Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Picks Out His Positions

April, 1521

It was spring by this time, and still Cortes had had no response to either of the letters he had written to the King of Spain. The second letter was, indeed, still on the way, and the carriers of the first letter—Montejo and Puertocarrero—were at this time in Spain, pouring into one ear of Charles V their praises of Cortes, while into the other ear Fonseca, the Bishop of Burgos, poured his complaints of the general. Charles, confused between the two, was doing nothing either way.

Cortes, however, did not sit still and wait. He had a very definite plan in mind, and after he had given the convoy a few days of rest, he started to carry it out. His brigantines now made it possible for him to assault Tenochtitlan from the water side, but he must know, too, all about the approaches to the city from the land side. His plan was to march around the northern end of Lake Tezcuco and down the west shore till he came to the city of Tlacopan at the end of the Tlacopan dyke. He must take that city, for it would be an important place for him. From Tlacopan he meant to come back to Tezcuco. Then, making a fresh start, he would march around the southern end of the lake and up on the west shore to Tlacopan again. In this way he would circle the entire lake and find out what places he must choose as his bases when he began his blockade of Tenochtitlan. And as he marched, he meant to punish the tribes who had been unfriendly to him.

He left Sandoval in charge of Tezcuco and took Alvarado with him. He marched with the greatest caution around the northern end of the lake, camping by night in the open fields where he could not be taken by surprise. Everywhere beacons on the hilltops heralded his coming.

But although the whole country was in arms against the white men, Cortes found little opposition until he reached Tlacopan, where a large force of Indians were drawn up to dispute his passage. However, one cavalry charge routed them, and Cortes entered the city and took possession. It was the same place the Spaniards had passed through on the "melancholy night," afraid then to stop. Now they tranquilly made camp, sure of their ability to hold Tlacopan. In the morning they were again attacked by the Aztecs, and once more beat them off.

A day or two later the Indians attacked again. Made confident by their former easy victories, the white men advanced in force, and pursued their flying foe along the Tlacopan dyke that led into Tenochtitlan. After they had passed the first bridge, the Aztecs, reinforced by troops from the city, suddenly turned on their pursuers. They were aided by warriors in canoes which swarmed on both sides of the causeway. It was with great difficulty that Cortes fought his way back along the unlucky dyke to the camp at Tlacopan.

Before he left Tlacopan, Cortes tried his best to have an interview with Guatemozin, but the haughty young Emperor paid no attention to the general's invitation. Cortes approached a body of warriors one day with a flag of truce, asking if there were any great chief in the party who would confer with him.

"We are all chiefs," they sneered. "Why does not Malinche make another visit to Tenochtitlan? Perhaps he does not expect to find there another Montezuma as obedient to his commands as the former Montezuma."

With a final taunt to the Tlascalans as "women" who were afraid to come to Tenochtitlan unprotected, they withdrew.

Cortes stayed six days in Tlacopan, gathering news of the capital and then, laden with booty, went back to Tezcuco by the same northern route over which he had come, skirmishing as he went. Once back in Tezcuco, the Tlascalans wanted to carry their share of treasure home to Tlascala and Cortes had to let them go.

He had been back in Tezcuco only a day or two when a message came from Chalco, asking the Spanish help against several Aztec strongholds, which, perched high on the mountains, sent out men like swarms of hornets to sting and fly back to their nest. The Spaniards were too tired with their march to undertake another expedition at once, and Cortes sent messengers around through the tribes who had leagued together for defense telling them that now was the time to take a stand for Chalco.

But, though the league did its best, Chalco, not satisfied with Indian help, sent another petition to Cortes. His men were rested by this time, and he sent Sandoval with three hundred foot and twenty horse to Chalco's help. Chalco was almost as necessary as Tlacopan to Cortes, for it lay on the great thoroughfare to Tlascala and Vera Cruz, and he could not afford to let it fall into Aztec hands again. Sandoval went to Chalco for recruits, and then attacked and captured Huaxtepec, which he occupied, taking up his own quarters in the magnificent palace of the cacique built in the midst of wonderful gardens.

After a day or two here for rest, Sandoval led his forces against one of the "hornets' nests." It was a little fort perched so high on a mountain crag as to be almost inaccessible. The Spaniards pushed up the side of the mountain, to be met by huge rocks rolled down on them by the Aztec garrison above. The Indian allies, unable to stand the shock, fell back.

"We do not need them," Sandoval shouted to his own gallant little band, as he swung himself from his horse. "Nothing is too difficult for a Spaniard. We will carry the place or die in the attempt. St. Jago and at them!"

His cavaliers followed him. Up they went, ignoring wounds and blows, pulling themselves up by bushes and sheltering, when possible, behind the rocks, until, breathless, they gained the top and stood face to face with the astonished garrison.

The struggle then was short, for everything went down before the Spanish swords, which could only be escaped by leaping over the parapets to the rocks below. Sandoval's victory was complete. He had done what Cortes had ordered, so he sent the Chalcan warriors home and took his own men back to Tezcuco.

But Guatemozin knew that Chalco had sent its warriors to attack the mountain fortress, and thought it a good time to march against Chalco. Fortunately the squadron of canoes he sent across the lake against Chalco did not arrive until the Chalcan warriors got home again. They were so dismayed, however, to see the Aztec fleet ready for assault, that they sent hot-foot again to Cortes for help.

So it happened that when Sandoval came back with his story of victory, there came also the Chalcan messengers asking for more aid. Cortes, thinking Sandoval had not done all his duty, sharply ordered him back to Chalco, and Sandoval, hurt at his general's injustice, went without a word of explanation.

Before he reached Chalco again, however, the Indians of the league had met and defeated the Aztec army. Sandoval took several Aztec chiefs as prisoners and marched back to Tezcuco, where he went to his quarters without seeing Cortes.

Cortes had had time in Sandoval's absence to find out how unjust he had been. There was none of his captains on whom he really relied so much or whom he loved better, and when Sandoval came back, Cortes sent for him and told him so, apologizing for his rough words. Sandoval was frank and generous. He forgave Cortes at once and the perfect friendship was restored.

About this time Cortes had the good fortune to add to his army two hundred well-armed men and seventy horses who had just landed at Vera Cruz. In the party was Julian de Alderete, the King's treasurer.

Cortes now set out on his second excursion to Tlacopan by the southern route. Again he left Sandoval in charge, with orders to push on as fast as possible the eight thousand men who were building the canal and locks; and to guard as his life the brigantines in the stocks, for already two attempts had been made by Aztec spies to burn them.

Cortes started April 5th, taking with him three hundred foot and thirty horse besides a large body of Tlascalan and Tezcucan troops. After one day's march he arrived in Chalco, where he held a council, telling the Indians of the league, through Marina and Aguilar, that he would soon be ready to begin his blockade of Mexico. Every tribe gladly promised its help.

From Chalco he made a detour from his straight road to Tlacopan and went south into the mountains to see if he could destroy more "hornets' nests." He was not long in finding one hanging to the mountain side, and like Sandoval, he charged it.

He met the same reception that Sandoval had, but the rocks that came down now on the scaling party were so huge that not even a Spaniard could stand against them. Corral, the ensign, who led the advance, had his banner torn to shreds, and finally Cortes had to call off his men.

On the level plain below as they descended they found a huge force of Aztecs drawn up to oppose them. Cortes did not wait for an attack but with his cavalry spurred so fiercely at the enemy that they broke and scattered over the plain. The Spaniards did not pursue, for the day was hot and both men and horses were suffering for water. They went on a little way till they came to a grove of mulberry trees with a spring, and there they stopped to rest.

Above them here also hung two craggy fortresses, which immediately began to pour down fire upon them. As soon as his men were rested, Cortes charged the larger of the two, thinking to retrieve his defeat of the morning. But once more he was driven back into his mulberry grove, leaving the enemy in possession of the heights.

Cortes was awake at earliest dawn the next day. His first glance was toward the two fortresses and he saw, to his surprise, that in the night all the Indians in the smaller fortress had gone across to strengthen the forces in the larger one against renewed attack, and that the little fort was empty. Cortes was not the man to lose such a chance. Immediately he filled with his own musketeers and crossbowmen the position the Aztecs had deserted, and as soon as he saw the banner of Spain floating from the rock, he led the remainder of the army once more against the big fort that had yesterday repulsed him.

This time he had his muskets on the neighboring crag to help him, and it was not long before the Spanish colors were flying, too, from the second pinnacle. He was so humane in his treatment of his prisoners that the first fort he had attacked the day before also sent in its submission.

With so much accomplished, Cortes went on till he came to Huaxtepec which Sandoval had subdued. The cacique received the Spaniards kindly and lodged them in his own palace. After a few days' rest Cortes crossed the Cordilleras and went on for nine days exploring the country.

On the ninth day they came to a city lying on the far side of a steep ravine. There had been bridges across, but the inhabitants of Quauhnahuac, hearing of the white men's coming, had broken them down. Far each way to the right and the left the Spaniards searched for a way across and found none.

Presently a Tlascalan spied a huge tree on the other side of the ravine and just opposite it on their side another tree as big; as the two arched over the chasm some of their branches met.

"I can cross by those trees," the Tlascalan said.

To Cortes it looked as if only a squirrel could find a passage over, but he let the Indian try. Like a monkey he climbed out on one tree, reached a branch of the other swaying in the wind, and swung himself across. Several other Tlascalans followed.

Then the Spaniards, thirty of them, heavy-armed as they were, attempted the same feat. Only three slipped. The rest, white men and red, drew up in order on the opposite bank and marched against the city, while the remaining army set actively to work to mend one of the bridges.

Quauhnahuac, not expecting foes to drop from the skies, was taken wholly unawares. It made a brave defense against the first force, but when the cavalry under Olid and Tapia charged across the restored bridge, and Cortes followed with the rest of the army, the citizens gave up and fled to the mountains. Cortes did not pursue, nor did he go further out of his way. He led his army, loaded with treasure, back across the Cordilleras and once more took the road to Tlacopan.

As they came again into the fertile, beautiful Mexican valley the city of Xochimilco, on an arm of the Tezcucan lake, lay directly in their path. Like Tenochtitlan, it was a water city with canals and causeways. As the Spaniards approached they were harassed by Indians, who gradually withdrew in the direction of the city.

Cortes followed and reached the causeway which led into Xochimilco. Here he found before him a broken bridge and beyond it a barricade which sheltered a large body of Indian troops. The water was shallow, however, and both cavalry and infantry got across the breach and stormed the barricade on the opposite side. The Indians fell back into the city and the Spaniards followed them pell-mell, leaving Cortes with a small force to guard the entrance.

Suddenly from an unexpected quarter the Aztecs attacked Cortes and overwhelmed his little force. Cortes, unhorsed, received a blow on the head which for a moment stunned him. In that moment an Aztec seized him and dragged him away. But the Tlascalans who could cross chasms on tree tops were quick at other things too. One of them sprang at Cortes' captor and engaged him till two of Cortes' servants came to his help, and finally the troops in the city heard the clamor and came dashing back to support their general. Cortes was rescued and the city taken. As Cortes could not find the Tlascalan who had saved him, he thought his patron saint, St. Peter, had come in disguise to his aid.

It was still light when the Spaniards entered Xochimilco. Cortes went at once to the top of the chief temple to look out across the country. It was not a comforting sight that met his eyes. The causeway was packed with Indian warriors and the lake dark with their canoes. Guatemozin, thinking he had the Spaniards trapped, was sending strong forces against them.

Cortes spent the night without sleep, going the rounds of his doubled sentinels and looking after the armorers who were putting copper heads to the arrow shafts. The night passed without disturbance, but at the first dawn the Indians poured into the town and attacked the Spaniards in the narrow streets.

The musketeers and the crossbow-men with their new copper-tipped arrows stood like a rock, pouring their fire into the enemy's ranks, until the cavalry came to their aid and by a fierce charge routed the foe.

Far across the plain the Aztecs fled and the Spanish horse pursued, until from somewhere a new Aztec force sprang up, and heartened by these reinforcements, the Indians turned on their pursuers and swept them back toward Xochimilco.

Before they reached the city the fleeing Spaniards met the whole Spanish army coming to their aid. With that support at its back, once more the Spaniards turned on the Aztecs and the two armies met with the shock of a thunderbolt. Back and forth they swayed, the war whoop of the savages mingling with the battle cry of the Spaniards, until finally the Indian army wavered, recoiled and then scattered. The white men turned the flight into a complete rout, before they returned to take up their quarters for the night in Xochimilco.

It was one of the richest cities of Mexico. When the Spaniards left it four days later they were as heavily laden with spoil as on the night they had tried to carry their booty out of Tenochtitlan. Cortes wanted to have the treasure left behind as he knew it would expose the army to attack on the march. Finally, however, he yielded to the soldiers' grumbling.

On they went, Cortes carefully examining the route. They passed the point where the dyke of Iztapalapan struck the mainland and went on to Cojohuacan, which was the southwestern terminus of the dyke that cut the causeway of Iztapalapan at Fort Xoloc. As Cojohuacan was deserted, Cortes rested his troops there for a day or two while he reconnoitered the neighborhood. He even ventured on the causeway as far as Xoloc. He found the fort garrisoned by Aztecs, whom he drove out. As the causeway of Iztapalapan was dark with massed warriors, Cortes pushed no further toward the city, but he had found the spot he meant to occupy. The next day the army left Cojohuacan and went on to Tlacopan. They had to fight for every inch they marched over, for they were harassed by bodies of Aztecs trying to recover the booty. In one skirmish Cortes was made sad by the loss of two of his own servants who had followed him from Cuba.

It was not yet night when they reached Tlacopan. Cortes went as usual to the temple top to survey the country. As he looked abroad over the wonderful valley, with Tenochtitlan shining in its midst as a jewel, he sighed deeply. One of his soldiers, thinking he was still grieving for his servants, tried to soothe him.

"Take comfort," he said, "it is after all but the fortune of war."

But Cortes' sorrow was deeper than could be brought about by his servants' death. He was looking back to the suffering and bloodshed which had already been and, as his thoughts went forward, he saw even worse things before his purpose could be accomplished and Mexico subjugated.

"You are my witness," Cortes said to the soldier, "how often I have endeavored to persuade yonder capital peacefully to submit. It fills me with grief, when I think of the toil and dangers my brave followers have yet to encounter before we can call it ours. But the time is come when we must put our hands to the work."

Early the next morning Cortes started over the northern road back to Tezcuco. Just outside of Tezeuco's gates they met Sandoval and Ixtlilzochitl bearing the eager news that the canal was ready, the ships finished and that there was nothing now to prevent Cortes from beginning the storming of Mexico.