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Riverboat Gambler

Riverboat Gambler

By Scriptorius

SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THREE

Riverboat Gambler

Steve Dunne sat his horse atop the ridge that loomed over the ugly straggle of buildings widely, though not officially, known as Hell’s Elbow. The place wasn’t marked on any map. Among the cognoscenti, it had acquired the first part of its name from a reputation for harbouring outlaws and the second from its proximity to the river which rolled in from the northwest, then swung southwards, confining the settlement between its northern bank and the rocky escarpment on which Steve had halted. For him, it was the end of a journey of over a thousand miles, the last hundred on a rented gelding.

So this was the domain of Claude Turnbull, leader of a band that deferred not even to that of the James brothers in notoriety. The location of Turnbull’s hideout wasn’t common knowledge. Had it been so, lawmen galore would have descended upon this corner of Texas. Steve Dunne had come upon the spot by diligent application of his usual combination of enquiry, hunch and persistence.

Short of a tedious trek northwest or south, Steve’s only way into Hell’s Elbow was to take the barely detectable serpentine path down the steep slope, which would put him in full view of the buildings during the whole of his approach. For him, it was an easy choice, as he intended to be seen well ahead of his arrival. He nudged the horse forward, beginning the zigzag descent.

It was late afternoon when Steve reached the settlement. The path ended in a one-sided street, comprising a dozen or so wooden structures – an unprepossessing redoubt for those enjoying the proceeds of their crimes.

Most of the buildings gave no indication of their functions, but one had the batwing doors of a saloon. Steve took note of this as he passed along the street to a ramshackle heap that was a livery barn of sorts. No one was in attendance, so he saw to his horse then walked back to the saloon, finding it cold, dimly lit and altogether thoroughly uninviting. Until his arrival, the bartender had been the only occupant.

Steve ordered a beer and was pleased to find it better than he’d expected. “We don’t get many strangers here,” said the barman, a tall, thin fellow whose lugubrious expression matched his surroundings.

“I don’t aim to be a stranger for long,” replied Steve. “I’m looking for Claude Turnbull. Heard he runs a spread hereabouts.”

The remark was intentionally provocative and drew the response Steve had expected. Raising his eyebrows, the barman stared hard at the newcomer. “Nobody of that name around here, mister, “ he said. “Only ranch in these parts is owned by Tom Ashcroft.”

Steve grinned. “No need to be cagey, friend,” he said. “You know he calls himself Ashcroft, I know it and guess everybody else here does. We all know he’s Claude Turnbull.”

The barman shook his head slowly. “You’d better be careful what you say,” he answered. “Talk like that could get a man into trouble. There’s nothing goes on around here that Ashcroft doesn’t find out about, pretty quick.”

“That’s okay by me,” said Steve. “I intend to join up with him.”

“Oh. Does he know that?”

“Not yet.”

The saloonkeeper swished a towel across the bartop. “Well,” he said, “maybe you know what you’re doing, but you’re a pushy gent. If I was you, I’d watch my step.”

“Thanks for the advice,” said Steve. “Now, if you can fix me up with a room for tonight, I’ll drop in on Turnbull tomorrow. Kind of surprise him.” Like Steve’s opening show of bravado, this was a deliberate ploy. If his guess was right, the barman wouldn’t let the matter rest there.

Upstairs, there were three cheerless bedrooms. Steve took the least disagreeable one and after getting himself a meal at the dingy eating house along the street, he bought a bottle of the saloon’s best whiskey and settled himself down for an early night. He had made as good a start as could be expected.

The barkeeper didn’t waste much time and neither did Claude Turnbull. It was dawn when the visitors came. Steve was awake, working out how he would play his hand. He heard only the faintest sound of a boot scraping the floor outside his room, then the door was kicked open and two men, handguns drawn, advanced upon the bed. “No sudden moves,” rasped one of them. Steve obliged.

The men differed only in size, one tall, the other short. Both were slim, dark-faced, stubble-jawed types. Four cold, hard eyes were fixed on Steve as steadily as the two gun barrels. “Get dressed,” said the taller man. “You’re takin’ a ride.”

“No need for the big show, boys,” Steve answered, pulling on his boots, “but you could have waited till after breakfast.”

“Cut the gab,” snarled the tall man. “We got your horse outside. Just walk between us, an’ remember there’s a couple of itchy trigger-fingers around.” His partner swept up Steve’s gun belt and weapon from the bedpost.

The newcomer hadn’t expected the reaction to his arrival to be quite so prompt, but wasn’t put out. These hardcases could only be Turnbull’s minions. He would go along with them up to a point but given the right opening, he would do things his way. With the shorter man leading and his companion at the rear, the party descended the stairs and clumped across the creaky floorboards.

For an instant, Steve considered trying something with the batwing doors, but rejected the idea. There would probably be a better opportunity. There was, and it came quickly. Outside, at the hitchrail, Steve’s horse was between those of his captors. The short man moved to his mount. His partner nudged Steve with a .45. “Go to your bronc,” he grunted. “Don’t get aboard before I tell you to.” When he was satisfied that Steve was in position, he swung up onto his horse, finally holstering his gun, confident that he had a defenceless prisoner. “You can mount now,” he said.

Steve weighed up the position. These two messengers were probably under instructions to use no more force than necessary. They wouldn’t be bargaining with catching a tiger by the tail in their own stronghold. The horses were standing close together and, reasoning that there might not be another chance, Steve acted. He got his left foot into its stirrup, then, as his right leg swung up, he lashed it out, backwards and upwards.

The move was risky, but it worked. Steve’s boot thudded into the mounted man’s right arm, thrusting his body to the left. As much from surprise as from the impact, the man toppled out of his saddle, his right foot flying free, the left one failing to clear the stirrup. The man’s head and shoulders thumped to the ground. Rounding the startled horse, Steve was upon the fellow in a flash, slamming a fist at his jaw and using a knee to pin his right arm to the ground. Grabbing the man’s gun from its holster, Steve silenced him by rapping the barrel behind his ear. Confused by the sudden action and the poor light, the other man, not yet mounted, hesitated. Steve, no stranger to swift violent action, took the initiative. “Keep still,” he snapped. “I’ve got your pard out cold and I can see your legs. If you move one of them, I’ll shoot the other.”

The short man stood irresolute for a moment, then made his decision. “Okay,” he said. “I ain’t bein’ paid to get plugged. Not this time anyway.”

“You’re talking good sense,” Steve replied. “Now, just throw your gun and mine over there into the street, where I can see them, then step clear, nice and slow. And keep your back to me.” The man obeyed and Steve recovered his gun, tossing away the other two weapons. He strode over to the short fellow, jabbing him in the back with the gun barrel. “Now,” he said. “I guess you’re from Turnbull, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Good. Here’s your choice. You can direct me to his place and live, or refuse and die. It’s all the same to me. What’s it to be?”

“Hell, mister, there’s no need to get rough. You just head east, down the trail. It’s only four miles.” He jerked his thumb back over his head to show the way.

For a moment, Steve thought of marching the inept duo ahead of him, then, seeing a lariat slung on the tall man’s saddle, he reconsidered. Taking the rope and cutting it in two, he trussed both would-be abductors across their horses, then moved the party off in line abreast, himself in the middle.

It was full daylight when Steve and his involuntary escort reached the Turnbull place, an apology for a cattle spread, with a scatter of dilapidated, weather-beaten wooden outbuildings around the adobe ranch house. The threesome got to within fifteen yards of the house when a man came to the door.

Steve had seen enough pictures to have no doubt in the matter of identification. He was looking at a man around forty-five years old, of middling height, heavily built, with a bulging mid-section. The hatless head was well thatched with salt and pepper hair, the sharp blue eyes set in a round, fleshy face. This was Claude Turnbull all right. He looked mildly amused, but didn’t speak immediately.

Steve cut the ropes binding his hapless would-be captors to their horses and heaved the two men to the ground. “Morning,” he called to Turnbull. “I was coming to see you anyway. If you wanted me sooner, you didn’t need to send these two hunks of buzzard bait.”

Turnbull waved a hand at a wiry little man, standing at the door of the log bunkhouse. “Mort, get these boys out of the way. I’ll talk to them later.” The voice wasn’t raised much, but covered the thirty yards between the two men. Then Turnbull’s full attention was once more focused on Steve. “Well, sir, whoever you are, you know how to make an entrance. I’ll give you that.” The tone was low, clear and well-controlled. “Light down and tell me what you want here.”

Steve dismounted. “I’d a notion to join the famous Turnbull outfit,” he said, matching the gang leader’s quiet tones. “Seems maybe you need somebody if these two rannies are the best you have.”

Turnbull smiled and made no attempt to deny his identity. “No,” he said. “They’re not the best I have. Mr Hanratty here could give you a better introduction to our little ways.” He waved an arm and the sound of heavy footsteps preceded the appearance in the doorway of a great slab of a man, around six-four in height and weighing, Steve guessed, a good two hundred and thirty pounds. Turnbull switched his attention back to Steve. “This is my foreman,” he said. “Now, if you’ll look over to the bunkhouse, you’ll see two rifles pointing at you, so I’ll trouble you to dispense with your gun.”

Steve didn’t bother to look. He unbuckled his gun belt and let it fall. “Now, Mr Whoever,” Turnbull continued. “You can try conclusions with Pete here if you wish. Frankly, I wouldn’t advise it, although I’d enjoy the entertainment. We’re a little short of that here.”

“I’ll have to disappoint you,” Steve replied. “I know my limits. I might outgun him, but I don’t believe I could outfight him.”

Turnbull chuckled. “Well, that makes you smart enough,” he said. “I think you’d better come inside.” He led the way, motioning Steve to one of the two armchairs flanking the fireplace. He produced a bottle of brandy and two glasses, pouring generously, then took the second seat, giving his stormy visitor a wry grin. “I like your style,” he said in that quiet, unemotional voice. “Could be we’d better get on different terms before you damage any more of my boys. Now, who are you and what are you really doing here?”

“It’s no big secret,” Steve replied. The name’s Steve Dunne. I’ve been playing a lone hand for a while. Things have got uncomfortable lately and I reckoned I’d be better off throwing in with the right people. Everybody knows you’re the best, so I just found you. I guess you could say I’m applying for a job, in a way.”

Turnbull looked closely at his guest, assessing him correctly as a little over thirty and noting the tough, raw-boned frame, the short straight black hair, the clear grey eyes, the clean-shaven face, dark complexion and long, stubborn-looking jawline. “Hmn,” he said. “I never heard of any Steve Dunne. How about some proof and maybe some evidence that you’re my kind of man?”

Steve fished in his shirt pocket, pulling out three sheets of paper and tossing them to the gang leader. “I don’t expect you to take me on trust,” he said, “but I believe these say enough.”

Turnbull unfolded the offerings. The first, two years old, was a document stating that Captain Stephen Dunne had been dishonourably discharged from the US Army. The gang leader read it, then fixed his eyes on Steve again. “Captain, were you?” he said. “So you’re not a common roughneck. What did you do to earn this?”

Steve summoned a bleak smile. “Officially, the reason was irresponsible handling of my men during a reconnaissance outing. The truth is that I was something of a ladies’ man, and one of the women I got involved with was the wife of my commanding officer. He found out and had it in for me. Gave me one near-impossible assignment after another. It was sure to be only a matter of time before I came to grief. Frankly, I think I did pretty well to survive as long as I did before the blow fell.”

Turnbull nodded, then looked at the other two items. They were ‘wanted’ posters, one a little over a year old, the other almost new. In both cases, the name was Stephen Dunne and the face was unmistakably that of Turnbull’s visitor. On the older dodger, the reward was $2,000, the crime being armed robbery. The newer one added two further similar offences, plus one of murder and the bounty had increased to $5,000.

Turnbull handed the papers back to Steve. “You appear to have been a busy man since you left the army,” he said. “Now, I can pick up hardcases anytime, even fairly intelligent ones. The fact is I don’t need them any more. Maybe I could have used you five years ago, when I started up, but everything runs its course and we’ve just about had our day. The game’s over and I’m breaking up the gang, so it seems you’ve come along too late. Now, if you can give me a good reason why I shouldn’t have you killed right now, you’d better do that.”

“I can give you sixty-five thousand good reasons,” Steve answered. “I didn’t come here empty-handed. There’s a little job I have in mind and it’ll need more than one man. I figure four or five could do it, but a couple of spare hands would be all to the good. If you’re interested, I’d like to cut you in. If not, I’ll try the Cole brothers, or maybe Tyson’s gang. Trouble is they’re both up north and this job is here in Texas.” Turnbull lit a cigar, offering another to Steve, who accepted. The gang leader sprawled back. “I’ve nothing to lose by listening,” he said, “but it had better be good. I’ve heard my share of hare-brained schemes for one lifetime and I’ve already got enough salted away to move over the border and live out my days in style. Anyway, go on.”

“Well,” Steve replied, “it’s this way. During my time in the army, I spent a good while at headquarters up in Grainger and I was very friendly with the civilian who runs the accounts system there. He was a gambler and got himself into deep trouble. He owes nearly five thousand dollars. He was given time to pay and if he doesn’t, the man he’s in debt to has promised to help him along to the hereafter.”

“I’d probably do the same myself,” said Turnbull. “How do you come into it?”

“I never lost touch with this accountant. He got word to me and suggested a way out of his predicament. It’s really his idea, only he has no stomach for our kind of work. He just wants to save his skin. Now, do you know the territory east of here?”

“Not very well.”

“Okay. As I said, the main post is at Grainger. Every three months, a shipment of bullion and currency is sent south, to Fort Harding. The two places are a hundred and sixty miles apart. Around a hundred miles from Grainger, there’s a little place called Stewart’s Landing. The point is, the shipment is taken south by a steamboat, which calls at this place to take on firewood. We’re not talking of one of your ‘River Queens’. This is just an old tub that carries cargo only. The army reckons it’s an easy way to get the stuff transported because it doesn’t attract attention, especially not the way they do it.”

“What way’s that?”

“Simple. The shipment’s always in metal containers, sealed up tight and labelled ‘Highly poisonous. Do not open’. What could be more effective? Any thief would avoid that stuff like the plague and the boat’s captain really thinks he’s carrying toxic material. He’s been assured that as long as he doesn’t tamper with it, there’s no danger to him or his crew – that’s an engineer and two other men – and he gets a big bonus for the job. They’ve been doing it that way for eighteen months.”

Turnbull nodded. “I see. Don’t they have some sort of security?”

“They do, but it’s a joke. For one thing, I already said that no sane man would take containers full of unidentified poison and for another, the boat halts only at Stewart’s Landing, and then for just two hours. There’s an escort of one officer and one trooper and as soon as they stop, the trooper goes ashore to get a drink or two and the captain and his three men follow him shortly afterwards, leaving only the officer on board.”

“Seems to me they’re taking quite a risk,” said Turnbull. “What’s to prevent these two soldiers running off with the containers?”

“Simple again,” Steve answered. “They’re not regular Grainger men. They get detached from another unit. Like the captain, they think they’re escorting a dangerous shipment. And they get a bonus, too. In that respect, the system’s foolproof.”

“So what’s your idea?” Turnbull seemed intrigued.

“Well, this consignment is always a big one. It has to pay the wages, allow for buying provisions, construction work and everything the fort needs. The next one will be especially big, to cover payment to a civil engineering firm that has a bridge-building contract. My man tells me the total’s usually close to fifty thousand dollars. This time it’ll be around fifteen thousand more. All we have to do is watch from a distance – there’s enough cover – till the trooper and crew leave the boat, then we go aboard, see to the officer, take the containers and run. If anybody gets in the way, too bad for them.”

Turnbull scratched his jaw. “Hmn. Don’t they have any law in this Stewart’s Landing?”

There’s no more than a score of buildings there in all. They have an old coot who serves as part-time marshal, but he wouldn’t know what to do with a real crime if it came up and introduced itself.”

Turnbull took a sip of brandy and tapped ash from his cigar. “Supposing I were interested,” he said. “How were you figuring on splitting the take?”

“Doesn’t bother me much. All depends on how many boys you use. I’m mainly interested in getting back at the army. You’ve no idea how I hate that bunch and this is the one chance I’ll ever have.”

Steve’s last words were spoken with an intensity that impressed Turnbull. He was silent for half a minute, then: “You really detest the army that much, do you? Okay, Steve. As it happens, your timing’s pretty good. Two of my boys quit last month, so I’m down to myself and six more. We usually cut it so I get a third and the others share the rest equally. Seems we have about the right number.”

Steve nodded, letting the figures flick through his mind before he answered. “I need to look after my contact. He’ll settle for five thousand, just to get out of trouble. I figure on fifteen thousand for myself, so if we get the full sixty-five that leaves forty-five for you and your boys. If we’re short, I’ll stand the difference, as far as I can. That suit you?”

“I’ve heard worse propositions. Now, you’ve covered the how. What about the when?”

“Well, naturally we’ve no choice there. The boat ties up at Stewart’s Landing at three in the afternoon, two weeks from Friday. The way I see it, we get to the railroad halt south of here, travel east by train as far as possible, then ride the last forty miles. If we start out on the Tuesday morning, we can take the horses with us, catch the evening train and time it about right. I guess it’s up to you now. ’Course, you’d have to square it with your crew. I’ve been a little rough on two of them.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Turnbull replied. “I’ll talk to them.” He stood and went to the door. “Pete, step in a moment, please,” he called. The big foreman walked in and Turnbull waved a hand at his visitor. “This is Steve Dunne, Pete. I’m in partnership with him on a job. We’ll all be involved. It’s the last one for our little group and we’ll do well out of it. I want you to treat him as one of the boys, except he’ll be staying in the house with me. We have some planning to do. Okay?”

“I guess so,” said Hanratty, his tone suggesting that he regretted the lost opportunity to rough-up the newcomer.

For a week, Steve loafed around, while Turnbull and his men performed their minimal chores on the sham cattle spread. Then, early one morning, Steve announced to Turnbull his intention to ride over to the little rail-side settlement, check the layout and get himself a haircut and a bath. Turnbull looked suspicious. “I don’t like people leaving the place when we have a job planned, Steve,” he said. “I guess maybe you’re different, what with us being partners and all, so I’ll make an exception. But I’m sending Mort Simpson along with you. The two of you can keep an eye on one another.”

“Okay by me,” Steve said.

It was midday when Steve and his unwanted companion reached the tiny railroad community. Simpson suggested a few drinks and Steve agreed to join him after taking a bath. They separated, Steve heading for the barbershop, where ordered a bath, then got himself a haircut and shave. While the water was heating, he went to the telegraph office, despatching a wire.

Simpson, under strict orders, was watching through the saloon window. On seeing Steve re-enter the barbershop, he scuttled over to the telegraph office. With a show of agitation, he introduced himself as Steve’s boss and asked to see the message just sent, saying it was incomplete. He was prepared to back up the demand with his gun, but the operator surprised him by grinning and showing him the paper. Simpson pored over it, scratching his head, then borrowed a pencil and copied it, finally declaring that it seemed to be in order, but that he needed to check a point with his subordinate.

Steve and his companion arrived back at Hell’s Elbow well after dark. Simpson spent five minutes alone with Turnbull, then went to join his cronies in the bunkhouse. Turnbull ate with Steve, then the two settled down to enjoy the now customary cigars and conversation. Suddenly, Turnbull produced a scrap of paper, tossing it to Steve. “How about explaining this?” he said mildly.

Steve looked at Simpson’s copy of his telegraph message. Below the addressee, he read:

Timing will be vital. I plan to send for you at six in the evening.

Men will have dispersed Friday. See you Monday morning at the

agreed place. Bring spare horse as nothing better yet arranged.

Steve sighed. “I don’t see where any explanation is called for,” he said. “This man is my contact. I have a commitment to him and I aim to honour it. He’s making me fifteen thousand dollars richer, so I don’t intend to swindle him. What’s the matter, Claude? Didn’t you ever hear of honour among thieves?”

Turnbull laughed long and loud. “Damn it, Steve,” he said, “I really begin to believe you qualify as a straight crook.”

Steve laughed too. “Look at it this way, Claude. The rest of the world has rejected us. Least we can do is stick together. If we don’t have that, what do we have?”

“Right enough.” Turnbull replied. “You know, Steve, it’s a pity we didn’t meet earlier. We might have done good things. Now it’s too late. I promise you, this is my final job.”

The eight-strong party, comprising Steve, Turnbull and the six other gang members left Hell’s Elbow as arranged and completed an uneventful journey to Stewart’s Landing, positioning themselves in tree cover, four hundred yards from the mooring spot an hour before the scheduled arrival of the riverboat.

Punctually, just before three, the shabby-looking craft came into sight, slowed and stopped at the end of the jetty. Turnbull watched through field glasses as a grey-bearded veteran wearing a captain’s cap walked ashore. A minute later, three other men appeared on deck. They rolled six barrels along to the bank, lining them up five yards from the water’s edge. That done, they made for the township’s only saloon. Two more minutes passed, then a man in trooper’s uniform left the boat, following the civilians.

Turnbull lowered the glasses. “Just like you said, Steve,” he smiled. “We’ll move up to those other trees, nice and quiet, and be in and out before they know it.” Steve grinned. “Pretty useful, all this greenery,” he said. Okay, let’s go.”

Covering the last hundred yards on foot, the group, Steve leading, reached the jetty and walked along the gangplank to the deck. The only other person in sight was an elderly fellow who had been lounging around the water’s edge and was now staring at the unloaded barrels. Steve whispered to Turnbull: “If you’ll just give me a second, I’ll get rid of the old gent.” Without waiting for assent, he trotted ashore and muttered something to the loafer, who wandered off. But Steve didn’t go back aboard. Instead, he moved behind the barrels, then turned to face the boat. “Okay, Claude,” he shouted. “The game’s up.”

“What… what the hell is this?” Turnbull bellowed.

“It’s the end of the road for you, Claude,” Steve replied. “I’ve got you fair and square. The whole gang. All in one place and no way out.”

For a moment Turnbull was silent, then he mumbled something to Pete Hanratty and turned back to Steve. “So, you’re a damned traitor after all,” he bawled. “But as to having us trapped, it seems to me you’re wrong. We have a stand-off here.”

“No we don’t,” Steve answered. “Let me explain. You can’t move the boat anywhere – the engineer disabled it. You can’t drift downriver. There’s a boom two hundred yards ahead. You can’t fight your way off this side because there are four guns on you, and if you try to get over the river, I have men posted on the far bank, with orders to shoot on sight. And don’t bother looking for the officer below – there never was one. It was all arranged, even down to the old man I just sent away. You’re caught all right.”

“How do I know you’ve men on the other side?” Turnbull shouted.

For answer, Steve fired two shots into the air. Immediately, two answering reports rang out from the far bank. “That ought to convince you,” Steve said. “Maybe you should have examined that wire I sent off last week, Claude. Still got it?”

“I have it.” Turnbull pulled the message from an inside pocket. “What about it?”

“Try reading every fourth word.”

Taking a pencil from his pocket, Turnbull underscored the relevant words. He read:

Vital send six men Friday morning. Place as arranged.

After a muttered conversation with his men, the gang leader came back to the handrail. “What if we stay here and fight?” he yelled.

“Just this,” Steve replied. Fumbling in a box to his left, he pulled out a stick of dynamite, on a short fuse. Lighting it, he held it above the barrels. “I don’t aim to dicker with you all day, Claude,” he snapped. “Either you come ashore, Indian file, with your hands up, right now, or this comes your way and we’ll save the judge and jury part.”

The panic-stricken gang, now clustered around Turnbull, didn’t wait for his lead but hurried ashore. Seeing the hopelessness of his position, their chief followed. As Steve extinguished the fuse and dropped the dynamite, four men, rifles covering the outlaws, moved out from the nearby buildings. The gang boss, hands still aloft, peered at his captor. “Just tell me,” he said. “Why did you go to all this trouble when you could have brought your men to my spread?”

“Well,” said Steve. “If I’d done that, there would have been a shootout. People would have been killed. This way, I got you where you couldn’t fight, run or hide. All sewn up without gunplay. I think it was pretty tidy.”

Turnbull shook his head. “Well, I have to give you best. I tried one job too many. Now, I asked you once before and I’ll ask you again. Who are you?”

Steve laughed. “You know who I am, Claude. The name’s Steve Dunne. Let me spell it for you. It goes: P-i-n-k-e-r-t-o-n.”

“Damn it!” Despite his position, Turnbull managed a rueful smile. “A Pinkerton man. I should have known. I guess that discharge paper and the wanted dodgers you showed me were fakes, eh?” Steve nodded.

“Now tell me,” Turnbull went on, “how come you were so sure I’d fall for this?”

“I wasn’t,” Steve replied. “We’re both in the risk business, Claude. I took a chance. I guess you could say I’m a riverboat gambler.”

* * *

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Scriptorius
Scriptorius
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7 Mar, 2018
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