Something pulled at Janet and she came awake with a start. A stiff, dead branch caught her hat as she moved, knocking it from her head.
"Well Billy-be-damn if it ain't a woman," a strange, but at the same time familiar voice said.
Janet looked up to see a scrawny little man with bulging eyes and a scraggly beard grinning toothlessly at her as he held up the spruce branches. Behind him she could see that a new day had arrived and, looking into her den stood a square, better-dressed but equally dirty man holding her rifle. It was their pulling the rifle from her arms that had awakened her.
The second man turned his gaze off to the side and spit tobacco juice. "Better come have a look at this, Gabe." He turned back to smile at Janet as a third man rode his horse over and leaned down to look at her. This third man's clothes were also dirty, but it appeared he had both shaved and washed in the not too distant past.
The second man gestured with Janet's rifle. "Might as well come on out o' there, little lady. Reckon you'll find it a sight more comfor'ble over t' camp."
Janet rolled out from under the spruce on her knees but quickly stood and replaced her hat.
"What cha figure we should do, Rolley?" the thin man asked.
"Squeak, you ask too many dumb questions. You he'p the little lady back to camp. Gabe an' I'll foller yuh."
"This horse will ride double," Gabe said. "It will be better if she rides with me." Without waiting for a response he reached down and grabbed Janet's upper arms.
She was almost in the saddle before she thought to resist. Before she could do very much, however, Gabe grabbed her wrists and imprisoned them in his right hand.
"It is better to ride with me than walk with them," he said softly.
Janet stopped and looked around into his face. He did not smirk, nor was there the fire of lust in his eyes as she had seen in Rolley's gaze. She looked to the faces of the two men still standing by the tree and settled down.
Gabe slid back over the cantle allowing her to sit in the saddle, then urged his horse along the side of the hill, angling south, back toward the draw where Ben had been shot. While the other two men caught their horses and mounted, they gained several yards on them.
Gabe glanced over his shoulder, and then said, "Ma'am, you are in much trouble. I would not bother a lady, but they are not the same. Squeak is stupid, but not a killer. Rolley is a very bad man. He will shoot me – and perhaps you – with very little reason."
Janet looked over her shoulder at him. "Are you not one of them?"
Gabe nodded. "I am a cow thief. I have done many things to live. I do not murder. Or bother women."
"I am glad to hear you have such high morals," Janet said sarcastically.
"You do not show much gratitude."
"So far you've given me a ride," Janet noted. "I haven't seen you refuse to take your turn with me yet."
"That is true," was all Gabe was able to manage before the others came within earshot.
They stopped talking, but the other two, not realizing how well their voices carried continued.
"Whatcha figure she's doin’ here, Rolley," Squeak asked in his whiney voice.
"You sure are some dumb, Squeak," Rolley responded. "Ain't no woman's gonna foller a bunch a cows. I 'spect she's runnin' from sumpin’. Pro'ly lookin' fer a good man to look after her."
"Well, I could look after her. She could ride with us."
There was a short pause, then Rolley spit and said, "Shut the hell up."