Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
DE SOTO, THE AVENGER
 THE sword was reluctantly restored to its scabbard; but it was soon to have a victim,
nevertheless. Hardly had the executioner held the bleeding head aloft and shouted: "This
is the doom of a traitor," than Pedrarias issued an order to a file of soldiers, who
marched across the square and closed about De Soto. They were the most reliable of the old
tyrant's mercenaries, and led by an officer who had committed many a crime at his behest.
"Seize and drag him hither," cried Pedrarias, pointing at Ferdinand an accusing finger.
"He, too, is a traitor, false to me and to his king. He shall share the penalty we have
meted to his comrade." For a single instant Ferdinand sat as if petrified. He had long
expected death at the hands of Pedrarias, but did not believe he would dare inflict it so
 As the officer reached out to seize his bridle-rein, De Soto recovered himself. His good
sword leaped from the scabbard, and like a flash descended upon the officer's helmet,
cleaving it and the head within in twain. Wrenching it free with a violent effort, De Soto
held the dripping blade aloft, and, putting spurs to his powerful charger, dashed through
the ring of soldiers straight upon Pedrarias.
"Murderer! Usurper!" he shouted, placing the sword-point at the trembling tyrant's breast.
"That I do not kill you is because I hold sacred the memory of one who is not here. Your
death has long been overdue, but—"He made as if to sheath his sword, when there
arose cries on every side: "Down with the tyrant! Kill him! Kill him!"
"You hear them? Those are the cries of your soldiers. They know, and I know, that the
blood of our dead comrade cries aloud for vengeance—that justice demands your death.
You killed Balboa—a most dastardly crime—Balboa, who was betrothed to your
daughter; and now you would kill me! I have served you most faithfully many years, but
henceforth my sword shall never be drawn in your service, not even to defend your life."
 With these words De Soto turned from the despicable wretch and joined his troop. The
citizens of Leon and the soldiery gathered around him and urged that he seize upon the
government of Nicaragua, in the name of the king, promising him their loyal and unwavering
support. Nicaragua lay as a middle ground between Mexico-Guatemala and the Isthmus. With
such an energetic ruler as De Soto would have made, it might have become great and
powerful; but he put aside this opportunity and contented himself with exploration merely.
It must be remembered that at the time these occurrences took place the three Americas,
North, Central, and South, were but little known. Mexico had only just been conquered;
Guatemala was being invaded; the West Indies, alone, had been to any extent explored. The
great problem that confronted the discoverers was what was termed the "secret of the
strait"—of a passage supposed to exist between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific.
Columbus had searched for it vainly; so had Cortes and others.
We know that it was never discovered, and that the waters of the sea and the ocean
 will be blended only after an artificial water-way shall have been opened through the
mountains that separate them at the narrowest part of the Isthmus. But De Soto did not
know this, and, believing the solution of the secret to be vastly more important than the
founding or government of a colony, he set himself to the task. Choosing a few congenial
spirits from his troop, he departed on an exploring expedition, which resulted in making
known more than seven hundred miles of coast-line. He solved the secret by ascertaining
that there was no strait; and in exploring it is quite as important to nail a fallacy as
to make a new discovery. He returned greatly enriched, from traffic with the natives; and
though this was, so far as can be ascertained, his first accumulation of gold, he
generously shared it with his comrades, not only with those who went with him, but those
of his troop who remained behind.
Pedrarias was still living, and, unfortunately for Nicaragua, still wielding a semblance
of power; so Ferdinand remained in the country only long enough to set his affairs in
order, and started south again. His loyal troopers accompanied him, but for what purpose
they returned towards the
 Isthmus is not exactly known, though it is conjectured that they were drawn thither by the
reports of Pizarro's great successes in Peru. They all set out for Panama, taking no
account of the difficulties in the journey; but when some distance on the way, while
marching along the coast, they discovered a vessel, which De Soto promptly chartered. Had
the master of this vessel known the character of De Soto and the relation in which he
stood to Pedrarias, he would have refused him passage, to a certainty; but he paid the
penalty of his ignorance with his life. Hereby hangs a short story of crime, for the
proper development of which we must turn back a few years in the life of our hero.
It chanced that, in one of his forays, Ferdinand had found captive among the Indians, and
rescued, an Italian astronomer named Micer Codro. He was a man of science, unacquainted
with war, and went about looking for and delving into the secrets of nature. His head was
always "in the stars"; but he valued it highly, just the same, and was very grateful to De
Soto for having rescued him from the savages. Being something of an astrologer, he cast
 as, some years previously, he had foretold the fate of Balboa. He informed him that he was
ever in peril while with Pedrarias, who would seek to take his life, as he had taken that
of Vasco Nunez de Balboa; but he would escape his wiles and live to accomplish the great
aim of his life, which was a union with the one he loved.
"You will be more fortunate than Vasco Nunez," said the astrologer, and will live to the
age he attained, which was forty-two, before death, in a strange manner and in a new land,
shall claim you."
"We are all in the keeping of God," replied De Soto, humbly. "I rely upon Him to protect
Shortly after this conversation took place the artless philosopher, Micer Codro, was
selected by Pedrarias to represent him at the court of Spain. He could not trust a man
less simple and unworldly than the astrologer, for fear his crimes might be made known;
but, as it turned out, he was the last person he should have employed, owing to his
friendship for Ferdinand. When he learned that he was to be sent to Spain, Codro was
overjoyed at the opportunity it gave him to serve the man who had saved his life. He
 hastened to Ferdinand and said: "I am going to Spain. I shall see the family of Don Pedro,
to whom I am to be intrusted with letters. Is there no member of that family you would
like me to carry a message to? Five years is a long time, without news of one's beloved,
is it not?"
Ferdinand started in astonishment. "How did you know?" he asked. "Oh, I
forgot—perhaps you learned it of the stars. Yes, it is five years since I came here,
and during that time not one word. Sometimes I question whether she has written."
"Nay, do not doubt her, friend. She has written, but her letters have been intercepted by
her father. This chance I offer you is the only one you will have, for I not only go, but
I return, and everything will be wrapped in secrecy."
"But," answered De Soto, doubtfully, "should Don Pedro discover it he would not hesitate
to kill you."
"I fear him not. If he is to kill me, then it is so written in the stars. Prepare your
letter, friend, and I will carry it."
Ferdinand raised no more objections, but wrote a letter to Isabel de Bobadilla, in which
he poured forth the pent-up feelings of
 those five long years. It was taken by Micer Codro to Spain, and delivered in person to
the delighted maiden, who responded with an epistle filled with fervent love and
protestations of undying affection. She assured her lover that, though she had written him
previously, and received no answer, she knew and appreciated the cause of that long
silence. She had not for a moment distrusted him, nor would she ever do so. She
impatiently awaited his return; but whatever time might elapse before that happy event,
she would be faithful to the end.
Eight years more were to pass before the return of De Soto to Spain, or fifteen in all,
ere he found the fortune which enabled him to go and claim his bride; but during this long
period both were faithful to each other. Simple Micer Codro, though he could predict
future events, did not possess the craft to conceal his intentions. There were spies about
the castle, and spies in Panama, who reported to Don Pedro everything that had happened,
and he knew that Isabel had sent a letter to her lover almost as soon as Ferdinand had
He said nothing, and kept a smiling face
 for poor Codro, whom he rewarded for his services by sending him on an exploring trip down
the coast. Such an expedition was what the man of science delighted in, and he embarked
most joyfully; but he had not been long aboard the vessel before he discovered the real
nature of the fiendish governor's intentions. The craft was a slaver, commanded by a
brutal wretch named Geronimo de Valenzuela, who, carrying out the instructions he had
received from Pedrarias, chained poor Codro to the main-mast. There he was kept until he
finally died from exhaustion, exposed to the fierce rays of a tropical sun by day and the
drenching dews of night. Ten days he was kept thus, all the time without food or water,
and suffering abuse from the heartless crew. As his end approached he called Valenzuela to
him and, with his last accents, said: "Captain, you have caused my death by your cruelty.
I now summon you to appear with me, within a year, before the judgment-seat of God."
The vessel in which De Soto had taken passage worked its way along the southern coast of
Veragua, and late one afternoon arrived off a group of islands about one
hun-  dred miles southwest of Panama, known as the Zebacos. They were green and beautiful isles.
Something in their appearance seemed to excite in the captain of the vessel a spirit of
"Oh ho!" he exclaimed to his mate; "do you remember the last time we passed Zebacos, and
the old wizard we buried there?"
"Sooth, I do," replied the mate; "and, moreover, the year is nearly up, my captain, so
prepare yourself, perchance."
"What is it?" asked one of the soldiers.
A group of De Soto's men had gathered about, and among them was their commander, who
listened carelessly as the master of the vessel gave the details of a fiendish story. He
was a man of brutal appearance, whose whole career had been one of wickedness. His name
was Geronimo de Valenzuela, and he was the same who had tortured poor Codro to death,
though De Soto was not aware of that. Indeed, he had never learned what had become of his
friend, who had mysteriously disappeared and left no trace by which his fate could be
known. He was soon to learn, however, and in a startling manner was to avenge his death.
"Ye see that island standing up high
 above the sea, with a cocoa-palm on its highest part? Well, there we buried him, the old
wizard who, somehow, had offended Pedrarias. He had proved treacherous, I believe,
bringing back letters from Spain which Don Pedro would rather had not been sent. Whatever
it was, he was to suffer for it, and I had orders to chain him to the mast and keep him
there till he died. It was not so easy a task, for the old man was all of ten days in
dying, though we helped him along somewhat. Eh, mate?"
The captain burst into a roar of brutal laughter, in which he was joined by such of his
crew as were with him when poor Codro was tortured. Had they looked up, they would have
seen that De Soto was standing near, with flashing eyes and paling cheek, one hand
convulsively gripping his sword. But he kept, silence, and the fiend continued:
"Well, towards the last the old man lost his speech; but some time before he died he
recovered and called to me. 'Captain,' he said, 'I die; you have killed me; but know this:
within one year you will appear with me before the judgment-seat of Almighty God.'
"Oh ho, he spoke like a prophet; but the year is within a week of its ending, and here
 am I. And there is the island where we buried him. Now, who can say Don Codro was no
"I say it," thundered a voice in his ear. "He was my friend and a good man, and with this
blade I will prove he was no liar."
With one swift and powerful blow De Soto severed the man's head from his body, and it
rolled upon the deck.
"Now come at me, varlets, one or all. Here stand I, Ferdinand de Soto, to defend the good
name of my friend, to avenge an atrocious deed, for that friend doubtless died for doing
me an inestimable service."
But not one of those cringing villains made a move towards the valiant swordsman. Instead,
they slunk away, one by one, overpowered by the suddenness of the onslaught. The skill
displayed by De Soto, as well as his courage, elicited their admiration; and though they
murmured among themselves as they cast the captain's remains to the sharks, they attempted
The date of this incident and the length of De Soto's stay in Nicaragua are not known. It
is probable that, after his return to Panama, he lingered so long, in a country already
impoverished by the raids of
 insatiate Spaniards, who repeatedly ravaged it with fire, sword, and packs of blood-hounds,
that he expended all the gold he had obtained in Nicaragua. We know this: that when, after
having reached the frontiers of Peru, and finding himself unable to advance because of the
few men he had with him, Francisco Pizarro sent urgent calls to Panama for reinforcements,
De Soto consented to go to the rescue.
He had long known Pizarro, from having come in contact with him during the frequent raids
they had made together when in Panama and Darien, but by no means admired him. In fact, he
heartily despised him, although he could not but have recognized his soldierly qualities.
But Pizarro had now obtained the consent of the Spanish sovereign to the conquest of Peru;
he had persisted in his attempt to reach that country during many years, and was at last
on the verge of success. He offered great inducements to any cavaliers who would come to
his assistance, and sent a special request to De Soto.
For several years previous to the departure of De Soto for Peru he and Pedrarias had held
no communication. Don Pedro was consistent
 in his cruelties, it is believed, up to the time of his death, which occurred while De
Soto was absent in Peru. He pursued the Indians vindictively, using blood-hounds
unsparingly and committing atrocities which called down upon his head the curses of all
who spoke his name. The natives of Nicaragua were enslaved, and the survivors of his
massacres deprived of their harvests, so that famine resulted and many thousands perished
of a pestilence.
De Soto would not lend himself to the enslavement of the Indians, nor is his name notably
connected with any act of atrocity in Nicaragua or Panama. But, in transfer ring his
allegiance from Pedrarias to Pizarro, he merely passed from the service of one
unscrupulous villain to that of another. In the interim, however, he had become a
free-lance, and owned no man as his master. His strength and prestige enabled him to
dictate terms to the Conqueror of Peru, and, "according to the report of many persons who
were there, he distinguished himself over all the captains and principal personages
present, not only at the seizure of *Atabalipa, lord of Peru, and in carrying the city of
Cuzco, but at all other places wheresoever he went and found resistance."