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Seventeen members of the Donner party had composed "the Forlorn Hope" when it started from the huts at the lake on December 16. Two had turned back during the first day. Stanton had died on December 21, and Antonio, Dolan, Graves, and Lemuel Murphy during the Christmas storm. That left ten of them: Sutter's Indians, Luis and Salvador; William Eddy, William Foster, and Jay Fosdick; Sarah Murphy Foster, Sarah Graves Fosdick, Harriet Murphy Pike, Mary Ann Graves, and Amanda McCutchen. Eddy was thirty years old, Foster twenty-eight, Fosdick twenty-three. Mrs. McCutchen, whose husband was at Sonoma trying to organize a rescue party, was twenty-four and had left her year‑old daughter at the lake. The two Murphy girls, Sarah Foster and the widowed Harriet Pike, were twenty-three and twenty‑one, respectively. Harriet had left two children behind her and the Fosters, one. The Fosdicks had no children. Eddy's three‑year‑old son and year‑old daughter were with his wife Eleanor at the lake.
Their story after leaving what they called "the Camp of Death" must be told briefly. A little strength restored to them, they started off again on December 30. They knew they were off the trail now but the good weather that succeeded the storm held. Furthermore, the snow was crusted hard enough for them sometimes to travel without their crude snowshoes and gradually they got down to where patches of bare ground showed through. "Gradually" is a word: the meaning is men and women who were all but dead falling forward step by step through a white desolation, the risk of tumbling into oblivion disregarded, their minds dim and submerged in terror. •Five or six miles a day, •a mile or two when the flame burned weaker. Fosdick was almost dead. The dried flesh of their companions was gone. Getting down to country where bare ground was common enough to justify it, they made another meal: they cooked and ate the rawhide of their snowshoes. After that there was something to eat. Everyone but Eddy wanted to kill the two Indians. Eddy would not; he told the Indians what was being considered and they silently disappeared.
Eddy and Mary Graves had more strength remaining than the others. p409 He determined to strike out ahead, as well as he was able to. In panic and despair the others begged him not to but he took the gun — they had been carrying it by turns — and made a trial for the preservation of them all. Mary Graves went with him, the two of them staggering a little faster than the others could and gradually getting out of sight. So Eddy killed a deer. His frontiersman's craft enabled him to identify a place where one had bedded for the night. He and Mary knelt and prayed, and pretty soon they saw it. He could not hold the rifle steady enough to draw a bead but finally contrived the swinging snapshot which frontier gaffers used when their strength was gone. He wounded the deer, crawled toward it, and cut its throat. He and Mary cooked the guts and that night slept soundly, within gunshot of the others.
Farthest of all from him, the Fosdicks heard the shots that Eddy fired to hearten them. Jay Fosdick correctly interpreted them. If he could get to Eddy and the meat, he said, he would live. But he died and Sarah wrapped his body in their remaining blanket and lay down beside him to die. She did not die but woke again in the morning and started out alone, only to meet some of the others who were coming back to find the Fosdick corpses — to get meat. Specifically, "with instructions to get Mrs. Fosdick's heart." They got Jay's heart instead and Sarah saw it roasted on a stick. Eddy called them in and they spent the day drying as much venison and human flesh as they had not eaten.
There were two men left now and William Foster's sanity had lapsed. The next day when the new food was exhausted he began to plead with Eddy to kill one of the survivors. Mrs. McCutchen was his nominee — he said she was a nuisance and was delaying them. Eddy refused, reminding him that Amanda was a wife and a mother. Then kill the sisters, Sarah Fosdick who was a childless widow, and Mary Graves, who was unmarried. Eddy refused, and suddenly his revulsion could not be stayed. He picked up a club, struck it against a log to make sure it was sound, tossed it to Foster, and told him to defend himself. Then Eddy started toward him, drawing a knife. Four pitiful wraiths of women fell upon Eddy and disarmed him. He mastered his rage but told Foster that he would kill him if he renewed the suggestion or made any move against the women. If any member of this party had to die in order to keep the others alive, William Eddy said, he and Foster would fight it out.
Thornton calls their bivouac that night "the Camp of Strife." The next day they saw bloody footprints in a patch of snow and knew that Luis and Salvador must have made them. A little later they found the two Indians stretched out on the ground, dying. Foster could not be denied now and p410 Eddy protested with words only, for it was no longer rational to protest. He took three of the women a little way ahead, out of sight, and left the gun. Foster shot the Indians, they butchered the bodies, and that night they ate again. But Eddy ate only grass.
Thereafter they traveled and slept in two groups, Foster with his wife and her sister, Harriet Pike, Eddy with Amanda McCutchen, Mary Graves, and her sister Sarah Fosdick. They often saw deer, some at close range, but Eddy could not raise the rifle for a shot. They rested every •quarter of a mile, Eddy had to use two hands to climb over a log, the smallest hummock threw them, and "the women would fall and weep like infants and then rise and totter along again."
It was on January 12 that they found strange footprints in the mud — it had been raining for two days — and came at dusk to the brush huts of a tiny Indian village. Lowly Diggers lived there but the squaws wept at sight of these living dead and the children wailed with them. All that the Indians had to eat was acorns. They gave the specters some but Eddy could not eat them. Next day, through another rainstorm, the Indians helped them to another village, where there were more acorns and some acorn meal, and through two more long days, half carried from brush village to brush village they went on, the Indians touched by the sight of suffering to the residual pity at the heart of life. Eddy was still living on grass, and acorn bread would not save the others.
But at last a mangy chief gave Eddy a handful of pine nuts, and they made all the difference. It was January 17, a bright blue sky, and after •one mile of going the others had at last reached the uttermost limit. Their feet were only pulp wrapped in shreds of blanket that were sodden with mud, and the remaining strength that held them up broke. They lay down to die. But his handful of pine nuts had brought Eddy back from his "dream of combats, of famine and death, of cries of despair, of fathomless snows and impassable mountains." He refused to die. One Indian was still helping him and they met another one whose help could be bought by a promise of tobacco. Supported on their shoulders, Eddy left bloody footprints across •six miles of rough ground and came, an hour before sunset, to a little shack on the edge of Johnson's ranch, the first outpost of settlement, at the eastern wall of the Sacramento Valley. The shack belonged to M. D. Ritchie, an emigrant of '46, one of a number who had settled near Johnson's for the winter. Young Harriet Ritchie came to the door and Eddy asked her for bread.
Harriet Ritchie burst into tears. But she got him to bed, got bread for him, and ran out among the other shacks, summoning help. Before long, p411 four Americans were hurrying back to find the six survivors whom Eddy had described, and were able to find them by following his bloody footprints. The Forlorn Hope had reached the succor of their own kind, seven of the fifteen who started out, thirty-three days after the beginning of the effort for which they had laid in six days' rations of two mouthfuls a day.
* * *
Now the settlements could learn the truth about the Donner party, of whom they had known only, on Reed's and McCutchen's reports, that they were caught in the snows with enough cattle to see them through the winter, and that they could probably not be reached till February. February was two weeks away.
At Johnson's there was a small cluster of emigrants who had crossed this year, some of them in the very train the Donners had started with from Indian Creek. Notably, from that great train that elected Owl Russell captain when the dew was still on them all, there were Acquilla Glover and Riley Septimus Mootrey. The latter is Moultry in most of the literature but he was Mootrey to Jessy Thornton and it was as Mootrey that we saw the Reverend Mr. Cornwall marry him to Mary Lard, one June Sunday beside the Platte. Among such men as these, men who had shared the trail with the Donners and safely passed the hazards that had overcome them, there was no question of doing whatever could be done to save them. There was only the question of how best to go about it.
At Johnson's they at once prepared to send help. But there were too few of them and only Glover, Mootrey, and a runaway sailor named Sels volunteered. They sent word to John Sinclair, a Scotchman who was an associate of Sutter's and the alcalde of these parts, and to Sutter's Fort, where Edward Kern, Frémont's artist and cartographer, now commanded for the United States Navy. Sinclair and Kern called a meeting of such men, this year's emigrants mostly, as had not gone out with the California Battalion or with the even more irregular detachments that were now riding the countryside in its troubled state between peace and war. As a result of this meeting the rescue party known as the First Relief was organized. But also Sutter sent his "launch" down the river with a letter from Sinclair which told the story of the Forlorn Hope and summarized Eddy's description of what they had left behind. This got to Yerba Buena — San Francisco, now — just as the effort of Reed and McCutchen to raise rescue parties was beginning to be successful.
Reed and McCutchen, when they rode out from Sutter's in late November p412 to raise help in the settlements, had found them nearly empty of men. McCutchen had ended up at the late republic, Sonoma, and Reed at San Juan. The countryside was full of rumors and armed bands, native and American. Till some kind of tranquillity could be restored no one could be spared for the relief of starving emigrants far away in the snow. Reed had to join a company of horsemen at San Jose and ride out on guard duty as the quickest way to help his wife and children. (Remember that he knew of them only that the snow had cut them off and that there was no one but Milt Elliott to defend them against the hate roused by his own fatal quarrel with John Snyder.) So through December he was an active home guard, a "lieutenant," and as such on January 2 took part in what was called the battle of Santa Clara, which was practically bloodless but ended the guerrilla war in these parts. It took another month to rearrange the hashed society tolerably, and finally on February 1, Reed was able to go to Yerba Buena bearing demands from San Jose that action be taken to rescue the Donner party.
Yerba Buena was commanded by the navy, whose officers would not commit the government to the project officially but would help out in their private capacity. They called a mass meeting on February 3 and Reed found there a number whom he had traveled with on the plains and others he had soldiered with more recently. Called on to speak, he burst into tears and could not. But the Reverend Mr. Dunleavy, first of all to lead a group of seceders away from Owl Russell's wagon train, spoke for him. The parson was able to guess exactly where the Donners must have stopped and he needed no gift of fiction to describe their plight. He roused the horror and pity of his audience: Yerba Buena would do what it could. Thirteen hundred dollars was raised to equip and pay a relief expedition. A recent arrival in California, Passed Midshipman Selim Woodworth, was put in charge. That was a mistake.
Woodworth was the son of Samuel Woodworth, a journalist who is still remembered as the author of "The Old Oaken Bucket" and "The Hunters of Kentucky." He had been sent to Oregon in April, '46, with dispatches notifying settlers there that joint occupation had been terminated. Francis Parkman had met him at St. Louis and again at Westport and had not been impressed. Woodworth, a man gifted in the appreciation of his own qualities, head voiced a Stockton-like plan to raise some volunteers and capture Santa Fe — presumably on his way to the Columbia by the northern trail — which Parkman understood as brainless. Later Parkman's notebook records "I rode to Westport with that singular character, Lieut. Woodworth. He is a great busybody and ambitious of taking a command among the emigrants. . . . p413 Woodworth parades a revolver in his belt, which he insists is necessary." Doubtless he paraded it all the way to Oregon and doubtless the comparative sobriety of life along the Willamette was what had brought him down to California. He made a splash there, talking himself into a considerable reputation. So now he was going to contribute some additional disasters to the Donner party and their rescuers.
While Woodworth talked and Reed worked furiously preparing his expedition, Sutter's launch arrived with Sinclair's harrowing description of Eddy and the Forlorn Hope. Horror stimulated the preparations and now here was Caleb Greenwood coming in from Sonoma, where McCutchen also had got action at last. Greenwood was gathering a rescue party in Napa Valley, spurred on by an offer of $500 reward from Mariano Vallejo, lately the prisoner of the Bear Flaggers.
We have met Greenwood a number of times in this narrative,a and at last there had come into the preparations for relief a man who knew and knew how. In November of 1844, by the exercise of a mountain man's intelligence and skill, he had saved from the fate of the Donners, and in precisely the same place, the last emigrant party of that year. He had, that is, got the famous Stevens-Murphy party over the divide just as the snows came. (That was the party to which Moses Schallenberger belonged, who built the cabin in which the Breens were now living.) Last April, following Clyman, he had crossed the Sierra through the snows, and last September, guiding the Aram party to California, he had actually got from Diggers a vague anonymous rumor of the Donners' troubles in the Salt Desert and had ridden eastward from the junction of the trails for a full day to find them. Greenwood was eighty-three years old but made of parfleche, and he had lived in the mountains forever, his career going as far back as the Astorians. Last December Edwin Bryant had met him at his hunting camp in Napa Valley, where he was recruiting his strength on bear meat after the puny fare of "bread, milk, and sich-like mushy stuff" which he had had to endure with the "emigrators." Bryant had relished his profanity and that of his fellow mountain man, John Turner, "who could do all the swearing for our army in Mexico and then have a surplus." Old Greenwood tried to make a census of his children for Bryant but there were too many of them, mostly the issue of his Crow wife, and one was named Governor Boggs and another, who would join the relief, was Britton.
Blasting his profane encouragement, Caleb Greenwood got to work too. His would be a party of professionals, mountain men, among them his son Brit and John Turner. Accordingly, leaving Woodworth to organize and finance bases and supporting expeditions, Reed rode off with Greenwood p414 to prepare an advance party. From this came what the literature knows as the Second Relief. But meanwhile the First Relief had left Johnson's and headed toward the snow.
Let it be understood: any man who went to the assistance of the Donners knew that he was risking the fate he was trying to save them from. Down in the great valley the California spring was riotous, the opulent loveliness that stirred Jim Clyman's heart when we first met him. But in the Sierra the snow was •thirty feet deep and the worst storms of the winter, worse even than the Christmas blizzard, were still to come.
When the First Relief rode out from Johnson's on February 4 it numbered fourteen, among them William Eddy of the intrepid heart, who had had less than three weeks of rest. He could not go all the way but he got to the high ridge well up in the mountains where, at Mule Springs, they made a base camp. He and another were sent back from here with the horses, since the rest of the going would have to be on foot. Two others were left to guard the camp (one of them was a half‑wit), and ten men set out from Mule Springs, each one carrying as heavy a pack as he could manage, •seventy-five pounds perhaps. The snow was already higher than their knees. Four days later, at the foot of the vertical wall that drops down from Emigrant Gap, three of them had had enough — Jotham Curtis (whom McCutchen had had to bully so, last November), Ritchie (to whose shack Eddy had been dragged by the Indians), and a German who was known only as Greasy Jim. No one may blame them for turning back: they had ahead of them the Sierra and the storms. But there were seven who would not turn back.
Reaching this insistence of naked valor, George Stewart, the historian of the Donner party, for the second time quotes the words in which George McKinstry (lately of the Harlan-Young party, now sheriff of the lands surrounding Sutter's) reported the First Relief: "I will again give you a list of their names, as I think they ought to be recorded in letters of gold." The seven were: two ex‑sailors, Sels and Ned Coffeemeyer, and five emigrants of '46, Acquilla Glover, Reasinº Tucker (called "Dan"), Riley Septimus Mootrey, and the Rhoads brothers, John and Daniel. The last two were among the very few Mormons who, maintaining a seemly reticence about their faith, had crossed to California last summer with Gentile trains. Tucker's son George, a boy of sixteen, had been left at the base camp at Mule Springs.
It had taken them eleven days to get to the base of that high cliff — through violent rainstorms, over swollen mountain streams which they sometimes had to bridge, and at last through snow. They had been p415 drenched and chilled, they had had repeatedly to stop and dry out the food they were carrying, sometimes they had slept in snow water, sometimes they had not slept at all. Now they started into the snow which, at the divide, had been deepened by another storm. With great daring they left the emigrant trail which they had been following (and which the Forlorn Hope had missed) and broke a new one to the Yuba Bottom, where they made caches of food for the return trip. Single file. One man breaks the snow as well as he can, the others following behind him till he is used up. Then he falls to the rear and it is the next man's turn. Bright weather, snow dazzle, steel air. A short snowstorm. They stop and make snowshoes. The storm ends. . . . If it hadn't, they would have died.
They camped at the western end of the pass on February 17, just fourteen days out from Johnson's. The next day they went over it on their snowshoes, with Glover and Dan Rhoads barely able to cross as their lungs heaved in thin air and their hearts pounded. They were all day coming down the barrier that the Donners had not been able to get across and following the silent, white lakeside to the huts. They could see no smoke, they could not even see the huts, since they were buried deep, till they came right up to them at sunset. They shouted, wondering if anyone were still alive, and something like a woman came up out of a hole in the snow. (It was Mrs. Breen, who had started to take Mrs. Reed outside to whisper her belief that Virginia Reed was dying.) The others crawled up the ramp of frozen snow to mew at the seven men from beyond the mountains, in the crimson sunset and the violent shadows of the woods. They looked like mummies, their wailing was cracked and tiny, their cries broke into lunatic talk. Around them at the top of the ramp, in the sunset, lay the bodies of those who had died since the last storm, dragged so far and left uncovered.
Life in those buried huts since December 16, two months before, when the Forlorn Hope departed, is hardly to be understood. Over them were the storms and the sunny, bitter days and the sunny, gentle days. Around them was fantasm, whose figures were both real and unreal. Their minds peeled down to anger and dread out of which bubbled the primitive delirium for which physicians to the diseased soul probe. Besides those tempests were the exterior dreads of what sanity remained to them, as the cattle hides they lived on ran out. No clue told them which of the figurings they saw and the voices they heard were hallucinatory and which those of their companions. The mind grew monocular, its vision flat. Up from childhood came the figures of the Old Testament, and from a far more distant past the figure of Lansford Hastings by whose act they had become animals that died in apathy and animals that lived on sodden with their personal p416 filth. Abraham and Hastings and one's own children with dim eyes lying silent till they died — all mingled together in the reeking huts.
The indomitable Margaret Reed (it seems superfluous that she had always suffered from migraine) had, just after New Year's, made an attempt fully as resolute as her husband's. She left one of the youngest children in each of the three huts. ("We told them we would bring them back bread," Virginia Reed says, "and then they were willing to stay.") Then, taking Virginia and Milt Elliott and Eliza Williams (whose mind had dimmed to childhood), she made a desperate ascent of the ridge, between storms. They were gone five days, missed the trail, and got back just in time. (Virginia: "I could get along very well while I thought we were going ahead, but as soon as we had to turn back I could hardly walk.")
Breen was reading his Bible and keeping his diary, one of the most soul-shocking documents in our literature.b It details the weather and the deaths, not much language spent on suffering or despair. The great winds, the great snows, how the hides and bones were holding out, sometimes a prayer remembered from the Mass or the litany, and who died — that is what Patrick Breen put down. How the Graveses confiscated the hides that Margaret Reed had brought with promises, how Milt Elliott made good his demand that Margaret be given a hide — the Keseberg baby died last night. — "Eddy's child died last night," February 5, with Eddy climbing toward Bear Valley in the rain to save little Margaret's life. Then Mrs. Eddy is growing weaker — Spitzer dies — Mrs. Eddy dies — Keseberg never gets up from bed (Breen had his suspicions of Keseberg and listed the valuables he hoarded, which might not have been his at first) — "Milt Elliott died last night at Murphy's shanty," the last friend of the Reed family gone — John Denton, the English gunsmith, growing weaker — Mrs. Graves takes back the hide that Milt had got for Mrs. Reed (title to it really vested in John Augustus Sutter) — "wind SE all in good health Thanks be to Almighty God Amen" — and the First Relief arrives.
The seven gave them a little food — it was not safe to give them more — posted a guard over the packs, and got their first full night's sleep in a week. The next morning, three of them went on down to Alder Creek. None had died there since the report Milt Elliott brought back, but George Donner appeared to be dying. Tamsen was still strong. Her small body had the toughness of her Yankee forbears. She would not leave and neither would Elizabeth, Jacob's widow. So the rescuers took four of the older children, Tamsen's daughters Elitha and Leanna and Elizabeth's sons George and William Hook. They also took Noah James and the widow Wolfinger. They left the Donner women and the younger children with one p417 man to take care of them, the worthless Jean Baptiste Trubode. They were counting on the Reed-Greenwood relief being just behind them, and surely Passed Midshipman Woodworth, that staunch commander, would be sending other relief parties with ample food. They went back to the lake, where their companions were trying to decide which of the babbling, cursing survivors could or should attempt the trip.
That left eleven at Alder Creek. Elitha and Leanna had a piece of blanket over their clothes— good, substantial clothes, for the Donners had been richly outfitted. They were in great pain and they kept sitting down in the snow to cry. Those left at Alder Creek had only one hide remaining. As the party started out Tamsen said staunchly that if food did not come by the time it was used up, they would begin eating what they had refrained from eating.
At the lake the seven made their decision. All the Reeds were to go and their surviving hired girl, Eliza Williams, by now an innocent. Only Edward, thirteen, and Simon, nine, of the Breen family — who had plenty of hides. William, Eleanor, and Lovina Graves; their father had died on the Forlorn Hope (the rescuers carefully lied, saying that everyone who tried the crossing had survived), Mary and Sarah had got through, their mother and younger brothers and sisters would wait for the next rescue party. William Murphy, eleven, who had started with the Forlorn Hope but had to come back, and his sister Mary — leaving their mother, feeble and going blind, and ten‑year‑old Simon, and the Pike baby and little George Foster, Mrs. Murphy's grandchildren. She would also try to take care of James Eddy, William's surviving child. Mrs. Keseberg was to go, with the surviving Ada, but Keseberg was too sick to make the attempt — and, if later suspicions were correct, he had his eye on the property of the dead. The dying John Denton would start, too, and John Rhoads which carry Naomi Pike, daughter of Harriet Pike of the Forlorn Hope and granddaughter of the widow Murphy.
Seventeen from the lake, leaving seventeen there, and six from Alder Creek — twenty-three all told started with the seven rescuers on February 22. The calm weather still held. They had not gone far when it became obvious that three‑year‑old Tommy Reed and his eight‑year‑old sister Patty could not make the journey and were endangering the lives of the whole party. Glover, the real leader, told Mrs. Reed that they must be taken back to the huts. She had no recourse but she swore him on his honor as a Mason to come back for them if their father could not. "That was the hardest thing yet," Virginia's account runs, "to leave the children in those cabins — not knowing but that they would starve to death. Martha [Patty] said, 'well Mother, if you never see me again, do the best you can.' The men p418 said they could hardly stand it: it made them cry." That must have been Mootrey and Glover, who took the two children back to the huts, and Patty told them that she was willing to care for her brother but knew she would not see her mother again. The Breens refused to take them in. Mootrey and Glover had to make detailed promises of reward and at last had to supplement them with threats. Even so they doubted if the children could survive the unwatched charity of the Breens.
We need not detail the progress of children and adults through the snow. The first day Denton failed on the trail and had to be carried into camp. The next day he failed altogether. They built a fire for him and left far more than his share of food, wrapped him in a blanket, and left him to his courage. When they reached the first cache, it had been rifled by martens — and now there was exceedingly little food for anyone. There was nothing to do but to send the two strongest ahead, Mootrey and Coffeemeyer (the latter's snowshoes had been eaten, overnight, by one of his charges). Glover and Dan Rhoads had to go with them; they were exhausted, of no further use. They would either meet another relief party or raise one of the remaining caches and bring back food. That left Sels, Tucker, and John Rhoads to bully and exhort the twenty survivors, give them a shoulder for a few rods, cajole and carry the children by turns. They built fires on log platforms by night. At evening on the fifth day Mootrey and Coffeemeyer came in with packs replenished from the cache at Bear Valley. But they brought also the terrifying news that they had not met any of the other parties who by now should be here.
The packs were replenished — two packs. A little beef, a little bread, and clearly no further help to be counted on. In the morning they started out again. They must be seen in a line stretching westward below the peaks, among the evergreens, in the snow and silence of the heights. So James Frazier Reed saw them, who was hurrying his Second Relief forward, having met Glover and Dans the night before. "Left camp on a fine, hard snow," Reed's curt record says, written by firelight in •fifteen feet of snow, "and proceeded •about four miles, when we met the poor, unfortunate starved people. As I met them scattered along the trail, I distributed some bread that I had baked last night. I gave in small quantities to each. Here I met my wife and two of my little children. Two of my children are still in the mountains. I cannot describe the death-like look all these people had. 'Bread!' 'Bread!' 'Bread!' 'Bread!' was the begging cry of every child and grown person. I gave all I had to give them and set out for the scene of desolation at the lake. I am now camped within •twenty-five miles of the place, which I hope to reach by traveling tonight and tomorrow."
p419 Margaret Reed fainted when the cry came down the straggling line that her husband was here, but Virginia ran and fell and ran again over crusted snow till she was in his arms. They had last seen each other on the Humboldt, with Snyder buried and Milt Elliott cocking his rifle lest Keseberg should prop up his wagon thing again for a desert hanging. But Patty and Tommy were at the lake, with the unwilling Breens. . . . Reed told the saved that behind him the swiftly organizing Californians were building a series of way stations for them, bountifully supplied with food. The vigilant, resolute Passed Midshipman Woodworth would take care of them. They were, his diary says, "overjoyed." He led his party on and the saved took up the trail again.
Two days later they reached Mule Springs, where by now Woodworth had come up and made a camp. Military man's camp, with brandy to drink and strikers to rub the commander's feet with snow, lest they be frostbitten. The victims of winter thought tenderly of his risks and discomforts, and the next morning mounted the horses that had been brought here for them and rode down toward green earth and warm weather. Virginia Reed was not yet fourteen years old but this was a frontier community they were coming down to, after all, and one of the emigrants who was shepherding them had an eye to the needs of the commonwealth. He looked at this skinny child and proposed marriage. By that token Virginia, giggling an unpractised refusal, knew that ordeal was over and they had come in. (Three months later she wrote her cousin Mary, back in Springfield, "Tell the girls that this is the greatest place for marrying they ever saw and that they must come to California if they want to marry." Before the year was out she was married.) On March 4 they reached Sutter's and the nursing of Mrs. Sinclair.
* * *
When Reed, at the head of the Second Relief, met the First Relief coming down, his party had dwindled to ten. They had left old Caleb Greenwood at Mule Springs in charge of cattle and a base camp. McCutchen was with Reed, the great, powerful man who had crossed with Stanton to Sutter's long ago and fallen ill. He had seen his wife Amanda, of the Forlorn Hope, and when he met the First Relief he learned that their year‑old daughter had died at the lake. But McCutchen would do his part, he would go on. Also with them was another emigrant responding to the need of his kind, Hiram Miller, who had been one of George Donner's drivers as far as Independence Rock and thence had ridden ahead with Edwin Bryant. The other seven were Greenwood's men, all but one of them p420 trappers, young, sturdy, and experienced, several of them mountain‑man French and among them Brit Greenwood and John Turner of the mighty oaths.
The incompetent Woodworth had missed all the meetings he had arranged with them, but men like Reed, McCutchen, Miller, Turner, and the Greenwoods did not need help or rely on it. So far they had come on their own, triumphantly, and they hurried on toward the lake. On the way they passed the frozen corpse of John Denton, sitting wrapped in his blanket at the foot of his tree. He had not needed the food in his pockets but before the end a strange need had come upon him. Dying as a man of honor in the snow, he had taken out his memorandum book and pencil and had written a poem. Reed and his companions did not find it when they passed by. William Eddy did, a few days later, and here it is, from the hour of death in the snow.
O! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
Back to the dwelling place of youth —
Our first and dearest home: —
To turn away our wearied eyes
From proud ambition's towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scene of boyhood's hours.
But I am changed since last I gazed
Upon that tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch‑elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook —
It was a regal galley,
And sighed for not a joy on earth
Beyond the happy valley.
I wish I could once more recall
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.
But now on scenes of past delight
I look, and feel no pleasure,
As misers on the bed of death
Gaze coldly on their treasure.1
p421 Reed had pushed three of the youngest ahead, Clark, Cady, and Stone. The day after the meeting with the First Relief these three got to within •two miles of the cabins, where they saw some Indians. (Diggers, probably from Winnemucca's mangy little tribe, who had been afraid to investigate the huts closely and had been further scared by reports from their most resolute scouts that the white men were eating one another.) They had no arms, wondered if the Indians had killed the survivors, and camped without a fire.
Early in the morning of March 1, Clark, Cady, and Stone went on down to the first hut. They distributed a little food and Clark and Cady pushed on to Alder Creek. The others came up at noon and Reed found that Patty and Tommy were alive. The little boy did not know him but Patty's disbelief was cured; presently she had the duty of distributing one biscuit apiece to the living. At the Murphy cabin they found Stone washing the children's clothes. They took off their own clothes — need one remark that there were lice? — and began to bathe little James Eddy and George Foster. They needed the bath: for two weeks they had not been moved from the bed. Finishing this sanitation, Reed and McCutchen began to bathe the disabled Keseberg, who once had propped up his wagon tongue to invoke the justice of the trail on Reed.
Just outside the hut was the dismembered, recognizable body of Milt Elliott, Reed's driver and the protector of his family. It was nine days since the First Relief had left the lake, and in that interval the survivors had reached the extremity. Breen's diary, six days earlier, stated: "Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would commence on Milt and eat him." She had. The conscientious Thornton adds, "Half consumed limbs were seen concealed in trunks. Bones were scattered about. Human hair of different colors was seen in tufts about the fireplace."
And at Alder Creek the same. Clark and Cady got there at a moment when Trubode, sent by Tamsen to borrow a meal from Elizabeth, was returning with a leg of Elizabeth's husband, Jacob, and the message that the best of neighbors would be able to spare no more. At sight of the rescuers, he tossed the unneeded leg back on the butchered corpse. Jacob's surviving children "were sitting upon a log, with their faces stained with blood, devouring the half roasted liver and heart of the[ir] father, unconscious of the approach of the men, of whom they took not the slightest notice even after they came up."
Elizabeth had not eaten the food her children fed on, and she was nearly dead. George Donner, Reed's old friend, with whom he had shared the dream of California in the long planning of an earlier winter — George Donner p422 had a few words of friendship for him but seemed to be dying. Tamsen, keeping her resolution, had kept her strength also. Reed could see the bearded face of his other old friend, Jacob, in the snow, the head cut off from the body and the brain opened.
Tamsen would not leave her husband. George, pointing out that he was dying, bade her go. But the honor of marriage sustained her. She would stay beside him while he died.
Reed decided that the younger children also must stay here. Surely Woodworth would arrive in two or three days at most, and he was able to leave food enough to last a week. So Tamsen's three youngest daughters, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, and Elizabeth's two youngest sons, Lewis and Samuel, would stay at Alder Creek, waiting for the largest and best supplied of all the relief parties, as Woodworth's would surely be. Reed left Cady and Clark to care for them and took Elizabeth's three remaining children with him. At the lake he chose Patrick and Margaret Breen, Mrs. Graves, and eleven children. That left the two helpless adults, Keseberg and Mrs. Murphy, and three children, Simon Murphy, James Eddy, and George Foster. Stone was left to care for them, and Woodworth with many men and much food must come down from the pass any day now, perhaps tomorrow.
Woodworth was not coming; he never came. He was taking his comfort in camp and nourishing what, compared with the courage of the others, can only be called an ignominious cowardice. So the return of the Second Relief, which should have been the most successful, constitutes the final catastrophe of the Donner party.
Like the First Relief, Reed's men had been scrupulous not to allude to the deaths of the Forlorn Hope, and Mrs. Graves was taking to her dead son-in‑law, Jay Fosdick, the violin she had watched over for him at the hut. Patrick Breen played on it for hours, the first two nights out, serene in the belief that they were safe at last. That music is a bizarre touch for already the Second Relief were in ghastly danger. They had counted on traveling faster than it was possible to travel with so many children, most of whom the seven rescuers had to carry in turn. And they were counting on meeting Woodworth, who was not coming.
Even before they got over the divide Reed sent three of his best men ahead — Turner, Gendreau, and Dofar — to bring back food, whether by lifting the nearest cache or by urging Woodworth on if they should meet him. The four remaining rescuers got their seventeen charges over the divide and down to the head of the Yuba, camping where the First Relief had camped. The three who had been sent ahead should join them here p423 if they found the first cache intact. But it had been rifled by animals and they had had to go on.
On March 6 just such a storm as the Forlorn Hope had had to live through struck the Second Relief. From Reed's diary: "The men up nearly all night making fires. Some of the men begin praying. Several of them became blind. I could not see the light of the fire blazing before me nor tell when it was burning. . . . The snow blows so thick and fast that we cannot see •twenty feet looking against the wind. I dread the coming night. Three of my men only able to get wood. 'Hungry,' 'Hungry,' is the cry with the children and nothing to give them. 'Freezing!' is the cry of the mothers who have nothing for their little, starving, freezing children. Night closing fast and with it the hurricane increases."
The storm lasted two full days and three nights. At one point Reed himself nearly died but they brought him back and his dauntless will revived. Once the fire was blown out altogether but McCutchen and Hiram Miller, demonic in the gale, got it blazing again. During the last night five‑year‑old Isaac Donner died quietly, unnoticed, lying between his sister Mary and Patty Reed. When the wind dropped and the snow ceased on March 8, they had to make their last try. The four rescuers could travel. The Breens would not — Patrick's will to survive had gone out and Reed's pleas and commands would not budge him. They cut wood for the eleven they were leaving behind and started off, Miller carrying Tommy Reed. That afternoon Patty seemed to be dying. Her father had saved about a teaspoonful of crumbs in the thumb of his mitten. He gave it to her, he warmed her with his own body, and the child came back. Her heart rose too: "God has not brought us so far to let us perish now," she told them. She is a slightly formidable child, this eight‑year‑old with an ancient fatalism and an ancient hope, but she was holding them to the job. The first night after the storm they camped beside the Yuba. The feet of several were frozen, notably Brit Greenwood's. No sign of Turner, Gendreau, and Dofar. No sight of Passed Midshipman Woodworth. But while they were rubbing their feet with snow beside the blazing fire, two men came down from the pass and joined them. Cady and Stone, who had been left to take care of the starving. They brought no one with them, not even a child. But they had a pack of tablesilver, silk dresses, and other valuables that had been the Donners'.
(It is not clear what had happened. Either fear broke their morale or they had planned robbery before they left the settlements. As soon as p424 Reed and his company left the lake, Stone had forsaken his charge and joined Cady at Alder Creek. Clark was away, hunting a bear. There either Tamsen offered them five hundred dollars, or they demanded it, to take her three young children out. Tamsen washed and combed Frances, George, and Eliza, dressed them in rich, warm clothes from the chests packed on the Sangamon, and made up the bundle of silk and silver that might buy the orphans a little care in California. She led them to the bed where George Donner still lived and they said good‑bye to their father. "I may never see you again," she told the little girls, "but God will take care of you." Stone and Cady started out with them, took them as far as the huts at the lake — and left them at the Murphy cabin, striking out alone. The storm drove Stone and Cady back to the lake again. In the Murphy cabin, Keseberg was wild and hideous. A child cried out for bread and Eliza Donner heard a man's voice, Keseberg's, "Be quiet, you crying children, or I'll shoot you." Once she woke to find six‑year‑old Frances — Eliza was not yet four — forbidding Keseberg to pick her up, screaming that he wanted to kill her. The storm ended. Back at Alder Creek Elizabeth's three‑year‑old Lewis had died. Stone and Cady, who had been in the Breen cabin, now empty, started out again and in one day got over the divide and down to Reed's campfire. On the way they passed the pit where the fire made for the Breens and Graveses was sinking down through the snow.)
As Stewart says, "The sheriff's writ did not run in the mountains of California." Nothing could be said to men who had broken their trust: whosoever chooses to save his own skin is entitled to. In the morning they started off together, and another fraction of the Donner party were leaving bloody footprints on the snow. Late in the afternoon they found some food hanging from a tree at the end of a rope. Turner, Gendreau, and Dofar had hung it there, finding a little left in the second cache. They struggled on. They camped for the night, building another fire. Cady and Brit Greenwood, their toes frozen, pushed on a little way. They shouted to the others. Their shouts were answered — from the wrong direction. The tip of another relief party had reached them. Howard Oakley and John Starks, of that party, came to the fire with food. Later, Midshipman Woodworth, here making his farthest venture toward the pass, came up. Later still the two men appeared who had shamed, threatened, and bullied Woodworth to this effort. They were William Eddy and William Foster of the Forlorn Hope, who two months before had been murderously attacking each other in the snow.
Reed and those with him were safe now. But there were the Breens p425 and Graveses back in the snow, and there were the others at the lake and Alder Creek. Woodworth's band had the sight of those drained men to make them thoughtful, and moreover had met Turner, Gendreau, and Dofar, who were in bad shape or perhaps worse. Eddy and Foster were blazing to go on but at first could get no companions except John Starks, who had come up with Woodworth, and the staunch Hiram Miller, who had just come down with Reed. Eddy and Foster pleaded with the others and finally determined to go alone. Reed persuaded them against suicide, got them all to go back to Woodworth's luxurious base camp in Bear Valley, and there renewed his pledges of high pay. Howard Oakley volunteered. So did another of Woodworth's men, named Thompson. So did Starks and Hiram Miller. So did the recreant Stone. Hiram Miller, Thompson, Foster, and Eddy would go on to the lake, Starks, Oakley, and Stone would bring on the surviving Breens and Graveses from their camp in the snow. On March 11, the Third Relief really got going. Let it be remembered that Foster and Eddy had been with the Forlorn Hope, and Hiram Miller had just escaped death on the Second Relief.
It was at Woodworth's camp that Patty Reed revealed the secret she had kept throughout this last journey of cold and agony. Before leaving the huts she had wrapped up her treasure in a little bundle. Doubtless it had sustained her through the days after her mother left her there. Doubtless it had been a solace through long days of dust along the trail last summer and she had cherished it when the wagons parked at night beneath twisted buttes or when she came footsore to bed in the Wasatch or when the grownups argued or despaired along the Humboldt. Leaving the lake she had hidden it under her dress, knowing that the men would make her throw away the slightest weight, even so slight a weight as this. There was a tiny glass saltcellar, one of those jewels that are precious to children. There was a small wooden doll with black hair and black eyes. And there was a lock of gray hair, her grandmother's hair. When Mrs. Keyes had died, way back at the Big Blue, Patty herself had snipped that lock before they buried Grandmother, before John Denton, now dead below the Sierra, chiseled her name in stone. She had wrapped them all in a shred of lawn dotted with blue flowers. Now she was safe in California and could bring out the treasure and settle down to play.
* * *
It was due to the will of Eddy and Foster that Woodworth had nerved himself to come as far as this. Coming back to Johnson's ranch with the horses which the First Relief had had to abandon, Eddy had stayed on p426 there, recruiting his strength. So had Foster, whose sanity returned. The two men were friends again, companions in anxiety. The return of the First Relief with its starving refugees informed Eddy that his wife and daughter were dead but that his son and Foster's were still living when the refugees left. When the last storm ended the two got horses and rode furiously toward the mountains, knowing that the Second Relief would be in terrible danger but believing that Woodworth would be hurrying to rescue them. Reaching Woodworth, who bandaged his cowardice with innumerable justifications, they had cursed him and his five men as far as the camp from which they had heard the shouts of Reed's party.
Now the seven of the Third Relief, on two errands, were starting off on the morning of March 11. Late in the afternoon of the twelfth they reached the survivors in the pit which their sinking fire had made — •twenty-five feet deep, bare ground at the bottom. It was the fifth day since Reed had left here. Little Isaac had died before that. Since then the five‑year‑old Franklin Graves had died and so had his mother. Her year‑old daughter Elizabeth, when the rescuers got there, "sat at her side," Thornton says, "one arm on the body of its mangled mother, and sobbing bitterly cried 'Ma! Ma! Ma!' " The mother's body was indeed mangled, for the Breens had cooked her breasts and most of the meat from her arms and legs. Nor was there much left of the little bodies of Franklin Graves and Isaac Donner.
The Relief had thought that more than these would be dead, and Stone and Oakley were for leaving the Breens there and taking the rest down. Starks refused. He was a big man, as big as McCutchen, and nothing was too hard for him. It is due to his efforts principally that all these came through. (Though little Elizabeth Graves died, after reaching safety.) Oakley and Stone took one child apiece and made a quick trip down. Starks carried, jollied, bullied, bribed, and promised his flock through three and a half days — one of the biggest achievements of the whole story. Then Eddy and Foster with their party caught up with him, coming down from the pass, and almost at once another relief party, coming up, reached them all. For the undaunted Glover, Coffeemeyer, and Mootrey were coming back again — and had shamed Woodworth into coming, at least this far, with them.
Eddy, Foster, Thompson, and Miller, after leaving the camp whence Starks was taking his charges down, were able to cross the divide in a few hours. It was still early morning when Eddy and Foster sprinted ahead and reached the huts at the lake. Mrs. Murphy, nearly blind and almost dead, answered their question with a single word. George Foster and p427 James Eddy were dead. The terrified Donner children thought then, and thought throughout their lives, that Keseberg, now a mere sac of bestiality, had killed little George Foster. They were probably right. Whether they were or not, Keseberg could stand there in the hut and remark to Eddy and Foster that he had eaten their sons.
Besides Keseberg and Mrs. Murphy, there were still alive in this room littered with filth and butchered corpses the three Donner girls, Simon Murphy, and — Tamsen Donner. Tamsen had come here from Alder Creek desperate for word about her children — for Clark had seen them here, though for days she had supposed they had been taken safely over the pass. She had become dazed before she could reach the huts and Simon Murphy had led her in.
She had strength left, however, and God knows she had the will that endures. She could have gone over the divide with this, the Third Relief. But George Donner, her husband, somehow had not yet died when she left Alder Creek. Moreover, she supposed that Clark and Trubode were there, and she had a duty to tell them the rescuers had come. Eddy pleaded with her, setting out the logic of her going with him. But no. If they would wait while she went back to her own huts at Alder Creek (Elizabeth was dead, everyone was dead but George and Elizabeth's little Samuel) it might be that they would find that her husband had died. Then her duty would be discharged and she could save her life. Also, they could tell Clark and Trubode to bring Samuel. William Eddy rightly said no. The trip would consume another full day and they could not wait. They had no food for an extra day, they could not risk the coming of another storm. So Tamsen shook her head. She said good‑bye once more to Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. She would go back and sit beside George Donner and, when the time came, close his eyes.
Two hours after reaching the huts, the Third Relief — merely four men of stout hearts — started back. Mrs. Murphy obviously could not be taken. Neither — if anyone cared — could Keseberg. They did what they could for the dying widow Murphy and then took charge of a child apiece. Miller carried Eliza but the others could mostly walk by themselves. They reached the foot of the pass and camped for the night. . . . And Clark and Trubode joined them, Clark carrying a heavy pack of loot, instead of Samuel Donner, whom he might have brought from Alder Creek.
The rest is the memories of children. On the second day Hiram Miller's kindness cracked and Eliza remembered that he bribed her to walk with a promise of sugar which he did not have. Then he punished her. She was lonesome for her mother. Frances stormed at Eliza's persecutor. Eddy p428 found a bundle beside the trail, and when they opened it at the evening fire it proved to be the spoons and silks which Cady had abandoned when his feet swelled. So Thompson, who had previously made some moccasins for Frances, got out his needle again and from the fine silk dresses made sleeping bags for the three little girls. They wore them on the trail too, the next day — the dove-colored silk for Frances, the light brown for Georgia, and the dark brown for Eliza. Eliza remembered passing a dim, wailing line of children and John Starks setting two down from his shoulders beside the trail and going back for two more. Then there was shouting. They had met Glover, Coffeemeyer, Mootrey, and Woodworth. It was March 17 and their mother had been right. God had taken care of the children who had been told always to say that they were the children of George Donner.
* * *
"Often we looked at each other and exclaimed 'How good to be here instead of up in the snow.' " Thus Eliza Donner, remembering Sutter's, the universal inn and hospital at the end of the California trail. And Virginia Reed, writing from the same place to Cousin Mary back home, 'It is a beautiful country. It is mostly in vallies and mountains. It ought to be a beautiful country to pay us for our troubles in getting to it."
The survivors were brought down to Sutter's as soon as they could travel, and there they might grow from death to life and to the expectation of a new home in the West. Two families had come through intact, the Reeds and the Breens, the most complex nervous systems, one thinks, and the simplest. The others were variously reduced. All the Donners were orphans (Hiram Miller would be appointed their guardian) and William Eddy had lost his entire family. Everyone who has written about the Donners has remarked that the women had withstood the trial better than the men.
Back in the mountains there were George and Tamsen Donner, their nephew Samuel, Mrs. Murphy, and Keseberg. Woodworth, the titular head of the entire relief enterprise, should have kept on after Foster and Eddy met him coming back — should have taken his fresh men over the divide to save any of the five who could be saved. Passed Midshipman Woodworth was just no damned good. His stomach would not take danger, and besides the audience was in the settlements. He turned west again and if the commander would not undertake another relief, who should? The men went back with him to Sutter's — But McKinstry ordered Woodworth back to his job. He had no difficulty getting volunteers — John Rhoads, Starks, Coffeemeyer, Sels, Tucker, all veterans of the reliefs, p429 and William Foster again, and even young William Graves, who had been down out of the snow only two weeks. They started about March 15 but got no farther than Bear Valley. Woodworth was timid and with slack leadership the men were slack. They knew that George and Samuel Donner would be dead by now and that if life remained to Mrs. Murphy she could not be brought out. No one cared what might happen to Keseberg and Tamsen Donner had made her choice. So when another great storm blew up, the Fourth Relief turned back.
The final expedition differed from the others. It was made primarily to salvage the property of the survivors, and it initiated a bickering that was to last for a long time. It was headed by Thomas Fallon, who seems to have been a Canadian mountain man and was just back from marching with Frémont. Five veterans of the reliefs joined him, Sels, Coffeemeyer, Tucker, John Rhoads, and the now tireless William Foster. There was also a novice, an emigrant named Keyser from Johnson's. They left Johnson's on April 13 and found no snow till they reached the head of Bear Valley, whence they went in, like all their predecessors, on foot with packs. They thought that Tamsen and Keseberg might still be alive but found no one at the lake, which they reached on April 17. They did find a scene which shocked Fallon, whose nerves were probably strong. He mentions the body of Mrs. Eddy, "the limbs sawed off and a frightful gash in the skull," and other "sights from which we would have fain turned away." They went on to Alder Creek, which looked worse. The Donner property, broken open by Keseberg and probably by Diggers as well, was scattered all about, "books, calicoes, tea, coffee, shoes, percussion caps, household and kitchen furniture." At the mouth of a hut — the snow had mostly melted away — was a kettle full of pieces of the body of George Donner. They judged that, amazingly, he had been dead no longer than four days. They noticed that legs of oxen, reclaimed from the snow that had preserved them, had not been eaten.
They made up packs of valuables and four of them started back to the lake. There they found Keseberg, whose tracks they had seen in the melting snow and who had been keeping away from them. He was "lying down amidst the human bones, and beside him a large pan full of fresh liver and lights."
Like a monomaniac squirrel, Keseberg had filled his noisome burrow with possessions of the Donners. Fallon was a curt man; he put the rope to Keseberg's neck and commanded him to reveal where the money was — on behalf of the Donner orphans and of Thomas Fallon also. He got $517. Cady and Stone had got as much before. No more of the thousands p430 of dollars in cash which the Donners brought with them is known to have been found.
Fallon and his veterans could discover no liking for Keseberg. A century later it is difficult to discount their suspicions. His story was that Tamsen had come to the lake in delirium after George Donner died. She was raving, her babble of children, the pass, her dead husband. Keseberg said he warmed her and put her to bed and the next morning found her dead. The salvage party could identify no trace of her body, unless there might be fragments of it in the pan or in "the two kettles of human blood, in all supposed to be over a gallon." Since she had been in excellent strength three weeks before, in fact a little corpulent, they believed that Keseberg had killed her. He denied it and went on denying it through the rest of his life. But there in the cabin he told them that "he ate her body and found her flesh the best he had ever tasted. He further stated that he obtained from her body at least •four pounds of fat."
They could not identify any fragment of Mrs. Murphy's body, either, but Foster, her son-in‑law, could recognize Landrum Murphy, "who had been dead about three months, with the breast and skull cut open and the brains, liver, and lights taken out." . . . One final testimony to the degeneration of human personality under stresses that had hardened others into nobility. "We asked Kiesburg [Fallon's spelling] why he did not use the meat of the bullock and horse instead of human flesh, he replied he has not seen them. We then told him we knew better and asked him why the meat in the chair had not been consumed, he said 'Oh! it's too dry eating!' the liver and lights were a good deal better, and the brains made good soup!"
(Edwin Bryant, passing here with Kearny two months later, says that at Alder Creek they found George Donner's body decently wrapped in a sheet. If so, then this last party, perhaps at the behest of Foster who had come down the trail with him, had done this final decency.)
They took Keseberg with them when they started back on April 23, as they might have taken an abandoned dog from the scene of a friend's disaster. The snow in the pass was only •six feet deep. On the twenty-fifth they were back at their horse camp. The episode was over, and so was the work of Lansford Hastings. There had been eighty‑two of them when they reached the Sierra, after five had died this side of the Wasatch. Thirty-five of these had died and, besides them, two of the rescuers, Luis and Salvador, the Indians. Forty-seven had come through to the end of the trail and might now set about fulfilling the dream that had started them toward Independence on this journey, in April just a year before Fallon brought Keseberg down to Bear Valley.
1 Reproduced from Thornton. It is impossible to determine whether Thornton may have improved it to agree with his ideas of appropriate gloom. In any event, it is a strange thing to happen in the snow.
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