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“Because you’re my brother,” Deuce answered as he grabbed at Ty’s elbow to stop him. “And I enjoy watching you squirm,” he added as Ty glared at him.

“You want the truth?” Ty asked in frustration.

“No, Beaumont, I want you to lie to me,” Deuce replied drolly.

Ty gave him a hard punch to the bicep in retaliation, and Deuce yipped and stumbled a bit, laughing as he grabbed for his arm. “You’re a jackass, Deacon,” Ty said with a grunt. “Don’t you tell him my given name,” he threatened seriously.

“I won’t,” Deuce agreed, still laughing. “Answer the question, Ty. You’re never this stubborn unless you’re trying to hide something. You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” he stated with a hint of surprise.

Ty sighed and looked away, staring out at the rise and fall of the mountain ridge through the breaks in the tree line. To this point, he’d been able to tell himself that Zane was nothing more than a friend and partner. Ty had never been in love. He didn’t know what it was, and so he couldn’t say for sure. He pressed his lips together and lowered his head. He rarely lied to Deuce, and he saw no reason to start now.

“I don’t know,” Ty said. “I don’t know if I love him or not. I think… I think I could if he let me,” he said, admitting more to Deuce than he’d even been willing to admit to himself. “But that has nothing to do with why he’s here,” he insisted as Deuce opened his mouth to speak. “Dick is on the verge of forcing Garrett into an early retirement,” he told Deuce softly, looking around the trail at their surroundings as if someone might overhear them.

Finally thrown off the scent, Deuce straightened in surprise and took a step closer to Ty, lowering his voice when he spoke. “What’s the reason?” he asked curiously.

After a moment of hesitation, Ty answered regretfully. “Our last case did a number on him. He’s bombing his evals.” It felt wrong, telling anyone about Zane’s situation. Hell, it had felt wrong hearing about Zane’s situation. But he trusted his brother, and he was hoping Deuce might be able to help. He was a trained psychiatrist, after all, and that was exactly what Zane needed, in Ty’s opinion.

“Which evals?” Deuce asked, and Ty could practically see him switching over into professional mode.

It had always annoyed Ty before, but now it was almost a relief. “Psych ones mostly,” he answered with a small huff.

“He seems pretty grounded,” Deuce observed.

“It’s an… ongoing thing,” Ty answered. “Things from the past piling up. Then that car wreck in New York?”

Deuce nodded, not commenting on the fact that Ty hadn’t called home to inform them about that whole ordeal until after he’d been released from the hospital.

“He got pretty torn up. And he doesn’t know I know, but he ended up having to kill the man we were hunting. Then he got tossed back into an undercover gig that he wasn’t ready for and didn’t want, and there’s drugs and alcohol and all kinds of shit involved from his past. He cleaned up but… it… he’s not dealing well. He tries to hide it, but he’s not,” Ty went on in frustration.

“You brought him here for me to talk with him?” Deuce asked in surprise.

“Not… really,” Ty answered with a wince.

Deuce was silent, staring at him, and soon Ty lowered his head, unable to look his brother in the eye. “Did Dick order you to bring him here?” Deuce asked uncertainly.

“No, that was all me,” Ty corrected.

“But Dick ordered you here,” Deuce reminded.

“It was a suggestion,” Ty argued.

“A suggestion,” Deuce repeated dubiously.

“A mild suggestion,” Ty said with a nod of his head.

Deuce snorted. “The last mild suggestion Dick gave you sent you to Cuba,” he reminded.

“Yeah, well, I kind of enjoyed Cuba,” Ty muttered as he looked away and squinted back in the direction they’d come.

“I assume he doesn’t know this?” Deuce asked.

“I’m pretty sure Dick knows I enjoyed Cuba,” Ty said with a smirk he couldn’t hold back.

“I’m talking about Zane, numbnuts,” Deuce said. “And don’t try to confuse me, I’m immune,” he added. Ty sighed and looked back at his feet. “Does Zane know why he’s here?” Deuce prodded.

Ty shook his head and looked up at his brother pleadingly. “I told him I wanted him to come along to run interference with the family. That was the original idea, actually, but the more I thought about it on the way up, the more I thought maybe you could help. I don’t know what else to do. I’m not sure he’ll let me help him.”

Deuce was silent, studying Ty for a few minutes. Finally he nodded, taking pity. “I’ll talk to him,” he promised.

“Thank you,” Ty said in relief.

“Ty! Deuce!” Earl called out suddenly, his deep voice echoing in the thick woods. The tone of his voice caused Ty to turn and run instantly, leaving Deuce to keep up with him as best he could on his bad leg.

Ty skidded into the clearing where they’d been resting, and he glanced around until he saw his father crouched in the woods at the edge of the clearing, looking down at the ground. Zane was standing behind him, and they wore matching frowns.

“What?” Ty demanded irritably as his heart began to calm. Deuce clambered out of the woods behind him and ran into him, almost toppling them both to the ground.

“Quit messin’ around and come look at this,” Earl requested calmly. Ty shoved Deuce gently before stomping over to join his father.

“Don’t do that,” he requested as he knelt beside Earl.

“Do what?” Earl asked in confusion.

Ty just shook his head. “What is it?”

Earl pointed at a track in the dried mud in front of him. He was pulling the leaves of an overgrown plant away in order to see it, and Ty wondered briefly how he’d even found the tracks to start with. They were standing only a couple feet from a drop-off to a creek in a ravine.

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“Is that from an ATV?” Deuce asked as he leaned over them, his hands on his knees.

“It’s definitely a tire mark of some sort,” Ty murmured as he looked up and over his shoulder, peering into the woods in the direction the track headed. Motorized vehicles of any sort were illegal up here. Even bicycles weren’t allowed. So it was a concern to find a track like this. His eyes scanned the trees and underbrush, looking for signs of recent passage. An ATV trail wasn’t hard to follow, but Ty could see no broken twigs or brushed leaves in the area, much less any more tracks.

“This is a pretty old track,” he finally decided as his brother and father waited for him to speak. They knew his abilities, and they were willing to defer to him even though both men had been raised in these mountains as well. His father had been used as a tracker in Vietnam because of his skills, and he had taught his boys everything he knew. Ty had merely had more opportunity to hone the talent.

“When was the last heavy rain up here?” he asked his dad.

“Been about two weeks, to my knowledge,” Earl answered thoughtfully. He gently replaced the fronds of the little fern he’d been holding back, and he and Ty both cocked their heads in the same manner as they looked down at the track beneath. “It was made before the rain,” Earl realized as Ty nodded in agreement. “Plant protected it from being washed away,” he told Zane as he stood and stretched his back.

“We’ll report it when we hit the ranger station, all the same,” Ty told them as he stood as well. “Person on an ATV up here is either up to no good or they’re gonna get hurt,” he said with a sigh.

“I don’t see how a four-wheeler would get up here at all,” Zane said. “So much of the woods, the paths are too narrow.”

“If you don’t care about trampling the underbrush or getting clotheslined by the occasional low-hanging branch, you can do it,” Deuce told him wryly as he stood with one hand on his hip. He looked over at Ty. “Are you worried?” he asked.

Ty frowned thoughtfully but finally shook his head. “Marijuana, probably. Could be moonshine, but I don’t know. We’ll stop in at the ranger station, give them a location.”

“They’ll just kick it off to you Feds,” Earl pointed out.

“Dad, if I call Dick with a case, even something like this, when I’m supposed to be on vacation, he will skin me alive,” Ty pointed out. “Besides, what do you want me to do? Track them through the back country and take them on with Deuce’s walking stick?”

“Don’t be a smartass,” Earl warned as he turned away and headed toward his pack. “Watch out for the snake,” he added as he went.

“Snake?” Ty asked in confusion, glancing at Deuce and then Zane, who was shaking his head as he walked away.

Chapter 7

“WE’RE a few hours behind schedule,” Deuce informed the group as Ty and Zane hunched over the fire and warmed their stiff fingers. Ty looked up at his brother and snarled quietly.

Zane knew it had gotten much colder than they had anticipated, and it was sapping their energy at a dangerous rate. It was only the second night, but they were all dragging a little. The last ridge they’d topped before stopping for the night had revealed snow on the highest peaks, and Ty had gone so far as to tell Zane he was beginning to fear it would get worse before they could find the appropriate shelter. That wasn’t reassuring.

At least it was cold enough that surely no snakes would be out at all.

“I’d like to scout ahead a little,” Earl told them. He was screwing the top onto a Thermos of hot coffee he’d boiled over the fire and looking off into the woods that awaited them. “Get clear of the roof and smell what the weather looks like,” he went on as he looked up at the thick canopy of trees.

Zane looked up as well, only catching glimpses of the gray evening sky between the layers of colored foliage barely illuminated by the fire. He’d almost gotten used to the feeling of being underneath a huge tent that happened to move and sway with the wind.

“If we can’t get to the next shelter in a day’s trek, we might think about turning back,” Earl was saying. “Keep to the lower elevation and familiar ground. Ty, load up.”

“Yes, sir,” Ty murmured as he stood again and began to extract things from his pack quickly.

“Catch up,” Earl instructed as he headed off into the woods with his flashlight and canteen.

Ty glanced up and sighed in exasperation. “Damn fool, can’t even wait for me to lighten my damn pack,” he muttered under his breath as he knelt and moved faster. “Familiar ground, my ass,” he grumbled.

Zane watched him, wondering about the relationship Earl Grady had with his sons. He seemed pretty good-natured and easygoing, and so did Deuce, for the most part. Although he wouldn’t describe Ty that way on the whole, they all seemed to get along just fine and have a great deal of respect for each other. But when Earl gave an order, both Ty and Deuce jumped to obey it as quickly as possible. Easygoing or not, somewhere along the way Earl Grady had taught his sons to do as they were told without questioning it. Zane wasn’t sure what he thought of that, and it was definitely odd to see Ty like this. Ty mumbled something to them Zane didn’t quite catch before heading off into the dark woods after his father.

Zane leaned back against a rock that lined the clearing where they’d made camp for the night and stretched out his legs with a wince. He was in really good physical shape—lots of hours in the gym to offset all the sitting at a desk—but the hard hiking wasn’t like running on a treadmill or lifting weights. He had kinks in his back from carrying the backpack that were bugging him.

The fire was putting out good heat now, so he pulled off his heavy jacket and set it to the side, not wanting to get overheated. Grumbling to himself a little, he twisted carefully from side to side to pop his back and then his neck.

He was tired. Bone tired, even. Maybe he’d be able to sleep more than a few hours tonight. He yawned, but movement to his side drew his attention. Zane flicked his eyes to his left to see Deuce rambling across the campsite. He was carrying an armload of small sticks and brush to fuel the fire, and he happily dumped them onto Ty’s bedroll as Zane watched him.

He straightened and turned to meet Zane’s eyes, and he cocked his head curiously when he saw him sitting there. He glanced off in the direction Ty and Earl had gone and began moving toward him. Deuce knelt beside Zane with a smile and then allowed himself to fall into a seated position in front of the fire.

“Tired, huh?” he asked knowingly.

Zane let himself smile a little as he slumped. “What gave me away?”

Deuce shrugged. “You have that ‘please carry me’ look to you.”

Zane snorted. “Seen that a lot?”

“I have a mirror,” Deuce answered with a laugh. He unscrewed the cap to his canteen and gave Zane a measuring look. “Why’d you come up here with Ty?” he asked.

Holding Deuce’s eyes, Zane silently acknowledged the talk that had been pending. “He asked me to.”

“I’m betting he asks you to do a lot of things,” Deuce wagered.

Zane shook his head briefly. “You’d lose.”

“Really?” Deuce responded in genuine surprise. “Interesting,” he murmured as he again looked out to where Ty and Earl had disappeared down the trail. After a moment, he shook his head and looked back at Zane. “You like your job?” he asked suddenly.