CHAPTER 48: The Long Swing-Around

AFTER THE TWO DAYS of indecision, we concluded that our destiny lay toward the sunset and so took the trail north only as far as we had to in order to reach the westward one, and then swung down until eventually we came out at the South Sea. The seventeen jornadas of hunger the Cow People warned us of, and which proved to be just as bad as they said, could not deter us.

During this desert ascent by the river [the Río Grande, stopping at rancherías as usual, according to the Joint Report], the [Suma] Indians gave us many cowhides, but we passed up their chacan in favor of about a handful of deer tallow a day, which we had long since learned to save for such times of famine.

After seventeen jornadas we forded the very wide, chest-deep, southern flowing river [at Rincon, New Mexico] and traveled another seventeen [over twenty, says the Joint Report more plausibly]. [Part of the preceding sentence is transposed from the second paragraph of chapter 46 where Cabeza de Vaca makes a glaringly premature reference to the same fording.]

[Hallenbeck traces the Spaniards' trail up the west side of the Río Grande after the Rincon crossing, to Berrenda Creek, up that creek through a gap in the Mimbres Mountains and down the Río Mimbres a few miles, westward up San Vincente Creek (which was probably dry at the time) and across the Burro Mountains via a western tributary of the creek, to the Gila River near Redrock, New Mexico; down the Gila for the remaining twelve or fifteen miles that it flows southwestward, then across country in the same direction through the low Peloncillo Mountains, across the Arizona border to the spring at San Simone; and on - still southwestward - to the pass between the Dos Cabezos and Chiricahua Mountains. The longest stretch without water on this route would have been the lower twelve miles of Berrenda Creek. The Joint Report speaks of stopping on occasion, as had long been customary with the Spaniards, and of being provided with rabbits in excess of need; and that this country was somewhat hunger-stricken, though less than that along the Río Grande out of El Paso. The travelers evidently were too jaded to note many remarkable details of the more than 500-mile segment of this chapter. Hallenbeck points out that their silence confirms that they negotiated no very difficult mountain passes or particularly heavy timber, followed no one stream unduly far, trudged over no sand dunes, suffered no desperate thirst, and managed to put up at a ranchería every frosty night this early winter.]

One day as the sun went down out on the plains between [the Gila River and the] massive [Chiricahua] mountains, we came upon people who for a third of the year eat nothing but powdered straw [dried desert herbs] and, that being the season we passed through, we had to eat it ourselves until at last, at the end of the seventeen [or twenty-plus] jornadas, we got to the [Opata] people of permanent houses who had plenty of corn.

[After passing between the Dos Cabezos and Chiricahuas, the Spaniards, according to Hallenbeck, came south along the western slopes of the Chiricahuas, where more water was available than on the eastern, as their guides well knew. Toward the- terminus of this range, they struck toward the east slope of the Perilla Mountains and thence through a district of many alternative paths and springs to the San Bernardino Valley of northern Sonora, Mexico, where the Opatas dwelled.]

They gave us a great quantity of corn, cornmeal, calabashes, beans, and cotton blankets all of which we loaded onto the guides who had led us here, and they went back the happiest people on earth. We gave many thanks to God our Lord for bringing us to this land of abundance.

Some of the houses here are made of earth, the rest of cane mats. We marched more than a hundred leagues [actually about 210 miles, not counting possible detours, down the San Bernardino Valley] through continuously inhabited country of such domiciles, where corn and beans remained plentiful. The people [who, at the end of the hundred leagues, were Pimas] gave us innumerable deerhide and cotton blankets, the latter better than those of New Spain, beads made of coral from the South Sea, fine [and genuine] turquoises from the north - in fact, everything they had, including a special gift to me [1555 edition; to Dorantes (1542 edition)] of five emerald [probably malachite] arrowheads such as they use in their singing and dancing. These looked quite valuable. I asked where they came from. They said from lofty mountains to the north, where there were towns of great population and great houses, and that the arrowheads had been purchased with feather bushes and parrot plumes [doubtless from southern Sonora and possibly farther south].

Among this people, women are better treated than in any part of the Indies we had come through. They wear knee-length cotton shirts and, over them, half-sleeved skirts of scraped deerskin that reach to the ground and that are laced together in front with leather strips. The women soap this outer garment with a certain root [amole, the yucca root] which cleanses well and keeps the deerskin becoming. And they wear shoes.

All the people, sick and well, came to us in an attitude of urgency to be touched and blessed; only with great labor did we get through them all. Speaking of labor, there were many times that women accompanying us gave birth to babies and, as soon as they were born, the mothers would bring them to us for our touch and blessing.

These Indians ever stayed with us until they safely delivered us to others. They were all convinced that we came from Heaven. (Anything that is new to them or beyond their comprehension is explained as coming from Heaven.) We Christians traveled all day without food, eating only at night - and then so little as to astonish our escort. We never felt tired, being so inured to hardship, which increased our enormous influence over them. To maintain this authority the better, we seldom talked with them directly, but made the Negro our intermediary. He was constantly in conversation, finding out about routes, towns, and other matters we wished to know.

We passed from one strange tongue to another, but God our Lord always enabled each new people to understand us and we them. You would have thought, from the questions and answers in signs, that they spoke our language and we theirs. We did know six Indian languages, but could not always avail ourselves of them; there are a thousand dialectical differences.

Through all these nations, the people who were at war quickly made up so they could come meet us with everything they possessed. Thus we left all the land in peace. And we taught all the people by signs, which they understood, that in Heaven was a Man we called God, who had created the heavens and the earth; that all good came from Him and that we worshipped and obeyed Him and called him our Lord; and that if they would do the same, all would be well with them. They apprehended so readily that, if we had had enough command of their language to make ourselves perfectly understood, we would have left them all Christians.

We told them what we could and, from then on, at sunrise, they would raise their arms to the sky with a glad cry, then run their hands down the length of their bodies. They repeated this ritual at sunset.

They are a substantial people with a capacity for unlimited development.