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MULE HILL

On Tuesday, December 8, sunrise brought two unpleasant realities. One was the Mexicans had not left and they appeared to not be planning to leave any time soon. The other was how wicked the cold was at dawn, cutting through to the very bone. How any heat at all could be produced from the small fires was so wonderful indeed.

The cloud covered day started off with a re-evaluation of the now apparent stand-off by both sides. As Pico continued to receive reinforcements from the local countryside, Kearny and Turner were waiting with great anticipation for their reinforcements to arrive from San Diego. Of immediate urgency for the Americans was a source of water. This was found almost immediately just down the west side of the hill and across the road. There, some of the men dug circular holes into the ground, striking water at less than a foot deep. Not only did the men now take their water from this source but once a day, their mounts were led there for watering as well.

As small fires burned on top of the hill, coffee could be smelled in the air. What little was left of mesquite beans was being milled into flour and baked to eat. Their only prisoner taken, the Californio named Pablo Vejar, had not been fed since his capture on Sunday. One of the soldiers finally offered Vejar a piece of boiled mule meat. As he reluctantly started to eat at the meat, something caught his attention causing him to stop.

A small commotion on the southern plain suddenly attracted the attention of the Americans on the hill. General Pico himself, along with a small contingent of his men, were now riding up to the hill with a white flag. They stopped short of the hill with the Americans holding back their gunfire.

Kearny and Turner sent Lieutenant Emory out to the Mexican group. Emory met Pico whom he thought to be “a gentlemanly looking, and rather handsome man.” Pico advised him that they had four Americans as prisoners and wished to exchange them for four of his men whom he thought the Americans were holding. He had still been unable to account for all his men after the battle, not knowing that the Americans had buried six of them back at San Pasqual. Pico explained they had captured four Americans. They were Alexis Godey, the mountain man; Thomas Burgess, who was one of Captain Gillespie's Volunteers, and two Indians.

Emory advised him that they only had one prisoner, Pablo Vejar, and he would take Pico's offer back to General Kearny for an answer. Before riding away, Pico handed Emory a fresh change of uniform along with some tea and sugar destined for Captain Gillespie. Pico told him that they had been brought along by the captives from San Diego, presumably from Admiral Stockton.

When Emory rode back into camp to confer with Kearny and Turner, the entire camp gathered around him to hear what the Mexicans had to say. Several were aware of the Mexican tactic of demanding surrender or no quarter given which was utilized in Texas just ten years prior. Everyone knew of the Alamo.

Pablo Vejar, still chewing on the mule meat, asked his guard, Frenchman Jean Nutrelle, what did the white flag mean and what was going on? When Nutrelle explained, Vejar asked him how many prisoners did the Californios have? When Nutrelle answered, “Four”, Vejar responded by spitting out the piece of mule meat he was chewing on. With that, they led Vejar over to Emory as it was decided to go through with the prisoner trade. Besides, Pico knew whatever American he gave back, he would get back later anyhow. He had the entire hill surrounded with their access to food cut-off. It was only a matter of time. By taking back Vejar, the Americans had no Californio to execute should that time come. Emory slowly rode back down the hill to Pico with Vejar walking beside him. Pico decided to only release one of their captures, Thomas Burgess. As the Californios saw Vejar being made to walk out to the center, they became agitated because Burgess was being allowed to be ridden out on a horse.

Why should this one,” referring to Burgess. “ride on horseback while our comandante walks on foot?”, asked one Californio. So they made Burgess dismount and be led out on foot also. The two prisoners were exchanged and Emory brought Burgess back into the Americans' camp atop the hill. Pico and his aides rode across the river and to the other side of the valley with Pablo Vejar.

Burgess began to explain to the group on top of the hill how he and the three other messengers had camped just across from them the night before. They had camped among some sycamore trees on the other side of the valley. Burgess pointed to the spot where the Americans could clearly see the group of trees he described just southwest of their location.

Burgess and the others had seen several campfires but had taken for granted they were the Americans' and were not sure where the Mexicans were. When morning came, they walked towards where they had seen the campfires the night before and walked right into the hands of the Californios.

From Burgess, Kearny and Turner learned grim news. Commodore Stockton did not realize the seriousness of the situation and was not sending any reinforcements. Stockton didn't know an accurate number of Californios that had come up against Kearny so he did not know how many reinforcements to assemble. Burgess or Godey were unable to give him that information. Further yet, Stockton was having a serious problem acquiring horses in San Diego. He didn't have horses or mules to mount a large force and send them Kearny's way.

As Kearny and the others heard the news, it was as if someone had just lowered doom itself upon them. Indeed, everyone there could suddenly feel the pit of his stomach. Immediately, there was talk of sending another group of messengers to San Diego. The situation was grave indeed. They had lost many of their mounts. The doctor told Kearny that the wounded were in too bad of shape to be moved. They were starving, their water supply low and the freezing temperatures at night were taking their toll. They were totally pinned down on the hill. Their options were either to fight their way to San Diego despite how vastly outnumbered they might be, or to surrender. Their 'wild-card' was to possibly get reinforcements from San Diego and Kearny wanted to play this card first. After much conferring, a decision was made to send three messengers out that night. They were to be Lieutenant Beale, Kit Carson and an Indian Scout. This would be extremely difficult because the Californios now had the southern route to San Diego cut off with the three rows of sentries, all with mounts in hand.

By five o'clock that evening, the three prepared for their long and dangerous trip south. General Kearny ordered his orderly to take the last bit of flour and bake a loaf of bread for Lieutenant Beale to take with him. Beale refused, stating that the troops on the hill needed it more than he. Beale figured that he could make it on what he had in his pockets, a piece of corn, a few beans and a chunk of cooked mule meat. By six o'clock, the three had started on their way. They carefully took off their boots and fastened them to their backs through their belts. Then, crawling on their stomachs, they slowly left the hill headed towards the Mexican sentries. For over a mile, they crawled on their bellies, sometimes within twenty yards of sentries. By the time they were able to stand-up, they realized they had lost their boots. Now barefoot, they began their near thirty mile trek through rock and cactus.

Meanwhile, on top of the hill, John Cox struggled with the cold. He was in unbearable pain and agony. He realized he wasn't getting better but rather, worse. He had survived his wound but what he didn't know was that a secondary infection had set in. He could only close his eyes and try to imagine himself far away, away from all the suffering that now racked his body on top of this God forsaken hill. His only warmth could be found in escaping into his thoughts, thoughts of Emily. The vision of Emily now engulfed his mind and, warmed his body and soul.

On Wednesday, December 9, nothing happened at all between the Americans atop the hill and the Mexicans who had it surrounded. Indeed, it was a Mexican Stand-off.

That morning, dawn had again found the unbearable cold gnawing through the blankets and uniforms of the tired and hungry American soldiers. Taking what little they could find of sage brush and other materials, the soldiers continued to build small campfires. Trying to warm themselves any way they could, the smell of coffee cut through the air with much welcomed delight. Lying not far from John Cox and next to Lieutenant Emory, was French mountain man, Antoine Robideaux. In his fifties, the civilian Army guide had been severely wounded. Emory and a few others did not think the Frenchman would survive much longer. Emory had just awoken when Robideaux, already awake, turned and asked him if he could smell the coffee? Emory, still half-asleep, thought at first the Frenchman was crazy or delirious. Robideaux kept asking the young lieutenant if he could smell the coffee. Emory decided to crawl out from under his blanket and ask the cook at a nearby campfire if he had any coffee brewing. Much to his surprise, he did.

Emory asked the cook if he could get a cup of the “precious draught” which he did and brought back to the ailing mountain man. Robideaux sipped the coffee down and as he did, Emory watched the warmth of life seem to fill the old man's cold and beaten body. Robideaux was so grateful to the lieutenant and as a sign of his gratitude, gave him half a small cake from his coat pocket. The cake had originally come from the Frenchman's Mexican servant who had “scorned ablutions.” The cake was made from brown flour and was partially covered in dirt.

Emory was thankful for the morsel and with much appetite, bit into the cake. He had eaten half of it when upon breaking off another small piece, he discovered the cake was infested with small insects crawling through it. Despite this, his hunger being so great, Emory picked out what insects he could and finished eating the cake anyway. Later in the morning, Kearny met with his officers to discuss the possibility of the three messengers not getting through to San Diego. They all agreed this would leave no other option but to fight their way out or to surrender. Each one could have disastrous results. In preparation for either option, Kearny issued an order that effective immediately, all in the camp were to begin destroying any public property that could not be carried with them to San Diego. Despite this, they were so low on provisions that there was not that much to destroy. Some of the soldiers however, welcomed this order as they began to burn saddles taken from butchered mules. Anything that could burn and create warmth was a God-send in the miserable cold.

That evening in Old Town, San Diego, at about six o'clock, a party of a sort was occurring at the house of Juan Bandini. As Commodore Stockton's band played on, people danced and drank. Suddenly, the party was interrupted by the sight of the San Pasqual Indian. Fearing capture as they neared San Diego, the three messengers that had left Kearny, split-up, each taking a different route into town. The Indian wavered in and told of General Kearny's demise atop the hill at Rancho San Bernardo. Four hours later, Beale staggered in suffering tremendously from the long ordeal. San Diego suddenly was alive with Kearny's dilemma. The USS Congress became headquarters for an immediate relief column to start for the Americans at Rancho San Bernardo. As this was happening, Kit Carson finally entered San Diego as well. All three messengers had arrived.

Late into the night, one-hundred and twenty Sailors, and eighty Marines left Old Town, San Diego on foot, headed for Kearny's men. Along with their own supplies, they brought rations of beef jerky, clothing, hardtack, and tobacco. Not knowing the enemy's strength in the area, they were to march at night under cover of darkness. During the day, they were to take cover and rest.

As midnight rolled in, the morning of December 10 found the top of the hill where Kearny's unit was pinned down, dark and cold. Just before the sun rose, John Cox, who with both fever and chills again began to vomit blood. John could barely make out Doctor Griffin beside him. John knew his time had come. He was tired and so cold. He just wanted to sleep now. In his thoughts, he now spoke to Emily.

The chills were so bad. His body just kept shaking so violently. It wouldn't stop. He wanted to sleep and make all the pain go away. He hoped she would understand. John then gave out his last breath and died. The doctor closed the sergeant's eyes and pulled the blanket over his head. As the others began to learn of John's death, it became a sobering reminder of their grave situation. Leaving John's body lay there very long was bad for the morale of others and so a grave was ordered dug immediately. Lieutenant Emory knew John well from Fort Leavenworth and Platte, Missouri. Later that day, Lieutenant Emory quietly wrote a simple sentence in his journal about John's passing. He wrote, “This was a gallant fellow, who had, just before leaving Fort Leavenworth, married a pretty wife.” As the grave was being dug on the side of the hill, his boots were removed to give to someone else. The spurs that were attached were pried off his boots since they had no rowellings left on them. One was intentionally bent and thrown into a nearby fire. The other was tossed in the air landing down between some large rocks. John's body was then carried over to the grave which was dug with the intent of trying to keep it out of the enemy's view as much as possible. It was on the west side of the hill, dug on an incline. Knowing that coyotes would later catch the scent of the body, the soldiers dug the grave especially deep.

A small graveside vigil was held and John's body was lowered into the ground. The pit was filled and to further protect the grave from coyotes, the men carried large stones over from the rock outcroppings and piled them atop the grave. Thus was the end of the twenty-five year old sergeant, and husband to Emily. Emily was just sixteen years old and now a war-widow. As the morning was inching toward noon, a commotion started to develop just north of the hill back at the Snook Adobe. The rancho was occupied by Californios who were bored watching the north side of the Americans' hill. For some excitement, they opened the Snook corral and were running the horses and mules out in the valley between the adobe and the hill.

They had tied a bull hide to the tail of one of the mules and cut him loose with the others. This caused much excitement among the animals and also for the Mexicans who were watching. Meanwhile, the Americans' mules and horses were being quartered just below the hill on the southwest side near the road. This was where they were taken daily to get watered and eat grass. Also near them on the road was the remaining howitzer. This was to protect their flank and rear from attack on the valley floor.

In playing with the horses and mules on the valley floor, the Mexicans suddenly lost control of the animals and they stampeded south, towards the hill where the Americans were. The Americans saw the action as a deliberate attempt to stampede the herd towards their mounts in an effort to cause their own animals to stampede off with the whole group. As the stampede continued running south through the valley towards the hill, the Americans swung their remaining howitzer around and fired it. It was an attempt to scare the herd away from running towards the hill and preventing their own animals from stampeding. The cannon blast was loud and sudden. It took all the strength of several soldiers to hold down the ropes that held their animals. The cannon blast raised a large cloud of dust into the air. Much to the Americans' surprise, the herd turned away with the exception of one lone mule who ran right for their hill. The animal ran up the hill before finally being shot almost forty times. The moment was finalized by one of the Americans who put an ax into its head. The fat mule was quickly gutted, skinned. and made into a soup for the night. That evening, General Andres Pico had many thoughts too. He was already in receipt of a letter written to him by General Jose Flores, commander of all Mexican forces in California.

The letter, dated December 5, 1846, was written by Flores in Los Angeles. He had come to a major disagreement with the Mexican people in Los Angeles and they in turn, had taken him captive. Pico had to make a decision, either leave Kearny and his men to go help Flores, or stay and capture the U.S. force he now had pinned down on the hill. Regardless of Flores' need, Pico knew Flores was at least in the hands of his own people. A domestic squabble that would no doubt iron itself out.

What he had in front of him was much more valuable, however. He had a large and well-armed U.S. force, crippled and starving upon a hill at Rancho San Bernardo. He knew that their time was about up and he would be victorious one way or another. There was just one problem though. He had received disturbing news that day. Pico was informed of a large force of Americans headed his way from San Diego. He was aware of their progress and now knew if Kearny and his men remained on the hill, their reinforcements would soon arrive. He would then no longer be able to maintain the iron grip that he had held on them now for four days. By late that night, Pico and his main contingent of men began their departure from the hill, now headed back for Los Angeles. He had word that the Americans from San Diego were soon at hand. He made a decision to leave and rush to Flores' aid. He could do no more here. The Americans had won the stand-off. Leaving just some of the local Californios around the hill, he rode off into the night.

At approximately 2:00 a.m. later that morning, the Navy and Marines finally arrived to the rescue of the Army. Kearny's men were in absolute state of excitement. They eagerly accepted the rations given them by their rescuers. The few Californios now left around the hill knew the stand-off was finally and officially over. Despite this, while Californian Battalion Volunteer, Philip Crosthwaite sat around a small fire on top of the hill, eagerly chewing on a piece of pork given him by one of the sailors, a gunshot crackled in the night and a lone musket ball whistled by. The sound of a single horse could be heard galloping off somewhere in the darkness. The Marines and Sailors got some rest on top of the hill before sun-up. After dawn, the Americans left the hill for San Diego. There were no Californios in sight. When the Americans had first been driven upon the hill, they had lost the head of cattle they had just acquired from Mrs. Snook's Rancho. During the entire three days that the Mexicans had them surrounded, the starving Americans couldn't help envying the Greyhounds who had control over the herd. Now as they left the hill, they looked in disbelief as they saw the cattle left behind by the Californios. Kearny's men, with eager anticipation, took back the cattle as they left on their way to San Diego. The only soldier left behind on the hill was John Cox. His lonely grave lay along the side of the hill. John had ridden out of Fort Leavenworth so proud and gallant with the elite 1st Dragoons. As he looked back at his Emily that day, he felt so alive in his promise to come back to her. That promise now laid on top of the lonely hill that was later to be known in history as “Mule Hill.”

The End

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