Janet almost smiled. Perhaps there was a way.
The fire was still burning, though down to a few coals when they rode up to the rustler’s camp. Gabe picked her up by the waist, leaned over and set her on the ground. "I'll see to the horses," he said.
Rolley and Squeak dismounted and handed him their reins. Gabe rode off into the brush.
"Why, you must be real hungry, Ma'am," Squeak said. "We was just about to make up some bannock an' we got some deer left that Gabe shot. You just set over there on that log an' I'll whip it up." He was all nervous gestures and toothless grin.
Inwardly, Janet shuddered over the filth of the man, but she smiled back and said, "That would be very nice."
"Squeak, go an' sit down an' shut up," Rolley said gruffly. "You're makin' a fool o' yerself. This little filly's gonna be our cook from now on."
Sulking, Squeak dropped down onto the opposite end of the log from where Rolley stood.
From behind the brush where he was tying the horses, Gabe called, "Is it wise to have a stranger cook your food until you know something about that person?"
As he leaned her rifle against a log, Rolley stared at Janet, his eyes on fire. "Yeah, it is. I know all I need to know about this little lady." He reached down and untied a canvas wrapped bundle laying at the edge of the clearing and removed a bottle. "Except her name. What's yer name, little lady?" He pulled the cork from the bottle and took a long pull from the neck.
"Janet," she responded then stopped and thought about the Slash K brand on the steers. "Janet Lawrence," she continued, reverting to her maiden name. She looked up to see Gabe emerge from the brush behind Rolley. The nod he directed toward her seemed to confirm that she had done the right thing. Did that mean he knew she was from the ranch they had raided?
"Well, that's good, Jan honey," Rolley said, taking a seat on the log next to where he had leaned Janet's rifle. "We got us a grub-stake back up the draw here." He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "Spect yuh can hear 'em bawlin' and carryin' on."
"They're raising a fuss because they are becoming hungry," Gabe commented as he dropped to his haunches beside the fire. "We should be moving them away from here today and to a market." He poured himself a cup of coffee from the thick brew that had been simmering by the fire all morning then rose and stood off to one side of the camp.
Rolley shrugged as he finished another sip of rum. "No hurry. They can't get out of here without goin' by us. 'Sides, we need to spend some time today changin' that Slash K to a Rafter B." He leered at Janet. "Couldn't ask fer better company."
As she worked around the fire preparing a breakfast, Janet considered the appearance of each of her captors in hopes that it would supply some indication of their weaknesses and the treatment she could expect from each of them.
Squeak, for instance, did not demonstrate by his appearance that he cared about anything. On his feet he wore mukluks which appeared to be stuffed with something to improve warmth. Over these he had tied an outer layer of thicker leather to extend the life of his footwear, but it was all a soggy mess. His pants, also wet past the knees, were of homespun wool, perhaps made for a child since they were too short for Squeak despite his size. One leg had been torn and repaired with a long loop stitch of string. He wore no shirt, displaying the dirty red of his long underwear under an old and poorly patched wool coat that may have started life as military wear. One pocket of this coat hung low from what Janet thought might be a small pistol. On his head he wore a beaver fur cap with the ear lugs tied over the top. His greasy brown-and-gray hair hung to his shoulders.
"Yuh see, little lady, there's a war gettin' under way over t' Europe," Rolley explained. "Ain't no better way fer a fella to make his self a killin' than a good war." He giggled at his own wit, took a good pull from the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Rolley was much better dressed but equally as dirty as Squeak. He wore well-oiled and well-used, flat-heeled, lace-up miner's boots. His trousers were of homespun wool, but of more recent make than Squeak's and protected by heavy leather chaps. His coat was of sheepskin, the matted and greasy wool turned in against a dark blue shield-style cotton shirt, and his hat was a dented and torn derby. It appeared that he sometimes shaved all but his upper lip, but had not done so for at least a week. Blonde hair just covering his ears may well have been hacked off with a knife. A holster was slung round his hips and held a pistol which appeared similar to her husbands .44-40 Colt. His boots, holster and pistol showed evidence of special care not evident in the rest of his appearance.
"Spread a few dollars 'round in the right places," Rolley continued, "an' a man can come out of a war with a mighty fine nest egg." He gestured over his shoulder toward the sound of the steers. "Them critters back there is the beginnin' of a kingdom. Pretty little thing like you plays her cards right, yuh might be a part o' that kingdom."
Gabe wore a dented and stained, but still serviceable Stetson over collar length black hair which may have been washed in the past few days. He was usually clean–shaven, but appeared to have avoided his razor for the past day or two. His plaid wool shirt was still relatively clean and covered by a Hudson's Bay blanket coat that showed signs of bunkhouse repair of some talent. His boots were of the high-heeled riders variety, well cared for but in need of replacement. What she had first thought were fringed buckskin leggings proved instead to be pants. Behind his belt she could see the handle of a pistol that appeared to be of the same size as Rolley's Colt but of a different make.
Janet's inventory of her camp-mates supplied little comfort. Only Gabe appeared to care about himself or life, and he had made it obvious that he would or could do little to help. However he had expressed some sympathy for her position. Would he interfere on behalf of his riding partners?
As she worked around the fire, Janet passed several times within reach of her rifle. As he sipped from the bottle and blathered on, Rolley watched her movements and grinned. Finally, after one of her passes, he placed the bottle down, lifted the rifle and levered the chamber open. Upon inspecting it he cursed, closed the bolt and set the weapon down again. It was only then that Janet realized she had not loaded the weapon. The cartridges she had taken from the house still rested in her coat pocket.
From the corner of her eye Janet saw Rolley leering at her again. "Yessiree, I can see where this empire buildin' could be a right comfor'ble experience," he observed.