A Cactus Christmas

Read more Riley’s Ramblings >>

Whoops! Sorry! I just saw that this was supposed to be scheduled for AM and it accidentally got scheduled for PM. We were driving for three days and just got back to California so I wasn’t keeping up with the blog schedules.

Note: This Riley’s Ramblings is out of order with the dates. According to the other blog posts, Riley is still at Fort Laramie. After that, his father is transferred to Fort Apache. And then Fort Yuma. But since it’s Christmas, I thought this post would go along with the “High Sierra Adventure” from Yosemite at Last. Here is the context.

Riley flipped the reins and continued. “The Christmases after I left the Circle C were off and on, kind of haphazard, what with the army transferring Pa all over the West.”

He gave Andi a crooked smile. “A cactus does not make a good Christmas tree. One Christmas at Fort Yuma I tried to use one. Bad mistake. I was so poked and bleeding by the time I hauled the cactus home that Mama had to bandage me up and down both arms.”

Andi burst out laughing. “You never told me that.”

Riley joined her. “I reckon there are some stories that seem awful when you’re going through them, but they’re sort of funny now.”

Thank you “anonymous guest blogger” for writing the bulk of this story. It’s a fun read!

December 1882, Fort Yuma, CA/AZ border

Fort Yuma

“Where am I going to find a tree this year?”

The horse I was riding nickered, but I shook my head. “I don’t know about that, Max.” I patted his neck. Christmas was only five days away, and I had to get something soon! Trees were hard to come by at the other forts where Pa, Mama, and I lived. Soldiers had to ride miles and miles for enough stove wood to keep the fort warm in freezing winters. No matter how much the other kids and I begged, the men couldn’t be bothered with looking for a Christmas tree. They just wanted to cut wood and get back—as fast as possible. The best trees I remember were the ones the Carter boys cut down. I’d never seen the like during those three years I spent on the Circle C ranch. I was beginning to get used to wide-open plains with nary a mountain fir in sight.

But not this year. I’d had it. I was sixteen years old and had my heart set on some kind of tree for our Christmas celebration.

Looking across the Colorado River at all that desert, my hopes plunged. “I reckon we’d better get back before Mama starts missing me.” I had ridden about half an hour from Fort Yuma. I turned Max back toward the fort. Five days till Christmas, and I still couldn’t find a tree, nothing that ever resembled a tree. Where am I going to get a tree? I know Mama and Pa don’t really expect one but we’ve gone too many years without one, I thought as I rode at the even lope.

Fort Yuma and the Colorado River

Disappointed, and not sure how I would ever find a tree for Christmas, I slowed to a trot and arrived at Fort Yuma. I passed Pa on the parade ground. He was putting his troop of about 100 men through their drills. He saw me and waved, “Hey, Riley!”

“Hi Pa,” I called back. I paused to watch the men. They clearly respected their captain and looked serious about their training. Pa put his sergeant in charge and jogged over.

He gave me a quick hug and stepped back. “Hey Son, what’s up?”

I shrugged. “Nothing much. Just been out riding Max.” I cringed mentally. Max could never replace, Midnight, who had died back at Fort Apache just a year ago. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing good, boy.” He waved at his troop. “I like Yuma. This place sure has nicer winters than Laramie and Bridger.” He shuddered. I knew he was remembering those harsh, bleak, blizzard-driven winters in Wyoming Territory. There was truth in his words. I could not fault Yuma for its weather. I sighed inwardly. Just for its lack of real trees.   

Pa turned to go. “Wish I could talk longer, but I better get back to work.” He hurried back to his troop, relieved the sergeant, and soon the men were marching toward the stables, where they would mount their horses and ride out for the afternoon.

I followed behind, scuffing the dirt and wishing there was a tree somewhere either inside the fort or outside. Anywhere! Sure, there might be some in the mountains to the west, but who knew when the Indians might take offense and chase me back to the fort.

I slowed my steps long enough to kick at a short, squat, prickly cactus plant growing alongside the main road to the stables. One branch broke off and went flying. It was satisfying to take out my frustration on those awful things. I kept going, still trying to think about getting a tree for Christmas, Papa and Mama would love it. I just had to find one.

By the time I stabled Max, Pa’s troop had left and I nearly had the place to myself. I curried Max and gave him a scoop of oats. Then I checked the water for the rest of the horses. They would be thirsty when they returned and some riders might not stop at the trough before handing their mounts over to me to groom and feed.

It was late when I started home to the office quarters where we lived. They were nice and quite clean (but run down a bit), but not near as nice as my friend Andi’s ranch, the Circle C. I missed her and wondered if she ever thought of me. Deep in thought, I passed another ugly cactus plant. I raised my boot to give it a kick but then a new thought hit me like a plank. “That’s it!” Instead of kicking cactus, maybe I could find one tall enough and green enough to use as a Christmas Cactus tree. “Surely some cactuses grow tall enough and narrow enough to be a substitute for a fir.” I cringed. Maybe with enough tinsel and popcorn strings and plenty of glass balls, we wouldn’t notice it’s prickles and fat branches.

It was worth a try.  

I ran to the schoolhouse and waded through the group of shrieking pupils who streamed through the open doorway. I was an officer’s child so I didn’t have to attend school. I could be tutored at home, which was fine by me. Besides, I was sixteen now and done with the whole thing. I brushed by Private Smalley, who slammed the door and stomped down the stairs. Yep, he’d had another hard day with the soldiers’ kids.

I hid a smile and had the schoolroom to myself. I found an old book with the simple title of Cacti and sat down at the teacher’s desk to browse any illustrations that might work as a Christmas tree and grew around Fort Yuma.

I flipped through the pages. Saguaro? Nope. Way too tall, with only a couple of branches. Prickly Pear? Uh, no. Too flat and short. Barrel Cactus? Definitely not. It looked like a big round barrel and not anything like a tree.

Then I found a picture of a Jumping Cholla. Wow, this would be great! I had heard of these cactus but had never seen one in real life. This plant had plenty of branches, plenty on which to hang balls and popcorn and maybe even tinsel. I could find this cactus, I bet. This Christmas cactus.

The next day I woke up bright and early, before Pa or Mama. I was thinking of the Christmas cactus and today was the day. I jotted down a quick note, Went for a ride, be back this afternoon! Riley

I slipped the note onto the counter and left. The Yuma weather felt more like a balmy spring day in Wyoming than winter in Arizona, so I left my jacket behind. I did remember my riding/working gloves. After all, a cactus had prickles and I had to handle it to get it cut down and brought home.

I jogged down the two blocks to the stables. Max nickered from his stall when I approached. He looked just as eager to head into the desert as I was. It took about five minutes to tack him up. I grabbed an extra rope and an old tarp, on which I could lay my prize. I couldn’t pull a cactus home over the bare, rocky ground. It would be ruined! But neither could I simply lay it on Max’s rump behind the saddle. No matter what species of cactus, the word cactus spelled “prickles and pokes.” Max and I wanted neither.

I mounted Max and we were on our way! I had never seen a Jumping Cholla cactus around the fort, so I figured they grew many miles away. No worries. It was a beautiful December day, and a blizzard was not even in the tiniest portion of my mind. I had all day and I was not going to come home without my Jumping Cholla Christmas Cactus. Wouldn’t the soldiers and officers’ kids be pea-green with envy!

I rode and rode, weaving back and forth across the desert. For anyone who thinks the desert is barren, it is not. This desert is alive, especially after a rainstorm. We’d had one a couple of weeks ago, and the cactus were in bloom, as well as other plants. “Let’s really ride, Max.” I kicked him into a gallop and we flew along the desert ground. I yanked off my hat for a few minutes and enjoyed the breeze.

Max was galloping at an even clip when I gently tugged him to a lope, than to a trot. I skimmed the ground and the area around me for the Jumping Cholla, but they seemed few and far between. Glancing up at the sun, it was nearly mid-day. I’ve got to find one, I determined. I’d been searching for three hours! Then I saw a clump of the elusive plants. Hurrah! I had ridden south and finally turned southeast, and there they were. I was delighted to finally find one.

I rode Max close, but not too close. I did not want Max to brush up against any cactuses. I slipped from the saddle and ground tied my mount. Then I headed for the clump of beautiful, tall Jumping Chollas. I studied it for a bit before plunging headlong into my task. I knew it would be no easy task to bring home this Christmas tree.

I examined each cactus bush to find the perfect specimen. One was too bushy; others not tall enough; a few were too tall or too short. Then I saw the jumping cholla cactus I was looking for. It was just the right size and height. I grinned, This is perfect, I thought, I can just imagine having ornaments, and all Christmasy decorations all over it. Bulbs here and there. Lost in my daydreaming, Max’s nicker jolted me back to the present. He had seen a group of wild horses running off in the desert. I shaded my eyes and squinted at the small herd, hoping they were not a group of Apache. I was awfully far from home and preferred not to be seem. When the herd vanished, I sighed my relief and turned back to my cactus. My cactus. That sure sounded good!  

My “perfect” Christmas Cactus Tree!

Hmm… how should I do this? I wondered, I can’t hoist it atop of Max. It would be much too prickly. Oh! What if I cut it down and dragged it home behind Max? I pondered the idea. “I just have to cut it down, and then,” I paused, “I should be able to tow it home.” I decided on a plan and got to work.

I grabbed the extra rope I had brought and looped it around the cactus, I got my knife and knelt beside the Jumping Cholla. I was about to start cutting when I felt a prickle on my back. I reached up and my arm caught the side of the cactus! I leaped back and pulled the odd-looking piece of cactus from my arm. Then I reached behind and itched my back. “Ouch! What in the world is this?!” It was a piece of cactus that had jumped on my back. “That’s impossible,” I muttered. “I must be imagining things. Plants don’t jump.” I tried to pull it off and my hands started to hurt, even through my gloves. Not to mention my arm, which showed specks of blood where the prickles had scratched me. I could see the tiny drops seeping through my long-sleeved shirt. Uh-oh. This may be tougher than I thought.

I winced and backed up a good ten feet from the cactus. I reached around and pulled another piece of the prickly piece off my other arm and turned back to the cactus. “I won’t go back empty-handed.” I felt silly talking to the cactus but I did it anyway.

I carefully cut the cactus down. I almost got caught a few times but leaped back just in time. I imagined all the tinsel and such-like hanging from the prickly branches and I wasn’t giving up. The base of the cactus was a little tough to saw through with only a knife, but I managed it with much sweat and mutterings.

When the cactus fell over, I stepped back. Now, how to get it on the tarp and keep it there? Hmmm. I laid the large canvas tarp on the ground then stepped gingerly up to my prize. I had to somehow tie the rope around the cactus’s base and onto the tarp. I was bent over and intent on my task when it happened again! A large piece of the cactus jumped onto my back! “Ouch!” I was suddenly wishing I had brought along my thick leather jacket. What in the world was going on? It was like the cactus just knew I was in range. It was creepy. It was like the cactus was screaming, Leave me here! But by now, I’d cut it down and so how could it keep acting like it was alive and send cactus bombs after me?

With a quick jerk, the rope tightened and the jumping cholla “jumped” onto the tarp. Whoosh! That was close. Then I wondered if it would throw all its beautiful branches at me on the way home and I would be left with a stump. Don’t worry about that, I chided myself. Just get the dirty-darn thing home!

Just as I was walking by the tarp to secure it to the saddle, my hand caught fire. Well, not a real fire, but it sure felt like it. A small piece of the jumping cholla cactus landed on my hand. How did it know I had to remove my gloves to make a tight knot? “Ouch!” I hollered. I paused and took out every one of those cactus spines. There must have been a dozen and they did not come out easily, reminding me of getting poked by a fishhook–the ones that go in but don’t like to come out. I gritted my teeth, finished carefully taking out the spines, and tied the knot. Then I put my gloves back on. Safe at last! Or so I thought. I mounted Max and we started home.  


I rode slowly for most of the afternoon. My belly was rumbling by the time I found my way back to Fort Yuma. The officers’ quarters where we lived wasn’t too far from the stables, thank goodness. I brought Max to a halt, untied the tarp, and put my horse away. I took time to give him a decent rubdown, just in case some of those spines had jumped on him. Thankfully, he was clean and showed he was none the worse for our cactus adventure. I went back for the cactus and hauled the tarp to our home, glancing back it it warily. I wasn’t going to get caught again!

Sadly for me, I did. I had decided to set it up outside since I didn’t want Mama or Pa to get prickly and hurting like I had. I dug a small hole and pulled the cactus over. I hunkered down and hosted the cactus in the hole. It caught me on my shoulder but I clenched my teeth and kept quiet. It was hard, but I was able to get the cactus in place. I stepped back. For all its trouble, I thought it looked great. A real green Christmas cactus and worth the long trip and the stinging pricks in my hands. Then ouch! It did it again. I found another bit of cactus on my shoulder sticking tighter than a tick. I winced and hurried inside. I couldn’t reach a few spots behind my back so I needed Mama’s help. “Mama?” I called.

“Yes, son?” Mama came through the door, wiping her hands on a towel. “Oh, Riley! What happened?” she asked when she saw me. By now, I was covered with pieces of Jumping Cholla. I never saw them coming, but I felt them now. 

That happened.” I pointed outside.

Mama came over and peered outside. A smile made her lips twitch. “What is it?”

I puffed out my chest. “Our Christmas cactus. I know it’s not a real Christmas tree, but I wanted to have something to remind us of Christmas.”

“My goodness!” She pointed at my back and arms. “What kind of a cactus—”

“A jumping cholla cactus,” I cut in. “But I had no idea the plant really and truly jumps at you! I had to be on my guard all the way home.” I sighed. “But it’s worth it, don’t you think?”

Mama tsk-tsked, motioned me indoors, and opened the cupboard for salve. “I’ll get you all fixed up.” Mama took off my shirt and dabbed at the bloody spots all over my arms and back. A shirt is no protection against a jumping cholla cactus! Then she spread the cool, healing salve on my bloody pokes and bandaged me up. It immensely relieved the prickles and itches, especially on my hands and arms.

“I hope those wounds don’t become infected,” Mama worried with a frown.

I hoped not too! Once Mama finished, I found some old Christmas decorations and was very careful when I added them to the branches. I was on my guard and did not get caught even once. “Yes,” I decided out loud. “I think it was worth it.”

Papa arrived home about ten minutes later and halted in the yard, “What is that?”

“It’s our Christmas tree cactus!” I said proudly. “I had to ride practically to Mexico to find just the right-looking cactus and I did.”

“Hmmm.” He examined it thoroughly, but I noticed he kept his distance. Clearly, Pa knew what species of cactus it was and how to behave around it. “Son, you do know this is a jumping cholla cactus, right?”

“I do now.” I didn’t admit that I had not known ahead of time about this plant’s strange properties.

Pa chuckled. “You brought home a jumping cholla for our Christmas tree? I’m glad you had the foresight to keep this thing outside.”

I had not intended to keep it outdoors, but common sense told me that I might be in for a painful Christmas if the jumping cholla ended up inside our small place. I didn’t want Mama to walk to the kitchen and find cholla prickles riding on her back.

Suddenly, I saw the humor in the whole situation. I also knew that the entire fort’s company—officers and soldiers alike—would have a good laugh when they heard the gossip. I didn’t care. We had a Christmas tree. I never forgot how I got it. Neither did the rest of the fort. Every Christmas we were at the fort, I was teased about my jumping cholla Christmas tree and the entire company asked if I was going to get a Saguaro for the next holiday season. I never did. That jumping cholla cactus was my one and only attempt at securing a tree for Pa and Mama and myself. It was enough cactus adventure to last me the rest of our stay at Fort Yuma.

Merry Christmas!

Check out this one-minute modern-day victim of a Jumping Cholla Cactus.

Published by Andi Carter

I'm the main character in the Circle C Adventures series. I live on a huge cattle ranch in 1880s California. These are my adventures.

14 thoughts on “A Cactus Christmas

  1. That is a funny story 😀
    My family has had several “adventures” with that cholla. I still haven’t been stuck with it, but some of my family members have been, and it’s painful!


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