The Fierce Apalachees
Such a terrible blow had De Soto received that he lay half an hour unconscious, while the conflict raged around him. His face was battered in as though it had been struck by a sledge-hammer, and, having lost several teeth, he could eat no solid food for many a day thereafter. Nearly a week passed by before he and his wounded comrades were well enough to resume their wanderings, when the march was taken up for a province known as Osachile.
The Spaniards left behind them a land of desolation, for, besides Vitachuco and his chieftains, thirteen hundred warriors had been killed in the battles and massacres. When the town in which he had resided was revisited, some time after, it was found abandoned, without an inhabitant, because of an Indian superstition that it was accursed. The invaders had good cause to remember it, for few of them had escaped scatheless in that savage uprising. Several had been killed, many there were with broken arms, scalded skins, and bruised bodies, so that they went limping away, with many a malediction on their lips.
Their first day's march brought them to a rapid-flowing river, believed to have been the Suwanee, across which they attempted to throw a bridge, as it was too deep to ford. But the sudden appearance of hostile Indians in considerable numbers forced them to abandon this undertaking and hastily construct several rafts, upon which the soldiers crossed, while the horses were driven into the river and compelled to swim. The intrepid troopers caught their steeds as they emerged from the water on the farther bank, and, quickly slipping on saddles and bridles, charged upon the savages, who were put to flight. They soon returned, however, and greatly annoyed the Spaniards by discharges of arrows from the corn fields through which they held their course. Many were wounded, though none was killed, and such of the Indians as were taken prisoners had chains placed about their necks and were forced to serve as carriers.
Nearly all the slaves and porters had been slain in the massacre, when the exasperated Spaniards had wreaked their vengeance upon all alike. These new prisoners were as intractable as the others, and though they were "led off in chains, with collars about the neck," they sometimes managed to escape. "Sometimes it happened," says the old chronicler, "that, going with them for wood or maize, they would kill the Christian and flee, with the chain on, which others would file at night with a splinter of stone in the place of iron; at which work, when they were caught, they were punished, as a warning to others. The women and youths, when removed a hundred leagues from their country, no longer cared, and were taken along loose, doing the work, and in a very little time learning the Spanish language."
The town of Osachile, which was less than fifty miles from the last they had left, the Spaniards found to consist of about two hundred houses, and to occupy the centre of a fertile prairie covered with fields of maize and pumpkins. Most authorities agree that Osachile may have occupied the site of the present Suwanee Old Town, and the name is perhaps perpetuated by that of the river Oscilla. It was found deserted, all the inhabitants having fled, taking with them their portable possessions; but this fact did not disturb the Spaniards, who thus secured shelters already constructed and fields well tilled, which they could avail of without any fighting. Here in Osachile, as at Tampa, the cacique's house was set upon an artificial mound, the summit of which was large enough to accommodate a group of twenty wigwams, and was reached by an inclined roadway twenty feet in width. It was pyramidal in shape, and, though wholly of earth, much resembled the stone structures of Mexico, such as Papantla, in the province of Vera Cruz.
Though the governor would have been glad to have a short respite, as his wounds were healing but slowly, he did not tarry long at Osachile, for ahead of him lay the wonderful country of Apalachee, which was said to abound in gold. It was also the home (according to the southern Indians) of the fiercest warriors in Florida, who had never been defeated in battle, and who never allowed their land to be invaded. An Apalachee scout had been captured, after holding at bay a score of soldiers for hours. Severely wounded as he was, and in chains, he was brought before the governor.
"Whence am I?" he said, proudly, holding his head erect and looking De Soto straight in the eye. "I am from Apalachee. What you get there, you will see! Our warriors will pin ye to the ground with their lances; they will hack ye in pieces with their swords, and consume ye with fire! Wait ye and see!"
Far from being deterred by these menaces, De Soto was moved to try conclusions with the savage Apalachees. He had decided to establish his winter quarters in their province, come what might, and the order was given to march. Three days of sweltering toil succeeded, in the traversing of an arid plain, and on the fourth the Spaniards entered the most dismal morass of any they had seen. It was a vast swamp, in the midst of a gloomy forest, through the tangled undergrowth of which there was a single narrow trail, only wide enough for them to march in Indian file. In the centre of this forest swamp was a lake of unknown extent, black and forbidding, swarming with snakes and alligators. Beyond the lake lay the land of promise, Apalachee (the Indians told De Soto), and that was sufficient for him to essay its passage.
Making camp on the skirts of the forest, he detailed a hundred cross-bow-men and halberdiers, together with twelve men who could swim, to penetrate the swamp and force a passage through the lake. They were driven back, before they had gone a hundred paces, by Indians concealed in the thickets, who assailed them with javelins, arrows, and lances, and compelled them to retreat. Receiving heavy reinforcements from the main army, they returned to the attack, but succeeded only in ascertaining that the water of the lake was too deep to be forded, and that beyond it extended the same black forest, through which the narrow trail wound like a snake for several miles.
No obstacle was ever encountered by De Soto which he deemed insurmountable. He was never daunted by circumstances the most adverse, nor discouraged by ill-fortune. He resolved to make a night march through the swamp of the dismal lake, and, sending on ahead two hundred chosen soldiers, who were encased in armor from head to foot, he fell in behind with the bulk of the army.
He formed a living wedge, as it were, faced with steel, and drove it home by ponderous blows. Entering the forest defile between midnight and dawn, the advance-guard succeeded in reaching and crossing the lake before the Indians were aroused. They had not expected a night attack, and had left the lake unwatched. Darkness enshrouded these brave cavaliers as they passed, in single file, between the trunks of ghostly cypress-trees, hung with funereal banners of moss and draped in vines that depended from their limbs like writhing serpents. Cautiously they felt their way, parting the vines with their swords and prodding the leaves with their lances. In the centre of the black lake water was a primitive bridge, formed of fallen trees and logs. They crawled across it like panthers, their stout hearts beating wildly, for here they had fully expected resistance. But they had safely passed the waterway, and were already assembling on the farther side of the lake, when the savages discovered them.
Daylight revealed them to the astonished Indians, who greeted the sight with yells and wolf-like howls. Like wolves, too, they fell upon these mailed monsters who had invaded their land, and dashed themselves to pieces against their armor-clad bodies. As well might the waves of ocean dash against a rock, for the Spaniards were unyielding. Some of them went down, for they were fighting waist-deep in the water, and never rose again; but their foes went with them.
They could not retreat, because of the pressure from behind. Arrows glanced from their armor, lances from their helmets, but now and again a ponderous battle-axe descended and crushed out all life within. Still, inch by inch and foot by foot the valorous Spaniards advanced, meeting lances with sword-thrusts, arrows with cross-bows and arquebuses; and thus the living wedge was driven home. Naked bodies were not proof against keen Toledo blades—they could not resist the impact of men in armor; and when, finally, the cavalry came into action, the savages went down like fields of grain before the hurricane. But Apalachee nature could not understand defeat, would not think of surrender, and the savage warriors continued to contest the pass two days and a night, until their foes were weary with fighting and almost dead from loss of sleep.
These Indians had fought the army of Narvaez, and had defeated him, so they had a contempt for cross-bows and arquebuses. As for the horses—they impeded their advance by fallen trees, bound together with vines, and, when the horsemen were entangled, would creep up and slash at them from beneath, bringing steed and rider to the ground, where they were slaughtered. But the cavalry had their revenge when the open plains were reached. Then the horses themselves seemed to share their riders' rage and fury, and the Indians were cut down without mercy. No quarter was given nor asked, for the Spaniards had taken their lives in their hands, and the Apalachees gave theirs gladly in defence of their country.
After marching and fighting during several days, all the time in the midst of seemingly interminable fields of maize, where, beneath the rustling pennons, gleamed golden pumpkins innumerable, the weary Spaniards arrived at a dark and rapid stream coursing through a forest. Though it might have been easily forded had they been unopposed, they found their passage obstructed by a barrier of palisados, behind which the Indians had gathered in great force. Night was coming, and there was no time to parley, even if the governor had been in the mood, so he ordered a troop of dismounted horsemen, who were the best protected by their armor, to storm the barricade. With shields in front and swords and hatchets in hand, they dashed into the river, amid a storm of javelins and arrows. The Indians met them unflinchingly and killed several of their number, wounding many others; but the barrier was carried, and the troops poured tumultuously across the stream, putting to the sword such laggards in flight as they could overtake. A camp was established two leagues beyond the forest, in a fertile country similar to that which they had recently passed through, and here De Soto hoped to rest awhile and recuperate.
But, though the level fields presented a clear course for the cavalry, with no hiding-places save the stacks of maize, the wary and ferocious savages kept the camp in a constant state of alarm. The sentinels were shot down at their posts, patrols were attacked while going their rounds, and soldiers off duty were unable to sleep on account of the yells and howls that went up on every side. Flights of arrows, too, fell in the very centre of the camp and wounded several Spaniards while they were endeavoring to prevent a stampede of their horses.
In distress and gloom, exposed to incessant assaults by the restless and determined enemy, the soldiers passed the fourth night since they had emerged from the swamp, after patiently enduring and sturdily resisting for nearly one hundred hours, all the time with weapons in their hands. Such captives as they had taken boasted loudly of their cacique's prowess, and assured the Spaniards that the reception they had given them was nothing to what they would get should they approach his capital.
Apalachee had been vaunted by the Indians all the way from Ocali; yet when entered it was found to contain no monument to human greatness, past or present. It consisted of about two hundred straw huts, without doors or windows, and with wattled walls plastered over with mud. Had De Soto been an ordinary man, his spirits would have sunk within him; but, as has been said before, he was not an ordinary man. He was heroic in his sublime faith, but grotesquely so in his blind persistence in following a path which led him nowhere and pursuing a course which became the more involved in difficulties the farther he went.
Following his usual practice, he endeavored to get the cacique, Capafi, in his power, at first by sending him valuable presents accompanied by proffers of his friendship, then by despatching scouting-parties to capture him in his stronghold. This retreat was established in the centre of a dense forest, swamp-surrounded and fortified at every point of approach. It was hunted out and assaulted by De Soto himself, at the head of a band of horsemen chosen for their courage and endurance. At the end of a long, narrow, and winding trail, the governor found himself confronted with a barricade made of palisados bound together with osiers. This was stormed and carried; but within it was another, still stronger, and defended by savages fighting with the desperation of despair. A hand-to-hand conflict ensued, which ended only with the death of nearly all the defenders.
When, at last, the cacique was discovered, squat like a toad in the farthest corner of the inmost hut, it was seen that he was too fat to walk. He could only crawl on his hands and knees; but he was evidently greatly beloved by his surviving subjects, who bore him in their arms to De Soto, by whom he was kindly received and promised good treatment so long as he should keep the peace.