Ray Elliott/Voices: Jarvey dug wells — by hand, too

Ray Elliott/Voices: Jarvey dug wells — by hand, too


He braked the old Allis-Chalmers to a stop in front of the house and squinted into the evening sun at the front door. A skinny boy of 12 or 13 years old years old ran out the door to greet him.

"Hi, Jarvey," the boy said. "How are you?"

Jarvey didn't say anything for a minute. He cocked one leg up on the left back tire and reached for his papers. A can of Prince Albert was already in his right hand.

He slipped a paper out of the package with a thick thumb and forefinger before tucking it back in his pocket. As he fashioned a paper with his left hand, Jarvey flipped open the top of the Prince Albert can and ran another thick finger into the can to loosen the tobacco.

The boy watched the old man as he rolled the cigarette. A pile of tobacco lay heaped in the middle of the paper. Jarvey closed the lid and put the can back in his pocket. He leveled the pile of tobacco and twisted the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger.

"You want a job, boy?" he asked, looking up from the cigarette before licking the paper to seal his smoke.


"Now by god, I mean a job," Jarvey said and licked the paper with a quick flick of his protruding pink tongue. "I don't mean nothing else."

"What kind of job?" the boy asked.

Jarvey looked down at the boy again, then fished a box of matches out of his bib overalls and scratched a gnarled thumb over it. He held the match to the cigarette between his lips.

"A hard job," he finally said, blowing the rich blue smoke out of the side of his mouth. He rubbed the three-day old growth of graying beard with a calloused hand and then rubbed his hand back through his short dark hair, hat in hand.

"Vona wants a well dug down on her place," he said. "I'm goin' to dig it. I need you to help me haul the mud out. Pay you five dollars a day and get you dinner as long as you can take it."

"I can take it," the boy said.

"You make damn sure you can. I don't want a bucket of that mud on my head. When you can't pull it out of the hole anymore, we'll get a block and tackle; when you can't pull it that way any more, we'll hitch a tractor to it. We'll start 'bout half past seven in the morning."

He moved his foot away from the tire and flipped the cigarette away, exhaling his last drag as he did. Jarvey hit the starter, and the tractor jerked ahead. The boy watched until he had turned the corner about 100 yards away before turning to the porch.

The boy was waiting when Jarvey drove down the road on the old Allis-Chalmers the next morning. He braked the tractor to stop, and the boy jumped on the drawbar.

"Now you hang on there, boy," he said and drove on down the gravel road.

"I will," he said and watched the front wheels of the tractor turn right and felt the sway of the turn and held on tighter. Two minutes later, Jarvey stopped at the foot of he hill below Vona's house.

"Where you gonna dig her, Jarvey?" the boy asked.

"Up there behind the house unless she tell me to dig somewhere else. That's where we're goin' to take my spade and shovel."

Some people had already gathered in the backyard. One of them had a forked water-witching limb. Several tried it and pointed to the place where the "water" had forced their limb down.

"Where you gonna dig her, Jarvey?" one of them asked. "There's water right here."

Jarvey looked at Vona, the small gray-haired woman standing in the doorway of her house. She looked at a woman standing by her side. The woman shrugged her shoulders. Vona looked at Jarvey.

"Where do you think?" she asked him.

Jarvey pointed his spade a few feet in front of her.

"Then dig her there," she said.

By the time the first spade full was dug, only the old man and the boy were left. And there wasn't much for the boy to do while the 5'6" Jarvey could still throw dirt out of the hole.

"You last name Jarvis, Jarvey?" the boy asked. "Or is it George?"


The day passed slowly. But the next day the boy was pulling a five-gallon paint bucket full of clay that was attached to a thick rope from the hole to the top and dumping it. Jarvey shielded his head from the bucket with a stubby hand.The deeper the well got, the heavier the mud. It took Jarvey longer to fill the bucket. He kept the walls straight in a perfect circle and rarely rested. He came out of the hole in the bucket at noon and quitting time.

The next day, Jarvey tied three poles together in teepee fashion and hung a block and tackle from it. Back in the hole, Jarvey stopped looking up.

"How you making it , boy?" Jarvey asked in early afternoon.

"Fine," the boy said. Then he pulled the bucket to the edge of the well and quickly set it to the ground. "I think you'd better bring the tractor tomorrow, Jarvey."

"Okay. Whatever you say. I don't want a bucket on my head."

The next afternoon when the hole was down about ten feet, the boy told Jarvey he couldn't do it anymore, and they used the tractor.

Four feet deeper, Jarvey hit water. The boy hauled him up, and Jarvey sit on the edge in his muddy overalls and boots, smoking a Prince Albert.

"You done good, boy, " he said. "I thought you'd never give up. Now you want to help me brick the walls. I'll need somebody to hand the bricks down to me."

The boy smiled and nodded.

Ray Elliott is an author and a former high school teacher who lives in rural Urbana. His email address is rayelliott23@att.net.


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