In this part of northeastern Alabama, where dense forests and farm lands are embraced by hilly terrain, untended grass can grow 10 inches to 4 or 5 feet tall. This year's drought, four months long when Sunday dawned, has rendered the soil almost bald.

Edward Land, a farmer whose roots in the nearby Choccolocco Valley go back a century, endured by using the agricultural version of musical chairs: Each day, he moved his cattle from pasture to pasture on his 1,000 acres, hoping that the livestock would find enough grass to graze.

Dust bathed Land's idle tractors, some of them unused since February. Farm equipment lay scattered in the fields like the skeletal remains of dinosaurs.

But when it comes to rain, farmers are eternal optimists. Week after week, Land waited for the life-giving water. Sooner or later, he knew, it would rain.

On Sunday, it did.

Land's farm drank in 1.44 inches of rain Sunday and Monday, the most since January, as a storm system rolled through on its way to Florida, where it dumped 2 more inches on dry ground. Hugh Bynum of the Alabama Crop Reporting Service said the rain gives the state's farmers the go-ahead to plant soy beans, the state's largest crop at $180 million a year.

The normal soybean planting season is May 1 to June 30. "We have not been able to do anything; we have been at a standstill. Now we can go," Land said Sunday. "After this, I think we have enough rain now, when it stops raining we start planting."

Land said he will plant 700 acres of soybean and grain sorghum this week and should be able to harvest the crop before the winter freeze -- if it it rains from time to time through the spring and summer.

With the accumulated rainfall deficit as much as 17 inches below normal, the next several weeks are critical for Land and other Calhoun County residents, a region that is 64 percent forest land and 23 percent farm land. Besides the danger to vegetation, officials estimate that more than 1,000 families have depleted the ground water that feeds their private wells.

In a little community outside Anniston -- known to some as Lloyd's Chapel, to others as Parkwood Drive -- county officials made an informal poll last week to determine how many families with private wells might be out of water. Of 100 families, 60 reported they had no water. Those who had water said it emerged from the faucet muddy, and officials began to fear that low water tables would produce high bacterial concentrations.

National Guardsmen stationed two trucks last week at Erwin's Easy Stop, a gas station where they have distributed more than 20,000 gallons of water. Tommy Erwin, 41, is proprietor of the station, where well-wore wooden benches make it a natural place for ad hoc community meetings. He said some of the folks on those benches recently suggested giving the preacher a raise so he could pray a little harder for rain.

Alabama, which has prided itself for having the nation's lowest ad valorem tax, has counties that cannot afford to maintain and operate water systems for all their residents. Nearby Cleburne County has problems similar to Calhoun's, and officials there estimate that as many 75 area families are without water. Cleburne County commissioners already have requested that guardsmen be put on standby for emergency relief if drought conditions do not improve.

Jacky Turley, 30, has been without water for seven months and hauls water several miles to his Calhoun County trailer home every day for himself, his wife and three children. A hundred yards or so from their trailer, Johnson grass grows in the 5-acre field that was once a spring-feeding reservoir 20 feet deep.

"Every day has been a lesson," said Turley, who keeps the water he receives from the National Guard in plastic milk jugs in a storage room. Recently he devised a way to plug his well pump into a 400-gallon aluminum container that feeds into his plumbing. But every day last week at 6 p.m., he reported to Erwin's Easy Stop for water.

Unless it rains regularly, officials said, trucked-in water will be routine for a while.

Turley's wife, Kathy, 27, said she believes the drought has had its good points. "It brings you closer to your friends and neighbors when you find out that they're in the same situation you are," she said. "They didn't work together as a community, they worked together as a family."

Here in Calhoun County, it is not uncommon for M60 tanks to roam the neighborhood near the fence of the Anniston Army Depot's Pellham Range, an artillery target practice area a few hundred feet from back yards. Residents say they are not surprised when clocks fall off their wall mounts or windows rattle or the ground shakes from artillery firepower.

They have accepted these inconveniences as part of rural life. But when they discovered last month that the state had rejected their request to receive a federal grant to pay for a water line, residents shook the foundations of the state capitol.

A delegation of Calhoun County legislators met with Gov. George C. Wallace to lobby for the grant. At a public meeting Wednesday, residents were told that they would receive a federally funded water line. The bad news was that the line would take six months to a year to build -- but they waited for rain, and they are waiting for the line.