The legend of Sangre Mesa

The forecast is calling for isolated thunderstorms around Coldwater later tonight. Jack, my stranded Irishman — who was joined this evening by a young couple from Australia who are exploring Route 66 with their adorable 4-year-old son; four Danish bikers who are hoping the ash will subside by the time they reach California; and a guy from Phoenix who is on his way to Tulsa for his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah — sat outside with me for a long time, hoping we’d see another show like the one Mother Nature put on last night.

We weren’t quite that fortunate (so much for the luck of the Irish), but the temperature was just this side of comfortable, so I made a big batch of green chile stew and a pan of cornbread, fired up the chiminea, and spent a very pleasant evening visiting with my guests outside.

Jack is quite taken with Sangre Mesa. He went hiking on the trail out there today. While we were all sitting around the fire tonight, he asked me about the legend.

The original legend is a pretty good story, but it’s a little vague. I guess there’s just something about the combination of folklore, the smell of pinon, and the sight of sparks winking into the darkness that invites embellishment, because I couldn’t resist riffing on the original story just a bit. If you’re interested, my version is below the fold:

Many years ago, when the earth was young, a group of nomads came to live in this region. They came up from the southern deserts and had been traveling many days when they came across a cool spring. Their throats parched, they stopped to get a drink. They watered their animals. They cooled their foreheads. And after discussing it for a bit, they decided to stay. They established a settlement and called it Coldwater in honor of the spring that sustained them.

At first, everything seemed fine, and they were surprised that no one else had come to live in this beautiful place with its delicious, icy water.

They were soon to learn the reason: A monster — a shape-shifter with dark power — lived on the gray mesa overlooking the settlement, and he guarded the water jealously. As soon as he learned of the people drinking from his spring, the monster began changing form, masquerading as first one person and then another, occasionally even taking the shape of a family pet, to gain access to the townspeople’s homes.

Once inside, the monster would resume his true form — a hideous, reptilian creature with red eyes and strange, glittering golden scales — and sink his fangs into the smallest, weakest person in the house, tearing the small one to shreds while the others watched in horror.

After the monster killed the chief’s son-in-law, assumed his form, and murdered his infant son before his wife’s eyes, the elders decided it was time for the tribe to abandon Coldwater and return to its wandering ways.

Although it was not customary for women to speak at tribal meetings – especially when the elders were speaking – the chief’s daughter, devastated by the loss of her husband and child, stood up.

She spoke of love, and of justice, and of revenge. She spoke of the cool water and the beautiful land and the dreams she and her husband had held for their son. And when she finished speaking, the elders fell silent, and a band of warriors gathered their weapons and followed her up the mesa.

The monster was clever. All the way up the mountain, it changed forms, darting away from the warriors as a tiny lizard one instant and striking at them with the fangs of a rattlesnake or the stinger of a scorpion the next. Many brave men died as the monster attacked them from one direction and then another, shifting from one form to the next so rapidly that they were powerless to stop it.

As they neared the top, their numbers dwindled until there was no one left but the chief’s daughter.

The monster – now wearing the guise of a coyote – leapt directly into her path, its teeth flashing.

Quick as lightning, the woman drew back her bow. The coyote-monster sprang to attack, and in that instant, the arrow found its mark – just as the creature’s venomous fangs found theirs. Caught mid-transformation, the wounded animal uttered a horrifying scream that filled the skies above Coldwater and woke the sleeping children in their beds.

The old ones say a crimson river flowed down the mesa that night, soaking the earth and staining the rocks forever with the story of a band of noble warriors led by a courageous young mother whose self-sacrifice avenged her family and saved her people.

— Sierra

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