The sun was sending its hot rays onto everything in sight and then some in the town of Tropolis, Arizona, this hot, blistery day. The rays and the heat sneaked into the cracks and openings of the old shack on the hillside as if they were prying into the old man's business as he sat at the table and wiped the sweat from his brow with his weather-darkened and wrinkled right hand. He lifted a cup of coffee and sipped the dark fluid, smacked his lips, and said, "Aah! It's never too hot a day to drink coffee," while looking over the rim of the cup with his bright, blue eyes fastened on his guest.
The gentleman on the other side of the table agreed with him and moved his black hat an inch or two closer to the edge of the old pinewood tabletop, exposing a different contingent of cigarette burns and dark scratches in the wood from who knew what .
"Yep, never too hot for coffee, if that's all you got to offer a man who walked up this hill in the hundred degree heat just to tell you that you didn't get no letter on the morning stage. Seems like a mighty waste of time, it does," he said, pulling an old, dirty, grayish-white handkerchief from his hindpocket and rubbing it across his forehead. "Hotter than a roast pan just took out of the oven, today is." He turned his gaze to the old man across the table, "When you going to move down the hill into Tropolis and get off this sunburnt hillside?"
"Can't do that. I'm holding this land for my daughter and her new husband. I should've got that letter this week telling me when they're showing up. The mail delivery just ain't what it used to be, Cliff. Undependable, is what it is. I'll move into town the day they get here."
Jeb Catrall looked at his guest with a sudden gleam in his eye. "There wasn't no holdup of the stage, was there?" asked Jeb.
"Nope, no holdups for awhile. Hell, they wouldn't have taken your letter if there was a holdup unless it was full of gold or something valuable," said Cliff.
"You never know what them crooks'll take," countered Jeb.
"Uh huh," said Cliff, looking around the one-room house. "This old shack looks like it's going to fall down the hill any day now, Jeb. When I came in, I had to watch where I stepped so I wouldn't go through the rotten wood, and the stair rail has fell off the porch and that first step has sunk almost a foot since the last time I was here. Your daughter would never stay in a place like this," said Cliff, staring at Jeb. "If I was you, I'd make out a paper and file it with the County Clerk leaving the land to her and get the Hell down to town. How do you sleep at night? I bet this ole place creaks and groans and struggles just to stay where it is. One of these days we're going to get a big windy through here and you'll never be able to find it again. And if you're still in it when it hits, no telling how or where you'll end up, either."
"Hahaha," laughed Jeb. "That's funny, that's worth another cup of coffee. Grab that bedpost and hold on while I go get the pot off from my heating rock. The floor might shake a bit until I get out the door, but you just stay right there and I'll be back before a coyote can catch a scent. But first, I have to wash this pot out and make a fresh one. It's too darn hot to light a fire, so I just set it on the rock out there and let the sun cook it. Works about every time on days like this."
Cliff put his hand around the top of the iron bedpost as Jeb suggested, and watched as the makings were put in the pot and some water from the bucket on the floor was added. With each step Jeb took, the floor wavered up and down, and Cliff felt his chair move with it. He felt a little bit like he did crossing the Mississippi on his way out West, floating up and down on the barge that carried his wagon and family across. He almost felt a little queasy, and if Jeb didn't stop dancing around and take his new pot outside, he might even get sick.
Jeb finally made his way to the door, acting like he was going to fall through the cracks in the floor, and he was gone for about three minutes.
Cliff watched through the cracks in the wall and the one window on the west side as Jeb rounded a corner of the house and climbed up the hill maybe ten yards where his other coffee pot sat on a rock next to the ashes of his fire. Jeb set the new pot next to the old one and before he picked up the pot of fresh coffee, he looked up at the sky and turned his head every which way like he was expecting somebody to come visiting. The view of Tropolis and the desert was a wonderful sight to behold from high up on the hill. Jeb pulled a rag from his back pocket and wrapped it around his hand, picked up the hot pot, and came hurrying back down the hill and into the house.
"We got time for one more cup of coffee, maybe." Jeb announced, filling Cliff's cup and then his own, "before that big windy you mentioned hits, would be my guess."
"What are you talking about? What windy?" said Cliff, wiping his forehead again.
"You just watch. The wind is going to be picking up any minute now and that big, brown dust cloud that I saw on the other side of Tropolis is going to be over the town. Turn around and take a look out the door there, and you'll see what I mean. We ain't had one of these in two-three years," he smiled.
Cliff turned his head around and looked out the door. As he did, a breeze came through the opening, light at first, then harder and carrying a slight taste of dust into his open mouth as he stared dumbstruck at the boiling cloud of dirt getting bigger and nastier the closer it came to Tropolis.
"I saw that duster way out there, but thought nothing of it as I climbed the hill. Didn't look like much to me," said Cliff, still staring out the door." He turned his gaze back to Jeb. "This old shack is going to be carried away with that wind," yelled Cliff, getting up to close the door, but it flew open as soon as he shut it. "We better hightail it to town before it hits."
The wind was picking up even harder, blowing some dust through the door and cracks a mite thicker and faster than it was two minutes ago, and through the high brown cloud of sand and dust being swept along closer to Tropolis, they could see from their vantage point on the hill, the grayish black of the thunderstorm behind it, even a lightning strike now and then.
"You got about five minutes to get down the hill, Cliff, if you think you can make it, but that dust is going to be thicker than lentil bean soup before you get to your place," warned Jeb.
"I'm getting out of here right now, and you better follow me down, if you know what's good for you!" said Cliff, running out the door and leaping off the porch.
"I ain't going anywhere!" yelled Jeb, but Cliff was gone in the wind and dust.
Before Cliff reached the bottom of the hill, the wind was howling like a typhoon, swirling the sand and dust every which direction and the thunderclaps of dry lighting could be seen and heard. Cliff had to cover his face and eyes the best he could using his hat and hope he didn't run into a tree or trip over something as he raced to beat the storm.
Tropolis hadn't seen anything like this for a long time. The dust piled up against the buildings and the wind cleaned it off the road through town, throwing it against the windows and the walls. Cliff had all he could do to keep his feet and bearings, but finally made it to the stage station and home, his quarters being beind the station. It had begun to rain, coming down in sheets by the time he got the door open and made it safely into the old adobe building.
"Whew! That's something!" he said to his wife, who was waiting in the room set aside for the stage passengers and so forth. "Listen to that wind and the rain beating against the door! I hope the town don't get washed away."
The next morning, Cliff was sitting at the table drinking his coffee and telling his wife, "That was the worst storm to hit Tropolis that I ever did see, and now look outside. The sun is shining bright and clear and their ain't a cloud in the sky. You would never know it even rained from what we can see out the window."
"I have to sweep the dirt out of the station this morning and dust off everything before the stage gets here. What time is it?" said his wife.
"That stage won't be here for another couple of hours and maybe not for a long time, depending on the flooding out there on the desert," replied Cliff. "It was raining down buckets of water for about twenty or thirty minutes and then slacked off and rained most of the night, it seemed like, and you know how those gullies fill up real fast. If they don't get dried out before the stage rolls through, it may be a week before it shows up."
"I wonder if that letter that Mr. Catrall is looking for will be on the next one," said the Mrs.
"I ain't a-going to wait around and find out. I'll be back before noon," said Cliff, the comment sending him up the hill to see if Jeb had lived through the storm.
The hillside was pretty well drained of the water except in the flat places and behind the boulders and rocks. Climbing slowly, Cliff kept one eye on what was left of the shack and one eye on the mostly wet ground. The sun had been up about an hour, but this side of the hill was still shady and it wasn't as hot yet as the evening before. Up, up he went, dodging the palo verdes, the cactus, the creosote bushes, and large boulders and he was starting to sweat from the exertion. By the time he reached the old cabin, his shirt was wet under the arms and around his waist where his belt was tight. There was a little trickle of sweat running down his back between his shoulder blades that he lifted an arm over his shoulder to scratch and stop the tickling. He stopped climbing and surveyed the scene before him on the semi-flat piece of ground that held Jeb's shack.
Cliff yelled out, "Hey Jeb! You in there?"
There wasn't much of the building left standing. The back wall, which was partly supported by the hill, and some flooring. The rest of it was piled up partly against that wall and held down by the flimsy roof which had fallen on top of everything.
"Damn!" said Cliff. "That had to be one helluva wind to blow those boards around like that, but it didn't have any place to go but right up this hill into this little cut where the house was." He took a deep breath and yelled, "Jeb! Are you under that pile of wood somewhere? Give a yell, so I can locate you!"
He began moving the boards and throwing the loose ones to the side, trying to get to the bottom. Mustering all his strength, he managed to stand up part of a wall that was still held together by two-by-fours and let it fall to the side. Where the wall had laid was part of the roof, and try as he might, there was just no way he could move it. He looked through a crack, but couldn't see anything that would lead him to believe Catrall was under there. He continued throwing boards to the right and left, pulling nails out where he could manage to get leverage with the boards. A half hour went by and he was sweating badly now from all his exertions. He yelled again, "Jeb! If you're in there, give me a sign!" He was met with silence.
Cliff sat down on a pile of wood to catch his breath and rest a minute. He stared out over Tropolis and wondered how such a violent storm could hit so quickly and savagely. From his viewpoint up here on the hill, he could see a few men walking around their houses and buildings, checking for damage, but they were so small he had no notion of who they were, probably the storekeeper and blacksmith and bank manager, among others. He surveyed the work he had been doing, noticing that he had practically dug to the floor on one side, but still no sign of Jeb.
"I better go back down town and get some help to move that roof. Maybe Jeb is under it, crushed to death, and I'll need help getting him out," Cliff said to himself.
He stood up and took a step down the hill and he heard a loud noise behind him coming from the remnants of the shack. Startled, he quickly turned around to see Jeb with a smile on his wrinkly face standing in front of the back wall, an old hat pulled down over his forehead.
"Jeb! Jeb! Are you all right? Where the heck were you? I been digging at this woodpile for a half hour looking for you!"
"I'm just fine, Cliff. I was in my room behind the wall there. See that cave there, that's where I lived before I built my cabin. In this cave. By golly that was some storm, wasn't it? I had a hard time getting the door open, but finally managed it. I heard you cussing and yelling my name."
"I thought you was dead, and I was going down the hill and get Doc and some other men to help me dig you out," said Cliff.
"Let me find a coffee pot and I'll make us a cup of coffee. I always keep some extra in the cave," said Catrall. "It looks I'm going to have to build me a new cabin, don't it?'
"You're going to have to rebuild, all right." said Cliff, exhausted and sitting down on the pile of boards.
(To be continued.)
(Copyright, Oscar W. Case, June 24, 2010)