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The very next day, much to his delight, Vaca learned that other white men were on the same island. A messenger being sent out, soon Vaca was joined at the village by some of his former companions, Dorantes, Castillo, and their men, who had been wrecked on the island the day before Vaca landed there. Three of the castaways, numbering at this time about eighty, had been drowned in an ineffectual attempt to recover one of the horsehide boats. Terrible as the sea had been to them, they would have dared its storms once more in the desperate hope of coming at last somewhere into a Spanish harbor.
As December waned, bitter cold and heavy storms descended on this coast, stopped the fish supply, and prevented the Indians from digging for the edible roots which grew under water. Starvation and exposure thinned the ranks of the Spaniards. The survivors, to the horror of the Indians, ate the flesh of their own dead. When spring came, Vaca had with him but fifteen men.
A new danger now assailed them. Disease attacked the Indians and destroyed half their number. In their panic the natives accused the Spaniards of having brought the plague upon them by occult means; and they were only prevented from slaying them by the chief who had taken Vaca in charge. If, argued this worthy, the white men could bring the disease upon the Indians, they could also surely have prevented their own people from dying. And "God our Lord willed that the others should heed this opinion and counsel, and be hindered in their design." So the Indians did not kill the Spaniards. But the notion that their mysterious refugees possessed supernatural powers was too pleasant to be given up. Now let those powers be used to cure sick Indians and banish the plague. As Vaca puts it, with his occasional sly touch of humor, "they wished to make us physicians, without examination or inquiring for diplomas." In vain he tried to laugh the savages out of their conviction. They replied that when stones and "other matters growing about the fields have virtue" then certainly "extraordinary men" must be more highly endowed. And if those extraordinary men would not heal, neither should they eat. This was cogent reasoning. After hungering for several days Vaca took the first step towards the remarkable career he was to follow later on as a Medicine Man. He had observed the Indian witch-doctors blowing upon their patients and passing their hands over them, frequently with successful results. And, devoutly religious as he was, he knew that in his homeland the "prayer of faith" uttered by humble petitioners before the wayside shrines frequently wrought the recovery of the sick. Therefore, he seems to have reasoned, a blend of Indian and Christian faiths should be efficacious here. He says:
Our method was to bless the sick, breathing upon them and recite a Pater-noster and an Ave Maria, praying with all earnestness to God our Lord that he would give health and influence them to make us some good return. In His clemency He willed that all those foi whom we supplicated should tell the others that they were sound and in health, directly after we made the sign of the blessed cross over them. For this the Indians treated us kindly; they deprived themselves of food that they might give to us, and presented us with skins and some trifles.
Scarcity of food continued so that sometimes Indians and white men went without eating for several days at a time. Presently an Indian guide, who had been bribed by a marten skin, departed westward along the mainland coast, taking with him all the Spaniards but three, Vaca, Oviedo, and Alaniz, who were too frail for travel. In the summer Vaca went with the Indians to the mainland foraging for food. The life he led was "insupportable," being practically that of a slave. One of his duties was to dig out the edible roots from below the water and from among the cane. His fingers were so worn from this labor that "did a straw but touch them they would bleed"; and the sharp spikes of broken cane tore his naked flesh.
For nearly six jVears Vaca lived a slave among these Indians. He had long intended to escape and to set off westward "in quest of Christians"; for, somewhere towards the sunset, lay Panuco, and, given bodily strength, a brave heart, and faith in God, a man might hope to reach it. But Vaca would not leave his two companions. Then Alaniz died; and Oviedo, however much "stouter" than the other Spaniards in the matter of climbing trees, was not of stout courage. He feared to be left behind and he would not go. Every winter Vaca returned to the island and entreated him to pluck up heart; and every spring Oviedo put him off, but promised that next year he would set out.
Vaca did not let time pass unimproved. To get rid of root-digging and sore fingers, he decided to enter the domain of commerce. He could begin with good prospects because the Indians of the mainland had already heard flattering reports of his skill as a Medicine Man. And perhaps he expected to fit himself for the journey down the coast by acquiring a number of Indian dialects, by becoming a connoisseur of Indian staples and trinkets, and by learning from western tribes on their summer buffalo hunts in Texas some details of the country through which he must pass on his projected journey to Panuco. Ordinary perils and hardships had lost their terrors for Vaca. Roving naked and barefooted like the tribesmen, his body had become inured to fatigues and to wind and weather; periods of famine had also prepared this erstwhile son of magnificence and luxury to cope with the barren wilderness when the day of escape he had waited for should come at last. He had learned to make the Indians' weapons and to use them in hunting, though, as he admits, he never developed the Indian's subtlety in trailing. He was so satisfactory as a servant, indeed, that his masters were content to have him do their trading for them; and they let him come and go at will. Of his career as a merchant in Texas, Vaca gives a lengthy account, interesting because it is the first record of trade in this now great commercial land.