The house was always quite bare. Like most buildings in Rattlesnake Gulch, it was rough-sawn and unpainted. The only decorations in the parlor were an Indian rug on the wall and a faded photograph of Mama. Today, it was bare like never before. Today it had been bereaved of its master, Sheriff Jock McDugal.
Rebecca was dressing her father’s body for the wake. As she fastened the jacket, most of whose buttons she had resewn at one time or another, she flashed back to that time, eighteen years earlier, when Mama taught her how to sew buttons. A day she never forgot.
* * *
It was a warm August afternoon in Illinois. They were in the back yard, sitting under the Big Maple, a jar of cool tea on the table. It had taken most of the afternoon, but as the sun lowered and the shadows started getting cooler, she was able to thread the needle after only a few tries, to line up the button properly, and to work the needle and thread through the button and resistant material. It was actually a dress of soft material, chosen out of respect for her small fingers. Thimble lessons would have to wait for another day.
That night Mama went into labor. She died a few hours later after delivering a still-born boy.
The look on Pa’s face, when he came to tell her, was branded into her memory. No loud cries. No cursing. Just pain and incomprehension overwhelming the Civil War vet who had seen so much. He sat on her bed and said nothing. She knew something was wrong.
Three weeks later, she and Grandma were sorting Mama’s clothes for the poor box at church. Several items had buttons missing. Grandma pulled out the button jar.
“Can you sew a button?” she asked.
Rebecca gave a grim, slight nod.
“Will you sew this one?” Grandma asked, handing her a button and one of the blouses.
Rebecca did not reach for the items. A slight negative shake of the head.
Grandma took her on her lap and held her. She hummed softly for a couple of minutes. Through the open window they heard the whir of the lawnmower and the clippity-clop and rattle of a buggy going by. Rebecca knew Grandma was waiting for the explanation.
“Mama taught me the afternoon before she died,” finally came out softly, interrupted by sniffling. More quiet. The smell of the new-mown lawn was the scent of the afternoon three long, miserable weeks ago.
“That was your mother’s last gift to you,” Grandma said. “Whenever you sew a button, she’ll be right there with you.”
After a minute, Rebecca climbed down from her lap and began sewing buttons.
* * *
She brought her mind back to her task and fastened another button on her father’s coat, then paused again. Her memory returned to a cold, winter day, eight years after her mother’s death. Rebecca and her beau sat in the kitchen after an evening of ice-skating. Rebecca, now fifteen, straight brown hair, laughing eyes and a strong jaw, poured another cup of tea. Josiah, tall, muscular, curly blond hair and serious eyes, watched her, not his hand, and knocked over the sugar bowl. As she brushed the sugar off the edge of the table into her hand, a spark jumped between their eyes. The kettle still whistled slightly on the wood-burning stove, which radiated warmth and comfort.
“I’ll sew that button on now,” she said.
“I’ve got it here,” Josiah said, reaching into his pocket. She took it and ran upstairs to get her sewing kit.
When she came down, Sheriff Blackstone was in the kitchen, putting handcuffs on Josiah. Pa stood by the stove, grim faced.
“Josiah! What?” she cried.
As Blackstone led him out, he looked at her with misery and anguish. She turned to her father with a desperate look of appeal.
“Blackstone says he’s one of the boys who robbed Old Man Murphy,” her father said.
“No! He wouldn’t do that.” She raced up to her room and slammed shut the door.
She refused to come out for two days. In the evening on the second day her grandmother came into the room with a suitcase and started putting Rebecca’s clothes into it.
“Your father has accepted a job out in West Texas,” she said. “You are leaving in the morning.”
Rebecca stared. She left the room and went downstairs. Her father was in his study, but she was not going to talk to him. She pulled on her coat and boots and went out into the cold night. She walked a mile, past Josiah’s house. The house was dark. It appeared deserted. She tromped another half-mile further before she turned back.
In the morning Grandma rousted her from bed, pushed her through dressing and hurried her down to breakfast. She sat down without acknowledging her father. The stove had not yet completely warmed the kitchen. Normally, she would be the first one up and light the fires.
McDugal said, “My friend, George Carter, runs a bank out in Scorpion Flats. He wants me to open an office in a small, nearby town called Rattlesnake Gulch.”
“Why now? I can’t leave with Josiah in trouble.” The very names of the towns reinforced her terror.
“It’s for the best, my dear. It’s pretty clear that he’s going to jail. You will need to forget him.”
“Never!” She grabbed her coat and ran out of the house.
Twenty minutes later she heard the buggy coming down the road.
“Climb in,” her father ordered. “We’ve only forty minutes to get to the station.”
She obeyed mutely. Strapped to the back of the buggy were her suitcase and a two others.
“Josiah’s parents have left town,” he said as they passed the deserted house. “They can’t face people.”
Clutched in her hand was the button off Josiah’s coat.
Her father made no effort at conversation. He tried to hold her hand, but she pulled it away and stared at him with angry eyes.
* * *
She finished buttoning the coat on her father’s body. Her thoughts turned to Josiah, who had appeared in Rattlesnake Gulch ten years after that cold, winter evening. Now he sat in jail on trumped up charges of murdering her father. Haggerty had stirred up the people, shouting that Josiah murdered McDugal so he could marry Rebecca. That was absurd, of course. Josiah knew that she, not her father, had stymied him for five months, craving full certainty that she could trust him this time.
She went to the jail, a squat, one-room adobe hut with tiny, barred vents near the flat roof. Deputy Pete La Roche, acting sheriff, unlocked the door. Josiah sat on the single bench. He looked at her with eyes that were mud. He said nothing.
“I know who did it,” she told him. “I’ll get the proof.”
She sat next to him and picked up his duster from the floor. Earlier she had seen it was missing a button. She pulled out thread and needle and a button, found the right spot and began sewing.
“Do you know what button this is?”
“Nope.” You care about buttons at a time like this? the voice implied.
“It’s the button I was going to sew on your coat the day they arrested you in Illinois.”
— — — — -
The Rattlesnake Gulch stories started with a dare to myself to see if I could write a Western. “Rattlesnake Gulch” was the result, one that several people liked. It left me wanting to know what happened to the characters. The result was this story and “The Arroyo.”
Follow my other work at https://medium.com/@ehb2013ehb.
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