Modern history

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Chapter 25

THE DEVIL’S TURNPIKE

With Kit Carson now guiding them, General Kearny’s one hundred dragoons rose from the Rio Grande on October 7, 1846, and worked their way west until they struck the Gila River and then followed its tortuous canyons through land that was increasingly barren and bleached. As October melted into November, they passed from the realm of the Apache into territory of unknown tribes: the Wolf Eaters, the Dirty Fellows, the Club Indians, the Pine Forest Dwellers, the Tremblers, the Albinos, the Fools. Such were the informal names gleaned from Spanish interpreters and hastily copied down in official American journals. These remote tribes had never seen Americans, had seldom seen Spaniards, and many were obviously terrified by these strange new warriors boring into their midst. The Tremblers had acquired their name, according to Lt. William Emory, “from their emotions at meeting the whites.” Their shaky chief spoke “in a tongue resembling more the bark of a mastiff than the words of a human being.”

Carson and Kearny rode together much of the way—the scout in his greasy buckskins, the general in his proud dragoon blues. Fellow Missourians, they shared many friends back home. With laconic good humor, Carson tried to make conversation as they went along, but much of the time he quietly sulked. It wasn’t the hard monotony of having to cover, in reverse, the same sun-scoured terrain he had so recently crossed. Nor was it simply that he missed Josefa, nor the nagging distaste he still felt for surrendering to Fitzpatrick the messages that Fremont had formally entrusted to him. He had let go of all those concerns back on the Rio Grande.

Mainly, Carson’s stewing had to do with the transcontinental adventure he’d been denied. In all his wide travels, he had never been to the East Coast. Carson had been looking forward to seeing his nation’s capital. He was under no illusions that he belonged to that closed world of books and stylish clothes and drawing room manners. Yet he wanted to meet the well-placed men and women who had effectively served as his sponsors, sending him on the errands that had made him nationally famous, writing about him, broadcasting his exploits: Not only President Polk, but also Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, and the senator’s daughter Jessie Benton Fremont as well as Secretary of State Buchanan, Secretary of War Marcy, and various people connected with the Topographical Engineers.

Carson, who had in effect been a field agent of Manifest Destiny, wanted to meet its prime movers.

The competitor in Carson had also been intrigued by the notion of making a sixty-day trip. To cross the continent in two months’ time loomed as a kind of athletic grail. Sixty days was what he had promised Fremont he could do—coast to coast in sixty days! The feat he had proposed hung in the air as a mythic goal of doubtful attainability. In 1846 the quickest way to get information or goods from one coast to the other was by ship, via the antipodal tip of Tierra del Fuego—or alternately, to Panama, then overland to another ship waiting on the far shore of the isthmus.

Carson was interested in blazing the continental overland route, thereby proving its merits. He had been right on schedule, by his estimation. Carson’s party had spent twenty-six days getting to New Mexico from Los Angeles, but from then on the going would have been easier, riding the well-trod Santa Fe Trail northeast to the Missouri River, then churning by steamboat to St. Louis, then arrowing the final stretches to Washington by rail and stagecoach on good wagon roads.

Now here he was, ingloriously loping along a slow trail with a middle-aged general who’d pointed him toward a land that had already been conquered. Carson did not like it a bit.

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In fact, Carson’s now-dated information was all wrong; California was not conquered. Since he had left Los Angeles with Fremont’s triumphant dispatches, the territory had been convulsed by an insurrection. The Americans had been kicked out of Los Angeles, out of Santa Barbara, out of every other coastal settlement south of Monterey. The Mexicans, outraged by the harsh terms clamped on them by Commodore Robert Stockton—including curfews and arbitrary arrests without a hearing—had risen up and attacked American positions. In the words of one historian, the revolt had “blossomed like a crown fire leaping through mountain timber.” A manifesto had been circulated among the citizens: “We, all the inhabitants of the department of California, as members of the great Mexican nation, declare that it is and has been our wish to belong to her alone. Therefore, the intrusive authorities appointed by the invading forces of the United States are held as null and void. All North Americans being foes of Mexico, we swear not to lay down our arms until we see them ejected from Mexican soil.”

Now the reversal was nearly complete. The proud Californians again had the upper hand. The only place the Americans still held was San Diego, where Commodore Stockton had a few warships anchored in the bay. But the Mexicans there had him so thoroughly pinned down that he could scarcely come ashore.

General Kearny, with his confident guide and his miserably small and haggard force, was limping toward a trap.

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In early November, Kearny’s dragoons reached a world “cracked and drawn into blisters” and uninhabited by man, a world whose only denizens appeared to be tarantulas, scorpions, and skittering lizards. The ground was spongy with saline moisture, and wherever the soldiers’ feet pressed the ground, “the salts of the earth effloresced, and gave it the appearance of being covered with frost,” Emory wrote. “In this way the numberless tracks of horses were indelible, and could be traced for great distances in long white seams.” The men trudged past mesquite and creosote, through ocotillo and paloverde, across dunes of rippled sand. They beheld the splendid weirdness of the century plant and the joshua tree and encountered saguaro cactus for the first time, the giant of the Sonoran desert, with its mighty fluted trunks and sagging humanlike arms. Lieutenant Emory described the land as “beautiful in the extreme,” marked by “irregular, fantastic mountains” and “mysterious-looking places.”

Capt. Henry Turner said marching over this desert landscape “was a strange existence…I constantly feel as though I were in a dream, to be thus surrounded day after day with the wilderness, not one familiar object in nature except the sun, the moon, and the stars. Twere better for it to be blotted out from the face of the earth. It is the veriest wilderness in the world, and then the sad thought comes over me, that I am far away from my little family, and that each day widens the distance.”

General Kearny was perhaps less charitable. “It surprised me,” he wrote, “to see so much land that can never be of any use to man or beast.”

And yet by Kearny’s tendriling movement across it, this useless land was now effectively part of the United States. The one hundred men now grunting across the desert did not look like much of an invading force, but that’s what they were—a long, slender offshoot of Washington. Kearny’s orders from President Polk gave him “a wide discretionary power” to take possession of all of what was then called “Upper California,” an unbelievably vast area that included not only the present state of California but also parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Seldom in history had so much real estate been seized by the simple act of a few men walking over it.

Even as Kearny claimed this sere land, he clearly doubted whether it was worth taking. Although the Spanish had long ago settled large swaths of the lush California coast, they had never been able to make anything of this infernal country on the interior. Spanish explorers crisscrossed it many times, and several crude trails had been stamped out to carry on a feeble intercourse between California and New Mexico’s settlements on the Rio Grande. But most of it remained a vague, suppositional country. No Spanish villages, no active missions or presidios dotted these desolate precincts of present-day western Arizona and eastern California—and even the nomadic Indians passed through sparingly.

Blazing by day and freezing at night, the desert march was brutal on Kearny’s one hundred dragoons and lethal to their horses and mules. Animals were collapsing almost hourly—in a single day a dozen dropped in their tracks—and the stronger ones were becoming patchy with scabs and saddle sores. Much of the time the animals had only the pods and branches of mesquite shrubs to eat. For hundreds of miles the men walked on foot to spare the mules. Man and beast alike were slashed by serrated yucca leaves and punctured by the needles of prickly pear and barrel cactus.

Increasingly, Kearny spotted the now thoroughly decomposed carcasses of mules that Carson had abandoned on his way east. Eventually Kearny’s own magnificent bay, the beloved horse that had been with him ever since Fort Leavenworth, expired. And so even the general, prim equestrian though he was, had to suffer the indignity of mounting a mule.

This terrain was just as Carson had warned Kearny it would be. Back on the Rio Grande, Carson had said that every party that had ever ventured into the Gila had emerged from its stark canyons in an advanced state of starvation. He had advised Kearny that the going would be so rough, there was no point in bringing wagons along; the trail was not passable for them—their axles would quickly snap. Reaching California with supply wagons, Carson estimated, would easily take four months, maybe longer.

The general had taken his scout’s advice. He’d sent the wagons back to Santa Fe while summoning more mules. Now, as Kearny led his gaunt men through the rocky goosenecks of the Gila, he was grateful not to be pulling anything other than the two rolling howitzers. There was one particularly grueling stretch that Kearny’s men came to call “the Devil’s Turnpike,” a succession of steep ascents and basalt precipices that alone claimed fifteen mules. Lieutenant Emory described the stygian pass with grim eloquence: “The metallic clinks of spurs, the rattling of the mule shoes, the high black peaks, the deep dark ravines, and the unearthly looking cacti which stuck out from the rocks like the ears of Mephistopheles—all favored the idea that we were now treading on the verge of the regions below. Occasionally a mule gave up the ghost and was left as a propitiatory tribute to the place.”

The dragoons began to grumble at their hardships. Captain Turner complained in his journal: “How little do those who sit in their easy chairs in Washington know of the privations we are daily subjected to. Even our anxious friends at home can form no idea of the trials we undergo—wading streams, clambering over rocks, laboring through the valleys [where] the sand causes our animals to sink up to their knees. Then our frugal meals, hard bed, and perhaps wet blankets…I have no taste for this mode of life—it contains not a single charm for me. It is labor, labor from morning till night. I’m tired of this business. I wish it was over…This is a soldier’s fare, but I am sick of it.”

One of the delicate national issues quietly hovering in the background while the dragoons trudged westward was whether this country would one day be slaveholding should Washington ever fully annex it and grant it statehood. Surveying the desiccated landscapes of present-day Arizona, Lieutenant Emory put an end to such speculation: “No one who has ever visited this country would ever think of bringing his own slaves here with any view to profit. Their labor would never repay the cost of transportation.” The only people who might live in this country, thought Henry Turner, were consumptives and other sickly souls attracted to its dry air and pure atmosphere. “Invalids may live here when they might die in any other part of the world,” Turner wrote, “but really the country is so forbidding that no one would scarcely be willing to secure a long life at the cost of living in it.”

Another issue that Emory’s Topographical Corps was supposed to investigate was whether the Gila Trail could be a suitable route for a good wagon road—and ultimately, a transcontinental railway. But Emory blasted that notion as readily as he did the question of slavery: It was impossible, he said, to imagine putting a decent thoroughfare through this ragged rock wasteland. Clearly the cross-country road, if it was ever to be built, would have to be routed somewhere farther to the south, possibly passing through the Mexican stronghold of Tucson.

Then, out of the black jaws of the Gila, Kearny’s column emerged to behold a splendid oasis. They had entered the well-watered land of the peaceful Pimas, and a related tribe called the Maricopas. The Pimas were advanced farmers who had long ago mastered a complex system of dikes and irrigation canals that allowed them to grow abundant corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and cotton, among other crops. Lieutenant Emory’s engineering mind was impressed by the “beauty, order, and disposition” of the canals, and was, like most of Kearny’s men, thoroughly taken with the whole tribe. They were “frank, confident, peaceful, and industrious,” Emory thought, and “in possession of a beautiful and fertile basin.” Kearny’s men, famished as they were, approached the Pimas and offered money and barter for food, but the Indians refused any sort of payment. “Bread is to eat, not to sell, take what you want,” they insisted in Spanish—and promptly invited Kearny’s men to a feast.

After they’d had their fill, the dragoons and the Pimas smoked and laughed and traded far into the night. Though they could communicate only through grunts and sign language, the Americans were delighted with their gracious hosts. Henry Turner found the Pimas “a good harmless people and more industrious than I have ever found Indians.” They have “kind, amiable expressions,” Turner thought. “Never did I look upon a more benevolent face than that of the old chief.”

Emory concurred. “It was a rare sight,” he wrote in praise of the Pimas, “to be thrown in the midst of a large nation of what is often termed ‘wild Indians,’ who surpass many of the Christian nations in agriculture, are little behind them in the useful arts, and are immeasurably before them in honesty and virtue.”

The Pimas were especially captivated by Lieutenant Emory and his array of surveying tools—his telescopes, sextants, and barometers, his crimped metal tubes and glass bulbs of mercury. In the evening Emory was eager to observe what he called “two occultations of Jupiter’s satellites,” but as he lamented in his journal, “News got about of my dealings with the stars, and so my camp was crowded the whole time.” The Pimas found the lieutenant’s spectacles positively frightening. They’d never seen eyeglasses, and seemed to believe that a person wearing them could see right through the Pimas’ cotton clothing, as though the lenses imparted X-ray vision. They turned away, embarrassed to be naked in this stranger’s presence. “It was a source of much merriment,” Emory said. “They would shrink and hide behind each other at my approach. At length, I placed the spectacles on the nose of an old woman, who became acquainted with their use, and explained it to the others.”

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Entertained, well fed, and restored to a semblance of health, the dragoons reluctantly left the fair land of the Pimas and continued west for California. On November 23 they reached the confluence of the Gila and the mighty Colorado. It was on that day that Lieutenant Emory made a disturbing discovery. He was out surveying the confluence with his staff, tinkering with his equipment as he always did, when he happened to encounter a lone Mexican riding on a horse.

“Where are you going?” he asked through an interpreter.

“I am hunting horses,” the Mexican answered nervously.

As he passed by, Emory grew suspicious. The lieutenant noticed that the Mexican rider had packed many bottles of water and other supplies. He appeared to be embarked on a long journey.

“Why don’t you follow me to camp?” Emory instructed him.

The Mexican demurred. “I will come in a moment,” he protested. “First there is something I must do.” And as he said this, he tried to slip away.

Emory’s suspicions only intensified. As he later put it, the Mexican’s “anxiety increased my determination not to comply with his request.” So Emory and his staff effectively arrested the man and led him into Kearny’s camp. There Kearny had him searched and found on his person a satchel full of mail, all of it in Spanish.

Interpreters were summoned and immediately set about translating the letters. The rider, it was soon ascertained, was an official courier carrying dispatches from California to Gen. Jose Castro, stationed in Sonora. The deeper the translators dug into these letters, the more troubling was their import. It seemed that there had been a counterrevolution in California. “They all spoke exultingly of having thrown off the ‘detestable Anglo-Yankee yoke,’” Emory wrote, “and they congratulated themselves that the tri-color once more floated in California.” Further questioning of the courier proved fruitless, for he played his part “so dexterously,” according to Emory, that “it was not in our power to extract the truth.”

The letters were several weeks old, and likely swollen with braggadocio, but the uniformity of the reports made it clear that the Americans had indeed been kicked out of coastal California. Kearny now understood the full peril of his predicament. He had only a hundred men, and his mounts were in deplorable condition. He cursed his earlier decision to send back two-thirds of his dragoons to Santa Fe. His tiny force was hardly in any shape to fight, but at this point his only recourse was to press on as fast as he could and confront the enemy. It was either fight there, or wither here in the desert.

Carson’s reaction to the reversal in California was conflicted. He must have been shocked and surprised to learn that the dispatches he’d been carrying were so full of error. At the same time, he was concerned for his American friends in California, especially Fremont, and wondered how they were faring. California was back on a war footing, and history would be happening there again; at the very least, it would not be dull. Carson knew Southern California, he spoke Spanish, he was already well acquainted with Stockton and the principal players. Now he understood that his services were truly needed. At last he was fully engaged in Kearny’s effort and happy to be returning to California.

On November 25, Kearny’s force forded the Colorado River. The men plodded westward, now lit with the excitement, mixed with a certain dread, that they were almost certain to meet the enemy in battle. Ever since they had left Fort Leavenworth, the dragoons had wanted a fight and had feared, as one Western writer put it, that “their sabres would be rusted in their scabbards and their muskets foul with idleness.” Now it appeared they would get their wish. But they still had several hundred miles of wasteland to cross; the desert country would not let up—if anything it grew even harsher than the Gila wilderness. “Oh this sterile country,” Captain Turner wrote, “when shall I say goodbye to you? No earthly power can ever induce me to return.” The men had heard so much of California’s verdant beauty, but they were beginning to believe it was all the stuff of legend. “We are still to look for the glowing pictures drawn of California,” Emory wrote. “As yet, barrenness and desolation hold their reign.” The men crossed the sand drifts of the Imperial Valley and passed by the southern reaches of the Sierra Nevada range, whose distant peaks shimmered with fresh snow. The men froze at night. They ate their last rations. Wolves appeared at their flanks. The mules kept on dropping.

By now the dragoons looked like wretches. One officer, a Captain Johnston, inspected his men in camp and despaired at what he saw. “They are a sorry-looking set,” he wrote in his journal. “They are well-nigh naked—some of them barefoot.” Yet Johnston predicted they would rise to the occasion in battle: “They will be ready for their hour when it comes.”

In the dusty chaparral country some fifty miles from San Diego, Kearny encountered an Englishman named Edward Stokes, who had lived and ranched in California for years. Though he was a neutral, Stokes agreed to take a message to Robert Stockton in San Diego. Kearny wrote an urgent letter to the commodore announcing his army’s arrival in California. “I come by orders from the President of the United States,” Kearny wrote. “We left Santa Fe on the 25th September, having taken possession of New Mexico, and annexed it to the United States.” Kearny’s letter is notable for its stoic understatement—he never mentions the fact that his men are starving and his few remaining mules are in terrible condition. All he asks is for information: “If you can send a party to open communication with us on the route to this place, and to inform me of the state of affairs in California, I wish you would do so, and as quickly as possible. The fear of this letter falling into Mexican hands prevents me from writing more.”

Stokes rushed the letter to San Diego.

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Three days later, on the morning of December 5, about twenty-five miles east of San Diego, Kearny’s men were amazed to spot an American flag fluttering in the distance over a dust cloud kicked up by an approaching force of United States Marines. The Englishman Stokes had succeeded in getting through to Stockton with Kearny’s message. This was the “communication party” Kearny had asked for. Thirty-nine Marines under the command of the intrepid Capt. Archibald Gillespie, he of the epic courier mission to meet Fremont in California, had slipped through the Mexican siege lines ringing San Diego and sped to Kearny’s aid.

Of course, Kearny would have preferred to have more than thirty-nine, but he was in no position to complain. Besides, these Marines had a few relatively fresh mounts and a small brass four-pound howitzer—not to mention food. The dragoons and the Marines embraced one another, fellow countrymen united on the far side of the continent. Kearny’s spirits lifted.

Captain Gillespie greeted the general and confirmed everything that had been gleaned from the intercepted mail back on the Colorado River: The Americans had indeed been expelled from nearly every coastal town in California except San Diego. Gillespie also informed Kearny that a force of a few hundred well-mounted Californians was camping nearby, at a little Indian village called San Pasqual. These Mexican fighters were led by Capt. Andres Pico, a high-ranking leader of the counterrevolution and brother of the former governor of California. Their camp stood between Kearny and Stockton, directly on the road to San Diego; if the general was going to drive to the Pacific and join forces with the commodore, he would surely have to fight Pico somewhere. Why not here, and now? Gillespie suggested that if Kearny thought it advisable, they should quickly mount a surprise attack against the Mexicans and “beat up their camp.”

Kearny liked the sound of this bold adventure. Although taking such risks seemed contrary to his circumspect nature, he thought it far better to shock Captain Pico with an overwhelming predawn strike than to dally and let him learn the truth—that even with Gillespie’s reinforcements, the American force was puny, weak, and appallingly mounted. Kearny understood the classic bluff of plains warfare: to disguise weakness in concentrated action, to descend on the enemy and convince him through decisive fury that you’re more powerful than you really are. Emory described Kearny’s thinking: “The general decided we must be the aggressive party, that he would attack [at] night, and beat them before it was light enough to discover our force.”

Carson lent his support to the idea. Based on his previous experience in California, he did not think much of Mexicans as fighters. They were individually brave, he thought, but poorly organized and seldom well equipped. He suggested, “All you have to do is yell, make a rush, and the Californians will run away.” Captain Gillespie was similarly disdainful of Mexican military prowess (even though Mexican insurrections had soundly expelled him and his fellow Marines from Los Angeles a month earlier). Gillespie once declared in a report: “Californians of Spanish blood have a holy horror of the American rifle.”

It’s possible that Kearny, having slogged nearly two thousand miles from Fort Leavenworth in one of the longest marches in American military history, was simply spoiling for a fight. Some historians have certainly leveled this charge at him. Stanley Vestal, for one, argued that Kearny was motivated by a thirst for the glory he imagined his peers were racking up in greater battles deeper in Mexico. “All the other generals had been shooting down Mexicans by the hundreds,” Vestal wrote. “He had done nothing but march and read proclamations. Now he would show Fremont how to take California. ‘Charge!’”

Kearny’s rock-solid record on the plains, and everything that is known about the equanimity of his personality, would seem to discount such an assessment. If he was making an error of judgment, it was not likely for reasons of professional jealousy or personal glory. Besides, there were sound strategic aspects to the contemplated attack. Kearny’s main objective here was to seize control of Pico’s pastured horses while the Californians were asleep; if he could do that, he realized, the battle would be over before it even began. As the consummate cavalryman, Kearny was mortified by his gaunt animals. If he were to continue on to San Diego and then retake the rest of California, Kearny would have to replace his scrawny, bescabbed mules with strong horses. Here, he felt, was his golden chance.

Carson understood the purpose of the proposed raid perfectly and later described it with his usual directness: “Our object was to get the Californians’ animals.”

The dragoons and the Marines camped a few hundred yards from each other in a narrow valley only two miles from San Pasqual. It was a rainy night covered in a gelid fog. As most of the men shivered in their heavy wet blankets, Kearny decided to send a small detachment over to Pico’s encampment and assess the situation under the cover of darkness. A reconnaissance party was hastily arranged, composed of six dragoons and a Mexican quisling named Rafael Machado who had deserted from the Californian forces.

Around ten o’clock this motley team of spies took off on mules into the mist. Soon they arrived at the outskirts of slumbering San Pasqual. The dragoons sent Machado forward on foot to coax an Indian to come out and provide details about Pico’s force: How big was it? Where were the men sleeping? Where were their horses pastured? Machado crept into the village and, sure to the plan, found an Indian who was willing to talk to the Americans. (“The Indians were very inimical to the Californians,” one of Kearny’s men later wrote, “and always ready to betray them.”) But the dragoons thought that Machado was taking too long to accomplish his task. They heard a dog barking, and in their worried impatience they raced toward the village to get a better look. When they did, the jangle of their swords against their saddles alarmed Pico’s night watchmen.

The sentries cried out, and the dragoons, having found Machado, spurred away in the fog. But in the confusion of their flight, someone dropped a blue jacket that was stamped “U.S.” A Mexican sentinel found the garment and brought it to Pico, who promptly called his men to horses. Soon all the Mexicans were aroused from their sleep. They dashed from the mud huts of the village and ran to their mounts, yelling, “Viva California! Abajo Los Americanos!

The American reconnoiter had backfired; in a blundered instant, the element of surprise was lost.

Sometime after midnight the dragoons galloped into camp and informed Kearny of the debacle. The general wasted no time—he ordered an immediate attack. If the advantage of surprise had been forfeited, he still had the advantage of darkness; Pico had no idea of the size and strength of Kearny’s pitiful army. By first light Pico’s spies would be sniffing around, and they would quickly discover Kearny’s vulnerability. The time to strike was now, he felt, before a bad situation worsened.

The American camp erupted in wild shouts. It was so cold and damp that the bugler could not get off a note of reveille. The wet blankets were crusty with frost, the men groggy and cold. But once they realized the situation, they sprang to life—as one understated diarist put it, “There was a good deal of excitement and desire for a brush with the enemy.” Within fifteen minutes the dragoons were all on their mules and trotting toward San Pasqual. Soon they united with Gillespie and the Marines, and together the two parties marched to war. The bugler had sufficiently warmed his lips to blast a few notes of a battle song called “Charge as Foragers” (a “forage” was an antiquated term for a raid).

When they reached the brow of a hill overlooking the now-stirring hamlet of San Pasqual, Kearny stopped in the scrub and addressed his men. Their country expected much of them, he said. He wanted them to encircle the village and seize the horses. If they had to kill the enemy they should do it, but he wanted to capture as many Californians alive as possible—it was not to be a slaughter. The fight, he suggested, would probably be close-in. Their carbines would not be worth much in the misty darkness, so they should have their swords at the ready.

“Remember,” Kearny said, “one point of the saber is far more effective than any number of thrusts.”

And then, in the early hours of December 6, 1846, his one hundred dragoons turned their animals toward San Pasqual, which lay a mile off across the low brush country. Soon they were stretched in a long, jumbled column, two abreast. Carson started out near the vanguard with Kearny and Emory, the three men working their way down the steep hill in the filtered gray light of the predawn.

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