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Days of the Discoverers Part 8

It became evident that with the fierce chief Caonaba to reckon with, military strength and capacity would be the only means of holding the country. The commander could not count on patriotism, religious principle or even self-interest to keep the colonists united. In this tangled situation one of the few persons who really enjoyed himself was Alonso de Ojeda. Instead of spending his time in drinking, quarreling or getting himself into trouble with friendly natives, the young man seemed bent on proving himself an able and sagacious leader of men. A little fortress of logs had been built about eighteen leagues from the settlement, in the mining country, defended on all sides but one by a little river, the Yanique, and on the remaining side by a deep ditch.

Gold dust, nuggets, amber, jasper and lapis lazuli had been found in the neighborhood, and it was the Admiral's intention to send miners there as soon as possible, protected by the fort, which he called San Tomas.

Ojeda happened to be in command of the garrison, in the absence of his superior, when Caonaba came down from his mountains with an immense force of hostile tribes. The young lieutenant in his rude eyrie, perched on a hill surrounded by the enemy, held off ten thousand savages under the Carib chief for more than a month. Finally the chief, whose people had never been trained in warfare after the European fashion, found them deserting by hundreds, tired of the monotony of the siege. Ojeda did not merely stand on the defensive. He was continually sallying forth at the head of small but determined companies of Spaniards, whenever the enemy came near his stronghold. He never went far enough from his base to be captured, but killed off so many of the best warriors of Caonaba that the chief himself grew tired of the unprofitable undertaking and withdrew his army. During the siege provisions ran short, and when things were looking very dark a friendly savage slipped in one night with two pigeons for the table of the commander. When they were brought to Ojeda, in the council chamber where he was seated consulting with his officers, he glanced at the famine-pinched faces about him, took the pigeons in his hands and stroked their feathers for an instant.

"It is a pity," he said, "that we have not enough to make a meal. I am not going to feast while the rest of you starve," and he gave the birds a toss into the air from the open window and turned again to his plans.

When some one reported the incident to the Admiral his eyes shone.

"I wish we had a few more such commanders," he said.

Caonaba's next move was to form a conspiracy among all the caciques of Hispaniola, to join in a grand attack against the white men and wipe them out, as he had wiped out the little garrison at Navidad. A friendly cacique, Guacanagari, who had been the ally of the Admiral from the first, gave him information of this plot, and the danger was seen by Colon's acute mind to be desperate indeed. He had only a small force, torn by jealousy and private quarrels, and a defensive fight at this stage of his enterprise would almost surely be a losing one. The territory of Caonaba included the most mountainous and inaccessible part of the island, where that wily barbarian could hold out for years; and as long as he was loose there would be no safety for white men. To the Admiral, who was just recovering from a severe illness, the prospect looked very gloomy.

Pedro the Vizcayan cabin-boy, who was his confidential servant, was crossing the plaza one day with a basket of fruit, when Alonso de Ojeda stopped him to inquire after his master's health.

"His health," said Pedro, "would improve if I had Caonaba's head in this basket. I wish somebody would get it."

Ojeda laughed, showing a flash of white teeth under his jaunty mustachios. Then he grew thoughtful. "Wait a moment, Pedro," he said.

"Will you ask the Admiral if he can see me for a few minutes, this morning?"

When Ojeda appeared Colon detected a trace of excitement in the young man's bearing, and tactfully led the conversation to Caonaba. He frankly expressed his perplexity.

"Have you a plan, Ojeda?" he asked with a half smile. "It has been my experience, that you usually have."

Ojeda felt a thrill of pleasure, for the Admiral did not scatter his compliments broadcast. He admitted that he had a plan.

"Let me hear it," said Colon.

But as the youthful captain unfolded his scheme the cool gray eye of the Genoese commander betrayed distinct surprise. It seemed only yesterday that this youngster had been a little monkey of a page in the great palace of the Duke of Medina Coeli, when he was entertained there, on arriving in Spain.

"You see," Ojeda concluded, "I have observed in fighting these people that if their leader is killed or captured, they seem to lose their heads completely. I think that with a dozen men I can get Caonaba and bring him in. If I do not--the loss will not be very great."

"I should not like to lose you," said the Admiral, with his hand on the young man's shoulder. "Go, if you will,--but do not sacrifice your own life if you can help it."

Ojeda had faith in his talisman, and he also believed that if any man could go into Caonaba's territory and come back alive, he was that man.

He knew that he himself, in the place of the chief, would respect a man whom he had not been able to beat.

With ten soldiers he rode up into the mountains, his blood leaping with the wild joy of an adventure as great as any in the Song of the Cid. To be sure, Caonaba would not in his mountain camp have any such army as when he surrounded the fort, for then he commanded whole tribes of allies. In case of coming to blows Ojeda believed that he and his men with their superior weapons could cut their way out. Still, the odds were beyond anything that he had ever heard of.

He found the Carib chief, and began by trying diplomacy. He said that his master, the Guamaquima or chief of the Spaniards, had sent him with a present. Would he not consent to make a visit to the colony, with a view of becoming the Admiral's ally and friend? If he would, he should be presented with the bell of the chapel, the voice of the church, the wonder of Hispaniola.

Caonaba had heard that bell when he was prowling about the settlement, and the temptation to become its owner was great. He finally agreed to accompany Ojeda and his handful of Spaniards back to the coast. But when they were ready to start, the force of warriors in Caonaba's escort was out of all proportion to any peaceful embassy. Ojeda turned to his original plan.

He proposed that Caonaba, after bathing in the stream at the foot of the mountain, and attiring himself in his finest robe, should put on the gift the Spanish captain had brought, a pair of metal bracelets, and return to his followers mounted with Ojeda on his horse. The chief's eyes glittered as he saw the polished steel of the ornaments Ojeda produced. He knew that nothing could so impress his wild followers with his power and greatness as his ability to conquer all fear of the terrible animals always seen in the vanguard of the white men's army. He consented to the plan, and after putting on his state costume, and being decorated with the handcuffs, he cautiously mounted behind the young commander, and his followers, in awe and admiration, beheld their cacique ride.

[Illustration: "HE PROPOSED THAT CAONABA SHOULD PUT ON THE GIFT THE SPANISH CAPTAIN HAD BROUGHT."--_Page_ 78]

Ojeda, who was a perfect horseman, made the horse leap, curvet and caracole, taking a wider circuit each time, until making a long sweep through the forest the two disappeared from the view of the Carib army altogether. Ojeda's own men closed in upon him, bound Caonaba hand and foot, behind their leader, and thus the chief was taken into the Spanish settlement. The conspiracy fell to pieces and the colony was saved.

Caonaba showed no respect to Colon or any one else in the camp while a prisoner there, except Ojeda. When Ojeda entered he promptly rose to his feet. They had many conversations together, and Caonaba, who evidently rather admired the stratagem by which he had been captured, agreed with his captor that Ojeda was The Man Who Could Not Die.

NOTE

The career of Alonso de Ojeda is one of the most picturesque and adventurous in early Spanish-American history, and his character is typical of the young Spanish cavalier of the age just following the discovery of America. The episodes here used, with many others quite as dramatic, are described at length in Irving's "Life of Columbus."

THE ESCAPE

Why do you come here, white men, white men?

Why do you bend the knee When your priests before you, singing, singing, Lift the cross, the cross of tree?

Flashing in the sunlight, rainbows waking, Move your mighty oars keeping time.

Sailors heave your anchors, chanting, chanting Some strange and mystic rime.

Pearls and gold we bring you, feathers of our wild birds, Glowing in the sunshine like flowers.

Houses we will build you, food and clothing find you, You shall share in all that is ours.

Why do you frighten us, white men, white men?

Can you not be friends for a day?

Souls are like the sea-birds, flying, flying, Borne by the sea-wind away.

Why do you chain us in the mines of the mountains?

Why do you hunt us with your hounds?

We who were so free, are we evermore to be Prisoned in your narrow hateful bounds?

One escape is left us, white men, white men,-- You cannot forbid our souls to fly To the stars of freedom, far beyond the sunset,-- We whom you have captured can die!

VI

LOCKED HARBORS

"But of what use is a King's patent," said Hugh Thorne of Bristol, "if the harbors be locked?"

The Italian merchant glanced up from his papers and smiled, which was all the answer the Englishman seemed to expect, for he stormed on, "Here have we better fleeces than Spain, better wheat than France, finer cattle than the Netherlands, the tin of Cornwall, the flax of Kent and Durham, and our people starve or live rudely because of the fettering of our trade."

"'T is a sad misfortune," said the merchant. "In a world so great as this there is surely room for all to work and all to get reward for their labor. But so long as the English merchant guilds wear away their time and substance in fighting one another I fear 't will be no better."

Thorne flung his cloak about him with an impatient gesture. "That's true," he answered, "the Spaniards hold by Spain, and all the Hanse merchants by one another, but our English go every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. I speak freely to you, friend, because you have cast in your lot with us West Country folk and are content to be called John Cabot."

The other smiled again, his quick childlike smile, and went with his guest to the door. When he entered again his small private room a dark-eyed boy of five was crawling out from under the table.

"Dad," he inquired solemnly, "vat is a locked harbor?"

Chapter end

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