Chapter III. "The Secret of the Strait"


One afternoon in September, in the year 1542, two broad, clumsy ships, each with the flag of Spain flying above her many sails, were beating their way up the coast of southern California. All day the vessels had been wallowing in the choppy seas, driven about by contrary winds. At last the prow of the leading ship was turned toward shore, where there seemed to be an opening that might lead to a good harbor. At the bow of the ship stood the master of the expedition, the tanned, keen-faced captain, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. He was earnestly watching the land before him, which was still some distance away.

"Come hither, Juan," he called to a sturdy lad, about sixteen, who, with an Indian boy, brought from Mexico as interpreter, was also eagerly looking landward. "Your eyes should be better than mine. Think you there is a harbor beyond that point?"

"It surely seems so to me, sir," answered the boy; "and Pepe, whose eyes, you know, are keener than ours, says that he can plainly see the entrance."

"I trust he is right; for this thickening weather promises a storm, and a safe harbor would be a gift of God to us weary ones this night," said the captain, with a sigh.

Since the fair June day when they had sailed out of the harbor on the west shore of Mexico, they had been following first up the coast line of the Peninsula, then of Upper California. No maps or charts of the region showing where lay good harbors or dangerous rocks, could be found in Cabrillo's cabin. Instead, there were maps of this South Sea which pictured terrible dangers for mariners - great whirlpools which could suck down whole fleets of vessels, and immense waterfalls, where it was thought the whole ocean poured off the end of the land into space. A brave man was Captain Cabrillo, for, half believing these stories, he yet sailed steadily on, determined, no matter what happened to himself, to do his duty to the king under whose flag he sailed, and to the viceroy of Mexico, whose funds had furnished the expedition.

California has ever been noted for its brave men, but none have been more courageous than this explorer, who was probably the first white man to set his foot upon its soil. As the ship approached land the crew became silent, every eye being turned anxiously to the opening of the passage which appeared before them. The vessel, driven by the stiff breeze, rushed on, almost touching the rock at one point. Then, caught by a favorable current, it swept into mid-channel, where it moved rapidly forward, until at length it rode safely in the harbor now known as San Diego Bay.

"It is a good port and well inclosed," said Juan Cabrillo, with great satisfaction, gazing out upon the broad sheet of quiet water. "We will name it for our good San Miguel, to whom our prayers for a safe anchorage were offered this morning." Then, when the two ships were riding at anchor, the commander ordered out the boats.

"We will see what kind of people these are, dodging behind the bushes yonder," said he. As the Spaniards drew near shore they could see many fleeing figures.

"What a pity they are so afraid," said Cabrillo. "If we are to learn anything of the country, we must teach them that we mean them no harm."

"Master," said Pepe, "there are three of them hiding behind those bushes."

"Is it so, lad? Then go you up to them. They will not fear you." So the Indian boy walked slowly forward, holding out his hands with his palms upward, which not only let the natives see that he was unarmed, but in the sign language meant peace and friendship. As he drew near to them an old man and two younger ones, dressed in scanty shirts of rabbit-skins, came from their hiding places and began to talk to Pepe, but, though they also were Indians, they did not speak his language. Some of their words were evidently similar to his, and by these and the help of signs he partly understood what they said. Presently he returned to the group on shore.

"They say there are Spaniards back in the country a few days' journey from here."

"Spaniards? That is impossible," returned Cabrillo.

"They say that they are bearded, wear clothes like yours, and have white faces," answered the boy, simply.

"They must be mistaken, or perhaps you did not understand them fully," said the master. "At another time we will question them further. Now, give them this present of beads and hurry back, for it is late."

That night some of the men from the ships went on shore to fish. While they were drawing their nets, the Indians stole up softly and discharged their arrows, wounding three. The boy Juan had the most serious injury, an arrow being so deeply embedded in his shoulder that it could not be removed until they reached the ship. There the padre, who, like most priests of that day, knew something of surgery, drew it out, and bound up the shoulder in soothing balsams.

On the second day of their stay in port the wind began to blow from the southwest; the waves grew rough, and Cabrillo ordered the ships to be made ready for the tempest, which soon became violent. Meantime, Juan lay suffering in his hammock, which swung backward and forward with the motion of the ship. Suddenly he heard a step beside him and felt a cool hand on his forehead.

"How goes it, lad?" said Cabrillo, for it was the master himself. "You are suffering in a good cause. Have courage; you will soon be well. Remember, you have helped to discover a harbor, the like of which is seldom found. This storm is a severe one. I can hear the surf booming on the farther shore, yet our ship shows no strain on the anchor. Good harbor though it is, I am sorely disappointed, as I had hoped it was the entrance to the strait, the strait that seems a phantom flying before us as we go, drawing us onward to we know not what." The sadness of the captain's voice troubled Juan.