CHAPTER 17: A Sinking and a Landing

OUR TWO BARGES continued in company for four days, each man eating a ration of half a handful of raw corn a day. Then the other barge was lost in a storm. [The Joint Report says this loss occurred the day after the two barges joined.] Nothing but God's great mercy kept us from going down, too.

It was winter and bitterly cold, and we had suffered hunger and the heavy beating of the waves for many days. Next day, the men began to collapse. By sunset, all in my barge had fallen over on one another, close to death. Few were any longer conscious. Not five could stand. When night fell, only the navigator and I remained able to tend the barge. Two hours after dark he told me I must take over; he believed he was going to die that night.

So I took the tiller. After midnight I moved over to see if he were dead. He said no, in fact was better, and would steer till daylight. In that hour I would have welcomed death rather than see so many around me in such a condition. When I had returned the helm to the navigator, I lay down to rest - but without much rest, for nothing was farther from my mind than sleep.

Near dawn I seemed to hear breakers resounding; the coast lying low, they roared louder. Surprised at this, I called to the navigator, who said he thought we were coming close to land. We sounded and found ourselves in seven fathoms. The navigator felt we should stay clear of the shore till daylight; so I took an oar and pulled it on the shore side, wheeling the stern to seaward about a league out.

As we drifted into shore, a wave caught us and heaved 54 the barge a horseshoe-throw [about 42 feet] out of the water. The jolt when it hit brought the dead-looking men to. Seeing land at hand, they crawled through the surf to some rocks. Here we made a fire and parched some of our corn. We also found rain water. The men began to regain their senses, their locomotion, and their hope.

This day of our landing was November 6.

[Cabeza de Vaca's approximations of the days after leaving the Bay of Horses add up to eight or nine more than the 45 or 46 allowed in his inclusive dates September 22-November 6. He could have experienced the hurling ashore a week or so later than he remembered; but his track of time while battling starvation, Indians, and the periphery of a Gulf hurricane would have been understandably faulty.]