“Edie! Get yer ass in here!” The gravelly voice rang out in the small house.
Huyana froze and held her breath. The knife she’d been using to chop carrots slipped from her grasp and clattered onto the tabletop. She hugged her slim waist and listened carefully for sounds of movement.
Had William Montgomery gone back to sleep? She hoped so. If he was asking for his wife then he was going to have one of his bad days and therefore the longer he rested, the better. At least if he woke later, she would have company to help her deal with him. Even with all her experience of people, the old man’s sudden fluctuations from joy to anger to confusion still unsettled her and she’d prefer to have someone else nearby.
Someone like Matthew Duggan?
She shrugged away the thought. In the short space of time in which she’d known the handsome cowboy, she’d seen only good in him. He’d been kind, helpful and attentive, even coming to find her in Virginia City, where she’d been employed as a maid, to offer her the post as carer to William Montgomery. Not that other folks were hammering down the Duggans’ door to get the position, of course. But Matthew knew that her employer was leaving town and Huyana would soon be without an income. Matthew had suggested that his older brother, Kenan, offer Huyana the job. And mighty glad she was about it too. At first. But now she knew how hard it was caring for William Montgomery alone, she wondered if she’d made the right decision.
But of course she had. What other choice did she have? With her circumstances and her questionable background, what else could she expect to do? Whore? Beg? Steal? The choices for a mixed-race woman were limited indeed. Besides, it meant that she got to see Matthew Duggan regularly, even if she did clam up like a sixteen-year-old maiden every time he stepped over the threshold.
Huyana jumped. She’d have to go check on William. He was clearly distressed. His wife had been in the ground just over a month. Sometimes he remembered this clearly, but at other times, he still thought she was alive and well. A wave of sympathy washed over Huyana. She knew what it was to love and lose someone and William deserved her compassion. The poor man was dealing with his raw grief in his moments of lucidity. Healing would likely take him longer than the average person because he wasn’t experiencing the heartache constantly with its full ferocity. Instead, it came in agonizing bursts, then, as if his mind was protecting him, he regressed to his confused state and forgot all about Edie’s death until the next lucid period. It was like a slow form of torture, and Huyana wished on a daily basis that she could do something to alleviate William’s pain and anguish.
Huyana scooped up the carrots from the flat wooden chopping board and dropped them into a bowl then wiped her hands on her apron. She crossed the room and stood outside the door of William’s bedroom then rapped her knuckles against the wood.
“You all right in there, Mr. Montgomery?”
“Who in the hell is that?”
Huyana shivered as she heard the confusion in William’s tone.
“It’s me, Mr. Montgomery. Huyana. Your help.”
“Say what?” His voice was closer now, as if he muttered with his lips pressed against the wooden boards of the door. Huyana slowly unlocked the door and took a step back. The lock was a precautionary measure that the Duggans had insisted upon to prevent William from wandering off during the night when Huyana slept or when she was outside in the yard. “Who’s ya say yer?”
“Huyana.” Her own name tripped off her lips as it had done thousands of times before, but this time it filled her with dread because she feared his reaction.
“What in the hell kind of a name is that?”
The door swung inward and Huyana braced herself as William Montgomery staggered out into the main room of the house. He reminded her of an acorn calf, all unsteady on his legs and wary of his surroundings. Huyana winced as his stale smell reached her nostrils. She had only washed him last evening with Catherine Duggan’s help but it seemed that the old man had pissed his bed again. She’d left the pot right next to his bed in plain view, but unfortunately he didn’t always think to use it. At times, the floor and his undergarments seemed to serve him just as well.
Like an animal.
Like a child. A poor helpless infant who sometimes doesn’t know right from wrong.
William stared around the room as if seeing it for the first time. He squinted against the September morning light that seeped through the small windows and warmed the floorboards. He eyed the fire that burned in the grate suspiciously, as if wondering how it had gotten there. His face held the look of a lost child as he scratched his matted gray hair, and Huyana’s heart broke for him.
It was going to be a bad day.