Whispers Out of Yesteryear

Chapter 1

July 1755

Willow Who Bends stood at the entrance of the Long House and stared at the sky. Though the sun shone brightly, to the west dark clouds gathered and carried the threat of a storm like the one she felt inside.

She knelt beside the father of her spirit. Corn Dreamer had raised her and taught her the ways of healing. She prayed he would wake but feared he wouldn't. Sorrow rode the beats of her heart and threatened to spill in a rain of tears.

"Corn Dreamer, must you travel to the spirit world and leave this one behind?" Her voice cracked and she caught a breath to still the ache in her throat. "The men have taken the warriors' path in answer to Waraghuyagey's call. The-Man-Who-Understands-Great-Things speaks for the redcoats, those men who want our help. What have we to do with the ones who fail to live in harmony with the land?

Not all the pale-skinned men, she thought. A smile crossed her face. There was one who often stayed in the village and sat at Corn Dreamer's feet to learn.

Near a moon ago, a message had come for Hair of Fire. He had left the Long House and journeyed west. A shiver crawled her spine. Was he safe? In these days, danger rode the currents of the air the way carrion birds circled a kill.

She returned to her teacher's side and pressed her fingers against his wrist. What had made him fall into sleep yet not sleep? Why did his heart flutter like humming bird wings and then slow. She wished for a way to rouse him for he would know the answer.

"Corn Dreamer, spirit father, medicine man, this woman is not ready for you to leave. What can this one do to help?"

She closed her eyes and sought among the things he had taught her. An answer arose. "This one must go into the forest to gather fresh leaves and bark."

From her sleeping place, she lifted a bark basket by the carrying strap and left the Long House. As she stepped outside, she heard the children's laughter and the voices of the women raised in the growing chant. The sound chased her sorrow.

Across the clearing, her sister sat with the ones too young to work with the women. Though born of the same mother and on the same day, she and Willow by the Stream had been raised at different fires. On the outside, they wore a single face as reflected in a still pond, but their inner natures were different. As the first born, Willow Who Bends had been given to Corn Dreamer to learn about the ways of medicine and the spirit world. Her sister had been raised as a woman of the clan.

She drank in the sight of her sister. Soon Willow by the Stream would take a husband. That was good and right, but the change would further separate their lives.

Willow Who Bends sighed. We are alike and not alike. This one has been trained to stand alone. Willow by the Stream needed someone to care for her.

The small ones giggled. Willow Who Bends waited until her sister finished the story of the fox and the bear. Then she approached the group.

"Corn Dreamer is no better. This one must go into the forest to gather fresh medicines."

"A gift for you." Willow by the Stream presented a small deerskin pouch. On one side dyed porcupine quills formed an image of the sun, and on the other precious trade beads patterned the Three Sisters -- Corn, Squash and Beans.

"Are you not afraid to go into the forest alone?"

"Who would harm a medicine woman?"

"The enemy. Those despoilers and their pale friends move along the trails like weasels seeking prey."

"They were seen to the south and west a moon ago. This one will go north and east to the place where the willows grow beside the stream. Since you fear for me, listen with the ear that opens between us. If this one finds danger, she will cry a warning."

"This woman will listen."

At the edge of the trees, Willow Who Bends paused, and for a short time watched the people of the Long House. Her foster mother and the mother who had given her life worked side by side in the garden. Four nearly-grown boys practiced with their bows under the eyes of the warriors who had remained to protect the clan. With a wave, she stepped into the shadows cast by the forest.

As she moved among the trees, she stopped to gather medicines -- birch leaves, bloodroot, ginseng, bee balm. Slowly, she made her way to the stream where chill waters swept down the hill to join other streams and form a river.

The leaves of the willows had darkened from pale spring green to the darker hues of summer. All the catkins had dropped away. She pressed her hands against the largest of the cluster.

"Sister Tree, one who shares your name has need of your bark. Will you let me cut your skin?" She pressed her forehead against the tree and waited for an answer.

The scream that sounded in her head caused her to stagger. Her legs refused to hold her erect. She slid to the ground. With a terror that matched her sister's, through the link between them, she witnessed the destruction of the Long House. The faces of the enemy burned into her head.

"Not the children!" The scream caused the earth beneath her body to shudder.

***

July 2000

"Not the children!"

Willow Carey jerked into a sitting position. Her heart thudded in her chest. Waves of terror flooded her thoughts. She gulped deep breaths of air.

She stared at the familiar surroundings and wondered why the bedroom seemed alien. Like a shroud, the sheet had twisted around her legs. She tugged it free. Her sleep shirt, soaked with perspiration, clung to her skin. She shook her head to dislodge the fragments of the nightmare that had awakened her. Terror, grief and rage had followed her into consciousness. What? Why?

Once her heart rate slowed, she reached for the alarm clock. Too late to go back to sleep and too early to get ready for work. As the effects of the adrenaline rush faded, her sense of uneasiness grew.

She hugged her knees. Once again, she had failed but she couldn't remember who or how.

Moments later, she stood in the shower. Warm water washed away the sour smell of fear. The nightmare wasn't new. Six years had passed since the last time the cry had jolted her awake. Always the same urgency and the same surge of emotions. No matter how hard she tried, she never remembered more than the cry.

She stepped from the shower. After pulling on a blue terry cloth robe, she stripped the bed and stuffed the damp sheets in the hamper.

What had triggered the dream? With the thoroughness of a pathologist seeking the cause of death, she examined the past few days and found no incident that could be called a trigger.

As she made the bed, she recalled the first time she'd dreamed. She'd been sixteen. She and her twin had been at Indian's Sorrow visiting their aunt. Willow had always loved staying there. This time had been different. One memory lodged in her thoughts.

"Willow, come here. This is so neat." Brooke had opened the gate at the side of the garden.

Willow halted at the opening. She looked beyond her sister. "Get away from the edge."

"I'm fine." Brooke leaned forward. "The rocks look like a giant's teeth. Come see."

"I can't."

Brooke laughed. "Chicken."

"Something dreadful happened here."

"And I thought I was the one with the imagination and you were the logical one." Brooke spun around. "I love this place. Do you think Aunt Willow will leave it to us? She doesn't have kids."

"I don't..." Willow had turned away. She hadn't been able to say she didn't want Indian's Sorrow. The land had been in the family forever and something bound her to this place.

That night she'd dreamed. Terror had slid insidious fingers of fear into her sleep. When the summer had ended, she'd been happy to go home.

Until her aunt's death, she hadn't gone back. Then she learned the house and the land were hers, not a legacy to be shared with her twin.

Brooke had been furious. She'd accused Willow of taking advantage of their aunt. Since that day, their relationship had been strained. Brooke's coldness had hurt.

Willow sighed. The land was hers but she'd lost her sister.

She sat on the edge of the bed. Where was Brooke? Five months ago, they had talked for a few minutes at an art gallery exhibition of Brooke's paintings. Silly surface chatter with no meaning and no sense of their old bond.

Was her twin all right? She used to know when Brooke was in trouble, but the connection they'd shared had vanished. Willow tore her thoughts from the void left by the rift.

By six fifteen, she was ready for work. She put a bright yellow smock embroidered with Native American symbols over her white uniform. The children loved to trace the lines and learn the meanings. So did she. Her apartment reflected her interest in that part of her heritage.

She paused to study the portrait Brooke had painted of the Three Sisters -- Corn, Squash and Beans. Though Willow had posed for the picture, her twin could have painted herself. Long black hair, warm brown eyes, cheekbones that added a hint of the exotic. Mirrors on the outside but opposites inside.

A sliver of the nightmare slid into focus. Brooke screamed. As though touched by a blast of frigid air, Willow rubbed her arms. What did it mean? Was Brooke in danger? She searched but the bond remained closed.

She had no appetite, but she brewed a cup of herbal tea and toasted a bran muffin. As she picked at the food, her thoughts returned to the nightmare. Why today and why when she wasn't at Indian's Sorrow? She scraped the remains of the muffin in the garbage and washed the dishes.

A persistent question nagged. What did the dream mean?

She tucked a pouch containing a Kelly clamp, bandage scissors and pens in her pocket. With a stethoscope draped around her neck, she headed across the street to West End Hospital where she worked as a pediatric nurse.

***

July 1755

Too late. Too late.

Jonathan Reed stopped for a brief rest. For two days since he'd seen signs of the Ottawas in the forest, the refrain had echoed in his thoughts. After he'd discovered the dismembered bodies of their captives, he'd known Rene DuBarri led the band of warriors. Such brutality was the man's signature.

Dread filled his thoughts. The Long House. Corn Dreamer. The men and women who had befriended him were in danger. He feared he wouldn't arrive in time with the warning.

He rubbed dirt into his hair to disguise the color. Hair of Fire was his name among the clan.

After gulping water from the skin he carried, he looked for signs of the enemy's passage. Another mile or two and he would reach his goal. Though most of the warriors had traveled north, if he arrived in time, those who had remained could hold off the enemy until the women and children escaped.

The silence of the forest troubled him. No bird songs, no noises that signaled the presence of small animals. His fears rushed to the surface.

Too late. Too late.

No, he prayed. For with the clan and in the Long House, he'd found healing for his spirit and had learned to forgive himself. The guilt he'd felt after his wife's death by her own hand had turned him into a wanderer. Corn Dreamer had helped him find peace and had taught him the skills of a healer.

Too late. Too late.

He pushed his fears to a corner of his mind and slowed to a walk. With caution, he slipped from tree to tree, senses alert and prayers forgotten. He was close enough to hear the songs of the women and the children's laughter. He felt a chill as icy as the winds of winter.

He staggered into the clearing and stared at the ruined Long House. Bitter acid burned in his throat. He had arrived too late.

As he stared at the scene of the massacre, he saw the broken bodies of his friends. Two warriors lay atop several of the enemy. He crept from the shadow of the trees and examined the strangers. Ottawas from DuBarri's pack.

He edged toward the Long house. Sprawled bodies of women, infants and the older boys caused him to weave a serpentine path to the entrance of the bark-covered building. Just inside the entrance, he halted. A cry rose in his throat.

"Corn Dreamer." The man who'd taught him about medicine lay sprawled among the furs. The gaping hole in his chest told Jonathan what had been done.

'Twas an honor. He sank to his knees. How could such a death be deemed an honor?

Swift on the heels of grief, anger rose. He backed from the Long House. This time he examined the bodies for the one he feared to find.

A soft cry startled him. He studied the clearing and saw no one but the dead. The sound came again. He strode toward the trees. Gray Squirrel Chatters huddled in the brush. Dried blood on her head showed where she'd been struck.

"It's Hair of Fire. Where are the children? Where are the Willows?"

"Gone. Those who stink of fish have taken them."

"Where?"

She shrugged. "They do not have Willow Who Bends. She went to gather medicines."

"In the forest?"

"To the place where those who gave her a name grow. North by the stream."

He lifted the elderly woman and carried her to the cave where last fall he and the warriors had killed a bear. Though he wanted to search for the one whose image filled his thoughts, he owed Gray Squirrel Chatters care for the meals she'd shared with him. He cleaned her wounds and returned to the long house for furs, food and water. Only then did he set out to look for Willow Who Bends.

Too late. Too late. The refrain beat in his thoughts. Not this time, he vowed.

***

July 2000

The persistent ring of the telephone pulled Reid Talbot from a disturbing dream. He felt as though he'd run for miles and never reached his goal. He rubbed his eyes and groped on the bedside stand for the phone. "Dr. Talbot here."

The gravely voice of Ben Rodgers, Greenesville's Chief of Police requested Reid's presence at the scene of an accident. "Two victims. Car slammed into an embankment on County Road 7."

For a moment, Reid wondered if he'd heard a hint of emotion in the usually stoic man's voice. "Be right there."

"Don't rush. One accident's enough."

Reid pulled on a pair of jeans and a blue polo shirt. Who this time, he wondered. He hadn't asked and Ben hadn't said.

After jotting a note for his live-in housekeeper, he lifted his medical bag from the dresser. Before heading to his car, he stopped to look in on his sons. Gary lay curled on his side. The covers had barely been disturbed. Rob's bed looked like a major battle had been fought. The boys' red hair, several shades lighter than his, shone bright against the white sheets.

Twenty minutes later, he rounded a bend in the road and spotted the patrol car. A sick feeling settled in his gut. He knew the van and he knew the victims. In the four years since he'd settled in Greenesville, Warren and Nancy Carey had become his friends.

He parked behind the patrol car. Ben strode over. "You need to check them."

"I know." His stomach knotted. He looked at the shattered front end. There was no way either could have survived. Thoughts of his wife's broken body arose. Her accident had taken place not far from here.

He grabbed the medical bag. Ben's round face mirrored the same sick feeling that roiled in Reid's gut. "You all right?" he asked.

"Good as I can be."

Reid reached the van. He sucked in a breath and felt for pulses.

"How long?" Ben asked.

"Can't say without an autopsy. Six hours or so. Is there a need?"

Ben shrugged. "Won't know 'til the van's been checked over. Was on my way to town for breakfast when I come on them. Not many folks travel this road at night."

"What do you think happened?" Reid turned away. There wasn't a thing he could do and that made him feel helpless.

"Deer, I reckon." Ben rubbed his balding head. "Found a dead one 'crost the road." He frowned. "Wonder what brought them home in the middle of the night. Thought they was staying in New York City a couple of weeks. Haven't been gone more than one."

"I thought so, too."

"Asked me to check on Miss Mary and the kids. Talked to her yesterday morning. She didn't mention they were coming back."

Reid averted his eyes from the van. He couldn't look; he couldn't even grieve. Not in public "Maybe she called them. Children could be a handful, especially for a seventy year old."

Ben chuckled. "She sure snookered you. She's past eighty and she's not one for admitting she can't handle anything." He shook his head. "Them coming back don't make sense."

Reid nodded. Warren and Nancy had been excited about the contract for a series of informative and witty histories of Colonial days. They'd talked about plays, museums and people they wanted to see. Would knowing why they cut their trip short explain the accident?

The ambulance arrived. One of the men approached. "You gonna sign the certificates now or later, Doc?"

Reid's hands clenched. "At the hospital." He strode down the road and kept his back to the van. He felt sadness and anger. Why these two? The accident was senseless and unfair.

Ben joined him. "They're gone. You able to handle this? Know you was close."

"Yeah. Have you called Miss Mary?"

Ben shook his head. "Couldn't face her. Don't know how she'll take this. Been living with them since her cabin burned down."

Reid nodded. Life in a small town had annoying moments but the closeness and caring when trouble occurred were among the reasons he'd remained after his wife's death.

"I'll tell her and call Warren's daughters."

The older man snorted. "Wouldn't surprise me none if they didn't come."

"Willow will," Reid said.

Ben raised an eyebrow. "They why ain't she come to visit?"

"She's a nurse and works crazy hours. Warren, Nancy and the children visit her once a month."

Ben walked to the patrol car. "Seems one way to me. Makes me see red when families fall apart. Best you call them. I might shove my foot in wrong. See you."

After the patrol car pulled onto the road, Reid slumped in the driver's seat. Warren and Nancy. Why?

He stared at the crumpled van. How was he going to tell Miss Mary and the children?

Five minutes later, he turned into the tree-lined lane leading to Indian's Sorrow. For the hundredth time, he wondered how the place had been named. This morning the name seemed apt.

Sunrise tinged the white clapboard of the house pink. Doric columns supported the portico roof. He dashed up the steps and rang the bell.

Miss Mary opened the door. "What brings you here? Be needing one of my tonics?"

He shook his head. "Warren and Nancy."

"T'ain't back from the big city. Why a body would want to go there is beyond me."

"I know they're not back. They've been in an accident."

Her shoulders slumped. Her face aged to match the years she'd lived. "They was coming in the night. Hoped they'd changed their minds. Might as well come in." She headed past the stairs leading to the second floor and into the kitchen wing.

"Where are the children?"

"Tykes be sleeping." She filled a cup with coffee and put it in front of him. "Don't have a notion why Warren and Nancy changed their plans, 'cept he was mad 'bout something. Heard it in his voice."

Reid inhaled the aromatic steam and gulped a mouthful. The bitter taste matched his thoughts. The hot liquid burned a trail to his stomach but failed to warm the frost that had settled deep. How would the children handle the loss of their parents? He remembered how his boys had grieved when their mother had died. Though she'd done little to earn the title, they had loved her.

He put the cup in the saucer. "They were almost home when they had the accident."

Miss Mary sank on the chair across the table from him. "Feared as much when they didn't come. Need to tell the tykes when they wake. Pains me. Tired of telling folks 'bout death." Her hands opened and closed. "Was me what brought Willow Grant the news 'bout her man and baby. Place sure lives up to its name. Don't know a body what lived here that don't lose a loved one in some tragic way."

He put his hand over hers. "I'll call Warren's daughters."

She snorted. "Guess they'll come. That Brooke was here 'bout two months ago. Brought some slick city fella. Didn't like him one bit. Had greedy eyes. She and Warren had a real fuss."

Reid frowned. Warren had seldom talked about Brooke.

"And that Willow. Had hopes for her. When she come summers, she helped me with my herbs. Day after her aunt's funeral, she run and ain't been back. House and land be hers."

"Thought it was Warren's."

"Land goes to the oldest girl in each generation. Willow and Brooke be the last in the direct line, so it's hers. Them things don't mean much to young folks these days."

"She'll come for the children."

Speculation flashed in her eyes. Reid looked away. Even Warren hadn't known about his connection to Willow and how he'd destroyed her trust by withholding the truth.

"Believe that when I see her. Run out of here that morning like ghosts was on her tail."

"She'll come," he repeated. "I know her. She was a nurse at the hospital where I did my residency. Do you have her number?"

"I'll fetch the book."

While Reid waited for the elderly woman to return, vivid images of Willow filled his thoughts and stirred memories of how much he'd needed her love, of how she'd been the one to fill the emptiness he'd felt all his life. He groaned.

Miss Mary dropped an indexed book on the table. "I'll check the tykes. Tell them girls they'd better come flying. They be needed."

He opened the directory to C. Willow's name and number were scrawled in Warren's bold script. Brooke's had been added by Nancy. He tried that number.

"We're sorry but the number you've reached has been disconnected."

He frowned. He'd hoped to speak to Brooke and let her pass the news to Willow. Even thinking about her stirred regrets and guilt. He dialed her number. After six rings, her throaty voice informed him she was unavailable but to leave a message.

He slumped in the chair. What now? His news couldn't wait and he didn't want to leave a message. Was she at the hospital? Had she changed her shift from evenings? He called West End Hospital and asked for the Pediatric Unit.

Five years ago, he and Willow had met at a patient's bedside. After her shift, they'd gone to the cafeteria to discuss the case. That had been the first of many late night meetings. Memories of their first kiss flooded his thoughts.

He'd cupped her face and kissed her lightly. "I feel as though I've known you forever."

"Forever," she had repeated. "To the spirit world and beyond."

Those words had sounded right and as though she'd said them to him once before. Except, he'd believed she hadn't been talking about the past. She'd wanted a future he couldn't promise.

"Pediatrics, Miss Carey speaking."

Her voice curled around him like a velvet glove. "Willow, it's Reid Talbot."

"Dr. Talbot." Her voice flattened. "What can I do for you?"

Love me, he thought. Her formality doused his hopes. Did she still hate him? He recalled the night she'd walked away. Her obsidian eyes had flashed with anger and her long black braid had slapped against her back. "I have some bad news."

"Not the children." Her words echoed the ones that had awakened her.

"Your father. Nancy. An accident. They were killed."

For a moment, his words failed to register. Tears trickled down her cheeks. "Were they mugged?"

"Their van. Just outside Greenesville."

"But they were in New York." She didn't understand. Like a gush of molten lava, anger flashed in her thoughts. I'll follow him to the spirit world and beyond. I will have revenge. Her hands shook. What am I thinking? "Why were they coming home?"

"I don't know."

"Mara and Pete?"

"With Miss Mary. Will you come?"

Was there a choice? She sucked in a shuddering breath and wiped her eyes. "Yes." A whisper from the past brushed her skin. She shivered. "As soon as I can arrange relief here. Sometime later...this afternoon or early evening."

"If you need anything, Miss Mary has my number."

"Thank you."

He heard grief in her voice and marveled at her control. Except, she'd always shown a stoic's face to the world. "We need to talk..." He swallowed the rest of his words. Today wasn't the time to tell her he was a widower. "Will you be all right? Is there..."

"I have to be. Mara and Pete need me...Does Brooke know?"

"Her number's been disconnected."

"I'll find her."

He hated the sorrow he heard in her voice. He reached for the now cold coffee and drained the cup.

Miss Mary shuffled into the room. "Tykes still be asleep. Them girls coming?"

"Willow will be here this afternoon."

The elderly woman sniffed. "Why so long?"

"Nurses can't just abandon their patients. The nursing office will have to find a relief." He waved away a refill. "Couldn't reach Brooke. What's she like?"

"On the outside, a body'd think she was Willow, but she's soft inside and easy led. Kind of selfish. Carried on something fierce when she learned the place was her twin's and not for them both."

"Why?"

"Willow's oldest by fifteen minutes. Just 'cause they're twins don't change the giving."

Reid rose. "I must get to the hospital. Call if you need anything."

She followed him to the door. "Always been a Willow here to now."

Would Willow stay or would she take the children to the city? Could he persuade her to give the town and him another chance? He paused on the porch. "Want me to stay until the children are up?"

"I'll be doing what's needed." She remained at the door. "Willow be the one to need you."

Will she? From the ice he'd heard in her voice, he believed she'd be the last person to ask for his help.

   

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