Always and Forever Be (by Lynnette)

Summary:  An old friend of Joe’s returns to Virginia City.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   80971


 

Lynne Allison stepped down from the stagecoach and onto the dusty street of Virginia City. It had been eight years since she’d last been here and all sense of time was suddenly lost for her as memories of the past flooded her mind. So much had changed since then.

“Your bags, ma’am?” The stage coach driver suddenly brought her out of thought. He handed her two carpetbags down to her.

“Yes, thank you,” She managed to reply as she reached up and took them and began to walk down the dusty street. She glanced across the street and saw “The Silver Dollar Saloon” where a couple of men were standing about outside. Their stares at her caused her to feel very uneasy and she suddenly began to wonder if she should have even come back here in the first place.

As a child, Lynne had lived in Virginia City, when her mother had suddenly died when Lynne was just twelve years old. Her father had decided that he, Lynne, and her seventeen-year-old brother, Clyde, should move to the East to get a fresh start.

Lynne and her family never made it that far, though. By the time they had reached Denver, her father had used up what little money they had saved on drinking and gambling. Lynne had turned to the only person she had left, her older brother, for comfort. But Clyde had made it quite clear right away that he cared nothing about Lynne and it wasn’t long before he left Lynne and their father in pursuit of gold in California.

He never wrote even once, and so now, over seven years later, Lynne was unsure of her brother’s whereabouts.

Lynne continued down the dusty street of Virginia City, unsure of where she was even going, though she knew in her heart the person she hoped to run into. But, after eight years, would she even recognize him? Lynne stopped suddenly as two men, both of whom she’d seen outside The Silver Dollar only moments before, stepped in front of her to block her path.

“Well ain’t you a perty little thing,” one of the men said. Lynne tried to step around him but he grabbed her arm. “Why ya’ in such a hurry now? We just wanna have a little fun,” the man continued.

“Let go of me!” Lynne demanded as she struggled to get her arm free.

“Now, don’t be so unfriendly,” the other man said as he took a step towards her but stopped as a bullet ricochet off of the ground at his feet.

“Let her go,” Joe Cartwright ordered, his gun drawn and pointed at the men. The man’s grasp tightened on Lynne’s arm and, for a moment, she was unsure of whether the two men were going to listen. But the man grip again loosened and he roughly let go of her arm.

“All right, Cartwright, ain’t no need to get fired up about it.” He said angrily as both of the men turned and walked away.

Cartwright? Had she heard him right? Lynne turned her gaze upon her rescuer and her breath caught in her throat at the realization of who it was that now stood before her. There was no mistaking those eyes.

“Joe Cartwright! I was praying I would run into you!” She exclaimed as she threw her arms around Joe then she stood back to see the puzzled look on his face. “It’s me Joe, Lynne Allison.”

“Lynne?” Joe questioned. It had been eight years, he realized, since he’d last seen Lynne. They had known each other ever since he could remember and being only two years apart in age, they had been the best of friends. Memories flooded Joe’s mind as he remembered when Lynne’s mother had died, and the day she and her family had left for the East. He’d never heard from her again and he often wondered how she was doing.

Lynne had now grown into a beautiful young woman and Joe probably wouldn’t have recognized her had she not flashed him that wonderful smile he knew so well.

“Lynne, it’s so wonderful to see you,” Joe said as they embraced once again. “What brought you to Virginia City? Are your father and brother with you?” he asked.

Lynne’s face darkened as she replied to his question. “Clyde left us for California over seven years ago. My father died a couple of weeks ago…I guess he finally drank himself to death,” she replied in barely more than a whisper. “I just didn’t know where else to go, Joe. I don’t have any close relatives that I know of. You and your family were always so wonderful to me. I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much trouble if I were to stay out at the ranch for a few days, just until I figure out what to do.”

“It won’t be any trouble at all. Stay as long as you want,” Joe replied.

“You’re sure your father won’t mind?” Lynne asked

“I’m sure,” Joe assured her. “Adam and Hoss left the day before yesterday on a long cattle drive and it’s been kind of quiet around the ranch. Pa will love the company.”

Taking Lynne’s bags, he led her to the wagon he had ridden into town. On the way to the ranch, Joe and Lynne talked and as they shared what had happened with their lives over the past eight years, it soon seemed as though they had never been apart.

*****

Lynne gazed around the beautiful guestroom Joe had shown her too. He had left her to herself to freshen up before supper. Ben had been so happy to see her and she had been unable to put into words just how glad she was to see him.

Lynne’s mind traveled back once again, eight years in time to when she was twelve. Her mother had just died of a broken heart, Lynne knew, after living with a husband who cared nothing for her and abused her emotionally. He was no better as a father and so Lynne, having no one with whom to share her grief, went to the only man who’d ever shown her fatherly love—Ben Cartwright.

Ben and Joe were more precious to her than anything else and they had been her strength during that difficult time, Ben like a father and Joe like an older brother. That’s why she knew she had to return and see them both again.

It wasn’t long before Ben, Joe, and Lynne were seated to dinner. The evening passed quickly as Lynne caught Ben and Joe up on what had happened the eight years she’d been away. She was just as interested in all that had happened in the Cartwright’s lives during her absence. All too soon it was time for her to get some rest and she reluctantly said goodnight to both Ben and Joe.

In the darkness of her room now, she cried silently out of sadness for the years gone by but also out of happiness that she’d finally made her way back to those who had been the true family in her life.

*****

Morning arrived bright and beautiful and Lynne was unable to recall the last time she felt so wonderful. Joe was going to take her for a ride around the Ponderosa today and she wanted to be up early to be ready on time.

She soon had on one of her finest dresses and was heading down the stairs for breakfast. A feeling of disappointment came over her for just a moment as she glanced at the dinner table to see that only Ben was there.

“Good morning Mr. Cartwright,” she offered as cheerily as she could manage as she took a seat at the table.

“Morning, Lynne. Did you sleep well?” Ben enquired of her.

“Just fine,” she politely answered, her gaze traveled to the empty chair across the table from her. “Where’s Joe?” she finally asked.

“Joseph will be in to eat shortly; he just had a few quick chores in the barn,” Ben answered her, noticing a sudden change in Lynne’s demeanor as she suddenly seemed to cheer back up.

Lynne and Ben talked over breakfast and it wasn’t long before Joe finally finished up in the barn and sat down to breakfast. “I see you two have been talking for awhile,” he said.

“And I see you’ve been working,” Lynne smiled as her gaze rested on his sweaty shirt.

Joe glanced down at his shirt. “Yeah I suppose I should change before we go on that ride I promised you,” he replied, standing up and heading for the stairs.

Lynne stood up as well. “Oh no Joe, don’t hurry on my account. We can go on our ride after you’ve had a chance to eat breakfast first.”

“I’m fine,” Joe assured her. “I’m really not hungry anyway. Can you be ready to go in a few minutes?” he asked her and she nodded in reply.

Alone in her room once again, Lynne quickly changed into a riding dress. Looking in the mirror for a moment to make sure that her hair was still in place, she then hurried out of the room and outside.

Joe was already waiting for her with two saddled horses. “Well, it’s about time. I was beginning to think that you didn’t want to go riding with me after all,” he teased her.

“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting long, Joe.” Lynne replied worriedly.

“I had to saddle the horses anyway,” Joe reassured her. “Let me help you up,” he offered as he slipped his hands around her waist and helped her up onto Cochise. Then he mounted the other horse.

“Beauty here isn’t very good with strangers,” Joe stated, patting the beautiful black horse he now sat upon. “I felt you’d be safer riding Cochise.” Lynne nodded in agreement, then they both kicked their horses to a fast walk.

*****

It wasn’t long before Joe and Lynne dismounted from their horses. They had rode up a long hill on the Ponderosa and from here, Lynne felt as though she could see the entire Ponderosa.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Joe asked quietly breaking the silence that had come over them for several moments.

“It’s lovely,” Lynne whispered in reply. “It’s so wonderful to finally be home.” Lynne’s latter statement was spoken so quietly that Joe was unsure of whether it was spoken to herself or to him.

“You never did tell me why your brother left for California.” Joe finally voiced the question he’d been meaning to ask for some time. There was silence once again for several moments and Joe began to think that Lynne wasn’t going to answer.

“Clyde couldn’t handle pa’s drinking,” she finally spoke, her gaze focused on the ground. “So he finally just up and left. That’s all there is to say,” Lynne finished in a bothered tone.

Joe immediately regretted prodding. He knew that Lynne would talk when she was ready. He placed his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Lynne replied quietly as she turned her gaze into Joe’s eyes, her own were gleaming with unshed tears. “You don’t need to apologize.”

“And neither do you,” he said softly. “What do you say we mount our horses and head for home? I don’t know about you but I’m starved. Hop Sing ought to have lunch just about ready by the time we get there.” Joe smiled kindly at her, hoping to lighten the mood. Lynne couldn’t help but return the smile.

“I am starved,” she admitted. “Please tell me you’ll take me riding again soon, though. I’ve had such a wonderful time riding Cochise,” Lynne beamed.

“Oh, so I see, you’ve enjoyed the company of my horse more than anything else.” Joe teased her once again.

“Joe, you know very well that it is your company that I enjoy most.” She smiled as he helped her mount Cochise.

Lynne watched as Joe mounted Beauty. It had taken until now for her to realize just how much she had missed him and it was now that she also realized— she never wanted to leave again.

*****

Pulling the buckboard to a halt, Joe climbed down and helped Lynne do the same. It was only Lynne’s third trip into town since she’d arrived on the stage over two weeks prior and she was anxious to take a look in some of the shops.

“You’re sure you’ll be all right looking around while I load the supplies?” Joe asked her.

“I’ll find my way around,” she assured him as she turned to walk away but he stopped her.

“You’ve forgotten something important,” he informed her as he placed money in her hand.

“Joe, I can’t…” she began.

But Joe broke in. “You can and you will. Besides a girl can’t be expected to show up as her Welcome Home party on Saturday without buying herself a new dress to match those beautiful blue eyes of hers,” Joe said softly, flashing his familiar smile at her.

For several moments, they stared at one another without a word

“Thank you so much,” was all she managed to finally reply before heading in the opposite direction.

Watching for a moment as she walked away, Joe then he turned his attention back to the job he was to accomplish. He started for the entrance of the general store.

“Well, if it isn’t Joe Cartwright.” Joe suddenly heard and he stopped when Collin Slater stepped in his path, blocking him from entering the store.

“Come on, Collin. Let me through,” Joe demanded, side-stepping around Collin as he did so. It was to no avail, though, as Collin did the same, keeping him blocked.

Joe was in no mood to start an argument with anyone, much less with a Slater. The Cartwrights had had more trouble with the Slaters over the past two months then they had over the previous twenty years they’d been neighbors.

Trouble had started when Burke Slater, Collin’s father and owner of the Double R Ranch neighboring the Cartwrights, had tried to claim that a section of the Ponderosa right next to his land was actually a part of his property. The section he’d claimed to be his was covered with Ponderosa pine and Slater could make quite a bit of money selling the timber off of it.

They’d taken it to court and the judge had ruled in favor of the Cartwrights. It had been an easy decision after a surveyor had proven that Ben’s deed papers were indeed correct on where his property began and ended for that particular section.

The Slaters seemed to hate the Cartwrights ever since and from the looks of things, Joe knew that their hatred wasn’t going away any time soon.

“Where’s your brothers?” Collin brought Joe suddenly out of thought. “….Or did your daddy actually let you come into town all by yourself?” Collin taunted referring to the fact that Ben had told his sons to only go into town together, never alone. At least until the whole thing blew over. Ben had only reluctantly allowed Joe to come into town alone with Lynne. With Hoss and Adam away, he had had a few things to do around the ranch.

“I’m not interested in a fight, Collin, so get out of the way.” Joe ordered. He wasn’t sure of Collin’s next move when, for a moment, all he did was stare Joe down. If this was meant to scare or even anger him into a fight, it wasn’t working.

“Is Collin here giving you trouble, Joe?” Roy Coffee suddenly appeared. Collin seemed to back down at the sight of the sheriff.

“Remember, we’ve still got some unfinished business to settle, Cartwright,” Collin muttered just low enough for only Joe to hear. Then he turned and walked angrily away.

*****

It wasn’t long before Joe had all of the supplies loaded and he was on his way to find and pick up Lynne. By the time they were on their way back to the Ponderosa, the incident with Collin Slater was long forgotten. He didn’t know why, but Lynne just seemed to have that effect on him.

After awhile of riding, Joe pulled the wagon to a halt. “I thought maybe we could enjoy the scenery for a few minutes before heading home,” Joe explained before Lynne had a chance to ask why they’d stopped.

“You’ve been quiet on the way home,” Lynne commented. “But I guess I haven’t even given you a chance to say anything with the way I’ve been talking so much. I suppose you must be getting tired of me, Joe Cartwright.”

“I could never be tired of you,” Joe replied so quickly she knew he meant it. “I love to hear you talk.” He smiled at Lynne but her face became serious.

“You must at least wonder why I refuse to talk about my brother,” Lynne said quietly. “I remember the day Clyde left like it was just yesterday.” Lynne paused for a moment and it was apparent to Joe that she was struggling to keep control of her emotions. After a moment, she continued. “I begged him to stay, Joe, but he just didn’t care anymore.”

Lynne turned her gaze out into the distance, her thoughts clearly traveling back to years past. “It was almost as if I didn’t even exist anymore to him. My sadness and my hurt didn’t matter. All that mattered were his feelings.” Lynne’s voice had softened to barely more than a whisper. “So, finally one morning, I woke up and he was gone. All he left was a note stating that he was on his way to California in hopes of striking it rich…that’s all it said.” Lynne turned her now tear-streaked face back toward Joe, her eyes staring into his. “He didn’t even say goodbye,” she whispered.

It was then that Joe pulled her into his arms and she cried softly against his shoulder. Through the pain of moving away from those she loved, the emptiness of taking care of a father who cared nothing for her, and the hurt of her brother leaving so suddenly, taking with him her belief in love and family, Lynne had remained so strong.

Now, she found herself in the comforting arms of the one man who could restore her faith in both of those things. And though she continued to cry, Lynne knew that never again would she feel such a void in her heart…….

…….She had everything she wanted right here.

*****

Joe stood up from his seat at the table where he was having an afternoon cup of coffee as Lynne came down the stairs.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked shyly as she slowly turned, modeling the dress she’d bought in town for her Welcome Home Party. She’d taken his advice and bought a beautiful, soft blue dress to match her eyes. Her hair, she had pinned up into the fashion of how it was going to be on Saturday but in her haste to hurry and show her new dress to Joe, pieces of her hair had fallen out of their pins which seemed only to enhance her beauty. As Joe stood there, he wondered if she could possibly know just how attractive she was.

“Do you like it?” Lynne finally asked after a moment of silence.

Joe crossed the room to where she stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Like it?” he asked. “It’s beautiful…..but not nearly as beautiful as the girl wearing it,” he added.

At Joe’s comment, Lynne’s face flushed red. She’d never looked at herself as pretty. “Do you know what you’re going to wear on Saturday?” She quickly changed the subject to him.

“No, not yet,” he admitted. “But I’m sure I’ll be able to put together something.”

“I’d better change. I’ll be just a minute,” Lynne said as she headed back up the stairs. Joe turned to head back toward the table and finished his coffee.

“Joe?” Lynne suddenly called from the top of the stairs and he turned back around. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be nice….but not nearly as handsome as the man wearing it,” she stated, smiling, before stepping out of site and heading down the hall — leaving the object of her comment completely speechless.

*****

Pulling his horse to a halt in front of the barn, Ben dismounted. He decided on having a cup of coffee and resting a few minutes before seeing what needed to be done around the Ponderosa. He’d spent the morning getting several last minute things ready for the party and picking up the mail in town.

Taking the reins of his horse, he led Buck toward the barn to stable him before heading inside. It was there that he found his youngest son raking the straw that lay about the barn into a neat pile in the corner of the barn.

“Morning Pa; how was the trip to town?” Joe cheerfully greeted his father.

“Busy,” Ben simply answered then he looked at his son inquisitively. “Was that whistling I heard in here a moment ago?”

“What so wrong with a man whistling while he works?” Joe asked at his father’s question.

“Nothing, nothing at all,” Ben answered. “But since when have you done work cheerfully?” Ben questioned as he stepped over to where his son stood. He placed his hand on Joe’s forehead. “Are you all right, son?” he asked, trying to feign worry but a smile flashed across his face.

Joe couldn’t help but smile back. “I guess I’m just excited about that party tomorrow,” he stated. “Lynne is too.”

“I’m sure she is,” Ben replied. “Where is Lynne anyway?” he enquired.

“When I came out here, she wasn’t up yet. She’s probably resting up for all that dancing she’s going to be doing tomorrow,” Joe responded.

“Well, look who’s talking. I seem to recall that, by the end of every party, you’ve danced with every girl invited,” Ben reminded his son and they both laughed.

“I’ll stable Buck for you,” Joe offered.

“You know, I think I’ll take you up on that offer,” Ben replied, handing the horse’s reins to Joe. “I need to get a cup of coffee in me before I fall asleep standing up.” He turned to walk away but then turned back toward his son. “Oh, in case you need me for anything, I’ll be out at the corral on the North section. I need to be there when the hands start branding that new string of cattle we just bought,” Ben informed him as Joe nodded in reply.

Ben went inside the house as Joe busied himself with stabling Buck for several minutes. He was back to raking up the straw when Lynne came into the barn.

“Well, look who’s finally up.” Joe teased, leaning up against his rake to rest a moment. “You know, I was beginning to wonder if you were even going to get up today.”

At Joe’s teasing words, Lynne softly laughed. Joe smiled; how he loved to hear her laugh.

“You know very well that we were up quite late last night talking. A girl needs her rest,” she replied.

“Oh, I see, and a man doesn’t,” he continued to tease.

“You know I’m not saying anything like that,” Lynne answered. “It’s just that I seem to recall who was doing most of the talking.” She smiled.

Joe had a surprised look on his face.” Me? Doing most of the talking?” He laughed. “That’s a change,” he teased.

“Well, Joe Cartwright! If I had known you felt that way…” She feigned a look of anger though she was enjoying every minute of this discussion. “Why I ought to…” she trailed off.

“You ought to what?” Joe dared her to finish her sentence.

“I ought to…to…to do this!” she exclaimed as she picked up a large amount of straw with both hands and threw it at him before he even had a chance to see it coming.

She laughed as he brushed the straw off of him as best he could, though he missed several pieces which were still stuck in his hair.

“So that’s how you want to play?” Joe asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. She escaped his grasp as he threw down his rake and reached for her. Running after her, he chased her around a beam, in and out of a stall, and right into the pile of straw, where she tripped and fell into it. Grabbing handfuls of straw, she threw it at him until finally he managed to grab her arms and pin them to her sides.

They were both laughing by now, not only at their childish playfulness, but at the sight of themselves completely covered in straw.

“Just look what we’ve done, Joe. Your father will have our heads if we don’t clean up this mess,” she said in only a half-serious tone.

His gaze captured hers and, for a moment, there was complete silence as they contented in merely staring at each other.

“I see you’ve been working hard at cleaning the barn, Joseph.” The sound of his father’s voice caused Joe to suddenly let go of the grasping hold he’d still had on Lynne’s arms and he quickly stood up to see his father leaning up against the doorway of the barn. Lynne did the same.

“Well, I was cleaning, Pa, but then I…..well, you see…” Joe struggled for an explanation.

“I’m listening, Joseph,” Ben broke in. He could actually guess what had happened but he was enjoying watching his youngest son try to explain.

“You see, Mr. Cartwright,” Lynne finally tried to explain. “I tripped into the straw…and Joe was just helping me up.”

“O I see,” Ben answered. “And that’s why you’re both covered in straw, as well as everything else in the barn.”

“…..I think I’ll go in and change,” Lynne finally announced after an uncomfortable moment of silence. Joe nodded in agreement.

“Good idea. I think I will too,” Joe said as he started after her.

“Now, hold on a minute, young man.” Ben stepped in front of his son. “You aren’t going anywhere until this mess is cleaned up,” Ben ordered.

As Joe glanced over at the large mess, a look of displeasure came over his face. “Yes sir,” he finally answered.

“And then, you’re going into town to pick up the decorations for the party. The storekeeper, Jim Grant, ought to have them ready by now,” Ben continued.

Joe sighed. “Yes sir,” he answered yet again.

And you’re going to take Lynne with you and you’re both going to enjoy lunch together in town after you’ve picked up the supplies.” A smile now spread across Ben’s face.

Joe returned the smile. “Thanks, Pa; I know Lynne will enjoy it. I’ll tell her,” he announced heading for the door but Ben stopped him.

“How about you just finish up in here and I’ll tell her,” Ben offered. “Besides, you’ve got a lot to do before you leave,” he commented as he pulled a long piece of straw out of Joe’s hair. They both laughed a moment.

“I suppose you’re right. I’ll be right in after I’ve cleaned up this mess.” Joe told his father.

“Sounds good.” Ben answered, then he headed for the house, leaving Joe to his work.

*****

The next day, dawned bright and beautiful and with all of the decorations that had to be put up, Lynne didn’t have a very hard time busying herself until at last it was time to change into her beautiful blue dress for the party.

As the guests started to file in, it soon became apparent that all of the young men who came would be vying for her attention. One by one, they all seemed to ask her for a dance but she simply told each of them that she was saving her dancing for another. She couldn’t keep her eyes from straying across the room to where Joe and Ben where greeting the guests as they came in.

She managed, for awhile, to talk to many of the guests as they welcomed her home. Many of them remembered her mother with honor and respect and she never grew tired of remembering and discussing all of the wonderful things about her. She talked as little and as vaguely as she could about her eight years away in Denver and she noticed that many of the guests respected the fact that she didn’t really want to discuss a whole lot about her father or her brother.

The Cartwrights had hired some of Virginia City’s finest musicians to play at her party and many songs had been played by the time all of the guests had finally arrived.

Lynne smiled to herself as the musicians began to play a slow beautiful song. It was one that had always been her favorite since she was a small child.

“Is this one still your favorite?” She heard a familiar voice ask and she turned around to see Joe smiling at her. “I asked them to play it just for you,” he informed.

“You remembered,” she said softly

“May I have this dance?” He asked her the question she’d been waiting all evening to hear.

She simply nodded in reply and he took her hand in his. As they slowly danced, she rested her chin on his shoulder. “It’s been such a lovely night, Joe. I can’t recall the last time I’ve had such a wonderful time.” She spoke quietly. “You and your father have been so good to me.”

“We’re both so glad you’re back,” Joe replied.

“And I’m so glad to be home,” Lynne whispered.

The evening passed all too quickly as they danced the night away.

*****

 Joe glanced in the dress shop window impatiently. Lynne had been in the shop for quite awhile and he was beginning to think of going in after her. The curious stares of women passing by seeing him as he looked in the window caused him to reconsider.

He waited a few more moments and was glad to see Lynne finally exit the shop.

“Sorry I took so long, Joe, but there was much to discuss with the shopkeeper, Mrs. Simms,” Lynne explained.

“I didn’t think you took very long…” Joe began but Lynne broke in.

“And don’t try and say you didn’t mind waiting, Joe Cartwright; I saw how often you looked in the window.” Lynne smiled knowingly at him.

Joe smiled back. “Yeah, I guess I was getting a bit impatient,” he admitted. “Did you get the job?” he asked and the beaming look on her face told him all that he needed to know. “Of course you did; Mrs. Simms would have to be crazy not to hire you.”

“You flatter me too much little Joe,” Lynne commented, her face telling him that she enjoyed every minute of it, though. “You know, one of these days you may actually have me believing every word you say.”

“Oh, so I’m not very convincing?” he asked. Lynne simply smiled in reply. Joe seemed to have such a way with her that she couldn’t help but believe whatever he told her….though she didn’t want him to know that.

Joe helped Lynne up onto the buckboard they’d brought into town for the ride home and they were soon on their way.

For the first several minutes of the ride, they rode in silence as Lynne simply found herself content to stare at the man who sat beside her. She didn’t know exactly what, but something had been happening to her over the past two weeks. She was beginning to notice so many things about Joe that she hadn’t before….almost as if she were seeing him through different eyes.

She’d been back now for close to four weeks but only over the last two had she began to notice his nice build, handsome face, and beautiful hazel eyes. Her heart seemed to leap and she felt flutters whenever she saw him, heard his voice, or whenever he slipped his hands around her waist to help her up on her horse or the wagon.

They continued to ride in silence until Joe finally pulled the horses to a halt. It had become a ritual now for them to stop and talk a few moments before going home.

Gazing around at the beautiful scenery, Lynne then looked at him. “Oh Joe, you always seem to stop at a more beautiful place that the time before. It’s so lovely here; the entire Ponderosa is lovely.”

“This is one of my favorite places to come and just think,” Joe answered quietly, looking out into the distance. Then he turned his gaze on her. “Of course, having a pretty girl sitting beside you to talk too, makes it that much more beautiful.”

Lynne’s face flushed at his comment. “Joe Cartwright, if you aren’t quite the flatterer.” She smiled at him. “But that’s simply not true. It’s you who makes everything so much more wonderful.”

At her words, Joe placed one hand on her shoulder and with the other; he lifted her chin so that he could stare directly into her beautiful blue eyes. He slowly brought his lips down toward hers and she knew that the moment she’d always dreamed of was finally going to happen.

The sound of a gun cocking just to his left caused Joe to suddenly turn in that direction. He found himself staring down the barrel of a shotgun…held at him by Collin Slater.

“Don’t even think of trying anything, Cartwright….that is, unless you want your lady friend, here, to be shot up,” Collin threatened as he nodded his head in Lynne’s direction.

Joe turned to see that Burke Slater had his gun aimed at Lynne. Joe turned an angry gaze back on Collin. “Why don’t you just leave the girl out of this, Slater? This is between you and me; she has nothing to do with it.”

“The girl just might be helpful to us and if you don’t want anything to happen to her, you’ll come along without a fight,” Collin ordered.

“And don’t try and say she don’t mean nuthin’ to you Cartwright,” Burke Slater suddenly spoke. “We know better. Now take of yer gun belt nice and easy.”

*****

Collin rode on his horse, out in front with Joe and Lynne following in the wagon, and Burke, on his horse, behind them. It wasn’t long before they came to a line shack. Joe didn’t know it, but the Slaters had been holding up right on the Ponderosa for the last few days, watching their every move and waiting for their chance to get at the Cartwrights.

Lynne had sat rigidly in her seat next to him during the ride to the line shack. Though she was trying her best to remain calm, Joe knew that she was very frightened. His mind thought hard as he tried to come up with a plan to get he and Lynne out of their predicament safely.

As he pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the line shack, he gently placed his hand on hers. His touch of reassurance gave Lynne strength and thankfully, it went by the Slaters unnoticed.

“All right, get down Cartwright,” Burke ordered after he and Collin had dismounted. “You too, little lady.” Joe climbed down off of the wagon and, not caring what either of the Slaters might do, he turned and helped Lynne down.

“Looks like we got ourselves a real gentleman here, don’t we, Pa,” Collin sneered. “Of course, she sure is a pretty little thing. Maybe we should get better acquainted.”

Anger coursed through Joe as Collin grabbed Lynne and tried to force a kiss on her. Despite the fact that Burke still had his gun aimed at him, Joe lunged at Collin, tackling him to the ground. At Joe’s lunge, Lynne had pulled herself away from Collin’s grasp and fallen to the ground. She watched in horror as Burke ran over to where Joe and Collin fought on the ground and he slammed his rifle into Joe’s head.

“My God,” she heard herself whisper as she got to her feet and ran over to where he lay unconscious on the ground. Relief flooded over her at the realization that he was still breathing. But that was all she had a chance to do as she felt Burke Slater drag her away and into the cabin.

The room seemed to be spinning and she was only slightly aware of the pain she felt in her hands as Burke tied them tightly behind her back on a chair. The ropes, tied so tightly, seemed to be cutting off her circulation, which only added to the sick feeling she felt.

It wasn’t long before Lynne finally gave into the darkness that bid her to come and she passed out.

*****

Lynne awoke awhile later. Just a few feet away, to her left, she saw that they had dragged Joe into the shack and left him lying on the floor. He was still unconscious and a stream of blood slid down his face from where he’d been hit on the side of the head. His hands had been bound behind him.

“Look who’s finally awake.” Lynne flinched at the sound of Collin’s voice. “There ain’t no need to be scared of me, little lady.”

His sentence seemed long and drawn out and Lynne knew immediately why when he knelt down in front of her. His breath reeked of alcohol—-whisky, and his speech and actions told her he’d been drinking for sometime. A glance toward the table across the room confirmed her fears. A half-empty bottle of whisky sat on the table where Burke still sat drinking. Fear overtook Lynne. There was no telling what two drunken men might do.

“Looks like it’s time for you and me to finally get acquainted.” Collin suddenly brought her out of thought and her stomach lurched at the smell of his breath when he again tried to kiss her.

“Let go of me,” Lynne screamed.

“Take your hands off of her Slater.” Collin let go of Lynne and stood up at the sound of Joe’s voice behind him. Despite the dizziness in his head and the fact that his hands were tied behind him, Joe had somehow managed to pull himself up and he now stared Collin down.

Burke stood up from his seat at the table. Keeping his shotgun aimed at Joe, he made his way across the room and just a few feet away from Joe.

“Will you look at that,” Burke’s words were slurred. “Cartwright here still thinks that he’s the one giving the orders. Well you ain’t giving no more orders Cartwright, ‘cause we ain’t leaven’ till we get what we come for.”

“And just what is it that you want?” Joe demanded.

“Justice,” Burke replied. “Your father has a piece of land that’s mine…a piece of land that he ain’t paid for. Well, I aim to see that the Cartwrights do pay for it.”

Somehow, in the cold way that Burke Slater said it, Joe knew that he wasn’t talking about money. “Look, just let us go and I’m sure my father will strike a deal with you for the land.” He knew it was futile but he was stalling for time.

“You think I can’t see right through that, boy?” Burke spat. “Within two minutes of your return, your father would have the sheriff and half the town down on me. I may not be as rich or as prosperous as yer father but I ain’t stupid.” Burke paused a moment. “Now, to get down to business. Where’s yer father, boy?” Burke demanded, shoving the barrel of his gun against Joe’s back.

“What do you want to know for?” Joe asked angrily, though he could guess.

“Listen up, Cartwright, and listen good,” Collin ordered. “You tell us where your father is and we just might let your brothers live when they get back from their little trip.”

“You must be out of your mind,” Joe stated in awe that they even believed for a second that they would get such information from him.

At Joe’s words, Collin became enraged. Realizing that Joe wasn’t going to talk, he slammed the butt of his rifle into Joe’s stomach and kicked him repeatedly before cocking his rifle and aiming it at Joe.

“You’re just making killing you that much more enjoyable.” He sneered, tightening his finger in the trigger.

“No!” Lynne shouted, jumping to her feet and throwing herself against Collin.

Easily losing his balance because of how much he’d drank, Collin fell to the ground, his gun sliding out of reach. Watching his son fall to the ground, Burke turned his gun on Lynne.

Still reeling from the blows he’d taken, Joe knew that he wouldn’t be able to lunge at Burke in time. Pulling himself up to a sitting position, he kicked Burke’s legs out from under him. His gun fired as he went down, the bullet wildly off target.

By then, Collin had managed to get back to his feet and regain possession of his gun. Turning it toward Lynne, he fired once. Joe watched in horror as she slumped to the ground. Collin then turned his aim at Joe. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this Cartwright,” he said snidely.

Just then, the door to the shack suddenly burst open. “Drop it!” A familiar voice commanded as Joe breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of his father. When Collin turned his gun on him, Ben fired and Collin slumped to the floor.

“Pa!” Joe shouted as Burke reached for his rifle, which had slid a few feet away when Joe had tripped him.

“Stop right where you are.” Burke did as Ben commanded, slumping his shoulders in defeat. Ben cautiously took a few steps toward him and kicked the shotgun across the room, out of reach. Keeping his rifle aimed at Burke, he made his way over to his son and, using his other hand, untied the ropes that bound his hands.

“Where’s Lynne?” Ben finally asked the question he was afraid to ask. He had taken a short cut home after working once again out at the North pasture and it took him right past this line shack. Just a moment away, he had heard a gunshot and as he’d dismounted and rushed toward the shack, he’d heard another. Ben watched in horror and silence as Joe crawled to where Lynne lay on the floor.

“Lynne?” Joe asked softly turning her over. Emotion threatened to overtake him at the sight of the bullet wound to her stomach. She’d lost a lot of blood, fast, and the thought that he might be holding her for the last time was too much for him to take.

“Joe?”

Joe was surprised to hear Lynne whisper. Her breathing was very labored and she was finding it difficult to say each word.  “It’s so…. cold….hold me,” Lynne managed to say, suddenly shuddering at the unbearable pain she felt. Joe watched the light in her eyes dim as she slowly began to fade away. He was losing her.

Unable to hold back his emotion any longer, tears streamed down his face. “I love you,” he whispered. Lynne tried to offer him a small smile at the words she’d wanted so much to hear but the pain that continued to ravage through her twisted her expression into one of anguish. It was getting increasingly harder to breathe and she suddenly gasped for breath.

“Joe.” Tears streamed down her face and she tried to choke back a sob—-not one of pain but of the realization that she was going to die. “I love you so much,” she whispered. Using what little strength she had left, she forced her eyes into focus to stare into the beautiful hazel eyes of the man she loved so much but now, would never share her life with.

Joe gently caressed her face with his hand as he brought his lips down to meet hers. When he brought his face back up to look at her, a peaceful look had now replaced the one of anguish.

She smiled up at him. “Joe…it’s all right….I feel no pain.” She spoke these final words before slumping against him—gone from his life forever.

For a moment, Joe could do nothing as he stared at the limp form of the woman he loved, in his arms. He felt the comforting hand of his father on his shoulder but his only response was to lay his head against hers and breathe in the scent of her hair. And as he cradled her in his arms, sobs shook him.

*****

Joe stood in silence at Lynne’s grave as rain lightly fell. The funeral had taken place the day before. She had been buried on the Ponderosa, not far from his mother’s grave.

Though Collin had been killed by his father’s shot and Burke Slater was soon going to stand trial for what had taken place, these facts were of little consolation to Joe. No courtroom, jury, sentencing, or hanging could bring back what he wanted most. He glanced up at the sound of a rider approaching and he wasn’t surprised to see that it was his father.

Dismounting off of Buck, Ben walked over to where his son stood. He understood how his son needed time alone but at the same time, he wanted to be there for him.

“I knew I’d find you here,” Ben said quietly, mainly because he could think of nothing else to say.

“Yeah….. I needed some time alone with her,” Joe answered. He turned his gaze toward the ground. “It’s funny,” he began and Ben could hear emotion in his voice. “I was so happy that Lynne had come home…” Joe paused a moment, fighting with the grief that threatened to consume him. “…Now I wish she never had.”

Ben placed his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder. “No matter what happened, Joe, don’t ever think that. She wouldn’t want you to,” he said quietly. “She was happy here; she loved the Ponderosa…..she loved you. There isn’t anything that could’ve ever prevented her from coming back. This was her home.”

At these words, Joe turned his gaze back on his father. “But I couldn’t protect her…..I couldn’t save her.” He finally voiced the guilt that was tearing at him.

“She died knowing that you did all you could for her,” Ben replied gently. “There was nothing else you could have done. During the close to four weeks that she was here, you gave her something that she’d never known in her life—-love, true love. And I’m sure there isn’t anything in this world she would have wanted to trade for those weeks or that feeling of being loved.”

For a moment they both stood in silence, in the light rain, as Ben’s words sunk in.

“Yeah, I…. guess you’re right,” Joe finally replied unshed tears gleaming in his eyes. “Thanks, Pa,” Joe whispered.

Ben patted his son on the shoulder. “What do you say we head home? Adam and Hoss should be arriving home any time.”

“Sounds great,” Joe replied quietly. As both of them mounted their horses, Joe’s mind traveled back to a beautiful day when he had allowed another to ride Cochise. At this thought, Joe knew that, though she was gone from his life, he would always carry a part of her with him.

Her warmth, sunshine, smile….and her love… would always and forever be a part of his life. Glancing over his shoulder at her grave one last time, he then kicked his horse to a fast walk and father and son rode home.

***The End***

Author’s Note: This is my first try at writing a story that includes romance so please, please, please send feedback. I’d really like to know what you all think! Thanks for taking the time to read!

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