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The bell jingled when Donnie Joe opened the door. An old man behind the counter glanced over the top of a paperback novel and peeked at his watch; a fluorescent light flickered over his head. A woman with gray hair tied in braids that hung over her shoulders appeared from a back room carrying an old broom and a dustpan.
“We’re closing up for the night, sonny.” The old man laid the book on the counter and adjusted his thick-lens glasses. “Don’t get many people out here this time of night; guess I must’ve forgot to lock the door.”
The woman, as if on cue, walked past Donnie Joe, flipped the “Closed” sign, and locked the deadbolt. Her deep set, dark brown eyes glared at Donnie Joe; when she glanced back, he noticed a scar shaped like a lightning bolt on her right cheek. Without speaking a word, she picked up a bag of trash and slipped into the unlit back room, grunting something to the old man on the way out.
“That’s my wife Winona; she doesn’t take much to strangers.” The old man slid the novel to one side. “Hope you’re not needing gas; I already locked the pumps up for the night. The diner’s closed too; Winona’s the cook and she’s more than likely on her way to bed.”
Donnie Joe stepped toward the storefront window and looked up and down the dark two-lane, blacktop county road. “How’d the old woman get that scar on her face?”
“Her first husband was a drunken fool. That happened the last time he beat on her; he disappeared, mysteriously, shortly after that.” The old man tucked the paperback in his back pocket. “Well, son, we could probably talk all night about Winona, but I’d really like to call it a day. What can I do for you tonight? You don’t look like the typical Badlands tourist, so I don’t image you’re after film for your camera or a souvenir.” The old man nervously reached under the counter.
“Don’t do it, Pop! I think we both know what I’m here for; the old lady knows too.” Donnie Joe retrieved the .38 pistol from his belt. “Why don’t you just call the old lady out here and open that cash register?”
Nervously, he placed both wrinkled hands on the countertop and called out for his wife. There was no response. Donnie Joe pointed the pistol at the aging man and edged toward the backroom door. A drab blue curtain covered the doorway. When Donnie Joe pulled the curtain aside to peek in, the old man went for the sawed-off shotgun beneath the counter.
The blast echoed through the store. A flash from the double barrel shotgun shattered the glittering fluorescent light as the old man stumbled backwards into a pool of blood. Donnie Joe picked up the shotgun and fired another .38 slug into the old man. He shouted a warning to the old woman, pulled back the curtain, and entered the darkened room. She was nowhere to be found.
Donnie Joe fumbled through the old man’s pockets and found the key to the cash register drawer. He dumped the meager contents of the drawer into a plastic bag, casually closed the door as he left, and drove south down the blacktop road, away from the Badlands.
At night, this was a lonely road. Donnie Joe recalled driving it a few times when he played in a country-western band, singing in the local bars around the Badlands and Black Hills. That was a few years back, but it hadn’t changed much and had seen few improvements. He wished he knew what had happened to that old woman. He had to drive much faster than he wanted, fearing the old woman probably called the sheriff by now.
In his rearview mirror, he spotted a set of headlights in the distance. Just relax, man! He reached into the console and laid the .38 on the seat beside him, as he pressed down on the accelerator. The old clunker he was driving struggled to stay ahead of the oncoming vehicle. When the headlights came within a hundred feet, he realized they belonged to a pickup truck instead of a county sheriff’s cruiser - probably a teenager in a hurry to get home before he was found out.
The pickup moved to the left to pass, but slowed down as it came alongside his rust-covered Plymouth. Donnie Joe looked over and nodded, surprised to see the long gray braids hanging over the driver’s shoulders. The driver turned on her dome light and glared at Donnie Joe. Even in the dim lighting, Donnie Joe swore he saw the lightning-shaped scar on her right cheek. She held up the sawed-off shotgun Donnie Joe had mistakenly left behind while retrieving the booty from the cash register drawer. Instinctively, he mashed the gas pedal and zoomed ahead of her. She pulled in behind him, following on his tail – so close that she thumped his bumper, causing his car to swerve.
Donnie Joe regained control of the car, knowing he was in trouble. He couldn’t outrun the old gal; maybe he could out-drive her. He reached for the gun, but she bumped him again; he grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and held on. The thought occurred to drive into the fields, but he knew he would be no match for her pickup in the open fields. That’s when he spotted the silhouette of a wolf in the middle of the blacktop and the reflection of a sign, signaling a crossroad. With a quick jerk, he cranked the steering wheel to the right and fishtailed onto a gravel road. The old woman didn’t react quickly enough and skidded past the intersection, giving him the break he needed to gain a little distance from her.
Flying rocks slapped the sides of his car as he peeled down the gravel road. He saw no sign of her coming around the corner yet. The dust rolled in clouds behind him. In the pale moonlight, he could see nothing past his headlights; he had no idea where this road led. Without warning, the gravel road ended and he was driving on a two-rut pathway. He slowed down when he careened over a mound of dirt and slammed his head into the ceiling of the car. Feeling a trickle of blood run down his forehead, he stopped to check the damage.
The roar of an engine caught his attention; headlights beamed across the prairie. He grabbed the .38 and pressed the accelerator to the floor, but the tires only spun in the loose dirt. His best chance was to run on foot; she wouldn’t be able to see him in the dark. He ducked and dashed toward to the tall grass that glowed in his headlights, running as fast as he could until he was out of breath. Stumbling into a small ravine, he sprawled on the ground, still clinging to the gun. He would wait here, hidden in the underbrush, until morning.
He had barely caught his breath when the headlights flickered through the swaying grass. She was following his trail. How can she do that in the dark? He crawled out of the underbrush and jogged ahead, staying in the ravine and following its course, out of sight. After a few hundred yards, he paused to listen, but he couldn’t hear the engine or see her headlights. There was an eerie calmness, except for the rustling noise in the ravine, not far behind. Chills ran down his spine when he heard a woman singing and chanting in a guttural voice. He fired a round into the ravine, hoping for a lucky shot. In the silence, he heard the clicking of a tongue and saw the flash, as the sounds of a shotgun blast echoed into the night breezes. The pellets peppered all around him. How did she get so close, so quickly?
Scampering out of the ravine, he tripped on the roots of a tree, regained his balance, and raced across the rugged terrain. When he could run no longer, he stopped, exhausted; he would have to make a stand here. Hiding beneath an overhanging ledge, he waited.
The waiting wore him down. Even in the cool night air, sweat rolled into his eyes; his shirt was drenched and he felt claustrophobic in his hiding place. When he could stand it no longer, and seeing no sign of the old woman, he took off again, running across a rocky ledge where his foot slipped into a crevice; he fell hard, dropping the .38. He searched frantically, but couldn’t find the gun. It must have lodged between the rocks. Giving up the search, he hobbled onward, his ankle aching and swelling from being wedged between the rocks.
Then, she was standing directly in front him. He stopped and put his hands over his head. “I’m not armed old lady. I dropped my gun a ways back.” She uttered unintelligible words and began singing again.
The repercussion of the shotgun blast startled a covey of quail, their quivering wings fluttered into flight. A wolf yelped, bolting from beneath the dense shrubbery. Donnie Joe didn’t hear the blast that sent him reeling over the edge of the embankment.
Winona stood above, singing a mournful song of death. Donnie Joe’s lifeless body rested at the bottom of a deep ravine with the decaying bones of Winona’s first husband. She sang and wept until the morning sun greeted the earth with its light. Searching the rocky ledge, she found the .38 pistol and tossed it over the embankment, along with a plastic bag containing twenty-two dollars and a handful of change. She cut off her long braids with her husband’s skinning knife and watched them fall to the ground. Cradling her arms to her chest, she looked into the rising sun, grunted something that no one could hear, and slowly walked back across the field.
Word count: 1668