Land sakes is what we’re always exclaiming, because land is all we’re good for, all the sakes there are or ever will be. Each of us, fifty or so strong, has left a country crowded with kin or else lorded over, every inch of the land spoken for, down to the last hop of hare or squawk of fowl. We settlers have pushed all the way into the pockets of Lady America, hoping to take her wealth for ours, her endless waving grain and her cattle in abundant herds. Through our boot soles, thin as they are, we perceive the urgency of the land’s fecundity to be ours, it is so empty and waiting. Even the clouds suspended above us are our clouds, borne in the reflection of our great desire. We slake our thirst for our own land by possessing Lady America with the plough. We are homesteaders.
Water is our first necessity and our greatest difficulty. “Great American Desert” is how Major Long chose to mark where we have come to settle. The hills of this desert roll. There are gullies, draws, washes, and gulches enough, but few rivers to plant beside. The Dismal River—named wrongly, from our point of view, because we celebrate any appearance of water here—is the font of our livelihood. We have to drive our horses away from this river to the plat we have staked out miles away.
The Indians tell us that any animal that has wandered too far beyond the river is counted as dead by them. However, we are not too sure about trusting Indians about where to settle or where the water is, given that we are removing them. When a man tells us he saw a cow wander back from this desert with a calf, and they stopped at a sandy incline not so far away and hoofed at a hole that water filled, we run with our shovels and picks and start digging. We dig very deep, two hundred feet or more, shoaling the sides of the well with the buckboards of our wagons as quick as we can build a dugout to shelter us, then we have to send for cedar for more shoaling. We do this work after we plough our share of the land near the river, after we seed it, after we pull out the weeds, hunt for meat, collect dung for our hearth, and haul buckets of water from the Dismal for cooking. We take turns digging this well whenever we have two minutes put together. It’s not bad digging through the sandy topsoil, but there’s rock after that, dry hard rock that blunts the shovel and our strength. We soon build a teepee of wood at the top of the well to lower down a bucket and a man. But all we get after all that digging is the dark cool of a deep hole.
We try again with another hole. We have to. The clouds do not clump and darken overhead, they scud and thin and do not bless us. The Dismal becomes itself, dismal—it narrows, it slows. We get worn out walking our teams so far from the river to tend our crops, and we get thirsty, and our horses and mules drink themselves swollen as soon as they return. We grow weary without more water and will be weary until death without it. The Dismal turns itself into slurry. Our crops will soon crisp and ash before we can harvest them. These few rains that wrung themselves out of the clouds when we first came, they say, won’t come again. It just isn’t the land for farming, never was: the broadsides sold us a farmer’s dream. We shrug when someone says this, we sight down from our bad well to where the land creases into a gully and we try to dig another one, closer to the middle of the land we’re trying to hold onto.
This third well isn’t as deep as the first. The sides of this well are not as neat, they’re a bit crooked and probably dangerous, which makes us want to give up on it even earlier. We have to dig through and after harvest to get that far, before the ground freezes and the snow fills it. We take turns digging inside it at high noon when it’s hot, then we nap at the top before going back to our fields, then we go back down after work until dark and emerge discouraged. What else can we do? The Widow McNash says she’ll have her children try digging—there’s got to be water—and sends one monkey after another to the bottom of the pit, until they dig down to forty feet and catch the cough.
That’s our last try. We seal the hole with boards for the winter, our heads bowed, pounding those boards tight.
But then Dutch Joe shows up on a buckboard. He is a sturdy fellow of medium height, a pleasant smile, determined lips, and extraordinary muscles. I have muscles myself—a man doesn’t wrestle a plough from lark song to dark without some strength—but Joe could beat us all. I call him brave as well, this man in the tintype I still keep in my parlor as a remembrance. He’s holding a chairback in it like somebody dared him to, with one arm akimbo, and all his great muscles hide under a buttoned-to-the-neck jacket, with boots to the knee and some type of Dutch flat hat crossing his forehead. In the tintype you can’t see his bravery, but you couldn’t see him working either—he was always underground, always digging.
At first nobody thinks much of Dutch Joe’s digging ability. He doesn’t say anything to flimflam them, he just sees the piles of dirt beside the hole we gave up on and says he can help. He says he gets his digging power from the Dutch dikes he had to maintain for his father when he was a boy. He says every Dutch boy knows the power of a shovel or he drowns finding out, and he knows where water is hid from his home efforts. Here, instead of piling dirt up to keep the water away like the Dutch have to, he will pile it up to find it. This upside-down proposition pleases him no end, but nobody takes him up on it. A lot of fellows tell Dutch Joe to get lost, or, if he wants to so much, to dig a well by himself. But if he digs for himself while everybody else is ploughing, Dutch Joe says, what will he get for his own land? He must be paid by their labor on his stake.
He who doesn’t find himself important isn’t doing his job, Dutch Joe says.
While I’m cleaning my boots of dung dropped from my horse that I follow all summer, Dutch Joe tells me a story about the snakes in Sumatra, where he soldiered for a short time for his country—snakes, he says, that will come at you out of the trees. He likes the land here, since it has no trees on it. The only snakes here live in holes, he says, sluicing a cool drink out of the river. Or they are those who don’t believe I know where to dig.
I like Dutch Joe’s confidence, it is just what the land needs. I give him my shovel, the one I brought from Pennsylvania with the maker’s mark on it. I promise to plough and to plant for him if he will do as he boasts, produce water. If he doesn’t, he will give me half his harvest. He walks from end to end of my land, then takes off for a hillside that looks like all the others and starts in digging. Everyone laughs at him—they do laugh from that first shovelful on—but not me. I am ploughing for him, I don’t have time to laugh.
An orphan boy works with him. He runs the winch and bucket and lolls about in between. He knows Dutch from his parents, who hid him inside a pickle barrel from Indians they should not have met. They believed that Indians hated pickles and the smell of brine burning, and he is proof that this is so: the Indians did not burn the barrel but all the rest and the parents too. The orphan boy got a rescue from a wagon train that planned to hand him off as a go-back. He is already here, Dutch Joe argued, and they let him stay with him because they could talk to each other. Dutch Joe feeds him well, and the boy is intent on growing despite his scare in the pickle barrel . Dutch Joe also tries to teach him lessons about digging. What the peasant doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat, he says, and the boy is grateful.
Every night the boy winches Dutch Joe up to land, whereupon Dutch Joe loads my dirty shovel onto his shoulder, tips his beret low over his eye as if the setting sun is still too bright to see, stretches his big muscles in every direction, and walks to my wagon for sarsaparilla, a brew that’s worth the roots you have to pull for each batch. The orphan boy tidies the pile he and Dutch Joe have made of the dirt all day, then follows along.
Drinking my drink, Dutch Joe tells me more about the snakes in Sumatra and how they spit, and asks about the rattler nests he’s heard he will come across but hasn’t yet, says that he’ll shovel these American snakes away and keep on shoveling past them. It’s dark in the middle of the day at the bottom of the well, he tells me—about the same darkness that the jungles in Sumatra have from growing so many trees up against the sun. He tells me about a bird there that is striped like a tiger so you can’t tell them apart from the tigers that hang in the trees. The thing he likes to tell best is about the stars at the bottom of the well he sees when he digs really deep, stars that shine at the top even during the day. You go down far enough, he says, fifty feet and more, and when you look up to waggle the bucket, there’s the Milky Way and the Archer. The Archer gets brighter as I dig deeper, it’s how I measure my going-along straight. Then he’s asleep on his pins, and the orphan boy and I lever him up on our bench for the night.
The orphan boy soon has a frame built over the hole and is shoveling a berm around it so no one falls into it nor kicks in a rock while coming to view its wondrous depths. I am proud when my neighbors gather to spit beside it because it is so deep, and my daughter even walks all the way out to inspect it. Soon she is bringing sewing and sits beside the orphan boy while he flexes his muscles over the bucket-lifting. I wave at her when I pass the dig with my horse, ploughing and seeding. My wife stays behind, under our lean-to, ailing. She wants to move away from the river and have her own place with water. She says then she would feel better, which is the best reason I have for taking the chance with Dutch Joe’s digging. She hopes, like I do, he’s working the right spot.
Water tells you where it is in many ways, Dutch Joe says when I visit to review the fruit of his labors. He unhooks the harness he uses to lower himself down with and fishes a couple of arrowheads out of his pocket—the kind Indians are still making to kill us with—and a piece of a pot they must have broken a long time ago, judging from how deep it was that he found it. These people leave their things where you would after they fall in, he says. They help me know where to dig, he says, and I half believe him.
Dry enough for you? The other settlers say to the Dutchman when he brushes his clothes free of dust on Sundays. They’re looking for nails at low tide, he says instead. I try not to feel the fool for hiring him. I plough, and I plant his seed and mine, all the time waiting, all the time bringing water to my wife where she sits on a rug beside the wagon wheels, the only part of the wagon that isn’t holding back the sides of the well.
One night I tell my own story to him and his orphan boy. I was a tradesman in Scotland, I say. I read the papers and spoke to many important folk, maybe one too many, because one of them convinced me to close down my shop and come here. I thought dirt was something you washed off. Those first rows I planted—a deer hitched to the plough could have done it.
My daughter doesn’t quite laugh. My wife pokes her with a stick.
Joe tells us the circus strongman, Belzoni, dug into the pyramids of Egypt and found chambers connecting the dead wrapped up in rags. You will not find such things ever if you are having to tend a shop.
I relight his pipe.
Also, Joes says, puffing, I have it on good authority that you can tell the future by looking up from those holes. It has to do with those stars you see that way. But you don’t want to look up too often. If the sky comes down, we’ll all be wearing a blue cap.
I pull off my cap and scratch my bald head, and he laughs.
I loan the orphan boy the use of my rake, and he spreads the loose dirt they have made and sows it with rye, a crop that grows fine here, that doesn’t need so much water. He and my daughter, who is sewing a blanket out of empty seed sacks, sit together on that hill after the rye gets some height on it, whenever the boy is not switching out buckets and mending rope. Whenever I bring my daughter and him a cup of water from the river, he says Dutch Joe will make everyone rich when he finishes his digging. He says he heard Joe once hauled a bucket of water out of a desert. I don’t know about that, I tell him the next time I swing the horse around. But the pyramids got built, and if there’s any future in water, a desert is where it would be—one of those oases.
We are pulling up the rye around the hole, the boy and I—it is that late in the year for the harvest—when we hear Nou breekt mijn klomp! from far down in the well. That breaks my wooden shoe is what he’s saying, says the boy, stopping his work. I brush the chaff off my front while he peers over the well’s edge to hear more, and then he laughs and hauls up a clattering bucket.
It’s wet, this bucket—it’s full of water.
What a celebration! I run most of the way back to the settlement for whatever naysaying homesteaders might be loitering, to tell them to come for a drink of my fine well water, all along the way shouting to the other settlers off in the distance. By the time I return, Dutch Joe is unharnessed and lies gasping on the ground beside the bucket, muddy all over.
My wife, sick as she is, rolls out a pie that night, fills it with dry cactus fruit, and cooks it in a pot hanging over burning cow chips. It cooks slow and hot and long, and the pie turns right sweet enough for Joe and his orphan boy and all the rest of us. We drink sarsaparilla aplenty and dance to the comb-and-saw players that collect.
Dutch Joe has the customers lining up.
He digs large, round cylinders, straight as a gun barrel from the grama grass roots to the gravel underflow. The settlers break out more new prairie for him, do all his farmwork, and order him fence posts from the East to hold back the well walls. Myself, I give him the rye field in extra payment so I can hear his stories often―and for another reason By then his orphan boy has a boy of his own , named after me. My daughter spent too long on her blanket behind the rye with him, and myself one too many turns away from the well. The windmill doesn’t care for wind that’s gone past, says Dutch Joe, which I take to be his way of talking about spilt milk. Their engagement is short, but my daughter doesn’t cry on my shoulder, not even after her mother dies, the new baby boy in her arms. The baby has come just in time. Her death is like the ploughing—if you turn around to see what you’ve lost, you go crooked for sure. The orphan boy and Dutch Joe visit as often as they can, and have their picture taken when they can’t so my grandson can see his Pa whenever he wants.
Dutch Joe just liked his picture took, and you can tell that from the one I keep.
In seven years Dutch Joe digs over six thousand feet of well, sometimes as far down as 260 feet, sometimes down ten feet, and not a one of them is dry. When the orphan boy and Dutch Joe take a day off, they run footraces with my grandson in the dark after dinner is finished. Winded, Dutch Joe smokes a pipe beside my fire and puts his hand on the little boy’s head and talks of the future. He says the future he sees from the wells is all a-glitter, the stars bouncing their light off what the worm leaves in the dirt. Boy, you think of a way to elevate the water so you won’t have to do all this digging. I will put myself out of a job, the orphan boy boasts. But what Dutch Joe finds is not an underground river you could sail a boat across into Hades but trapped water up to nothing in the rock and dirt, or so he says, if I got it right—his Dutch talk is thick when he and the boy sit together. At the bottom of that last well, Dutch Joe says he saw a machine going across the sky as silver as a bullet. The orphan boy believes him.
It rains buckets in ’91 and burns in ’94, burns so bad that men and their families pick up the bleached bones of starved animals to grind for feed. A few of them pack up and leave and a few talk about leaving, but no one will buy them out with enough so they can. The paper says the building and operation of the railroads and telegraph lines generally precede a steady increase in rainfall, since the electric current disturbs the atmosphere, and so does the rushing of trains. We don’t yet have the railroad or the telegraph or a train, so we will have to wait. Heavy rainfall also follows artillery battles as a result of the detonations of guns, but nobody has the interest or the energy to fight each other here. Even the Indians have moved on. When the rain stops for good and the land shakes itself off with the wind, nothing we plant holds. Some days even my well is dry and the Dismal has gone muddy and is nearly gone. If Dutch Joe can find the time to deepen my well for me, I will sure be obliged, and I’ll harvest what wheat you get is what I tell him. Others want theirs dug again too, but I am first, since I was first before.
My daughter sits beside the orphan boy again while he works the bucket, happy to resume her post from so long ago. She dislikes the lonely place she cooks in, so far away from him. They build a shelter from the sun for their boy, and he digs his holes beside them in the new dirt and elsewhere, when he doesn’t have chores they think up. She is feeding her husband the trimmings of her pastry, or maybe the sugar lumps their boy doesn’t get all of, and is talking on about the boy’s clever ways with a rabbit snare when the steel catch that holds the bucket slips. The bucket is near the top, and when it is released it falls directly onto the head of Dutch Joe working two hundred feet down. The orphan boy screams Dutch! and then Dutch! again, louder. There is no sound I imagine as bad as that bucket coming up. Get help, he says to my daughter, and he stares down into the well and stays there until I come running.
He don’t look dead to me, he says before I peer down and see what he’s been looking so hard at, Dutch Joe slumped against one wall.
I don’t know what to do but nod.
A grown man can’t maneuver in the bottom in rescue with another man in the well. My grandson has to go down. The orphan boy puts him in the bucket himself and doesn’t answer his boy’s cries until he can’t hear them anymore. But the boy does his duty and ties the rope to Dutch Joe’s harness, and the orphan boy cranks the bucket up with his boy inside and Joe harnessed below it, his muddy head wrong. At the top the boy leaps out of the bucket into his mother’s arms, and the orphan boy and I lay Joe beside his hole.
Men who risk their lives on battlefields are called heroes. Those who risk them in the construction of homesteads in such a desert as we have are also heroes. Let no one who has never dug in the darkness and the danger of a deep well dispute it. Among these heroes I write the name of Joseph Crewe. We clean him up for his coffin, but his boots are worn thin and fall apart. We give him a blanket that covers his feet and the shine of the worn coat that we unearth from his chest. We come to find out, from what else is inside that chest, that he left behind no mule nor child nor wife anywhere.
He gave us life. It is up to Lady America now, though she is none too gracious.
My grandson doesn’t go near the well ever again, won’t haul up a single bucket’s worth no matter what he’s promised. I seen those stars, the boy says. It was night too soon.
Terese Svoboda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently the novel Bohemian Girl, which Booklist named one of the ten best Westerns of 2012. Bison Books has re-issued her fourth novel, Tin God, this year.
Listen to Terese Svoboda and Ralph Sneeden read and discuss “Dutch Joe” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.