For Want of A Brother

by J. Rosemary Moss

Part One

I strained my ears and pressed myself against the outside wall of the line shack. There were hoof beats in the distance, drawing nearer. One horse. Good. I could handle one rider.

Course it might be easier if I had bullets left in my gun. I oughtn't have shot Jack Clayton so many times--one bullet would have killed him just as dead. Now I'd have to bluff.

I saw the rider before he saw me. It was Adam Cartwright. He was riding Sport, that chestnut gelding of his. And he had his yellow coat buttoned tight against the cold and his black hat pulled down low. I don't think he was looking for me--he wouldn't have come alone if he were. But he'd know soon enough that I was here. He'd see the tell-tale signs around the cabin. I'd gotten here in a hurry and I hadn't covered up my tracks yet.

I swore under my breath and wished it weren't Adam. He was a decent sort and he'd been a decent boss to me this past year. I'd have preferred not to tangle him up in this mess of mine. But I held my empty gun at the ready.

Adam slowed Sport down as they approached the shack. He hadn't seen me yet, but he knew that someone was about. And it wouldn't take him long to figure out who it was. I decided not to wait.

I trained my gun at him and stepped out in front of him. "Afternoon, Adam," I said.

He sighed as he pulled Sport to a halt and stared down at me. Then he leaned forward a little in his saddle. "Afternoon, Reuben," he returned. "There's a posse out looking for you."

I could see his breath as he spoke--and my own as I answered. "I thought there might be," I said. "But I reckon you're not part of it."

"No, I'm not," he owned. "Did you kill Jack Clayton?"

"Yes," I said. I didn't see the point in lying. "Now I'd appreciate it, Adam, if you'd toss your gun down nice and easy, followed by that rifle in your saddle."

He considered me for a moment, but at length he nodded. My bluff was working.

"What'd you hope to gain by killing him?" he asked as he tossed down his Colt. It landed with a thud in the snow about ten feet away from me.

"Now don't lecture me, Adam," I said, keeping my gun steady as he reached for his Enfield. "You didn't like him any better than I did."

"He wasn't worth hanging for," Adam retorted.

"I beg to differ. Now go on, toss down that rifle."

He nodded again and followed my instructions. It landed close by the Colt.

"Thank you," I said, stepping slowly toward the guns. "Now dismount, Adam. I need to borrow Sport—but I'll see that he's returned to you by and by."

He didn't obey me immediately. "What happened to your horse?" he asked instead.

"He went lame on me. I let him go—he'll wonder back toward the main house of the Ponderosa, I shouldn't wonder."

"Why did you do it?" Adam persisted. "What are you, Reuben? Twenty? Twenty-one? Why throw your life away?"

I paused and gave him a crooked smile--a smile I happen to know is exceptionally charming, even granting my uneven teeth. "If they catch me, I promise to tell you before I hang," I said. "Now come on down."

But Adam refused to play along. "Are you truly prepared to shoot me?" he asked.

"Yes," I told him. "I'd try just to wound you, but I can't answer for my aim."

Course I didn't have bullets to shoot him with, but I decided to leave that part out. Holding the empty gun steady, I took another sideways step toward his Colt and Enfield.

Adam began to dismount. But I was trying to keep an eye on him and reach for the Colt at the same time. That turned out to be a mistake.

Adam must have decided that I wouldn't really shoot. When he was halfway off his horse he twisted himself around and sprang toward me. I didn't react quick enough—I gave him time to rush me and grab hold of my arm, forcing me to the ground. I let go of my gun as I fell backward into the snow.

I came to my senses and kicked Adam's right leg out from under him, causing him to collapse on top of me. Then I managed to slam my knee into his groin. That winded him, but he still used his fist to pummel my jaw. I tasted blood in my mouth as I pulled him tight against me, hoping to use our joint momentum to roll over on top of him.

That worked—and for a moment I held the upper hand. But he grabbed his Colt out of the snow and struck me on the back of the head with it.

I heard the thud of the gun against my skull before I felt anything. Then I was conscious of pain—but only for a second. My eyesight blurred and everything went black.