Hot winds drove a herd of tumbleweeds across endless acres of sod—broken and dried by the sun. The devastating drought in Oklahoma continued on, leaving everything parched or dying. Using the rope crank, Betsy Wagner lowered the bucket into the well. She swiped at the perspiration on her brow with the sleeve of her blue and white checked cotton dress.
Each time she fetched drinking water for the family, the rope attached to the wooden pail reeled closer and closer to the end. What would they do if the well ran dry? They’d already given up bathing and Ma only prepared one meal a day, using mostly vegetables she’d preserved and dried meat. Her younger sister, Hannah, moaned the most, but change was inevitable if they were to survive.
Drastic times called for change. The horses needed water every day but Betsy no longer filled the trough, instead gave them small amounts from a pail. The chickens seemed unaware of their plight and pecked unaffected at the ground, searching for insects. A small dirt devil swirled across the empty corral and moved like a ghost-like apparition through the white-washed fence and then disappeared from sight behind the barn. Rain was certain to come and things would improve. She needed to cling to that hope.
Pa’s hunts were unsuccessful as most game had fled in search of vegetation. Fishing was no better since the lakes and streams dried up, leaving bloated trout and catfish littering the banks. At seventeen, this was the most severe time Betsy had witnessed in her life. The plants in the garden were a withered as Betsy’s heart. She'd never find a beau miles from nowhere to whisk her away to better times. Her stomach growled the hunger and her dried mouth cried out for a long, cool drink.
A glance at the shack they called home served as a reminder there was no reason to stay in this God-forsaken place, but Pa saw something she didn’t and remained determined to make this their permanent home. Perhaps it was because they’d been driven from every other place they’d lived…either by crooked tax men or cattlemen who didn’t want to share the rangeland. Pa came from a family that raised sheep and saw that as his calling.
Betsy cranked the bucket up and shielded her eyes against the sun while looking longingly at the sky for any hint of rain, A few wispy white clouds drifted across a sea of blue, and in the distance, vultures circled some poor critter either dead or dying. Her heart ached for such a gruesome end to life.
She turned her attention back to the chore at hand. The bucket crested the well’s top, only half full this time. The water used to be so high, she often bent over and stared at her reflection. Doubtful she could see her image now, she crawled up on the stone ledge and peered over, searching for any hint of her likeness. Stretching farther . . . she still saw nothing but emptiness. The old stone beneath her grip gave way, sending her tumbling head first into the black abyss. Her screams echoed back to her.
Betsy hit the water, barely creating a splash. This wasn’t the way she expected to prove how much remained. Gathering her wits, she stood, wiped sodden hair from her face and found the water dismally came to her knees. Her second worst fear was realized…her first—how to get out of the well.
“Help me. Ma! Pa! Hannah! Someone! Heellllpppp!” Her cries went unanswered but she yelled until she had no voice left.
Time slipped by, and she grew weary. Her elbow, evidently skinned during the fall, ached and her knees begged her to sit. The blue sky above darkened with the approaching nighttime, and Betsy sagged into the water letting it lap to her chin while she rested against the stony interior. Why hadn’t someone come to look for her?
Despite her discomfort, Betsy slept. She woke with a crick in her neck and fingers wrinkled from being under water. She glanced up, praying to see someone peering back, but strangely, no longer saw the sky. Could it still be nighttime?
Straining her eyes, she noted light leaking around what appeared to be a cover. Her mind whirred. Was this all a bad dream? The fact that she sat in water, confined in a stone prison confirmed the truth. But why hadn’t someone missed her, and why did they cover the well unless her family thought her dead. With a hoarse voice, she shouted as loud as she could, but still no one responded. Trying to find a bright spot, she remembered the circling vultures. At least she’d cheated them out of a meal, but that didn’t lift her spirits. Tears plunked into the water, barely making a ripple. Death would surely claim her and deny her marrying, having a family of her own and growing old with them. She rested her hand on her bosom, searching for a heartbeat. Maybe she was already dead and didn’t realize it.