Scout

by Pam Manthey

My dad worked on the second shift at Northern Pump, building bulkheads and gun placements for the Navy. He took his stinger and hoses, crawled down long tubes and into tanks to do his work, stuck inside some vessel in the shop. The huge building sat in the summer sun and baked all day. By the time Dad reported to work at 3 pm for the second shift, the temperature inside would reach 110 or 120 degrees. How he stood it, and lived, I do not know, but he did.

Mother worked days as a cashier at the National Tea food store, which was located at the corner of Lowry Avenue and Stinson Boulevard where Bremmer Bank is now located. We lived in a 28 foot long trailer in the Lowry Grove Trailer Park, which is still in the same location, behind the present day bank. Mother had a two-minute walk to get to work, so that was convenient.

During summers when I was out of school, Dad and I were alone together for about four or five hours every day. He usually got up about 9:30 or ten o'clock. Sitting in the hot little trailer, Dad would often have a beer or two or six and sometimes he would tell me stories about his early life and growing up years. He was usually reluctant to talk about his childhood of grinding poverty, hard work, and parental abuse. But, depending on how many beers he had had, sometimes he would be very verbose about his past.

This is one of the stories he told me. He repeated this tale many times over the years. The following is a true distillation of his narratives over the times he repeated it to me.


Late August 1923, Iowa.

Guy Shaw was pissed. All morning, since well before sunrise in fact, he had been hurrying the team, Prince and Lady, to finish up the mowing in the big hay field at the bottom of the hill down from the house. He looked over his shoulder to check the swath he had just cut. A long ribbon of sturdy upright stems marched behind, standing defiantly among their felled compatriots. Guy could hear the clanking as the missing mower teeth clanked and rattled in hit and miss fashion.

Guy had been hurrying his three sons, too. The boys followed behind him with big hay rakes, to pull the newly mowed hay into rows so it could be forked up and loaded into the wagon when it had cured in the hot sun. In this heat it wouldn't take long, and probably they could begin to load the wagon tomorrow, as soon as the dew had dried. If the good haying weather held, with any luck at all, they could have the whole crop in the haymow in three or four days.

Harry, at 16 was the oldest boy. He was built like Guy, tall and rangy. He had asthma and hay fever. He toiled as best he could, but lacked lungpower and stamina. He couldn't do a man's work. Walter, nicknamed Scout, was 14 years old. Strong, healthy and nearly as tough and rangy as Guy himself, he already could do a man's work, when he wanted to, which was not as often as Guy would have liked. My father Glen, the youngest, had just turned 11. Small for his age, and skinny, so skinny that if he stood still, someone would tack fence wire on him, mistaking him for a fence post. That's what they said to Glen, when they all teased him. He was doing his best to keep up, but Guy could see he had fallen far behind. Walter's row was closest to the team, Harry's not far behind, but Glen was still way down at the far end of the row just at the place where the team had made the turn to come up the long side of the field.

At the end of the row, the farthest point from the farmyard, Guy pulled up the team, to give them a badly needed rest. The boys could rest when they caught up to Guy and the team.

"Hup, Prince, Hup, Lady." Guy pulled back on the lines.

The team stopped. Straining muscles relaxed. The sweat poured off both animals. They tossed their heads, then just stood in exhaustion, heads down, feet apart, switching their tails, spasmodically twitching hides, flicking their ears, stomping their feet and shaking and tossing their heads to keep off the swarming flies. Now that they weren't moving, the torn fly netting Guy had tossed over them in the early dark of the barn hung limp, and, soaked with their sweat, it did little to ease their misery from the clouds of tormenters.

Guy got down off the mower seat and inspected the mower's sickle bar.

"Gott-DAMMIT-ALL -to HELL!" he cursed and bellowed in rage. "Three Goddamned teeth are off now."

"Boys!" he bellowed at his sons. "Git up here."

Harry and Scout shouldered their rakes and wearily trudged up to where their father stood cursing in the hot sun. They walked in the pools of their own noonday, sun-shortened shadows, falling under their bare feet. Glen was so far behind the mower he hadn't heard Guy, so he kept on raking. The long handle of the rake stood a good foot above the crown of his straw hat as he valiantly tried to keep up his work. His long-fingered thin hands wrapped around the lower half of the rake handle, and he manfully put his scrawny little back into the task of raking the tangle of fallen hay into a neat row that would be easy to grab and fork into the hay wagon.

Both boys were red-faced and sweating when they got up to Guy and the team. Like the exhausted horses, they stood with heads down, feet planted far apart, backs turned to the glaring sun, panting in the hot, humid, heavy air.

"Whadda ya want, Pa?" Harry asked, wiping his sweaty hands down the thighs of his pants. Then he took off his straw hat and wiped his sweating brow with the back of his hand. .

"We're missing too much hay. Three goddamned teeth are gone. Did you find any of them while your were raking?"

"No, Pa. If we had, we'd have brought them to you," Harry said.

Scout shook his head "no."

"Well, we have to get some new teeth from the shed and fix the Goddamned sickle bar. There's no point in working and leaving this much standing, and I'm not going to go over the field again to pick up what's left. The horses need a breather, anyway."

Guy didn't take into account that his sons might need a breather, too. He thought about just the horses. By rights, he should have gone up to the barn, to give the horses some water, let them rest in the shade in the hottest part of the day, and switch to one of the teams that hadn't worked, but he really couldn't spare the time. Counting himself, his wife, Mary, and the three girls, Anne, Abby, and Alice, plus the three boys, Guy had eight mouths to feed, and he had to do it only from the foodstuffs and animals he could raise on this farm, plus whatever cash money he could get from selling the crops, less of course the bank loan he had to pay back, less the part of the crop that would go for the rent on this farm. Guy didn't own this place; he was cropping on shares. Most of the time, it was a subsistence level existence, and a low level at that.

Guy never raised anything that his family or his animals couldn't eat. The brokers and seed salesmen came around every winter trying to convince the local farmers to plant hemp, or cotton, or even tobacco, promising to buy the crop in the fall, promising huge profits. It was bullshit, pie in the sky, and Guy never went for it. If the crop failed for some reason, there would be nothing to sell. If a lot of farmers planted the same thing and there was a surplus crop, the brokers would cut the price low. They never paid very a high price for those commodities whatever the circumstances. It was take it or leave it. If you didn't take their low-ball price, what the Hell could you do with the crop if you or your animals couldn't eat it? If you could feed it to your livestock, at least a man would get some value from all his hard work.

So there might not be any profits; there might even be a loss. All that hard work would have gone for naught, or for very little. The Brokers of course, would not be out anything, as they would still expect to be paid for the seed and supplies that they had advanced to the farmers, and at a right good price, too. It was all in the already drawn up contracts that they brought along with them when they made their spiel. All the risk was the farmer's. The brokers did well, whatever the fate of the crop. Guy stuck to his old fashioned ways, and if he never made a huge windfall, neither did he labor totally in vain.

He farmed with three teams, which he had to feed through the winter. With the cattle he would winter over, he needed every bit of hay he could get in. If, and only if, he managed to put up enough hay to feed his animals over the winter, Guy could sell any remaining hay to get some cash money coming into the house. The horses were very important to him. Without the horses, Guy couldn't farm the land. Guy depended on them; couldn't get along without them, in fact. He could, however, work the farm without the help of one or another of the boys.

This third cutting of hay was unusually abundant this year. But this late in the season, Guy didn't want to take any chances on the good sunny weather turning into a sudden rainstorm and wetting the hay crop, thus ruining it, before he could get it in, so he pushed on against his better judgment, driving his animals, and sons, and himself, to toil beyond what was safe for any of them.

Now he made out a quick plan to get everybody back to work as soon as possible.

"Harry, you go back and help Glen get his row raked up even with your and Scout's rows. Scout, you go back up to the shed. Get three, no four teeth. Bring a couple of wrenches, some bolts,--you know what I need to fix the sickle."

Scout nodded.

"Can I have some water before I go, Pa?" Scout asked.

Guy picked up the water jug, shook it and then said, "No, there's not much left. We'll have it. You can get a drink of cold water up at the house. Git goin' now. I ain't got a lot of Goddamned time to waste talking. And bring another can of water with you. It went faster than I thought it would."

Guy took a long pull from the water can, then passed it to Harry.

"Don't take it all. Save some for Glen. You can take it down to him when you go to help him finish up."

Scout looked longingly at the water can in Harry's hand. "Okay, Pa, okay," Scout said in a reluctant tone. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Well make it snappy! We haven't got all Goddamned day. I want to get this field down today. Unless you want to work until midnight, get back quick. There's going to be a full moon tonight, so we can work past sundown if we have to. Wouldn't you know, we're broke down the farthest from the house we could be. Goddamned rotten luck."

"I'll be back as soon as I can. Pa," Scout repeated. He laid down his rake, and with bent head, his shoulders slumped, Scout wearily turned toward the farmstead. Hot, thirsty, red-faced, and tired from laboring in the hot, humid air, Scout plunged into the tall uncut hay in the center of the field between the team and the farmstead, and began his long walk up to the shed under the broiling midday sun.

Harry meanwhile had walked back down to where Glen was vainly toiling to get his row raked up to the rest of the windrows. He didn't want to make The Old Man angry with him and risk getting a whipping. Guy was tall, and skinny, but he was tough and wiry, and he had a quick temper, and a heavy hand, which he was all too ready to raise in anger at his sons.

When Harry got up to him, Glen looked up and worriedly asked him, "What's wrong? Why did The Old Man stop? What's he cussing and bellering about? Is he mad at me for not keeping up with you and Scout?"

Harry handed the water can to Glen.

"No. The bar is missing three teeth, and we're leaving too much standing. The old son of a bitch should have fixed it this morning. You could hear those loose teeth clanking and rattling yesterday but he wouldn't listen to me. He was all fired up to get out here and start cutting. Now we got to sit out here until Scout gets back with the parts to fix the Son-uffa Bitch. Drink it all," Harry said, indicating the water can. "The Old Man and I had our share. Scout will bring back more when he brings back the parts."

Harry spoke in a low voice. He didn't want to take any chances on The Old Man hearing him and giving him a whipping. The Old Man was in a real high temper fit, and all the kids knew to keep out of his way when he was angry. Harry was 16 now, and nearly a grown man, as tall as The Old Man, and feeling all of his new power. Soon he would face off with Guy in a knock down, drag out, rolling in the dirt, kicking, and gouging, all out fist fight, which he would win. Glen would be a horrified witness to this fight, and ever after he would remember it, and his terror at seeing his father and brother in a vicious battle. Harry, triumphant, would stand over his fallen father and scream in rage at Guy, "You Goddamned old Son of a Bitch, don't you ever hit me again." And Guy, shocked by his son's beating him, wouldn't ever hit Harry again. But for now, Harry wasn't yet ready to take on The Old Man.

"I'm s'pozed to help you rake up this row while we wait. Got to do my own work, and help you with yours, too," Harry groused at his little brother. Actually, Harry was glad to have a good excuse to be as far away from The Old Man as he could get. Maybe the old bastard would cool off a bit.

Harry and Glen silently worked in the ever-hotter sun, laboring slowly and steadily until they had raked up the cut hay into a neat row, and reached the broken-down mower, the team, and The Old Man.

Harry and Glen sat down next to the mower with Guy. Glen pulled a blade of grass, put it between his thumbs and forefingers and blew on it, making a raspy whistle sound. Then he pulled another stem and stuck it in his mouth, chewing and sucking on it. Guy and Harry just sat, feet flat on the ground, elbows resting on their bent knees, heads hanging down, resting as much as they could.

Long minutes passed in this fashion.


"Oh, Goddammit, where is he?" Guy said in a weary voice. He stood up and turned to look up toward the farmstead to see if Scout was on the way back. There was no sign of him.

"He hasn't been gone very long, Pa," Harry said.

"I s'poze you're right," Guy said, then he dropped down to the ground again, and resumed his posture of exhaustion, feet flat, knees bent, elbows resting on his knees, hands dangling, head hanging between his knees.

More minutes crawled by. Glen assumed the same weary pose of rest as his father and brother. The horses stomped their feet. Their tails swished, and harness jingled as they twitched their hides and tossed their heads and flicked their ears. Flies buzzed and droned and lit on them in clouds. The still air seemed to have gotten even hotter, and heavy, with not enough air to breathe. Glen nodded off into a fitful slumber right where he sat.

"God-dammit!"

Glen started awake.

Guy was on his feet again, looking toward the farmstead.

"Where the Hell is he? The little son of a bitch should have been back by now!" Guy exploded.

"Look at the shadows. They were right under the horses' feet when he left, and look how long they are now. He's been gone at least an hour, probably more. It shouldn't have taken him this long to get up to the shed, find the parts and tools and get the water and get back here."

Guy paced around the mower, went to check on the horses, then looked again toward the farmstead to see if he could spot Scout coming back.

No sign of him.

"Ahh, shit! Harry, you go on up to the house and see what the Hell's keeping him. He's prob'ly sitting in the shade somewhere while we sweat out here."

Harry slowly got to his feet. Saying nothing, he started off, glad to get away from The Old Man and his building temper.

Glen glanced uneasily at Guy, then sat down and tried to resume his nap. The old Man fussed and fumed, cursing desultorily in the stifling heat.

Glen drifted off. Then Harry was back.

"I didn't find him, Pa. He wasn't up at the house. The shed was shut, the teeth are still there. Ma said he never showed up to get a drink."

"He's prob'ly snuck off somewhere to get out of working. When I find him, I'll beat the shit out of him. Goddammit. Shit! Well, give me the parts. We'll just have to finish up without him. But, he'll pay when I get hold of him, that's for sure."

Beneath his hat, Harry's face paled.

"I didn't bring the teeth, Pa. I didn't think of it. I wanted to get back as soon as I could to tell you I didn't see Scout."

"JEEE-SUS, Keeer-RIST, Boy! Are you stupid or what?"

Guy raised his hand, but Harry ducked him.

"I'll go right back and get them now, Pa." Harry said.

"Oh, for Chris' sake, never mind. By the time you get back and I get the sickle bar repaired, it'll be too late to finish the field today anyway. Besides, the flies are eating the team alive, and they need watering."

Guy squinted at the sky, sweeping the horizon with eyes practiced in watching for weather signs, using the knowledge he had gained from a lifetime of working outdoors.

"It's not going to rain tonight, nor tomorrow either. We'll go in, fix the sickle, give the horses water and rest them. Tomorrow, I'll hitch up Bill and Jack and we'll finish up this field."

Glen and Harry picked up their rakes, and Scout's rake, and they all started up to the farmstead. The boys cut across the large patch of standing hay in a direct line to the house. Guy and the team continued around the edge of the field, but Guy didn't lower the broken sickle bar.

When he pulled into the farmstead, Mary was waiting for him.

"That boy didn't come up here. Do you 'spose something's happened to him, Guy?" Mary asked worriedly.

"Now what the Hell could've happened to him between here and the hayfield, Mary?" Guy asked. "He's just skinned out somewhere to get out of working. I'll kick his ass up between his shoulder blades for it when he gets home, I promise you that," Guy barked.

Guy drove the team up to the stock tank so they could get a good drink. Then he drove them on to the shed and unhitched the mower so it would be close to where he would fix the bar. Then he drove the team into the barn. When Harry and Glen got up to the house they had a drink. Then, Guy had them unharness the horses, and scrape the sweat off them. The horses got another drink, and were turned out to the paddock to rest for the remainder of the afternoon. Another team, fresh from resting today, would take their place in harness to pull the mower tomorrow.

Glen, Harry and Guy went inside the house to eat the dinner Mary had packed for them to take to the field. Then Guy and Harry went outside and worked on repairing the sickle bar. After that, they did some more chores. Scout still hadn't come back.

By that time, four hours or more had gone by since Scout had set out from the hayfield to the shed. No one had seen hide nor hair of him.

Mary was clearly worried.

"I don't care what you say, Guy. Something's happened to that boy. It's not like him to miss dinner. I'm going to go look for him."

"All right, all right, I guess you're right. We'll go and look for him."

Calling the girls, Guy, Mary, and the children set off to look for Scout. They called all over the farmstead. Nothing.

Guy whistled for the shabby old mongrel dog to come along. Then he formed his family in a line, all seven of them abreast, walking through the hayfield, the dog ranging in front. They walked straight across from the farmstead right toward the far corner of the half-cut big hayfield, the last place where Scout had been for sure.

They didn't have to go far. On the other side of the small rise in the hay field, just over the crest and hidden from view of the house, the dog found Scout. He was lying face up in the hayfield, eyes staring senselessly up at the sky.

"Oh my God!" Mary yelled. She knelt beside Scout. He was still breathing.

"Son, Son," she shouted frantically. "Wake up, wake up, Scout, wake up." Mary slapped Scout's face and hands, and she shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him, but Scout was beyond consciousness. Guy and the other children stood in a circle around Mary and her son. Finally, realizing the futility of trying to wake Scout, Guy and Harry picked him up and carried him up to the house.

Harry was sent to catch up one of the fresh workhorses and ride into town to summon the doctor.

Mary stripped off Scout's clothes, and put cold wet rags all over him, and forced cool water through his fever-swollen, blistered lips. His face was burned, cracked and blistered from lying in the blazing sun most of the afternoon.

The doctor came, but there was little that could be done for Scout. He had fainted in the field on his way in from the hayfield, and had lain unseen in the tall grass all afternoon. He had suffered a severe heatstroke, and there was nothing to do but wait to see if he would live or die. The doctor delivered his sad news, then went out to his automobile, and left for home.

Evening fell. Abby and Ann, who were grown women at this time, made an evening meal, which was hardly touched, then they cleaned up the kitchen. Glen and Harry did the evening chores alone, feeding the pigs, and chickens and the other fowls Mary kept, stripping out what little milk the cows were still giving. Guy was in the upstairs bedroom, sitting with Mary while she ministered to their stricken son. The remaining five Shaw children sat in a tight sad group on the worn wooden back steps. A beautiful full moon rose over the hay meadow, covered now in a light evening mist. The scent of the fresh cut hay drifted up the hill in the light breeze. Far away, heat lightning flashed in the night sky. Crickets shrilled in the heat of a beautiful soft, late-summer evening.

"Ma sat up all night with Scout. She wanted to be there with him when he died. But he didn't die. He hung on and about two days later, he woke up," Dad would tell me. "But, his senses were gone. His brain had cooked all day in the sun, and he was an idiot after that." Now of course, we would say that Scout had suffered permanent brain damage from heatstroke; we wouldn't call him an idiot.

"Ma never blamed The Old Man for what had happened, but Pa blamed himself. He always said that he should have let Scout have a drink of water before he left, or gone after him when he didn't come back, and not just assume he was fooling around. But, The Old Man didn't do it on purpose. It was just an accident that happened. Just Goddamned bad luck, that's all. Just bad luck."

Dad would drain his beer, light up a cigarette, open another beer, and stare into the distant past, shaking his head slowly back and forth, lost in his sad memory, eyes full of sorrow and grief for the brother who had suffered such a sad fate.

They all guessed that Scout had been dizzy and disoriented when he left to go up to the shed, and he had wandered a little bit left of the direct line up to the farmstead from where the mower sat. Dehydrated, overheated, tired, he had fallen into the tall grass when he passed out. Harry, who had walked straight up to the house, and straight back to the mower, twice, hadn't seen Scout lying in the tall hay a few yards from where he had walked three times, and he blamed himself, too. But, Scout was prone to goof off and try to get out of doing his share of the work, so Guy had been justified in assuming Scout had cut out on his duties. And Harry, hot and tired too, had walked with his head down, and the uncut hay was tall and anyone could have missed seeing Scout lying there. And who would ever in a million years think that a strong healthy Iowa farm boy could possibly die between the house and the hay field? Because, the person who had been Scout did die in that field even though his body survived.

In rural Iowa in those days, there was very little, if anything, that could be offered to a person in Scout's predicament. He lived with Mary and Guy as long as they were alive, working around the various farms that Guy cropped on shares, sometimes working for wages as a day laborer on a neighbor's farm. After they died, Scout was left pretty much on his own to survive on County Relief in Stewartville. He drifted from odd job to odd job, living in shabby rooms, finally settling in an abandoned shack that no one owned, tolerated but avoided by the townspeople, and drinking up his relief checks, until he finally passed away some time in the late'50's. He was buried in the potter's field at county expense. Dad and Aunt Abby went down for the funeral, but Mother and I did not accompany them.

2002 by Pam Manthey. All rights reserved.

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