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Little tales of the desert.
by Ethel Twycross Foster
Start of Story
Part 2 Trade rats.
THE little clock struck twelve, all were sleeping soundly, the tent flap
was rolled away and a streak of moonlight stretched half across the
Mary and her mother lay on a bunk and beyond the partition one could
hear the even breathing of father and cousin Jack. All else was still
save the occasional cry of a night hawk or the far distant call of a
Slowly, cautiously, stealthily into this silence crept a tiny object.
Its sharp, black eyes flashed fire in the moonlight and in its small
mouth it carefully carried a cactus burr.
"Pst! Mary, did you hear something?" It was cousin Jack's hoarse whisper
that broke the silence and awakened Mary from a beautiful dream and her
eyes popped open wide. She snuggled closer to Mother and stared into the
moonlight. All she could hear was a funny, little scratching sound,
unlike any she had ever heard around camp, and she knew not what it
meant. None of her little animal friends made a noise like that.
Jack was out of bed, had lighted a candle and in his pajamas, was
searching under bunks, tables and chairs for the thing that had caused
the noise. Mary sat up in bed, in time to hear a swift, rustling sound
and see a small object dart out of the tent door. Jack knew it would do
no good to search outside so tumbled back into bed and once more all was
Next morning at breakfast all were wondering who the strange visitor
could have been, but soon the incident was forgotten. Toward noon, Mary
went to a vacant bunk where she kept her clothes, and picked up her new
doll. She removed its dress and looked about for a little, red, wool
gown, of which she was very fond, for the day was chilly and it looked
like rain. But the gown was gone, high and low she looked, but find it
she could not. At last, tired out with searching, she fell asleep, and
the pretty lost gown remained a mystery.
During the next few days strange things happened. On the day following
one of Dolly's stockings was gone, on the next, its mate; on the next a
pretty little velvet bonnet, and so on for a week. The strangest part of
it was that something or somebody was bringing in little sticks of wood
and cactus burrs and piling them up among the doll clothes.
At the end of the week, Jack decided to solve the mystery. He said he
was going to sit up all night and see what kind of a thing was coming
into the tent so regularly. He didn't do exactly what he intended to do,
for by ten o'clock his eyelids grew too heavy and he was fast asleep in
the vacant bunk which he had chosen for a hiding place.
Patter, patter, patter, something was coming. Jack awoke with a start of
expectation. There was no moon tonight, but he had left a candle burning
in a distant corner. It was all he could do to keep back a chuckle when
he saw a big gray rat dart across the floor with a good sized twig in
its mouth. Jack kept perfectly still and the little fellow, not even
seeing him, continued its way across the floor to the bunk on which sat
Jack beside the doll clothes. It clawed its way up the side of the bunk,
dropped the twig, then selected a soft, woolly skirt. Then it turned and
scampered away through the door and out into the sagebrush.
Jack gave a hearty laugh and at once awakened the whole family and told
them his story.
"Of course," said Father, "it was a trade rat. Why didn't we think of
that before? The hills are full of tiny holes where they burrow down and
build their nests."
"But what about the twig?" asked Jack.
"They always pay for what they take," was the unexpected reply, "they
are great fellows to steal both food and clothing, but they never take
anything without replacing it with a cactus burr, a twig, a chip of
wood, or something of the sort. They seem to think it wrong not to leave
something in place of what they take."
"But what did they do with all my dolly's clothes?" asked Mary, "surely
they can't wear them."
"Indeed no, my dear little girl," said Father, "but probably if you
could find their nest, you would see them busy at work lining it with
the soft, downy cloth in preparation for a family of little ones."
Mary talked and wondered about all these happenings, and you can imagine
her delight when big Joe came running up to camp one day and told her he
had found her rat's nest. The men had been digging on a little hill
preparing to build the foundation of an extra tent. The hill was covered
with rat holes and gopher holes, and Joe lifted up a shovel full of
adobe and underneath was a little cave all carefully lined with warm
clothing. On the soft bed lay mother rat and six tiny little fellows
with eyes just opened. They were peering around with a frightened look
and giving shrill little squeaks of dismay.