CHAPTER 24: My Years as a Wandering Merchant
AFTER Dorantes and Castillo returned to the island [from the Han oyster-eating season on the main], they rounded up all the surviving Christians, who were living somewhat separated from each other. They totaled fourteen. As I have said, I happened to be opposite on the main at that time participating in the Capoque blackberry-eating season. There I fell desperately ill. If anything before had given me hopes of life, this dashed them.
When the other Christians heard of my condition, they gave an Indian the wonderful robe of marten-skins we had taken from the cacique [in that midnight brawl near Pensacola], to bring them over to visit me. [The robe could have been, in reality, a bribe to make their getaway down the coast but, in any case, they would still need a guide to show them where the channel was shallow enough to wade, or a canoe if they were ferried.] Those who came were: Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, [his cousin] Diego Dorantes, [Pedro de] Valdevieso [another cousin of Andrés], Estrada, Tostado, Chaves, Gutierrez, Asturiano (a priest), Diego de Huelva, Estevánico the black [a Moor from the west coast of Morocco], and Benitez. When they reached the main, they found another of our company, Francisco de León [evidently a survivor of Cabeza de Vaca's barge, also kept by the Capoques].
The moment they had crossed, my Indians came to tell me and also brought word that Jerónimo de Alaniz [the notary] and Lope de Oviedo remained on the island. But sickness kept me from going [south] with my comrades; I did not even get to see them.
I had to stay with the Capoques more than a year. Because of the hard work they put me to, and their harsh treatment, I resolved to flee to the people of Charruco in the forests of the main. [Perhaps Cabeza de Vaca's illness bore on his change in status from a kindly treated medicine-man to a harshly treated slave; but he does not trace the transition for us. His comrades, living most of the time apart with the Han, apparently underwent the same drastic reduction in status.] My life had become unbearable. In addition to much other work, I had to grub roots in the water or from underground in the canebrakes. My fingers got so raw that if a straw touched them they would bleed. The broken canes often slashed my flesh; I had to work amidst them without benefit of clothes.
So I set to contriving how I might transfer to the forest-dwellers, who looked more propitious. My solution was to turn to trade.
[Escaping to Charruco about February 1530,] I did my best to devise ways of making my traffic profitable so I could get food and good treatment. The various Indians would beg me to go from one quarter to another for things they needed; their incessant hostilities made it impossible for them to travel cross-country or make many exchanges.
But as a neutral merchant I went into the interior as far as I pleased [the consensus is that he got as far as Oklahoma] and along the coast forty or fifty leagues [or at least, as Hallenbeck points out, between the impassable Sabine marshes to the north and perhaps not quite to Matagorda Bay to the south, where he would have learned far sooner than he did of three Spaniards who survived in that vicinity].
My principal wares were cones and other pieces of sea-snail, conchs used for cutting, sea-beads, and a fruit like a bean [from mesquite trees] which the Indians value very highly, using it for a medicine and for a ritual beverage in their dances and festivities. This is the sort of thing I carried inland. By barter I got and brought back to the coast skins, red ochre which they rub on their faces, hard canes for arrows, flint for arrowheads, with sinews and cement to attach them, and tassels of deer hair which they dye red.
This occupation suited me; I could travel where I wished, was not obliged to work, and was not a slave. Wherever I went, the Indians treated me honorably and gave me food, because they liked my commodities. They were glad to see me when I came and delighted to be brought what they wanted. I became well known; those who did not know me personally knew me by reputation and sought my acquaintance. This served my main purpose, which all the while was to determine an eventual road out.
The hardships I endured in this journeying business were long to tell - peril and privation, storms and frost, which often overtook me alone in the wilderness. By the unfailing grace of God our Lord I came forth from them all. Because of them, however, I avoided the pursuit of my business in winter, a season when, anyway, the natives retire inside their huts in a kind of stupor, incapable of exertion. [Hallenbeck reasons that Cabeza de Vaca wintered on the Trinity River or one of its western branches the red ochre he acquired somewhere in that area is found in the woods around Nacogdoches.]
I was in this [general coastal] region nearly six years [but in this particular vicinity from early winter 1528 to early winter 1532, a merchant for perhaps 22 months], alone among the Indians and naked like them. The reason I remained so long was my intention of taking the Christian, Lope de Oviedo, away with me. His companion on the island, Alaniz, whom Castillo, Dorantes, and the rest had left behind, died soon after their departure. To get Oviedo, the last survivor there, I passed over to the island every year and pleaded with him to come with me to attempt the best way we could contrive to find Christians. Each year he put me off, saying the next we would start.