Darkness swept over the desert swiftly, and the cattle transformed into vague shadows and thudding hooves under the cover of night. Kurtis called for the ride to stop, and they circled the cows and bulls, guiding them towards a pen that Ethan had spotted. Jenna felt a deep sense of pride as she watched their handiwork wrap up nicely, and the cattle were safe for the night. The bull with the sprained ankle, they had decided, would be put in a separate, smaller pen, just in case another bull tried to fight him or something else happened that aggravated his ankle and slowed down his recovery. Jenna rode beside Kurtis, as they scanned the ranch for a smaller pen in a slow walk.
"Have I ever told you about my life, before I came to the ranch?" Kurtis suddenly asked her, and Jenna shook her head, before realising that he couldn't see her properly and answering verbally:
"Oh, just because." A faint smile lit up his face, barely visible in the low light levels. "It was so different to here, Jenna, you'd barely belie-"
But, in that moment, Kurtis was cut off by a loud crack from some sort of rifle, and Jenna screamed. She could hear him sliding from the saddle, then landing on the floor with a thump, like dead weight. Her eyes widened as she panicked, flattening herself against her mare and closing her eyes tight. Silence. Then the sound of Ethan and Raphael shouting, and one set of hooves pounding away, escaping to the desert. Only one. Fearing the worst, Jenna slid from the saddle, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes, but another shot, louder and closer, made her mare rear up, the bull's worn lead rope snapping. She was thrown to the sandy floor, but not before a searing pain ripped through her side, and something small stamped on her shin before racing away, bucking and rearing as it did so. The bull. It was the stupid bull. She could barely move, the pain forcing her to stay down, as she heard the final shot, but, this time, there was no silence. A blood-curdling scream echoed over the desert, but her own blood was pounding in her ears, and she couldn't tell who it was. She didn't know anything, her world spun as she tried to pull herself up, and the darkness just continued to wash over the ranch, oblivious to anything that was going on.
Time stopped. Footsteps stomped over to where she was lying, checking Kurtis' body first, she reckoned. She could hear someone dragging something and, presuming it was Kurtis, she tried desperately to pull herself up and defend him, but she was too weak. She could do nothing, except close her eyes and let the numbing darkness take over.
"I think she's waking up…"
"Someone get some water…"
"Jamie wants her alive…"
Whispers bounded around Jenna's head, making her tightly close her eyes, silently begging them to stop. A shooting pain in her shin quickly made itself known, as well as an agonising ache in her side. Willing her eyes to open, they gradually responded to her, letting her vision return. She was in a dark, wooden room: the ranch, it must have been. Someone was bending over her, a rat-like guy in a grey long-sleeved shirt and ripped, dark brown pants. He had a syringe in his hand, and she shied away from it, like a frightened horse, but he made a quiet sound of reassurance in his throat, stopping her with one gentle hand and carefully injecting the syringe into her arm. It stung, but the pain went away almost instantly, and she shifted around nervously, noticing that she was lying on some sort of wooden table and she was mostly covered in blood. A grotesque and bloody set of horns were strewn on the floor by the door, but the rat-like man didn't seem to notice her looking at them; either that, or he was choosing not to acknowledge her curiosity. He offered her a hand, and helped her down from the table, smiling. Jenna noticed that his teeth had been trimmed with gold, and the sight made her want to shudder: only one type of people in the desert were so conceited that they got their teeth trimmed with gold.
"Before you ask, yes, we're bandits." He nodded, and she froze as he started to absent-mindedly stroke her hair. "But we also saved you. That bull, the one you were leading, it broke free and gouged your side with its horns. Jamie went out and personally severed its horns from its head, but I reckon he got a lot of the flesh as well. Stupid thing's probably dying in a ditch somewhere. Oh well. Not my problem. I sent Lucas to get some cold water, he should be back soon. Then you can clean yourself up."
Jenna just nodded, not wanting to ask the bandit anything. She had just remembered what had happened to Kurtis, and Raphael, and Ethan, and Oliver. She didn't think she'd feel like talking ever again. Her heart felt like a hole had been drilled in it, a hole that could never be filled. They had escaped Sand Plague, but they ran into bandits. She felt like an idiot. She should have known, should have tried to stop it… if she'd got to Kurtis in time, instead of worrying about her own safety, maybe he could have survived.
Now? She'd never know. And that almost felt worse than knowing that they were gone.
The night passed quickly, after that. She was given some water by a light-haired youth with a red bandana around his head, Lucas, and cleaned herself up before accepting some bread and cheese and Lucas' bed, which he had generously given up for her. After all, he said, she was the one who had just lost all her friends and been 'mangled' by a bull. They were more than just friends to her, though; they were family, but how could she ever explain that to a load of greedy bandits? They would never understand. She heard the lock click on the door, as Jamie, the muscular and skin-headed leader of the bandits, wished her a good night, and she heard their murmurs through the paper thin walls as they discussed what to do with her, all the way through the night and into the early hours of the morning. She slept through most of it, but their voices haunted her dreams, creeping up on her in the shadows and jeering as her mind tried to run away.
In the morning, as dawn crept over the desert, quiet as a mouse, Jenna rose from the bed and crossed the small room quickly, carefully drawing back the thick, dark curtains and letting the pale light flood in, splashing against the walls and floor. For a moment, she just stood there, silently observing the cattle milling about in the pen, and the blood-splattered body of the bull that didn't make it. Jenna suddenly remembered Kurtis' words: "We're going to the Scarisbrick ranch, with the bull, and it will heal. There will be no putting down, or eating, or 'coyotes' taking it in the night. And that is final. We need to leave now, while it's still light. Any objections?" There had been none, and they had left shortly afterwards, with full intentions of getting that bull (Along with the rest of the cattle) to the Scarisbrick ranch. Any worries about Sand Plague and Mr and Mrs Miller were long gone, but, Jenna realised, they'd never even thought once about the bandits that roamed the Harshlands, destroying and stealing everything they could lay their hands on. And that was their mistake.
A few minutes later, there was a soft knocking on her door, and Lucas' gentle voice travelled through the thin wood. Jamie wanted her, in the kitchen, for breakfast and to discuss plans for the day. Nothing bad, he explained, nothing too serious. Well, wasn't she relieved. Her friends were dead, she'd been gouged and stamped on by a mad bull, she was all alone in a house full of bandits, but at least she wasn't going to be discussing anything serious with their intimidating leader. Pff. At least.