Giving and Receiving

By Helen Adams

{This story was written as a continuation of "The Spirit of the Season" as well as an answer to: The December 2005 Challenge (the Christmas Gathering Challenge) - offered by Violette: The guys all have plans to meet for Christmas, but fate is conspiring against them. You can focus on one or all of the guys, but each of them must be included at some point, and each must have some kind of trouble getting to their Christmas celebration. It can be humorous or serious (or both!).}

(Moved to Blackraptor October 2009)

Ezra eyed the table critically, his sharp gaze cataloguing every item on it in search of flaws. His time was limited. It was nearly eight oíclock by his watch, a watch whose face he had checked an inordinate number of times throughout the morning, and the others were due at any moment. Ezra clenched his hands to prevent them from once again drawing the gold timepiece from his waistcoat to confirm how many minutes had passed. What was he so nervous about? They had promised, and all six of his cohorts were men of their word. They would be here.

He checked the table again, circling slowly to ensure that everything was just as he wanted it. After attending Josiah's, thankfully brief, holiday sermon last night at the church, Ezra had returned to the saloon secure in the knowledge that his impromptu breakfast party would be well attended. Unfortunately, the more he considered what he had done, the stronger the desire had become to provide a perfect setting for the meal. Having hardly slept all night for thinking about it, he had crept downstairs at an unconscionably early hour to begin rearranging the furniture. Now, all the tables and chairs were pushed back from the main floor of the saloon except for the largest, which was in the center of the room.

The rough pitted surface of the table had been covered in a white linen tablecloth, a leftover piece of the inventory from his mother's short-lived hotel proprietress scheme. In the center, Ezra had placed a red clay bowl filled with flowers and holly leaves that Inez had been using to decorate the bar, creating a festive flair that appealed to him. Around the centerpiece sat seven immaculate place settings: china plates, linen napkins and silver cutlery that Ezra had wheedled from a local restaurant owner with a small financial incentive and the solemn promise to return them unharmed on the morrow.

Beside every plate but one sat a wrapped package. Ezra stared at them uncertainly, wondering if he was taking too much for granted. Would the others feel bad if he had made a gesture that they had not thought to return? Josiah had hinted that he too had purchased gifts, but what if he had only been attempting to be kind? Most of the time, Ezra enjoyed creating opportunities for people to owe him money or favors, but this was different somehow. He wanted a Christmas such as people had talked about all his life; a day filled with fun, food, laughter, warmth and the joy of exchanging gifts with people he cared about.

Ezra glanced guiltily over his shoulder as that thought flickered through his mind, half expecting to find his mother glaring disapproving daggers into his back over such a soft and sentimental attitude. Then he straightened his shoulders, tossing his head defiantly at her nonexistent presence. He was a grown man and could do as he liked. Besides, Mother was in Boston at the moment perpetrating a new scheme on the unsuspecting publicÖ

Deciding that he was satisfied with the appearance of the table, Ezra pulled out a chair and sat down to wait. The food was all ready in the back. He would wait until someone else showed up and then ask for help transporting the food out to the bar, where he had decided that a buffet style meal would work best.


"Kid, what the heck is taking you so long?" Buck checked his watch and then stuffed it back into his pocket with a groan of frustration. He had dropped by JDís boarding house room, figuring the younger man would want to walk over to the saloon with him, only to have JD slam the door in his face and tell him to wait in the hall. That had been fifteen minutes ago. "Weíre gonna be late!"

"Just a second!" JD yelled back. Finally, the door opened and he tugged Buck inside, saying, "Help me, will ya? I meant to get all this stuff done last night before church, but I forgot. Two of Ďem still need wrapping."

Observing the collection of lumpy roughly-wrapped bundles on the bed and realizing why he had been forbidden entry, Buck grinned and gave the one with his own name emblazoned on it an experimental squeeze. It had some give to it. Probably a shirt or something.

"Cut that out!" JD ordered, slapping his hand away. "I ainít got any more paper or handkerchiefs and Chrisí book and Josiahís necklace still need covering."

Buck snorted. "A necklace? Youíre kidding, right?"

In reply, the young man fished something out of his pocket and tossed it to Buck, who caught the object and examined it. It was a rosary made of carved wooden beads. Both the beads and the silver crucifix on the end were worn around the edges, as if from much handling. Noting that JDís face had colored and that he was avoiding looking up, Buck guessed, "This was your maís, wasnít it?"

"She always wore it, right up to the day she died," he confirmed, his tone deliberately light. "I have other things of hers, things that mean something to me, but that necklace is kind of special. I donít think sheíd have wanted it to be kept in a box forever and since Iím not using it, I figured Josiah might like it. Heís not exactly following the same faith that Ma did, but he might get some use out of it."

And the older man had become something of a substitute parent to JD. Buck filled in the blank without saying the words, knowing they would only bring embarrassment. "Thatís real nice, kid."

"You donít think itís dumb?" JD asked hopefully, finally looking up.

Buck smiled at him. "No, itís a good gift and heíll appreciate the thought behind it. Which book you get Chris?"

"Rob Roy," JD responded with a grin, glad to change the subject. "He was reading ĎIvanhoeí a couple of months ago and it seemed like he was really enjoying it, so I asked Mrs. Travis to help me track down something else by the same author."

"Walter Scott," Buck said with an approving nod. "He loves those. Used to be that you couldnít hardly drag his attention away while he was reading one."

JD looked at the book doubtfully. "Maybe heís already got this, then."

An expression of sadness flickered over Buckís face. "No, kid, he donít. He lost all his books in the fire. If heís reading Scott again, though, I reckon heíll be real pleased to have a new copy. ĎRob Royí was always one of his favorites. Now, come on and pack that stuff together. Weíre already late for breakfast so I reckon a few more minutes wonít matter. I got a little box in my room that ought to hide that necklace real well until Josiah can get a look at it, and I think I still got some packing paper that you can use for Chrisí gift too."


Unable to stop himself, Ezra tugged the watch out of his vest pocket yet again and checked the time. Fifteen minutes past eight. Shouldn't at least one of the others be here by now? He was sure he'd said eight oíclock. Could he have possibly given them a different time without realizing it? That didnít seem possible. He distinctly remembered Buck teasing him about losing out on his "beauty sleep" to have breakfast ready by eight. What if they had all changed their minds, or had only been humoring him after all when he had presented the invitation last night?

No, it couldnít be. They wouldnít do that to him. He would wait a little longer.


"I still canít believe you did this," Nathan said, a laugh escaping him as he tipped Josiahís head back to more easily apply cotton balls to his bleeding nostrils.

Josiah grunted as the fingers gripping the bridge of his sore nose pinched a little too tightly. "Your bedside manner could use some work, Nate. Anybody ever tell you that?"

The healer chuckled heartlessly. "Come on, Josiah. Even you got to admit this is pretty ironic. Last night you go and deliver that nice sermon about making time to give to the special people in your life and putting your best foot forward. Then today, you oversleep and bolt out of bed tryiní to make up your time, only to hook one of them big olí feet on the new saddle you got for Vin and fall flat on your face." He laughed again. "You canít tell me that ainít funny."

Josiah heaved a disgusted sigh. "Iíll consider laughing when my face quits throbbing, howís that?"

Nathan patted him on the shoulder. "Good enough. Now, you feel up to attending Ezraís breakfast party or would you rather go back to bed and have me make your excuses?"

Carefully tilting his head to one side so that he could see the clock on the far wall, Josiah groaned softly. It was twenty minutes past eight oíclock. "Damn, everyoneís probably started without us by now, and I promised him."


"Yeah. I saw him at the church yesterday afternoon and I promised him Iíd come to his celebration. I think he only came to the service last night because he felt he owed it to me for accepting his invitation. This means a lot to him, Nathan. He wonít say anything, but heíll feel mighty let down if we donít all show up."

"And you figure heís been let down enough times already."

Surprised by the observation, Josiah stared at him for a moment, then slowly nodded.

Nathan smiled. "Canít have that; especially on Christmas day. Give me a few more minutes to get this fixed up, then weíll head on over. Want to get there before Buck and Vin eat all the food." Watching Josiah gingerly touch his sore nose, he added, "Leave it alone. It ainít broke. Long as you donít go smashing it into anything else, I reckon itíll be all right in a day or two."


He was an idiot. Ezra scowled as he checked the face of his watch and saw that the party was now officially twenty five minutes late in beginning. Why had he even proposed this absurd idea in the first place? It wouldnít have hurt him to spend Christmas the way he usually did, with a late sleep, an early luncheon and a long solitary ride through the crisp winter air; perhaps an exchange of festive greetings with his co-workers if he happened across any of them during the day. Setting himself up to be the butt of a joke, not to mention wasting an entire morning fixing a feast that no one would show up to eat, was just stupid.

A deep sigh escaped him. He might as well set everything out and eat before throwing the rest away. Not that he felt particularly hungry anymore but he had cooked it, and it seemed a shame for no one at all to partake.


"Nathanís gonna be a busy man today," Vin said glumly as he rummaged in the back of his wagon.

Chris frowned, shifting his stance as he hefted the weight of a sack slung over his shoulder. "How you figure?"

"Cause Ezraíll likely shoot us both when we come straggliní in a half hour late for his party." His tone grew even bleaker as he added, "All the foodís likely dished up and gone already too."

A soft laugh escaped Chris. "Figures youíd be more worried about an empty belly than the prospect of a gunshot wound. Heíll understand. Itís not like you ordered Peso to throw a shoe on the way back to town."

Vin snorted. "Ainít so sure Ezraíll believe that. Might not even buy that you and me felt the need to take a ride before breakfast. Heíll probably go on about them that ainít got brains enough to sleep past the crack oí dawn after stayiní up past midnight the night before."

Leaning one hip against the wagon box, Chris shook his head in amusement and lit a fresh cigar from the stash in his breast pocket. "That wasnít your fault either. Iím the one who got the bright idea to ride clear over to the rail camp to pick up a supply of Angelica from Chi-Chow for Nathanís gift. You just came long for the ride."

"Yeah, but Iím the one who made us late gettiní back," Vin reminded, releasing a satisfied "Ah!" as he located one of his hidden presents.

"Better late than never," Chris told him with a shrug. "You ready?"

Pushing his own half full gunny sack into Chrisí free hand, the younger man grinned. "Just about. Need a minute to cover your present up with something so you donít get a look Ďfore itís time."


For reasons he could not quite fathom, Ezra had reheated the food as slowly as possible, carrying the warming dishes out and setting them on the bar one at a time, not quite able to let go of the vain hope that at least one of his companions would show up to join him.

Finally, he looked at his watch and sighed. Eight forty-five, and no one had come. Filling up a plate, he carried it back to the table but could not bring himself to eat. The festive setting he had so carefully created seemed to mock him, the six brightly wrapped presents and empty chairs making the familiar Christmastime feeling of loneliness all the more pronounced.

"Merry Christmas, Ezra," he mumbled, saluting himself half-heartedly with a cup of coffee.


"Howdy, Bucklin! Goiní back for seconds?" Vin greeted cheerfully as he and Chris caught up to JD and Buck.

Buck grinned. "Ainít had my first yet, as if you didnít know. You leave us anything?"

Vinís smile faltered. "You mean youíre just now getting there? Itís damn near nine oíclock."

"Well, we couldnít find anything to wrapÖ" JD trailed off, hazel eyes going wide. "Oh, no! You mean you havenít been to Ezraís either?"

"We took a ride and got unexpectedly delayed. Guess Josiah and Nathan are the only ones who made it on time."

"No, we didnít." Nathanís voice caught everyoneís attention as he and Josiah came around the corner in time to hear Chrisí statement. "Josiah had a little accident this morning."

The look of pain on Josiahís face had nothing to do with the state of his injured nose. "Dear God, you mean all six of us stood him up?"

"Damn," Vin said quietly, the word filled with regret.

For a moment, all the men just stood and looked at each other, not quite knowing what to do. Then Chris took charge, striding up to the closed saloon doors. "Weíre too late for breakfast, I figure, but maybe weíre not too late for everything."

Shocking everyone, Chris Larabee began to sing in a clear and unusually loud voice. Within moments, he was joined by five other voices.


As Ezra lifted the coffee cup to his lips he paused, frowning as an odd sound caught his ear. From beyond the solid wooden double-doors put up to replace the usual batwings during cold weather, someone was singing!

Curious, he moved to open one door, green eyes widening in astonishment at the sight of his compatriots, all six of them, standing together on the boardwalk belting out a lusty chorus of "Joy to the World".

Everyone grinned at him as they continued their serenade and by the time the song rang to a close, the corners of Ezra's own lips were twitching upward. Uncertainly, he asked, "Did I advise you all to arrive at nine oíclock? I do apologize, if that is the case. I thought for certain I had said eight."

"You did, and weíre real sorry to be so late," JD told him, thrusting a package into Ezraís hands as he stepped forward. "I ran out of wrapping paper and Buck was trying to help me find some more."

"Chris and me was out on the trail and my horse threw a shoe," Vin said, rummaging in his bag and handing over another gift, a finely tooled bridle held together in a bundle with a length of bright green ribbon. "Didnít mean to keep you waitiní so long."

Nathan plopped a square box wrapped in bright yellow paper into the astonished manís hands. "Sorry weíre so late for breakfast. Me and Josiah were-"

"I can guess," Ezra interrupted, finding his voice again. Raising an eyebrow at Josiahís bruised face, he asked, "Should I ask what the other fellow looked like?"

Josiah laughed, then stopped abruptly, touching his injured nose with a wince. "A word to the wise. Never leave a saddle in the middle of the floor, especially if your hands are too busy to catch yourself when you trip over it." Handing the saddle to Vin, he added, "Merry Christmas, brother."

Vinís blue eyes lit up. "For me? Hey, thanks Josiah!" Turning back to Ezra he asked, "Reckon you got enough food left for us to whip up a new batch of breakfast?"

"Well, if you donít object to slightly tough bacon and reheated eggs and flapjacks, thereís no need," Ezra told him, face brightening even more at the reminder that everyone had shown up after all, late but still willing to get the holiday celebration underway. Gesturing expansively, he stood aside and said, "Welcome, gentlemen."

The other men hurried in out of the cold, removing hats and coats and flinging them onto the backs of chairs as they entered the comparatively warm building. The nicely arranged table met with interested eyes, or more likely, Ezra thought, it was the gifts next to the plates that had garnered the approval.

Ezra smiled again as he noted that every single one of his guests had arrived with a sack or bundle of their own. "You come bearing additional gifts, I see!" he said, delighted to realize that there would be no awkwardness over his own presentation.

"Isnít that what a wise man is supposed to do?" Josiah quipped back.

Vin quickly followed with, "Especially when he knows it'll get him some of that good smellin' grub!"

Everyone laughed and Ezra told them, "Indeed and I suggest we eat before we open anything, lest our repast grows even colder."

The other men wasted no time; setting their bundles down and grabbing plates and coffee cups as Ezra removed warming lids from all of the dishes.

Vinís eyebrows rose in surprise when he beheld the breakfast Ezra had prepared. "This must have taken you all morning," he commented, as he began to take inventory. "Fresh oranges, steak, scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausage with gravy, bacon, flapjacks, toast and coffee. We may be here until somebody comes along to roll us home tomorrow!"

"Too much?"

The worried question diverted Vin from his interested perusal. One look at Ezraís face told him why the other man had prepared so much food. Ezra liked to present himself as calm and unruffled, but his companions had all long since noticed that when the man was nervous he tended to do things in excess. To cook this much food, he must have been a wreck!

Having made the same observation, Buck grinned. "With seven of us, Iím pretty sure thereíll be nothing but a pile of dishes left before too long. Unless of course it turns out you canít cook."

Ezra drew himself up indignantly. "Iíll have you know that my culinary skills, while somewhat rusty, are only slightly less well developed than my gambling abilities."

"Really," Nathan commented, filling his plate to overflowing. "Now thatís a claim Iíll be happy to test!"

The other five men likewise helped themselves, quickly taking the seats marked for them by the name tags adorning the packages beside each plate. For several minutes there was no sound besides the clinking of silverware on plates and an occasional appreciative noise as the food was eagerly consumed.

"Dang, you really are a good cook," Vin observed at last, wiping up the last of his eggs with a slice of toast. "Whereíd you get all this stuff, anyway?"

Ezra smiled smugly. "I had a fortunate encounter with a young farmer a couple of days ago. He felt certain that the celebratory season would imbue him with extraordinary luck at the poker tables, but while his optimism proved to be incorrect, his loss gave me an idea. I offered to waive his financial obligation to me in favor of collecting some farm fresh ingredients with which to create the feast you see before you. A visit to Mrs. Potterís store provided oranges and the flour, syrup and any other ingredients I lacked, and here we are."

Everyone was surprised by the unusually selfless gesture. Josiah, having some inkling of how much this occasion meant to Ezra, forestalled any comment by saying, "And we appreciate it. Good meal, Ezra. Thanks for inviting us."

"Yeah, thanks. You ought to forget opening a saloon and think about a restaurant," JD agreed, licking his lips.

"Or you could think about courting Mary," Chris suggested calmly, gaining himself shocked stares from everyone. "She could bring home the bacon by running the Clarion, and you could stay home and do the cooking and cleaning."

Realizing from the twinkle of mischief in Chrisí eye that he was only joking, Ezra laughed. "Both fine suggestions, but the fun of cooking a meal like this one is that itís not something I do often. The allure of such a task wanes quickly when one is forced to do it every day."

"Experience talking?" Nathan asked curiously.

Realizing that he had given himself away, Ezra made a face. "Sadly, yes. I learned to cook when I was a boy staying with my Aunt Genevieve. She was a lovely woman but very absent-minded, making the consumption of anything she had prepared in her kitchen something of an adventure. One particularly memorable experience involved biting into what was supposed to be a cinnamon roll and discovering that Aunt Genevieve had substituted cayenne pepper by accident."

Buck chortled. "I always wondered why you turn a little green at the sight of cinnamon rolls. You learned to cook in self-defense, huh?"

"Indeed. My dear mother is not absent-minded, as you well know, but she has no patience for domestic chores and as a result her culinary skills fall somewhere between mediocre and frightening. It came as a relief to both of us to discover that I possessed a certain natural talent for the task."

Vin helped himself to the last flapjack on the platter, rolling it up and eating it without benefit of plate or utensils. "You sure do," he agreed blissfully. Ignoring Ezraís disgusted shake of the head over his lack of table manners, he gulped down the flapjack and wiped his hands on his pants. Fishing his gifts out from under his chair, he asked, "So, are we ready?"

Hastily clearing away their dishes, every man followed suit. Ezraís gifts found their way back to the tabletop and were soon joined by others until everyone had a small pile of packages sitting in front of him.

A questioning look passed among the men, then a silent consensus was reached and decorum flew out the window as each one dove into his pile, creating a free for all of ripping paper and rustling cloth, followed by sounds of pleasure as the contents of the packages were revealed.

Buck and, to everyoneís surprise, Nathan had each purchased a variety of candies and small cakes from the bakery for everyone. Vin had opted for leatherworks, presenting each of his friends with a personally hand-tooled bridle, except for Chris, who had received the new Colt pistol heíd had his eye on at the local gunsmithís shop.

In addition to Vinís saddle, a sturdy fishing pole for JD and a collection of colorful neck-cloths for Buck, Josiah had chosen books for Chris, Ezra and Nathan.

"Good heavens, I think weíre soon going to be able to open up a library in town!" Ezra exclaimed happily as he revealed his second book of the morning, noting that Chris and Josiah had also received several volumes. Noticing that Chris was already leafing through one of his gifts, he noted, "Iíve never read ĎRob Royí."

Dragging his attention away from the book, Chris smiled and gave JD an appreciative nod. "Itís one of my favorites. Havenít had a chance to read it in years."

"Excellent. Would you care to trade it temporarily for my new copy of Washington Irvingís ĎSketch Bookí once youíve had a chance to refamiliarize yourself with the contents?"

"Don't see why not," he agreed, reluctantly setting the book aside to examine the rest of his gifts.

A soft exclamation from Josiah caught everyoneís attention and they watched as he lifted the wooden crucifix from its box. "This is beautiful, JD. Looks just like one my mother had when I was a boy!"

JD sighed in relief at the reaction. "It used to be my maís. I figured sheíd want it to go to somebody whoíd appreciate it. You really like it?"

"I certainly do," he said, wasting no time in adding the long chain to the two others, a Cherokee medicine bag and a set of Hindu prayer beads, already draped around his neck. "Thank you. Itís not as personal, but I hope you like your fishing pole just as much."

"This is a great one," JD told him with a grin. "Lots better than the one I made myself. Canít hardly wait for spring so I can try it out."

Ezra gave an astonished laugh as he opened JDís gift to him. "Well, I certainly hope spring doesnít arrive too hurriedly; not if you want me to try these out." Holding up two strong metal blades with buckled straps attached, he announced, "Ice skates!"

JD shrugged. "I heard you say one time that youíd spent a couple of winters in New England when you were young. I figured maybe that meant you knew how to skate."

"I do indeed, though the years have almost certainly left me a trifle rusty," he said, grinning in childlike delight over the memory.

Chris chuckled. "Looks like I know now where Yosemite got the idea. Open your gift from me, JD."

The young man obeyed at once, laughing when he unwrapped a towel to reveal a set of skates just like the ones he had given to Ezra.

"We got to talking about Christmas one day and Yosemite casually mentioned that heíd heard somewhere that you used to go skating in the winter when you lived back east," Chris elaborated. "Said he could build you a set if I thought itíd make a good gift. Sneaky bastard."

"Well, I for one am glad that he is," Ezra said, grinning wide enough to make his gold tooth sparkle in the dim light. "It will be much more entertaining to have someone to share the experience than it would be to do it all alone."

Buck picked up a skate to examine it. "Seeing as we got two sets here, maybe you boys wouldnít mind giving the rest of us a chance to try it out."

"You have a deal, Mr. Wilmington. The next good freeze that comes, weíll make the attempt."

Nathan exclaimed happily over the medicinal plants Chris gave him and examined with interest a backgammon game from Ezra. JD presented Nathan with a set of large leather pouches to hold the herbs and roots he was always collecting and Vin with a wallet; both crafted from bits of leather obtained from the tannery. Buckís gift from JD had everyone laughing. It was a new hat, a large dark gray copy of JDís own beloved bowler.

"Figured it was time you got a decent hat, Buck!" he quipped, ducking away from the playful punch Buck threw his way.

Loving the joke, Buck perched the small hat atop his head, tilting it forward at a rakish angle over one eyebrow.

"I donít believe it," Nathan said with a laugh. "That damn piss pot hat actually looks good on you!"

"A frameís only as handsome as the picture inside of it," Buck tossed back, grinning and hooking his thumbs in his suspenders as he sat back in his chair, happy to be the object of everyoneís attention.

"Speaking of which, thank you kindly, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, holding up a small, framed painting of a Mississippi riverboat at dusk.

Chris nodded, puffing contentedly on one of the fine cigars he had unwrapped from Ezra. "Found that in a store over in Eagle Bend. Figured youíd like it."

"I do indeed."

"Thanks for the new shirt, Ez," Vin said happily, admiring the garment Ezra had chosen. It was forest green and obviously of fine quality, but plainly cut and sturdily sewn.

Nathan and Buck had received similar gifts, one in a bright cherry red and the other in a deep blue. "This is real pretty, Ezra," Nathan told him, examining the shirt with pleasure. It was rare for him to buy new clothes and he had nothing as fine as this.

Modeling the blue one against his chest, Buck tipped his new hat at Ezra. "Thanks to you fellas, Iím getting to look like a real dude over here!"

Ezra smiled. "Iím pleased you all like your new haberdashery, gentlemen. Youíll have to pass along additional thanks to Nettie Wells when you get the opportunity. I chose and purchased the materials but Mrs. Wells kindly did the sewing for me. At a most reasonable rate, too."

This observation was met with a chuckle and as the unwrapping drew to a close, Josiah offered everyone a drink from the bottle of well-aged brandy Ezra had presented to him.

Taking a sip from his glass and allowing the fine drink to roll over his tongue, Ezra sighed contentedly and noted Josiahís deep grayish blue eyes fixed on him with a question in their depths.

Ezra nodded to him. While it was true that he might never fully understand the traditions that other people seemed to hold in such sentimental regard, he would now have an equally fine memory of his own to compare with them. It had brought him a step closer to the Christmases he had always dreamed of, and though things had gotten off to a rocky start, this was shaping up to be the finest holiday of his entire life. The six men surrounding him, talking and joking with each other, were not family but in the privacy of his own heart Ezra acknowledged that they were something even better.

Seeing his answer in Ezraís contented expression, Josiah lifted his glass slightly. "Merry Christmas, Ezra."

The salutation was echoed around the table and as he had the day before, Ezra smiled at the words, but this time he did not ignore them. Raising his own glass and replied, "Merry Christmas, my friends."


The End


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