Western Short Story
Dead or Alive
J.R. Lindermuth

Western Short Story

Lyle surveyed the stranger from the corner of one eye. He smirked, hoping the man wouldn't notice in the flickering light of the fire. It looks like maybe my luck is changing, Lyle thought, and it's nigh on time.

He'd been boiling the last of his coffee beans when the stranger showed up driving a Dearborn wagon just as the sun was fixing to set. The coffee was the last form of sustenance he had and Lyle supposed the next few days he might be forced to nibble twigs or grama grass to keep his strength up.

"Is that coffee I smell?" the stranger asked, alighting from his rig and ambling over to where he sat.

"It is, and you're welcome to share a cup," Lyle told him. It paid to put on a friendly front when opportunity presented itself. "You wouldn't happen to have any food, would you?"

"I do, indeed," the man said, crouching beside the fire and extending his hands to the warmth of its flames. "I'll be happy to exchange some vittles in trade for a cup of that coffee. Haint had none since leavin' White Oaks."

The stranger went back to his buckboard and returned with a couple potatoes, a slab of bacon and a sack of hard biscuits. He edged the potatoes close to the fire and used a stick to shovel hot ashes over them. Before they were covered, Lyle used his pocket knife to pierce them so they wouldn't burst in the heat. He didn't care for burst potatoes soiled with ash.

"You got a fry pan?" the man asked.

"Sure do." Lyle procured it and the man sliced some bacon into the pan and set it on the fire.

"That'll do us nicely," the stranger said with a smile.

Lyle handed him a cup of coffee, which bought him another smile.

"Ah, the nectar of the gods," the man said. "Names Conybeare," he said, extending a hand. "Decimus Conybeare out o' Fremont, Nebraska."

"Frank," Lyle said, not wanting to use his real name. He'd always liked the sound of his sobriquet and it amazed him how it had sprung to mind in this emergency. The stranger might not be familiar with his reputation, but he didn't want to take the chance. There was a price on his head after all. Last he'd heard the reward topped two hundred gold dollars.

Lyle had been riding a hard trail the past few weeks. The attempted robbery of a train had left his gang shot to hell, him being the only survivor and having escaped by the skin of his teeth. Thought of the disaster brought a sour taste to his mouth and he washed it away with a swig of the bitter coffee and contemplation of those taters and the bacon sizzling in the pan. How was he to have known the train they'd picked carried a contingent of bluecoats along with the anticipated money. And those danged soldiers were good shots, too.

So Lyle had been hiding out in the boonies, his vittles all gone, only three cartridges left in his Remington and not a single dime in his pockets. The only good thing he had left was his horse, a strawberry roan he'd stolen from a Mexican down in Texas. Horse was the best he'd ever had, and he prized her above any he'd ever owned.

Now, hunger sated for the first time in days, Lyle relaxed by the fire and studied his quarry. Conybeare had tended to his horse after supper, then joined him in the last dregs of the coffee and shared a cigarette--not a hand-rolled smoke either. What he provided was store-bought, Crosscut-brand by the label. Lyle hadn't had a smoke like that ever. Things was looking up, 'deed they was.

This Conybeare was an unimpressive specimen, skinny as a proverbial rake, red-headed and with just a hint of a mustache decorating his upper lip. Tiny round glasses perched on his snub nose glittered in the light of the fire. Decked out in a brown-checked suit, the man wore a bowler hat tilted back on his head and had low-cut patent leather shoes rather than boots on his tiny feet. Lyle thought he bore the look of a drummer or maybe a teacher. No sign of a weapon of any kind was visible to his probing gaze. What kind of fool ventures into the wilderness in an outfit like this and unarmed, Lyle wondered. Why of course--one ripe for the picking. He had to grin thinking on it. "What's your business out here, Mr. Conybeare, if you don't mind my askin'?"

"Don't mind at all," Conybeare said, puffing on his fancy cigarette. "I'm lookin' for opportunity. Got me some money to invest, providing I find the right prospects."

"Do tell," said Lyle with another grin he didn't worry about displaying. Thought of the money resting in the man's pockets gave him a thrill. Fool what brags about the riches they carry deserves to be parted from it.

"And what about yourself?"

"Uh," Lyle had to think on that a moment before answering. It wouldn't do to reveal his dire straits. "I expect I'm also a man lookin' for opportunity."

"Well," said he, "may we both be blessed with good results."

Cigarette finished, Conybeare rose and stretched. "Guess I'm plumb tuckered," he said, "and ready to hit the sack."

"Yep. Me, too."

Lyle followed Conybeare's example and bedded down. He allowed some time to pass, contemplating the coin in his companion's britches, biding his time until a rhythmic chorus of snores told him the man was sound asleep.

A near-full moon lit the way as Lyle crept over to where his quarry lay. Standing over him, Lyle drew his revolver from its holster, pointed the barrel at the man's chest and squeezed the trigger. Snap.

The hammer clicked on an empty chamber.

Lyle's mouth dropped open as Conybeare raised an arm and he saw a smart little pistol slide from inside the man's sleeve and pop into his hand. There came a crack and Lyle felt the bullet slam like a fist into his chest. He moaned in surprise as the impact knocked him off his feet and he fell prone upon the hard ground.

This caint be, he told himself as he felt the hot rush of blood from the wound soaking his shirt.

"I'd druther have taken you alive," Conybeare said, gazing down on him, "but I'll get paid the same either way. Dead or alive, don't make no matter which way I bring you in."

The last thing Lyle saw as darkness closed in on him was that danged bounty hunter tethering the strawberry roan to his Dearborn wagon.