Only one day did the Spaniards rest in the temple on the hill, which lay too near to Mexico for safety. At midnight they set out once more, leaving their fires burning to deceive the enemy. Through the darkness they travelled safely, bearing the sick and wounded in the centre of the company, but when daylight came bands of Indians were seen gathering on the hills.
With stones and darts and arrows these skirmishers, who were not Aztec warriors, but natives of the valley, harassed the retreating Teules, not venturing, however, to attack them at close range. At night the little army encamped in the wayside villages, which they found always deserted and destitute of food. Even in the cornfields nothing had been left but stalks, and the fugitives soon began to suffer terribly from hunger. They lived chiefly on the wild cherry, and once when a horse had to be killed CortÚs himself describes how appetising seemed its flesh, and in fact even its hide!
Some of the soldiers dropped dead on the road-side; others, too weak to keep up, fell behind and were captured by the enemy; others, again, searching for cherries, strayed from the ranks and met with the same evil fate. A few of the Spaniards who had actually carried treasure safely through la Noche Triste were now compelled to fling it away.
"The devil take your gold," said CortÚs to one of these men, "if it is to cost you your life!" The general, though wounded, shared the scanty fare of his men, and was ever at hand to cheer on the weak and fainting. "There was no people," says an old chronicler, "so capable of supporting hunger as the Spaniards, and none were ever more severely tried than the soldiers of CortÚs." He might have added that the Tlascalans showed equal courage and endurance.
On the sixth day of the march the Indians on the hill-sides shouted in triumph, "Hasten on! You will soon find yourselves where you cannot escape!" Too soon did the Spaniards learn the meaning of the grim words.
They had taken the longer route to Tlascala skirting the northern lakes, and they came now in view of the ever silent Micoatl, the "Pathway of the Dead." Here stood the giant pyramids built by that mysterious people who dwelt in the land of Anahuac long ages before the Aztecs left their ancient home in the north. Here, too, lay a buried city, Tiotihuacan, the "Habitation of the Gods." The Aztecs declared that the largest pyramid was sacred to the sun, the lesser to the moon, while the smaller mounds had been dedicated to the stars. They said that on the Pyramid of the Sun had stood in old time a mighty statue made of one solid block of stone facing the east, with a burnished shield on which fell each morning the first ray of the rising god.
But the Spaniards, famished, weary, and anxious, cast no glance of wonder at these monuments of the past. When they reached the summit of the mountain road, and looked down on the valley of Otumba below, a sight arrested their eyes more stupendous to them at that moment than the greatest and hoariest of ruins. Glittering in war-like array, a mighty host stretched over the valley as far as the eye could see. "Neither in front, nor in the rear, nor on the flanks," declared CortÚs, "could any part of the plain be seen which was not covered by the Indians."
Well might Spaniard and Tlascalan tremble at the sight, and even the general, as he formed his men for the coming battle, felt that hardly by a miracle could they win through so vast an opposing force. He had only twenty horses, but fortunately they were fairly fresh, as he had not allowed the wounded soldiers for two days past to mount behind the cavaliers. As he glanced at the set faces of his men, pale beneath their bronze, he realised that there was no need to urge them onwards. Each man knew that to retreat was hopeless. They must fight, or perish like slaves on the block of sacrifice.
In dogged despair they marched down to meet the foe, resolved at the worst to sell their lives dearly. "Oh, what it was to see this tremendous battle!" cries Bernal Diaz; "how we closed foot to foot, and with what fury the dogs fought us! such wounding as there was amongst us with their lances and clubs and two-handed swords, while our cavalry, favoured by the plain ground, bore down their opponents with couched lances, still fighting manfully, though they and their horses were all wounded; and we of the infantry, negligent of our hurts, redoubled our efforts to bear them down with our swords. . . . Then to hear the valiant Sandoval, how he encouraged us, crying out, 'Now, gentlemen, is the day of victory!' Yet in spite of their valour, complete destruction threatened the little band, who seemed like an island in the midst of a raging sea."
Suddenly CortÚs beheld but a little distance away the golden banner of the commander-in-chief, who was borne in a litter and surrounded by a guard of young caciques.
"Gentlemen!" he cried to Sandoval, Alvarado, Olid, Avila, and other cavaliers, "there is our mark! Follow and support me!"
"Christo y Santiago!" rang out the battle-cry, and by the very fury of their charge the cavaliers made a path to their goal. Flinging to right and left the guard of warriors, CortÚs sprang on the litter and hurled the commander to the ground, where he was speedily despatched by a young cavalier, who offered to his heroic general the golden banner. The news of this miraculous deed and their commander's death spread such panic among the Aztecs that they immediately broke and fled, hotly pursued by Spaniards and Tlascalans, who, forgetting their hunger, thirst, fatigue, and wounds, thought only of victory and revenge.
So ended the glorious battle of Otumba, when the Spaniards and their allies, few in number, wounded, weary, famished, with but twenty horses, and without cannon or muskets, put to flight a mighty Indian army. They themselves believed that it was a miracle, for had not some of the soldiers seen St. Jago on his milk-white horse leading on the cavaliers?
An old chronicler attributes the victory, with more reason, entirely to the general, who "by his single arm saved the whole force from destruction." CortÚs, unexpectedly modest about his own exploit, thus describes the battle in his letter to the Emperor Charles: "We went on fighting in that toilsome manner a great part of the day, until it pleased God that there was slain a person amongst the enemy who must have been the general, for with his death the battle altogether ceased."
The next morning the victors continued their march to Tlascala, and Spaniards and allies alike greeted the first sight of the mighty boundary wall with shouts of joy. But CortÚs, remembering the story of death and disaster he was bringing to the little republic, wondered anxiously if the people would demand from the strangers the blood of their fallen countrymen. The Tlascalans, however, flocked to meet the army with all kindliness. For a day or two the soldiers rested in a frontier village, and then the great chiefs of the republic came to welcome them and invite them to the capital.
"Oh, Malinche, Malinche!" said Maxixca, the most ancient lord, "how it grieves us to hear of your misfortunes and of the multitude of our own men who have perished with yours! Have we not told you many times that you should not trust in these Aztecs? But now the thing is done, and nothing more remains at present but to rest and cure you. Wherefore we will go immediately to our city. We have made common cause together, and we have common injuries to avenge, and come weal or woe, be assured we will stand by you to the death!"
With these generous words the Tlascalans, carrying the sick and wounded in hammocks, led their allies to the capital, where they were received as honoured guests. But as they passed down the city streets, mingled with the shouts of welcome was the wailing of many a woman who looked in vain for the father, husband, or son who would return no more.
For many weeks the Spaniards rested in Tlascala, slowly recovering from their wounds. CortÚs himself lay helpless for days in the palace of Maxixca with two wounds on his head and one in his left hand. But even in his fever and weakness he was making plans for retrieving his broken fortunes. His resolve remained unchanged—Mexico must be conquered. Terrible had been the loss, yet the ship-builder Martin Lopez, the interpreters Marina and Aquilar, and most of the captains were safe, and CortÚs, as he weighed his chances of recovery, refused to give up hope.
When the soldiers found that the general had sent to Villa Rica for reinforcements, and realised that he was thinking of fresh battles rather than of retreat, they were filled with amazement and in many cases with consternation. His own men, indeed, were proud of his intrepid spirit, and had an almost child-like confidence in his skill and good fortune, but the soldiers of Narvaez were loud in their anger and discontent. The very thought of further warfare, with their crippled resources, seemed mere madness. They drew up and signed a written remonstrance, demanding to be led back to the coast immediately.
Not for a moment was CortÚs moved by remonstrance or grumble. He was resolved, as he wrote to Charles V., "not to descend to the coast, but at all hazards to retrace his steps and beard the enemy again in his capital."
Calling his men together, he made a stirring appeal to their honour and their courage. "Will you leave your conquest, half-achieved, for others more daring and adventurous to finish?" he asked. "How can you, with any honour, desert your allies and leave them unprotected to the vengeance of the Aztecs? To retreat but a single step towards Villa Rica will proclaim our weakness. It will be easy now to retrieve our losses if you will have patience, and abide in this friendly land until the reinforcements, which will be ready to come in at my call, shall enable us to act on the offensive. If, however," he added with scorn, "there are any who prefer ease at home to the glory of this great achievement, I will not stand in their way. Let them go, in God's name! I shall feel stronger in the service of a few brave spirits, than if surrounded by a host of the false or the faint-hearted."
Fired as usual by their leader's words, his own veterans swore to stand by him to the last, while the soldiers of Narvaez, somewhat ashamed, promised to delay their departure for the present.
Just at this time there arrived at Tlascala six Aztec ambassadors sent by the emperor Cuitlahuac. They brought presents of cotton and salt, articles not found and therefore much valued in Tlascala. They came to proffer alliance and to beg the chiefs of the republic to sacrifice the white men—the common foes of the nations of Anahuac. If they harboured the strangers they would surely incur the wrath of the gods whose temples and altars the Spaniards had wantonly profaned. Let them take warning by the fate of Montezuma, whose friendship the white men had requited with bonds and tyranny.
Up sprang the young warrior Xicotencatl from his seat in the council-chamber. "Let us," he cried, "unite with men of our own religion and language rather than with these strangers who worship no god but gold!"
Indignantly the ancient lords called out, "You would desert our guests, who have fought our battles and sought refuge within our gates, to join the Aztecs, ever fair in speech but false at heart!" And in righteous wrath arose Xicotencatl's blind old father to thrust his son with contumely from the council-chamber.
Cured by the long rest, and strong in the support of the Tlascalans, CortÚs now marched against a neighbouring tribe which had massacred twelve Spaniards on their way to Mexico. The prestige of the Spanish name must be restored, and the Indians taught that a dire vengeance would fall on all who injured a white man. These Tepeacans had once sworn allegiance to Spain, so CortÚs chose to regard them as rebels, and when after two fierce battles he captured their town, the inhabitants were all branded as slaves with the letter G, standing for Guerra—war.
At Tepeaca, which lay on the Mexican frontier, the Spaniards made their headquarters. The surrounding country was fertile, provisions were plentiful, and with the Tepeacans for their slaves they waxed once more strong and arrogant. But each day their indefatigable general led them forth to skirmish or to fight.
At the news that the white strangers were actually on the war-path again, Mexican garrisons were sent to all the frontier cities. The haughty pride of these Aztec warriors, however, often estranged the native caciques, who readily consented to intrigue with the Spaniards. In this CortÚs saw his strongest weapon. By means of the subject tribes alone would he overthrow the Mexican Empire.
In a narrow valley at the foot of a rugged hill, with a stormy mountain torrent on either side and in front a stone wall, twenty feet high, stood a strong fortress city manned by a garrison of several thou-sand Aztecs. Secret word came to CortÚs that if he would attack this place its cacique and citizens would turn on the garrison from whom they had endured much wrong and insolence. They were true to their word. Directly the Spaniards appeared in the valley they rose with unexpected fury against the Aztecs, who, unable to face at the same time treachery within and the cannon of the strangers without, were soon overwhelmed. Their citadel was stormed and every Aztec slain. "I should have been very glad to have taken some alive," says CortÚs, "who could have informed me of what was going on in the great city, and who had been lord there since the death of Montezuma. But I succeeded in saving only one, and he was more dead than alive."
Too late to save their fortress, a Mexican army rushed down from the hill-tops, and fell fiercely on the Tlascalan force keeping guard in the valley below. "They mustered," says CortÚs, "at least thirty thousand men, and it was a brave sight for the eye to look on—such a beautiful array of warriors, glistening with gold and jewels and variegated feather-work!" Out of the city, now all aflame, dashed the Spaniards to the aid of their allies, and the Aztecs were driven back in headlong flight. It was midday, and so scorching was the sun that it was "with difficulty one could pursue or the other fly." But desire for revenge gave wings to Tlascalan and Spaniard alike, and they followed the foe to their encampment on the very summit of the hills, where much rich booty rewarded their efforts.
Victory brought new allies to CortÚs, and once again the fame of the white men rose high. Tribes discontented with the Aztec rule, and eager to be on the winning side, sent from far and near to offer their allegiance to Malinche. In two pitched battles Sandoval defeated the Mexican armies which had been stationed between Tepeaca and Vera Cruz to cut off communication with the coast.
Exulting in his change of fortune, CortÚs began to mature his plans for the siege of Mexico itself. Never again would he trust to the fatal causeways. La Noche Triste had taught him that to conquer Mexico he must command the lake. Martin Lopez, the shipwright, was sent to Tlascala with orders to build there thirteen ships which could be taken to pieces and carried on the shoulders of Indians over the mountains to the shores of Lake Tezcuco.
By great good luck valuable reinforcements now arrived from Cuba, sent by Velasquez, ignorant of the fate of Narvaez, to aid in the overthrow and capture of the rebel CortÚs. The newcomers, finding that Narvaez was a prisoner, did not scruple to enlist under the victorious general, who thus gained a hundred and fifty men, many horses, and the ammunition and guns he so much needed.
At Tepeaca was founded a Spanish colony, which was named Segura de la Frontera—Security of the Frontier. Here CortÚs wrote his second letter to the Emperor Charles V., recounting all his strange adventures since the departure from the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. He requested that Mexico might henceforth be named "New Spain of the Ocean Sea," and he begged that a commission might be at once sent out to prove the truth of his statements.
A letter signed by both officers and men was also written to his Majesty, complaining of the malice of Velasquez, and justifying the actions of their own beloved commander. They besought the Emperor to confirm CortÚs in his authority, declaring with truth that, from his knowledge of the land and its people and the devotion of his soldiers, he was "the man best qualified in all the world to achieve the conquest of the country."
These important missives were entrusted to Ordaz, who was sent at once to the coast to take ship for Castile. At the same time Alonzo de Avila was despatched to St. Domingo to report to the Royal Court of Audience in that island, and to obtain further supplies of ammunition.