This is a retelling of a folktale from the Colorado foothills collected by Charles M. Skinner called Riders of the Desert, published in his book Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896).
Ta-in-ga-ro and Zecana
Ta-in-ga-ro, which means First Falling Thunder, built his lodge in the Colorado foothills among the towering sandstone columns. Although he was brave in battle and swift in the chase he preferred to spend his time in the company of Zecana, which means Little Bird, who was his wife, rarely joining in with the forays of the men of his tribe.
He trapped beaver and hunted the wild sheep and would take them to a trading post on the Mexican border. He would take his beloved Zecana along with him as he could not bear to be parted from her. It was on one such outing when a Spanish trader saw Zecana and became enamored with her. He dreamed about her day and night to the point where he became consumed by his own lust for her and craved for his fill of her body. To satisfy his hunger he plotted to separate her from Ta-in-ga-ro who rarely left her side.
To achieve this aim while keeping his feelings for Zecana secret he persuaded Ta-in-ga-ro to undertake a journey to a distant mountain, promising him that Zecana could remain in safety and comfort at the trading post until he returned. Ta-in-ga-ro was an honest man who would never knowingly hurt anyone and could not envisage that everyone was not like himself and he agreed and began the journey.
A Bad Omen
Along the way, he stopped at a spring to rest and refresh himself. He saw how the blue sky and clouds reflected in the cool clear waters and after he had drunk his fill he cast some beads and wampum into the water as was customary to thank the spirit. Throwing his offering into the spring he was most shocked to see a bad omen manifest within the water. Instead of reflecting the sky to his horror and fear he saw the agonized and anguished face of his beloved wife appear.
As fear washed over him he jumped to his feet and jumped upon his horse and galloped back to the trading post without stopping for rest or food. When he arrived at he jumped from his horse and ran into the building looking for his wife. Neither she or the Spaniard were there and not knowing what else to do he returned to his lodge.
It was a long and lonely journey and both he and his horse were exhausted, but he rode day and night and one morning as the dawn was breaking he saw the sun coming up over his lodge. There to his absolute joy as entered his home was his beloved wife Zecana. She was happily singing as she went about the care of the home just as she always had done. Joyfully he greeted her holding arms out to embrace. She turned her head to look at him and then casually returned to her singing. He turned her towards him and looked into her eyes. what had once been dark and mysterious pools that shone with inner beauty were now dead. She looked at him through dead eyes and she did not know who he was. Her mind and reason were no longer there.
The Madness of Zecana
Ta-in-ga-ro cried out in shock and stepped back and then gently sat her down and cradled her lovingly in his arms. Slowly with his gentleness and patience, he learned from her babble the terrible ordeal the Spaniard had inflicted upon her. When she had finally managed to tell her story a fleeting look of remembrance came into her dark eyes and in her tortured mind she briefly saw her husband and remembered her love for him. Then, pain came into her eyes and tears flooded down her face. Suddenly, her hand snaked out and grasped the dagger he always carried at his side. Stepping back she raised it with both hands and plunged it into her heart falling dead at her shocked husband’s feet.
Ta-in-ga-ro watched this all happen as if it was in slow motion and as the blade entered her heart he let out a cry and reached forward but was too late to stop her. He stood frozen to the spot for hours overcome by the horror of his wife’s suicide. Eventually, the strength of his forefathers came to his rescue and he knew she had passed on. Setting his house in order he wrapped his wife’s body in buffalo skin and laid her in what he thought was a comfortable position for her to sleep, though he knew the body was not her and her soul had flown. Then he lay down beside her and slept for his body was exhausted and his emotions numb.
Two nights later the Spaniard lay sleeping in his bed at the trading post. Ta-in-ga-ro had passed the guards unseen like a shadow and now stood over the sleeping man looking down upon him. In the darkest hours the Spaniard awoke with a start by strange feeling as his mouth was gagged by his belt. Although he tried he could not cry out and his teeth bit into leather. He felt fear as a noose tightened around his throat and struggled to free himself but to no avail. In seconds he found himself bound hand and foot and flung over someone’s shoulder. Struggle though he did he could not break free and could not even make a sound as he was carried stealthily out of the house.
Ta-in-ga-ro placed him across a horse tying him to the beast’s body firmly. He then wrapped an arrow in cotton and set it a light firing it into a nearby haystack to create a diversion. While everyone was busy dousing the flaming haystack he mounted his own horse bound Spaniard into the desert concealed by the smoke.
Ta-in-ga-ro took his captive back to his home lodge where his dead wife lay. Arriving back Ta-in-ga-ro he ungagged him and loosened his bonds enough for him to eat. The Spaniard ate and when he had finished Ta-in-ga-ro led a horse he had placed a wooden saddle upon to the door way. He then cut off the clothes of the Spaniard and placed him upon the horse ignoring his terrified pleas to stop. Ta-in-ga-ro then tied the man firmly to the horse. He then went inside and carried out his dead wife and lifted her corpse upon the horse so that she sat face to face with the Spaniard. He then freed the burdened horse and mounting his own set it free in into the desert. The horse wandered off carrying the Spaniard and the corpse. The more the Spaniard struggled the closer his face came to the face of the dead woman.
Into the Desert
The horse carried them both further into the desert. The Spaniard slipped in and out of consciousness and each came time came to face to face with his victim. Slowly and surely the horse continued ever deeper into the endless desert. In the fierceness of the desert heat, the Spaniard sweat profusely and his bonds cut him into his skin and blood dripped from him. At night the cold desert air froze his bones and although he nodded into sleep each time he did Ta-in-ga-ro yelled at him. With a jolt, he would awaken to face the corpse whose dead eyes stared into his own. And so this living nightmare continued and occasionally, Ta-in-ga-ro gave him a mouth full ,of water to keep him alive but never any food and the Spaniard’s hunger grew. This nightmare continued for many days and all the time the Spaniard sat face to face with the corpse of Zecana. He had eaten nothing for days and hunger gnawed at him as he looked into the dead of eyes of the woman he had once so hungered for.
The Madman and the Corpse
At last the Spaniard could bear the hunger no longer and though he hated what he did he sank his teeth into the face of the woman who he had so lusted after. Ta-in-ga-ro looked on grimly each time hunger took the Spaniard but still continued taking them further and further into the desert. At last, he heard the Spaniard sobbing and gibbering and knew that madness had come upon him. Only then did he rein in his own horse and watch as the horse bearing the babbling Spaniard and the corpse wandered deeper into the desert. Not until he had seen them disappear into the wilderness did he turn his own horse around and ride off. He never went home but went to join Zecana.
The madman and the corpse were carried into the wilderness that is the abode of lost and wandering souls. Few people willingly go to that barren and empty wasteland and fewer return but those who do have an eerie tale to tell. They say when the little bird stops singing and the first falling thunder is heard the phantom riders appear. The ghost of the babbling madman staring into the dead eyes of the woman that he had so hungered for doomed to forever feast upon her flesh on an endless journey through the wilderness.
© 12/10/2016 zteve t evans
References and Attributions
Copyright October 12th, zteve t evans
- Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner
- Charles Montgomery Skinner – Wikipedia
- Pixabay – Image by ZEBULON72 – CC0 Public Domain
- Pixabay – Image by werner22briggitte – CC0 Public Domain
- Pixabay – Image by AZArtist – CC0 Public Domain