Great River


How seven years before with the whole company they had set out with the Grand Constable in Florida to find the rich inland country of Apalachen where they were promised gold and food, and how when they got there all they saw was a starving tribe of belligerent Indians; how days of roaming brought them nothing better; how the Governor fell ill and irresolute; how they tried to find the sea again and, having found it, how they wondered whether they could build boats in which to go by water to the River of Palms; how they had no tools or crafts with which to build boats; and yet how one day a soldier volunteered to make pipes out of tree branches and bellows out of deerskins; how they turned their stirrups, spurs, crossbows into nails, axes, saws and other tools, and set to work; how in twenty days with only one real carpenter among their number they constructed five boats about thirty feet long, caulked with palm fibre, and rigged with ropes made from horsehair, and sails made from Spanish shirts, and oars carved out of willow; how two hundred and two men embarked for the River of Palms in the five boats on the twenty-second of September in 1528, and how when all were loaded, the sea reached to within the spread of a thumb and little finger of the gunwales, and how men could hardly move for fear of swamping; how nobody in the party knew navigation; how they drifted west in hunger, and thirsted when the water containers made from the whole skins of horses’ legs rotted and would not serve further; how it was when men died from drinking sea water; how when they landed now and then to forage they were attacked by Indians; how winds and currents drove the boats apart from one another; how the Captain-General dissolved his command, saying it was each man for himself, and how he himself in his boat vanished out to sea one night in high weather and was never again seen; how two of the boats were blown ashore and broken on a barren island near the coast; how those who escaped, now only eighty in number, came to land naked and skeletal; how they passed the winter there amidst Indians, digging in the shallows for roots until January; how they agreed to demands by Indians to effect cures of the sick, praying the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria, which healed the infirm; how they were enslaved as root diggers by the Indians; how Nunez Cabeza de Vaca became a trader between coastal and inland people, taking from the shore such things as sea snail, conch shell for use as knives, sea beads, and berries, and bringing from inland in return skins, reeds or canes to make arrows of, hide thongs, ochre for face-painting, and tassels of deer hair; how others of the company died until eighty became fifteen, and those became four, threatened and terrorized by In- dians through the years of captivity and constant movement from sea to plains, from plains to rivers, according to the seasons of food; how the company sliced and dried the flesh of their companions who died, and ate it to live; how the mosquitoes caused such torment that the people at times set fire to forests and grasses to drive them off; how they saw buffalo, some tawny, some black, with small horns; how the ground fire-hot from the sun in summer burned their bare feet as they wandered naked; how the four friends were separated many times when their Indian masters of different tribes met and parted; how the friends escaped and came to friendlier tribes inland among whom they became, all four of them, powerful doctors of medicine, making cures by the grace of God, and even as Núñez Cabeza de Vaca did, restoring to life an Indian admitted to be dead; how going naked under the sun they shed their skins twice a year like snakes, and carried open sores on their shoulders and breasts, and were torn by thorns in the heavy brush of the inland country; how the Indians saw and heard better and had sharper senses than any other people they had ever seen; how one day they were given two gourd rattles by Indian doctors who said these had come floating by a river from the north; how another day they saw a hawk’s-bell of copper, carved with a face, which they were told came from a country where there was much copper; how in a new tribe they came among, the men hunted rabbits driving the animal ever closer to each other and finally striking it with a club most accurately thrown; how these people were hospitable and hunted deer, quail and other game for them, and at night made them shelters of mats; how as they moved the people, three or four thousand strong, went with them and asked of them cures, blessings, and breathings of sanctification upon their very food, until their duties became a great burden; how these people never spoke to one another, and punished a crying child by scratching it from shoulder to calves with the sharp teeth of a rat in punishment; how through the summers and winters of seven years these and countless other memories came with them in their powerful will to keep walking to the west, to the west; how they avoided the courses of rivers that flowed south and east which would return them to the miseries of the seacoast and its barbarians; and how they looked for rivers that flowed south and west, which might lead them out of the unknown land toward the mapped places of New Spain. …

And by the grace of God, they had indeed found their countrymen. Now—continued the voice of government—after all the abuses and hardships so admirably survived, was there then information as to the material resources seen along the journey?

Nothing but the utmost in degrading poverty for the first six years, until the travellers moved westward through mountains, and encountered the river where the corn-raisers lived. Given rain, it must be good country. They saw it.

Was that all?