Zane was wrong in the head somehow, and he wasn’t getting better. Ty knew that was a big reason they’d not been put back in the field yet. It frustrated him to no end, and that frustration was beginning to wear on their partnership in more ways than one. That was one of the reasons he’d been keeping his distance; he didn’t want to add any more stress to whatever Zane was dealing with, and Ty knew himself well enough to know that he caused stress even to the people who liked him.
Ty set those thoughts aside for later, hoping he wouldn’t have to deal with the issue at all. “Hey, Dad, Deuce and me are gonna scout ahead a little,” he called out, thinking to give Zane a little more of a break before they headed off again. And hopefully find a clearing and a landmark or two.
Earl gave them a wave of acknowledgment as he chewed. Ty turned and gestured for Deuce to come with him.
“So,” Deuce said as soon as they were far enough away from the others to speak freely. “Is it really such a good idea to get involved with him?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Ty asked with a distracted frown as he studied the surrounding area and looked down at the laminated paper in his hand. He was almost certain now a portion of the thing was drawn in crayon. They were not where they were supposed to be.
“Ty? Give me one minute, okay?” Deuce asked, and he held up one finger to emphasize the request. Ty looked up at him in surprise, pulling his attention away from the trail map. “One minute to have a serious conversation. Then we can go back to pretending we’re not lost,” Deuce bargained.
“Okay,” Ty muttered warily, and he folded the map up and slid it into his pocket. “Shoot.”
“Don’t get me wrong, all right?” Deuce requested as he started walking again, using the stick Ty had carved to help him. “He seems like an okay guy. He’s kinda… twitchy, but then so are you. And if you’re going to be involved with a guy, I’d rather it be someone who can kick your ass,” he informed Ty seriously. “But I’ve seen what you do to the people you’re fucking, man. They fall for you; you dump them; they have a nervous breakdown. What happens when it ends? Can you request a new partner because of personal issues?”
“It won’t go that far,” Ty scoffed as he caught up to his brother and walked beside him with his head down, watching the trail. “And I do not give people nervous breakdowns,” he added in an insulted voice. He glanced up to catch Deuce’s disbelieving eye, and he shrugged defensively.
“You saying your relationship with him is purely professional?” Deuce asked.
“Yes,” Ty answered stubbornly.
Deuce stopped walking and shook his head. Ty moved until he was standing in front of him. “You’re full of shit,” Deuce accused with a smile.
“Well, that’s not new,” Ty argued.
“So, you’re saying if you weren’t fucking him any longer, you’d still be okay working with him,” Deuce posed, unwilling to be driven off track.
“Yes,” Ty answered in annoyance. “You a couples therapist all of a sudden?” Deuce snorted and began laughing. “Really,” Ty grunted as he turned away.
“You know how lovers’ spats get, Ty,” Deuce called after him.
“There’s no love involved,” Ty insisted as he turned back around and glared at Deuce.
“Maybe not for you,” Deuce pointed out. “What about him?”
“Garrett?” Ty asked, his voice rising in tone. “He’s not in love with me; are you kidding? He can barely stand me.”
“Love and like are two entirely different things, Tyler,” Deuce said knowingly as he started moving again.
“Yeah, well, save it for your clients,” Ty muttered as he followed. His brother responded with a delighted whistle, and Ty shook his head, trying not to let on how disturbed he was by the discussion. Deuce was even more perceptive than Ty, a skill that served his brother well in his chosen profession. But there was no reason to think Deuce was right in regards to Zane. Ty knew his partner better than Deuce did. Zane had already known the love of his life, and he wasn’t looking for another one. What that spelled out for them was absolutely nothing but enjoying the here and now.
Zane would no more fall in love with Ty than he would sprout wings and fly.
ZANE watched the brothers tromp off down a trail. He could hear them talking for a few moments, but then they were too far away.
“They seem close,” Zane observed, shifting on the log to lean his elbows on his knees as he studied the greenery under his boots.
“They were tied together like a knot when they were little,” Earl confirmed. “Caused all kinds of hell. But then, Grady brothers always have. Been that way since my daddy and his brothers was little.”
Zane smiled. Trouble ran in the family, obviously. “Always wondered what it’d be like to have a brother,” he confided in Earl.
“Well, you practically got one now,” Earl pointed out as he gestured with his half-eaten sandwich.
Glancing at the older man, Zane tipped his head as he turned the half of his sandwich on its side to take another bite. “Yeah, I guess.” He wouldn’t exactly call his relationship with Ty a brotherly one. But then, they were in West Virginia…. His lips quirked before he took a bite, aware of Earl’s scrutiny and trying not to laugh.
“Dick tells me you took care of my boy,” Earl said a full minute later.
Zane slowly lifted his gaze to meet his eyes but didn’t comment. He didn’t want to talk about New York with anyone—and definitely not with Ty’s father. Earl nodded, that look about him like he felt he might have an idea of what they’d dealt with. “Bad enough you don’t want to talk about it, huh?” Zane swallowed hard and reached for his canteen, looking blankly out into the forest. “You military, Garrett?”
The abrupt change in the line of questioning threw Zane for a second. He figured at that moment that he ought to have expected it. All the Gradys did that jump-the-tracks train of thought thing; he suspected it was a way to throw their quarry off guard. It worked, he thought with a sniff. “No, sir.”
“That’s too bad,” Earl commented sincerely.
Zane frowned and turned his chin back. “Why?”
“Military gives you a state of mind to deal with those kind of things,” Earl told him sympathetically. “Man ain’t made to deal without help.”
Zane had to admit the man had a point. Truth was, he wasn’t handling parts of his job-related past well, even with outside help. But the comment rankled, regardless. “Just because I’m not military doesn’t mean I can’t handle the job.”
“Didn’t say you couldn’t, son,” Earl told him evenly.
Zane nodded slowly, finishing the last couple bites of his sandwich and watching as Earl stood and walked a few steps away. Zane tipped his head to one side. He hadn’t quite figured out how to take Earl Grady yet.
“Damn fool boy needs someone on his six,” Earl murmured as he looked out into the woods where Ty and Deuce had disappeared.
“Ty’s very good at his job,” Zane defended quietly.
Earl nodded and turned back to him. “Yes, he is. You know anything about tracking?” he asked.
Zane raised an amused eyebrow, acknowledging another jump in the tracks. “Not on a mountain,” he answered.
“In a city. The Texas flats where I grew up. Or on a computer.”
Earl wrinkled his nose. “Computers,” he repeated with a shake of his head. “Can’t wrap my mind around them.”
“They’re the new frontier,” Zane told him wryly. “Not many places like this left,” he said, pointing his finger up and circling.
“Mountains, they got their dangers, just like anywhere else. I been a lot of places. So has Ty. But these mountains are in my blood, and they’re in Ty’s blood too.” Earl went quiet, looking around them speculatively. “They’ve served Tyler well,” he finally decided. “If you can survive here, you can survive just about anywhere,” he claimed.
“I guess I’ll find out then,” Zane finally answered. “But you won’t be carrying my ass out,” he said with a slight smile, echoing a comment Earl had made about one of Ty’s Recon friends.
Earl snorted. “We’ll see shortly,” he said with a smirk.
A little bothered, Zane slid his empty sandwich wrapper in his bag and stood up, pacing away to the edge of the clearing. He didn’t like the constant air of doubt Earl exuded, as if he wasn’t quite sure Zane—or any of them, for that matter—was capable of doing what needed to be done. It was similar to the attitude Ty’d had toward him when they’d first met.
He stood in place for a while, arms crossed, looking down the hillside at the thick undergrowth that rambled over rocks and broken trees about ten feet below them, doing his best to zone out and listen to the woods around him. After several minutes, he took a slow, deep breath, sighed, and went to move, but he paused as a small mouse darted out of the brush and dodged around his feet before disappearing again. Zane nearly chuckled until more movement caught his eyes, and he looked down.
“Come here, please.”
Earl walked up behind him, and Zane pointed down.
There was a snake sliding out of the brush, its nearly camouflaged brown body stretching out as it slithered near one of Zane’s boots, intent on the mouse it had been stalking. It kept moving, and Zane’s eyes widened as the snake got longer and thicker.
”Never seen a snake before?” Earl asked as he frowned and squinted at it. “Cold for her to be out.”
Zane turned a disbelieving glare on him. “Is this particular one dangerous or can I kick it away?”
“That’s a rattler, boy,” Earl said with a careless wave of his hand. “You just wait ’til she decides to move and hope she don’t startle,” he advised, as if it were the easiest thing in the world to just stand there while a poisonous snake slid around your ankle. “She knows you’re there already; she can see heat.”
Just at that moment, the snake coiled itself and raised its head, its tail moving and emitting the rattling sound Zane was all too familiar with from growing up on a horse ranch in Texas.
“Now she’s pissed,” Earl observed calmly, taking a cautious step backward. “Them boots of yours leather?”
“Leather and canvas,” Zane answered, swallowing. But that wasn’t going to help if she bit above them. She was within easy striking distance of his knees.
“That there’s a timber rattler. Pretty rare. Not usually mean, but you must have interrupted her dinner,” Earl said, keeping his voice down. “Real poisonous. But don’t worry,” he was sure to add. “Usually when a snake strikes defensively it’s a dry bite.” Zane glanced at him quickly. “Means they don’t load up no venom before they bite,” Earl explained, as if he was teaching a class rather than talking to a man about to be bitten by a snake.
Zane grimaced. “I don’t really want to take that chance, thanks. So what now?” he asked as he eyed the snake that was coiled in front of him and still rattling. “I can’t shoot the damn thing.” He very slowly uncrossed his arms, his right hand settling at his left wrist. He was pretty sure his knife wouldn’t help either, but it made him feel better regardless.
“No, they’re endangered. Can’t kill her. Don’t move,” Earl warned. He moved closer and circled behind the snake as the rattling became louder, but Zane wasn’t about to turn his head to see what the man was doing.
“Fucking vacation,” Zane said under his breath.
“Move,” Earl barked suddenly.
As Zane shifted his weight and jumped sideways, away from the snake, it went after him, striking fast. Earl grabbed at it as it lunged through the air, its momentum making it impossible for the five-foot long snake to do anything but hiss and curl its body around Earl’s hand as he held onto it, just below its widened jaws.
Zane stared at him, both appalled and impressed.
“Got to catch ’em below the teeth,” Earl advised calmly as he carefully unwrapped the snake from his wrist and then tossed it with both hands into the underbrush, sending it sliding down the rocky hillside unharmed, away from them. “You all right?” Earl asked him as he turned to look at him.
Zane nodded numbly. Ty joked about West Virginia snake charmers sometimes. Zane had never taken him seriously, though. Maybe he should start. “Thanks.”
Earl grunted and took a few steps to peer down the hill. Zane stayed back—no way was he tempting fate again. In Texas the general wisdom was that snakes traveled in pairs.
“Just a last big dinner before winter. Thought we wanted it,” Earl drawled carelessly. “Warning us off is all.”
“Well, it succeeded,” Zane said vehemently.
Earl just chuckled. Before Zane could say anything more, Earl frowned and squatted down, moving aside some fronds of a ground fern.
“What are you doing?” Zane asked in confusion.
“Look at this,” Earl said.
Zane went to stand behind Earl and look over his shoulder. But he kept one hand on his knife, just in case.
“SO IF you’re not emotionally invested in this guy, why’d you bring him up here?” Deuce asked as he caught up to Ty again.
“Why are you so interested?” Ty asked desperately, wishing his brother would just back off for once.