The desert is filled with terrifying things – of this, there can be no doubt.
The calls of the cougars sound like agonized women screaming in the night. The jaguars hunt in perfect silence, snarling only when they make their kill. Vultures and hawks wait overhead for the blood to spill, curved beaks and beady eyes at the ready.
The tiny translucent bodies of bark scorpions conceal themselves under brushwood and pebbles, invisible until they sting. The hairy tarantulas make burrows lined with sticky silk, watching with their rows of black eyes. The wasps lay their eggs in the tarantulas who don’t watch close enough.
The javelinas raid unattended campsites and flash the yellow tusks they were named for, as long and sharp as Bowie knives. The coyotes and wolves roam in mangy packs, mournful howls echoing, always sounding closer and more numerous than they really are.
The mustangs paw at the barren earth and watch with guarded eyes and flattened ears from afar, warning – they can kick even harder than the burros if you get too close. They’ve killed men who mistook them for tame beasts before. They’ll do it again.
The rattlesnakes coil in the shadows, waiting, diamondback scales hidden in the sand and black tongues flickering, tasting heat. The Gila monsters do not hide, their bold orange and black patterns warn others away from venom and pain – their bite makes grown men cry.
Keith hadn’t been a grown man when a Gila monster bit him. But he hadn’t cried, because he knew he’d get beaten for it.
The most terrifying things in the desert were the men. Of this, Keith had no doubt.
Until Keith found him.
“Whoa, Strawberry, easy,” Keith murmured, stroking the chestnut mare’s neck as she stomped grumpily and fought the bit. She was having a mood, and normally Keith would respect that, but he was dangerously low on supplies and the closest watering hole was too far to reach on foot. “It’s just a half hour’s ride, girl, c’mon.”
Strawberry tugged at the reins and flicked her ears in obvious irritation, but reluctantly started forward when Keith dug his heels firmly into her sides again. The night was cool, and though some said there were no seasons except summer in the desert, Keith would have to disagree. It was spring now, and the slight chill that winter had offered was fading during the day, but the nights still held enough coolness to warrant a leather jacket and bandana tucked close around his neck. The air grew cooler as he urged Strawberry into a trot, and then a canter, and then a gallop, thundering across the rocky terrain of the Sonoran.
The sunset was brilliant at Keith’s back, streaking the turquoise sky with gold and rose pink. Keith liked the desert best at night. All the creatures came out at night, but all the people went to sleep. Most of them, anyway. Keith had become a creature of the night, these days – or maybe he just didn’t sleep all that often. He figured it was probably fine. Strawberry didn’t seem to sleep much, either, and she was as fast and strong as ever.
He’d found her three years ago on the verge of death, tangled in barbed wire at the edge of a sprawling ranch. She’d been barely more than a filly then, a spirited yearling who screamed at him when he came near with a pair of wire cutters Lance had lent him. She’d quieted when he started cutting the wire away carefully – cut the wrong strand, and she could’ve lost a leg. Keith thought animals had a way of telling the bad people from the good ones. He wasn’t sure he was a good person, but nevertheless, Strawberry had let him cut her free, and then lead her back to his shack to fix her up.
Now, her legs still bore the ugly scars the wire had inflicted upon her, and her left front hoof was a little unsteady in the colder months, but she was the best horse Keith could ever ask for. He didn’t know where she’d come from – whether from a negligent cowboy or a wild herd or elsewhere – and he didn’t much care. She was his now, and she was happy and healthy, and that was all that mattered.
Keith had very few things that were his own, but what he did have, he did his best to take care of.
Strawberry knew the route to the watering hole by heart, so Keith barely had to guide her, and kept his grip loose on the reins and one hand on the saddle horn as her gallop eased into a canter. She preferred a slower pace up the ridge, and he let her because he could watch the starry sky pass by.
He’d memorized all the constellations as best he could – he wasn’t educated like Allura, but she’d taught him and Lance their letters and helped Keith to puzzle through her astronomy books. He was a Scorpio, according to Allura, though he didn’t much understand that. Scorpions were nuisances more than anything else – though he did name the ones he found in his boots before tossing them out to scurry away over the sand. Spike III, Billie, Goldilocks, and Toast had been this morning’s.
Lance was a Leo and hadn’t shut up about it for months afterwards. Then Pidge had pointed out that Keith had more of a lion’s mane than Lance, and Lance had made a point of trying to grow his hair out. It hadn’t gotten very far before he’d started complaining and cut it all off again. He still had all the messy stubble, though, and Keith had a hunch it was because Pidge not-so-secretly liked it.
Pidge was an Aries, a ram. Keith saw bighorn rams on this ridge sometimes, way up where the mountain paths turned too steep for horses. They didn’t remind him very much of Pidge – except maybe in their toughness. Pidge was the toughest person Keith knew. He remembered vividly, even now, when he and Lance had accidentally discovered the truth about her six years ago. Her.
Pidge had always been the smallest of them, but she’d pulled her weight – she’d never once let the disguise slip. But Keith had known – he’d always known there was something a little different about ‘Pidge Gunderson.’ He’d always been inclined to protect that feisty little farmhand. Pidge could take care of herself, of course, but…Keith didn’t even want to think about what the Galra would have done if they’d learned Pidge’s secret.
There were very few women in the West. That was their excuse, anyway.
Pidge had frozen when a curiously oblivious Lance had asked about the blood on the seat of her pants. She’d cursed, and then she’d cried, and then Keith realized and Lance continued to be oblivious until Keith told him to shut your goddamn mouth, Espinosa, you idiot.
Keith remembered how much it had hurt when he’d reached out towards Pidge only for her to flinch away, eyes wide and scared in a way they’d never been before. Lance had been speechless for perhaps the only time in his life. Pidge had said, “You – you can’t tell – I won’t let you –” and Keith had hugged her firmly before she could finish that awful sentence. She’d beaten his chest with small fists and cried harder and Keith had just continued to hug her until she’d finally slumped into him and whispered, “Shit.”
He’d said, “It’s gonna be alright,” even if he had no way of guaranteeing his own safety, much less Pidge’s. They’d been thirteen and terrified, surrounded by bad men who hired children to rope their cattle because they were cheap labor, and cheap…other things. Keith had vowed a long time ago that he’d kill any Galra who laid a finger on his friends. Sitting in the hayloft with Lance and Pidge as Pidge told them the story of Katie Holt between choked sobs, that resolve had only strengthened.
But in the end, it wasn’t Lance or Pidge who the Galra touched.
Coyotes howled miles off, and Strawberry’s ears pricked, but she kept her pace – they were just another part of the desert, and she was not afraid of the desert. Keith felt sure she was from wild stock. He hoped she was. He hoped she’d experienced true freedom, galloping through the canyons and scrubland with her mustang herd, tossing her unbridled head to the sun, back unbent by a saddle.
Keith felt freer now than he’d ever been before. And he was a wanted man now. He’d been a wanted man for five years – sometimes it was easy to forget he still had a bounty on his head.
Like right now, now when the world was plunged into night and the desert transformed in the absence of the sun; saguaro blossoms opening to the moonlight, bats fluttering frantically above to catch moths and clouds of gnats, golden-eyed owls perching upon cliffs and tall mesquite trees, small creatures emerging from their burrows with the hesitance of hungry, hunted things.
Keith was a hungry, hunted thing, too. He made a mental note to check the traps near the waterhole and in Turtle Gorge…and if those were empty, then he might have to pay Allura’s brothel a visit. She had the best javelina jerky for miles around.
Strawberry stopped short, her startled snort quickly dispelling Keith’s ravenous thoughts. He dug his heels in, but she shook her head and stomped, practically vibrating with nervous energy. Keith was on guard when she was on guard, and sat up straighter in the saddle, peering into the darkness. The moon was half-full, so there was some illumination, and he was able to make out a shadowy, crumpled shape lying still at the base of a towering saguaro.
Strawberry backed up a few paces and pranced anxiously in place. Keith could recognize when he was about to be bucked off and shushed her, hastily dismounting and looping her reins over a nearby palo verde. He unsheathed the knife he kept on his belt at all times as he approached the unmoving figure. As he got closer, he saw it was a person, their body covered in a heavy velvet cloak embroidered with ornate silver patterns, their long black hair hiding their face from view. There was a wide streak of white through the black, shining as brightly as the saguaro blossoms. Keith tilted his head. A woman? A rich woman, from the looks of it – that cloak was finer than anything even Allura owned. What was a noblewoman doing out here…?
Keith carefully pushed the cloak away from the body – and stumbled back in shock. It was a man, shirtless with loose black breeches, built broad and tall, the shadow of stubble visible on his strong jaw. But Keith could hardly look at the man’s face when his right arm was gone.
It looked as if it had been ripped off by…some animal, but Keith didn’t think any mountain lion could do such a thing. A pack of wolves, maybe, but…the wolves hereabouts were well-fed, and didn’t prey upon humans. Especially not large adult men. Whatever the cause, the arm was gone, and the ground around the man was soaked through with blood. No wonder Strawberry had baulked. Keith stared at the maimed man. How long had he been here? He must have been dead.
Must have…but then Keith leaned down to brush the hair out of his face and the man’s eyes cracked open. Keith paused. The man blinked at him, bleary and confused, and his dry lips parted in a word that was not a word. It looked like, please.
Then his eyes fell shut and he went limp again.
Keith stood there for what felt like a long time, and then he threw up his hands, swore a little because that always made him feel better, and hefted the man up and over Strawberry’s saddle.
Strawberry was not happy with him. He’d have to buy some sugar cubes in town for her tomorrow.
But the more pressing issue was that he had a man with one arm bleeding out on his floor. Keith figured he should probably get him onto the bed, but he only had one bed, and he didn’t want to get blood all over it again.
His medical knowledge was very limited. He’d have to ask Shay about this tomorrow…if the man was still alive by then. Shaking himself, Keith marched over to the makeshift wardrobe and grabbed the linens he cared about the least, ripping them into strips and kneeling down with them beside the man. The arm was severed several inches above the elbow, and it was messy and ragged, soaking clean through the cloth when Keith experimentally pressed one to it.
Damn. Keith only knew of one other way to go about stopping bleeding, and it wasn’t pleasant.
He eyed the still-smoldering fire pit outside, and then the fire poker next to his beat-up stove. He didn’t know this man, but he felt the need to warn him anyway. “This is going to hurt,” he informed the unconscious man grimly, and grabbed the poker in a gloved hand.
When he returned with the poker glowing red-hot, he could’ve sworn the man’s breath hitched, but his eyes stayed closed and he made no move to get away when Keith pressed the searing iron to the bloodied stump of his arm.
He did react when Keith cauterized the wound, though.
His eyes flew open and his strangled shout echoed through the tiny shack – Keith heard Strawberry’s frightened whinny outside. The smell of burned flesh filled the air and Keith wrinkled his nose, taking a step back as the man writhed and then went still again, head lolling to the side. Was he dead now? Some men died from the pain, but Keith had hoped this one wouldn’t…
Hoped? Hmph. No, he just didn’t want to dig a stranger’s grave in the hard desert earth; that was all.
But the man wasn’t dead. His chest rose and fell unevenly, and as Keith watched, the bleeding seemed to cease. The wound was uglier than before, and would have to be bandaged up for the night, but at least it was stable for now. The man did not move when Keith half-dragged him over to the bed, and Keith felt a little foolish tucking the sheets around him as if he were a child.
He was most assuredly not. By the warm glow of the candlelight, Keith had a better view of him – he was…well, not old, which made his white hair puzzling. He was heavily muscled, and scarred all across his torso and arms – some were old and faded, others were bright new pink. His skin was tanned and smooth, a shade lighter than Keith’s. Keith puzzled over this, and over the man’s face – he was not from these parts. He looked more Indian than white, but…he wasn’t Navajo, or Apache, or Zuni, or any tribe Keith had ever seen before.
From the Far East, maybe? Huh. Not many of them in Arizona Territory, as far as Keith knew.
Keith peered closer, and resisted the urge to touch the faded scar sweeping over the bridge of the man’s nose. It was a handsome nose, on a handsome face, but Keith wondered uneasily what sort of trouble this man had gotten himself into to have so many scars. Keith didn’t know of anyone so marked up, except maybe a few of the more careless Galra. Sendak the Brute had his nickname for a reason. He’d lost his hand years ago, and made up for it with a metal hook. Keith doubted an entire arm could be replaced the same way. Maybe with a whip. Now that was a thought.
The man’s lashes fluttered and Keith startled away, realizing he’d been ogling for too long. He stood up stiffly, brushing off his leathers, and headed to the lumpy, overstuffed, sad excuse for a sofa in the corner.
He’d given his bed to a dead man, he mused as he settled down atop the musty cushions and tugged a rough piece of burlap over himself. But if he were in the man’s place, Keith would want to die in a soft bed instead of the middle of the desert. So maybe it wasn’t a waste after all.
The man was alive the next morning. And the morning after that, and the morning after that.
Keith rode into town to get some advice from Shay, who was the best healer he knew. As soon as he gave her the strange details, she insisted on riding out to his shack along with Hunk, the town deputy and her loyal husband. And then, because Hunk knew about it, Lance knew about it, and then because Lance knew about it, Pidge knew about it.
Keith’s shack was not big enough for that many people. But they crammed their way inside nonetheless, staring down at the strange man in Keith’s bed.
“Well, he’s sure not Hopi,” Shay declared, hands on her hips, braids shaking as she shook her head.
“He’s not Cubano either,” Lance offered, unhelpfully.
Keith rolled his head and folded his arms. “You’re probably the only Cubano in America for miles, genius. They’re all in New Orleans and Florida.”
“Not true, I met two at that bridge over Rio Verde a couple weeks ago!” Lance protested.
“Trying to get as close to the beach as they could, huh? They’re gonna be disappointed.”
Lance elbowed him hard. Keith made a rude hand gesture.
“Guys, shut up,” Pidge grumbled. “He’s obviously not Indian or Cuban.”
“So then where’d he come from?” Hunk demanded. “Coran and I haven’t received any immigration papers lately, and the Chinese always give him their papers – not that we’ve had any recently, what with the Exclusion Act and all, but still.”
“Does it really matter where he’s from?” Keith muttered.
“Um, yeah?” Lance said. “I mean, he just showed up in the middle of the desert and you’re not even questioning it?”
“I didn’t say that,” Keith said defensively. “But I didn’t exactly try to interrogate him while he was bleeding out on my floor.”
“Wonder if he has ties to the Galra,” Hunk mused. Keith, Lance, and Pidge all stiffened and he shot them apologetic looks. “Sorry. Maybe not. Best not to make assumptions, anyway.”
“He doesn’t have the brand,” Keith snapped. “I checked.”
“Right. Of course, you would have,” Hunk said. “Still…something fishy about all this.”
“So then maybe the Galra did this to him?” Shay suggested. She was kneeling down to examine the wound, not even flinching when she pulled back the soaked bandages. “You cauterized the area, good. He’d likely be dead otherwise.”
“The Galra gang has plenty of enemies, but mostly organized groups,” Pidge said, ticking off the names on her dusty fingers. “There are the Balmerans, the Olkari, the Arusians, the Unilu, and of course the Alteans.”
“He’s not with the Alteans,” Hunk said with certainty. “They’ve all visited the Pink Lion at least once, and I’ve never seen this man in town.”
“Not that you’d be frequenting the Pink Lion Brothel,” Shay said dryly.
Hunk flushed. “What – I, no, no, of course not –!”
She patted his hand as she pulled a needle and thread from her beaded medicine pouch. “Don’t worry, I know you haven’t been. If you had, Allura would refuse you service and give you a smack for good measure, dear.”
“Allura hits hard,” Lance confirmed.
“Why ain’t I surprised she’s hit you before?” Keith said.
“Alright, it looks like the wound isn’t infected yet, so I’ll stitch it up and apply a poultice – I can give you bandages and the poultice if you don’t mind reapplying both every couple of days, Keith.” Shay glanced up at him. “Don’t have a weak stomach, do you?”
Lance snorted. “You kiddin’ me? Keith got his arm sliced up by a rusty rake when he was like fifteen and didn’t bat a damn eyelash.”
“It was disgusting,” Pidge said.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Keith said with a shrug.
“You were in shock,” Pidge retorted.
“I wasn’t, and I threw up,” Lance informed everyone. “Everywhere. Beans and corn, not good.”
“Thank you for sharing,” Hunk groaned.
“I can change the poultice and bandages,” Keith told Shay, who was looking very irritated with them all. He doubted annoyance and a threaded needle were a good combination, and thankfully the others quieted as Shay tended to the man’s wound. Keith watched his face for any sign of a reaction, but he was out cold, his skin pale and grayish – so he watched the shallow rise and fall of his chest instead. He was still shirtless, and Keith had a strange urge to cover his scarred torso so the others couldn’t see it.
But he did no such thing, and sure enough, it was only a matter of time before one of them commented on it, and of course it was Lance.
“He looks like he had a couple bad run-ins with javelinas,” Lance said. “Or maybe fell into a cholla patch. Don’t think I’ve ever seen so many scars on one person, Christ.”
“He’s had a bad time, that’s for sure,” Hunk agreed. “Maybe he’s not part of a gang at all. Maybe he works alone.”
“Maybe this has something to do with the Desert Devil,” Pidge said.
Lance groaned. “Not this again, Katie, c’mon!”
“The Devil’s out there, I’m tellin’ you!” Pidge insisted. “Old Man Slav saw him just last week –”
“Slav is crazy,” Keith said. “Batshit crazy.”
“So are you, arguably,” Pidge retorted. “You went almost a month without contacting any of us, and when we finally found you, you were making a detailed map of the entire canyon system and marking all the petroglyph spots in it.”
“I was trying to translate them, too,” Keith said. “Not just making the map…”
“You’re not makin’ a great case for your sanity, Keith,” Lance snorted.
Keith scowled at them both. “Slav tried to convince the entire town that cow shit is going to bring about the apocalypse, and then went on for hours on a street corner ranting about metal tubes with wings in the sky.”
“It does smell something awful,” Hunk said. “Cow shit, I mean. Dunno what he meant by metal winged tubes.”
“Anyway,” Pidge cut in, “Slav saw the Desert Devil up on the ridge last week in the middle of the night. Just staring out at the town. Said he grinned when Slav saw him – big sharp white teeth, bright as the moon. Then he winked with his glowing yellow eyes and disappeared into dust.”
“Slav needs to lay off the whiskey,” Lance said.
Pidge folded her arms huffily. “You don’t even think there’s a possibility that this man was attacked by the Devil? Remember last year, when those three cattle rustlers were found mauled to all hell? And the year before, when that Apache witch woman had scratches all up her arms and wouldn’t stop rambling about yellow eyes until she died of shock? And the year before that, when Lotor’s man Haxus was found strung up on a saguaro like a damn crucifix?”
Everyone shifted uneasily. “Dunno,” Lance admitted after a moment. “Guess it’s possible. I don’t buy the whole Devil thing, but maybe it’s just…a dangerous person, out there, you know…”
“Ripping people’s arms off and crucifying them?” Keith finished.
Lance shuddered. “Carajo, I’m not sleepin’ tonight.”
“If it is a person, Coran and I will track him down,” Hunk assured them. Keith didn’t feel all that assured. It was a big desert, and if he’d managed to hide in it from the Galra all these years, Keith didn’t think Sheriff Coran and Deputy Hunk’s chances at finding a mysterious murderer were all that great.
“You oughta be careful, Keith,” Shay said, tying off the last of the bandages and standing up. “If this ‘Devil’ exists, and finds out one of his victims survived, he might come looking to finish the job.”
“I ain’t scared of no Devil,” Keith said.
“Aren’t, any,” Hunk corrected automatically. Keith rolled his eyes.
“Right, well, just be vigilant,” Shay sighed. “And don’t hesitate to ride on over if there’s any trouble, you hear me?”
“Got it, thanks for the stitches and advice,” Keith said. “Now, can y’all get out of my house?”
“Sure thing,” Shay laughed, handing him the bottle of poultice and the roll of bandages before heading out with Hunk. Lance and Pidge lingered – Pidge was staring at the injured man like she could divine the exact location of the Desert Devil by his scars or something.
Lance pouted. “Sure you don’t wanna chat and catch up like old times, Keithy Keith?”
Keith wrinkled his nose. “No.”
“Alright, have fun being a grumpy hermit,” Lance declared. “Guess I won’t give Strawberry those sugar cubes after all.”
“Ugh, fine,” Keith said. “What d’you want, a goddamn hug?”
Lance looked at him uncertainly.
“Jesus Christ,” Keith hissed. “I’m joking.”
Lance was still looking at him, a little strangely, and then his gaze darted to the man on the bed. Keith’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever you’re about to say, don’t say it,” he warned.
“Me, about to say somethin’?” Lance held up his hands in surrender. “I’d never. It’s just that –”
“Shut. Your. Mouth.”
Pidge glared at them. “How is it that you two are just as insufferable now as you’ve always been, huh?” She looked at Keith. “Well? Are you or aren’t you?”
“You know I’m not,” Keith gritted out. “I helped him because it was the right thing to do; you really think I’m that shallow?”
“No,” Lance and Pidge said in unison, which was…surprising.
Lance bit his lip. “Just be careful, yeah? This man, whoever he is…I’d bet anything he’s up to his knees in some real trouble. You don’t need to get yourself tangled in all that.”
“What’re you saying, speak plain, Lance.”
“I’m sayin’, you heal him up, and you kick him out,” Lance said. “Don’t let him hang around you, Keith.”
“I wasn’t plannin’ on it,” Keith said. “I’m not attached, I just…found him.”
“Right, well,” Lance said, clearing his throat awkwardly. “You keep on with that state of mind, alright? Neither of us wants you gettin’ hurt.”
The again was implied.
Keith tensed. “Yeah. Right. Thanks.”
Lance withdrew the satchel of sugar cubes from his pocket. “If she bites me again, I’ll eat these myself,” he said, and waltzed outside with Pidge before the awkward tension in the small room could escalate further.
Pidge cast a glance over her shoulder at him, and met his eyes for a brief moment. But Keith knew what it meant. Be careful.
He would be.
He’d meant to be, anyway. That had to count for something.