Encounters with the Tlascalans
The war chief's counsels prevailed, and he was allowed to march upon the strangers with his army. In this instance cunning and craft were opposed, and the astute CortÚs almost met his match in the wily Xicotencatl, who said, as he departed, "If we come out victorious we will do our arms immortal honor; but if we are vanquished we will accuse the Otomies of undertaking war without our orders!"
The Otomies were inferior allies of the Tlascalans, who dwelt on the eastern border of the republic, and to whom was committed the guarding of a narrow pass leading from the lowlands to the great plateau, where the stronger peoples resided. After waiting several days for the return of his ambassadors, CortÚs ordered the army to advance. They had marched but a short distance when they found their progress arrested by an immense wall of hewn rocks extending between two mountains about six miles apart. This wall was nearly twenty feet high, forming a rampart of defence which, if strongly guarded, would have been difficult to overcome. It had but one narrow passageway, constructed in such a manner that a few determined men could have held it against 1000.
The Spaniards crowded about its portal, wondering what awaited them on the other side. After gazing at it thoughtfully for a space, CortÚs gave the order, "Comrades, follow your standard, the holy cross, beneath which we shall conquer!" and himself led the way into Tlascalan territory.
"On, on to Mexico!" responded the soldiers. "We are ready. God is our support!" and they pressed forward eagerly.
No enemy opposed them there, though flying detachments were seen at a distance hastening to the defence of the pass. The Spaniards had good reason to rejoice at their tardiness, as, when the troop of cavalry ordered to pursue them came to close quarters with these barbarians, they were assailed with such fury that they were compelled to fight strictly on the defensive. The savages were expert in handling the great double-bladed sword called by them the maquahuitl, which, though made of wood, was set with sharp obsidian points, and was the most formidable weapon the Spaniards had encountered. Armed with this great broad-sword, the Otomies and Tlascalans pressed the horsemen so sorely that they might have been cut to pieces but for the opportune arrival of the infantry.
Two horses were killed, each at a blow of the maquahuitl, and a great shout of triumph went up from the savage ranks. The Tlascalans treated their terrible losses with contempt, notwithstanding the discharges of cannon, arquebuses and cross-bows, speeding deadly bolts, for they had proved their contention that the strangers were merely mortal. In token of this, then and there, while the battle raged unheeded around them, these savage experimenters cut the animals into small pieces, which were sent, post-haste, to every part of the republic. In the Spanish camp the loss of the horses was lamented as beyond repair, for they were reckoned equal to a host of common soldiers when in battle with the Indians. Night alone terminated this first engagement, and the Spaniards encamped in a deserted village, where, their provisions being low, they were very glad to catch, kill, and devour the native dogs as they sought their homes and masters. CortÚs had good reason to dread the coming of the morrow, for he knew that a vast army was assembling to oppose him, and only awaiting daylight to begin the attack. Still, undaunted, he went among his soldiers, encouraging them the best he could.
The Spaniards slept on their weapons, and at daybreak next morning every man was ready for action. As the sun rose on that fateful day its first rays gilded the helms and illumined the banners of an army, 50,000 strong, assembled on the plain. Against this vast array was opposed that little band of Spaniards, scarce 500 in number.
As if to show his contempt for the enemy, before the second fight began, Xicotencatl sent to CortÚs 200 baskets of cassava cakes and 300 turkeys. The soldiers were rejoiced to get these provisions, for they were nearly famished; but they had hardly appeased their hunger when the war chief hurled 2000 of his men into the very heart of their camp. The gunners were driven from the artillery, so closely pressed the throngs of savages, wielding their ponderous swords and lances, amid flights of triple-pointed darts and flint-tipped arrows that darkened the sky. The battle raged for hours; the carnage in the Tlascalan ranks was awful; but all day long the Indians stood their ground, retiring only at the approach of night. How many Tlascalans fell that day is not known; but, despite the overwhelming odds, only two Spaniards were killed, though seventy were wounded.
Next day, at dawn, the foes returned to the fight, preceded by flights of darts and arrows, with war-cries and shrill yells rending the air, swords and lances gleaming. They hurled themselves against the Spanish phalanx, but were repulsed again and again, leaving thousands of dead and wounded on the field.
The war chief consulted his astrologers, and was told that he could not conquer the strangers by day, since they were "children of the sun," with whose going their own strength waned; consequently, his only hope for victory lay in a night attack. This he promptly made, but with most disastrous results, for CortÚs had his cavalry in readiness, and not only repulsed the Indians, but pursued them by moonlight through the cornfields, effecting great slaughter.
Xicotencatl then changed his tactics from open battle to covert attack. After putting to death his false astrologers, he sent an embassy consisting of fifty persons, with gifts of fruit, bread, fowls, and four old women for sacrifice.
They soon learned that CortÚs was no benignant teule, for, having been told by his interpreters that these men were spies sent by Xicotencatl to pave the way for another attack, he ordered their hands cut off, and, thus cruelly mutilated, sent them back to the chief with a message of defiance: "Come by night, or come by day, you shall ever find me prepared for battle; and if after two days you do not appear, we will seek you out at your post!"
This message was sheer bravado; but it had its effect, for, notwithstanding the soldiers all confessed their sins to the reverend fathers that night, expecting nothing short of extermination next morning, a change appeared in the enemies' attitude. It was not then known to the invaders that there were two parties in the Tlascalan senate: one for war, one for peace, or at least for allowing the Spaniards to pass without detention. The peace party, led by Prince Maxicatzin, finally prevailed upon the others to consent to an embassy, accepting the terms which, after every battle, CortÚs had offered them.
The brief but bloody war was ended. A treaty was concluded, on the arrival at camp of the venerable caciques composing the Tlascalan senate, by which they recognized the great monarch beyond the sea, in whose name CortÚs fought the heathen and won his victories. And that treaty was never broken by the Tlascalans, who kept faith with the Spaniards even when to do so was against their own interests.
The war chief promised CortÚs an enduring peace and an eternal alliance, in the name of his people, and was assured by him that he expected nothing else at that time. When a small present of gold and cotton mantles was proffered, with an apology for its meanness (owing to the poverty of the country), CortÚs accepted it, he said, for the good-will it implied, and nothing else. He could appear really great at times, and this was one of the occasions when he rose above himself. It is probable that the hard knocks he had received were having their effect in forging a more liberal policy than that with which he started out.
All these occurrences—the battles, skirmishes, embassies—had consumed more than three weeks. During this time the Spaniards had received two visits from ambassadors of Montezuma, whose fears were excited by the reports of great victories, and the continual advance of the strangers towards his capital. The first deputation bore presents to the value of moo crowns, and the second gold to the amount of 3000 ounces, besides hundreds of rich mantles and feather ornaments.
Montezuma, still puzzled over the mission of the Spaniards, and yet undecided how to treat them, pursued the very worst policy he could have adopted. He sent rich presents, yet requested them to leave the country at once; but every gift was an earnest of his enormous wealth, and a direct bribe for them to seek it out for their own enrichment.
The Mexican ambassadors warned the Spaniards against Tlascalan wiles, cautioning them to retrace their steps before it was too late, and by no means to trust themselves in their enemies' capital. But CortÚs, while listening politely to their words, formed his own resolution in secret, giving each party credit (he says) for more friendship towards him than the other. Invited to their capital city by the nobles, CortÚs, after due deliberation, set forth for the heart of the republic he and his gallant men had won to their cause, undeterred alike by the warnings of the Mexicans and the multitudes of Tlascala's soldiery.
They were met at the city gate by the four great nobles constituting the government, who, with every sign of affection, conducted them to lodgings in spacious quarters. Each soldier was given a pallet of nequen, or aloe fibre, to sleep on, there being a scarcity of cotton in the land—to such an extent, indeed, that the nobles and their friends eagerly accepted and divided among themselves the garments of this material which had been sent by Montezuma to the Spaniards.