Never Alone

Chapter Fourteen (Conclusion)

Kathleen stood in the door way watching various family members dismount their horses. They looked tired, not hard to be at two in the morning, so much for waiting until morning to do more than sleep. They also looked happy. The moment Kathleen caught site of the side of the wagon her face broke out in the widest grin possible; she could see Nick's arm resting on the side. "NICK!" Kathleen's scream could be heard throughout the entire ranch as she, along with her daughter, ran up to the wagon once it had stopped. Nick's grin spread emulated his wife's as Kathleen practically flew up and into the wagon. Victoria May remained by the side watching as her father held out his arms for his wife. Once she was in his embrace, he held onto her for all he was worth.

"Where in the h…blazes were you?" Heath stormed up to the other side of the wagon. "It's been three days! You know how worried we've all been?" He looked down at Nick's right leg which was sporting a splint, at his left one which had the ankle wrapped up, and rolled his eyes, "What happened this time?" He shot off a few more questions. Those around him smiled at the Heath's out of the ordinary rampage of questions. They knew it was just his way of letting his brother know he loved him very much; Nick knew it too.

"My horse, he threw me. After I got up, I took a wrong step." Nick answered as he kept a hold of Kathleen with one hand while he took a hold of his oldest daughter's hand…which Victoria May was holding over the edge of the wagon, "kind of hard to climb back up the side of a steep incline with a bummed up leg and hurt ankle, not that I didn't try. Sorry, I didn't mean to scare everyone." He spoke to his little brother, but looked at Kathleen and his daughter.

Heath shook his head and watched as Gene lowered the tailgate. After which Kathleen and her daughter had no choice but to let go of Nick while others helped him from the wagon and took him inside. "Good thing you two sleep downstairs," Gene and Heath both joked, "We'd hate to have to help carry you up those stairs!" That got a few chuckles out of everyone present.

Once they had Nick inside and in his own bed everyone left, but not before receiving a hug and thank you from Kathleen. Even Victoria May, who had sworn if her father was found in the middle of the night she'd be unable to finally relax and go to sleep, found the way to her bed after helping chase her brothers and sisters back to their rooms…the younger children had been awakened when their mother screamed and were doing all they could to climb all over their father. They did not return to the rooms until Nick had hugged and kissed each of the younger ones and merely hugged his seventeen year old son, Jonathon Jarrod Barkley. Jonathon would have died from embarrassment had his father actually kissed him.

Once the children had all left to go back to bed, Nick looked at Kathleen and pulled her close to him. "I really am sorry for scaring you. If it makes any difference, they were the longest three days of my life. Well, the three longest ones I've had in a long time."

Kathleen laid her head on his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his waist. Thinking about the events of the story her oldest had just been retold, his wife sighed, "I don't think I've been so scared since Victoria May was born." She then confessed which story their daughter had asked for, along with the fact that if the young woman and stopped and thought about it she probably would've asked for another story.

Nick stiffened slightly as he thought on 'that' story and the beloved brother they'd lost way too young and then relaxed and sighed. "While I was laid up hoping to be found, I actually had my mind on the same time period." He gave his wife another tight hug.

Kathleen gave her husband a warm smile as she said. "I have felt Jarrod on more than one occasion. Whispering Pines…or Annie's… marriage to Gene's brother-in-law a few years after she came to live with us, for example… I just know he was there. I know as the story was retold I felt him a time or two. I've felt him on many other occasions as well." It was something she was truly grateful for; it helped her tell the story without breaking down after all these years.

Nick found himself holding onto Kathleen as tight as he could without hurting her and tilted her head upwards; his voice took on a tone of a man who knew he had been truly blessed beyond measure. "Me too; he has been by my side many times when I've needed him the most, off and on during this latest ordeal included." He chuckled softly and said, "Strange that our daughter should ask for that story while I was up on the mountain with Jarrod paying me visits now and then."

"That was no coincidence at all." Kathleen said softly and then added, "He must have known we needed him to make it through this latest trial."

"I believe so." Nick answered and then said, "As time passed, and I began wonderin' if anyone would even find me, I found myself wishin' I could tell you once more how much you mean to me. When the day comes, if I go first, remember you too are never alone."

Kathleen hugged him tighter as one memory after another raced through her mind, memories that filled both happiness and sorrow. "You just remember the same thing if I go first, Nick." She slid her arm out from behind his back, touched his face and smiled in love and admiration. She then rested her hand back on his chest and fell asleep leaving Nick to turn his own thoughts, the ones about his family and life in general, around in his mind.

Doing that, thinking on family and life, wasn't hard to do. There were pictures of his mother who had passed on a mere five years ago, his father, his siblings (living or not), the family of his own, along with pictures some dear friends all around the room he and Kathleen shared. They all meant so much too him. For as much worldly wealth as he had, his family (whether with him or passed on) was the greatest wealth he had. Slowly, Nick closed his eyes and, for a moment, he could see an image of Jarrod smiling down at him with a one very happy and contented looked upon his face. "Suppose I'll have to thank you someday for keeping your promise dear brother; when I've needed you the most, you've been there. I've never been alone." Nick silently thought as he, once again, remembered feeling his brother's presence during the time he'd been missing from his family. The image smiled even wider then slowly disappeared. Nick then got the first good night sleep he'd had in days.