007 Desert Magic

We were up early, had breakfast of fried eggs, mush and coffee and were on our way just as the sun was rising. Rosalio and I followed the sheep. Pablo stayed to pack camp but discovered that his horse, even though hobbled, had strayed off during the night, going back toward the sheep bridge. By skillful tracking he retrieved it.

During the morning the sheep followed along dry washes, over open cactus and greasewood country, and both along and across rugged canyons. Narrow canyons are worse than wide ones, for the sheep more quickly spill out into adjoining country. Once during the morning the herd was following along three parallel canyons at once, and Rosalio had to patrol them all. Boots was of little help here; this was too rough and cruel a country for dogs.

Not sharing Rosalio’s responsibility and worries for the sheep, I went slowly, lingering to dwell luxuriously on each aspect of the country.

Six buxom quail came strutting down a filareed hillside, their bay windows pouching and their saucy black faces bobbing up and down like a troop of entertainers taking the stage for a session of songs and jokes. Each had a jaunty, plumed minstrel hat. And behind one of them came the featured attraction of the show — a family of baby quail, each no larger than a generous puffball. Sighting me, all the performers but the mother and her brood made a whirring retreat from the stage, taking to the wings as it were. Assuming instant command of the entire act, the mother convoyed her youngsters along the rotten carcass of a fallen saguaro and then, without a stop or hesitation, ran on up a gentle slope and started calling me names.

Now the chicks were gone. This was no stage comedy; this was the act of a magician. The mother had said “Presto, be gone” and even without the wave of a wand or a wing, the thing was accomplished. I poked with the butt of my tripod about the rotten roots of the cactus. Finally a tight-drawn ball of fuzz, with a shiny pin for an eye, peered up at me; that was all I found. I took a turn to the other side, planning to approach the baby quail from a fresh and more suitable angle, but in that instant it was gone. Another magician. No amount of further prodding turned up any of the brood. Looking now to the mother I found that she too had disappeared. She had been willing to expose herself as long as it would aid her purpose but, seeing that I was bested, she at once took cover, to be ready for whatever next skirmish with danger for her family might come this way.

While I was still admiring the mother’s skill and the supreme discipline of the babies, I suddenly became proud that I had been responsible for that one added lesson in concealment. For as I climbed out of the wash I saw, sailing right above it, winging directly over the rotten saguaro, a red-tailed hawk. No doubt Mrs. Quail and her youngsters had continued their morning airing but I smiled and felt contented — as the hawk hovered like a glider — at the assurance they could play their tricks on it as well as me.

The hungry bird would have to ease its appetite on less dainty morsels, on life less skilled in magic. Mrs. Quail is a Lady of Legerdemain.

This area, it soon became apparent, was struggling furiously to get me lost and separated from the herd, not so much because of the confused and threaded intricacy of the meandering washes, but because of the natural distractions to progress which it afforded along the way. No sooner had the hawk disappeared in hungry disappointment than I was captured by the wink and blush of a cactus bloom. Twin blooms in fact. Cactus flowers along this trail during the last two days have been almost as thick as dandelions in springtime. Scores of cactus varieties grow in Arizona — a large percentage of all the varieties found in the world — and many of them have blooms in the spring.

But these two that caught my attention were special. They were alone, and their purpled splendor stood out in the grayness of the wash like a fresh-bloused girl in a dingy bus station. Each petal was flawless, unscarred, and waxed with a subtle polish. These blooms were as delicate in coloring, and more delicate to the sight, than a party orchid, but I touched the petals and found them sturdier than the orchid — silk-textured yet firm.

Progressing along the wash, I became conscious of the structure of other desert growth about me. Intricacy was everywhere. Each of the giant saguaros had a thousand hand-tooled needles. Perfection in pinpoint. Every palo verde tree — and they were thick in this part — had a million tiny leaves, each no larger than a baby’s fingernail, yet more wonderful to look at than the giant leaf of a palm, just as a Swiss watch is a thing of greater perfection and delicacy than the works of an eight-day alarm. Every leaf of the greasewood, the cat’s-claw, the mesquite, was seventeen-jeweled in its intricate perfection.

The wash became a braid of narrow gravelly runlets fringed with bushes, the braid became a skein, and I emerged at last onto a broad dry riverbed — the lower end of waterless Sugar Loaf Creek — beside which the sheep were shaded for noon.

Rosalio and Pablo had already made camp and the red kyack boxes stood in neat order, with the fiery water kegs at the end, beneath a palo verde tree bursting with golden blooms. Each ordinary act of the noon camp — mixing pan bread, washing clothes after dinner, shoeing the horse — was a drama in a majestic setting of color. We were shaded up in a sea of saffron splendor.