Western Fiction


LEE LEIGHTON (WAYNE D. OVERHOLSER) – Law Man. Ballentine, hardcover (H51) & paperback (#51), 1953. Ballantine U1040, paperback 1964. Axe, paperback, 1977. Ace/Charter, paperback, 1985. Jove, paperback, 1988. Winner of the first Western Writer’s Assocation Spur Award for Best Novel.

STAR IN THE DUST. Universal, 1956. John Agar, Mamie Van Doren, Richard Boone, Colleen Gray, Leif Erickson, Randy Stuart, Paul Fix, Harry Morgan, Kermit Maynard and Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Oscar Brodney, from the novel by Lee Leighton. Produced by the redoubtable Albert Zugsmith. Directed by Charles Haas.

   A taut film from a slack novel.

   Leighton/Overholser’s book deals with twenty-four hours in the life of middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden: the last day in the life of convicted killer Ed Lake, scheduled to hang next morning. It also deals with a wide cast of characters, including:

   Worden’s daughter Ellen, who is engaged to marry

   George Ballard, who owns the biggest ranch in the valley and the local bank — and is therefore ipso facto a bad guy.

   Nan Hogan, Ballard’s ex-mistress, now married to

   Lew Hogan, a stubborn rancher who feels duty-bound to keep Lake from hanging

   Rigdon, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who feels duty-bound to hang Lake himself

   Mike MacNamara, Worden’s Deputy

   Orval Jones, janitor and would-be deputy

   Jeannie Mason, a fallen woman because of Ed Lake

plus assorted farmers, ranchers, cowhands, townsfolk and attendants to the court.

   Leighton does a skillful job of setting all these folks at odds with each other: the ranchers out to save Lake, Ballard anxious to see that Lake doesn’t incriminate him, farmers egged on to lynching by Rigdon, Lake with his own plans for the future – and thankfully Leighton takes care to remind the reader who everyone is from time to time. He also works things to a convincing resolution, one that seems to grow from the characters themselves.

   The problem is that Leighton tends to tell us how they feel—repeatedly and at length — when he should just show us — and when things should be getting tense, they just get wordy. Worthy concept, weak execution.

   Oscar Brodney’s script for Star in the Dust tightens things up considerably. For one thing, it starts at dawn on the day Lake (here named “Sam Hall”) is scheduled to die at sunset. And since this is a film, the internal monologues of the book get replaced by a few lines of dialogue.

   That’s not all that gets replaced. Preacher Rigdon of the book is here a power-mad schoolteacher (I think I had him for English 101 in College) and middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden is now youngish Bill Jordan (John Agar) engaged to marry Ballard’s sister (Mamie Van Doren.)

   Best of all, nasty Ed Lake in the book is now Sam Hall, played with savage sensitivity by Richard Boone, a year before Have Gun, Will Travel and in those days a character actor to be reckoned with. I suspect Brodney knew he was writing for Boone, and wrote the part to fit him. His Sam Hall is educated, self-aware, and dangerous to know, a character at once sympathetic and frightening.

   With Boone as the lynch pin, Star in the Dust could have stopped right there, but producer Albert Zugsmith fills the movie with fine actors in choice parts. Leif Erickson radiates bluff duplicity as the scheming bad guy, slimy Robert Osterloh projects petty tyranny as the schoolmaster, while Paul Fix and James Gleason do a fine double-act as Agar’s deputy and the wanna-be janitor.

   Star in the DustEven better, Colleen Gray and Randy Stuart play off each other perfectly as the women who loved well but unwisely. Stuart in particular carries a moving rueful aspect as Erickson’s cast-off mistress, now married to Henry Morgan, as the loyal-but-not-bright Lew Hogan (Years later, Stuart also played Morgan’s wife in the 1960s Dragnet teleseries.)

   Best of all, Star in the Dust moves in a way the novel never did, filling eighty minutes with action under the fast-paced direction of Charles Haas.

   And by the way, in his one scene, a skinny young contract player named Clint Eastwood is what is usually and charitably termed adequate.

ERNEST HAYCOX “Dolorosa, Here I Come.” Collier’s, 28 February 1931. Collected in The Last Rodeo (Little, Brown & Co., hardcover, 1949; Pocket, paperback, 1956).

   FIFTEEN men came to a swirling halt in the shadows just outside Dolorosa town, and as they paused a deeper breathing ran among them and an accumulating excitement stirred them uneasily in the saddles. Behind, under the silver-crusted night sky, lay the Running W herd, eight hundred miles out of mothering Texas and more than a thousand miles short of that strange Wyoming whither they were bound. But of the weary distances gone and yet to go this group had no present thought, for directly ahead lay Dolorosa’s street, aglitter with light and emitting the melody and the discord of men in rough festival; a street beckoning to them with a spurious good will and a calculating hospitality.

   Danny Dale is the young trail boss of an outfit out of Texas, hard young men worn with the deprivations of the trail and anxious to let off some steam, and Dolorosa, like a fat hungry spider, sits before them offering shallow glitter, and cheap whiskey. Not surprisingly things go bad, when Bill, one of Dale’s boys, kills a crooked roulette dealer and in turn is killed by the local lawman, Lingersen (“The man is a remorseless killer. He has been here only a year but in that time he has been like the terror. He has bullied and beaten and destroyed. Everybody hates him; nobody dares cross him.”).

   But Danny sees it as a fair exchange, a life for a life and returns only to bury his friend and settle up any debts, and it is then he meets Gracie an independent young woman, who owns a small restaurant and hates what Dolorosa is.

   “Dolorosa. Here I Come” first appeared in Collier’s in 1931, one of slicks (the high paying magazines printed on slick paper which most pulp writers aspired to crack) which Haycox cracked long before the story that made him one of the most admired Western writers of his age, “The Last Stage to Lordsburg,” famously a retelling of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Souf”, that John Ford made into the film that gave birth to the modern adult Western, Stagecoach.

   In any Haycox Western the power and control of the writing is hard to miss. There is a lyricism to his words that captures not only the mythic and larger than life qualities of the West, but also the simplicity and purity of the classic form. It is little wonder that Haycox went on to be far more than a popular Western writer penning not only Westerns, but a handful of bestselling historical novels of the West like The Adventurers and Canyon Passage that were offered by major book clubs and optioned by Hollywood.

   Of the period he wrote in, Haycox was both one of the most popular and most respected writers to take up the Western, a rarity, in that he was recognized far beyond the confines of the pulps with probably only Luke Short (Fred Glidden) running him a close race in the high paying slicks of the era, yet he was also recognized as a master of action and drama.

   True to heavies from time immemorial Lingersen can’t leave good enough alone and braces Danny on his return to bury his friend:

    “Nine o’clock is our buryin’ hour around here. Attend to it, an’ get out by ten sharp or expect to answer to me without recourse, explanation or further warnin’.”

    “Does the warnin’ mean you’ll reach for the hardware at ten sharp without added talk?”

    Lingersen said: “I never warn twice and I never go back on my word.”

    “Just wanted to get it clear,” mused Danny Dale. “I’m a great hand for havin’ things straight.”

   Okay, I’ll grant you there are more dropped ‘g’s’ in this tale than all of Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey, but still it sounds and feels authentic and at the same time mythic, and that combination of the dusty sweaty hard real West with the mythic Technicolor wide-screen West of the big screen is one of the keys to why Haycox is remembered and still read.

   Haycox is too good a writer to spare us the promised showdown, and much too good to offer us a story in which that is all there is, the twist at the end an almost O Henryesque moment. Without giving it away, I’ll only say Haycox isn’t offering us simple villains and heroes and doesn’t pretend that any duel to the death is without its ironies.

   This last is just a scene as the boys ride out of town. You have read or seen it’s like in a thousand films and Western novels and stories, but listen to the simple lyric description of the following passage. “Dolorosa, Here I Come,” is a slight example of Haycox talent, but more a vivid reminder of why his name was legend in the genre and why he was envied by so many of his fellow writers of the purple sage:

   They galloped down the street, barely clearing the front of the saloon when a burst of buckshot rattled against it like hail. The town shivered with a slashing, explosive fire as the men of Dolorosa stood sheltered in the black maw of this or that alley and cross-ripped the main thoroughfare with their lead; purple muzzle lights weirdly flickered, powder smell tainted the night air.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “Carved in Sand.” Whispering Sands #15. Novelette. Argosy Weekly, June 17, 1933. First collected in Whispering Sands: Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert (William Morrow, hardcover, 1981).

   The online FictionMags Index lists 17 “Whispering Sands” stories that Gardner did for the pulp magazine Argosy from 1930 to 1934, of which “Carved in Sand” is the 15th. I do not know whether or not Bob Zane is in all of them, but I believe he is in most. (Corrections welcome!)

   It is not clear from reading just this one story what it is that Bob Zane does for a living. He is an older man, not yet grizzled, but perhaps a prospector with an inherent love for the desert, with an inquisitive mind and an aptitude for solving mysteries. The setting is not stated in any precise fashion, but it is probably the Southwest US, circa the early 1930s, about the time the story itself was written. (Both automobiles and airplanes are used as modes of transportation.)

   In this tale Zane and young Pete Ayers, his companion at the time, come to the rescue of a young girl whose father has been accused of killing another prospector. She has helped him escape, if only temporarily. He’s back in jail now, even though the evidence against him is only circumstantial and sketchy at that.

   Zane disrupts the man’s trial with Gardner’s usual zeal in such matters with some evidence based on a single fact that (disappointingly) only longtime denizens of the desert would be aware of, otherwise this is a solid, enjoyable piece of work.

   I’m only guessing, but Gardner seems to have two great passions in life: the law and how it can be manipulated to one’s advantage, and the desert and its ever “whispering sands.” The latter has two aspects to it, according to Gardner: first its inherent cruelty, but secondly, and more importantly, its kinder side, the one that can not only lull even the rawest tenderfoot to sleep, but can also hold the evidence of everything that happens there, waiting only for someone who knows where to look.

   These stories were among Gardner’ more poetic creations. In attitude and presentation, there’s quite a bit of difference between these and the straight-forward detective mysteries he’s much more well known for.


   I received the email below from Bill Pronzini today. Frank Bonham (1914-1988) was primarily a western writer, but he also wrote mysteries and science fiction, as well as a number of Young Adult novels. His career began in the pulps, which is where the interview begins. (His first published story was “Green Parrot,” which appeared in The Phantom Detective, September 1936.)

Hi Steve–

   Back in 1986 I co-hosted an interview with Frank Bonham that has been re-edited and just re-released on Berkeley’s KPFA radio station. Here’s a link to the new podcast that you might want to post on M*F. Frank’s reminiscences and anecdotes, especially those about the pulps and such writers and editors as Ed Earl Repp, Robert Leslie Bellem, and “Cap” Shaw, are absorbing and informative.




MERLE CONSTINER – Two Pistols South of Deadwood. Ace Double G-674, paperback original, 1967. Published back-to-back with No Man’s Brand, by William Vance.

   While writing for the pulps in the 1940s, Merle Constiner’s stories appeared primarily in the detective magazines. He had two long-running series about PIs, the first being the semi-scurrilous Dean Wardlow Rock, aka “The Dean,” whose many adventures were recorded in the pages of Dime Detective. The second was Memphis-based Luther McGavock, stories about whom showed up in Black Mask magazine on a regular basis.

   When the pulps started dying out, Constiner was one of the writers who successfully managed the transition over to novel-length fiction. As he did so, however, he made a sudden change of direction and decided to make his mark instead with westerns. In his entire career he wrote but one detective novel, that being Hearse of a Different Color, for the second- or third-rate and hardly prestigious Phoenix Press.

   Even so, many of his western novels had elements of detective fiction in them, some more than others. In Two Pistols South of Deadwood, for example, they show up only in a very minor way. When a bank is robbed in Hartsburg (somewhere south of Deadwood), all of trapper Kinney Lampson’s accumulated savings go with it, giving him no choice but to after the leader of the gang, a notorious outlaw named Lucas Gambrell, on his own.

   Along the trail he picks up a companion, a man who’s fast with a gun named Gatling. As it turns out, Gatling works for Gambrell, but a friendship between the two develops, eventually leading to a partnership of sorts, and they have several boisterous adventures on their way to the lawless town of Merriman, where Gambrell makes his headquarters.

   Kinney is one of those larger-than-life characters that populate western folklore, and Constiner’s sly understated sense of humor makes this book stand out from many other westerns of the era, all of which took themselves a lot more seriously.

   From page 25, Gatling happens to ask, hypothetically speaking:

   “They have beer [at a way station called Stop Seven]. What would happen if I drank a hundred dollars’ worth of beer?”

   “I’d hate to guess,” said Kinney.

   “Well, let’s see,” said Gatling.

   “I could use a glass myself, unless it has too many wasps and bluebottle flies and dead spiders in it,” said Kinney.

   “They won’t hurt you,” said Gatling.

   “I know,” said Kinney. “It’s just that I hate the idea of having to buy them when I don’t really care for them.”

   And what happened to Kinney’s money, and does he ever get it back? There are many stumbling blocks to overcome, and some intricate bits of misdirection by Gambrell, of all people, but yes, Kinney Lampson and his new comrade in arms are definitely up to the task.

D. B. NEWTON “The Claim Jumpers.” Novella. First published in Best Western, September 1952 as “Who’ll Take the Cowgirl?” First collected in Range of No Return (Five Star, hardcover, 2005; Leisure, paperback, December 2006).

   In his long foreword to the two-story book collection, Jon Tuska makes the case for his theory that D(wight) B(ennett) Newton would be a lot more known today if he hadn’t been pushed by his agent to have much of his work published under pseudonyms. Names other than his own that he used over the years were Dwight Bennett, Clement Hardin, Ford Logan, Dan Temple and Hank Mitchum (eight of the long-running “Stagecoach” series in the 1980s).

   There’s a lot of truth in that statement. I’ve enjoyed all of the novels I’ve read by the above “authors,” and going back to the later years of his pulp-writing days, both of the two stories in Range of No Return are very well done. (His first published pulp western was in 1938, and over the years he wrote 150 or so more of them.)

   “The Claim Jumpers” takes place at an actual event, the Cherokee Strip Land Run (Oklahoma, 1893), as have many other stories and dramatic films over the years. Newton’s story does not rely on its historical significance, however. Rather it’s one told on a personal basis, which to me makes it all the more effective. When three cowpoke partners lose their fourth in the plan they’ve come up with, one of them succumbs to the charms of a woman he happens to meet, and he asks her to help them out.

   Things don’t go well, however. Someone seems to have leaked their plans to some Sooners who have settled into the land the partners had planned on settling, and they’re well equipped with guns. Did the girl betray them? All signs point to it.

   This is a story that combines a historical background with both action and characters that have some character to them, and at 70 pages, there’s plenty of time for Newton to develop both.


— “Range of No Return.” Short novel. First appeared in Complete Western Book Magazine, June 1949. Also first collected in Range of No Return (see above).

   And if anything, “Range of No Return” is even better. At almost twice the length of “The Claim Jumpers,” the action is nearly non-stop, but more than that, it fits in naturally with the story Newton has to tell. No gunfire for the sake of gunfire.

   Which is that of a young rancher who was framed for rustling cattle in his home town five years ago. With the sheriff’s assistance, who believed him innocent, he made tracks for Mexico, but now that his notoriety has died down, or so he hopes, he’s back, trying to pick up where he left off before his troubles began.

   But he’s wrong. The local ranchers have not forgotten, including the female owner of the ranch next to his. There are a couple of small twists in the tale from this point on, but they’re, I admit, only minor ones. But Newton has a good eye for describing his characters, as well as the area of Arizona hills and grasslands he places them in. Even though the basic story line is a familiar one, this is a solid piece of writing.

   If you’re a fan of western yarns, you could do a lot worse than to check out more of Newton’s stories, even his early purely pulp fiction. It’s better than most.


R. S. BELCHER – The Shotgun Arcana. Golgotha #2. Tor, hardcover, 2014; trade paperback, 2015.

   The moon was a bullet hole in the sable night, bleeding ghostlight across the wasteland of the 40-Mile Desert.

   That’s not an opening to a Western you are likely to forget, and as you might expect one you will long remember in the case of this ghastly Gothic tale of the small town of Golgotha, Nevada in 1870 where the population includes a fallen angel (Malachi Bick) and his daughter Emily, mad scientist Clay Turlough (“Soul wouldn’t need protecting if the transportation for it was designed a bit more steadily.”) who practices reanimating heads, and Maud, grand-daughter of Anne Bonny ( who disclosed to her the secret history of the world — the story of Lilith, the first human to rebel agains the tyranny of heaven…) and herself a retired pirate queen and practitioner of Lilith magic who lives with her psychic daughter Constance.

   Despite that, Golgotha is a fairly peaceful town watched over by Sheriff John Highfather and his deputies young Jim and Mutt and Mayor Harry Pratt and his lover, gunfighter Ringo, but forty years earlier Malachi Bick was part of a rescue party that found the Donners and retrieved a cursed skull that is about to release hell on Earth — literally

   Lead by the demonic fallen angel Raziel Zeal (“… the Keeper of Secrets, the vessel of divine knowledge, one of the Princes of the Second Heaven …”) an army is riding toward Golgotha, an army of lunatics, murderers, cannibals, thugee, and worse all drawn to the skull and Zeal’s ambitious plans to destroy mankind before killing God.

    “…cities will become slaughterhouses, civilizations will burn, and in time, slowly, painfully, the human race will die screaming, at its own hand.”

   The Gothic Western has never been a prolific genre. Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s Track of the Cat is likely the best known, though a few ghosts, spirits, werewolves, and the like appear in the pulps, and on screen there are films like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider hinting at demons and devils. Stephen King’s Dark Tower borrows many elements from the Western, notably in it’s central figure Roland, the Gunfighter, but outright Gothic Western horror, aside from the likes of the Wild Wild West is rare.

   Which is why this beautifully written rollicking novel is such a delight, from the imagery (The noonday sky was dark with screaming crows …) to an apocalyptic battle between good and evil fought by mortal men and fallen angels in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a Gothic, stream-punk, splatter punk, high adventure, horror, dark fantasy, Western coming of age story.

   The sky was deepest indigo. Ribbons of dying umber, crimson and gold wavered at the jagged teeth of the horizon. The stars, bright and burning and ancient, unfurled before them from behind a gauze curtain of clouds.

   The Shotgun Arcana is a wild ride easily one of the most enjoyable extravaganzas in years, Quentin Tarantino crossed with Sergio Leone by way of Stephen King.

Bibliographic Notes:   The Shotgun Arcana was preceded by The Six-Gun Tarot (2013) and followed by The Queen of Swords (2017)

PETER DAWSON – Dead Man Pass. Dodd Mead, hardcover, November 1954. Bantam #1396, paperback, December 1955. Reprinted by Bantam several times. Serialized before book publication in The Saturday Evening Post from June 26 through August 7, 1954.

   As is well known now, but perhaps not when his book was first published, western writer Peter Dawson was the pen name of Jonathan Glidden, who was the brother of Frederick Glidden, who also wrote westerns, but under the pen name of Luke Short. Between them they must have written a good percentage of the western fiction produced in the country in the 30s through the 60s.

   And not all of it was about the usual cowboys and Indians, cattle drives, grasslands and gunfighters. In Dead Man Pass, Dawson changes the setting to mountain country, in the winter no less, in which the struggle to build a train tunnel through a mountain is the focus.

   Stiffed on the price of his horses by the managing head of the company charged with completing the task, a young fellow named Bill Tenn decides to make an offer to owner of the company: to make the work go faster, bring an engine over the mountain through Dead Man Pass by a huge sled pulled by his horses.

   The owner takes him up on it, but before he can begin, Tenn is convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. There are other complications, including a thwarted romance and a lode of silver that’s been found in the tunnel but being kept a secret.

   There are plenty of plot lines to this well-constructed story, in other words, and it’s told in a comfortable and relaxed fashion. For me, though, there weren’t enough real twists to the tale, perhaps only one that I partially did not see coming. Maybe I’ve read too many westerns over the years for there to be many twists left!

RAY HOGAN – The Vengeance Gun. Ace Double 67580, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1973. Published back-to-back with Powdersmoke Partners, by L. L. Foreman. Thorndike Press, hardcover, 1993.

   Take another look at the title. As you may or may not recall, I reviewed a western movie with much the same basic story line as this one. The movie was entitled Panhandle, and you can read my comments here. In both cases the leading protagonist has a mission, that of avenging the shooting death of his brother.

   Rod Cameron played John Sands in the movie. In the book at hand, the hero is a young fellow named Tom Rademacher. He’s been on the trail of his brother’s killer for five years, riding from town to town for all that time, but never quite finding him.

   But when hits the range where a gent named Joe Keck wants to take over, he finds himself siding with a girl and her brother who are the last holdouts against Keck and his gang. If this sounds familiar, it is.

   One difference between the book and the movie, is that after five years on the trail, Tom is starting to have doubts. In the movie, the death of John Sands’ brother has just happened. It is no wonder that he can’t be distracted from his mission, as was pointed out in the review and the comments that followed.

   I liked the book more, though. I identify with heroes who have doubts. I find that there’s more to the story if they do. It’s not to say that The Vengeance Gun is great literature. It isn’t. It ends far too quickly and abruptly, for example. At only 111 pages log, it’s over before you know it. You expect happy endings in westerns, but this one’s far too easy.


STEWART EDWARD WHITE – The Killer. Doubleday, hardcover, 1920. Previously serialized in The Red Book Magazine, December 1919 through March 1920. Many reprint and Print on Demand editions available.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox, 1932. With George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens and Noble Johnson. Screenplay by Alfred A. Cahn, from the novella “The Killer” by Stewart Edward White.

   I picked up Stewart Edward White’s The Killer on a whim and found it an interesting hybrid of a book: the first third is a longish novelette from which the tome draws its title — about which more later — while the rest of the near-350 pages is a series of lengthy stories and true anecdotes (true-sounding, anyway) about working life on the plains in in the early 1900s: some quite amusing while others read like Hemingway before there was Hemingway.

   But the opening piece, The Killer, is a genuine blood-and-thunder Old Dark House chiller transplanted out west, and grown quite well, too. White sets the mood very capably and once he’s got the background fraught with palpable menace, he proceeds to build a simple but impressive little story filled with mad killers, drug addicts, distressed damsels and doughty do-gooders — all put through their pulp-paper paces with the kind of innocent gusto that typified thrillers of the time, a tale told with charm that writers since have never quite re-captured.

   As for the anecdotes that follow, perhaps they can be best exemplified by:

   “And I don’t need no gun to do it, neither,” he said, as though concluding a long conversation.

  “Shore not, Slim,” agreed one of the group, promptly annexing the artillery. “What is it?”

  “Kill that ____ ____ _____ Beck,” said Slim, owlishly. “I can do it; and I can do it with my bare hands, b’ God!”

   He walked sturdily enough in the direction of the General Store across the dusty square. No one paid any further attention to his movements. The man who had picked up the gun belt buckled it around his own waist. Ten minutes passed. Back across the square drifted a strange figure. With difficulty we recognized it as the erstwhile Slim. He had no hat. His hair stuck out in all directions. One eye was puffing shut, blood oozed from a cut in his forehead and dripped from his damaged nose. One shirt sleeve had been half torn from its parent at the shoulder. But, most curious of all, Slim’s face was evenly marked by a perpendicular series of long, red scratches as though he had been dragged from stem to stem along a particularly abrasive gravel walk. Slim seemed quite calm. His approach was made in a somewhat strained silence. At length there spoke a dry, sardonic voice.

   “Well,” said it, “did you kill Beck?”

   “Naw!” replied Slim’s remains disgustedly, “the son of a gun wouldn’t fight!”

   The Killer was made into a film in 1932, Mystery Ranch, and they did a nice job of it, with fast-paced direction, atmospheric photography by Joe August (Who cut his teeth on the early films of William S. Hart) and spirited playing from George O’Brien, Celia Parker, Noble Johnson and especially Charles “Ming” Middleton as the mad killer.

   And though Middleton gets all the best lines, I have to say he wouldn’t have been nearly so menacing without Charles Stevens (Who made a cottage industry out of playing “Indian Charrlie” in various films of the Wyatt Earp legend) and Noble Johnson skulking about in the background.

   Best of all, it seems everyone involved wisely decided to eschew typical B-movie complications and produced a film with the simplicity of a ballad, just under an hour of solid fun. Existing prints are a bit choppy, but they can’t obscure the streamlined beauty of a film like this.

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