Bethany House Publishing
LAST CHANCE CREEK, ALASKA TERRITORY
"Where is he?" Leah Barringer whispered, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of her brother and his dogsled team. He should have been home weeks earlier, and yet there was no sign of him.
A cold May wind nipped at her face, but it was the hard glint of sun against snow that made Leah put her hand to her brow. They had suffered through weeks of storms, so the sunshine was most welcome, but it was also intense and blinding.
"Jacob, where are you?" Her heart ached with fear of what might have happened. The Alaskan wilderness was not a place to be toyed with, and though Jacob was well versed in the ways of this land, Leah feared for him nevertheless.
Jacob had left nearly two months earlier for Nome. Hunting had been poor in the area and many families were going hungry. He had made the decision to travel to Nome for basic supplies and to replenish the store of goods he and Leah sold from their makeshift trading post. A master with dogs, Jacob figured he could hike out by sled and be back before the spring thaw made that mode of travel too difficult. It was a trip that should have taken two to three weeks at the most.
Storms had made it impossible to send someone out to check on Jacob, and hunger made it unwise. There was nothing to be gained by risking more lives. Besides, she reassured herself, Jacob is as capable as any native Alaskan. He had the best dogs in all of Alaska too. Leah tried not to worry, but Jacob was all she had. Since their mother died when they were children, they had clung to each other for comfort and support. Their father, a grand dreamer, had dragged them to Alaska during the Yukon gold rush some seventeen years earlier. After his death, Jacob and Leah had made a pact to always take care of each other.
Not that she didn't want more.
Leah was facing the harsh reality that she was nearly thirty years old, and the idea of reaching that milestone was more than she could bear. She longed for a husband and children, but here in the frozen north of the Seward Peninsula, there were few prospects. The natives had little interest in white women. The whites were perceived with skepticism at best and animosity at worst. Most of the natives she and Jacob befriended accepted them well enough, but none had shown an interest in marrying either Leah or her brother.
Leah wasn't sure she could be happy marrying a native anyway. She was not completely comfortable with their lifestyle and interests. Many were steeped in superstitions that she and Jacob could never be a part of. She had shared her Christian faith with anyone who would listen, but traditions and fears were strong motivators compared to white man's stories of a Savior and the need to put aside sinful ways.
And though Nome sported more white men than other areas, most were aging and grizzled, and not at all what Leah perceived as husband material, furthering her matrimonial woes. Added to this, many were just as steeped in their traditions and superstitions as the natives. Most had come up for the gold rush in Nome--hoping against the odds to make their fortune. Few had actually succeeded, and many had lost hope long ago, giving their lives to a bottle or to some other form of destruction.
Ten years ago Jacob and Leah discussed their desires to marry and start families of their own. They agreed if either one found true love, they wouldn't feel obligated to forsake this for the needs of their sibling. Leah had thought they would both find mates and settle down to raise families, but this hadn't happened.
Her guardian after her father's death, Karen Ivankov, understood Leah's distress. The same thing had happened to Karen in her youth. Love and romance had eluded her until she was in her thirties and alone in the wilderness of the Yukon.
Sometimes Karen's long wait to find love and marriage encouraged Leah. Karen often said that when the time was right, God would send a husband to Leah. Leah prayed Karen was right. She prayed for a husband, even as she prayed for Jacob to find a wife. Because, despite their pact from so long ago, Leah knew she would want Jacob to be happily settled as well. But so far God had only sent one person that Leah felt certain she could love.
Ten years ago she had been almost twenty, and Jayce Kincaid had been all she'd ever wanted in a husband. Strong and handsome, brave and trustworthy. At least she'd believed he'd been trustworthy. But what had she known of men at the tender age of twenty? Karen had taught her not to judge men by outward appearances, but rather to test their hearts. Leah had given Jayce her heart, but he hadn't wanted it. He'd actually laughed when she'd declared her love.
"Jayce, I have to tell you something," Leah had told him after arranging to meet him privately.
"What is it, Leah?" he'd asked. "You seem so all-fired serious. Is something wrong?"
"No ... at least not to my way of thinking."
He had been so handsome in his flannel shirt and black wool trousers. His dark brown hair needed a good cut, but Leah found the wildness rather appealing.
"So what was so important that you dragged me away from the warmth of the house?"
Leah swallowed hard. "I think ... that is ... well ..." She stammered over the words she'd practiced at length. Drawing a deep breath, she blurted it out. "I think I've fallen in love with you."
Jayce laughed out loud, the sound cutting through her heart. "Leah, it's best you don't do any thinking, if that's what you're coming to conclude."
Leah shook her head, her cheeks feeling hotter by the minute. "Why would you say that? Have you no feelings for me?"
"Well, sure I have feelings for you. You're a sweet girl, but you're way too young to know what love is all about."
"I'm nearly twenty years old!" she protested.
"My point exactly. You aren't even of legal majority. How can you trust yourself to know what the truth of your heart might be?" He picked up a rock and tossed it into the creek that ran behind the Ivankov home. "You're just Jacob's kid sister."
"And you were cruel," Leah whispered, her thoughts coming back to the present. She wiped a tear from the edge of her eye. How long would it hurt? Surely there was someone she might come to love as much as she had loved Jayce Kincaid. But it was always Jayce's face she saw--his voice she heard.
Maybe I'm too picky, she thought as she made her way back into her inne. It wasn't a true inne, but it served nearly as well. Instead of being mostly underground, like the native homes, the Barringer inne was a bit more above ground than usual--but not by much; it would have been foolish to have it too exposed to the elements. But to live too far underground would have made Leah feel buried, and Jacob, ever thoughtful of her feelings, had struck this compromise. The log and sod creation also lacked the long tunnel that most innes had. Leah preferred the manner in which they'd built their house but would still navigate the entrances to the homes of her friends. The tunnels were the worst of it, she would say, enduring the two-foot-wide crawling space with her eyes closed most of the time. She just didn't like the feeling of being closed in.
The Barringer house also acted as the trading post, so accessibility was critical. Natives were always coming to trade smoked meats, furs, or finished products. In turn, Jacob would take these things to Nome, where he could trade for supplies that they were unable to glean from the land. With this in mind, Jacob had designed the cabin to be partially underground in order to be insulated from the severe cold of winter, yet simple and quick to get in and out of. He had also managed to put in one window to let light into the room they used for eating and cooking during the long winter months. Of course, in the winter there was no light, so they closed the window off to keep the heat from escaping.
Leah entered her home and made her way down several steps to the first room. She and Jacob had set aside this room for the trading of goods. They carried provisions like salt and spices, sugar, canned milk, coffee, and tools. Of course the natives would have made their way in life without these luxuries, but Leah found that, as word spread, the natives seemed more than content to trade furs for white man's goods. And by operating their trading post, they saved the people from having to travel all the way to Nome.
She looked around the small room. The shelves were pretty much cleaned out--she hadn't even had to worry about keeping shop. There were an unusually high number of tools, however, since people had, as a last resort, traded equipment for food. For the first time, Leah wondered if the village could even survive much longer. Hunger was a constant companion, and although everyone was sharing as much as they could, there had already been deaths. Only the strong survived an Arctic winter.
Leah moved to the right and pushed back the heavy furs that sealed another doorway. Inside was a small room her older native friend, Ayoona, insisted they build when Leah and Jacob had first come to the village nearly ten years ago. They called this the stormy day cookroom, and it held a fire pit and had an opening in the ceiling that allowed the smoke to dissipate. The door was covered with heavy furs to keep out the cold, and when they were cooking here, it was a pleasantly warm room that beckoned them to stay--so much so that Jacob had put in a table and chairs when Leah had complained of being tired of sitting on the floor. It made a nice place to eat their winter meals.
The Barringers also had something that most natives had never concerned themselves with, and that was a stove. Leah liked the stove for cooking and baking. She had learned to do her kitchen tasks in native style over the fire pit, but the stove was a luxury she praised God for on a daily basis.
She checked the stove, making sure there was enough heat to keep the kettle of water and small pot of soup hot. She wanted there to be food ready for Jacob when he returned. If he returned. Again she felt a sinking in her heart.
"He must come back," she murmured, stirring the thin soup. Soon, even this food would be gone. Leah would have no choice but to eat what she had when the time came and hope that Jacob would bring more.
Seeing that everything was as it should be, Leah made her way back to the main living quarters of the inne. Here they had their small table and chairs, their beds, and some chests for storage. It wasn't much, but it had been home for a good portion of Leah's adult life.
Leah smiled. It was Ayoona. The old Inupiat woman always called her with emphasis on the "ya."
"I'm here in the back," Leah replied, popping out from behind the hanging fur doorway.
"I brought you food," Ayoona said proudly. "My son was blessed today. He caught a seal. The village is celebrating."
"A seal! How wonderful!" Leah nearly squealed in delight. Seals and walruses had been so scarce she actually feared that something bad had happened to the bulk of the animal population.
Ayoona held a pot out to Leah. "This is for our good friend Leah and her brother, Jacob."
Leah took the offering. "Oh, you have our gratitude and thanks. I know Jacob will be home any day now."
The stocky little woman smiled, revealing several missing teeth. "He will come. I have prayed for him."
Leah nodded. "I have prayed for him too. I spend most all my time praying."
"You should come hunt with my family. I am too old, but you are young and strong. You shoot a bow well--you could hunt for geese with my daughters. When the spring is truly come, they will hunt for squirrel, and you can make Jacob a new undershirt."
"I would have to be a very good hunter to get enough squirrels for a shirt."
Ayoona grunted. "Maybe forty--no more. Jacob is not big man."
Leah smiled. "He's big enough. He eats like he's three men."
"He work like he's three men," Ayoona countered, her grin taking years off her wrinkled face. "I go now. We celebrate."
Leah nodded. "Thank you again. I'll get right to work on cooking this."
"Don't cook too much. You whites always cook too much. Takes flavor out."
Leah laughed and gave Ayoona a wave as the old woman offered her a smile once again. Ayoona had become a dear friend over the last ten years. The old woman had learned English as a child in one of the missions, but she'd never been comfortable with it. She often spoke English in a broken manner, shifting more easily into her once-forbidden Eskimo tongue.
Ayoona had been less suspicious of Leah and Jacob than some--although she had perhaps more reason to fear them because of the misery caused her by other white Christians. Still, the old woman had been kind and offered food upon their arrival. Later when Jacob had sat with the village council, Ayoona had defended them to her son--one of the higher-ranking members. Leah would always be grateful for her kindness.
The villagers had been skeptical and wary of Jacob and Leah when they arrived. Whites generally meant trouble in some form. Either they came bringing sickness or they came demanding change.
Jacob and Leah tried to do neither. Jacob actually had taken a job driving the mail from Nome to other villages where mission workers were desperate for news from home. During the winter, it was impossible for ships to venture north for deliveries, but dogsleds were ideal. The mail runs naturally led to bringing in store goods, and before she knew it, Leah had a job of her own, trading goods. She truly enjoyed interacting with the native people.
It wasn't too long after they settled in Last Chance that missionaries showed up to establish a church and school for the area. Leah felt sorry for these kind people of God. They had an uphill battle to fight against the superstitions the shamans had built into their people.
Busying herself with preparing the seal meat, Leah didn't realize how the time had passed. It was deceiving to try to determine the time by the light of the sun. Some months they were in darkness and other months it was light for the entire twenty-four-hour day. The spring Leah had known in Colorado, where she had lived as a child, was nothing like what she experienced in Alaska. The deadliness of the land seemed even more critical when the seasons changed.
Jacob had hiked out when the ice was thick, able to move the dogs out onto the ice for easier passage to Nome. But that wouldn't be safe now. The temperatures and storms had disguised their effects on the land. Sometimes the snow seemed firm, solid, but as the day warmed it would turn to mush. Night would chill it to ice--but not always in a firm manner. Instead thin crusts would form and give false promises of security to the untrained eye.
"But Jacob's not untrained," she reminded herself, checking the stew she'd made. It was little more than the seal meat and a little salt and flour, but the smell was quite inviting.
"He's capable and he knows the route. Something else must have happened." And that worried Leah even more. Jacob might have encountered a bear or gotten hurt separating fighting dogs. The sled dogs were not always in the best of moods.
At first Leah wasn't sure she'd really heard the call. She put aside the spoon she'd been using and ran for the door. The native who'd brought the news was one of Ayoona's grandsons. He quickly exited the house after seeing that Leah would follow.
But Leah didn't go far. It dawned on her that Jacob would rather come home to a warm house and food waiting than to have her rushing to him in tears. She would have plenty of time to talk to him, and the natives would see to unpacking the sled. She watched the activity for a moment, then turned back to the house to set the table.
Rushing to the stove, Leah threw in more chopped driftwood, then quickly went to the cupboard and pulled out a large bowl. How she wished she might offer her brother bread or even crackers with the meal. Maybe he will have brought some of each from Nome, she mused in anticipation.
Soon the door opened, and the fear that had gripped her for the past weeks evaporated. "Jacob!" she gasped and ran to embrace her brother. "I thought you were gone forever. You really worried me this time." She couldn't see his face for the deep parka hood that he still wore, but his strong embrace let her know he had missed her as well.
"Come over to the stove. I'll help you get out of those wet clothes." She led him across the room. "Don't worry about your boots," Leah said, noticing they were dripping bits of snow and ice, and that they were new--not the mukluks he'd left in.
"There hasn't been too much excitement while you were gone. Just starvation, but of course you already knew about that. Nutchuk cut his hand badly while skinning a seal. I stitched him back up, however, and he seems to be doing fine." She thought of the young native man and how scared he'd been. His mother had told him he would lose the hand for sure unless he allowed the shaman to create a charm, but Nutchuk had just become a Christian earlier in the winter, and he no longer believed such things held power. Leah had been proud of his conviction. "You should have seen him, Jacob. He refused to deal with the shamans because he honestly believed Jesus would heal him. It was a real testimony to the rest of his family."
She stood behind Jacob to help him pull the thick fur parka from over his shoulders. "Oh, and Qavlunaq had her baby two weeks ago. It was an easy birth, and her mother-in-law and grandmother delivered him. It was a boy and his father is quite proud."
The coat finally gave way and Leah hung it on a peg, leaving Jacob to finish disrobing. "I've got your supper on the stove. Are you hungry?" She turned for his answer but stopped in shock when she saw the man before her was not her brother.
"Jayce," she whispered almost reverently. The past had finally caught up with her.