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Little tales of the desert.

by Ethel Twycross Foster

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"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 Mary. 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 prickly spines." "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 full sized." "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 scarlet bells." "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," answered Jack. 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.


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