Whether or not he deserves to be called ""the first American pioneer,"" Juan Ortiz probably knew the New World more intimately than any European of his day. Alternating fictionalized chapters with ""Interludes"" of commentary, Steele recreates Juan's life as a captive of the Timucuan Indians and, later, as the only Spanish interpreter on the journeys of Hernando de Soto. Rescued from a human barbecue by the chief's daughter Acuera (a prototype Pocahontas and ""the first Southern belle in the history of the New World""), Juan learned rituals of warfare and religion ""no more silly than the rituals and folderol of chivalry"" and became an adopted member of the tribe. Just when his adaptation had become complete (he gave up his treasured cross for a polished stone and could no longer remember the Spanish language), the arrival of de Soto wrenched him back to his old life where he served the mentally unstable explorer loyally but found little in common with the goldhungry caballeros. Though the records of Juan's life are too fragmentary to permit a tightly plotted story (his mysterious death is announced abruptly in one of the Interludes), the author's relaxed essays on the historical background create a companionable aura of shared investigation into this littleknown and totally atypical encounter between Spaniard and Indian.