Concerning Tuscaloosa then….
When de Soto arrived in 1540, the Choctaw city of Mauvila (whence the name Mobile comes) stood on the northern shore of the Alabama River. Mauvila was a great structural achievement, though a misnomer—the city was immobile, as it happens. They had constructed a barracks of eighty mud rooms of various sizes, and the barracks rested on cross-timbers, which were crosshatched up high in a palisade of trees rooted into riverbank and supporting the structure like a Stone Age tree fort. There was also a boardwalk ribboning along the façade of the structure, where stood lookout towers at fifty-foot intervals.
From the corner tower, Chief Tuscaloosa stared blankly at the thick plumes of smoke rising from a pyre across the river. They had ambushed the Spaniards that day and driven them back across the river. But at great cost. Riven with Spanish lead and steel, half of his warriors had departed that day, the worst loss yet in a series of escalating battles. The tenacity of the Spaniards amazed and terrified Tuscaloosa, their sunburned faces barely visible behind iron masks, their horses spent with bleeding hooves—yet they would return.
That morning, he had sent messengers throughout the neighboring villages, evacuating the women and children upriver as far as they could go, even though he suspected that they too would fall. Perhaps a relenting would come, but he would not talk falsely to his braves, for they needed some reason to fight.
Though chivalry had long since died in Spain, the crusading spirit endured within the medieval breasts of de Soto’s conquistadors. Evidences of carnage and devastation flowed down the Alabama. Tuscaloosa had thought to honor the fallen, though he knew their spirits would endure in the next life…maybe triumphant, but for all he knew, their bodies would rot in the river and dump into the ocean.
Were the spirits angry? Would they not accept their unconsecrated blood? One last stand against a force he couldn’t begin to comprehend, let alone analyze for strategy. Bravery then….
Upriver, the refugees slogged beneath the forest canopy with what they could carry on their backs. For now, the company was at rest.
A woman sent her children ahead to look for berries in the pine needles and to hunt what small game they could kill. Her eldest son brought back a hare and a pouch full of rancid berries. She built a fire and dressed the hare as her other children reported with their findings. A few leeks. A sickly fish, good for a stew perhaps. She got out an earthenware pot and began to gather kindling.
Another child came whimpering out of the woods and ran past her. A few minutes later, the child returned dragging his horrified mother. Her legs were striped with bits of greenery pasted there. The woman got up from her preparations and ran after her.
Down the riverbank, her stomach turned when she saw a trail of blood, purple entrails draped in stinging nettles, and at the end of the trail, the horrified mother’s son lay with a large hole in his side. The horrified woman held him in her lap, moaning. There was no arrow, no bite wound—but still he bled. None of her children knew who or what had done this.
The woman looked around nervously. No sounds. She inspected the ground for footprints larger than a woman’s or child’s but saw none. The bereaved had dragged her dying child into the rive. Oily tears dripped on his head as she mumbled a weak lullaby,s and the little one moaned in response as she held his dirty twisted face, looking down at the dark blood that curled in the shallows.
From above, the shaman drew up to the edge of the bank, regarding the mother and her dying son. He bit off a piece root and his white thinning whiskers winched around his lips as he chewed. He spit out the viscous quid, inspected it, and with great difficulty, he slid down the bank and reached out and felt the child’s head reverently. He closed his eyes and mumbled. The child’s spirit was departing, nevertheless, he left for a poultice, though he’d seen wounds like this and knew it would doe little good.
The woman trotted up the bank and down the river a ways. Bent at the hips, she ducked her head through the woods like a wary doe. At length, she ran upon the charred remains of a campfire that was still smoldering and she found the butt print of a single man and a small mound of grey powder… bits of canvass… wood shavings…
She heard a twig snap and ducked behind a tree. The leaves shuffled lightly in the breeze and birds chirped at each other, high in the hollows of their homes. The woman breathed for the first time in several minutes. Cautiously, she came out of hiding and breathed for the first time in minutes. She leaned wearily against the tree, slid down to her haunches and looked over her shoulder at nothing, for nothing was there.
A loud shot ripped past her ear and she tottered over, feeling as if someone were choking her. Her vision went blurry. She gasped and groped for air, twirling to confront her attacker. She felt her throat. It was bleeding from a sharp piece of bark. Another shot cracked, but missed its target again.
She pulled the shard from the muscles of her neck and tried to stem the bleeding. When she finally saw her attacker, silver and shining in the sun, he had lowered his musket. He saw the blood draining from her neck, so he set down his gun to approach her. She had raised herself on her knees but was still gasping and groping for what was choking her. She watched him as he began to take off his armor, first his helmet, then his breastplate, then his greaves. His white chest floated wraithlike through the trees.
He walked over to her and set his foot against her chest. He gave her a shove, and she fell over backwards. She looked up terrified. He smiled vaguely as he took off his gloves and breeches. He grabbed her dirty legs. She kicked and tried to close them but there was no strength left in them.
And so he fell upon her.
After he finished, he began to suit up. She raised herself painfully on her palms. While his back was turned—modesty now—she tried to get away, but her legs buckled and her vision was still obscured. He turned toward her and spoke to her in a language she didn’t understand. He buckled his belt. She watched with expressionless eyes as he went down to the river to rinse his dirty bloody arms.
She was gone when he returned. He knelt by where he’d defiled her, touched the needles matted with blood. There was no trail leading anywhere. He raised his head and strained his ears for something human. But there was nothing human to him and it was too late. She swung a huge rock crushing his helmet into his head. He staggered forward, then backward and then he keeled over, falling out of consciousness.
She ran for his musket to make sure he could not get to it. She inspected its honed stock in her hands. It occurred to her to raise it at him as he did her, so she flicked the hammer back and pulled the trigger. It made a spark but no shot.
She walked over to where he lay, his pale stomach moving up and down, his head pivoting groggily. He looked up at her, a dark sillouette against the setting sun. Without a word, she shoved the musket barrel roughly into his mouth. She took it out and he moaned a little, whispered importunity. But his god was not in these parts….
She shoved it back, chipping his rotting teeth. He mumbled and drooled. And then she fell upon him, methodically, then furiously, ramming it back and forth until dark earth dropped from the hollow of the barrel and into his limp jaws.
Then she collapsed with exhaustion, the sky gently dilating and retracting as the forest swayed….
…. and the next day, the Spaniards slaughtered the rest of his warriors and scrupled not to seize upon what women and children they found upriver. And Mauvila and the surrounding areas were burned and lost in the eager paroxysms of de Soto’s looting soldiers, taken down only briefly in logbooks and sifted for gold that was absent.
Such was the fall of Mauvila.