What follows is a re-telling of a Native American legend told to me many years ago. Recently, I was asked by a historian to record the legend for a project on which he was working. The story below contains the best parts of the collected, printed (online and otherwise) versions, the story as it was told to me, and true to the spirit embellishments of my own. I'm not sure where my creativity starts or ends as the story has simmered within me for years. For certain, the story as it is written below is true to the overall concept and spirit of the legend and as any storyteller is allowed, embellishments are permitted as long as you keep the narrative on course.
The Legend of Tahquitz is a classic tale of courage, evil overcome, personal sacrifice all mixed together with a healthy serving of quest-legend elements. It has been fun for me to go back and remember how it was first related to me. Although I've edited this a few times, this current version is to my mind, the most complete. I consider it a final draft.
The Legend of Tahquitz
On clear, dark and star filled nights, one may hear deep rumbling coming from Tahquitz Peak. One may hear thunder where there are no clouds and even voices passing through tree tops though no one is near. Some will explain these strange sounds are merely natural occurrences, with scientific facts to back their claims. Others will tell you that these mysteries are deeply rooted in the ancient legends of a people who lived here before all others. They will tell you that what you hear is the voice and roars of the monster known as Tahquitz.
Many moons ago, when the bear walked among vanilla scented pines, deer drank from unspoiled creeks and eagles hunted above wide meadows, there lived a people of peace. The Cahuilla were brothers and sisters to the high country animals when the sun hung high in the sky until evening and were grateful inhabitants of the passes below when snow whitened the mountain tops and the desert’s bounty came into bloom.
The Cahuilla took only what they needed from the land and repaid it by honoring the ways of Brother Bear, Sister Fawn and Father Eagle. Nature provided and the Cahuilla thrived. Their songs and the laughter of children were lifted by the smoke from their camp across tree tops and into the sky where spirits dwelled, who would so often smile down upon these people and bestow good fortune.
It was believed that it was within this smoke that the true nature of a people could be realized and if one were wise enough to understand such things, could know much about a village. The scent of roasted game and simmering pots told of prosperity, the aroma of pungent sage meant chief and council were gathered to discuss the future of the tribe and the smell of heady herbs told of a shaman delivering his cures to the weak and ill. It was within smoke that the prayers to “Those Above” could be sent through the passing of the pipe and the lighting of ceremonial fires.
And it was in those days that the Cahuilla were lead by a strong, wise and brave chief, Algoot. Algoot would watch the signs given to him by his little brothers, the ants, as they covered their mounds on cloudy days to tell him that rain was approaching. He would listen to the changing chirping of crickets that would foretell the coming of cold or warm winds. He listened to his people and provided guidance when it was sought, his decisions always viewed to be just and fair. And as all wise leaders must do, he sought prudent counsel from others, including the tribal shaman, Tahquitz, who knew of cures that came from seemingly ordinary plants and who often spoke to invisible spirits, of both good and evil.
But as we know, where there is light there is also darkness. Where there is joy, there can be pain. And where there might be peace there can be discord close behind. As the years passed, the wise man Tahquitz began to change. Initially, he began to play tricks on small children, teasing them until they would turn away at his approach, fearful of his increasingly hurtful taunts. Tahquitz was often heard mumbling to himself, as if speaking to invisible beings, often going into rants that took on terrifying proportions. His madness increased as the level of his pranks and tricks rose to physical harm to those who encountered him.
Many would testify that he would take on disguises or somehow magically alter his appearance so that he was unrecognizable until he caused harm and only then reveal his true form. All the while he was seen smiling at his treacherous accomplishments. Hunters claimed that Tahquitz would scare away game when he appeared in the sky as a noisy crow, his maniacal laughter emanating from the beak of the fleeing black bird.
Algoot was presented this and much more evidence of the changes in his friend and confidant, and weighed it heavily. It was not until members of his tribe failed to return from gathering food or from a hunt and the possessions of the missing, stained with matted hair and blood, were found in Tahquitz’ medicine bag, that Algoot knew what he must do.
Algoot realized that Tahquitz was no longer the man he once called “friend.” The man had transformed into a walking demon. Saddened, but resolute, Algoot banished Tahquitz to a cave high in the San Jacinto Mountains, well away from the tribe where he could no longer harm his frightened people. Tahquitz, raged against this decision and cursed Algoot and the Cahuilla tribe, claiming that famine and illness would strike them all.
“You may banish me to a barren mountain, but you will hear my voice and curses in the wind throughout the day and night. I will visit you in your dreams, whispering words that bring nightmares, fevers and fearsome signs,” Tahquitz promised. “Berries will vanish from vines as you reach to pluck them and streams will run foul and dry up. My magic is strong and knows no boundary between desert, mountain and sky,” he continued. As he was bound and unwillingly escorted to a hidden cave, his dreadful laughter and frightful curses could be heard for miles as the sun set behind his mountaintop exile, soon shrouded in dark clouds.
As the sun always reveals itself after a storm, all things seemed to return to normal for many days thereafter. The sound of women singing their long remembered songs and the sight of children playing fanciful games filled the tribal camp. As the tribe’s bounty allowed, Algoot, would send young scouts and small parties of women to the base of the mountain with food and other provisions for Tahquitz so that he might live without want even in his separation from the rest of the tribe.
As the elders would relate many years later, the signs of the demon Tahquitz’ return were at first subtle and often explained away as bad luck or unfortunate circumstances. Bow strings would snap just as a hunter released an arrow. Abundant springs slowed to a trickle and then smelled of hellish sulfur. Women were repeatedly stung by wasps and bees as they reached for tender wild berries.
As the days continued, tribal stores of gathered food quickly spoiled or became infested with mice and insects. At night, the bravest men of the tribe would awake in screams at horrifying visions that came to them in their sleep. In a few short weeks, the tribe began to feel the first pangs of hunger that grew stronger with each setting sun.
And from the mountain of Tahquitz’ lair came deep rumblings as if the rocks themselves groaned in pain.
Algoot saw what was happening to his tribe, he heard the low roar of the mountain, but refused to believe that Tahquitz was responsible. “Surely, even a demon’s power has limitations,” he prayed silently. He did not believe of such things until unspeakable death befell his people.
Late one evening, a tribal elder told Algoot that the party delivering what was now a meager offering of food to Tahquitz, had not returned. The elder feared that a cougar that had been seen in the area might be responsible or perhaps, as it was whispered in the camp, Tahquitz had once again retuned to his murderous ways. Algoot called upon three of their strongest men, one of which was his handsome and dearly loved son, to walk to the mountain to discover what may have happened to them.
The three eager youths promised Algoot that they would not return until they found the missing women or their bones. He embraced his tall son and told them all to return in a week, even if they found nothing, for the tribe would be moving soon to perhaps safer ground, further away from the cursed mountain.
As his son and his two courageous companions trekked up the mountainside, dark and thunderous clouds began to gather around the high summits. Lightening glowed within the clouds and soul chilling winds started to blow. Algoot sent a prayer to Those Above to watch over them, give them strength and courage to face whatever awaited them in the darkening gloom.
Days turned into many and four weeks passed with no word from the scouting party. Algoot feared the worst and decided that he and he alone must discover the fate of the missing members of his tribe and in particular his dear son. He instructed his elders to lead the tribe to the lower mountain passes and to seek the hidden springs that might still provide fresh water and game to keep them alive in his absence.
“Do not follow me or send our men to seek me out if I do not return,” he instructed. “If Tahquitz is truly our destroyer, then he pays with his life. Send up your prayers to Those Above that I may find the enemy of my people and provide him with proper justice.”
His people cheered as he turned to ascend Mount San Jacinto to seek out the passage to Tahquitz Valley from where he would then climb Tahquitz Mountain and to the cave of the demon. As he continued his journey higher and higher, wild winds blew carrying the cries of Tahquitz’ victims and the whispers of evil spirits telling him to turn back. Thunder clapped all about and trees fell before him from a multitude of lightening strikes. Algoot was undeterred in his quest and he braced himself for whatever awaited him in the desperate forest.
Before the shadowed sun reached its zenith, he entered Tahquitz Valley. It was no longer the lush, verdant meadow remembered from his youth. Algoot, no matter how prepared he believed himself to be, could not have imagined the scene revealed to him in the valley. Gone were the ferns now shriveled and blackened from some unknown scourge. Gone were the tall pines that once surrounded the valley meadow, now bare of needle and bark and strewn about as so many twigs carried by a child.
A low, brown mist covered the valley floor like a malevolent fog, filled with the stench of decay. As the fog cleared with his steps he saw the bodies of wild animals, torn apart and strewn haphazardly wherever he looked. Some lay half-eaten yet still alive while lying on piles of bleached bones. It was among these bones that Algoot saw a bit of buckskin he knew to be the dress of a young woman in his tribe, a member of the missing party who had been given the charge to bring food to Tahquitz. Close by, the barren skull of the young woman lay crushed among the bones of bear and deer.
Algoot’s attention was immediately drawn to a soft moan, its speaker hidden in the putrid fog. Following the sound, he found the battered body of one of the young men led by his son to this valley so many weeks before. Algoot lifted the head of the young man, now close to death and did his best to comfort him in his pain.
“My good man, where is my son?” Algoot asked.
“Algoot, how can I tell you this and yet I live? Better had it been that Tahquitz had taken my life than to tell you this dreadful news. Your son, my friend and companion is dead,” the dying boy answered.
In mute anguish, Algoot listened how everything had been happy and almost a game until they reached Tahquitz Valley. Here, loud roars and echoing sounds were heard. The smell of death hung everywhere and though two of them wanted to leave, the son of Algoot declared that he had not come so far to only retreat at the first sound of danger. Undaunted, the son of Algoot continued his journey, ignoring the appeals of his friends until a deafening clap of thunder and unnaturally sustained lightening revealed the demon, the monster that was Tahquitz. With one fierce sweep of his hand, he struck down the three, causing them to collapse with many broken bones but remaining alive.
Tahquitz then picked up the body of the son of Algoot like a pine needle doll and tore an arm out of its socket. He slung the body of the screaming youth over his shoulder and marched back to his cave while eating the still warm flesh of the son of Algoot.
“Chief Algoot, we could not do anything except listen to the crunching of the bones as he ate. Our legs and arms were broken, useless to flee or fight,” the young man explained. “But our horror was not yet complete.”
Algoot continued to listen as the boy explained that as the sun rose two days later, Tahquitz came to gather up the next of the scouting party. His evil and hunger not yet sated, blood covering his hands and jaws, his next victim was torn apart as the son of Algoot had been, this time taking his feast in view of his next intended victim.
“When he had finished with the body, he threw it over the mountain and retreated to his cave, laughing at my cries of terror until I had not the strength but to breath. Tahquitz left me here for many days and nights, but I knew I would be next. Algoot, protect me and protect our people from this monster. Kill Tahquitz.”
With these final words, the young man shuddered in the arms of Algoot and died. He picked up the boy in his trembling arms and turned towards the cave of Tahquitz, his sorrow tempered by his rage.
In a fearsome whisper he said, “You will pay for this Tahquitz. You have killed my son whose eyes where as bright as the morning sun, arms as strong as the grizzly bear, mind as curious as the blue jay and whose stealth was that of a fox in hunt. You have killed my people who sought only peace with the land and lived with blessings from Those Above. You will die, Tahquitz and I will deliver that death to you.” Tahquitz turned away from the cave where glowing yellow-red eyes could be seen and the sound of subtle laughter could be heard.
As Tahquitz descended the mountain he took the time to place the lifeless form of the young tribesman upon a blazing funeral pyre. The burning wood was carefully chosen so that it was sure to cause much smoke, thereby allowing the spirit of the rise and join the spirits of those gone before. He chanted the songs necessary at times such as these, all the while knowing that his own son’s spirit had not been allowed to unite with Those Above. And as the last of the embers cooled to grey black ash, Algoot vowed to sing no song and to utter no words until his mind, body and spirit were prepared to face Tahquitz again.
Silently, he departed his makeshift place of mourning and set about to carry out his vow. In the spring, to build his swiftness, he began to run, each day increasing in speed and endurance. He challenged the fastest buck to races over mountains and through flat valleys until there was no deer he could not beat in a foot race. He began to swim long distances in lakes and deep streams, until he could out swim the fleetest of mountain trout. He would leap up and scale the sheerest and slickest of all cliffs until he could reach the pinnacle before Father Eagle could fly there. For three months he trained until his lungs were doubled in size and he could hold his breath beneath the water longer than one could count.
In the summer, to build his strength, he sought out increasingly heavy boulders to lift until he could carry the largest above his head and throw hundreds of yards. He conferred with Brother Bear who agreed to wrestle with him in daily contests of might. He continued these matches until he could better the largest of all grizzlies in the forest. For three months he trained this way until his muscles were tougher than the fibers of the hardiest trees.
In the fall, to build his mind, he consulted the wisdom of Cousin Owl, learned the ways of the trickster crow, studied the silent, cunning fox that hunted alone and followed the shrewd coyotes who hunted in packs. He taught himself the means to count all of the stars in the heavens and how to predict when the sun and moon passed before each other. Algoot learned of the secrets of the plants, which would cure and which were poisonous. He could study the knots created by the roots of trees and could untangle them in his mind’s eye. He blindfolded himself and learned to run through deep forest brush without sight by remembering each branch, each shrub and stone that might lie in his path. For three months, he trained his mind until he knew the answer to every puzzle in the natural world.
In the winter, to build his spirit, he built a smoke lodge where he could meditate and pray silently to Those Above and seek the purpose of his life and all life within the world. His spirit became calmed and his eyes took on the cast of one who comprehend his relationship between himself and the Great Spirit. He understood his place within the stars as well as the sand beneath his feet. He did this for three months until his spirit was a part of everything around him, seen and unseen.
For an entire year he trained until he felt ready to face the monster. He wished to see his people once again, only to find his tribe more hungry and dissolute as ever before.
At first, the Cahuilla ran in fear of him, thinking that the shape shifting Tahquitz had taken on a new form. No one recognized Algoot, for he had grown two hands taller and his shoulders were as wide as three men. His legs and arms and entire body were altered for he had transformed into a giant. It was not until a wise woman, bent with age looked past the long hair that partially covered his face and into his eyes. There, she could see the man she once knew as their chief, his kind and insightful spirit still recognizable despite his transformation.
She smiled, “Children, do not run away…it is our beloved chief, Algoot.” And with that she brushed back his hair and saw that indeed their chief had returned. Cries and cheers rose up and all wanted to touch and see their courageous chief, to hear of his adventures with Tahquitz and to learn what was to become of them.
Solemnly, he told them of Tahquitz’ corruption and the depth of his evil. He shared with them the story of the deaths of the missing tribal members and of the death of his son. Men and women alike cried in sorrow and horror, and expressed sympathy for the loss of the son of Algoot.
Algoot held up his hand and said, “This is not the time for tears, my people. Tahquitz is wicked, fierce and strong but I am stronger and wiser than he. This is not the time for tears for what I must do is clear and my path leads to his utter devastation. I must do so for the sake of our future and for the sake of those lives he has taken.”
“Those Above can no longer resist our pleas for aid. For certain, Tahquitz will die or I will die, that is the way this shall end. Send up your last prayers with mine that I may find the enemy of my people and slay him.”
Algoot then turned and leaped up the mountainside with inhuman ferocity and speed. His tribe desperately tried to follow him but he was soon beyond sight as he continued up into the high country. Within mere minutes, Algoot stood before the fetid cave of Tahquitz, now scattered with even more bones of indefinite origin.
Algoot paid no mind to the dreadful surroundings but focused on the cave’s opening and called forth, “Tahquitz, slayer of young children and women, come out and fight a man! I am Algoot, chief of the proud Cahuilla people and I have come to end your reign of foul terror.”
A low, wet voice issued from the cave, “What is it, Algoot that you have to say to me? Do you wish to be my next tasty meal? Perhaps your flesh will be as delightful as your son's?”
Undeterred at Tahquitz’ words, Algoot replied in disgust, “You are an abomination, Tahquitz. Today and in this place, one will stand and one will fall. Fight me, Tahquitz or are you also a coward who dares not battle a man such as I?”
“No, on second thought, your flesh will be sinewy and tough because you are so old, Algoot. I may just use your bones to pick my teeth after I dine on the rest of your tribe,” Tahquitz replied. “And I will fight a dozen more of your best and strongest if I so desire.”
The demon began to step forth, laughing as he entered daylight. As he rose to full height, Algoot knew that the friend and confidant he knew so many moons ago was no longer before him. Tahquitz was no longer a man, but a repulsive monster. His white, putrid skin hung from malformed bones and his hands were now filthy claws, tipped with talons from which dead flesh hung in strands. The mottled face of Tahquitz was that of a demon, his eyes changing from milky white to yellow then to fiery red. His fallow lips and cheeks hid ragged teeth and his matted hair blew wildly in the howling wind. When he rose to full height he was twice as large as even the giant Algoot stood, but the mighty chief felt no fear.
Tahquitz' voice roared as thunder, “Prepare to die, old man!” and with speed that was only matched by lightning, Tahquitz attacked Algoot. Holding him aloft with one hand, he threw the chief into a lower valley as if he were tossing away a dry stick.
Algoot landed on the valley floor on both feet and smiled at the demon, “Tahquitz, is that the best you can do? I felt as if I were a bird, floating among the high branches and hilltops. I do not want to play with you, I want to kill you…now join me so that I may do so!”
In a rage, Tahquitz took a boulder the size of ten bears and heaved it towards Algoot. Algoot swiftly stepped aside as it rolled harmlessly down the mountain. Taking a boulder twice as large Algoot heaved it up the mountain, striking a stunned Tahquitz. Scores of such rock were thrown back and forth between monster and man. All along the mountains and valleys, these huge boulders landed, all of which may still be seen today on Mount San Jacinto, and the Moreno Valley below. In years to come, elders who gave witness to this battle claimed that the granite monoliths of Suicide and Lily Rocks are remnants of this fierce battle. But Algoot’s aim was truer, more deadly than that of the demon. Hour after hour the conflict waged, but little by little Algoot began to get the better of his foe.
Seeing that he was losing the battle, Tahquitz turned himself into a gigantic buck and began to run away in escape. Algoot quickly caught up with the fleeing mountain monster, took hold of his twisted rack and pulled him to the ground. Again, Tahquitz using the powers of a wizard changed again into a bear-like creature of enormous proportions and began to claw and squeeze Algoot in a mighty hold.
Algoot flexed his powerful chest and arms to break free of this death grip and turned on his foe. Tahquitz ran in fear to a wide lake, changing form once again into a fearsome serpent as he entered the water. As a serpent, he planned on luring Algoot into the lake’s depths, where he would attempt to drown the Cahuilla chief.
Algoot immediately understood Tahquitz’ wicked plan but pursued him regardless, for he knew the battle would soon be over. Bleeding and almost broken, the chief dived after the serpent-Tahquitz and overtook the rapidly swimming beast, grasping his scaly tail.
Tahquitz rose up above the lake’s surface to open his fanged maw in order to deliver a deadly bite into Algoot. As the snake’s head reared back to strike, Algoot released the tail and leaped up to grab the snake behind its head.
In desperation, the serpent-Tahquitz thrashed so violently that he cut away a portion of the shore line, causing the lake to drain into the foothills and flatlands below. Algoot maintained his forceful grip, all the while squeezing ever tighter until the snake’s eyes took on a filmy glaze and its slashing tail moved no longer. Tahquitz was dead, the lifeless snake coiled along the muddy lake bottom lying next to the still form of Algoot.
Many of the more courageous tribe members had witnessed the final act of the contest and came running to Algoot’s side. Near death himself, he instructed them to gather the driest of wood and build a funeral pyre to burn the body of Tahquitz. Although the physical form of the felled monster was dead, his body and evil spirit must be consumed by a smokeless fire.
The tribe did as instructed as they also rendered aid to their hero, giving him nutritive herbs and life giving broths. Algoot, in great pain now, watched from his bed as they prepared to dispatch Tahquitz forever by placing the giant snake onto the raging inferno, making sure that no smoke emanated from the flames.
As the snake’s skin began to sizzle and be devoured by fire, a near blind old woman, wishing to help her people placed a green Manzanita stick into the blaze. Immediately, a small wisp of smoke began to rise up and in horror, the tribe saw the visage of the monster also drift up, his malicious grinning face bearing down upon them all.
Algoot summoned his last remaining strength, left his sickbed and leaped into the air, taking hold of the smoke spirit of Tahquitz. With powers that no one understood, he threw the smoke spirit into a massive boulder near the fire ring. And though most of the vile spirit was cast into the stone, some curls of smoke escaped, drifting into the sky only to rest on the mountaintop that is known as Tahquitz Peak.
With this last act of bravery, Algoot fell to the ground and spoke, “My people, Tahquitz is ruined. Touch not this rock and travel not into his hidden mountain lair. Though he is at rest be careful not to stir him, for his malevolent power could be awakened.” And with those last words, the mighty Algoot, champion and chief to the Cahuilla, breathed his last.
The mourning of the death of Algoot was great and his memorial brought tribes from across the land. He was given a hero’s funeral and the smoke that rose from the pyre contained not only the body of the chief, but also the collected bones of the victims of Tahquitz, including Algoot’s most beloved son. Their spirit smoke drifted skyward, swirling together to join their ancestors, forgotten heroes and lost loved ones that would now dwell together with Those Above.
The Legend of Tahquitz and Algoot, a tale of sacrifice, bravery and vanquished evil has been passed from generation to generation for over 2,000 years. To this day, the boulder that rests near Strawberry Creek upon which the face of Tahquitz is emblazoned is the subject of much controversy. Algoot instructed his tribe to avoid touching the rock, for in doing so the trickster Tahquitz is awakened from his spirit slumber. Whispered stories are often shared that tell of those who have defiled the rock have come to bad fortune, injury or worse. There are tales of those who have sought and perhaps even have found the empty cave that Tahquitz once dwelled in have suffered similar fates.
But for those with an understanding of the mysterious and ancient past, respect for these cursed places comes easily. They know to follow the wisdom of Algoot, heed his warning and honor his memory by allowing Tahquitz remain in his spirit sleep.