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Chapter 1.

  • Ancestry
  • -- Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks -- Rock spring farm -- Lincoln's birth -- Kentucky schools -- the journey to Indiana -- Pigeon Creek settlement -- Indiana schools -- Sally Bush Lincoln -- Gentryville -- work and books -- Satires and sermons -- flatboat voyage to New Orleans -- the journey to Illinois
    Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was born in a log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky on the 12th day of February, 1809. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was sixth in direct line of descent from Samuel Lincoln, who emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1638. Following the prevailing drift of American settlement, these descendants had, during a century and a half, successively moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, from Pennsylvania to Virginia, and from Virginia to Kentucky; while collateral branches of the family eventually made homes in other parts of the West. In Pennsylvania and Virginia some of them had acquired considerable property and local prominence.

    In the year 1780, Abraham Lincoln, the President's grandfather, was able to pay into the public treasury of Virginia “one hundred and sixty pounds, current money,” for which he received a warrant, directed to [4] the “Principal Surveyor of any County within the commonwealth of Virginia,” to lay off in one or more surveys for Abraham Linkhorn, his heirs or assigns, the quantity of four hundred acres of land. The error in spelling the name was a blunder of the clerk who made out the warrant.

    With this warrant and his family of five children-Mordecai, Josiah, Mary, Nancy, and Thomas-he moved to Kentucky, then still a county of Virginia, in 1780, and began opening a farm. Four years later, while at work with his three boys in the edge of his clearing, a party of Indians, concealed in the brush, shot and killed him. Josiah, the second son, ran to a neighboring fort for assistance; Mordecai, the eldest, hurried to the cabin for his gun, leaving Thomas, youngest of the family, a child of six years, by his father. Mordecai had just taken down his rifle from its convenient resting-place over the door of the cabin when, turning, he saw an Indian in his war-paint stooping to seize the child. He took quick aim through a loop-hole, shot, and killed the savage, at which the little boy also ran to the house, and from this citadel Mordecai continued firing at the Indians until Josiah brought help from the fort.

    It was doubtless this misfortune which rapidly changed the circumstances of the family.1 Kentucky was yet a wild, new country. As compared with later periods of emigration, settlement was slow and pioneer life a hard struggle. So it was probably under the stress of poverty, as well as by the marriage of the older children, that the home was gradually broken up, and Thomas Lincoln became “even in childhood ... a wandering laboring boy, and grew up literally [5] without education ... Before he was grown he passed one year as a hired hand with his uncle Isaac on Watauga, a branch of the Holston River.” Later, he seems to have undertaken to learn the trade of carpenter in the shop of Joseph Hanks in Elizabethtown.

    When Thomas Lincoln was about twenty-eight years old he married Nancy Hanks, a niece of his employer, near Beechland, in Washington County. She was a good-looking young woman of twenty-three, also from Virginia, and so far superior to her husband in education that she could read and write, and taught him how to sign his name. Neither one of the young couple had any money or property; but in those days living was not expensive, and they doubtless considered his trade a sufficient provision for the future. He brought her to a little house in Elizabethtown, where a daughter was born to them the following year.

    During the next twelvemonth Thomas Lincoln either grew tired of his carpenter work, or found the wages he was able to earn insufficient to meet his growing household expenses. He therefore bought a little farm on the Big South Fork of Nolin Creek, in what was then Hardin and is now La Rue County, three miles from Hodgensville, and thirteen miles from Elizabethtown. Having no means, he of course bought the place on credit, a transaction not so difficult when we remember that in that early day there was plenty of land to be bought for mere promises to pay; under the disadvantage, however, that farms to be had on these terms were usually of a very poor quality, on which energetic or forehanded men did not care to waste their labor. It was a kind of land generally known in the West as “barrens” --rolling upland, with very thin, unproductive soil. Its momentary usefulness was [6] that it was partly cleared and cultivated, that an indifferent cabin stood on it ready to be occupied, and that it had one specially attractive as well as useful feature — a fine spring of water, prettily situated amid a graceful clump of foliage, because of which the place was called Rock Spring Farm. The change of abode was perhaps in some respects an improvement upon Elizabethtown. To pioneer families in deep poverty, a little farm offered many more resources than a town lot-space, wood, water, greens in the spring, berries in the summer, nuts in the autumn, small game everywhere-and they were fully accustomed to the loss of companionship. On this farm, and in this cabin, the future President of the United States was born, on the 12th of February, 1809, and here the first four years of his childhood were spent.

    When Abraham was about four years old the Lincoln home was changed to a much better farm of two hundred and thirty-eight acres on Knob Creek, six miles from Hodgensville, bought by Thomas Lincoln, again on credit, for the promise to pay one hundred and eighteen pounds. A year later he conveyed two hundred acres of it by deed to a new purchaser. In this new home the family spent four years more, and while here Abraham and his sister Sarah began going to A B C schools. Their first teacher was Zachariah Riney, who taught near the Lincoln cabin; the next, Caleb Hazel, at a distance of about four miles.

    Thomas Lincoln was evidently one of those easygoing, good-natured men who carry the virtue of contentment to an extreme. He appears never to have exerted himself much beyond the attainment of a necessary subsistence. By a little farming and occasional jobs at his trade, he seems to have supplied his family with food and clothes. There is no record that [7] he made any payment on either of his farms. The fever of westward emigration was in the air, and, listening to glowing accounts of rich lands and newer settlements in Indiana, he had neither valuable possessions nor cheerful associations to restrain the natural impulse of every frontiersman to “move.” In this determination his carpenter's skill served him a good purpose, and made the enterprise not only feasible, but reasonably cheap. In the fall of 1816 he built himself a small flatboat, which he launched at the mouth of Knob Creek, half a mile from his cabin, on the waters of the Rolling Fork. This stream would float him to Salt River, and Salt River to the Ohio. He also thought to combine a little speculation with his undertaking. Part of his personal property he traded for four hundred gallons of whisky; then, loading the rest on his boat with his carpenter's tools and the whisky, he made the voyage, with the help of the current, down the Rolling Fork to Salt River, down Salt River to the Ohio, and down the Ohio to Thompson's Ferry, in Perry County, on the Indiana shore. The boat capsized once on the way, but he saved most of the cargo.

    Sixteen miles out from the river he found a location in the forest which suited him. Since his boat would not float up-stream, he sold it, left his property with a settler, and trudged back home to Kentucky, all the way on foot, to bring his wife and the two children-Sarah, nine years old, and Abraham, seven. Another son had been born to them some years before, but had died when only three days old. This time the trip to Indiana was made with the aid of two horses, used by the wife and children for riding and to carry their little equipage for camping at night by the way. In a straight line, the distance is about fifty miles; but [8] it was probably doubled by the very few roads it was possible to follow.

    Having reached the Ohio and crossed to where he had left his goods on the Indiana side, he hired a wagon, which carried them and his family the remaining sixteen miles through the forest to the spot he had chosen, which in due time became the Lincoln farm. It was a piece of heavily timbered land, one and a half miles east of what has since become the village of Gentryville, in Spencer County. The lateness of the autumn compelled him to provide a shelter as quickly as possible, and he built what is known on the frontier as a half-faced camp, about fourteen feet square. This structure differed from a cabin in that it was closed on only three sides, and open to the weather on the fourth. It was usual to build the fire in front of the open side, and the necessity of providing a chimney was thus avoided. He doubtless intended it for a mere temporary shelter, and as such it would have sufficed for good weather in the summer season. But it was a rude provision for the winds and snows of an Indiana winter. It illustrates Thomas Lincoln's want of energy, that the family remained housed in this primitive camp for nearly a whole year. He must, however, not be too hastily blamed for his dilatory improvement. It is not likely that he remained altogether idle. A more substantial cabin was probably begun, and, besides, there was the heavy work of clearing away the timber — that is, cutting down the large trees, chopping them into suitable lengths, and rolling them together/into great log-heaps to be burned, or splitting them into rails to fence the small field upon which he managed to raise a patch of corn and other things during the ensuing summer.

    Thomas Lincoln's arrival was in the autumn of [9] 1816. That same winter Indiana was admitted to the Union as a State. There were as yet no roads worthy of the name to or from the settlement formed by himself and seven or eight neighbors at various distances. The village of Gentryville was not even begun. There was no sawmill to saw lumber. Breadstuff could be had only by sending young Abraham, on horseback, seven miles, with a bag of corn to be ground on a hand grist-mill. In the course of two or three years a road from Corydon to Evansville was laid out, running past the Lincoln farm; and perhaps two or three years afterward another from Rockport to Bloomington, crossing the former. This gave rise to Gentryville. James Gentry entered the land at the crossroads. Gideon Romine opened a small store, and their joint efforts succeeded in getting a post-office established, from which the village gradually grew. For a year after his arrival Thomas Lincoln remained a mere squatter. Then he entered the quarter-section (one hundred and sixty acres) on which he opened his farm, and made some payments on his entry, but only enough in eleven years to obtain a patent for one half of it.

    About the time that he moved into his new cabin, relatives and friends followed from Kentucky, and some of them in turn occupied the half-faced camp. In the ensuing autumn much sickness prevailed in the Pigeon Creek settlement. It was thirty miles to the nearest doctor, and several persons died, among them Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of young Abraham. The mechanical skill of Thomas was called upon to make the coffins, the necessary lumber for which had to be cut with a whip-saw.

    The death of Mrs. Lincoln was a serious loss to her husband and children. Abraham's sister Sarah was [10] only eleven years old, and the tasks and cares of the little household were altogether too heavy for her years and experience. Nevertheless, they struggled on bravely through the winter and next summer, but in the autumn of 1819 Thomas Lincoln went back to Kentucky and married Sally Bush Johnston, whom he had known and, it is said, courted when she was merely Sally Bush. Johnston, to whom she was married about the time Lincoln married Nancy Hanks, had died, leaving her with three children. She came of a better station in life than Thomas, and is represented as a woman of uncommon energy and thrift, possessing excellent qualities both of head and heart. The household goods which she brought to the Lincoln home in Indiana filled a four-horse wagon. Not only were her own three children well clothed and cared for, but she was able at once to provide little Abraham and Sarah with home comforts to which they had been strangers during the whole of their young lives. Under her example and urging, Thomas at once supplied the yet unfinished cabin with floor, door, and windows, and existence took on a new aspect for all the inmates. Under her management and control, all friction and jealousy was avoided between the two sets of children, and contentment, if not happiness, reigned in the little cabin.

    The new stepmother quickly perceived the superior aptitudes and abilities of Abraham. She became very fond of him, and in every way encouraged his marked inclination to study and improve himself. The opportunities for this were meager enough. Mr. Lincoln himself has drawn a vivid outline of the situation:

    It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools so called, but no qualification [11] was ever required of a teacher beyond readin‘, writin‘, and cipherina.lsquo; to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education.

    As Abraham was only in his eighth year when he left Kentucky, the little beginnings he had learned in the schools kept by Riney and Hazel in that State must have been very slight-probably only his alphabet, or possibly three or four pages of Webster's “Elementary spelling book.” It is likely that the multiplication table was as yet an unfathomed mystery, and that he could not write or read more than the words he spelled. There is no record at what date he was able again to go to school in Indiana. Some of his schoolmates think it was in his tenth year, or soon after he fell under the care of his stepmother. The school-house was a low cabin of round logs, a mile and a half from the Lincoln home, with split logs or “puncheons” for a floor, split logs roughly leveled with an ax and set up on legs for benches, and a log cut out of one end and the space filled in with squares of greased paper for window panes. The main light in such primitive halls of learning was admitted by the open door. It was a type of school building common in the early West, in which many a statesman gained the first rudiments of knowledge. Very often Webster's “Elementary spelling book” was the only text-book. Abraham's first Indiana school was probably held five years before Gentryville was located and a store established there. Until then it was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain books, slates, pencils, pen, ink, and paper, and their use was limited to settlers who had brought them when they came. It is reasonable to infer that the [12] Lincoln family had no such luxuries, and, as the Pigeon Creek settlement numbered only eight or ten families, there must have been very few pupils to attend this first school. Nevertheless, it is worthy of special note that even under such difficulties and limitations, the American thirst for education planted a school-house on the very forefront of every settlement.

    Abraham's second school in Indiana was held about the time he was fourteen years old, and the third in his seventeenth year. By this time he probably had better teachers and increased facilities, though with the disadvantage of having to walk four or five miles to the school-house. He learned to write, and was provided with pen, ink, and a copy-book, and probably a very limited supply of writing-paper, for facsimiles have been printed of several scraps and fragments upon which he had carefully copied tables, rules, and sums from his arithmetic, such as those of long measure, land measure, and dry measure, and examples in multiplication and compound division. All this indicates that he pursued his studies with a very unusual purpose and determination, not only to understand them at the moment, but to imprint them indelibly upon his memory, and even to retain them in visible form for reference when the school-book might no longer be in his hands or possession.

    Mr. Lincoln has himself written that these three different schools were “kept successively by Andrew Crawford, — Swaney, and Azel W. Dorsey.” Other witnesses state the succession somewhat differently. The important fact to be gleaned from what we learn about Mr. Lincoln's schooling is that the instruction given him by these five different teachers--two in Kentucky and three in Indiana, in short sessions of attendance scattered over a period of nine yearsmade [13] up in all less than a twelvemonth. He said of it in 1860, “Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year.” This distribution of the tuition he received was doubtless an advantage. Had it all been given him at his first school in Indiana, it would probably not have carried him half through Webster's “Elementary spelling book.” The lazy or indifferent pupils who were his schoolmates doubtless forgot what was taught them at one time before they had opportunity at another; but to the exceptional character of Abraham, these widely separated fragments of instruction were precious steps to self-help, of which he made unremitting use.

    It is the concurrent testimony of his early companions that he employed all his spare moments in keeping on with some one of his studies. His stepmother says: “Abe read diligently . . . He read every book he could lay his hands on; and when he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards, if he had no paper, and keep it there until he did get paper. Then he would rewrite it, look at it, repeat it. He had a copy-book, a kind of scrap-book, in which he put down all things, and thus preserved them.” There is no mention that either he or other pupils had slates and slate-pencils to use at school or at home, but he found a ready substitute in pieces of board. It is stated that he occupied his long evenings at home doing sums on the fire-shovel. Iron fireshovels were a rarity among pioneers; they used, instead, a broad, thin clapboard with one end narrowed to a handle. In cooking by the open fire, this domestic implement was of the first necessity to arrange piles of live coals on the hearth, over which they set their “skillet” and “oven,” upon the lids of which live coals were also heaped. [14]

    Upon such a wooden shovel Abraham was able to work his sums by the flickering firelight. If he had no pencil, he could use charcoal, and probably did so. When it was covered with figures he would take a drawing-knife, shave it off clean, and begin again. Under these various disadvantages, and by the help of such troublesome expedients, Abraham Lincoln worked his way to so much of an education as placed him far ahead of his schoolmates, and quickly abreast of the acquirements of his various teachers. The field from which he could glean knowledge was very limited, though he diligently borrowed every book in the neighborhood. The list is a short one-“Robinson Crusoe,” AEsop's “Fables,” Bunyan's “Pilgrim's progress,” Weems's “Life of Washington,” and a “History of the United States.” When he had exhausted other books, he even resolutely attacked the Revised Statutes of Indiana, which Dave Turnham, the constable, had in daily use and permitted him to come to his house and read.

    It needs to be borne in mind that all this effort at self-education extended from first to last over a period of twelve or thirteen years, during which he was also performing hard manual labor, and proves a degree of steady, unflinching perseverance in a line of conduct that brings into strong relief a high aim and the consciousness of abundant intellectual power. He was not permitted to forget that he was on an uphill path, a stern struggle with adversity. The leisure hours which he was able to devote to his reading, his penmanship, and his arithmetic were by no means overabundant. Writing of his father's removal from Kentucky to Indiana, he says:

    He settled in an unbroken forest, and the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task ahead. Abraham, [15] though very young, was large of his age, and had an ax put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument-less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.

    John Hanks mentions the character of his work a little more in detail. “He and I worked barefoot, grubbed it, plowed, mowed, and cradled together; plowed corn, gathered it, and shucked corn.” The sum of it all is that from his boyhood until after he was of age, most of his time was spent in the hard and varied muscular labor of the farm and the forest, sometimes on his father's place, sometimes as a hired hand for other pioneers. In this very useful but commonplace occupation he had, however, one advantage. ·He was not only very early in his life a tall, strong country boy, but as he grew up he soon became a tall, strong, sinewy man. He early attained the unusual height of six feet four inches, with arms of proportionate length. This gave him a degree of power and facility as an ax man which few had or were able to acquire. He was therefore usually able to lead his fellows in efforts of both muscle and mind. He performed the tasks of his daily labor and mastered the lessons of his scanty schooling with an ease and rapidity they were unable to attain.

    Twice during his life in Indiana this ordinary routine was somewhat varied. When he was sixteen, while working for a man who lived at the mouth of Anderson's Creek, it was part of his duty to manage a ferry-boat which transported passengers across the Ohio River. It was doubtless this which three years later brought him a new experience, that he himself related in these words:

    When he was nineteen, still residing in Indiana, he [16] made his first trip upon a flatboat to New Orleans. He was a hired hand merely, and he and a son of the owner, without other assistance, made the trip. The nature of part of the ‘cargo load,’ as it was called, made it necessary for them to linger and trade along the sugar-coast, and one night they were attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the melee, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then ‘cut cable,’ ‘weighed anchor,’ and left.

    This commercial enterprise was set on foot by Mr. Gentry, the founder of Gentryville. The affair shows us that Abraham had gained an enviable standing in the village as a man of honesty, skill, and judgment-one who could be depended on to meet such emergencies as might arise in selling their bacon and other produce to the cotton-planters along the shores of the lower Mississippi.

    By this time Abraham's education was well advanced. His handwriting, his arithmetic, and his general intelligence were so good that he had occasionally been employed to help in the Gentryville store, and Gentry thus knew by personal test that he was entirely capable of assisting his son Allen in the trading expedition to New Orleans. For Abraham, on the other hand, it was an event which must have opened up wide vistas of future hope and ambition. Allen Gentry probably was nominal supercargo and steersman, but we may easily surmise that Lincoln, as the “bow oar,” carried his full half of general responsibility. For this service the elder Gentry paid him eight dollars a month and his passage home on a steamboat. It was the future President's first eager look into the wide, wide world.

    Abraham's devotion to his books and his sums [17] stands forth in more striking light from the fact that his habits differed from those of most frontier boys in one important particular. Almost every youth of the backwoods early became a habitual hunter and superior marksman. The Indiana woods were yet swarming with game, and the larder of every cabin depended largely upon this great storehouse of wild meat.2 The Pigeon Creek settlement was especially fortunate on this point. There was in the neighborhood of the Lincoln home what was known in the West as a deer-lick --that is, there existed a feeble salt-spring, which impregnated the soil in its vicinity or created little pools of brackish water-and various kinds of animals, particularly deer, resorted there to satisfy their natural craving for salt by drinking from these or licking the moist earth. Hunters took advantage of this habit, and one of their common customs was to watch in the dusk or at night, and secure their approaching prey by an easy shot. Skill with the rifle and success in the chase were points of friendly emulation. In many localities the boy or youth who shot a squirrel in any part of the animal except its head became the butt of the jests of his companions and elders. Yet, under such conditions and opportunities Abraham was neither a hunter nor a marksman. He tells us:

    A few days before the completion of his eighth year, in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log cabin, and Abraham, with a rifle gun, standing inside, shot through a crack [18] and killed one of them. He has never since pulled a trigger on any larger game.

    The hours which other boys spent in roaming the woods or lying in ambush at the deer-lick, he preferred to devote to his effort at mental improvement. It can hardly be claimed that he did this from calculating ambition. It was a native intellectual thirst, the significance of which he did not himself yet understand. Such exceptional characteristics manifested themselves only in a few matters. In most particulars he grew up as the ordinary backwoods boy develops into the youth and man. As he was subjected to their usual labors, so also he was limited to their usual pastimes and enjoyments.

    The varied amusements common to our day were not within their reach. The period of the circus, the political speech, and the itinerant show had not yet come. Schools, as we have seen, and probably meetings or church services, were irregular, to be had only at long intervals. Primitive athletic games and commonplace talk, enlivened by frontier jests and stories, formed the sum of social intercourse when half a dozen or a score of settlers of various ages came together at a house-raising or corn-husking, or when mere chance brought them at the same time to the post-office or the country store. On these occasions, however, Abraham was, according to his age, always able to contribute his full share or more. Most of his natural aptitudes equipped him especially to play his part well. He had quick intelligence, ready sympathy, a cheerful temperament, a kindling humor, a generous and helpful spirit. He was both a ready talker and appreciative listener. By virtue of his tall stature and unusual strength of sinew and muscle, he was from the beginning a leader in all athletic games; by reason of his [19] studious habits and his extraordinarily retentive memory, he quickly became the best story-teller among his companions. Even the slight training he gained from his studies greatly quickened his perceptions and broadened and steadied the strong reasoning faculty with which nature had endowed him.

    As the years of his youth passed by, his less gifted comrades learned to accept his judgments and to welcome his power to entertain and instruct them. On his own part, he gradually learned to write not merely with the hand, but also with the mind — to think. It was an easy transition for him from remembering the jingle of a commonplace rhyme to the constructing of a doggerel verse, and he did not neglect the opportunity of practising his penmanship in such impromptus. Tradition also relates that he added to his list of stories and jokes humorous imitations from the sermons of eccentric preachers. But tradition has very likely both magnified and distorted these alleged exploits of his satire and mimicry. All that can be said of them is that his youth was marked by intellectual activity far beyond that of his companions.

    It is an interesting coincidence that nine days before the birth of Abraham Lincoln Congress passed the act to organize the Territory of Illinois, which his future life and career were destined to render so illustrious. Another interesting coincidence may be found in the fact that in the same year (1818) in which Congress definitely fixed the number of stars and stripes in the national flag, Illinois was admitted as a State to the Union. The Star of Empire was moving westward at an accelerating speed. Alabama was admitted in 1819, Maine in 1820, Missouri in 1821. Little by little the line of frontier settlement was pushing itself toward the Mississippi. No sooner had the pioneer built him [20] a cabin and opened his little farm, than during every summer canvas-covered wagons wound their toilsome way over the new-made roads into the newer wilderness, while his eyes followed them with wistful eagerness. Thomas Lincoln and his Pigeon Creek relatives and neighbors could not forever withstand the contagion of this example, and at length they yielded to the irrepressible longing by a common impulse. Mr. Lincoln writes:

    March 1, 1830, Abraham having just completed his twenty-first year, his father and family, with the families of the two daughters and sons-in-law of his stepmother, left the old homestead in Indiana and came to Illinois. Their mode of conveyance was wagons drawn by ox-teams, and Abraham drove one of the teams. They reached the county of Macon, and stopped there some time within the same month of March. His father and family settled a new place on the north side of the Sangamon River, at the junction of the timber land and prairie, about ten miles westerly from Decatur. Here they built a log cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficient of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop.of sown corn upon it the same year. . . . The sons-in-law were temporarily settled in other places in the county. In the autumn all hands were greatly afflicted with ague and fever, to which they had not been used, and by which they were greatly discouraged, so much so that they determined on leaving the county. They remained, however, through the succeeding winter, which was the winter of the very celebrated “deep snow” of Illinois.

    1 By the law of primogeniture, which at that date was still unrepealed in Virginia, the family estate went to Mordecai, the eldest son.

    2 Franklin points out how much this resource of the early Americans contributed to their spirit of independence by saying:

    “I can retire cheerfully with my little family into the boundless woods of America, which are sure to afford freedom and subsistence to any man who can bait a hook or pull a trigger.” (See “The century Magazine,” “Franklin as a Diplomatist,” October, 1899, p. 888.)

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