Pizarro and the Conquest of Peru - Frederick Ober

The Downfall of Almagro


Though Hernando Pizarro had driven the enemy from Cuzco and its immediate neighborhood, he dared not send even a courier to the coast for tidings of his brother, as the mountains were still infested with roving bands of Indians. By putting some of his captives to the torture, he extorted from them the unwelcome information that the governor had abandoned Lima and had sailed for Panama with all his people. They also said that the Inca had in his possession the skins of one hundred and fifty horses, the remains of Pizarro's cavalry, and the heads of two hundred Spaniards slain in battle!

This dismal news convinced Hernando that he was left alone in the land with his decimated band; but he did not give over pursuit and persecution of the natives, nevertheless. While engaged in that occupation so congenial to his cruel nature one day, rumors reached him of the near approach to Cuzco of Almagro's army. For a while he was uncertain whether the "men of Chile"—as they were henceforth called—came as friends or enemies; but he was not left long in doubt. Soon an embassy arrived from Almagro, who sent a copy of his credentials from the crown, confirming him as marshal and adelantado, with a peremptory demand that he be given possession of the city.

That doughty commander had been defeated in his projected conquest of the great southern country—not by hostile armies, but by the elements. The asperities of nature had proved too great for him to overcome, especially with that loadstone at Cuzco pulling him back. He and his men had advanced hopefully and cheerily at first, but when at last they began to suffer from cold and hunger, when many had lost toes and fingers from frost-bites, and the provisions gave out, they resolved to return. The decision was not made, however, until the sufferings of the army had become acute, until the frozen carcasses of all their horses had been devoured, in the extremity of hunger, and there seemed actually no hope of reaching the land of gold—still far off beyond the snowy mountains. They had marched three hundred miles beyond the southern frontier of Peru before they set their faces northward again, on the return journey crossing a vast and dreary desert, and enduring great privations.

They were at Arequipa, less than two hundred miles from Cuzco, when they first heard of the Indian insurrection. They learned, also, that the Inca was still entrenched in his stronghold, not far from Cuzco. Though his force of nearly five hundred men far exceeded that of Hernando Pizarro, depleted as it was by the protracted contest, Almagro thought it might be desirable to secure Manco Capac as an ally, so sent to him, soliciting an interview. The Inca consented; but he had heard of the cruelties practised by Almagro upon the Indians of the south: of the chain gangs he had made up of the natives, compelling them to serve as beasts of burden until they dropped dead from fatigue; of the thirty Indian chiefs he had burned alive in revenge for the killing of three of his men. He was wary, therefore, and, convinced that no Spaniard could be trusted, when Almagro arrived at the place of rendezvous, in the vale of Yucay, set upon him with fifteen thousand warriors. He was defeated, driven back to his lair in the mountains, and Almagro no longer looked to him for help in the approaching contest with his own countrymen, but advanced against Cuzco with his veterans.

Two battles were fought for the possession of Cuzco, the first being a battle of wits, in which Hernando Pizarro won, with the aid of the city council, who brought about a truce; the second resulting from an attack in force by Almagro, when he found that, availing himself of the armistice, his enemy was placing the city in a posture of defence. At the same time, he learned an army under Alonzo de Alvarado was marching up from the coast, which, if time were allowed, would surround and in all probability force him to surrender. There was need for haste, and thus it was that, one black and rainy night in April, 1537, the "men of Chile" dashed across the bridges into Cuzco, shouting lustily: "El Rey y Almagro!"—the King and Almagro—and all the time keeping up a smart fusillade with their muskets.

They captured the church and the square, then attacked the palace in which Hernando was lodged. This cavalier, though taken by surprise, inasmuch as several men of his guard were killed before he could put on his armor, made such an obstinate defence that, in order to compel him to surrender, the thatched roof was fired over his head. He stood the soldiers off for a while with his good Toledo blade, and was ably seconded by his brother, Gonzalo; but the flames finally drove them out, and they surrendered their swords as the blazing rafters fell around them with a crash. They were hurried off to a dungeon, and Almagro took formal possession of the city he and his followers had so long coveted, and to which they had often turned with longing when on the weary march into Chile.

Many of Pizarro's men went over to Almagro, and the proximity of Alvarado's force was indicated by numerous deserters, who informed the marshal that their commander was less than forty miles away, and marching rapidly upon the capital. Leaving a garrison in the fortress, Almagro hastened off to meet the new enemy, and thus for a while was between two fires, as it were—Hernando's sullen soldiers in Cuzco and Alvarado's advancing force in the mountains. But he went off gayly (for he was never so happy as when all his powers were called into action), and is said to have boasted that he would not leave one of those Pizarros to stumble over. This was a pun on the word pizarra, a slate or stone in the road, which he would kick out of his way with contempt. As he was setting out, his right-hand man, Captain Orgofiez, said to him: "Senor Mariscal, are you going to leave those Pizarros behind?"

"Why, to be sure," answered Almagro; "we cannot take them with us, you know."

"No, nor would I advise you to, Mariscal," answered Orgofiez; "but your life will not be worth a maravedi while they live, and"—drawing his hand significantly across his throat—"as our Spanish proverb hath it, 'only the dead man cannot bite.'

"Oho! they will not bite, for I shall draw their teeth," said the marshal, laughingly; "but kill them? No, not yet. Their brother is my partner, and I hope yet to force him to do me justice."

"Never!" exclaimed Orgofiez. "By what you have done to his brothers, he has received a deadly insult. A Pizarro never forgets—unless you cut off his head!"

Almagro had occasion to remember these words, and many a time regretted that he had not taken his friend's advice; for it proved true, as he had said—the Pizarros did not forget!

He found Alvarado's force drawn up on the opposite bank of the river Abanccay, which was crossed by a bridge and also had a fording-place, though the general current was deep. He posted his soldiers at the bridge, but detached a body of them, after thus attracting Alvarado's attention, and availing himself of the ford, fell upon his rear with such effect that the battle was over soon after it began. Alvarado was made prisoner, and, save for a few soldiers who escaped and fled back to Lima, all were captured who did not voluntarily desert and join the victorious force under Almagro.

That was the time, probably, when he marched triumphantly back to Cuzco, that Almagro's fortunes touched "high-water mark." By the accessions from Alvarado's army, his force had nearly doubled, and one can hardly wonder at his self-importance, when, soon after his return to the capital, he was vainly importuned by an embassage from Pizarro to abate his pretensions and await a decision from the crown. This body of dignitaries was headed by one Espinosa, who had been a silent partner with Almagro, Luque, and Pizarro at the outset in Panama, and is said to have furnished the major portion of the funds upon which they depended for their first successes. But, though Almagro greatly honored him, he would not listen to his advice, which was to release his prisoners, retire from Cuzco, and await news from Spain.

"Nay! nay!" cried Almagro. "Though you may be my ancient friend, Licentiate, I cannot heed your advice. You know with what perfidy and contempt our partner, Francisco Pizarro, has rewarded us, retaining all the spoils for himself and bestowing upon those who aided him most the least portion of plunder.

"Say no more, no more, for I am resolved not only to retain control of this, my city of Cuzco—which now has been twice placed in my possession: once by Francisco's orders and once won by the sword—but also to march upon his new city of Los Reyes  [Lima] and rout him out of it. For it is mine, falling as it does within my jurisdiction!"

"That will be seen when proved," answered Espinosa. "But I advise you, yes, adjure you, not to come to close quarters with Francisco, for when aroused he is a lion."

"Ay, the king of beasts! that he is, I will admit; but I know him, and, knowing, fear him not. Say no more; we march to-morrow."

Taking Hernando Pizarro with him, but leaving Gonzalo and other important officers in Cuzco, Almagro set out for Lima, with the avowed intention of attacking his old partner in the city he had founded. He duly reached the valley of the Rimac, or Lima, indeed; but, though exasperated by the intelligence that Gonzalo Pizarro and Alvarado had escaped and had arrived ahead of him, he was eventually won over by Francisco's diplomacy to consent to an interview.

The two commanders met at Mala, a place on the high-road midway between Lima and Chincha, which latter Almagro had founded. All three places may still be found on the map, though they were in existence so early as the date of this interview, which was in mid November, 1537, The erstwhile comrades met, with embraces and tears, and it could hardly have been surmised that one of them, at least, was even then plotting the destruction of the other.

There seemed, indeed, a prospect of their coming to terms, when, in the midst of it all, one of Almagro's attendants hastily entered the room and whispered in his ear, that Gonzalo Pizarro had moved a band of troopers up the road to intercept him. A horse was at the door, and, hastily mounting it, Almagro galloped off to his camp, leaving the baffled Pizarro in a rage.

The latter explained next day that his brother had moved without orders, and, Almagro affecting to believe it, negotiations were renewed, with the result that it was mutually agreed that Cuzco should remain in his hands for the time, and Hernando Pizarro should be released on condition that he sail for Spain within six weeks of that date. Further hostilities were to be suspended, each to hold what he had gained until the pleasure of the king was known.

The generous Almagro made all haste to acquaint Hernando with the fact that he was free, with his own hands releasing him from his fetters. In response to his expressed desire that they should henceforth be friends, Hernando replied, with a smile, "I trust we shall never be anything else than friends, Senor Mariscal," and warmly embraced him. He was then taken to Almagro's tent, where a banquet was spread in his honor, at which toasts were drunk to their future friendship and prosperity.

Nor was Francisco Pizarro behind his former partner in courtesy, for when Hernando was escorted to his camp, by a little band in which was included Almagro's son, afterwards his heir, he took particular pains to shower him with attentions, and sent him back to his father rejoicing.

But, no sooner had the Almagro party left his presence, than Pizarro called a council of his officers and to them disclosed his perfidious designs. In brief, he purposed to break all the solemn pledges he had made to Almagro, and at once equip a force for the reduction of Cuzco, to march, if possible, before the marshal should regain that stronghold.

When Almagro heard the news he was astounded, his chivalrous nature hardly permitting him to entertain doubts of Pizarro's integrity; but Orgofiez reminded him of the remark he had made and the advice he had given. "You should have cut off Hernando's head," he said a second time, "for now he is going to march upon Cuzco, and, if he wins, will surely cut off yours."

These words were, alas! too true; for Hernando, notwithstanding his solemn oaths, upon his sacred honor, that he would ever regard Almagro as his friend, was prevailed upon by Francisco to take command of the force he was raising and pursue that "friend" to the death. By means of his spies, Almagro learned of this intention, and at once set out for the mountains. Hernando started a few days after, and thenceforth it was a race between the two as to which should first gain access to the city of Cuzco. Almagro won the race, though he was so infirm, from age and disease, that he had to be carried in a litter all the weary way. He won the race and gained the city, though he was so ill-advised that, on the approach of Hernando with his army, he marched out to meet him, instead of remaining behind his breastworks and compelling the attacking force to fight at a disadvantage.

Almagro made vigorous preparations for defence; but threw away all he had gained when he led his soldiers forth to the plain of Salinas, or the Salt-pits, where the final battle was fought. During days and nights the city had resounded with the ring of metal, as the hammers of the smiths clanged on plates of solid silver, which were to be transformed into breastplates for the infantry and horseshoes for the cavalry.

Clad in shining armor, horses shod with silver, the soldiers of Almagro marched out of the city and across the plain, taking up a position chosen by Orgofiez, who, for the first time in his long service under the marshal, committed an error of judgment. It was an error fatal to him, as well as to the fortunes of Almagro, for, descending from the mountains in battle array, the seven hundred soldiers of Pizarro savagely attacked the five hundred of Almagro, and, hemming them in between a sierra and a swamp, where they could not use their cavalry (the marshal's strongest reliance), they poured into their ranks such a fire of musketry that the "Almagrists" finally broke and fled.

The "Pizarrists" were armed with an improved arquebuse, which carried a tremendous charge of powder and a twin shot united by a chain. Gallant Orgofiez raged up and down the field, vainly seeking an encounter with Hernando Pizarro. Mistaking another cavalier for the commander, he ran him through with his sword and another with his lance, but in the midst of his career was struck by a chain-shot, which brought him senseless to the ground. Before he could revive he was disarmed and stabbed to the heart by a common soldier, and thus perished Almagro's leader and chief general.

Meanwhile, Hernando himself was seeking for Orgofiez, having donned a bright-colored surcoat over his corselet and stuck a long plume in his helmet, to make himself conspicuous. For he was a brave man, even if a cruel and treacherous one, and shunned no encounter with the enemy. In his search he ran across a renegade from Alvarado's army, one Pedro de Lerma, who had told Almagro how to make the feint by which he won before. Both men were caballeros, or horsemen of distinction, and they charged at each other as though in a tourney, coming together with a crash heard far over the field. Both were dismounted by the shock, but Lerma received a wound which disabled him, while Hernando still fought on to victory.

While these individual encounters were taking place, the cavalry of both sides were not behind their commanders in valor. They charged full upon one another, horse and rider going down in the tremendous onslaught, at which the surrounding hills resounded with yells and howls, as though a band of demons had been watching and waiting for that hour and deed. For thousands of Indians had gathered on the heights, whence they looked down upon the fighting Spaniards, gloating over the bloody scene, and rejoicing that, at last, whichever side won, they were in some measure receiving their revenge. After the battle was over, they descended to the plain and roamed about like ghouls, avenging themselves for the plundering of their homes and temples by stripping the slain of weapons, armor, and even of garments, leaving the naked corpses stark upon the field of death.

And Almagro. What had become of him? He was so stricken by disease that he could not mount his horse, but lay in a litter watching the fight from a near hill. He saw the opponents come together, severally shouting: "The king and Pizarro!" "The king and Almagro!"

He heard the crash of musketry, the shock of charging cavalry, and finally the shouts of the victors. Realizing that all was lost, that fate had turned against him, he fled towards the city and shut himself up in the fortress, which he should not have abandoned in the first place. There he was found, thence he was taken to Hernando Pizarro, by whom he was ordered placed in the same dungeon he himself had occupied with his brother, Gonzalo.

The conqueror received him graciously, even inquiring as to his health, for which he seemed very solicitous. Almagro was flattered by this attention and his fears were soothed by these inquiries; but far different would have been his feelings had he known the reason for Hernando's solicitude. He had been heard to say, when it was reported that Almagro was "like to die of his disease," "Heaven forbid that it come to pass before he falls into my hands!" He looked upon him, indeed, in the light in which the cannibal views a victim he is fattening for the sacrifice.

Not a day passed that Hernando did not send Almagro some delicacy from his table, and therefore the old marshal soon recovered his strength and cheerful spirits. But, though he was promised that his release should come when the governor arrived, somehow that worthy was long in arriving. One day, when he had recovered sufficiently to walk about and receive visits from his friends, he was suddenly seized by some soldiers and dragged to the great square, where, after the pretence of a trial, he was sentenced to death.

Then he realized, bewildered as he was, the extent of Hernando Pizarro's perfidy, and when he next appeared, in response to his pleadings, he reproached him with ingratitude. He reminded him that he had never shed the blood of a Pizarro, though he had held two of the family in his power. And was his clemency thus to be rewarded?

Hernando shrugged his shoulders and coldly replied: "What you did not do to me when you had me in your power, I now do to you, having you in my power. You should not have been so remiss. But I wonder that one who has faced death so many times should now be afraid of it!"

"It is not so much the death I fear, as the disgrace," replied Almagro, humbly. "But, since our Lord and Saviour also feared it, though he endured it, what more can be expected of me, a mere man and a sinner?"

That night, as he slept, two persons stealthily entered Almagro's dungeon. One was a priest, the other—the executioner! That night, two hours later, a limp and lifeless body was borne into the great square, where it was beheaded and then left exposed till morning.

It was Almagro. He had been strangled. "A Pizarro never forgets!"