Willow double-checked that the boxes built into the sides of her cart were securely locked before she pulled several bags out of the open deck. She looked back down and across the street to the saloon, momentarily mesmerized by the sway of the blonde's long dress as she walked backwards, sweeping in long graceful strokes. Several strands of hair had slipped from the loose bun at the base of her neck, and despite the distance, Willow recognized a sudden urge to lift her hand and tuck the strays back in place.
'Don't be stupid, Willow,' she chastised herself, removing her wide-brimmed hat and using it to whack the dust off of her clothes. 'One night in this podunk town and then it's back on the trail. No time to go gettin' sweet on a girl.'
Willow narrowed her eyes as a sandy-haired young man walked out of the saloon and spoke to the blonde. The two appeared to exchange angry words for a moment before he stormed off down the street and she retreated into the bar.
'See, there you go. She's got a husband, cause why wouldn't she... pretty lady like that. Just cause he's obviously some big jerk, getting' her all upset and marching off like a horse's ass - no offense Miss Horsey - that don't mean she's ever gonna show any interest in the likes of you. So just go get yourself a bath and a good night's sleep, stay away from the poker table, and then-'
A small dark-haired man in a brown suit rushed up to Willow, a horrified look on his face.
"You can't leave that here," he insisted, pointing at her wagon. "We don't allow derelicts to camp out in front of the hotel! So just... climb back up there and... shoo!"
Willow slowly stepped up to the man, who stood a head shorter than she, and summoned up all of the command her small frame could muster.
"Now look here, little man. I'm fixin' to be a guest of this here hotel, and since you appear to be an employee of said establishment, I believe a small amount of courtesy is order. Not too much, mind you... I wouldn't want you to bust a gut or nothin'. I can tote my own cases, but if you would be so kind as to see to my steed and carriage, I would be ever so appreciative."
Without a look back, Willow picked up her bags and walked into the Inn, striding up to the desk and ringing the bell. The same young man who had accosted her outside scampered behind the desk and smiled.
"Please accept my apologies, sir. I had no idea you were a guest... Mr.?"
"Uh... Smith... Will Smith," Willow stated, pulling out a thick roll of cash and observing the glint in the man's eyes.
"Well, Mr. Smith, I'm Jonathan, and if you need anything at all, please let me know."
The suddenly ingratiating Jonathan happily gave Willow a tour of the hotel, which featured all the latest amenities, including the modern marvel of indoor plumbing. He left Willow in her room after assuring 'Mr. Smith' that he could use the bath at any time, and rushed off to make sure the horse and cart were being attended to.
An hour later, Willow snuck back down the hall from the bathing suite to her room. She'd had to refill the tub twice to get off all of the grime, but now that it was gone she felt invigorated. Ignoring her earlier decision to steer clear of the card tables, she pulled her best clothes out of one of her bags and began to dress. By time she walked out of the inn and across the street toward Maclay's, the saloon was already filling up, and a lively piano could barely be heard over the raucous laughter and clink of glasses.
Willow paused to adjust her jacket before stepping through the swinging doors. Her eyes drifted over the crowd, which was made up of an assortment of ranchers, roughnecks, and townsfolk. The only women she saw wore colorful crinoline frocks and enough face paint to make it clear what their profession was. The only women, that is, except for one. As Willow walked toward the bar a group of men moved off to one of the tables, leaving her view of the barmaid unobstructed.
She wore a simple blue calico dress that Willow found much more appealing than the ostentatious garb worn by the bar's other feminine occupants. The blonde's back was turned, and Willow noticed with a hint of regret that every hair was now firmly in place. The redhead sauntered up to the bar confidently and rested one elbow on the railing.
"Evenin' Ma'am. I take it you're open now."
"What can I get," Tara began, her back still turned, but instantly recognizing the voice. As she turned to face her customer, she nearly did a double-take at the sight of the redhead in front of her. "You."