Jenna had been riding horses and herding cattle ever since she could remember. She led a split life, serving and cleaning in the ranch house then sorting out the cattle and the horses with the guys, out on the borderlands between the forbidden Harshlands and the ranch. Cattle were how Mr and Mrs Miller were so rich, after all. People really liked to eat beef, and cattle just happened to be the creatures that everyone needed. Not everyone wanted to spend so much time looking after them, though, so they bought the meat when it was no longer alive and thought themselves lucky to have missed out on such a tedious job as bringing up a slow-moving herd of meat.
How very wrong they were.
Raphael was the first guy she saw, Raphael Stirrup, riding a buckskin stallion and whipping some of the cattle. Dust erupted in sandy-yellow blooms as the cattle kicked up a storm, and she could barely see Oliver or Ethan, as they steered the herd towards the sorry excuse for a river that they drank at every morning and evening. He spotted Jenna and Kurtis almost straight away, Jenna riding a dark bay mare and Kurtis using the chestnut from the barn, and smiled as he rode over to them, before the dust around them settled and he saw Jenna's reddened eyes and Kurtis' dark expression. When Raphael cocked his head to the side, questioningly, Kurtis shook his head, nodding towards the river. Confused, Raphael shrugged, and continued moving the cattle, Jenna and Kurtis joining in. It was a heavy job, but they did it well, and the cattle were soon splashing into the river, drinking and kicking each other. The guys – and Jenna – sat down by the river bank, as the sun glared down at them, disapproving.
"So," Raphael started, "What's going on?"
"You're not going to like it." Kurtis warned, and Ethan laughed.
"We can handle it. We're grown men, for Christ's sake."
The silence was thick, uncomfortable. Jenna shifted around a little on the sandy floor, moving closer to Kurtis, as Oliver held his head in his hands and Ethan sat there, stunned. Raphael was quiet, which was usually a bad sign. His stallion neighed, kicking up some sand, but no one went over to sort it out. Everyone had redirected their eyes, not wanting to believe what had just been said. Sand Plague killed Johnny, Rick, Mikey, Ty, Mary the cook and Laura the maid. It killed Mr and Mrs Miller's sons, Adam and Steve. It killed Kurtis' wife, Jessica. Oliver's twin, Jasper, the one who always spoke up for his silent brother, he went as well. The dried up river bed, South of Miltner's Creek, was their shared grave, their resting place. People believed that you could only get Sand Plague while the person was still alive, or for a day after they died. Then the disease went off in search of another body, they said. People didn't really care about the dead. They just wanted to preserve their own lives. Jenna found it sad, at times. Sad but true.
"Are... are you sure?" Ethan's voice was little more than a whisper, a murmur, crossing the sands and bounding off the sparkling river water.
"Positive." Jenna nodded, and he sighed, lowering his head.
"We can't stay here." Kurtis' voice was firm. It didn't expect to be questioned. "We need to move."
"Where?" Raphael, reentering the conversation, looked back at Jenna, sadness still evident in his squinted hazel eyes. "Kaveness?"
Kaveness was the nearest town, a small, sprawling civilisation that was spread thinly over a dip in the Harshlands. It stemmed from a stream that splashed through a cave before running out onto the desert sands, delighting the locals and making them worship some sort of cave-water God called Aqusluncis. Most people avoided it, labelling the citizens as mad and blasphemous, but Mr and Mrs Miller sold their meat – and the occasional cow-skin – to the general store there, among other places, so Kurtis often took Jenna there on the back of the horse cart, just so she could get a day off from the constant, and strict, routine at the ranch-house. She enjoyed these outings, but Kaveness was a strange place, and the people were a bit... off.
"I'd rather not." Ethan reached for his leather water skin, handing it to Oliver, who stood and walked over to the river, obedience coming naturally to his submissive mind. "You know what they say about Kaveness. Mad as jack rabbits."
"We don't have much choice. Or time." Kurtis was losing his patience with the whole situation, his hands clenched into fists. "Kaveness, or we can try for Jiddarn."
"Jiddarn would be suicide. The Harshlands are inbetween us and it, remember?" Ethan snorted.
Jenna could feel the tension in the warm morning air, and instinctively shrank into Kurtis' body, making him relax. Ethan looked back, at the cattle splashing in the river, and Oliver, denim chaps rolled up to the knees, ankle-deep in the clear water, staring out at the wooden fence (With rusty barbed wire clinging to the top of it – for safety, of course) that separated them from the Harshlands. Mr Miller claimed it was to keep the cattle in, but Jenna sometimes wondered if they were meant to keep her in too. She didn't have the key to either of the gates that led to the Harshlands, and she was only allowed out under supervision. She didn't ever think about running away, not really, though she often had dreams of becoming a desert bird, a sparrow or a swallow, spreading her sand-coloured wings and joining her brothers and sisters, soaring through the air, swooping and diving and wheeling. They were only dreams, but they were better than the swirling darkness that accompanied her on so many nights, the muffled voices and disguised shadows.
"I heard of an abandoned ranch, north. Only a few miles." Raphael's voice cut through Jenna's thoughts, and Ethan turned his head, eyebrows raised, expression sceptical.
"What the hell would we do there?" He shook his head, pushing his fist into the sand, laughing dryly. "Besides, it's probably just desert-shit. Kaveness is our best bet."
"No, trust me, it's true!" Raphael begged. Ethan was quiet for a few seconds, before he sighed, nodding, letting Raphael continue. "It's the Scarisbrick ranch, they moved further south. We could take the cattle, start up a new life. Eat some of the beef, sell the rest with the skins, live off the profits? It's worth a shot."
Oliver had stooped down, and filled Ethan's water skin in one fluid movement, screwing on the cap before approaching a white, speckled brown, bull, who turned on him and snorted, stomping one hoof and splashing water onto Oliver's chaps. He didn't seem to notice, staring the bull straight in the eyes, body slightly coiled. Jenna's eyes locked onto him, mesmerised. The bull reared slightly, turning away from Oliver, but that was he sprung. Like a cat, or a coyote, or a desert wolf, he darted forwards, almost flying through the air, hands reaching out and grabbing the bull by the horns. Wrenching it to the side of the river, he held it down in the sand, water skin slung around his neck, panting a little, but the bull kept desperately trying to escape. Ethan leapt to his feet, racing over to help, grabbing a rope from the saddle of his dun stallion and helping Oliver wrestle the bull to the ground, before tying the rope around its horns and then its snout, trusting Oliver's judgement completely. The bull snorted and bellowed, trying to get free in any way possible, but Oliver and Ethan were able to drag it up to where Kurtis and Jenna were sitting, so that Kurtis could check it out. Oliver pointed to the bull's front-left hoof, which was slightly swollen. Kurtis walked over calmly, checked the hoof, and nodded.
"Good call, Oliver. Sprained. Should be fine, give it about a week, maybe longer." Kurtis commented, directing a small smile at Oliver, before stroking the bull's muzzle to make it relax.
"We can't let it run with the herd. We've got other bulls. Could just put it down, eat the meat one night?" Ethan suggested.
"Dead weight." Raphael shook his head. "Keep the rope, tie it to someone's saddle horn and lead it the rest of the way."
"Coyotes could take it, in the night." Ethan spat on the ground, rubbing his mouth and letting his grip on the bull loosen a little, so it could get to its feet and strain a little at the rope. "Or desert wolves."
"It'll heal." Kurtis insisted, firmly. "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." He glared at Ethan, who lowered his head a little, letting his long, blond hair fall into his eyes. "And that is final. We need to leave now, while it's still light. Any objections?"
No one spoke. Ethan shook his head, yanking the bull up by the horns and pulling it over to Jenna's mare and tying the slightly worn rope to the sturdy saddle horn. Jenna didn't bother to argue, since she knew that it was a sign of responsibility, being able to lead a sick bull or cow, instead getting to her feet and giving Kurtis a little hug, before wandering over to her mare and making sure that the ropes on the bull were tight. It panted and snorted, letting its hot breath wash over her nimble fingers as she checked the knots and hopped up into the saddle. No one argued with Kurtis. And, in a way, she was glad of it. He was a strong leader, the oldest ranch worker among them at thirty two years, which was quite old for someone in their line of work. Raphael was the second youngest, after Jenna, at twenty one years, Oliver following him closely at twenty three, then Ethan commanding over them as their elder at twenty six. They all obeyed Kurtis, though, even Ethan. It just worked that way. That was how it had always been.
Jenna, however, had a feeling that everything was changing, and it wasn't necessarily for the better.