Nothing seemed impossible to the Spaniards of Balboa's time, nothing seemed incredible, and thus it was that this small band of soldiers set forth in full confidence that they could subdue any force they might encounter, and trustfully accepting the wild story told them by the Indian. They were the pick of the force at Darien, the hardiest and stoutest-hearted, and they were armed with the best weapons known to their age. These weapons, indeed, were not such as would satisfy a soldier of the present day, for, besides pikes, swords, lances or halberds, and cross-bows, they had as a fire-arm only the rude arquebuse, or clumsy musket, which was a heavy burden to carry and rarely did effective execution. It was so heavy as to demand a "rest," or support, which was usually afforded by a pronged upright of iron, or a crotched stick; and besides being difficult to properly charge with powder and ball, it required the musketeer to carry constantly a lighted match, or fusee, with which to ignite the powder in the pan.
Most soldiers preferred the powerful cross-bow, with which the best of them could drive nails almost as far as they could see them. But these weapons were not so far superior to the bows possessed by the Indians that they gave their owners great advantage, and besides, the savages were generally more powerful of arm than the Spaniards, as well as equally expert with bow and arrow. The chosen weapon of the Spaniard was the sword, and the cavalier who possessed a good "Toledo," with blade that could be bent double without breaking, and with an edge that nothing could turn, considered himself more than the equal of any warrior that might oppose him, whether armed with bow, spear, pike, or war-club.
The vast superiority of the Spaniards over the savages consisted in their armor, for protected as most of them were, by helmet, corselet, gauntlets, cuishes for the thighs and greaves for the legs—arrows, spears, and even war-clubs glanced harmlessly from their panoply of steel. They were often wounded, some of them killed outright, in their desperate encounters with the Indians; but the greater number of their casualties were the result of carelessness or neglect to properly encase themselves in defensive armor. Heavy and cumbersome as it was, few men could support the weight of metal it was necessary for the armed soldier to carry, and especially in the tropics was the burden found intolerable. So it happened frequently that the soldiers were surprised by the savages without their armor, which they may have doffed for temporary relief, or have delivered over to a slave to carry for them. At such times there was found to be little difference between savage and civilized soldier, and the former fought his opponent on nearly equal terms.
Balboa may have taken with him a few falconets, or light field-pieces, but if so they were not used in conflict with the Indians on this enterprise, and the prestige which the white men had derived from their fire-arms was maintained by the arquebusiers, or musketeers, who frightened the Indians with the loud reports of their guns and volumes of sulphurous powder-smoke, but did little execution. The commander himself carried as his only weapon his invincible sword, the blade of which had been forged at Toledo, and brought to an exquisite temper in the waters of the Tagus. For defence he relied upon the armor in which he was encased, and the Saracenic shield, or buckler, which hung from his shoulders or was carried on his left arm, the right wielding the basket-hilted sword.
When Balboa reached the river, which came down from the mountains far away, he knew not which branch of it to take, there were so many mouths, and all navigable, so far as he could see. Taking his stand in the prow of the brigantine, he guided his little fleet into the largest stream he could find, and then, sending Colmenares to explore another branch, he proceeded on his way to what he thought was Dobaybe province. After threading his way through a perfect labyrinth of morasses, and without getting a glimpse of a single Indian, he at last came to a deserted village. The huts were empty, containing neither inhabitants or provisions; but hanging from their rafters were many jewelled weapons and golden ornaments, so that the Spaniards obtained booty from this silent village to the estimated value of seven thousand castellanos. This they stowed away in two large canoes, which had been picked up along the river-bank, and then, discouraged at the gloomy outlook, Balboa gave the order to return to the gulf. On the way a violent storm assailed these invaders of the country ruled by Dobaybe's deity, sent, the trembling Indians said, in revenge for this affront offered her by the unbelieving white men. The brigantine was in such danger of sinking that half her cargo was thrown overboard, to save her, while the two canoes laden with the booty were overwhelmed by the waters of the gulf and went down with all on board.
Thus far the expedition had proved worse than fruitless; but Balboa was not the man to cry "enough" until every means had been exhausted to gain what he was seeking. The river he had entered, and which he had the honor of discovering, was far greater than he imagined, for it has its source, say the geographers, nine or ten hundred miles distant from the Gulf of Uraba, in the cordilleras of the Andes. The volume of its waters was such as to freshen the sea for many leagues from the shore. It was named by Balboa the St. John, but is now known as the Darien and the Atrato. Working his way into the branch of the river ascended by Colmenares, Balboa overtook his companion, and together they entered a tributary of the main stream which, from the color of its waters, they called the Rio Negro, or Black River. Its color was derived, they ascertained, from the black mud of a submerged region through which it ran, and where they discovered the most wonderful habitations of any seen by the Spaniards since Vespucci and Ojeda brought to light the lake-dwellers of Maracaibo, in 1499.
As the brigantines were slowly forced against the current of the river, now beneath the overhanging branches of huge trees swarming with parrots, and again crossing the placid surface of an eddied lake, the excited soldiers caught occasional glimpses of large animals ahead climbing the trunks of trees. At first they took them for monkeys, and those of the band who had cross-bows got them ready to shoot; for the flesh of the monkey was held by them in great repute, and their supply of meat was exhausted. Suddenly one of the soldiers, who had climbed to the mast-head for better observation, cried out: "Those are not monkeys, but men! They are men and women and children; and behold, there are their barbacoas, like nests, perched up in the palms above the water!"
And it was as the soldier had said, for there was a veritable nest of tree-dwellers, or rather a collection of nests, consisting of wicker-work huts made of flexible reeds and vines, fifty or sixty feet up in the air. They occupied the tops of the palm-trees, and each was large enough to accommodate a family, being divided into compartments, such as bedchamber, dining-room, and kitchen, or larder. They were reached by ladders made of split reeds or bamboos, which the Indians climbed with the agility of monkeys. Women and children, as well as men, went up and down the fragile, shaking ladders, some of them with great burdens on their backs, with as little inconvenience as if they were walking on level ground.
All their provisions were kept in the aerial houses, which were well filled, but the liquors they drank, consisting of palm-wine and beer, were buried in earthen jars at the roots of the trees, as the rocking of the habitations would cause them to become turbid. The trees grew in or near the water, and the Indians kept canoes tied to their trunks, or to the lower ends of the ladders, and thus could embark without touching the earth. Their mode of life, in fact, was aerial and aquatic, rather than terrestrial, for they perched in the trees like birds, and sported in the water like fish, upon which latter they almost entirely subsisted. They rarely hunted the big game of the forest, and their chief reason for living up in the trees was that it afforded them security from wild beasts, especially the jaguars, which nightly roamed the woods in search of prey.
Balboa was greatly diverted by these barbacoas up in the air and their agile inhabitants. He endeavored to capture some of the latter, but they were too spry for him and his clumsy companions in armor, for, before they succeeded in landing, every member of the community was safely ensconced aloft. After the frightened Indians had scampered up the ladders they drew them into the tree-tops also, and, considering themselves secure, began to pelt the Spaniards with stones. This was more than their leader could endure, and, sheltering himself behind his buckler, he advanced to the tree in which, as he was told, the cacique's hut was built, and demanded that he descend immediately. The only answer was a shower of stones, some of which struck his shield, and one of them, glancing, wounded a companion. Becoming then enraged, Balboa ordered an arquebuse to be fired into the tree, and when the cacique, whose name was Abebeiba, heard the loud report and saw the cloud of smoke ascending, as from a volcano, he nearly fell from his lofty perch.
"Hold!" he cried, "I will descend"; but when his wives and family entreated him not to do so, he wavered, and finally refused to budge.
"What have I done to thee?" he asked of Balboa. "In nothing have I offended thee and thine; now leave me in peace."
The grim commander said nothing in reply, but commanded his axemen to attack the tree. "When the old scoundrel sees the chips fly," he remarked, "perhaps he may change his mind." Protected by the soldiers with their shields, the axemen vigorously set their blades into the palm-tree, and then the cacique seemed disposed to capitulate. Down rattled the long ladder, and it had scarcely struck the ground ere the cacique was there beside it, shaking with fear and chattering like a parrot. After him also came his wives and their children, in a long and rapidly descending procession, and soon they were grouped around the palm-tree, which, by their swift compliance with Balboa's demand, they had saved from destruction.
"We want gold," said Balboa, threateningly. "If you have any up in that tree, go back and get it at once."
The cacique replied: "I have no gold in the tree nor in any other place. I have no occasion for gold; but, great lord, if you will allow me to search in yonder sierras, I will soon return with a vast quantity, for there it exists and I know its hiding-place. Behold these wives of mine and these sons; they will be hostages for me against my return."
"It is well," answered Balboa. "Go, but return within two days. Meanwhile, we will hold your family as hostages, and enjoy the provisions you have so bountifully supplied against our coming, as it seems."
The wily Abebeiba departed for the sierras, and the Spaniards watched him out of sight. They saw him cross the river in his canoe, then plunge into a thicket on the opposite bank; but they saw him no more, for he never came back.