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Little tales of the desert.
by Ethel Twycross Foster
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Part 9 A DESERT MAY PARTY
"WHY, Mamma, the very idea! Who ever heard of a desert May party?" I
hear some tiny girl exclaim, "A desert is all sand, if there were
flowers there it would not be desert at all."
Ah, yes, my dear, I used to think so, too, but to Mary it was no
surprise. She had spent the winter on the desert, had seen the heavy
rains, and afterwards had watched how rapidly the sturdy little green
shoots would push their way up through the hard unsympathetic soil.
Generally once a year the desert puts on its party dress and is dotted
with a gorgeous mass of blossoms.
The rains come at intervals in the winter and early spring and the
heavier and more frequent they are, the greater will be the flower
growth. The March and April rains this year had been heavy. There had
been days when Cousin Jack had come in with his raincoat dripping and
declared that he knew Mt. Kenyon would be washed away. Now and then a
cloudburst would strike terror to Mary's tender heart. She had gone out
when the weather cleared and watched the warm earth rise up and break,
while the little green things peeped through and took their first look
at the sun. The ground was always warm and it was amazing to see how
rapidly things would grow if you but gave them water.
The thing that now troubled Mary was the fact that she had no one to ask
to share her party. Of course there was Jack, but Jack was only a boy
and a May party, above all else, means girls.
It is strange what unexpected things happen at times, even in lonesome
mining camps. The thought had barely entered her little curly head when
she looked away over toward the mountains and saw a big, lumbering
wagon, drawn by four strong horses, come creeping down the road. Long
before it reached camp she could see that there were several people on
it and then she saw the children.
There were four of them, three little blue eyed girls with flaxen hair
and a slightly older brother with the same light hair but who looked at
the world through a pair of big, laughing brown eyes. They were staying
twenty miles up the valley with their parents who had charge of a small
cattle ranch, and Mother and children were having a holiday going to
town with Father. They stopped to water the horses and you may be sure
that it did not take long for the children to become acquainted. Not
many little folks live on the desert and playmates are almost unknown.
As it turned out, Father and Mother went on to town alone and left the
children to enjoy one another until their return on the following day.
Mary's mother was always planning surprises, so when she appeared with
two large lunch baskets heaped with goodies, Mary realized that this
would be a May day party unlike any she had ever before seen. Six burros
were kept ever ready in the corral and these were caught and saddled for
the children. Mother rode her Indian pony, a Christmas gift from Father.
As they passed the mill and wound up the trail by the main shaft of the
mine, the men were changing shift and as the cage swung up to the
surface the miners called a cheery good-bye, for they were very fond of
They ascended the next rise and what they saw was fairyland. They were
at the entrance of a canyon. A tiny stream of water ran in the center
and beside it wound a narrow trail. Foothills rolled up on either side
and the steep walls were a mass of flowers. Wild heliotrope, thistle,
poppies, white, pink and yellow gillias, long-leaved wild tobacco, with
its rich yellow blossoms, all were massed together and far more
beautifully arranged than the stiff gardens in Central Park.
"Aunt Louise," called Jack to Mamma, who was riding behind with the
little girls, "isn't that a campfire up on the next hill?"
"No, Jack," she replied, "not a fire, only a smoke tree. That is why it
received its name. The branches are grayish with tiny sage-green leaves
and at a distance it is often mistaken for a fire as it is all so
delicate and filmy."
By this time Jack had ridden ahead for a closer inspection of the bush
and startled us all by a little cry of pain.
"Be careful, Jack, it is also called the porcupine tree by the miners,"
called Mother, "the tiny leaves are nothing more than very sharp and
"Why is it that so many desert plants have stickers and thorns?" asked
Tom, the rancher's son.
"Why, can't you see for yourself, Tom?" called back Jack, "if they
weren't sharp and prickly all these little desert animals would tear
them up when they were young and tender and they would never grow to be
"Yes," said Mother, "it is simply the way that nature protects her young
so that it will not be destroyed in infancy. There are still other
protections necessary on the desert for the hot sun would otherwise kill
many plants. A large number are covered with a soft down which is really
a mass of tiny air cells that keep the stems and leaves cool and protect
them from the hot sun's rays."
"And see, there is a creosote bush, its rich green leaves are covered
with a kind of varnish which keeps them cool the same as the hairs would
do. See how the recent rains have brought out a mass of blossoms at the
tip of every branch, what a delicate flower, held in a pale green cup.
And there is another smoke tree, nearer the water and so it has
blossomed earlier, every point has a gorgeous purple flower."
"See the funny bunch of sticks over here, Mamma," called Mary, "they
look like a lot of candles sticking up."
"And that is just what they are called, my dear, ocatilla, or candle
cactus. They have no leaves for the greater part of the year, but after
the rains they leave out and are soon covered with those beautiful
"Yes," answered Mary, "they look like some beautiful winged bird just
about to fly away. And how tall the candles are, lots higher than our
tents back in camp."
It would take too long to tell you about all the desert beauties that
the children saw, they all agreed that nothing as beautiful was ever
seen "back East" where it rains half the time.
At noon they sat down under a clump of mesquite and ate the splendid
luncheon. The pure fresh air had made them ravenously hungry. The
mesquite was a low, stocky tree which did not grow high but spread out
in every direction, branches thick with foliage.
"Why don't the old tree grow up higher and not bother about having so
many side branches?" asked Jack.
Then Mother told him. "Why, can't you see?" she asked. "The sun is so
hot that it kills the tiny buds on the end of the branch; but the tree
is determined to grow, just the same, so it sends out side buds, where
the sun's rays are not as hot and the short, stubby tree is the result."
"At any rate it makes a fine shade and that is all we need just now,"
They rested under the wide spreading branches until the sun shone a bit
less fiercely, then they slowly rode homeward through the beautiful
blossoms, arriving just at dusk, very hungry, a little tired, but happy
in the thought that they had visited one of the strangest and most
beautiful corners of the earth.