As Earl and Deuce picked through the rest of the supplies spilled on the ground, Zane stood slowly, only a couple feet from Ty, keeping his eyes on him the whole time. He took a step closer and reached out to untwist one of the straps and tie it more securely. “There you go,” he murmured.
Ty found it difficult to meet his eyes as he thought about a similar action Zane had taken in a New York hotel room almost a year ago. Now, just as then, his heart beat a little faster because of it. But he nodded in thanks and smiled as he tried to fight back the hint of warmth it caused. I love you. The thought had haunted him all night, almost as much as the sound of the cougar’s scream.
Zane’s fingers lingered where Ty’s T-shirt met his neck, pressing against the warm skin for just a few moments longer than necessary. “Come on. There’s beer and apple pie waiting,” he said.
“Can’t wait,” Ty muttered. He reached out and socked Zane in the stomach as soon as the other two men had turned away and started off down the trail.
“Ow!” Zane huffed, rubbing the spot as he hefted the remaining backpack. “Asshole.”
Ty grinned crookedly and began laughing softly. “You’re carrying my shit over mountain trails. You’re officially a jackass.”
Zane skipped a step to catch up as they started walking. “I vaguely remember you carrying me around. What does that make you?”
“A hero,” Ty countered with a smirk.
Zane snorted as they sped their steps, hiking after the other two men. “So now you’re going to admit it, huh? None of that ‘I was just helping my partner’ shit you gave in the reports?”
“Shut up,” Ty grunted, suddenly uncomfortable with the discussion.
“Humility doesn’t suit you, Grady. Now step it up,” Zane said as he stepped over a log fallen across the narrow trail.
Ty muttered to himself as he walked ahead of Zane. His hand throbbed angrily with every beat of his heart, and the punctures burned under the makeshift bandages. He didn’t say anything to the others, though; he just tried to keep pace with them. The closer they got to civilization, the better off they were. And they had a long way to go.
“MRS. Grady, I understand that you’re worried,” the ranger was saying patiently as Mara and Chester stood together in front of him. Mara’s jaw was set firm, and her green eyes flashed as Chester stood beside her, leaning on his shovel. “But they’re not even a day late,” the ranger continued, looking askance at the shovel. “Earl’s missed his schedule by a lot more than this before.”
“This time’s different, Dale,” Mara insisted stubbornly. She had awakened that morning with an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she couldn’t seem to shake it. She tried to tell herself it was just the change to her routine that was causing it, or the fact that Chester had been awake and dressed, ready to ride with her to the ranger station. But deep down, she knew she’d never convince herself. Something was wrong on the mountain today.
“They’re not technically missing yet,” Dale tried to reason with her, putting his hands out almost defensively.
“Twenty-four hours could kill a man in those mountains, and you know it!” Mara told him angrily.
“Been awful cold up there,” Chester informed him calmly.
“Your boys are more than capable of handling themselves on the mountain,” Dale reminded with a hint of admiration. Dale had gone to school with Ty and Deuce; he knew them and what they were capable of. “There’s nothing I can do until we get some kind of word that there’s trouble,” Dale told them in a voice that was almost pleading with her to understand. “We’re short-handed as it is in the offseason.”
Mara lifted her chin and glared at him silently, looking around at the other two rangers who stood in the office, trying desperately not to get in the line of fire. “You’re not gonna go search for my boys ’til morning?” Mara questioned in a calm voice.
“Mrs. Grady, please—”
“Well then, we’re gonna need to borrow two guns, some britches, and a daypack,” she interrupted as she looked back at Dale.
He stared at her with his mouth hanging slightly open. “What?” he asked dumbly.
“You heard the woman, sonny!” Chester shouted as he brought the shovel up and slammed it onto the desk beside Dale, narrowly missing his fingers. Dale jumped and flinched away from the sharp tip.
“Yes, sir, but—”
“Well, I certainly can’t go up there in nothing but my dress,” Mara reasoned with him, “and I don’t have time to go driving all the way back home to get Earl’s rifle.”
He continued to stare at them, shaking his head helplessly.
Chester hefted the shovel and rested it on his shoulder, narrowing his clear blue eyes. Mara crossed her arms stubbornly. “And some extra ammunition,” she requested of Dale.
Dale sighed and slumped his shoulders, sitting back against his desk and rubbing at a spot of tension on his forehead. He looked back up at her as she stood there waiting, his eyes flickering to Chester and his shovel warily as he cleared his throat.
“Jerry, call down and have them start up the search-and-rescue team,” Dale requested of one of the other rangers in the office. The man hopped up gratefully and went to go get the local volunteer search and rescue squad on the horn.
Mara nodded at the young ranger. “Thank you, Dale. You’re a good boy,” she told him.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said in defeat as she and Chester turned and made their way out of the office.
ZANE paused next to Ty for a couple deep breaths at the top of another hill on the grassy path. When he stopped, Ty glanced at him, and Zane got a good look at his partner. His face was flushed, but other than that, he looked like he was taking a walk in the park. It made Zane worry that the flush was from fever and not exertion.
“Okay?” Ty asked him.
Zane nodded even though he was slightly winded. “You?”
“Hurts,” Ty responded as he lowered his head again.
That worried him. It was the second time Ty had admitted to the pain, and Ty wouldn’t admit to pain unless it was bad or he wanted to be coddled. And Zane knew he didn’t want to be coddled in front of his father and brother. He studied Ty’s face. “Throbbing? Burning?”
“Little of both,” Ty answered curtly as he looked out over the trail ahead. “Hey, Dad,” he called as he unscrewed the top of his canteen with his thumb. “I think we need to check this.”
“Hurts?” Earl asked worriedly as he brushed past Zane on his way back to Ty.
“Hurts,” Ty echoed as Earl’s back obscured Zane’s view of what they were doing. He could tell Earl was unwrapping the makeshift cast and examining the wounds, though.
“What’s the verdict, Dad?” Deuce asked after a quiet minute.
Earl was silent for a moment, still holding Ty’s hand and looking at it closely. Finally, he shook his head. “Hand’s hot,” he answered grimly.
“Infected?” Deuce asked.
“Red’s just setting in,” Earl responded. “If I had to guess, I’d say that cat lost a bit of tooth in that knuckle,” he added as he turned Ty’s hand over and began rewrapping it with extreme care. Zane’s stomach plummeted with the news.
“We just need to get within range of a cell tower or ranger station,” Deuce offered calmly. “And hell, Ma and Grandpa probably got the cavalry all riled up by now.”
Zane glanced up at the canopy. There was no fucking way they’d be able to see a cell tower through all the trees. He looked back at Deuce and Earl. Neither man seemed at all bothered by the news. Ty’s hand was probably infected, he was already showing signs of fever, and they still had two days of hard hiking before they could reach help. Ty would probably be septic before then.
“We go,” Zane said firmly. “And we go as quickly as we can.”
BY THE time Earl stopped them for the night, it was long past dark. Normally, as soon as the sun began to set, he would have called a halt. Hiking in these mountains was dangerous enough in the daylight. But he could feel the heavy hand of time pressing at his back now, and so he’d pushed them until he could no longer discern the path in the moonlight.
They had made decent time, but Earl knew they weren’t going to get far enough fast enough, even with the pace he was setting. By morning, Ty would be even weaker, possibly even unable to continue on. Earl knew he couldn’t carry his son with broken ribs. If Ty became too weak to go on, it would be up to Zane to pull him through. And Earl was beginning to think that perhaps Zane could manage the feat. He’d certainly gotten Ty out of those woods with no regard for his own safety going in and had been willing to do the same in the river. He’d killed a man to save Ty’s life without blinking an eye. Earl wasn’t worried anymore about Ty having a partner worthy of him, not after this week.
As Deuce got a small fire going, Earl sat on a fallen log and watched Ty closely. He was shivering, tired and listless as he sat next to his partner. Earl glanced from Zane to Deuce and back. They’d both spoken up for Ty, and Earl knew anyone who would stand up to Earl had some steel in them.
His eyes settled on Ty again. His oldest son had never done anything to deserve all the weight that had been put on his shoulders. Earl knew he’d never been easy on either Ty or Deuce. He expected certain things from them, expected them to be strong and capable, self-sufficient and dependable, loyal and fair. He expected them to think and do for themselves, to be good to and protect their mama, and to respect those who deserved it.
Earl’s eyes closed slowly. Ty was a good son. He was a good man. He’d been a good Marine and he was a good federal agent. He was a lot of things. But he was no coward, and Earl had never even dreamed of thinking he was. Earl had said it in the heat of the moment, knowing it would put Ty into action, and he’d been angry at himself ever since for doing it, continuing to take the unfamiliar emotion out on the boys because he didn’t know what else to do with it. He would have to make it right with more than a simple apology. Soon.
Ty was getting along with everyone’s help on the trail. He was pale, though, and every few minutes, he would simply shiver violently as his body fought the infection spreading through it. It was painful to know he was hurting and not be able to do anything about it. His boy might die up here, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do but sleep until daybreak.
His boy might die up here, all because Earl had called him a coward.
Earl lowered his head, telling himself not to think too hard on it any longer. Not until the danger had passed. Tears wouldn’t cure Ty’s wounds.
“How’s it feeling?” Deuce asked Ty as he poked at the flames and fed two more small sticks into the fire.
“Hurts,” Ty grunted. “Feels like my fingers are on fire. Feels like my whole body’s on fire,” he corrected as he leaned slightly to one side against Zane’s conveniently close shoulder.
“We could try cleaning it again,” Deuce suggested doubtfully. His tone of voice said he knew it wouldn’t do any good, and he knew Ty would turn down the offer.
“Hell, no,” Ty muttered.
“We should keep going,” Deuce said as he turned to meet Earl’s eyes, asking for permission to do so. “Me and Ty, we should keep going and—”
“You can’t watch the trail and me at the same time,” Ty broke in.
“We still have the one flashlight, we could make ten miles by morning,” Deuce argued.
“We’re safer together,” Zane ground out.
“He’s dying, Zane. We should be going as fast as possible,” Deuce insisted.
“I can’t make that pace,” Ty pointed out derisively. “I can barely walk a straight line.”
Deuce opened his mouth to respond, but Earl held up his hand and closed his eyes. Both of his sons snapped their mouths shut and lowered their heads, the argument ending before it could get in full swing.
“We stay together,” Earl ordered in a gruff voice. “We head out at first light. Not before. Ty’s right,” he said pointedly as he looked at Deuce. “He’s too weak to be trusted on a dangerous trail,” he said as he turned his eyes to Ty. Ty visibly flinched at his words, lowering his head. Zane watched his partner and then looked up to stare at Earl through the firelight.
“Get some sleep,” Earl continued, not commenting on the reactions. He could feel the unspoken accusations in Zane’s eyes. But despite what Zane Garrett might think, Earl knew his own son and how to handle him. Ty would walk through Hell and back to prove he could do something he wasn’t supposed to be able to do. Earl was determined to keep him walking no matter how much it hurt both of them. “Four hours to daylight,” he said roughly. He didn’t look at Zane or his sons again, instead stretching out on the bedroll with his back to the fire.
He didn’t want them to see the tears that threatened in his eyes.
WHEN Deuce awoke to the sound of chirping birds, his first thought was to chuck a rock at them. When he talked himself out of that, his mind turned to his brother, and he rolled over with a groan to check on Ty. He and Zane had placed Ty between them the night before, hoping to keep him warm during the chilly night.
Ty had thrashed and grumbled almost the entire night, fighting the fever and the periodic shivers that ran through him. But he was resting peacefully now, curled against Zane’s left side as if he were cold. Zane’s arm was wrapped around him, holding him close and keeping him warm. It would almost have been sweet under other circumstances, but Ty was too still. A bolt of cold fear shot through Deuce as he reached out to touch him.