The How The Iron Shirts Came To Tuscaloosa by Mary Hunter Austin

Story type: Literature


“There was a bloom on the sea like the bloom on a wild grape when the Adelantado left his winter quarters at Anaica Apalache,” said the Princess. “He sent Maldonado, his captain, to cruise along the Gulf coast with the ships, and struck north toward Cofachique. That was in March, 1540, and already his men and horses were fewer because of sickness and skirmishes with the Indians. They had for guide Juan Ortiz, one of Narvaez’s men who had been held captive by the Indians these eight years, and a lad Perico who remembered a trading trip to Cofachique. And what he could not remember he invented. He made Soto believe there was gold there. Perhaps he was thinking of copper, and perhaps, since the Spaniards had made him their servant, he found it pleasanter to be in an important position.

“They set out by the old sea trail toward Alta-paha, when the buds at the ends of the magnolia boughs were turning creamy, and the sandhill crane could be heard whooping from the lagoons miles inland. First went the captains with the Indian guides in chains, for they had a way of disappearing in the scrub if not watched carefully, and then the foot soldiers, each with his sixty days’ ration on his back. Last of all came a great drove of pigs and dogs of Spain, fierce mastiffs who made nothing of tearing an Indian in pieces, and had to be kept in leash by Pedro Moron, who was as keen as a dog himself. He could smell Indians in hiding and wood smoke three leagues away. Many a time when the expedition was all but lost, he would smell his way to a village.

“They went north by east looking for gold, and equal to any adventure. At Achese the Indians, who had never heard of white men, were so frightened that they ran away into the woods and would not come out again. Think what it meant to them to see strange bearded men, clad in iron shirts, astride of fierce, unknown animals,–for the Indians could not help but think that the horses would eat them. They had never heard of iron either. Nevertheless, the Spaniards got some corn there, from the high cribs of cane set up on platforms beside the huts.

“Everywhere Soto told the Caciques that he and his men were the Children of the Sun, seeking the highest chief and the richest province, and asked for guides and carriers, which usually he got. You may be sure the Indians were glad to be rid of them so cheaply.

“The expedition moved toward Ocute, with the bloom of the wild vines perfuming all the air, and clouds of white butterflies beginning to twinkle in the savannahs.”

“But,” said Dorcas, who had listened very attentively, “I thought Savannah was a place.”

“Ever so many places,” said the Princess; “flat miles on miles of slim pines melting into grayness, sunlight sifting through their plumy tops, with gray birds wheeling in flocks, or troops of red-headed woodpeckers, and underfoot nothing but needles and gray sand. Far ahead on every side the pines draw together, but where one walks they are wide apart, so that one seems always about to approach a forest and never finds it. These are the savannahs.

“Between them along the water-courses are swamps; slow, black water and wide-rooted, gull-gray cypress, flat-topped and all adrip with moss. And everywhere a feeling of snakes–wicked water-snakes with yellow rims around their eyes.

“They crossed great rivers, Ockmulgee, Oconee, Ogechee, making a bridge of men and paddling their way across with the help of saddle cruppers and horses’ tails. If the waters were too deep for that, they made piraguas–dug-out canoes, you know–and rafts of cane. By the time they had reached Ocute the Spaniards were so hungry they were glad to eat dogs which the Indians gave them, for there was such a scarcity of meat on all that journey that the sick men would sometimes say, ‘If only I had a piece of meat I think I would not die!’”

“But where was all the game?” Oliver insisted on knowing.

“Six hundred men with three hundred horses and a lot of Indian carriers, coming through the woods, make a great deal of noise,” said the Princess. “The Spaniards never dared to hunt far from the trail for fear of getting lost. There were always lurking Indians ready to drive an arrow through a piece of Milan armor as if it were pasteboard, and into the body of a horse over the feather of the shaft, so that the Spaniards wondered, seeing the little hole it made, how the horse had died.

See also  "A Soldier Of The Empire" by Thomas Nelson Page

“Day after day the expedition would wind in and out of the trail, bunching up like quail in the open places, and dropping back in single file in the canebrake, with the tail of the company so far from the head that when there was a skirmish with the Indians at either end, it would often be over before the other end could catch up. In this fashion they came to Cofaque, which is the last province before Cofachique.”

“Oh,” said Dorcas, “and did the Chief Woman see them coming? The one who was Far-Looking!”

“She saw too much,” said the Egret, tucking her eggs more warmly under her breast. “She saw other comings and all the evil that the White Men would bring and do.”

“Whatever she saw she did her best to prevent,” said the Princess. “Three things she tried. Two of them failed. There are two trails into the heart of Cofachique, one from the west from Tuscaloosa, and the other from Cofaque, a very secret trail through swamp and palmetto scrub, full of false clues and blind leads.

“Far-Looking sat in the god-house at Talimeco, and sent her thought along the trail to turn the strangers back; but what is the thought of one woman against six hundred men! It reached nobody but the lad Perico, and shook him with a midnight terror, so that he screamed and threw himself about. The Spaniards came running with book and bell, for the priest thought the boy was plagued by a devil. But the soldiers thought it was all a pretense to save himself from being punished for not knowing the trail to Cofachique.

“Nobody really knew it, because the Cofachiquans, who were at war with Cofaque, had hidden it as a fox covers the trail to her lair. But after beating about among the sloughs and swamps like a rabbit in a net, and being reduced to a ration of eighteen grains of corn, the Spaniards came to the river about a day’s journey above the place where Lucas de Ayllon’s men had died. They caught a few stray Indians, who allowed themselves to be burnt rather than show the way to their towns,–for so the Cacica had ordered them,–and at last the expedition came to a village where there was corn.”

“But I shouldn’t think the Indians would give it to them,” said Dorcas.

“Indians never refuse food, if they have it, even to their enemies,” said the Princess.

The children could see that this part of the story was not pleasant remembering for the Lady of Cofachique. She pushed the pearls away as though they wearied her, and her women came crowding at her shoulder with soft, commiserating noises like doves. They were beautiful and young like her, and wore the white dress of Cofachique, a skirt of mulberry fiber and an upper garment that went over the left shoulder and left the right arm bare except for the looped bracelets of shell and pearl. Their long hair lay sleek across their bosoms and, to show that they were privileged to wait upon the Chief Woman, they had each a single egret’s plume in the painted bandeau about her forehead.

“Far-Looking was both aunt and chief to me,” said the Princess; “it was not for me to question what she did. Our country had been long at war with Cofaque, at cost of men and corn. And Soto, as he came through that country, picked up their War Leader Patofa, and the best of their fighting men, for they had persuaded him that only by force would he get anything from the Cacica of Cofachique. The truth was that it was only by trusting to the magic of the white men that Patofa could get to us. The Adelantado allowed him to pillage such towns as they found before he thought better of it and sent Patofa and his men back to Cofaque, but by that time the thing had happened which made the Cacica’s second plan impossible. Our fighting men had seen what the Spaniards could do, and I had seen what they could be.”

Proudly as she said it, the children could see, by the way the Princess frowned to herself and drummed with her fingers on the cypress wood, that the old puzzle of the strangers who were neither gods nor men worked still in her mind.

See also  The Episode Of The Landlady’s Daughter by P G Wodehouse

“The Cacica’s first plan,” she went on, “which had been to lose them in the swamps and savannahs, had failed. Her second was to receive them kindly and then serve them as she had served Ayllon.

“They made their camp at last across the river from Talimeco, and I with my women went out to meet them as a great Cacique should be met, in a canoe with an awning, with fan-bearers and flutes and drums. I saw that I pleased him,” said the Princess. “I gave him the pearls from my neck, and had from him a ring from his finger set with a red stone. He was a handsome and a gallant gentleman, knowing what was proper toward Princesses.”

“And all this time you were planning to kill him?” said Dorcas, shocked.

The Princess shook her head.

“Not I, but the Cacica. She told me nothing. Talimeco was a White Town; how should I know that she planned killing in it. She sat in the Place of the Silences working her mischief and trusted me to keep the Spaniards charmed and unsuspicious. How should I know what she meant? I am chief woman of Cofachique, but I am not far-looking.

“I showed the Adelantado the god-house with its dead Caciques all stuffed with pearls, and the warrior-house where the arms of Ayllon were laid up for a trophy. It would have been well for him to be contented with these things. I have heard him say they would have been a fortune in his own country, but he was bitten with the love of gold and mad with it as if a water moccasin had set its fangs in him. I had no gold, and I could not help him to get Far-Looking into his power.

“That was his plan always, to make the chief person of every city his hostage for the safety of his men. I would have helped him if I could,” the Princess admitted, “for I thought him glorious, but the truth was, I did not know.

“There was a lad, Islay, brought up with me in the house of my aunt, the Cacica, who went back and forth to her with messages to the Place of the Silences, and him I drove by my anger to lead the Spaniards that way. But as he went he feared her anger coming to meet him more than he feared mine that waited him at home. One day while the Spanish soldiers who were with him admired the arrows which he showed them in his quiver, so beautifully made, he plunged the sharpest of them into his throat. He was a poor thing,” said the Princess proudly, “since he loved neither me nor my aunt enough to serve one of us against the other. We succeeded only in serving Soto, for now there was no one to carry word for the Cacica to the men who were to fall upon the Spaniards and destroy them as they had destroyed Ayllon.

“Perhaps,” said the Princess, “if she had told me her plan and her reason for it, things would have turned out differently. At any rate, she need not have become, as she did finally, my worst enemy, and died fighting me. At that time she was as mother and chief to me, and I could never have wished her so much bitterness as she must have felt sitting unvisited in the Place of the Silences, while I took the Adelantado pearling, and the fighting men, who should have fallen upon him at her word, danced for his entertainment.

“She had to come out at last to find what had happened to Islay, for whose death she blamed me, and back she went without a word to me, like a hot spider to spin a stronger web. This time she appealed to Tuscaloosa. They were of one mind in many things, and between them they kept all the small tribes in tribute.

“It was about the time of the year when they should be coming with it along the Tribute Road, and the Cacica sent them word that if they could make the Spaniards believe that there was gold in their hills, she would remit the tribute for one year. There was not much for them to do, for there were hatchets and knives in the tribute, made of copper, in which Soto thought he discovered gold. It may be so: once he had suspected it, I could not keep him any longer at Talimeco. The day that he set out there went another expedition secretly from the Cacica to Tuscaloosa. ‘These men,’ said the message, ‘must be fought by men.’ And Tuscaloosa smiled as he heard it, for it was the first time that the Cacica had admitted there was anything that could not be done by a woman. But at that she had done her cleverest thing, because, though they were friends, the Black Warrior wanted nothing so much as an opportunity to prove that he was the better warrior.

See also  Waves Of The Great South Seas by Juliana Horatia Ewing

“It was lovely summer weather,” said the Princess, “as the Spaniards passed through the length of Cofachique; the mulberry trees were dripping with ripe fruit, the young corn was growing tall, and the Indians were friendly. They passed over the Blue Ridge where it breaks south into woody hills. Glossy leaves of the live-oak made the forest spaces vague with shadows; bright birds like flame hopped in and out and hid in the hanging moss, whistling clearly; groves of pecans and walnuts along the river hung ropy with long streamers of the purple muscadines.

“You have heard,” said the Lady of Cofachique, hesitating for the first time in her story, and yet looking so much the Princess that the children would never have dared think anything displeasing to her, “that I went a part of the way with the Adelantado on the Tribute Road?” Her lovely face cleared a little as they shook their heads.

“It is not true,” she said, “that I went for any reason but my own wish to learn as much as possible of the wisdom of the white men and to keep my own people safe in the towns they passed through. I had my own women about me, and my own warriors ran in the woods on either side, and showed themselves to me in the places where the expedition halted, unsuspected by Soto. It was as much as any Spaniard could do to tell one half-naked Indian from another.

“The pearls, too,”–she touched the casket with her foot,–“the finest that Soto had selected from the god-house, I kept by me. I never meant to let them go, though there were some of them I gave to a soldier … there were slaves, too, of Soto’s who found the free life of Cofachique more to their liking than the fruitless search for gold….”

“She means,” said the Snowy Egret, seeing that the Princess did not intend to say any more on that point, “that she gave them for bribes to one of Soto’s men, a great bag full, though there came a day when he needed the bag more than the pearls and he left them scattered on the floor of the forest. It was about the slaves who went with her when she gave Soto the slip in the deep woods, that she quarreled afterward with the old Cacica.”

“At the western border of Cofachique, which is the beginning of Tuscaloosa’s land,” went on the Princess, “I came away with my women and my pearls; we walked in the thick woods and we were gone. Where can a white man look that an Indian cannot hide from him? It is true that I knew by this time that the Cacica had sent to Tuscaloosa, but what was that to me? The Adelantado had left of his own free will, and I was not then Chief Woman of Cofachique. At the first of the Tuscaloosa towns the Black Warrior awaited them. He sat on the piazza of his house on the principal mound. He sat as still as the Cacica in the Place of Silences, a great turban stiff with pearls upon his head, and over him the standard of Tuscaloosa like a great round fan on a slender stem, of fine feather-work laid on deerskin. While the Spaniards wheeled and raced their horses in front of him, trying to make an impression, Soto could not get so much as the flick of an eyelash out of the Black Warrior. Gentleman of Spain as he was and the King’s own representative, he had to dismount at last and conduct himself humbly.

“The Adelantado asked for obedience to his King, which Tuscaloosa said he was more used to getting than giving. When Soto wished for food and carriers, Tuscaloosa gave him part, and, dissembling, said the rest were at his capital of Mobila. Against the advice of his men Soto consented to go there with him.

See also  The Diary Of A Goose Girl by Kate Douglas Wiggin

“It was a strong city set with a stockade of tree-trunks driven into the ground, where they rooted and sent up great trees in which wild pigeons roosted. It was they that had seen the runners of Cofachique come in with the message from Far-Looking. All the wood knew, and the Indians knew, but not the Spaniards. Some of them suspected. They saw that the brush had been cut from the ground outside the stockade, as if for battle.

“One of them took a turn through the town and met not an old man nor any children. There were dancing women, but no others. This is the custom of the Indians when they are about to fight,–they hide their families.

“Soto was weary of the ground,” said the Princess. “This we were told by the carriers who escaped and came back to Cofachique. He wished to sit on a cushion and sleep in a bed again. He came riding into the town with the Cacique on a horse as a token of honor, though Tuscaloosa was so tall that they had trouble finding a horse that could keep his feet from the ground, and it must have been as pleasant for him as riding a lion or a tiger. But he was a great chief, and if the Spaniards were not afraid to ride neither would he seem to be. So they came to the principal house, which was on a mound. All the houses were of two stories, of which the upper was open on the sides, and used for sleeping. Soto sat with Tuscaloosa in the piazza and feasted; dancing girls came out in the town square with flute-players, and danced for the guard.

“But one of Soto’s men, more wary than the rest, walked about, and saw that the towers of the wall were full of fighting men. He saw Indians hiding arrows behind palm branches.

“Back he went to the house where Soto was, to warn him, but already the trouble had begun. Tuscaloosa, making an excuse, had withdrawn into the house, and when Soto wished to speak to him sent back a haughty answer. Soto would have soothed him, but one of Soto’s men, made angry with the insolence of the Indian who had brought the Cacique’s answer, seized the man by his cloak, and when the Indian stepped quickly out of it, answered as quickly with his sword. Suddenly, out of the dark houses, came a shower of arrows.”

“It was the plan of the Cacica of Cofachique,” explained the Egret. “The men of Mobila had meant to fall on the Spaniards while they were eating, but because of the Spanish gentleman’s bad temper, the battle began too soon.”

“It was the only plan of hers that did not utterly fail,” said the Princess, “for with all her far-looking she could not see into the Adelantado’s heart. Soto and his guard ran out of the town, every one with, an arrow sticking in him, to join themselves to the rest of the expedition which had just come up. Like wasps out of a nest the Indians poured after them. They caught the Indian carriers, who were just easing their loads under the walls. With every pack and basket that the Spaniards had, they carried them back into the town, and the gates of the stockade were swung to after them.”

“All night,” said the Egret, “the birds were scared from their roost by the noise of the battle. Several of the horses were caught inside the stockade; these the Indians killed quickly. The sound of their dying neighs was heard at all the rookeries along the river.”

“The wild tribes heard of it, and brought us word,” said the Princess. “Soto attacked and pretended to withdraw. Out came the Indians after him. The Spaniards wheeled again and did terrible slaughter. They came at the stockade with axes; they fired the towers. The houses were all of dry cane and fine mats of cane for walls; they flashed up in smoke and flame. Many of the Indians threw themselves into the flames rather than be taken. At the last there were left three men and the dancing women. The women came into the open by the light of the burning town, with their hands crossed before them. They stood close and hid the men with their skirts, until the Spaniards came up, and then parted. So the last men of Mobila took their last shots and died fighting.”

See also  The Dream By Ivan Turgenev

“Is that the end?” said Oliver, seeing the Princess gather up her pearls and the Egret preparing to tuck her bill under her wing. He did not feel very cheerful over it.

“It was the end of Mobila and the true end of the expedition,” said the Princess. Rising she beckoned to her women. She had lost all interest in a story which had no more to do with Cofachique.

“Both sides lost,” said the Egret, “and that was the sad part of it. All the Indians were killed; even the young son of Tuscaloosa was found with a spear sticking in him. Of the Spaniards but eighteen died, though few escaped unwounded. But they lost everything they had, food, medicines, tools, everything but the sword in hand and the clothes they stood in. And while they lay on the bare ground recovering from their wounds came Juan Ortiz, who had been sent seaward for that purpose, with word that Maldonado lay with the ships off the bay of Mobila,–that’s Mobile, you know,–not six days distant, to carry them back to Havana.

“And how could Soto go back defeated? No gold, no pearls, no conquests, not so much as a map, even,–only rags and wounds and a sore heart. In spite of everything he was both brave and gallant, and he knew his duty to the King of Spain. He could not go back with so poor a report of the country to which he had been sent to establish the fame and might of His Majesty. Forbidding Juan Ortiz to tell the men about the ships, with only two days’ food and no baggage, he turned away from the coast, from his home and his wife and safe living, toward the Mississippi. He had no hope in his heart, I think, but plenty of courage. And if you like,” said the Egret, “another day we will tell you how he died there.”

“Oh, no, please,” said Dorcas, “it is so very sad; and, besides,” she added, remembering the picture of Soto’s body being lowered at night into the dark water, “it is in the School History.”

“In any case,” said the Egret, “he was a brave and gallant gentleman, kind to his men and no more cruel to the Indians than they were to one another. There was only one of the gentlemen of Spain who never had any unkindness to his discredit. That was Cabeza de Vaca; he was one of Narvaez’s men, and the one from whom Soto first heard of Florida,–but that is also a sad story.”

Neither of the children said anything. The Princess and her women lost themselves in the shadowy wood. The gleam here and there of their white dresses was like the wing of tall white birds. The sun sailing toward noon had burnt the color out of the sky into the deep water which could be seen cradling fresh and blue beyond the islets. One by one the pelicans swung seaward, beating their broad wings all in time like the stroke of rowers, going to fish in the clean tides outside of the lagoons.

The nests of the flamingoes lay open to the sun except where here and there dozed a brooding mother.

“Don’t you know any not-sad stories?” asked Dorcas, as the Egret showed signs again of tucking her head under her wing.

“Not about the Iron Shirts,” said the Egret. “Spanish or Portuguese or English; it was always an unhappy ending for the Indians.”

“Oh,” said Dorcas, disappointed; and then she reflected, “If they hadn’t come, though, I don’t suppose we would be here either.”

“I’ll tell you,” said the Man-of-War Bird, who was a great traveler, “they didn’t all land on this coast. Some of them landed in Mexico and marched north into your country. I’ve heard things from gulls at Panuco. You don’t know what the land birds might be able to tell you.”

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *