Loping along the trackless sand, the slight wind whipped Jenna's sand-coloured hair backwards, as her mare's hooves pounded against the soft ground, again and again. Part of her was scared about what the future had planned for her, while the other part was basking in her newly found freedom. Kurtis had taken her back to the barn quickly, before they left, so she could change into her leather-and-denim chaps, a dark crimson shirt, a pair of his old riding boots - which were several sizes too big - and a pair of Raphael's (Previously Oliver's) spurs. She never really wore shoes, and they felt strange on her feet, but she hurried herself while getting changed, understanding the urgency of the situation. Kurtis had packed her saddle bags for her; some food, a water canteen, a length of rope and matches, with a few other odd bits and ends, and a rolled up blanket was strapped to the back of her saddle. It was all just in case she got separated from the group, as well as making sure that the other horses were freed up as much as possible.
Her eyes were trained on the cattle in front of her, with the bullwhip in her right hand occasionally flashing through the air and cracking near a few slowing cows or an unruly bull, while her left hand was occupied with leading her horse. Often, she'd look down at the bull she was leading, just to check on it. He was a young bull, smaller than some, but he was still fast, even with his sprained ankle. She admired him, in a way. It must have hurt. She twisted her ankle once, dismounting a spirited, inky black colt that Mr Miller had bought in Kaveness from an old man with crooked teeth and a hunched back. The colt had reared up as she slid from the saddle, and her foot had got caught in the stirrup. She could have been dragged half way to Jiddarn, if Ethan hadn't raced over and grabbed the colt by the bridle, yelling for Kurtis and trying not to get trodden on by the mad creature. Kurtis had appeared, pulling her up and untwisting the stirrup, then carrying her to the barn, without a word. Before he turned to leave, however, he nodded at Ethan, with a dark look on his face. Even then, at eight years old, Jenna understood that look, and her eyes widened, but she could do nothing about it. Kurtis had laid her on his straw mattress, and was carefully wrapping her ankle in a small roll of damp linen - a 'generous' donation by Mrs Miller - when she heard the pistol shot, and closed her eyes tight, flinching. Kurtis took her hand in his, and the moment passed. But even five years later, Jenna remembered it clearly.
Looking over at him, Jenna took a moment to take in Kurtis' appearance. He really was quite intimidating, to anyone who didn't know him: muscled and tall, with a short crop of dark hair, unusual for someone who had grown up in the desert. Ethan said that he used to live in the wetlands, where water fell from the sky and everyone had dark hair and skin as white as Mrs Miller's teeth, but she wasn't sure that she believed him. His clothes were simple, the worn garments of someone who worked all day and slept all night without bothering to change their outfit, and he constantly smelt of horses and hay - not that Jenna was complaining, of course, since they were two of her favourite smells. He had always liked Jenna, and he tried to protect her at all times, from sleeping close to her in the barn to riding with her when they went out to herd the cattle. Jenna could remember his wife, Jessica, if she tried hard. All smiles and curls, dark haired like Kurtis was, always brushing Jenna's hair and showing her how to mend her clothes. She used to work in the ranch house all the time, helping Mary cook and Laura clean, like Jenna did. Her voice was always so gentle, and she never yelled at anyone, not like Mrs Miller, who yelled all the time. She was quieter after the Sand Plague, still harsh but noticeably quieter, like she finally feared something and was afraid to aggravate it, in case it came back. The Sand Plague took Jessica, Jenna remembered. That was a sad day.
Thoughtfully, Jenna cast her eyes over the fast-moving herd of cattle, noticing Raphael to the right of it. Raphael, now that Jenna took the time to look, wasn't exactly the strongest person in the world. He had grown upwards, like a weed, with lanky arms and legs, and a thin build. His hair often fell into his eyes, but it wasn't a shaggy mane like Ethan's, or neat, straight locks like Oliver's. It was more curly than anything, a springy mess of dirty blond hair, but he liked it, so it stayed. He often just wore hand-me-downs; Ethan's shirt, Oliver's boots, Mr Miller's old spurs and Kurtis' chaps. He didn't seem to mind, even when Ethan teased him about it, which wasn't, actually, that often. His shirt had been sewn up and patched in several places, and his chaps were worn at the knees, but he didn't really care, so long as they served their purpose without complaint. Besides, after his clothes no longer fit him, he could give them to Jenna as a surprise gift, and nothing warmed his heart more than hearing Jenna gasp, then seeing her smile as she flung herself at him and hugged the life out of him. Then there would be Kurtis' nod of approval, the pat on the back from Oliver, and the appreciative smile from Ethan. Everyone loved Jenna, really. They were like a big family. And Jenna loved them all back, just as much or even more.
She was even lucky, she reflected, to have the loud and slightly brash Ethan in her life. You couldn't forget Ethan, even if you tried, Jenna reckoned. He was usually sitting on a horse, rounding up the cattle or running errands to Kaveness or Jiddarn. He fancied himself as the leader of the ranch, beneath Mr Miller and Kurtis, of course. With a sharp, angular face, squinted hazel eyes and a shaggy mane of sand-coloured hair, he blended in with the endless sand that swirled around the desert, but he stood out as well, with his denim-and-red chaps and his bright red button-down shirts. Sometimes, on special occasions like Christmas and Mid-Summer, he would pull his hair back into a neat ponytail with a bright red ribbon, but that was a rare occurrence.
He took pride in his appearance, though he wouldn't usually admit it. His shirts were always clean and stitched up, his chaps were scrubbed and mended, and his boots were always polished. His spurs gleamed in the constant desert sun, and his horse, a buckskin stallion whom he affectionately referred to as 'Puck', was always groomed in the mornings before the cattle woke up and in the evenings as they went to sleep. Puck was a mischievous little devil, Ethan often said, but he loved him all the same, and no other horse was better at speeding over the blistering desert sands than him. He often let Jenna ride double with him around the ranch, and she could vouch for Puck as well: he was a dream to ride, even if he was a pain at times. Jenna hadn't named her own mare; the situation with the young colt had taught her not to treat horses as equals, just in case they snapped and went mad, or fell and broke a leg, or ran off into the sunset. Anything like that could break your heart, if you got too attached to your horse, although Ethan didn't seem to mind that.
Then there was Oliver, of course, hanging slightly back, keeping up the rear of the herd and keeping an eye on Jenna at the same time, letting Kurtis focus on keeping Ethan in check. He was lovely, he really was, gentle and kind, if a little nervous at times. He treated her like his little sister, and he didn't interrupt her or make fun of her when she tried to explain her problems to him. He was a natural with the animals, even if he wasn't much of a people person, and Jenna swore that he spoke 'cattle-tongue' as well as desert-tongue. He had a sharp face, but his dark amber eyes were soft and round, and his dry lips easily shifted into a warm smile. She watched him control his horse, a slender, sure-footed, dark bay Arabian, with little more than a slight touch of the reins or a squeeze from his heels. Even though he would never say it himself, he was a master of all creatures.
His straight, slightly shiny, fawn locks crowned his head, often hiding his weathered face and slightly hooked nose. He always tried to blend in, to not be noticed, with pale orange shirts and denim chaps; he just wanted life to pass him by, to leave him be. After Jasper died, all he wanted from God was a free pass to be left alone, and Jenna could tell, from the way he didn't even mouth his prayers at Christmas or Mid-Summer meals, like he always used to, and how he wouldn't look anyone in the eye if they exclaimed 'For Christ's sake!' or 'God damn it!'. Jenna never cursed, but she noticed that other people did, and, just for Oliver's sake, she closed her eyes every time, and winced. It was the most she could do, for someone who didn't want any help, but had helped her so much. It made her feel like she was giving something back to him, and that gave her a warm feeling in her chest.
Eventually, she heard Ethan whoop at the front of the herd, and scanned the horizon to confirm her suspicions. That was when she saw it; the dark brown building, rising out of the desert sand like a mirage. They had finally arrived.