De Soto, the Avenger
The sword was reluctantly restored to its scabbard; but it was soon to have a victim, nevertheless. Hardly had the executioner held the bleeding head aloft and shouted: "This is the doom of a traitor," than Pedrarias issued an order to a file of soldiers, who marched across the square and closed about De Soto. They were the most reliable of the old tyrant's mercenaries, and led by an officer who had committed many a crime at his behest.
"Seize and drag him hither," cried Pedrarias, pointing at Ferdinand an accusing finger. "He, too, is a traitor, false to me and to his king. He shall share the penalty we have meted to his comrade." For a single instant Ferdinand sat as if petrified. He had long expected death at the hands of Pedrarias, but did not believe he would dare inflict it so openly.
As the officer reached out to seize his bridle-rein, De Soto recovered himself. His good sword leaped from the scabbard, and like a flash descended upon the officer's helmet, cleaving it and the head within in twain. Wrenching it free with a violent effort, De Soto held the dripping blade aloft, and, putting spurs to his powerful charger, dashed through the ring of soldiers straight upon Pedrarias.
"Murderer! Usurper!" he shouted, placing the sword-point at the trembling tyrant's breast. "That I do not kill you is because I hold sacred the memory of one who is not here. Your death has long been overdue, but—"He made as if to sheath his sword, when there arose cries on every side: "Down with the tyrant! Kill him! Kill him!"
"You hear them? Those are the cries of your soldiers. They know, and I know, that the blood of our dead comrade cries aloud for vengeance—that justice demands your death. You killed Balboa—a most dastardly crime—Balboa, who was betrothed to your daughter; and now you would kill me! I have served you most faithfully many years, but henceforth my sword shall never be drawn in your service, not even to defend your life."
With these words De Soto turned from the despicable wretch and joined his troop. The citizens of Leon and the soldiery gathered around him and urged that he seize upon the government of Nicaragua, in the name of the king, promising him their loyal and unwavering support. Nicaragua lay as a middle ground between Mexico-Guatemala and the Isthmus. With such an energetic ruler as De Soto would have made, it might have become great and powerful; but he put aside this opportunity and contented himself with exploration merely.
It must be remembered that at the time these occurrences took place the three Americas, North, Central, and South, were but little known. Mexico had only just been conquered; Guatemala was being invaded; the West Indies, alone, had been to any extent explored. The great problem that confronted the discoverers was what was termed the "secret of the strait"—of a passage supposed to exist between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific. Columbus had searched for it vainly; so had Cortes and others.
We know that it was never discovered, and that the waters of the sea and the ocean will be blended only after an artificial water-way shall have been opened through the mountains that separate them at the narrowest part of the Isthmus. But De Soto did not know this, and, believing the solution of the secret to be vastly more important than the founding or government of a colony, he set himself to the task. Choosing a few congenial spirits from his troop, he departed on an exploring expedition, which resulted in making known more than seven hundred miles of coast-line. He solved the secret by ascertaining that there was no strait; and in exploring it is quite as important to nail a fallacy as to make a new discovery. He returned greatly enriched, from traffic with the natives; and though this was, so far as can be ascertained, his first accumulation of gold, he generously shared it with his comrades, not only with those who went with him, but those of his troop who remained behind.
Pedrarias was still living, and, unfortunately for Nicaragua, still wielding a semblance of power; so Ferdinand remained in the country only long enough to set his affairs in order, and started south again. His loyal troopers accompanied him, but for what purpose they returned towards the Isthmus is not exactly known, though it is conjectured that they were drawn thither by the reports of Pizarro's great successes in Peru. They all set out for Panama, taking no account of the difficulties in the journey; but when some distance on the way, while marching along the coast, they discovered a vessel, which De Soto promptly chartered. Had the master of this vessel known the character of De Soto and the relation in which he stood to Pedrarias, he would have refused him passage, to a certainty; but he paid the penalty of his ignorance with his life. Hereby hangs a short story of crime, for the proper development of which we must turn back a few years in the life of our hero.
It chanced that, in one of his forays, Ferdinand had found captive among the Indians, and rescued, an Italian astronomer named Micer Codro. He was a man of science, unacquainted with war, and went about looking for and delving into the secrets of nature. His head was always "in the stars"; but he valued it highly, just the same, and was very grateful to De Soto for having rescued him from the savages. Being something of an astrologer, he cast his horoscope, as, some years previously, he had foretold the fate of Balboa. He informed him that he was ever in peril while with Pedrarias, who would seek to take his life, as he had taken that of Vasco Nunez de Balboa; but he would escape his wiles and live to accomplish the great aim of his life, which was a union with the one he loved.
"You will be more fortunate than Vasco Nunez," said the astrologer, and will live to the age he attained, which was forty-two, before death, in a strange manner and in a new land, shall claim you."
"We are all in the keeping of God," replied De Soto, humbly. "I rely upon Him to protect me."
Shortly after this conversation took place the artless philosopher, Micer Codro, was selected by Pedrarias to represent him at the court of Spain. He could not trust a man less simple and unworldly than the astrologer, for fear his crimes might be made known; but, as it turned out, he was the last person he should have employed, owing to his friendship for Ferdinand. When he learned that he was to be sent to Spain, Codro was overjoyed at the opportunity it gave him to serve the man who had saved his life. He hastened to Ferdinand and said: "I am going to Spain. I shall see the family of Don Pedro, to whom I am to be intrusted with letters. Is there no member of that family you would like me to carry a message to? Five years is a long time, without news of one's beloved, is it not?"
Ferdinand started in astonishment. "How did you know?" he asked. "Oh, I forgot—perhaps you learned it of the stars. Yes, it is five years since I came here, and during that time not one word. Sometimes I question whether she has written."
"Nay, do not doubt her, friend. She has written, but her letters have been intercepted by her father. This chance I offer you is the only one you will have, for I not only go, but I return, and everything will be wrapped in secrecy."
"But," answered De Soto, doubtfully, "should Don Pedro discover it he would not hesitate to kill you."
"I fear him not. If he is to kill me, then it is so written in the stars. Prepare your letter, friend, and I will carry it."
Ferdinand raised no more objections, but wrote a letter to Isabel de Bobadilla, in which he poured forth the pent-up feelings of those five long years. It was taken by Micer Codro to Spain, and delivered in person to the delighted maiden, who responded with an epistle filled with fervent love and protestations of undying affection. She assured her lover that, though she had written him previously, and received no answer, she knew and appreciated the cause of that long silence. She had not for a moment distrusted him, nor would she ever do so. She impatiently awaited his return; but whatever time might elapse before that happy event, she would be faithful to the end.
Eight years more were to pass before the return of De Soto to Spain, or fifteen in all, ere he found the fortune which enabled him to go and claim his bride; but during this long period both were faithful to each other. Simple Micer Codro, though he could predict future events, did not possess the craft to conceal his intentions. There were spies about the castle, and spies in Panama, who reported to Don Pedro everything that had happened, and he knew that Isabel had sent a letter to her lover almost as soon as Ferdinand had received it.
He said nothing, and kept a smiling face for poor Codro, whom he rewarded for his services by sending him on an exploring trip down the coast. Such an expedition was what the man of science delighted in, and he embarked most joyfully; but he had not been long aboard the vessel before he discovered the real nature of the fiendish governor's intentions. The craft was a slaver, commanded by a brutal wretch named Geronimo de Valenzuela, who, carrying out the instructions he had received from Pedrarias, chained poor Codro to the main-mast. There he was kept until he finally died from exhaustion, exposed to the fierce rays of a tropical sun by day and the drenching dews of night. Ten days he was kept thus, all the time without food or water, and suffering abuse from the heartless crew. As his end approached he called Valenzuela to him and, with his last accents, said: "Captain, you have caused my death by your cruelty. I now summon you to appear with me, within a year, before the judgment-seat of God."
The vessel in which De Soto had taken passage worked its way along the southern coast of Veragua, and late one afternoon arrived off a group of islands about one hundred miles southwest of Panama, known as the Zebacos. They were green and beautiful isles. Something in their appearance seemed to excite in the captain of the vessel a spirit of reminiscence.
"Oh ho!" he exclaimed to his mate; "do you remember the last time we passed Zebacos, and the old wizard we buried there?"
"Sooth, I do," replied the mate; "and, moreover, the year is nearly up, my captain, so prepare yourself, perchance."
"What is it?" asked one of the soldiers.
A group of De Soto's men had gathered about, and among them was their commander, who listened carelessly as the master of the vessel gave the details of a fiendish story. He was a man of brutal appearance, whose whole career had been one of wickedness. His name was Geronimo de Valenzuela, and he was the same who had tortured poor Codro to death, though De Soto was not aware of that. Indeed, he had never learned what had become of his friend, who had mysteriously disappeared and left no trace by which his fate could be known. He was soon to learn, however, and in a startling manner was to avenge his death.
"Ye see that island standing up high above the sea, with a cocoa-palm on its highest part? Well, there we buried him, the old wizard who, somehow, had offended Pedrarias. He had proved treacherous, I believe, bringing back letters from Spain which Don Pedro would rather had not been sent. Whatever it was, he was to suffer for it, and I had orders to chain him to the mast and keep him there till he died. It was not so easy a task, for the old man was all of ten days in dying, though we helped him along somewhat. Eh, mate?"
The captain burst into a roar of brutal laughter, in which he was joined by such of his crew as were with him when poor Codro was tortured. Had they looked up, they would have seen that De Soto was standing near, with flashing eyes and paling cheek, one hand convulsively gripping his sword. But he kept, silence, and the fiend continued:
"Well, towards the last the old man lost his speech; but some time before he died he recovered and called to me. 'Captain,' he said, 'I die; you have killed me; but know this: within one year you will appear with me before the judgment-seat of Almighty God.'
"Oh ho, he spoke like a prophet; but the year is within a week of its ending, and here am I. And there is the island where we buried him. Now, who can say Don Codro was no liar?"
"I say it," thundered a voice in his ear. "He was my friend and a good man, and with this blade I will prove he was no liar."
With one swift and powerful blow De Soto severed the man's head from his body, and it rolled upon the deck.
"Now come at me, varlets, one or all. Here stand I, Ferdinand de Soto, to defend the good name of my friend, to avenge an atrocious deed, for that friend doubtless died for doing me an inestimable service."
But not one of those cringing villains made a move towards the valiant swordsman. Instead, they slunk away, one by one, overpowered by the suddenness of the onslaught. The skill displayed by De Soto, as well as his courage, elicited their admiration; and though they murmured among themselves as they cast the captain's remains to the sharks, they attempted no reprisal.
The date of this incident and the length of De Soto's stay in Nicaragua are not known. It is probable that, after his return to Panama, he lingered so long, in a country already impoverished by the raids of insatiate Spaniards, who repeatedly ravaged it with fire, sword, and packs of blood-hounds, that he expended all the gold he had obtained in Nicaragua. We know this: that when, after having reached the frontiers of Peru, and finding himself unable to advance because of the few men he had with him, Francisco Pizarro sent urgent calls to Panama for reinforcements, De Soto consented to go to the rescue.
He had long known Pizarro, from having come in contact with him during the frequent raids they had made together when in Panama and Darien, but by no means admired him. In fact, he heartily despised him, although he could not but have recognized his soldierly qualities. But Pizarro had now obtained the consent of the Spanish sovereign to the conquest of Peru; he had persisted in his attempt to reach that country during many years, and was at last on the verge of success. He offered great inducements to any cavaliers who would come to his assistance, and sent a special request to De Soto.
For several years previous to the departure of De Soto for Peru he and Pedrarias had held no communication. Don Pedro was consistent in his cruelties, it is believed, up to the time of his death, which occurred while De Soto was absent in Peru. He pursued the Indians vindictively, using blood-hounds unsparingly and committing atrocities which called down upon his head the curses of all who spoke his name. The natives of Nicaragua were enslaved, and the survivors of his massacres deprived of their harvests, so that famine resulted and many thousands perished of a pestilence.
De Soto would not lend himself to the enslavement of the Indians, nor is his name notably connected with any act of atrocity in Nicaragua or Panama. But, in transfer ring his allegiance from Pedrarias to Pizarro, he merely passed from the service of one unscrupulous villain to that of another. In the interim, however, he had become a free-lance, and owned no man as his master. His strength and prestige enabled him to dictate terms to the Conqueror of Peru, and, "according to the report of many persons who were there, he distinguished himself over all the captains and principal personages present, not only at the seizure of *Atabalipa, lord of Peru, and in carrying the city of Cuzco, but at all other places wheresoever he went and found resistance."