GOLDEN DRAGON
or The South Seas City of Death Mystery
Chapter Fourteen: NIGHT RIDE TO STORMS END
"Rick! No! They're gonna throw us into that crocodile pit!"
Rick turned to look at him but got only a hurried glance at Scotty's wide-eyed terror as he gaped under the witch doctor's hut and saw what was awaiting them. Then the warriors holding the boys pushed and pulled them ahead as the crazed natives surrounded them and moved like a rushing wave around the hut into the village center.
The people were screaming now, the drums beating frantically. Rick struggled to look over at Scotty and Jimmy but his efforts were useless. He was strongarmed ahead with such force that it took his breath away.
He saw that a raised platform stood on the opposite side of the pit, on it a garishly designed chair made of wood, much like a totem with the animal and crocodile heads carved into it, all painted in the bold bright colors. On it was seated an older Wambutu warrior, obviously the chief, Rick figured, by his royal arrogant manner. Garbed in the wild tribal finery, he overlooked the frantic crowd with a detached aloofness. In his right hand he held a long intricately carved golden staff adorned with skins and furs and feathers. The witch doctor ran around the pit shaking his death rattle at everyone and then went to stand at the chief's side on the dais.
The leader of the Wambutu rose to his feet and, as he did, the natives quieted down and the drums stopped beating. The chief pounded his staff upon the floor and the crowd hushed, but Rick could feel the electric-like current of excitement running through them. They were all eager for something to happen, and Rick knew only too well what that something was going to be.
Then the leader shook the staff at Rick and Scotty and Jimmy, who had all been pulled within a few feet of the pit's brim. He spoke out in anger to his people with great force and dramatic gestures, seething with righteousness and hostility. He spoke to the natives in their own language and Rick could not understand any of it, except for the word 'Nigoochee', which the chief uttered several times. Then, when he was finished addressing the crowd, he spoke directly to the boys in surprisingly good Australian-accented English:
'You have offended the great god Nigoochee, young intruders, and now you must die as payback for your transgression. May the good fortune of our people be appeased, as so intended, and may your journey into the depths of the afterlife be filled with suffering and anguish for what you have foolishly brought upon yourselves in defiance of the law."
Rick's lips snarled as he gaped at the writhing crocodiles below, and he drew in a short quick breath. He had no intention, he figured angrily, of taking any journey into any kind of depths, especially via a crocodile pit, and he began to frantically struggle against the warriors, his mind singly focused on the great impossibility of getting free.
When he heard Jimmy cry out in anguish, Rick wondered why. Why wasn't the boy just trying to get away?
"You can't kill them!" the Timateo boy yelled at the chief across the pit. "They are Americans! They meant no harm! They are not aware of your customs. They don't deserve to die! Take me. Just me! I should have known better!" He choked and coughed up in violent spasms, so overwrought was he. "My father told me to respect the customs of our people! I should have listened to him ....."
But the old chief was not listening to the kanaka boy's pathetic plea. He pounded his staff a couple more times and raised it high above him as, with it, the drums began to beat again and the crowd roared and began chanting, "Nigoochee! Nigoochee! Nigoochee!"
And Rick, as he struggled with his captors, heard Scotty, who was only a few feet away now, growl and shout out:
"If I'm going into that pit, so are you big goon warriors!"
And suddenly he was in Rick's range of vision, a snarl on his face and his eyes bugging out as he pulled the three big strong warriors muscling him toward the brim of the pit.
Rick, his blood boiling, began to do the same. Anything for a chance at surviving! The men who were a moment ago pulling him toward the pit were now frantically trying to hold him back as the crowd noise swelled up into a tumult of depraved maniacal insanity and the drums beat on incessantly.
"Rick! Scotty! You guys! I'm sorry! I wish I ...."
It was Jimmy, Rick knew, shouting out as he was held back to witness his and Scotty's demise. But he knew that Jimmy just didn't understand ... that this just really could not happen to him and Scotty. No, not them! They had 'right' on their side. They'd gotten out of tough jams before. And they had to go on and find his dad and Doctors Warren and Hyde-Morton. They just didn't have the darn time to end up at the bottom of that pit as crocodile food!
And then the time warp in Rick's mind snapped and reality whacked him right in the face. He suddenly found himself struggling at the very edge of the pit, same as Scotty right by him, not trying to stay out of the pit, the both of them, but trying to pull the warriors in with them.
He heard Scotty's booming laugh, and then the boy shouted, "See how many you can take with you, Rick! The more bodies down there, the better chance we have to climb out in one piece!"
Suddenly fearless, the most fearless he'd ever been in his life, and he knew it, Rick shouted, "You got it! And those crocs probably like the dark meat better anyway! It's what they're used to!"
And at that same moment, one of the warriors struggling with Scotty was thrust over the edge and tumbled screaming into the pit. The roar of the frenzied natives swelled to new heights.
Rick was being pulled back now, hit, cuffed, clobbered. The native men did not want to go into the pit with him! But he fought with all his might to pull closer, closer, closer to the edge.
Yes! One of his captors was almost there, right on the brink, just a couple more feet now, just a few more inches now, just a ......
How he heard them above the tumult of the chaos surrounding him, Rick would never know. But he did hear them, just then, and he looked up to see two flying missiles, sizzling with sparks, arc overhead and fall into the pit.
His befuddled brain registered; Dynamite!
... and a second later a huge double explosion rocked the entire center of the village, smoke and flame and debris roaring up at them out of the pit like the eruption of an angry fiery volcano!
Rick was free! His captors were running away, shouting and yelling in terror. He heard another loud boom and turned to see the witch doctor's hut shoot up into the air in a cloud of fire and smoke. The people were all screaming now, running away from the village center like frantic terrified mice as yet other explosions rocked the area setting fire to the thatched huts and putting a sudden end to the ceaseless beating of the drums.
All hell had broken loose, and seemingly from out of nowhere!
Rick had to fling himself back, away from the edge of the pit into which he was on the verge of toppling. He almost fell but managed to straighten himself up and gain his balance. He ran over to Scotty who was sprawled in the dirt at the very edge of the smoking pit.
He knew he had no time for futile speculation. Something had happened to give them a reprieve, a chance to escape the revenge-crazed Wambutu tribe. He knew they had to get the darn heck out of there pronto and figure it all out later. He grabbed Scotty by the arm and yanked him to his feet, pulling him away from the abyss. Then, like specters in a world of death and destruction, they ran over to Jimmy who had been knocked to his feet by the force of the blast at the witch doctor's hut.
Rick and Scotty swooped down and each grabbed Jimmy by an arm and pulled him up to his feet. Wide-eyed and hearts thumping, they ran around the burning debris of the hut in the wake of the terrified natives.
"Man, what happened?" Jimmy cried out, struggling to stay on his feet and run along with the boys.
"Dynamite!" Scotty blurted. "I saw two sticks of it sizzling overhead."
"But ... who ...?"
"Let's worry about it later," Rick rapped hoarsely as they fled around another hut. "Let's just get the heck out of this creepy place!"
Several more explosions boomed out and the natives, already in a panic, scared as all get out from the blasts, were stampeding in every direction, away from the village and into the jungle. Pigs and chickens and mangy-looking dogs, too, scattered about in fright.
"This way!" Rick commanded, using the crocodile totems as guideposts. He pulled the boys over to his left. "This is the way we came in. The swamp should be right out ahead!"
Like charging linebackers, they surged ahead toward the bush, toward the teasing tempting freedom it could afford if only no one would stop them!
And then, suddenly, out of nowhere:
"Hey! Yo ho ho! Ahoy mateys!"
Into their path jumped a man, armed to the gills with a rifle, holstered guns, ammunition belts, a knife in hand, and sticks of dynamite shoved in the belt of his khaki short pants. He was tall, slim and rangy, had a shock of carrot-red hair and a three-day-old matching growth of beard. His eyes were a strange amber color and he was good-looking in an odd sort of way. And even odder was the ecstatic look of excitement on his face. The man was obviously in the middle of this fray and enjoying the absolute heck out of it!
He turned and started running toward the swamp, rifle at the ready. "Boys! Come with me! We'll get the gahooney heck outta here! Jimmy Timateo, what in the name of the Southern Cross are you doin' way up here in New Britain almost bein' fed to the Wambutu's crocodiles?"
Racing on behind the fellow, Rick and Scotty both looked at Jimmy in amazement.
"You know this guy?" they both chorused.
Jimmy looked like he was about to cry from sheer shock and relief. "Yes! I've known him all my life! Redd! Redd Bluey! Man, where did you come from? What're you doin' here? I haven't seen you for two years, at least. And I've never been so glad to see anybody!"
They reached the bush and crashed into it, arms flailing to ward off branches and vines. The man named Redd Bluey pushed on and quickly found the path, leading the boys onto it.
"My boat's up at Storms End," he tossed back, eyes flashing atop a big grin. "I had to pick up a gold shipment up in the hills and I'm takin' it to one of the islands out in the Bismarck. Saw your jeep parked out there by the road. You blokes left your wallets and I.D.'s in it. Recognized your name right away, Jimmy. And it was gettin' late. Figured better to check it out, laddies. Something bad might be goin' on. This is dangerous territory!"
Rick pushed around a bend, whacking back a protruding frond with his hand. "You mean you made all that ruckus back in the village by yourself?"
The man laughed heartily. "No way, blimey! My crew are with me, and a chum. Yo ho! Here they are now!"
Three men had run out of the bush to join them on the path. Two were kanakas who looked almost exactly like the Wambutu warriors without all the tribal adornments. The other was a white man, American looking, and all three wore similar casual tropical clothes like Redd and were loaded down with weapons and sticks of dynamite.
"This here's Yank Fulton," Redd shouted out, slapping the back of the white man. "He's from Pennsylvania back in the States, spending a few weeks on my boat, the Balanga. And my crew members, Rondin and Caruso."
Yank Fulton was a big guy, as big as Scotty, and a pleasant looking fellow like you'd expect from Pennsylvania. "Which one of you boys is Rick Brant?" he grunted as they ran around the rim of one of the reed-filled ponds.
"I am," Rick huffed from behind him. "Jeez, thanks to all of you for rescuing us. That was amazing! Totally! It's like a miracle!"
"I saw your dad's identification papers in your wallet," Yank Fulton told Rick. "Hartson Brant! I sure recognized that name, and the Spindrift Laboratories, too. I'm a Physics professor at Penn State. We knew something had to be going wrong for you boys. You wouldn't stay out in the jungle after dark, would you? And the beating of those drums didn't sound good either!"
"Tell me about it!" Scotty growled. "We were just about to be thrown to the crocodiles!"
"And talk about the psychological moment!" Jimmy popped in, grinning at Rick and Scotty. "Yowza, you guys came to rescue us right on the absolute spot!"
"Me no laikim Nigoochee!" one of the kanakas growled.
"That makes two of us, buddy," Rick sighed, as he once again could hear the rush of water from the waterfalls ahead. "I'll probably have nightmares about them for the rest of my life!"
None of the village natives had come this way, perhaps to avoid the dangers of the swamp at night, so the coast was clear for them, at least for the time being. Redd led the way with a flashlight he'd pulled out of a pocket and they soon reached the waterfalls. Rick glanced up at them briefly and shrugged at the irony of it. Such a beautiful place! And it had led them to the very brink of the pit of horror!
Jimmy pointed up as they ran by. "We were bathing in the pool under the falls," he told their rescuers. "The Wambutu caught us at it and they were going to sacrifice us to Nigoochee for payback. The darn pool is sacred. Like, who in the world pays attention to those old beliefs anymore?"
"The natives have been all up to the mustard lately because of the gold prospectors," Redd Bluey gruffed back. "They go bonkers wanting revenge and payback and have been increasingly falling back into the old ways. That's why I figured something was wrong. There's been a lot of trouble with the natives in these parts lately!"
"That's why we took along the dynamite," Yank Fulton added. "It really frightens these savages and stops them like nothing else can."
"It sure did scare the heck out of them," Scotty agreed. "We thought they were gonna kill us and then eat us themselves. But, yow, were we ever surprised when we found out what was really in store for us!"
"But it didn't happen" Jimmy reminded him. "We're still alive and all in one piece. Man, am I ever glad I know you, Redd Bluey!"
Moments later they arrived at the jeep where they had parked it on the road. In front of it was a bigger, newer model, obviously Redd's.
"Caruso, you ride with the boys," he ordered one of the kanaka men.
He was the bigger of the two and the man jumped into the back of the jeep and planted himself on the back deck, his rifle ready for action.
Redd turned to the boys. "Follow close behind and work your weapons. These jungle roads are filled with thieves and highwaymen and Wambutu warriors at night. Very dangerous, limey boys. You didn't know what you were getting yourselves into out this way! Caruso has dynamite if you need it. But, yonkers, be on the lookout and stay close up behind! It's about a two hour drive to Storms End from here."
"Yonkers?" Scotty chuckled, as they climbed into the jeep and pulled up their weapons for the ready. "Ha! That's a town by New York City!"
"He's an Aussie," Jimmy said, sitting in the back by Caruso. "And a sea captain. You'll hear him speak a lot of whacky slang."
Scotty snorted. "Well, I'm quite a slang slinger myself, but I hope he doesn't keep calling us 'limey boys'!"
"You can be sure he will, matey,' chuckled Jimmy. "You'd better get used to it!"
"He can call us anything he wants," Rick threw in, turning the key and firing up the engine. "He saved our lives! I knew something would happen. At least I hoped it would! But, jeez, I still can't believe it. You're a good luck charm, Jimmy. You've got New Guinea's good magic in your soul, and we sure needed it!"
They roared away in the wake of the other jeep carrying Redd Bluey, Yank Fulton, and Rondin the kanaka. Redd was driving and Rick had to floor the accelerator to keep up with him. He turned back to Jimmy and plied him with questions about the man.
"His family has a big plantation down on the New Guinea mainland," the boy responded. "But Redd could never stay still long enough to live and work there. He lets his brothers run the place and he hops around the islands on his boat. He stopped by Lateela Town often throughout the years, shipping cargo on his boat to and from the plantation you were staying at. My folks knew him and he'd often come visit us."
Jimmy grinned and went on, "I think my mom and her bank finance his life of adventure. I know they carry the mortgage on his boat. Down at Brisbane when I was at school, he'd come around and take students for weekends on the Balanga as part of our education. You sure couldn't ask for a better friend in these parts. He's seen and done it all and knows everybody and everything!"
"A real adventurer," Rick mused, eyes riveted again on the road ahead. "See, Jimmy. Scotty and I didn't have any local history from the past to come and help us in our moment of need, but you sure did! Why, he's like the Allan Quatermain of the South Seas!"
Jimmy chuckled. "You bet! And if King Solomon had any mines around here to be found, you can bet Redd Bluey would be the man to find them!"
The road north led up and down the hills and around what seemed to be endless hairpin bends. The headlights pierced the darkness and the roar of the jeeps' engines shut out the jungle night sounds. Scotty, Jimmy, and the silent Caruso kept vigilant watch, weapons at the ready, as Rick drove on.
"Hey, Caruso!" Scotty shouted to the kanaka, after a few miles of quiet. "How did you get such a famous name?"
The big man grinned, showing perfect rows of pearly white teeth. "Mi momma laikim much opera fella. She make mi his'n naim. Heer 'im on raido lots much wen I'mee boy!"
"What a great namesake!" Rick commented. "They say he had the greatest voice ever. Say, have they really had a lot of theft on this road out here?"
"You betchum! Gold ship'ments take'm on road to Storms End lots. Boats there take'm uther place. Bad fellas hide in bush ta steel 'em! Wambutu allays watchin' too, no laikim anybodys 'round. Lots much danger!"
He darted his big expressive eyes along the thick jungle on each side of the road, his reflexes taut, just waiting for trouble to appear.
"Do any big animals come out at night?" Scotty asked.
Jimmy answered that, shaking his head. "Nothing that big on these islands except the crocodiles, and they usually stay put at night. No monkeys, lions, tigers, bears - nothing like them. Wild pigs, yes, and those big bats like we saw in the caves." He shuddered, remembering, then added, "But it's the small things you gotta watch out for at night. All the creepy snakes and bugs, and the malarial mosquitoes. They're the ones that'll kill you."
Scotty made a face, jutting his chin out at the bush. "Well I sure don't intend to go back into that jungle for anything. Five makes you ten on that!"
The speeding jeeps wound around another hairpin curve on the bumpy highway road. The jungle encroached upon them, seeming to reach out at them, and the high trees blocked out all but a ribbon of sky directly above them. This was studded with billions of white gleaming stars. Rick looked up for a moment and caught a haunting glimpse of the lights of the universe above, and it suddenly hit him hard like a jackhammer, the great irony of the situation they were in. Here were he and Scotty and Jimmy, in this strange dangerous part of planet Earth, such an infinitesimal part of creation, running away from one horrible danger after another possibly right into the path of more and even worse!
He looked back to the road, fervently hoping good fortune would continue to be with them!
A loud boom seemed to rock the night and, before he even knew what had happened, the speeding jeep pulled violently to the right and it was all Rick could do to keep control of the swerving vehicle. He was vauguely aware, as he struggled, of a loud shout from Caruso and mad cries from Scotty and Jimmy as the jeep careened along the road.
It was only a half minute or so, but it seemed much longer, when he finally got the lurching vehicle under control. It came to a halt on the dirt and gravel shoulder, almost in the bush, and Rick sat back with a grunt. The jolting wheel had almost pulled his arms out!
"Darn!" he gasped. "A flat!"
"Man alive!" Jimmy followed up with a groan. "We sure don't need this now!"
"Bosh! There's a spare on the back," Scotty said, jumping out to the ground. "We'll change it right up in a flash!"
He gaped around for a moment, then, "Where's Caruso?"
"He fell out when the jeep first swerved," Jimmy told him, looking back down the inky darkness of the road. "Jeez, I hope he didn't get hurt!"
He and Rick climbed out and all three boys searched the shadows for Caruso. They saw him hurrying toward them, rifle in hand, limping slightly as he approached. Rick was just about to greet the man and ask if he was okay when gunshots from up ahead cracked out in the night, throwing them all a nerve-shattering jolt.
"What the ....?" Scotty spun around to look up ahead.
Jimmy pointed, uttering a broken cry. "Lookit! A roadblock ahead! Somebody's got Redd and Yank and Rondin!"
Ahead could be seen four sets of headlights facing them, all at a standstill. In front of them was Redd's jeep, stopped now, and flashlights were beaming all over the place.
"Bad fellas got 'em!" Caruso cried, racing up to them. "We sneek up in jungle and get 'em, huh?"
"You bet we will!" Rick snapped in return.
He reached into the jeep and pulled out a belt with two holstered guns and a separate ammunition belt and rifle. He switched off the headlights and slipped on the belts. "Jimmy, stay here and fix the flat. You'll have to do it in the dark. They may not have noticed us down here yet. Then drive down there when the coast looks clear. You'll have to be ready for a flying getaway! Scotty, get some guns and ammo. Caruso, come with me and Scotty!"
The necessity of haste was apparent and Jimmy jumped to action and was loosening the spare on the deck by the time Scotty had slapped on enough weapons to deal with whatever might lay ahead. Then he and Rick and Caruso slunk into the thick darkness of trunks and vines alongside the road.
"Hah! Guess I'm back in this hot dank jungle again already!" Scotty muttered as they stole along.
The gunfire up ahead had stopped. Rick peered through the foliage with reeling senses. He really hadn't expected more trouble. It seemed that he continually kept underestimating this land New Guinea and how dangerous it could be. He knew that Redd was carrying a gold shipment from one of the mountain range camps, and it was now as clear as could be to Rick, if there had been any doubt before, that thieves were out and at the ready to steal such shipments along the highway.
The roadblock was about a thousand feet ahead in this section of road that was a long straight-away. Rick and Scotty let Caruso lead them and they crept silently along, hearing snatches of conversation and gruff voices shrill in the night.
"Mastee!" Caruso hissed, angry eyes wide and flashing. "Redd fight wit' bad fellas! Not giv'm gold, not heem. Mebbe dey shoot heem!"
Rick pushed on ahead of him. "Not if we get there in time! Hurry! Give me a stick of that dynamite and one to Scotty!"
Caruso passed around the dynamite as they hastened on. Soon enough they were within a hundred feet of the roadblock. They stopped behind thick trunks heavy with fan-shaped leaves and hanging vines. Rick was vaguely aware of mosquitoes buzzing around his head as he gaped ahead. He hoped they weren't the malarial kind because he was getting plenty of bites.
The scenario out there on the road was jarring to see. It got his heart thumping as he watched it play out like a sinister scene in a movie. Four beat-up pickup trucks were blocking the road, headlights glaring on Redd Bluey's jeep, stopped about twenty feet ahead of the trucks with its engine idling.
Redd and Yank and Rondin were sitting in it still clutching their weapons which were aimed at the men on the road, five of them, harshly profiled in the light, all Oriental and mean as all get-out looking. They too had weapons, aimed at the men in the jeep.
"China fellas," Caruso whispered.
Rick nodded. He had figured as much. They looked every bit as foul and loathsome as the tong pirates on the Mirandu. And they were in a total stalemate with Redd and his chums. No one was moving. No one was speaking. It was weapon against weapon, nerve against nerve.
Rick hardly dared to breath lest he give himself and his companions away!
One of the Chinese stepped forward, causing everyone else out there to flinch. He was tall and well-built, a hard-jawed stern-eyed man, cool and ruthless, undoubtedly dangerous. His brows contracted as he looked at Redd pointedly, his rifle aimed right at him.
"One more time I tell you, buster!" he sneered in a tough voice right out of an American crime movie. "Put down the guns, give us the gold! We know you got it from the Finisterra Camp. Hand it over now or we shoot, doggone you!"
Redd Bluey leaned forward slightly, his own rifle moving an inch closer to the bandits. There was a steely glint in his eyes, but he was smiling. The grimness of his speech sent a shiver up Rick's spine.
"You and who else, limey Jack?" the Aussie threatened. "'Cuz you'll need a few others to shoot us all before we cream you blokes bully full of holes!"
The thug's angry eyes flashed back in the glare. "You no threaten me, crazy white man! You no ..."
But Rick heard no more. Caruso had struck a match and he turned to the big black man. The kanaka lit the stick of dynamite Rick held, then Scotty's, then his own. With a finger to his lips he jutted his sweaty jaw toward the pickup trucks, and Rick and Scotty silently nodded.
Then Caruso hissed, "Now!"
The three sizzling sticks flew out of the foliage and arced high over the road. The men out there, all suddenly startled, looked up to see. But Redd and Yank and Rondin had been expecting it, obviously, hoping for it, for they managed to keep their cool and hunker down for, seconds later, when the three explosions came.
Bam! Bam! Boom!
Rick saw one of the trucks seemingly jump up and flip over as the bright explosions flamed and roared and tossed the five Chinese men to the ground, their weapons flying. The whole night lit up and it looked like a scene out of the fires of hell, as two of the vehicle gas tanks exploded with roaring booms in fiery blasts as tall as the jungle trees. Rick and Scotty and Caruso ran out onto the road.
"Yo ho, mateys!" they heard Redd shout at them, his face and bright hair lit up with the reflection of the flames. "Where's your jeep, boys? Gahooney! You got here just in time ....
Rick couldn't see beyond the brightness of the flames, but Jimmy was already pulling up beside Redd's jeep and Rick and Scotty and the crafty kanaka jumped in as Yank and Rondin fired at the bandits, all struggling to get onto their feet and retrieve their weapons.
Bullets nipped the air as further explosions from the truck gas tanks boomed and echoed.
"Let's get outta here!" Red shouted with a wild laugh. "Yo .. heave ... ho, limeys! Onto the bounding main!"
And he threw the jeep into gear and gunned its engine, taking a wide berth around the burning trucks. Jimmy followed closely and they had to roar over some of the foliage on the jungle's edge to avoid the heat and the flames. Caruso, Scotty, and Rick faced back, shooting at the frantic bandits to keep them away from their guns.
Ping! Ping! Ping! Gunfire filled the air!
Ping! Ping! Ping! Gunfire filled the air!
Rick heard Redd cackling. "You blokes let them have it like rats rushing up a pump!"
Yank Fulton joined in. "They thought they were gonna get the gold! Hah! they got a long walk home now instead!"
And Rondin the kanaka chuckled, "Bad fellas not so much bad now!"
Rick shook his head in wonder and let out a sigh of relief as the fires and shouts fell back behind them and the darkness engulfed them again. His heart was racing, banging, thumping, and he was miserably hot and sweaty from the humid night and the dynamite blasts. He rested his gun on his knee, watching the disaster scene get smaller and smaller as the jeep roared on down the road. And he hoped that the strange chain of events that had caught and ensnared them today was over with for now. He had darn sure had enough.
It had been one heck of a day to remember!
It had been one heck of a day to remember!
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