Ponce de Leon - Frederick Ober

Defeated by Caribs


"By reason whereof [the difficulty of conquering the Caribs] Johannes Pontius, beinge greatly discomfyted, durste not invade ye Canibales, fearynge their envenomed arrowes, which those naked man-hunters can, direct most certenly. Thus good Pontius, fayling of his purpose, was fayne to gyve over the Canibales, whom (beinge safe and under his owne house roof e) he had threatened to vanquishe and destroy."

Though it might be inferred from the remarks of Eden the translator, quoted in the preceding paragraph, that Juan Ponce was both vainglorious and cowardly, because he "durst not" invade the cannibal island, the inhabitants of which he had threatened to "vanquish and destroy," yet a close examination of his conduct on this occasion does not seem to warrant this denunciation. He had undertaken a task which he found impossible of execution, and eventually abandoned the conquest of the Caribs, on account of the insufficient force at his command, and lack of incentive. In other words, while he desired to capture as many cannibals as possible, for the purpose of enslaving them, he soon became convinced that, provided he could do so—and the prospect was not encouraging—they would be surly, unmanageable, and possible incitors of insurrections among the other Indians. Again, he had pretty well settled in his mind that the islands contained no gold or precious stones, while the immediate spoil of these naked savages, who lived in wretched huts of straw and palm-leaves, was not worth, all told, a thousand maravedis.

Now, Juan Ponce, as we know, was mercenary; he was not over-burdened with scruples as to the rights of the Indians; though in his old age he was not so sanguinary as in youth and middle life. He would like to enslave and despoil the Caribs, provided the "game were worth the candle"; but most evidently it was not. Hence his readiness to relinquish the conquest, and his desire to return to peaceful Boriquen. But there were the women captured by the Caribs, whose fate might be inferred, though not certainly known. He could not, in all honor, abandon them to the cannibals without at least the pretence of a search and attempted rescue. Also, he was in honor, and by inclination, bound to give his slain soldiers Christian burial, and at daylight of the morning following the fight in the ravine he might have been seen leading a body of well-armed veterans up the beach and over the river-bed.

He arrived at the scene of slaughter only to find (as we have said already) no trace of soldier or warrior, living or dead. Amazed, stupefied, he removed his helmet and looked around, as if to ask the rocks, the overhanging trees, the silver stream that rippled through the gorge, what had become of the men who had been left there lifeless, lying, as they had fallen, in their weighty armor. There was no reply from the insensate objects around, nor were there any evidences of human beings in the forest; though there may have been sharp eyes watching every movement of the Spaniards, as, dejected and discomfited, they once again retraced to the shore of the bay.

An exclamation of surprise broke from Juan Ponce, when, having reached the beach, he chanced to look towards the fleet out in the bay, and saw four vessels lying there at anchor, showing there had been a new arrival. It was a caravel, or large sloop, and flew his colors at the mast-head, indicating thereby that it had come from Boriquen. Though not wholly unexpected, since Juan Ponce himself had sent orders for the caravel to meet him in this bay, it came as a surprise, and served for the moment to divert his mind from the grievous troubles that afflicted him. Soon after reaching the deck of his flag-ship, Juan Ponce received a visit from the captain of the caravel, who came to report that he had brought a reinforcement of veteran soldiers from the island, together with a supply of ammunition and provisions.

"But these are not all," he said to the commander, with the air of one who has a pleasant surprise to communicate. "Reinforcements have I, powder as well, and food. I also bring good tidings from the senora, your excellent lady, and your children; but still more: I have with me the hound Becerrico, your excellency. See, there he stands, with his fore-feet upon the rail, awaiting only permission from you to come hither."

"And that he shall have," cried the delighted old soldier, blowing a silver whistle that hung from a chain around his neck. On hearing the sound, overboard sprang Becerrico at once, and swam lustily for the flag-ship, arrived at which he was assisted on board by the sailors, and then made his way to the deck and his master.

"Ah, Becerrico!" exclaimed Juan Ponce, as the dog leaped upon him and placed his paws on his shoulders. "Thou hast come in good time, for I need thee to trail the savages that have stolen our women. Into the mountains thou goest, soon as rested and fed, for time is most precious. With thee, now, we shall be invincible, for thou art a host in thyself."

Becerrico must have understood what his master told him, for he threw back his head and emitted from his cavernous throat a roar that shook the echoes of the mountains loose from their hiding-places. Then he obediently went to the galley, where the cook fed him bountifully, and after his meal came back and stood at "attention," as if to signify that he was ready for business, of whatever sort.

Giving him in charge of his steward, Juan Ponce cautioned the man to beware lest the Indians surprise him, but to seek out a fresh trail, and let Becerrico pursue it into the mountains, or wherever it might take him. Once on the scent of the savages, he would never desist from the hunt until they had been run down, captured, or killed. Accompanied by a strong escort, the steward went ashore with the hound, whither he was followed within an hour by Ponce de Leon and two hundred men. Most of them were musketeers, some were cross-bowmen, some armed only with sword or lance; but all were well equipped, and burning to revenge their comrades slain the day before.

Through the dense woods bordering the beach ran several trails, and it was Juan Ponce's plan to station a body of men at the mouth of each trail, so that if the hound should start any quarry he might capture it, perhaps. That is, considering the Indian trails (through a forest so dense that one could not penetrate it without cutting his way) as "runways," like those used by deer, he concluded that the savages, when started in the mountains by the hound, would certainly use them in attempting to make their escape. And the sequel proved him to have been in the right.

A long time elapsed after Becerrico had been shown the Indian runways and given the scent of the warriors who had kidnapped the women. At first he ranged up and down the shore, his head high in the air, then he selected one of the trails, and, plunging into the forest, was lost to sight. Two or three hours went by, and the patient soldiers ambushing the runways were almost asleep when, faint and far away, boomed down from the mountains the cry of the hound.

"Ha, listen!" exclaimed Juan Ponce, eagerly, addressing a member of his staff. "That is Becerrico, and when he gives that cry he means to say the quarry is in sight and on the run. Light the fusees, gentlemen, and pass the word along; have every musket ready, for soon there will be something to do."

Never had Juan Ponce spoken truer words, for there was straightway much to do, though not exactly of the nature he had anticipated. He had thought to make great slaughter of the Caribs when they should appear on shore, after having been run out of their strongholds by the blood-hound; and so he did; but first they placed his command in great peril by neatly turning his flank and getting between him and the sea. How it was, he could never explain—or, what is nearer the truth, never cared to speak of the subject, it was so mortifying to his pride. But while the soldiers were intently watching the runways, a multitude of Caribs in canoes suddenly swept around a promontory, darted in between his vessels and the beach—and there they were, to all appearances masters of the situation.

Almost simultaneously the refugees came pouring out of the forest runways, and thus Juan Ponce and his soldiers were hemmed in between two bodies of savages, the numbers of those in the forest constantly augmenting. It needed but a glance for the outwitted commander to perceive that the strategy of the Caribs exceeded his own—at least in this instance, and he paled with rage and vexation. There was not an instant to lose, however, if he would extricate his command from the trap which the savages had so cleverly sprung upon him, and he ordered the trumpet to sound the recall.

"In phalanx, march!" he shouted, having collected the scattered soldiers. "To the boats!" was the next command; and the soldiers needed no urging, for the strand was now almost alive with raging savages, seeking an opportunity for plying their weapons with most deadly effect. They poured forth from the runways, they scampered wildly across the sands, yelping and howling like wild beasts; but they were daunted by that shining wall of steel which, without break or gap, moved steadily towards the boats at the water's edge.

In their haste to take part in the action, the Caribs had neglected to cut off the boats from the vessels and kill their crews, having landed from their canoes in a curve of the shore which hid them from their sight. They now tried to make amends for their omission by detaching bands of skirmishers for the purpose; but were too late. Flinging out the sides of the phalanx like wings to the main body, Commander Ponce effectually protected the line of boats, the sturdy sailors in which had gallantly held their posts, despite the threatened attack by the Caribs.

But how to get the soldiers aboard was a problem for the commander to solve, and solve without delay, too, if he desired to save their lives and his honor. For both, of course, he was extremely solicitous, since his soldiers were as dear to him as his children; and to the latter, he now felt, he had only honor to leave, since all else seemed lost. His own life was as nothing to him in comparison with the conquest he had hoped to achieve; but he could not engage the savages single-handed. If there had been some head, or chief, visible and prominent, he would not have hesitated to challenge him to mortal combat; but there was none. The real leader of the Caribs, the chief, cacique, or kin —by whatever title he was known—had remained invisible, but his intelligence was apparent in the strategy by which the Caribs had gained such an advantage over their opponents.

The savages hovered at a little distance on the sands, in a semicircle concentric to the Spanish line, waiting—but eagerly and hungrily watching—for the foe to embark. As soon they realized, when that steel-faced phalanx began to back up and make for the boats, those of the soldiers who remained on shore would be exposed to their attack, so they waited for the opportune moment. A boat-load of soldiers went off, and another; though there seemed to be no diminution in numbers—or, at least, no gap appeared in the ranks; but soon after the boats arrived at the flag-ship something extraordinary happened. That is, it seemed extraordinary to the savages, but not to Commander Juan Ponce, who was pacing the sands within the wall of steel that stood between him and the foe. He was anxiously expecting it, for he had sent the captain of the ship a note to this effect: "En hombre de Dios  [In the name of God] open at once with your larboard batteries upon the savages behind us, else we cannot embark! Double-shot the lombards, and aim high, in order to clear us. But at once, at once! Our lives are in peril.—ADELANTADO."

And this is what happened: while the savages (their eyes so blinded by passion that they did not note the arquebusiers charging their muskets and lighting the fusees) yelled and danced in rage over the escape of the two boats laden with soldiers, a smoke-puff from the flag-ship was followed by a brace of iron missiles that cut a wide swath in their ranks. As the survivors gazed in amaze at the mangled dead and wounded in their midst, another puff, followed by another brace of projectiles, laid more of them low. At this moment the musketeers in the front rank of the phalanx fired a startling volley, and the panic of the Caribs was complete. They were literally shocked into affright, and were so terror-stricken that they fled without even snatching up their dead, which strewed the sands by scores.

The soldiers leaped forward with shouts, and in the heat of conflict would have pursued the savages into the forest; but a stern command from Juan Ponce halted them. He forbade them to leave the shore, and, moreover, was so urgent in his haste to depart from "this country accursed of the devil," as he termed it, that soon all the soldiers were afloat and safely away for the ships. Juan Ponce was the last to leave the strand, and, as his boat rapidly neared the flag-ship, was congratulating himself upon so easily escaping from the snare set by his enemies, when a babel of sounds came to his ears from the forest. Cries of distress and howls of rage were mingled with the baying of the hound, at hearing which Juan Ponce clutched the boat's rail nervously, exclaiming: "Becerrico! Becerrico! To think that I should have forgotten thee! Back, men, back to the shore!" he shouted to the rowers and the steersman. "Save the hound we must, even though we risk our lives to do so."

As the boat's bow swung around, there burst from the forest a naked Indian warrior, who made for the water with long strides, and Becerrico close behind him in full cry. Into the sea plunged the Carib, instantly followed by the hound, who was equally swift in the water as on land. The distance between the two was not great, and was being lessened so rapidly that the watchers in the boat and on the vessels expected to see Becerrico spring upon and throttle the savage in another moment, when the latter turned swiftly and raised himself half out of the water. In one hand he still held his bow, in the other a clutch of arrows, and while treading water, to keep himself erect, he placed an arrow on the string, and shot it with tremendous force into Becerrico's throat. The brave hound gasped, his life-blood stained the wave; but still he kept on, though with feebler and feebler strokes, until abreast the enemy, though then too weak to do him harm. The deadly poison with which the arrow was tipped did its work well and quickly. With a gesture of contempt, the hardy savage turned for the shore, gaining which he sped up the sands, and with a yell of defiance disappeared in the gloom of the forest.