Second Sight (Emmie)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,300


 

Annie Rose Tyler turned away from the Virginia City restaurant owner with disappointment. She’d been looking for a job for days now, ever since her arrival in town and at this latest “we’re not hiring” her worry increased. If she didn’t find something soon, well, she just didn’t know what she’d do. Her meager funds were already low and getting lower fast what with the cost of boarding at Mrs. Jenkins’ house.

She’d already been over to the doctor’s office, enquiring about helping to nurse sick folk, and over to the hotel about cleaning and such and now even cooking at the restaurant was proving to be a deadend. What else was there for her to do?

Walking outside past the saloon lost in her thoughts, Annie looked up towards the boisterous laughter coming from inside. Well, there was always that, she thought. No, just as quick the denial came. She’d managed all her life to avoid working in a saloon and she wasn’t about to start thinking that way now. She’d just have to try some more and straightening her spine and stepping into the road to cross the street, she headed over to the general store.

*****

Hoss Cartwright took a deep breath as he cantered into town on his horse that day. He was in a good mood today but then again he was pretty much always in a good mood, being of an easygoing nature. And the fact that it was a clear sunny spring day with a light breeze wafting through the air did even more to lift his spirits. Pulling up in front of the general store and dismounting he decided to carry out the errand his Pa had sent him on and then head over to the saloon for a leisurely beer.

“Goodday, Miz Abbott,” Hoss tipped his hat to the storekeeper as he entered the store and approached the counter.

“Why Hoss Cartwright,” Mrs. Abbott greeted him cheerily, for if it was one person who was universally liked by the townsfolk it was Hoss Cartwright. “How nice to see you. Ain’t seen you or your kin in town in I don’t know how long.”

“Yeah, we been keeping pretty busy out at the ranch. Sure is nice to come to town for a change though, I’ll tell ya that.”

“And how’s everyone keeping? Your Pa and Little Joe? Adam and that pretty little wife of his? It’s getting to be just about her time, ain’t it?” Mrs. Abbott asked, referring to the baby Katherine Cartwright was soon expecting.

“Everyone’s jist fine, Miz Abbott, leastaways nobody’s been complaining to me, but I think that baby is taking it’s own sweet time about coming,” Hoss replied teasingly, athough his voice held a certain note of excitement. They were all excited about the coming baby.

“Don’t they always,” laughed Mrs. Abbott. “Now what is it I can do for you today? You folks running low on supplies?”

“Well, no, actually, my Pa sent me to ask if’n we could post this sign on your board by the winder.” Hoss unfolded the slip of paper he’d brought with him. “Pa thought it would be a good idea to get some housekeeping help seeing how Hop Sing is away in San Francisco and all.”

“Why sure you can, Hoss, you just go right ahead.” Mrs. Abbott replied.

Moving to the window and reaching out to tack his help wanted notice to the board, Hoss was startled by a voice behind him.

“Excuse me….” Annie approached the man by the window. She’d been in the store after enquiring about a job from Mrs. Abbott and being told no help was needed when the man had entered. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on his conversation with the storekeeper but she’d been rooted to the spot the moment she saw him. “Did I hear right, that you’re looking for a housekeeper?” Annie continued.

Turning to look at the woman, Hoss Cartwright was startled by the sudden jolt that coursed through him. A young woman stood before him, her dark hair worn long, the front tendrils pulled back with combs and the biggest darkest eyes he had even seen in his life. And though her dress was faded and worn, Hoss Cartwright decided she was the prettiest girl he could ever recollect seeing.

“Uhh, yes ma’am,” Hoss faltered a little, his equilibrium still a little skewed. “I’m just putting up the notice now.”

“Well, mister, I’d be obliged iff’n you’d let me apply for the job.”

“You’re looking for a job?” Hoss asked. “Well, I dunno….,” his voice trailed off. He wasn’t quite sure she was what his Pa had in mind. Maybe an older woman or a Chinese manservant, like Hop Sing, but not someone like this little gal.

“Say, Hoss, that ain’t a bad idea,” Mrs. Abbott chimed in. “Why she was just asking me about a job not more’n a few minutes before you come in.” Mrs. Abbott was pleased at the development, since she felt bad at having to turn the girl down for a job in the store.

“Well, uhmm,” Hoss prevaricated. “I’m not sure you’re what we’re looking for….,” he explained.

“I’m a good cook, and I’ll work real hard, and you wouldn’t have to worry none about the chores getting done, I can promise you that,” Annie persisted, her tone forthright.

“Well, now, ma’am, I’m sure of that but like I said I don’t think you’re quite what we’re looking for…it’s a big house and I like as reckon it might be too much fer ya.” Hoss was trying to let her down easily, not thinking she looked strong enough for the job.

“I’m strong,” Annie defended herself, a hint of pride in her voice, “stronger than I look.”

“Well, uhmm,” Hoss didn’t know what to say, not quite believing her. “Like I said….” he began apologetically.

“Well, alright then,” Annie interrupted him, her tone a little harsh. “If’n you don’t want me, you don’t want me. I’d best be getting along now. Goodday to you,” she said, nodding curtly. Although her voice had taken on a little hardness, Hoss had seen disappointment and defeat in her eyes. Heck, it was impossible not to read her eyes, he thought, the way they were so big and all.

“Hey, now just a minute, come on back here,” Hoss called to her as she turned to head out the door. “Reckon there’s no harm in letting you talk to my Pa about it first, before we can say for sure one way or the other. That alright with you?”

“Ok by me,” Annie turned her eyes back to him, eyes that now glowed with hope. Heck, thought Hoss, if she didn’t have the most readable eyes he’d ever encountered.

“‘Course, maybe I should be telling you a little about the job and my family first,” Hoss reflected. “You might decide we’re not to your liking,” he teased. “Although Miz Abbott here can vouch for us, can’t you ma’am?”

Annie listened as Mrs. Abbott readily agreed and proceeded to tell her about the Cartwright family. But it wasn’t really necessary at this point for Annie had already formed her own opinions, well, her opinion about this one man anyway. Big and tall and strong and quite handsome in his own way, that was his outward appearance. But she’d sensed his inner makings the moment she’d seen him and that was what had kept her rooted to the spot when he’d come into the store. Annie had a sixth sense about these things, a real powerful woman’s intuition some might call it, sometimes a way of sensing good and bad or when things were about to happen. Now, mind you, it wasn’t something she’d gone about advertising, this extra perception. No, folks had looked sideways at her once when she’d mentioned it and she’d taken care not to mention it again. But her senses had been right too many times to count and she wasn’t about to doubt them now.

Peering up, way up, at the man standing close by her, Annie’s senses told her that this was a good, gentle man, maybe the gentlest man she’d ever met and that was all the recommendation she needed.

*****

“Hoss Cartwright, what have you done?” Ben Cartwright demanded of his middle son. If it wasn’t just like him to be bringing home a stray like he’d always done since he was a kid. Only this time he’d brought home a girl not some puppy or a kitten.

“Aww, Pa,” said Hoss, trying to explain, “looked ter me like she plain needed a job. And ain’t that what you sent me fer? To get someone to help out here at the house?”

“Yes, but..but…,” Ben sputtered, fighting the loss that was already at hand. After all, the girl was already unpacking her things into the small room off the kitchen that had been Hop Sing’s. “It just seems that you could’ve used better judgement in your selection.”

Watching his Pa’s displeasure with Hoss, Little Joe Cartwright couldn’t help chuckling under his breath. Well, if this wasn’t a switch, he thought, Pa lighting into Hoss about a girl, and a real pretty girl she was too. It was usually himself on the receiving end of a conversation like this, Little Joe thought, especially in a matter concerning someone of the female persuasion.

“I don’t know about his judgement, Pa, but there’s nothing wrong with his eyes,” Little Joe teased, the opportunity to needle his older brother too inviting to pass up, even at the risk of incurring his father’s wrath.

“Now, Joseph, you just stay out of this,” Ben commanded, as both he and Hoss fixed Little Joe with a cold look.

“Couldn’t we just see how it goes for a bit, sort of on trial like?” Hoss turned back to his father. “Wouldn’t be no harm in that, would there?”

“Well….,” Ben began.

“I’m all done unpacking, Mr. Cartwright,” Annie said, addressing Hoss as she entered the room. “Is there anything I can do now? Something you’d like me to start on?”

“Well, no, ma’am, not right now,” Hoss replied nervously, as he eyed his father. “Just supper to fix is all, I guess, ain’t that right, Pa?” Hoss offered, hoping for his father’s agreement.

Just then the front door opened and Adam Cartwright appeared, turning in the door frame to usher his very pregnant wife Katherine into the room.

“Well, where’ve you two been?” Ben enquired, distracted for the moment from Hoss’s question.

“Oh, just took a little walk down to the creek and back,” Adam supplied as he slowly led his wife over to the settee and watched as she carefully eased herself down. “Doc Martin says a little exercise is good for her.”

“Yeah, a little exercise is about all I’m capable of these days,” Katherine sighed wearily, wishing and not for the first time, that this baby would hurry up and make an appearance.

“Well, looks ter me like yer jist ’bout ready to drop that baby,” Annie observed, eyeing Katherine’s protruding belly, a shocked hush falling over the room as all eyes turned on Annie at her blunt appraisal of the situation.

“Yes, well, um…,” the various male Cartwrights hemmed in embarrassment, unused to such direct talk about what was still generally called a woman’s delicate condition.

Katherine Cartwright, not offended by the comment at all, thought it was a rather refreshing change from the past several months. It got a little disconcerting to have so many folks looking everywhere but at your stomach, as if trying to pretend you weren’t actually as big as a house.

“And you are….?” Katherine enquired, turning her head to look directly at the young woman whom she had taken an instant liking to.

“Name’s Annie. Annie Tyler. I’m the new housekeeper….er, at least I think I am,” she amended, with a look of uncertainty directed towards Hoss and Ben.

“The new housekeeper,” Katherine repeated, a slow pleased smile coming to her face. “Well, I can’t tell you how nice it will be to have another woman in the house, Annie. Especially now,” she added with a vague wave to her stomach, her voice sincere.

The four Cartwright men turned as one to look at Katherine, the same thought striking them at the same time. Something that hadn’t occurred to them before. That maybe a woman in a house full of men might appreciate another woman around. That maybe a woman about to have a baby might appreciate another woman nearby. Not that Katherine would have made the suggestion herself but now that it was done, there was no mistaking her pleasure.

Knowing that there wasn’t much his Pa wouldn’t do for his already beloved daughter-in-law, Hoss Cartwright threw back his head and let out a hearty laugh. Looked like Miss Annie Tyler was here to stay, he thought. Yup, his Pa was surely done for now. Yessiree. Just maybe they all were.

**********

A little later that evening, after supper, Adam and Katherine were speaking quietly to each other, their heads close together.

“I like her,” Katherine commented, her gaze on Annie Tyler. “Although I must admit she sure does speak her mind. You know, I thought I was blunt and outspoken till I met her,” Katherine marveled, remembering Annie’s earlier comment.

Stealing his arm around his wife to give her a reassuring squeeze, Adam consoled, mock sincerity in his voice, “Oh, don’t worry, honey, I still think you’re blunt and outspoken,” just before Katherine jabbed her elbow sharply into his ribcage.

*****

It was two weeks later to the day, early in the evening as the Cartwrights sat about the fire. Katherine was feeling a little restless as she first picked up and then put down a book. Looking about the room and spying Annie hovering nearby, she asked, “So, Annie, tell me, where are your folks from?”

Annie, looking up from the table she was pretending to dust, her real focus elsewhere, answered in her usual forthright manner, “Ain’t got no folks. They died when I was ten.”

“No folks? Oh, Annie, I’m sorry,” Katherine apologized, grateful her own parents were still living, even if they were far away in San Francisco. “But after that, who took care of you then?”

Annie shrugged nonchalantly, aware now that the others were listening. “Oh, different folks at different times. I been on my own mostly since I was fourteen.”

“Since you was fourteen?” the surprised question came from Hoss.

Not caring for the slight pity she heard in his voice, Annie defended, “I done alright. Got me lots of different jobs and learned lots of know-how about things.” Once again pretending to dust, she threw a concerned glance towards Katherine.

“Like what?” Hoss prompted, suddenly finding himself wanting to know more about just how well she’d gotten along.

“Well, cooking and cleaning and taking care of folks. And I worked for four years for old Doc Patterson over in Carson City afore he up and died,” Annie supplied, stealing a surreptitious glance at Katherine.

“Well, I guess it’s our good fortune to have you here with us nowahhh!!” Katherine punctuated her sentence with a shriek as a sudden sharp pain jolted through her.

Annie, recognizing the beginnings of what she’d known was going to happen since earlier that day, moved immediately to Katherine’s side. “Just relax and take a deep breath now,” she instructed calmly. And then to the others, “Someone’d best go for the doctor now,” as general pandemonium broke out around her.

“Adam? Adam?” Katherine cried, fear and pain in her voice, as Adam, already nearby, rushed to her side.

“I’m right here, Katherine,” Adam soothed, his own fear well hidden.

“You’d best help her upstairs now,” Annie prodded. Adam nodded and curving his arm around Katherine’s back he drew her to her feet and led her to the stairs.

Before ascending, Katherine turned slightly back to call over her shoulder, “Annie?” uncertainty in her voice.

“Now, now, I’ll be along shortly. Don’t you worry none,” Annie answered reassuringly, her mind already on the pile of blankets and supplies she’d prepared earlier that day and now needed to take with her upstairs.

*****

In the end there wasn’t time for the doctor, Little Joe having gone in to Virginia City to find Doc Martin away seeing a patient, and by the time the Carson City doctor arrived with Hoss, the baby was already born, not more than five hours passing from Katherine’s first pain.

It was Annie’s capable, comforting hands that had guided Katherine through her labour, her gentle, calm matter-of-fact demeanour doing much to alleviate Katherine’s fears as Annie talked her through the pain.

It was a little past midnight and not long after the first few crying mewls were heard that Annie came down the stairs, unfolding her shirtsleeves as she came. At her descent, Adam rushed up the stairs towards her and at Annie’s nod, he bolted past her, her “You can go on in now” directed to his back.

Inside the room, Adam tentatively approached the bed. There swaddled in a blanket in the crook of Katherine’s arm was a tiny mite of a baby, a shock of jet black hair spiked comically on its head. Crouching down low beside the bed, Adam’s eyes held wonder as he took in the sight of his newborn child.

“It’s a little girl, Adam, did Annie tell you?” Katherine asked, pride at her accomplishment in her voice.

Wordlessly, Adam shook his head, swallowing hard, not trusting himself to speak.

“I was thinking….I was thinking I’d like to call her Elizabeth Margaret. You know, after her two grandmas. Is that okay with you, Adam?” Katherine breathed the question to him.

Elizabeth. His mother’s name. Still wordless, Adam nodded, his heart full.

“Of course it’s quite a mouthful, Elizabeth Margaret Cartwright,” Katherine acknowledged teasingly, “maybe we could shorten it and call her Beth?”

A silent nod.

“Adam?” a note of unease and doubt had crept into Katherine’s tone at Adam’s silence, a sudden fear that he was disappointed in some way.

Meeting her eyes and seeing her uncertainty, Adam found his voice at last, speaking softly the words that filled his heart.

“I love you.”

*****

As Annie set the bowl of mashed potatoes on the table at suppertime a few weeks later, the Cartwrights pulled up their chairs around her. Noticing a conspicuous absence, Annie asked, “Where’s Hoss?”

“I doubt Hoss’ll be in for supper, Annie,” Ben supplied, knowing well his middle son. “He’s out tending to a sick mare in the barn.”

“Oh?” Annie digested that piece of information, not liking the fact that Hoss was missing his supper. “Well, I’ll jist keep something warm for him on the stove till he comes in, then,” she decided, as the rest of the family began to pass the food-laden bowls around.

Several hours later, when darkness had fallen and the warmed food on the stove had dried to a crisp, Annie peered anxiously out the kitchen window at the light coming from the barn door. Well, if that man didn’t have enough sense to come in and get his supper she certainly wasn’t going to worry none about it. Yup, he was a grown man and could just darn well look after himself, she thought. Weren’t no reason in the world it should be any concern of hers, Annie decided angrily, as she grabbed a loaf of bread and began to cut two thick slices.

A few minutes later, carrying the sandwich she’d made wrapped in a cloth napkin, Annie headed out the side door and over to the barn. Stopping at the open barn door, Annie peered inside. In the warm glow cast by the overhead lantern, Annie spotted Hoss crouched low over the equine creature laying on its side, a frothing of hay about its body. Hoss was talking quietly, reassuringly, to the animal, his words indiscernible, their meaning not. Stepping softy into the room towards him, Annie called out gently, “Hoss?”

Turning at her voice, Hoss looked over to see Annie approaching him, her body bathed in the soft light of the room, her skirts whispering over the hay-strewn floor.

“I brung you a sandwich,” she offered, holding it out to him, “if’n you’re hungry.”

“Why, thank you, Annie,” Hoss replied, “but I don’t reckon I could eat jist now,” worry evident in his voice.

Setting the sandwich down on an unused stool nearby, Annie moved close and standing next to his crouched form she peered down at the horse below her.

“Is she bad off?” Annie asked, the worry she’d heard in Hoss’s voice already telling her the answer.

“Yeah, she’s bad off,” Hoss’s voice was grim.

“What’s the matter with her?” Annie persisted, crouching down low next to him.

“I don’t rightly know,” Hoss replied miserably. “If I knew that, maybe I could help her. All I know is she’s in pain.”

“In pain? How do you know that?” Annie wondered, her eyes raking over the animal.

“It’s in her eyes,” Hoss explained. “I can see the pain in her eyes.”

Nodding her trust at Hoss’s assessment, Annie reached out her hand to the animal to stroke her gently. “I wish I could help,” Annie said, regret in her voice. “I don’t know much about sick animals, just sick folk.”

Bonded now by their mutual desire to help a creature in pain, Hoss consoled, “Oh, that’s okay, Annie. She likes you jist being near. I can tell.”

Encouraged by Hoss’s words Annie continued to stroke the mare, her hands running along and under the thick hair of her mane. Suddenly, Annie felt just the merest of coolness at the very tip of her finger. Puzzled, she ran her finger along the spot again. Again she registered just the faintest sensation of something cool. “Hoss, I think…I think I found something,” Annie said, surprise in her voice.

“What, Annie?”

“Here, under her mane,” Annie elaborated.

Reaching for the lantern, Hoss brought the light in closer and peered at the spot Annie was gently probing.

“Well, I’ll be…,” Hoss marveled, sucking in his breath, seeing what was embedded into the horse’s flesh, a spot so tiny as to be unnoticeable.

“What is it?” Annie asked.

“A nail.”

“A nail?” Annie shrieked mildly.

“Yeah, see how the head has done busted off and how cleanly it pierced through her. Not even a drop of blood. Must’ve picked it up banging against a fencepole or something.”

“What are you going to do now, Hoss?” Annie wondered.

“Ain’t no decision to make about it. It’s gotta come out. Even if I leave it in, she’ll die if’n she don’t get up on her feet soon anyway,” Hoss explained. Glancing over at Annie, her eyes still on the mare, Hoss asked, not wanting her to leave, “Will you stay and help me, Annie?”

“‘Course I will, Hoss,” Annie replied, pleased that he’d asked.

*****

It was the arrival of one of the ranch hands at dawn the next morning that finally tore Hoss and Annie from the mare’s side. Her pain lessened, they’d managed to get her to her feet only in the last few hours but Hoss was hopeful she’d be alright, relieved that the nail he’d removed appeared clean and rust-free. Still, the possibility of infection was high but at least they’d done their best to give her a fighting chance.

With strict instructions to the ranch hand to summon him at the merest hint of any problem, Hoss pulled Annie out the barn door alongside him, deciding they both should get something to eat and then some badly needed sleep.

Sitting at the kitchen table together after they’d eaten a quick meal of cooked eggs and bread, Hoss stole a surreptitious glance over at Annie, a tender smile on his face as he watched her trying to stifle a yawn.

“Well, I reckon I could sleep all day now,” Hoss observed, stretching and stifling a yawn or two himself.

“Well, you best go on up ter bed now, Hoss,” Annie replied, getting up from the table and pulling a clean pan out from the cupboard. “I’ll tell yer Pa you’ll be late getting up.”

“You’ll tell my Pa….,” Hoss repeated, as he watched Annie begin to prepare to fix the family’s morning meal, shocked awareness of her intent hitting him. “Now Annie, you ain’t doing any more cooking. You need some rest too.”

“No, I got lots to do today and I’d best be getting started.”

“Annie…” Hoss drew out her name warningly, displeased at her words, his brow furrowing and his mouth tightening.

“I’ll go to bed early tonight. That’ll do me fine,” Annie declared, turning her back to him as she busied herself at the cookstove. “Besides, who’ll do the cooking otherwise? You know Miss Katherine ain’t up to….eeehhh!” Annie shrieked in surprise, as her feet came off the floor, not having heard Hoss steal up behind her to swing her up into his arms. Ignoring her vocal protests, Hoss carried her over to the small room just off the kitchen, the distance covered in a few lengthy strides. Hesitating only a moment in the open doorway, Annie’s outraged cries of “You put me down!” in his ears as she struggled in his arms, he crossed into the room and dropped Annie onto the bed.

“Now you jist stay there and git to sleep. I ain’t hearing one more word about you doing any work today. And that’s that,” Hoss’s voice was firm.

Scrambling off the bed, Annie rushed to bolt past him, her escape thwarted by Hoss’s arm thrust quickly out his side to catch her about the waist.

“I mean it, Annie,” he admonished. “You’re going ter sleep,” he ordered, moving his hands to her arms to push her back.

“Oh no, I ain’t,” Annie struggled with him to free herself from his grip, her voice defiant.

“Oh yes, you is,” Hoss countered, surprised by her strength. Not that she was any match for him, but, still, he was surprised by her strength.

“Oh no, I ain’t.” Annie wasn’t giving up.

“Oh yes, you is,” Hoss countered inanely, the struggle continuing.

The present standoff not getting them anywhere, Annie pleaded, “Please, Hoss, let me get back to work. I got things to do….,”

“You got nothing to do that can’t wait a day,” he stated, emphatically.

“But, but,…,” Annie sputtered. “I’ve got to! I’ve just got to!” Her tone had become almost frantic.

Puzzled at her reaction now, Hoss pushed her away from him, bending a little to look into her eyes, his hands still on her arms. What he saw in her eyes puzzled him even more.

“Why do you just got to?”

“Because…because….if’n I don’t get the work done, I might git…git…” Annie couldn’t say the word. The word to describe her fear that she’d be let go, let go if she couldn’t do the work, always a constant worry in her life and reinforced here on her first day when she’d overheard Hoss and his father arguing about whether she should stay.

“That you might git fired?” Hoss finished for her, a sudden understanding overtaking him.

Dropping her eyes from his and nodding miserably, Annie blurted, anguish in her voice, “And I…I ain’t got nowhere else to go!” The full force of her pain was there in her words as she froze on the spot, horrified at what she’d revealed to him.

Gripping her arms as if to shake her, her words tearing at his heart, Hoss was quick to correct her. “Annie, Annie honey, we ain’t gonna fire you,” he denied emphatically, his use of the endearment unconscious. Their eyes reconnecting, Hoss saw doubt and uncertainty as her chin trembled and tears welled in her eyes. Changing his tactic, he assumed a gruff demeanour. “Now look here, Annie Tyler, I’m the one who done the hiring and I’m the one who’ll do any firing. And I say you’re staying so you just put that worry out of your head. D’you hear me?” he ordered. And he did shake her just a little.

“Really Hoss?” Annie asked, swallowing and blinking her tears away, her pain receding and hope in her voice.

“Yes, really, Annie. You have my word on it. Now they’ll be no more talk about it, is that clear?” he demanded.

Trust in her eyes, Annie nodded. “Ok, Hoss,” she agreed, her emotions spent.

“Good,” Hoss said with satisfaction, easing his grip on her arms and straightening. “Now git on ter bed,” he instructed, his voice still gruff, and turning to leave he headed towards the door.

“Goodnight, Hoss,” Annie called to his back, her voice stopping him at the threshold.

Turning slightly to her, he replied softy, “Goodnight, Annie,” both of them forgetting it was morning. Continuing out of the room, he pulled the door closed behind him.

*****

As Annie drifted into sleep that morning, it was the last thought going through her mind. She couldn’t help marveling at the way he’d held her in his strong arms as if she weighed no more than a child and not a woman fully grown. But there was something else too. She’d been in a place she hadn’t been in in a long time. Somewhere where she wasn’t hungry, or lonely, or afraid.

She’d been…..safe.

*****

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay just a little longer?” Ben Cartwright asked of his son and daughter-in-law as they stood in the great room of the Ponderosa.

“Now, Pa,” Adam consoled. “You know we’re less than twenty minutes away. You’ll be seeing lots of us yet and maybe now you’ll be able to get an uninterrupted night’s sleep,” he teased, referring to the sleepless nights they’d all endured thanks to one Beth Cartwright.

“And you never know,” Katherine piped in, her tone mocking as she teased, “this husband of mine might decide to renovate one day and we’ll be back on your doorstep.” It had taken Adam over a year to build their new home, since before she was pregnant, but she hadn’t really minded, seeing how enthused he was over the project and how much care he was taking with it.

“Well, I’m sure going to miss this little one,” Ben grieved, the littlest Cartwright in his arms, as her uncles watched nearby.

Not wanting to draw out the parting too long, Adam said, “Well, if you’ve got everything ready, Katherine, the buggy’s outside….,”

“Just a minute, Adam,” Katherine replied. “I want to talk to Annie first.”

A package in her arms, Katherine headed to the kitchen. Finding Annie there, an apron about her waist as she washed up the noon time dishes, Katherine began, “Annie, I just wanted to thank you for all your help these past weeks. You know, what you did for me the night Beth came and all your help since. I really don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“Oh, that’s alright, ma’am. I was glad to be of help,” Annie replied, running her hands down the front of her apron to dry them.

“Now Annie, I’ve told you to call me Katherine,” Katherine reminded her.

“Yes, ma’am…ah…Katherine,” Annie obeyed.

“And I’d like you to come to the housewarming next month. Will you do that, Annie?” Katherine invited.

“You want I should come mind the baby fer ya?” Annie misinterpreted.

“No, I don’t want you should come mind the baby for me,” Katherine mimicked. “I want you to come as my guest…as my friend.”

A slow smile lit up Annie’s face. “‘Course I’ll come. ‘Course I’ll come…Katherine.”

“Good,” Katherine nodded, satisfied, as the two women regarded each other, an understanding reached. “I have something for you, Annie.”

“Fer me?”

“Yes,” Katherine replied, handing the package to Annie. “It’s a dress. A dress for the party. I hope you like it.”

Seeing Annie frozen in surprise, a dumbfound expression on her face, Katherine took the package and unwrapped it for her. Shaking out the dress she held it up. The pale blue material shimmered in the light as Annie sucked in her breath.

“I’m sorry it’s not a new dress, Annie,” Katherine apologized, “but I just thought it would suit you so well.”

Not used to presents of any kind, Annie hesitated. Eyeing the dress, she remarked, “My yeller calico’ll do just as well.”

“But Annie, you’d look so nice in this dress. Won’t you please take it?” Katherine pleaded. Seeing Annie’s hesitation, she added persuasively, “You know, blue is Hoss’s favourite colour.”

“Don’t matter to me what Hoss’s favourite colour is,” Annie said, her eye drawn back to the gown, a slight tinge of blush coming to her cheeks.

Secretly pleased at the telling blush, Katherine continued, “Yes, just this shade of blue too.” Holding up the gown to the front of Annie’s body, she added, “And the colour looks so nice with your dark hair.”

Looking down at herself, Annie hesitated, “Well, if’n you’re shore you won’t be wanting ter wear it again….”

“Annie, I’m positive,” Katherine, replied, smiling at her victory.

*****

His wife beckoning to him from across the room as she re-entered the great room a few moments later, Adam excused himself from his father and brothers to go to her side. As he neared her, she grabbed his arm to pull him close, whispering in urgent tones.

“Adam, what is Hoss’s favourite colour?”

Confounded by her question, he replied, “How should I know what Hoss’s favourite colour is?” At Katherine’s disappointed look, he shook his head in bewilderment and headed back to the others.

Really, he thought, the strange questions a woman could come up with.

*****

A month later…..

Seeing her husband leaning in the door frame, his eyes on her, Katherine called out, “I’m almost ready, Adam. Just give me another minute.” Fastening her small emerald earring to her lobe she turned towards him and sucked in her breath at what she saw in his eyes as he swept her appearance from head to foot. Katherine was wearing her dark green velvet dress, the one she’d worn a long time ago at a party at the Ponderosa. Katherine had only just been able to fit into the dress again after having the baby, the dress clinging to her curves, the added fullness of her bosom only adding an extra appeal.

“Come here,” Adam called to her.

“Adam, I…,” Katherine stammered, a little jolt coursing through her veins.

“I said ‘come here'”, Adam commanded, his voice brooking no denial.

Moving slowly to him, their eyes locked, Katherine stopped at arm’s length from him. Straightening, Adam reached out his hand into the pocket of space between her arm and the curve of her body, laying his hand along the side of her waist. With a sudden motion, he pulled her towards him, Katherine inhaling sharply as their bodies connected. His eyes traveled a path from hers down to stare at her mouth before slowing raking back to her eyes, his gaze telegraphing his intent. Lowering his head, he kissed her, the kiss deep, as Katherine wound her arms up around his neck. Pulling her close, Adam tightened his arms snaked around her back.

When the kiss had ended, both Katherine and Adam pulling away shaken and trembling, Adam said, “I have a present for you.” Reaching inside his jacket pocket he pulled out a black velvet covered case.

“Oh Adam,” Katherine began, “you didn’t have to buy me anything.”

“I know,” he acknowledged, opening the case.

“Oh, it’s lovely, Adam,” Katherine breathed to him, a small emerald necklace staring at her from the silk-lined interior. Turning her around, Adam pulled the necklace from inside and discarding the case on a small table nearby, he wound the jewellry around her neck to fasten it in the back.

Turning back to him, Katherine said, “It’s beautiful, Adam, thank you,” as the pulse at the base of her throat flickered erratically.

Running his finger along her skin at the edge of the necklace, Adam paused to touch the flickering pulse, a brief smile on his lips.

“No, Katherine,” he corrected. “You’re beautiful.”

Taking her hand, he pulled her from the room toward the party downstairs.

*****

Inside the new house, Hoss’s expression was glum. All about him were happy people talking and dancing but not him. Not since he’d seen Annie Tyler in that dress of hers and felt the stirrings of feelings he didn’t like. Didn’t like because….well, he knew he wasn’t like other men. Knew that his size made him different, apart from others, as if somehow he wasn’t entitled to have the same wants and desires as other men. And Annie Tyler in that dress sure made him think of those wants.

He’d purposely kept away from her all evening long, ever since he’d helped her out of the buggy, his hands burning as they spanned her ribcage to help her down. It didn’t do no good to think about something you couldn’t never have anyway, he thought. Why, Annie was such a pretty girl, she could have any man she wanted, and there were plenty of them here tonight to pick from.

Dancing a few times that night and feeling a little overwhelmed by all the noise and activity, Annie decided to head outside for some air. Strolling around the wide porch surrounding the house, she paused in a quiet corner near the back, leaning her back against one of the porch pillars, her hands behind her.

Coming round the corner a little later, Hoss was startled to see Annie not far away. He’d come outside himself to get away for a while not knowing she’d gone out too. He stared at her, her form luminous in the moonlight, her face in profile to him.

“Why, Annie,” Hoss said as he approached, surprise in his voice, “what are you doing out here? You should be inside dancing. I just know there’s lots of young fellers waiting to ask ya.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Annie answered, not really believing him as she turned her head to him. “I like it out here better. It’s quieter.”

Nodding his understanding, Hoss looked about him. “Shore is a fine place though,” Hoss noted, eyeing his brother’s handiwork on the big house.

“It’d be mighty hard to keep clean,” Annie’s practical eye observed.

Amused at her bluntness, Hoss teased, “Why Annie, wouldn’t you want a house like this someday?”

“Me?” Annie wondered, not really having given it any thought before. “Naw…I don’t think so. I remember….I remember once,” Annie began, turning her head away as she reflected, her voice softening at the remembrance, “when I was just a young’un, my Pa, he took me fishing up to a little cabin on the north edge of Sunfish Lake, out by the bluff…do you know the spot Hoss?” she paused to ask him, turning to look at him.

“Yeah, I know it,” Hoss answered slowly, his eyes suddenly intent upon her.

“It were real pretty there,” Annie continued dreamily, turning her head to stare out into the night, a far off look in her eyes, “quiet and peaceful like. I allus had a mind to go back there someday.”

Reflecting on her words, Hoss didn’t answer, the silence of the night stealing over them as they stood together, the laughter from inside the house seeming distant and far away.

“Hey, you two,” Little Joe called laughingly, spotting them as he rounded the corner, a girl on each arm, “come on in now. They’re just about to cut the cake,” as he and the giggling girls rushed past them.

The spell broken, Hoss and Annie headed into the house.

*****

Entering the room as Hoss as Adam spoke with the ranch hands, Annie pulled up short, frozen on the spot. A wall of feeling hit her, sudden and powerful. Afraid now, she instinctively stole up to Hoss’s side as she peered about the room to discover the source of her ill-feeling. Her focus suddenly narrowing on one of the men, she eased closer to Hoss’s side and unconsciously moved her hand across her body to touch his arm.

Feeling the touch and surprised by it, Hoss looked down at Annie. Seeing her fear, he followed her gaze across the room. Why she was staring at Jake Myers. Looking down at Annie again, Hoss could feel the tension in her body. Seeking to console her, even if he didn’t know why she was afraid, he placed his hand on top of hers. Startled by the contact, Annie quickly looked up and pulled away, not having realized what she had been doing. Turning from the room, she headed back towards the kitchen, a puzzled Hoss eyeing her departure.

“Ok, so Bill and Pete,” Adam was saying, “you two keep watch out up near the mesa. Steve and Jake, you two go on over to the flatlands. Charlie and Zeke, you head over to the north ridge.”

“Ok, Mr. Cartwright,” the men were agreeing, putting on their hats and heading towards the door.

“And remember,” Adam continued, opening the door for them, “you’re just acting as lookouts. Any trouble you spot you come back for reinforcements. Don’t go trying to handle anything by yourselves.”

“Right,” the men agreed, as they headed out the door.

Shutting the door behind them, Adam turned back to Hoss. “Well, that takes care of that,” he said. “If those rustlers think we’re going to take this lying down, they’ve got another think coming.”

Mulling over the preceding events, Hoss began slowly, “Say, Adam, how much do you know about that Jake Myers?”

“Jake?” Adam was surprised. “Same as the others, I guess. Why?” he asked, puzzled by the question and seeing the thoughtful look on Hoss’s face.

“I dunno…,” Hoss hesitated. “It’s just I think we oughter keep an eye out on him.”

“Oh?” Adam wondered. “You think it might be an inside job? Something he done to make you suspicious?”

“Well, no,” Hoss said. “It’s just…it’s just, Annie don’t like him,” Hoss admitted.

Eyeing his brother with a sharp appraisal, seeing something he was only now beginning to recognize, he asked slowly, waiting to weigh Hoss’s answer, “And that’s enough to make you suspicious of him?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Hoss stated.

Nodding his head in sudden understanding, Adam agreed, “Ok, we’ll keep an eye on him.”

*****

“So are we all clear about the plan?” Ben Cartwright posed the question to his three sons.

The three of them nodded in agreement, Hoss and Little Joe strapping on their gunbelts by the door as Annie entered the room.

“With any luck, we’ll nab the rustlers before nightfall,” Ben continued, as he opened the door and headed out, Little Joe and Adam following.

“Hoss? Hoss?” Annie approached him just as the other men disappeared out the door, pulling him aside. “What’s going on, Hoss?” she asked, worry in her voice.

“Annie, you don’t need to worry none about it. Just some business we’re taking care of,” Hoss replied, trying to placate her, for some reason not liking the worry in her voice.

“Is it rustlers, Hoss? Is that what your Pa was talking about?” she asked, still worried.

“Yeah, it is, Annie” Hoss confessed, “they been stealing cattle for weeks now and we’ve set a little trap for ’em.”

“A trap? What kind of trap?”

“Now, Annie, I’ve got to get going. My Pa is waiting. Everything’ll be fine. Don’t you worry,” he placated, as he headed out the door.

A sudden decision made, Annie followed him. “Wait. Wait, Hoss. I got something to tell you.”

“Annie, I don’t have time….”

“But…but…,” Annie called to his back. She wanted to tell him, tell him now about her feeling about Jake Myers. She didn’t care if he thought she was crazy. He was heading into a dangerous situation and maybe, just maybe Jake Myers was part of that danger. She needed to warn him, warn him so he wouldn’t get hurt.

As the men mounted their horses, Annie picked up her skirts and ran to Hoss, reaching him as he settled in his saddle. “Hoss, Jake Myers…Jake Myers…he’s…he’s…,” Annie faltered, looking up at him from the ground, her hand on his leg. “He’s no good, Hoss. You’ll be careful of him, won’t you Hoss?”

“I know, Annie,” Hoss replied. “I’ll be careful. Don’t worry.”

Stepping back from his horse, Annie watched as the Cartwright men rode away.

*****

Just before suppertime, Annie heard horses approaching and flinging the front door wide, she breathed a sigh of relief to see four horsemen approaching, apparently unhurt and unscathed. Watching them dismount and file into the house, she suddenly shrieked at the sight of blood on Hoss’s arm.

“Hoss, you’re hurt!”

“Oh, ain’t nothing but a scratch, Annie. Really, he just grazed me a little, that’s all.”

“You been shot, Hoss? Who shot you, Hoss?”

“Don’t worry, Annie,” interceded Ben. “The man who shot Hoss won’t be doing any more shooting…ever,” he added, his voice grim. “Though why he just had to shoot it out instead of coming peaceably like the others, I don’t know.”

“Someone got killed? One of the rustlers?”

“Yeah,” Hoss acknowledged. “The only one who tried to fight his way out.” Hoss paused.

“Jake Myers.”

*****

“Now you take that shirt off or I’ll cut it off,” Annie threatened, brandishing a large pair of kitchen scissors.

“But Annie…,” Hoss whined, a look of displeasure on his face.

“I mean it, Hoss Cartwright. Do you take that shirt off or do I cut it off?”

At Hoss’s continued hesitation, Annie decided, “Well, alright then, but I warned ya…” Approaching him with the dangerous looking blades, Hoss leaned away and put up his hand to halt her.

“Ok, Ok,” he acquiesced, and then mumbled under his breath, “dadburn woman” as he proceeded to undo the buttons on his shirt with his good arm. Annie put down her scissors and helped him as he shrugged out of his shirt.

“There now, let me take a look,” she said, carefully peeling the material away from his wound, as Hoss sat miserably before her, looking away. He was embarrassed for her to see him like this, embarrassed and something else. Knowing how well he could read her expressions he was afraid of what he’d see if he looked at her. Afraid she’d be put off by the sight of him, and not just the sight of the wound. Thinking he wasn’t a handsome man, he knew that his size and form were enough to scare off anyone.

“It don’t look too bad,” Annie opined as she inspected the wound, her touch gentle, her tone matter-of-fact. “Don’t look like it’s too deep neither.”

Not being able to help it, Hoss stole a glance at her. She didn’t seem to be reacting like she thought he was unsightly. Reaching for a cloth and the bottle of disinfectant, Annie instructed, “Now hold still while I clean you up. I’ll try to be careful as I can. I don’t wanna hurt you none.” Pouring some liquid onto the cloth she began to dab his arm. “Does that sting, Hoss?” she asked.

Meeting her eyes and seeing only caring and concern, Hoss replied, his meaning two-fold, “Don’t worry, Annie. You didn’t hurt me at all.”

*****

“What’s that you’ve got there, Pa,” Hoss asked, seeing his father reading a letter by the fire, his pipe in hand.

“It’s from Hop Sing,” Ben informed him.

“Hop Sing? Hey, how’s he getting along there in San Francisco anyway? All those relatives of his treating him okay?” Hoss teased.

“Yeah, he seems to be fine. But it looks like he’s coming home anyway,” Ben chuckled as he continued to read the letter.

“Coming home? Hop Sing’s coming home?” Hoss enquired.

“Yeah, says here he’ll be coming in on the stage on the 15th. That’d be just about three weeks, I guess.”

Absorbing that information, Hoss took on a thoughtful expression. He was glad Hop Sing was coming back, surely he was. But it certainly created a little bit of a dilemma.

“Pa…Pa….,” he began. “What about Annie, Pa?”

“Well, what about Annie, Hoss?” Ben countered.

“I told Annie we wouldn’t fire her, Pa. I mean to keep that promise,” Hoss’s voice held the merest hint of a challenge, something he didn’t often invoke in his father’s presence.

“Of course Annie can stay, Hoss,” Ben reassured him. “There’s more than enough work to go around. And I wouldn’t turn her out anyway…not after what she’s done for us. I don’t take the safe arrival of my granddaughter lightly, you know.”

Nodding his head, Hoss answered, “I’m glad to hear it, Pa. Well, I think I’ll turn in now. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Hoss,” Ben replied, eyeing his son as he left, a thoughtful expression on his face.

*****

Annie hadn’t been in bed more than a a half hour when she’d decided she needed a glass of water. Stealing out from under the covers she’d padded into the kitchen. Hearing voices from the great room, she’d eased closer to find out who was still up at this late hour. Why it was Ben and Hoss and they were talking about…they were talking about….Annie was horrified to hear them talking about her.

Turning away she headed back to her room, the glass of water forgotten, her mind racing as she tried to figure out just what to do now.

*****

Two weeks later, arriving home from the cattle drive, Hoss eagerly rode up to the ranch house and after quickly tying his horse to the post, he entered the house. He was eager to tell his Pa about his successful trip but more than that he was eager to see Annie. If he didn’t know how much he liked having her around before, he certainly knew now after being away from her for a spell.

“Hey, Pa,” Hoss greeted his father as he spotted him working at his desk.

“Well, Hoss,” Ben got up to greet his son. “You got back early. How’d everything go? Any problems?”

“No, Pa, everything went jist as smooth as silk. Here’s the bank draft from the cattle buyers,” Hoss said, pulling the slip of paper from his pocket. Handing the paper to his father, Hoss eyed the room. “Is Annie around?” he asked.

“Er…Annie’s not here, Hoss,” Ben explained.

“Oh? She in town getting supplies?”

“Nooo….,” Ben hesitating, for some reason not wanting to tell his son the truth. “Annie’s left. She’s gone back to Carson City.”

“What?” the news hit Hoss like a blow to the stomach.

“She left a week ago, Hoss. Said she missed living in the city and that she’d had word from some folks she’d worked for before and they wanted her back.”

“And you let her go?”

“Hoss…Hoss…she’s a grown woman. I couldn’t make her stay if she doesn’t want to,” Ben said, remembering the time he’d had trying to convince her to stay.

Hanging his head in defeat and knowing his father was right, Hoss gritted his teeth against the pain. A pain stronger than any he’d ever known.

*****

It was a glum group that met for lunch that day and not only because they’d had to do their own cooking. Adam and Katherine and Beth were visiting and even that didn’t enliven the environment.

“I can’t believe Annie would leave and not come say goodbye in person,” Katherine was lamenting. “It just doesn’t seem like her,” she said as Adam touched her arm to halt her, aware of his brother’s pain.

“Why do you suppose she’d leave?” Katherine continued, not thwarted at all. “Did something happen?”

“Katherine….,” Adam tried to intercede.

“No, Adam,” Katherine was adamant. “Annie wouldn’t have left without a good reason. It doesn’t seem like her to leave when she was needed here.”

Nodding his head in agreement, Ben said, “Well at least Hop Sing is coming back in a week.”

“Hop Sing is coming back?” Katherine asked. “When did you find that out?”

“Oh, about two weeks ago, just before Hoss left on the cattle drive,” Ben answered.

Reflecting on that information, Katherine mused, “I wonder if Annie left because she knew Hop Sing was coming back.”

Looking up from the untouched food on his plate, Hoss said, “But Annie didn’t know Hop Sing was coming back.”

“Seems to me Annie knows just about everything that goes on in this house whether she’s told or not,” Katherine observed.

A slight pause greeted that observation before Hoss Cartwright jumped up from his chair, startling the others as his chair fell backwards, banging on the wooden floor. Turning suddenly he headed to the door, strapping on his gunbelt and grabbing his hat.

Collecting himself as his son tore open the door, Ben called out, “Hoss, where are you going?”

Hoss yelled out his answer just as he yanked the door closed behind him.

“Carson City!”

*****

Annie’s career as a saloon girl lasted exactly two days.

Arriving in Carson City the week before and going on her usual job hunting rounds she hadn’t been able to come up with a single thing. She’d walked past the saloon and somehow not caring this time, she’d gone in to enquire about a job. At first, things has seemed to go fine, all that was required of her was to be nice to the men in the bar. When more than one of them got what she considered a little fresh, Annie slapped their hands away. But it wasn’t until the second day when she’d actually dumped a tankard of beer over a customer’s head that the barkeeper finally sacked her.

Arriving in town and heading to the general store, Hoss dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post before entering. Approaching the storekeeper, he enquired, “I’m looking for a girl named Annie Tyler…”

“Annie Tyler…,” the storekeeper thought. “Oh, yeah, seems I heard she’s working over at the saloon now. Such a nice girl too….,” he tsked, shaking his head.

His brow furrowing at this piece of information, Hoss Cartwright thanked him and left the store. Well, if that girl thought she was gonna work in the saloon, she had another thought coming, Hoss decided, as he headed in that direction. Entering the noisy establishment, Hoss surveyed the room and not seeing Annie about, he approached the barkeeper. “I’m looking for a girl named Annie Tyler…” he began again the words he had used at the general store.

“Oh, Annie,” replied the barkeeper thoughtfully. “I had to let her go. She wasn’t working out. Such a nice girl too….” he tsked, shaking his head.

Leaving the saloon and standing on the sidewalk outside, Hoss paused to survey the town around him. Now where could she be? Suddenly spying a familiar figure walking on the far side of the street, Hoss headed over.

Hurrying along the sidewalk, Annie was surprised to look up and see Hoss Cartwright approaching her, his pace almost a run. Stopping within a few feet of each other, Annie asked in a stunned voice, “What are you doing here?”

“I come to take you home,” Hoss declared, and moving towards her, he scooped her up in his arms.

“Hoss Cartwright, you put me down!” Annie shrieked.

“Annie Tyler, you’re coming with me!” Hoss answered.

“You put me down or I’ll scream!” she threatened, the curious eyes of some of the townsfolk on them.

“Scream all you want!” he urged, unperturbed, as he made to head down the sidewalk.

Changing her tactic, Annie threw her arms around his neck, burrowing her head into his shoulder. “Please, Hoss,” she begged, “let me go. Please let me go. I…I don’t wanna go with you,” her anguish over the lie adding a certain vulnerability to her voice.

Hearing the words and her tone, Hoss stopped, his heart tearing in two as he slowly set her on her feet. Her freedom won, Annie turned on her heel and ran.

Seeing her departure, Hoss felt his voice well up inside him, a single word torn from his throat, “ANNIE!”

Hearing her name and the anguish in his voice, Annie stopped short. Turning around she looked back at him, his face an expression of need and pain. Picking up her skirts she ran back to him. Coming up short within a few feet of him their eyes met and when she flew into his arms, his arms going round her to lift her off the ground, it seemed to her to be the most natural thing in the world.

They stayed that way a few minutes, oblivious to the stares of the townsfolk, when Hoss finally pulled back a little. “Annie, please come home. It just ain’t the same without you,” be begged.

“I’ll come back with you, Hoss,” she stated. “I’ll come back if’n you want me to.”

“Want you to?” he asked, incredulous. “Don’t you know how much I need you? Don’t you know how much I love you?”

Love you? Love you? LOVE YOU? Annie ran the words through her mind. Seems like she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had said those words to her…not since…not since her folks had died all them years ago. Quietly she began to cry, her shoulders shaking with her sobs.

“Annie, Annie honey, don’t cry,” Hoss urged.

“I ain’t crying, Hoss, really,” she denied. “I’m happy,” she corrected, as the tears continued to fall.

*****

Later on, when Annie was packing up her things, she asked, “But Hoss, with Hop Sing coming back, what will there be for me to do?”

“Well, now,” Hoss pretended to think it over. “Don’t reckon as we’ll be needing a housekeeper no more…hmm…” he screwed up his face in concentration. “Guess that leaves just one job opening that I know of,” he declared.

“What’s that?”

Hoss paused. “My wife. You could be my wife, Annie. That is, if’n you want to,” he amended, still unsure of himself.

Annie inhaled sharply, her eyes seeking out his to see if he really meant it. His expression convincing her he was serious, she replied slowly, “Why, Hoss, I guess that would be alright.” A mutual understanding reached, Hoss moved towards her to take her in his arms. “But there’s just one condition,” Annie halted him as his arms went to go around her.

“Oh? What’s that?” Hoss asked, deciding that if she asked for the moon, well, he would do his darndest to get it for her.

“You have to promise me something….You have to promise me you won’t ever fire me,” she stated, her voice serious.

Seeing her serious look, Hoss halted the laughter that threatened to errupt from him. “Annie, you have my word on it that I’ll never fire you,” he replied, equally serious.

“Well, alright then,” she smiled up at him. “I’ll take you for my husband.”

Drawing Annie to him, Hoss tilted her face upwards and lowered his head to kiss her, his arms moving to tighten around her. Rising up on her toes and stealing her arms around his neck, Annie returned his kiss. Pulling away when the kiss had ended, Annie spoke softly her own vow.

“And I promise I won’t ever fire you, Hoss Cartwright.”

*****

“Git your hands off of those cookies, Little Joe!” Annie blustered, slapping his hand away from the cooling rack with the wooden spoon.

Jumping back, Little Joe froze at her words. “Oh, don’t worry, Little Joe,” Hoss reassured him, “she don’t mean it. Go on and take a few.”

“Huh?” squeaked Little Joe. It sure seemed to him that Annie meant it.

“She’s not really angry,” Hoss explained. “She’s just pretending. You know, I can read her pretty good.”

“And just what do you think you can read, Hoss Cartwright?” Annie demanded, turning her attention to him. Seeing his opportunity, Little Joe quickly grabbed up a handful of cookies and stuffing one into his mouth he fled the room, his departure unnoticed by the two others.

“Now, Annie,” Hoss soothed. “You know I allus could read your looks pretty good.” And seeing the beginnings of annoyance forming there just then, he placated, “Well, maybe not all of your looks, just sorta most of them.”

Not really minding his extra perception, allowing that she maybe had a few extra perceptions of her own, Annie sighed. “Well, alright then, he may as well have a few…Joe?…Joe?” she looked about the room. “Well, I guess he’s long gone. You want a cookie, Hoss?” she offered instead.

“Naw,” he answered, moving closer and touching her arm. “I already got me something sweet.”

Annie looked up at him, her eyes softening at his indirect meaning. Seeing the look, Hoss observed, “I don’t know this one.”

“What?”

“I was saying I don’t know all your looks, Annie. I don’t know this one.”

“Why, Hoss, don’t you know?” she said, drawing his head down to hers by his ears, and whispering softly to him just before she brushed her lips to his.

“It’s love.”

***The End***

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