Modern history

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Chapter 27

COLD STEEL

The battle of San Pasqual—generally considered the most significant clash of the Mexican War that took place on what is now U.S. soil—began with an American blunder. About three-quarters of a mile away from the village, Kearny yelled out the command “Trot!” By this time the dragoons were spread out over a long distance, with the officers on fleeter, healthier animals taking the lead. Up in front, Capt. Abraham Johnston of the dragoons misheard Kearny’s order as “Charge!” And so Johnston repeated the wrong command, booming it over the valley for his comrades to hear and spurring his horse to a full gallop. All the men around him responded in kind and quickly vanished in the mist.

Kearny instantly saw the peril in this development. “Heavens, I did not mean that!” he cried, but it was too late to correct. The leading third of the command, mostly young officers on the last few good horses, was now charging full-tilt, while the other two-thirds were merely limping along on decrepit mules—with the gap between the two groups growing dangerously large. Kearny lost his place in the vanguard and struggled to keep up, but Carson, because he was riding a horse in relatively good health, was able to push ahead and ride near Johnston at the head of the charge. The army’s two howitzers and the Marines’ four-pound gun, towed behind mules, were too far in the rear to be of any immediate use.

Capt. Andres Pico and his Californians, all now mounted on their fine horses, had huddled in a ravine beside the town. Wrapped in their serapes, they were quietly conferring amongst themselves when Captain Johnston, Carson, and the other frontrunners suddenly descended on them. Pico’s men hastily formed a line and fired their weapons at point-blank range. A musket ball tore into Johnston’s forehead. Killed instantly, the captain tumbled off his horse.

Carson was charging right behind when his horse lost its footing and threw him to the ground. Although he was not seriously injured, Carson’s rifle was broken clean in half. Somehow he was able to pick himself up and scurry crabwise from the path of the oncoming animals. “I came very near being trodden to death,” he later said, “and finally saved myself by crawling from under them.”

The dragoons kept on coming. As they galloped into range of the Mexicans, they snapped off their carbines, but most of the weapons were so damp and corroded, the ammunition so soggy, that their shots had no effect. As Kearny had predicted, they would have to fight “close-in”; they unsheathed their swords and brandished them menacingly as they drove toward the enemy.

In the face of this furious charge, the Californians scuttled their line and executed what at first looked like a retreat. They turned and took off toward the west, following the meandering course of a shallow stream. With Captain Johnston dead, Capt. Ben Moore took charge and ordered the dragoons to follow Pico’s fleeing horsemen, and for some distance gave chase. The pursuit was ill advised, however, for it thinned the dragoons out even more, leaving just a few of the men with the strongest animals far out in the lead, left to fight on their own, hopelessly separated from their comrades. (General Kearny and Lieutenant Emory were lagging even farther behind.)

When Pico’s caballeros got a glimpse of this vulnerable vanguard and saw how diffuse their formations were and how miserable their mounts looked, they made an immediate halt. Smelling weakness, their confidence swelled. With the dexterity of lifelong equestrians, the Californians wheeled their horses and galloped straight at Moore. This time, however, they rode with lances—hefty spears nine feet long and set with sharp metal points.

What is this? the dragoons wondered. It looked like some medieval exercise, with anachronistic weaponry from the days of Cervantes. At first the well-trained cavalrymen scoffed at these oncoming jousters.

But in seconds the Californians expertly surrounded Moore and several of his comrades—“much as they might encircle a herd of cattle,” as one historian put it. Recognizing that he was dangerously exposed, Captain Moore charged at Captain Pico himself, ineffectually popping off his pistol and then reaching for his saber. Pico, an excellent swordsman, managed to fend off the attack and slash Moore with his blade. As this was happening, a pair of lancers rushed to the aid of their leader; they made separate charges at Moore and ran him through with their long spears. The captain was knocked from his horse, still alive, blood gouting from numerous gashes and punctures. Moore still clutched his sword in his hand, but in the fall it had broken close to the hilt. He had nothing left to fight with. As Moore lay helpless on the ground near a willow tree, another Californian hurried over with a pistol and finished him off.

Other dragoons arrived and joined the fight. Realizing that their sodden guns were useless, they instead wielded them like clubs, but they found these brutish instruments were no match for the supple Mexican horsemen and their supposedly antiquated fighting technology. The Californians were wickedly precise with their lances, and they deftly stabbed and slashed the dragoons while the absurdly long reach of their weapons kept them unscathed. The sharp staves left deep “slots” in the flesh, as the American doctor later described the wounds. Nearly every dragoon received multiple punctures.

Pico’s men were similarly adroit with reatas—leather lassos—which they used to yank an unsuspecting dragoon from his saddle while a comrade surged forward to lance the dismounted American as he lay entangled in the twined leather thongs. Wielding the reata was said to be a uniquely Californian skill. Throughout Mexico there was an old expression: “A Californian can throw the lasso as well with his foot as any other Mexican can with his hand.” A Western historian would write that, to Californians, “the saddle was home, the horse a second self, and the lance and reatatheir manly exercise.” On this gray morning, the Americans were discovering the mean truth of such aphorisms.

One of the dragoons who entered the fray was Lt. Tom Hammond, who happened to be the brother-in-law of the fallen Captain Moore. Wondering what had happened to the other dragoons, he screamed, “For God’s sake, men, come up!” He spotted Moore’s prone body and darted over to it. Just then a lancer came at him from an unseen angle and thrust a spear into the lieutenant’s side. Hammond tumbled off his mount and lay gravely wounded next to his brother-in-law. He would join Moore in death within a few hours.

By this point Kit Carson had managed to sprint ahead from the place where he’d tumbled off his horse. He took a carbine and ammunition from a dead dragoon—probably Johnston—and then he caught a loose horse and took off in the direction of the fight. When he came to the bend in the valley where the dragoons were clashing in full fury and confusion, he instantly assessed the situation and realized it was pointless to try to fight the Californians from the saddle—they were tearing the dragoons to shreds. Every American who’d joined the fight was either dead or seriously wounded. Their swords were no match for the long lances, and their mules and tired horses could not keep pace with the agile Mexican mounts.

And so, perceiving the futility of close-in fighting, Carson did something quite characteristic of him. Quietly, calmly, he dismounted at the edge of the fray and camouflaged himself behind some boulders. From this hiding place, he checked his rifle and cartridges and found that they were not too wet. Then he took careful aim and, one by one, began picking off the Californians as they rode within his range. It was vintage Carson—to sidestep the tumult and romance of a conventional clash and find the cleanest path to efficient fighting.

Now General Kearny and Lieutenant Emory arrived on the scene astride their huffing mules. Kearny immediately joined the action. He was amazed by the skill of the Californian horsemen. “They are the very best riders in the world,” he later said. “There is hardly one not fit for the circus.” Kearny fought his way through the confusion, parrying with the lancers, yelling commands, displaying admirable swordsmanship. One of the Marines who watched him fight said, “The old general defended himself valiantly, and was as calm as a clock.”

But a lancer found him. Kearny was fencing with one of the Californians when another gored him from behind, driving a spear deep into the flesh of his lower back and into his buttock. Another lance slashed through his arm. The general was thrown from his mule and surely would have been killed on the spot had Lieutenant Emory not turned and glimpsed what was happening. Emory dashed over and beat back the attacker with his sword. The general lay seriously wounded on the cold, wet ground, copiously bleeding from multiple punctures.

Capt. Archibald Gillespie was next in line to face the lancers. “Rally, men! For God’s sake, rally!” the Marine screamed, and as he did so a lancer slashed the back of his neck and knocked him off his horse. Then came another spear, ripping open his upper lip and bashing out a tooth. And finally a third, stabbing the captain in the sternum and puncturing a lung.

Somehow Gillespie got up and, with shallow, raspy breath, fought his way over to the place where Kearny had fallen—and where the dragoons in larger numbers were now finally flooding in and organizing themselves. They unlimbered a howitzer and succeeded in firing a round or two that set off what appeared to be wholesale retreat of the enemy. Before they fell back, however, a small group of Californians captured the second army fieldpiece. They snagged the howitzer with their reatas and hauled it from the battlefield.

The Californians had not actually retreated. They were massing on the surrounding hills, digesting their delicious victory, contemplating how and when to attack next. Captain Pico was enormously pleased with his men. He would later report to his authorities that the Battle of San Pasqual was a fight that had been decided a pura arma blanca—entirely by cold steel. The Americans could take comfort only in a slender technicality: They still held the field of battle, which in some West Point textbooks was the definition of a victory.

In the momentary lull, Dr. Griffin, the dragoon surgeon, rushed over to Kearny’s side and tried to staunch the bleeding. Kearny told Dr. Griffin, “First, go and dress the wounds of the soldiers who require more attention. When you have done that, come to me.”

The general rose up on an elbow and looked around the battlefield. The sun was coming up and the fog had dissipated. He could see bodies strewn in all directions. In fifteen minutes of fighting, twenty-one Americans had died, and many more lay critically wounded. The valley was splattered with gore. Everywhere men moaned in agony.

Kearny looked pale, and the hemorrhaging would not stop. As Dr. Griffin attended to other patients, the general fainted.

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For the rest of the day—December 6, 1846—Kearny’s forces hardly budged. They concentrated themselves as best they could in a defensive posture, with artillery pieces unlimbered and at the ready. Their situation was looking more and more like a siege. The Americans could see Pico’s horsemen pacing in the hills just beyond range, plainly contemplating another attack.

In this tense environment, Dr. Griffin dressed wounds and did his best to comfort the dying. Working with what Emory called “great skill and assiduity,” Dr. Griffin was able to revive Kearny, but the general had lost a dangerous amount of blood—so much, in fact, that the doctor feared he would die. Unable to make decisions, Kearny temporarily surrendered command to Capt. Henry Turner.

The immediate task at hand was disposing of the dead. Turner feared that if the dragoons buried the corpses now in plain view of the enemy, the Californians or the local Indians might return later and desecrate the graves. So the captain decided to wait until dark and then secretly bury the dead en masse. At dawn the living would have to break out of their present predicament and bludgeon their way toward San Diego. They had no other choice.

And so the hours ticked away, and the dragoons, bleeding and starving, stayed exposed in the open chaparral country. They readied themselves for battle—drying out their ammunition, cleaning their weapons, sharpening their swords—but the Californians did not mount another sortie.

Finally dusk arrived. Under the stars, the solemn dragoons quietly dug a pit beneath a large willow tree and buried the dead. There were some twenty bodies in all and, according to one account, several corpses of the enemy. Emory noted the “howling of myriads of wolves, attracted by the smell.” It was an especially somber occasion, Emory said, because after so many miles of marching, these men had become unusually close. Theirs was a “community of hardships,” and it was only fitting that this “band of brave men” should be “put to rest, together and forever.” The dragoons led their horses over the site to tamp down the soil, and the men scattered large rocks.

By the next morning Kearny had gained enough strength to resume command from Captain Turner. He looked sallow and gaunt, but somehow Dr. Griffin had patched him up and propped him on a horse. The general cursed through the pain—the big rent in his rump was embarrassing and smarted terribly—but he was determined to move on. As Carson later put it, “Kearny concluded to march on, let the consequences be what they would.”

It was decided that other patients who were in worse condition would have to be moved by litters. With the help of the mountain men, the dragoons improvised some sledges—buffalo hides tautly slung between two long willow staves and strapped to the back of the saddles.

Kearny gave the signal and the men began the march in a large procession, with the fieldpieces up front, and riflemen on healthier horses ringing the rear and the flanks. The pack animals moved forward in the safety of the middle—as did the wounded, who bounced uncomfortably on their crude ambulances, with the long travois poles dragging in the dirt. For these unfortunates the ride was agonizing—the sharp jerks and vibrations pulled at their bandages and tore open their wounds. “The ambulances grated on the ground,” Emory wrote, “and the sufferings of the wounded were very distressing.”

As they inched slowly forward through the dusty scrub, they realized the Californians were following them, watching and hovering in the surrounding hills, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Sure enough, after a few miles of this slow, cautious advance, the Americans were fired upon. A group of Californians had concealed themselves behind boulders on a nearby hill. Immediately Kearny ordered a charge. A party of dragoons led by Lieutenant Emory succeeded in dislodging the enemy and occupying this higher ground. In the skirmish, five Californians were killed or wounded, but as Emory later described the action: “Strange to say, not one of our men fell…. The capture of the hill was but the work of a moment, and when we reached the crest, the Californians had mounted their horses and were in full flight.”

From the top of this cactus-studded eminence—Carson called it nothing more than a “hill of rocks”—Kearny assessed the situation and recognized that his men were simply too weak to advance any farther. Dr. Griffin warned that many of the wounded were dangerously frail and should under no circumstances move another step; he needed time to re-dress their wounds. San Diego lay only thirty miles off, but that was just too far for this straggle of invalids. Emory said it was “impossible to move in the open with so many encumbrances, against an enemy more than twice our number, and all superbly mounted.”

So the general decided to make camp on this lonely swell of blond-colored stones, from which he could at least keep an eye on the enemy and defend his beleaguered column. The Americans dug themselves in and prepared for a siege. Along the summit, the able-bodied men hastily built up fortifications of boulders chinked with smaller rocks (more than 150 years later, these crude breastworks are still in place). At dusk the men picked the meatiest of their stringy mules and slaughtered them for a thin gravy dinner. From that day on, this forlorn spot would be known as Mule Hill.

Kearny realized his predicament had become truly desperate. If he could not break through to San Diego, his men would starve. Or else they would die in a succession of battles they were not prepared to fight. The Californians were massing in all directions, their numbers growing as Captain Pico rallied fresh recruits to fight the despised Americans, who now seemed such easy prey. Henry Turner wrote that the Californian forces were now “quadruple our strength” and firmly believed that Pico would “charge upon us the moment we descended into the plain.” In their present condition, Turner feared that Pico would not leave “one of us to tell the tale.”

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Somehow Kearny would have to get word to Stockton about the crippling battle at San Pasqual and request reinforcements. Kearny knew that Stockton was a ponderous champion of the U.S. Navy and its infallible power, and had nothing good to say about the army. But he was a patriot. If Stockton had any idea how dire the dragoons’ situation was, he would surely send more men. The general would make an urgent plea and, he hoped, all petty interservice rivalries would melt away; the navy would promptly come to the army’s rescue.

The problem was how to deliver the message: Kearny’s camp was now encircled by three cordons of sentries. To make matters worse, the way to San Diego would be similarly policed by Mexican pickets on horseback. According to Emory, “the enemy now occupied all the passes to that town.” Though well armed, Commodore Stockton’s men were themselves more or less under siege, their backs against the harbor. It would be “an expedition of some peril,” Emory fretted, but someone would have to try to sneak through these multiple layers of enemy lines and get to Stockton.

Perhaps inevitably, that person was Carson. Throughout his career, this was precisely the sort of assignment on which he had thrived—focused, small-scale, it was an undertaking with huge stakes and no room for error, a rescue mission that was also a courier mission (for some reason he especially loved to carry information). And so it was no surprise that Carson offered his services immediately. After some initial reluctance, Kearny gave his assent. Carson would leave that night—December 8—accompanied by a twenty-four-year-old naval lieutenant named Edward Beale and a young Diegueno Indian guide known to us only as Chemuctah.

Andres Pico, who was apparently acquainted with Carson’s earlier exploits in California and knew he was among Kearny’s forces, correctly predicted that the famous guide would try to break free. He admonished his men to stay vigilant. “Se escapara el lobo,” he told them: The wolf will escape.

When it was good and dark, Carson and the two other volunteers crouched among the rocks and started sliding down Mule Hill. The slopes were composed of loose scree, and they decided their boots were making too much noise on the gravelly descent. Chemuctah was wearing soft moccasins, but Carson and Beale removed their boots and tucked them under their belts. Carson also worried that their canteens were sloshing and clinking too loudly, so they left them behind.

Now barefoot, Carson and Beale cradled their weapons as quietly as they could and slithered through the brush until they came to the first line of sentinels. They crept right under the noses of the Californians, so close that the enemy horses must have smelled them. Carson could trace the outline of the Mexican lances, held upright to the starry skies. Several times they felt sure they had been spotted. One sentry rode right over to where the Americans were lying prone among the rocks. For what seemed like an eternity the soldier sat on his horse, producing a flint, then lighting and luxuriously smoking a cigaretto. He seemed to be drawing out the act as though he were teasing them; Beale felt sure the sentry knew they were lying there at his horse’s feet. The young naval lieutenant was so scared that Carson later swore he “could distinctly hear Beale’s heart pulsate.”

Finally Beale could endure the suspense no longer. He nudged Carson’s thigh and whispered in his ear, “We’re gone—let’s jump up and fight it out!”

Carson tried to reassure him. “Been in worse places before,” he whispered back, and eventually the Californian finished his smoke and ambled away into the darkness.

They heaved a sigh of relief, but then Beale and Carson realized with dismay that during their scrambling descent of Mule Hill, they had lost their boots. Carson knew they couldn’t risk going back for them—and besides, the odds of finding the boots in the dark were remote. So the two men skulked on through the night, collecting cactus barbs and needles in their bloody bare feet. Chemuctah, shod in his thin moccasins, fared only a little better.

They stuck to canyons and arroyos, creeping along the low washes, keeping out of sight. By dawn they were clear of Pico’s forces: The wolf had escaped. By afternoon they had drawn within twelve miles of San Diego and spotted more sentries. All the byways to the town were indeed blocked. Carson decided they should each take a different route in the hope that at least one of them would get through. Carson took the longest path, a roundabout of some twenty miles. (Biographer Edwin Sabin says Carson picked this “more devious course” to “assure success.”) Carson, Beale, and Chemuctah bid their farewells and vectored off in separate directions.

Twelve hours later, at around three in the morning, Kit Carson stumbled into Stockton’s camp on the Pacific Ocean. His feet were swollen and stiff and so badly lacerated that he wouldn’t be able to walk for a week. He had not eaten or drunk water in nearly thirty hours.

To his surprise and relief, Beale and Chemuctah, taking their shorter routes, had made it into camp a few hours earlier. Stockton had already dispatched a rescue force of nearly two hundred well-armed men to relieve Kearny. Beale was so “deranged with fatigue,” Carson was told, that he had to be carried into headquarters. After meeting with Stockton, Beale was brought on board the USS Congress and led straightaway to the infirmary.

The naval lieutenant would languish there in the sick bay for a month, and it would take him more than a year to fully recover. Historian Stanley Vestal described Beale as “utterly used up” and “out of his head for minutes at a time. To him, the whole world seemed paved with prickly pear.” After seeing him, Carson said of Beale: “I did not think he could live.” Chemuctah was similarly spent from his journey and, according to some accounts, died soon thereafter.

Carson’s barefooted adventure would soon win him further nationwide fame and fulsome commendations in the halls of Washington. Historian Bernard DeVoto ranked Carson’s “midnight crawl” to San Diego “high among the exploits of the master mountain man.” There was something uncanny about Carson, in the way he popped up from the shadows and impressed his name on the scenes of history. Perhaps it wasn’t merely Fremontian exaggeration—he did have a curious knack for making himself present at the critical instant. Whenever an expedition was in trouble—real trouble—he was there to bail it out.

After Carson’s arrival in San Diego, Kearny’s men practically mythologized him. A young sergeant wrote his parents in Hartford, Connecticut: “Never has there been a man like Kit Carson. All that has been said about him, and more, is true. He is as fearless as the lion, as stealthy as the panther, as strong as the oxen. I believe that Carson would attack a fort filled with Mexicans single-handed and drive them off.”

Carson himself seemed unimpressed. In his memoirs he devoted only a few lines to the whole adventure at San Pasqual. “Finally got through,” he said, “but had the misfortune to have lost our shoes. Had to travel over a country covered with prickly pear and rocks, barefoot. Got to San Diego the next night.”

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While Carson was making his trek to San Diego, Kearny and his men suffered two more miserable days and nights waiting on Mule Hill. Their only fuel for campfires was wild sage, and they managed to find water only by boring deep into the sand and collecting a brown slurry that tasted bitter but possessed the salient quality of wetness. Mules kept turning into dinner.

For the other animals in the fast-dwindling herd, Kearny had to play nourishment against theft: If the mules weren’t taken off the hill and turned out to find fresh grass, they would surely starve, but once they were out grazing, the Californians, working on swift mounts, would descend and steal them. The enemy was constantly on the periphery, hectoring, driving wild horses up the hill to try to create a stampede. Pico hoped to fray the gringo general’s nerves, to starve him and grind him down; the plan seemed to be working.

Despite the meager food, many of the dragoons were slowly gathering strength and healing from their battle wounds. Dr. Griffin reported to Kearny that nearly all the sick were able to sit a horse—they could dispense with the rickety travois ambulances. Other patients, however, had developed gangrene or horrible infections in the deep punctures left by the lances.

One member of the party, a French trapper named Robideaux who had lost a great amount of blood, was hovering near death. The men had more or less written off the poor fellow, who in his death agonies kept hallucinating that he smelled coffee—a luxury no one traveling with Kearny had seen or tasted in months. “Don’t you smell it?” Robideaux beseeched them. “A cup of coffee would save my life!”

Everyone knew that the mountain men were all inveterate coffee addicts—especially the French—so Lieutenant Emory believed that the doomed man was simply exercising a final Gallic nostalgia before passing on to his reward. “I supposed a dream had carried him back to the cafes of St. Louis and New Orleans,” Emory said.

But he was soon shocked to find that Robideaux was right—somewhere in the camp a cook was indeed heating up a cup of coffee over a sagebrush fire. Emory went over and persuaded him to give it up to the dying Frenchman. Says Emory: “One of the most agreeable little offices performed in my life, and I believe in the cook’s, was to pour this precious draught into the waning body of our friend Robideaux. His warmth returned, and with it hopes of life.” Robideaux soon recovered and swore for the rest of his days that he owed his life to coffee.

On the night of December 10, Kearny decided that he had no other choice but to break out early the next morning and try again to push toward San Diego. He had given up on Carson and Beale. Probably they had not made it through to Stockton, Kearny guessed, and thus no reinforcements would be forthcoming. Kearny told his men to prepare for a last desperate march at first light. He ordered them to burn or otherwise destroy all belongings that were not absolutely necessary. This was for two reasons—to lighten the burden for swifter travel, and to deny the enemy any chance at booty. That night the hills danced in the glow of a crackling bonfire as the men consigned their effects to the flames.

A few hours past midnight, the sentinels heard something awful—the deafening shudder of an approaching army’s footsteps. “Who goes there?” the guards cried anxiously into the darkness. Out of the shadows emerged a formidable sight: a force of nearly two hundred men marching in close formation up Mule Hill. Some of Kearny’s men groggily rose from their sleeping places, thinking they heard the sound of English coming from the valley floor.

“Who goes there?” the sentries demanded again.

“Hold fire!” boomed the reply from below. “We’re Americans!”

The camp erupted in cheers. Word had gotten through after all—Stockton had sent reinforcements! One hundred twenty sailors and eighty Marines tramped into the bivouac site bearing tobacco and hardtack—“gallant fellows,” Emory thought, “distributing provisions and clothes to our naked and hungry people.” As the men whooped and celebrated, a Mexican musket ball sailed through camp but did no damage. It was, thought Kearny biographer Dwight Clarke, “the last mournful shot of disappointment from an enemy robbed of its prey.”

In the morning, Kearny found that the enemy had completely vanished. Pico was surprised by the Americans’ sudden arrival and intimidated by this newly conjoined force of soldiers, sailors, and Marines—which, all told, numbered more than three hundred men. The siege had been broken.

The newly fortified American forces all left for San Diego the next day and marched unmolested. They arrived in a cold, spitting rain on the afternoon of December 12. Kearny’s war was nearly over, though he did not know it yet. Several minor skirmishes would have to be fought before Los Angeles would return at last to American hands, but he would face nothing like his trials at San Pasqual. The reconquest of California was all but complete.

The Army of the West had come as far as it could go, as far as the cardinal direction in its name would take it. Two thousand miles, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to the bitter end of the continent—there had never been a march like it in American history.

The men came to a shaggy bluff and walked to the precipice. And there, for quite some time, they stood gaping at the kelp-strewn shores of an unfamiliar sea. Emory wrote, “The Pacific opened for the first time to our view, the sight producing strange but agreeable emotions. One of the men who had never seen the ocean before opened his arms and exclaimed: ‘Lord! There is a great prairie without a tree.’”

General Kearny must have stared at the Pacific with mixed emotions. He wrote his wife Mary: “Take good care of yourself and kiss all my dear little ones for me. We have the ocean in sight and hear the rolling waves which sound like rumbling thunder.”

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