Chapter XIX. The Drought.
 

It began to be serious by the time corn was waist high. When the growing grain lost its rich color and the long blades rustled dryly in the hot air, the settlers looked anxiously for signs of coming rain. The one topic of conversation at the mill was the condition of the crops. The stories were all of past drought or tales of hardship and want.

The moon changed and still the same hot dry sky, with only now and then a shred of cloud floating lazily across the blue. The grass in the glades grew parched and harsh; the trees rattled their shriveled leaves; creek beds lay glaring white and dusty in the sun; and all the wild things in the woods sought the distant river bottom. In the Mutton Hollow neighborhood, only the spring below the Matthews place held water; and all day the stock on the range, crowding around the little pool, tramped out the narrow fringe of green grass about its edge, and churned its bright life into mud in their struggle.

Fall came and there was no relief. Crops were a total failure. Many people were without means to buy fed for themselves and their stock for the coming winter and the months until another crop could be grown and harvested. Family after family loaded their few household goods into the big covered wagons, and, deserting their homes, set out to seek relief in more fortunate or more wealthy portions of the country.

The day came at last when Sammy found the shepherd in the little grove, near the deer lick, and told him that she and her father were going to move.

"Father says there is nothing else to do. Even if we could squeeze through the winter, we couldn't hold out until he could make another crop."

Throwing herself on the ground, she picked a big yellow daisy from a cluster, that, finding a little moisture oozing from a dirt- filled crevice of the rock, had managed to live, and began pulling it to pieces.

In silence the old man watched her. He had not before realized how much the companionship of this girl was to him. To the refined and cultivated scholar, whose lot had been cast so strangely with the rude people of the mountain wilderness, the companionship of such a spirit and mind was a necessity. Unconsciously Sammy had supplied the one thing lacking, and by her demands upon his thought had kept the shepherd from mental stagnation and morbid brooding. Day after day she had grown into his life--his intellectual and spiritual child, and though she had dropped the rude speech of the native, she persisted still in calling him by his backwoods title, "Dad." But the little word had come to hold a new meaning for them both. He saw now, all at once, what he would lose when she went away.

One by one, the petals from the big daisy fell from the girl's hand, dull splashes of gold against her dress and on the grass.

"Where will you go?" he asked at last.

Sammy shook her head without looking up; "Don't know; anywhere that Daddy can earn a livin'--I mean living--for us."

"And when do you start?"

"Pretty soon now; there ain't nothin'--there is nothing to stay for now. Father told me when he went away day before yesterday that we would go as soon as he returned. He promised to be home sometime this evening. I--I couldn't tell you before, Dad, but I guess you knew."

The shepherd did know. For weeks they had both avoided the subject.

Sammy continued; "I--I've just been over to the Matthews place. Uncle Matt has been gone three days now. I guess you know about that, too. Aunt Mollie told me all about it. Oh, I wish, I wish I could help them." She reached for another daisy and two big tears rolled from under the long lashes to fall with the golden petals. "We'll come back in the spring when it's time to plant again, but what if you're not here?"

Her teacher could not answer for a time; then he said, in an odd, hesitating way, "Have you heard from Ollie lately?"

The girl raised her head, her quick, rare instinct divining his unspoken thought, and something she saw in her old friend's face brought just a hint of a smile to her own tearful eyes. She knew him so well. "You don't mean that, Dad," she said. "We just couldn't do that. I had a letter from him yesterday offering us money, but you know we could not accept it from him." And there the subject was dropped.

They spent the afternoon together, and in the evening, at Sammy's Lookout on the shoulder of Dewey, she bade him good-night, and left him alone with his flocks in the soft twilight.

That same evening Mr. Matthews returned from his trip to the settlement.