Great River


The meeting in the desert was ceremonious. The river dwellers brought gifts of beans, squashes, gourds, robes of buffalo fur, and other things. These were bestowed upon the strange doctors in friendship. Now the plains people and the river people confronted one another. They did not speak one another’s tongues, and were enemies. The doctors gathered up the gifts they had just received and gave them to the roaming people who had come there as escorts, and asked them to go back to their own people and away from their enemies, which they did.

With the others, the doctors then marched to the river dwellings, and as night came with the November chill they reached the houses. Great celebrations were held for the visitors, who gave thanks in prayer for having found those people, with whom they stayed all night and a day. On the second morning they began to travel again, accompanied by the people, going up the river which ran brown and shallow between earthen banks below two mountains that made a pass. Messengers went ahead. On the streambanks beyond the mountains the doctors found other towns where they were received with different signs of friendship. When the strangers came into houses they found the people seated facing the wall, with lowered heads, and their hair hiding their faces. In tribute to the visitors the householders had heaped all their possessions in the middle of the room from which when greetings had been exchanged they gave presents of robes and animal skin. The people were strong and energetic, with beautiful bodies and lively intelligence. The young and able men went wholly naked, the women and old feeble men clothed in deerskin. They freely and aptly answered questions put to them by the strangers.

Why did they not plant corn?

Because all they had left was seed corn on which they were living.

How was this?

Because there had been no rain for two years. Seed put into the fields was stolen by the moles, who could find nothing else to eat, since nothing grew in the dry years. The summer sun destroyed what the winter cold had not killed. The people begged the doctors to invoke rain for them from the sky, and the doctors acquiesced.

Where did the corn come from?

From that place where the sun went down.

Ah. And how did a man reach that place?

The shortest way to it was in that very direction, to the west, but the proper way was to go up the river toward the north. Even so, anyone would have to walk for seventeen days before finding anything to eat except chacan (juniper berries) which even when ground between stones was too dry and bitter to enjoy, though birds ate it, and brown bears in the mountains. Here, they said, try it, producing some. The strangers tried, but could not eat it.

Leaving the people, who would not go with them, they walked on the trail up the river’s east bank. Every night they came to other people who received them with gifts of buffalo robes, and offered them chacan, which they did not eat, but lived instead on little stores of deer suet that they had hoarded against starvation. For fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen days the three white men and the black man made their way along the depleted river from village to village. And then, below the shoulder of the mountain that made them change their course (the southern tip of the Caballo range) they crossed over to the other bank, and diminishing as they toiled away from the river until they were mere specks in that speckled land, they finally vanished into the west.

Behind them were seven years of impossible endurance and determination to survive—impossible, except that they endured and survived; for these four were all that remained free and alive in 1536 out of the whole armored and bannered company that had landed in April of 1528 on the west shore of Florida with Pánfilo de Narváez, by royal charter hereditary Grand Constable, Governor, Captain-General and Adelantado of that kingdom in fantasy. The mission of Narváez— to know the country from Florida to the Rio de las Palmas—was at last carried out by members of his company, however unexpectedly.

One of the four starving travellers was the royally appointed Treasurer of the Rio de las Palmas. His name was Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and he came from Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. He did not know his own river when he found it. The others were Captain Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, of Salamanca, and Andres Dorantes de Carrança, of Bejar, who owned the last man of the four, the Moorish Negro slave Estebanico.

The river saw them no more. But with them they carried its image and its legend. Weeks later they came among people who told them more of life to the north. There was a great river—and again it was the same river—where lived many people in big towns with immense houses. They were people of wealth, and had many fine and desirable things, like these blue stones, and these green arrowheads, five of them—here, take them—which, the Spaniards thought, shone like emeralds. Emeralds treated like common flint for arrowheads! For such treasures, Indians went on a long trail crossing the deserts and mountains to the great housecities of the north on the river, and traded yellow, scarlet, blue and orange macaw feathers, and the tiny green breast feathers of little parrots for them. At the right times of the year the trail was well-travelled.