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

Leader of a Forlorn Hope


When the Bachelor Enciso beheld Vasco Nunez before him, even though the stowaway removed his plumed hat and bowed obsequiously almost to the deck, he was exceedingly disturbed. As he gazed, open-mouthed, upon the handsome countenance of Balboa, wreathed as it was with a most provoking smile, which seemed to say, "Aha! I have outwitted you at last," his choler rose, so that at first he could not find words for his wrath.

Finally it was voiced, and he poured forth, upon the still smiling vagabond in armor before him, a torrent of words which, since they were not chosen with a view to being reproduced for posterity to peruse, will not be repeated herewith. Suffice it that, when at last his rage and his vocabulary were seemingly exhausted, he was somewhat mollified by Balboa's single remark: "Well, Senor Bachelor, after all, the island, it seemeth, has lost a bad citizen, while you have gained a good soldier. Yea, two good soldiers, for here behold my hound, Leoncico, who will do more than one man's work, I ween."

"Scoundrel!" sputtered the lawyer, "what bad citizen—and, faith, you are one—ever became a good soldier? I have a mind—yea, a mind almost made up for that—to leave you on the reefs of Roncador, there to subsist on such as the sea may yield. And your impudence, moreover, to force yourself upon my company, when, as you cannot truthfully deny, you owe me, myself, two hundred ducats!"

"Nor do I deny it," answered Balboa, with a winning smile. "And the fact that I do not—and, moreover, seek you out—and, as you say, force myself upon your company—would not that imply that my motives are most honorable? Why should I seek to ally with one to whom I am indeed in debt but for a desire to liquidate that obligation? You yourself know, Bachelor, that there are now no opportunities in Hispaniola: none for the planter, even—which I am not; and scarce any for the soldier—which I am. Take me with you, then, and but give me opportunity. From the first spoils I win of the heathen, you shall recoup yourself the two hundred ducats, and I shall not rest until all my creditors have likewise been repaid in full."

"I do not know," remarked Enciso dubiously. "I remember the proverb, 'When the devil says his prayers, he wants to cheat you.' I never knew you, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, to be over-anxious to discharge your debts. Still, since you are here, and if, before these men assembled, you will pledge your fealty, promising support and obedience to my commands, I will allow you to remain."

"I thank your excellency; and let me quote another proverb, which I verily believe in, 'Quien busca, halla—He who seeks, finds!' I have sought, I shall seek yet more, and—I shall find!"

With these words, Balboa bowed low to the lawyer-captain, turned on his heel, and walked forward to rejoin his friends. Enciso looked after him, noting his stalwart, muscular figure, his independent poise, and shook his head. He had, indeed, gained a sturdy recruit, but one of such lofty and intrepid spirit that he might not be content with a position in the ranks, and, perchance, might some time aspire to command. Lawyer that he was, he was provoked to think that he had, in a sense, compounded with felony, and allowed a man to join his company who was under the ban of the law. But, like the lawyer that he was, he shrugged his shoulders and hoped all would turn out for the best. Balboa had his permission to stay, and even if he had not given it, he could not get rid of the impudent rascal without throwing him overboard.

Balboa joined his friends in the prow of the ship, and, with something of a swagger, told of his reception by Enciso, whom he complimented for his good sense in securing a good recruit, even though it had gone against his prejudices to do so. Salvador Gonzalez and a few other soldier-settlers, who had enlisted for the voyage and a year thereafter of service on land, then informed Balboa of the nature of the expedition in which he had engaged. They had turned the empty cask bottom up, and, gathered around Balboa's erstwhile domicile of the night before, regaled themselves upon viands brought from their Dominican farms. A goat-skin of wine hung conveniently near, and as this was frequently resorted to, the spirits of the company rose with the progress of the meal.

"You may not understand, Vasco Nunez mio," said Gonzalez, "that this expedition we are on is for the relief of Don Alonso de Ojeda, who has made, now, three voyages to Terra Firma, and has founded a colony on the Gulf of Uraba. He and Don Diego de Nicuesa were given by the sovereigns permission to settle the coast of Terra Firma, between Cape de la Vela and Gracias a Dios, and they sailed from Santo Domingo, as you know, at or about the same time. When Don Alonso left, he had arranged with this our commander, the Bachelor Enciso, to prepare a vessel and follow him, after a certain interval. That interval has elapsed, and, true to his pledge, Don Martin Fernandez has set sail, and here we are, you see, on the high seas between Santo Domingo and the continent of mysteries [South America]."

"And well pleased am I," responded Balboa, "to find myself loose from that island of plagues and poverty. Whate'er betide, meseems we cannot do worse on the continent than in Hispaniola. Well it is that I preserved my good sword all these years that I have played the planter in that island, for now I see my way to carve a fortune with it in a new land where gold abounds. Here, then, is to the success of our voyage! May we find gold galore, and caciques as rich as was Caonabo when Don Cristobal Columbus came first to Hispaniola!"

He filled a calabash with wine, which he quaffed at a draught, and his companions likewise drank most heartily to the toast he proposed.

"How many are there in our company?" asked Balboa.

"One hundred and fifty men," answered Gonzalez, "plus yourself."

"Then there are one hundred and fifty-two, for Leoncico is as good as any soldier, and shall share on equal terms with all."

This Balboa said with such determination that it was easy to see his dog stood only second to himself in his estimation.

"Ay, he is a fine brute," assented Gonzalez. "I know him well. He is a son of Ponce de Leon's dog, Becerrico, who performed such feats in the island San Juan, and well worthy of his sire. And, inasmuch as Becerrico received a soldier's full share, yielding his master more than two thousand pesos in gold, as prize-money for those he captured, I see not why Leoncico should not be received among us on the same terms."

"You shall never regret it!" exclaimed Balboa, eagerly, "for on occasions he can render the service of a dozen men. He is a sentinel that never sleeps. By day and by night, he is ever on the watch. And, mates, his instinct is most wonderful. He can distinguish between a peaceful and a warlike Indian merely by his smell. When we were hunting down the Indians of the Cibao, ten Christians escorted by this dog were in greater security than twenty were without him. Seeing an Indian at a distance, I have loosed him, saying, 'There he is, seek him,' and he hath so fine a scent that not one ever escaped him. Having overtaken an Indian, he will take him by the hand or sleeve or girdle, perchance he have anything upon him, and lead him gently towards me, without biting or annoying him at all; but should the savage resist, he would tear him to pieces. Look at the scars upon him," added Balboa, proudly, drawing the blood-hound towards him and pointing out the many places where he had been wounded. "Most of these wounds were made by Indian arrows; but here is where a javelin struck and tore him badly, and here again where a spear glanced from his ribs that might else have penetrated to his heart. Ah, you are a great dog, aren't you, Leoncico?" The hound raised his massive head and sent forth a roar that resounded through the ship. He was an ugly brute, even for a blood-hound, and few aboard ship cared to handle him; but with Balboa he was like a kitten.

Pursuing a course southwesterly across the Caribbean Sea, Enciso's ship finally arrived at the harbor of Cartagena, where, as the Spaniards attempted to land, they were set upon by a host of savages, who had been roused to exasperation by Ojeda and were burning for revenge. Balboa and the more fiery of the cavaliers were for attacking them forthwith; but Enciso was of a peaceable disposition and would not consent. He withdrew from the shore a little way, and parleyed with the Indians through an interpreter, with the consequence that they desisted from their hostile demonstrations and soon engaged in friendly barter with the Spaniards. Though they had suffered severely at the hands of Ojeda, who had killed many of their warriors, women, and children, as well as burned their town to ashes, these so-called savages forgot their wrongs and mingled freely with the countrymen of those who had ravaged their territory.

Enciso took occasion to point out the advantages the Spaniards might always gain if they would treat these simple people fairly instead of with rank injustice, as was usually the case when the two races met. Balboa, Gonzalez, and their like, who had been schooled in the barbarous savagery of Bobadilla and Ovando, dissented from the bachelor's opinion, and declared he was altogether too lenient with the Indians. Then and there, in fact, began the dissension among the soldiers which resulted in Enciso's overthrow. But of that anon.

As they were about to leave Cartagena harbor, a sail was descried at a distance, which proved to be a brigantine laden with soldiers who had enlisted with Ojeda. This was proven to the satisfaction of Enciso, and on coming to close quarters he hailed them and demanded why they had deserted their post. He was answered by the commander of the ship, who was no less than the subsequently renowned Francisco Pizarro, that famine and savages had combined to drive them away. Ojeda, said Pizarro, had departed two months before, in a pirate ship bound for Santo Domingo, leaving him in command. He was to wait fifty days, and if at the end of that time no supplies or reinforcements came, was at liberty to abandon the settlement, The stipulated time passed, and the survivors of the wretched colony embarked in two vessels. One of these was swallowed by the sea, and the terrified crew of the other vessel sought the harbor of Cartagena, intending to sail direct for Santo Domingo.

They had endured enough, all agreed, having lost more than a hundred comrades by drowning, starvation, and the Indians' poisoned arrows. Even the indomitable Pizarro was convinced that a return to the deserted settlement was useless, for the savages had burned their fort before they left the harbor, and everything would have to be done over anew. But Enciso, as alcalde mayor  by appointment of Ojeda, was then ranking officer of the little squadron, and Pizarro was subject to his authority. He yielded to his superior as gracefully as might have been expected in the circumstances; but soon after it was noticed that he and Balboa (having previously met in Santo Domingo, where they were at one time boon companions, in fact) had their heads together, and it was surmised, not without reason, that a plot was hatching.

The Bachelor Enciso was not devoid of tact, however, and to divert the malcontents led them on an expedition inland, to ravage the territory of the cacique Zenu and ravish the sepulchres of his ancestors, which were said to be filled with gold and gems. It was Balboa who related the story of the golden sepulchres, which he recalled as having heard when he was on that very coast with Bastidas.

"And, moreover," said he, "I bethink me of what was related respecting the gold of that region. It is said to abound in such quantities that it may be picked up by the basketful. In the season of rains, which is now, gold, in great nuggets large as eggs, is washed down by the torrents, and all the natives do to collect it is to stretch nets across the streams. Going to them in the morning, as a fisherman would visit his nets in the sea, they find the precious metal in such abundance that they bear it away by the backload."

Thus discoursed the redoubtable Vasco Nunez de Balboa to his commander, Enciso; and though there were those on board ship who, knowing him of old, declared that he was prone to "shoot with the long bow," or, in other words, tell incredible yarns, the bachelor believed his story, every word, and prepared to put it to the proof. As he, Enciso, was a man of peace, more learned in the law than versed in the practice of arms, he allowed Balboa to take charge of the expedition, though he himself went along in an advisory capacity.

The remarkable abilities of the Bachelor Enciso shone forth in a remarkable manner at the outset, for, meeting with two caciques in command of a large army of naked warriors, he insisted upon expounding to them the "why and wherefore" of the Spaniards having invaded their territory. He had with him the old formula, drawn up by the learned doctors of Spain, which recited that, in virtue of the world having been given by God to the pope, and by the latter the unexplored regions of America to the king of Spain, hence the inhabitants thereof, which included, of course, those same Indian caciques, should submit to the Spaniards, etc. But these two caciques were strangely stubborn, for they could not perceive the connecting links in an argument which was supposed to be final as to the rights of the Spaniards to territory which they and their ancestors had held beyond the memory of any living man. One of them, in fact, was so rude as to inform the bachelor that while he assented to the proposition that there was but one God, who lived in the heavens, they could not understand how it was He had given the world to the pope, who also must have been drunk, or crazy, to present to the king of Spain what did not belong to him. And he furthermore added that he and his friend were rulers over that golden province, and if Enciso persisted in his hostile action, they would be forced to cut off his head and stick it up on a pole. Then he and his warriors turned about and pointed to the palisaded fort behind them, where, over the gateway, ranged in grisly rows, Enciso and his men saw several heads that had once been carried on living shoulders.

This ghastly spectacle did not daunt Enciso, however, who said to Balboa and Pizarro, "Well, I have given them the law; now it only remains for you to give them what they can better understand, perhaps—that is, the sword and the lance."

The two dauntless fighters desired nothing better than the pretty fight that was promised with the caciques, and, with shouts to their followers, led them against the foe. The battle was short, but fierce. The two caciques were forced to retreat, leaving many of their men dead on the field; but two of the Spaniards were wounded with poisoned arrows, and died in torments. The province was ravaged, but no gold was found, either as ornaments in the sepulchres or nuggets in nets stretched across the roaring torrents.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Man-of-the-Barrel  |  Next: Balboa Asserts his Supremacy
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.