When unexpected loss invades their world and tragedy looms once again, will they find the strength to trust in God's faithfulness?
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Whispers of Winter
By Tracie Peterson
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2006 Tracie Peterson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMay 1917
"Ayoona is dead."
Leah Barringer Kincaid looked into the face of Oopick and saw there was no exaggeration in her statement. "Dead?" The word stuck in her throat.
Ayoona's daughter-in-law nodded. "She went to sleep last night and ..." Tears began to flow down the brown weathered cheeks of the Inupiat woman. "John stayed with her but told me to come let you know."
Leah shook her head. The news was unexpected; no doubt it had shocked John to have his mother suddenly taken from them. Ayoona was old to be sure, but she'd been so full of life, so capable just the day before. An emptiness settled over Leah. It wasn't that she didn't know where Ayoona would spend eternity-the old woman had believed in Jesus since attending a missionary school as a youngster and had often been a great source of encouragement when Leah's own faith had seemed weak. But this loss, coupled with the burden and grief she carried for her missing husband and brother, had Leah feeling overwhelmed.
Last year her husband, Jayce Kincaid, and brother, Jacob Barringer, had journeyed north on a ship called Regina. The captain bore the world a grudge for the death of his wife. Still, he had an interest in the Arctic, though perhapshe had hopes of losing himself there. At best he seemed to presume the frozen north could make him forget his woes. Instead, his carelessness or forgetfulness had caused the ship to get caught in early winter ice floes, which took the ship hostage and locked them in tight. Whalers returning south for the season had shared of seeing the Regina trapped in ice and headed in a westerly current toward the Russian boundaries. But no one seemed to know exactly where the ship was now or if its crew and passengers had survived.
"I'll miss her so much," Leah said, forcing her thoughts back to Ayoona. "Just two days ago we were making plans to sew seal skins for a new umiak." The small skin boats were a tremendous asset to the Inupiat people, who sought much of their sustenance from the Bering Sea.
"We will sew the skins and remember her," Oopick said, wiping her tears. "We will tell stories of her life and be happy for her."
Leah hugged her friend close. Oopick was probably fifteen years her senior, but Leah loved her like a sister. "We will do just that. You let me know when to come, and we will sew the skins for Ayoona."
Just then one of Leah's twins began to cry. Leah released her hold on Oopick. "I'll come help with the body as soon as Helaina returns to watch the children."
Oopick nodded. "I need to tell Emma and Bjorn."
Leah knew the missionaries would be devastated to learn of Ayoona's passing. The old woman was greatly loved by the people of the village, and her loss would be sorely felt for years to come. Oopick departed as Wills joined his sister, Merry, in crying for attention.
"Poor babies," Leah said, walking to the homemade crib her children shared. Both were soaking wet and in need of a warm bath and fresh diapers. Leah already had hot water on the stove and, despite her children's miserable howls, went in pursuit of the copper bathtub and towels.
She knew she was more fortunate than most in the area. The new house she and her husband had ordered from the States had arrived in pieces last year. When Jacob and Jayce failed to return from their summer mission to explore the Arctic coast and islands, Bjorn Kjellmann had organized men to build the house in Jayce's absence. The Swedish man of God knew no lack of enthusiasm for helping his fellowman, and because Leah and Jacob were much loved in the community, help was readily available to see Leah and her children properly housed for the winter.
It was Bjorn, in fact, who had helped them to figure a way to assemble the foundation on a system of stilt-like supports to keep the permafrost from melting and sinking the house. The house had settled some, but Bjorn assured Leah it would be fairly easy to remedy each year by adding or subtracting wedges under the house. All of this would hopefully keep the structure of the new home stable.
Once completed, their house brought the natives visiting in throngs. Everyone wanted to experience the store-bought house. They laughed at the way it sat up off the ground. Their innes were built into the earth in order to provide insulation and protection from the wind. The fact that they flooded out each summer seemed insignificant; they were a nomadic people during the warm season anyway. It was the one thing Leah had never quite gotten used to in all her years on the Seward Peninsula. She longed for stability, consistency, and a sense of permanency. None of that could be had when a person constantly traveled.
Leah poured hot water into the tub, then added a measure of cold water until the temperature felt just right. With this accomplished, she threw a few more pieces of driftwood into the stove. Although it was finally May and spring breakup had begun, the air outside could be quite cold and could chill the house. She wanted nothing to threaten the health of her children and therefore kept the dwelling as warm as possible to afford them every benefit. The north was not kind to those who were weaker-children and the elderly often suffered the most.
Leah thought again of Ayoona. How strange it would be not to have her around to talk to. Ayoona had taught Leah so many things. Things that no doubt had kept her alive over the years.
With the water ready, Leah went to the twins' bedroom and noted that their tears had stopped. They were now quite caught up in playing with the sheet on their homemade mattress.
"Come, babies," Leah said softly. She opened her arms and smiled.
The twins eagerly pulled themselves up and balanced their walks by holding on to the railing of the crib. Leah could hardly wait until they could toddle on their own, yet she also feared that time. One baby would be hard enough to keep up with; she feared two would be nearly impossible.
She lifted her children in unison and made her way back to the kitchen, where the copper tub waited. Placing them on the table, Leah talked and cooed while undressing first one and then the other. The children seemed captivated by her voice, and it never failed to thrill Leah to realize they were her own flesh and blood. Of course, in the back of her mind she still felt haunted by the uncertainty about their parentage. Her husband was always good to assure her that such things didn't matter, but to Leah it was an ominous rain cloud that hung over her otherwise perfect party.
Looking at the twins, Leah couldn't imagine that anything so perfect might be the result of a hideous rape. There was simply too much joy and love to be had from these precious gifts from God. She sighed, unable to free herself from the memories of Jayce's brother Chase. The man had ruined her life in so many ways.... But despite his assault on her and his subsequent death, Leah fought to retain a hopeful future for her children. She couldn't let Chase's destruction perpetuate.
Leah pushed the memories of bad times aside and lifted her naked children. "Here we go. It's time for our bath." Her singsong voice suggested a great outing was upon them. And for the Kincaid twins, such a thing could be said. They loved their bath time, and Leah enjoyed it as well, finding a certain comfort in the morning ritual.
Placing each child in the water, she laughed as they adjusted to their new surroundings and began to splash and play. Merry was far and away the more shy of the two, but she seemed to find her own measure of bravery here in the water. Wills, always the adventurer, sometimes stuck his face right down into the water only to pop back up as if surprised that he couldn't breathe in the liquid.
Leah let them play until the water began to cool off. She then took soap and quickly bathed each one. With the bath ritual drawing to a close, Leah wrapped the babies in warm towels that she'd kept on the back of the stove. It was just then that Helaina Beecham appeared.
"It's a glorious day," she announced. "I wouldn't be surprised to see the ice completely melt or drift out to sea."
Leah secured diapers on her babies, then began the arduous task of dressing them. "I hope you're right. The sooner the ice clears, the sooner help can be had for Jacob and Jayce."
Helaina pulled off a thick woolen hat and pushed back loose strands of blond hair. "I'd like to get to Nome and see if Stanley has sent any further word." She had been a good source of encouragement to Leah.
Helaina's brother had been faithfully helping the women get any available information on the Regina. Unfortunately, there hadn't been much the Washington, D.C., Pinkerton agent could offer. No one could travel north, and after a winter of waiting and praying, Helaina and Leah had reached the end of their patience.
"I would have suggested John could take you down, but we've just had bad news," Leah said, remembering her friend's death. "Ayoona passed away in the night."
Helaina's expression turned to one of disbelief. "I just talked to her yesterday. She showed me how to clean and cook a goose."
"I know, but she's gone." Leah tried not to cry in front of the children. The twins weren't quite a year old, and anytime Leah cried, they were very sensitive to their mother and began to cry too. Leah often had to save her tears of despair for the dead of night when the household was asleep.
Helaina took a cup and poured herself some hot coffee. "I can't believe she's gone." Sitting down at the kitchen table, she shook her head, then took a long sip.
"Oopick was just here. I told her I would help prepare the body if you could watch the twins. If you don't have time, however, I could ask Sigrid. There's no school today, so she won't be busy teaching."
"Nonsense. I can watch them. Besides, Emma will probably want her sister with her. Won't they also help with the body?" She pushed her coffee aside as Leah got to her feet.
"I suppose so." Leah finished with the children, then handed Wills to Helaina. "Please hold on to him while I secure Merry. They seem to be everywhere at once these days."
"Come see Auntie Helaina," she coaxed, and Wills eagerly launched himself into Helaina's arms. She had become a special member of the family to Leah's twins. To Leah too.
It was hard to believe that this woman Leah had once hated had become so important to her now. Leah honestly loved Helaina. The woman had spent tireless hours helping to gather wood off the beaches, caring for Jacob's dogs, and working at the small store Leah ran from her old inne not twenty yards away.
Leah placed Meredith into a crudely constructed baby chair, then scooted her to the table. Next was Wills' turn, but he was so intrigued with pulling Helaina's hair from its pins that he had nearly forgotten his hunger.
"Come along, son. You can charm the lady another time."
Helaina chuckled and reached again for her steaming mug. "I'd say he'll be charming all the ladies one day. He's quite the handsome young man."
Leah took a dish towel and tied her son in place. She'd learned the hard way that if she didn't secure the children in such a manner, they were only too happy to climb out.
"I have oatmeal on the stove for their breakfast. There's canned milk, too, and a precious little bit of sugar."
"I'll see to it," Helaina said, getting to her feet. She pulled off her coat and hung it on a peg by the door. "I think I'm finally warmed up enough to function."
"How did you sleep?" Leah watched her friend for any negative reaction. Helaina had just taken to sleeping in Leah and Jacob's old home the last few days.
"At first I was a bit unnerved. I kept thinking about that first summer I spent here, when you and Jayce were in Ketchikan. I hated it then. I was sure the house would cave in or that some animal would tunnel its way through the dirt and sod. But this time ... well ... it just made me feel closer to Jacob."
Leah felt sorry for Helaina. The woman had given up everything in the States, her home, her career helping Stanley catch criminals for the Pinkertons, even her social life-and all to pin her hopes on a man that might or might not return her affections. But Leah was almost certain he would return them, otherwise she would never have encouraged Helaina.
"I'm glad it had that effect," Leah said as she pulled on her parka. "Soon enough it will flood out, but until then you might as well enjoy the privacy."
"I lived in it all summer, even when it was flooded," Helaina said, laughing. "The villagers thought I was crazy. I think I might have been at that, but the prospect of living in a tent in a land full of bears and other wildlife hardly appealed. I slept on the table."
Leah laughed. "Well, you won't need to do that this time. When the ground starts to thaw, just come back here. You know you're welcome."
"I do, but I also want to help you with the store. I have the inventory complete, and by tomorrow I should be able to finish the list of who owes how much."
Leah smiled. "I knew you'd be quite efficient. Jacob always admired that about you."
"Well, let's pray my efficiency will help get them home safely. As soon as we finish with Ayoona's funeral, I want to find a way to get to Nome. Even if I have to hike there by myself."
"You won't have to. I'll go before I send you out there blind to the trail." Leah headed for the door as Helaina pulled bowls down from the cupboard, and after a quick glance at her children, she walked to Ayoona's.
The day was beautiful, just as Helaina had said. The crystal blue sky was cloudless, and in the distance she could make out definite signs of spring.
"Lord, please let us find the men. Let us find Jacob and Jayce and the others. Please bring them home safely."
She couldn't count the times she'd prayed these same words over and over. She had never felt more helpless than when she'd realized last winter that she could do nothing to help her husband and brother. The winter had seemed to last forever, with one storm after another leaving them more and more isolated. With each blizzard, each stormy day, Leah thought of the men and wondered if they were enduring similar hardship.
Leah tried hard not to get discouraged, but it hurt to be without the people she loved most in all of the world. Jacob had been her mainstay through the years-especially when Jayce had refused her love long ago. But now that she and Jayce were married, Leah had quickly turned her focus on her husband. Jayce was the love of her life-her hope for the future-her heart's desire. If she lost him now, Leah wasn't sure what she'd do. If she lost them both ... well ... she couldn't even let her mind consider such a possibility.
Helaina had been an amazing tower of strength throughout the winter. When despair threatened and discouragement whispered in Leah's ear, it was Helaina and her faith in God that strengthened them both. Helaina hadn't always cared about what God wanted. After years of doing things on her own-relying on self-knowledge and preservation to see things through-Helaina had come to experience the same emptiness as others without God. Leah had known that the answer to her misery would be Jesus, but Leah also knew that until Helaina found such a thing for herself, it would do no good to force the issue.
So that was why it was a special joy to reflect on Helaina's love and consistent reading of the Bible. Many had been the night that Helaina had read from the Scriptures while winds raged outside and the twins howled inside. Leah and Helaina had discussed passages at length, sometimes even taking notes in order to ask Bjorn Kjellmann on a later date. He had laughed the first time they'd come to him with a list of questions, but after laboring over that same list and searching to give answers, Bjorn stopped laughing. He now said they were the iron sharpening iron-the students who caused the teacher to search deeper.
But Leah knew that book learning and heart understanding were two different things. She tried not to worry about the situation anymore than she needed to, but at times like this, she felt rather hopeless.
Her dear friend and mentor had gone home to be with the Lord.
Her brother was lost somewhere in the frozen Arctic.
And her husband might very well never return home.
Excerpted from Whispers of Winter by Tracie Peterson Copyright © 2006 by Tracie Peterson. Excerpted by permission.
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