Days of the Discoverers Part 11



"They fight among themselves too much. They need the man with the whip."

"_Bough! wough!_"

"_Yar-r-rh! arrh!--agh!_"

A spirited and entertaining dog-fight was going on just outside the house of the governor of Darien. The deep sullen roar of Balboa's big hound Leoncico was as unmistakable as the snarling, snapping, furious bark of Cacafuego, who belonged to the Bachelor Enciso. The two hated each other at sight, months ago. Now they were having it out. The man with the whip evidently came on the scene, for there was a final crescendo of barks, yelps and growls, followed by silence.

Pizarro's remark, however, did not refer to the dogs but to the settlers, who had been rioting over the governorship of the colony. The outcome of this disturbance had been the practical seizure of the office of captain-general by Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Pizarro himself, and Juan de Saavedra, to whom he addressed his comment, had supported Balboa.

Saavedra did not commit himself further than to answer, with a shrug, "Balboa can use the whip on occasion, we all know that. Ah, here he comes now."

The man and the dog would have attracted attention anywhere, separately or together. The man was well-made and vigorous, with red-brown hair and beard, and clear merry eyes, a leader who would rather lead than command. The dog was of medium size but very powerful, tawny in color with a black muzzle, and the scars on his compact body recorded many battles, not with other dogs but with hostile Indians. He had been his master's body-guard in several fights, and Balboa sometimes lent him to his friends, the dog receiving the same share of plunder that would have been due to an armed man. Leoncico is said to have brought his captain in this way more than a thousand crowns.

"You called him off, eh, General?" Saavedra asked, bending to stroke the terrible head. He and Vasco Nunez had been friends for years; in fact it was Saavedra who had managed the smuggling of Balboa on board the ship in a cask, to escape his creditors, when the expedition set out. They were intimate, as men are intimate who are different in character but alike in feeling and tradition. Pizarro was an outsider and knew it.

"Yes; Enciso's dog would be better for a whipping, perhaps, but I had no mind to make the Bachelor any more an enemy than he is. Pizarro,--" he turned to the soldier of fortune, with a frank smile, "I have work for you to do. It is dangerous, but I know that you do not care for that.

Pick out six good men, and be ready to see if there is any truth in those stories about the Coyba gold mines."

Pizarro's black brows unbent. Nothing could have suited him better than just these orders. He was, like Balboa, a native of the province of Estremadura in Spain, and being shut out by his low birth from advancement in his own land, had come to the colonies in the hope of gaining wealth and position by the sword. His reckless courage, iron muscle, and a certain cold stubbornness had given him the reputation of an able man, but though nearly ten years older than Balboa, he had never held any but a subordinate position. He had nearly made up his mind that his chance would never come. These hidalgos wanted all the glory as well as all the power for themselves. He could not see why Balboa should turn the possible discovery of a rich new province over to him, but if the gold should be there, Pizarro would get it. He bowed, thanked the general, and took his leave.

"General," said Saavedra, "I never like to put my neck in a noose, but if you were only Vasco Nunez I would ask you why you made exactly that choice."

Balboa laughed and pulled the ears of Leoncico, who had laid his head in full content on his master's knee. "I am always Vasco Nunez to you, _amigo_," he said easily, "as you very well know. Pizarro is a bulldog for bravery, and he has a head on his shoulders. Also he is ambitious, and this will give him a chance to win renown."

"And keeps him out of mischief for the time being," put in Saavedra dryly.

Balboa laughed again. "Why do you ask me questions when you know my mind almost as well as I do? You see, now that Enciso is about to go, we shall have some freedom to do something besides quarrel among ourselves.

Gold is an apology for whatever one does, out here. If there is as much of it as they say, in this Coyba, the King may be able to gild the walls of another salon, and if he puts Pizarro's portrait in it in the place of honor I shall not weep over that. There is glory enough for all of us, who choose to earn it."

Pizarro and his men had not gone ten miles from Darien before they ran into an ambush of Indians armed with slings. The seven Spaniards charged instantly, and actually put the enemy to flight, then beat a quick retreat. Every man of them despite their body armor had wounds and bruises, and one was left disabled upon the field. Balboa met them as they limped painfully in. His quick eye took in the situation.

"Only six of you? Where is Francisco Hernan?"

"He was crippled and could not walk," answered Pizarro sulkily; he saw what was coming. Balboa's eyes blazed.

"What! You--Spaniards--ran away from savages and left a comrade to die?

Go back and bring him in!"

Pizarro turned in silence, took his men back over the road just traversed, and brought Hernan safely in.

This was one of the many incidents by which the colony learned the mettle of the new captain-general. Under his direction exploration of the neighboring provinces was undertaken. Balboa with eighty men made a friendly visit to Comagre, a cacique who could put three thousand fighting men in the field. Comagre and his seven sons entertained the white men in a house larger and more like a palace of the Orient than any they had before seen. It was one hundred and fifty paces long by eighty paces broad, the lower part of the walls built of logs, the floors and upper walls of beautiful and ingenious wood-work. The son of this cacique presented to Balboa seventy slaves, captives taken by himself, and golden ornaments weighing altogether four thousand ounces.

The gold was at once melted into ingots, or bars of uniform size, for purposes of division. One-fifth of it was weighed out for the Crown, the rest divided among the members of the expedition. The young cacique stood by watching with scornful curiosity as the Spaniards argued and squabbled over the allotment. Suddenly he struck up the scales with his fist, and the shining treasure tumbled over the porch floor like spilt corn.

"Why do you quarrel over this trash?" he asked. "If this gold is so precious to you that you leave your homes, invade the land of peaceable nations and endure desperate perils, I will tell you where there is plenty of it."

The Spaniards' attention was instantly caught and held. The young Indian went on, with the same careless contempt, "You see those mountains over there? Beyond them is a great sea. The people who dwell on the border of that sea have ships almost as big as yours, with sails and oars as yours have. The streams in their country are full of gold. The King eats from golden dishes, for gold is as common there as iron is among you,"--he glanced at the cumbrous armor and weapons of his guests. Indeed the panoply of the Spaniards, made necessary by the constant possibility of attack, and the weight of their cross-bows and other weapons, was a source of continual wonder to the light and nimble Indians, and of much weariness and suffering to themselves. Many in time adopted the quilted cotton body armor of the natives, and used pikes when they could in place of the musketoun, which was like a hand-cannon.

This was not the first time that Balboa and many of the others had heard of the Lord of the Golden House, but no one else had told the story with such boldness. The young cacique said that to invade this land, a thousand warriors would be none too many. He offered to accompany Balboa with his own troops, if the white men would go.

Here indeed was an enterprise with glory enough for all. Balboa returned to Darien and began preparations. Valdivia, the regidor of the colony, had been sent to Hispaniola for provisions, but the supply he brought back was absurdly small. One of the serious difficulties encountered by all the first settlers in the New World was this matter of provisioning the camps. For the Indians the natural fruits and produce of the country were sufficient, and they seldom laid up any great store. The small surplus of any one chief was soon exhausted by a large body of guests.

Moreover, the country had no cattle, swine, fowls, goats, no domestic food animals whatever, no grain but the maize. The supply of meat and grain was thus very small until Spanish planters could clear and cultivate their estates. On the march the troops could and did live off the country with less trouble.

Balboa decided to send Valdivia back to Hispaniola for more supplies. He also sent by him a letter to Diego Colon, son of the great Admiral and governor of the island, explaining his need for more troops in view of what he had just learned about a new and wealthy kingdom not far away.

He frankly requested the Governor to use his influence with the King to make this discovery possible without delay.

Weeks passed, and Valdivia did not come back. Provisions again became scarce. Then a letter from Balboa's friend Zamudio, who had gone to Spain in the same ship with the Bachelor Enciso, in order to defend Balboa's course. Everything, it seemed, had gone wrong. The King had listened to the eloquence of the Bachelor, and would probably send for Balboa to come to Spain to answer criminal charges. It was said that he meant to send out as governor of Darien, in the place of Balboa, an old and wily courtier, one of Fonseca's favorites, named Pedro Arias de Avila, and usually called Pedrarias.

"That," said Balboa, handing the letter over to Saavedra to read, "seems to mean that the fat has gone into the fire."

"What shall you do?"

"If the King's summons arrives," said Balboa reflectively, "I think I will be on the top of that mountain range looking for the sea the cacique spoke of."

"I will go at once and make my preparations," assented the other. "Did you know that Pizarro has adopted that dog--the Spitfire--Enciso's brute?"

"Has the dog adopted him?" laughed Balboa, extracting a thorn with the utmost care from the paw of Leoncico.

"That is a shrewd question. You know I have a theory that a man is known by his dog. This beast seems to have changed character when he changed masters. When Enciso had him he was little more than a puppy, and then he was thievish and cowardly. Now he will attack an Indian as savagely as Leoncico himself. Pizarro must have put the iron into him."

"Pizarro can," said Balboa carelessly. "He does it with his men. I think there is more in that fellow than we have supposed. We shall see--this expedition will be a kind of test."

Saavedra, as he went to his own quarters, wondered whether Balboa were really as unconscious and unsuspicious as he seemed.

"Like dog, like master," he said to himself. "Cacafuego shifted collars as easily as any mongrel does--as readily as Pizarro himself would. I think that Leoncico, left here without Balboa, would die. Neither a dog or a man has any business with two masters. I wonder whether in the end we shall conquer this land, or find that the land has conquered us?"

Balboa set forth with one hundred and ninety picked men and a few bloodhounds. Half the company remained on shore at Coyba to guard the brigantine and canoes, and with the others Balboa began the ascent of the range of mountains from whose heights he hoped to view the sea.

In no other time and country have discoverers encountered the obstacles and dangers which confronted the Spaniards who first explored Central America. Precipitous mountains, matted jungles, barren deserts, deep and swift streams, malarious bogs, and hostile natives often armed with poisoned weapons, all were in their way, and they had to make their overland journeys on foot, fully armed and often in tropical heat. Even when accompanied by Indians familiar with the country, they could count on little or nothing in the way of game or other provisions. Balboa's friendly ways with the natives had secured him Indian guides and porters, but it was difficult work, even so. In four days they traveled no more than ten leagues, and it took them from the sixth to the twenty-fifth of September to cover the ground between the coast of Darien and the foot of the last mountain they must climb. One-third of the men had been sent back from time to time, because of illness and exhaustion. The party remained for the night in the village of Quaraqua at the foot of the mountain, and at dawn they began their ascent, hoping to reach the summit before the hottest time of the day. About ten o'clock they came out of the thick forest on a high and airy slope of the mountain, and the Indians pointed out a hill, from which they said the sea was visible.

Then Balboa commanded the others to rest, while he went alone to the top.

"And this," muttered Pizarro to the man next him, "is the man who is always saying that there is enough glory for all!"

Saavedra's quick ear caught the remark. He smiled rather satirically.

He, and he alone, knew the true reason for this action of Balboa's.

"Juan," the commander had said to him while they were wading through their last swamp, "when we are somewhere near the summit I shall go on alone. I want no one with me when I look down the other side of that range. Whether I see a mere lake, which these savages may call a sea, or--something greater, I am not sure I shall be able to command my feelings. I will not be a fool before the men."

Balboa's heart was thumping as he climbed, more with excitement than exertion. No one but Saavedra had so much as an inkling of the importance his success or failure would have for him personally. The whole of his future lay on the unknown other side of that hill. He shut his eyes as he reached the top--then opened them upon a glorious view.

A vast blue sea sparkled in the sunshine, only a few leagues away. From the mountain top to the shore of this great body of water sloped a wild landscape of forest, rock, savanna and winding river. Balboa knelt and gave thanks to God.

Then he sprang to his feet and beckoned to his followers, who rushed up the hill, the great hound Leoncico bounding far ahead. When all had reached the summit Father Andreas de Varo, motioning them to kneel, began the chant of Te Deum Laudamus, in which the company joined. The notary of the expedition then wrote out a testimonial witnessing that Balboa took possession of the sea, all its islands and surrounding lands, in the name of the sovereign of Castile; and each man signed it.

Chapter end

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