Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Maxixca Saves Cortes

August, 1520

Fortunately the army had only a short way to go before they found an Indian temple which gave them safe camp and undisturbed rest for the night. At dawn Cortes started them off again, for they must not stay too long in the enemy's country.

Small bodies of Indians followed them as they marched, but they were not attacked. They found a spring before they had gone far, and the whole army shouted for joy, for plenty of cool water was hard to find in that dry region. Thus refreshed, they went steadily on until suddenly they came, as they had before, right against the Tlascalan wall.

The Tlascalans let out a ringing shout as they saw their home once more, and the Spaniards shouted with them, for were they not all brothers-in-arms? The Tlascalans, since their common misfortunes, had shown more friendliness than ever for their white brothers. Cortes, however, wondered. He was bringing back about half the allies he had taken out. If Tlascala wished to punish the Spaniards for leading its people to death and disaster, how could Cortes, with his feeble little army, resist them?

"Thoughts like these," said Cortes afterward, "weighed as heavily on my spirits as any which I ever experienced in going to battle with the Aztecs."

Instead of showing his depression, he called his men together and gave them some advice.

"Show all confidence in our allies," he said, "for their past conduct has afforded every ground for trusting their fidelity in the future. But, at the same time, take great care, now that our strength is so much impaired, that we give our high-spirited allies no ground for jealousy or hard feeling. Be but on your guard, and we have still stout hearts and strong hands to carry us through the midst of them."

Then, with every show of serenity and courage, the army once more stepped from Aztec ground on to the soil of the Tlascalan Republic.

At once they met kindness. The natives welcomed them with food and lodging. For two or three days they rested, until the old chief, Maxixca, heard of their arrival and came, with the young Xicotencatl and a large retinue, to welcome them.

"We have made common cause together," Maxixca said as he embraced Cortes, "and we have common injuries to avenge; come weal or woe, be assured we will prove true and loyal friends and stand by you to the death. That you could so long withstand the confederated power of the Aztecs is proof of your marvelous prowess."

Cortes gratefully accepted Maxixca's invitation to the capital, and went on under Maxixca's escort, the wounded carried in hammocks by Indian porters. Cortes and his guard were lodged in Maxixca's own palace; the other Spaniards were given quarters in his district of the city.

For a good many weeks the Spaniards rested in Tlascala and nursed their wounds. The blow Cortes had received on his head at Otumba sent him to bed with an alarming fever. But his sound constitution and unfaltering courage put him on his feet again. While he lay in bed he was making plans for his return to Mexico.

Cortes found, on his recovery, that Leon's treasure, which he had left in Tlascala, was gone. The soldiers had tried to carry it to Mexico and had been killed by the Aztecs. All that the army had now was what had been taken at Otumba. With this the soldiers repaid Tlascalan kindness. Cortes especially made Maxixca happy by giving him the gold banner taken from the chief overthrown in the battle. Such an Aztec trophy was dear to the heart of a Tlascalan.

While the Spaniards were resting in Tlascala, Cuitlahua, lawful Emperor of the Aztecs since Montezuma's death, was busily employed in restoring Mexico, rebuilding the houses and making new bridges. He was putting the city into a state of defense, and training his men into better discipline against the time when they should again meet the Spaniards. Cuitlahua called on his vassals far and near to rally to his standard. Those near Tenochtitlan obeyed him, for they were afraid not to; but those at a distance, hating the Mexican yoke, took this time to throw over their allegiance.

When Cuitlahua saw that all his subjects were not going to stand by him, he determined to try and win over the Tlascalans. To the four rulers of the republic he sent an embassy of Aztec nobles, with presents of cotton-cloth and salt which the Tlascalans had not been able to get for many years—and asking help against the Spaniards.

Cortes heard with anxiety of their coming, for in all his plans the Tlascalans were his surest reliance. He wanted to punish the Indians who had killed the five soldiers with Leon's treasure; he wanted to punish the Tepeacans who had just murdered a body of twelve Spaniards; he wanted to go back to Mexico. He had heard nothing from his letter sent to the King of Spain; he had not heard from the messenger he had sent out, whether Vera Cruz had been taken by the enemy. He had no one to depend on but Tlascala. If the republic bought an easy peace with Mexico, it would mean the extermination of the Spaniards. Cortes knew that the younger Xicotencatl still hated the Spaniards, and that the young chiefs, who were Xicotencatl's friends, were of his mind.

"After all the calamities that these strangers have brought upon us, are we now to be burdened with their maintenance?" they were asking.

The young Tlascalans were not the only ones who fretted. The Narvaez men, recovered from their wounds, began to clamor for a return to Cuba to those peaceful farms they had left for this uneasy life of adventure, which so far had brought them neither gain nor glory. Their grumbling broke out into open mutiny when Cortes' messenger came back saying Vera Cruz was safe, and Cortes at once sent him back with an order to the Governor of the city to send reinforcements to Tlascala. They prepared a formal paper which they sent to Cortes.

"How foolish," they said, "to think of going forward with our thin ranks against a nation like the Aztecs, who even now are sending envoys to Tlascala to make this country their ally. The Aztecs will accomplish their purpose doubtless, for do we not hear every day how tired Tlascala is getting of feeding us? It is useless to wait for reinforcements from Vera Cruz, when that city may at any moment be overwhelmed and taken. Let us return to Vera Cruz and strengthen that garrison and wait there for help from home. If it does not come, we can go back from Vera Cruz to Cuba."

Cortes read this paper, very sorry to see that Duero's name headed it. But it did not in any way turn him. He knew that if he took his army back to the coast, it would be only a question of time before it would find some way of getting back to Cuba, leaving him a ruined man. For him there was no going back. If he succeeded in taking Mexico, Charles V might forgive the way he had taken things into his own hands; if he failed, he had both the King and Velasquez to reckon with.

He met the protest in his usual calm fashion.

"Can we with honor," he asked, "desert our allies whom we have involved in war and leave them unprotected to the vengeance of the Aztecs? Remember, too, that if we have recently met with reverses, up to this point I have accomplished all and more than all I have promised. It will be easy to retrieve our losses, if we have patience, and abide in this friendly land until the reinforcements, which will be ready to come in at my call, shall enable us to act on the offensive. If, however, there are any so insensible to the motives which touch a brave man's heart, as to prefer ease at home, to the glory of this great achievement, I would not stand in their way. Go in God's name. Leave your general in his extremity. I shall feel stronger in the service of a few brave spirits than if surrounded by a host of the false or the faint-hearted."

Cortes' veterans answered him with enthusiasm, pledging themselves to stand by him to the last. Their indignation shamed the Narvaez men into giving their promise, also, to remain for the present if they might be allowed to go when they wished.

This trouble over for the time, Cortes waited to hear what the Tlascalans would answer to the Aztec envoys. The Mexicans presented their cause to the council.

"Let us bury past grievances," they said, "and enter into a treaty. Let all the nations of Anahuac make common cause in defense of their country against the white men. You will bring down on your own heads the wrath of the gods if you longer harbor the strangers who have violated and destroyed our temples. If you count on the support and friendship of your guests, take warning from the fate of Mexico, which received them kindly within its walls, and which, in return, they filled with blood and ashes. We conjure you, by your reverence for our common religion, not to suffer the white men, disabled as they now are, to escape from your hands, but to sacrifice them at once to the gods, whose temples they have profaned."

The councilors listened judicially to the harangue and weighed the promises of friendship offered by the Aztecs in return for the Tlascalan help in destroying the white men. Then sending the envoys out from the council, they debated the matter.

There were two parties in the assembly. The older and more thoughtful men were headed by Maxixca; the young chiefs, ready for any rash action, followed the younger Xicotencatl.

"Shall we trust the Aztecs?" Maxixca asked. "They are only playing their old part—fair in speech, false in heart. Fear drives them now to seek our friendship. When the fear is gone, they will crush Tlascala as they have always done. The white men have showed themselves always friendly; they have fought the enemies of Tlascala. Shall we now betray them to the Aztecs?"

All the older chiefs agreed with Maxixca—even Xicotencatl's blind father. But the words provoked the younger Xicotencatl to anger. We can imagine what he would answer.

"The white men will destroy our religion and our country. So sacrilegious an alliance can bring no good to Tlascala."

His friends applauded him. Maxixca answered, and Xicotencatl replied even more sharply than before.

The old chief did not waste more time in argument. He rose and thrust Xicotencatl from the room, and no one reproved him for the act.

No one dared stand by Xicotencatl who had been so openly disgraced. When the matter was put to vote, even Xicotencatl's friends voted to reject the proposals of the Aztecs and to stand by the Spaniards.

So once more Cortes, by his power of making friends, had come safely through a great peril.