"I see you're making progress on rebuilding, Jeb," said Cliff. "You got all that lumber piled up over there out of the way. Are you going to redo that floor? Some of those boards were rotten before the storm and should be replaced with newer ones so your guests won't fall through."
"Did you come all the way up here to tell me something I already know, or are you on a mission of mercy and come to help?" said Jeb from the mouth of his cave.
"Neither. Came to tell you about that letter that you been expecting. You got any coffee made?" asked Cliff,
taking his black hat off and wiping his forehead with his old handkerchief. He wiped the back of his neck and around his ears and back across his forehead, and stuffed the hanky into his back pocket by a corner, letting most of it hang loose to get dry.
Jeb watched Cliff dry himself off, lifted the hammer he held in his right hand, and pointed to the pot sitting on a rock a little higher on the hill.
"Fresh pot sittin' right there, and there's a cup on the floor by the bucket over there. Help yourself, then you can tell me about that letter, as if I didn't already know about it," said Jeb. "Come on into the cave where it's out of the sun."
After the big windy, Jeb found one chair still in good condition and moved it into the cave on one side. On the other side was a hastily constructed bench with his cans of beans and flour and whatever else he managed to retrieve. Most of his stuff was on the cave floor or on top of rocks that were already there. He cleaned a rock off and sat down, waiting for Cliff to fill his cup and enter the cave. He still held his hammer in his hand.
"How's that taste to you?" asked Jeb after Cliff sat down on the chair. "I couldn't get all the sand out of the water, but it should settle to the bottom. My spring is till a little muddy from all the dust."
"Fine, it tastes just fine. Can't ruin a cup of coffee no matter how you cook it. Hell, that dust is in everything, but that's what livin' in the desert gets you," answered Cliff. He eyed the older man sitting on his rock in his overalls and blue shirt in the shade of the shallow cave. It didn't look to Cliff like he had any socks on; his legs were bare and smudged with dirt the couple of inches above the old work shoes up to his overalls. Cliff looked him in the blue eyes and said, "The stage made it through this morning. Tom, the driver, said the big gully north of Gila Bend was still a little flooded from the rain there where the Salt and the Gila run into each other. Said it took him over an hour to get through the mud and pools of water to the other side of it. Had to take it easy on the team after that."
"Yah. I seen it coming in from a a few miles away, making its way through all the creosote bushes and cactuses and mesquite trees. It looked like it was floatin' on 'em 'til it reached the clearing. Traveling awful slow, it was, almost in slow motion. I thought I was havin' a dream at first, it was going so slow," said Jeb, blue eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled. "Was that letter on it?"
"Uh-uh, no letter today. I could've just not come up and you would have knowed anyway," said Cliff, seeing the disappointment in Jeb's face. Cliff felt a little disppointed, too, Jeb'd been asking about it for so long, over a month, now. He hoped Jeb's daughter was all right.
"That storm must've hit them, too, is the only reason I can think of," said Jeb. "Or maybe they changed their plans, being newly married and all."
"Maybe," agreed Cliff. "I can help you pound a few nails for awhile. There ain't nothing goin' on down at the station. We can tear apart some more of that roof, or put up a wall or somethin'."
"There ain't no hurry to put up a house," said Catrall. "Besides, it's the hot part of the day, and I don't want to die of a heat stroke. Look at them heat waves risin' above Tropolis. It looks like it's drowning in a steam bath." He laughed out loud. "Look at that! Hell, you can't even see parts of it for all the distortion they cause. Why'd you ever settle in a place like that, Cliff?"
"Didn't have much choice, and we wanted to go west, we heard so much about it, the wide open spaces and all that. Same things that brought most people west. I was workin' in the station at Westport, Missouri," said Cliff, "when I heard about this opening on the stageline. A brand new stop on the edge of the desert, great weather, lots of land, mild climate, a perfect place to settle down and raise a family, except we don't have no kids." He paused, looked out at Tropolis, then back to Jeb. "You sure you don't want to work on the house an hour or two? If we get too hot, we can stop and step in here in the shade to cool off and have a cool cup of water or another coffee, that is, if you're willin'."
It was as if Cliff was talking to himself, practically. Jeb hadn't been listening, but now that he stopped talking, Jeb looked at him like he had just appeared out of the blue and said, "My daughter's always been a free spirit just like her mother. Flighty, her mother called her, and she should know. She left me for another man a long time ago, a Johnny-on-the-spot, he was." There was a distant look in his blue eyes. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a bare hand, then wiped his hand on his overalls. "Johnny-on-the-spot, all right, and the spot was right next to my wife and daughter, sweet-talkin' them right on to the stage and out of my life. Didn't much care that he stole my woman, but I'll shoot him for takin' my daughter with them if he ever shows his face anywhere near my whereabouts."
Cliff didn't say anything, but kept his eyes on Jeb's wrinkled face, silently hoping he would continue so he could go back down the hill and tell his wife. She was always asking me about Jeb. "Why does he live up there on the hill all by himself?" she would say. "He must have been married to have a daughter that's writing him a letter. What happened to her? Where does the girl live?" and stuff like that about every time he started out for the hill. He turned his gaze to the items on the bench for a second or two and to the pile of boards outside waiting to be made into a wall or a roof or something. It was like Jeb read his mind.
"They went to Californy, leastways that's where the first letter come from," Jeb said. "That letter was written by her....Corina.... that's my daughter...Corina. She was only eleven at the time, but she sure could write a good letter, flowery language, and English usage was perfect, at least as far as I knew, and she could make her letters and words and all so anybody could read 'em. Yes sir, near perfect writer, I would say. She wrote Dear Mister Papa, is what she wrote, Mister Papa, writing like I was a total stranger. Hell, I guess I was by then, it being a few years past when they climbed on that stage. Just about forgot all about me, she did."
Jeb stopped talking and looked at Cliff with a faraway look in his eyes, sighed, and took a deep breath. "Hell, Cliff, what am I telling you all this for? It don't mean a thing to you, but I guess it still bothers me some. The fact that I can still see 'em crawling onto that stagecoach with that dirty, no-good Johnny-on-the-spot is what bothers me about it. And, Hell, here I am building a house for her like she was going to live in it. Huh! That letter should have been here."
"It probably got sent somewheres else, is probably what happened to it, Jeb," said Cliff. "Let's put a few boards together and pretty soon you'll have that new house."