“You can come down now,” said the stranger on the black horse.
Arthur peered down from where he was wrapped around a large branch. The infected bear was dead—Arthur had seen its head get blown clean apart by a shot from a high calibre rifle. It lay unmoving on the grass, the white bars of its ribs showing through rotted flesh. It’d been dead for a while, but the strange magic that had reanimated all the dead in the world had kept it from rest while its infected brain was intact. Kept it hungry. The stranger with the rifle had disappeared while Arthur stayed up the tree and returned leading Arthur’s horse.
“I’m happy up here,” Arthur said. He knew where he was. The high country hereabouts was a lean place. Most of the animals were either fearful or infected. The people who called it home were raiders, cannibals, or both. Arthur wouldn’t have tried to detour through the area if he hadn’t been desperate.
The stranger peered up at him. “Sure you are,” he said. Arthur’s stomach chose that moment to growl loudly, and the stranger huffed. He pulled an apple from his saddlebags and tossed it up. Arthur caught it but made no move to take a bite. “Ain’t poisoned,” said the stranger. He had a husky, rasping voice, a wolf’s snarl strung uneasily over a human throat.
“Yeah, I got only your word for that.”
“Son, if I’d wanted to kill you and eat you, or whatever you’re thinking of, I’d have shot you out of that there tree as easily as I shot that goddamned bear. You wanna stay here, fine, but this is Reaver territory and they sure as hell know you’re here now.”
“Thanks to who, huh?” Arthur shuddered. He’d seen evidence of the Reavers when he’d entered this neck of the woods. Human-skin flags, bones strung up on trees. Small bones, too, nothing that could be easily cracked down for marrow. Reluctantly, Arthur pocketed the apple and climbed down. When he wasn’t shot in the back or nothing, Arthur got on his horse. “Thanks. Sorry I was so rude.”
“Don’t mention it. Being wary ain’t the same as being rude.” The stranger held out a hand. “John Marston.”
“Arthur Morgan,” Arthur said, looking John curiously over as they shook hands. John was older than he was, probably in his late twenties, judging from the dark scruff that he wore over his jaw. Two great scars bisected his face, healed badly. He wore a dark grey hat with a snakeskin band and a black vest over a discoloured white shirt, a blue bandana that had seen better days around his scarred throat. He was also armed to the teeth. Arthur counted a repeater, two rifles, and a bow hung against John’s saddlebags. “Jesus,” Arthur said. “You angling to start a war or what?”
“Can’t be too careful,” John said. He didn’t smile. There was an odd intensity to his face, a calmness that felt temporary. Arthur had known people like John before. They were usually violent, furious folk. “Where’re you headed?”
“I’m looking to get to Armadillo,” John said, nudging his horse into a trot, “and ‘round here, having someone around to take turns at keeping watch at night ain’t so bad a thing.”
“Armadillo will do me fine,” Arthur said, as casually as he could. Armadillo was where he was hoping to get to. A fortified survivor town, somewhere where Arthur could hopefully get some respite from the madness. He brought his horse up to John’s, though not too close. “Don’t normally see lone travellers.”
“Speak for yourself,” John said. An animal fury burned in his eyes as he looked at Arthur, then he looked back at the trail. Arthur shivered. “You wanna tag along, son? Here’s a tip. Don’t piss me off.”
Arthur scowled. “Fine.” He busied himself reloading his pistols from his saddlebags. John watched Arthur reload, unimpressed. Arthur would’ve made an excuse if John had said anything. About how he hadn’t come into Reaver territory alone, but how the trappers he’d been with had run off the moment the bear had shown up. About how he hadn’t had any spare bullets on hand because he’d gotten thrown from his horse after a quick start to the morning and had to climb to save his life. John didn’t say a word.
Arthur, on the other hand. “Hell,” Arthur muttered to himself. He was in the threadbare general store, desultorily checking the price of supplies.
“What with the infection so bad, we ain’t got much stock for nothing,” the shopkeeper said, bristling. “You don’t like my prices; you can leave.”
“Ain’t what I was thinking of,” Arthur said, “and I completely understand about the prices.”
“Oh, right.” The shopkeeper smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. I shouldn’t of tried to bite your head right off like that, young man.”
“No foul, no foul. I wasn’t talking about your stock at all. I came here through Reaver territory. My mind just went back, s’all.”
The shopkeeper stared at Arthur with wary respect. “Through there? Hell, son, why’d you do something like that for? It’s a miracle you’re standing here.”
“Probably wouldn’t have made it on my own,” Arthur admitted. He was an average horseman and a decent shot, but he wouldn’t have survived a night in the woods without John. John, who could fight like a demon with his blood up, the rage bright in his eyes. Arthur had never met anyone sitting on that much anger. Never met anyone who’d learned how to wield it like a weapon. It was hard to look away.
“Oh… you came into town with Marston?” The shopkeeper sobered right up. “Jesus. You’re twice lucky there, son.”
“What’d you mean?”
“Ain’t never seen a man so angry. Heard he lost his missus and a son to the plague, but. Last time he was in Armadillo, the sheriff had to drag him off a man in the saloon. Marston was trying to beat him right to death.”
“Over what?” Arthur asked.
“Does it matter? What with the Reavers and the Infected out there, we shouldn’t be sitting around killing ourselves. Marston’s like a mad dog. It’s the dead against the living now, the rest of us know that. You staying around town, son? I could put in a word for you over at the ranch if you’d like.”
“Thank you kindly, but hold up on that thought,” Arthur said, even though it was what he’d come to Armadillo for. John had come out of the sheriff’s office, and he was walking this way. The shopkeeper straightened up as John strolled in, buying a string of supplies and handing over the money without a word.
Arthur found himself following John out. “Where’re you headed next?” he asked.
“Border,” John said. He eyed Arthur appraisingly, with a look that was none too friendly. “Why?”
“Why the border? Heard it’s closed,” Arthur said.
“Got a plan for that. Got something I need in Mexico.”
“Need? Like what?” Arthur asked, amazed.
“What’s with the questions, Morgan?”
“It’s the end of the world. All the people I’ve met have just been trying to survive. You—you’re walking around like you’re a man with a plan.”
“I do have a plan.” John smiled, baring his teeth into a snarl. With his rage simmering so close to his skin, John was more animal than man like this, even in the middle of the town, and hell. Standing this close, watching it burn, Arthur felt a frisson of warmth curl in his gut. He ignored it, as always. There’d never been nothing but grief down that kinda attraction for Arthur, and it didn’t help that he was always drawn to men like John Marston. Wolfish, dangerous men.
“A cure?” People had looked for a cure in the early days. A lot of snake oil salesmen had made a right killing.
“This ain’t a plague. Dead are rising because something ain’t right in the world.”
“What are you gonna do about that?”
“At the end of any road, there’s meant to be a man on a pale horse, and his name is Death,” John said. His eyes blazed as he spoke, biting out each word. “I think he’s disappeared. Heard tell that his horse has been seen riderless south of the border, and I mean to have it.”
“That…” Arthur trailed off. He wanted to tell John that his plan was utterly insane, but then again, wasn’t the world now mad? The dead rising, the living starving, slowly being picked off. Being able to catch and ride the Pale Horse sounded no less crazy. “What would that even do?”
“Can’t know until I try.”
Oh hell. Arthur squared up. He wasn’t far into his growth spurt yet—he’d just made twenty a few months back—but with his late start, he was already near John’s height. Enough to look him in the eye. “Need someone to watch your back on the road?”
Another appraising glance. The rage folded down to a neutral mask. John stared at him for so long that Arthur thought he was going to get driven off. Just as Arthur was about to brace himself and withdraw the offer, John nodded. “If you can keep up. Sure.”
As the surviving townsfolk in Las Hermanas burned the infected they’d shot outside the settlement, Arthur found John sitting on top of one of the blocky white houses, legs dangling over the side as he drank something from a glass bottle. John offered it to Arthur wordlessly as Arthur sat. The liquid was some kind of moonshine—it burned all the way down. As Arthur sputtered, John laughed. It wasn’t a particularly kindly sound. The plague had broken down most people, pared them into the hollow-eyed survivors that were all that were left of many towns and settlements. There were people like Arthur, who lived bewildered by what had happened. Then there was John.
“So what’s your story?” John asked, taking the bottle back.
“Me? Nothing much. Dad died before I was born from some accident. Mum worked as a shop assistant. Married a trapper. I learned how to read, write, live off the land, shoot. The plague came ‘round.” Arthur stared down at the townsfolk repairing the gates. “Story from there on’s ‘bout the same as everyone else. You?”
John drank. “Parents died when I was a kid. Got caught stealing. Nearly got hung for it. A passing gang picked me up, and I lived with them for a while. Things started to go to hell, so I left with a… with a friend and her son. Tried to make a life for us over at Beecher’s Hope. Then the plague came ‘round.” John glanced at Arthur with his furious eyes. “Story there on’s the same.”
“Friend, huh.” Arthur tried to imagine it. John, with his hair-trigger temper and restless ways, settling down somewhere with a woman and a kid.
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Nothing. Was kind of you.” Arthur stared at John, refusing to back down. “I remember what it was like when I was young and it was just me and my mum. Life was pretty hard.”
The resentful tension in John eased a fraction. He drank and looked over at the church, where the surviving nuns and the Mother Superior were trying to brew up more holy water. “Not as hard as it is now,” John said. “It would fucking figure. If it was artefacts.”
“All this.” John gestured at the settlement with his bottle. “The plague, the undying. If it was because some asshole out there messed with things best left buried. Human nature, that’s what it is.”
“Assuming that’s what’s happened, I don’t know if whoever it was meant this to happen.”
John sniffed. “You got a kinder view of people than I do. I've been around. When it comes down to it, most people out there would rather let others suffer than put any real skin in the game. Ain’t no good people out there — just different shades of bad. People—we’re worse than animals. We ain’t content to live on this world. We destroy it.”
“I don’t believe that,” Arthur said, palming cigarettes out of his pouch. He offered John one, but John shook his head.
“Says the man I picked out of cannibal country.”
“Just ‘cos some people are bad don’t mean everyone’s bad.” Arthur took a long drag of his cigarette after he lit up. “Brutality changes a lot of people, sure. But I’ve seen people help people out there who didn’t have to. And there’s you.”
John curled his lip. “What about me?”
“Riding down here, trying to find a cure? Hell, that’s a lot of skin in the game.”
John capped the bottle and set it aside. “Shows what you know, Morgan. Let me tell you a secret. The world as it is now? I like it. I like how there ain’t no bounties no more. How there ain’t no Pinkertons a-hounding me, trying to kidnap the people I know to get me to do their dirty fucking work. Took a plague to set me free.”
“If you like it so much, why’re you looking for Death’s horse?”
“Why not? For the first time in my life, I can do whatever I goddamned like. I didn’t ever say I was out to find a cure. That’s just you assuming I was. You’re a good kid, Arthur. You should stay here. Help out around Los Hermanas. This settlement’s in better shape than most.”
Arthur blew out a gritty stream. “I figured about the horse,” he said. “’Round when the Army started talking about them artefacts, and you couldn’t even be fucked giving them the time of day.”
“Why’re you still here, then?”
“Why not? You weren’t the only one the plague set free from everything.”
John gave Arthur a long, calculating stare. He got to his feet and beckoned. Curious, Arthur stubbed out his cigarette and followed as they climbed the rickety ladder down off the roof and onto the balcony of the small house. The infected owners had been burned outside with the rest and had left behind only sparse mementoes in the memory of who they had been. A small colourful doll of twine and fabric strips was propped on a small chest in a corner. Framed pictures hung on the wall. A wiry man on a small horse before a herd of cattle, grinning and waving. A woman with a little girl, smiling uneasily at the camera. A spare vaquero’s hat hung on a hook beside a sparsely stocked kitchen with a row of well-loved spice jars.
Arthur felt like an intruder just being here. John didn’t. He’d cleared out the bloodstained furniture to be burned in the large fire in the dry fountain in the centre of town and set up his sleeping roll in a corner of the room within view of the door. Arthur’s roll was still on his horse. He was planning on dragging it to the roof. It was going to be a warm night, and on warm nights, Arthur had a hankering for the stars.
“You stare at me all the time,” John said quietly, thumbs tucked in his pockets. “Especially when you think I ain’t watching.”
Arthur tried not to freeze up. Tried to laugh it off instead, the way he’d had before. With other people, none of them as wild or as dangerous or as unpredictable as John. “Watching you in case you decide to shoot someone,” Arthur said.
“You sure that’s it?” John said, prowling closer. He’d backed Arthur up against the wall before Arthur could think of ducking free, his hands pressed to the cracked plaster above Arthur’s shoulders. “You ain’t that good a liar, son.”
“What, you wanna fight?” That was Arthur’s second-best response to anything he didn’t like to face.
Usually, people took a long look at his rangy frame and the guns on his hips and demurred. John, however, made a hoarse sound of delight, a hunting bark of a laugh. He leaned in, and when Arthur stopped breathing, pushed in the rest of the way and kissed Arthur hard on the mouth. Arthur whimpered. He clenched his hands into John’s vest, holding him close as he tried to return the kiss. John didn’t bother giving Arthur any quarter. His beard grazed Arthur’s chin as he bit, as he licked roughly into Arthur’s mouth and hauled Arthur’s hips up against his.
Arthur hadn’t ever done this before. He hadn’t ever even imagined doing it with anyone he knew. Lusting after men had always been a shameful thing for Arthur, even before the world had ended—something he’d felt in his bones to be wrong. An unspoken want that he could never show. The blithe violence of John’s touch burned that shame away, made Arthur thrust against John and moan as John’s hands kneaded his ass roughly.
“Can you stay quiet and still?” John growled. Arthur was nodding before he could even manage the words to ask what John wanted to do. He gasped as John went down on his knees and leant back against the wall as John shot him a warning stare. Stuffing his fingers into his mouth, Arthur choked down a moan as John roughly undid the buckles on his belts and the buttons on his pants and underthings. John drew out Arthur’s cock and stroked it with a dry hand, looking up at Arthur as he did. Even like this, kneeling before Arthur with Arthur’s thickening flesh so close to his face, John looked as maddeningly dangerous as ever, his dark eyes just as unreadable.
It wasn’t too comfortable being tugged by John’s gun-roughened hand but Arthur didn’t much care. He bit down on his fingers to stifle another moan. John let out a low huff, baring his teeth. He took Arthur into his mouth impatiently, frowning as he couldn’t fit all of it down his throat. He tugged as he sucked and was rough about it, his teeth occasionally rasping uncomfortably against Arthur’s skin.
Discomfort and pleasure and heat wove together into a driving need that had Arthur’s whimpers seeping past his fingers, that had his free hand grasping desperately at John’s shoulders. John wouldn’t budge. He wasn’t doing this to give Arthur pleasure. He was devouring whatever Arthur was willing to give. Arthur’s hips jerked, and John pinned him against the wall with an arm, hard enough that Arthur gasped. John drew back, licking hard against the slit of Arthur’s cock and that did it for Arthur, breaking his yowl against his fingers as he came. John took what he could and cupped the rest in his palm, spitting on the ground. He reared up for an old cloth draped on the windowsill, wiping his hand clean as Arthur sank against the wall and tried to catch his breath.
John got to his feet. “Turn around,” he rasped. Arthur obeyed, still gasping. He groaned as John pressed the bulge in his pants against Arthur’s ass, grinding against him. This couldn’t be good for John, and yet his breath huffed in low snarls of pleasure against Arthur’s throat. Arthur braced himself on the wall. He’ll let John have the rest of him. Sooner or later.