Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Defeat of Xicotencatl

September, 1519

All the next day the Spaniards stayed in camp, resting and getting into shape their armor and fighting apparatus. On the second day, however, as Cortes heard nothing of the enemy, he determined to send as envoys to Xicotencatl two of the Tlascalan chiefs he had captured in the late battle.

While they were gone, thinking his men had been idle long enough, he put himself at their head to explore and forage the country. If the people welcomed him, he treated them gently; if they were hostile, he burned their villages and took the inhabitants captive. The Spaniards came back to camp finally with several hundred captives and plenty of provisions.

On his arrival, Cortes found his two envoys had returned. They had come upon Xicotencatl encamped with an immense force about six miles beyond them; he had returned to the message this answer:

"The Spaniards may pass on as soon as they choose to the city of Tlascala; and when they reach it, their flesh will be hewn from their bodies, for sacrifice to the gods! If they prefer to remain in their own quarters, I will pay them a visit there the next day."

This ultimatum had behind it the authority of the great council, who were resolved to risk their fortunes in a pitched battle.

Although Cortes had hoped for a more peaceful reply, he was not daunted. His men shared his courage. They knew by the battle in the pass what fierceness and strength they had to encounter, and they knew what horror awaited any one taken captive. But firm in their crusaders' faith in the cross, they confessed and heard mass, and then lay down quietly to rest, confident that God would protect them in the coming danger. Father Olmedo spent the whole night in granting absolution and administering the offices of the church.

Cortes never believed in sitting still to wait for danger. If it were near, he went to meet it, knowing that strength is more often with the attacking party than with the attacked.

The 5th of September was a clear, bright day. Cortes reviewed his army, gave them advice and encouragement, and in close and unbroken ranks led them out of camp against the foe.

They had gone scarcely a mile when they came upon Xicotencatl's army spread six miles square before them, with the sun glinting on the soldiers' spear-tips of copper and obsidian and on the shields and helmets of the chiefs, while the wind tossed their gay plumes and lifted the banners that thronged the field. Xicotencatl's ensign was there—a white heron on a rock—and the golden eagle with outspread wings which was the standard of the republic of Tlascala.

All the great chiefs of the republic were armed to oppose Cortes. Besides their shields and helmets, they had arrow-proof cotton tunics quilted two inches thick to protect the thighs and shoulders. Over this they wore brilliant cloaks of feather work. Leather boots ornamented with gold covered their legs. Their helmets, made of wood and leather and ornamented with gold and precious stones, were in the shape of animals' heads with ferocious, grinning teeth. From the top of each helmet floated a gorgeous plume made from the feathers of the gay-colored tropical birds, its shape and color showing the family of the chief. Feather work also fringed their shields, which were made sometimes of wood covered with leather and sometimes of closely woven wicker work.

The common soldier had no armor; his naked body was painted in the colors of the chief under whom he served, so one could tell his tribe at a glance, as one can tell a Highlander's clan by his tartan. The soldiers' weapons were slings, bows and arrows, javelins, and thick clubs set with sharp knives of obsidian. Their arrows were tipped with obsidian and copper and they could shoot them three at a time. With the javelin, too, they had special skill. It had sometimes fastened to it a leather strap which could draw the victim as well as the javelin back to the soldier who threw it.

It was such a field of brandished, gleaming spears and tossing plumes and banners that met the eyes of the Spaniards. At the same moment the frightful war cry rose so loud that it quite drowned the barbaric music that the savages were playing in anticipation of victory. Then the immense body of men shot such a forest of arrows that, as they passed, they darkened the sun like a cloud.

Cortes' men held their fire until they were near enough to have it effective. Then, drawn out in hastily formed lines, the Spaniards poured in their bullets, which mowed through the unprotected ranks of the savages as a scythe cuts through a field of grain. For a moment the Indians were horror-struck, but, recovering, with their fiercest war cry they poured down on the white men like an irresistible avalanche.

No mortal power could withstand that rush. The Spaniards' close order was broken, their lines were twisted, thrown into confusion and pushed back. Cortes called on them to close up and reform, but his voice was swallowed up in the clamor of the Indians. For a moment it looked as if the Christians' cause was lost.

But though the Spaniards could not hear their general's voice, they responded to his courage. The infantry finally stemmed the torrent of dark, rushing bodies, the guns got into action, Cortes and his horses charged again, and victory suddenly wheeled over to the banners of the Christians. In complete disorder once more the Indians fell back.

The Tlascalans formed to charge again and again, but each time with less energy. As they lost spirit, the very greatness of their numbers hampered them. Only those in front could fight; the vast number, pressing in the rear, added confusion and tumult and panic. While things were at their worst for the Tlascalans, a quarrel arose between Xicotencatl and a chief jealous of his power. The cacique drew all his men out of the battle; another chief followed, and another, until Xicotencatl was left with only half of his original force. Thus deserted, he drew off his remaining men and ended the battle. The Spaniards, too exhausted to follow, returned to their camp on the hill, grateful even in the face of discomfort and anxiety. They had escaped with little real loss from an encounter in which their enemies had outnumbered them fifteen to one, proving that skill and science in a few could overcome mere physical force and the weight of numbers.

The great council of Tlascala heard with dismay of Xicotencatl's defeat. They scarcely knew what to do next or what word to send to Cortes by the envoys. They did not want to grant him free passage through the country and they did not care to declare themselves his open enemy. In their uncertainty they called on their priests for advice.

The priests, like many other oracles, gave rather vague counsel. They said that the Spaniards, though not gods, were children of the sun, and that the sun blessed them. The Tlascalans could not prevail against them while the sun shone.

The younger Xicotencatl, his courage hot as ever, was burning once more to be at Cortes. He seized eagerly on the priests' oracle and interpreted it as meaning that a night attack on the white man would be successful. This was quite contrary to the usual Indian custom, but finally the council gave its doubtful permission to the plan, and set Xicotencatl at the head of ten thousand warriors.

The night chosen was a night of full moon. The sentinel whom Cortes had appointed was walking his rounds in the Spanish camp, looking off from his hilltop across the maize fields which surrounded the camp. Through the lines of corn he saw something dark and shadowy moving.

Silently and quickly he alarmed the garrison, and as quickly and silently the troops sprang to arms, for they slept with their weapons beside them, and the horses were always saddled with the bridle hanging on the saddle bow.

Cortes as usual determined to attack before he was attacked and drew up his men ready for a sally when the enemy had reached the bottom of the hill on which the camp stood.

Stealthily the Indians crept up through the corn field toward the quiet camp. As soon as they began to climb the slope of the hill out rang the Spanish battle-cry, "St. Jago and at them," and down the slope poured the whole Spanish army. In the moonlight they looked to the Tlascalans like ogres and ghosts coming down upon them, and, without waiting to cross weapons, the Indians turned and fled. The Spaniards, pursuing, cut the foe to pieces.

The next day Cortes sent a new embassy to the council, taking advantage of their discomfiture over the new defeat. Marina instructed the Tlascalan envoys very carefully in their message. It was the same as before—a request to march peaceably through the Tlascalan country and a promise of friendship if they were undisturbed. But this time Cortes added the stern threat that if Tlascala went on acting as an enemy instead of a friend, he would destroy its cities and kill all its inhabitants. He sent the envoys away with a letter in one hand and an arrow in the other. Tlascala must choose peace or war.

When the embassy reached the capital and gave its message to the great council, Tlascala was quite ready for peace. Its armies had been defeated in the open field and in its secret maneuvers. There was nothing more to do against a general who had never been beaten. The council sent back word to Cortes that he might freely march through the country, for the Tlascalans were his friends. The envoys on their way back to Cortes were to stop at Xicotencatl's camp to tell him that, as peace was made, he must now disband his army and must supply the white men with provisions.

The envoys went to Xicotencatl's camp and gave him the message. He scorned it. He was too brave to fear the Spaniards and too loyal to his country to wish to be friends with strangers. Cortes had beaten him so far, but he would not give in without another attempt. Neither would he feed the white men. He coaxed the envoys to stay with him instead of taking to Cortes the council's message.

While Cortes was waiting for his envoys to come back, as usual he kept his men in motion. He was himself so ill that he could scarcely sit his horse, but that did not keep him from exploring at the head of his troops the rough country around his camp, although the air on this mountain top was cold and piercing. The men grumbled and some of the horses gave out. He sent those back to camp, but would not go home himself.

"We fight under the banner of the cross," he said. "God is stronger than nature."

Not Richard the Lion Hearted, leading his crusade to the Holy Land, was more sure he was fighting for God than was Cortes in Mexico.

Cortes carried back provisions, leaving behind him burned villages where the Indians had resisted him, and kindness where they had helped him. When he came back to camp, instead of rest he found new troubles. Some of the men, friends of Velasquez, remembering the safety and comfort of Cuba, tired of hardships and stirred by a few loud talkers, came to him demanding to be taken back to Villa Rica.

"Our sufferings," they said, "are too great to be endured. All have received one, most of us two or three wounds. More than fifty have perished in one way or another since leaving Vera Cruz. There is no beast of burden but leads a life preferable to ours. When the night comes, the former can rest from his labors; but we, fighting or watching, have no rest, day nor night. As to conquering Mexico, the very thought of it is madness. If we have encountered such opposition from the petty republic of Tlascala, what may we not expect from the great Mexican empire? There is now a temporary suspension of hostilities. We should avail ourselves of it, to retrace our steps to Vera Cruz. It is true, the fleet there is destroyed; and by this act, unparalleled for rashness even in Roman annals, you have become responsible for the fate of the whole army. Still there is one vessel left. That could be dispatched to Cuba for re-enforcements and supplies; and when these arrive, we shall be enabled to resume operations with some prospect of success."

Cortes showed no disapproval or reproach at this speech. He listened to it and then frankly answered them.

"There is much truth in what you say," he replied. "The sufferings of the Spaniards have been great; greater than those recorded of any heroes in Greek or Roman story. So much the greater will be their glory. I have often been filled with admiration as I have seen my little host encircled by myriads of barbarians, and have felt that no people but Spaniards could have triumphed over such formidable odds. Nor could we, unless the arm of the Almighty had been over us. And we may reasonably look for His protection hereafter; for is it not in His cause we are fighting? We have encountered dangers and difficulties, it is true. But we did not come here expecting a life of idle dalliance and pleasure. Glory, as I told you at the outset, is to be won only by toil and danger. You should do me the justice to acknowledge that I have never shrunk from my share of both. If we have met with hardships, we have been everywhere victorious. Even now we are enjoying the fruits of this in the plenty which reigns in the camp. We shall soon see the Tlascalans, humbled by their late reverses, suing for peace on any terms. To go back now is impossible; the very stones would rise up against us; the Tlascalans would hunt us in triumph down to the water's edge. And how would the Mexicans exult at this miserable issue of our vainglorious vaunts! Our former friends would become our enemies; and the Totonacs, to avert the vengeance of the Aztecs, from which the Spaniards could no longer shield them, would join in the general cry. There is no alternative, then, but to go forward in our career. Silence your pusillanimous scruples! Instead of turning your eyes toward Cuba, fix them on Mexico, the great object of our enterprise."

The soldiers listened, but the cowardly ones still grumbled, till Cortes cut in with an old proverb, "It is better to die with honor than to live disgraced." The braver ones applauded this and their general. They declared they were ready to follow him anywhere he led. So, finding they had no support, the discontented soldiers slunk back to their quarters, grumbling at Cortes and Xicotencatl and their own companions.

Cortes let them go and sat down with his own thoughts for a while. There was enough to discourage any but a brave man; illness for himself; a hard climate; half-hearted followers; scarcity of provisions; uncertainty as to how the King of Spain would regard his conduct; a fierce foe around him, and Mexico still far away. But Cortes accepted it all with his head held high. He had come to conquer Mexico, and only as the conqueror of Mexico would he go home.

The next day a body of Tlascalans, under flags of truce, came to camp, bringing provisions and some small presents. They said Xicotencatl sent the gifts as a proof that he was tired of war and that he would soon come himself to arrange peace.

Everyone but Marina greeted these messengers with joy. She suspected them and, after watching them, told Cortes she was sure they were spies. Cortes at once had them examined one by one, and found out that Xicotencatl had sent them to keep the Christians unsuspicious and to find out about their camp, while he raised another army of attack.

Cortes, indignant at this act of treachery on the part of Xicotencatl, determined to make an example of the spies. He cut off their hands and sent them back to Xicotencatl with the message, "The Tlascalans may come by day or by night, but they will find the Spaniards ready for them."

Mr. Prescott says of this act of Cortes, "The punishment inflicted by Cortes may well shock the reader by its brutality. A higher civilization rejects such punishments as degrading to humanity." We must again, therefore, judge Cortes by sixteenth century standards and not by those of the twentieth, when mankind would indeed rise in indignation against such barbarity.

The return of the mutilated spies convinced Xicotencatl that it was useless to stand against the white men longer. His soldiers refused to fight against an enemy who could understand their plans before they were worked out. Xicotencatl sent on to Cortes the four Tlascalan envoys whom he had stopped on their way from the great council, and soon after appeared himself with a large body of followers painted in his livery of white and yellow. The Spaniards were beside themselves with joy at the sight and Cortes had hard work to calm them down to the cool indifference it was politic to show to the Tlascalans.

Xicotencatl, attended by an incense bearer, came with a firm, fearless step into Cortes' presence. He was tall and muscular, and though only thirty-five, he had gone through so many hardships that he looked like a man of greater age.

He made no attempt to excuse himself or to throw blame on the council.

"The responsibility of the war is mine alone," he said. "I have considered the white men as allies of Mexico and enemies of Tlascala, and as such I have faced them. Now I am beaten. I come to make friends with the Spaniards, and you will find the Tlascalans as faithful in peace as they have been fierce in war. We are your friends. Respect the liberties of the republic."

Cortes admired the courage and firmness of Xicotencatl while he rebuked his persistence in hostility.

"I am willing to forget the past and receive the Tlascalans as vassals to my King, Charles V," he said, "so long as you remain true."

Joy was in his heart as he spoke, for now that the Tlascalans were no longer his enemies, there was nothing to prevent their becoming his allies.

Xicotencatl ordered his slaves to present the gifts they had in their keeping.

"They are of little value," he said with a smile, "for the Tlascalans are poor. We have little gold, no cotton, no salt. The Aztec Emperor has left us nothing but our freedom and our arms. I offer this gift only as a token of my goodwill."

"And as such I receive it," answered Cortes, "and, coming from the Tlascalans, set more value on it than I should from any other source though it were a house full of gold."

Thus peace was made between Tlascala and the Spaniards, and it was faithfully kept. But Xicotencatl in his heart loved the white men no better than be had before.