Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Last Assault

Summer, 1521

The rainy season had set in and Cortes found it necessary to provide better shelter for his troops. The brigantines brought to Xoloc timber and stone from the houses destroyed in Tenochtitlan, and the Indian allies built two rows of huts facing each other on opposite sides of the dyke behind the ramparts of the fort. The causeway was so wide here that, after the barracks were finished, there was plenty of room for the army to march between them.

The soldiers grumbled at the cold, rainy weather, especially Alvarado's men, who were obliged to mount guard over each new breach he filled in the causeway, lest the Aztecs should tear it open again. Cortes' new arrivals had little more patience; they were eager for immediate action of some kind. Alderete, the royal treasurer, who had lately joined Cortes, thought it was time to press further into the city and take up a position there.

Several of Cortes' captains backed Alderete in this opinion. Cortes finally yielded to their eagerness, although to his mind they were not yet ready for the step. The place chosen for their new camp was the market of Tlatelolco.

Cortes sent word to Sandoval to leave only enough men at Tepejacac to hold the place, to send seventy picked men to Xoloc and, with the remainder of his force, to join Alvarado at Tlacopan on the appointed day and from there, protected by the brigantines, to advance along the Tlacopan dyke to the market of Tlatelolco, while his own troops took the road over the causeway of Iztapalapan. Cortes' forces were to be escorted not only by the brigantines, but by a fleet of native canoes, which could enter canals too shallow for the ships and so penetrate into the city.

On the day appointed Cortes gave his troops their directions. In the outskirts of Tenochtitlan there were three streets which led from the causeway of Iztapalapan to the market-place of Tlatelolco—one main avenue with a narrower street each side. Cortes divided his army into three divisions; one, under Alderete, was to march through the chief avenue, which the canals on each side of it made really into a causeway; the second division, under Tapia and a younger brother of Alvarado, was to march through one of the smaller parallel streets; while Cortes' own division would take the third street. Where the avenue of Tlacopan came into the market-place, there were to be stationed a small body of men with three guns. This was to be the rendezvous in case of disaster.

Cortes' last word to his officers was a warning to cover their line of retreat. He reminded them of the many calamities which had come to them through the breaches in the dykes and commanded them not to leave behind them one unfilled gap to be their destruction in case of sudden falling back.

Cortes' army started off gaily from Xoloc. Each division, eager to be first in the market-place and to distinguish itself in the day's work, passed without much trouble along the causeway and into the outskirts of the city. Alderete marched confidently down the main avenue while Cortes and Tapia took the parallel streets.

Cortes went slowly, looking out for ambush and filling up the breaches in the canals, while the Tlascalans clambered to the fiat roofs of the houses that lined the street and engaged in hand to hand conflict the warriors stationed there. From the other streets Cortes, as he listened, heard the victorious shouts of the Spaniards and began to think their quick victory suspicious. Were the enemy drawing the white men into the heart of the city to surround them?

Alderete sent to Cortes one messenger after another to say he was almost at the market-place. Halting his own men, with a small body to accompany him Cortes went through to the main street to see what Alderete was about and make sure that he had left a clear line of retreat.

The little company had not gone far along the causeway-avenue when they came to a strip of water thirty-five feet wide. A few stones had been tumbled into the hole, but it still yawned like a trap across the line of march. Every, man in Alderete's command had been more anxious to win glory by being first at the goal than to provide means of escape. Each cavalier had said to his neighbor, "You stay and fill up the hole," and all had rushed ahead and left the breach to take care of itself. Cortes saw, too, that the sides of the dyke had been recently sloped off to make them slippery and dangerous.

Filled with alarm, he at once set his men to filling up the gap. They had scarcely got to work when, from the city beyond, there came the first long, piercing note of Guatemozin's sacred horn—blown only on great occasions—and then a horrible mingling of yells and war whoops from thousands of throats. Next came the rush of countless feet as the tide of battle rolled back along the avenue.

Cortes on one side of the breach saw the Spaniards flying toward him along the causeway-avenue on the other side, pursued by thousands of Aztecs who, at the sound of Guatemozin's horn, had ended their pretended flight and turned on their pursuers, while countless others had poured in on their flanks from side streets. They came on now in an indistinguishable mass of friend and foe, dealing blows at random as they ran, staggering, slipping, treading down each other, struck by the arrows from the housetops, and all the time in their blind terror coming nearer to the wide gap which they had not stayed to fill.

Cortes watched them helplessly as they came to the edge of the gulf and plunged over; those in front pushed by the mad fright of those behind. Of those who swam across, some Cortes' company pulled up as they tried to climb the slippery bank of the dyke, others were drowned, and still others were seized by the warriors and carried off captives. Those who were saved were still too distracted to listen to orders.

Finally the Aztecs, growing bolder, with a cry of "Malinche," sprang from their canoes to seize the general himself. Six sinewy Aztecs grasped him and hurried him to their boat. Christoval de Olea gave up his life to save his general, but he killed two Aztecs first. Another Spaniard and a Tlascalan, fighting across Cortes' prostrate body, flung themselves on the Aztecs and held them off till Quinones, the captain of the bodyguard, came to the rescue and freed Cortes. Guzman, Cortes' servant, brought his horse and just as his master mounted it, Guzman himself was snatched away and thrown into a canoe.

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


Cortes could not be persuaded to leave the spot until Quinones seized his bridle and led him away by force, saying, "My master's life is too important to the army to be thrown away here."

The causeway had been so cut up by the confused struggle that it was now knee-deep in mud and its edges slippery as ice. Many of those who had swum the breach were now pushed back into the water over the sides of the dyke by their crazed comrades in their efforts to escape. Corral, the ensign, who had lost his banner in the Cordilleras, slipped into the canal, but just as the enemy was about to pounce upon him, he scrambled again up the dyke with the Spanish banner still flying.

Cortes finally got the men who were left off the slippery causeway and into the open place in the Tlacopan avenue where the guns had been placed. Here, in spite of the enemy's fire, he brought some order into his ranks, and by a cavalry charge beat back the Aztecs. Then he sounded the retreat for the other two divisions, which fought their way to the rendezvous. Sending the allies first, the infantry next and guarding the rear with the cavalry, Cortes got his broken army back to Xoloc. At once he sent Tapia to assure Alvarado of his safety.

Alvarado and Sandoval, along the Tlacopan dyke, had almost reached the market when they heard the dreaded sound of Guatemozin's horn and the Aztec war whoop. They paused, knowing that their comrades had not prospered, and while they waited, the Aztecs, driven back by Cortes' cavalry charge, turned against Alvarado's command, shouting as they came "Malinche! Malinche!"

Alvarado, deeply anxious as to Cortes' fate, sounded a retreat. The Indians followed the Spaniards back across the Tlacopan causeway until they reached the brigantines, whose guns drove them back once more into the city.

Tapia had been delayed by Indian bands on his way to Tlacopan, and both Alvarado and Sandoval grew worried and anxious at not hearing from Cortes. At last Sandoval could stand it no longer. He remounted his tired horse and galloped off to Xoloc.

He found the camp very sad. Besides the loss of two guns and seven horses, the many killed and the more wounded, sixty-two Spaniards had fallen alive into the Aztec's hands, and all the white men knew what horror that meant. Cortes did his best to keep up his men's spirits, but in spite of his outer cheerfulness the affair of "the sorrowful bridge," as he called it, lay heavily at his heart.

"It is for my sins, Son Sandoval," Cortes said. "For a few days I must rest and you must take my place, as I am too crippled at present to discharge my duties. You must watch over the safety of the camps. Give special heed to Alvarado's. He is a gallant soldier; I know it well; but I doubt the Mexican hounds may sometime take him at disadvantage."

And these few words show that although Cortes relied on Alvarado's courage as much as on Sandoval's, it was on Sandoval he depended for coolness and wisdom.

Sandoval received his instructions and set out on his way back to Tlacopan. It was late afternoon when he reached camp; the warm sun flooded the fertile valley of Mexico and glittered on the towers of Tenochtitlan. Suddenly, through the quiet Spring afternoon, there came to the soldiers' ears a sound that struck terror to their souls, as it had on "the melancholy night." The great drum boomed forth from the temple.

The camp was only a mile now from the city, and the soldiers could plainly see the huge temple and the procession wind up its sides along the terraces. It was a procession of Indian priests leading their victims to sacrifice, and some of the captives were white.

The next few days were sad and quiet in the Spanish camps, but times of feasting and rejoicing and sacrificing for the Aztecs. The Indian priests extolled Guatemozin as the hero of his country, and once more Guatemozin's vassals around the valley began to think of him as their Emperor.

Then he sent his messengers through the country calling the tribes back to their allegiance. They listened and hesitated, for it was not Guatemozin alone who called, but the priests as well, and the Aztecs reverenced their priests almost as much as the Emperor.

And then the priests published their great proclamation which stirred to the depths the hearts of Guatemozin's vassals. This was the proclamation:

"Huitzilopotchli, your deity, insulted by the white men, is now appeased by the sacrifice of Malinche's followers upon his altars. He has again taken the Aztecs under his protection. Before eight days are gone he will deliver your enemies into your hands."