The Dread Knot Saloon emitted a hazy light. The smoke from inside drifted lazily through the swinging doors and mixed with the dust kicked up by horses in the street. The faded wooden sign (hung by a pair of nooses) swayed and creaked in a barely noticeable breeze. The establishment used to bear a more distinguished name until the proprietor gave up appearances and accepted the nature of his clientele. Here gathered all the rough drifters, rowdy cowhands, and rogue scoundrels. Fights broke out on a nightly basis; occasionally shots were fired. But the Dread Knot kept passing out the liquor, the piano kept churning out the tunes, and the dancers kept waving their skirts like a patriot waving his flag.
Into this saloon one night drifted a pack of cowboys who looked less than reputable. The youngest among them, dressed in dark blues and blacks and a checkered bandana around his neck, separated from his companions and sat at the bar. They wanted to get drunk and find a woman or two. He wanted to relax as well, but before a big job, that was the time to keep a sharp mind. In a few hours their brains would look like a muddy street on a busy day. That may make for more fun in the short term, but this young cowboy knew it would be best to stay aloof, keep out of trouble, and not let anything cloud his judgment.
He learned such caution from the first outlaw he rode with, an older man. Well, old by outlaw standards, so about mid-30s. He took a liking to the kid and taught him everything he knew. He had thankfully passed on most of his knowledge before getting shot between the eyes by a lucky lawman. A clear head before a big job was important, but that only went so far. Still, the young man felt it gave him an advantage over his fellows.
He sat at the bar, sipping a whiskey and eyeing the other patrons of the saloon on the great mirror hanging over the alcohol. His fingers toyed with a cigarette in his pocket when a flurry of color in the reflection caught his eye. A beautiful woman, one of the dancers, moved through the crowd. In spite of his commitment to sobriety of mind, he turned to see her in the flesh. To his astonishment, this stunning señorita approached him.
Her loose hair was black as the night and moved as if blown by an evening breeze. Her eyes, though dark, shone like stars. Her lips were as red as the sunset and her body curved like the waves of the sea. Her dress was a blaze of colors that somehow seemed above the establishment in which she wore it. The young man didn't know much about fairy tales, but if he did, he'd think he was in one at that moment.
The dancer pushed her way to the bar, pressing herself close to the cowboy. He felt his cheeks burn. She glanced at him and then ordered tequila. When given her drink, she raised it in salute to the young man. With a slight smile, he replied in kind with his own glass and together they drank. Her eyes held him and he had the impression she was sizing him up. He grew uncomfortable.
Finally, she set her glass on the bar and lifted her head. "What is your name, señor?"
He relaxed slightly. "They call me the Winchester Kid."
"Oh, another kid!" She laughed, spreading a glance around the bar. "He is the ninth kid I met this week." The other drinkers laughed at this invitation and some added their own less witty jokes.
The Kid bristled and blushed. He had half a mind to explain how he got his name, but this brazen dancer already moved on in the conversation.
"We must give you a more original name." She paused and gave him that searching stare. "How about . . . the Sangre Roja Man!"
Some of the more drunk eavesdroppers laughed at this without getting the joke. The Kid was still translating the Spanish, unsure what to think, when she suddenly grabbed him by the hand and led him off to where a mad mob danced to the mariachi band. A tinny piano was the usual accompaniment, but a full band graced the Dread Knot from time to time when its members were in the area or not in the sheriff's jail.
The tune they played as the Kid and dancer joined the fray was a lively tune that encouraged drunk footwork. The young cowboy was so disoriented he barely kept up with the furious dancing of his partner. Mercifully, they entered midway through the song and didn't have long to dance. The Kid was working up courage to excuse himself from his beautiful siren, but again she took him by the hand and led him through the crowd. They cut a swath to the back door where, following the young woman's energy, they burst into the night as if jumping from a burning building.
They stood now in a dark alley, lit only by what escaped the Dread Knot's grimy windows. Overhead, stars blazed like torches and gave the avenue a surreal feel.
The dancer laughed and led him to a crate on the opposite wall where they could sit down. After a minute she shivered, though the night wasn't chilly. The Kid cautiously put an arm around her shoulders, unsure of her response. She leaned in closer and made herself comfortable. For the first time, he noticed her scent and tried to identify it.
"You're making me break a big rule for myself," he said, finally finding a tongue.
"What rule is that?" She turned her eyes up to his face.
"To not get drunk or involved with women before a big . . . " he stopped himself.
"Before a big what?"
"Er, a big day, when something special is happening."
The woman sighed. "So you are an outlaw."
"I didn't say that!"
"You don't have to hide from me, Sangre. I can spot the type."
The Kid frowned and tried to relax.
"What does your 'big day' look like?" She pressed.
"Hmph. So you can go tell the sheriff?"
She laughed, full and clear. "Why would I go to him? He wouldn't believe me. He just thinks I'm a whore."
The Kid considered how to reply to this. The dancer, guessing his thoughts, punched him lightly in the ribs.
"I am not a whore!" she declared. "I will dance, I will sing, but I do not sell my body."
"Sure, sure!" said the Kid, trying to calm her. "I can see you're no one's woman."
She considered him again and smiled mischievously. Suddenly she stood, drawing him up after her by the hand.
"Let's go for a walk, Sangre. The stars call to young lovers on nights like this."
The Kid smiled down at her. "On any other night I'd be happier than a burr in the saddle to be your lover. But I gotta keep a clear head . . . " He trailed off, not wanting to say too much.
"Why is that so important?" she asked, frowning.
"I learned it from my first, er, boss. Keep a clear head before a big job. No booze, no women, no dancing, or anything else. Just relax. A clear head for a big job makes it more likely to succeed and for you to make it out alive."
The woman shuddered, though this time not from the cold. "What could be more relaxing than a walk on a beautiful night?"
"With a beautiful woman?" the Kid added, smiling.
She smiled back. Even in the dark that smile made the Kid's heart race as much as a gun being fired at him. For answer, she wrapped her arms up around his neck and drew him close. He thought she would kiss him. He closed his eyes, intoxicated by the perfume emanating from her body. But he did not feel the warm press of her lips, only the soft brushing of her nose. He opened his eyes, confused. In her pupils, a playful light danced.
Now she pulled away, trotting down the alleyway with something streaming in her hand. The Kid reached up to his neck and realized she stole his bandana. By the time he caught up to her on the street, she had it wrapped around her own neck. It looked garish compared to the vibrancy of her dress. He would have told her so, but he figured she likely knew. She offered her hand, he hesitated. So much was riding on this next job. She started twisting her hips back and forth, her dress swooshing. The smell wafted into the Kid's nostrils. Against better judgment, he took her hand.
"So what is your name?" the Kid asked. "So we can be on equal ground."
"You can call me Zante."
"Short for 'danzante.' Dancer."
The Kid smirked and they strolled down the main street of that dusty, dingy town with their arms linked. Most windows were black with darkness. Rare was the sign of light and life within the buildings they passed. The stars overhead twinkled brightly and were the most dazzling thing to be seen. The only thing other than Zante.
He looked at her and smiled, a true smile, reflecting the happiness he felt while walking next to her. Over it all, that sweet perfume conquering the smells of the street. The Kid couldn't place that aroma, he was never much for knowing what smelled like what. But Zante's perfume made him want to know it, to learn it and master it, to let it be more important to him than the next job. He tried shaking such feelings, sensing the dangerous place he was going.
She must have sensed his wrestling as well, for she spoke now in quiet tones as they came to the outskirts.
"Why did you become a bandito?"
The Kid shrugged. "It's a job, I guess."
"I don't believe that. They all say it's just a job. What is the true reason, Sangre?"
The Kid thought for a moment as they passed into the open country. "I reckon I felt aimless. Needed something to give meaning to life. Had a good first leader to make the life seem good."
"But is it good? Robbing, killing. Is that a good life?"
"I don't kill unless I have to . . . " he offered feebly.
They ascended a hill in silence. At its peak, they surveyed the stars. Those heavenly bodies seemed to stoop so close you had to reach out and touch them or your heart would break.
"Do you ever get tired of this life?" Zante asked at last.
"I try not to think about it."
"There are other paths, Sangre."
"I haven't found one yet."
Zante swept herself in front of the Kid, clasping his hands. Her eyes reflected the twinkling stars.
The Kid closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He wanted to say yes. He wanted to get lost in that perfume, lost in the starlight; to embrace this woman, this dream, who tortured his hardened heart.
"I need to get back to camp," he said.
Zante wilted slightly but acquiesced, and together they returned to town. They were silent as ghosts passing down the streets until they were back in the alley where they started. She turned to face him once more.
"Come with me, Sangre! Forget what you have been and let us run away. Let us start over somewhere else!"
"I can't," he replied hoarsely.
"If you change, I'll be waiting." With this promise she brought his head closer and kissed him.
What an electrifying kiss! The touch of those warm, soft lips against his; the sweet scent swelling his nose. He drew her in as close as he could. Eventually they pulled away from each other, eyes moist.
Zante smiled weakly and removed the Kid's bandana, placing it around his neck with another kiss. Without a parting word, she retreated into the Dread Knot. The Kid, with a heavy heart and hanging head, left the alley and found his horse.
He returned to an empty camp, for which he was grateful. He mechanically checked the perimeter, checked his guns, and laid down with his saddle for a pillow. The stars took his silent consideration for a while before he finally drifted into sleep. Only his drunken and hooting companions woke him, though he merely woke long enough to see who burst upon the camp with such clamor. He scowled at them and pulled his hat over his head.
The Kid was the first awake, even before the sun. Though Zante still haunted his heart, he gave his usual attention to the various prep work needed before a raid. As the sun's first rays glistened on the horizon, he woke the rest of the gang and they groggily got to work.
The sun was level with the ground when the group of six rode out. They had no set leader but tried to work collectively. It wasn't always effective, but when it came to choosing jobs and planning them, they seemed to always find common ground. Their big job that day was robbing a train carrying a large shipment of gold from the west.
They found a bluff that gave a commanding view of the railroad tracks. The sky was clear, the sun hot. On the bandits' faces was a mix of giddy excitement and somber focus. All checked their firearms. The Kid pulled his Winchester '76 out of its leather sheath and made sure it was clean and functioned right. His proficiency with that rifle helped garner his nickname. The check complete, he rested it across his saddle.
A whistle in the distance brought them to attention. Crawling out of the horizon came the great, thundering train. It carried a coal car, five passenger carriages, and a caboose. From the bluff it looked like a smoking snake, set afire by the sun and now mindlessly weaving its way somewhere. The bandits moved off their lookout and trotted to a more concealed location where they could wait for the train to pass.
They didn't wait long. It roared past, shaking the ground, startling a couple horses. As soon as the caboose shot by, they lurched out after it at full run. As they went, they pulled their bandanas up to cover their faces. The Kid, racing ahead, also readied his mask. He was greeted by Zante's aroma.
Immediately his focus swirled. That same bandana that now covered his face to commit crime was only precious hours before wrapped around the neck of a woman mysterious and beautiful, who stirred certain foreign passions within the Kid. Her perfume, whatever scent it was, bled into his checkered bandana and was here with him for his foul deeds. He felt as if he was bringing Zante along, exposing her to his whole, fallen nature.
This shook the Kid, more than any close bullet or close call. Suddenly he realized he lagged behind. Should he close the gap? Or should he disappear? Find his lover and run from everything? Or commit to his path? He felt, in some odd way, honor-bound to his companions and so pressed forward.
Satch, one of the more eager and restless of the company reached the caboose first. He leapt nimbly from his horse, grabbed the end rail, and pulled himself aboard. As he peered through the glass of the door, the riders saw a sudden puff of red and the body of Satch topple backwards off the train, tumbling lifeless on the rails.
Before what happened fully dawned on the bandits, a rifle barrel appeared in a hole in the glass that wasn't there a minute before. It fired off a couple shots before one of the gang retaliated with a truer aim that ended the rifleman's stand.
"I wonder how many guards they have in there?" a bandit named Thrum yelled to his fellows.
"Poke your head in that hole and find out, eh?" another named Willoughby retorted.
"Get up to the passenger car and work your way back," the Kid suggested without thinking. The inhaling of breath reminded him of Zante's aroma permeating through his bandana.
He tried to keep his focus as he watched his companions dart ahead. Gunfire appeared out of the side windows of the caboose. The Kid fired some warning shots to back them away. He then let his horse fall behind, and, with a leap over the tracks, he was on the other side of the car.
The guards in the caboose didn't bother following him and he soon found why. They were already transitioning to the passenger carriages and exchanging fire with the first of his companions who had gained the front end of the car. The solution here was simple: get on the caboose and hit the guards from the rear. Pin them down and they'll go down. He had learned that before.
But he hesitated. He saw through the car windows Thrum go down in the firefight. Already Satch lay stretched out and battered on the track a mile back. Was life so cheap that it should be spent in stealing gold? Zante, in a sense, had cursed him. She had shown him a different kind of life. That's what that mysterious scent was—life! Honest life. Seeking something better, something above the dredges man often settles for.
The Kid realized he had been letting his steed slow down and now he forced it to a standstill. The train sped away, a massive force unaware and unconcerned of the battle being waged at its back. Slowly he turned the horse in the opposite direction and set off at a gallop.
* * *
Zante sat on the step of the Dread Knot and looked mournfully down the street. She had tried saving Sangre, a young boy whom she truly believed in, truly saw the potential of a better life. But he did not come to her. He must have went out for his "job", and now may be dead.
Through the hazy dust a lone horseman caught her eyes. He rode slowly, head down. Zante realized with a start his clothing looked familiar. She stood slowly, expectantly. As the figure came closer, he raised his head, caught sight of the dancer, and urged his horse on at a faster pace.
When the Winchester Kid halted before the Dread Knot, he looked down at Zante with an impassive face. She looked up at him half expectant but matching his visage. Finally, he dismounted and stood before her, holding out a hand. She glanced down at it and saw the checkered bandana. When she met his eyes, hers were filled with tears. His were misty as well. They embraced, long and lovingly, and that was the last anyone saw of the beautiful dancer and the Winchester Kid.