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Blood Runs on Mule Hill

The Marathon of '46, Part 4

Joseph Snooks
Joseph Snooks

When is a battle over? The Battle of San Pasqual took 30 minutes, at most, but lasted five days.

DECEMBER 6,1846. Andres Pico’s Californians left the field at dawn, leaving 35 lacerated American soldiers beneath an overcast sky. Amid the moans of men and animals, it was hard to tell the living from the dead. Using eight-foot-long, steel-tipped lances, Californians impaled the Americans an average of three times each.

His upper arm hemorrhaging from a deep gash, Brigadier General Stephen Watt Kearny wanted to march to San Diego, the only town Californians hadn’t recaptured. Soldiers tied the 18 corpses to mules, but there weren’t enough animals to convey the wounded, most of whom were too weak to ride.

Lt. William Emory: “Our provisions were exhausted, our horses dead, our mules on their last legs, and our men, now reduced to one-third their number, were ragged, worn down by fatigue.” Most wore tattered clothing, less than half had boots.

Kearny—whose name his living descendants pronounce “Carney” — fainted from loss of blood. Captain Henry Smith Turner took command. He sent Alexis Godey, Thomas Burgess, Jean “Canada Jack” Baptiste, and an unnamed Indian sheepherder to San Diego on the freshest mules. They carried a letter for Commodore Robert Stockton urging reinforcements, supplies, and wagons for the casualties. They rode southeast, away from Californians, snaking through low hills for 35 miles.

Famous for his silky black hair, Godey was Kit Carson’s close friend and arch-rival. Carson’s biographer, Henry Lewis Carter, admits that Godey’s legendary exploits surpassed Carson’s. But Godey was a Creole, and “America would not take a Frenchman to its heart if it could find a more genuinely American hero.”

At the site where the San Pasqual battlefield marker now stands, Surgeon John Griffin tended to 17 injured men. After midnight, under a willow east of camp, soldiers buried the dead in the frost-covered ground. Coyote howls echoed across the valley. To prevent scavengers—animal and human— from unearthing the bodies, the men piled large stones over the graves.

Along with howls of hunger, the cacti-thick, rocky hillside made sleep impossible. At 6:45 a.m., when Kearny retook command and ordered the men to move out, Emory’s thermometer read 38 degrees.

DECEMBER 7,1846. Archibald Gillespie: “‘The morning dawned on the saddest and most dispirited camp, perhaps, ever known in the American Arms.” The company’s remaining mountain men—Peterson, Londeau, and Perrot—devised six crude “ambulances” to transport casualties: buffalo robes bound to willow poles, one end tied to a mule, the other dragging on the ground. Each litter carried three men, strapped down with rawhide. As they bounced and jostled on a narrow, Kumeyaay cart path, their agony, says Emory, became “very distressing.”

The column headed west, hugging the northern foothill of San Pasqual Valley so Californians couldn’t flank it. Kit Carson led a 15-man advance team. For protection, casualties and pack animals rode in the center of the 110-man outfit The immediate goal: the ranch of English sea captain Joseph Snook. As bands of Californians followed every move, just out of rifle range, the column took eight hours to make the five-mile trek.

Snook had fled. Indians told Kearny that Pico departed not long before. His wounded—15 to 18 by their count— spent the night at the ranch. Kearny called a mid-afternoon rest As Griffin went from ambulance to ambulance changing bandages, soldiers watered the mules and rounded up stray chickens and cattle Pico had left behind. There wasn’t enough water or food for the animals, so Kearny decided to head south to the San Bernardo riverbed.

By today’s markers, Snook’s Ranch was near Escondido’s Kit Carson Park. Kearny’s column moves southwest, down Via Rancho Parkway, toward Lake Hodges and Interstate 15. On their left was a low hill: a camel’s hump sloping east/west to an outcrop of granite boulders. Golfers hitting range balls at the Hodges Golf Center may wonder why the scruffy mound behind the tall fence remains the only undeveloped land in the area. Or how it got such a strange name: Mule Hill.

Near sunset, not far from Snook’s Ranch, Pico’s forces swarmed from the southeastern hills. Others massed to the right front of Kearny’s company. About 30 Californians galloped up the low hill between the Americans and the riverbed. The horsemen dismounted, took cover, and fired. Gun smoke curled above gray boulders.

Pico had flanked the bluecoats.

On foot, Emory, Turner, and several dragoons raced toward the hill. The horsemen, who had few weapons, stood their ground until Americans, halfway up, returned fire. Turner: “As they stepped from behind the rocks to make their escape we killed and wounded several.” Three dropped lances as they fled.

Emory: “The capture of the hill was but the work of a moment Strange to say not one of our men fell” But several were wounded, and the fray scattered the Americans’ newfound cattle and chickens.

As the sun set, realizing the wounded could go no further, Kearny chose to camp on the plateau. Soldiers tugged up the two howitzers, the four-pound brass Sutter gun aimed southeast, at Pico’s bonfires across the river. Then ambulances skidded up the bank.

By chance, Kearny had found a defensible position: high ground with boulders, some nine feet tall. When dragoons rolled in other rocks for battlements, they built a natural fort.

But they lacked everything else. Pico’s sentries guarded the riverbed, 500 yards to the south. There was no firewood on the hill and no food. Wirewood—a shrub with stalks tough as fishhooks—permitted only small campfires and was too brittle for the animals, many of which escaped to the green grass by the riverbed.

The improvised shelter, writes Arthur Woodward, resembled “a long narrow room”—50 1/2 feet in length and 14 feet wide— “sprinkled with rounded rocks of all sizes. It was at best a cramped uncomfortable refuge entirely inadequate for Kearny’s small force.”

Kearny vowed to march to San Diego, 30 miles away, in the morning. That night the temperature hit 28 degrees.

DECEMBER8, 1846. The wounded still couldn’t travel. Emory: “To transport them would have required half of our fighting force.” Kearny waited for reinforcements.

As soldiers dug small holes for water, and others killed the two fattest mules for meat, shouts cracked like gunfire across the plain: four riders and a pack mule attempted a frantic sprint through enemy lines—Godey, back from San Diego. Pico’s horsemen surrounded the small party and took them prisoner at the riverbed.

Pico waved a white flag. Emory met with the “gentlemanly-looking man,” who wanted to exchange his four prisoners for four Californians. But Kearny had only one captive, Pablo Vejar, whom the Americans had yet to feed. Pico said he’d return one American for Vejar.

“Godey?”

“Burgess,” Pico replied, Godey being far too valuable to release.

By all accounts, Burgess was a dullard. And he brought bad news: the express made it to San Diego. On the way back they hid Stockton’s dispatch under a tree, something about not enough horses or carts. Burgess wasn’t sure. Burgess couldn’t read.

What was clear: reinforcements kept arriving across the river. Pico encircled the hill with sentries. No American mentions the word, but thoughts of the Alamo, fought ten years earlier, were on their minds. Turner “In our encumbered condition, it is altogether possible that they would not have left one of us to tell the tale.”

“We are reduced to mule meat,” wrote Dr. Griffin.

Those who have eaten mule say it’s strong and tough, but the stringy red meat tastes more like beef than horse-meat, which is translucent and tastes like fish. With few mule steaks to go around, cooks made a weak “gravy soup” from scraps, boiling them in the brown water dug at the foot of what soldiers now called, in honor of their singular diet, Mule Hill.

That night Kearny, Kit Carson, and Gillespie held a council. Someone had to get through to San Diego. Without reinforcements, the men on Mule Hill faced two opponents: Californians and starvation. Navy Lieutenant Edward Beale volunteered with an Indian scout Then Carson raised his hand. Kearny at first said no, he couldn’t spare Carson, then changed his mind. Carson, Beale, and the unnamed Indian set off on foot in darkness. Carson called the trek a “forlorn hope” — a suicide mission.

DECEMBER 9, 1846. Another 28-degree night. Emory believed the man beside him would “never see daylight” Fifty-five-year-old Antonio Robideaux, Kearny's Indian interpreter who helped lead the Army of the West to California, had a festering gash in his back. In the morning, Robideaux smelled coffee. He shook Emory awake and swore a steaming hot cup was the only thing that could save his life.

Emory couldn’t remember when anyone had last drunk coffee. “I supposed a dream had carried him back to the cafes of St Louis and New Orleans.” Then Emory smelled it too: the cook heating a cup over a wild sage campfire. “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.” The old fur trapper lived another 14 years.

Returning the favor, Robideaux reached into the pocket of his Mexican servant — “a man who scorned ablutions”—and gave Emory a slice of brown flour cake, “almost black with dirt” Emory ate “more than half without inspection, when, on breaking a piece, the bodies of several of the most loathsome insects were exposed to view.” Emory’s hunger, however, overcame his “fastidiousness.”

To keep what they couldn’t carry from “tire enemy by whom we are now surrounded,” Kearny ordered the burning or burial of broken muskets and sabers, tents, a cracked, cast iron pot, even their great-coats—the implication being that Pico’s forces, growing daily, would soon overrun Mule Hill.

That night, after hiccup fits and vomiting bloody water, Sergeant John Cox died from a wound on his left side. Emory: “This was a gallant fellow, who had, just before leaving Fort leaven worth, married a pretty wife.”

DECEMBER 10, 1846. The few soldiers strong enough buried Cox under a mound of stones. Others envisioned themselves under a similar heap. The cooks had run out of flour. Mule meat—“fat in bone, low in flesh” — was gone. Nights had become cramped vigils, wrapped in hole-pocked blankets, punctuated by moans of the wounded. Days revealed gaunt faces. No one gave Carson’s desperate marathon a chance. Far better to slash it out with a well-fed enemy than fade away on some forlorn knoll.

Early that evening, while the army’s few remaining animals grazed below Mule Hill, Dr. Griffin saw “one of the most beautiful sights we had ever beheld.” For half an hour, near Snook’s Ranch to the north, 12 lancers assembled a small herd of wild horses and mules. The enemy’s expertise in the saddle always amazed Kearny’s troops.

It was a tactic, Gillespie warned Kearny. The riders would try to stampede the Americans’ animals. Dragoons moved the scrawny mounts, picketing them around the hilL The wild herd drew closer, then burst into full gallop. Along with the pounding of hooves came strange, flapping sounds: some horses and mules had sheepskins and other noise-makers tied to their tails.

Americans whooped and hollered and waved their caps at the oncoming animals. After a blast from the 40-inch Sutter gun, the herd bolted away— except for a lone mule, which charged straight for the soldiers, leather thongs snapping on its tail. Carbines popped from the hillside. “Forty balls struck him, I was told,” says Griffin, “yet he did not fall.” Soldiers drove the mule up the hill and butchered it, along with two others killed in the rush. Three fat mules were a “godsend,” because “that which we had been eating was not equal by any means to stall-fed beef.”

Kearny interrupted that night’s gravy-soup feast with a solemn announcement if reinforcements didn’t come, the Americans would march in the morning. Griffin: “We went to bed firmly convinced we would be obliged to fight our way to St. Diego.”

Next time: Mule Hill Marathon


QUOTATIONS

  1. Turner, Henry Smith (letter carried by Godey to Stockton): “I have to suggest to you the propriety of dispatching, without delay, a considerable force to meet us on the route to San Diego ...We are without provisions.”
  2. Griffin, John S.: Our horses “would not have been used for anything else in the United States but wolf bait.”
  3. Schreier, Konrad F., Jr.: “A single gold-washed naval officer’s button of pre-Civil War vintage was found on the hill.”

SOURCES:

  1. Carter, Harvey Lewis, Dear Old Kit: The Historical Christopher Carson (University of Oklahoma Press, 1968)
  2. Emory, W.H., Lieutenant Emory Reports (University of New Mexico Press, 1951)
  3. Gillespie, Captain Archibald, “Official Report of the Battle of San Pascual, Made to Commodore R. F. Stockton, Dec. 25,1846.”
  4. Griffin, John S., M.D., A Doctor Comes to California (California Historical Society, 1943)
  5. Schreier, Konrad F., Jr., “A Study of the Location of Mule Hill,” Journal of San Diego History, spring 1975, pp., 12-22
  6. Turner, Henry Smith, The Original Journals of Henry Smith Turner (University of Oklahoma Press, 1966)
  7. Woodward, Arthur, The Lances at San Pascual (California Historical Society, 1948)
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Let them eat French Charolaise steak

Controversial U.N. Foundation bankrolls Jacobs aide's Nicosia junket
Joseph Snooks
Joseph Snooks

When is a battle over? The Battle of San Pasqual took 30 minutes, at most, but lasted five days.

DECEMBER 6,1846. Andres Pico’s Californians left the field at dawn, leaving 35 lacerated American soldiers beneath an overcast sky. Amid the moans of men and animals, it was hard to tell the living from the dead. Using eight-foot-long, steel-tipped lances, Californians impaled the Americans an average of three times each.

His upper arm hemorrhaging from a deep gash, Brigadier General Stephen Watt Kearny wanted to march to San Diego, the only town Californians hadn’t recaptured. Soldiers tied the 18 corpses to mules, but there weren’t enough animals to convey the wounded, most of whom were too weak to ride.

Lt. William Emory: “Our provisions were exhausted, our horses dead, our mules on their last legs, and our men, now reduced to one-third their number, were ragged, worn down by fatigue.” Most wore tattered clothing, less than half had boots.

Kearny—whose name his living descendants pronounce “Carney” — fainted from loss of blood. Captain Henry Smith Turner took command. He sent Alexis Godey, Thomas Burgess, Jean “Canada Jack” Baptiste, and an unnamed Indian sheepherder to San Diego on the freshest mules. They carried a letter for Commodore Robert Stockton urging reinforcements, supplies, and wagons for the casualties. They rode southeast, away from Californians, snaking through low hills for 35 miles.

Famous for his silky black hair, Godey was Kit Carson’s close friend and arch-rival. Carson’s biographer, Henry Lewis Carter, admits that Godey’s legendary exploits surpassed Carson’s. But Godey was a Creole, and “America would not take a Frenchman to its heart if it could find a more genuinely American hero.”

At the site where the San Pasqual battlefield marker now stands, Surgeon John Griffin tended to 17 injured men. After midnight, under a willow east of camp, soldiers buried the dead in the frost-covered ground. Coyote howls echoed across the valley. To prevent scavengers—animal and human— from unearthing the bodies, the men piled large stones over the graves.

Along with howls of hunger, the cacti-thick, rocky hillside made sleep impossible. At 6:45 a.m., when Kearny retook command and ordered the men to move out, Emory’s thermometer read 38 degrees.

DECEMBER 7,1846. Archibald Gillespie: “‘The morning dawned on the saddest and most dispirited camp, perhaps, ever known in the American Arms.” The company’s remaining mountain men—Peterson, Londeau, and Perrot—devised six crude “ambulances” to transport casualties: buffalo robes bound to willow poles, one end tied to a mule, the other dragging on the ground. Each litter carried three men, strapped down with rawhide. As they bounced and jostled on a narrow, Kumeyaay cart path, their agony, says Emory, became “very distressing.”

The column headed west, hugging the northern foothill of San Pasqual Valley so Californians couldn’t flank it. Kit Carson led a 15-man advance team. For protection, casualties and pack animals rode in the center of the 110-man outfit The immediate goal: the ranch of English sea captain Joseph Snook. As bands of Californians followed every move, just out of rifle range, the column took eight hours to make the five-mile trek.

Snook had fled. Indians told Kearny that Pico departed not long before. His wounded—15 to 18 by their count— spent the night at the ranch. Kearny called a mid-afternoon rest As Griffin went from ambulance to ambulance changing bandages, soldiers watered the mules and rounded up stray chickens and cattle Pico had left behind. There wasn’t enough water or food for the animals, so Kearny decided to head south to the San Bernardo riverbed.

By today’s markers, Snook’s Ranch was near Escondido’s Kit Carson Park. Kearny’s column moves southwest, down Via Rancho Parkway, toward Lake Hodges and Interstate 15. On their left was a low hill: a camel’s hump sloping east/west to an outcrop of granite boulders. Golfers hitting range balls at the Hodges Golf Center may wonder why the scruffy mound behind the tall fence remains the only undeveloped land in the area. Or how it got such a strange name: Mule Hill.

Near sunset, not far from Snook’s Ranch, Pico’s forces swarmed from the southeastern hills. Others massed to the right front of Kearny’s company. About 30 Californians galloped up the low hill between the Americans and the riverbed. The horsemen dismounted, took cover, and fired. Gun smoke curled above gray boulders.

Pico had flanked the bluecoats.

On foot, Emory, Turner, and several dragoons raced toward the hill. The horsemen, who had few weapons, stood their ground until Americans, halfway up, returned fire. Turner: “As they stepped from behind the rocks to make their escape we killed and wounded several.” Three dropped lances as they fled.

Emory: “The capture of the hill was but the work of a moment Strange to say not one of our men fell” But several were wounded, and the fray scattered the Americans’ newfound cattle and chickens.

As the sun set, realizing the wounded could go no further, Kearny chose to camp on the plateau. Soldiers tugged up the two howitzers, the four-pound brass Sutter gun aimed southeast, at Pico’s bonfires across the river. Then ambulances skidded up the bank.

By chance, Kearny had found a defensible position: high ground with boulders, some nine feet tall. When dragoons rolled in other rocks for battlements, they built a natural fort.

But they lacked everything else. Pico’s sentries guarded the riverbed, 500 yards to the south. There was no firewood on the hill and no food. Wirewood—a shrub with stalks tough as fishhooks—permitted only small campfires and was too brittle for the animals, many of which escaped to the green grass by the riverbed.

The improvised shelter, writes Arthur Woodward, resembled “a long narrow room”—50 1/2 feet in length and 14 feet wide— “sprinkled with rounded rocks of all sizes. It was at best a cramped uncomfortable refuge entirely inadequate for Kearny’s small force.”

Kearny vowed to march to San Diego, 30 miles away, in the morning. That night the temperature hit 28 degrees.

DECEMBER8, 1846. The wounded still couldn’t travel. Emory: “To transport them would have required half of our fighting force.” Kearny waited for reinforcements.

As soldiers dug small holes for water, and others killed the two fattest mules for meat, shouts cracked like gunfire across the plain: four riders and a pack mule attempted a frantic sprint through enemy lines—Godey, back from San Diego. Pico’s horsemen surrounded the small party and took them prisoner at the riverbed.

Pico waved a white flag. Emory met with the “gentlemanly-looking man,” who wanted to exchange his four prisoners for four Californians. But Kearny had only one captive, Pablo Vejar, whom the Americans had yet to feed. Pico said he’d return one American for Vejar.

“Godey?”

“Burgess,” Pico replied, Godey being far too valuable to release.

By all accounts, Burgess was a dullard. And he brought bad news: the express made it to San Diego. On the way back they hid Stockton’s dispatch under a tree, something about not enough horses or carts. Burgess wasn’t sure. Burgess couldn’t read.

What was clear: reinforcements kept arriving across the river. Pico encircled the hill with sentries. No American mentions the word, but thoughts of the Alamo, fought ten years earlier, were on their minds. Turner “In our encumbered condition, it is altogether possible that they would not have left one of us to tell the tale.”

“We are reduced to mule meat,” wrote Dr. Griffin.

Those who have eaten mule say it’s strong and tough, but the stringy red meat tastes more like beef than horse-meat, which is translucent and tastes like fish. With few mule steaks to go around, cooks made a weak “gravy soup” from scraps, boiling them in the brown water dug at the foot of what soldiers now called, in honor of their singular diet, Mule Hill.

That night Kearny, Kit Carson, and Gillespie held a council. Someone had to get through to San Diego. Without reinforcements, the men on Mule Hill faced two opponents: Californians and starvation. Navy Lieutenant Edward Beale volunteered with an Indian scout Then Carson raised his hand. Kearny at first said no, he couldn’t spare Carson, then changed his mind. Carson, Beale, and the unnamed Indian set off on foot in darkness. Carson called the trek a “forlorn hope” — a suicide mission.

DECEMBER 9, 1846. Another 28-degree night. Emory believed the man beside him would “never see daylight” Fifty-five-year-old Antonio Robideaux, Kearny's Indian interpreter who helped lead the Army of the West to California, had a festering gash in his back. In the morning, Robideaux smelled coffee. He shook Emory awake and swore a steaming hot cup was the only thing that could save his life.

Emory couldn’t remember when anyone had last drunk coffee. “I supposed a dream had carried him back to the cafes of St Louis and New Orleans.” Then Emory smelled it too: the cook heating a cup over a wild sage campfire. “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.” The old fur trapper lived another 14 years.

Returning the favor, Robideaux reached into the pocket of his Mexican servant — “a man who scorned ablutions”—and gave Emory a slice of brown flour cake, “almost black with dirt” Emory ate “more than half without inspection, when, on breaking a piece, the bodies of several of the most loathsome insects were exposed to view.” Emory’s hunger, however, overcame his “fastidiousness.”

To keep what they couldn’t carry from “tire enemy by whom we are now surrounded,” Kearny ordered the burning or burial of broken muskets and sabers, tents, a cracked, cast iron pot, even their great-coats—the implication being that Pico’s forces, growing daily, would soon overrun Mule Hill.

That night, after hiccup fits and vomiting bloody water, Sergeant John Cox died from a wound on his left side. Emory: “This was a gallant fellow, who had, just before leaving Fort leaven worth, married a pretty wife.”

DECEMBER 10, 1846. The few soldiers strong enough buried Cox under a mound of stones. Others envisioned themselves under a similar heap. The cooks had run out of flour. Mule meat—“fat in bone, low in flesh” — was gone. Nights had become cramped vigils, wrapped in hole-pocked blankets, punctuated by moans of the wounded. Days revealed gaunt faces. No one gave Carson’s desperate marathon a chance. Far better to slash it out with a well-fed enemy than fade away on some forlorn knoll.

Early that evening, while the army’s few remaining animals grazed below Mule Hill, Dr. Griffin saw “one of the most beautiful sights we had ever beheld.” For half an hour, near Snook’s Ranch to the north, 12 lancers assembled a small herd of wild horses and mules. The enemy’s expertise in the saddle always amazed Kearny’s troops.

It was a tactic, Gillespie warned Kearny. The riders would try to stampede the Americans’ animals. Dragoons moved the scrawny mounts, picketing them around the hilL The wild herd drew closer, then burst into full gallop. Along with the pounding of hooves came strange, flapping sounds: some horses and mules had sheepskins and other noise-makers tied to their tails.

Americans whooped and hollered and waved their caps at the oncoming animals. After a blast from the 40-inch Sutter gun, the herd bolted away— except for a lone mule, which charged straight for the soldiers, leather thongs snapping on its tail. Carbines popped from the hillside. “Forty balls struck him, I was told,” says Griffin, “yet he did not fall.” Soldiers drove the mule up the hill and butchered it, along with two others killed in the rush. Three fat mules were a “godsend,” because “that which we had been eating was not equal by any means to stall-fed beef.”

Kearny interrupted that night’s gravy-soup feast with a solemn announcement if reinforcements didn’t come, the Americans would march in the morning. Griffin: “We went to bed firmly convinced we would be obliged to fight our way to St. Diego.”

Next time: Mule Hill Marathon


QUOTATIONS

  1. Turner, Henry Smith (letter carried by Godey to Stockton): “I have to suggest to you the propriety of dispatching, without delay, a considerable force to meet us on the route to San Diego ...We are without provisions.”
  2. Griffin, John S.: Our horses “would not have been used for anything else in the United States but wolf bait.”
  3. Schreier, Konrad F., Jr.: “A single gold-washed naval officer’s button of pre-Civil War vintage was found on the hill.”

SOURCES:

  1. Carter, Harvey Lewis, Dear Old Kit: The Historical Christopher Carson (University of Oklahoma Press, 1968)
  2. Emory, W.H., Lieutenant Emory Reports (University of New Mexico Press, 1951)
  3. Gillespie, Captain Archibald, “Official Report of the Battle of San Pascual, Made to Commodore R. F. Stockton, Dec. 25,1846.”
  4. Griffin, John S., M.D., A Doctor Comes to California (California Historical Society, 1943)
  5. Schreier, Konrad F., Jr., “A Study of the Location of Mule Hill,” Journal of San Diego History, spring 1975, pp., 12-22
  6. Turner, Henry Smith, The Original Journals of Henry Smith Turner (University of Oklahoma Press, 1966)
  7. Woodward, Arthur, The Lances at San Pascual (California Historical Society, 1948)
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