Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

On the Plains of Otumba

July, 1520

Cortes did not long yield to discouragement. Instead of counting those who were gone, he began to count gratefully those who were still with him. Marina was there and Father Olmedo—the two who had been to Cortes like a right hand and a left through all the expedition. Marina had been in Sandoval's division and had been carefully guarded during the wild hours of the night. Sandoval himself was safe, so were Alvarado and Olid and Ordaz and Avila and Aguilar. And so was Martin Lopez, the ship-builder.

When Cortes saw Lopez, he rose from the temple step and slung his leg once more across his good horse, while his thoughts went racing eagerly ahead to future achievement. Even in this moment of retreat he turned mentally back to Mexico. Lopez could build new brigantines; Sandoval and Alvarado could lead new attacks; the army, refreshed, could march back to Tenochtitlan; he should still accomplish his purpose.

For the moment, however, his army was stunned. When Cortes put himself at their head and led them on to the city of Tlacopan, they followed without hope or courage. In the main street of Tlacopan they halted; it did not seem to matter much now where they went or what they did. Cortes could not let them stay in an enemy's city, exposed to fire from housetops; he led them through the city and out into the country beyond where, in the neighborhood of a temple set on a hill, he reorganized his broken forces. Leon, alone, of his chief captains was missing; he had been killed early in the fight; only Sandoval or Alvarado could have been a severer loss to Cortes. Cacama, the king of Tezcuco, had also been slain. Of the army, there were left about one-third of the Spanish, one-fourth of the Tlascalans and twenty-three horses. The baggage and most of the treasure had been lost; the cannon were gone; even their muskets the men had thrown away in their eagerness to escape.

When Cortes had reformed his army, he set it, weary as it was, in an attack against the temple on the hill. The Indian garrison fled at the first charge, and the Spaniards took possession of the temple with its food and fuel. They built fires to dry their clothes, while they satisfied their famishing hunger, and then, like tired dogs, they dropped down and went to sleep.

Cortes watched them while they slept and dreamed his own dreams. He was the commander-in-chief of a discouraged army of little more than two hundred unarmed men; a powerful foe was behind, and doubtful allies before—for how would Tlascala receive a beaten general responsible for the death of thousands of Tlascalans? Beyond Tlascala was Velasquez in Cuba, who must be reckoned with if Cortes' expedition failed; and beyond Velasquez was the King, whom success only could make Cortes' friend. But in the face of all this, Cortes was planning another invasion of Mexico.

He must go back to Tlascala first, hoping for a friendly reception and the chance to rest and newly equip his army. He had never been to Tlascala from the Tlacopan dyke, so he would be picking his way over a new road, and at the same time looking out for all possible perils. When he reached Tlascala he must be prepared for a doubtful reception.

Cortes gave his men all that day to rest, sure that it would take the Aztecs a day to secure their prisoners and bury their dead before they could start in pursuit.

At midnight Cortes roused his men, refreshed by sleep and food, and put them again into marching order. Without sound of drum or trumpet, leaving the camp fires burning to deceive the enemy, the little army, its rear, front and flanks well-guarded, the wounded carried in litters, under the guidance of the allies, set its feet on the road to Tlascala.

As the Tlascalans chose the rough, twisting mountain paths that they might escape the Aztec cities, the troops had to depend for provisions on whatever they could find along the road. It was not much, and as day after day passed the men, weakened by hunger and weariness, dropped little by little what remained of baggage and treasure. They would have thrown themselves down by the roadside to die if it had not been for Cortes' unfaltering courage and gay good-humor. He chose for himself always the most meager fare, the most dangerous post, the hardest work. When their general was faring so ill, and keeping so cheerful, how could the soldiers grumble? Only the Narvaez men fretted. Cortes' veterans stood steadily at his back and his cavaliers at his side as they marched on, too tired even to notice the taunts of the small bodies of Indians who hung on their rear.

"Hasten on!" they cried. "You will soon find yourselves where you cannot escape."

On the morning of July 7th, the army were about twenty-five miles from Tlascala, climbing the mountain steeps which lay between them and the plain of Otumba. As they stumbled on, wondering how much longer they could endure it, two scouts came dashing back up the path.

"An army of thousands is waiting for us down there," they cried.

The soldiers dropped their apathy. Cautiously they passed on over the mountain top and looked down into the plain, so crowded with Indian warriors in their white quilted cotton doublets that the valley looked as if it were filled with snow. As far as the eye could reach, the Spaniards saw, as they had seen in the Tlascalan pass once before, a sea of banners and plumes and spear-tips tossing in wild confusion. Cuitlahua had called on his vassals around the region of Tlascala to arm, and every great chief had responded with thousands of men.

Even to Cortes, for a moment, came the thought that this would end it. How could his exhausted troops, scarcely able to drag themselves along, oppose a force like this? They knew, as well as he, that if they could not cut their way through the tumultuous mass below, they would die to a man. There was no retreat. Tenochtitlan lay behind them.

Coolly, without delay, Cortes formed for a charge. He made his front of foot soldiers as broad as possible, and protected its flanks with his twenty horse. He spoke his few words of encouragement, reminding them of past victories and assuring them that God, who had brought them this far, would carry them through.

The soldiers listened and responded. With firm step and unmoved faces they went on down the mountain to throw themselves on the Indians. It seemed like tossing pebbles into a lake.

The Indians rushed to meet them with their war-cry and a cloud of arrows so thick that it shut out the sun. The Spaniards pressed on valiantly, the cavalry cutting themselves a road through the enemy, where the intrepid little body of foot followed them. For a moment the mass of savages rolled back on each side, like the Red Sea, and allowed the army to pass. But the next instant it billowed forth again to overwhelm the white men.

The Tlascalans, almost at their own doors, fought furiously against the Aztec host. The Spanish infantry, with bristling spears, stood like a rocky island in the surf, while small bodies of horse dashed this way and that against the thousands of savages. Sandoval did wonderful acts, managing his horse as if he were part of himself, as he plunged fearlessly wherever the fight was thickest.

The sun climbed high in the heavens and turned the valley into an oven. The host of Aztecs seemed to increase with each moment, for, for every one killed ten took his place. The weary Spaniards, worn still more by the heat, began to despair, as the hours passed, of ever getting through the solid mass of men who opposed them.

Cortes early in the action had received a severe wound in the head. Now he lost his horse. Without a pause he caught a pack-horse, threw himself on its back and was away again into the thick of the fight. His aim from the first had been to kill the Aztec chiefs, for he knew that a horde without leaders would be harmless. As he swung back now into the melee, he saw in the middle of the throng a chief who, by every mark, was high in command; his handsome feather-work cloak, the plumes on his helmet, the gold banner that rose from his shoulders, and the number of his followers, all showed his rank. Cortes turned to Sandoval, who was by his side.

"There is our mark. Follow me!" he cried, and was off. Sandoval, Alvarado, Olid and Avila followed him.

The tired horses answered to the spur and plunged fiercely once more into the host of Aztecs, who fell back in surprise at such a wild charge from men they had thought conquered.

"St. Jago, and at them!" cried the Spaniards, and cut their way through the mass of warriors to the chief. One blow from Cortes' spear brought him to the ground, and his guard, struck with terror, turned and fled.

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


A very young knight riding close to Cortes killed the chief and gave to Cortes the gold banner the cacique had worn on his shoulder. The deed was seen all over the field, and the Indians, filled with panic, turned to run, trampling one another in their eagerness to escape.

The Spaniards and Tlascalans forgot how tired they were and started in pursuit, driving the foe before them like sheep until Cortes recalled them. The battle field was strewn with the riches of the chiefs who had been slain; with gold ornaments, gems and feather-work mantles. Cortes let his men repay themselves for the treasure they had lost in coming out of Mexico before he called them again back to their companies, where Father Olmedo offered thanks to God for their wonderful protection.

Then, as the sun was dropping in the west, the victorious little army set out once more on its march to Tlascala.