It was a wonderful story Cabeza de Vaca had to tell, of perils many and narrow escapes from savage Indians, and as he had been ten years absent, all the while exposed to danger, it might have been imagined that he had endured enough. But no, Alvar Nuno Cabeza de Vaca was of a piece with the others who had suffered in various parts of the New World. As soon as he reached home and friends, and was surrounded with comforts, he reverted regretfully to the active life he had led in the unknown country, and thought sorrowfully upon the chances he had let slip to become the richest man in the world.
As a matter of fact, the worthy Cabeza de Vaca (or Cow's Head, as his name might be literally rendered) found nothing but hard usage in the lands he had explored, and returned without even a grain of the gold with which his imagination filled them. But the gold was there, he convinced himself by frequently recalling what the various Indians had told him; and the air of mystery and reserve which he summoned up when questioned by friends convinced them, also, that Senor Vaca had much to reveal—if only he would reveal it!
Especially impressed was De Soto, who, just before the return of Vaca to Spain, had secured from the emperor all the rights and titles in Florida which had been vacated by the death of Narvaez. Emperor Charles was very generous always—with other peoples' properties—and had bestowed this same region of Florida—or the conquest of it—first upon Ponce de Leon, then upon Panfilo de Narvaez, before he handed it over to De Soto. Each one of them had offered to explore and conquer it at his own expense, and, as this was a consideration which always had weight with the emperor, each one had been granted his request as soon as proffered.
Like the foolish explorers before him, Ferdinand de Soto was "created" by Charles adelantado and governor of Florida, and, in addition, captain-general of Cuba, which island he desired as a base of supplies in his projected conquest of the vast and far-stretching empire which he presumed to exist on the main. Cabeza de Vaca was offered a high position under him; but he himself desired a government of his own, and was given that of the Rio de la Plata, as a sop for relinquishing a country where he had endured unutterable privations, and which (it was afterwards hinted) he would not have accepted on any terms.
De Soto was thenceforth known as the adelantado and the governor; and, as titles cost the emperor nothing, he also made his favorite a marquis, bestowing upon him, with magnificent liberality, a marquisate in Florida, thirty leagues in length and fifteen in breadth—which was to be won by his sword.
When it became noised abroad that the gallant hero of Peru was about setting forth on an independent expedition, recruits came flocking in from every direction, attracted by the splendor and magnificence with which De Soto was surrounded. The cavaliers of Spain vied with one another in securing places of honor, the rich ones pouring out their money with a lavishness exceeded only by that of their leader himself, and the poor ones being assisted by him in procuring extravagant equipments.
One day, as he was about sitting down to dinner, a brilliant band of Portuguese hidalgos came clattering into the courtyard of his great house in Seville. They were superbly mounted and clad in polished armor. Descending from the gallery overlooking the court, De Soto gracefully welcomed them and invited the whole party to dinner, afterwards sending out his major-domo to secure for them the best quarters in the city. Thus the cavaliers gathered around him, and in the course of a year the equipment was complete. Nearly a thousand persons assembled at the port of San Lucar, in April, 1538, whence sailed De Soto's magnificent expedition, comprised of ten vessels, large and small. The governor and his wife, together with their brilliant retinue, embarked in the San Cristobal, of eight hundred tons, and the fleet set sail, to the blare of trumpets and amid salvos of artillery.
Two weeks later the vessels dropped anchor off Gomera, in the Canary Islands, arriving there on Easter Sunday. The governor of the island, the Count of Gomera (wrote one of the Portuguese hidalgos in this gallant company), "was apparelled all in white—cloak, jerkin, hose, shoes, and cap—so that he looked like a governor of gypsies. He received the adelantado with much pleasure, lodging him well, and the rest with him, gratuitously. To Dona Isabel he gave a natural daughter of his to be a waiting-maid," and entertained the entire company right joyously for a week.
There were twenty-four ecclesiastics aboard ship—monks, priests, and clerics—and a large number of young nobles sumptuously arrayed, with silken doublets and cassocks, "silk over silk," and with retinues of servile attendants. The reverendos did not seek to mar the festivities, for they were going out merely to convert the heathen; while the cavaliers, many of them, devoted themselves to Dona Isabel and the attractive damsels in her train.
Among them all there was none more beautiful than the daughter of the Count of Gomera, who was less a "serving-maid" than companion to the fair Isabel, and who, before the voyage was over, won the heart of a cavalier named Nuno de Tobar. He was one of the men who had returned from Peru with De Soto, his fortune made and the best of his life still before him. Tobar went out as lieutenant-general in the expedition; but when, after arriving in Cuba, De Soto found that he had been trifling with the affections of the lovely Leonora, daughter of the count, he was summarily deposed.
Ferdinand and his wife regarded Leonora in the light of a daughter, having none of their own, and were wounded to the quick by the ungallant behavior of Tobar. It is said that De Soto, in addition to deposing Tobar, challenged him to mortal combat, as having committed an affront which could only be palliated by the shedding of blood. As such an encounter, with one whose sword was invincible, was equivalent to a sentence of execution, the young man begged for mercy, promising to make every reparation in his power. His life was contemptuously granted him; but he never recovered the confidence of his commander, though he served him long and well.
This untoward incident had not developed, fortunately, before the arrival of the fleet at Santiago de Cuba, which port was reached at the end of a month after leaving Gomera, where the new governor was received with great rejoicings. The festivities conducted by the wealthy residents of Santiago lasted nearly a week, and consisted of bull-fights, horse-racing, and tournaments by day, with banquets, balls, and theatrical displays by night. The planters of the island came into town with numerous fine horses, which they presented to such cavaliers as were in need of them, and, in fact, to many who had not, so that some of the noblemen possessed three or four each, all of them mettlesome chargers, finely caparisoned.
These planters vied with one another in extending hospitalities to the new arrivals, sending horses and mules for the governor and his lady, with their suites, to ride out to their estates in the country, where they were entertained in baronial style. Among these gentry there was one Vasco Porcallo, who lived near the town of Trinidad, having a vast estate, which he had bought with the proceeds of long years spent in fighting the enemies of Spain. He had thought to settle there for life, and had surrounded himself with every luxury that money could purchase in that lonely island. But on his visit to Santiago he met so many kindred spirits and saw so much that reminded him of his fighting days that he caught the enthusiasm of the cavaliers and volunteered his services to De Soto, out of hand. As he had great wealth and a lavish disposition, and, moreover, was possessed of military skill, De Soto accepted his offer at once. He was made lieutenant-general, in place of Tobar, and was so elated thereby that he showered the army with his gifts. He gave a vast amount of provisions to the fleet, and contributed heavily to its armament, besides presenting to various cavaliers who took his fancy more than fifty blooded horses. Thirty-six horses were included in the outfit he took with him to Florida, and a great number of Indian and negro servants and slaves.
All Cuba was aflame over the approaching conquest of the peninsula, which lay but a comparatively short distance away, yet had never been explored. Nearly forty years had passed since Columbus discovered the Bahamas and Cuba, thirty since the latter was circumnavigated, and twenty-five since its people were subjugated. Yet Florida, only a few miles distant across the Gulf Stream, still existed as a wilderness awaiting the coming of its conqueror.
Sending his fleet around to Havana, where Dona Isabel was instructed to await his arrival, De Soto spent three months in a careful inspection of the island, acquainting himself with its resources and accumulating supplies for his expedition. Travelling overland from Santiago, by the way of Trinidad and Puerto Principe, the governor arrived at Havana towards the end of August, and there remained several months, attending to the needs of the people and establishing his government on a sure foundation.
The commerce of Cuba had risen to such proportions as to attract the attention of the Caribbean corsairs, who had assailed both Havana and Santiago; thus much repairing of fortifications and planning of new ones was necessary, to secure the island from their depredations.
During this while, a small vessel, with a selected crew under Juan de Anasco, was engaged in cruising the Floridian waters in search of a harbor commodious enough for the fleet. This was found, after several months of dangerous navigating among the shoals and cays of the Florida Reefs. Two voyages were made before the end was attained, and on the second trip the frail craft came near foundering, for a tempest assailed her, and the crew passed two months on an uninhabited islet, where their only subsistence consisted of raw shell-fish and wild fowl which they killed with stones and clubs.
This venture of Anasco's was the fifth or sixth that had come to grief on the coast of Florida, and it did not augur well for the next one. No one can say, however, that Ferdinand de Soto did not use great caution and care in opening the way for his expedition, even though it ended in greater ruin and disaster than any other that had preceded it in America.
The winter of 1538–1539 passed away, with the cavaliers in Cuba worn to desperation from lack of employment and sighing for a sight of the land for which they had set out so many months before. It was not until May, 1539, that De Soto finally set his sails for Florida, more than a year after he had departed from Spain.
Just as he was getting his last supply of sea-stores aboard, in the harbor of Havana, a ship came into port bearing as its most important passenger an old comrade of his, Hernan Ponce, with whom he had been most intimately associated in Peru. In truth, these two had formed a sort of partnership, common in those days, by which they had agreed to share equally all gains, honors, etc., that might be acquired by either. Ponce was now on his way to Spain, with a fortune in gold and gems, which he was by no means willing to share with De Soto, who, by the terms of their agreement, was entitled to the half of it. By the same terms, Ponce was also entitled to his moiety of De Soto's estate, and, as well, to participate in the honors which had been showered upon him by his sovereign.
These, indeed, the open-handed De Soto proffered to Ponce; but the latter professed himself as satisfied, and content to leave matters as they were. But his former partner delayed his voyage for the sake of honoring him, took him to his palace on shore, seated him at his table, and proclaimed that his ancient comrade, Hernan Ponce, was henceforth to be addressed as "governor" and to receive the same attentions as himself.
Still, Senor Ponce was uneasy, for something seemed to prey upon his mind. Going aboard his vessel in the harbor, in the dead of night, he caused several large boxes filled with gems to be taken ashore, where he had them buried, for fear that De Soto would discover his wealth and insist upon his share. But the frank yet wary Ferdinand had suspected something of the kind, and had stationed sentinels on the watch, who surprised Senor Ponce at his task, and, driving him away, bore off the treasure in triumph. It was taken to the governor, unknown, of course, to Ponce, who let his troubles be known, the following day, over the wine at dinner. De Soto whispered a word to his major-domo, who went out and soon returned with the stolen coffers intact.
"Are these your gems?" he asked, indignantly; "and did you bury them in order to deprive me of my portion? Take them, then, and as promptly as possible sail with them to Spain. My own fortune, my titles, and my honors I consider also yours, and have executed writings to that effect. Even now, I say, will you share with me in the conquest?"
The humiliated Ponce protested that he desired nothing more than what he had, and, to show that he held his comrade in esteem, begged that he be allowed to present Dona Isabel with ten thousand dollars' worth of gems. This generous proffer De Soto, with a laugh in his sleeve, consented to accept, and the gems were duly delivered to the fair lady.
But there is a sequel to this transaction. After De Soto had sailed, and was well on his way to Florida, the wily Ponce demanded his jewels back, asserting that they had been obtained by fraud. Dona Isabel sagely replied that they were in her possession; that Hernan Ponce owed her husband far more than they were worth, on old debts, for which he was liable to arrest, and arrested he should be forthwith. On receipt of which discouraging information he promptly departed for Spain.