Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

Through the Enemy's Lines

The Three Kit Carson Couriers

On December 8, 1846, one hundred and twenty-five United States dragoons, rangers and scouts were being closely besieged upon a bare hill in Southern California by one hundred and fifty Mexican California cavalry. The place was thirty miles northeast of San Diego, near the Indian village of San Bernardo.

Texas, for which Jim Bowie and many another brave man fought and died, had won independence ten years back. Last year it had been admitted into the United States, and the boundaries of the United States had been extended to the Rio Grande River at last.

To this boundary Mexico objected; she said that it had not been the boundary of the Louisiana Territory nor of Texas. Now she was prepared to hold Texas and the Rio Grande. War neared and in March of 1846 the United States troops under General Zachary Taylor had marched across Texas to the north bank of the river.

An American column from Fort Leavenworth on the Kansas side of the Missouri River had marched eight hundred miles through the southwest desert, and captured Santa Fe and the province of New Mexico. From Santa Fe the First Dragoons had set out upon a desert trail of one thousand miles more, to capture California.

Here they were, less then one hundred of them "fit for service," reinforced by a detachment sent by Commodore Robert Stockton of the navy, who had seized San Diego; all commanded by General Stephen Watts Kearny of the army, and their advance stopped short. The "Horse-Chief of the Long Knives," as the Plains Indians called him, had met with misfortune.

There had been a battle. After their long, toiling march of close to the thousand miles the California irregular cavalry under Captain Andres Pico had attacked them among the California hills; had caught them at disadvantage; killed eighteen, wounded fifteen including General Kearny himself; and driven them to refuge upon this other hill. Indians could not have been more swift and wary than those light-riding Californians armed with lances.

Rain had been falling. The ground, cold and wet, was so rocky and cactus-covered that even the wounded could not be placed comfortably. The morning following the battle had "dawned on the most tattered and ill-fed detachment of men that ever the United States mustered under her colors"—"provisions were exhausted, horses dead, mules on their last legs, men, reduced to one-third of their number, were ragged, worn and emaciated."

On this second day, here upon the hill, there was no water except that which gathered in holes. For the dragoon mules no water at all, and no forage except the stiff brush. The fattest mule was killed, as food, but he proved very tough. The wounded could not be moved save in rude travois or litters of blankets slung between poles, the ends of which dragged along the ground. The hill was open, and exposed to weather and the enemy's view. Although San Diego and Commodore Stockton were only thirty miles distant (yet far out of sight beyond the high, brushy hills), the camp was completely cut off by the nimble riders of Captain Pico, and without doubt reinforcements for him were spurring in.

Altogether, General Kearny was in a fix: a fix both mortifying and perilous. He himself had been lanced twice, and was not a young man.

Commodore Stockton must be notified, to send relief of men, ambulances and food, at once. After the battle, and before the siege, the scout Alexander Godey and three other trappers had set out on foot, using their best skill, to take the word to San Diego; but they had been captured by the Pico videttes, and nobody upon the hill knew whether the Stockton relief was coming. A second try should be made.

With the General Kearny dragoons there was the famous Kit Carson. He had been met by the general at the Rio Grande River in New Mexico south of Santa Fe, and had turned back to act as guide to California. He was a veteran on the long trail: had been traveling mountains and deserts for over twenty years, or ever since he was sixteen.

There was a greenhorn, much younger than he, but just as brave: Acting-Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale of the navy, aged twenty-four and commissioned midshipman only sixteen months ago. He came of a stanch navy family; his grandfather and his father had been navy officers before him; the spirit of service to his country was in his blood.

The boyish Lieutenant Beale had joined the Kearny column before the battle, with the little force that brought dispatches to the general from San Diego. He was a sailor; had not been trained in scouting upon land; but that made no difference, for when this afternoon General Kearny called a council, to discuss means again of reaching Commodore Stockton, the first scout volunteer was Lieutenant Beale.

He said that he had come out; he thought that he could find his way back. He offered himself and his Indian boy servant, who would be able to guide him. The boy was a native of this country, and knew the trails.

Kit Carson heard, and lost no time in volunteering also. That was good. Everybody had confidence in the bravery of young Lieutenant Beale, but felt more dependence upon the training of Kit Carson. He had performed such trips, through watchful Indians themselves, many a time before.

They three, the scout, the sailor and the California Indian, proceeded to get ready, in order to start at nightfall. Each was supplied with a rifle, a pistol, knife and a canteen; but food seemed a question.

General Kearny had saved a handful of mouldy flour. This was baked into a loaf and given to Lieutenant Beale, with the general's compliments.

"It's the last of everything, sir," said the soldier who brought it. "The general'll have to do without breakfast, but you're welcome to it, sir."

"Take it back to General Kearny," Lieutenant Beale directed. "Tell him that I thank him heartily, and will provide for myself."

So he scraped in the ashes where some baggage had been burned; managed to find a little charred corn and dried peas; stowed that in his pocket. Kit Carson and the Indian provisioned themselves with a small piece, each, of half-cooked mule beef.

Of all Kit Carson's dangerous scouts in enemy country this turned out to be the most ticklish. For young Lieutenant Beale, the tenderfoot, it was hair-raising. Captain Pico had known that the celebrated Kit Carson was with the Americans upon the hill, and feared him. He had placed three lines of mounted patrols around the base of the hill, and instructed them to keep riding so as to leave no intervals.

"Se escapara el lobo (The wolf will escape)," he warned.

And the wolf did escape.

Naturally, Lieutenant Beale let Kit Carson take the lead, for "Kit" knew best what to do. They had to crawl on their hands and knees, and stomachs, through the brush, down the hill, for if they stood up they might be seen against the sky.

"Wait," Kit Carson whispered back. "Take off yore shoes, lieutenant. They make too much noise. Stow them in yore belt."

They tucked their shoes in their belts. Twigs had been cracking alarmingly. Presently their feet, knees and hands were afire with the cactus spines. Now twigs rasped along the canteens. Kit Carson paused and laid his canteen aside. Lieutenant Beale did the same; so did the cautious Indian.

They reached the base of the hill; waited here for a sentinel in the first line to pass; and crawled silently across almost at his horse's heels.

Foot by foot, wellnigh inch by inch, they snaked on, listening and peering for other patrols. Suddenly they encountered a second outpost, and crouched low, flattening themselves, scarcely daring to breathe. A Californian horseman leisurely rode by. Kit instantly squirmed forward, and they crossed this line also.

It was nervous work, in the thick, dark brush, and amidst the barbed prickly-pears that filled their flesh with sharp needles, all the worse because they struck unexpectedly.

Lieutenant Beale was hoping that now an open way lay before. They had avoided two outposts; were there others, still?

Ah! Kit Carson again flattened, motionless except that he kicked behind him and with touch of his bare foot signaled danger. Lieutenant Beale flattened; the Indian, third in the file, had flattened. The brush cracked; a horseman, dimly seen, was right upon them. He was another of the patrols. His figure towered huge as he halted, at Kit Carson's very head. He got off his horse; and shielding himself from the chill, damp breeze, stood there.

What was the matter? Was he searching? Should he be killed? And what then? Young Lieutenant Beale's heart pounded so that Kit Carson afterward said he had heard it beating "like a maul."

The sentry struck flint and steel. As some tinder in his hands caught, they might see that he was lighting a cigarette. The glow revealed his olive face, his flashing eyes, and the blanket shrouding him to his chin; it momentarily revealed the brush under which the two Americanos and the Indian were lying.

Whether they had been seen, who might tell? The sentry remounted, in careless manner, and slowly rode on—but perhaps to give the alarm and bring reinforcements to beat the brush. Lieutenant Beale broke. He could stand the suspense no longer. He was not used to so many close calls without action. They are the hardest of all to bear. And to crawl on and on, in this way, over rocks and cactus, made his heart sick. He would rather stand up and challenge the enemy.

He crawled ahead to Kit.

"Kit, we're gone. We can't escape. Let's jump and fight it out."

Kit Carson laid hand upon his arm, and steadied him.

"No, no, boy. I've been in worse places before and got through."

Those were good words. Kit Carson knew, if anybody did. It was fortunate that he had come! The Indian might have got through, but Lieutenant Beale, never. Even Alex Godey, who had a great reputation as a scout and path-finder, had been captured.

They kept on, Kit Carson leading; narrowly dodged other patrols—for the outskirts of the hill seemed alive with them. They finally met no more, and Kit announced that they were through, he thought, at last.

But they found disappointment. Their route was cut by a wide, open valley covered only with stones and cactus. They dared not stand up; they might yet be seen. It was two miles across, and they hitched along, on their knees and on hands and knees, every foot of the way, while the rocks and cactus tortured them.

Here, where the brush grew high, Kit stopped and appeared to be relieved.

"Put on yore shoes, boy. We're out of the trap and we can make better time."

Hurrah! Lieutenant Beale laid his hand to his belt. What!

"I've lost my shoes, Kit."

"So've I. That's mean, but we can't help it. Come on. We've a long way yit; we daren't line in direct.

Thar'll be more o' those patrols watchin' the trails into San Diego."

They hastened as best they might, on a circuit to avoid the trails. The country was rough and rolling. When day dawned, they left the mesas and kept to the dense brush of the canyons; were almost lost, so crooked their path; but the Indian guided them, and constantly sniffed for the salty air from the ocean. In the middle of the day they rested; their soles, knees, and hands were raw, and body and limb burned with the cactus; their throats were parched for lack of water.

At evening they smelled the ocean. The Indian said that they were within twelve miles of San Diego. From a high point they might have seen the glimmer of the Pacific. Kit Carson spoke.

"We'd better divide up, I think. Then one of us will get through. That's safer than travelin' together. Lieutenant, you head off to south'ard; amigo (that to the Indian boy, in Spanish), you go on straight; I'll take around north'ard, whar the Mexicanos probably are thickest to close the Los Angeles trail. Whoever gets in fust will report without wastin' any time."

"All right, sir," agreed the lieutenant.

"Bueno (Good)," muttered the Indian, nodding.

It was understood. The lieutenant and Kit shook hands; and they three separated, to steal swiftly away in the waning twilight.

At San Diego, Commodore Stockton had landed sailors and marines to reinforce the American Riflemen in San Diego. He was building Fort Stockton, to command the town. The frigate Congress and the sloop-of-war Portsmouth swung at anchor in the narrow channel of the harbor.

He had learned of the plight of General Kearny, and was just starting a relief column upon a night march for the hill, when at nine o'clock one of his sentries challenged a dark figure laboring in.

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"Amigo, amigo (Friend, friend)!"

'Twas the Indian boy. He had arrived first. The sentry called the sergeant of the guard, the sergeant of the guard took the boy to the officer of the guard, and the officer took him at once to the commodore.

The Indian was still telling his story in breathless Spanish, when another of the couriers arrived—carried by two marines. He was Lieutenant Beale, unable to walk.

Away trudged the relief party; the Indian and the lieutenant were placed in bed and the surgeon was summoned. The lieutenant had grown delirious—babbled and tossed and moaned. His boy lay twitching with pain and weariness, but uttered never a sound.

Where was Kit Carson? He staggered in about three o'clock in the morning. Had been obliged to wander and hide before he struck a way through. He had chosen for himself the longest and the hardest route. That was like him, and that was proper for the oldest and the most experienced. Now he, too, needed a surgeon. The bandy-legged, long-bodied, toughly-sinewed little Kit Carson who had faced many a scrape and "scrimmage" on plains and mountains, was "all in."

After this night we do not know what became of the Indian. His name never was recorded; he has been forgotten; all of which is a pity, because he risked his life to serve a new people and a new flag.

In the morning Lieutenant Beale was transferred abroad the Congress, and placed in the sick-bay. He was invalided for more than a year—did not really recover until after he resigned from the navy in 1852; he rose to be brigadier general in the Civil War, was United States minister to Vienna in 1876, and while ranching on two hundred and seventy-six thousand acres of land in California died, aged seventy-one, in 1893.

Through several days the surgeon thought that he would have to cut off Kit Carson's feet. But he saved them, and the plucky Kit marched north to Los Angeles with the rescued Kearny column.