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Facts and Legends of the Town of Palm Springs: Witch of Tahquitz

In 1919, the sheriff of Palm Springs was a young man named Riley. The city was still a sleepy little hamlet before the age of celebrity arrived at its gates. The citizens were hard-working people who had learned to live in a harsh climate among a tribe of mostly docile Indians. But there was a shadow lurking over the town and the children were disappearing under its cloud. Mainly, the shadow remained over Tahquitz Canyon, hanging there as a warning not to enter. Legend says that when the shadow is in the canyon, everything is safe, because the witch hides in her embrace. But on cloudy days or at night when the shadow is everywhere, you have to be careful, because the witch is out!

In Riley’s story, he is asked to lead a gang into the canyon after the disappearance of an Indian girl who is the daughter of a maid of one of the city’s elite; one of the first car mechanics named Zaddie Bunker.

Zaddie brings together a dozen town leaders at Lykken’s General Store, now a historic site, where each person shares a story about their personal feelings or confrontations with the Witch. Journalist Randall Henderson tells the most gripping story of how, nearly 30 years earlier, a little boy had been kidnapped and forced to eat his friend before he could escape. It seems that a generation earlier a gang had formed to capture the Witch, who they thought they had of her, and send her to the notorious Yuma Federal Prison in the middle of the desert wasteland. Unfortunately, the stagecoach he was on never made it and his entire cavalry dragoon escort mysteriously did.

So Riley’s gang sets out to catch the witch with half a dozen white settlers, an elderly Indian medicine man (Pedro Chino), and a young Indian named Jesus. Along the way, Pedro tells the boy about previous events in the tribe and his interaction with the Witch. Her name is Mena and she wasn’t always mean. Hundreds of years ago, Spanish explorers had brought it in their search for gold. She had invoked the gods for a chance to escape her and a husband to protect her from her. The mountain god responded, destroying the Spanish boats seeking as far north as a primordial Salton Sea in a shower of lightning. She swam to shore and walked slowly towards the high mountain peak that she could see in the distance and when she saw the canyon and the medicine man Tahquitz who lived there, she knew that she had found his home.

For a long time she and her man helped the Cahuilla. But over time, the medicine there turned sour and his most famous spell of sucking the bad out of people began to draw out the entire soul of his patients and in doing so prolong their lives. Ultimately, Mena tricked and killed Tahquitz, who continues to lie as an eternal Cahuilla spirit.

The gang eventually reach her camp and kill her, though not without harming their own group. One member, Big John, stays behind to watch the Witch’s embers burn, as this is the only true way to know that she is dead. But before she turns to ash, he is chased away by coyotes and other animals.

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