The famous journey of Cabeza de Vaca through northern Mexico (1535-36), and its treasure-seeking aftermath--in an intelligently fictionalized version that turns the story into a morality play involving greed, religion, racism, and ambition. The novel's first section is the trek itself: four bedraggled survivors of doomed Spanish expeditions--Cabeza de Vaca, soldier Andres Dorantes, timid trader Alonso, lusty Moorish servant Esteban--join together to cross the wilderness, walking west and south; thanks to the apparent healing powers of Cabeza de Vaca (a deeply religious man) and Dorantes (who has lost his faith), they are befriended by assorted Indian tribes along the way; Dorantes reminisces about his battle-days with CortÃ‰s; and the travelers hear from the Indians about ""the cities of tall houses""--the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. But, when the trekkers do reach Spanish civilization, there are conflicting ideas about whether or not to encourage the Spaniards' already-rampant interest in an expedition to find Cibola. Cabeza de Vaca is intent on converting the northern Indians to Catholicism--and heads back to Spain, ready to say whatever's necessary to win the court over to his missionary fervor. Dorantes, however, his soul now ""healed,"" wants the Indians left in peace, safe from slavery: in a long flashback, we learn of Dorantes' disillusioning years (152026) as confidant to the conqueror CortÃ‰s--when he witnessed Spanish atrocities and loved Indian gift Timultzin. (He blames CortÃ‰s for the plague death of Timultzin and their child.) And now, in Mexico City, besieged on all sides by those eager for a Cibola expedition, Dorantes meets again with the broken-down CortÃ‰s (desperate for a comeback), with the not-dead Timultzin (involved in a rebellious Indian cult). . . and with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who will indeed lead an expedition north: Dorantes goes along to ensure a ""Christian conquest""--but once again the Indians' trust is cruelly, bloodily betrayed. Hall (The Adelita, Lullaby) maps out the anti-colonial theme here with a bit too much preachiness and predictability; Dorantes lacks the character-color needed to hold the flashback-heavy narrative firmly together. But, if sturdy rather than exciting, this is thoughtful, imaginative historical fiction, with well-crafted interplay between the moral conflicts and the slightly melodramatic storytelling.