Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Goes Back to Cempoalla

May, 1520

The the five envoys were being rushed in this strange manner through the country, stopping only long enough to change porters at the relay stations, Cortes was awaiting them in much anxiety.

He knew of Narvaez' arrival almost as soon as it occurred, for Montezuma's postmen had brought to the Emperor the picture letters of the white ships, and he had sent for Cortes.

"There is no longer any obstacle," he said, "to your leaving the country, as a fleet is now ready for you," and he showed to Malinche the picture-writing newspaper which told the story of the fleet and its mariners.

In spite of his anxiety, Cortes hid his feelings. "Thank heaven for its mercies!" he exclaimed, and hurried back to his men.

They were in commotion at once at the thought of comrades come to help them; they shouted and fired the cannon in their joy. But Cortes called his officers to consultation and shared with them his fears that the newcomers, instead of being friends, were sent from Velasquez to oust them from the position they had won. Joy turned to consternation as these ideas finally began to find their way through the quarters. If, in addition to dealing with the restive Aztecs, they must also fight a body of their own countrymen, it would give them plenty to do. But in spite of the dark outlook, the men swore to stand true to Cortes and the cause he represented; their year in Anahuac had turned them into seasoned veterans.

After four days' travel on the porters' backs up the mountains to Mexico, the dazed envoys, not knowing whether they were sleeping or waking, arrived outside the City of Mexico. One of Sandoval's guards left the men there to recover their senses and carried in to Cortes the letter from Sandoval.

At once Cortes sent five horses to the envoys that they might enter the city in a manner more dignified than that in which they had ascended the mountains. He met them when they arrived with great courtesy, apologized for the discomfort they had endured, and with his usual tact soothed their indignation. Then he made so many presents to Guevara and his companions that they began to wonder if Cortes might not make a better master than Narvaez.

When they were in this amiable frame of mind, Cortes began to draw from them the designs of Narvaez and the feeling of his soldiers. Guevara frankly said that the newcomers had no desire to fight Cortes' men; it was only Narvaez who had hard feelings toward Cortes; what the men wanted was gold and the leader who could give them most of it. Narvaez was stingy and arrogant; none of his men had for him any personal affection.

Cortes left the envoys to rest themselves after their hard journey while he wrote a conciliatory answer to Narvaez' letter.

"Do not," he begged, "proclaim our animosity to the world and, by kindling a spirit of insubordination in the natives, unsettle all that has been so far secured. A violent collision would be prejudicial even to the victor, and might be fatal to both. It is only in union that we can look for success. I am ready to greet you as a brother in arms, to share with you the fruits of conquest, and, if you can produce a royal commission, to submit to your authority." Cortes was pretty sure that Narvaez had no royal commission in his charge.

After Guevara and the other four envoys had started back to the coast in a more comfortable fashion and a much better humor than they had come up, Cortes determined to send to Narvaez Father Olmedo as a special messenger of his own with a second letter much like the first. He sent also a letter to Ayllon—not knowing that he had been sent home—and still another letter to Duero, who had, we remember, in 1518 induced Velasquez to choose Cortes to lead the first expedition and had himself invested some money in it. He had come now with Narvaez on this second voyage. Father Olmedo was told to talk privately to all these persons, as well as to Narvaez' officers and men in general, to see if some way could not be found to come to a peaceable settlement. To help on his work, the father was given a quantity of gold.

While Olmedo was still journeying, Guevara reached Cempoalla and gave Cortes' letter to Narvaez. He took it with a look of contempt, which changed to anger as he read. He grew only more angry as Guevara praised Cortes and told of his power and wealth, urging Narvaez to join the two parties under the one leader, instead of trying to depose a leader who was invincible.

Narvaez' soldiers listened eagerly to all that the five envoys had to say. They wanted gold, and Cortes had it in his keeping. He was free, too, in scattering it.

"See how Narvaez keeps all he gets tight in his own clutches," grumbled the men. "How much better a leader Cortes would be than Narvaez!"

To this divided camp Olmedo, a little later, came with his wise tongue, his gold-lined pockets, and his general's letter. Narvaez received this letter with even greater anger than the first, and one of the chief officers threatened to cut off the priest's ears. But the stout-hearted father went on his way, talking to captains and soldiers and lightening his pockets of their gold, until a party formed who did not see where they would find much advantage to themselves in upholding Narvaez against Cortes.

When Narvaez found out what was going on, he was for clapping Father Olmedo into irons, but Duero restrained him. Narvaez, however, sent the father back to Mexico, thinking thus to be rid of him. But though the priest went, his words and his gold stayed behind to preach after he was gone.

Then Narvaez tried to join to his party Leon, who was in the neighborhood with the hundred and fifty men whom Cortes had sent out to find a colonizing spot on the seacoast. Leon was a relative of Velasquez and had once been so opposed to Cortes that, while the general was receiving his new commission at Villa Rica, Leon had been imprisoned in the fleet. He had long since forgiven Cortes that act and was his fast friend. Nor did he waver now in his fidelity to his general. To Narvaez' reminder of Leon's relationship to Velasquez, which made it Leon's duty to join, with his hundred and fifty men, this latest expedition that Velasquez had sent out, Leon's answer was to turn his face toward Mexico to go back for Cortes' orders. Cortes sent him word to wait at Cholula for his coming, and Leon obeyed. The power Cortes had to make people love him and hold to him did for him what force could not have done.

Cortes, when he sent word for Leon to wait at Cholula, sent also for a re-enforcement of two thousand Indians from a tribe in that vicinity who used in battle, with deadly results, a long double-headed spear. Cortes ordered for his own troops three hundred of these lances, tipped with copper, for he knew they would carry more fear to his Spanish enemies than would the firearms to which they were accustomed.

Sandoval at Vera Cruz, in the meantime, through deserters from Narvaez' camp and through the Indian spies whom he kept there, knew all that Narvaez did. He was told that Narvaez meant to march to Mexico to free Montezuma and seize Cortes; that the Cempoallans were befriending the newcomers, and that Montezuma was sending them gifts. As fast as these facts came to Sandoval, he sent them on to Cortes, imploring him to come to the defense of Vera Cruz before it fell into Narvaez' hands.

Cortes in Mexico weighed the tidings with his usual clear judgment. There were three courses to choose from; he might stay where he was until Narvaez attacked him; he might abandon Mexico entirely and go down to Vera Cruz to fight it out with Narvaez; or he might try to do both things—hold Mexico with half his army, while he took the other half down to oppose the new Spanish force.

Those who knew Cortes would be sure that this last would be his course, and it was. Although he had a few days before considered his whole force scarcely large enough to hold the city against the growing unfriendliness of the Aztecs, deliberately he now cut that force in two, and prepared to leave half of it in Alvarado's charge to hold Mexico, while with the other half he himself marched against Narvaez to take him by surprise.

Cortes did not usually make a mistake in his men, but when he chose Alvarado to take his place in Tenochtitlan at this disturbed moment, he made ready the third event which helped to bring the melancholy night. The Christian chapel on the temple area, the runaway sailor, Alvarado—all had a share in over-throwing the power Cortes had so carefully built up in Mexico.

Cortes gave Alvarado strict commands. He was to be moderate and forbearing; to pay all respect to the customs and prejudices of the Aztecs; and, while he treated Montezuma with all deference, to guard him carefully. From Montezuma, Cortes extracted a promise to behave in the general's absence as he did when he was in Mexico; and Cortes with his little band started down to meet Narvaez.

He had left behind him with Alvarado two-thirds of the Spanish army, all the artillery, most of the horse and the larger part of the arquebusiers. He took with him only seventy men, but they were all his devoted adherents and the bravest of the whole force. They carried little baggage and light arms, for Cortes wished to fall with the swiftness of a thunderbolt upon the unsuspecting Narvaez.

Escorted as far as the causeway by Alvarado's force and by Montezuma—somewhat bewildered as to why white men should fight white men—Cortes marched out of the city about the middle of May, 1520. The soldiers had been six months in Mexico and felt as if they were leaving home. They went out by the southern causeway, the dyke of Iztapalapan by which they had entered in November, then on across the fertile valley of Mexico, over the mountains, between the two huge volcanoes—Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl—and on down the bleak mountain sides to the fruitful plain of Cholula. They did not stop this time to consider cold or heat or any other hardship. They had their work ahead and were anxious to accomplish it.

At Cholula Cortes found Leon and his men waiting as he had directed. The general was glad, indeed, to add this force to his small army and to count Leon among the number.

They did not linger in Cholula to tell each other stories of their adventures since they had been separated. Quickly they marched through the streets, still blackened by the fires of the massacre, and took the road to Tlascala. Before they reached Tlascala they met Father Olmedo and his party coming back from their expedition to Narvaez.

Father Olmedo gave to Cortes Narvaez' letter, which announced that he was captain-general of the country and called upon Cortes to appear at once before him to recognize his authority. Father Olmedo told Cortes that most of the soldiers were unwilling to come to blows with Cortes' men, and that they considered Cortes, with his many presents, a better leader than their own general. Narvaez himself, the father said, was so puffed up with vanity as to his own strength that he was taking no care whatever to guard against an attack from Cortes.

Cheered by this news, Cortes, taking the priest's party with him, went on to Tlascala. He was received there in friendly fashion, though he lingered only long enough to add to his party six hundred recruits and put the treasure Leon had gathered into the charge of some wounded soldiers, who were to guard it in Tlascala till they were well enough to carry it to Mexico. The Tlascalan recruits did not stay with Cortes long. The march had scarcely begun before, one by one, they dropped away and returned home, until so few were left that Cortes sent them back too, saying good-naturedly that he would rather part with them there than in the hour of trial. The Tlascalans were ready enough to fight the Aztecs, but they did not care to face white men and their fire-arms again.

Soon after he left Tlascala Cortes met Sandoval with sixty of his men and several deserters from Narvaez' army. Sandoval had been obliged to make a long circuit, through thick forests and over wild mountains, in order not to meet Narvaez before joining forces with Cortes. Besides Sandoval, Cortes met here the Spaniards who had been sent for the copper-tipped lances; he distributed them at once among the men and taught them how to use them.

Cortes now reviewed his army. It consisted of two hundred and sixty-one foot and five horse. Muskets and crossbows were scarce, the armor of quilted cotton showed its long service in the many holes and rents. But every soldier carried a stout heart beneath his tunic, and that counts for more than either armor or weapons. They knew the country and the methods of savage warfare, and, better still, they knew that their leader had carried them always to victory and never to defeat. With gay hearts the little army went on down the mountain-side till it came to the warm lands of the seacoast.

About fifty miles from Cempoalla, where Narvaez was camped, they met Guevara and Duero, who were bringing another letter from Narvaez. Cortes was glad to see Duero again, and the two men greeted each other warmly.

This second letter from Narvaez was a little less severe than the first. He still demanded that Cortes should acknowledge his supreme authority, but he offered the use of his ships to carry back to Cuba any of Cortes' men who wished to go.

"You are in a desperate condition," Duero said. "Your only chance of safety lies in accepting these terms. For however valiant your men may be, how can they expect to face a force so superior in numbers and equipment?"

But Cortes was not to be turned from his purpose even by the advice of a friend.

"If Narvaez bears a royal commission," he answered, "I will readily submit to him. But he has produced none. He is a deputy of my rival, Velasquez. For myself, I am a servant of the King; I have conquered the country for him; and for him, I and my brave fellows will defend it, be assured, to the last drop of our blood. If we fail, it will be glory enough to have perished in the discharge of our duty."

Then he went on to show Duero that the money Duero had put into the first expedition could only be returned to him with interest if Cortes succeeded in his undertaking. Cortes told his friend that he no longer held his commission from Velasquez, as he had resigned that months before and had received a new appointment as captain-general from the city council of Vera Cruz, which acted in the interests of the King. He was therefore not compelled to recognize Velasquez' authority or any one sent by Velasquez.

Cortes sent back to Narvaez a letter in which Cortes in his turn commanded Narvaez to appear before him as captain-general of the country. He knew that all these negotiations were useless, but they would keep Narvaez occupied till Cortes should have time to strike.

Duero went back to camp rather shaken in his views. He had come to help Narvaez, but it looked now much more to his interest to help Cortes. He gave to Narvaez in Cempoalla Cortes' letter, but while Narvaez was reading it, the envoys were pouring into the eager ears of their comrades their admiration for Cortes and the riches of his men, who wore over their ragged, quilted doublets heavy collars of gold and golden chains long enough to wind several times around their body. The soldiers listened with keen ears. Cortes was certainly the general for a soldier to serve under.

And so, before Cortes ever met his foes, they were already half-conquered.