Scarecrow and Scorpion
Hattie found the patch of mint growing in the hollow where she played with her dolls—a cooler and damper place than her own farmyard, with two cottonwood trees and a lot of bushes around the spring. Up at the farmhouse, they got their water from a well, not a spring. The spring was just around the hill from the soddy, though, so Ma let her go play there alone. Someone else owned the land, but they didn’t come there to know or care.
She found the mint by scent. The smell of trodden mint suddenly filled the cool morning air, and she looked down and saw it. Ma had made her promise never to eat any wild stuff after the little Carlson girl died from mistaking hemlock for wild onions. Hattie picked a sprig and took it back to the soddy.
Ma agreed it was mint, and showed Hattie how they could put some in the water pitcher and make it taste more refreshing. Then she got a bucket and shovel and they went back to the spring to dig some for their own garden. A clump near the lowest spot had spread, so they could take some and not harm the main plant.
The two looked around after they’d put the plant into the bucket and Hattie added spring water. Ma had been too busy doing all the things a farmwife had to do on a dry farm in the sand hills to visit the spring much. Now she looked at the hollow and sighed.
“Someone had a house here,” she said, pointing to the rectangular indentation a ways back from the spring. “I wonder what made them leave?” She sighed again, and Hattie knew they both wished they could live by the spring.
“It gets awfully cold over here in winter, Ma,” she consoled.
“Right,” Ma smiled. “I’d better go plant this, and finish my washing.”
“May I stay and play?”
Left alone in the hollow, Hattie looked more closely at the plants. Now that she could see the outline of the old house, she saw it was framed by plants that didn’t grow other places. She’d always thought they grew because of the spring, but perhaps someone had planted them. She wondered who had built a house here, and planted mint and flowers and even—yes, a rose bush!—and then left.
There wasn’t even a heap of sod left where the house had been, the way there was over where the Johnsons had moved away two years ago. Their soddy had crumbled fast with no one to mind the roof and keep it tight. Hattie bent to pick up something that caught her eye. A nail. It must have been a board house. She supposed the people had taken it down and taken it with them, or others had long since salvaged all the boards. Wood was expensive and scarce in the sand hills.
Nails, too. Hattie carefully laid the nail on a rock so she could find it again—even rusty, Pa could make use of a good nail—and set to looking for more. She’d found a half dozen when something shinier caught her eye. This bit of metal hadn’t rusted.
It was caught fast in the hard ground. She took a nail and used it to scrape away the dried mud that held the object. In a minute she held it in her hand—and nearly dropped it. It was a brooch, but the delicate object was a scorpion, tail curved high over its back, ready to strike. It was both beautiful and horrible. But Hattie carried it home along with the nails.
“Why on earth would anyone make such a beautiful pin of such a dreadful creature?” Ma wondered.
Pa shook his head. “Who knows? Maybe it had special meaning to the folks who lived there. No one seems to remember who it was, or why they left. Someone in the East owns the land, and won’t sell. Carlson says he tried to buy, because it’s the best section. But none of his letters got answered.”
In the end, because none of them really wanted the thing around the house, Hattie took the brooch and pinned it to the scarecrow that guarded their parched garden.
“Maybe that’ll scare those mean old birds that keep eating the seeds,” she told her Ma. She showed it to some friends who came to visit the next week, then pretty much forgot about it.
One October evening an old man came to the door. He was traveling through, he said, but Hattie and her Ma exchanged looks. No road led through or past their farm. But courtesy required that they offer him a meal and a night’s shelter. He thanked them, and after looking about the single crowded room of the soddy, said he would sleep in the barn. Pa took him out and made him a comfortable bed in the hayloft.
In the morning, the man had gone. Pa just shrugged. A man as old as that needed a long day to make his distance.
Two days later Hattie, taking down the tattered remnants of the scarecrow from an autumn garden no longer in need of protection, remembered the scorpion. It was gone from the checked shirt. She hunted around, thinking it had torn loose and fallen, but couldn’t find it.
“Probably got taken by a magpie or a packrat,” Ma said, and went on mixing bread. “I’m not sorry. I never liked it.”
“Me either, I guess,” Hattie said more slowly. It had been the only bit of jewelry she’d ever had, even if she would never wear such a dreadful creature pinned to her breast!
Three days later they got a letter. In it was the deed to the section with the spring, and a single line of writing in a old man’s shaky hand: Now the pin is found, we’ve no more need of the land. It is yours.