Those fourteen men, bravest of the brave, decided then to sacrifice themselves one by one and hold back the enemy while their companions attempted to get away. They did not discuss it; they did not draw lots; no one ordered them. The first one yelled his good-byes to the others, reined in his horse, and turned to face the pursuers. He struck sparks with his sword, determined to fight to his last breath; it would be a thousand times worse to be taken alive. Within minutes a hundred hands pulled him from his horse and attacked him with the very swords and knives that had been taken from Valdivia’s vanquished soldiers.
Those few minutes that hero won for his friends allowed them, briefly, to pull ahead, but soon the Mapuche had caught up again. A second soldier decided to forfeit his life; he, too, called a last good-bye and turned toward the mass of Indians avid for blood. And then a third. One by one, six soldiers fell. The remaining eight, several of them badly wounded, continued their desperate flight until they came to a narrow pass where yet another must sacrifice himself if the others were to escape. He was dead within minutes. It was then that Juan Gómez’s mount, drained and bleeding from arrow wounds in its flanks, dropped to its knees. It was completely black in the forest, making it nearly impossible to go forward.
“Climb up behind me, Captain!” one of the soldiers shouted.
“No! Ride on, don’t stop for me!” Gómez ordered, knowing he was badly wounded and calculating that the horse could not bear the weight of two riders.
The soldiers had to obey him and ride on, and so feeling his way through the darkness, disoriented, he plunged deeper into the undergrowth. After many terrible hours, the six survivors reached the fort at Purén and warned their comrades before collapsing with fatigue. They stayed there long enough to stanch the blood from their wounds and give a rest to their mounts before undertaking a forced march toward La Imperial, which then was only a village. The Yanaconas carried anyone with a breath of life in hammocks, but they had to give the dying a quick and honorable death so that the Mapuche would not find them alive.
In the meantime, Juan Gómez was sinking into mud up to his ankles; the recent winter rains had turned the area into a swamp. Though he was bleeding from several arrow wounds, depleted, thirsty, without food for two days, he did not give in to death. Unable to see, he laboriously felt his way through trees and rank growth. He could not wait till dawn, night was his only ally. He could hear the Mapuche’s cries of triumph when they discovered his fallen horse, and he prayed that the noble animal that had accompanied him through so many battles was dead. The Indians often tortured wounded beasts to wreak revenge on their masters. The smell of smoke indicated that his pursuers had lighted torches and were searching for him in the thick vegetation, certain that he could not have gone far. He took off his armor and clothing and buried them in the mud, and naked walked deeper into the swamp. By now the Mapuche were very close; he could hear their voices and glimpse the flare of their torches.
At this point in her narration is where Cecilia, whose macabre sense of humor seems entirely Spanish, doubled over with laughter as she told me about that horrible night. “My husband ended up buried in a swamp, just as I warned him he would,” the princess said. Juan Gómez cut a reed with his sword and submerged himself completely in the putrid ooze. He did not know how many hours he lay there, naked, with open wounds, commending his soul to God and thinking about his children and Cecilia, the beautiful woman who had left a palace to follow him to the end of the world. Mapuche brushed by him several times, never imagining that the man they were searching for lay buried in the mud, clutching his sword, gasping for breath through the hollow reed.
At mid-morning of the following day, the men marching toward La Imperial saw a nightmarish vision covered with blood and mud pushing his way through the heavily wooded forest. By his sword, which he had never let go of, they recognized Juan Gómez, captain of the famed fourteen.