Teton Valley, Wyoming
“Hello, Ma.” Luke Hayes removed his Stetson and stepped over the threshold to his mother’s room. His boots echoed against the sturdy pine floorboards as he moved to where Ma sat at her vanity. A faint, sour scent wound around him, tickling his nose and turning his mouth bitter. The vase of purple coneflowers on the dresser nearly masked it, as did the rose water Ma dabbed at her throat. But the subtle smell of sickness clung to the shadows and haunted the corners, a constant reminder of the enemy that would steal her life.
“You’ve come to say goodbye,” she whispered, her voice tired though she’d barely spoken.
Luke hooked a thumb through a belt loop. “It’s time. Can’t linger if I want to be back before the snow comes.”
She turned to him, and the dreary, lifeless blue of her eyes hit him like a punch to the throat.
“You should be in bed.”
“I thought I’d go riding...could ride down the trail with you a ways. To the end of the property at least.”
Just like we used to, his throat ached to speak. How many times had they gone riding together? Felt the wind in their faces and the sun on their backs as they galloped through the shadows of the mountains?
Before. Not anymore. Never again.
But a person couldn’t convince Ma of that. Luke ran his gaze over her gaunt frame. She’d dragged herself from bed and pulled on some clothes, her shirtwaist and split skirt hanging on her emaciated figure as though more skeleton than flesh. “No more riding. Pa told you as much over a month ago.”
She huffed, her skinny shoulders straightening. “Doc Binnings didn’t bar me from riding.”
“The answer’s still no.” His words sliced through the room, and he winced. He’d come to say goodbye, not get into an argument, but there seemed to be little help for it with Ma convinced she could go riding.
“There’s a letter for your sister on the dresser.” She nodded toward the white envelope.
A smile slid up the corner of his mouth. “I’m carrying one from Pa, too, and another from Levi Sanders.”
“Levi?” A flush tinged Ma’s pale cheeks. “Samantha will like that.”
“She’ll like hearing from everyone, I’m sure. She’ll be even happier to finally come home.”
Ma stopped, her hands frozen midway through fastening the gold locket about her neck. “You’re bringing her back?”
“Of course. What did you expect?”
“No. Deal with the estate as we discussed, but leave Samantha there.”
Not get Sam? The thought stopped him cold. Even if he didn’t need to leave for New York to settle his late grandfather’s affairs, he still would have gone to fetch his sister home. With Ma nearing the end, Samantha belonged with her family. “It’s time she came home.”
“I read her letters. She loves that school, makes good grades, will graduate come spring. She needs to stay.”
“Ma...” Luke scrubbed a hand over his face.
“I’ve got a letter for Cynthia, too, on the dresser over beside Samantha’s. You’ll take that one, won’t you?”
Cynthia? His hand stilled over his eyes. He hadn’t heard the name of his brother’s widow for three years and didn’t care to hear it again for the rest of his life.
But Ma was staring at him, hope radiating from her weary eyes.
“You know how I feel about Cynthia.” And if Ma wasn’t half delusional from her illness, she never would have brought up the confounded woman. “Just mail the letter yourself.”
“You’re not even going to see—?”
It started then, one of the coughing fits that spasmed through Ma’s body. She grabbed the rag sitting beside the rose water and held it to her mouth, planting her other hand on the vanity for support.
“You should have been in bed.” Luke strode forward, slipped one arm beneath her knees, and used the other to brace her back before he swooped her in his arms. The coughs racked her body, shaking her slight form down to her very bones. “Breathe now, Ma. Remember what the doc said? You need to breathe through this.”
He laid her on the bed and sat beside her, holding the rag to her face. Blood seeped into the cloth, staining her teeth and lips and pooling in the corner of her mouth. The doc had also told him and Pa not to touch the foul cloths, or they could end up with consumption. But he wouldn’t watch his mother struggle to keep a simple rag in place.
He braced her shoulders and gripped the cloth until she lay back against her pillows, eyes closed, stringy chestnut hair falling in waves around her shoulders, most of it knocked loose from her bun because of the jerking.