Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

In the Wilds of Nicaragua


Imagine the rage and confusion of Pedrarias at beholding the man whom he persisted in regarding as his enemy the centre of a tumultuous and admiring throng. But he fumed and threatened to no purpose, for Ferdinand de Soto was the hero of the hour, and thenceforth the darling of the army. His delighted troopers lifted him upon their shoulders, all clad in weighty armor as he was, and carried him around the field, with shouts of triumph.

Don Pedro was compelled to overlook these proceedings, and, like the fabled Giant Despair at the cave's mouth, gnawed his nails with impotent vexation. As for the crestfallen duelist, he slipped out of sight as soon as possible, and took the first ship for Spain. Thus the Isthmus was well rid of one villain; and if old Pedrarias had gone with him, there would have been few, if any, mourners over his absence in Panama. Still, the latter continued his depredations as before, and he by no means gave up the idea of making way with Ferdinand, though he had not the temerity to send him to the scaffold nor the courage to assassinate him openly. He could provoke nobody to challenge him a second time, for, aside from the fact that nearly everybody was his friend, he had proved himself the most accomplished swordsman in the army.

Not very far from Panama lay the rich region of Veragua, populous with Indians and abounding in gold. This region was invaded, by the orders of Don Pedro, and swept with fire and sword. Troops of blood-hounds accompanied the Spaniards, and the terrible outrages committed by man and beast combined at last aroused the resentment of a powerful chief named Uracca, who soon showed the ruthless invaders of what he was capable. He assembled a vast army of savages, who, though half-clothed in skins, or entirely naked, were skilled in the use of the poisoned arrow, and were otherwise armed with war-clubs, javelins, and spears made of hardened wood tipped with copper.

Pedrarias sent out his army in two divisions one in ships along the coast, and commanded by a lawyer named Espinosa; the other by land, under Francisco Pizarro, with orders to form a junction with the first division when it should reach and land in the enemies' country. As there were no roads, or even open trails, in that wild land, Pizarro's division was far behind Espinosa's in reaching the appointed place of rendezvous. Without awaiting the arrival of Pizarro, Espinosa disembarked his soldiers in a sheltered harbor and established a camp in a valley surrounded by forest.

Unknown to Espinosa, Chief Uracca himself was guiding the movements of the Indians. His scouts and spies had brought him exact information of the Spaniards' forces, and his most expert warriors had enticed them into the forest, where thousands of savages lay in ambush. Then, when he had drawn his foes into a deep and gloomy gorge, whence it was impossible for them to escape without great loss, Uracca shouted the piercing war-whoop. Suddenly, as if descended from the tops of the giant trees that towered above them, hundreds of Indians appeared, and from their powerful bows launched a shower of poisoned arrows. Few of these arrows pierced the armor in which most of the Spaniards were encased, but such as were not thus protected were doomed to an agonizing death. They fell by scores, and many who escaped the arrows were trampled upon by their companions in the tumult of retreat. Too late, then, Espinosa saw that he had been entrapped, and wished he had waited for Pizarro, whose greater experience might have prevented this disaster.

The Spaniards were routed, and, in a panic, attempted to withdraw from their perilous position; but the wary Uracca had closed in behind them with a thousand warriors, and all hope of escape seemed to be vain. Massing in phalanx, so far as the broken nature of the ground would permit, the Spaniards forced a passage to the verge of the valley in which they had encamped; but here they were halted by the horde of savages resolved upon their extermination.

Their destruction seemed assured, when, just as the sun was sinking behind the hills, they observed a great commotion in the ranks of their opponents. It appeared as if they were being attacked in the rear, and such, indeed, was the case, for soon the despairing Spaniards heard the well-known war-cry, "Santiago! Santiago!" and upon their vision burst a band of horsemen, led by Ferdinand de Soto. He and his dragoons had formed a part of Pizarro's company, and, being in the van, were the first to hear the sound of conflict and the first to hurry to the rescue. They arrived, as we have seen, just in time to save their comrades from total destruction, for at sight of their horses, and on receiving their impetuous charge, the Indians fled in wild terror. They had felt sure of Espinosa's soldiers; but the horses and their riders, impervious in their armor of steel, were too powerful for them to resist. Uracca tried to rally them again to the attack, and they returned, like a wave rolling upon the strand; but De Soto quickly formed his battalion as a protection to the rear-guard, charging upon the Indians when they approached too closely, and a safe retreat was thus effected.

Pizarro arrived in time to establish a camp that night, but, famished and exhausted as they were, the Spaniards resolved upon a retreat to the ships, which was finally effected after midnight, De Soto and his troopers holding the desperate savages at bay. They safely embarked, and, sailing down the coast, at quite a distance from the scene of their disgraceful defeat came upon an Indian village. Nearly all the men were with Uracca in the mountains, but the town was filled with defenceless women and children, whom Espinosa surrounded with his soldiers, intending to carry them away as slaves.

This proceeding was resented by De Soto, who denounced the lawyer-commander as a coward, and threatened to ride away with his entire troop if he still persisted in his intention. Espinosa, on his part, called De Soto a mutineer, and a traitor to the governor, to whom he would promptly report his conduct. The answer the young captain made to this threat was to assemble his men, and then, riding to Espinosa's tent, repeat his demand for the unconditional release of the prisoners.

"You may do as you please respecting making a report to Don Pedro," he said to Espinosa; "but I am not under your orders, neither am I disposed to assist you in the event that you are attacked by the warriors of Uracca. In a word, release these women and children or I and my men will ride away. Now, choose you, and at once!"

It was evident to Espinosa that the Indian chief was sending out runners to assemble his warriors for another attack, and as his force was already weakened by the great losses sustained, he was compelled to comply with De Soto's demand. As further retreat was impracticable, it was resolved to send to Panama for supplies and reinforcements, which were absolutely necessary to save the little army and hold what small portion of territory had been conquered. De Soto volunteered to go to Panama, and rode the entire distance through the forests, then swarming with hostile Indians, accompanied only by a single trooper, like himself a superb horseman and intrepid spirit. During his absence, Chief Uracca entirely surrounded Espinosa's encampment, effectually cutting off all supplies, and reducing the beleaguered Spaniards to a diet of roots and herbs.

Returning as rapidly as possible, De Soto broke through the line of investment, and threw a small reinforcement into the camp; then, taking command of his dragoons, he foraged the surrounding country with such success that the army was enabled to subsist until assistance arrived from Panama, in the shape of more than four hundred men commanded by Don Pedro himself. Altogether, when he arrived, the army amounted to more than five hundred, counting new adventurers and volunteers. High hopes were entertained that with this force Veragua could be over-run and subdued; but they still had Chief Uracca to reckon with, and he had collected a larger army of warriors than ever before.

The two forces came into collision on the banks of a deep and rapid river, in attempting to cross which the Spaniards were assailed by such a storm of javelins and poisoned arrows that they wavered, then fell back, then broke into headlong flight. Not even the impassioned pleadings of Don Pedro could stop them; and, in fact, he himself was compelled to ride from the field in a hurry to avoid being made a prisoner. Owing to the efforts of De Soto and Pizarro, the men were rallied on open ground and made a stand, committing great havoc in the savage ranks with their ordnance; but they could not be induced to pursue the Indians into the forests again.

Don Pedro now saw what warfare against Uracca was like, and could understand how his captains had been, one after the other, driven with slaughter from the country. But he was obstinate—as we know—and hesitated to abandon the field and order a retreat. He needed but another lesson in Indian cunning, however, to induce him to change his mind. This was given him by Uracca in the following manner. Learning that the Spaniards were desperately enraged because of their lack of success in finding gold, he allowed several of his men to be captured, who, when threatened with torture unless they divulged the hiding-place of the chief's treasure, promised to conduct their captors to the place where it was concealed.

Pedrarias was in high glee, and taunted De Soto and his veteran officers with their lack of skill in matters of the sort. They were too chicken-hearted, he said, to apply the torture, by which alone information could be obtained as to the deposits of precious metal, and he would show them what they ought to do. De Soto retorted that a man would say anything expected of him when put to torture; and, moreover, he did not have faith in the pretended revelation, but, on the contrary, suspected treachery.

"You will give your opinion when asked for it," snapped Don Pedro. "I was fighting Indians, remember, when you were eating the crumbs that fell from my table, while I was absent from my castle—yea, while you were prowling around that castle seeking to purloin my most precious jewel!"

Ferdinand laid his hand quickly on his sword-hilt, and his eyes flashed angrily; but he turned away without a word. His opinion, however, though unasked, was speedily confirmed, for when the forty men, whom the governor despatched to the spot indicated by the captives, arrived at the supposed treasure-vault, they were set upon by Indians in ambush and murdered. One mangled survivor finally reached camp with the dismal tidings, on receipt of which Pedrarias ordered every captive in his possession thrown at once to the dogs. As the ravening brutes tore the wretched Indians limb from limb, he looked on calmly, gloating over the gory spectacle, which was by no means an uncommon one for him to witness.

"Sorry am I we have so few to feed the hounds," he was heard to mutter. "The poor creatures are famished! Sooth, there is one Christian I would like them to try teeth upon!"

He meant De Soto, of course; and it is said that Ferdinand overheard the remark, and, striding up to him, shook a mailed fist in his face, exclaiming: "One hound has  tried his teeth on me, and perchance they are broken, Senor Governor!"

Pedrarias glared at him, but ventured no reply, for he too obviously merited the vile epithet De Soto had applied to him, and feared to provoke an encounter. Another hero of this war, who shone in contrast with Pedrarias, was the Indian chief, Uracca. Notwithstanding that his opponent had delivered to the blood-hounds, not only warriors taken in battle, but infants torn from their mothers' breasts (children whose innocence should have appealed to his heart), the chief did not retaliate. Indeed, it is said that once having made captive a Spanish lady of Panama, he treated her with great consideration, and when opportunity offered returned her safe and sound to her friends. When, at last, despairing of conquering this brave and gallant savage, Pedrarias ordered a retreat from Veragua, Uracca refrained from pursuit, satisfied at having driven the ferocious invaders from his country.

In such inglorious labors as we have narrated, Ferdinand de Soto passed his first five years in America, and when they were gone he found himself no better off, as to fame or fortune, than when he landed at Darien. He had expected to gather gold-veined pebbles from every stream and precious pearls on every strand, but, in common with others, had been disappointed. If he ever reflected seriously, he must have seen that he was no better than a bandit—that he was one, in fact—for, instead of devoting himself to some honorable occupation, like mining, or the tilling of the soil, he had spent all his time in ravaging Indian villages, contributing towards, if not actively engaged in, the massacre of innocent natives, and destroying the fruits of their toil.

It is strange that he should have so persistently attached himself to Pedrarias; though the truth is that he might have gone east or west, north or south, and he could not have removed himself beyond his sphere of influence. He had an opportunity, in 1524, to sail southward with Francisco Pizarro, when he made his first voyage in search of Peru; but, though urged by that adventurer to accompany him, he positively refused, having no liking for the man.

Soon after the return of Pizarro from this voyage, Pedrarias was superseded by Don Pedro de los Rios, a new governor appointed by the king, with full authority to bring his immediate predecessor to trial for his numerous crimes. Having little to hope from the king's clemency, Pedrarias resolved to retire into the almost unknown territory of Nicaragua, and there, with his bandit band, follow to its final ending the lawless career he had pursued at Darien. He sent two of his generals, Fernando de Cordova and De Soto, to prepare the country for his arrival by suppressing the people and putting down any usurper who might dispute his authority. There was one unique individual, known as Gil Gonzales the fanatic, who had practically taken possession of Nicaragua, and went about "converting" its native inhabitants to the religion he and his fellow-bandits professed, at the head of a hundred followers. They were all well mounted and armed. Their alternative of "receive our religion or fight" was taken to mean that they desired gold in exchange for a promise of salvation, so the natives flocked to Gonzales and were baptized at the rate of thirty thousand a year. For baptismal fees alone he is said to have received four hundred thousand dollars, and he was rapidly accumulating a fortune, when the arrival of De Cordova and De Soto interfered with his plans. Encountering the latter one night, he engaged him in battle, with the result that he lost fifty of his best men, though his force outnumbered De Soto's more than five to one. Ferdinand fought with his accustomed valor and energy, never counting the cost of a conflict, and so impressed the fanatic that he fled from the province and intrenched himself in the mountains.

There was no other foe to molest them, so De Cordova and De Soto carried out the instructions of old Pedrarias to the letter, and founded two towns, Granada and Leon, which, favored with a fertile soil and charming climate, soon became quite flourishing. Having done as he was directed by Pedrarias, De Soto returned to Panama to report. The distance was more than four hundred miles, and there were no roads or beaten paths for the guidance of the traveller; but the Spaniards of those days thought nothing of obstacles which to-day might be deemed insuperable.

Finding his irascible patron about to depart from Panama, and the new governor perilously near, the loyal Ferdinand attached himself to Pedrarias again and returned with him to Nicaragua. He was shocked, however, to discover that the old tyrant had conceived the idea that his friend, De Cordova, intended to cast off his allegiance and set up a government of his own. Captain Bernal Diaz, that veracious historian of the conquest of Mexico, states it was really De Cordova's intention to disavow Pedrarias, who was, to all intents, a fugitive, and ally with Hernando Cortes, then recently arrived in Honduras, on the northern border of Nicaragua.

However, the mere supposition was enough to excite the frantic Pedrarias to action. All the long way to Nicaragua, he was breathing vengeance against De Cordova, and as soon as he arrived at Leon he summoned him to appear before him in the public square. Now, De Cordova had been warned, not only by letters from De Soto, but by Gil Gonzales, that unless he successfully resisted Pedrarias he would do to him as he had done to Balboa—that is, cut off his head. And this is what he did, when, relying upon the justice of his cause, poor De Cordova appeared before him as ordered, unarmed and without soldiers, in a twinkling the stalwart executioner, who had been concealed behind Don Pedro's chair, stepped forward and severed his head from his shoulders.

It was done so quickly that De Soto himself, who had charge of the soldiers on guard about the square, was taken by surprise. When he realized the appalling nature of the crime Pedrarias had committed before his very eyes, he drew sword and was about to dash forward and cut down the old man on the spot; but something within restrained him. This old man was the father of Isabel, whose memory he sacredly cherished in his heart, whom he still intended to claim as his bride. How, then, could he do so if he should be guilty of her father's death?