CHAPTER 33: Our Success with Some of the Afflicted and My Narrow Escape
THE VERY EVENING of our arrival, some Indians came to Castillo begging him to cure them of terrible headaches. When he had made the sign of the cross over them and commended them to God, they instantly said that all pain had vanished and went to their houses to get us prickly pears and chunks of venison, something we had tasted of precious little.
We returned many thanks to God, Whose compassion and gifts day by day increased. After the sick had been tended, the Indians danced and sang in festivity till sunrise. The celebration of our coming extended to three days.
When it ended, we inquired of the region farther on, of its people and subsistence. Prickly pears were plentiful throughout, they answered, but this season's had all been gathered by now and the tribes returned home. We would find the country very cold and skins scarce. Reflecting on this, and winter being already upon us, we concluded to stay with these Indians till spring.
Five days after our arrival, the tribe took us with them to gather more prickly pears, at a place where other peoples of different tongues converged. There being no fruit of any kind along the way, we walked five days in gnawing hunger, to a river [the Colorado], where we put up our houses and then went to look for the pods which grow on certain trees [mesquite].
The awkwardness of picking one's way in this vicinity of no paths slowed my own rounds and when, after dark, I went to join the others, who had returned to camp, I got lost. Thank God I found a burning tree, by the warmth of which I passed that cold night.
In the morning I loaded up with sticks and continued my search, earrying two burning brands. For five days I wandered in this way with my fire and my load; otherwise, had my wood failed me where none could be found, I would have lost my kindling fire by the time I located sticks elsewhere. This was all the protection I had against cold, as I wended my way naked as the day I was born.
I would go into the low woods by the river before sunset to prepare myself for the night. First I hollowed out a hole in the ground and threw in fuel, of which there was plenty from the fallen, dry trees in the woods. Then I built four fires around the hole in the form of a cross, and slept in this hole with my fuel supply, covering myself with bundles of the coarse grass which grows thick in those parts. Thus I managed shelter from the cold of night.
One night, the fire fell on the straw as I slept, and blazed so suddenly that it singed my hair in spite of my haste to get out. All this while, I tasted not a mouthful nor found anything to eat. My bare feet bled. By the mercy of God, the wind did not blow from the north in the whole time or I would have died.
At the end of the fifth day I reached the river bank where the Indians were then camped. [The camp seems to have advanced daily.] They and-the Christians had given me up for dead, supposing I had been bitten by a snake. Everybody rejoiced to see me; my companions said it had been their great struggle with hunger that kept them from looking for me. All shared prickly pears with me that night, and the next morning we set out for a place where they still abounded. When we got there, we satisfied our great craving, and the Christians gave thanks to the Lord. [Hallenbeck re-enacted Cabeza de Vaca's five-day adventure one October and reconstructs that he got lost on the Llano and made his bed on successive nights beside the Pedernales tributaries of the Llano, the San Saber, the north fork of the San Saber, and tributaries of the last two.]