Kit Carson cursed General Kearny for getting him into this mess as he crawled on his belly in the dark. He'd advised the old fool to bypass the town, but Kearny insisted on a show of force through the village of San Pasqual. Carson had also advised keeping a closer formation. But Kearny sent him and the cavalry so far ahead they galloped right into the enemy's ambush.
Barely two days ago Carson had been knocked from his horse, nearly trampled by American dragoons, and nearly skewered by Mexican lancers! His rifle split in half in the fall, he'd been making due with a musket. Now he crawled, unarmed, through the California desert. If his seafaring comrade and he were spotted, guns would do them no good.
Lieutenant Beagle scratched along loudly beside him. Carson gripped the sailor's shoulder hard. Beagle looked up to see Carson's face shining in the moonlight and silently mouthing, "Quietly!" Beagle nodded, knowing it was meant as a hiss, and softened his grind through the sand.
They froze in the cool night air as Spanish voices echoed nearby. Heavy steps thudded through the tumble weed and cacti. Carson recognized the hooves of mounted lancers thumping towards them. They'd seen the sentinels on the hill as they began their crawl, but now the Mexicans were roving. The sight of two-dozen American soldiers turned to pin cushions in the desert sun flashed before Carson's eyes as the enemy trampled closer.
Carson figured the enemy would expect such a desperate move. He and a hundred other Americans had been trapped on that hill for over a day and had barely fired a shot. Perhaps betraying their dwindling ammunition. Sending runners for help was the only sensible thing left to do, except surrender and take their chances. Carson advised against the white flag. Mexicans weren't much friendlier to invaders than Indians.
Some famous leader once said something about desperate times calling for desperate action. Carson couldn't remember who as he took one of his own. He pulled his boots off his belt and signaled Beagle to do the same. The sailor did so nervously and looked at Carson in confusion. Carson pointed back the way they'd crawled and mouthed the words "Throw them now!"
Four boots swooped through the air like owls and thumped loudly to the ground. The Mexicans yelped in surprise and cursed the sudden noise. The two Americans resumed their desperate crawl. They dropped flat as two pistol shots split the air. The horses shrieked at the explosions so close to their ears.
Carson sighed, they were only warning shots to ward off desperate Yankees, like them, trying to escape. Thankful for the enemy's shifted focus, Carson and Beagle crawled on. They fell silent again as a few more lancers galloped past them, barely more than ten yards away. Evidently another patrol investigating the shots.
Several minutes more crept by as the trapper and the sailor clawed through rough sand and pebbles. Carson hissed like a snake as his palm struck a cactus. He cursed himself for the noise. "What's next? A nest of rattlers?" he thought.
The hills on the western horizon appeared as they slinked through the dirt like diamond-backs. Thirty miles further was San Diego, Commodore Stockton, and help. Carson figured they might reach the city by nightfall if they ran as much as they could. It would be risky. They had no food or water. Only their clothes and hats to protect them from the scorching sun.
Eventually all they heard was the howling wind and distant coyotes. Carson stood up and signaled Beagle it was safe. The main road was within eyeshot, but Carson knew better than to use it. Lancers would be on patrol. Carson instructed Beagle to keep to the hills in sight of the road. To keep to cover and dive to the ground if he heard hooves. Carson would go the straight route over the hills and through the wilderness. Whoever arrived at the city first would send help. "He who arrives last will buy the tequila," Carson chuckled.
The sailor nodded and huffed a giggle, but his eyes betrayed utter terror. Carson grimaced down at the man's bare feet. Beagle might have lost his sea legs by now, but his land legs wouldn't last long without boots. Carson wasn't looking forward to climbing hills and running sands barefoot either. What he wouldn't have given just for a pair of moccasins!
"If we don't make it, Kearny and the others are dead. You understand, Lieutenant?" he asked gravely. Beagle lowered his head, swallowing hard, then looked up and nodded firmly. Carson nodded back and both bolted into the night. "Godspeed, sailor," Carson huffed as he broke into a dead run. Best to take advantage of the cool night while it lasted. He doubted he'd ever see the sailor again.
Carson ran like lives depended on it, which they did. Sharp rocks tore at his soles and heels with every step. The hills were steep and rocky, but he climbed on. His toes were helpful in gripping the slopes, but rough edges tore at the skin. One faulty edge bent his toenails upward. Carson bit back a cry of agony and growled up the peak. "No time for pain, just keep going!" he urged himself.
Daylight crept over the horizon as Carson charged down another slope and hissed as his feet slid through jagged stones at the base. Crippling pain brought him to his knees as his heel landed on a cactus. A legendary hero whose only weakness was his heels flashed Carson's memory. He couldn't remember the name of the hero nor the man who told him. It didn't matter. No time for pain, just keep going!
The sun climbed higher, casting light on the desert. Carson took a periodic glance over his shoulder. No Lancers gave chase. Only red footprints followed him in the sand. His life blood trailed the way back to Kearny. Carson thought of the Californios painting the desert with the blood of American soldiers. No time to bleed, just keep going!
The sun reached noon and Carson slowed to a trot, the blazing sun weighed him down. What he wouldn't have given to be lying in bed beside his wife. She'd bring him a jug of cool water and dab his head with a wet cloth. How did he ever let that buffoon Kearny rope him into being his guide?
"To hell with your dispatches, son," Kearny had sneered at Carson's urgent messages for President Polk. "I need a guide to San Diego! You're it!"
"As the General thinks best," Carson humbly complied. How he wished he'd told the old fool to go to hell! Carson had half a mind to walk to the nearest Indian village, barter for moccasins and tread lightly the rest of his way home, leaving the over-ambitious general to his fate.
Carson shook the traitorous thought from his head. He cursed himself for even contemplating such treachery. He'd given Kearny his word! What's more his native land was at war! Could he hold his head high among Americans if he abandoned a hundred of them to the mercy of the enemy? Would his beloved Josefa ever look at him the same way again knowing her husband was a liar and a traitor? No! Just keep going!
The desert floor became a stove as the afternoon dragged on. Carson felt the flesh and blood of his soles sizzle like beef on a griddle with every step. He took little comfort knowing his wounds were likely cauterized. Carson recalled a bible verse from what little of the good book he'd bothered to read over the years. Something about walking through fire and not being harmed. It occurred to him he might be graced with such a miracle if he'd yielded to Josefa's pleads to attend mass together. "Maybe next week," he grunted at himself as he charged across the burning sand.
Sweat ran down every inch of Carson's body. He felt like he'd just splashed out of a river, minus the soothing cool of December waters. Exhaustion stabbed him as he remembered how close it was to Christmas. He promised himself he'd find something nice for Josefa at San Diego. And in one of his finer moments of self-deception, he promised never to leave home again.
Carson willed his mind back into consciousness as his knees struck ground. If he fell asleep he'd wake up half eaten by coyotes. For all he knew Beagle had already fallen to a similar fate. Mounted predators would devour a hundred helpless men. He growled like a wolf as he lunged back to his feet. No time to rest, just keep going!
Carson's fatigued mind wavered as the sun began to set. He staggered breathlessly up another hill then stumbled down the other side. A rattler shook its tail and coiled as Carson passed. Never mind it, just keep going! Coyotes sang loud nearby as the sun vanished beneath the horizon. Just keep going! The wind blew hard and dusty behind him, urging him on.
Torchlight flickered in the distance. Carson's eyes widened, jolting his brain out of delirium, as he realized he'd made it! There was San Diego! The mountain man huffed a sigh of relief and sprinted towards the city. No time to celebrate, just keep going!
Carson staggered to a halt at the gate. A sentry caught him as he lost balance. He looked up at the blue uniformed soldier and tried to utter his message, only a hoarse croak came out. The private quickly put a canteen to his lips and poured deliciously cool water down the exhausted trapper's throat.
Carson nodded in gratitude. "Kearney," he began.
"Is surrounded on a hill outside San Pasqual," the soldier finished, to Carson's disbelief. "The Lieutenant arrived just a while ago. The Commodore is readying a rescue force now, sir."
Another private appeared and helped Carson into the city and down the road to the hospital. The hospital had plenty of business, mostly fever and sunburn. Carson felt he'd fit into either category. He laid down on a vacant cot and blinked in surprise to see Lt. Beagle laying alongside.
Beagle's feet were thickly bandaged, a wet rag draped over his sunburnt brow. He breathed heavily and stared unblinkingly up at the ceiling. Carson was ashamed of underestimating the seafarer. Sailors were fancied as rough and tough men, capable of anything. Carson's own bloated legend had made him skeptical of others.
"Good work, Lieutenant," Carson coughed, still parched. Beagle didn't answer. Carson didn't blame him. "For what it's worth, you won the race!" Carson chuckled. "The tequila is on me!"