Great River


But still they marched, seeing in one place a white woman with painted chin, and in another a wild hailstorm. The stones, as big as oranges, dented armor and killed animals. Trembling, the people wept and prayed and made vows. Each day they heard how far they had gone according to the soldier whose duty it was to count steps by which the leagues could be computed. In all that wilderness, they were appalled at how little mark so great a throng of men and women and beasts made upon the grasses of the plain. They left no trail, for the grass in the wind waved over their path like the sea over a galleon’s wake.

One day the General called a halt for a council of his captains. The leaders agreed upon a decision. The army was to turn back to the Tiguex River, there to settle at Alcanfor once again, and scour the valley for supplies against the next winter. The General and thirty picked horsemen and a handful of infantry, together with Fray Juan de Padilla, and Isopete, and the Turk, once again in chains for his ineffectual performance of his duties as guide, would go farther to the east to see what they could see. The General’s smaller force could proceed more swiftly than the long lumbering straggle of the burdened army, and could live off the animals of the plains more readily. The army begged to be taken along, saying they would rather die with the General than return to the river without him who might never return. He was firm, though he promised to send swift couriers to fetch them after him again if he came upon the treasure of Quivira. They saw him go, and waited a fortnight for word from him, while they hunted the buffalo, and killed five hundred bulls whose meat they dried for winter storage. The hunters often lost their way back to camp, for the land was so flat and so barren of marks that in midday with the sun overhead there was no way to know where to turn. At the end of every day the army in camp built fires, blew horns, beat drums, fired their muskets to guide the huntsmen home. Only at sundown could they get their bearings.

But no word came from the General, and at last the army turned to the west. Plains Indians served as guides. Each sunrise a guide watched where the sun rose, and then facing westward sprang an arrow whose course they followed. Before they overtook it, they let go another, and so each day they drew the line of their course through the air until they came once again to the river, on the ninth of July.

Captain de Arellano was in command of the army. He lost little time in sending out detachments to forage for the winter supplies, one to the north, one to the south, both to follow the river.

Toward the end of summer Captain de Arellano decided to go to look for the General. Picking forty men, and giving the command of the army on the river to Captain de Barrionuevo, he started east. At Pecos he found the people unfriendly. There was a skirmish near the town and two Indians were shot. The misfortunes of Bigotes and Cacique were not forgotten. Pecos stood near the pass through which the General’s return must come. Why did he not come? It was late in August, and the rains were falling everywhere, the rivers would rise, the homeward travellers would have trouble crossing them if they waited much longer. But at last word came by Indian traveller that the General was actually on his way. Arellano decided to wait for him at Pecos, to protect the pass if need be, and by his presence keep the people of Pecos subdued.

During the second week of September the General’s cavalcade came into view. Arellano and his men welcomed it with great joy. The General paid a visit to Pecos, and was politely received by the people, for he knew what he knew, now, and they realized it. He then pushed on rapidly to the river, and the soldiers of his party mingled with Arellano’s, and the General talked with his officers, and on reaching Alcanfor everybody had something to ask and to answer. Those starved for news were fed by those who had meagre news to share, and most of that outrageous.

What was King Tattarax like: Montezuma?

They saw a chief, an old naked wretch with white hair and a copper bangle around his neck, that was his whole wealth, and they were not even sure he was King Tattarax.

And the canoes with golden eagles? The gold bells in the trees? The wagons full of gold?

No gold anywhere.

But the Turk said?

The Turk was dead, garrotted one night in silence in the tent of Captains López and Zaldívar, and buried in a hole already dug for him, before anybody woke with the morning watch.

But why?

Treachery. He lied and lied. He plotted the destruction of the whole army from the first. Going east through Pecos, he arranged with the people to lead the army astray and exhaust them and remove them from food supply, so their horses would die, and if they straggled back from the plains, the Pecos warriors could easily dispose of them in their weakness.

But Pecos? Why would they agree to this?

Bigotes. The iron collar and chain, the dogs that bit him when ordered to. Cacique’s captivity.

But the country? The wealth?

Immense plains, people with grass-roofed huts, people who ate meat raw and carried a freshly butchered cow-gut around their necks from which they drank blood and stomach juice when thirsty, people who did everything with little flint knives set in wooden handles, who sharpened the blades rapidly against their own teeth, like monkeys that put everything to the mouth.

And the Turk knew all the time there was nothing else?