The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Forever And Always

Thanks to Cat, Sandy, and Barbara for the beta

This story was written for those who believe in Angels
and dedicated to my husband, John, 1938 – 2016
Forever and Always, my love!

Grace Cooper watched him as he came up the road on that beautiful golden horse. He sat straight in the saddle and moved as one with the palomino. They made quite the picture, and she couldn’t help but smile. Johnny Lancer was a good man, it was too bad that she couldn’t convince him of the fact. Grace never pressed him for details, figuring they would make themselves known if he wanted them known. But the fact he seemed to think of himself as ‘not worth anything’ pierced her heart, and she ached for this young man. Would she ever break through that stubborn, self-incriminating barrier he’d erected around himself?

They had spent hours in pleasant conversation, and Grace knew that Johnny had told her much that he hadn’t confided in anyone else. She would keep his secrets, would not betray his confidence, and would hold him in her heart and soul for as long as she lived. And beyond, for he deserved every kindness, every measure of love and support that had been absent in his formative young life. But he had it now.

Grace remembered when Johnny was born. She’d gone to Lancer to pay her respects to the new parents, and perhaps she would get to hold the baby. A tiny thing he was, coming early, but there was nothing tiny about the wail of hunger emitted that echoed in the great room as the tyke voiced his displeasure of an empty belly.

A thatch of thick, soft black hair perched above the red scrunched face in an unruly mass, but as the boy opened his eyes, Grace Cooper was struck clear through her body at the intensity of the shocking blue stare. Johnny stopped his crying as he watched the woman in whose arms he lay, and not another peep slipped from the sweet lips. Grace felt her heart melt as a compassionate notion blossomed in her thoughts. This baby will do so much good in his lifetime!

“Forever and always, little Johnny!” she had whispered, recalling the words murmured to her by her mother so long ago. Forever and always loved. But two short years later, that same sweet baby was taken in the night and not seen again for twenty-three years.

Now, as Grace Cooper thought back to that visit, the young man she’d held all those years ago, pulled his horse to a stop and stepped lightly up onto her front porch. He tipped the hat off the back of his head and bent close. Those same brilliant blue eyes held her captive as he leaned in to place a kiss on her soft and wrinkled cheek.

“Mornin’ Mrs. Cooper! Hafta say that ya look right pretty taday!” Johnny said with the smile on his handsome face that always brought tears to her eyes.

“Why, Johnny Lancer, I think that maybe you need to get yourself a pair of those spectacles like Dr. Jenkins wears! I haven’t seen pretty for more than fifty years, son! I don’t even own a mirror!” she laughed.

“Well, maybe then it’s you that needs them specs! Cuz, what I see is beautiful!” he whispered softly, then he stood and moved to occupy the chair next to hers. Soon he chuckled a bit and turned to look into the face that held a lifetime of wisdom, an abundance of experiences that he would never know.

“How many hours you figure we’ve spent sittin’ here on your porch just talkin’?” he asked, his mind going back over many conversations of the last year.

Her keen gray eyes squinted, looking out over the land as she contemplated the question. “Well, let me see here. We’ve solved many issues sitting on this old porch, haven’t we? I think we found a solution to the water rights situation, and, of course, we figured out how to keep both Indians and Whites happy in the Southwest, and just maybe we know how to fix the problems in Washington. The difficult part there is getting someone to listen to us!” Grace laughed. “But I reckon we spent more than a few hours here.”

“Hey, I have a question for ya, Grace,” Johnny said as she turned to face him.

“Well, all you’ve got to do is ask, Johnny. I’ve always answered anything you wanted to know and don’t see myself stopping now. Ask me,” she said.

“When’s your birthday?” he asked without hesitation.

Grace sat back in her chair, a bit surprised at the inquiry, but a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth. “And just why do you want to know that nonsense?”

“What’d ya mean ‘nonsense’? It ain’t nonsense! Tell me,” he coaxed with his soft voice and sweet grin that she could not resist.

“Alright, I’ll tell you this much, December twenty-second, but I’ll not tell you the year!”

Johnny was surprised, pleasantly so, and it showed in his grin. “Hey, that’s the day before mine!”

“Yes, I know, son. I was your second visitor. Aggie Conway came to see you, and the next day, I was there. Oh, what a pretty baby you were! And so much hair! Never saw a baby with that much hair… ever! You cried when I held you, but very suddenly, you stopped, and you watched me so intently as if you were studying my face,” Grace said with a smile and her eyes filled with sweet memories.

“See, even that young, I knew you were pretty!” Johnny laughed at the blush that tinged her cheeks.

“Now, wherever do you come up with that… that rubbish?” she asked as if it had been the silliest thing in the world that he had said.

“Well, I’ll tell ya, Grace, it’s not rubbish. I don’t lie an’ always say what’s on my mind. So, now I’m gonna ask another question. What’s the best birthday present that ya ever got?” Why did he ask her that? It had come out of nowhere and came close to shocking himself. But he found himself wanting to know everything about her.

Grace sat back in her chair, leaning her head against the ladder-back of the rocker, then rolled it to her left to see Johnny’s face. Her eyes took on a faraway look, as sweet remembrances of long ago blossomed as if ages-old dormant seeds suddenly took root.

“Oh, Johnny, you do ask the most unusual questions! Alright, I’ll tell you. There were two. When I was a little girl, there wasn’t much money. Most of my gifts were homemade, but Mother made them seem like the most special gift in the world when I received them. She made me a doll, but it wasn’t the doll itself that was special. It was what she told me about the doll that meant so very much. She said that as long as I love that doll, with all my heart, it would be with me for my whole life, for love is something that will never fade. She said, ‘love her forever and always, and you will have her forever and always.’ I’ve never forgotten that and have tried to live those words every day of my life.”

Grace stopped for a moment as she pulled these sweet memories out from their safekeeping, and dusted them off to share with this special friend.

She took a deep breath, then went on. “Well, I took her advice to heart. Those words never left me. Everything I held dear had those words attached. When Duncan and I married, I told him that I would love him forever and always. On my first birthday, after we were married, he gave me a wooden box that he made with his own hands, and that saying was carved in the top. ‘Forever and Always’. I still have that box. I see it every day, and it brings me such joy that I can’t put it into words.

“I can feel his touch on my cheek and see the love in his eyes when I look at that box. And though he has been gone these last twelve years, it’s as if he just, a moment ago, gave me that gift.

“Does that answer your question, son?”  Grace asked as she watched Johnny’s face. She could see the emotion in his eyes, those beautiful blue eyes, and was immediately reminded of the tiny baby she’d held all those years ago. And now, here he was, grown into a fine man and a cherished friend. Forever and always…

Johnny could not help the smile that inched across his face. This woman was, indeed, a wonder. He considered himself very lucky to know her, to have this relationship so personal that sharing even the most simple, familiar thoughts made him feel important to her. She made him feel worthy of her.

Johnny sighed as he heaved himself out of his chair. “Guess I better get the roof fixed before Murdoch comes lookin’ for me an’ sees me sittin’ here on this porch!”

<><><><> 

It was a puzzle to him. The visits with Grace Cooper became a cherished time, held firmly in his heart as a valued and prized possession. What was it about this woman that knocked him right off his feet and had him coming back for more? She set him straight when she thought him wrong. And he loved her for it. Did he consider her his Abuela that he’d never known?

Johnny didn’t have any answers. All he knew was he loved this old woman more than  words could ever say. She had wiggled her way into his heart and soundly attached herself, tethered with silken threads that were as strong as iron. Where it came from, and when it happened, Johnny didn’t know, but he was certain it was there, and he counted it as a blessing. For, surely, she was a blessing in his life.

 Johnny continued to stop by Grace Cooper’s place, helping with chores and fixing whatever he could for her. He considered it an honor to watch over her and made it his business to make sure the woman had what she needed. Hunting trips with Scott, Murdoch, or Val produced enough meat that Johnny was able to share fresh game, and after it had been smoked, he filled her larder. And it had been a pleasure for him to do so.

<><><><> 

Johnny drove the wagon to Grace’s small house, knowing that she would be gone for several hours. With Jelly’s help, they worked to secure a porch swing that he and Jelly had made. Her old rocking chair was beyond any repair, and before he would take the chance that she would fall, he decided to take matters into his own hands. The swing was plain in design but sturdy and comfortable. And there was even a cushion that could be removed for cleaning or taken in the house to protect it from bad weather.

They worked quickly to get it suspended from the porch overhang, then Jelly took his leave and returned to Lancer. Johnny went about doing chores. He chopped wood, fed the cow she kept and fixed a fence while he waited for Grace. Finally, down the road, plodded her old horse, Philip, as he picked up one large hoof after the other to plunk on the hard-packed earth.

Johnny went to greet her, and as he helped her out of the carriage, he couldn’t stop the grin that spread across his face.

“Afternoon, Grace! Just thought I’d come over an’ get some chores done for ya. I’ll get your packages outta the carriage. Why don’t ya come sit on the porch with me before I hafta leave?” Johnny said as he steered her to her house.

He waited once she stepped up onto the porch, and she stopped in mid-stride. A slight gasp escaped her, and she put a hand to trembling lips before turning to stare at Johnny through tear-filled eyes.

“Oh, Johnny! It’s… it’s beautiful, son!” and she cried.

<><><><> 

“Ya know, Grace, you’re an angel. Did ya know that?” Johnny asked as they sat together on her new porch swing.

The light gray eyes turned to fix him with a shocked stare. “Why, Johnny Madrid Lancer! Whatever do you mean?” What had he just said? She watched intently as ‘that’ smile grew across his face.

“Well, I’ll tell ya this, you have a way about ya that makes me feel… can’t explain it. Bein’ with you just makes me feel… good! Just now, when ya said my name. You used Madrid. That name makes most folks nervous an’ uncomfortable. An’ sayin’ it like ya did, it was so natural… and accepted. Thank you,” he said softly.

The eyes. She watched his eyes, and they were telling. They were filled with  grateful and thankful appreciation, but also she read sadness swirling in the deep blue depths. He had revealed something so special to her, and couldn’t help but feel her own well with moisture. She had to tell him…

“Johnny, there’s things about your past that will be with you forever. Some of it good and some, not so good, but they are there. Like Madrid. Now, I’ve heard what folks have said, and the people that believe everything they hear and read aren’t the folks I’m going to be listening to. I know there are things connected to Madrid that maybe aren't so, let’s just say, stellar…”

Johnny huffed when he heard that. If she only knew… he thought…

“But, and, I want you to listen carefully to me, son, this is important. My old Granny used to say that ‘Falling down is an accident- staying down is a choice’. I know Madrid helped you to stay alive. And Madrid was there to help many people in Mexico try to escape the tyranny there. What did you do about it, Johnny?” And she waited for his answer.

“Not enough…” he whispered and turned away from her.

Grace sighed. She reached over, and with a gentle finger under his chin, turned him to face her. She needed to see his eyes. “Johnny, you rose up and gave those people hope, you gave them back their dignity. You chose to not stay down. And I’ll tell you this, Madrid will forever and always be welcome in my house, and I am honored to have him!”

It nearly shattered his composure. He reached for her and pulled her into a fierce hug. Johnny’s mind exploded with clarity. Grace was successfully breaking through his self-erected wall. She understood, and he could never repay her for this, for the things she was doing for him. Never.

<><><><> 

They made good use of the swing that fall. Even into the early winter, Grace and Johnny could be seen sitting together, gently swinging back and forth, enjoying the view from her porch but, more than anything, enjoying their company together.

Johnny began to open up about his past. He felt at ease around her. She didn’t judge, nor did she criticize. And he told her how he came to be at Lancer, rescued seconds away from the jaws of death by the firing squad.

“If it wasn’t for Murdoch, I wouldn’t be sittin’ here right now,” he murmured.

Grace waited, then took a deep breath. “My dear old Granny used to say that not all storms disrupt your life- some come to clear your path.”

Johnny stopped the swing and turned to level his blue stare into her eyes. “That what your ol’ Granny used ta say, huh?” When Grace nodded, Johnny laughed. “Guess she was one smart lady!” He thought Murdoch, indeed, was like a storm at times, and coming to Lancer had definitely cleared a path.

<><><><> 

The thought had been tickling his brain for a while now. Grace Cooper had done so much for him, and he couldn’t let that fact go without her knowing how he felt. Johnny was overcoming some of the misgivings he’d felt regarding his life prior to coming to Lancer. She had opened his eyes and his heart to accept himself.

The ride into town was the usual weekly trip, but with one extra stop. Johnny left Scott at the mercantile while he went to see Manuel Garcia, Green River’s cabinet maker. The man could turn an ordinary rough and worn piece of wood into a thing of beauty. And beauty was what Johnny was after. Entrusting Señor Garcia with his order, and the promise of completion in two weeks, Johnny then joined Scott already at the saloon.

“Did you get your errand done, brother?” Scott asked as Johnny settled himself in his chair.

Johnny grinned, thinking about the gift. “Yeah, sure did!” he said before he gulped half his beer.

“Well, it sure must be something special! That smile you’re wearing is giving you away. What happened to that poker face you’re so good at displaying?”

“In case ya ain’t noticed, Boston, I ain’t playin’ poker,” Johnny laughed, not giving anything away.

Scott could only shrug. He would get it out of Johnny, one way or another, what he was up to.

<><><><> 

Johnny sat on his bed. He wiggled around to get comfortable and began to sketch. When it was to his liking, he would make the transfer onto the wood, but for now, he needed to practice. The flow, the curves, and gentle swirls had to be perfect. And only perfect would do.

Two weeks later, again sitting on his bed, Johnny opened the package he’d picked up in town. He had paid Señor Garcia handsomely, very pleased with the work the old cabinet maker had done. The wood, smooth and warm in his hand, felt pleasing to hold, and he was anxious to finish the job he had started.

Now he would begin the final step. He picked up the paper with the curves and gentle swirls drawn so carefully with his hand and placed it on the wood. It was tedious work at first, but he went slowly, sure with every move, consistent with every line. The most precious step, straight from his heart, began to take shape.

It had taken several nights to get it finished. Every evening after dinner, he would excuse himself from the table and retire to his room to work on the gift. His family began to worry something was going on with Johnny. He went straight upstairs after dinner. What was wrong? He didn’t appear to be sick or upset in any way.

It was Scott who shed possible light on their concerns.

“This is only a guess, but I believe it has something to do with Grace Cooper,” he said with a slight grin.

Murdoch could only wonder. “I know he spends a lot of his time with her. And I know she thinks a lot of him. She told me that when I saw her last. Say, you don’t think he’s working on a Christmas present for her, do you? It wouldn’t surprise me!” he said with a proud smile.

“Me either,” Scott responded.

“Or me!” Teresa joined in.

<><><><> 

Murdoch saw the light coming from under Johnny’s door as he came down the hall. Should he knock? Would Johnny want to talk? There was only one way to find out. Lightly tapping on the door, he was rewarded with a soft “It’s open,” and slowly pushed the portal aside to see his younger son sitting on his bed with a polishing cloth and a piece of wood in his hands.

“Johnny, I don’t want to pry, but I’ve been concerned about you. Every night you’re up here. Is everything alright, son?” Murdoch’s eyes searched Johnny’s face for some kind of sign.

Johnny was touched, taken aback by Murdoch’s worry. He gave a soft laugh. “Yeah, I’m fine. But thanks, Murdoch.”

“What do you have there, Johnny?”

“Oh, just somethin’ for Grace Cooper. Her birthday’s the day before mine an’ I wanted ta give her somethin’… from me. Somethin’ special…”

“May I see it?” For a moment, Murdoch thought he overstepped his bounds as Johnny hesitated. His son was a very private man.

Johnny searched his father’s eyes before finally handing over the treasure to the ol’ man’s hand.

Murdoch gasped as he studied the workmanship, stunned with the clarity and precision of the carving. “Johnny, this is… this is beautiful! I know she will treasure this!”

“Treasure what? Am I intruding?” Scott asked from the open door.

“Scott, come in here and see what Johnny made for Grace Cooper!”

Scott took the mirror from Murdoch’s hand. Equally stunned, he studied the finely carved lines and scrolled letters. “Johnny, this is exquisite!”

“Well, don’t know what that means, but I hope it means I did a good job… That’s a sayin’ that means a lot ta her. I had Manuel make the mirror. He did a good job on it.” Johnny smiled as he watched Murdoch and Scott

“’Forever and Always’, it’s beautiful, Johnny, and she’s going to love it! I can guarantee that!” Scott praised.

“Think she’ll like it?” Johnny asked with a hopeful sparkle that twinkled in his eyes. “She told me she doesn’t have a mirror.”

“I know she will, brother!”

“Say, Johnny, why don’t you invite her over here to share in your birthday dinner? We can make it a double celebration with hers the day before yours!”

Johnny turned to stare at his father, his heart beating so hard in his chest, he thought they would hear it.

“I’d like that, Murdoch! Thank you!” he whispered, afraid his voice would give him away.

<><><><> 

Johnny asked Teresa to wrap the gift for Grace in the fancy paper she used, and a pretty ribbon to set it off. He didn’t think he was very good about picking out presents, and he knew for certain that he couldn’t wrap a gift as nicely as his sister. The gift would likely be mistaken for trash and be used for kindling for a fire if it were left to him to do.  Teresa was more than happy to help; she knew what it meant to Johnny. She had placed the mirror just as he asked, face up so Grace would see the mirror side first. She let him pick out the color for the package, light blue paper with a dark blue ribbon. And it was perfect. And it just waited for the day to be held in the old woman’s hands.

<><><><> 

Since coming home to Lancer, familial customs had been a challenge. Johnny, never having been exposed to common and ordinary practices, such as gift-giving, struggled with feelings of incompetence, his inability to give an acceptable gift. It was difficult enough to pick out something adequate, but he never felt he had mastered the ‘special’ quality he thought so far beyond him. Until now. His family thought the mirror was just that.

So, as he rode over to Grace Cooper’s house two days before her birthday, he felt a bit of confidence that this gift would make her happy.

The day was cool, too much so to promote sitting on the porch swing. He tied Barranca at the hitch rail, removed the gift from his saddlebags, and covered it with his coat, then he bounded up the steps onto her porch. Before he got the chance to knock, the door was pulled open, and Grace Cooper greeted him with an enthusiastic hug.

“Why, Johnny! Whatever brings you out on a chilly day like this? You come on in here and sit! I have coffee already made and cookies just out of the oven!” She steered him to the table and took his coat from his arm, not noticing the package he held in his hand.

“Well, I thought about it an’ I decided…” he hesitated and slid the package on a chair seat under the table, “that I needed to come over here an’ make sure that you were behavin’ yourself, cuz I know how rowdy you can get!” he said in humor with his smile that tugged at her heart.

She couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh, Johnny, if I were fifty years younger or you were fifty years older…!” Grace laughed again. He always made her laugh, and she loved it and missed the laughter when Duncan had passed. She shook the thought from her mind and put cups, and a plate of cookies on the table, then poured their coffee. She watched as Johnny made himself at home and munched on the cookies and couldn’t help but smile. This young man was a joy. She knew it from her first sight of him when she held him on her lap. And she loved the fact that he seemed happy to spend his time with her and drank in his attention as if quenching her thirst in the desert.

“What are you about today, Johnny?” Grace asked with interest.

“Well, I thought I’d come over an’ give you this.” He reached over to hand her the beautifully wrapped present.

Her breath caught in her throat, her eyes going from his handsome face to the gift, then back to his face that was now grinning from ear to ear.

“Open it, Grace,” Johnny whispered.

Her hands trembled. Now, why would they do that? she thought, trying desperately to make sense of the nervousness she suddenly felt.

“Go on, Grace, open it.”

The wrinkled hands reached out and took the gift, holding it a moment as she looked with surprise and appreciation at the elegant package.

“Johnny… why?” she asked. “It’s not my birthday yet, and I didn’t expect you to get me a present!”

“Because I wanted ta show you how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me. Over this last, what, ten, eleven months? You’ve helped me to accept who I am. To come to terms with… everything! Grace, ya saved my life,” he said softly.

Her eyes welled. “Johnny, that’s thanks enough!”

“Not for me. Open it…” he coaxed

With better control than she had of two minutes ago, Grace opened the box. Just as she was about to pull away the delicate tissue paper, Johnny spoke.

“I want you to see what I see, and it’s beautiful…”

Her shaking fingers folded back the tissue, and she gasped as the mirror was revealed. Her reflection perfectly returned in sweet disbelief.

“Oh, Johnny! It’s… beautiful!” she gasped.

“I know…” he said, not meaning the gift but what was reflected in it.

Grace picked the mirror out of the box as she inspected the treasured piece. It was finely made, the workmanship the best she’d ever seen. She ran her fingers across the glass and turned it over… The air left her lungs in a whoosh, and the sob was issued before she could call it back. Her eyes squeezed shut as tears leaked from behind the lids. One hand held the smooth wooden handle, the other, palm flat, and fingers splayed over her heart.

Damn! Bad idea! And Johnny was on his feet, cursing himself and reaching for her to help, doing what he didn’t know. He held her as she wept, her small shoulders heaving up and down, strained with the sobs.

“Grace, I’m… sorry…” he whispered in her ear, doing his best to offer her comfort after he’d ripped her heart from her chest. Holding her until, many long minutes later, Grace seemed to pull herself together a bit.

“Grace…” he began.

But her tiny voice effectively cut off any further comment, and she could only squeak out, “This makes four!”

Johnny looked at her, not understanding. Makes four?

“Four what, Grace?” he asked.

“The best gift I ever had, Johnny!”

“Four? What was number three?”

“You. Forever and always, Johnny.”

<><><><> 

December twenty-second dawned clear and bright. The air was crisp and chilly. Today was Grace’s birthday, and when he got a few chores done, Johnny would ride over and spend time with her, not wanting her to be alone today. He wondered if he could talk her into staying the night and celebrate with them through tomorrow. Teresa and Maria quickly prepared a guest room in anticipation. Grace was a pleasure to be around, and everyone looked forward to her visit.

With his chores now done, Johnny left Lancer and took the road south to Grace Cooper’s place just outside of Green River. He couldn’t help but smile as he thought about the woman who had come to mean so much to him. The woman who had blessed him with her love and helped to open his eyes to see and accept the person he was. She gave him hope for his soul and let him know that it was alright to embrace Madrid. The gift he had for her was nothing in comparison to what she’d given him.

 Every time he traveled this road, he found himself anxious to see her. They would put that porch swing to good use this coming year when the weather broke. Maybe he would ask Maria to make a heavy lap robe for Grace so they could sit out on the porch a little earlier. There would be sunny and warm days, even if the calendar dictated it was still winter. The thought made him smile as he envisioned Grace as she sat on the swing: the chilly air would tinge her nose a gentle pink, and the sun would make the sparkle dance in her eyes, and the thought made him smile.

The chickens in the yard scattered as they did their best to escape Barranca’s large hooves. They scratched in the dirt, pecking and chasing the occasional bug. Johnny bound up the steps and knocked softly on the door. He waited a few minutes and tried again, thinking maybe she was in the back gathering eggs for her baking but wanted to make sure she wasn’t in the house before he would go in search of her. The woman could bake! She was always tempting Johnny with the cakes and cookies he loved so much!

Johnny pushed the door open and called out. Receiving no reply, he was about to leave the house to find her. But he noticed a door was shut that had never been closed before. He crossed over to it and knocked softly, but again, there was no answer. He didn’t know what made him do it, but he reached for the knob and turned it, then the door swung open.

Grace Cooper lay on her bed, blankets straightened and neat covering her, her arms lying on top. A sweet smile played about her mouth as if in a sweet dream.

“Grace?” Johnny whispered, not wanting to startle her.

He crossed over to her side and touched her cold hand. His knees gave out, and he went to the floor. The gasp stuck in his throat. “Grace…” and he buried his face in the blanket as his tears came in a flood. He clutched her hands in his and wept. Her Duncan had come to take her home.

<><><><> 

Johnny’s birthday came and went without celebration. The cake, that had been so anticipated, sat untouched, and the pile of birthday gifts remained unopened. He kept to himself, his grief had taken over, and it settled in like a suffocating shroud.

He knew he had to pull himself together. His family did not deserve to have their Christmas ruined because of him. Suddenly, as if struck by a tiny bolt of lightning, Johnny felt a twinge spark inside him. It began in his head and traveled down his spine and along his arms and legs. It left him shaken, but he pushed it aside. He gathered up his strength, what was left of it anyway, and he made an attempt to join his family. He felt awful knowing he was casting a shadow over what should be a precious occasion.

As Johnny Madrid Lancer stepped into the great room, the eyes of his family turned to him. And they all held the hope that he was coming to terms with what had happened. Johnny was no stranger to death. He’d seen it more times than he could count, but it had usually been the death of an enemy. Yes, there were friends, too. But this… this had been different. And he knew in his heart Grace would want him to be happy and move on with his life. The only thing he could give her now would be honor; to honor the woman she was, honor the things that she gave him. Her friendship and the faith in himself that she helped him to see.

Johnny looked at his family and found he couldn’t say the words that he wanted them to know. He took his time, took a deep breath, and started over.

“I just wanted ta tell you all that I’m sorry to have messed up your Christmas…”

“Johnny, we can celebrate when you’re ready. The birth of Christ is on December twenty-fifth, and we all acknowledged that. Our Christmas, the five of us, can be celebrated when the time is appropriate. What is important, Johnny, is you. Are you alright, son?” Murdoch asked gently.

Johnny met the eyes of his family. “I will be…” then he turned and left the room.

<><><><> 

The footsteps were soft as they came up behind him. He knew who it was, and a brief smile crossed his face. Didn’t mean ta worry him so much… Johnny thought.

“Johnny? Do you want to talk about it, son?” Murdoch asked as he came alongside to lean on the corral rail next to the dispirited young man. In the light of the moon, Murdoch could plainly see the struggles that held Johnny secure in a web of grief. But what could he say to ease away the pain?

“The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” Murdoch began but wanted to kick himself for the feeble attempt at conversation. It sounded shallow even to his ears.

Johnny sighed. “Yeah, pretty enough,” he said without looking at the exquisite scene over the mountains. C’mon, Madrid! Pull yourself together! She deserves better from you… Johnny took a deep breath and looked up. “Yeah, Murdoch. It’s really somethin’ tanight,” he answered barely above a whisper. Johnny turned to his father and offered a smile. “Thanks, Murdoch.”

It took everything the patriarch had to not reach over and pull his troubled son into a bear hug, hold him tight and offer the support he needed in dealing with his loss. Johnny needed the compassion that only a parent could provide, and now it was Murdoch to take a deep breath as he struggled for the right words that would comfort his son.

“Do you know that Grace came to see you when you were first born? That she held you and you stopped fussing when you saw her? Your Mother handed you to Grace, and when you opened your eyes, you immediately stopped crying. It was something to witness!” Murdoch described the scene, expecting it to be news to him.

Johnny smiled again and shrugged. “Yeah, she told me about that. She told me about a lotta things sittin’ there on her porch.” Johnny stopped talking and looked down at his hands. “I miss her, Murdoch!” and his voice cracked as he fought the emotions that threatened to render him incapable of speech.

Again, the whisper tore at Murdoch’s heart. He moved nearer and reached his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and pulled him close.

“She was so…’” the hitch in his throat made him stop, stop to gather his self-control. And when he was able, Johnny continued. “Grace made me see things I never saw before. Murdoch, she accepted Madrid an’ made me see him in a clearer light! An’ she always knew the right thing ta say. Ha, guess she got that from her ol’ Granny. Sure had lots of ol’ sayin’s an’ they all came up an’ smacked me right between the eyes. An’ she always made me feel like I was important ta her…”

“Like the saying on the back of the mirror? ‘Forever and Always’? What did that mean, Johnny?”

“She said if you love somethin’ or someone with all your heart, they’ll be with ya forever and’ always. You’ll always have them,” Johnny’s soft voice seemed to echo in Murdoch’s brain of forever and always, forever and always, forever and always…

“You know, son, that may just be the best birthday and Christmas gift you will ever receive!” Murdoch gave Johnny’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Come on, John, it’s getting too chilly out here for my old bones!” And the two men turned from the corral and went into the hacienda.

<><><><> 

Sleep was not coming tonight, but since Grace’s death, it was nothing new. The old woman’s passing had hit Johnny hard. Harder than any of the deaths he’d witnessed, and that included his mother’s. He felt an emptiness inside him but found as his thoughts lingered on her, a smile sooner or later tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he couldn’t help but think of all the joy she had brought into his life. Grace Cooper had been a blessing, a cherished and profound blessing.

The gray eyes sparkled as the sweet smile blossomed across her face. Her hair, white and beautiful with the wisp of gray streak at her right temple, was like a beacon. The voice was soft as it called to him, asking him to join her on the porch swing. He seated himself beside her, then pushed gently with his foot, and the swing began to move. After several minutes, she turned to him and looked straight into his eyes, then she spoke.

“Forever and always, Johnny.”

Johnny woke with a start, his breathing hard as lungs sucked in gulps of air, and his heart pounded in his chest. He raised his hand to rub his eyes— the eyes that he swore had seen a ghost. Laying his hand on his chest, he felt the object under his fingers. Not sensing any danger, he picked it up and moved into the moonlight that streamed through his window. In his hands lay the wooden box and the mirror, each carved with the saying that meant so much. Forever and Always.

Johnny clutched them to his chest, realizing now that Grace had been to see him in his dreams. He trembled uncontrollably as he remembered their times together, the things she taught him, and the love that was unconditional and freely given to him.

“Te amo, Grace!” he whispered into the dark room. He sank to the floor, the precious box and mirror held tightly in shaking hands. Warmth flooded over him, through him and he knew she was there. Her spirit raced through his veins, and he was filled with her grace. Grace’s grace. She folded Johnny in her ethereal embrace, and he felt peace settle in his heart.

<><><><> 

It had been over two weeks since the passing of Grace Cooper. She was buried in Green River’s cemetery alongside Duncan, her beloved husband. As they had no children, Johnny took it upon himself to care for the graves. As long as he drew breath and was able to walk, Grace and Duncan Cooper would be celebrated and honored.

<><><><> 

“Oh, Murdoch! It looks beautiful!” Teresa cried with wide eyes.

“Yes, it is, Darling! It truly is! It may be a bit late, but this Christmas will be one to remember!” Murdoch said as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and held her like the cherished daughter she was.

“Oh, I hope Johnny will be able to enjoy it! He’s been hurt so badly, he deserves to have some happiness, and I want this to be the beginning for him to start feeling better again! I made him his favorite chocolate cake. He never got to have any of the first birthday cake!”

Murdoch smiled, touched at her thoughtfulness. “I think he’s started to come out of that darkness, Teresa, and I know he will appreciate what you’ve done for him. Besides, with you and Maria cooking all day to celebrate our Christmas, I don’t know how it couldn’t make him happy! We’ll know soon enough. They should be home soon, and then we will have that wonderful meal and celebrate.”

It began with trepidation for Johnny. The food was passed, everyone was talking and laughing. He smiled when it was appropriate and answered questions when asked of him, but he still felt out of sorts. He had to grab himself by his bootstraps and pull himself together for fear of ruining yet another Christmas. Noting they were about to serve dessert, Johnny suddenly felt that tiny bolt of lightning, again, the twinge that traveled his body.

Do it, Johnny! They need for you to say it! Madrid, say it!

Johnny took his glass of untouched wine and cleared his throat. When he had their attention, he stood and pushed his chair behind him, then nervously cleared his throat again.

 “I, ah, I ain’t too good at this kind of thing…”

Oh, rubbish! Get on with it, boy!

Johnny had to hold back a laugh. “But, I wanna share with all of you somethin’ that has come ta mean a lot ta me. Guess it took somethin’ bad ta happen ta make me see things in a different light. But a very special lady told me somethin’ that she’s lived by all her life an’ it’s come ta mean somethin’ special for me, too. She said that if ya love somethin’ or someone with all your heart, they’ll be with ya forever an’ always.” He stopped to take a shaky deep breath, “An’ I just wanted ta say,” and he raised his glass, “that I love you all forever an’ always!”

The family sat with glasses raised and tears in all of their eyes.

“Forever and Always” was toasted around the table.

Grace smiled down on them all, but with one last touch to Johnny’s cheek, she left the family to celebrate. She would always be there for him… always.  

 

 

Continued in Grace's Legacy ---->


Author’s note -  Please do not be sad. This is a story about what is left when a loved one passes into the next world, the things you will have long after they are gone. Love, humility, honor, respect, dignity, grace, and precious, precious memories, to name just a few, live in your heart, and will be a tribute and testament to those that have passed. I ask that if you haven’t told someone today who is special to you  that you love them, please do so. You will never regret it, and it can never be taken away.

Forever and always, my friends!

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