Great River


The four travellers followed it to the south, and took with them in experience and memory all they had seen and all they had been told, that would soon reveal a whole new world to those whom they at last met—Spanish soldiers bearded and helmeted, mounted on horses, armed with swords and lances, at the outposts of the slave trade in the province of New Galicia whose governor was the former governor of the River of Palms, Nuño de Guzmán.

They were delivered from their prison of space. The wilderness of their tremendous passage ceased to be an abstraction as soon as they found succor amongst those who could hear what they had to tell, Spaniard to Spaniard.

The Travellers’ Tales

They were given clothes to wear, and after seven years of nakedness they could scarcely endure the feeling of cloth. They were given beds to sleep in, but for many nights could not sleep anywhere but on the ground. Their rescuers wept and prayed with them giving thanks for their delivery out of the barbarian lands. But there were bitter discoveries to make again of rapacity and greed among their own kind as represented by Governor Guzmán’s men at Culiacan. Still, every sense of the value inherent in their extraordinary —and exclusive—news of vast new kingdoms helped to urge Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions on to the city of Mexico, where they arrived on Sunday, July 25, 1536. Here there were two men who more than anyone else wanted to see them, to question them, and to glean their treasure of information.

One was the Viceroy, Don Antonio Mendoza, maintaining in his palace a state proper to the direct representative of the Emperor Charles V, with sixty Indian servants, three dozen gentlemen in his bodyguard, and trumpets and kettledrums.

The other—how could it have been otherwise so long as he breathed?—the other was the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, Cortés, starving for a renewal of conquest, and gnawing on his pride like a dog on a bare bone. Still restless, he still saw the new continent as exclusively the vessel of his aging energies.

The sabbatical refugees were splendidly received, now by the Viceroy, now by Cortés, and given fine clothes and other gifts. On the feast day of St. James the Apostle, a bull fight was arranged with a fiesta to honor the heroes. Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was put up at the viceregal palace.

The travellers had much to tell: