Authors: BA Tortuga
Tags: #Male/Male Erotic Romance, Western, Sci-Fi
“Cyrus!” He needed to know where his foreman was, and had lost sight of the man.
“Boss! Here!” Cyrus’ mount was dancing, but looked solid, a couple hundred feet off to his right.
“Spread the word. Let the herd fill the basin but we stay up here.” Ezrah turned, heading along the ridge to move away from a crumbling patch of earth. Better to lose the cattle than the men.
He started counting heads. Two, four, seven, eight…Jesse. Shit. Oh, shitfire and save matches. He began scanning the horizon for a piece of red cloth. They were up where Jess had climbed on foot, searching for the Flow.
That man was inside this mess.
Ezrah knew he had a duty to his men and his ranch, but he had to find Jess. Only Jess would know how bad this was, especially if he’d actually managed to jack in. Jess would know how many places were out of commission. Like Denver. They had to know before they moved the trail drive any farther.
The shocks kept coming, rolling underneath them, and he focused on finding that red bandana. His horse was panicking, feet tearing up the ground, but Ez stuck on her like a burr.
Come on. Jess. Where are you? He couldn’t lose anyone else. His whole family was gone but for his mom. He needed Jess. So badly. No matter how determined he was not to admit it, he loved Jess. They were lovers, even if they never touched each other again.
He needed to know. There.
Right there. He saw the hint of red, which fluttered ahead off one of the trails, almost buried, the ground rising up around it like a fresh anthill.
“Oh, thank fuck.” He spurred to it, then ground-tied his mare, knowing she’d stay unless a fissure opened up, even as scared as she was. She’d been with him for seven years.
“You find him, boss?” Cyrus shouted.
He nodded, pointed up the game trail at the red flag.
“You go get him. I got this. If he knows anything about the shakes…”
Ezrah nodded. Cyrus was a good man. He would take care of business just as he always had, and Ezrah would dig Jess out of the ground.
The mouth of the cave or whatever the fuck Jesse had gone into was gone, just a pile of rubble now, and Ez started digging, pulling out rock and debris as fast as he could. Jess couldn’t survive down there for long. Air was an issue. So was sediment.
His hands bled, the scrub and rock tearing at his fingers.
The first rush of rock moving exposed an opening and he hesitated. What if… what if Jess was gone, and he went down there and was trapped in the earth? The shakes were still showing no signs of letting up, and these weren’t aftershocks. These were full-on fault lines cracking.
He panted, feeling as if he were a rabbit in a snare, unable to move. Then he thought of never knowing if he could have saved Jess, if his lover, damn it all, was still alive.
Ezrah plunged underground before he could think again.
The hole was horizontal for a short bit, then headed down, drastically, the grit moving under his boot-heels, making him slide. He flailed a little, thinking of the story his mom used to tell him about a girl named Alice going down a rabbit hole.
It was dark down here, dark and close and…He let out a childlike squeal when his fingers touched something that moved, jerked and moaned.
“Jess? Jesse, tell me that’s you.” He groped, hoping nothing bit him.
“Ez.” Jesse’s voice echoed weirdly with as weak as it was.
Oh. Oh, thank God.
He patted gently at Jesse’s body. “Are you hurt? We got to get above, baby.” He’d never called anyone baby in his life, but it popped out, just as Daddy had called his momma.
“Ez,” Jess groaned, voice like a frog croak. “Earthquakes. They’re coming.”
“Oh, they’re here. We have to get up above before this seals off again. Thank God for your flag.” He started backing out of the hole, dragging Jess with him.
Jess moaned, arms and legs moving restlessly. He wasn’t sure if the man was trying to help him or stop him. It didn’t matter; Ezrah had desperation on his side.
The ground was going to move again, and he’d be damned if it swallowed him up when they were almost there, Jess went limp under his hands, heavy and sliding, gravity pulling them down.
“No. No, baby, come on.”
“Ez.” Jesse jerked, his moan loud and wet. “The quakes are coming!”
His lover surged up, shoved him and it felt as if Ezrah went flying, as if Jess threw him up and out of the hole. He turned, trying not to slide back in, and he grabbed Jesse’s arm and yanked before the hole closed. Jesse tumbled out against him, still and quiet, face gray under the dust.
He checked Jesse’s pulse. There, if more thready than he’d like. His mare stood there, sides blowing, eyes rolling with fear. Still there, though, like the champion she was.
“Good girl. Good girl.”
He lifted Jess, put the man up on Bonny’s saddle, and the man just dangled there as if he were a ragdoll. Ezrah couldn’t stop to look at Jesse’s injuries They needed even higher ground.
They all climbed to the ridge, watching the mountains move and shift around them. The glimpses he caught of the boys were all the same. Pale, set faces, mouths pressed into hard lines. The cattle were at the river, restless, lowing, churning up the water.
All they had to do was ride it out.
Jess moaned, and Ez turned back, stopping short at seeing the line of burn, spreading from under Jess’ ear along his neck. Shit. What the hell was that? They had to get somewhere he could check it out. The man smelled like smoked meat. Jesus, the injuries had to be bad.
“Is he alive, Boss?” Cyrus looked worried, coming to meet him, hat in his hands.
“His heart is beating.” He didn’t know about the rest.
“Well, that’s something. You want to set up camp here? Away from the edge?”
“I do.” They needed to check the horses, see what the hell had happened to Cookie.
“Circle the horses! Where’s the wagon, boys? Let’s get ourselves settled.” Cyrus barked out orders as if he were a master, getting the drovers moving. He really was the best trail boss in the business.
Ez had never been more grateful to have the man there. Dooley dropped Hank on the ground and nodded. “I’ll round up as much of the remuda as I can.”
“Good man. Someone find Cookie!”
“On it, boss.” That was Tyler, up from the rear of the column, the straggling herd still pouring into the riverbed.
He grabbed the reins and walked Bonny away from the edge, up where the ground was flat and stable. Then he let Jess slide down into his arms, laying the man out on the dirt and rocks. He took his bedroll from the back of his saddle and put it under Jesse’s head.
The spot where that machine had been in Jesse’s head was black, the skin red and blistered, scarred and awful. Christ. As if it had cauterized itself.
He rolled one of Jesse’s eyelids back, seeing nothing but white. “Jess? Can you hear me?”
“Ez.” The man’s pupils were pinpoints when his eyes rolled back down, tiny little black dots. But he was talking. Jesse knew who Ezrah was.
Ez closed his eyes and said a little prayer of thanks. “You scared me.”
“Yep. Shaking like an aspen out here.”
“Ez. Earthquake. Earthquake.”
Come on, Jesse. Snap out of it
. He wanted to shake Jesse, but that might hurt him worse.
“It’s here, Jess.” The ground might just open up and swallow them it was so there. “I need you, Jess. Need you here with me.”
“Ez. Ez, there’s a quake. Coming from the north. Everything’s on fire.”
“Jess.” He took Jesse’s cheeks in his hands trying to get the man to look at him. “The quakes are here. Is Denver burning?”
“Everything’s on fire, it’s –gone—from Laramie to the ABQ.”
Christ. If that was true and not just a hallucination from the port going out, they were screwed. So damned screwed. “Tell me what hurts.”
“Ez. Ez, the mountains are on fire. Trees and brush. Lightning all over.”
“Okay. Okay, baby. We’ll deal with that. Right now we’re mostly safe.” He thought.
Ezrah grabbed his canteen, wet a cloth and put it over the worst of the burn, wincing as Jesse cried out, arms and legs going stiff. His feet drummed on the earth, and somehow Jess had lost his too-big boots, borrowed from Cookie’s wagon stash. His skin there was covered in tiny blisters.
One of the drovers appeared beside him, holding out a silver flask. “I got whiskey, boss, iff’n it’ll help.”
“It might. Thanks.” He took the flask, just seeing if the sting on Jess’ dry lips got a response.
Jess didn’t so much as frown, the liquor sliding into the man’s throat. Shit. This was bad. Cyrus came over, limping, offering a handkerchief soaked in water.
“For his head,” Cyrus said, staring down at them, gray eyes full of concern.
“He’s burned bad.”
Cyrus shrugged, spreading his hands. “I don’t know nothing about that, boss.”
“I know.” None of them knew a thing about the port. Burns were generally bad out this way, though, hard to keep clean with the sweat and blowing sand.
“We’ll put some lard on it, that’ll keep the dust out.” That was Cookie, limping too, blood on the man’s face. “Lost a wheel on the wagon. Gonna have to camp ‘til we fix it.”
“We have to camp until we figure out where we’re taking the herd.” When Cy and Cookie stared, Ezrah shrugged. “Denver is on fire. From Laramie to Cimmaron, he says.”
“No.” Cyrus stared at him, face pale as milk. “It can’t be true. There’s no way all that is gone.”
“We’ll have to see if we can find a runner, see if it’s true, but he believed it.” He stroked Jess’ hair.
“Denver survived the Big Quake. How could it go?”
“That made it ripe to fall now.” He hated the looks on everyone’s faces, but Jess knew shit, and this had made him practically catatonic.
“Well, there’s nothing to do about it tonight. Tonight, we rest, we regroup, and we try to fix that wheel.” It was as if Cyrus’ word was law, laid down, sure and strong. The boys all nodded as if that was that, so Ez guessed it was.
“Cookie, do we have food that’s still edible?” They all needed to eat and ride out the aftershocks.
“Absolutely. The stores are solid.”
Thank God for that. One thing was working. “All, right. Let’s get everyone testing the ground. This bluff is riddled with caves, and we want a safe place for the wagon. The weight could have it falling right through.”
The men started working, and Ez swaddled Jesse up, hiding him from the sun and keeping him still. He dragged Jess into the shade of the wagon once the men got it set, and then went about helping count the horses, gather supplies. They had two badly injured not counting Jess, and Cookie dealt with them.
The cattle were in the river, drinking and lowing, and it didn’t escape him that they were happier than before the quake. Go them. They didn’t have to deal with the fallout. He wanted to stay with Jess, but he had hours of work to do.
The ground was unstable under his feet, but they managed to get camp set up without major rumbles. They stuck to tiny fires, in case the ground opened up, let out gasses. No one needed to go up in flames. One burned man was enough.
Finally, he could sit with the bowl of hot oats Cookie gave him, and he went to Jess, plopping down next to the man.
Jesse wasn’t dead, not yet, but his lover was as still as a corpse. His skin appeared gray, his eyes sunken in and bruised-looking. Ezrah didn’t know what to do to make it better, to help.
So, he sat and stared, chewing on his lip, the heat leaving as the sun faded completely away.
“Ez. Ez, help me. Help me, I’m stuck.”
“I’m right here, Jess.” He touched the piece of skin he could, the one right there under Jesse’s chin.
Jesse groaned, the sound pained. “Help me, huh? It’s so hot.”
“You want me to unwrap you?” He could do that, make that poor body more comfortable.
Jesse’s skin was dry, warm to the touch, and he hated to let the night air in. What if it killed him? What if something got infected?
Biting his lip, he started at the top, working the wrappings down enough to get a bit of a breeze. “Better?”
“Uh-huh. Ez. Ez, it hurts.”
“Where, baby?” Cookie could make some willow bark tea. He just needed to know what was worst.
“My head. My face.”
“Something is wrong with your port, baby. It’s all burned.”
“The fire was everywhere. Surges. It hurt, so bright.” Jesse didn’t move much, but every muscle was still tense.
“I’m sorry, baby.” Ezrah got a little more skin exposed, then propped Jess up enough to wet those parched lips with a wet cloth.
Jess groaned, mouth moving restlessly, tongue pale, looking as if a map were drawn on it. Ez dribbled a little water over that poor tongue and sat back, needing to eat his supper. Every so often the ground shook, making him pause until the shock ended.
Cyrus came over, sat with his own bowl. “How’s he doing, boss?”
“He’s hurting. A little delirious I think. Where do we stand?” Ezrah needed to know how bad the damage was to their column.
“We were in a good spot to wait out the quake. Two men wounded, Cookie’s not moving so good. Wagon needs mending, but given the shaker—”
“No sense taking chance on moving it until they stop.” Ez nodded. “On the good side, we got some water.”
“We got water, looks as if we’re on solid rock, right here. Cutter rode to the north and the ground’s open wide.”
“Shit. We’ll have to take care or the cows will fall right in once we get moving.” They couldn’t turn back. If Denver was gone, they’d have to turn east.
“I don’t think we can cross, Boss. I think we’re going to have to head east, into the Tribal Territories.”
“I know.” Shit, that was dangerous, but at this point, everything was waiting to kill them.
“If he wakes up, he can help, huh?”
“He can. Whatever he saw…” It had scarred Jess. Physically. The bright light and all had to be from the Flow.
“We don’t know what all is down there. It has to be hell.”
“I know it was awful dark by the time I got to him. He almost suffocated.” Ezrah shuddered, completely unable to understand how Jess could have gone down that hole willingly.