Word came from Martin Lopez that the brigantines were ready to be transported, and Sandoval was at once despatched with a strong escort to Tlascala. On the way he came to a village whence all the men seemed to have fled. A few women and children alone lurked in the deserted houses. Entering the temple, the Spaniards were, to their horror, confronted by the ghastly heads and skins of many of their comrades, murdered at that spot some time before. There too lay their arms and clothing and the hides of their horses, and on the wall one of the captured soldiers had written in charcoal, "Here was taken the unfortunate Juan Juste with many others of his companions." With angry curses the Spaniards turned away from the pitiful sight, and dire would have been their vengeance had the men of the village been at hand, but Sandoval, the most merciful of the Conquistadores, insisted on sparing the women and children.
As they drew near Tlascala the road for many miles was seen to be darkened by a mighty procession. Eight thousand tamanes, escorted by twenty thousand warriors, were carrying the materials for the ships. Sandoval distributed his Spaniards among the Tlascalans, and onward they toiled over the mountains, expecting at every turn to be attacked. Only the devastating smallpox can explain the inertness of the Aztecs in allowing this all-important convoy to reach Tezcuco unopposed.
In pomp and triumph, with drums beating and trumpets sounding, the long array defiled for six hours through the city gates with shouts of "Castilla! Castilla!Tlascala! Tlascala! Long live his Majesty the Emperor!" Well might they exult, for it was indeed, as CortÚs himself said, "a marvellous thing that few have seen or even heard of—this transportation of thirteen warships on the shoulders of men for nearly twenty leagues across the mountains!"
"We come," proudly said the Tlascalan chiefs to Malinche, "to fight under your banner, to avenge our common quarrel, or to fall by your side. Lead us at once against the foe!"
"Wait," replied CortÚs. "When you are rested you shall have your hands full."
Not yet could the brigantines be launched, for the canal was still unfinished, so the general resolved to employ the time of waiting in subduing the cities on the northern shores of Lake Tezcuco. Sandoval was again left in command of the garrison, while CortÚs himself led the expedition.
Before the Spanish cavalry and cannon fell city after city, until at last the victors, rounding the lake to its western shore, came to Tacuba of painful recollection. There stretched the fateful causeway, and here was the city through which they had fled in the dreary dawn which had revealed the havoc of La Noche Triste. Inflamed to a fury beyond control by the sight of this spot where they had suffered so much, Spaniards and Tlascalans hurled themselves on the Aztecs drawn up without the walls, scattered them with great slaughter, and captured the city itself. The allies, in their frenzy for revenge, regardless of the commands of CortÚs, burnt to ashes a whole quarter of the town.
In Tacuba the Spaniards remained for some time, sallying forth daily to skirmish with the Aztecs. They were decoyed one day on to the causeway itself by the favourite Mexican feint of flight. Midway along the perilous dyke the enemy turned like tigers on their pursuers, while hundreds more rushed forth from the city, and myriads of canoes seemed in an instant to cover the water on either side. Sore beset were the Spaniards as they retreated slowly along the narrow way, striving to keep an unbroken front to the foe. Many of the Aztecs were armed with long poles to which were fastened swords of Castilian steel, the spoil perhaps of La Noche Triste. With one of these weapons the general's own standard-bearer was struck down into the lake, and dragged forthwith on board a canoe. With herculean strength, his standard still in his hand, he tore himself from the grasp of the Indians and sprang back upon the causeway to the sheltering ranks of his comrades. With some loss the troops at length regained the land.
On another occasion the enemies met with but a broken bridge between them, and CortÚs, who was anxious to find out if the Aztecs would come to terms, rode forward making signs that he wished for a parley.
"Is there any great chief among you," he called out, "with whom I may confer?"
"We are all chiefs," replied the Mexicans. "Speak openly whatever you have to say."
Then as CortÚs remained silent they cried mockingly, "Why do you not make another visit to our city? Come in, come in and rest yourselves! But perhaps Malintzin does not expect to find there another Montezuma!" To the Tlascalans they cried, "Women! who dare not venture near Tenochtitlan save under the wing of the Teules!" With these taunts they fiercely renewed the fight.
After six days the Spaniards returned to Tezcuco. They had subdued many towns and won many victories, but they had also seen that the capital was strongly defended at every point, and that the Aztecs, even though defeated, remained indomitable.
To the Spanish quarters there came envoys from the friendly city of Chalco on the eastern shore of the fresh-water lake. "Aid us against the Mexicans!" was their prayer, and in answer Sandoval, with three hundred foot and twenty horse, was despatched to their relief. Thoroughly as always the young captain did his work, storming two of the Aztec fortresses from which the Chalcans had suffered most annoyance. The capture of one was indeed a gallant feat, for the Spaniards had to climb a bare steep rock down which the enemy hurled boulders and galling missiles. Reaching the summit, they grappled fiercely with the garrison, many of whom were flung down the precipice to be dashed to death in the stream below, where the water soon ran red with blood. For a full hour, declares one chronicler, the victors could not drink from the polluted stream, but old Bernal Diaz says, "For as long as one might take to say an Ave Maria!"
Good news from the coast came to CortÚs that three Spanish ships with two hundred men and seventy or eighty horses had arrived at Villa Rica. The new-comers lost no time in making their way to Tezcuco. One of the cavaliers, named Julian de Alderete, was a man of some distinction, and had been sent to Mexico as royal treasurer to look after the interests of the Crown. With the soldiers came a friar who brought, says Diaz, "a number of bulls of our lord St. Peter, in order to compose our consciences if we had anything to lay to our charge on account of the wars. The reverend father made a fortune in a few months and returned to Castile."
The brigantines were not even yet completed, and CortÚs set out once more with a strong force, resolved to subdue the Aztec fortresses in the mountainous country to the south of Lake Chalco. These citadels were perched on high and almost inaccessible cliffs, which hung threateningly over the wild gorges through which the army must pass. After many desperate climbs and much hard fighting, CortÚs succeeded in carrying several of these fortresses, but on the ninth day he came suddenly on a strong city surrounded on all sides but one by deep ravines.
At the bottom of the gorge before which the Spaniards halted raged a foaming mountain torrent. The bridges were broken down, and the garrison in the city, evidently prepared for an assault, harassed their foes with showers of arrows. It was a Tlascalan at last who solved the general's difficulty of attack. Some distance below the town the chasm was bridged by the intertwining branches of two mighty trees, and over this perilous arch the mountaineer climbed, followed by many of his hardy countrymen and several Spaniards. More heavily built and armed than their allies, three of the white men crashed through the branches into the gulf below. The others, passing safely over, surprised the garrison and held them in fierce fight until CortÚs had repaired a bridge and crossed over with the rest of his army, when the impregnable City of Ravines was easily captured.
Leaving the barren mountains where water and food were scarce, the Spaniards gladly turned northwards, skirting the western shores of the lakes. In the fresh waters of Chalco stood the island-city of Xochimilco, named the Field of Flowers, from its countless floating gardens. Strong and wealthy it was, and many battles did the Spaniards wage ere they succeeded in its capture. In one contest CortÚs himself was overpowered and seized by the foe, who were dragging him off to sacrifice when a Tlascalan warrior, followed by two Spaniards, sprang to the rescue. With their aid CortÚs tore himself free, leaped on his horse and faced the enemy. At this critical moment the cavaliers galloped up and drove back the Indians in confusion. Had not the Aztecs vowed to take Malintzin alive he would assuredly have been slain.
Xochimilco sacked and burnt, since they were not strong enough to hold it, the Spaniards, loaded with booty, continued their march northwards. On the way the cavaliers, in hot pursuit of some flying Aztecs, fell into an ambush, and two of the general's own grooms were captured alive. The others managed to regain the main body and to reach Tacuba in safety.
The sun shone brightly, and as Alderete, the treasurer, who had been but a few weeks in Anahuac, stood by the side of CortÚs on the teocalli of Tacuba, he exclaimed at the beauty of the scene. But on the general there seemed to have fallen a mood of deep dejection. His face was very sad, and his eyes were full of most unwonted tears as he too gazed at the lovely valley.
"Senor Captain," said one of the cavaliers consolingly, "let not your Honour be so sad, it is after all but the fortune of war."
Not, however, of his lost servants only was the general thinking, but of all the miseries which war must bring on the fair land before him and on his own devoted followers also.
"You are my witness," he replied, "how often I have tried to persuade yonder capital peacefully to submit. It fills me with grief when I think of the toil and dangers my brave men have yet to encounter before we can call it ours. But the time is come when we must put our hands to the work."
In after-days the Spanish minstrels, singing the exploits of their national heroes, chose this scene for one of their romances. Bernal Diaz gives the opening lines:
In Tacuba stood CortÚs,
With many a care opprest,
Thoughts of the past came o'er him
And he bowed his haughty crest,
One hand upon his cheek he laid,
The other on his breast.
Wretched enough was the march from Tacuba northwards round the lake to its eastern shore, for it rained without ceasing and the roads were deep in mud. Weary were the soldiers when once more they reached Tezcuco, weary and worn and diminished in numbers. But they were met by Sandoval and Ixtlilxochitl with the joyful news that the canal was finished and the brigantines ready to be launched.
In his own camp CortÚs was now threatened by a danger as great as any he had encountered in his expedition. A common soldier, one of the men of Narvaez, conspired with some of his fellows to murder the general and his chief captains. They were terrified at the thought of being led once more into Mexico, and knowing well that nothing could change the bold resolution of CortÚs, decided that in his assassination lay their only hope. They intended to offer him a letter as he sat at table, and while he read it to stab him to the heart. With him should perish also Sandoval, Alvarado, and Olid.
The day before the deed one of the conspirators repented, and going to the general's quarters, flung himself at his feet, confessing the whole plot. Calling Sandoval and Alvarado, CortÚs at once sought out and arrested the ringleader, who attempted to swallow a scroll containing the signatures of his fellow-conspirators. Seizing the list just in time, the general glanced at it and then actually destroyed it himself. The ringleader was hanged from the window of his own quarters, a warning to the guilty schemers who trembled at the sight. Great was their surprise to find no further measures taken to unravel the plot.
Summoning the whole army before him, CortÚs spoke of the base villainy for which their comrade had been hanged, but pretended that as the wretched man had made no confession he knew not who had been the other traitors. By this clever policy he turned the conspirators into zealous supporters, anxious by every means to vindicate their loyalty. As for his own men, the incident aroused them to a frenzy of devotion, and they insisted that thenceforth their beloved leader should always be surrounded by a trusty body-guard under a cavalier named Antonio de Quinones.