Gateway to the Classics: Mexico by Margaret Duncan Coxhead
Mexico by  Margaret Duncan Coxhead

Tlascala the Brave—Allies at the Point of the Sword

The cavalry dashed through the passage, which was, however, quite undefended, and the whole army entered unopposed the jealously guarded territory of Tlascala. The horsemen riding on had advanced some miles into the country when they perceived in the distance a small body of men retreating as if in fear. Swiftly the cavaliers gave chase, when suddenly the fugitives turned on their pursuers, and at the same moment hundreds of Tlascalans sprang up from ambush and joined in a fierce attack on the strangers. They showed no fear of the horses, two of which were killed and decapitated in triumph. CortÚs and his cavaliers would soon have been overwhelmed had not the infantry rushed up at the critical moment and opened a hot fire on the enemy. At the flash and report of the guns the natives did indeed recoil, but they retired without panic and in good order.

Marching on through fields of maize and aloe the Spaniards encamped for the night in some deserted huts on the banks of a river. For their supper they were reduced to eating Indian dogs and wild figs. Watch was kept through the night, which passed, however, quietly away.

At dawn the camp was astir. When all was ready for the march CortÚs gave his directions. The mounted men were to ride three abreast, and to strike always at the faces of the foe. The little army had advanced but a short distance when two Indians were seen approaching in a state of evident terror and exhaustion. They were the Totonac envoys who had escaped in the night from the sacrificial cage into which they had been ruthlessly flung. Breathlessly they warned the Teules that a Tlascalan army was close at hand.

And now shrill and high rose the whistling Indian war-cry, and a flight of arrows startled the foremost ranks of the Spaniards. Fierce and sudden was the Tlascalan attack, and suspiciously sudden their retreat. But the blood of the Spaniards was up. "St. Jago and at them!" cried the cavaliers, and furiously pursuing they found themselves the next moment in a narrow, rugged glen difficult for horses and impracticable for guns. Attacked on every side, they strove to escape from this death-trap and cut their way onward to the entrance of the pass. But there they found, to their dismay, an angry sea of gleaming helmets and waving banners! To advance seemed certain death, but to retreat was impossible.

In vain the cavalry hurled themselves against the dense ranks of the Tlascalans, who had learned to aim their blows at the horses. They succeeded in killing one, and captured the rider alive to serve as a victim for sacrifice. Around the fallen man the fight raged most fiercely, and he was rescued by his comrades with desperate courage, only to die shortly afterwards of his wounds. As for the body of the horse, it was borne off in triumph by the Indians, and was afterwards hacked in pieces and sent through all the districts of Tlascala.

"Forward, comrades!" shouted CortÚs to his cavaliers, "if we fail now the cross of Christ can never be planted in the land. When was it ever known that a Castilian turned his back on a foe?" In answer, his horsemen charged with such fury that they swept through the mass of the enemy to the open plain beyond. Hard upon their heels came the infantry, straining every nerve to bring the artillery into action, and the havoc wrought by the guns turned the tide of battle. The Tlascalans drew off, carrying with them their dead and wounded, for the Spaniards were too exhausted to press home their advantage.

In this action the Totnacs had been of the greatest service, fighting hand to hand in the thickest of the press. "I see nothing but death for us," said a Cempoallan chief to Marina, who shared every danger of her beloved master. "The God of the Christians is with us," she replied with steadfast faith, "and He will carry us safely through."

The army encamped for the night in a temple on the rocky hill of Tzompach, and the men spent the following day in tending to their wounds, overhauling their weapons, and making fresh arrows, while the cavalry scoured the country for the much-needed provisions.

Still CortÚs hoped for peace, and for the friendship of the gallant little republic. Releasing all the prisoners, he sent a letter by two of the chiefs proposing once more an alliance, or at the least neutrality. The messengers were met by Xicotencatl, the great general of Tlascala, who was encamped with his army two leagues from the hill of Tzompach. Insolent was his answer: "The Spaniards will be welcome in our city, where their flesh will be hewn from their bodies for sacrifice to the gods! To-morrow I will deliver this answer in person!" At this savage message, "being but mortals, and like all others fearing death," says Bernal Diaz, "we prepared for battle by confessing to our reverend fathers, who were occupied during the whole night in that holy office."

The Spaniards had no mind to await the promised visit inactive in their camp, and the next day CortÚs gave them a few last orders before leading them forth to fight. At all costs they were to keep their ranks unbroken. The infantry were to thrust with the point rather than to strike with the edge of their swords, and the cavaliers were to charge at half-speed, aiming at the eyes of the Indians. A ceaseless fire was to be kept up, some loading while others discharged the guns. They had advanced but a short distance when they came in sight of the army of Xicotencatl, which seemed to cover the whole plain. Over the mighty host waved the banner of the republic emblazoned with a golden eagle, whose outspread wings were studded with emeralds and silver. Every chieftain had his banner, and foremost in the ranks was the proud standard of Xicotencatl himself, bearing as its device a heron on a rock.

The gorgeous colouring of paint and feather-work, the glittering of copper lance-head and golden cuirass, were dazzling in the sunlight. To add terror to their appearance, the helmets of the chiefs were formed like the heads of ferocious beasts, decorated with gold and gems and gleaming, grinning teeth. From their crests floated choice and brilliant plumes denoting rank and family. But their weapons were poor as opposed to Spanish steel and powder. Very deadly, however, was the "Maquahuitl," a wooden pole three feet in length, armed on each side with two razor-like blades of itztli, and tied to the warrior's wrist that it might not be wrested from him in battle. Their other arms were bows and arrows, darts and javelins, and they bore shields made of reeds quilted with cotton, and adorned with feather-work, gold, and silver.

Not long had the Spaniards to study this martial array. Letting fly such a cloud of arrows that "the sun was actually darkened," the Tlascalans, yelling their hideous battle-cry, swept down upon the strangers, throwing them into complete disorder. It was only the superiority of tempered steel which enabled the Spaniards to rally and reform. Again and again did the massed battalions of dusky warriors try to break through the serried ranks bristling with sword-points, only to be flung back reeling and broken. Their very numbers told against them, they hampered each other and afforded an easy mark for the artillery.

But the repeated charges might at last have worn out the little band of invaders had not dissensions arisen amongst the foe. One of the Tlascalan caciques  whom Xicotencatl had called a coward, first challenged his general to a duel, and then withdrew from the fight, taking with him his whole division.

The battle was over, but once again at such cost that the Spaniards made no attempt to pursue, but returned at once to the hill of Tzompach. Surely after this defeat, thought CortÚs, even this intrepid race will welcome peace, and once more he sent by prisoners a letter proposing friendship and alliance. This time they were to deliver their message to the rulers in the capital itself, and not to the fierce young general in his camp.

The republic was governed by four great lords who sat in council together, each surrounded by his inferior chieftains. Anxiously they debated the white man's proposals, and opinion was divided as to the answer they should return. Doubt as to the origin of the foreigners was rife. Maxixcatzin, one of the four ancient lords, was for peace and alliance with the strangers, who might perhaps be gods, and certainly were mighty warriors. But the young Xicotencatl hotly urged war to the death on these invaders of Tlascala, who had already shown themselves to be enemies of the gods of Anahuac. In their dilemma the councillors turned to the priests, who gave this oracular reply: "The Spaniards, though not gods, are children of the Sun. From the sun do they derive their strength, and when his beams depart their power also fails." Now the nations of Anahuac never waged war in the night-time, and it may be that the priests, who knew well that the Christians were their foes, hoped by these words to incite their people to change their tactics, but continue the warfare. It was resolved to attack the camp of the strangers in the darkness. One night, as a Spanish sentinel looked out across the plain, he noticed in the moonlight a dark mass moving towards the hill. At once the alarm was given, and the Spaniards, who slept with their weapons at their side, and with horses ready saddled, sprang to arms. On crept the Tlascalans, their heads just showing over the maize. The camp was all in darkness, doubtless their foes were sleeping. Suddenly, "St. Jago, and at them!" rang out from above, and down the hill charged the children of the Sun, horsemen and footmen looming huge in the moonlight. The Tlascalans, completely surprised, and unused to fighting at night, lost their wonted nerve and fled, mercilessly cut to pieces by the victors.

The patience of CortÚs was exhausted. This time his envoys bore an arrow, with a letter sternly demanding instant submission.

A few days later forty Indians climbed the Hill of Tzompach wearing white badges as a sign of peace, and the soldiers, glad the war was ended, entertained them kindly. Marina, however, discovered that these men were really spies of Xicotencatl, and CortÚs, bent on breaking this stubborn resistance, had all their hands cut off, and sent them thus mutilated back to their master. "The Tlascalans," he said, "may come by day or night, they will find us ready!"

Though the Spaniards through all this trying time had presented a bold and united front to the enemy, discontent, weariness, and, indeed, despair, had eaten into the heart of the camp. When one small republic had taxed their energies to the utmost, what might they expect when opposed with the resources of an empire! No praise is too high for the man who, under such circumstances, could control and inspire a lawless soldiery.

Even to the Captain-general it was a relief when Xicotencatl came in person to sue for peace. No longer would the mountaineers resist a foe whom no stratagem found unprepared, whom no ruse could deceive.

"You will find my countrymen," said the chief to CortÚs, with dignity, "as faithful in peace as they have been fierce in war. Our gifts can be but of little value, for the Aztec emperor has left us nothing but our freedom and our arms."

"From your brave people," replied CortÚs, "they are more precious than a house full of gold."

From this time Tlascala never failed the children of the Sun, to whom she had vowed her friendship.

There now arrived from Montezuma an embassy bringing many compliments and much treasure. Montezuma had heard of their victory over the unconquerable republic, and was more than ever anxious to prevent their advance on his own capital. To the offer of a rich bribe if they would but turn back, CortÚs gave the unchanging answer that he must see the emperor himself.

Leaving the "Tower of Victory," as they had called their temple-camp, the Spaniards proceeded to Tlascala, where they were received with great rejoicing. Every show of enmity had disappeared, and the streets were decked with flowers as if for a festival. They were bidden that evening to a banquet in the palace of Xicotencatl, the blind father of the young general. Quarters were assigned to them in one of the chief temples.

During the three weeks of their stay they became familiar with the native mode of life, and were much struck with the advanced stage of civilisation and the excellence of the public institutions, so great a contrast to the barbarities of the religion. On the roofs of the well-built houses were terraced gardens. In the apertures for windows and doors hung mats fringed with tinkling bells. The Spaniards were amazed to find luxurious public baths of vapour and hot water. A well-organised police system kept the town always orderly and quiet. Though a large market was held every week, there were also many shops, among which those of the barbers were especially noticeable.

The city consisted of four wards, separated from each other by high stone walls, each ruled by one of the four great chiefs of the republic. Shut in by natural barriers and at constant war with the surrounding tribes, the state was perforce self-supporting, and the inhabitants were therefore agricultural. The climate, more rigorous than in other parts of the table-land of Anahuac, had bred a bolder and finer race.

As in Cempoalla, so here the natives desired to seal this new alliance by intermarriage, and again the Spaniards wished to insist first on the conversion of the nation. This suggestion, however, was so firmly rejected that Father Olmedo saw at once the inexpediency of pressing the matter at that time, and hastened to curb the rising zeal of his militant flock. Some marriages, however, did take place. The daughter of Xicotencatl was given to Alvarado, whose bright face, fair complexion, and golden hair had won the hearts of the Indians. He was called by them Tonatiuh, the Sun, while CortÚs was known as Malinche, the Aztec name for Marina, who was ever at his side.

Word now came from Montezuma actually inviting the invaders to Mexico. He begged them not to remain among the "base and barbarous Tlascalans," but to proceed to Cholula, whither he would send a suitable escort. Vehemently the new allies protested. Montezuma, they declared, was not to be trusted, and sought but to entrap the strangers in his island city. But if the Teules had resolved to accept the invitation, let them avoid Cholula at all hazards. CortÚs thought they were right, but to choose another route would look like fear or weakness, and it was ever his policy to leave no unvisited stronghold behind him.

Six thousand Tlascalans took service under the banner of Castile, and subsequently proved their friendship in many a hard-fought fray.

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