by Peggy Bechko
November 30, 1598
Beneath the vast expanse of the shimmering blue sky, Juan de Zalvidar and his thirty soldiers rode hunched against the biting cold of the New Mexican winter. The wind, relentless, blew out of the east. The rhythmic scrape and thud of the horses’ hooves was a familiar sound of comfort to the men as were the soft jingling of bridles and the clank of armor. There were no clouds this day, but already in days past the men had seen white patches along the river, and the smell of snow was upon the air.
As he rode at the head of the column, Juan de Zalvidar’s stature and carriage easily marked him as the leader. At twenty-eight, his air of authority floated about him like a cloak; there would be none who would dispute it. He and his brother, Vicente, had already done much to explore and begin to tame this wild land. They were backed by the power of their uncle, Governor Onate.
Juan’s thoughts strayed as he rode. His tanned face creased in a smile as he remembered the tales his younger brother, Vicente, had told of his own attempts to capture the buffalo herds in cottonwood corrals built near a river. Vicente had returned after fifty-four days of travel to and from the buffalo plains with none of the beasts. When Juan had taken his leave of his brother, setting out with his thirty soldiers to reinforce their uncle in the west, Vicente had still been good- naturedly swearing that he would not give up so easily; he would try again to capture the buffalo.
Putting aside the thoughts of his brother, Juan turned to the young soldier at his side. “We will reach the pueblo of Acoma soon. There we will get corn for our horses and meat for us. The people of these pueblos raise turkeys in great numbers. We may even have a feast!”
His companion chuckled against the chattering of his teeth. “I relish food in my belly,” he admitted, “but I relish even more the thought of being warm once again! I will barter for blankets and firewood as well! There is so damned little of it in this godforsaken country. I want a large, roaring fire. How these people can manage with such tiny fires to warm their homes I don’t know!”
“They are used to this miserable cold,” Juan de Zalvidar pointed out, bowing his head against the chilly breeze that had suddenly sprung up out of the north at cross-purposes with the wind from the east. “They were born here. They were not softened and spoiled by the gentler climes to the south,” he said with wry amusement at his own discomfort as well as that of his men.
He could afford to laugh, for soon they would know full bellies and warmth again. The Pueblo peoples were tame Indians, who would provide all that was needed. The king of Spain had ordered his armies not to steal from the simple natives, but to trade instead, so Zalvidar’s party had brought along plenty of items, hatchets being of particular appeal, to negotiate with the Indians.
But the Pueblos had recently begun to balk at trade. At first they had been open and friendly with the Spanish, but now they seemed reluctant to give up their corn, deerskins or blankets. Still, Juan was not worried. Should it become necessary he had a great enough force with him to take what was needed from the Indians. After all, the king of Spain was not riding at the head of a column of cold, hungry soldiers.
These Pueblo Indians were easy to manipulate or coerce. Onate’s colony had arrived too late in the year to build or plant in preparation for winter, so the colonists had traded for and taken what they needed from the Indians. Already they had dispossessed almost the whole pueblo of San Juan to obtain shelter from the bitter cold of the New Mexican winter. A few of the Indians of San Juan had stayed, making themselves useful in carrying wood and water for the colonists in exchange for being allowed to remain in their homes.
Juan knew that his uncle had stopped at Acoma on a past exploratory trip; the Kere of Acoma had been no more difficult than the other Pueblo Indians. And while Juan had no intention of bullying the natives unnecessarily, he and his men would have what they required to continue their trip to meet Governor Onate at Zuni.
“There!” The soldier beside Juan jabbed his finger in the direction of a great rock in the distance, thrusting into the sky. “There is Acoma! Soon we will be there.”
Juan laughed. “Distances are deceiving here, my friend. We will camp tonight at the foot of Acoma. Tomorrow we will climb to the heights and obtain our supplies.”
A wave of curiosity, excitement and apprehension swept through the Pueblo of Acoma when the report came that Spanish soldiers could be seen at the foot of the mesa. For months they had talked, planning what they would do if the Spanish arrived again demanding the food and blankets that the people of Acoma could ill spare with the long winter still ahead.
Standing with many of the Kere, Cloud Dancer peered down from the heights at the strangers. “They have come again,” she said to her sister, Woman of the West Wind, who stood by her side. “I had hoped they would not.”
Her sister nodded slowly in agreement. “I think we all hoped they would not come again.” She touched Cloud Dancer on the arm. “Come, we must move away from here. Chief Zutucapan and the men will handle the Spanish, and they have said we should not stay outside.”
Cloud Dancer nodded her agreement, but found she felt more than a little reluctance to be tucked away in a kiva or hidden inside one of the mud houses. Why must they always do what the men decided? She sighed and quashed the rebellious thought, returning with her sister to their home.
Both daughters approached their mother in respectful sience as they entered, for she was working the clay. Woman of the Willows smiled her greeting, her hands moving swiftly, dexterously about their chore, smoothing and shaping the clay into a vessel of great fineness and beauty. It was the Kere custom to work the clay in silence with respect for the spirit that it contained.
When Woman of the Willows finished, setting the pot aside to dry, Cloud Dancer informed her quickly, “The Spanish have returned.”
Woman of the Willows’s eyes darkened and her mouth set in a tight, grim line. Her eyes went to the small doorway open to the outside, searching. “Your father will be with the others. We must remain here.”
“But what are they going to do?” Cloud Dancer demanded, forgetting her woman’s place in her agitation.
Woman of the Willows smiled indulgently at her younger daughter. Cloud Dancer always had been the impatient one, always questioning, never satisfied with the way things were. “Your father has said it was decided we would give no more supplies to the Spanish. We will trade with a few old blankets and skins if they so desire, but they will have no cornmeal, pumpkin, pine nuts or other important stores. If we trade those, our people will go hungry when the deep snow comes. If the Spanish demand what we cannot willingly give, our men will attack.”
Cloud Dancer’s face glowed. Her older sister’s paled.
“Good!” Cloud Dancer exclaimed. “The Spanish must be taught they cannot take whatever they wish from us.”
“It is very dangerous,” Woman of the West Wind murmured.
“It is very dangerous,” her mother agreed.