Great River

PrintPrintEmailEmail Seeing those they tried to break from the tent to escape again but from outside men with blades thrust at them through the walls of the tent and those who survived to throw themselves forth were seized and piled on to the fires that grew and grew making flame and smoke high in the air by the mild river below the sandy sweeps that reached to the bare rock mountain on the east. Presently the mountain grew dim and the smoke from the fires seemed heavy in its rise. Winds swept over the reeking ground. The air turned colder. A thick snow began to fall upon the flames, the dying who still moved, the open dead at quiet, the excited animals and the armored men at their last tasks. The snowfall was gentle and sober. It softened broken edges and darkened the day and fell so fast that it muffled the hooves of the mounts as the column of troopers assembled from their various works about the little plain of the terraced city and with movements now modest and slow rode away southward through the thickened air. By evening all was quiet and no fires burned, and late in the night a handful of last inhabitants in the hive found their way safely out and ran away in the shadows of their house which was destroyed by the events of those two days.

Returning at the head of his troops through the snowfall from the ruins of Arenal, Don Garcia López de Cardenas was met outside the headquarters at Alcanfor by the General himself, who embraced him heartily and approved his whole action in the victorious battle.

The Garrison

The snow was still falling on the next day when the main body of the army under Captain de Arellano arrived from the west to join the General at Alcanfor. It was a dry snow that fell thickly but lay lightly and soldiers in the open field slept warmer all night for the cover silently made upon them.

The General’s forces were now all with him but for a small rear guard left in the northern march of Mexico in the Sonora Valley. The army could look up the river and see the thickened air above Arenal still smoking from yesterday’s battle. They were eager for news, and heard all, especially the Turk’s promises of the great wealth that awaited them in the eastern kingdom of Quivira. When would they leave? When the river of Tiguex, as they now called it, was pacified. They would be on the river for a while. A self-supporting army in the field moved slowly at best.

There were three hundred and forty men-at-arms enrolled in the now-assembled force, including two hundred and thirty cavalry, and sixty-two infantrymen. These were all of European blood, mostly Spanish, but with an occasional foreigner, like the five men from Portugal, and the Scotsman, and the German bugler from Worms, and the Sicilian, the Genoan, and the Frenchman. Like a bridge between the old world and the new, a native of the island of Hispaniola was on the muster roll. These were young soldiers. The youngest was seventeen, most of them were barely over twenty, hardly any over thirty. The General himself at thirty was an elder of the army. Many of them were nobles and gentlemen, come to seek their fortunes in the new world. Their blood pounded with longing and promise. By their young beards they looked older than they were, and by their cap-cropped hair younger. In their great appetite for the unknown they went to take more than to give; and like all youth what they desired most if they did not say it was experience, without which there was shame before other men, and inequality of opinion.

Three of the private soldiers brought their wives. One of these men was a tailor. His wife served as nurse and seamstress, and rode seven thousand miles with the expedition on a horse. The military company were served by close to a thousand Mexican Indians, many of whom were accompanied by their wives and children. With the main body of the army came the flocks of sheep—over five thousand rams, ewes and lambs. The pace and distance of the daily marches of the army were determined by how steadily and at what speed those grazing little animals could move. The army brought five hundred head of cattle. Six hundred pack mules carried supplies and equipment. Five hundred and fifty-two horses belonged to the soldiers.

Alcanfor received the army shortly before the new year of 1541. The pueblo was crowded but as a fortress it was also safe. The herds and the flocks were guarded in corrals and pastures outside the walls. The snow continued to fall. Spanish soldiers whiled away their off-duty time. They would talk with the chaplainsFray Juan de Padilla and Fray Luis de Escalona. Fray Juan had been a soldier himself in his youth. He knew how to talk with them. There were two Indian lay assistants with him, the oblates Sebastian and Luis. The soldiers went to confession, heard Mass, attended vespers, and cooked, and some wrote letters that two years later would be received in Spain, if ever. Playing cards could be made out of the heads of drums. They gambled at cards, playing “first” and “triumph,” which were not prohibited by the command, and “doubles” and “lamb-skin-it,” which were. Throwing dice was also forbidden and popular.

Captain de Ovando was back from the explorations downstream, to report that he had found four towns, built like the ones at Tiguex, occupied by friendly Indians. He saw no wild people, but as he had stayed with the river, this was not surprising, for the wandering Indians seemed to keep to the plains.