The Guardian (Kathleen)

Summary:  On his way home from a Christmas shopping trip in Placerville, Joe is thrown from a spooked horse and left stranded at the bottom of a deep ravine in the midst of a severe snowstorm.   Part of the series begun in “Bloodlines,” and includes the addition of a non-cannon character.  This story takes place after Virginia City Detour.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count: 5900


“Whoa, Boy . . . . ”   Joe Cartwright brought his mount to a halt near the edge of a precipice, at the trail’s peak.   A patchwork of field and forest, covered by a thick blanket of white snow, stretched out before him, reaching to the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe.   A layer of ice covered the shallow areas near the shore line.   The thickest areas, closest to the shoreline, were almost the same pristine white as the snow, blurring the line where earth ended and water began.   Where the ice extended away from the shore, covering deeper areas of water, white melded into varying gradations of turquoise and sky blue.

Overhead the sun had begun its inevitable descent toward the line of mountains to the west, casting a pinkish tinge on snow and lake that had not frozen over.   Joe turned the collar of his jacket against the cold, biting wind, as he watched the setting sun tint the sky and thin, wispy cirrus clouds overhead varying shades of pastel pinks, oranges, and lavenders.   The surface of the water caught and reflected the colors of sky and cloud as they changed from pastel to vivid oranges, golds, reds, and deep purples.   He felt at peace with himself at this nether-time, this twilight world between the worlds of daylight and the nocturnal.

Joe softly urged his mount on, as the golds, the oranges, and vivid reds darkened to a rich port wine, and deep purple to indigo.   The line of mountains on the other side of the lake had already faded into the darkness of fast approaching night.   He could feel the warmth of the day, tenuous and fragile though it was at this time of year, evaporating rapidly, as the sun finally disappeared behind the obscured line of mountains, marking the dividing line between the earth and the heavens.

The longest night of the year lay ahead, astronomically marking the end of autumn and the start of winter.   For Joe Cartwright and his family, however, it was the first scent of approaching snow in the air marked the beginning of winter.   This year, it came early.

Joe’s thoughts drifted to his family.   Hoss and Candy should be finishing up with the evening chores about now, taking into account they had to split the tasks normally handled by his and Hoss’ sister, Stacy, who was recovering from a bad bout of cold and fever.  Joe smiled, and shook his head, remembering that Stacy had entered the cantankerous stage the night before he had left, marking the start of recovery.   He couldn’t help feeling a measure of pity for his father and Hop Sing, who had more than likely spent the last few days cooped up with what amounted to a caged cougar, impatient to pick up where illness had forced her to temporarily leave off.

“You got no room to talk about Stacy being mulish, Little Brother,” Hoss had teased him on the morning he left, as he saddled Prince Edward, one of his father’s mounts.  He had borrowed the Prince for his trip to Placerville to begin negotiations with a lumber company for the rights to fell timber in the north western tract, and finish up some last minute Christmas shopping.   “If she’s like a caged up cougar getting over being sick, that makes YOU akin to a mean, cranky bear just waking up after a long winter’s night.”

“Thanks a lot, Big Brother,” Joe retorted with a grin.   He knew all too well Hoss’ metaphor was apt.   He and his sister were two of a kind, no getting around that.   Hotheaded and impulsive, they were always ready to rush in where angels fear to tread, unlike the cool, calculating Adam, or Hoss, the cautious one, always slow to anger, slow in making judgments, and slow jumping to conclusions.

“Pa, you’ve got the patience of a saint and then some, for being able to put up with Stacy and me,” Joe said with a smile, “and well we know it.”   He reached into the left hand pocket of his coat and drew out his and Stacy’s Christmas gift to their father.   It was a pocket watch, mounted in an eighteen karat gold case.   The outside cover had been engraved with Ben Cartwright’s initials.   On the inside was engraved the following inscription, “To Pa, with much love and many thanks.   Joseph Francis and Stacy Rose.”

The skittishness of his mount abruptly drew his thoughts back to present time and place.   “Easy, Boy, easy,” Joe murmured softly, as he gently stroked Prince Edward’s dark brown neck.   He urged the horse on, every sense alert, his eyes intensely scanning the darkening trail up ahead.   He had the uneasy feeling of invisible eyes watching and following his every move from the deep shadows surrounding him.   “Come on, Joseph Francis Cartwright, don’t let an overactive imagination start running away with you,” he silently and sternly admonished himself.   Prince Edward moved ahead, his skittishness escalating with each reluctant step.

“Come on, Prince, not much further,” Joe urged.   “You could be in a nice stall, under a warm blanket, getting a good rub down within the next half hour, if you’d just . . . ”

Seized with sudden panic, Prince Edward reared.   Joe worked furiously to rein in the frightened horse, to no avail.   He thought he caught sight of a gray murky form moving out of the deep shadows.   Prince Edward reared again, this time throwing Joe from the saddle.   His last conscious memory was of the landscape circling dizzily all around him as he half slid, half rolled down the steep drop from the trail into a deep ravine.

*****

“Joseph!” Ben Cartwright gasped, suddenly and rudely jolted from a light slumber.

“Pa?”  Ben looked up and saw Stacy staring back at him with a curious mixture of concern and bewilderment.   “Who’s the— ?”

“Who’s the . . . what?”

“For a minute there . . . out of the corner of my eye?   I thought I saw a lady standing by your chair just before you woke up,” Stacy answered reluctantly.   “I feel OK, Pa, honest!” she added quickly.   “I’m not delirious or anything like that.”

“I didn’t say you were delirious or anything like that,” Ben said.   An amused grin tugged at the left corner of his mouth.   “I’m sure it was just the light playing tricks on your eyes, but maybe you ought to sit down and rest.  You’ve worked pretty hard this afternoon.”

Ben and Stacy had spent the better part of the late afternoon and early evening hours trimming the Christmas tree in the living room.   After breakfast they, with Hop Sing’s able assistance had fetched all the boxes of tree ornaments down from the attic.   Ben shared memories and stories about the older ornaments, some of which had been handed down from his parents and grandparents, as they carefully unwrapped the fragile glass ornaments and hung them on the tree.

“Pa, you remember Molly’s grandmother?” Stacy asked as she dropped down onto the sofa.

“Mrs. Brady?   Yes, of course I remember her,” Ben replied with a smile.   “A very delightful woman.”  He frowned.   “How a woman like Mrs. Brady ever gave birth to a daughter like Mrs. O’Hanlan, I can’t begin to fathom.”

“Neither can Mrs. Brady,” Stacy said with an impish grin.   “When she was here last, she told Molly and me that according to the Old Religion, the morning after the longest night marked the birth of the God into the world as Child of Light.”   She paused and glanced over at the easy chair, occupied by her father.   “Kind of like the Christmas story, isn’t it?”

“Yes, very much like the Christmas story,” Ben agreed.

The front door opened and Hoss entered, followed by Candy, both heavily bundled in long coats, gloves, hats, scarves, and boots.

“Is it snowing again?” Ben asked, noting the dusting of snow on their heads and shoulders.

“Just started a few minutes ago,” Hoss replied, as he began the process of divesting himself of the multitudinous layer of outer clothing, “just like you said it was gonna, Pa.”

“Your brother’s not back from Placerville yet . . . is he?” Ben asked, trying to ignore the gnawing uneasiness within him.

“No, Sir,” Hoss shook his head.

“Seeing as how cold it’s probably gonna get tonight, and the snow coming down now, he may have decided to stay over another night and come home in the morning,” Candy pointed out.

“That’s very true,” Ben agreed.

“Hey, Little Sister, you and Pa sure did a bang up job on this tree,” Hoss grinned, as he looked up and down the tree with open admiration.

“Thanks, Big Brother,” Stacy said.   “You’re going to have to trim the top, though.   Pa couldn’t even reach that high.”

“I’ll do that after I get some supper in me,” Hoss promised.   “In the meantime,” he continued, noting her pale face and bright eyes, “YOU need to take it easy.   Your fever’s returning.”

“I told you so,” Ben chided her gently.   “Why don’t you come right over here and sit down?”   He took her by the shoulders and steered her in the direction of the easy chair, he himself had just occupied a few minutes before.   “No arguments.”

“Pa, I don’t want to take YOUR chair . . . . ”

“I said no arguments, Young Woman, it’s the closet one to the fire,” Ben said.   “Hoss, Candy . . . would one of you mind fetching me that quilt from the sofa?”

“Here you are, Mister Cartwright,” Candy deftly retrieved the requested quilt and handed it to Ben.

“Thanks, Pa,” Stacy said, as Ben placed the quilt over her lap.   She took the edge in both hands and pulled the patch work cover up to her neck.   “All of a sudden, I’m freezing.”

“That’s odd,” Ben mused silently, taking a seat on the coffee table in front of the chair.   He could feel the intense warmth of the roaring fire against his back, and there was no draft.   He touched her forehead with the back of his hand.   She was a little warmer than normal.   “Would you like the blanket from the railing?” he asked aloud.

Stacy nodded, shivering.

“I’ve got it, Pa,” Hoss said, heading in the direction of the stairs.   He removed the red-orange and black Indian blanket from its place over the railing and brought it over to his sister.

“Between this blanket and that quilt, you should be plenty warm,” Hoss said, as he carefully tucked the blanket around her.

“Thanks, Hoss,” she said gratefully, as she curled up tight under both.

“THIS make Miss Stacy warm INSIDE.”   It was Hop Sing bearing an enormous mug of hot steaming tea.   “Drink.”

Stacy eagerly accepted the hot mug, savoring the warmth of the mug against her cold fingers.   “Smells pretty,” she said softly.

“Jasmine tea,” Hop Sing said.   “Good medicine.   Drink.”

Stacy with an uncharacteristic show of obedience lifted the mug to her lips and sipped, slowly but surely.   “Tastes pretty, too,” she murmured.

*****

Joe Cartwright woke up to a world of darkness and an eerie silence.   The heavy snow, still falling in a kind of relentless profusion, had half buried him under a cold, wet blanket that chilled him to his bones.   Joe awkwardly sat up and began to brush the snow from his already soaked clothing.   Most of it fell off in heavy, wet clumps, but a significant portion remained frozen to his wet outer clothing.   His hat and scarf were missing, and both gloves were soaked.   The top portion of his left sleeve had separated from his jacket, and four buttons were missing.

“Joseph, you’re going out like that?” he could hear his father’s voice now, as he had this morning.   “Don’t you think you should dress warmer?”

“Pa, I’ll be there and back before it gets really cold,” he had protested.

“Joe— ”

“Honest, Pa, I’ll be fine.”

Joe vigorously cursed himself for having been so foolish.

*****

That evening, the Cartwrights, minus Joe, took supper in the living room.   Hoss and Candy dug into the generous mound of fried chicken with relish.   Hop Sing sat on the coffee table next to the easy chair, occupied by Stacy, plying her relentlessly with chicken soup.

“Mister Cartwright.”

Ben glanced up sharply on hearing Hop Sing say his name.

“You not eating,” Hop Sing observed with a frown.   “You big man.   Must eat.”

“I’m not very hungry, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing admonished Stacy to keep eating, then rose and walked over to the other easy chair, at the far end of the living room arrangement.   “Mister Cartwright sick?” he asked, peering intently at Ben’s face.

“I’m fine, Hop Sing, just a little worried about Joe,” Ben admitted reluctantly.

“Pa, you want me and Candy to go out an’ look around?” Hoss asked.

“Would you mind?”   Try as he might, he just could not shake that nagging feeling of something amiss.

“Not at all, Pa,” Hoss replied.   “To be honest, I think I’d feel better, myself.”

“I want the two of you to be careful out there,” Ben cautioned them grimly.   “This early winter we’re having’s brought animals that normally live in the wilderness areas down closer to the places people and their livestock live.”   He paused, then added, “Hank told me he shot at a lone wolf prowling around the winter cattle pastures.”

“We’ll keep alert, Mister Cartwright,” Candy promised.

*****

“G-gotta find sh-shelter . . . . ”   Joe tried to rise.   The minute he exerted the least bit of pressure on his left foot, a blinding, white hot pain shot all the way from his ankle to his knee, leaving him breathless.   He collapsed back down on the ground, shivering and gasping for air.   He looked around, squinting hard at the dark, oddly shaped shadows surrounding him on all sides.   Something, anything to offer a place out of the wet, still falling snow until Pa or Hoss could arrive.   Surely, after all this time, they must be out searching for him.

All of a sudden, a strange feeling of peace and quite fell on him like a thick down comforter.   He yawned, and collapsing back down on the snow in a prone position, overwhelmed by a sudden need for sleep.

*****

Large snowflakes falling from the sky, nearly obliterated their tracks before they could finish making them.   A heavy, almost uncanny silence reined.   Not even the slightest breeze moved to stir the branches of the towering ponderosa pine trees overhead.   The howling of wolf and coyote, screaming cougar, and hooting owl had been silenced.

“I’m beginning to think maybe your brother did the sensible thing, and stayed over tonight,” Candy said, hunkering down in his fleece lined overcoat.   “We’re almost to the overlook now, with no sign of him.”

“Let’s go on up as far as the overlook,” Hoss suggested.   “If we ain’t seen anything of him, by then . . . ”

Suddenly, with no clear rhyme of reason, Hoss’ mount, Chubb, and Candy’s horse became skittish.   The two men quickly reined in their horses, but the animals refused to take another step forward.

“Candy, you wait here with the horses,” Hoss said grimly, as the pair dismounted.   He reached into the saddle holster and pulled out his rifle.   “I’m gonna walk on up ahead and look around.”

“Be careful, Hoss.”

Hoss, with his rifle ready, moved ahead with surprising stealthiness, given a man of his size and bulk.   He had not walked more than a hundred yards when his eyes fell on an oddly shaped lump, lying half on the trail, and half over the edge of a deep ravine.   With adrenalin coursing through his body, every sense alert, Hoss approached with even more caution and stealth.

When Hoss reached the lump, he poked the barrel of his rifle through the ever thickening cover of snow and prodded it gingerly.   Nothing moved.   He waited, then gingerly prodded again.   Still no movement.   It was an animal, dead or close enough to be considered as good as dead.   Hoss was sure of that much.   He knelt down and quickly brushed the snow from the lowest end of the lump, lying part way across the trail.

“Holy jumpin’ Hannah!   It’s Prince Edward!” Hoss murmured, with heart in mouth, after clearing the snow from the horse’s face.   He rose to his feet like a shot.   “JOE!” he bellowed, at the top of his voice.   “JOE!   WHERE ARE YOU?”

No answer, only the silence falling snow.

*****

Ben slowly paced along the back of the sofa, his uneasiness growing with every step.   His eyes occasionally strayed hopefully to the fast closed front door.   He also found himself casting furtive glances over his shoulder, unable to shake the unsettling of someone, other than Stacy or Hop Sing, watching him.   The grandfather clock struck the hour of eight o’clock, causing him to nearly jump clear out of his skin.

“Mister Cartwright?”   Hop Sing queried anxiously.   He was making his way down the steps from the second storey.   “You alright?”

“I’m fine,” Ben lied.   “I was just lost in thought, that’s all . . . . ”

“Time Miss Stacy be in bed?” Hop Sing pointed toward the easy chair, where Stacy lay curled up under the blankets, fast asleep.   “Hop Sing warm sheets.”

“Yes, time DEFINITELY for Stacy to be in bed,” Ben agreed, welcoming the diversion from the troubling thoughts crowding relentlessly into his mind.    “I’ll go and wake her.”

“Hop Sing make tea, help Miss Stacy sleep,” Hop Sing said.   “In kitchen.   Hop Sing get.”

Ben walked over to the easy chair and gently roused his slumbering daughter.

Stacy slowly, almost reluctantly opened her eyes.   She sniffed the air, frowning.   “Pa?   What’s that smell?”

“I don’t smell anything,” Ben said looking down at her in bewilderment.

“Some kind of perfume,” Stacy said in a groggy voice.   She yawned, then dragged herself from a half prone to sitting position.   “Flowery . . . wait!   I remember!   It smells like the tea Hop Sing’s been giving me!”

“Jasmine?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Stacy said.   She sniffed the air again, and frowned.   “It’s gone now.”

“Let’s get you on up to bed,” Ben said in a gentle yet firm tone.

“Are they back yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Can’t I stay up until they come back?” Stacy asked.

“No, you need your rest,” Ben said.

“I’m not tired, Pa, honest!” Stacy said, punctuating her words with a big yawn.   Her eyes closed and her chin dropped back down toward her chest.

“Not tired . . . in a pig’s eye,” Ben murmured, as he scooped his sleeping daughter and blankets in his arms and carried her up the stairs.   She didn’t stir, even once.

*****

Ben returned downstairs, after putting Stacy to bed and safely tucking her in.   Hoss and Candy stepped through the front door, both looking anxious and grim, just as he stepped off the bottom step.

“Pa, we found Prince Edward,” Hoss wasted no time beating around the bush.   “Dead!   An animal got to him.”

“Your brother?” Ben pressed anxiously.

“Candy and I searched all around where we found Prince Edward,” Hoss replied.   “No sign of Little Joe at all.”

“You two go on inside and warm up by the fire,” Ben ordered.   “I’ll rouse up the men out in the bunk house.”

“If it’s all the same to you, Pa, I’d rather go along,” Hoss said.

“I feel the same way, Mister Cartwright,” Candy said.   “We can warm up later, AFTER we’ve got Joe home safe and sound.”

“Alright,” Ben agreed.   “Saddle up fresh horses.   I’ll have Hank see to Chubb and Black Beauty.”

*****

Upstairs, Stacy was roused from slumber the sound of horse hooves crunching through the snow in front of the house.   She shivered, despite the heavy quilt and Indian blanket covering her, in addition to the sheets and quilt normally on her bed.  The room was so cold, she could see her breath, and the scent of Jasmine lay heavy and stultifying.   Stacy opened her eyes and sat up.   There, much to her surprise and astonishment, stood a woman at the foot of her bed, with dark brown, curly hair, dressed in an outfit that had been the height of style twenty-five or thirty years ago.   The woman held out her arms to Stacy, beseeching.

“How can I help you?” Stacy whispered.

Their eyes met and held.

“Yes,” she whispered, understanding.   “Yes!”

Stacy, suddenly possessed by a strange surge of energy and vitality,  seized the edge of her blankets and sheets in one hand and threw them off with a broad sweep of her arm.   She flew out of bed like a shot, and quickly put on a pair of denim pants and long sleeved flannel shirt over her pajamas.   Her hands trembled as she buttoned her shirt and stepped into a good pair of stout waterproof boots.   For extra measure, she grabbed the heavy wool sweater, given to her by Hoss last Christmas from its place in her second dresser drawer.   Stacy ran down the hall, while slipping the sweater over her head.   Downstairs, she paused just long enough to take a rifle from the open gun rack.   The ammunition was found in it’s usual place in the lower right hand drawer of her father’s desk.   She quickly loaded the rifle, and ran, pausing at the door just long enough to grab her coat, hat and scarf.

*****

Ben, Hoss, Candy, and the other men had searched and searched again the area where Prince’s Edward’s body had been found.   There was no sign of Joe, whatsoever.   No body, alive or otherwise, no lost clothing.   The still falling snow would have long ago obliterated footprints or other signs of trail.

The sound of horse hooves galloping through the snow fell on Ben’s ears.   “Who in the world is crazy enough to be out at this time of night in weather like this?” he wondered aloud, with an anxious frown.

“Pa, you ain’t gonna like the answer,” Hoss said grimly, pointing.

Ben’s eyes followed the line of Hoss’ arm and pointing finger.   He saw, much to his horror and astonishment, Stacy bearing down on them on Blaze Face.

“STACY!” Ben yelled frantically.

Stacy continued, as if she neither saw nor heard him.

“Hoss . . . Candy, you and the others keep searching,” Ben ordered.   “I’m going after that fool daughter of mine.”

Ben quickly mounted Big Buck and followed after Stacy.   The snowfall had diminished to flurries, dropping larger flakes in profusion one minute and tapering to a fine dusting of tiny flakes the next.   The trail left in the wake of Stacy’s passing was easy to follow.   Ben caught up with her, just as she was dismounting.   He half climbed, half jumped from his saddle and ran through the snow to the edge of the trail.

“Stacy!” Ben reached out blindly and seized her forearm before she could begin the climb down into the ravine.   “Have you taken complete leave of your senses?”

“Pa, let me go!” she begged.   “I know where Joe is.   We don’t have much time.”

“Stacy— ”

“Pa, PLEASE!”

Something, either in her voice, or the look in her eyes with the terrible glitter of one burning with fever compelled Ben to let her go.   Stacy rapidly descended into the ravine, leaving Ben hard pressed to follow, let alone keep up.   She moved through the darkness without pause or hesitation.   When Ben at long last caught up with her, he found her kneeling beside Joe, lying half buried in the snow.   Stacy dug frantically to clear the snow away from her brother’s body.

“P-Pa?”   It was Joe.   Though his voice was weak and feeble it was music to Ben’s ears.

“I’m here, Son, so’s your sister,” Ben said, dropping to his knees on the other side of his son.   He pitched in, helping Stacy clear away the last of the snow.   “You hang in there, Boy.   You’re going to be alright.”

“H-how . . . how’d you f-find me?” Joe queried, his teeth chattering.

“Stacy found you actually.”

“The lady told me, Grandpa,” Stacy said.

“Pa?!”   It was Hoss, calling from the trail above.

“Down here, Hoss!” Ben yelled.   “Stacy found him.”

*****

Joe sat on the floor next to a roaring fire in the fireplace, wrapped in a wool blanket and two heavy quilts, gazing at the oval portrait of Marie Cartwright, he cradled in his hands.   Doc Martin had just finished giving him a thorough once over.   Joe had a badly sprained ankle.   The doctor ordered him to stay off it as much as possible, keep warm and eat plenty of Hop Sing’s chicken soup.   “Follow those instructions to the letter, Son, you’ll make a full and complete recovery,” Doc Martin had ordered, before going upstairs to see Stacy.

“Time to take your medicine, Little Brother,” it was Hoss, carrying a tray with a large bowl of steaming hot chicken soup.

“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe managed a weary smile.   “How’s Stacy?”

“Doc Martin and Pa are up with her now,” Hoss said, unable to hide his growing concern.   When they had finally reached home, her hands and face were uncomfortably hot to the touch.   She was barely conscious, raving about a lady who had told her where to find her missing brother.

“Don’t worry, Hoss, Stacy’s gonna pull through this,” Joe said with quiet conviction.   “That kid’s got a lot of fight.   If she didn’t, I’m not sure I’D be here right now.   She’ll make it.”

“In the meantime, you’d better eat up before that soup gets cold,” Hoss said soberly, “or Hop Sing’ll have both our hides.”

Joe carefully set his mother’s picture aside and turned his attention to the soup.

“You’ve been staring at this picture of Mama an awful lot since we got back,” Hoss remarked, as he picked it up for a closer look.

“While I was lying down in that ravine, I had this wild dream,” Joe said slowly.   “I dreamed I woke up, not feeling cold anymore.   When I opened my eyes, I was standing up looking down at my own body.   Next thing I knew, I was surrounded by this . . . this light.   I felt peaceful . . . more peaceful than I’ve ever felt in my whole life, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you, Pa, Adam, Stacy, and Hop Sing.”

Joe lapsed into thoughtful silence.   “I saw Mama there in the light with me.   Hoss,” he glanced up and looked over at his big brother earnestly, “she was just as I remember.   Just like she was in that picture.”

Hoss glanced down at the picture in his hand, and remembered that Marie had commissioned the miniature portrait as a birthday present for their father.   It would be the last birthday gift she would ever give him.

Joe swallowed another generous spoonful of the chicken soup.   “Mama was happy to see me, I think,” he continued, “but she kept telling me it wasn’t my time yet.   Her exact words were ‘No, Little Joe, not your time now.’   She also promised me that Stacy would be OK.”   He paused.   “Next thing I knew, I was awake, freezing my backside and every other part of me off, my ankle hurting like all heck.   Pa and Stacy were there looking down at me.”

“That was some dream alright, Little Brother,” Hoss shook his head.

“I had a close call out there tonight, didn’t I, Big Brother.”   It was a statement of fact, not a question.

“Closer than you think, Joe,” Hoss said soberly.   “We kept looking for ya near where we found Prince Edward.   We never figured he’d thrown you two miles back from where we found him.”   Hoss shook his head again in awe.   “If Stacy hadn’t known exactly where to find you . . . . ”

“Hoss . . . . Joe,” it was Doctor Martin.

“How is she?” Hoss asked rising.

“I won’t sugar coat it for you boys,” the doctor said grimly.   “She’s burning up with fever.   If she makes it through the next twelve hours, and right now that’s a big if, her chances of recovery are good.”

“She’ll make it, Doc,” Joe said quietly.   “That kid’s got a strength of an ox and enough fight in her to see TEN people through something like this.”

“Yes, she does,” the doctor managed a weary smile.   “That’s all in her favor.”

“Can we go up and see her?” Joe asked.

Doctor Martin nodded.   “Stacy’s pretty much out of it right now, but I think your pa can use the company.”

*****

By dawn the following morning, roughly half a foot of fresh snow had been deposited on the existing deep blanket.   Overhead, the think clouds had broken up, revealing patches of bright azure blue.   A shaft of golden sunlight streamed through the window of Stacy’s bedroom, it’s warmth and brightness gently rousing her from a deep sleep.

Stacy’s eyes fell on her father, slouched in a chair pulled up beside the bed, dozing fitfully.   One hand rested on the bed beside her.   She reached down and touched his hand.   “Pa . . . ?”

Ben’s eyes immediately snapped open.   “Stacy . . . ” he gave her hand an affectionate squeeze, “thank G-God— ”   He broke off unable to continue.

“Oh, Pa, I . . . I’m sorry,” Stacy murmured, overcome with remorse as the enormity of her actions the previous night began to sink in.

“I’m not sorry in the least, Little Sister!”   It was Joe, alive and well, grinning from ear to ear.   “If you hadn’t run off half cocked like you did, I’d be a Joseph Francis Cartwright popsicle about now.”   The grin faded.   “You saved my life, Stacy.   Thank you.”

“I had help, Joe,” Stacy said.   “If the lady hadn’t told me where to find you . . . . ”

Ben frowned.   “Who’s this lady you keep talking about?” he asked.

Joe suddenly remembered the portrait of his mother still in his hands.   “Stacy, is THIS the lady?” he asked placing the oval framed piece in her hands.

“Yes,” Stacy recognized her right away, “that’s HER!   That’s the lady!”   She lapsed into uneasy silence upon realizing that her father and two brothers were looking at her oddly.   “What?”

“Stacy, the lady is . . . was . . . my ma,” Joe said.

“Y-your ma?”  Stacy could feel the blood draining from her face.   “I thought— ”

“You thought right, Little Sister; she died when I was five,” Joe said quietly.   He then related the dream he had experienced the night before as he lay in the ravine, freezing to death.   “A friend of mine . . . Pa, Hoss, you remember Mack Korningeldt, don’t you?”

Hoss and Ben nodded.

“He died a few days before my ma did,” Joe continued, turning his attention back to Stacy.   “Accidentally drowned in the swimming hole out at the old Johnson place.   Mack was my best friend, only a year older than me.   That scared the dickens out of me, because I thought little kids couldn’t die.”   He paused.   “That must’ve started me thinking if little kids can die, maybe mothers can too.   When I asked Mama about that, she told me that if anything like that ever happened to her, she’d always be with me . . . . as my guardian angel.   She was my guardian angel last night, and yours too, Stacy.”

“Her favorite perfume was . . . jasmine,” Ben said slowly.   “That, and  . . . the cold by the easy chair . . . the lady Stacy thought she saw out of the corner of her eye . . . that was Marie trying to tell us that Joe was in trouble.”

“I ain’t sure about all this talk about ghosts and guardian angels,” Hoss shook his head.   “Gimme something I can see, feel, hear, touch . . . . ”

“ . . . or eat, Big Brother?” Joe quipped with a grin.

“Especially eat, Little Joe,” Hoss said.   “I’m so powerful hungry right now, I could eat YOU, so you better watch your step.”   He rose and stretched.   “I think I’ll mosey on down to the kitchen and see if Hop Sing’s up yet.”

“Pa,” Joe said after Hoss had left the room, “I guess the gifts I bought are still out there?”

“Gathering the contents of your spilled saddle bag  wasn’t high on our list of things to do at the time, Joseph,” Ben said quietly.

“I owe you an apology, Pa,” he said contritely, “and you too, Stace.”   He paused.   “Stacy and I went together on this watch you’ve had your eye on, and— ”

“Joseph, having you back home, alive and in one piece, and Stacy, knowing you’re going to get better— ” Ben fell silent for a moment, his eyes blinking excessively.   “That’s more than enough Christmas gift for me.”

The next thing he knew, he had his arms full of both his younger children.   Ben held them close, and remembering Mrs. Brady and the Old Religion, he offered a silent heartfelt prayer of thanks and gratitude to the God he knew as the Child of Light for giving Joseph and Stacy back to him the morning after the longest night.   The pair of them were passionate, impulsive, hot tempered, impatient, generous, and loving individuals ruled by their hearts far more than their heads.   Though keeping them in hand often proved a daunting challenge, Ben loved them as they were.

“Pa, does this mean I’m not in trouble . . . after last night?” Stacy ventured.

“No, you’re NOT in trouble for that, but if you don’t allow yourself rest and plenty of time to get well, you certainly WILL be, Young Woman,” Ben promised firmly, yet lovingly.

“ . . . as in clear up to your armpits in horse hockey,” Joe added.

“That goes for you, too, Joseph,” Ben added.

“Hey, Pa . . . . ”   It was Hoss.   He stood framed in the open door, his eyes round as saucers and face a few shades paler than normal, “did you do any tree trimming last night?”

Ben looked at Hoss askance.   “No, I was up here all night,” he said.

“You’d better come on down and see this,” Hoss said.

Ben rose and followed Hoss.   Stacy and Joe exchanged glances then rose, and followed their father.   All four of them stopped at the second landing and looked to where Hoss pointed.   There, on top of the tree was an angel, with dark hair and a ceramic head with painted face.   She wore a white lace gown and had gold paper wings.

“Hey, isn’t that—?!” Joe murmured, his eyes round with astonishment.

“ . . . your mother’s angel?   Yes, it is,” Ben replied, gazing at the ornament on top of the tree with a look akin to awe.   “She bought that in honor of our first Christmas together . . . as husband and wife, and as a family.   She insisted on putting the angel up there herself every year.   I . . . haven’t put that angel on our Christmas trees . . . since she died.”

“Pa?” Stacy ventured.   “Can you smell it?”

“Hey!” Joe broke into a wide grin.   “Jasmine!”

“I can smell it,” Ben said with a wistful smile.   The scent, heavy when they had initially come downstairs, had begun to dissipate.

“Well, Big Brother?” Joe said, turning his attention to Hoss, “what do you think of ghosts and guardian angels now?”

***The End***

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