Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

Don Diego de la Vega rode his palomino towards the pueblo of Los Angeles accompanied by his manservant, Bernardo. The cool fogs rolled off the brown hills as the sun rose higher in the sky. The rains had only just begun earlier that month and there was a slight green tinge to the meadows and among the many outcrops that dotted the terrain. Small herds of a dozen or so deer could be seen grazing on the slopes and every once in a while a small brown hare darted across the road just ahead of the cantering horses.

Sergeant Demetrio García was standing at the gates of the cuartel enjoying the warmth of the mid-morning sun when Diego and Bernardo rode up and dismounted from their horses.

"Good morning, Sergeant," Diego greeted the corpulent man. "How are you today?"

"Good day, Don Diego," García answered, "I am doing very well. Today is a fine day." He nodded at Bernardo who waved his fingers in greeting.

"Why is today such a fine day?" Diego asked out of curiosity. "Is there something special about today?"

"Well, Don Diego, today is a good day because I am happy. I am happy because ever since Capitán de las Fuentes arrived, all the days have been good ones."

"That’s wonderful news, Sergeant. Speaking of our capitán – is he in?" asked the young don. "Could I have a word with him?"

"Capitán de las Fuentes is not here at the moment," García told him. "He has gone to the church. He goes there almost every day. After a little while, he comes back. Do you want to wait for him in his office?"

"No, that’s all right, Sergeant," responded Diego. "I think I’ll go over to the church and wait for him there. I’ll see you later." He tapped Bernardo on the shoulder and the mozo left with him.

"Hasta luego, Don Diego. Hasta luego, Little One" García replied. He turned back, closed his eyes and smiled. A few more minutes to enjoy the sun and he then would begin his walk around the plaza before the capitán returned.

Diego leisurely crossed the plaza to the church. Leaving his servant waiting outside, he entered the dark interior. He dipped two fingers in the holy water, knelt and crossed himself as he looked up at the altar. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The first thing he saw was Margarita Pérez sitting next to Capitán de las Fuentes over on the far left They had their heads together as if in quiet conversation. Diego observed them carefully and then raised his eyebrows in surprise. What a transformation he thought, as his eyes traveled over her long pink dress, embroidered black shawl, and gold jewelry. I don’t think she’s dressed like that in years, he thought. Something must be going on. He decided to sit in the back and observe his old friend, Margarita.

After a few moments Margarita and the officer stood up and walked quietly out of the church together. Margarita passed by and didn’t even notice the young man who sat a few feet away. Diego rose a few moments later and saw that they were walking just outside the walled garden of the church. He motioned for Bernardo to stay at the church entrance and not to follow him. Margarita had her arm through the captain’s. When they reached the gate, the capitán opened it and both of them went inside. Diego followed discreetly and looked through the barred opening of the wooden gates. Inside he saw the two of them sit down on one of the benches under a great oak tree. Diego smiled. Margarita looked so happy and he was glad for her.

************

 

The churchyard was such a pleasant place, even late in the season. There was the odor of rosemary and the last of the calendulas were in blossom with their orange heads in full bloom in the late morning sun. The protective walls of the church kept the roses in bloom until the very end of the year. Chrysanthemums of various colors spouted from pots and grew in profusion. Yellow and orange poppies with their blue-green foliage gave the churchyard a cheerful appearance throughout the dreariest months of the rainy season.

"And how was your session with Padre Felipe?" he asked her, sitting at her side.

"Much better than I thought it would be. You were right about Padre Felipe," she admitted. "He has more wisdom than I gave him credit for. I feel much better now, thanks to your advice."

"Ah, it was nothing," he smiled. "Just as long as everything is better for you." He paused. "I hope you don’t mind my bringing you here. It is very peaceful and the padre seems to have quite a talent for horticulture."

"Not at all," she assured him. "I come here quite often with my friends. We sit on this very bench." She smiled self-consciously and momentarily lowered her eyes. She felt his gaze upon her and looked up into his light blue eyes, which seemed in perpetual good humor whenever she was with him. His pleasant personality emboldened her to make a new inquiry. "May I ask you something personal?" she ventured uncertainly.

"You may ask me anything," he responded as if it was perfectly natural that she should ask him a question and he would not think twice about it.

"Well," she began hesitantly. "Would you mind if…? I hope you won’t think it forward of me, but…. What is your first name?"

It was another pleasant surprise for him. "I call myself ‘Francisco,’" he told her. And it was true. He had called himself that for two years.

She thought his response sounded a little mysterious but at least she now knew. "Francisco de las Fuentes," she repeated. "Would it be appropriate if I called you ‘Don Francisco’? Always calling you ‘Capitán de las Fuentes’ seems much too formal."

He had been called better and he had been called worse. "I am honored, Señorita Margarita, by your request. Everyone calls me ‘Capitán’ and it is pleasant to be less formal."

She felt encouraged. "You know, Don Francisco, I would really look forward to another visit from you. I want to hear about all the places you’ve traveled to and the wonderful things you have seen and done. The stories you tell are exciting and fascinating. Even though I’ve traveled a little here in California, my life seems so dull and boring compared to what you have done."

"I will make a bargain with you, Señorita. I will talk to you of my travels only if you will play more on your piano. I would consider it a very fair exchange. Do you agree?"

"Your proposal is more than acceptable," she gushed. "I’d like that very much." She covered her mouth with her hand and blushed at her own excitement.

Francisco enjoyed her spontaneity and lack of pretentiousness. There was a genuine look of pleasure in his eyes as he took her hands in his. "Margarita," he began in a very personable way, "I want you to know that I consider your playing exceptional. I mean this most sincerely."

Margarita blushed again. "Thank you." She felt very flattered. It was the kind of praise she had always sought but never received from her own family. "Could you perhaps call on me later today or this evening? Would that be too soon?" she ventured.

"I would take great pleasure in seeing you later today. I am only sorry I cannot say exactly when I will call upon you. It may be impromptu," he told her.

"Anytime you want to come will be fine," she responded. "I haven’t forgotten that you have your duties as well." There was a pause and then she said shyly, "I guess I should go now." Everything was going well and she wanted to leave at the right moment.

He stood up and escorted her to the garden door and, of course, kissed her hand.

"Goodbye. Until later," she said and gave a little skip like her friend Juanita was apt to do.

"Before Apollo’s chariot makes its final pass," he promised.

She was fifteen or twenty feet away when she looked back over her shoulder at him and gave him a little wave. He waved back and bowed again.

 

*****************

 

Francisco de las Fuentes went back inside the churchyard to retrieve his hat and made a discovery. It was there, on the bench next to his hat, that he found her kerchief. It was pink with her initials sewn on it. He smiled as he picked it up. It had the scent of rosemary. What better assurance than to leave behind something she knew he would have to return to her. The last woman to pull that ploy was a curvaceous lady in Lima who had taken quite a fancy to him. He had returned the ornately decorated embroidery to her gallantly and with great ceremony. It turned out she was married, but that had not stopped her from making some very suggestive remarks to him. Her stout husband had also thanked him for returning her kerchief. She was constantly losing it, the man observed. Of course, the captain was in no way comparing Margarita to the other. If anything, he considered Margarita a genuine and original woman whom he found himself increasingly interested in. It was apparent to him that she was delighted by his sincerity and appreciation of music.

De las Fuentes tucked Margarita’s kerchief in his sash and walked out the door of the churchyard. He saw Don Diego de la Vega strolling quite close by on the dirt road. He waited for the young man to catch up to him and gave him a jaunty salute.

"Good morning, Comandante," Diego greeted him. "This seems like a very happy day. Have you been enjoying Padre Felipe’s garden?"

"Good day, Don Diego," responded Francisco. "I find the churchyard a pleasant place to visit. Padre Felipe tends a remarkable panoply of botanicals and florets. I trust your father is well?"

"Yes, he is," replied Diego. "I am very happy to see you, Capitán, because my father asked me to see you and convey his greetings. He hopes that you will be able to join us for dinner this evening."

"I do have a late evening engagement. If you would not find this an imposition upon your hospitality, then you may tell Don Alejandro that I accept with gratitude," the officer smiled. "His invitation honors me."

"You will still have several hours with us, Capitán. Your presence will do us the honor." Diego bowed slightly from the waist.

"And what time suits your father for my visit?" De las Fuentes inquired.

"The days are short and it grows dark early - perhaps before dusk? The main road south leads directly to our hacienda. Make a turn to the left at the first fork in the road and travel a league. It will be the first habitation you come to. You will know it by the torch lights at the gate."

"That is fine. I look forward to seeing your family this evening. Adieu, until then," De las Fuentes bowed. He began to head back toward the cuartel, when he heard Diego’s voice.

"Oh, Capitán de las Fuentes?"

Francisco turned back with a look of inquiry on his face. "Yes, Don Diego?"

Diego smiled. "You know, Comandante, Señorita Pérez is well known for her musical talent among her friends."

The officer responded with remarkable aplomb. "Ah," he acknowledged. "I will gladly attest to the fact that her reputation is, without doubt, well deserved." He bowed again and turned back toward the cuartel thinking how in small towns people notice every little thing. He saw Sergeant García waiting, as ordered, with two saddled horses. It would be his first adventure outside the pueblo since his arrival.

Diego de la Vega watched the small man depart and thought that for a fellow who had not been in town for very long, there was much the comandante had accomplished. At the hearings conducted on the first day, he had managed to win the support of a considerable number of townspeople for the manner in which he conducted himself and how he treated those under arrest. Diego and Bernardo had remained at the tavern a long time after the hearings ended and overheard the customers’ comments. In the general store, the comandante’s name was on the lips of many people. Even the soldiers of the cuartel seemed pleased with their commanding officer and were quick to defend him if anyone made the slightest remark that could be construed as unfavorable. A man like that, Diego thought with a smile, could put Zorro out of a job – not that he would mind.

But what manner of man was Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes beyond this? Diego understood that Padre Felipe and the officer already knew each other. Alejandro had asked his son to do some research and Diego would begin with the good padre. The young don headed back toward the plaza and to the door that led to Padre Felipe’s office.

***************

The captain rode at a good pace and Sergeant García was beginning to wish that the comandante had chosen another soldier to go with him. It was not just the fast gait along the El Camino Real, but up hills and down, along arroyos and through valleys. García knew the area well, but the rough terrain was beginning to take its toll on him. His body ached all over as they traversed the uneven hills and vales.

Finally, the captain called a halt at the top of a steep hill that overlooked the valley below and sat contemplating the view. The forested mountains high above the pueblo of Los Angles to the north seemed to be part of an unending series of folds that faded into the distance in a purple-blue hue. The first storms of the rainy season had begun and there was a green tinge to hills and meadows where the tall grasses and brush dominated the scene with their dried browns and yellows. To the east, vast plains opened and were intersected by hills and even more valleys. The immensity of the land was matched only by its emptiness, thought De las Fuentes. But it really wasn’t empty, just empty of people. Small lizards of all sizes darted across the trails or around rocks. Brown-gray hares with enormous, pointed ears dashed away at their approach. The chatter of birds filled the wooded hillside and the abundance of wildlife was astonishing. From a distance he had seen herds of deer, several coyotes, squirrels, flocks of wild ducks, and even more awe-inspiring – and dangerous – a mountain lion.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sergeant who pointed to the distant pueblo. "You can see the roads that lead into the pueblo of Los Angeles from here, Comandante. The widest one is the El Camino Real. It travels south to north. Then there are the smaller roadways that lead to the haciendas or to other places."

De las Fuentes nodded. He pointed to the west. "And the Pacific Ocean, there."

The sergeant followed the line of his arm. "It looks very big."

The captain smiled. "Look further. Do you not see how the ocean and sky meet and how it forms a great curve?" He gestured with his arm and gloved hand stretched out.

García squinted and looked hard. "Sí, Capitán. It is a great curve."

"When you see this curve as you look toward the ocean, and then all around us, it becomes hard to conceive that once upon a time most people really believed that the Earth was flat," De las Fuentes remarked. "Yet, without this perspective, there are actually people who still believe that if you sail far enough, you will fall off of the edge of the world."

García was quiet a moment. "What happens if you do sail far enough, Comandante?"

The officer eased himself in the saddle and considered the question. "The ocean leads to more islands and to more lands where there are cannibals," he explained. The distances are vast as Magellan found out. If you travel to the northwest you will find the mysterious oriental land of China where, it is said, that dragons dwell. If you travel west, you come upon more islands and perhaps even India. Eventually you will reach the lands of the Turks and then, the far shores of northeast Africa, dry and barren. If you were to travel to the southwest, you would reach a great land mass called Australia, like a huge island in the middle of the ocean. From Australia, traveling further west, you would reach southern Africa, a land where there are headhunters and men the size of dogs. Strange animals traverse the jungles, plains and mountains. Their roars can be heard for leagues. Once there, you could travel northwards up the west coast of Africa to Spain. If you were to continue traveling toward the setting sun, though, you would come to Brazil."

"I think I would rather stay here in California, Capitán. Traveling for such a long time on the ocean would make me too seasick," García told him.

"How did you make it to the Américas, Sergeant?"

"I did not think I would make it, Comandante. I was sick from the moment I left until the day I arrived," García replied. "The only time I was not sick was when I was drinking wine. Then, it did not matter."

"Ah," responded De las Fuentes. "And if you were to take a keg of wine with you, would you sail upon the ocean as Magellan did just to see the wonders of the world?"

"Well, I do not think so, Capitán. It is much safer to stay here. I do not think I would like to meet any cannibals or headhunters," he said. "They might want to eat me!" He patted his fat stomach and continued. "I heard that there are even men with two heads in such places. Each head talks as if it were a different man."

"I would like to see that," the officer commented thoughtfully. "As of now, I do not see how it would be anatomically possible, yet there are many things in the world we do not understand. When I visited the Royal Zoo in the city of Vienna, I saw an animal that defied all reason. Its neck was as long as its body. It was a yellow color and had square brown patches all over its body. Its face was much like a horse and it ate leaves from trees. It had been brought from Africa only a few years before. No one in all Vienna had ever seen anything like it. It is called a giraffe." He paused. "I did not think that I would see such a creature as the mountain lion you pointed out today. It seemed like such a magnificent animal, different from the lions in the lands of the Moors and Berbers. It looked more like a lioness."

"It is very dangerous, Comandante," García stressed. "There are also many grizzly bears here in California. They are very dangerous."

De las Fuentes pulled up the slack reins and turned the horse’s head easily toward the path they had come up. "We’ll return to the cuartel. I have many engagements this afternoon and evening."

After they reached the main road, García found the pace on horseback was just as fast going back to the cuartel. "Oh, Capitán," he panted, catching up to the officer. "Will you be visiting with the Señorita Pérez very long this afternoon?"

De las Fuentes slowed his mount and looked surprised. "How did you ascertain that, Sergeant?" he asked.

García smiled. "Well, Capitán, I saw you walking with the Señorita away from the church this morning. Later, when she came out of the churchyard, she waved at you."

"That is true. But what makes you think that I will visit her this afternoon?"

"Comandante, Señorita Pérez has worn black for years. Now she wears pink. Her father has tried to force her to marry for many years. She turns all the men away. I have never seen her wave at a man before, but she waved at you. Besides, Capitán, she gave you her kerchief." García pointed to the officer’s sash where part of the kerchief had worked its way up.

"Ah," remarked De las Fuentes glancing down and seeing the evidence himself. "You are quite observant, Sergeant. I do have a dinner engagement with Don Alejandro de la Vega and his family. Señorita Pérez seems to have lost her kerchief and I am going to return it to her today." He paused noting the sergeant’s amused expression, but he was not offended. In fact, it pleased him. All Spaniards were romantics, he thought, and he wasn’t fooling the sergeant one bit. "I also want to speak to Señor Enríquez. He is a troubled man and I fear he will only run afoul of the authorities again. He needs to understand the grave danger he puts himself in with less tolerant men."

García shook his head. "I fear when you leave, Comandante, Capitán Monastario will hang him."

"Why don’t you tell me something about Capitán Monastario, Sergeant. It seems his command is not too popular with the people of the pueblo."

The fat sergeant sighed deeply. "I hope you will forgive me, please, for telling you some things that have happened here that are not too good. It is just that, well, it is the way that it is." With that, García began to pour out the woes of the soldiers and the townspeople. He only stopped talking when they reached the gates of the cuartel.

*********************

Diego de la Vega, sat with his legs crossed in a leisurely manner and listened to Padre Felipe talk about many things that had happened in Spain before, during, and after the war against the French. He spoke of the tragedy of the monarchy and of Spain’s misfortune. For once, Diego thought that the good padre was trying to convey a sense of events rather than directly answer his questions about Capitán de las Fuentes.

"You know, Padre Felipe, all of this is very interesting," Diego acknowledged. "But I have the sneaking suspicion that you know much more about our good capitán than you are willing to impart. If it is something very personal, then I respect your silence or hesitation to speak of it openly. Just let me know and I will inquire no further. I do not wish to cause offense. It is just that Capitán de las Fuentes arouses much admiration and curiosity in men who see him as principled and honorable. Many of us sense that he is a man who seems far above his station."

"I am sorry, Diego," Felipe responded, sounding somewhat contrite. "I’ve told you about a number of events so you will understand the context. I am under an obligation of discretion. I know you and your father well. There is no family I trust more. But, I think that the whole story must come from Capitán de las Fuentes himself. Let me just say this: if you ask Francisco questions the most direct way, you will get the kind of answers you seek, but you must be persistent to receive a complete answer." The padre seemed pensive a moment. "I just want you to know that he is one of the finest men that Spain has ever produced, yet shortsighted and jealous men have savaged him – unjustly and beyond any reason for the faults he may have committed. I know him as an unusually honest and erudite gentleman of the highest order. He is greatly troubled by a personal loss and the many dishonors visited upon him. At times, he seems almost overwhelmed by great melancholia. Still, he remains committed to all those principles that made him the man he was and still is. I feel deeply for him because of these misfortunes and for his fortitude."

Diego rose from his chair. "You know, Padre, I think that Los Angeles may hold some good fortune for the capitán, if only he will let go of the past."

Felipe nodded and escorted him to the door. "Diego, my son, I have always thought that you have remarkable insight into men’s souls. It is a gift. I told Francisco that there is a great deal of good in California and that it would be a new beginning for him. He needs some encouragement in this regard and anything that you and your father could do to foster this idea would be a real blessing."

Diego agreed. "Let’s see what we can do. Capitán de las Fuentes is coming out to the hacienda for dinner tonight. It will be a good opportunity for him to see that he is among men much like himself."

 

*****************

 

Sergeant García watched Corporal Reyes bring out a chair and place it outside one of the cells of the cuartel jail. He shook his head. He was concerned that the prisoner, Enríquez, would begin to insult the capitán again. Surprisingly, the man had said nothing when the capitán returned to his office. García beckoned Reyes over.

"So the capitán is going to speak to the prisoner again, eh, Corporal?" he asked.

"Sí, Sergeant," replied Reyes.

"It looks like he might talk with him a long time. He has a chair to sit in."

"Sí, Sergeant," the corporal replied.

García was hoping Reyes would be a little more conversational about what was going to take place, but the other soldier stood there contemplating who knows what.

The fat sergeant kept on eyeing the corporal but nothing further was forthcoming. Finally, he vented his exasperation in a big sigh. "Corporal, can’t you tell me anything about what is going on with the capitán?"

"What do you want to know, Sergeant? The capitán has many plans," responded Reyes.

"Well, why don’t you just tell me what you know," García replied with his hands on his hips.

"Well, the Capitán received his traveling box today and he was unpacking some things. Then he had some lunch. Then he said he was going to talk to Señor Enríquez."

"Anything else, Corporal?"

Reyes smiled and lowered his voice to a whisper. García leaned closer. "Well, the comandante is going to have a bath afterwards and then he will visit with Señorita Pérez. Tonight, he will dine with Don Alejandro and then…."

"Shhh," García cautioned him suddenly, straightening up. "Here comes the comandante." Together both of the soldiers watched the bearded man walk up to the cell of the prisoner, Enríquez. De las Fuentes had removed his saber and he kept his hands clasped behind his back at first. He took small steps and, then, made small gestures as their conversation became more animated. They could not hear what he was saying but they could see that the prisoner began to pace back and forth and gesticulate. Finally, the officer sat down in the chair and leaned towards the bars as if very interested.

"I wonder what they are talking about," García remarked. "Señor Enríquez is crazy, a madman."

"The capitán says that Señor Enríquez is only a little crazy," Reyes told him. " I think that’s why he wants to talk to him. Maybe he wants to find out why he is a little crazy, not a lot."

"Why don’t we move a little closer, Corporal. But act like we are just talking."

Both men looked around, moved a little closer, shuffled their feet and looked up at the sky and around the cuartel. Anyone watching them would have laughed at their conspicuous efforts to be inconspicuous.

Looking over at the cell a few minutes later, García and Reyes saw the comandante rise out of his chair in alarm. They looked at each other and hurried over. Inside the cell, the prisoner was clutching at his throat, his knees collapsed under him and he fell to the floor of the cell. Then his body began to convulse and his eyes glazed over.

"What is happening, Comandante?" asked García excitedly.

De las Fuentes watched in apprehension and fascination as Enríquez twitched and shook. He crossed himself. "Has God smitten him or is he possessed?" he asked in consternation, directing the question to no one in particular. Then he made a decision. "Unlock the cell door."

García fumbled with the key in the lock, then swung the iron door open wide. "Shall I hold him down? Should we drag him out?" he asked.

"No, leave him. Perhaps the possession will pass," the officer said. "He is not harming anyone as of yet. Get the doctor at once."

Reyes bolted.

De las Fuentes stepped up into the cellblock and knelt down by the prisoner. García edged a little closer. Enríquez’s body still shook, but as the minutes passed, the convulsions lessened and, at last, ended.

Joaquín Enríquez breathed heavily and the sweat poured from his brow. Gradually, his breathing returned to normal. When his eyes came back into focus, he saw the bearded face of the officer kneeling at his side, looking very concerned. He began to focus on the deep baritone. The officer was asking him something.

"Señor Enríquez, can you understand me? Do you hear me?" the captain asked. He laid his hand on the man’s shoulder and squeezed it slightly. "Señor, are you all right?"

Enríquez looked up after a few moments and nodded weakly. "I’ll be all right," he gasped. "It passes. It passes." He closed his eyes a moment. He heard the murmur of voices around him and felt the officer at his side. He heard the officer’s voice say "Doctor Aguilera" and felt the presence of another at his side. He just wanted to sleep. Just for a little while. Several minutes passed and he felt hands grasp his shoulders and legs and lift him up onto the wooden sleeping platform in the cell. A few minutes later someone placed a pillow under his head. He dozed.

"He’ll be all right," the grey-haired and bearded doctor told the comandante. "I have seen such seizures before. The victim usually recovers shortly. But to answer your question: no, I do not believe you had anything to do with it. The seizures can happen at any time and anywhere. No one, not even the victim, knows how and when it will happen. Sometimes the seizures begin at an early age, and other times they do not show up until early adulthood. On occasions, they begin over the age of thirty. It is my judgment that you followed the best procedure – just let the seizure take its course and do not interfere. Many people try to seize control of the arms and legs with the best intentions, but it seems to only make matters worse for both the victim as well as benefactor. Both end up getting hurt. No, I do not think it will reoccur any time soon. It seems to be sporadic. The danger appears that if the victim does not have enough room to thrash about in, then he can get hurt. It was a good idea to open the cell door. The victim cannot control the body contortions, so escape is neither an option nor a possibility."

"I have seen men collapse and die," De las Fuentes commented, "but I have never seen the twitching illness before. Is there no medication or treatment for it?"

"Not to my knowledge, Comandante," responded Dr. Aguilera. "I have calming herbs and the like. It is said that some of the old natives have knowledge of such things and use roots and herbs to treat various illnesses successfully. A curadora lives high up in the hills to the north and many go to visit her. Her name is Señora Montoya. That is about all I can suggest." The doctor stood up to leave. "I’ll come by to check on him tomorrow, but I think he will be fine after a rest. You might want to see that he gets some warm chicken broth and a little red wine."

"It shall be done," the officer replied. "And thank you for coming, Doctor Aguilera. I had no knowledge of this illness or how to proceed."

"It is good to be summoned and to find that the situation has been handled so well, Capitán," the physician commented. "Other men might have reacted badly. You would have made a fine doctor. Until later, Comandante."

García and Reyes listened to the proceedings and watched as the comandante turned back to appraise the prisoner. García leaned close to Reyes and whispered, "You know, Corporal, our comandante is many things. He is a prince, he is a capitán, an officer of the Crown, and he is a doctor as well. I don’t think that there is another comandante like him in all of California." Reyes nodded.

 

 

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