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South America

January 1525

The spear hit Diego Alvarado in the chest. A jarring blow that knocked him to the ground but failed to puncture the strong Castilian armor he’d carried all the way from Spain.

He rolled, took a position on one knee and leveled his crossbow. Spotting movement in the trees, he let the bolt fly. It sliced into the foliage, drawing an anguished scream.

“In the trees to the right!” he yelled to his men.

A cloud of blue smoke exploded over the narrow trail as several large-bored muskets, known as harquebuses, fired simultaneously. The shots tore into the forest, severing small tree limbs and ripping through the lush green leaves.

A wave of arrows flew back at them in response. Two of Alvarado’s men went down and he felt a spike of pain in his calf as an obsidian-tipped dart punctured it.

“They have us surrounded,” one of the men shouted.

“Hold your line,” Alvarado ordered. He limped forward instead of back, ignoring the pain and reloading his weapon.

After a long hike into the foothills, they’d been ambushed, lured down a path and attacked from both sides. Another group of men might have broken ranks under the assault, but Alvarado’s men had once been soldiers. They stood like a wall and didn’t waste their precious ammunition. Several drew their swords while the others steadied their heavy firearms.

The natives were drawing themselves together to attack once again. With a shrill cry, they charged from the trees. They broke into the clearing only to be struck down by Spanish thunder as a second wave of black powder explosions shook the air.

Half their number fell, others turned and ran, only two continued the attack. They rushed toward Alvarado, charging through the smoke, their dark, reddish faces and blazing white eyes highlighted by streaks of war paint.

Alvarado took the first one with the crossbow, dropping the man in his tracks, but the second lunged with a spear. The tip of the crude weapon deflected off the angled chest plate of Alvarado’s silver armor. Impervious to such crude blades, Alvarado reached toward his assailant without fear. He grabbed the man, shifted his weight and flung him to the ground.

Falling on him, Alvarado finished the native with a dagger.

By the time he looked up, the rest of them had fled.

“Reload,” he shouted to the men. “They’ll be back soon.”

As the men began the laborious process of packing powder charges in their weapons, Alvarado tried to remove the native’s arrow from his calf. He dug at his own flesh with the tip of his dagger and then eased the arrow out. He looked at it and then tossed it aside. It was nothing new. He’d been told these “people of the clouds” were different than the Inca and the other tribes of the area. That they were brave in combat, there was no doubt, but they had no greater weapons than any of the other natives. They had nothing to their advantage but raw numbers.

Alvarado poured some wine from a small flask on the wound. It stung, but helped numb the pain—and, he hoped, clean out any poison. He then wrapped his calf in a cloth and watched as the blood soaked it, spreading from a central spot, until the entire cloth was stained crimson.

“We have to fall back,” he said, struggling to get up on his feet.

“How far?” one of his men shouted.

“All the way,” Alvarado said. “Back to the village.”

None of them argued. In fact, they looked relieved to hear the order.

They formed up and began to move. Alvarado managed to walk for the first mile, but the heavy armor and the pain in his leg soon became too much. One of his men came to help, supporting him and leading him to the sturdy packhorse they’d used to carry in supplies. The strap was loosened and the goods dumped on the ground. With a boost, Alvarado was lifted up onto the horse. He held on tightly, and the entire party continued quickly, heading downhill, back toward their camp.

After several hours Alvarado and his men reached the village they’d left early that morning. Night had fallen, but warm fires stoked by the soldiers he’d left behind welcomed them.

A nobleman named Costa helped Alvarado down from the horse. “What happened?” he asked, blanching at the wound. Costa was an aristocrat of the middle tier. He’d agreed to fund the expedition in return for a third of all treasure recovered. Why he’d come along personally was anyone’s guess, perhaps for the adventure, or more likely to ensure he wasn’t cheated out of his profits. So far, he’d done little but complain.

“We’ve been tricked,” Alvarado said. “These people of the cloud are not amenable to our presence. They would rather kill us than join us even if it means they remain enslaved to other masters.”

“But what about Pizarro?” Costa asked. “These are his marks.

He came this way. He said we would find allies.”

Alvarado knew all about Pizarro’s marks. The would-be conquistador had carved inscriptions into some of the trees alongside the trail so that Alvarado and his reinforcements could catch up with Pizarro and his advanced guard.

He knew about Pizarro’s plans as well, to turn other natives against the ruling group. It had worked in other places, but not here.

“Something must have happened to him,” Alvarado said. “Either

Francisco has been killed or . . .”

He didn’t have to finish. None of them really trusted Pizarro. He kept talking of gold, which no one had yet seen, kept promising wealth, which had yet to appear. He was a little man with big dreams. He’d been turned down by the Governor twice when requesting funds to assist his expeditions and in desperation had finally turned to Costa, and to his rival: Alvarado.

While Alvarado didn’t like or trust Pizarro, he did understand the man. Both of them were cut from the same cloth. They were men of inauspicious birth, both had come from Spain to make a name for themselves. But they’d been enemies only months before, and it was entirely possible that Pizarro had agreed to partner with them only to lead them to their doom.

“We must leave for the coast immediately,” Alvarado said.

Costa looked sick, at the thought.

“Something wrong with that order, my friend?”

“No,” Costa said. “It’s just that . . .”

“Spit it out.”

Costa hesitated. “Some of the men have fallen ill. Fever. It may be the pox.”

Alvarado could not imagine worse news. “Show me.”

Costa led him to the largest of the native huts, made of mud and grass, that might have been a communal gathering place. A fire in the center burned brightly, venting smoke through a hole in the roof. A group of Alvarado’s soldiers lay on the dirt floor around it, each of them in various states of distress.

“When did this begin?”

“Shortly after you left to find Pizarro.”

In the flickering light, Alvarado kneeled beside one of the men. The soldier was little more than a boy; he lay on his back with his eyes closed and his face toward the thatched ceiling above. His shirt was soaked with perspiration and small red sores had begun to appear on his neck, face and chest. His temperature was so high that kneeling over him felt like standing too close to an open flame.

“Smallpox,” Alvarado said, confirming the diagnosis. “How many are like this?”

“Eight are in the grips of it. Three others are less ill, but they can barely stand. They certainly can’t walk ten miles to the coast.”

With eleven of his men sick, several wounded and two dead, Alvarado had only twenty left who could fight. “We’ll have to leave them.”

“But Diego . . .”

“They’re too sick to walk and too heavy to carry,” Alvarado insisted. “And we’re greatly outnumbered. I count thirty huts around us. Each big enough for a large family. There must have been more than two hundred people living here before Pizarro came through. Even if half are women and children, we’ll never hold out. And who’s to say other villages are not allied with this one.”

Costa took the estimate grimly. “Perhaps Francisco will turn back and bring help.”

“It’s too late to pin our hopes on rescue,” Alvarado said. “You and the others must go while there’s still time.”

“Me and the others,” Costa repeated, suspiciously. “Surely you don’t intend to stay?”

Alvarado put a hand to his forehead and wiped a sheen of sweat from it. It might have been the heat or the wound in his leg, but he suspected it was the beginnings of the disease that was ravaging his men. “I would only hold you back. Now, round up the men and head for the ship. Sail with the current until you’re clear of the coast, then turn north and head back to Panama.”

Costa stared for a short moment, then abruptly turned to leave.

Alvarado grabbed him by the wrist, gripping it with such strength that Costa thought his bones might break. “Pay my family what you owe me or I will haunt you till the end of your days.” Costa nodded. It might have been the only promise he’d ever made that he was honestly afraid to break.

As the men departed, Alvarado grew feverish. He’d armed himself with two preloaded muskets and his crossbow. The other men who could hold weapons were each given a loaded pistol and several helpings of rum.

With the fires still burning in the night and the smoke drifting thick and low, they waited and watched. It seemed forever, but eventually the natives appeared.

Through a gap in the thatched wall, Alvarado saw them approach. When they were close enough, he fired into the nearest group.

The blast scattered them, but others came from different directions. They burst into the huts from all sides.

The pistols fired and several natives went down, but the horde raced across the bodies of their dead brethren, while others crashed through the flimsy walls to join the attack.

Alvarado fired the second harquebus, killing two more natives. He clubbed a third attacker with the smoking barrel, but was knocked to the ground an instant later.

Resorting to his crossbow, he fired the bolt into the melee. He was reaching for his dagger when a stone axe came down upon his wrist and hacked off his hand.

He shouted in agony and gripped instinctively at the bleeding stump. But a spear through his back paralyzed him, ending his cry and leaving him on the ground unable to move or to even call out to his men.

Lying there, Alvarado watched as the natives massacred his sick and dying men; hacking at them and stabbing them repeatedly. The frenzy lasted for several minutes, with blood, sweat and saliva flying in all directions.

In the aftermath, Alvarado was left for dead. As the light faded from his eyes, he watched the natives dragging a few surviving men into the forest. He would never know what became of them.

Invisible and unseen in the mayhem, the tiny pathogens that carried smallpox and measles had been spread with every breath and every splattering of blood and saliva. The natives of this New World had never been exposed to them before. They had no resistance to the invisible enemy.

In a week, most of the warriors involved in the attack would be sick and dying. In a month, their entire village would be stricken.

By the year’s end, scores of other settlements would be suffering as well, and, in a decade, the entire region would be wilting under the strains of the epidemic.

Unchecked, smallpox would ravage the Incan empire, pave the way for the Spanish conquest and ultimately kill over ninety percent of the native population of South America. An entire continent laid to waste by a weapon no one could see.



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