Sweet Annie (by Susan)

Synopsis:  It’s all about friendship.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  10,050


 

Author’s note: This story was originally published in the 2000 Bonanza Convention anthology. The theme of the convention was friendship, and that theme is reflected in this story.

 

 

The fireworks at the church bazaar weren’t scheduled until later that evening, but for Joe Cartwright, the sparks started flying the minute he saw the girl standing near a stall. Dressed in a pale green dress that accented her slim figure, the girl was reaching into her purse, searching for some coins to pay for a purchase. Joe wasn’t sure what attracted her to him. Maybe it was the way the sun glinted off her auburn hair, giving it the look of burnished copper. Or perhaps it was the warm smile she directed to the woman in the stall. Joe couldn’t see the girl’s eyes, but somehow he knew they were green – two bright emeralds set in a small, oval face. All Joe knew for sure was that he couldn’t take his own eyes off the girl, and that he had to meet her.

Crossing the grass of the small field that was hosting the bazaar, Joe hurried toward the girl, afraid she would disappear in the crowd before he could meet her. He reached the stall just as the girl was accepting a small package from the middle-aged woman in the booth.

“I’m sure you’ll like those handkerchiefs,” the older woman was saying as she handed over the brown paper package. “The stitching on them is especially fine.”

Removing his hat, Joe ran his fingers quickly through his hair, doing his best to comb his curly brown mane. Stepping forward, he introduced himself. “Excuse me, miss. I’m Joe Cartwright and I’d like to welcome you to Virginia City.”

Turning, the girl looked at Joe in surprise. “Why, thank you,” she said, giving the young cowboy a warm smile. “But how did you know I was new to Virginia City?” As Joe had guessed, her eyes were green. They shone brightly from a face of milky skin, dotted with a few small freckles.

“Joe knows every pretty girl for fifty miles around,” remarked the woman in the stall with a grin. “He’d be the first to recognize a new one.” Joe threw a scowl over his shoulder at the woman, but she only laughed at his look of displeasure.

“I consider it my duty to welcome new people to our community,” declared Joe formally as he turned his attention back to the girl. He flashed what he hoped was his most charming smile. “I hope you’ll be staying in our town for a while, Miss….”

“Owens,” the girl supplied. “Laurie Owens. And yes, I’ve just moved here with my family. My father is the new manager of the Wells Fargo office. We arrived from Denver only a few days ago.”

“Denver’s loss is Virginia City’s gain,” observed Joe gallantly.

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” Laurie replied, her smile becoming even warmer.

“Please call me Joe,” urged the young Cartwright. “I’m very happy to make your acquaintance, Miss Owens.”

“My friends call me Laurie,” the girl said. “I hope you’ll do so.”

“I’d be honored to be considered your friend,” Joe answered. “Since you’re so new to Virginia City, I’d be pleased to escort you around the bazaar and introduce you to some of the folks.”

Before Laurie could answer, an excited shout filled the air. Joe turned and saw a small girl running across the field. Her hair was a bright red, braided into pigtails, and she ran toward Laurie as fast as her thin legs could carry her.

“Laurie, Laurie!” shouted the child. “This is a fun place! They’ve got ice cream and games and all kinds of things. You have to come see. Come and see!” As the child finished in a breathless rush of words, she grabbed Laurie’s hand and began to pull on it.

“Annie, wait a minute,” Laurie stated in a firm voice, putting her arm around the little girl. “This is Mr. Cartwright. Joe, this is my little sister, Annie.”

Squatting, Joe lowered himself to Annie’s eye level. “Hello, Annie,” he said with a smile. “And how old are you?”

“Seven but I’ll be eight soon,” answered Annie shyly. She pulled at the skirt of Laurie’s dress, partially hiding herself behind the cloth.

Joe was surprised at Annie’s age. He would have guessed the child to be only about five. His surprise must have been evident on his face because Laurie said softly, “Annie is small for her age. But we’re sure she’ll start growing soon.”

“I know what it’s like to be the smallest,” Joe told Annie with a smile. “My Pa used to call me Little Joe. In fact, he still does sometimes.”

“My Papa calls me Sweet Annie,” acknowledged the child, dropping the handful of cloth from Laurie’s skirt.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Sweet Annie,” Joe declared solemnly. He stood and smiled at Laurie. “I’d be happy to buy some ice cream for two of the prettiest ladies in Virginia City.”

“Oh, Laurie, can we get some ice cream?” asked Annie in an excited voice. “I saw it and it’s all creamy and yummy looking. Can we, Laurie? Please?”

“All right,” Laurie replied, laughing. “But not too much. We don’t want to spoil your supper.”

“Yippee!” shouted Annie. “I’ll show you where it is.” She started off in a fast trot across the field.

Extending his arm, Joe said, “We’d better catch up with her before she runs down half the people in town. Looks like Sweet Annie has a sweet tooth.”

“I’m afraid she does,” answered Laurie, taking Joe’s arm. “My father and I are terrible about indulging her. But somehow, we can’t seem to resist giving in to her.”

“What about your mother?” asked Joe as he led Laurie across the grass.

“She died when Annie was born,” explained Laurie in a sober voice. “I suppose that’s partially why my father and I spoil Annie so much. I was only twelve when Annie was born, but I’ve always tried to make up for her not having a mother. My father is the same way. She was such a small baby. I guess we both felt we wanted to do anything that would make her grown big and strong, as well as not feel the lack of a mother.”

Nodding, Joe felt a familiar pang. He too had grown up as a motherless child, raised for almost all of his 22 years by his father and two older brothers. He wanted to tell Laurie that her efforts would keep Annie from missing her mother, but he knew in good conscience that he couldn’t. Despite all the love and care he had received from his family, Joe still had those moments when he felt a sense of having missed something important in his life. He suspected that Laurie felt a sense of loss also, but she at least had some memories of her mother to comfort her. Annie, like Joe, would never have those memories.

Smiling quickly, Joe noted, “I’m sure Annie is lucky to have you.”

“I suppose,” answered Laurie with a sigh. “It would be nice if she had someone else to be close to, though. My father has been transferred three times in the last seven years, and we’ve had more housekeepers than I can remember. Annie hasn’t had an opportunity to develop close friendships. She doesn’t really have anyone but us. I worry sometimes about that.” Shaking her head a bit, Laurie smiled. “How did we get on such a gloomy subject? It’s a glorious spring day and we’re here to have fun. I think a bit of ice cream is just what I need right now.”

“I think someone else feels that way too,” Joe agreed as they approached a stall. Five or six people were crowded in front of the booth, including Annie, who shuffled her feet with impatience.

“Hurry up!” demanded Annie. “They might run out.”

“I’m sure they have plenty of ice cream, Annie,” replied Laurie in a soothing voice. “We just need to wait our turn.”

“We’d be first if you two had hurried,” grumbled Annie. Both Joe and Laurie laughed at the little girl’s complaint as they waited behind an older couple.

When the couple in front of them moved on, Joe stepped up to the stall and greeted the tall, thin young man standing inside the booth. “Hello, Roger. Looks like you’re doing a booming business.”

“Hi, Joe,” Roger returned the greeting. “Yeah, we’re selling ice cream almost as fast as Pa can make it.” He jerked his head toward an older man sitting among sacks of salt and sugar as well as tins of milk. The man scooped some ice from a large tub and dumped it into the wooden apparatus in front of him, then started turning the crank.

With a smile, Roger gave Laurie a look that was both friendly and curious. “Howdy, ma’am,” he said.

“Roger, this is Laurie Owens and her sister, Annie,” Joe explained. “They’ve just moved to Virginia City.” He turned to Laurie. “Roger and his family run the hardware store.”

“I’m pleased to meet you,” Laurie acknowledged the introduction.

“I want some ice cream!” demanded Annie in a loud voice from the corner in front of the stall.

“Coming up,” Joe told the little girl with a laugh. “Give us three ice creams, Roger.”

Nodding, the young man turned to a table behind him which seemed covered with stacks of bowls. He grabbed three of the bowls, then reached into a metal can in the middle of the table. With a practiced ease, Roger scooped out a large portion of ice cream and plopped some into each dish. He added a spoon to each bowl, then turned back to the front of the stall. “Here you go,” he said as he put the bowls on the board at the front of the booth. “That’ll be three bits.”

“That’s a bit expensive,” observed Laurie, her eyes widening a bit.

“It’s for a good cause, ma’am,” replied Roger with a smile. “We’re trying to raise enough money for a new roof for the church.”

Reaching into his green jacket, Joe pulled out a silver dollar and slapped it on the board. “Keep the change.”

“Thanks, Joe,” replied Roger, picking up the coin. “We’d appreciate it if you’d bring the bowls back when you’re finished.” He eyed Laurie again, then added with a sly grin, “Enjoy yourself, ma’am. I’m sure Joe will show you a good time.” Joe frowned a bit, not sure exactly what Roger was implying.

Her patience at an end, Annie grabbed one of the bowls from the board and began digging the spoon into the creamy white ice cream.

“Annie, don’t gobble it,” Laurie warned her sister. “You’ll make yourself sick.”

“I won’t,” replied Annie, but she already had a spoon full of ice cream aimed toward her mouth.

Handing Laurie one of the bowls, Joe looked around. He spotted some benches sitting under a tree. “Why don’t we go over there and sit down,” he suggested, nodding toward the benches.

“All right,” agreed Laurie. “Come along, Annie.” Intent on her ice cream, the little girl ignored her sister until Laurie reached down and gently pushed her on the back.

As the trio settled on the benches, Annie continued to concentrate on her ice cream, scooping spoon after spoon of the frozen concoction into her mouth. Laurie and Joe, on the other hand, only occasionally put a spoonful of ice cream to their mouths. They were too interested in learning about each other to pay much attention to anything else. Joe laughed as Laurie told him stories about a string of seemly eccentric housekeepers the Owens had employed, then countered with some stories of his own about the sometimes odd behavior of Hop Sing, the Cartwrights’ cook. Their stories moved to the adventures of growing up – Joe on the Ponderosa, the family ranch, and Laurie moving from town to town as her father was transferred.

Finishing her ice cream, Annie set the bowl on the bench and looked around. She watched the knots of people strolling across the field, stopping at stalls or just looking. Annie turned to look at Laurie and Joe, and wrinkled her nose in displeasure at the two of them. Neither her sister or Joe paid any attention to Annie; their eyes seemed to be locked on each other.

Hopping down from the bench, Annie walked a few steps to stand in front of Laurie and Joe. Still being ignored, Annie frowned. Taking two very deliberate steps forward, Annie grabbed Laurie’s hand. “I want to play some games,” the little girl demanded. “You promised, Laurie.”

A bit startled, Joe turned toward Annie. He frankly had forgotten all about her. “Why don’t you take the bowls back,” he suggested, picking up the two bowls from the bench and nestling one inside the other. “Can you do that?”

“I’m not a baby,” replied Annie in a disgusted voice. She turned to Laurie. “If I take the bowls back, then can we play some games?” she asked plaintively.

“Yes, of course,” Laurie agreed with a smile. “Don’t forget your bowl.”

As Annie took the bowls from Joe, she gave him another look of displeasure, then skipped around her sister to get her own bowl.

“We really have been ignoring Annie,” Laurie apologized to Joe. She turned to watch her sister walking across the grass, carefully holding the bowls as she proceeded toward the ice cream booth. Turning back to Joe, Laurie added, “We came here so Annie could have some fun. I never expected that I would meet….a new friend.”

“Sometimes, you never know where things might lead,” replied Joe, still staring into Laurie’s face. Laurie blushed a bit and looked down.

“I took the bowls back,” yelled Annie as she raced across the grass back to the bench. “Now can we play games?”

Sighing, Joe turned to the little girl. “What games would you like to play?” he asked, giving Annie a brief smile.

“Beanbag toss,” Annie declared firmly. “I’m really good at tossing things.”

“Beanbag toss it is,” agreed Laurie, getting to her feet. Joe rose also and took a step toward Laurie. But Annie was quicker. She wiggled in between the two, grasping Laurie’s hand firmly. Looking up at Joe, she gave him a grin of triumph.

“Let’s find the beanbag booth,” said Joe, shaking his head ruefully. It wasn’t often that he was defeated when it came to courting pretty girls, and certainly never by a seven year old.

As the trio walked across the grass, Annie made sure to keep herself firmly between Joe and Laurie. The three jumped in surprise, though, when a loud series of pops exploded behind them. Joe whirled around just in time to see two giggling boys scampering off. He grinned a bit as he noted the small flakes of paper and ash floating to the ground.

“What was that?” asked Annie, her eyes wide.

“Just some firecrackers,” Joe answered. “Those two little scamps must have set them off. I can’t remember any celebration when there weren’t firecrackers around. The Chinese in town who make them really do a big business whenever there’s some kind of bazaar or ceremony.”

“Can I have some firecrackers, Laurie? Please?” Annie begged her sister.

“Absolutely not,” answered Laurie firmly. “They’re much too dangerous, especially for a little girl.”

“I’ll be careful,” Annie promised. “Just a few? Please?”

“No,” Laurie said again, her voice sounding even firmer. “And don’t try to wheedle them out of me, Annie, because I’m not going to say yes.”

Jutting out her lower lip, Annie looked down.

“There’s the beanbag booth,” announced Joe, trying to coax the little girl out of her pout. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a quarter. “Here’s enough for five tries.”

Her face still expressing a pout, Annie eyed the quarter in Joe’s hand. She hesitated a moment, then snatched the coin. Unable to resist the lure of the game, Annie ran to the booth a few feet in front of her.

“Joe, that’s bribery,” Laurie said in an accusing tone of voice. But her face broke into a smile.

“Yeah, but it worked,” admitted Joe with a grin. He moved to stand close to Laurie. “And it will keep Annie busy for awhile.” Joe reached down and took Laurie’s hand in his.

It seemed to Joe that only a few moments had passed before Annie was running back to the couple. “I won!” the little girl shouted in excitement. “See, Laurie, I won this little horse.” Annie held up a small carving of a pony, painted in brown with a black mane and tail.

“That’s wonderful, Annie,” Laurie replied, but her tone of voice showed her distraction. She continued to smile in Joe’s direction.

Pulling her face into a pout once more, Annie looked at her sister, then at Joe. Neither seemed to notice her. Squaring her shoulders, Annie turned and stomped off.

It took a few minutes for Laurie to realize her sister had left, but when she did, a look of panic crossed her face. “Joe! Where’s Annie?” she cried.

Looking around, Joe spotted the little girl a few feet away, standing with a knot of other children watching a juggler. “There she is,” said Joe, pointing. “She’s fine.”

“I shouldn’t have lost track of her like that!” exclaimed Laurie, her face reflecting her sense of guilt. She hurried toward the group of children, with Joe trailing after her.

“Annie, you should have told me where you were going,” Laurie chided her sister as she came up to the little girl.

Turning, Annie shrugged. “You didn’t seem to care.”

“I do care,” Laurie protested. She looked around. “Where’s the little horse you won? Did you lose it?”

“No,” answered Annie. “I traded it for something else I wanted.”

“What did you trade it for?” asked Joe curiously.

“It’s a secret,” replied Annie, deliberately turning her head away from him.

Reaching down, Laurie took Annie’s hand. “It’s time to go, dear,” she said. “We have to meet Papa.”

Surprised, Joe stepped forward. “Do you really have to leave?” he asked Laurie. “There’s a box dinner later and I thought maybe you might eat with me.”

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Laurie answered, shaking her head. “We’d only planned to stay a little while. I promised my father I’d be home to make dinner tonight.” She smiled at Joe. “I didn’t expect the bazaar to turn into, well, something quite so nice.”

“Well, how about tomorrow?” asked Joe quickly. “Could I take you for a buggy ride? There’s some really pretty country around here that I’d like to show you.”

“That would be nice,” agreed Laurie.

“I want to go too,” insisted Annie.

“You weren’t invited,” Joe told the little girl pointedly.

“But I want to go,” wailed Annie.

“We’ll take you another time,” Laurie promised her sister. “But now, we really need to meet Papa. He’ll be waiting by the church door and start worrying if we don’t show up soon.”

“I’ll walk you there,” offered Joe, extending his arm.

Frowning, Annie watched Laurie slip her right arm through Joe’s. The little girl tried to move between the pair again, but this time, Laurie kept her left hand firmly clasped around Annie’s hand. Frustrated, Annie dragged her feet and walked slowly. Neither Laurie nor Joe seemed to notice.

As the trio approached the front of the church, a grey-haired man wearing a dark suit walked forward to meet them. “There’s my girls,” said the man, smiling. His smile disappeared as he saw Joe and realized he was holding Laurie’s arm in his.

“Papa, I’d like you to meet Joe Cartwright,” Laurie said with a smile. “He was nice enough to show Annie and me around the bazaar.”

“Cartwright, eh?” acknowledged Owens. “I’ve met your father. He seems like a fine man.”

“He is, sir,” replied Joe. He reached out his hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Owens.”

Somewhat mollified by Joe’s good manners, Owens took Joe’s hand and shook it briefly. “I appreciate your watching out for my girls.”

“I’d like to take Laurie for a ride tomorrow and show her the countryside, if it’s all right with you,” said Joe.

“I want to go too,” Annie added in a loud voice.

“Annie, I already said no,” Laurie informed her sister. She turned to her father. “Joe and I will only be gone a few hours. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Well…” began Mr. Owens.

“They only want to go riding so they can get all kissy and huggy and stuff,” advised Annie in a disgusted voice. “That’s why they won’t let me come.”

“Annie, that’s not true!” exclaimed Laurie. “Papa, Joe just wants to show me around a bit. Really, that’s all there is to it.”

Standing silently, Joe tried to look Mr. Owens in the eye. If the truth were known, Joe had planned to plant a few kisses on Laurie during the ride, but he knew that wasn’t a fact he should share with Laurie’s father.

Looking Joe over, Mr. Owens’ eyes narrowed a bit. He knew the Cartwright name was respected in Virginia City, but he also saw a handsome young man, full of vigor. “I don’t object to you taking a ride with Mr. Cartwright,” he agreed slowly. “But it might be a good idea to take Annie along. She could use some fresh air and the ride might do her good.”

With a sinking heart, Joe nodded. “I’d be happy to have her join us,” he lied.

Giving a brief nod, Mr. Owens turned to his daughters. “Come along, girls. It’s time we were heading for home.”

“I’ll pick you up about one o’clock,” Joe told Laurie. He scowled at Annie who smiled sweetly in return.

As Laurie walked off with her father and sister, Joe stood by the church watching. He didn’t realize that two people had come up behind him until he felt a large hand on his shoulder.

“There you are, little brother,” boomed Hoss Cartwright. “We’ve been looking all over for you. We wanted to know if you wanted to team up with Adam and me for the horseshoe throwing contest.”

Still staring at the retreating figures, Joe answered softly. “No, I don’t think so. You go on without me.”

Seeing the look on Joe’s face, Hoss turned to see what held his little brother’s attention. He saw the auburn-haired girl in the green dress walking the down the street. The girl turned and smiled at Joe; she gave a small wave, and then hurried to catch up to her father and sister.

“Uh oh,” said Hoss, shaking his head. “I know that look. He’s got a real bad case, Adam.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty serious,” Adam Cartwright agreed. He also had followed Joe’s gaze and seen the girl smile at Joe.

“What are you two talking about?” asked Joe in an irritated voice.

“You,” answered Hoss. “Every time you get that dreamy look on your face, we know you’re coming down with a bad case of love sickness.”

“Not that we particularly care,” added Adam. “Except we know that you’re going to be totally useless around the ranch for the next week or so.”

“And we get stuck doing your chores while you off courting some pretty young thing,” declared Hoss. He shook his head. “Let me guess. You want out of chores tomorrow afternoon so you can take that gal on a buggy ride.”

“Just for a few hours,” protested Joe. “I’ll get my chores done before I leave.”

“And you’ll want some time off for a picnic the next day,” mused Adam. “That’ll get you out of branding.”

“Sounds like a pretty good plan to me, Adam,” Hoss agreed solemnly but his eyes twinkled with amusement. “Wonder how we can catch some of that love sickness?”

“Aw, shut up,” said Joe in an exasperated tone. “Let’s go throw some horseshoes.”

*****

Three days after the bazaar, Joe came down the stairs slowly to join his father and brothers at the breakfast table. Sliding into his seat, Joe mumbled a brief “Morning” and reached for the coffee.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben Cartwright greeted his youngest son. Joe nodded in his father’s direction.

“Are we going to have the honor of your presence at the branding pen today?” asked Adam in a sarcastic voice.

“Might as well be branding calves as anything else,” replied Joe glumly.

Eyebrows arched, Adam exchanged a glance with Hoss. “What’s the matter, Joe?” Adam asked, trying to keep a straight face. “Romance not going well?”

“Yeah, Joe, what’s wrong?” chimed in Hoss. “Ain’t that little gal as interested in you as you are in her?”

Looking up from the plate he had just filled with eggs and bacon, Joe said in a voice tinged with despair, “I don’t think I’m ever going to find out. Laurie and I can’t be together more than five minutes without her little sister showing up. ‘Sweet Annie’, as her father calls her, is always with us, watching and interfering. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was spying on us.”

“And just what are you planning to do with this young lady that her little sister can’t observe?” asked Ben in a stern voice.

“Nothing, Pa, honest,” answered Joe quickly. “All I want to do is be with Laurie and maybe hold hands. Really, that’s all, Pa. But I can’t even do that. On Monday, when I took Laurie for a buggy ride, Annie insisted on sitting on the seat between us. Said she could see better that way. Yesterday, when we were on the picnic, Laurie and I never had a minute to ourselves. Annie constantly needed her dressed tied, or help with her shoes or something. I saw had more time alone with Laurie when I said good-bye to her on her porch than I had all day at the picnic.”

“Well, halleluiah!” exclaimed Adam suddenly. “Since you’re the youngest, I never thought you’d have the experience of a youngster spoiling your dates. It’s about time you got a taste of your own medicine.”

Frowning, Joe asked, “What do you mean, Adam?”

“What he means, little brother,” explained Hoss with a grin, “is that you’re finally getting to know what it’s like to have a kid around making your life miserable while you’re trying to court a girl. You did it so many times to Adam and me, we lost count. Well, now it’s payback time.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” mumbled Joe. But he even as he spoke the words, he looked down at his plate, and a small flush of red started creeping us his neck.

“Oh no?” said Adam. “How about that time I took Carol Easley on a picnic? You came riding up and insisted you had something in your saddlebag she needed to see. I can still hear her screams when she reached in and pulled out a snake out of that saddlebag.”

“I was only ten,” Joe said defensively. “I was just mad because you promised to take me fishing and dumped me for a girl instead.

“What about the time I took Susie Benson down by the lake?” asked Hoss. “She nearly died of fright when you popped out of the lake, covered with leaves and stuff. She thought you were a sea monster or something.”

“Susie Benson was afraid of her own shadow,” Joe replied. “She wasn’t right for you. I was just trying to show you that.”

“I would have preferred to find it out for myself,” advised Hoss, cocking his head.

“How about that night I was walking with Maureen Casey in lane after the dance,” added Adam. “She almost fainted when you fell out of the bushes and landed at her feet.”

“That was an accident, Adam,” Joe defended himself. “I just wanted to watch and I lost my balance. I was only twelve and still trying to figure out what you did with girls when you went walking in the moonlight.”

“Considering your track record since then, I’d say you figured it out pretty good,” commented Hoss.

“I’m a fast learner,” answered Joe with a grin. Then his face sobered. “All right, I admit it. I pulled some pretty dumb stunts on you fellows. But this is different. It’s not like Annie is pulling tricks. She’s just always…there,” Joe’s voice with filled with frustration when he finished.

“What does Laurie say about her sister being with you so much?” asked Ben.

“Laurie is too tender-hearted to make her stay home,” admitted Joe. “She says that Annie is just a lonely little girl who doesn’t have a mother or any friends. Laurie doesn’t want her being alone at home with the housekeeper all day.”

“Well, isn’t that the truth?” asked Ben.

“Well, sure, I guess,” Joe agreed. “But it’s not fair to Laurie. She needs some time away from Annie.”

“Not fair to Laurie?” said Ben, arching his eyebrows. “Or to you?”

“All right, I admit it,” answered Joe, spreading his hands. “I want some time alone with Laurie. But what can I do? I mean it. What can I do? Short of locking Annie in a closet, I’m never going to get a chance to be alone with Laurie.”

“You might try seeing things from the little girl’s point of view,” suggested Ben. “All those tricks you used to play on your brothers, those were done out of jealousy, or curiosity, or just being a bit overprotective. I’m sure Annie is feeling those same emotions. Maybe if you and Laurie would include Annie in your activities, instead of trying to ignore her, Annie won’t be quite as intrusive.”

“It’s not just her being around,” Joe said in a gloomy voice. “She tells Laurie’s father everything we do.” Looking at Ben, Joe added quickly. “Not that we do anything that Annie couldn’t tell her father. Only the way she tells things, Annie makes it sound like I’m trying to carry Laurie off or something. Mr. Owens gives me some dark looks every time I’m at the house.”

“Maybe he’s giving you them looks because you deserve them, Joe,” Hoss commented, cackling with laugher. “Maybe he’s heard some things and your chickens are coming home to roost.”

“I’ve never done anything to deserve looks like that,” protested Joe.

Waving his hand a bit, Ben said, “Joe’s got a point. If Annie is telling stories to her father, Joe may be being unfairly judged.”

“Right,” agreed Joe, nodding in satisfaction. “It’s not fair.”

“On the other hand,” continued Ben, “Joe hasn’t exactly demonstrated to Laurie’s father that he’s type of man who can accept responsibility. Pushing away a small child to spend time with her sister doesn’t exactly endear someone to a father.”

“But, Pa…” Joe started.

Ben held up his hand. “Joseph, I’m just saying that the perception is that you’re pushing the little girl away, not that you are,” explained Ben. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “When are you suppose to see Laurie again?”

“I don’t know,” said Joe in an unhappy voice. “After yesterday’s picnic, we just sort left it open.”

“Well, I suggest you ask Laurie if you can have a dinner with her and her family,” Ben proposed. “Let her father get to know you and find out what a fine young man you are. At the same time, if Annie is too intrusive, her father will realize it and perhaps do something about it.”

“And what if he doesn’t?” countered Joe.

“Well, then you’re no worse off than you are now,” answered Ben. “At least, you can try it.”

“I suppose,” agreed Joe, but his voice suggested his doubts about Ben’s idea.

“Look, little brother,” remarked Hoss, “maybe Annie isn’t that bad. Maybe you just need to get to know her a little better. You might enjoy having her around.”

“Yeah, she’s no worse than having a pet rattlesnake,” Joe replied sarcastically. “You never know when she’s going to show up and strike next.”

Laughing, Adam said, “You know, I think I said that about you once or twice.”

“Well, if this doesn’t work,” added Ben, “there is one sure cure for the situation.”

“Yeah, what’s that?” asked Joe curiously.

“You can wait about ten years until Annie grows up,” answered Ben with a grin. His grin turned into a laugh when he saw the look of dismay on his youngest son’s face.

*****

Peering into the mirror, Joe nervously checked his appearance one more time. He was pleased with the reflection of his crisp white shirt and carefully combed hair. Deciding that the string tie around his neck was too formal for a family dinner, Joe yanked on the end of the tie. As the string unraveled from its knot, Joe slid it from around his neck and gathered it in his hand.

“Don’t he look pretty, Adam?” said a voice behind Joe.

Turning, Joe saw his brother Hoss standing in the doorway of his bedroom and his brother Adam lounging against the door frame.

“I don’t think pretty is the look he’s going for,” commented Adam. “I think he’s trying to come across as dependable, reliable and a lover of small children.”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Joe replied sarcastically. He flung the string tie on the bureau in front of the mirror. “You’re just jealous because I’m spending the evening with a pretty girl and her family, instead of you two.”

“Be careful that you aren’t too charming,” cautioned Hoss with grin. “Her Pa is liable to go from not liking you to calling the preacher for a wedding.”

“Don’t you two have something to do?” asked Joe, clearly annoyed with his brothers. He walked over to his bed and picked up the green jacket lying across it.

“Not a thing,” replied Adam with a shrug.

“Well, go find something,” ordered Joe as he shrugged into the jacket. “I don’t need any advice from you hyenas on how to make friends with Laurie’s father and sister.”

“Seriously, Joe,” advised Adam, straightening in the doorway, “don’t try to put on an act. You want Laurie’s family to know and like you for who you are, not someone you pretend to be. Just be yourself.” A small smile crossed Adam’s face. “Well, it may be wise to show a bit more manners and restraint than you usually do.”

“Thanks a lot,” Joe said dryly. He snatched the tan hat perched on the post of his bed and, turning to the mirror, carefully positioned the hat on his head. Tugging on the jacket to straighten it a bit, Joe checked his appearance in the mirror once more. Satisfied, he turned toward the door. “If you two will excuse me, I have a young lady waiting for me.” Joe pushed past his brothers and left the bedroom.

Watching Joe stride down the hall, Adam remarked, “You know, Hoss, I think you and I should ride into Virginia City tonight.”

“Aw, Adam, I don’t mind joshing Joe,” replied Hoss, frowning a bit. “But I don’t want to pull any tricks on him and mess up his dinner with the Owens.”

“Neither do I,” answered Adam. “But I am curious about how things turn out. I figure one way or the other, Joe will end up in the Silver Dollar – either to drown his sorrows if things go badly, or to celebrate if he manages to pull this off. I’d kind of like to hear what happens before Joe gives Pa an edited version at breakfast.”

“Yeah,” agreed Hoss, his face brightening. “So would I.” He clamped his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I think going to Virginia City is a good idea, and since you suggested it, I’ll let you buy the beer.”

*****

Three hours later, as he sat next to Laurie on the sofa in her parlor, Joe was feeling very pleased with himself. In his mind, the dinner had been a big success. He had been on his best behavior, and had what he felt was both intelligent and respectful conversations with Mr. Owens and Laurie. At first, Laurie’s father had been rather aloof, but as the dinner wore on, Mr. Owens had appeared to warm toward him.

More importantly, during the dinner, Mr. Owens had seemed to realize how Annie was acting around Joe. Twice, the little girl had made giggling remarks about Laurie and Joe which obviously were meant to embarrass Joe. Joe had hid his irritation and merely smiled at Annie. And, both times, Mr. Owens had gently but firmly told Annie to be nice to their guest. When the dinner was concluded, Annie had run to Laurie and, deliberately ignoring Joe, begged her sister to play a game of checkers. Joe had seen what he hoped was a dawning of understanding on Mr. Owens’ face as Annie’s father had suggested she play in her room. And the tone of Mr. Owens’ voice made it clear that his suggestion was really an order.

What made Joe’s triumph complete was Mr. Owens’ comment that he had some work to do at the Wells Fargo office. Giving Joe a nod that implied both approval and trust, Mr. Owens had departed the house, leaving Joe and Laurie alone for virtually the first time.

Inching a bit closer to Laurie on the sofa, Joe remarked, “That was a great dinner.”

“Thank you, but Mrs. O’Brien deserves all the credit,” answered Laurie with a smile. “She did most of the preparation. All I had to do was stick things in the oven after she left for the day.”

Leaning toward Laurie a bit, Joe observed, “Well, you did a nice job of sticking things in the oven. And you have a very nice home.”

“Most of these things came with the house,” Laurie said, her smile widening a bit. “Our own furniture and other belongings won’t arrive until next week. We only brought some clothes and whatever else we could carry on the stage. Wells Fargo is moving the rest of it.”

Joe bent forward a bit more, bringing his face closer to Laurie’s. “I suppose that’s why your father had to go to the office,” he murmured. “How long do you think he’ll be gone?”

Looking into Joe’s eyes, Laurie answered softly, “Probably an hour or so.” Bending a bit toward Joe, she added, “We’re all alone.”

Nodding, Joe put his arm around Laurie’s shoulders and pulled her gently toward him. Her mouth looked soft and inviting. Joe saw Laurie’s lips pucker a bit and he moved to put his lips on hers. He felt the soft skin of Laurie’s mouth and….

POP! POP! POP! POP! POP! POP!

At the sound of the first eruption, Joe jerked back from Laurie, startled and confused. The second noisy outburst caused Joe to jump to his feet. Automatically, his left hand reached for his hip, seeking the holster and gun that weren’t there. It wasn’t until he heard the series of quick little bursts that Joe realized that firecrackers were exploding near the sofa.

Frowning, Joe looked around and saw Annie standing in the doorway of the parlor, laughing in delight. She was holding a telltale burned match in her fingers. “Why, you little…,” Joe began angrily. He started across the room, his legs covering the distance in quick strides.

Seeing the fury on Joe’s face, Annie’s laughter quickly died. She turned and ran. By the time Joe reached the doorway, she was disappearing up a flight of stairs to the safety of the rooms above.

“Joe, wait!” cried Laurie, catching up to him as he reached the bottom of the stairs. She grabbed Joe’s arm and held on. “Joe, wait. Annie didn’t mean anything by it. She was just playing a trick.”

“Just playing a trick!” replied Joe angrily. “I thought someone was shooting at us. If I had been wearing a gun, I might have taken a shot at her.”

“You should have seen the look on your face,” noted Laurie with a giggle. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone’s eyes grow that big.”

Letting the anger seep from his body, Joe acknowledged grudgingly, “I guess I did look a little surprised. But you’re not going to let her get away with this, are you?”

“Of course not,” said Laurie firmly. She moved closer to Joe. “Annie is going to be severely punished…later.” Laurie eased herself in front of Joe and put her arms around him. “We only have a little while until my father returns.”

Smiling, Joe wrapped his arms around Laurie. “I suppose there are more important things right now than worrying about Annie.”

“It’s partially my fault,” explained Laurie softly. “Annie asked me what it was like to kiss someone and I told her it was sort of like fireworks exploding.”

“And is it?” asked Joe, moving his head closer.

“I think I need to be sure,” murmured Laurie. She tilted her head invitingly, and Joe moved to put his lips against hers.

Holding each other tightly, Joe and Laurie exchanged kisses that were a bit tentative at first, then grew more sure. Laurie moved her hand to Joe’s neck and pulled his head even closer to her. Joe’s hand tightened on the small of Laurie’s back.

Suddenly, Laurie pulled away. “Joe,” she said with a slight frown. “Do you smell smoke?”

“Fireworks,” Joe murmured, “not smoke.”

“I’m serious, Joe,” insisted Laurie, her frown deepening. She took a step back and looked over Joe’s shoulder. “Joe!” she cried. “Fire!”

Spinning around, Joe saw dark, thick smoke drifting out of the parlor. He could hear the crackle of fire and just barely see the edges of orange flames. “Holy cow!” exclaimed Joe. “Those firecrackers must have started a fire!”

Pushing Laurie back a bit, Joe rushed through the smoke into the parlor. The sofa was already fully engulfed in flames, and trails of fire were burning across the carpet. A thin stream of flame was working its way up the side of an overstuffed chair, widening quickly as it found new fuel.

Joe looked around, desperately seeking something with which to battle the flames. He spotted a pillow on a chair across the room and hurried over to snatch it. As he cross the room, Joe saw Laurie grabbing a small blanket from the back of another chair. Both Joe and Laurie began to beat on the fire, Laurie bringing the blanket down swiftly on the burning carpet while Joe pounded the flames on the overstuffed chair.

It took Joe only a few minutes to realize he and Laurie were fighting a battle they could not win. Dropping, the pillow, Joe rushed to Laurie and grabbed her by the shoulders. “We can’t put it out!” he shouted. “Get out of here and get some help.”

Coughing from the smoke, Laurie nodded, then exclaimed, “Annie! We’ve got to get Annie out of the house.”

“I’ll get her,” said Joe, pushing Laurie out the door of the parlor and into the hallway. “You get help. Run to the Silver Dollar. There will be lots of men there.”

“Please save Annie,” cried Laurie. “Please, Joe.”

“I will,” promised Joe. “Now go or we’ll all be in trouble.”

Picking up her skirts, Laurie ran to the front of the house and flung open the door. As she rushed out into the night, she left the door open, not realizing the air would fan the flames behind her.

Climbing the stairs two at a time, Joe started called in a loud voice, “Annie! Annie! Where are you?” As he reached the top of the stairs, Joe paused and listened for a reply. Hearing nothing but the crackle of the fire below, Joe flung open the door of the room at the top of the stairs. It was a large bedroom and obviously belonged to the male in the household. “Annie!” Joe called and took a quick look around the room. Convinced it was empty, Joe ran out of the bedroom and pushed open the door of the room next to it.

Seeing dresses flung across the bed, Joe knew this was Laurie’s room. Once more, he shouted, “Annie! Annie, where are you?” It took only a moment for him to glance around the much smaller bedroom and realize no one was there.

Becoming increasingly frustrated and worried, Joe hurried to the third room along the corridor. He pushed against the door, only to find it firmly locked. “Annie,” Joe yelled. “Open the door! Do you hear me? Open the door!”

Joe thought he heard a muted “No” from the other side of the door. He pushed against the door once more, but the wood held firm. Taking a step back, Joe kicked at the door. He heard the crack of wood splintering, but the door still stood closed. Joe raised his leg and again kicked at the wood, putting all of his strength into the effort. This time, the wood around the lock split and the door flew open.

Rushing into the bedroom, Joe looked around. It took him a minute to spot the small girl in the green dress cowering in the corner of the room, trying to hide behind a rocking horse. “Annie!” Joe shouted.

“Don’t hit me!” cried Annie in fear. “I’m sorry! I promise I won’t do it again.”

“Annie, we have to get out of here,” Joe announced in a calmer voice. He realized Annie thought he had come after her because of the trick she had played. He didn’t want to frighten the girl too much but Joe knew that they were running out of time. “Annie,” Joe advised in what he hoped was a soothing voice, “I’m not mad at you. I came to get you out of here. The house is on fire and we have to leave before it gets too bad.”

“On fire!” exclaimed Annie, her eyes widening. She pulled herself tighter into a ball in a corner. “We’re going to burn!” she cried in terror.

Realizing he didn’t have time to talk Annie out of her fear, Joe turned and pulled the cover off the little girl’s bed. “Annie,” he said, walking toward shaking child, “I’m going to carry you out of here.” Joe pushed away the rocking horse and threw the blanket on top of Annie. “I’ll cover you up so you won’t burn.”

Reaching down, Joe wrapped the blanket around Annie, then gathered her into his arms. As he stood, Joe thought how small the child was. She didn’t weigh any more than one of the sacks of grain that Joe regularly toted around the ranch. Pulling the cover over Annie’s head, Joe hugged the little girl to his body and rushed out of the room.

As he ran down the corridor to the stairs, Joe could see the thick smoke was already climbing its way to the upper floor. Coughing as his lungs inhaled the fumes, Joe knew he didn’t have time to try to find something to put over his face. He lowered his head, putting his mouth and nose close to the blanket wrapped around Annie, then plunged into the dark smoke.

Blinded by the smoke, Joe could barely see the stairs. He could, however, see the trail of fire working its way up the banister and the flames burning brightly at the bottom. Hugging Annie even tighter, Joe began running down the stairs. He could feel the heat of the inferno all around him, and the smoke seemed to thicken with each step he took. Two steps from the bottom of the stairs, Joe hesitated. A wall of flames had sprung up in front of him. The heat seared his face as the fire moved menacingly toward him.

Closing his eyes and gritting his teeth, Joe jumped through the flames.

With a soft thud, Joe landed on the other side of the wall of fire. He heard a loud crack, and felt the floor give way under his left leg. Joe fell forward, dropping his bundle on to the floor in front of him. Annie screamed, a shriek of fear rather than pain.

Pulling himself up, Joe felt a stab of pain in his ankle, a pain that seemed to run up his leg toward his knee. Ignoring the discomfort of his leg, Joe gathered the blanket-clad Annie into his arms once more, and tried to get his bearings. He almost cried with relief when he saw the open front door about ten feet in front of him. Limping heavily, Joe hurried toward the door. As he emerged out of the heat of the fire into the night air, Joe thought he had never felt a breeze so cool, so refreshing and so welcome.

His eyes irritated from the smoke, Joe couldn’t clearly see the figures rushing up to him. But he could hear the voices — a mixture of shouts and words that jumbled together. He felt hands taking his precious bundle from his arms, and other hands grabbing him. Joe coughed hard, forcing the smoke from his lungs, then gasped for air. His legs buckled a bit, and the pain in his ankle suddenly seemed very sharp.

Two sets of hands grabbed Joe’s arms and began dragging him away from the heat of the fire behind him. Coughing and limping, Joe let the strong arms that supported him do most of the work. He followed along as best he could until the arms pushed him down into a sitting position.
Joe leaned back, and felt a support of some kind behind him. Feeling safe at last, Joe let his body go limp.

“Joe, are you all right?” asked a familiar voice anxiously.

Turning his head, Joe looked through reddened eyes into the worried face of his brother Adam. Nodding, Joe said wearily, “I’m all right. Look…look after Annie.” Suddenly, a spasm of coughing seized Joe, and he began hacking and wheezing.

A powerful hand started pounding on Joe’s back. Gasping for air, Joe turned his head to his right. “Stop it, Hoss,” Joe managed. “You’re going to break my back.”

“I’m just trying to help you, little brother,” explained Hoss apologetically.

Taking a deep breath, Joe let it out slowly. “I just swallowed some smoke,” he declared. “I’m all right.”

“You don’t look all right, Joe,” advised Adam. “Those burns on your face and arm look pretty nasty.”

Surprised, Joe looked down. He could see a red streak across his left hand, and the charred black cloth of his shirt sleeve. Reaching up to his face, Joe felt a small area of furrowed skin on his forehead. Joe knew the fire had burned him, but he didn’t feel it. “I guess I got singed a little,” admitted Joe, sounding almost amazed.

Another face suddenly appeared in front of Joe. “Let me take a look at you, young man,” Doctor Martin insisted in a voice full of concern.

Waving his right hand briefly at the doctor, Joe replied, “Go check on Annie first.”

“I’ve already examined her,” answered the doctor as he began wiping the soot gently from Joe’s face with a damp cloth. “She’s scared and crying, but there’s not a mark on her.” Pulling back and stopping his ministrations for a moment, Doctor Martin said, “You did everything right, Joe.
You protected her and saved her. She was very lucky you were there.”

Suddenly feeling exhausted, Joe leaned back and closed his eyes. He coughed a bit, then winced as the burns finally started stinging.

“Let’s get him over to my office,” Doctor Martin ordered. “I can patch him up better there.”

As two sets of arms lifted Joe from the ground, Joe leaned his head on Hoss’ shoulder. Whatever they did to Joe was fine with him. He had no strength left to protest.

*****

Joe wasn’t exactly sure when he decided that night was the most miserable one of his life. He only knew there weren’t many ways things could be worse. The burns on his face and arm stung as if a thousand tiny pins were pricking him, and his ankle throbbed. His eyes felt irritated and gritty, and his skin felt dirty with soot, even after the thorough washing he had given it. But the worst part was Joe couldn’t sleep, despite his feeling of exhaustion. Every time Joe started to drift off, he began to cough, his lungs still trying to expel the residue of smoke. Joe wanted nothing more than to fall into a deep, mindless sleep but his body seemed determined to keep him awake.

Lying in the soft bed at the doctor’s office, Joe could hear snatches of conversation around him.

“…be all right. The burns aren’t serious and his ankle is only sprained. He just needs a few days rest.”

“….sent Hoss to get Pa.”

“….take him home tomorrow.”

Turning on his side, Joe grunted and winced at the pain that even this slight movement caused.

“He looks so uncomfortable. Can’t you give him something?”

“He needs to cough up the rest of that smoke from his lungs. A sedative will only the delay the process. Better he’s uncomfortable for one night than a couple of days.”

Pushing himself deeper into the soft mattress, Joe knew the doctor was probably right. But knowing his discomfort was only for a night didn’t make Joe feel any less miserable.

Joe didn’t realize that he had finally fallen into that sought-after sleep until he opened his eyes and saw a stream of daylight coming through a window. The last thing he remembered was a darkened room and a sprinkling of stars shining through the window.

Flipping from his side to his back on the bed, Joe wasn’t terrible surprised to see a gray-haired figure sitting in the chair next to the bed. “Morning, Pa,” Joe said in a voice still thick from sleep.

Peering into Joe’s face, Ben studied his son for a moment before answering. “Good morning, Joseph,” answered Ben. A small smile broke out on his face. “I thought you were going to make friends with Mr. Owens,” commented Ben dryly. “Burning down his house isn’t exactly the way to do that.”

“I didn’t…” Joe started to say in protest, but his words were interrupted by a fit of coughing.

“Easy, Joe,” advised Ben in a soothing voice. He stroked the top of Joe’s head. “Just take deep breaths.”

Following his father’s orders, Joe gulped in air. Then he turned to Ben. “Is everyone all right?”

“Everyone is fine,” Ben assured his son. “They couldn’t save the house, but Mr. Owens felt that was of little concern compared to his daughters being safe.” Ben hesitated, then added, “Laurie told us about the firecrackers Annie set off. She didn’t mean to start the fire, of course, but I have a feeling that little girl is going to be confined to her room for a long, long time.”

“As soon as they can find a place to live and a room for Annie to be sent to,” observed Joe. His eyes were feeling heavy, and Joe slowly began to close them.

“Everyone is helping them out,” Ben told Joe. He saw his son’s eyes closing. “You get some sleep. We’ll talk about it later.”

*****

Sitting in his father’s favorite red leather chair, Joe propped his heavily wrapped ankle up on the leather footstool in front of him. After being home for two days, Joe was feeling bored. The pain from his burns and sprained ankle had faded to small irritations, and he hadn’t coughed for over a day. Staring at the pages of the book in his hand, Joe wondered if he could talk someone into staying around and keeping him company for awhile. Adam and Hoss were upstairs, getting ready to go to work after a hearty breakfast, and his father was in the kitchen, compiling a list of supplies he was going to bring from Virginia City.

As if in answer to Joe’s prayer, a sharp rap sounded against the front door. The knock seemed like a call to arms, bringing people from everywhere. Adam and Hoss descended the stairs, and Ben hurried out of the kitchen. Joe pushed against the arms of the chair a bit, making an effort to get up.

“Stay where you are,” Ben ordered his youngest son as he walked past the chair to the door. “I’ll get it.” Joe sank back into the chair, a grin crossing his face. He really hadn’t planned to get up, especially since there were several people around to answer the door. He just wanted to give his father the pleasure of ordering him to stay put.

Peering toward the door which Ben opened, Joe was surprised to see Laurie walk in, followed by her father and little sister. Annie hung back, obviously reluctant to enter the house, but her father pushed her firmly forward.

Rushing across the room, Laurie asked in a breathless voice, “Joe, how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” Joe assured her with a warm smile. “I’ll be as good as new in no time.” He looked past Laurie to Annie, who was standing next to her father a few feet away. “Hello, Annie,” Joe greeted the little girl. “I’m glad you’re all right.”

With a solemn look on her face, Annie nodded.

“Annie has something to say to you, Joe,” Mr. Owens announced. He looked down at the little girl. “Annie?” he said in a voice that was both encouraging and giving an order.

Swallowing hard, Annie took a step forward. “I’m sorry about the fire,” she admitted in a small voice. “And I’m sorry you got hurt because of it.” Annie looked up at her father, who nodded at her. Turning back to Joe, she added shyly, “Thank you for saving my life.”

“You’re welcome,” replied Joe, trying to match the solemn look on Annie’s face. “I hope you learned your lesson and won’t play any more tricks.”

“I won’t,” Annie promised. She started to cry. “I’m so sorry, Joe. Really.”

“I know you are, honey,” Joe said in a soothing voice. He opened his arms. “Come here and give me a hug.”

As Annie ran into Joe’s arms, Mr. Owens smiled at Joe. “Joe, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for saving my Sweet Annie. I don’t know what I would have done if anything had happened to her. I just want you to know that I would be proud and pleased to have you as part of my family.”

Looking up at Mr. Owens, Joe’s mouth fell open. He glanced across the room to his brothers, both of whom were sporting wide grins. Turning back to Mr. Owens, Joe swallowed hard. “Um, I, er, that is…” Joe stammered.

“Papa, Joe and I are just friends,” Laurie interjected. “We’re fond of each other, but we’re not thinking about getting married.”

Frowning, Mr. Owens looked at Annie. “Annie,” he said in a warning voice, “what did we say about telling stories? You said I had to be sure to have a blue suit for the wedding.”

“Not Laurie’s wedding,” replied Annie, a tinge of disgust in her voice. “My wedding. I’m going to marry Joe.” She turned and planted a sloppy kiss on Joe’s cheek.

“Oh, I see,” said Joe in relief as the other adults laughed around him. “Well, Sweet Annie, we might have to wait a few years, until you’re bit bigger. Why don’t we agree we can just be friends until then?

“All right,” said Annie, smiling. “And you can be friends with Laurie, too, until I’m bigger.”

“But Joe will be friends with you and Laurie at different time,” Mr. Owens advised firmly. “Remember that, Annie.”

“I know,” Annie agreed, nodding her understanding. She looked around the room with a big smile on her face. “I think having friends is the best thing in the world.”

Taking the little girl’s hand in his, Joe smiled at Annie and then her older sister. “It sure is, Annie. There’s nothing better than having friends.”

*****End*****

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