Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

The Man on Horseback


In the doorway of his pavilion on the tented hill-slopes of Cassamarca sat the Inca of Peru. Around him were his nobles and captains of companies, from whom he was distinguished, not only by the deference they paid him, but by the crimson fringe, or borla, badge of royalty, with which his brow was banded. That memorable afternoon of November 15th was drawing to its close. Inca Atahuallpa had watched since morning for the coming of the strangers, first of the white race to invade the valley of the sierras in which he was intrenched. He had seen them emerge from the gloomy defiles of the mountains, with the sun shining on their helmets and reflected from their swords and arquebuses. He had looked in awed wonder upon their prancing steeds, their glittering weapons, their flaunting banners, and had noted with apprehension their solid formation—that steel-girdled phalanx which was to prove a wedge to split his empire in twain.

The mailed men of Spain marched straight across the valley and into the city of Cassamarca, but had hardly reached its central square ere their commander, grim and merciless Pizarro, detached a small band of troopers as an embassy to the Inca, in his camp on the hillside three miles distant. Again were the eyes of Atahuallpa greeted with a vision of armor-clad horsemen as, emerging from behind the city walls, they swept across the intervening distance and approached his intrenchments. Conspicuously in advance was the leader of the cavalcade, a tall and handsome hidalgo, encased from head to foot in shining armor. He was mounted upon a milk-white charger of noble proportions, which, when midway the distance between city and camp it encountered a stream twenty feet in width, took it at a bound and seemed to fly over the ground, Soon the cavaliers were in front of the royal ruler, who, while astonished and secretly alarmed, yet preserved an unmoved countenance. He directed his gaze to the ground at his feet, nor would he look up while the leader of the troop delivered the message with which he had been charged by Pizarro. Out of the corners of his eyes, however, he could not refrain from glancing, observing which, and probably piqued at the Inca's lack of interest, the cavalier resolved to arouse it.

He was, and had been for years, the "best lance" in the army, and by far the finest horseman of Pizarro's cavalry, so it was from pardonable vanity, perhaps, that he suddenly put spurs to his horse and dashed down the hillside to the plain out-stretched beneath. There, in the waning light of the departing day, he put the fiery war-horse through a variety of evolutions, circling round and round, impetuously charging an imaginary foe, and finally advancing at full speed upon the Inca and his nobles. The latter fled in wild dismay, but Atahuallpa sat immovable, even when the snorting, panting charger, thrown suddenly upon his haunches, launched out with iron-shod hoofs close to his head.

Ferndinand de Soto


This was the manner in which Ferdinand de Soto introduced himself to the Inca of Peru. For it was he (though by some accounts it was Hernando Pizarro) who, as the leader of that little band of troopers, was the first of white men to hold converse with the renowned "Child of the Sun." It it said that the Inca ordered such of his nobles as had fled at the approach of the war-horse to be executed; but whatever his feelings towards them may have been, for the gallant cavalier he ever after entertained the greatest respect, and this strange meeting was but the beginning of a friendship which lasted until severed by his untimely death.

The conquest of Peru was achieved, some historians have asserted, not so much by Francisco Pizarro, the reputed commander of the invading army, as by Ferdinand de Soto, captain of cavalry, and the adored leader of an invincible band of dragoons. Certain it is that he always led the advance, whether in reconnoitring the enemies' outposts on the skirmish line, scouting the unknown country, or in hand-to-hand encounters. He had joined Pizarro at the island of Puna, before he had really landed on the main, and when in sore need of reinforcements. From the very first he had asserted his independence of command, had refused to obey any orders that his judgment did not approve, and especially those which related to the plundering and massacring of the natives.

At the time he joined Pizarro, bringing two ships well laden, and one hundred companions armed to the teeth, the ferocious Francisco had so exasperated the Peruvians by his massacres and murders, that he and his band were about to be exterminated. They would doubtless have paid the extreme penalty of their evil deeds had it not been for the opportune arrival of De Soto, who not only supplied the men and munitions necessary for an invasion of the mainland, but also dictated the course to be pursued.

While it may not be claimed with truth that he was more humane than the majority of those cruel Spaniards who accomplished the conquest of Mexico, Central and South America, yet it may be confidently asserted that he had within him the elements of a manhood to which most of them were utter strangers. He was bold, dashing, and, above all, high-spirited and honorable. Though he had come to America with only a sword and a shield as his fortune, he was a gentleman born, and no one could rob him of his birthright. With that sword he had fought his way to honorable distinction; with that shield he had turned aside the arrows of calumny, by which his enemies had assailed him often in the past.

We will not, at this moment, inquire into the circumstances which induced, or rather compelled, his going to the assistance of Pizarro; but let it suffice to state that he had been promised by the commander-in-chief the rank of lieutenant-general, or second in command. When he arrived at the seat of war, however, he found that post occupied by Francisco Pizarro's brother, Hernando, who, moreover, very plainly intimated that he intended to hold it against all comers.

It was not De Soto's desire to foment a disturbance, and demand a nominal authority of which he was the actual possessor; so, after roundly berating Pizarro for his bad faith, he accepted things as they were and took his place in the army of invasion. From that time forward, however, he treated the Pizarros with contempt, and though they were four in number (Francisco, Hernando, Juan, and Gonzalo, besides a half-brother, Martin Alcantara), he was always ready to fight them, one and all, at the winking of an eyelid or the dropping of a glove. This they well knew, and took good care never to offend him, so that they all departed their different ways eventually (most of them through meeting their death by violence) without coming into personal combat.

Holding, then, the position of a commander of dragoons, every one devoted to him and ready to fight for him to the death, yet nominally at the orders of the commander-in-chief, Ferdinand de Soto made common cause with the invaders, and was foremost of them all in the conquest of the Inca's kingdom. Hernando Pizarro commanded another body of dragoons, similar in size and equipment to De Soto's, and the wonder is that their followers did not clash in conflict. That they did not was probably owing to the fact that both bands of marauders were engaged against the poor natives, whom they despoiled without mercy, and sometimes murdered.

When we speak of Ferdinand de Soto as a chivalrous and merciful conqueror, we must bear in mind that he was in contrast with one of the most brutal and merciless of those Spaniards who trailed the flag of their country through blood and dishonor, during the many years they were permitted by Providence to scourge the southern portions of our hemisphere. While in Peru, indeed, he was not only comparatively humane, but actually so; though when he had an absolutely independent command in Florida (as we shall see later) he hung and burned Indian caciques, cut off their hands, and cast them to the dogs, with that disregard for the sacredness of human life displayed by Pizarro himself.

Now, Francisco Pizarro was an astute commander who, though he had many and grievous faults, could appreciate a good man at his full worth. He saw that De Soto was immeasurably superior to his brothers, and governed himself accordingly, wisely ignoring his contempt and insubordination, and at all times treating him with respect. When, therefore, after the mainland invasion had commenced, De Soto, sent off to scout the country, remained many days over the time allowed him, and returned without any explanation, Pizarro said nothing. He sent him off again, and this time he was gone so long, it became common talk in the army that he had at last thrown off the commander's yoke and revolted. A spy returned, in fact, with information to that effect; but Pizarro knew his man, and gave no credence to the report. Meanwhile, De Soto and his men were ranging the country at will. They were the first, it is said, to discover that magnificent highway of the Incas, which connected the two great capitals, Quito and Cuzco; the first to penetrate the sierras and explore the wonderful valleys abounding in natural wealth and teeming with inhabitants.

Hernando Pizarro was jealous of the freedom and personal initiative allowed his rival, and one day tauntingly asked him if he intended to penetrate the kingdom as far as Cassamarca, where the Inca was said to dwell, and perchance form an alliance with him. Ferdinand flashed back at him the reply that he intended to do as he pleased, and he certainly was going to visit the Inca, whether the rest would keep him company or not.

"As for you, Senor Hernando—the only one of your family who can boast a father!—presume not upon your connections to insult me with impunity. Neither you nor your brother can control my movements!"

Hernando turned livid with rage, but he dared not reply. He reported the remark to Francisco, who merely shrugged his shoulders, though the allusion to his illegitimacy cut him to the quick.

"It is well," he finally said. "Let him go to see the Inca Atahuallpa, for there may be no better way of getting rid of him! For it is said that the Inca is all-powerful, that he has warriors as the sands of the sea; and if this be so, who, my dear brother, can be better spared than Don Fernando?"

"Who, indeed?" answered Hernando, with a malignant smile. "But suppose he returns—that he escapes the Inca's warriors—then he gathers all the laurels!"

"Well, he may, so we get all the gold! Laurel leaves fade quickly, do they not? While gold, bright gold, can never tarnish."

Pizarro said no more, for he was a man of few words; but he lost no time in despatching De Soto on his dangerous errand. With only twenty-four men, though the pick of his company, he set out. Knowing no fear, craving adventure, always anxious to be first in a fight and the last to draw out, Ferdinand de Soto gayly pranced away, as to a tourney. He and his men sought again the great highway, along which they swept, resplendent in their armor, like blazing meteors, bursting upon the astonished gaze of the terrified natives, only to disappear again, with clash of weapons and metallic rattle of accoutrements.

Such forays as this were the delight of De Soto, for he had made many in the wilds of Nicaragua previous to his adventure in Peru. He had gained there a rich experience, which stood him in good stead now in his dealings with the natives. Indian nature is much the same the wide world over; and though the natives of Nicaragua were far beneath those of Peru in culture, at heart they did not differ. Thus it was that De Soto was successful, everywhere he went, in gaining the confidence of the aborigines; thus it was that, though he met an army ready to fight him, gathered in a valley of the mountains, he and his men were finally summoned to a banquet, rather than to battle. After it was over, he was about to ride on again, when he was met by an envoy from the Inca himself, bearing presents for Pizarro, and in all honor could not refuse his request to return and escort him to the camp of the commander-in-chief.

It was not in accord with De Soto's desires to return, for he had set himself the task of being the first of his race to meet and hold an interview with the then unknown Inca. So he went back reluctantly, and, if this were a narrative of Pizarro's doings, instead of De Soto's, we might tell how the envoy was received, how the commander was filled, first, with a great desire to see the owner of the golden treasure, of which he had sent specimens to Pizarro, and again with apprehension at the difficulties in the way. In the end, the whole army set out for Cassamarca, with De Soto's company in the lead, and Hernando Pizarro bringing up the rear.