Authors: BA Tortuga
Tags: #Male/Male Erotic Romance, Western, Sci-Fi
“I can’t stay, Jess. You have to be there for him. Okay? Promise me.”
“I’ll always have his back. Always. Em, please. I’ll go instead so there’s room.”
“No!” Emmett’s voice cracked like a whip. “You have to stay. It’s important, Jess. He needs your love and your brain. Only you. Do you understand?”
He stopped, forced the panic down. “I understand, Em. I swear, I do.”
“Promise me, Jess.”
“I promise. I do.” The salt in his tears stung his face, so badly. He gasped, panted, his hands opening and closing.
“Good. I sent you away from him once. I’ll never do it again.” Like a soap bubble popping, Em raised a hand to say goodbye, and poof, he was gone.
“Emmett. Oh, Ez, he loves you so much.” He struggled for a moment, pain shooting through his body. “Ez. Ez, help me.”
“I’m here, baby.” The motion under him stopped, and he heard Ezrah’s boots hit the dirt next to his prone body, pushing up a puff of dust he smelled, not saw.
“Ez. Em was here. I saw him. I offered to go in his place. Ez, I hurt.”
“Cookie made you some willow bark tea.” Ezrah opened a canteen and gave him a few sips.
He coughed as his throat tightened, his chest aching. Everything in him rejected the liquid, as if he was so dry it had to run off instead of soaking in.
“Shh. I got you.” Ez tilted his head up, helping him.
“I saw Emmett. Did I tell you?” He pushed the words out of his aching throat.
“I heard you talking to him.” Ez just loved on him, stroking his forehead.
“He loves you. So much. Almost as much as I do.”
“I know. I miss him, too.” Ezrah didn’t seem to understand what he was saying. Emmett was here. With him.
“He was here,” Jesse explained.
“Good. Good. He’s keeping you company.”
“Yes. Yes, he was. I think he’s gone, though. He said he couldn’t stay.” And that was a damned shame. Em was a good man.
“It would be tough, I bet. We’re on the move.”
“On the move. Yes. Oh, Ez, it’s so hot.”
“I’d give you more shade if I could, baby. I’m sorry.” Ez sounded so sad.
“It’s the desert. I smell it on the wind.”
“It is. We’re looking for the tribes.”
“Oh.” He actually smiled. “Please. Yes. They can help us. They have ways.”
“That’s what I thought.” Ezrah was right there. Jess blinked, his eyes trying to work. He’d seen Em, why couldn’t he see —Ez—his eyes were covered. Weird.
Ezrah’s hand stroked over his forehead, soothing him, quieting him. The cool cloth Ez pressed to his lips helped, too. He could feel the care Ez took with him.
“Love.” He moaned, sighed. “I promised I would stay with you.”
“Promise? Oh, thank God.” Ez chuckled. “You’ve always been psycho about keeping promises.”
“I give you my word.”
“Thank you, baby. I wasn’t born to be alone.”
“No. No, you’ve never been alone once.” Poor Ez. He had to be so down. Jesse didn’t want Ezrah to be sad anymore.
He wanted to—he moaned, pain spiking through him.
“Shh. It’s okay, Jess. Just rest. I think I see something on the next ridge. We’re gonna make it.”
“I promise.” With all his heart. He’d made a vow to Emmett. Ez needed him.
And he needed Ez.
Jesse sighed, settling back on his moving torture board. Ez kissed his forehead. “We have to keep moving.”
He knew. Moving and sliding over the sand.
All he could do was grit his teeth and hold on. Jesse didn’t know what else to do.
Ez stared at the horizon. They were lost. He was never going to find anyone. The fucking tribes were hiding or swallowed by the ground or something. Maybe they had never existed and that one night with Jess at the gathering was a figment of his imagination.
Jesse was… Well, he was burning up and starting to rot or something, and talking to ghosts.
The damn conversations Jess had with Emmett were going to kill him; his heart simply couldn’t take it. God, he needed to stop, to rest, get out of the sun.
A soft sliding sound came from the west, something warning him they weren’t alone. It wasn’t hoof on stone. It was leather sliding on rocks. Clothing.
He called out. “Show yourself. I’m a friend of the Diné.”
“Sure you are.” The voice echoed around him, leaving no clue where it was coming from. “Everyone is now, huh? What do you want?”
“Help. My friend is hurt. Dying.”
“He needs a healer?” The man appeared from behind a boulder, his pants made of deerskin, his shirt rough homespun. That explained the faint sound.
Jesse whimpered, a spate of nonsense pouring from the parched lips, and the man’s head tilted, eyes going wide.
. He is sick.” The man’s round, brown face creased with concern. “We will have to leave your horses at the bottom of the cliff.”
“The horses? They can’t make it out here alone. I can’t just desert them.”
“They’ll be cared for. They won’t make it up the cliff, though.” The man indicated the top of the bluff across the canyon. He hadn’t even seen the building up there, obviously an old pueblo type brick thing, built to blend.
“Someone will come for them? Truly?” Those mounts were family. Bonny had been a rock for him in the last few days.
“They will. We have a herd of our own, as well as the sheep and goats. They will be safe for you.” The man waited patiently, hands at his sides, open and welcoming.
Ezrah had to admit he admired the Diné and their willingness to help sick people and animals. He could understand their suspicion toward a lone cowboy, he really could. He’d seen the way the drovers reacted to Jess.
“He has your mark. On his back,” Ezrah explained. The man seemed eager enough to help, but Ez was more than willing to stack the deck.
“Then he is welcome to stay if you need to move on. I will need your help to carry him, though. There is water for the horses here.”
Yeah. Like Ez would leave Jesse now. They picked their way to the bottom of the bluff, and damned if a corral didn’t resolve itself out of the brush. These people were damned good at camouflage.
A flurry of activity and language he didn’t understand surrounded him, and they pulled Jesse out of the sun and into a lean-to built right into the cliff wall. There was a woman with long braids and a layered dress that had to be too hot for the day, her hands gnarled with arthritis. She clucked her tongue.
“He will have to see the shaman.”
“Anything to heal him. He’s sick. He needs help.”
She glanced at him, shrewd black button eyes sizing him up. “Are you willing to sacrifice to keep him alive? To help him?”
“Hell, yes. He needs help.” And Jess had sacrificed everything for him already. Ezrah could never repay that, but it wasn’t guilt which had him making the offer to do what he could. He loved this man. He always had.
She pursed her lips, staring at him, and he met her gaze honestly, letting her see everything in him. Then she nodded. “Luh. Eddie, you help the hos-teen’ get his sick man up to see the shaman. Get a litter ready while I give him broth.”
Oh, thank God. They were going to help. His knees buckled a little bit, eyes rolling. Bile rose in his throat, and he had a moment of hysterical near-laughter. If he puked and passed out, he’d be the one to die.
“Hey.” The man who’d brought him in, Eddie, clapped him on the back. “Buck up, man. You have a ways to go yet before you can rest.”
Ez nodded, swallowing hard. “Sorry. Sorry, I just-I need him to be okay. You-you sound like Tejas, not the ABQ.”
“Was from old Tejas, yeah. Came out here to live the good life.” Eddie grinned at him. “Married me a girl from this tribe and stayed.”
“Is it good here? Really?” Ezrah needed to make small talk to keep his shit together. He couldn’t let himself think.
“It’s easy and free. The desert gives us what we need.”
When was the last time he’d ever heard that? That the land gave, didn’t fight. He took the blankets Eddie gave him, helping fold them into a litter.
“Your lover, he needs the desert to heal him, help him.”
Had he said that to them? How did they know? They could have been family. Friends.
“Anything I can do, or that you can do.” It was the truth, that little word lover, no matter what.
“Yeah. Good. You never know what they ask for.”
Ezrah didn’t know what that meant, but he let it go. He kept sneaking peeks at Jess, who was being spoon fed some kind of tea by the older lady.
“She won’t hurt him.”
“I get that.” Eddie looked satisfied with the blankets and ropes. “Anayah, we’re ready.”
“Then we should go. He fades.”
Fades? Jesse wasn’t a ghost. He was a man. Ezrah went to him, ready to help load Jess on the litter. “You promised, Jesse. Me and Em both. Don’t forget.”
“I swear.” Jesse’s lips were so dry they bled every time he spoke.
Since everyone seemed to know about him and Jess anyway, he pressed a kiss to those lips as gently as he could. “Up to the pueblo, okay? Just hold on.”
“I swear.” Jesse stared at him, eyes icy blue and bloodshot.
“That’s it.” He smiled, but his lips quivered with the effort. “Let’s go, huh?”
“Yep. We’re heading up.” Eddie gave him a grin, a wink, obviously trying to encourage him.
They lifted Jesse together and Ezrah would swear Jess weighed half of what he had a few days ago. He said a quiet prayer to whatever god might be listening. He thought here it might be a Diné one. Then he started the climb, following Eddie, who seemed to be half mountain goat.
Head down, boot-heels digging in the sand, he climbed up, determined to pull his own. His breath started to come hard about halfway, showing him what kind of elevation they were gaining.
The gravel slipped and tumbled around him, and he just dug in, refusing to slide. If Eddie could do this, so could he. The man would warn him if there was a tricky spot, right? Eddie knew the trail.
They hit a ledge and stopped together to breathe. His heart was slamming in his chest, and Jesse was out cold.
“Not much farther, man. You’re doing great.” Eddie’s chest barely rose and fell, and there was no sweat on the man’s face.
“You’re showing me up.”
“I do this daily.” Eddie nodded at Jesse’s litter. “You ready?”
“I am. Let’s climb this thing.”
“You’re a trooper.”
“I’m scared for him.” That was true. Ezrah was terrified. Jesse was incredibly important to him, even after all these years apart.
The words made him laugh, the sound winging out, loud enough to make him wince.
“He is. He was underground when the shake came.”
“Ah. A Ground
. They sacrifice themselves to the sand all the time. I’ve never seen one alive.”
As if Jesse were some exotic quail or something. The Tejas Grounder, found in the high desert and periodically helping on a cattle drive. Ez tried not to laugh hysterically.
Eddie looked at him, then rolled his eyes. “Okay, so that was a stupid thing to say, but it’s true. They slide into that thing of theirs and lose their way home and the bodies just dry up for us to find. He must have fought hard, to come back to you.”
“He did. I fought pretty hard to dig him out, too.” This whole thing worked both ways.
“Cool. Tricky switchback coming up, then we’re home free.”
“I’m on it.” Sweat was pouring down his back, pooling at the waistband of his trous. The switchback turned out to be more than tricky. Eddie had to step up, and he had to push Jesse straight into the air.
By the time they cleared it, Ez was dizzy and panting, his knees weak.
“Two more steps and we level out. Hang on, man.”
Ezrah hung on to Jess, tripping but not falling. Then suddenly the pueblo loomed up out of the rock.
He just stared a second, eyes feeling as if they were burning in his skull. That wasn’t some little thing, no sir. That was gigantic. Ladders and windows and people like ants.
It couldn’t be real.
The tribes were nomadic, everyone knew that. The pueblos had been destroyed decades ago. Maybe centuries. Christ. “Am I seeing this? How can you not see this for miles?”
“Diné engineering,” Eddie said, sounding a little breathless now, too.
“I…” He was hallucinating. He had to be.
The world got sparkly around the edges, silvery, an ocean of sound rushing in his ears.
“Whoa. No falling.” Eddie smacked his shoulder, which seemed to help his lungs work. “The shaman is three levels up.”
“We’ll help.” Three stout men appeared, faced deeply lined, dark from the sun. “Come.”
“This place, it can’t be real,” Ezrah repeated. He was in one of Jesse’s hallucinations.
“Oh, it’s real.” Eddie had given Jesse up to the others and was supporting him, a shoulder under his arm. “You look done in, man.”
“I just—it’s been a long few days.”
“I bet. We’ll get you some water. Maybe a snack.” They led him into a cool, dark chamber, his body almost going into shock at the feel of it.
Jesse was gone, taken deep into the warren of rooms, and he tried to follow with his eyes. “Eddie. What if—”
“They’ll come get you. Let them help him get comfortable first. They won’t do anything major without calling you in.” Eddie clapped him on the back and left. Just boom.
He was going to lose it. Honestly. A cup of something hot and steaming was pushed into his hands, near-black eyes peering out of a dried-apple face. The lady in question smiled, her front teeth missing.
“Drink,” was all she said before bustling off.
The brew in the cup looked as if it were poison and smelled like death, but he drank it, swallowing the foul-tasting stuff. It burned all the way down, leaving an oddly comforting warmth behind it.
His shivering stopped, his breathing settling back into a normal pattern. That was amazing.
“Better?” Another, much younger, woman came into the room. “I’m Alla.”
“Yes, thank you.” His stomach rumbled, which made his ears heat. “Sorry.”