Days of the Discoverers Part 18

Now does the desert wake and croon of hidalgos coming-- Now for her children's sake she is whetting her sword to slay, And the armored squadrons break, and our iron-shod hoofs are drumming On the rocks of the mountain pass--we are free, we are off and away!

Hush--did a man's foot fall in the pasture where we go straying?

Listen--is that the call of a man aware of his right?

Hearken, my comrades all--once more the Game they are playing!

Masters, we come, we come, to be one with you in the fight!



"Cavalry without horses, in ships without sailors, built by blacksmiths without forges and carpenters without tools. Now who in Spain will believe that?" commented Cabeca de Vaca.

It was the evening of the twenty-first of September, 1528. Five of the oddest looking boats ever launched on any sea were drawn up on the shore of La Baya de Cavallos, where not a horse was in sight, though there had been twoscore a fortnight ago. On the morrow the one-eyed commander of the Spaniards, Pamfilo de Narvaez, would marshal his ragamuffin expedition into those boats, in the hope of reaching Mexico by sea.

"We shall tell of it when we are grandfathers--if the sea does not take us within a week," said Andres Dorantes with a sigh. "I think that God does not waste miracles on New Spain."

"Miracles? It is nothing less than a miracle that this fleet was built,"

said Cabeca de Vaca valiantly. And indeed he had some reason for saying so.

Narvaez, with a grant from the King which covered all the territory between the Atlantic and the Rio de los Palmas in Mexico, had staked his entire private fortune on this venture. He had landed in Baya de le Cruz--now Tampa Bay--on the day before Easter. The Indians had some gold which they said came "from the north." Cabeca, who was treasurer of the expedition, strongly advised against proceeding through a totally unknown country on this very sketchy information. But Narvaez consulted the pilot, who said he knew of a harbor some distance to the west, ordered the ships to meet him there, and with forty horsemen and two hundred and sixty men on foot, struck boldly into the interior.

It was an amazing country. It had magnificent forests and almost impassable swamps, gorgeous tropical flowers and black bogs infested with snakes, alligators and hostile Indians, game of every kind and dense jungles into which it retreated. There seemed to be no towns, no grain-land and no gold-bearing mountains. The persevering explorers crossed half a dozen large rivers and many small ones, wading when they could, building rafts or swimming when the water was deep. After between three and four months of this, half-starved, shaken with swamp fever, weary and bedraggled, they reached the first harbor they had found upon the coast they followed, but no ships were there. Whether the ships had been wrecked, or put in somewhere only to meet with destruction at the hands of the Indians, they never knew.

Narvaez called his officers into consultation, one at a time, as to the best course to pursue in this desperate case. They had no provisions, a third of the men were sick and more were dropping from exhaustion every day, and all agreed that unless they could get away and reach Mexico while some of them could still work, there was very little chance that they would ever leave the place at all. But they had no tools, no workmen and no sailors, and nothing to eat while the ships were a-building, even if they knew how to build them. They gave it up for that night and prayed for direction.

Next day one of the men proved to have been a carpenter, and another came to Cabeca de Vaca with a plan for making bellows of deerskin with a wooden frame and nozzle, so that a forge could be worked and whatever spare iron they had could be pounded into rude tools. The officers took heart. Cross-bows, stirrups, spurs, horse-furniture, reduced to scrap-iron, furnished axes, hammers, saws and nails. There was plenty of timber in the forests. Those not able to do hard work stripped palmetto leaves to use in the place of tow for calking and rigging. Every third day one of the horses was killed, the meat served out to the sick and the working party, the manes and tails saved to twist into rope with palmetto fiber, and the skin of the legs taken off whole and tanned for water bottles. At four different times a selected body of soldiers went out to get corn from the Indians, peaceably if possible, by force if necessary, and on this, with the horse-meat and sometimes fish or sea-food caught in the bay, the camp lived and toiled for sixteen desperate days. A Greek named Don Theodoro knew how to make pitch for the calking, from pine resin. For sails the men pieced together their shirts. Not the least wearisome part of their labor was stone-hunting, for there were almost no stones in the country, and they must have anchors. But at last the boats were finished, of twenty-two cubits in length, with oars of savin (fir), and fifty of the men had died from fever, hardship or Indian arrows. Each boat must carry between forty-five and fifty of those who remained, and this crowded them so that it was impossible to move about, and weighted them until the gunwales were hardly a hand's breadth above the water. It would have been madness to venture out to sea, and they crept along the coast, though they well knew that in following all the inlets of that marshy shore the length of the voyage would be multiplied several times over.

When they had been out a week they captured five Indian canoes, and with the timbers of these added a few boards to the side of each galley. This made it possible to steer in something like a direct line toward Mexico.

On October 30, about the time of vespers, Cabeca de Vaca, who happened to be in the lead, discovered the mouth of what seemed to be an immense river. There they anchored among islands. They found that the volume of water brought down by this river was so great that it freshened the sea-water even three miles out. They went up the river a little way to try to get fuel to parch their corn, half a handful of raw corn being the entire ration for a day. The current and a strong north wind, however, drove them back. When they sounded, a mile and a half from shore, a line of thirty fathoms found no bottom. After this Narvaez with three of the boats kept on along the shore, but the boat commanded by Castillo and Dorantes, and that of Cabeca de Vaca, stood out to sea before a fair east wind, rowing and sailing, for four days. They never again saw or heard of the remainder of the fleet.

On November 5 the wind became a gale. All night the boats drifted, the men exhausted with toil, hunger and cold. Cabeca de Vaca and the shipmaster were the only men capable of handling an oar in their boat.

Near morning they heard the tumbling of waves on a beach, and soon after, a tremendous wave struck the boat with a force that hurled her up on the beach and roused the men who seemed dead, so that they crept on hands and knees toward shelter in a ravine. Here some rain-water was found, a fire was made and they parched their corn, and here they were found by some Indians who brought them food. They still had some of their trading stores, from which they produced colored beads and hawk-bells. After resting and collecting provisions the indomitable Spaniards dug their boat out of the sand and made ready to go on with the voyage.

They were but a little way from shore when a great wave struck the battered craft, and the cold having loosened their grip on the oars the boat was capsized and some of the crew drowned. The rest were driven ashore a second time and lost literally everything they had. Fortunately some live brands were left from their fire, and while they huddled about the blaze the Indians appeared and offered them hospitality. To some of the party this seemed suspicious. Were the Indians cannibals? Even when they were warmed and fed in a comfortable shelter nobody dared to sleep.

But the Indians had no treacherous intentions whatever, and continued to share with the shipwrecked unfortunates their own scanty provision.

Fever, hunger and despair, reduced the eighty men who had come ashore, to less than twenty. All but Cabeca and two others who were helpless from fever at last departed on the desperate adventure of trying to find their way overland to Mexico. One of the two left behind died and the other ran away in delirium, leaving Cabeca de Vaca alone, as the slave of the Indians.

He discovered presently that he was of little use to them, for though he could have cut wood or carried water, this was squaws' work, and should a man be seen doing it every tradition of the tribe would be upset. He was of no use as a hunter, for he had not the hawk-like sight of an Indian or the Indian instinct for following a trail. He could dig out the wild roots they ate, which grew among canes and under water, but this was laborious and painful work, which made his hands bleed. With tools, or even metal with which to make them, he might have made himself the most useful member of the tribe, but as it was, he was even poorer than the wretched people among whom he lived, for they knew how to make the most of what was in the country, and he had no such training.

The lonely Spaniard studied their language and customs diligently. He found that they made knives and arrows of shell, and clothing of woven fibers of grass and leaves, and deerskin. They went from one part of the country to another according to the food supply. In prickly pear time they went into the cactus region to gather the fruit, on which they mainly lived during the season. When pinon nuts were ripe they went into the mountains and gathered these, threshing them out of the cones to be eaten fresh, roasted, or ground into flour for cakes baked on flat stones. They had no dishes except baskets and gourd-rinds, and their houses were tent-poles covered with hides. When a squaw wished to roast a piece of meat she thrust a sharp stick through it. When she wished to boil it she filled a large calabash-rind with water, put in it the materials of her stew, and threw stones into the fire to heat. When very hot these stones were raked out with a loop of twisted green reed or willow-shoots and put into the water. When enough had been put in to make the water boil, it was kept boiling by changing the cooled stones for hotter ones until the meat was cooked.

Many of the baskets made by the squaws were curiously decorated, and made of fine reed or fiber sewed in coils with very fine grass-thread, so that they were both light and strong. There were cone-shaped carrying-baskets borne on the back with a loop passed around the forehead; in these the squaws carried grain, fruit, nuts or occasionally babies. There were baskets for sifting grain and meal, and a sort of flask that would hold water. The materials were gathered from mountains, valleys and plains over a range of hundreds of miles--grasses here, bark fiber there, dyes in another place, maguey leaves in another, and for black figures in decoration the seed-pods called "cat's claws" or the stems of maiden-hair fern. A design was not copied exactly, but each worker made the pattern in the same general form and sometimes improved on it. There was a banded pattern in a diamond-shaped criss-cross almost exactly like the shaded markings on a rattlesnake-skin. The Indians believed in a goddess or Snake-Mother, who lived underground and knew about springs; and as water was the most important thing in that land of deserts, they showed respect to the Snake-Mother by baskets decorated in her honor. Another design showed a round center with four zigzag lines running to the border. This was intended for a lake with four streams flowing out of it, widening as they flowed; but it looked rather like a cross or a swastika. There was a design in zigzags to represent the lightning, and almost all the patterns had to do in some way with lakes, rivers, rain, or springs.

As the exile of Spain began to know the country he sometimes ventured on journeys alone, without the tribe, to the north, away from the coast. In these wanderings he met with tribes whose language was not wholly strange, but whose customs and occupations were not exactly like those of his own Indians. Once he found a village of deerskin tents where the warriors were painting themselves with red clay, for a dance. He remembered that the squaws, when he came away some days before, were in great lamentation because they had no red paint for their baskets. He took out a handful of shells and found that these Indians were only too pleased to pay for them in red earth, deerskin, and tassels of deer hair dyed red. They would hardly let him go till he promised to come again and bring them more shells and shell beads. This suggested to him a way in which he might make himself of use and value.

Longer and longer journeys he took, trading shells for new dyes, flint arrow-heads, strong basket-reeds, and hides and furs of all sorts, learning more and more of the country as he trafficked. Once he found families living in a house built of stone and mud bricks, in the crevice of a cliff, getting water from a little brook at the base of it, and raising corn and vegetables along the waterside. Their houses had no real doors. They had trap-doors in the roof, reached by a notched tree-trunk inside and one outside. The corn that grew in the little farm at the foot of the cliff was of different colors, red, yellow, blue and white. Each kind was put in a separate basket. Each kind of meal was made separately into thin cakes cooked on a very hot flat stone. A handful of the batter was slapped on with the fingers so deftly that though the cake was thin, crisp and even, the cook never burned herself.

The people were always on their guard against roving bands of Indians who lived in tipis, or wigwams, and were likely to attack the cliff-dwellers at any moment.

Cabeca de Vaca became interested in these wandering tribes, and moved north to see what they were like. He found them quite ready to trade with him and extremely curious about his wares. They had hides upon their tipis of a sort he had not seen before, not smooth, but covered with curly brown fur like a big dog's. It was some time before the Spanish trader made out what sort of animal wore such a skin, though he knew at first sight that it must be a very large one. Finally the old medicine man with whom he was talking began to make sketches on the inside of one of the great robes. The Spaniard in his turn made sketches, drawing a horse, a goat, a bear, a wolf, a bull. When he drew the bull the old Indian got excited. He declared that that was very like the animal they hunted, but that their bulls had great humped shoulders like this--he added a high curved line over the back. Cabeca came to the conclusion that it must be some sort of hunchbacked cow, but whatever it was, the curly furry hide was comforting on cold nights. The old Indian told him a few days after that some of the young men had just come in with news of a herd of these great animals moving along one of their trails, and if the white men cared to travel with them he could see them for himself.

It did not take the trader long to make up his mind. He went with the Indians at the slow trot which covers so many miles in a day, and sooner than they had expected, they saw from a little rise in the ground a vast herd of slowly moving animals which at first the white man took for black cattle. But they were not cattle.

There was the huge hump with the curly mane, and there were the short horns and slender, neat little legs which had seemed so out of proportion in the old Indian's sketch. From their point of view they could see the hunters cut out one animal and attack him with their arrows and lances without arousing the fears of the rest. The creatures moved quietly along, grazing and pawing now and then, darkening the plain almost as far as the eye could see. The trader spent several days with the tribe, and when he went south again he had a bundle of hides so large that he had to drag it on a kind of hurdle made of poles. He had helped the Indians decorate some of the hides they had, and whenever he did this he wrote his own name, the date, and a few words, somewhere on the skin.


"Why do you do this?" asked the medicine man, putting one long bronze finger on the strange marks.

"It is a message," said Cabeca de Vaca. "If any of my own people see it they will know who made the pictures."

The Indian looked at him thoughtfully.

"You are very clever," he said. "You ought to be a medicine-man."

This put another idea into the exile's head. He had seen much of the medicine-men in his wanderings, and had studied their ways. Like most men of his day who traveled much, he had a rough-and-ready knowledge of medicine and surgery. He had sometimes been able to be of service to sick and wounded Indians, and whether it was their faith in him, or in the virtues of his treatment, his patients usually got well. In comparing notes they found that he often prayed and sang in his own language while watching with them. In the end he gained a great reputation as a sort of combined priest and doctor. He was not too proud to adopt some of the methods of the medicine-men when he found them effective, especially as regards herbs and other healing medicaments, used either in poultices or drinks. From being a poor slave and a burden to his masters, he became their great man.

He had been for more than five years among the Indians when another tribe of Indians met with his tribe, perhaps drawn by the fame of the white medicine-man, and among their captives he recognized with joy three of his own comrades--Castillo, Dorantes, and a Barbary negro called Estevanico (Little Stephen). He told them of his experience, and found them glad to have him teach them whatever of the arts of the medicine-man he himself knew. After that, the four friends traveled more or less in company, and persuaded the Indians to go westward, where they thought that there might be a chance of meeting with some of their own people. They finally reached a point at which the Indians explained that they dared not go further, because the tribe which held the country further west was hostile.

"Send to them," suggested Cabeca, "and tell them we are coming."

After some argument the Indians sent two women, because women would not be harmed even in the enemy's country. Then the four comrades set out into the new land.

Among them they knew six Indian dialects, and could talk with the people after a fashion, wherever they went. Even when two tribes were at war, they made a truce, so that they might trade and talk with the strangers.

At last Castillo saw on the neck of an Indian the buckle of a sword-belt, and fastened to it like a pendant the nail of a horse-shoe.

His heart leaped. He asked the Indian where he got the things. The Indian answered,

"They came from heaven."

"Who brought them?" asked Cabeca.

"Men with beards like you," the Indian answered rather timidly, "seated on strange animals and carrying long lances. They killed two of our people with those lances, and the rest ran away."

Then Cabeca knew that his countrymen must have passed that way. His feelings were a strange mixture of joy and grief.

As they went on they came upon more traces of Spaniards, parties of slave-hunters from the south. Everywhere they themselves were well treated, even by people who were hiding in the mountains for fear of the Christians. When Cabeca told the Indians that he was himself a Christian they smiled and said nothing; but one night he heard them talking among themselves, not knowing that he could understand their talk.

"He is lying, or he is mistaken," they said. "He and his friends come from the sunrise, and the Christians from the sunset; they heal the sick, the Christians kill the well ones; they wear only a little clothing, as we do, the Christians come on horses, with shining garments and long lances; these good men take our gifts only to help others who need them; the Christians come to rob us and never give any one anything."

The next day Cabeca told the Indians that he wished to go back to his own people and tell them not to kill and enslave the natives. He explained to them that this wickedness was not in any way part of his religion, and that the founder of that religion never injured or despised the poor, but went about doing good. When he was sure that there were Spaniards not many miles away, he took Estevanico, leaving the other two Spaniards to rest their tired bones, and with an escort of eleven Indians went out to look for his countrymen.

When he found them, they were greatly astonished. Their astonishment did not lessen when he told them how he came to be where he was. He sent Estevanico back to tell the rest of the party to come, and himself remained to talk with Diego de Alcaraz, the leader of the Spanish adventurers, and his three followers. They were slave-hunters, like the other Spaniards. When, five days afterward Estevanico, Castillo and Dorantes came on with an escort of several hundred Indians, all Cabeca's determination and diplomacy were taxed to keep the slavers from making a raid on the confiding natives then and there. To buy Alcaraz off cost nearly all the bows, pouches, finely dressed skins, and other native treasures he had gained by trading or received as gifts. In this collection were five arrowheads of emerald or something very like that stone. It was not in Cabeca de Vaca to break his word to people who trusted him. He had suffered every sort of privation; he had traveled more than ten thousand miles on foot in his six years among the Indians of the Southwest; now he had lost most of his profit from that long exile; but he went back to Spain with faith unbroken and honor clear as a white diamond.

In May, 1536, he and his companions reached Culiacan in the territory of Spain. All the way to the City of Mexico they were feasted and welcomed as honored guests. The account which Cabeca de Vaca wrote of his travels was the first written description of the country now called Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Chapter end

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