Only This
by Stan Lee
September Challenge - use these in a story "throw a punch" "meaner than a snake" and "velvet"

They leave on a Wednesday; the sun barely skimming the horizon, the hoar frost crunching underfoot, their breath a ghostly plume that rises to the heavens.

They stay long enough to lower the wooden coffins into the scorched earth, to hear the words that are meant to comfort but leave them hollowed out instead. Buck hammers two crosses side by side into the hard ground while the ash blowing off the smoldering ruins makes his eyes water and itch. Chris stands mute and still as stone, unblinking, no tears.

It's too late to take to the road, and Chris can't bring himself to, not yet anyway, so they huddle around a puny campfire in the shadow of the burnt out cabin, beside the simple fence that surrounds the graves, enclosing the two they had loved.

Chris stares as creeping darkness envelops the final resting place, keeps staring long after the two beloved names, black on white, have faded from sight. Buck can't persuade him to eat, and he's too melancholy to coax or nag. Instead he rolls himself tightly into his bedroll and turns his back, unable to share the burden, nursing his own sorrow.

They sleep, or not. They remember and try to forget.

They're up before first light, stiff with cold and misery, the sun barely skims the horizon, the frost crunches underfoot, they see their breath in the chill morning air.

They leave on a Wednesday, and they don't look back.

In Clarkdale Buck realizes that Chris hasn't spoken a single word in two days. He tries to remember if he's uttered one himself, but can't think of any reason he would have wanted to. Chris stopped answering him days ago, and has no questions about where they are going or why. Silence has settled in on them, become their habit. Buck knows he'll have to change things soon; one of them has to stay among the living.

They stop in a town so new it has no name. Chris tosses a coin to a youngster crouched alone in the muddy street and leaves his horse in the child's care. Buck watches the boy out of the corner of his eye while he tends his own mount, satisfied to see he does a half decent job. He finds Chris in the saloon as expected, a whiskey bottle and two glasses on the table in front of him. It's obvious he's had a head start.

A wordless hour later Buck persuades Chris to bring the half empty bottle across the street and up a flight of stairs to the room they'll share for the night. A lone bed is pushed against the wall, a single chair beside it. Chris fumbles for a while, tugging at his clothes until they lie in a pile at his feet. He stumbles to the bed and climbs in and in moments he is asleep, his breathing harsh and loud in the enclosed space.

Buck watches as the lines of fatigue and misery smooth out, sees the once familiar face gradually re-emerge, replacing the mask of grief that has etched itself deeper hour upon hour. He shucks his own clothes and carefully settles in behind Chris, his hand sliding around his friend's waist to press against his heartbeat and hold him close. In the daytime Chris doesn't permit his words or his touch, won't countenance any consoling. In the dark, Buck dares to reach, and aches as whispered comfort falls on deaf ears.

They run out of money in Copper Creek and although Chris is in no fit state they sign on with the Lazy T ranch; two weeks of cow punching, a guarantee of twenty dollars apiece. Chris is worn out and scrawny from too little food and too much whiskey, but every day he works with ferocious intensity under the punishing sun, choking against the dust and grit, matching Buck's every move. In the evening they're almost too exhausted to eat, but they force down the stringy beef and lukewarm beans to keep them going.

They avoid company. Buck reins in his natural sociability to stay by Chris's side, although he's fairly certain that Chris no longer notices him. Occasionally, if Chris drifts off to sleep early, he joins the trail hands for a game of poker, but he rebuffs their interest and sidesteps their questions and soon they stop asking.

At the end of their term, skin scorched to brown leather by the sun, hands rope-burned and blistered, the stink of sweat and cattle clinging, they collect their money and turn their horses south.

They have no destination in mind, there's no place they want to see, no one they want to visit.

They drift and drift again.

They follow the banks of the Verde River, beside vast tracts of dried grassland that stretch south as far as the eye can see. They crest a ridge and in the distance they spot a grove of cottonwoods, tall and leafy, standing alone on the plain. They find themselves drawn towards the promise of shade. Chris suddenly stops short of the stand and Buck pulls up beside him.

"What's wrong?" he asks, searching Chris's face for a clue. Chris's eyes are lifted heavenwards, his face paling as Buck watches.

"What?" he asks again, then turns his head to follow the line of his friend's sight, trying to see what Chris sees. Three of the trees, the tallest, bear strange fruit. Three black bodies hanging in the branches, swinging rhythmically in the breeze, tongues protruding from twisted mouths.

Chris tries to spur his horse forward, but she balks so he dismounts and approaches on foot, eyes fixed high. Buck follows behind more slowly. The swaying carcasses have rotted in the sun and this close the smell is overwhelming; piss and age-blackened blood soak into the ground under each body, flies swarm so thickly they look like a shimmering shroud.

"We should cut them down," Buck says, though he can't stand the thought of handling the terrible things.

Chris shakes his head. "They'll fall apart if we touch them," he says, his voice rough with disuse and loathing. "Best leave them be."

They stare helplessly for a moment longer, until the stench and the flies drive them back. They don't ask each other who or why. They know. Not the actual names, just the breed; not the reasons, only the justifications. They've seen it before, traveling together through the south. They've heard and rejected all the reasons why.

They ride away to the sound of creaking rope, and for the second time since they set out on this bleak journey, they can't bear to look back.

In Jerome they hire on with a copper mine and find a temporary home in the tent city that has sprung up to service the makeshift community.

They've never seen so many nations collected together. They're used to the Mexicans and Chinese, have rubbed up against them in towns up and down the territory and know their ways. But they meet other foreigners too, red-haired Irish boys, their fair skin burning at the first hint of sun, whose plaintive homesick songs echo through the camp in the still night air; hot tempered Italians, barely able to string two American words together, who chatter to each other in their own tongue, hands gesticulating wildly; olive-skinned Spaniards, who should have common cause with the Mexicans, but who seem to despise their Spanish-speaking cousins and go out of their way to avoid them.

The camp clings precariously to the side of Cleopatra Hill, rising high above the piedmont plain. It is a bleak and windswept place, only accessible by narrow, winding tracks that bog down with mud more days than not, yet there is nothing that can't be bought or sold in the crude town. Two tent saloons supply beer and whiskey and a meal hot enough to satisfy, though best not look too closely at what pokes through the surface of the greasy broth, a Chinese laundry vies with a widowed washerwoman for what little cleaning business the town provides, a fluctuating number of tents furnish working girls who rotate through a constant stream of miners, gamblers, freighters, store keepers and the two preachers who have set themselves the task of saving Jerome's lost souls.

The work is back breaking, descending into the underground cave system before the sun is up, chipping at rock face for endless hours, emerging into an eerie twilight world. They share a canvas shack that stinks of the dozens of men who've lived here before them, that lets in water when it rains and heats up almost unbearably in the sun. There's never a moment, day or night, when the camp is quiet. And yet they find something like peace here.

Buck slips out when Chris is asleep and spends the first pleasant hours he's known in weeks keeping company with Jewel, whose real name turns out to be Edith. She has an ugly scar running down the side of her face that tugs her left eye out of alignment, a legacy from her long departed husband, but she's funny and kind, her skin warm and soft as velvet. And she recognizes a kindred spirit. She soothes the unexpected lust that rises up in Buck, tearing through him like a twister. He hadn't thought to feel this way so soon, not with sorrow still tearing at him, but she makes him believe it isn't a betrayal, assuages his guilt at wanting this so badly.

Chris settles into a routine too, work and drink and sleep. But he's calmer here, gets a little closer to living instead of just existing. He listens to the Irish lads tell their stories of the green land they've left behind, of An Gorta Mor, the great famine that decimated families and drove their fathers out of their own country. He opens himself up to the sadness of others, although he strictly guards his own.

And sometimes, crowded close in the tiny tent, whiskey warming their bellies, exhaustion tugging them towards sleep, Chris finds his voice again and asks do you remember when?

The pictures dance in Buck's head as Chris's voice washes over him. It feels like a step forward, like maybe there's some room for healing. But next day Chris is cruel and meaner than a snake, as though regretting having spoken their names aloud. Even so, Buck decides he can put up with the harsh words and cold shoulder if it helps bring Chris closer to acceptance.

All in all, he's sorry when they have to leave, but they can't stay. The work is too dangerous to keep flouting the odds and this isn't their life.

They're so close to Lukeville when darkness starts to close in that Buck presumes they'll push on through and find a warm bed in town. But Chris pulls up and dismounts and without consultation starts to make camp. Buck is tired, but he finds the energy to gather firewood and scramble up coffee and a plate of biscuits and jerky.

"Gonna be cold tonight," Chris mumbles between mouthfuls, and Buck is heartened to see something other than amber liquid shoveled into his mouth.

"You think we need to stand watch?" Buck asks.

Chris glances across the miles of empty plain, seems to notice their surroundings for the first time. It might have been a smile that twitched his lips. Or maybe just a trick of the light. "Reckon we'll be okay," he replies.

He tugs his bedroll into position beside the fire and doesn't complain when Buck throws his own right alongside.

They stretch out together, side by side, staring into the vast night sky overhead.

"I wish we'd never left," Chris rasps, breaking the intense quiet. Buck doesn't know if he understands what Chris means. He turns his head but Chris won't look at him.

"You want to go back to Eagle Bend?" Buck asks. He's not sure it's for the best, but any plan is better than this endless drifting, and maybe it's a good sign that Chris wants to go back and face the demons, start to rebuild.

"For Mexico," Chris clarifies. "I shouldn't have left them alone like that."

Buck flinches. It's inevitable; dredging up the what ifs and if onlys, assigning guilt and eventually allocating blame. Buck wonders when Chris will remember that it was he who had suggested the extra night in Mexico, when he'll find the one way, maybe the only way, to shift some of the blame and self-loathing that rot in his gut. He almost wishes they could have it out now and clear the air, but he doesn't yet feel strong enough to see the revulsion steal across Chris's face and watch his friend turn his back and walk away.

"Get some sleep," Buck says, praying silently for just a little more time.

They reach Black Canyon in the early afternoon; the town is bathed in the last of the day's watery sunshine, looking strangely beautiful. They have enough money to pay for a decent room with a double bed and clean sheets and they gratefully accept the manager's offer to send up a basin of hot water and some soap so that they can clean up before dinner.

Buck feels fresh and relaxed for the first time in days and Chris looks less downcast than he has in weeks. They start to cross the dusty street on their way to the town's only restaurant when they hear a high pitched squeal coming from an alleyway.

They step into the cool, dark shade and cast around and huddled up against the wall they see a mangy mutt, spittle foaming at its mouth, sharp teeth bared in a grimace. It raises its head, but makes no move to retreat or advance, just slowly stretches out a paw. Underneath, the ground is red-soaked with blood, and the cur's guts spill through a gash in its belly.

"Bullet wound," Buck says, his voice a whisper. Likely some drunken cowpoke taking pot shots at the hapless beast, or a local rancher warning off the half-starved scavenger.

Chris stares down at the creature, mute and still as stone, unblinking, transfixed by suffering. The dog stares back, eyes huge in the gathering gloom, panting through its agony.

Buck unsheathes his gun, cocks it and takes aim, but Chris's hand flashes out and the shot bounces off the wooden walls that form the alleyway.

"I have to put it out of its misery, Chris," Buck says.

"No," Chris snarls, and the dog's ears flatten back, a low growl rumbling from its throat.

Chris turns on his heel and stomps away, and Buck looks down, and swears he can read in the dog's eyes the dimming of hope, the instinctive knowledge that death is inescapable and drawing near. His fingers twitch at his trigger, but he turns away suddenly and stumbles into the street.

There is no sign of Chris in the tiny restaurant. Buck knows he's at the saloon but declines to follow. Instead he sits at a table, and tries to choke down a lonely meal of beef stew and corn bread. Halfway through he gives up, tosses a coin onto the table beside his near-full plate, and bolts back out of the restaurant.

The alleyway is deserted. A slimy trail of blood and gore leads back to the main street, but the tracks disappear in the dimness, obscured under a mess of hoof prints. Buck pokes around but the dog is gone, doubtless slunk away to lie down and die, alone and in torment.

Their room is empty. Buck climbs into bed, briefly registering the clean, crisp sheets and sweet-smelling blanket. He doesn't think he will, but he drifts off into a doze, waking hours later when Chris stumbles through the door, taking no care to keep quiet.

Chris stops by the basin and scrubs at his hands, and Buck looks across and sees dark stains splattered up his friend's arms. He swings his legs out of bed and crosses the room, catching sight of the deep red blood that swirls into the basin. Chris's face is a hideous mask, splashes of blood and patches of dirt, and tracking through both a single, smudged wet line.

"The dog?" Buck asks.

Chris doesn't answer. He pulls his clothing off and gets into bed. Buck slides in beside him and they lie on their backs, unused to the space between them after so many nights spent crammed together.

Buck is faintly sickened by the iron tang of blood still clinging to Chris's skin but he feels an overwhelming urge to reach out, to override Chris's protests and pull him in.

"I shouldn't have left them to die like that," Chris says suddenly. "I should never have gone with you, never stayed away with you." He turns his back and shuffles across the bed, putting even more space between them.

Buck's breath hitches. And somewhere deep inside he knows that this is the beginning of the end.

The town is like a dozen others, but after two days and nights on the trail, with icy rain soaking them to the skin and hunger gnawing at their guts, Rock Springs is a welcome slice of heaven. If they're lucky, Buck thinks, they'll find a bathhouse in back of the barbershop, a hot meal and a dry bed with fewer fleas than are currently residing in their bedrolls. He glances over at Chris, who brushes away the raindrops that drip down his cheeks like tears.

They pass the livery, the saloon, ride straight past the town's boarding house and small hotel. Chris makes no move to stop.

"Chris," Buck calls.

There's no reaction. Buck spurs his horse and draws even with his friend. "Chris, we stopping here?" he demands.

Chris's horse plods on heedless, walks clear through the town and out the other side. Buck stops in his tracks and stares disbelievingly at Chris's retreating back. He's cold and hungry and shivering with exhaustion, he's stiff with endless travel and sore from weeks in the saddle. He wants, he needs, some ease, some comfort. His whole being yearns towards the warmth of the town at his back, towards voices and people, towards life.

Moments later Buck catches up with his friend, who makes no sign that he's noticed the absence. He glances over at Chris, who brushes away the tears that drip down his cheeks like raindrops.

In the ethereal pre-dawn light, beside the burnt out embers of yet another campfire, Buck wakes to a revelation. He will never again know happiness. There will be no more walks in the Sunday morning sunshine, no more moonlit strolls, no stolen moments, no fleeting intimacies, no laughter, love nor joy.

There is only this; the endless road to nowhere; forever caught in Chris's orbit, continually circling but never drawing close.

Chris lands in jail in Prescott.

It's almost a fair fight, the cowboy liquored up and exuberant, Chris liquored up and morose, standing at opposite ends of the bar in The Palace Saloon. Stupid words are exchanged, and before Buck can intervene, Chris has closed the distance and thrown a punch and the cowboy drops like a dead weight, his broken nose bleeding into the sawdust on the saloon floor.

Activity in the Palace ceases suddenly, the patrons cast a practiced eye over the situation, quickly assessing the likelihood of things getting uglier. A moment later, business resumes with the crashing tinkle of piano keys.

"He can cool his heels here for the night," the sheriff declares, slamming the cell door shut.

Chris stumbles to the cot and stretches out.

"You need anything?" Buck asks.

Chris just turns his face to the wall.

Buck shrugs, helpless, hope fading. He knows his value to Chris is rapidly diminishing. Despite his encouragement and cajoling, his nagging and coaxing, he can't rescue his friend from the lethargy of grief, can't stop the slow slide into bitterness, can't avert trouble when it arises.

He spends the evening chatting quietly to the barroom girls, smiling at their stories, sharing a bottle with whichever of them is not engaged. As always it feels like family. He declines their offers of on the house, just for fun, and enjoys the solitary walk towards his hotel room. He passes by the jailhouse, wonders briefly if he should stop in, but finds himself hurrying past.

For the first time in weeks he find himself alone, without Chris.

He feels... relief.

When they get to Three Points Chris insists on separate rooms, although their money is running low and they can't really afford it.

He refuses dinner, and when Buck catches up with him later in the saloon and moves to take his customary place, Chris shakes his head.

"Don't want company," he growls.

Buck carefully puts his beer glass down on the table. He stares at Chris's bent head for several long moments, then turns and walks away.

In Sedona Chris raises his eyes and looks directly at Buck for the first time in days.

"You shouldn't have let me stay," he snarls. "They'd still be alive if I'd left on time."

Buck reads the revulsion that sweeps across his friend's face and realizes that he's become the problem instead of the solution.

He knows without doubt that they've reached the end of this road.

They part company on a Wednesday.

They ride together in silence, side by side, through the early morning mist that drifts upwards and burns off high atop Cathedral Rock. When they reach the edge of Oak Creek Canyon, Chris continues on the road west, Buck turns his horse eastwards and heads towards the rising sun.

No plans are made, no promises exchanged, no false hope is given.

They part company on a Wednesday, and they don't look back.

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