CHAPTER 43: A Strange New Development

LEAVING THESE INDIANS, we proceeded to the next village, where another novel custom commenced: Those who accompanied us plundered our hospitable new hosts and ransacked their huts, leaving nothing. We watched this with deep concern but were in no position to do anything about it; so for the present had to bear with it until such time as we might gain greater authority. Those who had lost their possessions, seeing our dejection, tried to console us. They said they were so honored to have us that their property was well bestowed - and that they would get repaid by others farther on, who were very rich.

All through the day's travel we had been badly hampered by the hordes of Indians following us. We could not have escaped if we had tried, they pursued so closely just to touch us. Their insistence on this privilege cost us three hours in going through them so they might depart. Next day, all the inhabitants of the newly reached village came before us. The majority had one clouded eye and others were completely blind, to our astonishment. They are a people of fine forms, pleasant features, and whiter than any of the nations we had so far seen.

Here we began to see mountains. They seemed to sweep in succession from the North Sea and, from what the Indians told us, we believe they rise fifteen leagues from the sea. [The mountains which came in view on the high plains between the Concho and the Pecos were the Davis, Lower Guadalupe, and Upper Guadalupe ranges, which sweep toward the Gulf, which in the 16th century was referred to as the North Sea; it was anyway an extension of the Atlantic, which was the North Sea to Balboa on the Isthmus of Panama, in relation to the Pacific, or South Sea. Cabeza de Vaca may have meant "toward" when he said "from"; he may even have viewed them as sweeping northward; or he may have believed, like many later explorers, that a sea lay a short distance north in the middle of the continent.]

We headed towards these mountains, with our newest hosts, who were willing to guide us by way of a related settlement but by no means to risk letting their enemies get in on this great good which they thought we represented. They plundered their relatives as though they were enemies when we arrived, but the people there knew the custom and had hidden some things which, after welcoming us with a festive demonstration, they brought out and presented us: beads, ochre, and some little bags of mica. Following custom, we handed them over to the plundering Indians who came with us, who thereupon resumed their dances and festivities and sent to a nearby village so their relatives there could come see us.

The latter showed up that afternoon, bringing us beads, bows, and other trifles, which we also distributed. As we were about to get on next morning, the local villagers all wanted to take us to friends of theirs who lived at the top of the ridge; many houses stood there and the residents would give us various things, they said. But it was out of our way and we decided to continue our course on the same trail along the plain toward the mountains, which we believed close to the coast where people are mean. Having found the people of the interior better off and milder toward us, we preferred to bear inland. We also felt surer of finding the interior more populous and more amply provisioned. [The Spaniards evidently thought they had been traveling roughly parallel to the coast and veered northwestward in order to keep clear of such people as had enslaved them. As Hallenbeck points out, Pineda's map could have misled them because it puts Matagorda Bay where the Mississippi ought to be.] We further chose this course to find out more about the country so that, should God our Lord please to lead any of us to the land of Christians, we might carry information of it with us. [The reason that continuing along the same trail would be to veer "inland" is that here it ran into and along the Pecos River.]

When the Indians saw our determination to keep to this course, they warned us that we would find nobody, nor prickly pears or anything else to eat, and begged us to delay at least that day; so we did. They promptly sent two of their number to seek people along the trail ahead. We left next morning, taking several Indians with us. The women carried water [for the saline Pecos is undrinkable], and such was our authority that none dared drink but by our leave.

Two leagues out, we met those who had scouted ahead. They said they had found no one; which news seemed to dishearten our escort, who again pleaded with us to go by way of the mountains. When they saw we would not be swayed, they regretfully left us and returned down the river to their huts, while we ascended alongside it.

Not long afterward we came upon two women bearing burdens, which they set down when they saw us and offered some of what they carried. It was cornmeal! [Doubtless it was an item of commerce originating among pueblo Indians 250 or 300 miles distant; though it is possible that some of these semi-migrant plains Indians cultivated small corn plots the Spaniards never saw.] They told us that farther up that river we would find not only dwellings but plenty of prickly pears and meal. We bade them adiós; they were on their way to those we had just left.

We walked till sunset, when we reached a ranchería [or temporary encampment, as Hallenbeck defines it] of some twenty houses. The inhabitants received us with weeping and grieving; for they knew that wherever we came would be plundered by those escorting us. When they saw we were unescorted, they got over their apprehension and gave us prickly pears, though nothing more. We stayed overnight.

At dawn, the Indians we had left the day before surprised our latest hosts who, having neglected to conceal anything, lost all they had and shed copious tears. Their plunderers told them in consolation that we were children of the sun with power to save or destroy, along with even bigger lies, which none can tell better than they. They cautioned our hosts to avoid offending us in any way, to give us all they had [left], and to take us to a populous village which custom privileged them to pillage. Then the plunderers went back.

Taking good heed, our new hosts began to treat us with the same awe and deference the others had shown. We traveled with them three days to a large settlement. Before we got there, our escort transmitted to the residents what they had recently heard, with much embroidery; for these people are fond of romance and make great liars, especially where they have a vested interest.

As we approached the houses, therefore, the residents rushed out to receive us royally. Among other articles, two of their medicine-men gave us two gourds, which we ever after carried with us, to the enhancement of the Indians' reverence of us. Our escort duly sacked the houses but, being few and their victims many, they had to abandon more than half of what they took as more than they could carry.