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

How the Conspiracy was Defeated


The story told by the Cacica bore the stamp of truth, but Balboa was, or pretended to be, unconvinced, and induced her to send for the brother who had revealed the plot, that he might question him. As she hesitated, he said, "Since he desired you to go with him, you can say you are ready, and he will return."

"Yes, he will return. But how will he be received?" she asked, dubiously. "I would not have harm come to him, for his warning was from love of me, my lord."

"And for love of me I ask you to send for him," replied Balboa, evasively. He had released the Cacica's hands, and she had fallen into a hammock, where she lay listlessly, with a look of distress in her eyes and a great fear at her heart.

She could not understand how one she loved would willingly cause her pain; but she felt that Balboa was pressing home a weapon that might pierce her heart and end her days in misery. She had entangled herself in a net of her own weaving, however, and there was but one course to pursue. So she sent for the brother who, in his anxiety to save her from the massacre in which the Spaniards were about to be involved, had given the warning. He was one of Zemaco's warriors, and employed as a scout. Upon receiving a message from his sister he at once hastened to her side, whence he was torn by emissaries of Balboa, who cast him into a dungeon. There he was promptly visited by the magistrates of Darien, at the head of whom was Balboa, and severely questioned as to what he knew of the plot. He denied all knowledge of Zemaco's movements, and one of the magistrates cried out: "Then put him to the torture. Bring a bowstring hither!"

This order having been complied with by the jailer, he then said: "Bind it about his forehead, and twist it till his eyes begin to bulge! Perchance then he will tell what he knows."

This was done, and the cruel jailer twisted the bowstring with a stick until the Indian's eyes seemed about to burst from their sockets. Unable longer to endure the torture, he cried, in agony, "Oh, release me, and I will indeed tell all!" Then he fainted, for he was but a youth, and, though accounted as a warrior, was yet of slight physique and delicate. Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who was standing by, could not but have noted his resemblance to the Cacica, whom he had often sworn he loved; yet he made no effort to release him.

The unhappy youth related what he had told his sister, and the story was the same that she had told, only there was something added. Gasping for breath, and with temples throbbing from agonizing pain, the hapless boy said that Zemaco had long before plotted the death of Balboa, and had for this purpose posted his warriors in disguise among the Indian laborers in the fields. They watched for weeks an opportunity to take the commander off his guard; but, though they valued not their lives at all, they were intimidated by the horse which he rode and the long lance he carried, and finally gave up the attempt upon his life. This failure had determined Zemaco to form the conspiracy with the other caciques, and to this scheme he was devoting all his energies.

As the boy proceeded with his relation, and detailed the means by which the plan against Balboa's life had been frustrated, it flashed upon that worthy that his going to the fields every day fully armed and mounted on horseback was owing to the Cacica's pleadings. Otherwise he would have gone without armor, in his doublet and hose, and on foot. Thus he would certainly have fallen a victim to the Indian's rage, and thus—it became evident even to his perverted sense—he owed his life to the sister of that frail boy before him, whom he had allowed to be tortured. Then his heart misgave him surely, and, awaking from the trance into which his evil thoughts had plunged him, he exclaimed: "Release that youth. Cast off his bonds and bathe his brow where the cord hath wounded it. He hath done nothing, and I did not mind to torture him to extremity; only to elicit the truth—and that we have done. So set him free."

The magistrates murmured and protested: "It is not customary, nor is it safe, to set free one who has been put to the torture, lest, in revenge, he hold murderous plans against us. Let us now finish him, with the sword or with the garrote, and done with it."

"Nay, nay!" exclaimed Balboa, excitedly. "I am governor, though you are, by my grace, the magistrates. I take this youth under my protection, and woe be to them who dare molest him!"

"As your excellency commands," retorted one of the magistrates. "He certainly hath claims upon you, if what rumor says may be believed: to wit, that his sister is thy—"

"That for thy insolence," exclaimed Balboa, stopping the objectionable word with a blow on the magistrate's mouth. "Let it be known that this youth hath my protection, and," he added, with an ominous frown, "let what may please you be said about it—behind my back; but not in front of me!" With that he strode out of the dungeon, leading the wondering Indian by the hand. And thus, bruised and disfigured, the trembling youth was taken to Balboa's house, and left there to be cared for by the Indian maiden.

It may seem to have been the refinement of cruelty thus to force upon the Cacica this victim of the Spaniards' barbarity; but in the eyes of Balboa she was merely a savage whose charms had ensnared him temporarily. Possessing neither delicacy nor keen moral perception, he mistakenly reasoned that the Cacica would overlook this wanton outrage upon her brother and forgive the perpetrators of it. She was his slave, subject to his every whim; but still she had a heart and a conscience, and she was capable of resentment. Though she had so carefully concealed her feelings that he imagined she would always be mild and passive, no matter what occurred, the Cacica really possessed a deep, revengeful nature.

When Balboa and her brother appeared before her, she clutched at her heart, as if to still its beatings, but said nothing, though a single glance told her what had occurred. She led her brother away, to a hut outside the palm-thatched structure which served Balboa as a dwelling, and was about to bathe his bruised forehead, when he repulsed her with a gesture of disgust.

She did not ask why, for she knew, and he did not waste words in telling her that she was a traitress, and was solely responsible for what had occurred to him. In silent dignity he gathered up his bow and arrows, which had been left with the Cacica when he was thrust into the dungeon, and without one word of farewell stalked off into the forest.

Then the Cacica knew that she had incurred the hatred of her tribe, as well as lost the respect of her master, by revealing the plot of Zemaco. She had done it for love of Balboa, as she had assured him; but now that she realized her position, as an outcast from her people, and, despised by the brother who had risked his life to save her own, she hated her master, and loathed him. Thenceforth she lived only for revenge; but, with the cunning of a savage, she concealed her real feelings from Balboa, and appeared to him only the dutiful slave. She lived silent and apart, but ever nursing a scheme of vengeance which in due time cost Vasco Nunez de Balboa his life.

Through the treachery to her people of the Cacica, and the confession elicited by torture from her unhappy brother, Balboa came into possession of all the facts regarding the purposed insurrection of the caciques. He lost no time in acting upon this information, but promptly summoned his officers in council. His chief reliance was, as may have been divined already, the stout-hearted Colmenares, who had shared with him the dangers of several expeditions, in all of which he had borne himself with courage and resolution. While the magistrates were uncertain what course should be pursued, some advising an immediate retreat from a place so fraught with danger to themselves, both from the savages and from the climate, which was killing off the settlers by scores, Colmenares alone gave his commander the advice he liked. Balboa had settled in his own mind what he should do, but he desired to be supported by a certain show of authority, conferred by his coadjutors, in order to have a loop-hole for escape in case the adventure should prove disastrous.

"I can conceive of no other course than immediate pursuit," said the gallant Colmenares. "The redskins meditated taking us unawares and putting us to death, without a possible opportunity for escape. Hence they must have determined upon attacking us both by sea and by land. In sooth, the great gathering of canoes at the town of Tichiri shows that. What, then, is the proper mode of attack for us to adopt but their own, only in the reverse? That is, a body of our troops to proceed by water and another by land, thus taking the savages by flank and cutting off all chance of retreat. So far as our ability goes to combat them, you will of course agree with me that there is no great risk. And this I say with due regard for truth."

"Which I have always found thee to observe, and also to weigh carefully the things that make for success as well as defeat," replied Balboa. "In short, Rodrigo, thou'rt a careful commander, and thy scheme was the very one I myself should propose; but thou shalt have the credit of it. Take, then, Rodrigo, sixty of our men and embark them in canoes for Tichiri, while I, with seventy, will make a wide circuit by land, and thus we will fall upon the savages by front and by rear. Provision the boats for a few days only, for we shall in all probability find enough to eat by the way, and especially when we shall have taken the town and sacked it of what it contains. There are, I understand, five principal caciques in the league, four besides the arch-scoundrel Zemaco, and, assembling as they have been from every quarter far and near, they will have brought with them of supplies a sufficient store."

To the blare of trumpet and roll of drum, the entire garrison assembled within the stockade, and the two commanders picked their men from the ranks. Only the stoutest and most valiant were taken, those who had been tried before and were accustomed to Indian warfare; but nearly all desired to go, scenting spoils in prospective and tiring of inaction at Darien. Some could not, through being stretched on beds of pain, afflicted with wounds or disease; others could not, because of some disability of which their commander was cognizant; for he knew his little garrison to the last man, and was never at a loss to judge its strength or weakness. This was one secret of his success, another being his generosity; for he never withheld from any soldier his share of plunder, and was the last to think of himself.

"Oh ho," he laughed, as the volunteers came pressing forward, some shaking with ague, some limping on crutches, and all filled with enthusiasm. "So ye all desire to go? I' faith, but I wish ye all could do so. But go back to your posts, my good men, all that can manage a cross-bow or an arquebuse, and there keep vigilant watch, for who knows when, or in what manner, the foe may appear? Rodrigo and I will go forth, the one by water and the other by land; but there must perforce be a great gap of forest between us, through which the savages may come by stealth and fall upon the town. So, I say, keep watch by night and by day; and inasmuch as all are engaged in a common defence, and all entitled to equal shares in the spoils, even so shall it be."

Balboa was moved thus to deliver himself, because of ten thousand pieces of gold in the treasury, remaining undivided, which his enemies declared he intended to seize for himself and send as a donative to the king. For this reason he said, "We shall all share alike, from commander down to drummer-boy and trumpeter, and no man shall be deprived of his portion."

Then he marched off at the head of his armored band of braves, followed by the acclaim of those he left behind to guard the town. As for those who went with him: being all of them gallant souls, and generous to a fault, more disposed to fight for treasure than to quarrel over its division afterwards, they acquiesced without a murmur. Colmenares had already embarked his force of sixty men, when Balboa set off and lost himself in the forest with his seventy, so that the settlement appeared quite deserted.

The canoes of Colmenares were paddled by stalwart Indians taken from Careta's tribe, who were ignorant of the intended uprising, but could not, of course, be unaware that the expedition was proceeding against some of their people with hostile purpose. But they asked no questions, being reasonably certain that any such would be answered only by blows, and exerted their strength to such good purpose that by nightfall of the day in which they had embarked the Spaniards reached the vicinity of Tichiri. It was probably at or near a place now indicated on the map as "Punta Escondida," or Lost Point, and may have been thus named because of its vague and misty appearance in the shades of evening-time.

The shore seemed formless, and the forests that came down to the water stretched away black and forbidding, but the darkness was pierced by numerous points of light, where blazed the Indian camp-fires, and the "tam-tam-tam" of the drums proclaimed an assemblage for the purpose of war or conference. Colmenares waited till the drums had ceased their beating and the camp-fires had been swallowed up by the darkness, then the canoes were guided stealthily to the shore and the soldiers landed. The landing could not be made without some sound, such as the clanging of armor against armor, or the striking of sword or lance against a gun-wale; yet the savages were so confident that no enemy was near that they were not disturbed, and slumbered while the force formed on the beach.

Preceded by the dogs of war, a pack of three having been brought by Colmenares for this very purpose, the Spaniards crept towards the camp, extending their line as they approached and perceived its great proportions. As the scent of the quarry reached their nostrils, the dogs could no longer be restrained, and leaped forward with deep-mouthed howls into the midst of the slumbering foe. Instantly arose shrieks of terror and pain as the beasts tore the inoffensive savages to pieces, and these were followed by wild tumult when the reports of arquebuses rose above all other sounds and the Spaniards burst from their concealment with loud shouts.

The terrified Indians knew not which way to turn, and huddled together in a mass, upon the outer skirts of which the hounds tore and ravened at will, while the cross-bows and musketry played destructively. Finally, perceiving that no opposition was offered, or likely to be, by the terror-stricken savages, Colmenares ordered the trumpeter to sound the recall, and the attendants to draw off the hounds; but it was a long time before the detestable beasts could be made to quit their prey.

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