Kansas

The Dewey-Berry Gun Battle In Cheyenne County, Kansas

Sometimes it is hard to understand why men do the things they do.  In the case of the Dewey-Berry feud, I am reminded of an old English proverb: “He that seeks trouble always finds it.”

The violent showdown between Chancy Dewey and the Berry family happened June 3, 1903.  The shootout occurred in the southeast section of Cheyenne County, Kansas.  It is sometimes labeled, “The last wild west shootout between ranchers and settlers.”

These two pictures of the Alpheaus Berry homestead are reenactment pictures taken a few days after the fight, by an entrepreneur. They have value to us in that we can see the harshness of the land and the hard times the Berrys were experiencing. The tip of the wind vane of the wind mill can be seen in the top left corner of the photo, and the water pipe from the windmill can be seen running into a makeshift trough where the former water tank was.

This photo shows men down and a horse depicting Dewey’s dead horse. The horse’s left foot and leg are pulled forward and its head and forelegs tied down to that leg. That is how they got him to lay still.

 

My parents’ families arrived in Cheyenne County about 1915-1920.  The story of the Dewey-Berry Fight was still being told locally.  I cannot remember when I first heard it.  I have been in that section of the county along Beaver Creek when I was very young.  I don’t remember visiting the exact location of the Alpheaus Berry homestead.  A Google fly-over indicates a modern dry-land farming operation there today.

By the 1880’s the Native Americans had been pushed onto reservations, and the buffalo were almost just a memory.  The vast expanse of fertile Western Kansas land first attracted the cattle ranchers and cattle trail drivers. The trail drivers route called The Western Trail entered Cheyenne County from the south. The trail proceeded north through the county and on to Ogallala, Nebraska.

The area was opened to homesteaders in 1885.  Cheyenne County applied for county status in 1886.  The vast flatland plains and rolling hills grew the short, thick, but nutritious, high protein, Buffalo grass.  The river and creek bottoms grew the taller Blue-stem grasses.

The settlers in that area were of a diverse origin: English, Scotch, Irish, French, Swiss, German, and German/Russian.  The large group of German/Russian ethnicity were mostly from the Ukraine.  They no doubt recognized wheat land when they saw it.  The settlers were hard working, devout, and determined to succeed.  They probably did not know how capricious the High Plains weather could be!

The earlier cattlemen took advantage of the vast open range to pasture cattle brought north from Texas.  The inevitable clash between cattle baron and settler was bound to happen in Western Kansas.

 

The Berry family had migrated from the eastern states to settle in Rawlins, Cheyenne and neighboring counties in the mid 1880’s.  I do not know the year exactly.  I do know that Cheyenne County was established in 1886.  The Alpheaus Berry farm was located in the southeast area of Cheyenne County.  Alpheaus’s farm was surrounded on all sides by land owned by the Dewey’s Oak Ranch.

The Dewey’s Oak Ranch headquarters was located near Atwood in Rawlins County.  The Dewey family roots were in Cadiz, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois.  The father, C.P. Dewey, was a lawyer and wealthy industrialist in Cadiz.  At the time it was a common thing to see rich Easterners dabbling in the ranching business.  The Dewey operation bought up homestead land at every opportunity.  The wealthy brother of John A. Rockefeller was attempting to develop a large ranch in the the same general area as the Deweys.  At the same time C. P. and his son Chauncey Dewey were fighting the homesteaders, they were fighting with the Rockefellers in and out of court.  Dewey sent heavily armed men to cut the Rockefeller fences as soon as they put them up.

In 1899, C. P. Dewey sent his 22-year-old son Chauncey to run the Oak Ranch.  The Chicago and European educated Chauncey immediately proclaimed that they intended to own all the land between Atwood, Kansas and the Colorado line.  That would have been a concern for the residents of Sherman and Cheyenne Counties.

The Berry family had suffered the ravages of drought, winter blizzards, and crop damage by Oak Ranch cattle.  The Berry boys had a reputation of being tough and surly.  They went armed, and were known to have thrown a few rifle shots over the heads of Oak Ranch cowboys that got a little too close to the homestead.

Young Chauncey promptly issued new double-action Colt revolvers to his cowboys.  They were instructed to carry both the revolvers and repeating rifles.

Chauncey Dewey purchased and issued to his cowhands Colt double-action revolvers such as this one. The revolver was made in two calibers. The .41 caliber was called “The Thunderer” and the .38 caliber was called, “The Lightning.” Dewey issued the .41 cal. to his employees and he carried a .38 cal. The revolver pictured here is a .38 cal. Lightening. Dewey was an expert with his Lightning.

The quarreling continued over land rights, cut fences, and damaged crops. Apparently the Berrys planted a crop on some Dewey land and the Oak Ranch won a property rights suit against the Berrys.  The court awarded a settlement to the Oak Ranch.  The Sheriff was instructed to proceed with attachment.  The May 14, 1903 issue of the Cheyenne County Rustler newspaper carried a Sheriff’s Notice announcing that Sheriff McCulloch would hold a public auction at the Alpheaus Berry farm at 2 p.m. on June 2.  One 12 ft. Goodhue windmill and one 15 barrel wood stock tank would be sold to the highest bidder.

 

I have wondered why the windmill and tank were chosen as the auction items.  They may have been the only thing free of debt.  The windmill and water tank would of course, be critical items to the homestead.  The Berrys were suffering from a drought and crop failure.  The loss of that equipment was probably the last straw.

 

Chauncey Dewey sent two of his trusted cowboys to purchase the items. When those two men and another Oak Ranch employee showed up early at the Berry farm they were promptly ordered off at gunpoint.  They waited in the road until Sheriff McCulloch arrived.

The Oak Ranch hands bought the water tank for five dollars.  They were authorized to pay up to ten dollars for the windmill, but Alpheaus Berry’s cousin, Roy Berry, bid $10.25 and saved the windmill.  When the cowboys said they would pick up the large 15 barrel capacity tank the next day, they were told they had better “send a big enough man to take care of himself.”

Chauncey Dewey was not about to let anybody intimidate him.  An expert with revolver and rifle himself, Dewey chose to bring Clyde Wilson, William McBride, and seven more men for a total of ten armed men.  The group included two teamsters driving mule teams pulling large lumber wagons.  A 15 barrel wood tank would be a bulky item to load and haul, but it would not have required ten men.  Wilson and McBride were both military veterans.  Wilson had seen extensive action during the Philippine insurrection.  Dewey came prepared for trouble.

When the Dewey crew arrived, Daniel P. Berry, the father, was working in a nearby field.  As the Dewey crew started to load the tank, Daniel went to the location.  The two sons, Alpheaus and Burch, rushed to the farmyard also.  Cousin Roy Berry later testified they all came in to help load the tank.  Gunfire erupted and when it was over D. P. Berry, Alpheaus Berry, and Burch Berry were dead.  Another son, Beach Berry, had a leg wound and the cousin Roy was shot in the face.  Both men later recovered from their wounds.  Not a Dewey man was hit.  Chauncey Dewey’s horse was killed by a stray bullet.  All Dewey men took refuge behind a sod wall near the cattle pens.

A report obtained from the files of the Sherman County Historical Society in Goodland, Kansas notes that McBride ran out from the wall, knocked D. P. Berry down, and shot him twice with his Colt revolver.  The wounded Roy took a bullet to the face, shattering his jaw, and the second bullet knocked off his hat.  Having been caught out in the open, Roy survived the rest of the gunfight by playing dead.  Beach ran from the cover of the corn crib to the farmhouse.  He later claimed that the Dewey crew fired six shots at him as he ran.

Beach Berry went to the town of McDonald and telephoned for the Coroner and Sheriff.  Sheriff McCulloch following the Coroner’s findings charged Chauncey Dewey, William J. McBride, and Clyde Wilson with murder.  He placed them in jail at St. Francis, two days later.

As the Berry family prepared to bury their dead at nearby Bird City, public sentiment against Dewey and his two employees grew to a fever pitch.  Fearing for the lives of the prisoners, the Governor of Kansas activated a Guard Unit and sent them to St. Francis.

Dewey, McBride, and Wilson were bound over to District Court.  Sheriff McCulloch delivered the three men to Goodland to be placed on the train to Topeka.  The Guard Unit escort marched the thirty some miles while the Sheriff rode his horse.  The three prisoners rode in a wagon.  It took the procession two days to reach Goodland.  The prisoners were then taken by train to Topeka and housed at the Shawnee County Jail.

The prisoners made bail and went into seclusion.  After much legal wrangling, the trial for murder was held at Norton in Norton County in early 1904.  The main question was, “Who started shooting first?”  The Dewey defense was, “Shoot or be shot.”  The legal wrangling went on for weeks.  Finally after a long deliberation the jury came back with a “Not Guilty” verdict.

A civil suit brought against Chauncey Dewey by Roy Berry and the widow of Daniel Berry went on for fifteen years.  The Berrys were awarded a small sum.  Dewey promptly contested and legal wrangling went on for many more years.  No one seems to know if the Berrys ever collected.

In their waning years, Roy and Beach Berry admitted that the Berrys had started the shootout that fateful day.  Chauncey Dewey heard of the admission and contacted Roy.  He asked if they would sign a statement to the fact that the Berrys had shot first.  Berry agreed and Dewey traveled to Berry’s Colorado home. The statement of admission was signed and affirmed.  Berry and Dewey shook hands and the Dewey-Berry feud was finally over.  Dewey is quoted as saying later that it might  not have ever happened if they all had been a little older and more mature.

Chauncey Dewey lived long enough to see the large concrete grain silos rise above the prairie. I took this picture of a large truck emptying a load of grain at the St. Francis, Kansas grain facility in 1958 – one year before Dewey passed away.

More facts about the Dewey-Berry Gunfight:

  1. The remaining seven Dewey participants in the gunfight were also charged with murder.  The charges were dropped when the “not guilty” verdict came down for the other three.  Those seven cowboys were: Thomas O’Neil, Charles Wilson, Ben Slater, Edward Tucker, Albert Winchip, James Armentrout, and Fred Dye.
  2. When the United States entered World War  I, Chauncey Dewey enlisted in the army.  He served three years, including sixteen months overseas.  He served on the staffs of Major General Baliou and General Leonard Wood.  Dewey achieved the rank of Major.
  3. Chauncey Dewey died in November, 1959 outliving the Berry battle survivors.  Dewey was married twice. The second marriage was to his secretary.  She was twenty years younger and passed in 1994.  On August 25, 1994, the St. Francis Herald newspaper advertised the auction of Lavon’s and Chauncey’s estate.
 
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Categories: American History, antique guns, guns, History, Kansas | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Sod House Memories

Sod House

My sister Mary and I standing on the east side of our sod-walled house probably in the mid 1940’s. Dad and Mom had re-plastered the outside giving it a mottled look. They had re-roofed the house adding dormers.

 

The above picture is of a sod-walled house formerly located southwest of St. Francis, Kansas, in Benkelman township.  The house and farmstead were located on a rise about a mile or so south of the Republican River.  I have heard the farm referred to as “The Downy Place.”  A longtime friend of my late father thought that the house was constructed by the Downy family in about 1910.

 

The walls were constructed of Buffalo Grass sod.  The wiry roots were quite evident when the sod was exposed.  A conventional four-sided wood-shingled roof rested on top of the sod walls.  The floor was of regular pine flooring, attached on floor joists resting on stringer supports above the ground.  The walls were twenty-four to twenty-six inches thick.  The inside of the sod walls were plastered with old-fashioned hog hair reinforced lime plaster, and then painted.  The inside partition walls and ceiling were standard frame lumber covered with a fiber wallboard.  Our family stretched poultry netting wire over the outside and pegged it down.  A cement mix was then troweled over the outside.  This is called stucco.  Earlier plaster without wire reinforcement failed to stick for long periods.

The freezing and thawing action during the winter months would cause the cement stucco to crack and break.  My mother was constantly patching the stucco and worrying about mice and the snakes that would follow.  Her worries were justified.   During a visit to the area several years ago, Merle Moberly, a family friend and neighbor from the past, told of being present during a noon meal when a young rattler peeked over at the junction of the ceiling and the top of an outer wall.  He said that there wasn’t much fuss.  My parents quickly dispatched it and carried it from the house and went on with the meal as if it was a normal occurrence.

 

Mary and I

Close-up from picture above.

I was not born in the sod house, but it is the first home that I can remember. However, my double cousin was born in this sod house.  My next youngest sister Mary and I were born in a frame house on a nearby farm that my parents were renting at the time.  We moved to the sod house farm when she was a baby and I was probably two and one-half years old.  My youngest sister Joan was born near the time this picture was taken.  She too, lived in this sod house as a baby.  She was the first of us born in a hospital.  I remember the emergency run and my mother telling my father he did not have much time to make it.

My sister Mary and I appear in this picture.  I think the picture was taken about 1945 or 1946.  It was taken during the winter.  There are no leaves on the tree near the well and garden, and the cold frame used to start garden plants in the early spring is clearly in disuse.  My sister wears lace-up shoes and warm thick stockings.  I have on an ear-flap cap and overalls.  I quit wearing overalls when I became a self-conscious teenager.  In recent years, I’ve rediscovered the comfort and practicability of bib overalls.

 

At first glance the old sod house looks like something from a hardscrabble district.  If it was, we did not know it.  There were two other similar sod houses in the area that I know of.  One was about a mile southeast of our farm.  It was owned by the Owens family.  It was in very good repair at the time.  I don’t think it exists anymore.  There were many sod houses in the county in the beginning.  The early ones were very rough.  It was a treeless country and lumber for construction just was not available.  Kansas winters can be severely cold.  A sod house is easy to heat in the winter and cool in the summer.  We heated ours with coal and used corn cobs for fuel in the kitchen range.  The hand-husked and gathered corn ears were ran through a mechanical sheller that stripped the grain from the cob and left the cob whole.  I have eaten many a biscuit that was baked to perfection in the oven of a kitchen range using corn cobs for fuel.

A closer look tells us much about life in rural Western Kansas in 1945. To the far right, one end of a solar dryer, commonly called a clothes line, is visible.  The chicken house was beyond that.  The little house with a path was somewhere back there discretely hidden from easy view.

The ball bat with the taped handle leaning against the house indicated we were probably interrupted at play for the picture.  The erosion around the base of the house was not from water but from the relentless currents of wind.  The vines on the east facing windows kept the sun out and helped keep the house cool in summer.  In winter they lost their leaves and let the warm sun in.

The bushel basket of fruit jars in the cold frame were being collected and stored for reuse.  As many farm families did, we canned and preserved much of our table fare.  The hoop with the slat cross was a screen used by my mother to sift the chaff out of wheat.  She washed, then dried the wheat in the cook-stove oven.  She ground the cleaned and dry wheat with a hand powered grinder to make flour for whole wheat bread and pancakes.  We grew and produced most of our own food.  The fertile soil grew a good garden when irrigated from the windmill.

One or two coal-oil lanterns always hung by the side door.  The pail and string mops have significance.  During a windstorm fine particles of sand and dust would come through the smallest of cracks.  After a big blow there was always the chore of swabbing the place down.

 

Side of the sod house.

Close-up of side of the sod house.

The pipe protruding from the roof was a support for the radio antenna wire.  The battery-powered radio was a source of news and entertainment.  The resonant voice of Lowell Thomas reported the events of the war.  “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “Amos and Andy” gave us mirth and laughter.  “I Love a Mystery,” led us on thrilling adventures limited only by our own imaginations.  On this radio I first heard Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again” and Eddy Arnold singing Tex Owen’s “The Cattle Call.”

With an old guitar I tried mightily to imitate Gene.  My harried mother finally banished me to the outdoors.  Taking refuge on the seat of the John Deere tractor, I plunked away for hours.  I never succeeded in making a recognizable sound.  After awhile the old guitar mysteriously disappeared.

Only the lower part of the small tower for the Delco wind-driven charger is visible in the picture.  Anchored on top of the dormer, the wind-powered generator charged wet cell storage batteries located in the attic.  They in turn furnished six volt, direct current electricity to the radio and to one lone light bulb on the ceiling of the kitchen.  The batteries had to be serviced periodically. How do I remember the apparatus was six volt?  Because, when the wind stopped and the storage batteries ran down, my father took the battery from the old Model A Ford and ran the radio from that battery.

The fact that the storage batteries in the attic had to be checked regularly led me into one of several close calls during an active childhood.  My father went up the ladder and into the dormer to check the water level in the storage batteries.  An adventuresome family cat followed him up the ladder and hid in the attic.  My father left, closing the dormer door.  A few hours later the cat put up a howl to be rescued.  My mother told me to go open the dormer door and let the cat out.  As I opened the door, a gust of wind caught the door and it knocked me off the roof.  I fell headfirst onto the step below, breaking a board.  When I regained consciousness, I was stretched out on a bed with my anxious parents hovering over me.  They took me to Dr. Peck’s office in St. Francis, and after an examination he pronounced that he could find nothing wrong.  However, I carried one shoulder down for several years, finally growing out of it.

 

It was about that time that my grandfather Cole started calling me “Toughie.”  He was already calling my travel-prone older brother “Bigfoot.”  Not long before the fall from the roof, a horse I was riding fell when an embankment caved off.  I threw myself to the side, but the horse rolled on over me.  The old high back saddle kept the horse’s weight off me (a few inches back or forward and I would not be here telling this story).  The horse got up.  I got up, pulled myself back into the saddle, and went about business as usual.

Getting on a horse was a chore for a kid. I could not reach the stirrup with my foot… My brother buckled a harness strap through the fork of the pommel and left it hanging so I could get ahold of it and pull up.  Once up, I could not reach the stirrups from the top side either.  My father finally bought me a youth saddle. Once I had that saddle, life was better.

 

My brother Wayne “Bigfoot,” was the cowboy among us.  He was an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky teenager.  Wayne started running away from home when he was fifteen.  As he explained, “just to see what was on the other side of the hill.”  Finally the folks just let him come and go as he wanted.  He wanted to be a cowboy, and eventually he did work on several ranches in Nebraska, Colorado, and even in Florida.

The Cowboys

The Cowboys
When my older brother Wayne returned home for a while, the first thing he would do was break any unbroken horses that dad had purchased while he was gone. In a few hours he had the big deep-chested gelding doing anything he asked it to do.
The stupid part-Shetland pony was a different story.
Not many days after this picture was taken, I was riding it along the road and a pheasant flew up out of the road ditch. The pony went crazy and dumped me in the gravel. I had a bad wrist spring as a result.

There was almost a ten year gap between Wayne and me.  The folks had lost an eight-year-old girl ten days after I was born.  She evidently died after a long illness from what we now call polio.  My mother had her hands full with an inquisitive, overactive youngster and a runaway teen.  She often said her worry was that I tried or would try to do every thing my older brother did.  And I did, but I never ran away.  I accepted responsibility early and stayed with it.  Subsequently, my work has let me do many things and taken me to some amazing places.  The adventure stories our Tennessee-born, Texas/New Mexico-homesteader grandfather told us no doubt influenced “Bigfoot” and “Toughie,” but in different ways.

 

A windmill in the corner of the barn lot pumped water to two large stock tanks. It was my job to switch the pipe from a full tank to the empty one.  One full tank had to be held in reserve at all times.  In my mind’s ear I still hear the kee-lunk, kee-lunk of the pumping wind mill.  That sound is a heritage of the Plains born.

Rattlers were commonly found on the farm.  When on foot I usually went protected by a couple of vigilant stock dogs.  One dog was named Teddy, because he resembled a bear.  Teddy was a dedicated snake killer.  He would tease a rattler until it struck at him.  The moment the rattler was stretched out from the strike, Teddy would grab it behind its head.  After a few powerful shakes of Teddy’s head, blood would fly and the snake would start coming apart.  I learned to always keep some distance.  Teddy got bit once in a while, but developed an immunity.  Perhaps, the snakes just did not get through his heavy black fur.  Teddy had a litter-mate we called Timmy.  He was an even-tempered dog, but he was not as smart as Teddy.  Teddy was a natural heeler and made a good stock dog.  Timmy ran at the cow’s head and never learned to round up or drive cattle very well.

Teddy the Dog

Teddy the stock dog stands in front of the wood frame building being moved in near the sod house.
We named him Teddy because he looked like a bear. Don’t you agree?

Badgers were common on the farm.  They were destructive and left dangerous holes for the horses to step in.  One time Teddy and Timmy cornered a badger over in the rough land we used for pasture.  He backed up against a soap weed (yucca plant) and proceeded to fight them off.  Growing tired of the fight, he decided to dig himself in.  Dirt and sand flew every direction.  I watched in amazement as he dug while facing the dogs and holding them off.  He was soon out of sight.  Try as they might they could not dig him out.  If you ever get a chance to look at a badger’s feet up close you will see they look like, well sort of look like miniature shovels with claws.

 

Many of my sod house memories are of the different horses we had.  One mare was very gentle.  She would ride me around until she grew tired of it, then she would lie down.  I could kick and holler to no avail.  When I gave up and stomped off toward the house, she would get up and go to the barn.  Another mare learned that when I rode bareback, she could put her head down, give a slight buck, and slide me off over her head.  It seemed to me that she always picked a patch of sand burrs to do it in.  You haven’t experienced pain until you pull imbedded sand burrs out of your hide.  I put a stop to that nonsense when I got tall enough and strong enough to push my saddle on her and jerk the cinch reasonably tight.  We enjoyed many fun rides along the old irrigation ditch to the west of us.  It was constructed by homesteaders in the 1890’s in a failed attempt to irrigate that dry land.

There was a large depression in a field to the southeast of the sod house.  It was thought to be a former buffalo wallow.  After the field had been worked or after a hard rain, my mother would take us arrowhead hunting.  We often found arrowheads at the wallow site.  A young boy didn’t have to stretch his imagination much to picture Roman Nose or Tall Bull hidden in the grass and weeds, bow and arrow in hand, waiting to ambush the varied types of game that frequented a buffalo wallow.  We found large arrowheads and small “bird” sized arrowheads.  That experience and visits to Beecher’s Island whetted my appetite for frontier history.

During the summer our parents would sometimes let Wayne and I sleep outside.  Because of the rattler problem, we were relegated to making our pallets up on the floor of the hay wagon.  We would go to sleep watching the twinkling stars.  In our minds we were cowboys, camping out on a cattle drive.  In my travels I’ve never found skies equal to Kansas skies, night or day.

In later years, I found that the cattle drovers trail called the Western Trail went through our area.  Perhaps trail cowboys “Teddy Blue” and Tom Wray may have driven Texas cattle across those same buffalo grass and sagebrush hills.  Wray Colorado was named for Tom Wray.  He wintered a Texas herd there and became the first settler in the area.

 

My parents sold the sod house farm in 1947 and moved north into Nebraska.  In 1950 we moved to Missouri.  My brother Wayne was married by that time and stayed out west.  Our mother died an untimely death from cancer in 1956.

 

Dad and House

Our father John Ryan with the sod-walled house in the background. He remembered the touring car as being a Starr brand. He did not own the property at the time but was visiting some one living there.
Dad told me he believed the picture was taken in the 1920’s.

 

I drove my father to Cheyenne County, Kansas for a visit in 1958.  The old sod house was gone.  The sod walls had been torn down and returned to the land they were plowed from fifty-some years before.

Homestead

The old sod house homestead on the horizon viewed from the Highland school site. The sod house was gone by the time this picture was taken in 1958.
For more about Highland School, see the Oct. 24, 2012 post Alma’s Fire Shovel.

 

Other House

Another well-kept sod-walled house in the same community. It was the home of the Rollie Owens family. I remember visiting there as a child. Although it was in good repair, no one was living there when I took this picture in 1958.

When we lived there, my father had moved a frame house from a neighboring farm.  That is the building on the house-mover’s trailer in the above picture with Teddy, our dog. My father had placed it near the sod house and used it for a bunkhouse and storage.  That house had been added to and remodeled into a small home.

 

During a summer vacation in the mid-nineties I stopped in Cheyenne County, rented a plane and pilot, and flew over the farmstead on the way to Beecher’s Island.  Sure enough, the outlines of the old buffalo wallow could be seen from the air.  A Google map fly-over today shows a nice modern farmstead. A sprinkler crop irrigation system is used.  I can still make out the outline of the old buffalo wallow.

Photo From Airplane

Photo taken from the airplane flight over the sod house farm. As you can see here, it is now a modern, well-kept farm.
I was pleased that I could plainly see the outline of the old buffalo wallow where we picked up arrowheads. The outline is visible just below the airplane wing strut. The Republican River is in the tree line in the background.

 

The land of my birth still intrigues me.  In fact, I could say my Sundown Trail started there.

 

Categories: History, Kansas, times gone by | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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