Shadow and the Water Well

I was futzing around in my desk drawer last night and came up with a thumb drive that had gotten smooshed to the back. Had no idea what was on it.

Among other things were a bunch of stories I wrote 13 or 14 years ago, my last gasp as a would-be fiction writer. They all concerned a desert hermit called Shadow, who had kind of taken things to extremes.

The other thing the stories have in common is that most of them aren’t very good. The problem with Shadow’s life, as a fictional character, is that it wasn’t very interesting. Even when I wrote him half-mad, so that he was never quite sure if he was hallucinating or living in a magic world, I found him dull.

This is one of the best of a bad lot, and unfortunately he spends half of it doing a valve job on an old Briggs & Stratton engine. Which, take it from me, cannot be made to seem exciting.

But hey, it’s free. This is a short story in a never-to-be-finished anthology, and it’s called Shadow and the Water Well.

The well was shallow compared to others he knew. Someone had drilled or dug it on low ground down near the wash, used it for a while, and then died or moved away and abandoned it. The wide pipe came out of a concrete pad, in the skeletal shadow of an old broken windmill whose suck pipes stood in untidy ranks inside the tower. Next to the well was a crumbling concrete cistern, and next to that a big stock tank. It was all falling into ruin, but none of it seemed very old. Maybe thirty years old, maybe fifty. Judging from the parts Shadow could see, it couldn’t have been older than that and might be much younger. The brackish, mineral-laden water would have been hard as hell on the metal parts. Whoever dismantled the pump pretty clearly planned to use it again at some point, though nobody ever had. Ranchers still ran cattle here, but the original ranch that had dug this well and put up all this gear was long gone.

But the well was still here, and that was the important thing. The water was right there: If you dropped a pebble in the pipe it wouldn’t fall more than two or three seconds before it hit water, and you could even hear the splash. The well was a good mile closer to Shadow’s shack than the next nearest source, and he had tried for years to figure ways to pull water out of it. Before today, the best he’d done was get a piece of string wet.

Shadow didn’t much care for gasoline pumps and generators. They were noisy sons of bitches, and they broke down just when you got to depending on them, and they needed gasoline. Gas was even rarer than water; you could only get it in a town. But still: If you happened to have it, and something to run it in, a little gasoline could pump a hell of a lot of water.

And Shadow wasn’t the only one who’d been thinking about that old well. When Chuck Bishop had traded somebody out of this broken-down old pump, with maybe almost two hundred feet of flexible pipe and fifty feet of collapsible hose, he’d hit Shadow up on the idea. “All we gotta do is get it running, Shadow!”

“Humph.” Shadow took some convincing. Gas engines were noisy bastards. This one, a greasy eight-horse Briggs that was old before Bishop was out of diapers, was never going to be reliable even if it ever ran at all. It was stupid to depend on such a thing for water. But still…even if it only ran once… That stock tank full of water would be something to see.

“It ain’t just water, Shadow. It’s meat! This’d be the only open water for miles…” Well, that wasn’t true. There was that crack in the rocks up on… “Okay, it’d be the only open water for miles down here. Anyway, every cat in the mountains knows about that one. You were a mulie, where’d you rather drink?” He did have a point. A fellow got tired of rabbit, though Shadow would have to figure just how they were going to catch a deer. Get Denny in on the deal, maybe: He had a rifle now.

In the old days, before Shadow learned how to live without regular cash, his last townie job had been fixing engines just like this one. That, and the fact that Shadow’s shack was only about five hundred yards from the well anyway, was why Bishop had tried to get him in on the deal. Bishop owned the pump and the pipe, and technically any water it pumped would be his. But Bishop didn’t know how to fix the pump. Shadow looked at the old machine dubiously: He wasn’t sure he did, either.

But it wouldn’t cost much to give it a try.

Anyway, he’d just been moping around since Dave Fortier died. He wouldn’t have expected to get hit so hard by an old man dying. That was pretty much what old men did, after all. But Fortier had been a good friend; maybe, the more Shadow brooded over it, the best friend he had. And Shadow had known he was sick, and he should have taken better care of him.

It made him hurt to think about it. Maybe this was a good project to get it off his mind.

The pump was small enough for two guys to move pretty easy, but it wouldn’t be fun having to hump it from Bishop’s place to the well. Shadow was happy to hear that Bishop had thought of that: The pickup he’d begged a ride on had delivered it to the well, not to Bishop’s place. Now Shadow met him there to look it over. He’d dug out enough of his old tools to at least hopefully figure out why it wouldn’t run.

“You know even if I get the engine runnin’ the pump might not work, right? And we’re gonna need water to prime it. I’ll try to get it runnin’, but I ain’t bettin’ any water on it.”

Bishop wasn’t as dumb as some of Shadow’s other friends, though. He’d not only supplied a rusty Jerry can half full of gas, but also a couple of gallon jugs of water. That pretty much took care of Shadow’s excuses. Time to get to work.

He opened the engine’s gas tank, took a sniff, and recoiled at the stench. “Guh! Gas went bad. Carb’s gonna be all fulla shit.” He closed the tank’s valve and removed the carburetor’s float bowl. Sure enough, it was full of rust and filthy gasoline. “Maybe can’t ever get this thing cleaned out, but we can try. Let’s see what else is wrong.” He planted his feet and gave the starter rope a pull. It turned the engine about half a revolution, then locked up hard enough to pull the rope’s handle right out of his hand. “Valve’s stuck shut. Gonna need a head gasket if this one tears up gettin’ it off. Which it will. And we’re prob’ly gonna need a needle and seat for the carb. You got any money?”

“How much we need?”

“Maybe a little. Not much. I know where we can get the parts, if you got the money.”

“You take it apart, find out what we need?”

“Yeah, I can do that.”

Sometimes, if you were very careful, you could get the head off without wrecking the gasket. It wasn’t the best thing to do, but anything that would get the engine to kick was a win. Shadow took off the fan cover that concealed the head bolts and carefully started removing them. Sure enough, the bolt closest to the muffler was just about stuck solid. That was common on an old Briggs. If he forced it, it would break and that would be the ballgame. He rummaged around in his half-rotted canvas tool bag and found a can of penetrating oil. He soaked the bolt and went to work taking off the carburetor.

The inside of the carb wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. He wished he had some way to do a pressure test; the needle and seat might still be good, or they might not. But he didn’t have a pressure tester. Best thing to do was clean it out and put it back together, then concentrate on the engine. If he fixed the engine and it would only run when he primed the carb, then he’d know the carb was bad. If it started and ran, then the carb was good. A dirty way to do diagnosis, but it worked. He sprayed the head bolt again and worked it back and forth: It would move now but wasn’t ready to come out. He went to work carefully dismantling the carburetor on a rag and cleaning all its tiny parts, then put it back together.

The sun was high in the sky and Shadow was getting sweaty and discouraged by the time the head bolt decided it had delayed enough. He got it out – for a wonder not taking the threads out of the block – and carefully tugged on the head. He didn’t want to tear the gasket if he didn’t have to. The head came off in his hand with only a little resistance, and most of the gasket’s coating was intact. Incredible for such an old machine, but you never knew what they were going to do.

Okay, that meant he had to do a valve job. With an engine that had bad gas in it, a stuck valve might just be caused by varnish on the valve shafts. Easy to fix, once you got the valves unstuck. He had to dig through half an inch of grime on the engine before he got the little valve cover visible. He took it off and dug around with a screwdriver until he managed to pop the valve spring keepers off.

Okay: Now he was committed to getting the damned valves out without bending them, and that might be hard. It would take time. Bishop had spent all this time wandering around or dozing under a bush. Time to put him to work. Shadow dosed the valves with penetrating oil, then took the gas tank off the engine and set Bishop to cleaning it out as best they could without compressed air and the right stuff. Then he set to work with a screwdriver carefully working the valves out of the engine.

It was the middle of the afternoon before he had it all together again. Before he primed the carburetor he unscrewed the little yellow cap – so covered with goop you wouldn’t suspect it was there if you didn’t already know – and stuck his little finger into the crankcase. Did it even have any oil in it? If so, was it good or had it turned to sludge? It’d be a shame to go to all this trouble, and then not even be able to try the engine because they didn’t have any oil. The oil that came out on his finger was filthy, but it would be good enough for now.

He primed the carburetor and closed the choke. “Can’t let it run for any time with the pump dry or we’ll burn out the pump. It’s just plastic inside. But we can at least find out if the engine’ll run.” Bishop came close, his face full of excitement. Shadow was just tired. This day had reminded him of how much he’d hated that townie job.

It hit on the second pull, with a sullen “putt” and a puff of blue smoke from the muffler. That didn’t surprise Shadow; almost any engine would hit if you primed the carb. That didn’t mean it would run. He primed it again and pulled the rope. This time, on the fourth pull the engine started and ran on its own. He pushed in the choke. The engine’s speed rose and evened out; he saw the governor lever tug on the carb’s throttle. Shadow hastily grabbed his big screwdriver and shorted out the spark plug to kill the engine.

“Okay, it runs,” he said wearily. “But it’s a day’s work for nothin’ if the pump don’t work.”

Now came the tricky part, because Shadow had never done this before and he was pretty sure Bishop hadn’t either. They had to prime the pump so it would suck and not burn up while trying to lift water against all the empty air in the intake pipe. They wouldn’t know until the outlet started spitting water whether the damned thing even worked: It might already be all torn up inside. Working together, they ran all of the flexible pipe into the wellhead. Then they pulled it out again to see how deep into the water the pipe went – if it even touched the water at all. If it didn’t, Shadow was pretty sure he was going to go off somewhere and cry.

But it did – in fact a good thirty or forty feet of pipe came up wet. Now there was really something to win, if only the damned pump would work. Shadow found himself getting kind of excited.

They pushed the pipe back down into the well, connected it to the pump, and unrolled the hose toward the stock tank. There was a threaded fitting on top of the pump housing, and Shadow figured that must be where the priming water was supposed to go. “I dunno if we’re supposed to keep pouring water in, or if it’ll shoot outa there when we start the engine,” he said. “But long as we got it fulla water, we can’t hurt the pump. So we’ll givit a try an’ see what happens.”

It took a couple of tries, and Shadow was beginning to fear two gallons wouldn’t be enough, but at last the flat outlet hose began to rise and more water trickled out its end then they had poured in. Then the hose filled out entirely and water gushed. “It works!” Bishop yelled. “Ya did it, Shadow! Ya did it!”

“Yeah!” Shadow’s smile felt strange on his face, and he wondered when was the last time he’d had anything to smile about. It’d been a bad couple of months, what with one thing or another. The water came out brown at first, then cleared out and they wrestled the gushing hose into the stock tank. Shadow still wasn’t sure this was a good idea: The damned thing would work just long enough for them to get used to it and depend on it, and then it’d quit for some reason and they’d feel stuck till they got used to doing it the hard way. But still, he hadn’t thought it would work at all, and now it did, and that was because he’d fixed it. Yeah.

He sat on the edge of the tank and watched it fill. It was shallow-well water and bound to be not much fun to drink. His favorite watering spot was a spring up the mountain that came up through rock. It was hell to drag water from, and it didn’t run all year. But the water was clear and sweet.

Maybe it was like that with things that were too easy. Here he had all the water anybody could ever need – for as long as the pump had gas, and didn’t break down – but the water would be brackish and thick with minerals and stuff. He’d need to boil it if he wanted to feel good about drinking it. If he was willing to work for his water he could have only a little, only as much as he could carry a long way. But that was really good water.

So maybe it was better to just keep things simple. Hard, but simple. This damned pump would make life a lot easier, while it lasted. But when it failed everybody who used this water would come bothering Shadow and trying to get him to fix it again. Maybe he’d be able to, maybe not. If he couldn’t, it would be all his fault. And even if they didn’t all blame him, still they’d have gotten used to easy water and then it would be gone. What was the point?

Bishop didn’t seem to have any of Shadow’s problems. He stuck his head into the tank and drank greedily. Then with a whoop he pulled off his boots, vaulted over the edge and landed in the tank with a big splash.

Shadow shook his head. “Well, now I’m def’nitely not drinkin’ it,” he grumbled.

Bishop laughed at him. “Aw, lighten up, Shadow! C’mon in!”

Shadow watched him for a few more minutes. Then he seemed to hear Fortier’s voice, something he’d said one evening when they were sitting around Fortier’s cabin, half-blasted on home-made hooch. “Shit, Shadow. You got this much time in life, right? Just this long. And you don’t owe nothing to nobody unless you promised. And once the promise is done you still don’t owe nothing to nobody. I knew folks who moped around their whole lives, worryin’ about this and feelin’ guilty about that. They died miserable, and they didn’t help a soul with all that sufferin’.

“So fuck it, that’s what I say. Do the best you can, live while you’re alive, and don’t kill yourself worryin’ about all the other shit.”

Of course, Fortier hadn’t kept all his promises. Or at least that was the way it seemed to the folks he’d made the promises to. But Shadow only had one side of that story, and there was bound to be a hell of a lot more to it than he knew. He’d known Fortier for a lot of years, and had never seen the man do a dishonorable thing.

He thought about that, fiddling with the laces of Fortier’s boots. Then he began to pull them off. It was a good day, not too hot, not too windy. He’d worked all day on something he didn’t know would work, and at the end of it all it worked just fine. The pump had pulled cool water out of deep in the ground and filled up this tank right in front of his eyes. Even if it was the only tank of water the pump ever drew, damned if Shadow hadn’t made this one happen. And damned if he was gonna sit here and feel bad about it!

“Hey, Bishop! Make room!” Shadow vaulted over the edge of the tank and landed in the water with a big, laughing splash.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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7 Responses to Shadow and the Water Well

  1. Ben says:

    That sounds like it could be a pretty ordinary Gulch day.

  2. Big Wooly says:

    Always loved your stories, Joel. It wouldn’t be a bad thing for you to tell us more.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good story

  4. Malatrope says:

    Honestly, Joel, that was a well-written and interesting story, properly told! I know that authors are the hardest on themselves, but don’t sell yourself short. The only thing wrong with this story is that you couldn’t find a good place to publish it.

    If you have enough to put together a book-length collection, you could always self-publish on Amazon. I don’t think it costs much to try.

  5. Tennessee Budd says:

    I think it was pretty good, Joel. We are all our own worst critics, if we’re thinking people at all.

  6. I think you have a much better grasp of writing to entertain than most people on the Internet. More, please?

  7. Big Wooly says:

    Now how ’bout givin’ us a peek at the rest of that thumb drive? purty please?

To the stake with the heretic!