Coming down coast from the Kotzebue country they stumbled onto the
little camp in the early winter, and as there was food a plenty, of
its kind, whereas they had subsisted for some days on puree of seal
oil and short ribs of dog, Captain and Big George decided to winter.
A maxim of the north teaches to cabin by a grub-pile.
It was an odd village they beheld that first day. Instead of the
clean moss-chinked log shelters men were wont to build in this land,
they found the community housed like marmots in holes and burrows.
It seemed that the troop had landed, fresh from the States, a hundred
and a quarter strong, hot with the lust for gold, yet shaken by the
newspaper horrors of Alaska's rigorous hardships and forbidding
Debouching in the early fall, they had hastily prepared for an
Associated Press-painted Arctic winter.
Had they been forced to winter in the mountains of Idaho, or among
Montana's passes, they would have prepared simply and effectively.
Here, however, in a mystic land, surrounded by the unknown, they grew
panic stricken and lost their wits.
Thus, when the two "old timers" came upon them in the early winter
they found them in bomb-proof hovels, sunk into the muck, banked with
log walls, and thatched over with dirt and sod.
"Where are your windows and ventilators?" they were asked, and
collectively the camp laughed at the question. They knew how to
keep snug and warm even if half-witted "sourdoughs" didn't. They
weren't taking any chances on freezing, not on your tin-type, no
outdoor work and exposure for them!
As the winter settled, they snuggled back, ate three meals and more
daily of bacon, beans, and baking-powder bread; playing cribbage for
an appetite. They undertook no exercise more violent than seven-up,
while the wood-cutting fell as a curse upon those unfortunates who
lost at the game. They giggled at Captain and the big whaler who
daily, snow or blow, hit the trail or wielded pick and shovel.
However, as the two maintained their practice, the camp grew to
resent their industry, and, as is possible only in utterly idle
communities, there sprung up a virulence totally out of proportion,
and, founded without reason, most difficult to dispel. Before they
knew it, the two were disliked and distrusted; their presence
ignored; their society shunned.
Captain had talked to many in the camp. "You'll get scurvy, sure,
living in these dark houses. They're damp and dirty, and you don't
exercise. Besides, there isn't a pound of fresh grub in camp."
Figuratively, the camp's nose had tilted at this, and it stated
pompously that it were better to preserve its classic purity of
features and pro rata of toes, than to jeopardize these adjuncts
through fear of a possible blood disease.
"Blood disease, eh?" George snorted like a sea-lion. "Wait till
your legs get black and you spit your teeth out like plum-pits--mebbe
you'll listen then. It'll come, see if it don't."
He was right. Yet when the plague did grip the camp and men died,
one in five, they failed to rise to it. Instead of fighting manfully
they lapsed into a frightened, stubborn coma.
There was one, and only one, who did not. Klusky the Jew; Klusky the
pariah. They said he worked just to be ornery and different from the
rest, he hated them so. They enjoyed baiting him to witness his
fury. It sated that taint of Roman cruelty inherent in the man of
ignorance. He was all the amusement they had, for it wasn't policy
to stir up the two others--they might slop over and clean up the
village. So they continued to goad him as they had done since
leaving 'Frisco. They gibed and jeered till he shunned them, living
alone in the fringe of the pines, bitter and vicious, as an outcast
from the pack will grow, whether human or lupine. He frequented only
the house of Captain and George, because they were exiles like
The partners did not relish this overmuch, for he was an odious
being, avaricious, carping, and dirty.
"His face reminds me of a tool," said George, once, "nose an' chin
shuts up like calipers. He's got the forehead of a salmon trout, an'
his chin don't retreat, it stampedes, plumb down ag'in his apple.
Look out for that droop of the mouth. I've seen it before, an' his
eyes is bad, too. They've stirred him up an' pickled all the good he
ever had. Some day he'll do a murder."
"I wonder what he means by always saying he'll have revenge before
spring. It makes me creep to hear him cackle and gloat. I think
he's going crazy."
"Can't tell. This bunch would bust anybody's mental tugs, an' they
make a mistake drivin' him so. Say! How's my gums look tonight?"
George stretched his lips back, showing his teeth, while Captain made
"All right. How are mine?"
"Red as a berry."
Every day they searched thus for the symptoms, looking for
discolouration, and anxiously watching bruises on limb or body. Men
live in fear when their comrades vanish silently from their midst.
Each night upon retiring they felt legs nervously, punching here and
there to see that the flesh retained its resiliency.
So insidious is the malady's approach that it may be detected only
thus. A lassitude perhaps, a rheumatic laziness, or pains and
swelling at the joints. Mayhap one notes a putty-like softness of
the lower limbs. Where he presses, the finger mark remains, filling
up sluggishly. No mental depression at first, nor fever, only a
drooping ambition, fatigue, enlarging parts, now gradual, now sudden.
The grim humour of seeing grown men gravely poking their legs with
rigid digits, or grinning anxiously into hand-mirrors had struck some
of the tenderfeet at first, but the implacable progress of the
disease; its black, merciless presence, pausing destructively here
and there, had terrorized them into a hopeless fatalism till they
cowered helplessly, awaiting its touch.
One night Captain announced to his partner. "I'm going over to the
Frenchmen's, I hear Menard is down."
"What's the use of buttin' in where ye ain't wanted? As fer me, them
frogeaters can all die like salmon; I won't go nigh 'em an' I've told
'em so. I give 'em good advice, an' what'd I get? What'd that daffy
doctor do? Pooh-poohed at me an' physiced them. Lord! Physic a man
with scurvy--might as well bleed a patient fer amputation." George
spoke with considerable heat.
Captain pulled his parka hood well down so that the fox-tails around
the edge protected his features, and stepped out into the evening.
He had made several such trips in the past few months to call on men
smitten with the sickness, but all to no effect. Being "chechakos"
they were supreme in their conceit, and refused to heed his advice.
Returning at bed time he found his partner webbing a pair of
snow-shoes by the light of a stinking "go-devil," consisting of a
string suspended in a can of molten grease. The camp had sold them
grub, but refused the luxury of candles. Noting his gravity, George
"Well, how's Menard?"
"Dead!" Captain shook himself as though at the memory. "It was
awful. He died while I was talking to him."
"Don't say! How's that?"
"I found him propped up in a chair. He looked bad, but said he was
"That's the way they go. I've seen it many a time--feelin' fine
plumb to the last."
"He'd been telling me about a bet he had with Promont. Promont was
taken last week, too, you know, same time. Menard bet him twenty
dollars that he'd outlast him."
"'I'm getting all right,' says he, 'but poor Promont's going to die.
I'll get his twenty, sure!' I turned to josh with the boy a bit, an'
when I spoke to Menard he didn't answer. His jaw had sagged and he'd
settled in his chair. Promont saw it, too, and cackled. 'H'I 'ave
win de bet! H'I 'ave win de bet!' That's all. He just slid off.
Gee! It was horrible."
George put by his work and swore, pacing the rough pole floor.
"Oh, the cussed fools! That makes six dead from the one cabin--six
from eighteen, an' Promont'll make seven to-morrow. Do ye mind how
we begged 'em to quit that dug-out an' build a white man's house, an'
drink spruce tea, an' work! They're too ---- lazy. They lie
around in that hole, breath bad air, an' rot."
"And just to think, if we only had a crate of potatoes in camp we
could save every man jack of 'em. Lord! They never even brought no
citric acid nor lime juice--nothin'! If we hadn't lost our grub when
the whale-boat upset, eh? That ten-gallon keg of booze would help
some. Say! I got such a thirst I don't never expect to squench it
proper;" he spoke plaintively.
"Klusky was here again while you was gone, too. I itch to choke that
Jew whenever he gets to ravin' over these people. He's sure losin'
his paystreak. He gritted his teeth an' foamed like a mad malamoot,
I never see a low-downer lookin' aspect than him when he gets mad."
"'I'll make 'em come to me,' says he, 'on their bellies beggin'. It
ain't time yet. Oh, no! Wait 'till half of 'em is dead, an' the
rest is rotten with scurvy. Then they'll crawl to me with their gums
thick and black, an' their flesh like dough; they'll kiss my feet an'
cry, an' I'll stamp 'em into the snow!' You'd ought a heard him
laugh. Some day I'm goin' to lay a hand on that man, right in my own
As they prepared for bed. Captain remarked:
"By the way, speaking of potatoes, I heard to-night that there was a
crate in the Frenchmen's outfit somewhere, put in by mistake.
perhaps, but when they boated their stuff up river last fall it
couldn't be found--must have been lost."
It was some days later that, returning from a gameless hunt, Captain
staggered into camp, weary from the drag of his snow-shoes.
Throwing himself into his bunk he rested while George prepared the
meagre meal of brown beans, fried salt pork, and sour-dough bread.
The excellence of this last, due to the whaler's years of practice,
did much to mitigate the unpleasantness of the milkless, butterless,
Captain's fatigue prevented notice of the other's bearing. However,
when he had supped and the dishes were done George spoke, quietly and
"Well, boy, the big thing has come off."
"What do you mean?"
For reply he took the grease dip and, holding it close, bared his
With a cry Captain leaped from his bunk, and took his face between
"Great God! George!"
He pushed back the lips. Livid blotches met his gaze--the gums
swollen and discoloured. He dropped back sick and pale, staring at
his bulky comrade, dazed and uncomprehending.
Carefully replacing the lamp, George continued:
"I felt it comin' quite a while back, pains in my knees an' all
that--thought mebbe you'd notice me hobblin' about. I can't git
around good--feel sort of stove up an' spavined on my feet."
"Yes, yes, but we've lived clean, and exercised, and drank spruce
tea, and--everything," cried the other.
"I know, but I've had a touch before; it's in my blood I reckon. Too
much salt grub; too many winters on the coast. She never took me so
sudden an' vicious though. Guess the stuff's off."
"Don't talk that way," said Captain, sharply. "You're not going to
die--I won't let you."
"Vat's the mattaire?" came a leering voice and, turning they beheld
Klusky, the renegade. He had entered silently, as usual, and now
darted shrewd inquiring glances at them.
"George has the scurvy."
"Oi! Oi! Oi! Vat a peety." He seemed about to say more but
refrained, coming forward rubbing his hands nervously.
"It ain't possible that a 'sour dough' shall have the scoivy."
"Well, he has it--has it bad but I'll cure him. Yes, and I'll save
this whole ---- camp, whether they want it or not." Captain spoke
strongly, his jaws set with determination. Klusky regarded him
narrowly through close shrunk eyes, while speculation wrinkled his
"Of course! Yes! But how shall it be, eh? Tell me that." His
eagerness was pronounced.
"I'll go to St. Michaels and bring back fresh grub."
"You can't do it, boy," said George. "It's too far an' there ain't a
dog in camp. You couldn't haul your outfit alone, an' long before
you'd sledded grub back I'd be wearin' one of them gleamin' orioles,
I believe that's what they call it, on my head, like the pictures of
them little fat angelettes. I ain't got no ear for music, so I'll
have to cut out the harp solos."
"Quit that talk, will you?" said Captain irritably. "Of course, one
man can't haul an outfit that far, but two can, so I'm going to take
Klusky with me." He spoke with finality, and the Jew started, gazing
queerly. "We'll go light, and drive back a herd of reindeer."
"By thunder! I'd clean forgot the reindeer. The government was
aimin' to start a post there last fall, wasn't it? Say! Mebbe you
can make it after all, Kid." His features brightened hopefully.
"What d' ye say, Klusky?"
The one addressed answered nervously, almost with excitement.
"It can't be done! It ain't possible, and I ain't strong enough to
pull the sled. V'y don't you and George go together. I'll stay--"
Captain laid a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"That'll do. What are you talking about? George wouldn't last two
days, and you know it. Now listen. You don't have to go, you
infernal greasy dog, there are others in camp, and one of them will
go if I walk him at the muzzle of a gun. I gave you first chance,
because we've been good to you. Now get out."
He snatched him from his seat and hurled him at the door, where he
fell in a heap.
Klusky arose, and, although his eyes snapped wildly and he trembled,
he spoke insidiously, with oily modulation.
"Vait a meenute, Meestaire Captain, vait a meenute. I didn't say I
vouldn't go. Oi! Oi! Vat a man! Shoor I'll go. Coitenly! You
have been good to me and they have been devils. I hope they die."
He shook a bony fist in the direction of the camp, while his voice
took on its fanatical shrillness. "They shall be in h---- before I
help them, the pigs, but you--ah, you have been my friends, yes ?"
"All right; be here at daylight," said Captain gruffly. Anger came
slowly to him, and its trace was even slower in its leaving.
"I don't like him," said George, when he had slunk out. "He ain't on
the level. Watch him close, boy, he's up to some devilment."
"Keep up your courage, old man. I'll be back in twelve days."
Captain said it with decision, though his heart sank as he felt the
uncertainties before him.
George looked squarely into his eyes.
"God bless ye, boy," he said. "I've cabined with many a man, but
never one like you. I'm a hard old nut, an' I ain't worth what
you're goin' to suffer, but mebbe you can save these other idiots.
That's what we're put here for, to help them as is too ornery to help
theirselves." He smiled at Captain, and the young man left him
blindly. He seldom smiled, and to see it now made his partner's
breast heave achingly.
"Good old George!" he murmured as they pulled out upon the river.
"Good old George!" As they passed from the settlement an Indian came
to the door of the last hovel.
"Hello. There's a Siwash in your cabin," said Captain. "What is he
doing there ?"
"That's all right," rejoined Klusky. "I told him to stay and vatch
"Rather strange," thought the other. "I wonder what there is to
watch. There's never been any stealing around here."
To the unversed, a march by sled would seem simplicity. In reality
there is no more discouraging test than to hit the trail, dogless and
by strength of back. The human biped cannot drag across the snow for
any distance more than its own weight; hence equipment is of the
simplest. At that, the sledge rope galls one's neck with a
continual, endless, yielding drag, resulting in back pains peculiar
to itself. It is this eternal maddening pull, with the pitiful
crawling gait that tells; horse's labour and a snail's pace. The
toil begets a perspiration which the cold solidifies midway through
the garments. At every pause the clammy clothes grow chill, forcing
one forward, onward, with sweating body and freezing face. In
extreme cold, snow pulverizes dryly till steel runners drag as though
slid through sand. Occasional overflows bar the stream from bank to
bank, resulting in wet feet and quick changes by hasty fires to save
numb toes. Now the air is dead under a smother of falling flakes
that fluff up ankle deep, knee deep, till the sled plunges along
behind, half buried, while the men wallow and invent ingenious oaths.
Again the wind whirls it by in grotesque goblin shapes; wonderful
storm beings, writhing, whipping, biting as they pass; erasing bank
and mountain. Yet always there is that aching, steady tug of the
shoulder-rope, stopping circulation till the arms depend numbly; and
always the weary effort of trail breaking.
Captain felt that he had never worked with a more unsatisfying team
mate. Not that Klusky did not pull, he evidently did his best, but
he never spoke, while the other grew ever conscious of the beady,
glittering eyes boring into his back. At camp, the Jew watched him
furtively, sullenly, till he grew to feel oppressed, as with a sense
of treachery, or some fell design hidden far back. Every morning he
secured the ropes next the sled, thus forcing Captain to walk ahead.
He did not object to the added task of breaking trail, for he had
expected the brunt of the work, but the feeling of suspicion
increased till it was only by conscious effort that he drove himself
to turn his back upon the other and take up the journey.
It was this oppression that warned him on the third day. Leaning as
he did against the sled ropes he became aware of an added burden, as
though the man behind had eased to shift his harness. When it did
not cease he glanced over his shoulder. Keyed up as he was this
nervous agility saved him.
Klusky held a revolver close up to his back, and, though he had
unconsciously failed to pull, he mechanically stepped in the other's
tracks. The courage to shoot had failed him momentarily, but as
Captain turned, it came, and he pulled the trigger.
Frozen gun oil has caused grave errors in calculation. The hammer
curled back wickedly and stuck. Waiting his chance he had carried
the weapon in an outer pocket where the frost had stiffened the
grease. Had it been warmed next his body, the fatal check would not
have occurred. Even so, he pulled again and it exploded sharp and
deafening in the rarefied morning air. In that instant's pause,
however, Captain had whirled so that the bullet tore through the
loose fur beneath his arm. He struck, simultaneously with the
report, and the gun flew outward, disappearing in the snow.
They grappled and fell, rolling in a tangle of rope, Klusky fighting
with rat-like fury, whining odd, broken curses. The larger man
crushed him in silence, beating him into the snow, bent on killing
him with his hands.
As the other's struggles diminished, he came to himself, however, and
"I can't kill him," he thought in panic. "I can't go on alone."
"Get up!" He kicked the bleeding figure till it arose lamely. "Why
did you do that?" His desire to strangle the life from him was
The man gave no answer, muttering only unintelligible jargon, his
eyes ablaze with hatred.
"Tell me." He shook him by the throat but received no reply. Nor
could he, try as he pleased; only a stubborn silence. At last,
disgusted and baffled, he bade him resume the rope. It was necessary
to use force for this, but eventually they took up the journey,
differing now only in their order of precedence.
"If you make a move I'll knife you," he cautioned grimly. "That goes
for the whole trip, too."
At evening he searched the grub kit, breaking knives and forks, and
those articles which might be used as means of offence, throwing the
pieces into the snow.
"Don't stir during the night, or I might kill you. I wake easy, and
hereafter we'll sleep together." Placing the weapons within his
shirt, he bound the other's wrists and rolled up beside him.
Along the coast, their going became difficult from the rough ice and
soft snow, and with despair Captain felt the days going by. Klusky
maintained his muteness and, moreover, to the anger of his captor,
began to shirk. It became necessary to beat him. This Captain did
relentlessly, deriving a certain satisfaction from it, yet marvelling
the while at his own cruelty. The Jew feigned weariness, and began
to limp as though foot-sore.
Captain halted him at last.
"Don't try that game," he said. "It don't go. I spared your life
for a purpose. The minute you stop pulling, that minute I'll sink
this into your ribs." He prodded him with his sheath knife. "Get
along now, or I'll make you haul it alone." He kicked him into
resentful motion again, for he had come to look upon him as an
animal, and was heedless of his signs of torture--so thus they
marched; master and slave. "He's putting it on," he thought, but
abuse as he might, the other's efforts became weaker, and his agony
more marked as the days passed.
The morning came when he refused to arise.
Klusky shook his head.
"Get up, I say!" Captain spoke fiercely, and snatched him to foot,
but with a groan the man sank back. Then, at last, he talked.
"I can't do it. I can't do it. My legs make like they von't vork.
You can kill me, but I can't valk."
As he ceased, Captain leaned down and pushed back his lips. The
teeth were loose and the gums livid.
"Great Heavens, what have I done! What have I done!" he muttered.
Klusky had watched his face closely.
"Vat's the mattaire? Vy do you make like that, eh? Tell me." His
voice was sharp.
"You've got it."
"I've got it? Oi! Oi! I've got it! Vat have I got?" He knew
before the answer came, but raved and cursed in frenzied denial. His
tongue started, language flowed from him freely.
"It ain't that. No! No! It is the rheumatissen. Yes, it shall be
so. It makes like that from the hard vork always. It is the
cold--the cold makes it like."
With despair Captain realized that he could neither go on, dragging
the sick man and outfit, nor could he stay here in idleness to
sacrifice the precious days that remained to his partner. Each one
he lost might mean life or death.
Klusky broke in upon him.
"You von't leave me, Mistaire Captain? Please you von't go avay?"
Such frightened entreaty lay in his request that before thinking the
"No, I won't. I made you come and I'll do all I can for you. Maybe
somebody will pass." He said it only to cheer, for no one travelled
this miserable stretch save scattering, half-starved Indians, but the
patient caught at it eagerly, hugging the hope to his breast during
the ensuing days.
That vigil beside the dying creature lived long in Captain's memory.
The bleak, timberless shores of the bay; their tiny tent, crouched
fearfully among the willow tops; the silent nights, when in the
clear, cold air the stars stared at him close and big, like eyes of
wolves beyond a camp fire; the days of endless gabblings from the
sinking man, and the all pervading cold.
At last, knowledge dawned upon the invalid, and he called his
companion to his side. Shivering there beneath the thin tent,
Captain heard a story, rambling at first, filled with hatred and
bitterness toward the men who had scoffed at him, yet at the last he
listened eagerly, amazedly, and upon its conclusion rose suddenly,
gazing at the dying man in horror.
"My God, Klusky! Hell isn't black enough for you. It can't be true,
it can't be. You're raving! Do you mean to say that you let those
poor devils die like rats while you had potatoes in your cabin, fresh
ones? Man! Man! The juice of every potato was worth a life.
You're lying, Klusky."
"I ain't. No, I ain't. I hate them! I said they should crawl on
their bellies to me. Yes, and I should wring the money out. A
hundred dollars for von potato. I stole them all. Ha! ha! and I
kept them varm. Oh, yes! Alvays varm by the fire, so they shall be
good and fine for the day."
"That's why you left the Indian there when we came away, eh? To keep
"Shoor! and I thought I shall kill you and go back alone so nobody
shall make for the rescue. Then I should have the great laugh."
Captain bared his head to the cold outside the tent. He was dazed by
the thought of it. The man was crazed by abuse. The camp had paid
for its folly!
Then a hope sprang up in him. It was too late to go on and return
with the deer; that is, too late for George, and he thought only of
him; of the big, brave man sitting alone in the cabin, shunned by the
others, waiting quietly for his coming, tracing the relentless daily
march of the disease. Why didn't the Jew die so he could flee back?
He had promised not to desert him, and he could not break his word to
a dying man, even though the wretch deserved damnation. But why
couldn't he die? What made him hang on so? In his idle hours he
arranged a pack for the start, assembling his rations. He could not
be hampered by the sled. This was to be a race--he must travel long
and fast. The sick man saw the preparations, and cried weakly, the
tears freezing on his cheeks, and still he lingered, lingered
maddeningly, till at last, when Captain had lost count of the days,
he passed without a twitch and, before the body had cooled, the
northward bluffs hid the plodding, snow-shoed figure hurrying along
the back trail.
He scarcely stopped for sleep or food, but gnawed raw bacon and
frozen bread, swinging from shoe to shoe, devouring distance with the
steady, rhythmic pace of a machine. He made no fires. As darkness
settled, rendering progress a peril, he unrolled his robe, and
burrowed into some overhanging drift, and the earliest hint of dawn
found him miles onward.
Though the weather was clear, he grew numbed and careless under the
strain of his fatigue, so that the frost bit hungrily at his
features. He grew gaunt, and his feet swelled from the snow-shoe
thongs till they puffed out his loose, sealskin boots, and every step
in the morning hours brought forth a groan.
He was tortured by the thought that perhaps the Indian had carelessly
let go the fire in Klusky's cabin. If so, the precious potatoes
would freeze in a night. Then, if the native rebuilt it, he would
arrive only to find a mushy, putrifying mass, worse than useless.
The uncertainty sickened him, and at last, as he sighted the little
hamlet, he paused, bracing his legs apart weakly.
He searched fearfully for traces of smoke above Klusky's cabin.
There were none. Somehow the lone shack seemed to stare malignantly
at him, as he staggered up the trail, and he heard himself muttering.
There were no locks in this land, so he entered unbidden. The place
was empty, though warm from recent habitation. With his remaining
strength he scrambled up a rude ladder to the loft where he fumbled
in the dark while his heart stopped. Then he cried hoarsely and,
ripping open the box, stuffed them gloatingly into pockets and shirt
front. He dropped from the platform and fled out through the open
door, capless and mittenless; out and on toward the village.
His pace slackened suddenly, for he noted with a shock that, like
Klusky's cabin, no smoke drifted over the house toward which he ran,
and, drawing near, he saw that snow lay before the door; clean,
white, and untrodden. He was too dazed to recall the light fall of
the night previous, but glared blankly at the idle pipe; at the cold
and desolate front.
"Too late!" he murmured brokenly. "Too late!" and stumbled to the
snow-cushioned chopping block.
He dared not go in. Evidently the camp had let George die; had never
come near to lift a hand. He was afraid of what lay within, afraid
to face it alone. Yet a dreadful need to know pulled him forward.
Three times he approached the door, retreating each time in panic.
At last he laid soft hands upon the latch and entered, averting his
eyes. Even so, and despite the darkness inside, he was conscious of
it; saw from his eye corners the big, still bulk that sat wrapped and
propped in the chair by the table. He sensed it dazedly,
inductively, and turned to flee, then paused.
"Ye made it, boy! It's the twelfth to-day." George's voice came
weakly, and with a great cry Captain sprang to him.
"Bout all in," the other continued. "Ain't been on my feet for two
days. I knowed you'd come to-day, though; it's the twelfth."
Captain made no reply, for he had knelt, his face buried in the big
man's lap, his shoulders heaving, while he cried like a little boy.
Next: The Fever Manifests Itself
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