It was a quiet morning on the ranch. Jenna Sand could hear the faint 'drip, drop' of lukewarm water making its way slowly through the old steel pipes in the walls, and the distant thudding of hooves and gentle calls of the gradually waking cattle. It was all so peaceful. Even having to scrub down the wooden floors and set out breakfast for Mr and Mrs Miller couldn't bring her down from the early-morning paradise she had found herself in.
Anticipating her employers' awakening, she smoothed down her rough-spun cotton serving dress out of habit; the slight stinging in her cheek served as an instant reminder of what would happen if she was even a little underneath the Miller's standards for neatness and cleanliness. A clock ticked constantly on the wall opposite the small dining table, where Mr and Mrs Miller always took their meals. Jenna would stand a little to the side, ready to assist with drinks or leave them alone, whichever suited Mr Miller on that particular day. He always seemed to have control over Mrs Miller, but she always got what she wanted in return: new dresses, jewellery, honey in her tea or sugar in her bread… it seemed like a good enough deal to Jenna, and she questioned her employers no further, even while in the safety her simple and ordered mind.
Pale morning sunlight, pastel yellow and orange against the dark wooden walls of the ranch house, pressed through the shiny glass windows that brought so much natural light into the dining room. Jenna glanced at the ornate wooden clock: six o' clock, exactly. Mr and Mrs Miller made a habit of getting up bright and early, half past five every day, and, of course, their workers were expected to be up at five o' clock, at the latest. Mr Miller couldn't stand lateness. It was the root of all evil, he regularly lectured Jenna, but she still didn't really understand. Wasn't killing someone evil? That had nothing to do with lateness, she didn't think. There again, her mind told her not to question Mr Miller, that he was always right, so she kept her mouth zipped shut and her thoughts locked up tight.
Six o' clock came, and went. Jenna fidgeted a little with the hem of her short dress. She should have been out, helping to rouse the cattle and take them down to the trickle of a river to drink. What could possibly be taking Mr and Mrs Miller so long to wake up? A little bead of sweat appeared on her forehead, as the morning wore on dutifully, but there was still no sign of Mr or Mrs Miller. Jenna Sand didn't usually worry about anything, especially not her employers' well-being, but, in those few moments, she suddenly felt a pang of panic, searing through her like a red-hot knife. What if there was something wrong with Mr and Mrs Miller? What if it was... no, she couldn't say that, she couldn't even think it. It was bad luck to say the name of the dreaded sickness that forced her into a place of slight responsibility and freedom on the ranch. Bad luck, unless it was already ravaging people with its strange symptoms: wrinkly, orange-yellow skin, a strange smell like cabbage that's been out in the scorching desert sun for too long, coughing up dust and blood, bones becoming soft and fragile, then death. Always death. Was that a symptom, or a result? Jenna didn't know, but she did know that it was an extremely dangerous disease, contagious and deadly.
Finally, when the creaky old ranch house had been silent for too long, Jenna's curiosity boiled over, and she carefully made her way over to the ancient wooden staircase. She stopped, listened. Nothing. No footsteps, no bird calls from outside, nothing. Quietly, she crept up the stairs, pausing at the top, and listening again. But the dark wooden walls were silent, ebony doors shut tight, curtains still pulled across the windows. Mrs Miller always pulled the curtains back, every morning, so she could pull them to again every night. Jenna's bare feet made no sound on the wooden floor, so she carefully made her way over to the door to the master bedroom, bringing up her fist, hesitating, then gently tapping the door with the tips of her fingers. No response. She tapped again, louder this time, confidence returning to her. No response.
"Sir?" She called quietly, through the key-hole – Mr and Mrs Miller always locked their bedroom door at night. "Mr Miller, sir?"
Still no response. Jenna was about to raise her knuckles to the door, when a dreadful stench drifted out of the key-hole, making her gag and step backwards. Her eyes widened, heart beat racing. It couldn't be... it was impossible, but... it smelled like... the Sand Plague had struck again. A stone dropped to the deepest pits of her stomach, as she scrambled backwards, almost racing down the stairs, leaving the curtains drawn in her haste. She was out of the house quicker than a jack rabbit with a coyote on its tail, the hot sand greeting her bare feet as she shook her head in the slight wind, letting her sandy locks whip out behind her, and her make-shift apron fell from the skirt of her dress. None of it mattered, not any more. Sand Plague didn't care about neatness and cleanliness, or tardiness and punctuality; it didn't care who you were, or how rich you were, it just wanted to see you die slowly and painfully, and alone. No one would go near someone with Sand Plague, they'd be dumped in a dried up riverbed and buried alive or left in the shack where they had taken ill, to die an excruciating death without their family or friends. Even dogs and cats wouldn't dream of going near someone with Sand Plague, so a person died truly alone.
Kurtis was in the barn, shoeing a horse. Jenna saw him first, through the wide, open doors of the huge, airy wooden building, and cried out, less words and more just a noise of alarm. He looked up, putting down the horse's hoof, and his expression was one of worry. He met her half way, anxious to see that she was alright. She was like a daughter to him, the daughter he never had, and he just hoped that nothing bad had happened to her, but the horrified look on her face said otherwise.
"Kurtis," She panted, trying to catch her breath, "It's, it's Sand Plague, Mr and Mrs Miller, didn't get up, stink, bedroom, gone!"
Her final word was spoken with such distress that Kurtis could only wrap his strong arms around the small thirteen-year-old, as her sobs wracked her frail body and her beautiful beige eyes were closed tight, as she shook her head again and again, trying to make herself believe that everything would be alright, everything would be fine, but she couldn't even convince herself of that. Kurtis said nothing, knowing that she was fighting a hard internal battle, and that just his physical presence would be enough. When words failed Kurtis, he spoke with actions, sometimes conveying his emotions with simple looks and knowing glares. Eventually, however, when Jenna had calmed down enough to open her eyes, he took her small hand in his large one, and led her to the horse. She stroked his silky chestnut mane methodically, and it had an almost therapeutic effect on her. When she turned to Kurtis again, her eyes were still red-rimmed, but they had a sort of calmness in them, like the eye of the storm. He said nothing, for a moment, letting the healthy silence hang between them for a moment, before wetting his lips and putting one comforting hand on Jenna's shoulder.
"We have to tell the guys." Simple words, but effective. Jenna nodded, then sighed, looking down at the straw-covered ground.
"They're not going to like this."