Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Battle of the Pass

September, 1519

The Cempoallan envoys had reached in safety the city of Tlascala, the capital of the republic of Tlascala, and had delivered their message to the four chiefs who were the heads of the government. They at once called together the heads of the great council to decide on an answer.

One of the four chiefs, Maxixca, maintained that the white conqueror was Quetzalcoatl returned, and they must bow to him. Others said that anyone who was an enemy to Montezuma was a friend to Tlascala. But there were still others, among them the aged chief Xicotencatl, also one of the four heads, who said that they never could be friends with men who, wherever they went, left broken idols and desecrated temples behind them. Besides, what proof was there that Cortes was the foe of the Aztecs when, after receiving Montezuma's presents, he was marching with Montezuma's vassals to Tenochtitlan? Xicotencatl was for sending word to his son, Xicotencatl the younger, to fall on the Spaniards with the army he was commanding on the eastern frontier, and destroy them. If he should defeat the Spaniards, all was well; if he should be defeated, the Tlascalans would say they knew nothing of the attack and could then receive the Spaniards. In the meantime they would induce the envoys to stay on a pretext of some religious ceremony.

This was what was going on when Cortes, not knowing the reception prepared for him, and finding no one guarding the entrance, dashed through the opening of the great wall and entered the Tlascala republic. At once he set out for the capital. His cavalry rode on for some miles undisturbed, the infantry following close behind, until Cortes saw a small body of Indians armed with shield and sword. He signaled them to stop, but they fled instead. When the cavalry, spurring after them, overtook them, instead of showing the usual terror at the strange horses, the Indians turned on them furiously, and held their ground till a large body of natives came to their aid.

Cortes sent back a messenger to the infantry to advance as quickly as possible, and set himself to with-standing the attack of the enemy. It was all he could do to keep them off. After discharging their arrows, the savages closed with the Spaniards, killing one man and two horses before the infantry came up.

The Spaniards formed at once, and poured in such a close volley from musket and crossbow that the Indians, who had never heard before the report of fire-arms, fell back. They withdrew, however, in good order.

Cortes did not pursue; he was satisfied to have his road to the city of Tlascala left open for him. Before he went on, he buried the dead horses, lest the Indians should discover that they were merely mortal beasts and not something magic. Then he resumed his march.

A little further on they met two of the Cempoallan envoys along with two Tlascalans who, according to the chiefs' plan, apologized to Cortes for the unsuccessful attack, and assured him that the Tlascalan government knew nothing of it. Whether Cortes believed it or not, he answered courteously, and was allowed to go on.

He pitched camp on the bank of a stream among a few deserted cottages. There was not much to eat, but the soldiers made a supper and went to sleep. Cortes kept on guard a hundred men at a time all through the night. But no attack was made. Although Cortes did not know it yet, the Indians never attacked at night.

The next day, September 2, 1519, the troops were under arms by dawn—three thousand Indians, four hundred Spanish infantry and fourteen horse. Father Olmedo said mass, and then the march began, the troops, by the general's order, keeping very close together, so that no stragglers should be cut off. The horsemen rode three abreast. Their orders were to hold their lances so that the Indians could not snatch them, to keep together and never to attack singly.

They had gone only a little way before they met the other two Cempoallan envoys frightened almost to death. They had just escaped from the prison where the Tlascalans were fattening them for sacrifice. They said that a large body of Tlascalans was gathered to oppose the Spanish progress. Cortes saw that the polite apology had not been worth much.

There was nothing for it but to push ahead until they came in sight of the enemy, a body of a thousand in battle array. Cortes stopped long enough to explain that he had no hostile intention; all he wanted was a peaceful passage through the country. The Tlascalans' answer was a flight of stones and arrows.

The missiles struck the Spaniards into sudden anger and with their war cry, "St. Jago and at them!" they charged the foe.

The Tlascalans held their ground for a while and then suddenly gave way. The Spaniards pursued, not perceiving, until they were well entrapped, that they were being led into a narrow pass where both the horse and the guns were almost useless. When they saw what had happened, they hurried forward to get again on level ground, and turning a sharp angle of the cliffs, they saw spread out before them, filling the space in the cut and stretching far into the plain beyond, an army numbering tens of thousands.

As the Spaniards appeared, the Tlascalans set up their hideous war cry and beat upon their melancholy drums. Then, like an ocean, they came rolling forward.

The Spaniards, however, kept close together and stood the shock. The ocean of Indians rolled up, broke, retreated, rolled up again and swayed back, only to gather force for another assault. How long could three thousand men withstand thirty thousand?

Finally the Tlascalans succeeded in pulling a Spaniard from his horse and in killing the horse. The Spaniards, knowing the horrible fate that would come to their comrade if he were taken alive, rallied to rescue him. Ten were wounded before they finally snatched him from his captors and the man himself died soon after.

"I see nothing but death for us," one of the Cempoallan chiefs said to Marina; "we shall never get through this pass alive."

"The God of the Christians is with us," Marina answered, "and He will carry us safely through."

Then amid the din of battle came the voice of Cortes, "If we fail now the cross of Christ can never be planted in the land. Forward, comrades! When was it ever known that a Spaniard turned his back on a foe?"

Roused to new effort, the white men attacked again. Borne down by the riders and trampled by the horses' hoofs, the enemy began to give ground. Cortes' Indian allies did their part bravely. Finally the troops succeeded in forcing a passage through the pass and came out on the plain beyond, where the horse soon opened a way for the artillery. The Tlascalans were in such close rank that, once the cannon got into action, they mowed them down by hundreds.

After eight of his principal chiefs had fallen, the young Xicotencatl, finding himself unable to hold out against the Spanish fire, ordered a retreat. The Tlascalans drew off in good order about sunset, and Cortes was well content to let them go.

He at once moved forward to the top of a hill and made camp. The Spaniards fared better than they had the night before, for the cottages on the hill had plenty of food. After the wounded men and horses were cared for, the troops celebrated their victory in a feast. They had come off with the loss of the one horse and very few men. The horse that the Indians had killed they cut in pieces and sent through the country to show that it was mortal and not supernatural. Thus the very thing happened that Cortes had tried to prevent.

Although Cortes encouraged his men in their singing and feasting, he himself had sober thoughts. To-day's battle was the severest he had had in Anahuac, and he knew well that he had not gained a lasting victory. To-morrow the Indians, refreshed and recruited, would be ready for another attack, and all the work would have to be done over again. It was a dark outlook.

As the songs died away and the men slept, Cortes still sat gazing into the future and thinking how far he would be on his way to conquer Mexico if, instead of having the Tlascalans for his enemies, he could gain them as allies.