“The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” by Richard Bausch assaults the western reader with a true horror story. Belle Starr was a real criminal in the old west who lived in around southeastern Oklahoma. She and her gang ran wild for several years until 1889 when she was ambushed, shot in the back, and killed. This is the namesake for one of the characters in this story.
The setting involves a Dodge Charger, a roadside diner, and a ditch. Each part of the setting plays a special part in the story. The time is modern with the main character traveling toward “he is not for sure,” but he might wind up in Las Vegas. The atmosphere which pervades the story brings to mind the old west. Mystery, tension, and violence fill the story’s events.
The narration is third person with a limited omniscient point of view. The story is primarily seen through the eyes and thoughts of McRae, the protagonist. The other character identifies herself as Belle Starr.
McRae is traveling cross country. He has just gotten out of prison for assaulting his superior while in the army. He received a dishonorable discharge. He stops to pick up a girl hitchhiker. McRae looks at her while she is asleep and finds her oddly attractive. He daydreams about sex with her.
The girl sleeps for most of the day. At dusk, McRae pulls over to a roadside diner. Belle first tells him that she is not hungry. He tells her she can wait in the car; however, she gets out and goes in with him.
The diner is empty. The man who owns the diner tells the pair that he is going out of business but will fix them something to eat. When the man brings the food, Belle brings out a gun and shoots him twice. There was nothing in the register.
McRae is shocked and realizes that the girl is extremely dangerous. He tries to distance himself from her by offering to give her his car, but she tells him that she cannot drive. Gesturing with the gun, she tells him to drive.
Belle now calls the shots. McRae can barely contain his fear of her. It is obvious that she has no conscience and is capable of anything. When the gas gets low, Belle tells him to drive it until it runs out of gas. She also tells him that she has killed five and ½ people---the half was a dog.
He suggests that they could form a gang.
It is still night time. Finally, she tells McRae to pull over. Pointing the gun at him, Belle tells him to get out of the car. Hurriedly, he rushes across in front of a large truck and makes it across the highway.
He was alive. He lay very still…the light of the truck going on. He heard the door close. Carefully he got to all fours and crawled a few years away from where he had fallen. He lay on his side, facing the embankment. When she appeared there he almost cried out.
As he begins to run, he realizes that he has hurt his leg. She shoots at him and then reloads the gun. He crawls into a shallow gully and tries to be a quiet as he can. Knowing that she is following him down the embankment, McRae can only wait and hope.
The story certainly has many of the qualities of both a gangster, western, and scary movie. The main character is not particularly a good guy, but he would never intentionally kill anyone. The antagonist has no conscience and kills for the pleasure of killing. Both of them are escaping their old, unhappy childhoods.