AWAITING THE BRIGANTINES
 WORD came from Martin Lopez that the brigantines were ready to be transported, and Sandoval was at once
despatched with a strong escort to Tlascala. On the way he came to a village whence all the men
seemed to have fled. A few women and children alone lurked in the deserted houses. Entering the
temple, the Spaniards were, to their horror, confronted by the ghastly heads and skins of many of
their comrades, murdered at that spot some time before. There too lay their arms and clothing and
the hides of their horses, and on the wall one of the captured soldiers had written in charcoal,
"Here was taken the unfortunate Juan Juste with many others of his companions." With angry curses
the Spaniards turned away from the pitiful sight, and dire would have been their vengeance had the
men of the village been at hand, but Sandoval, the most merciful of the Conquistadores,
insisted on sparing the women and children.
As they drew near Tlascala the road for many miles was seen to be darkened by a mighty procession.
Eight thousand tamanes, escorted by twenty
 thousand warriors, were carrying the materials for the ships. Sandoval distributed his Spaniards
among the Tlascalans, and onward they toiled over the mountains, expecting at every turn to be
attacked. Only the devastating smallpox can explain the inertness of the Aztecs in allowing this
all-important convoy to reach Tezcuco unopposed.
In pomp and triumph, with drums beating and trumpets sounding, the long array defiled for six hours
through the city gates with shouts of "Castilla! Castilla!Tlascala! Tlascala! Long live his Majesty
the Emperor!" Well might they exult, for it was indeed, as CortÚs himself said, "a marvellous thing
that few have seen or even heard of—this transportation of thirteen warships on the shoulders
of men for nearly twenty leagues across the mountains!"
"We come," proudly said the Tlascalan chiefs to Malinche, "to fight under your banner, to avenge our
common quarrel, or to fall by your side. Lead us at once against the foe!"
"Wait," replied CortÚs. "When you are rested you shall have your hands full."
Not yet could the brigantines be launched, for the canal was still unfinished, so the general
resolved to employ the time of waiting in subduing the cities on the northern shores of Lake
Tezcuco. Sandoval was again left in command of the garrison, while CortÚs himself led the
Before the Spanish cavalry and cannon fell city after city, until at last the victors, rounding the
lake to its western shore, came to Tacuba of painful recollection. There stretched the fateful
 and here was the city through which they had fled in the dreary dawn which had revealed the havoc of
La Noche Triste. Inflamed to a fury beyond control by the sight of this spot where they had
suffered so much, Spaniards and Tlascalans hurled themselves on the Aztecs drawn up without the
walls, scattered them with great slaughter, and captured the city itself. The allies, in their
frenzy for revenge, regardless of the commands of CortÚs, burnt to ashes a whole quarter of the
In Tacuba the Spaniards remained for some time, sallying forth daily to skirmish with the Aztecs.
They were decoyed one day on to the causeway itself by the favourite Mexican feint of flight. Midway
along the perilous dyke the enemy turned like tigers on their pursuers, while hundreds more rushed
forth from the city, and myriads of canoes seemed in an instant to cover the water on either side.
Sore beset were the Spaniards as they retreated slowly along the narrow way, striving to keep an
unbroken front to the foe. Many of the Aztecs were armed with long poles to which were fastened
swords of Castilian steel, the spoil perhaps of La Noche Triste. With one of these weapons
the general's own standard-bearer was struck down into the lake, and dragged forthwith on board a
canoe. With herculean strength, his standard still in his hand, he tore himself from the grasp of
the Indians and sprang back upon the causeway to the sheltering ranks of his comrades. With some
loss the troops at length regained the land.
On another occasion the enemies met with but
 a broken bridge between them, and CortÚs, who was anxious to find out if the Aztecs would come to
terms, rode forward making signs that he wished for a parley.
"Is there any great chief among you," he called out, "with whom I may confer?"
"We are all chiefs," replied the Mexicans. "Speak openly whatever you have to say."
Then as CortÚs remained silent they cried mockingly, "Why do you not make another visit to our city?
Come in, come in and rest yourselves! But perhaps Malintzin does not expect to find there another
Montezuma!" To the Tlascalans they cried, "Women! who dare not venture near Tenochtitlan save under
the wing of the Teules!" With these taunts they fiercely renewed the fight.
After six days the Spaniards returned to Tezcuco. They had subdued many towns and won many
victories, but they had also seen that the capital was strongly defended at every point, and that
the Aztecs, even though defeated, remained indomitable.
To the Spanish quarters there came envoys from the friendly city of Chalco on the eastern shore of
the fresh-water lake. "Aid us against the Mexicans!" was their prayer, and in answer Sandoval, with
three hundred foot and twenty horse, was despatched to their relief. Thoroughly as always the young
captain did his work, storming two of the Aztec fortresses from which the Chalcans had suffered most
annoyance. The capture of one was indeed a gallant feat, for the Spaniards had to climb a bare steep
rock down which the enemy hurled boulders and galling
 missiles. Reaching the summit, they grappled fiercely with the garrison, many of whom were flung
down the precipice to be dashed to death in the stream below, where the water soon ran red with
blood. For a full hour, declares one chronicler, the victors could not drink from the polluted
stream, but old Bernal Diaz says, "For as long as one might take to say an Ave Maria!"
Good news from the coast came to CortÚs that three Spanish ships with two hundred men and seventy or
eighty horses had arrived at Villa Rica. The new-comers lost no time in making their way to Tezcuco.
One of the cavaliers, named Julian de Alderete, was a man of some distinction, and had been sent to
Mexico as royal treasurer to look after the interests of the Crown. With the soldiers came a friar
who brought, says Diaz, "a number of bulls of our lord St. Peter, in order to compose our
consciences if we had anything to lay to our charge on account of the wars. The reverend father made
a fortune in a few months and returned to Castile."
The brigantines were not even yet completed, and CortÚs set out once more with a strong force,
resolved to subdue the Aztec fortresses in the mountainous country to the south of Lake Chalco.
These citadels were perched on high and almost inaccessible cliffs, which hung threateningly over
the wild gorges through which the army must pass. After many desperate climbs and much hard
fighting, CortÚs succeeded in carrying several of these fortresses, but on the ninth day he came
 a strong city surrounded on all sides but one by deep ravines.
At the bottom of the gorge before which the Spaniards halted raged a foaming mountain torrent. The
bridges were broken down, and the garrison in the city, evidently prepared for an assault, harassed
their foes with showers of arrows. It was a Tlascalan at last who solved the general's difficulty of
attack. Some distance below the town the chasm was bridged by the intertwining branches of two
mighty trees, and over this perilous arch the mountaineer climbed, followed by many of his hardy
countrymen and several Spaniards. More heavily built and armed than their allies, three of the white
men crashed through the branches into the gulf below. The others, passing safely over, surprised the
garrison and held them in fierce fight until CortÚs had repaired a bridge and crossed over with the
rest of his army, when the impregnable City of Ravines was easily captured.
Leaving the barren mountains where water and food were scarce, the Spaniards gladly turned
northwards, skirting the western shores of the lakes. In the fresh waters of Chalco stood the
island-city of Xochimilco, named the Field of Flowers, from its countless floating gardens. Strong
and wealthy it was, and many battles did the Spaniards wage ere they succeeded in its capture. In
one contest CortÚs himself was overpowered and seized by the foe, who were dragging him off to
sacrifice when a Tlascalan warrior, followed by two Spaniards, sprang to the rescue. With their aid
CortÚs tore himself free,
 leaped on his horse and faced the enemy. At this critical moment the cavaliers galloped up and drove
back the Indians in confusion. Had not the Aztecs vowed to take Malintzin alive he would assuredly
have been slain.
Xochimilco sacked and burnt, since they were not strong enough to hold it, the Spaniards, loaded
with booty, continued their march northwards. On the way the cavaliers, in hot pursuit of some
flying Aztecs, fell into an ambush, and two of the general's own grooms were captured alive. The
others managed to regain the main body and to reach Tacuba in safety.
The sun shone brightly, and as Alderete, the treasurer, who had been but a few weeks in Anahuac,
stood by the side of CortÚs on the teocalli of Tacuba, he exclaimed at the beauty of
the scene. But on the general there seemed to have fallen a mood of deep dejection. His face was
very sad, and his eyes were full of most unwonted tears as he too gazed at the lovely valley.
"Senor Captain," said one of the cavaliers consolingly, "let not your Honour be so sad, it is after
all but the fortune of war."
Not, however, of his lost servants only was the general thinking, but of all the miseries which war
must bring on the fair land before him and on his own devoted followers also.
"You are my witness," he replied, "how often I have tried to persuade yonder capital peacefully to
submit. It fills me with grief when I think of the toil and dangers my brave men have yet to
 before we can call it ours. But the time is come when we must put our hands to the work."
In after-days the Spanish minstrels, singing the exploits of their national heroes, chose this scene
for one of their romances. Bernal Diaz gives the opening lines:
In Tacuba stood CortÚs,
With many a care opprest,
Thoughts of the past came o'er him
And he bowed his haughty crest,
One hand upon his cheek he laid,
The other on his breast.
Wretched enough was the march from Tacuba northwards round the lake to its eastern shore, for it
rained without ceasing and the roads were deep in mud. Weary were the soldiers when once more they
reached Tezcuco, weary and worn and diminished in numbers. But they were met by Sandoval and
Ixtlilxochitl with the joyful news that the canal was finished and the brigantines ready to be
In his own camp CortÚs was now threatened by a danger as great as any he had encountered in his
expedition. A common soldier, one of the men of Narvaez, conspired with some of his fellows to
murder the general and his chief captains. They were terrified at the thought of being led once more
into Mexico, and knowing well that nothing could change the bold resolution of CortÚs, decided that
in his assassination lay their only hope. They intended to offer him a letter as he sat at table,
and while he read it to stab him to the heart. With him should perish also Sandoval, Alvarado, and
 The day before the deed one of the conspirators repented, and going to the general's quarters, flung
himself at his feet, confessing the whole plot. Calling Sandoval and Alvarado, CortÚs at once sought
out and arrested the ringleader, who attempted to swallow a scroll containing the signatures of his
fellow-conspirators. Seizing the list just in time, the general glanced at it and then actually
destroyed it himself. The ringleader was hanged from the window of his own quarters, a warning to
the guilty schemers who trembled at the sight. Great was their surprise to find no further measures
taken to unravel the plot.
Summoning the whole army before him, CortÚs spoke of the base villainy for which their comrade had
been hanged, but pretended that as the wretched man had made no confession he knew not who had been
the other traitors. By this clever policy he turned the conspirators into zealous supporters,
anxious by every means to vindicate their loyalty. As for his own men, the incident aroused them to
a frenzy of devotion, and they insisted that thenceforth their beloved leader should always be
surrounded by a trusty body-guard under a cavalier named Antonio de Quinones.
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