THE man I bought this farm from frequently strolls over to see how we are getting on. He is now a retired farmer; that is to say, he has no business of his own and so has plenty of time to attend to the business of others. Our hired men, though disagreeing in all else, agree in disliking these visitations. They call him Snuffy, which is n’t a bad name for a little old man with so large a bump of curiosity. Only one of them, however, has ever had the courage to tell Snuffy to go home when he appeared with his interminable advices, a display of spirit for which I apologized in due course for the sake of peace, though recognizing that it was not without merit. Everyone in the village stands a little in awe of Snuffy, without quite knowing why. For my part I recognize that he has some right on the place, in morals if not in law, for he was born here and lived here more than sixty-five years. And though he left these acres poorer than he found them, being no great shakes as a husbandman, whatever his life has meant to the world is here recorded and can be reviewed better here than elsewhere.
I have another and more selfish reason for maintaining the truce with Snuffy. Occasionally his advice is good. He told us exactly where to place the new barn, alleging that the barnyard would always be damp in the location we had chosen. ‘There’s a vein of water close to the surface there,’ he said. ‘You’ll tap it when you dig for your foundations. Better put your barn above the lane — just there. That’s as I would do if she was mine. Of course, it’s none of my business; you can do as you please, but I thought it right to tell you.’ On this note, compounded of duty and condescending wisdom, end all of Snuffy’s advices; perhaps that is why we resent them so, even when we profit by them. As for the barn, he was exactly right; we put it just where he said and have never regretted it. Moreover, in piping water to the barn we found the water vein he mentioned.
There is no doubt that Snuffy knows more about this particular farm than anyone else does, and so I sit at his feet when he is in a talkative mood. The best way to thaw him out, I have discovered, is to build a bonfire. At sight of smoke up our way, Snuffy will leave his warm house and his radio, even though the temperature be zero, and come hither. Perhaps there is more than curiosity in this; it may be the persistence of the fire-watching habit on this property for a lifetime. Then, the windy side of an open fire makes an excellent forum for conversation. After he tells us how the logs should be arranged, and we have adjusted them to his satisfaction, he may throw off hints worth treasuring.
It was under such circumstances that he confessed that he had a way with water. ‘ I’ve never advertised the fact, but it’s God’s truth that I can take a forked peach stick and walk around slow with the two ends in my hands and the fork will turn down when I’m over running water. I don’t understand it, and between trials I somehow don’t exactly believe in it; but all three of the wells on this place I found that way. If I had faith enough maybe I could be a “water wizard,” like some around here, and get five dollars for every good well I brought in. This is a tricky country on water; there’s plenty of it, but it flows in channels underground and it ain’t no manner of use to set up a drill just anywhere and start to work. I know one stubborn feller in this neighborhood who’s spent more drilling for water than his land is worth; lucky he’s got plenty of money. You nor I could n’t stand it. — Now if you was to upend that pine butt and h’ist it this way — so — you ’d have a fire.’
After we had obeyed instructions, he resumed: ‘Yes, it’s queer about me and water. Just to see what ’d happen, I’ve held those peach twigs tight and had ’em twist the bark off right in my hands, such was the pull of that running water. But you, or anyone else standing around, could take the sticks out of my hand and there would n’t be any pull at all. Them sticks would straighten out the minute you laid hold of them, and stay straight all the time you held ’em, unless you happened to have the power — like me. I say “power,” but maybe that’s the wrong word. I’ve been tinkering with radio enough to see that what pulls them peach forks down to running water is n’t any power o’ mine. I suppose it’s electricity and I’m just part of the conductor — me and the peach twig both. It gives a man a queer feeling, thinking of it afterward, but at the time I don’t feel anything out of the way.
‘First time I saw it done I was a small boy, visiting in the next county. The wizard was old as Methusalem, with a long white beard. While I watched him, the thought came over me that I could do it, too. After he’d finished, I told him so and everyone laughed except him. He took my hand and, after holding it a minute, said: “I reckon you can, some day. But not yet. Don’t start for another ten years and then don’t overdo it. ‘Witchin’ water’ is a chancy business and there ain’t nothin’ in it any more, anyway.”
Well, I came home and said nothing. Then, when I was past twenty, we needed another well and I tried it. None of the family had any faith in it except my father. Right where the peach fork pulled hardest we dug a twenty-foot well — dry as a bone. Some were for digging another, but we decided to wall it up and let it stand. That’s the well your stock gets water from to-day. It filled at the first rain and has never gone dry since. The other two wells I found the same way. They’re both good yet. But if you think you need another well I’d be willing to try again, though it may be I ain’t what I used to be in that line. They do say that a water wizard is at his best in the prime o’ life.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘we don’t need another well; but I’d like to see it done — just for an experiment.’
‘No,’ he answered, ‘that ain’t the kind of thing a man ought to be doing unless he’s in earnest about it. When I was younger, I thought some of showing off that way, but I never did. There’s some kind of a mystery in it. Water’s a gift and this knack of finding water is likewise a gift — and an old man like me ought not to be tampering and playing with the gifts of God. Not that I’m what you’d call a religious man, as things go round here. Still, it don’t seem right to me to hunt water that way unless you need it.—Well, I guess your fire’ll be all right now, but I’d damp it down come night. Bye.’
With that the man who sold this farm to me walked away, not with the heavy tramp of the countryman, but lightly, like an aged dancing master. His feet seemed scarcely to touch the soil they trod so many years. There is, undeniably, something queer, quaint, and eerie about him. But having discovered that he is a man of scruples, of almost exquisite scruples, in his confidential relations with the Deity, I resolve never again to think of him as ‘Snuffy.’