D URING all this time, while Cortez was fighting in Mexico and Pizarro was making his plans to go to Peru, there lived in Spain a great noble, named Cabeza de Vaca. This man was always talking about America. He could tell you about Christopher Columbus and his great voyages, and about Balboa and Cortez, and all the other Spaniards who had gone to America. Whenever any ship came back from that land, De Vaca was always anxious to hear all the news.
Now, as the years went on, De Vaca thought that he, too, would like to go to America. He said to himself, "If Cortez can find gold and riches in that country, why cannot I?" Besides, he believed, like so many others at that time, that somehow or other he could find a way through America to the Indies. The Indies were supposed to be very rich, and De Vaca thought it was a country with more cities than the stars of the heavens. He had been told that each of these cities had more people in it than you could count in a year, and he also thought that all these people had gold and diamonds and rubies, and would give them to you for little glass beads. "If I only can find a way to this place," he said to himself, "I shall be the richest man in the world. I shall be as great as the great King."
So, because he wished to find gold in America and because he wanted to find a way to another land which, he thought, was even richer than America, De Vaca sailed away to the West. He was not the captain of the fleet; but, being a rich lord, he was, of course, very important. West the ships sailed, until one bright day in Spring they landed at Tampa Bay, in Florida.
Now, Cabeza de Vaca and the Spaniards with him were not the first men who had come to Florida. This part of the country had been found about sixteen years earlier by a rich Spaniard named Ponce de Leon; and the story of how Ponce de Leon came to find Florida is so interesting that I must tell you about it.
Ponce de Leon was one of the brave men who had sailed with Columbus across the great ocean, and afterwards he had been made Governor of an island called Porto Rico. He was rich, and famous, and powerful; but he was not happy, because he was growing old and he wanted to be young.
In those days the people believed that old men could grow young again, just as they believed many other things that we now know are very foolish. One day an Indian came to the great Ponce de Leon and said to him, "If you will go to the islands of the West you will find there a magic fountain. Bathe your hands in the fountain and drink the waters, and as soon as you have done so, a strange thing will happen. Your white beard will become black; your dim eyes will grow clear; your weak, thin legs will grow strong and stout again."
Ponce de Leon loved youth more than he loved money or power or anything else in the world. So he made up his mind to sail away on a ship and find the magic fountain. I do not know whether he wanted only to get young himself, or whether he wanted all the people in the world to bathe, so that no one would ever grow old and no one would ever die. It would have been very strange, I think, if Ponce de Leon had found the fountain. There would never have been any old people any more, and your grandfather would have been as young as you are.
Well, there wasn't a place in all the islands of the West that Ponce de Leon did not visit to find the magic fountain. Every day the old man would put his hands under some little fountain, and then watch to see whether his hair would grow black and his legs strong again. It never happened, and, for one, I do not believe that there ever was such a magic fountain. Well, one Easter morning, while sailing around looking for islands, where the magic fountain might be hidden by trees, Ponce de Leon saw a beautiful new land, the most beautiful land he had ever seen. There were wonderful green palms that never died, and on the ground were flowers of all colors, red and yellow and blue and purple. The air was soft and warm, and high up in the trees the birds sang so sweetly that it almost made the old De Leon weep. "It is Paradise," he said; "here I shall surely find my youth."
He called the country Florida, which is the name it still bears, and he looked everywhere for the magic fountain, of which he had been told by the Indian. But he did not find it at that time, nor did he find it later, though he came back again, with many men who wished to make homes in Florida. The Indians were very unfriendly; they did not want the Spaniards to land, so there was a battle between the Spaniards and the Indians and De Leon was shot. The arrow had been dipped in poison and the wound got worse and worse, and in a short time Ponce de Leon died.
So it happened that the old man who looked for youth found death instead. Yet, to‑day, Florida is a beautiful land, where the flowers still grow and the birds still sing, and many people go there from all over our country to bathe in the wonderful salt water and the warm sunshine, and here they get health and strength, though, of course, they do not get what Ponce de Leon looked for—youth everlasting.
Perhaps the Spanish noble, Cabeza de Vaca, thought of the poor Ponce de Leon when, so many years after, he and his companions landed in Florida. "What will happen to us?" he said to himself. "Will we find what we want, gold and a way to the Indies, or will we too die from hunger and sickness and the poisoned arrows of the Indians?"
When the Spaniards landed from their ships, they found that the Indians were quite as unfriendly as they had been to Ponce de Leon. So the Spanish noble, De Vaca, told the captain, whose name was Narvaez, that he thought it would be safer to stay near the ships. The Indians had told Narvaez that there was gold in the country towards the West, near the mountains. Narvaez wanted gold right away, so he and his men didn't listen to De Vaca, but began their weary march inland.
Now, this march was much longer and harder and more dangerous than any of the Spaniards had thought when they started. There were no roads or even paths, and they had to cut their way through great forests, where the trees and bushes grew so thick that you could hardly tell where you were going. Often they lost their way in swamps. Their feet sank into the water, and they had to ask each other's help so that they would not sink into the swamp and die. The sun, too, was broiling hot, and the mosquitoes and insects bit them all day and all night, so that often they cried out with pain and could not sleep.
Besides, every day the Indians were more and more unfriendly. This was the Spaniards' own fault. They had burned some Indian chiefs, whom they had found in a little village, and all the other Indians hated the Spaniards and thought them very wicked. They called them white devils. Now, the Indians knew of a good way through the swamps and the forests, but they would not tell the Spaniards, because of the Indian chiefs whom the Spaniards had burned. So Narvaez and De Vaca and the men who were with them had to fight their way through the great swamps. Some poor fellows died of sickness, and all were hungry and tired. So you can well believe that they were glad to reach at last a little Indian village.
The Spaniards expected to find gold here, but there was hardly any gold in all the village. They did find a little corn and enough food to keep them from dying; but even with this they were little better off than before. The Indians were their enemies, and whenever a Spaniard walked away from the village he was sure to be killed with an arrow. Even when the Spaniards led their horses to water, they were shot at by the Indians, who were hidden behind trees. At last things became so bad that the Spaniards had to go back to their boats by the sea. It was a hard march. They could only get food from the Indians by fighting for it, and many Spaniards were shot, and many others fell sick and died from the bad water in the swamps. They had to go on, because the Indians would kill any who stayed behind. So they marched, and marched, and marched, day after day, and day after day, losing men all the time, until at last they reached the great sea.
But it wasn't Tampa Bay, where they had left their ships many weeks before, nor was the coast like any they had ever seen before. There was no life anywhere on all the great water, and there was no human being on all the miles of hot, white sand that stretched away as far as the eye could see. The soldiers lost their courage. "We shall never get home," they cried in despair. "We shall die on this terrible sea-coast," and some of the great, strong, bearded men threw themselves on the sands and cried as though their hearts would break.
Well, after a while they picked up courage. No matter how bad things look, a brave man never gives up hope. They knew that they were hundreds of miles west of Tampa Bay, but they remembered that there were some few Spaniards living near the place where they were. So De Vaca and the others made up their minds to build boats in which they might sail to the other Spaniards. Well, it is not easy to build ships when you have no sails, and no tools, and no pitch, and no ropes; but with patience you can do almost anything. So the Spaniards cut down trees for wood, made rope out of the hair of their horses' tails and manes, and used their shirts for sails. Month after month they worked, living on horse-meat and shell-fish and a little corn which they took from the Indians.
At last the boats were finished and they sailed away. Up and down the coast they went, always hunting for the Spaniards who lived nearby, and all the time things grew worse and worse with them. They were hungry and sick and frozen to the bone. For days the sun beat down on them, burning their skin, and then the cold shock gave them chills and fever. At last a great storm came, that drove their boats apart and threw them up against the rocks.
The boat on which De Vaca sailed landed on a little island, and the little band of soldiers would surely have died of hunger if the Indians had not been very kind. The Indians built large fires for the half-drowned men, and gave them hot food and drink, and when some other boats appeared like little specks far away in the distance, they threw more wood on the fires so that the smoke would rise in clouds and guide these ships also to the shore.
Here the tired Spaniards stayed for many months; but most of them did not live long. One after another they died, until only De Vaca and three others were alive. These four were all who were left of the bold men who had sailed for Florida a year before.
But the troubles of the brave De Vaca and his three tired men were not yet over. They could not stay long on the island with the good Indians, so one fine morning they said good-by to their new friends, and made their way to the West. It is a great wonder to me that they did not all die, for their troubles and dangers were great. Sometimes the Indians were kind to them, and gave them food and a place to sleep; but often they were very cruel, and once they kept De Vaca and his men locked up, and made them work as slaves.
You can imagine, perhaps, how hard it was for Cabeza de Vaca, who was a noble and a great man in his own country, to have to be a slave in a little Indian village. In Spain there were always people to wait on him, and whenever he wanted anything, he called and a servant came to ask what he wanted. But here in the little Indian village, where all the people were half naked, he had to work in the fields and dig, and cut wood and carry water, and do whatever else his master told him. Yet, I wonder, did De Vaca ever think of the thousands of Indians who had been made slaves by the Spaniards? Slavery is always wrong, and it was just as wrong to have Indian slaves as to have black slaves, or white slaves, or slaves of any kind.
So this great noble had to work for the Indians, but it was not for long. In a short time, the Indians saw that their slave was wiser than they were; he could teach them many things, and he could cure them when they were sick. So they were good to him and treated him as a chief, and after a while they let him and his three men go free.
Now that De Vaca and his three men were free, they started on their journey again. They went on day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. It was six years, six long years, that they walked on and on over deserts and thick forests, crossing deadly swamps and great, wide rivers. Often they had nothing to eat but nuts and roots, and as their clothes had worn out, they froze in winter and almost burned in summer. Many a time they wanted to lie down and die; but, being brave men, they never quite gave up hope. So they kept on. Then one day through the great forest they caught sight of the sea, and they were so happy that they wept tears of joy; and here they found that they were among their own people again. For the first time in six years they saw white faces once more; for the first time in six years they heard men speaking their own beautiful language, the Spanish language, which they loved so dearly.
You can well imagine how glad everybody was to see them. The tired but happy Cabeza de Vaca had to tell his story over and over again—all the wonderful adventures he had had since he landed in Tampa Bay, of the great rivers and swamps he had crossed, and of the sufferings he had passed through. And where do you think he was? He was far to the West, way out upon the Gulf of California, near the great Pacific Ocean. Cabeza de Vaca had walked across America.
It is true that De Vaca never found the things he came to America to find; for not always did men find gold and glory like Cortez and Pizarro. But De Vaca was happy and satisfied. When he sailed away back to his own home in Spain, he had no gold to take with him, but he was happy, happy to be with his own people once more, happy that he no longer had to be a slave to the Indians in America.