It was an empty world, and it would soon be a forgotten world. The child would be too young to remember. The Thief would remember for her.
For many days they’d trotted up the Colorado trails until the trails turned to basin clay and then were gone completely. From there, only blasted Arizona lands spanned the horizons, no roads nor encampments. They saw nothing but desert. Their medicines dwindled away, and the Thief feared he may have lead them astray, but in fading light of the sixth day, they stumbled on a cottage, blown but there, and the Thief knew their way was true. Like the world, it was an empty space, and it had only one room. Upon the countertop lay a rusty griddle. The rest was critter picked. It was an empty room.
Empty except for the fire, the Thief, and a stolen child.
Outside the cottage, the twilight aesthetic was cool, and their pinto stamped his feet thrice to ward the chill, but inside the cottage was cozy and warm. It was an adobe wreck, and the Thief had been grateful for shelter, but he knew their time would be short. The jackals were close on their heels. Still he’d try to rekindle their hope as he could. If not for him, then for the child. She was naught but an innocent daughter of a broken time. She’d be too young to remember.
The Thief would remember for her.
For her, he’d remember the sickness and when it began, how it percolated down from the clouds to clog the Colorado waterways and creep to the campwells. Vicious was this foreign pestilence, and by month’s end their rows of beans and summer squashes rotted where they grew. The cowmilk soured at the teat. The survivors wept in their devastated homes. They resolved to death. They waited patiently for his arrival.
We’ve brought this upon ourselves, they said. Arrogance as always has been our folley. It shall be our undoing.
And the child? the Thief asked them.
If I will die, my child will join me, the young mother told him. The others agreed.
The Thief had been a coward, but now, like the others, he was dying. He could see how he might vindicate a life long of terrors and cowardice. Later that very day he gathered his belongings and regrets in a satchel and in the quiet of night he snatched up the child and stole off to the West.
The sun never sets in the West, so he’d been told, and though the Thief remained a fool and a failure, he’d not surrender to cowardice. If not for himself, then for her.
An evening draft swept through the adobe. The Thief snatched a stick and poked the fireplace until flames sputtered warmth again. He looked to the bundle of blankets beside him. Only stillness. The child did not stir. He sighed and reached for his rucksack, removed a final amber dropper bottle, and held it aloft. In the flickerlight it glinted empty. The medicines were gone, and the sickness would only worsen.
They’d need to move faster.
Outside in the cool of the twilit serene, the pinto whinnied. He, like the Thief and the child, was a sickly beast. The sickness did not discriminate. They could see its emanations quaver amongst the rolling plains of desert crust. The sands were soaked in it. They reeked of turpentine and anguish, and that noon the three had again smelled of its pungence. There they’d ambled on the scattered charcoal bones of campfires and other desolated peoples, ones who’d tried to make the same journey as they, the calcic twigs cracking underfoot, and whether victims of the sickness or of the jackals the Thief could not say for certain, but he’d shuddered and snapped the reigns hard. He feared their own bones would soon be alongside the others.
Not us. He said it aloud to the ghosts.
He could not allow the child to suffer a fate of cowards, nor the ruin of sickness and jackals. The jackals were close, but the West was closer.
A thunder rumble shook him from his thoughts. The Thief rose and scanned the coming night. Monsoon crackles licked down from the sky in serpent tongues, electric, flashing turquoise across the distant canyonlands, and even though inside the cottage was cozy and warm, the Thief shivered. He leaned out the vacant frame and narrowed his eyes. He tried, but he could not see if the jackals were lurking in the craters beyond. He could do little else but shrug, and the sun set behind the bitter world, and darkness came.
The sun never sets in the West, though, or so he’d been told, and he hoped it was true.
The fireplace behind him hissed. A tin of boiling prickly pear was spitting. With his stick he pulled out the can and smothered the fire.
The sun never sets in the West, and for the child’s sake, he had to believe.
At daybreak of the seventh day, the howling of the jackals woke the Thief.
He leapt up. Inside the cottage, stillness revelled, yet deep in the hearthplace, a char of yucca bark had reignited. Its smoke puffed cumulonimbus signals up the chimney. The jackals would have seen it.
Quick to his feet, the Thief pulled on his tattered socks and boots and packed the ruck, when from the dusty bundle came a hiccup, and he smiled. The child was awake. Then heard the howls again, but closer. The pinto outside stamped warning. In a single bound the Thief snatched up the child up and fled.
He moved them fast through the mid-morning sands, and though it was warm and the air was as dry as the brambles, the arroyo in which they travelled was shady and cool. They were bound for the rocks of a mountain ahead. It loomed high before them. The Western lands lay somewhere behind it.
Together, the wasted pinto with it’s wasted riders plodded up the arroyo wash and to the base of the mountain. The sun shone rich and the yucca trees cast their crooked shadows and the scaly backs of basking chuckwallas flickered as they scattered away.
The Thief pulled his hat low and nudged the small child up in the saddle. She trembled, feverish and pallid. The howl of jackals echoed in the near distance. From his hanging pack the Thief unsheathed a lengthy rusted rod, a piece taken from the wreckage griddle. It was sharp. It would tear through flesh if needed, and he hung it on his belt for easy reach.
Though he’d killed before, the Thief was not a killer.
The pinto’s sputters set him forth again. The Thief could hear it breathe in spitty rattles. The blankets in his lap rustled dust, but the child’s eyes were shut. He reached for the canteen at his hip and dribbled the final drops on the child’s lips. She licked, and the water was gone. They could not slow, not until they’d climbed the mountain heights, so with a clench of jaw he smacked the pinto’s rump.
For the child’s sake, they had to press on. He hoped the jackals would not be keen to follow.
The Thief and the child and pinto pressed on from the wash to an upward gully, they, three starved creatures, the pinto’s sweaty steps sprinkling soil and crickets about. The hooves clopped on the tessellated cobble like a grandfather clock. With every tock the cactus wrens would flutter away. As they entered the mouth, walls arose sidelong around them. Scrawled in the stone were the names of people and places, hieroglyphs of a past forever lost, and runes of a time soon forgotten.
For you, I’ll remember, said the Thief as he brushed the cheek of the sickly child.
The peak was nearing. Above it, swirling monsoon clouds collected. The Thief was hopeful, but the hope fettered to freeze when he heard a sound. It was an awful, inhuman sound he’d heard before, and panic slid between his vertebrae. He took a breath and turned. Below them, near the mountain base, three horrid faces had appeared. Their maws were smeared in blood, their jowls secreted hungry spittle.
Sickness had muddled their minds and mottled their skin. No longer were they who they’d been, not people, but animals, marred by the truth of a world rent asunder.
The Thief was out of time. He heeled the pinto’s sides. It sputtered, stutter stepped, then stumbled down to the chalky bed and would rise no more. He dismounted, keeping the child close to his breast, and met his pinto’s sorry gaze. They nodded to each other in an unspoken understanding, and then he with the child fled off up the gully.
Drops of rain pattered down to the sands, and the Thief’s bootsteps exchanged their crunch for slosh. The jackals behind them yelped and slobbered but the Thief kept his gaze set ahead. He did not turn when he heard them hoot, and he did not turn when he heard the squeal of the slaughtered pinto. He sprinted on, for the gully’s end was near, and the mountain peak awaited. Around him, the twilight began to cool, the droplets came in showers, and the lungs of the Thief seared in protest, but he sprinted on.
For her, he gasped. He sprinted on. If not for me, for the child.
With legs about to fail, the Thief and the cradled child burst forth from the mouth of the gully. In haste he kissed the child’s moistened forehead and placed her gently in a patch of grass.
For you, he said between his sucks of breath. Then he stood, and he turned, and he faced the jackals.
Further below in the gully, two withered creatures dragged the pinto back down the mountain, content with their spoils. The third raced upwards. Meaty tears of skin waved strangely from his torso. The Thief could see the lurid eyes, red in the dying light. He could see his own fears and his failings dancing in the retinas. He pulled his rusted rod from its place at belt and set his legs.
The jackal burst fast from the gully. It did not slow when the Thief held his weapon aloft. It spread its arms to either side, a lascivious grin on its face, assured of its triumph, but the rod sank deep into its chest. The Thief stepped sideways, pulled it, and when the jackal fell into the sands, he slammed the rod down on its spine. The jackal screeched. It flailed. The blood soaked with the raindrops and sand, and then it went perfectly still.
Behind a monsoon horizon, the sun descended.
The Thief stepped over the jackal and picked up the child. The rains had washed the dust from her face and she glowed with a vigor anew.
Finally, he looked past the peak to the West.
Light had illumined the sky as if the sun was yet shining. He could see the pocks across the auburn-painted desert and depressions where the bombs had splashed their radiation and sickness throughout. In the midst of the largest of these craters was a city, sprawling in grandeur. Vibrant energies leapt from the highrises scraping the skies, and aeroship drones buzzed between.
High in the center of this city stood a tower, much taller than all of the structures around it, and at its apex shone a brilliant sun. It was a sun that would ward off the sickness and darkness, and even at night, would not set.
The evening breeze brought the sweet sounds of the city up to them, sounds of laughter and boarbots and life. The Thief glanced at the child. She was an innocent creature, born of this broken time. She’d be too young to remember. But he would remember for her.
You see, he whispered to her, the sun never sets in the West. Even now, they are coming in flybirds to fetch us. Even now.
She opened her eyes, auburn like the deserts, and smiled.