(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

McRae, a twenty-three-year-old loner, is driving a beat-up Dodge Charger across Texas with a vague notion of starting over his failed life, hoping that in the West people will not require as much from a person, because there is so much room. He is soon proven wrong—much will be required of him, primarily from a hitchhiker he picks up on the way, a young woman holding a paper bag containing a small pistol. The woman calls herself Belle Starr after the female gunslinger from the Old West. McRae is bemused by the strange woman. She is not a talker, but the gesture she uses to show him who the original Belle Starr was is revelatory: “She put her index finger to the side of his head and said, ’Bang.’”

As the car rolls through Texas, the woman falls asleep, and McRae recalls his recent past. He has just been released from Leavenworth prison after serving a four-year sentence for striking an Air Force officer while drinking beer on duty. He remembers giving his name to the officer as “trouble” just before hitting him in the face. While in the Air Force, he had briefly visited his dying father, with whom he was not on good terms; all the father could say to his son from the gurney he was lying on was, “Getting into trouble, stealing and running around.”

McRae is complacent about his own character and thinks he just might turn out all right after all. He is happy to be out of Leavenworth and the Air Force, and on his way west—and he had picked up a girl. The girl, however, is greater trouble than McRae can guess. The two stop for a hamburger at an isolated diner somewhere in the desert of New Mexico, and they speak briefly to the owner and cook, who has had no customers all week because the place is so far from the interstate highway. He tells his story: Retired from the...

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