Gateway to the Classics: Vasco Nunez de Balboa by Frederick A. Ober
Vasco Nunez de Balboa by  Frederick A. Ober

Conspiracy of the Caciques


Balboa waited three days for the return of the cacique, with his brigantine, meanwhile, moored in a bend of the stream, where the dense vegetation of the banks met in leafy arches overhead. Great trees, their roots in the earth of opposite banks, mingled their verdant crowns together, and over their trunks (as though formed by nature for this purpose) climbed the natives of the region when they wished to cross the stream. One of these arboreal giants bent above Balboa's brigantine, with its branches screening the deck so effectually that the soldiers were nearly always in refreshing shade, even with the sun shining brightly at noonday.

The heat of that region was intense, and a shade was ever grateful, so it was with feelings of disgust that the sailors and soldiers heard Balboa, one day, give the order to proceed up the river. They had become attached to the spot containing the palm-trees and the dwellings in the air, for the habitations afforded them pleasant retreats when off duty, and their occupants received them with smiles and offers of good cheer. Balboa and his officers had taken possession of a group of huts consisting of the cacique's and others, nestled together in a clump of palms hung with great bunches of nuts and flowers amid their leafy crowns. There their hammocks were hung, there they were waited on by nut-brown boys and maidens, who took them fruits and beverages, the latter so often that soon the big earthen jars at the roots of the trees were drained of their contents.

It was when apprised of this fact that Balboa decided he would proceed with the exploration. "By all the saints!" he said to Colmenares, as the two reclined lazily in their hammocks, watching the smoke-wreaths drifting upward, mingled with most appetizing odors from their breakfast simmering in earthen vessels on the fires beneath the trees. "By the saints, Rodrigo, this is a pleasurable life to lead!"

"De versa—Of a truth," answered Colmenares. "But, my commander, have we not other things than pleasure to consider?"

"As thou sayest, Rodrigo, we have. And, now the chichi  is gone, the jars are empty, and the temptation removed for the old cacique to indulge in drunkenness—peradventure he ever return, which I doubt—it seemeth to me we had best move on."

It was not often that Balboa allowed himself to relax, as he had done here, especially when in the enemies' country, and his conscience smote him. Then he gathered himself together and gave the order which produced such discontent among his men. He met their sour looks blithely, giving them no heed, and they were too well trained to oppose him, even for a moment. Such as were by duty compelled, bent themselves to the oars, while others cast off the moorings, and soon the brigantine was on its way again up the stream. Just as it was slipping out from beneath the overhanging trees, there was a sudden commotion in the vines and branches above the deck, and through the tangled mass of vegetation dropped a naked savage. He was evidently a warrior, for in one hand he grasped a bow and bunch of arrows, and in the other held a shield of jaguar-skin.

"Ha, what is this?" exclaimed Balboa, who was standing on the castle-deck directing the departure. "Ho, there, interpreter! Come hither. Surround him, men, and prevent him from escaping."

There seemed, however, no cause for alarm, as the warrior was alone and showed no evidence of an intention either to attack the soldiers or leap overboard. As Balboa approached him, drawing his sword from its sheath the while, he stood like a statue, and faced the oncoming soldier without flinching.

"Ask him whence he comes and what the object of his coming," said Balboa to the interpreter, who, with others, had hurried to the spot.

The warrior did not at first reply to the question, repeated by the interpreter, but, after gazing about defiantly, finally made answer: "I come from the cacique Zemaco, who hath a prisoner in his possession, one of thy kind, whom he will set free and deliver to thee provided thou wilt send for him. But not many must thou send, only two or three, whom I will guide to his camp."

"A prisoner? How comes he to have a prisoner?" demanded Balboa, looking around for an answer. "We have lost no man, of late. I misdoubt the story myself, and believe the Indian is lying."

"And I likewise," said Colmenares. "But let us find from him where the cacique is encamped. Where is Zemaco?" he asked the warrior, through the interpreter.

"At Dobaybe," was the answer. "He guards the great temple and its goddess of gold."

"Aha!" exclaimed Balboa. "Then we will go to him. But not with an embassy; in force will we go. How far is it to Dobaybe? Ask him, interpreter?"

"Two days direct, by land; but four days by river, in the big canoe," answered the savage, showing his teeth with a snarl of rage, like a jaguar glowering from a tree in the forest.

"That time he told the truth," said Colmenares.

"So far maybe as he hath told anything," replied Balboa, enigmatically. "My faith! but I've a mind to put him to the torture. If it be but two days to Dobaybe, then surely we can accomplish it; but if much more, we shall be obliged to return for provisions. Where is the armorer? Here, man, place this savage in irons!"

As the armorer approached, Balboa waved his hand towards the Indian, who, probably divining the fate in store for him should he linger, sprang for the rail. At one bound he reached the bulwark, at another he leaped over it into the water of the river, where he sank like a stone before the astonished witnesses could make a move to prevent him. Instantly there was a commotion aboard the brigantine. A score of soldiers hastened to the rail, and as many cross-bows were made ready and levelled at the surface of the water. If the head of the savage had appeared above it, surely it would have been pierced by several bolts from the bows; but it did not emerge. The impatient bowmen waited long, but in vain. The Indian was seen nevermore, for he probably swam under water to the thickets on the farther shore, and, worming his way through the vines and undergrowth of the forest, secured his safety by flight.

"Maria Santisima!" exclaimed Balboa. "Why did I not run him through with my sword? He was a spy—naught else was he; and all that he told was a lie!"

Downcast and disgusted were the soldiers then, for they felt that they and their commander had been outwitted, and by a naked savage. "If, then," they reasoned among themselves, "we can be so easily deceived by an emissary of Zemaco, what cannot he do to us when involved in the net he has spread for our capture?" They were ignorant and superstitious. Having heard of the goddess that reigned in the mountains, and having experienced her might, as shown in the tempest she had, without doubt, visited upon them, they were prone to ascribe to her the possession of supernatural powers, and balked at the prospect of invading her territory. If the truth were told, Balboa himself was not without a trace of that same superstition, and he could understand the feelings of his men, if he did not, indeed, sympathize with them. When, therefore, at the end of a week of fruitless quest, wandering in the forest and seeking in vain a conflict with the fugitive Zemaco, he found himself back at the point of departure on the Rio Negro, he for a time gave up the hunt and abandoned his search for the golden goddess and temple.

The unsolved mystery of the idol and temple continued to vex the Spaniards for many a year. When an indomitable soldier like Vasco Nunez de Balboa found himself frustrated in the search for them, few others had the courage to take it up. It was not like Balboa to retire and acknowledge himself defeated, and it was much against his will that he turned his back upon the unseen Dobaybe and set his face towards Darien again. He did not, however, abandon the project utterly, and gave a pledge that he would sometime return, by leaving behind a body of thirty soldiers, under command of Bartolome Hurtado, who were to hold the country in subjection. They took possession of a deserted village on the Rio Negro, and, while Balboa with the main body descended the river to Darien, ranged through the country in pursuit of fugitives.

From what afterwards transpired, it would seem that Cacique Zemaco had been playing a game of deep duplicity with his more civilized opponent, and, whether he held possession of the golden Dobaybe or not, had some sort of a stronghold in the mountains to which he could retreat on occasion, and which Balboa had not been able to reach. As soon as the latter's back was turned, he descended from his stronghold, and spread his warriors along the rivers, retaking the deserted villages and collecting their inhabitants together.

When Hurtado and his little band were left alone in the wilderness, Zemaco perceived an opportunity for revenge upon the Spaniards; but he was cautious and had a wholesome fear of their weapons. He waited until Hurtado had detached more than half his total force, for the purpose of taking their prisoners to Darien, and then launched his bolts of war. Hurtado's captives were placed in a large boat guarded by fifteen or twenty Spaniards, most of whom were invalided through wounds or sickness, and thus scarcely ten sound men remained behind in the Indian country. The boat descended the Rio Negro very slowly, for it was heavily laden with its human freightage, and late one afternoon, when between forest-covered banks that closely approached and cast a gloom upon the waters, it was attacked by Zemaco and his warriors. They were in four canoes, and were armed with war-clubs and lances. Shouting their war-cries, they surrounded the boat containing the Spaniards, and with the assistance of the prisoners massacred all save two. These two escaped by leaping into the river and clinging to the trunk of a great tree which was floating with the current. They hid themselves in the branches, and, being over-looked by the Indians, finally reached the shore and returned to Hurtado with their tidings of disaster. The commander was so disheartened that he at once abandoned his post on the Rio Negro and hastened to Darien with all speed. It is surprising that Zemaco did not attack him when on the way, as he had an overwhelming force, and his recent victory had inspired him with confidence; but as it afterwards was ascertained, he was then in secret conference with the caciques of all the provinces, four in number, for the purpose of totally exterminating the Spaniards. Hurtado carried the tidings of this conspiracy to Darien, having received intimation of it from a captive; but the inhabitants considered his fears of an uprising largely imaginary, incited by his recent disaster, and made no preparations for receiving the enemy if he should appear.

At this time there comes into view once more the beautiful Cacica, who had been left in Darien when Balboa went on his expedition up the Atrato She had urged him to take her with him, saying that her place was by her lord and master's side; but he had refused, because, as he said, space on board the brigantine was limited, and there was room for soldiers only. He had given his house into her charge at parting, and when he returned she proudly showed him what she had done to improve its condition, receiving his praises therefor with great delight. But rumors soon reached Balboa that during his absence the Cacica had received under her roof a young warrior, who had come and gone at night—as a spy might have done, said the sentinels who watched outside the walls of the town. These rumors were verified by reports from the spies whom Balboa himself had left to watch the Cacica while he was away. He ardently loved her—of that there could be no doubt; but, as a Spaniard, he was naturally suspicious.

These spies were certain that the visiting Indian was a warrior of Zemaco's band, and thought he might be a relative of the Cacica, or a former lover whom Balboa had supplanted. They, too, sought to intercept him; but the wary Indian escaped them every time, and they could only report that he had been there and undoubtedly held conference with the Cacica. When Balboa heard these reports he was deeply disturbed, for, notwithstanding his suspicions, he wished to have confidence in his mistress, and disliked to think evil of her. He was uncertain whether he had better keep the information to himself, and meanwhile watch the girl narrowly for signs of deceit, or openly accuse her of treachery to his trust. He adopted a middle course, and one day, while they were conversing upon the events of the expedition, artfully contrived to involve her in the confession that hardly a day had passed in which she had not indirectly heard from him.

"And who was the messenger, my love?" asked Balboa, calmly, but with his heart beating furiously and his eyes flashing.

"My brother, sometimes, my cousin, and again my brother—for, you know, I have many brothers," replied the Cacica, artlessly.

"Yes, I know," rejoined Balboa. "But why should they come to you so frequently, and always at night?"

"Because I wanted tidings of you, my lord; and for that they could not come too often! At night, too, because they could not get within the town by daytime. For there were sentinels and spies, my lord. Did you not know there were spies?" asked the Cacica, archly, her eyes dancing mischievously.

"I—I knew there were spies," answered Balboa, hesitatingly. Then, suddenly assuming a stern and wrathful expression, he grasped the girl's wrists and, looking straight into her eyes, demanded: "What did your people tell you when they came to my house in the night-time? Did they say aught of the cacique Zemaco and of the conspiracy he is forming against me? Tell me, and truly, girl, for if thou liest thou mayst lose thy life!"

"I will tell you," answered the Cacica, slowly. "Not because you threaten me, but for the love I bear you. My life is yours, to take at any time." She returned his gaze fearlessly, and in her eyes Balboa could detect no trace of deceit or alarm.

"I am a cacique's daughter," she continued, proudly, "though in your eyes a savage and a slave. Your life and the lives of your friends are in my hands—until I tell you; then my life and the lives of my people are at your mercy. Yet I will tell you, because you are still my lord, and I have left my people to go with you and stay within your house.

"Know, then, that my brothers came to warn me to fly with them and hide in the mountains, for the men of my race can no longer endure the atrocities committed by the invaders, and are resolved to fall upon them soon by sea and by land. In the town of Tichiri are collected one hundred canoes and five thousand warriors, and the preparations are made for striking a blow that shall destroy your power forever!"

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