Early one pleasant Indian summer morning, Signe and Anna Walstad set out for school. They wore sunbonnets, plain gingham dresses, and no shoes. Everyone went barefoot to school in nice weather, except Teacher.
Usually Signe and Anna would swing their lunch pails as they covered the dusty two miles between their homestead and the schoolhouse. But today there was no racing down the slope or jumping over buffalo wallows or banging of pails, for today each pail held a big red apple for the girls to eat at noon.
“Your father had a little money left after buying the fencing—just enough to get each of you an apple,” Mama had explained as she carefully set an apple next to the bread and butter in each girl’s pail.
Signe’s mouth watered just thinking of the apple’s sweet crispness. She was tempted to eat hers right away, but as she stopped to open her pail, Anna gave her a cross look of disapproval. Anna was always disapproving of the things Signe wanted to do. Sighing just a little sigh, Signe put the cover back on her pail and contented herself by imagining how good the apple would taste at noon. She would eat it one small bite at a time, she decided, to make it last longer. Not one drop of juice would escape to dribble down her chin.
“Let’s play jackrabbits and prairie dogs,” Anna suggested, breaking into Signe’s pleasant daydream. “You take prairie dogs, and I’ll count jackrabbits.”
“All right,” Signe agreed. They often played this game to pass the time as they walked to and from school. Signe stared across the prairie, hoping to spot a prairie dog first. I hope that I beat her, Signe thought. I get tired of her always being better than I am at everything. Then Signe pointed excitedly. “Over there, Anna! That’s two for me.”
“Where?” Anna questioned the younger girl. “I don’t see anything.”
“They just disappeared down their hole.”
“I don’t believe you,” challenged Anna, tossing her golden curls.
“Come on, then, and I’ll show you.” Signe ran over to where she’d seen the two rodents disappear. “I’ll find the burrow.”
Anna followed reluctantly. “There are prairie dog holes everywhere. It doesn’t count unless I see the prairie dogs too.”
“Here it is. Right where I told you.” Signe turned triumphantly, but Anna had stopped in her tracks and was staring wide-eyed at the ground.
“What’s the matter—” Signe began. Then she spied the rattlesnake in the grass between them. The snake was coiled with its tail rattling a warning. Its head was raised toward Anna, who was paralyzed with fear.
Signe’s thoughts raced. It wasn’t a very big snake, but even the bite of a small rattler could be fatal. She had to act fast before the snake struck Anna.
Signe looked around for a weapon. An old fence post or board would do, but there wasn’t anything she could use. Her hand clutched her lunch pail tightly. Her pail! With all her strength, Signe brought the pail down hard on the snake’s head. The snake writhed in surprise, then turned toward Signe. It tried to bite her hand, but the pail acted as a shield. Signe hit the rattler again and again until it lay limp and harmless in the prairie grass.
“You killed it,” Anna said, daring to breathe again.
Signe couldn’t speak. She felt cold and weak. She could hardly believe that she’d killed a rattlesnake. She’d always been deathly afraid of snakes. Then she remembered her apple. She opened her pail, and her apple, now soft and bruised, rolled out into the prairie dust. Signe thought about how she had longed to eat the apple. It didn’t seem to matter now. All that mattered was that she and Anna were safe. She picked up the apple, wiped off the one place that was still firm, took a bite, and then tossed it toward the prairie dog burrows. They probably never get fresh fruit, either, she thought.
The girls didn’t speak as they continued on to school. Signe heard the meadowlarks greet the morning. A jackrabbit raced across the road ahead, but Anna didn’t bother counting it. Everything looked the same as before, but Signe felt different. She glanced at her sister and wondered if Anna felt different too.
Suddenly Anna stopped. She reached into her pail and brought out her unbruised apple. Carefully she polished it on the sleeve of her dress, then handed it to her younger sister. “Here,” she said. “You deserve this.”
Signe smiled as her fingers rubbed the smooth red skin of the apple. She took a bite of the juicy red apple, then, laughing, held it out to Anna. “How about sharing?”
Anna smiled, took a bite of the apple, and laughed as some of the sweet juice dribbled down her chin.