This is the story of conquistadors during the 1540’s, who lived for adventure, treasure, and fame. They would travel far and wide to gain riches, giving a fifth of all they found to their king. Esteban de Sandoval, a map maker, is to stand trial before the royal audiencia. The royal audiencia is to decide if Esteban is guilty or innocent of withholding the king’s fifth he has supposedly hidden. The year is 1541 and the place is the Fortress of Juan de Ulua, near Vera Cruz, New Spain (Mexico). Esteban records his adventures in the Land of Cibola on paper his jailer has supplied. The jailer has talked Esteban into making a map of where he has hidden the treasure.
Esteban was a cartographer, or map maker, on a ship on the coast of South America. Their ship was to rendezvous with another to make a search for the Cities of Gold. One of the officers aboard the ship wants to mutiny, and strike out to search for the cities, in hopes of collecting even more gold and fame. He talks Esteban into accompanying him, along with some others.
They travel and encounter all kinds of dangers from nature and from the natives. They ask the people they come across for gold, but to them, it is not important. Esteban and his companions find it all important. As they travel on toward the Cities of Gold, their lust for gold gains a tighter and tighter grip upon them. At the beginning, Esteban marveled at the way the desire for gold had warped others, but later on, he ceases to care for others, and is willing to sacrifice whatever and whoever may come between him and the riches his soul so greedily craves.
The story is told from Esteban’s prison cell. The chapters alternate with Esteban recalling his journey through South America, and his recording what is happening in the prison. He says his indictment is true; he did discover treasure, and he did not give the king his fifth. His prosecutors and jailer are not so much concerned with the king’s fifth, however. They want to know where the treasure is, so they can find it.