Adventures and Conquests of Pizarro - George Towle

The Runaways

In the early morning of a warm autumn day, not quite four hundred years ago, three lads, varying in age from thirteen to fifteen, were hurriedly climbing a rough and precipitous mountain road in Central Spain. Every now and then, as they mounted higher, they would look anxiously back to see if they were followed; and, finding they were not, they continued their ascent with brisker steps and more cheerful countenances. Once in a while they came to a spot where an opening in the dense and luxuriant forest exposed to their view the broad plain, still veiled by a soft morning haze, which they had left a few hours before. Here they would stop, and strain their eyes in the direction they had come, as if to discern any pursuing figures who might appear in the road far below, which, so high were they above it, seemed like a narrow yellow thread winding amid the expanse of green.

They were stalwart, dark-featured youths, with stout sinews and sturdy limbs, and serious, resolute faces; wearing the same rude apparel, which consisted of a coarse shirt, a loose jacket, short wide breeches fastened at the knees, rude sandals on their feet, and large, coarsely-woven woolen caps on their heads. Each carried a bundle on a stick, which he swung across his shoulder. As they pressed upward, they spoke but little: they not only wished to save their breath for the long tramp before them, but their thoughts were so deeply absorbed in their serious situation, that they were not disposed to be talkative.

At last they reached a steep and rugged cliff, the summit of which was almost bare, and from which, over the tops of the thick forest, they could clearly see the plain stretched out for miles till it faded near the misty horizon. They were tired and hungry; and, despite the danger of pursuit, they resolved to rest a while on this convenient crag. Throwing down their bundles, and lying upon the patches of moss which here and there covered the rock, they proceeded to discuss such a breakfast as their resources permitted. They took from their bundles some coarse bread and raw onions, a few bunches of grapes which they had picked by the road, and some chestnuts; and these homely viands were quickly disposed of. Then one of them produced a small can, and, running to a mountain brook which leaped madly over a little chasm nearby, filled it with deliciously cold water, and brought it to his companions, who drank of it eagerly. Refreshed by their simple morning meal, the three lads, lying at full length on the patches of moss, turned their faces instinctively towards the plain, and pointed out to each other the spots familiar to them all.



"Look!" said one, a trifle taller than the others, whom they called Francisco: "you can plainly see the old citadel there on the right; and there is the old wall, and the town on the side of the hill; and you can just catch a glimpse of the big castle of the duke, or at least its great square western tower; and that little open place is our broad plaza. What a distance we must be from Truxillo, everything looks so small! I wonder how many miles we have come."

"Oh!" exclaimed the youngest of the three, "and can't you see, Francisco, just this side of the town, the round hill where our homes are? they must be those huts midway up the slope: and still farther this way are the fields where we used to tend the swine."

"We have done with that forever, thank Heaven!" cried Francisco heartily. "No more tending of swine for us. Gonzalo and Juan must do my share henceforth, as well as their own. Bah! what a dog's life! But we are leaving it, and are going out into the great world to seek our fortunes. We will be soldiers, and fight our way to fame and power. We will go across the seas to the beautiful lands which the brave Columbus found, and where we will surely become great and rich."

The third, who had not yet spoken, and whose name was Pedro, sat and listened with a rather gloomy face. At last he said,—

"But think what we must go through before we so much as begin! We haven't a marco among us, and still we must get to Seville somehow. It is, old Lopez says, at least one hundred and fifty miles; and we shall be lucky if we get a ride now and then on a jaded donkey or a rickety cart. When I think of it, I almost wish myself back among the pigs again."

Francisco darted an angry glance at his companion, and exclaimed,—

"What, Pedro! faint-hearted already? Out on such cowardly thoughts! I'd rather starve than go back to that slave's work. Come, pluck up your courage! We can't find ourselves in a worse plight than we have been in all our lives."

He rose from the ground, and, eagerly scanning such portions of the road as were visible here and there, added,—

"We are not yet pursued. They may think we have gone another way,—towards Madrid. They did not suppose, perhaps, that we should climb the mountains in the night. But let us go forward. We shall not be safe till we are far away from here. I have heard that there is a great river in the valleys beyond the mountains. We must not rest till we have put that between us and our tyrants."

So saying, he bounded up the road with the buoyant step of youth and hope; and his comrades, inspired by his cheerful and manly words, briskly followed him.

As they trudged along,—now over bald ledges where the sun blazed remorselessly upon them, now through dense cool forests of chestnut and oak, now across marshy levels where the overgrown waste was covered with exasperating tangles of rank shrubs, through which they scrambled as best they could,—they talked, as they went, about the miseries of the past, and the bright and glowing hopes they had formed of the future.

Ere many hours they reached the summit of the Guadalupe Mountains; and it was with a sigh of relief that they reflected, that instead of climbing upward, sometimes over steep cliffs and near dangerous fissures, they would now descend by a gradual winding road to the green and sunny valleys they could just discern far below them.

Persuaded that, when once they had placed the mountains between them and the wretched homes they had left, they would be secure from pursuit, and free to pursue the journey at their leisure, they bounded down the road, now singing a verse of some rude peasant-song, now running a race to see which would first reach a certain tree or a bend in the road, now leaping lightly across a roaring mountain brook. They soon found themselves in the midst of luxuriant fields of wheat and rye, and crossing turfy hillside pastures where flocks of sheep were quietly grazing. Then they came upon olive groves, interspersed with thick-hanging vineyards, upon which the luscious and now just ripe clusters hung temptingly. There were grapes of every hue and size; and our wanderers did not hesitate to eat their fill of the juicy fruit, their hunger having been once more sharpened by the long tramp they had taken since their breakfast on the crag.

It was now very hot, and the boys rested a while under the dense shade of a copse of chestnuts. But their young spirits soon rose again, and they pushed on towards a straggling hamlet which they perceived at a distance of a mile or two down the road. The hamlet consisted of a few peasant-huts; and above it rose a hill, upon which stood the ruins of a once noble Moorish castle. No sooner did Francisco espy this ruin than he proposed that they should seek shelter within its crumbling walls for the night. They began to climb the hill, though they were now so weary that they could scarcely drag one leg after the other, when they encountered a rough-looking peasant trudging home from his day's work in the fields. He stopped, stared at the wanderers, and then asked them where they came from, and whither they were going.

Francisco frankly replied that they had run away from their homes beyond the mountains, that they were on their way to Seville to enlist in the wars, and that they proposed to spend the night in the castle-ruin.

The peasant looked more curiously at them than ever. A grim smile gradually spread over his sunburnt face as he replied,—

"No need of your going up there. Come home with me to my hut yonder. You shall have a bundle of hay in a corner, and to-morrow I will share my breakfast with you."

The hospitable offer was no sooner made than joyfully accepted. The boys went back with the peasant, slept soundly on the hay, and rising, as did their host, with the dawn, partook of his frugal meal of chestnuts, coarse bread, goat's milk, and grapes.

As, much refreshed and very grateful, they started forth to resume their journey, the peasant cried out to them,—

"God give you luck! and, if you ever get to be great captains, don't forget the night you spent in my hut."

Day after day they continued to trudge bravely along with their little bundles on their backs, picking up what bits of food they could in the villages through which they passed, regaling themselves on the grapes and other fruit they found plentifully by the wayside, and resting by night wherever they happened to be when the sun disappeared behind the hills.

Usually they were obliged to content themselves with meager fare, and even to go many hours without eating. Sometimes, however, they would be treated to goat's flesh and goat's milk by friendly peasants whom they met on the way; now and then the goatherds would regale them with a choice bit of cheese, which they ate with great gusto with bread and onions or garlic; and once, at a hospitable village inn, they were made very grand by being invited to eat an omelet in the kitchen. Once in a while they obtained a ride on a cart or a donkey; at other times they were gruffly refused this favor, and were forced to walk for miles through the hot sun with aching sides and blistered feet. Francisco, however, inspired his companions with his own buoyant and dauntless spirits. When they faltered, he urged them on again by picturing in glowing colors the stirring destiny before them, and by shaming them with his anger at their cowardice.

They had been travelling thus for some days, when one afternoon they came in sight of a large town,—a larger town than either of them had ever seen before. It nestled close upon the sloping banks of a wide, swift river, which the wanderers could see appearing and disappearing in sparkling patches among the trees for miles away. Above the town rose a hoary castle, its huge towers hung thick with ivy and other parasites, and its battlements looming steep and grim above the river; on another hill stood a long low building, which the boys easily recognized as a convent; near the convent was a prison; while above the group of closely-built houses appeared the spires of two churches.

The sight of this large town caused them to hasten their pace; and they briskly pushed forward, and entered its narrow streets. On asking a passerby, they learned that the place was Merida, and that the wide river which flowed by it was the Guadiana, one of the largest streams in Spain.

Francisco, ignorant as he was, knew something at least of the geography of his native country. With cheery voice he told his mates that they had gone almost a third of the way from Truxillo to Seville, and that the most difficult part of the journey was that which they had already accomplished. Though quite tired, the boys could not resist the temptation to wander about the streets of Merida, which presented many sights to attract their curiosity and wonder. They stared in at the shop-windows; and their mouths watered at the succulent viands they espied at the butchers' stalls, and the cakes which were displayed in the pastry-cooks' windows. They gazed with delight at a troop of gaily-dressed cavaliers, with their flowing plumes and glittering cuirasses, who pranced across the plaza; all the more eagerly when they learned that these cavaliers were on their way to the wars in Italy. They listened to the playing of lutes, and singing, which were going on in front of a quaint old inn just by the river; and admiringly watched the boats as they shot swiftly to and fro on the stream.

It was dusk before, utterly worn out with fatigue, they bethought themselves of their hunger, and the necessity of finding a shelter for the night. As they were in a large town, with no money, they despaired of obtaining the hearty meal they craved: so, choosing a secluded nook on the riverbank, they contented themselves with a few chestnuts and grapes which they had taken care to stow away in their bundles.

Then they looked about them for a resting-place. There was one, happily, near at hand. About a quarter of a mile off they observed a large circular edifice, so lofty that even in the deepening dusk they could perceive that it was not an ordinary building, and that, moreover, it appeared to be a ruin.

Passing once more into the narrow zigzag streets, then up a rather steep hill, and across a bridge spanning a stream which ran into the Guadiana, they soon reached the structure. Entering it by a very high and wide portal, they found themselves in a large circular space choked with weeds and rubbish. Around this space, which was roofless, and open to the air above, were built rows of stone seats, rising one behind the other: these, too, were overgrown and tangled with a profusion of wild shrubs and vines. In this enclosure they easily found a convenient spot. They without more ado threw themselves upon the bed of weeds, and were soon wrapped in deep slumber.

Although they did not know it, they were sleeping amid the ruins of the noble old Roman amphitheatre, where, centuries before, the Roman conquerors of Spain had crowded on the rows of seats to witness famous horse and chariot races, bloody encounters of gladiators, and cruel contests of slaves with ferocious beasts.

There was but one high-road passing southward from Merida: it was that which led to the city which was the goal of the boys' difficult journey,—Seville. From the top of the amphitheatre, to which they scrambled as soon as the bright rays of the rising sun aroused them, they could observe all the surrounding country; and they were glad to see, just below the old castle, and not far away, a bridge spanning the Guadiana. They were soon tramping gaily across it, and, as they went, did not fail to admire its imposing proportions, its solid masonry, and wide-springing arches. They would have found, by counting them, that there were no less than eighty of these arches: and they might have been told that the bridge had been built by the warlike Roman emperor Trajan more than a thousand years before. The rest of their journey was almost wholly through a country which seemed a continuous garden. Groves of olives and of oranges, dense vineyards covering the hillsides and hilltops, yellow wheat-fields spread over the intervals, dense forests of chestnut and oak affording a grateful shade from the hot sun, and picturesque streams winding amid the meadows or dashing down from the hills, were passed in quick succession.

The boys did not hurry after leaving Merida; for they were now confident of not being pursued, and they felt sure of food and shelter the rest of the way. The world was all before them, and they knew that there was plenty of time at their disposal.

Their tramp was now all the more enjoyable, as they came more frequently upon towns and villages, and met more people going to and fro. Often they encountered a train of pack-mules carrying grain or fruit; now a flock of shaggy merino-sheep going from Castile into their own province,—Estremadura; sometimes whole colonies of peasants—men, women, babies, donkeys, and all—going to reap the harvests in the lowlands; and once in a while a troop of bravely caparisoned soldiers on their way to join the armies of King Ferdinand.

There yet remained one more mountain range to cross,—that of the Sierra Morena. But it was less lofty than that of the Guadalupe; and besides, they felt that they might make the ascent as leisurely as they pleased. They had now no pursuers to fear, no cruel punishment to dread.

They crossed the Sierra Morena, and once more descended into valleys lovely to the eye, and fragrant with luxuriant and ripening fruit. They heard with delight that the greater part of their journey had been passed, and that, by pushing resolutely forward, they would ere long reach their destination.

So it proved. About noon one day they came in sight of the spires and domes of the celebrated city, which glittered afar in the sunlight, and which they had undergone so much to reach. The noble steeple of the great cathedral, the largest in the world save St. Peter's at Rome, rose high above the other buildings; and the boys exclaimed in wonder at beholding it. The vast palace of the Alcazar too, which looked as if it were a mile long, and was flanked by great square towers, was eagerly pointed out and gazed at. Their long journey was at last ended; and as they entered the ancient, winding streets, threading their way amidst crowds of people attired in every variety and color of costume, past balconied dwellings and fragrant gardens, across the spacious square with its splashing fountain, and under the shadow of the lofty cathedral, they declared that they had never imagined so grand and beautiful a city to exist in all the world.