For the majority of the past decade, he'd operated on a ticking clock while finding his way in and out of jungles, deserts, mountains, urban fortresses, and just about anywhere else someone needed the services of his specialized Army Ranger unit. The work had suited him. He'd excelled at the job, aided by his natural talents and traits—tenacity, endurance, the ability to make quick decisions, and an uncanny sense of direction. It also helped that he'd had more than his fair share of good luck and, according to his late father, a head as hard as the granite dome of Enchanted Rock.
Tucker had been little more than a boy when he'd decided on a military career. Having plotted that course early on, he'd never strayed from the path.
Until now. Now, he'd not only veered from the trail, he'd burned his map, smashed his compass, and shattered his satellite phone on the way into the wilderness.
He'd left the service. He'd quit the military. This was the first time in his life that he'd ever quit anything, and he didn't have a clue where to go from here.
He was lost.
Figuratively speaking, that is. Tucker knew he stood at a farm-to-market crossroads where the prairies and lakes region of Texas transitioned to the Hill Country. Where he was lost was inside himself. He'd lost his identity, his sense of self. He'd grown up, and he no longer knew what he wanted to be. Helluva thing for a man in his mid-thirties.
"So, which way are you going?" he asked himself. He could turn north, head for the family ranch outside of Fort Worth and do some catching up with kin. His parents were both gone now, and he'd been an only child, but he still had plenty of family.
Family who would pepper him with questions and ask for explanations.
He wasn't ready for that. He would not take FM 486 north toward Thorndale and weave his way up toward Fort Worth.
Instead, he could head southeast, mosey on down to the coast and Port Aransas, and rent a fishing boat. Or, he could make a real ride of it and go west, way out west toward Big Bend. Hiking and camping and communing with nature sounded appealing to him.
That's what Tucker liked best of all. He belonged outdoors, where the air was clean and fresh, and the people along the trail were generous and good and forthright and kind.
He did not belong on special assignment behind a desk in the nation's capital, surrounded by vipers—duty that revealed the political underbelly of institutions he had always revered. Duty that darkened a man's soul.
Swamp didn't begin to describe it. Slimy cesspool was more appropriate. They'd made him responsible for one tiny little area of it, no bigger than a broom closet in the grand scheme of things. He'd made a valiant effort to clean up his space, but the vipers and rats had blocked him at every turn. He'd finally admitted he was fighting a losing battle. His only choice was to surrender to the filth or leave.
Tucker had left, but doing so damaged something inside him. He needed to heal. He needed to shed the film of slime he'd acquired. He was counting on clean country air and crystal clear spring water to do the trick.
That crossed the Gulf of Mexico off his list. He wouldn't take FM 112 south toward Old Dime Box either.
So . . . what would it be? The Piney Woods? The Davis Mountains? Big Bend National Park?
No. Tucker didn't truly have a decision to make. He'd known his ultimate destination ever since he'd exited the Fort Hood gate, even if he'd pretended otherwise and followed his nose on the road for a while.
From here, he was going to head southwest toward the Texas Hill Country. Toward Enchanted Canyon, to be exact. The air blew clean and fresh there, and the water ran sweet and crisp and cleansing. The only vipers he'd likely run across slithered on their bellies or coiled and shook their rattles in warning. The people there, well, they didn't come any better than his cousin Jackson. Tucker could tolerate that much family, at least. Jackson wouldn't press him with questions he didn't want to answer.
He drained his soft drink, placed the empty in the wooden bottle crate sitting on the ground beside the pumps, then swung a long leg over the saddle and started his bike.