CHAPTER 45: My Famous Operation in rhe Mountain Country

FROM HERE [on the Pecos in the vicinity of Carlsbad, New Mexico] we went along the base of the mountains [via the Río Peñasco and then the Elk Creek fork]., striking inland [northwestward] more than fifty leagues, at the end of which we came upon forty or so houses.

Among the things the people there gave us was a big copper rattle which they presented Andrés Dorantes. It had a face represented on it and the natives prized it highly. They told Dorantes they had received it from their neighbors. Where did they get it? It had been brought from the north, where there was a lot of it, replied the natives, who considered copper very valuable. Wherever it came from, we concluded the place must have a foundry to have cast the copper in hollow form. [Hallenbeck calls attention to five such rattles excavated at a prehistoric ranchería about thirty miles north of the approximate site of the gift to Dorantes. To Hallenbeck they suggested primitive sleigh bells; each had one pebble inside. Shells from the Pacific coast and turquoises from northern New Mexico were found with the copper rattles.]

Departing next morning [up Elk Creek], we went over a mountain seven leagues in magnitude [a close estimate; Hallenbeck measured the distance by this route over the 6,500-foot pass in the Sacramento range at seventeen miles from noticeable beginning of the ascent to noticeable end of the descent]. Its stones are iron slags. [What Cabeza de Vaca mistook for iron slag could have been iron ore, igneous rock, or honeycombed limestone, says Hallenbeck.]

At night we came to many dwellings seated on the banks of a very beautiful stream [the Río Tularosa. When the Spaniards went over the summit of the mountain ridge, they passed from the head of Elk Creek to the head of the Río Tularosa and followed the latter river down.] The residents came halfway out on the trail to greet us, bringing their children on their backs. They gave us many little bags of mica [again "silver" in the 1542 edition and "pearl" in the 1555] and powdered lead [or antimony or manganese] which they smear on their faces [for a dark blue war paint]; many beads and cowhide [i.e., buffalo skin] blankets - loading all who attended us with everything they had.

They eat prickly pears and pine nuts; for small pine trees [the piñon (Pinus edulis)] grow in that region [thick and extensively in those mountains, the Joint Report adds] with egg-shaped cones whose nuts are better than those of Castile because of their thin husks. The nuts are beaten into balls while still green and so eaten; if the nuts are dry, they are pounded with the husks and consumed as meal. [The Joint Report says the Indians here wore cotton shawls which they said came from the north across the land from the South Sea. Thus by trade they had acquired blankets from the pueblo Indians to the north, who in turn acquired them from the Moqui to the west.] Once our new hosts touched us, they ran back and forth bringing us all kinds of items from their houses for our journey.

They fetched me a man who, they said, had long since been shot in the shoulder through the back and that the arrowhead had lodged above his heart. He said it was very painful and kept him sick. I probed the wound and discovered the arrowhead had passed through the cartilage. With a flint knife I opened the fellow's chest until I could see that the point was sideways and would be difficult to extract. But I cut on and, at last, inserting my knife-point deep, was able to work the arrowhead out with great effort. It was huge. With a deer bone, I further demonstrated my surgical skill with two stitches while blood drenched me, and stanched the flow with hair from a hide. The villagers asked me for the arrowhead, which I gave them. The whole population came to look at it, and they sent it into the back country so the people there could see it.

They celebrated this operation with their customary dances and festivities. Next day, I cut the stitches and the patient was well. My incision appeared only like a crease in the palm of the hand. He said he felt no pain or sensitivity there at all.

Now this cure so inflated our fame all over the region that we could control whatever the inhabitants cherished.

We showed them the copper rattle we had recently been given, and they told us that many layers of this material were buried in the place whence it came, that this [metal] was highly valued, and that the people who made it lived in fixed dwellings. We conceived the country they spoke of to be on the South Sea, which we had always understood was richer in mineral resources than that of the North.