Deuce put his chin in his hand and watched them silently. He couldn’t read Zane, but he thought the man’s projected emotions were fairly straightforward. When they were visible at all. Right now, Zane was focused on Ty, and that anger appeared to be totally gone, replaced by something milder. Warmer.
But Ty? Deuce snorted. Not in love, his ass. Ty could fool Zane, maybe. He could even fool himself for a while longer. But Ty couldn’t fool Deuce, not anymore.
“I GOTTA take a leak,” Earflaps said petulantly.
Ty jerked and gasped, yanked from his doze by the man’s voice. He shook his head and rubbed at his eyes, leaning forward to pile more sticks into the stuttering fire before looking over at the prisoner hatefully. “I should let you just piss yourself,” he told the man irritably.
“Too bad you’re a Fed,” Earflaps observed.
Ty narrowed his eyes and sighed. Unfortunately, the ass**le was right. No cruel and unusual punishment. He muttered to himself as he unfolded his stiff limbs and stood. He gave Zane’s foot a gentle nudge. Zane’s eyes opened immediately. Ty should have known he wasn’t asleep. Maybe he should make Zane take the guy out in the woods.
“Playing escort,” he told Zane softly instead as he fished out a flashlight from the nearest pack. It was one of only two left. “If we’re not back in five, come shoot him,” he joked.
“Sure,” Zane said, a small smile curving his lips. “I’ve still got more than half a magazine.”
“Good boy,” Ty said with a patronizing pat of Zane’s head. He moved to untie the ropes from Earflaps’ ankles. He grabbed the man’s coat and hefted him to his feet, bringing them nose to nose. “Any funny business, I’ll leave you tied up out there, got it?” he threatened. Earflaps sneered at him, but then he thought better of his response and merely nodded. “Move,” Ty ordered as he picked up the shotgun and pushed the man in front of him. He left the flashlight off, conserving the battery while the moon was actually peeking through the clouds to give them light.
He gave the man some leeway in his wandering, partly because he knew no one back at the fire wanted to hear this guy do his business any more than he did. But also because his mind was struggling to keep up; he was tired, cold, sore, and having more and more trouble giving a shit. The only thing he did care about at this point was getting home. These mountains could make unsuspecting victims out of even the most experienced of travelers, and Ty found that he couldn’t stop worrying about Zane out here. It probably hadn’t been the greatest idea, dragging him up here for his first hike. But Ty was sure he’d been enjoying himself before they were almost killed. Repeatedly.
He sighed heavily and slid his hands into his pockets, carrying the shotgun in the crook of his arm against his hip. He shivered slightly in the cold air. Hell. He was probably getting sick after that damn cold water. That would be his luck. Avoid the traps and the bullets and drowning and then die of pneumonia before they could get back.
The thought actually made him smile crookedly in the darkness.
He realized they’d been trekking into the forest for almost five minutes before he snapped out of it. “Hey,” he said sharply. Earflaps took a few more slow steps before stopping. “This’ll do fine,” Ty told him.
Earflaps looked around. “Turn around,” he told Ty.
“Go to hell,” Ty replied easily.
“Well, can I go behind a tree?” the man asked irritably.
Ty glared at him. He glanced around the small clearing the man had found. If he did make a run for it, Ty could easily catch him. And if he somehow escaped, there was really nowhere for him to go that didn’t involve freezing to death, being eaten by an animal, or getting lost and starving. He was about to tell the man to be quick about it when a noise that was out of place caught his attention and stopped him in his verbal tracks. He tensed, cursing himself for not paying more attention and allowing Earflaps to lead him so far from the fire.
“Come on, man!” Earflaps whined.
“Shut up,” Ty hissed. He raised his shotgun slightly. “Do you hear that?” he whispered.
“You ain’t gonna scare me, hillbilly,” Earlfaps declared stubbornly.
Ty shook his head, hushing the man again and pressing the butt of the gun against his shoulder, at the ready. A twig broke somewhere to his left, then another.
“I heard that,” Earflaps said, suddenly quiet and serious, looking off into the dark woods.
Ty tensed and remained motionless, a chill crawling up his spine. He instinctively felt they were being stalked, and by something with far more skill than the three treasure hunters they’d been dealing with.
“Come over here,” Ty whispered, and Earflaps didn’t argue as he began to move. “Slowly!” Ty hissed. Earflaps froze and glanced around nervously. Ty could relate. He resisted the urge to call out for help, knowing it might just trigger an attack. And whoever came to their aid would be in danger too. Ty couldn’t have that. Even as he thought it, there was a rustling sound in the underbrush to his right. Jesus, it moved fast. That or there was more than one. A strange sound, almost like a purr, emitted from the darkness.
Ty’s entire body went cold, and he began to shake almost uncontrollably as he gripped the shotgun. They were rare, but there was only one thing in these mountains that purred.
He tried to keep from breathing too heavily as he went over what little he knew about cougars. They were supposed to be endangered in these mountains, a population so sparse they were more of a myth than a fact. Ty supposed it was just his shitty luck to stumble over one. At least he now knew why there were no small animals in the area and what had been driving the snakes to lower climates.
A large cat emerged from the undergrowth, appearing suddenly and without further warning, its tan fur almost silver in the moonlight. It growled at them both, circling them warily.
“Oh Christ,” Ty breathed as he watched it, not quite believing what he was seeing. The cat was almost two feet high at the shoulders and at least six feet long from nose to tail. When it moved its shoulders rolled and its tail swished sinuously behind it.
It was the most terrifying thing Ty had ever seen.
“Oh shit,” Earflaps echoed.
“Don’t move,” Ty told him. He knew that to run or play dead would just trigger the chase and kill instincts in the cat, and he forced himself to stand there and stare at it. He hoped it couldn’t smell fear, or they were both dead men.