Authors: Anne Ylvisaker
For the grandparents —
mine and yours
The only thing Ned Button had caught in his life was the mumps, and even then he had fumbled, getting them only half as bad as the rest of his class, then out of quarantine and back to school before the others and unable to share in their tales of fevers and bumps when they returned. In fact, Ned may not actually have had the mumps so much as an ordinary case of roadside-ditch poison ivy.
That’s how it was with Ned Button.
Nevertheless, when Lester Ward let loose that perfect pigskin spiral across Tractor Field, Ned’s innards lurched high as the arching ball. Watching it hurtle toward him and the other scruffers, Ned hollered, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”
Lester was leaving on the train to become Goodhue’s first University of Iowa Hawkeye, to play alongside the likes of Will Glassgow and Nanny Pape in a spanking-new stadium. All of Goodhue turned out for the occasion. Orion Ortner played “On Iowa” on his coronet. A student reporter from the university’s
took photographs. Like a bride tossing her bouquet, Lester was passing on his childhood football, worn and beautiful as anything Ned had ever seen.
Tractor Field wasn’t more than a couple of mowed-over lots next to the train depot, but Ned saw stripes on the ground. He saw men like bulls pawing the earth around him. He saw the dust under their feet rise as they thundered ahead; heard a phantom crowd roar for him, Ned Button, to run, to raise up his stubby arms, to . . .
And then Lester Ward’s football eclipsed the sun. It brushed Ned’s palms, smacked into his chest. Ned’s arms wrapped around the ball and . . .
And then he was down, face in the dirt, air thumped from his lungs. But miraculously, spectacularly, there was leather under his fingers.
He breathed into the dent in his chest, lifting himself off the ball and onto his knees, cradling the thing like a newborn kitten. Ned had clutched his father’s work boot once, pretending it was a real football, and it had smelled just like this, only ranker.
He was knocked flat again, and the ball spurted out of his hands.
There was Burton Ward, peacocking around his friends, holding the football aloft as if he had been the one to catch it.
“Hey!” Ned gasped.
Ralph Stump hauled Ned to his feet, shoving him into the swarm of boys. “Don’t let him get away with it!”
Ned pawed his way through a mass of elbows and shoulders.
“What are you looking at, runt?” Burton sneered at Ned.
Every missed catch, every dropped ball, every past insult he’d taken from Burton Ward surged up in Ned, up through his belly, up into his head, filling it with red heat. Then that fury flew down his arm and out his fist, connecting with Burton’s gut but not making a dent.
“It’s mine!” Ned yelled, reeling in his fist and cocking it for another swing.
“Says who?” Burton grabbed Ned’s wrist with his free hand. “Fellows, is this Ned’s ball?”
“Looks like your ball to me,” said Clyde. “You’re holding it.” Several of the boys nodded.
“I don’t know,” squeaked Franklin. “Ned . . .”
Burton spun around to look at him, still holding Ned’s arm.
“It’s your ball, Burton!” Franklin amended. “Lester is your brother, after all!”
“It’s my ball because I caught it, shrimp,” Burton said to Franklin. “Lester being my brother has nothing to do with it.” He let go of Ned and shoved him backward.
Ralph caught Ned and pushed him toward Burton. “Take the ball, Ned. You caught it.”
When Ned hesitated, Ralph stepped around him and took a swing at Burton himself.
“Get him, Ralph!” Franklin said, scrambling out of Burton’s reach.
Ned stepped forward but got between Burton’s fist and Ralph’s fist, and they both connected with Ned, knocking him to the ground.
Burton dropped the ball and Ned reached out his hand to grab it.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” Franklin called from behind the relatively safe bulk of Luther Tingvold.
But Burton scooped the ball from the ground, tucked it under his arm, and ran off toward the tracks, the herd of boys dispersing.
Ned got up to go after him, but his little sister, Gladdy, was blocking his path. She’d been peering out at the goings-on from behind their cousin Tugs and her friend Aggie Millhouse.
“Lester’s own brother can’t get it, can he? Doesn’t he already have a football?” Gladdy asked.
“Some things don’t have rules,” said Aggie.
“Well, they should,” said Tugs.
“You did get it fair and square,” said Ralph. “I saw.”
“They should have let girls try,” said Tugs. “Me and Aggie could have caught it, couldn’t we, Aggie? We wouldn’t have let Burton steal it.”
“Yeah,” Gladdy echoed. “Tugs could have caught it. Or Aggie. Uh-oh, Ned. You’re getting a shiner.”
“I did catch it, didn’t I?” said Ned. He had had the ball so briefly he was starting to doubt the fact. He touched his swelling face.
“You let him take it from you,” said Tugs. “But it did look like you had it for a second.”
“I didn’t let him!” said Ned.
“We shouldn’t be squabbling,” said Gladdy primly. “Wait until Mother sees that shiner. You’re in trouble now!”
Ned could feel the heft of that ball in his hands. He could see himself carrying it to school under his arm, hear the other boys begging him to pick up a game, to be on his team. Instead of “Ned” they’d call him Button, and they’d say it with the tone people used when talking to the Wards or the Millhouses, or even, lately, Tugs, thanks to her recent heroics. Ned would go to the university, like Lester. Wear a gold-and-black uniform. With that ball . . .
“Uh-oh,” said Ralph. “I better scram. Here comes your ma.”
“I knew it!” bellowed Mother as she elbowed her way through the crowd, a clump of Buttons trundling along in her wake. “That Stump boy scrubbed your opportunity again. Just look at your face.”
“No!” said Ned as he watched Ralph hop across the tracks and out of sight. “Burton —”
“Tugs and Aggie could have held on to the ball, Mama,” Gladdy interrupted before she was pushed aside by Granny, who was wagging her cane at Ned.
“No surprise. No surprise atall. This one’s a Button all over again,” she said. “Not like our Tugs.”
“But I did —” Ned started.
“He —” Tugs tried to interject.
“Football,” barked Father. “The u-ni-versity. It’s not right — hearty young men going off to college. Lester is well and able. Heaven knows a farmer could use his help if the Wards don’t need him down at their store. My brother’s place is going to seed. Don’t go getting any notions in your head, young man.”
“I thought there was going to be food,” said Granddaddy Ike. “Where’s the knockwurst?”
“Notions? I caught the football!” Ned exclaimed. “I —”
The whistle and rumble of the oncoming train distracted them then, and the Buttons started toward the depot.
Tugs and Ralph were right. He had caught the ball fair and square. He should have gotten it back. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
Ned lagged to the back of the clan and slipped off, working his way to the edge of the track and scanning the crowd until he spotted Lester. He couldn’t expect Lester to believe a Button over his own brother, but maybe if he threw the ball again, maybe this time . . .