It was Saturday, and, there being no school, both Susie and Dora were at home. Ralston was considering in which direction he should ride that day when Susie came to him and after saying to Smith with elaborate politeness, “Excuse me, Mr. Smith, for whispering, but I have something very private and confidential to say to Mr. Ralston,” she shielded her mouth with her hand and said:
“Teacher and I are going fishing. We are going up on the side-hill now to catch grasshoppers for bait, and I thought maybe you’d like to help, and to fish with us this afternoon.” She tittered in his ear.
Susie’s action conveyed two things to Ralston’s mind: first, that he had not been so clever as he had supposed in dissembling his feelings; and second, that Susie, recognizing them, was disposed to render him friendly aid.
Smith noted Ralston’s brightening eye with suspicion, jumping to the very natural conclusion that only some pleasing information concerning the Schoolmarm would account for it. When, a few minutes later, he saw the three starting away together, each with a tin or pasteboard box, he realized that his surmise was correct.
Glowering, Smith walked restlessly about the house, ignoring the Indian woman’s inquiring, wistful eyes, cursing to himself as he wandered through the corrals and stables, hating with a personal hatred everything which belonged to Ralston: his gentle-eyed brown mare; his expensive Navajo saddle-blanket; his single-rigged saddle; his bridle with the wide cheek pieces and the hand-forged bit. It would have been a satisfaction to destroy them all. He hated particularly the little brown mare which Ralston brushed with such care each morning. Smith’s mood was black indeed.
But Ralston, as he walked between Dora and Susie to the side-hill where the first grasshoppers of spring were always found, felt at peace with all the world—even Smith—and it was in his heart to hug the elfish half-breed child as she skipped beside him. Dora’s frequent, bubbling laughter made him thrill; he longed to shout aloud like a schoolboy given an unexpected holiday.
Each time that his eyes sought Dora’s, shadowed by the wide brim of her hat, her eyelids drooped, slowly, reluctantly, as though they fell against her will, while the color came and went under her clear skin in a fashion which filled him with delighted wonder.
It may be said that there are few things in life so absorbing as catching grasshoppers. While Ralston previously had recognized this fact, he never had supposed that it contained any element of pleasure akin to the delights of Paradise. To chase grasshoppers by oneself is one thing; to pursue them in the company of a fascinating schoolmarm is another; and when one has in his mind the thought that ultimately he and the schoolmarm may chance to fall upon the same grasshopper, the chase becomes a sport for the gods to envy.
Anent grasshoppers. While the first grasshopper of early spring has not the devilish agility of his August descendant, he is sufficiently alert to make his capture no mean feat. It must be borne in mind that the grasshopper is not a fool, and that he appears to see best from the rear. Though he remains motionless while the enemy is slipping stealthily upon him, it by no means follows that he is not aware of said enemy’s approach. The grasshopper has a more highly developed sense of humor than any other known insect. It is an established fact that after a person has fallen upon his face and clawed at the earth where the grasshopper was but is not, the grasshopper will be seen distinctly to laugh from his coign of vantage beyond reach.
Furthermore, it is quite impossible to fathom the mind of the grasshopper, his intentions or habits; particularly those of the small, gray-pink variety. He is as erratic in his flight as a clay pigeon, though it is tolerably safe to assume that he will not jump backward. He may not jump at all, but, with a deceptive movement, merely sidle under a sage-leaf. Where questions concerning his personal safety are concerned, he shows rare judgment, appearing to recognize exactly the psychological moment in which to fly, jump, or sit still.
No sluggard, be it known, can hope to catch grasshoppers with any degree of success. It requires an individual nimble of mind and body, whose nerves are keyed to a tension, who is dominated by a mood which refuses to recognize the perils of snakes, cactus, and prairie-dog holes; forgetful of self and dignity, inured to ridicule. Such a one is justified in making the attempt.
The large, brownish-black, grandfatherly-looking grasshopper is the most easily captured, though not so satisfactory for bait as the pea-green or the gray-pink. It was to the first variety that Dora and Ralston devoted themselves, while Susie followed the smaller and more sprightly around the hill till she was out of sight.
Ralston became aware that no matter in which direction the grasshopper he had marked for his own took him, singularly enough he always ended in pursuit of Dora’s. As a matter of fact, her grasshopper looked so much more desirable than his, that he could not well do otherwise than abandon the pursuit of his own for hers.
Her low “Oh, thank you so much!” was so heartfelt and sincere when he pushed the insect through the slit in her pasteboard box that he truly believed he would have run one all the way to the Middle Fork of Powder River only to hear her say it again. And then her womanly aversion to inflicting pain, her appealing femininity when she brought a bulky-bodied, tobacco-chewing grasshopper for him to pinch its head into insensibility! He liked this best of all, for, of necessity, their fingers touched in the exchange, and he wondered a little at his strength of will in refraining from catching her hand in his and refusing to let go.
Finally a grasshopper of abnormal size went up with a whir. Big he was, in comparison with his kind, as the monster steer in the side-show, the Cardiff giant, or Jumbo the mammoth.
“Oh!” cried Dora; “we must have him!” and they ran side by side in wild, determined pursuit.
The insect sailed far and fast, but they could not lose sight of him, for he was like an aeroplane in flight, and when in an ill-advised moment he lit to gather himself, they fell upon him tooth and nail—to use a phrase. Dora’s hand closed over the grasshopper, and Ralston’s closed over Dora’s, holding it tight in one confused moment of delicious, tongue-tied silence.
Her shoulder touched his, her hair brushed his cheek. He wished that they might go on holding down that grasshopper until the end of time. She was panting with the exertion, her nose was moist like a baby’s when it sleeps, and he noticed in a swift, sidelong glance that the pupils of her eyes all but covered the iris.
“He—he’s wiggling!” she said tremulously.
“Is he?” Ralston asked fatuously, at a loss for words, but making no move to lift his hand.
“And there’s a cactus in my finger.”
“Let me see it.” Immediately his face was full of deep concern.
He held her fingers, turning the small pink palm upward.
“We must get it out,” he declared firmly. “They poison some people.”
He wondered if it was imagination, or did her hand tremble a little in his? His relief was not unmixed with disappointment when the cactus spine came out easily.
“They hurt—those needles.” He continued to regard the tiny puncture with unabated interest.
“Tra! la! la!” sang Susie from the brow of the hill. “Old Smith is comin’.”
Ralston dropped Dora’s hand, and they both reddened, each wondering how long Susie had been doing picket duty.
“Out for your failin’ health, Mister Smith?” inquired Susie, with solicitude.
“I’m huntin’ horses, and hopin’ to pick up a bunch of ponies cheap,” he replied with ugly significance as he rode by.
And while the soft light faded from Ralston’s eyes, the color leaped to his face; unconsciously his fists clenched as he looked after Smith’s vanishing back. It was the latter’s first overt act of hostility; Ralston knew, and perhaps Smith intended it so, that the clash between them must now come soon.