Neither one of them was ready to give an inch. The man and the woman both had their guns out and pointing at the other. Lying on the hard, dusty ground between them was Cart Burgess, his eyes continuously darting from one to the other. From windows and doorways all over the town, terrified but curious faces were peering at them.
The man spoke first.
"This ain't gonna go the way you want it to, missy," he said.
"I'd take it as a kindness if you wouldn't call me 'missy,'" was her reply.
"And I'd take it as a kindness if you was to put that gun away and let me take what's mine."
"Be more'n glad to if you could convince me there was anything in the vicinity what belonged to you."
"You know damn well what I'm talkin' about, girly."
"My name's Becky. Not missy or girly or honey or baby. Becky Smith."
"And I'm Luke Travis and it's mighty nice to meet you, Miss Smith. Now how's about droppin' that gun and leaving me to my bounty?"
"Your bounty? This here's my bounty," she kicked Burgess with the toe of her boot. He winced. "Where you got yours hid?"
Travis ground his teeth in frustration. The hand that wasn't holding a loaded pistol was holding a handbill; a wanted sign he'd been holding on to for two weeks while he tracked Cart Burgess. It was slow work, but the price on Burgess' head made the waiting worthwhile.
Or, at least, it would have, if it hadn't been for this girl who came in out of nowhere and stole his bounty.
"I been following this man for two weeks. Two weeks! That makes 'im mine."
"Seems to me," said Becky, "that the bounty goes to the one who brings 'im in. Not the one who spent two weeks following him. What? Were you too scared to take him in when you had the chance?"
Travis tightened his grip on the handbill. "I'm gonna let that go on account of you're a girl. But you should know I don't let anybody call me a coward more'n once."
"I'll keep that mind."
"Do you even know who this man is?" He gestured toward Burgess with the hand which held the poster.
"Seein' as I'm just plain womenfolk what don't know nothin', why don't you go ahead and explain it to me. And use small words so I'll be sure to understand."
"This here's Cart Burgess! You don't exactly walk up to a man like Cart Burgess, stick a gun in his face and say 'You're comin' with me!'"
"Are you sure? Cuz I recollect doing exactly that not five minutes ago and it seems to have worked out okay."
This was true. Burgess had been walking across the street from his hotel to the saloon when Becky had stepped in front of him, drawn her gun and informed him that he was her prisoner.
Whether it was shock at being told this by a woman or the bottle of rum he'd polished off in his room before deciding to mosey over to the saloon we may never know. But, whatever it was, he was slow enough that Becky was able to get close enough to stamp his foot, punch him in the solar plexus, relieve him of his firearm and, thus, take him into her custody.
It was then that Luke stepped in and demanded she surrender the prisoner to him. The next thing they knew, they had a standoff.
"Now I am powerful sorry," said Becky, "that you were too slow to take this man yourself. But that ain't my problem. I beat you to this one fair and square. Maybe bounty hunting ain't the right line of work for you. I hear tell they're lookin' for a piano player down at the saloon."
"I'm all out of patience, little girl! I am taking that man. And if you don't like that, you're gonna have to shoot me."
"I have no intention of shooting you."
So saying, Becky pointed her gun away from Luke Travis and down at Cart Burgess. Burgess' eyes widened. So did Luke's. So did the many eyes peering at them from various windows and doorways.
"I know you been taking your sweet time catching this man," she said, "so you had plenty of time to study that handbill of yours. Which means you know full well that Cart Burgess is wanted alive. Not dead or alive. Alive. I kill him, neither one of us can collect."
"You're crazy!" said Travis. "You'd kill a man in broad daylight? In front of witnesses? Just to stop me getting my bounty?"
"Firstly, you can go ahead and stop referring to this as your bounty, as I think I've made it very clear that he's mine. Second, whether this man lives or dies is entirely up to you. You put your gun away and get the hell out of my face, he lives. You make a play, he dies, I swing for murder. Either way, you don't make a dime off of Cart Burgess."
"If I don't make a dime either way, why should I back off? Why shouldn't I just let you pull that trigger?"
"Cuz I know you, Luke Travis."
"You sayin' we met before?"
"No, sir. Never seen you nor heard your name before this day, but I know you. Cuz we've been standing here, talking, all friendly and nice for a real long time and you've been threatening me and insulting me and putting up with me threatening and insulting you. Even let me off the hook for calling you coward. But you know what you ain't done?"
"You ain't cocked your gun. Which means you don't want to shoot me. I'm guessing you killed a lot of men, same as me—all nice and legal, I'm sure—but I'm bettin' you ain't never killed a woman before. If I kill this man, and all these nice folk see me do it, I hang. And if that happens, it's because you didn't back off like I asked you to. Which makes it your fault if I die. 'Bout the same as if you coked that pistol and pulled the trigger yourself. So, you tell me. A man who lets a woman call him coward and doesn't even cock his gun when he's pointing it at a woman . . . is he gonna let me hang?"
For a moment, nothing moved. No one breathed. Travis' thumb moved, almost imperceptibly, to draw back the hammer of his pistol. But, instead, he holstered the weapon and let loose some of the most impressive cussing anyone in the town had ever heard.
"Okay, then," said Becky, and she put away her own weapon (which, by the way, was fully cocked during the entire exchange) and picked Burgess up off the ground. Then she looked at Travis, who was now tearing his handbill into small pieces.
"I'm sorry for what I said. You ain't a coward. A coward would've shot me dead while I was talkin'."
To his own great surprise, Travis smiled. "You wouldn't really have killed him, would you?"
Becky smiled and reached into her pocket. "So long, Luke Travis." As she walked past Luke, a bewildered Cart Burgess in tow, she thrust a folded sheet of paper into his hand.
Luke waited until Becky was out of sight to unfold the paper and read it. As he had thought, it was another wanted poster. And this man had a bounty on him nearly twice the size of Cart Burgess'.
Underneath the picture and the description of his crimes were the three familiar words every bounty hunter knows by heart:
DEAD OR ALIVE.