5: Covenant of the Scalp

by David J. West

“And now I return to an account of the wars between the Nephites and Lamanites,”
—Alma, 43:3

The dense forest brooded, full of unclean spirits, dark magics and broken covenants. That’s what Joshua’s mother said to keep him away from the woods. She still called him a boy but Joshua thought himself a man now, especially since father was gone, never to return.

Alone now in the wilder lands, he paused to watch ants roiling over the corpse of a dead bird, an eagle by the look of it. Joshua had to get moving, but the scene reminded him too much of his own nation.

There is a price good men must pay to take care of their families, his father had always said, and he paid it down to the last senine and drop of blood. Despite his mother’s protests, Joshua would now do as his father had before him and take up the fight against the invaders. If he did not help take the fight to them, then someday it would come to his mother’s farm and the Lamanite aggressors would swarm over and engulf it, just like the eagle.

Using his spear as a walking stick, Joshua pried his way through the stinging brambles and brush. Despite the shade of the trees, sweat drenched his woolen tunic while biting flies bickered with him for purchase. After a few miles the noisome darkness in the forest got to him and he sloped down to the River Sidon’s banks to travel down a game trail in the waning sunlight.

It was beautiful here as the Sidon meandered, its murky green-brown waters swirling in odd patterns like serpent scales. He whistled while making relatively good time beside the wide river. Joshua thought if he had a canoe he could travel even faster but dismissed this; he didn’t have one and Captain Moroni wouldn’t be beside the river. To find the Captain of all the Nephite armies would take venturing much farther toward Jershon. At least mother would be safe, the war was far from the land of Manti. Among all of father’s shattered promises the move had been the best, the safest for the family.

Ahead on the game trail, a flock of birds scattered and the usual sounds of the wilderness ceased. Looking over his shoulder Joshua had the eerie feeling of being watched. This gap between the hills felt unsavory and the still small voice inside warned him of going on, yet his mind panicked at standing immobile. He crept forward, ever alert to any disturbance in the primeval wood. Did a branch on the trail ahead just move, he wondered?

A bowstring twanged and the shining black arrowhead flashed past him, missing by mere inches. He went low expecting another arrow to pierce him. He thought of his father, buried deep in a mound somewhere on the borders of Jershon. Buried so deep the lies couldn’t find him.

A hacking sound fell between the leaves, along with a gurgle and a second arrow loosed wildly into the air, coming down in the river.

Grunts and cries of pain erupted from the thick bushes just ahead. A fearsome Lamanite burst out, clutching a murderous notched scimitar. The ghastly look upon the Lamanite’s painted face startled Joshua who backed away and stumbled.

Thinking he was doomed, Joshua held his spear up. But the Lamanite pitched forward, collapsing a few yards from him. A buried hatchet in the Lamanite’s back revealed his ruinous end.

Another sound of savage struggle followed, a chopping thud, then ominous silence. Ducking into the grass, Joshua waited a tense few seconds.

Out of the bush glided a broad-shouldered Nephite warrior, graceful as a panther. Dressed in buck-skin breeches with a tarnished breastplate upon his chest, he had a smeared broad-sword in his muscular left hand. He wore an iron helm with no plume but short curling ram-horns on the sides, his long dark hair spilled out the sides. Kneeling, he yanked the hatchet from the Lamanite’s back and tucked it into his wide leather belt.

The warrior’s ice-blue eyes pierced Joshua, even in his hiding spot. The sword in his hand dripped crimson and he took care to clean it as he spoke. “You can get up, I have finished them off.” His voice was harsh and firm.

“Them?” asked Joshua, as he came forward.

“Yea, four scouts. I have been tracking them since noon. They meant to murder you,” said the warrior as he sheathed his fine steel sword. “We could hear your whistling a long ways off.”

“Then I am in your debt. I don’t know where I’d be without you.”

“You’d be dead.”

Joshua’s face reddened.

“Who are you?” asked the warrior.

“I am Joshua, son of Gazelem. I’m hoping to join Captain Moroni’s army.”

Grunting at that, the warrior went over the Lamanite’s belongings then dragged the bodies to the Sidon and threw them in one by one. “Let this carry them to the sea,” he said with grim satisfaction.

“Do you serve Captain Moroni?” asked Joshua.

“You could say that,” answered the warrior, sheathing a knife he had taken from the last Lamanite. “You can never have too many,” he smirked.

“Why are you out here by yourself then? Why aren’t you with the army in Jershon?”

“Because, boy, the wilderness is my specialty and I have been gathering intelligence for several weeks now. Why are you here?”

“I told you, I want to join Captain Moroni’s army,” said Joshua a little heated. “Like my father did.”

“You’re a little young for that. If I hadn’t seen those Lamanites planning on slaying you, I would have thought you a spy,” said the warrior without guile.

“I’m twelve years old and I’m no spy, my people covenanted with Ammon.”

The warrior peered at him with hard eyes. “That covenant said they wouldn’t raise arms ever again, you lying to me about your father?”

“No, he broke the covenant, I never made it.”

The warrior nodded. “Fair enough. Tell me, how do you think Moroni can use a twelve year old boy in the army?”

Joshua pondered a moment. “I can read and write, I can wash dishes, I can help carry the wounded.”

“I get it,” the warrior cut him off. “You’re willing, that’s good.”

“Why were those four Lamanite scouts here? It’s a long way to Jershon.”

“The fight won’t be in Jershon. It will be here,” said the warrior, gesturing between the sloping verdant hills. “Those four won’t be missed until it’s too late. They were supposed to advance and scout on Manti defenses. With the latest movements I’ve seen, Zerahemnah and the Lamanites will cut through this gap and go past the hill of Riplah by late tomorrow. They will march on Manti, then Zarahemla. They outnumber us more than two to one and if we don’t defeat them here, they’ll kill and enslave the Promised Land like a snow-white sorrow.”

Joshua’s eye widened. “Mother,” he murmured.

“You better believe it,” said the warrior, nodding. “This gap is our best chance of defeating them. Now, I need to tell the troops what I just told you.”

Joshua asked, “How close is Captain Moroni?”

“His camp is in the valley yonder, we should get there by midnight…if you can keep up,” laughed the warrior. He carried nothing but his weapons and a water-skin.

“I can keep up, just show me the way,” said Joshua, hefting his pack and spear.


Toward the center of Moroni’s war camp, a fire crackled, flickering its tongue of flame as it slowly coiled and died. A command tent was set up nearby with lanterns hanging from its rigged canopy; each of them casting a weak light upon a table surrounded by four men. Joshua guessed that the taller, commanding looking man was Captain Moroni, but he did not have any idea who the others were.

The men discussed the map laid our before them, one in particular argued about the need to attack first. That was when they noticed Joshua and the warrior.

“Captain Moroni, we were worried. You’ve been gone all day,” said the tall man.

“I had to scout things out for myself one last time,” said the warrior. “Your spies were correct Teancum,” Moroni said to the aggressive captain.

Joshua was dumbfounded. He had never thought to ask the warrior’s name when they first met, thinking him just a spy, on the journey to the camp they kept silent to sneak past any more possible Lamanite scouts.

“Who is the Lamanite boy?” asked Teancum.

“His name is Joshua, he is of the people of Ammon and he wants to serve,” said Moroni. “He can read and write, so for the time being I will have him as my personal scribe. Teancum you’re promoted back to command of the left flank.”

“Thanks,” snarled Teancum.

Moroni then explained his orders to the officers and how they might defeat Zerahemnah and the Lamanites. They discussed the battle plan formations long into the night and Joshua almost fell asleep attempting to record on parchment anything Moroni said that seemed important.

Out here under the wheeling stars, Joshua felt almost as peaceful as he had right before his father left for war. The peace was because of his mother more than anything; she taught him faith and prayer. Through these gifts he found peace enough to sleep while others could not slumber for the beating of war drums and sharpening of swords on stone.


Dawn was swiftly approaching when Moroni shook Joshua awake from his spot against a monstrous oak. The banner of the Nephite army flapped and fluttered in the early morning wind. “Come, assist me with my armor and tent, we move out in less than an hour.”

They blessed and then ate a quick meal of dried buffalo meat, corn cakes and amaranth mixed with honey. Energy food, Moroni told Joshua. A squad of soldiers, not servants, Joshua noted, helped take down Moroni’s command tent. Each man in turn carried the burdensome equipment, including the disassembled table.

Joshua then aided Moroni with his armor, buckling the wide leather straps of his exalted-copper greaves over his Curelom boots and then the same for the bracers on each arm. Over his buckskin shirt, Moroni put a thick cotton tunic that was woven in many alternating patterns, checker-boarded this way and that.

Noticing Joshua puzzling over it, Moroni asked, “You’re wondering why I am wearing this?”

“Yes, I have never seen its like.”

“This thick clothing is hot and we’ll feel fatigued at the end of the day from wearing and fighting in them; but it can stop most arrows and light sword-strokes. It’s light enough that it won’t slow a warrior much. I’ve an extra one you can wear, just in case an arrow should fly far to the rear of the camp,” said Moroni.

Joshua looked at him. “Rear of the camp?”

“Don’t be offended. You wanted an honorable duty and I have given you one. You will carry our banner when we meet Zerahemnah on the field. Does that please you?”

Joshua nodded, smiling at the honor given him.

“You can’t let it fall.”

“I won’t.”

Moroni then put on his tarnished breastplate and wide leather belt with the sword of Laban in its long leather scabbard. He had several more knives and a tomahawk. Joshua buckled the final straps and then handed Moroni his helm.

From a small chest Moroni pulled a wide crest made of horsehair dyed a brilliant red. He affixed this to his helm. There would be no doubt from afar who the commander was. “We go to the head of the column now. I lead from the front,” said Moroni. “And you with the banner are beside me.”

Nodding, Joshua ran and took the army’s banner from its spot beside the oak and the two of them marched toward the rising sun.

“We don’t have nearly so many men as I thought we did last night,” said Joshua.

“Lehi and Teancum took half our forces across the Sidon earlier. They’ll be concealed behind the hills until the Lamanite army passes and attempts to cross the Sidon. We will be on the other side catching them mid-cross and have them at our mercy while they are waist deep in a mile-wide river,” said Moroni.

“Nowhere to run,” said Joshua.

“Nowhere to hide,” affirmed Moroni.

They only marched for a few hours before Moroni declared the next valley was the place. He openly blessed that valley to conceal them until the time was right and he dedicated it at as well, proclaiming it the valley of Joshua. “May we all be as steadfast and true this day. Thank you Lord for delivering our enemies into our hands,” he said before ending the prayer, “in the name of thy son, Jesus Christ-amen.”

Joshua approached Moroni and said, “You thanked the Lord for delivering them into our hands. That hasn’t happened yet.”

“It hasn’t? It’s why we are here. They will be given to us, you’ll see.”

After a few minutes Joshua asked, “Now what?”

“We wait. This is the hard part for many, waiting for battle. The tension and anticipation. Look before us,” Moroni said gesturing out over the valley, “these men have all chosen to assist in defending their homes and families. This isn’t about conquest or glory like it is with Zerahemnah and his dogs. My men are here to do their duty owed to God. Before many of these good men looms the terror, I’ve seen it many times. The only way to get through the fear is to remember your place with the Lord.”

“What if someone forgets their place? Forgets their oath and honor?”

Moroni smiled. “Then they had better hit their knees and remember.”

Joshua looked away. This time Moroni’s answer wasn’t so easy for him.

“I didn’t lose very many men in Jershon,” said Moroni. “And I had even fewer Lamanites with me, and only one from the people of Ammon.”

The boy’s bright eyes looked sharply at his captain.

“I knew your father. I buried him myself.”

Joshua’s eyes watered but he retained an ever stronger grip on the banners stand.

“Your father broke his covenant with Ammon to come and help me. He lost his life in the process. What you don’t know is he died defending other fallen men. Perhaps some would say your father was an oath-breaker and got what was coming to him…but not me. Your father was a hero and had no greater love than that for his fellow man and his family,” said Moroni.

With hands tight around the banner stand, Joshua wept.

“He came to me wishing to break his oath and help defend this land from its enemies. I reminded him of his oath and he told me he had prayed long and hard about it. He said the Lord would understand him breaking one oath to live a higher one and I couldn’t argue. I let him fight. If you’re going to be angry…be angry with me.”

Joshua clasped Moroni hugging him as tight as the armor would allow. “How do you know the pain of my heart?”

“I prayed and asked the Lord about you. I realized last night that you look just like your father and are just as brave. That’s why you must stay with the banner on the hill. I don’t want to have to explain you to your mother, but I’ll not begrudge you doing your part here either,” said Moroni looking to the east and across the river.

“Thank you. I will make you and my father proud,” said Joshua.

“I know.”


By late afternoon the sun blazed overhead like a fiery chariot. Joshua wondered if Moroni was wrong about the time and place of the Lamanites crossing the wide Sidon. Then sudden cries came resounding from far across the river. Men were dying and battle raged.

It was hard to distinguish individuals at that distance but the shifting colors and glints of light on steel showed the movement of men and war. Darting black clouds would rise up low from each side only to fall like rain and dim figures would drop to the ground. The dusky figures moved into the Sidon and lumbered toward the west bank of the river.

Moroni kept his men low and silent, waiting for more of the Lamanites forces to get wet.

Joshua had been ordered to keep the banner hidden behind a tree. From his lofty vantage the river was teeming with men forging across toward him. These Lamanite warriors were naked to the waist, only war-paint covered their upper torsos. Some had rucksacks and quivers with bows they held high above the water to keep their bowstrings dry. Most carried the favored scimitar. None but the Zoramite captains wore helms or armor. There were so many, Joshua worried at Moroni’s ability to defeat them.

Joshua remembered to pray as Moroni had. He asked for strength and courage, for protection for him and his new friends. He thanked the Lord for the opportunity to be here beside Moroni and participate in what was right. As Moroni had said, their enemy’s were delivered into his hands and here they came in droves.

The first few Lamanite warriors came trudging out of the river, many tired from their wet trek, breathing heavily. Some sat down on the banks watching the distant fighting across the Sidon.

Joshua knew Moroni had to let the Lamanites keep crossing before they realized how heavily they outnumbered Lehi’s forces across the river and overwhelmed him. The balance had to be found to allow the Nephite’s lesser numbers to seize the battlefield advantage. He watched Moroni hold the army at bay a little longer until the banks were crawling with dripping warriors.

When the Lamanite army was nearly in thirds–those on the east shore, west shore and the last third still struggling through the River Sidon–Moroni sprung the trap. Horns blew and Moroni’s men fell upon the naked-breasted Lamanites and slew them as they lay weary upon the river banks.

Carrying the banner to an overlooking hill, Joshua waved it proudly. The message of courage, freedom, truth and family meant more to him than any conquest ever could. He stared wide-eyed at the carnage unleashed below on the riverbanks.


A pair of strong Lamanite warriors attacked Moroni with scimitars and axes, whirling death rung his ears inside the helm. With his small buckler shield he warded off the blows of one while slicing the earlobe off the other. Parrying against the one on the right he pushed him away before slashing at the one on the left. He sorely missed the attempted cut and the Lamanite easily moved to the side.

The big Lamanite chuckled at his dodge. He realized too late that Moroni had missed on purpose to counter the blow of the other chop home on a friend rather than a foe.

With the Lamanite on the right aghast at his deadly miss, Moroni swung back sending him to his comrade’s side beyond the veil. Sounding the war-cry, “Watch and Pray!” Moroni led his men against the foe with the echoing rally.

The brutal shock forced many in the river to try and evade the destruction. Moroni’s warriors poured out of the valley to the south of wooded hillock. Thinking the Nephites had approached from downriver, many Lamanites wearied themselves, struggling against the river current, trying to move upstream and away toward the land of Manti. Moroni had planned such a possibility knowing the current would weaken the foe here. He pressed the attack all the stronger, laying waste to the invaders.

The armored Nephites were careful to stay on the banks and away from the river, though one or two were pulled in to their doom. The Lamanite captains, who were largely spiteful Zoramites recognized the one weakness of the Nephite armor and called for their men to hold back. Once concentrated, they charged in mass against the shore, fighting with all the fury of their master, the original dragon.

Even Moroni was taken aback at their savage and twisted rage; never before had the Lamanites been so filled with the spirit of hate and malice. The river ran red from this clash of brothers. Lamanite deathblows cleaved through Nephite armor with stunning power. Here and there a Nephite helm was cloven in half and others even had breastplates pierced and limbs sundered. Enterprising Lamanites with hooked spears snagged armored Nephites and pulled them into the river to drown.

Zerahemnah himself began a bloody murderous chant and soon the entire Lamanite army had joined in the awful dirge. The fierce wicked bass of their voices rose off the river like an evil fog and sapped the courage from many of the Nephites. Some few of the Zoramites even had skin or kettle drums that throbbed a terrifying beat. And still they slew their enemies while singing melodious darkness. They encroached upon the valley’s edge cutting down men as they came on.

It took Moroni and the spirit of the Lord to break that demonic spell.

“Hear me, sons of Nephi. Hearken not to this symphony of destruction, but remember our banner and for what it stands!” He pointed back at Joshua, who stood tall waving the banner back and forth. “We fight for our homes! Our families! Our lands! Our rights and our faith! The Lord God will stand by us if we shall stand by him! He has delivered the Lamanites into our hands. They stand in the river, let us fight on and wash them away!”

The Nephites cried aloud and following Moroni’s lead fought all the harder turning the tide of fear back upon the Lamanites. It didn’t matter that the Lamanites outnumbered the Nephites by two to one still, their spirit was crushed as the mantle of the Lord’s power was lain upon Moroni’s shoulders and he struck down Lamanites before him as a lion among jackals.

Even Joshua heard Moroni’s thunderous voice and he too came charging down carrying the banner with the surge of Nephite warriors.

They could not help but follow the roaring courage of their commander and so the Nephites slammed the invaders with a wall of steel. Trampling his foes underfoot, Moroni an unstoppable juggernaut of iron, took the fight all the way to Zerahemnah before ceasing the devastation of his blade.

Trapped between the fiery Moroni on one side of the river and Lehi with another army of Nephites behind their back, the Lamanites were struck with such dread, as they had never known. With the Sidon flowing red at their ankles, Moroni called for an end of the bloodshed. With a wave of his mighty arm, the fighting died away.

Moroni stood upon the wet riverbank and pointed an accusing finger at Zerahemnah. “We don’t desire to be men of blood. The Lord has put you into our hands and still your death is not our wish.”

Zerahemnah snorted at that, “Your ambush says otherwise,” he said pointing at Lehi’s army across the river and Moroni’s own army hedged in around them, shields overlapping.

Raising his voice even more Moroni said for all to hear, “We didn’t come to battle with you for power or glory, nor to throw you into bondage but to defend ourselves from your attempt to do this to us. I know your heart Zerahemnah, you hate us because we abide by the Lord’s precepts and he loves us for it…you in turn can only hate. What a sad excuse for life.”

The Lamanite king grimaced but did not deny Moroni’s words.

“Zerahemnah I command you now in the name of the all powerful God, who has strengthened us to defeat you through our obedience to his law, that you will throw down your weapons of war. I swear we shall not seek after your lives in revenge, but you must leave our lands and never come against us in war again. If you won’t do this…I will kill you and my men will fall upon you reaping a full harvest of your blood.”

Joshua now stood beside Moroni with the banner firmly planted in the ground.

Zerahemnah conceded he was beaten. He came forward hanging his head, eyes glaring the malice of ages. “Here are our weapons,” he said handing Moroni his kingly sword, “but don’t think I’ll swear to you. I would rather die than give you control of my people’s souls.” The two men stared hard at each other as Zerahemnah finished. “I deny your Great Spirit winning you this battle. It was your cowardly armor and dishonorable cunning that won you this day,” spat the Lamanite king.

Dropping the king’s sword at his feet, Moroni said to Zerahemnah, “Pick it up.”

The Lamanite king’s dark eyes flared at the stern order of Moroni.

“We will end this here and now. I will not take back the promise to slay you if you won’t have the peace I offer you,” said Moroni, his mighty arms folded as he thundered the rest of his speech. “As the Lords lives, you can take peace or death.”

Zerahemnah picked his gold-hilted sword up and wiped the clinging mud and gore from its grip. He hung his head low and submissive as if he would accept Moroni’s order. Stepping closer he leapt like a serpent striking, his blade arcing for Moroni’s exposed throat.

With the speed of angels assisting, Joshua swept the banner pole between the hungry blade and Moroni. The stout pole batted the sword away and took Zerahemnah in the face, dazing him. The sword fell between the earth and a river stone. Joshua smote it with his foot and the blade snapped at the hilt. Taking up the broken blade Joshua took the vanity from Zerahemnah’s crown and struck off his scalp. Stabbing the scalp with the sword point, Joshua held it up for all to see.

“Even as this scalp of your king fell to the earth, so shall all of you, unless you throw down your weapons and depart with a covenant of peace!” shouted the boy.

The once mighty warlord of the Lamanites, Zerahemnah, crawled away clutching his bleeding head.

The strength of the boy impressed the Lamanites, they lined up to swear to Captain Moroni and the boy beside him. Telling their names and families, multitudes of Lamanite warriors delivered their weapons into a great pile of steel and obsidian, while swearing peace. These oath men were permitted to depart and they disappeared into the wilderness.

Again in his blood-fueled hate Zerahemnah defied the words of Captain Moroni. “They will slay us when we are weaponless and our backs are turned we know the trickery of these dogs! We fight or we perish! A man cannot live with this dishonor,” he screamed, leading a new assault on the Nephites as they were taking the weapons of the covenant keepers.

“Unleash the furies upon them,” shouted Moroni. “We’ll have no more of this wickedness.” Then he too jumped into the fray, slaying the enemies of freedom. He battled through the bodyguard of Zerahemnah bashing their bare heads and naked skins with his sword and shield.

With even less men than before, and the Nephites moral at a high, the last of the Lamanites were gradually pressed in and cut down. As Joshua had prophesied the Nephites took their Lamanite foes down to the ground with a pounding of steel.

Zerahemnah faltered seeing Moroni’s scowl growing ever closer and his sword-blade ever more scarlet. “Wait, wait…I swear to you, spare me and my people and we shall never come against you in war again, I Zerahemnah swear it.” He bowed his head to Moroni and held up his war-club in submission.

Moroni took the club and cast it into the river. “Peace be still,” he shouted, and the slaying ended.

Zerahemnah and the remaining Lamanites swore the oath of peace and departed into the wilderness. The multitudes of the dead were cast into the River Sidon to be carried far away to the sea. Moroni built an altar and sacrificed to the Lord in honor of their victory.

“Your father would be proud of you Joshua. I know I am,” said Moroni. “If more youth were shining examples like you, I’d march the armies of the Lord to the gates of hell and batter them down. I’d call out that old serpent and break him.”

Joshua grinned sheepishly at the bravado and said, “No, I’m nothing special. My mother taught me what was right all of my life, there are thousands of boys like me back in Jershon.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” said Moroni clasping the boy’s hand. “Now let’s go home.”

11 thoughts on “5: Covenant of the Scalp”

  1. This was a fascinating story. I thought that the military details really added to the atmosphere and made it very believable. I really liked the character of Captain Moroni here, doing his own scouting, for instance, or letting Joshua's father break one oath in order to live a higher one. I also liked the line at the end where Joshua was trying to be modest by telling Moroni that there were thousands of boys just like him back in Jershon.

  2. I liked the last line too, very much.

    I liked Joshua's character, especially at the beginning as we understand what drives him forth to join the army.

    I felt like some of the point of view was uneven in places, and the interlacing of scripture language with modern vernacular jolted me a bit.

    But it was an interesting perspective on a familiar battle.

  3. you have a tone that is immediately captivating and interesting. It weaves a magical feel over this historical setting.

  4. I especially liked the nod to "Hope of Israel". Made me smile. Very well done from start to finish. My boys would love this.

  5. .


    "The strength of the boy impressed the Lamanites" is a weak line at an important point, but otherwise this story's about flawless.

  6. Thanks everyone for making this one do so well too. I probably actually prefer this piece to Song of Saphir.

    Melanie-I appreciate it.

    Emily-thats how I talk.

    Tamara-hope you like my other stuff too.

    Krista-thanks, I hoped boys would especially gravitate to this piece and Mom's would hand this potential anthology to them.

    Th-If given the chance I would rewrite a hair here and there in editing.

  7. .

    IMHO this story was a true standout but that doesn't mean I can't complain.

    I am Theric and I always find room to quibble.

  8. Thanks, I appreciate it. I actually believed all week that this one would win over Saphir. I don't think Saphir went higher until saturday. (Yes, I constantly watched since tuesday)

  9. .

    Sorry, I was referring to Sephus.

    And I agree — it's what I would have wanted to read too. But YA has certain rules and I think you'ld find this story in the grownups section. No YA protag, not YA. At least, from what I see, that seems like the one hardfast rule.

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