Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Crushes Narvaez

May, 1520

When the envoys had gone back to Narvaez, Cortes' army followed them down over the plains of the warm lands, with the gay, sweet flowers and towering trees, until they came to a little river called "The River of Canoes," about three miles from Cempoalla. This was usually a small stream, but was now so swollen by the rain that had fallen all day that it was hard to fund a ford. It was almost dusk, and Cortes allowed his men a little rest before they searched out a way to cross the river.

The rain had stopped for the time, but the moon shone interruptedly through such thick clouds that it was certain the storm was not yet over. Cortes was not sorry. He meant to attack Narvaez that very night, and the rush and roar of a thunder-storm would be a good cover for his movements.

When the soldiers were rested, Cortes roused them to listen to what he had to say to them. He went over all the difficulties they had faced since they had entered the country, the victories they had won and the riches they had gained.

"And of all this," he said, "you are now to be defrauded; not by men holding a legal warrant from the crown, but by adventurers, with no better title than that of superior force. You have established a claim on the gratitude of your country and your sovereign. This claim is now to be dishonored, your very services are to be converted into crimes, and your names branded with infamy as those of traitors. But the time has at last come for vengeance. God will not desert the soldier of the Cross. Those whom He has carried victorious through greater dangers, will not be left to fail now. And, if we should fail, better to die like brave men on the field of battle than, with fame and fortune cast away, to perish ignominiously like slaves on the gibbet."

The hint about Narvaez and his gallows was not lost on any of the soldiers, though they did not need fear to stir them to loyalty.

"If we fail," Leon cried, "it shall not be our fault, for where you lead, we will follow."

Cortes received their promise with his usual good comradeship. He did not say anything to them about the likelihood of Narvaez' men coming over to his banners, for he wanted his soldiers to rely only on their own courage.

"To-night," he said, "we attack Narvaez."

The soldiers, tired as they were with their long march, received the news with joy and listened eagerly to Cortes' orders. He gave to Sandoval, as governor of Vera Cruz, the task of capturing Narvaez, and detailed sixty picked men to Sandoval's command. Christoval de Olid's force were to seize the artillery and thus draw off attention from Sandoval's efforts. Cortes himself headed twenty men who were to be ready for anything that offered. As it was Whit-Sunday, Cortes chose "Espiritu Santo" for the watchword.

In the meantime Narvaez had been spending idle days in Cempoalla, until finally an old chief roused him.

"Why are you so heedless?" he asked. "Do you think Malinche is so? Depend on it, he knows your situation exactly, and when you least dream of it he will be upon you."

That stirred Narvaez. On the very day that Cortes and his men were marching down through the rain to the River of Canoes on one side, Narvaez was marching toward it through the rain on the other side. When Narvaez reached the River of Canoes the rain was pouring in bucketsful. There was no sign anywhere of an enemy, and the soldiers grumbled at their soaked, uncomfortable condition.

"Of what use is it," they murmured, "to remain here fighting with the elements, when there is little reason to apprehend the approach of an enemy in such tempestuous weather. It will be wiser to return to Cempoalla, and in the morning we shall all be fresh for action, should Cortes make his appearance."

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


Narvaez himself was wet enough to listen to the men. He stationed two sentinels near the river, and sent a body of forty horse along the river bank in the direction that he thought Cortes might come. Then with his army he went thankfully back to Cempoalla and to his dry quarters in one of the sanctuaries on top of the main temple of Cempoalla, where he fortified himself with arquebusiers and crossbow-men. His artillery was in the court below, protected by his cavalry. Other smaller temples were also fortified with infantry. After Narvaez had looked to see that all was in order, he went to bed and to sleep as calmly as if he had never heard of Cortes.

Cortes, however, was not far away. Although the storm had turned the little river by this time into a fierce torrent, still, using their long copper-tipped spears as staffs, the little force managed to get across. Here they met new difficulties, for the storm and darkness made it almost impossible to keep the road, which, poor at its best, was now only a miry pit.

Suddenly, as they struggled through the mud and briars, they came upon a cross which they themselves had raised before they went to Mexico. They greeted it as a blessing from heaven. In spite of the storm, the whole army went down on their knees while good Father Olmedo pronounced absolution and prayed for help for "the warriors who had consecrated their swords to the glory of the cross."

Inspirited, they arose, ready for what lay ahead. Cortes ordered that the horses should be fastened under some trees which would shelter them from the rain and the baggage left beside them. Then he spoke words of encouragement.

"Everything," he said, "depends on obedience. Let no man, from desire of distinguishing himself, break his ranks. On silence, dispatch, and, above all, obedience to your officers, the success of our enterprise depends."

Strictly obedient, with no sound of drum or trumpet, the little army went on its way, till it came, without warning, on Narvaez' two sentinels. One they seized, but the other escaped and fled back to Cempoalla.

Annoyed that he could not now take his enemy by surprise, Cortes lingered a few moments to try and get information from the sentinel he had captured. As he found the man would not speak, even with a noose around his neck, Cortes wasted no more time, but at a rapid pace followed the sentinel who had escaped into Cempoalla.

The sentinel had burst into camp, crying, "The enemy is upon us!" The sleepy soldiers, wakened against their will, looked and listened. As they heard and saw nothing, they went to sleep again. Even Narvaez, when he roused, could not believe the sentinel.

"You have been deceived by your fears," he said, and mistaken the noise of the storm and the waving of the bushes for the enemy. Cortes and his men are far enough on the other side of the river, which they will be slow to cross in such a night."

"You'll be sorry," answered the sentinel surlily to his mates, and went to his own bed.

A few minutes later Cortes approached Cempoalla. The first thing he saw through the blackness of the night was the light burning high in the air in the temple sanctuary, which Duero had told him Narvaez used as his headquarters.

"That light must be your beacon," Cortes said to Sandoval. "It is the quarters of Narvaez."

The Spaniards, knowing the sentinel had been before them, entered the city with the greatest caution, listening each instant for the alarm. They heard only their own footsteps, however, and even that sound was almost smothered by the crashing rain and howling wind.

They had reached the center of the city before Narvaez' men perceived them. Instantly all was action in camp. The trumpets, sounding to arms, sent the dragoons to their horses and the artillery men to their guns. Narvaez, in his high tower, hastily buckled on his armor and put himself at the head of his men on the flat temple area.

Cortes' army advanced along the avenue that led to the temple, stealing close to the buildings on each side to escape the cannon balls that raked the avenue. Then, before the gunners could reload, "Espiritu Santo! Upon them!" Cortes cried, and his men made their final rush.

In an instant Olid and part of his men had engaged the artillery and got possession of the guns, while another division attacked the cavalry. Under cover of this confusion Sandoval, with his brave little band, stormed the staircase of the temple terraces.

He was met by a shower of arrows and musket balls from above, but in the darkness they went wild and wounded no one. Through these flying missiles Sandoval's men sprang up the steps and in a moment were on the flat area. Narvaez was wide awake now, ready to receive them. He fought bravely, but his short sword counted little against Sandoval's long pikes and he received wound after wound. At last one of the pikes struck his eye.

"I am slain!" he cried, and Sandoval's men, catching the words, shouted "Victory!"

But Narvaez was not taken yet. His men carried him into the sanctuary and beat back every attempt to break through the door, until finally a soldier, by throwing a torch up to the thatched roof, set it ablaze. The fire sent out so much smoke that Narvaez was driven out again to the temple area, where he was speedily captured by one of Sandoval's men. When his army heard that he was taken, they surrendered.

While this had been occurring on the temple heights, Cortes and Olid, struggling against the cavalry in the courtyard below, had done as effectual work. The cavalry, unable to break through the hedge of long spears, had soon yielded. As the garrisons of the smaller temples in the courtyard refused to lay down their arms, Cortes had turned against them their own guns which Olid had captured. After one volley all the garrisons capitulated. Doubtless Father Olmedo's gold had something to do with this easy victory, though the soldiers' own fears were largely responsible. The air was full that night of big, tropical fireflies, which the excited soldiers of Narvaez took for a whole army of matchlocks.

When the last fort had yielded and Narvaez had been captured, back came the body of cavalry which Narvaez had sent up the river to intercept Cortes. They also surrendered. Each soldier was obliged to give up his arms and to swear allegiance to Cortes as captain-general of the colony.

Thus in a few hours Cortes, with a little band of ragged men, hungry and wearied out by forced marches, having few weapons and military stores, had attacked in its own camp a force well-armed and equipped, three times the size of his own, and had come off completely victorious. His soldiers went wild over their achievement.

"While the air rung with the acclamations of the soldiery, the victorious general, assuming a deportment corresponding with his change of fortune, took his seat in a chair of state, and, with a rich, embroidered mantle thrown over his shoulders, received, one by one, the officers and soldiers, as they came to tender their congratulations. The privates were graciously permitted to kiss his hand. The officers he noticed with words of compliment or courtesy; and, when Duero, Bermudez, the treasurer, and some others of the vanquished party, his old friends, presented themselves, he cordially embraced them." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

When this ceremony of congratulation from his own officers was over, Narvaez and some of his generals were led before Cortes.

"You have great reason, Senor Cortes," Narvaez said, "to thank fortune for having given you the day so easily and put me in your power."

"I have much to be thankful for," Cortes answered grandly, "but for my victory over you, I esteem it as one of the least of my achievements since coming into the country."