Willow stole a furtive glance at Tara, the fortieth or so in the hour since she'd sat down. Like every other time, the blonde had the same pensive expression: slightly furrowed brow, set jaw, eyes that seemed to focus on everything and nothing at the same time. Not once had the redhead caught the object of her attention looking back at her, but she believed in her gut that she was at least part of the reason for the barmaid's consternation. She tried to tell herself that was wishful, arrogant thinking on her part, but the look in those soulful blue eyes when their hands had touched told her otherwise.
'It's like she was seeing right into me, like she knew I woulda taken on every man in this whole rotten town for her. And why the hell am I acting this way? I ain't even gonna be here come mornin'. Not to mention she thinks I'm a man, for pete's sake. It's not like she could ever love me. Why did I have to be so damn charming? It's a curse is what it is.'
Willow jerked her head as a hand waved in front of her face, and she looked in confusion at the dark haired man on her left.
"You playin' poker or daydreamin'?" he grinned knowingly. "I know we ain't as nice to look at as a certain blonde saloonkeeper, but you could at least try to pay attention."
Willow cursed under her breath and tried not to blush. Apparently her sneakiness wasn't as sneaky as she believed.
"Sorry Xander. Where we at?"
"Larry raised, Clem folded."
"Right," she nodded, peering down at the cards held close to her vest, sighing, and tossing them down on the table. She knew she could bluff circles around these guys, but found her concentration and desire lacking. An hour earlier, when Tara had stuttered that she needed to get back to work, Willow had grudgingly accepted the invitation to join the three men. Since then, she'd come to genuinely enjoy their company.
The barber, Larry, was big as an ox and acted a fool, grabbing and snorting at every whore who passed within three feet of him. They all seemed pleased by the attention, however, and Willow suspected he did it more out of habit and expectation than anything.
Xander was the town's sole carpenter, which helped account for the lack of buildings. He reminded Willow of a puppy she's had as a child: friendly, over-enthusiastic, eager for praise, but overall fun to be around. As the night's most consistent winner, he had also generously bought every round of drinks.
Clem had been a stage driver until the railroad drove him out of business. Now he manned the post office located inside the general store. The old timer was so wrinkled Willow feared his face would fall right off, and when he removed his slouch hat to scratch his bald head, his large ears flapped like flags in a breeze.
The three men had been thoroughly entertaining, and surprisingly informative. Shortly after joining them, Willow inquired about the Sheriff.
"You don't want to mess with that one," Clem had earnestly proclaimed, looking nervously toward the back room. "He may not look like much, but he's bad news."
"Yeah," Larry heartily agreed. "He's got a mean streak longer'n my-"
"And he's married to the Mayor's daughter," Xander hastily interjected. "So he can pretty much do whatever he wants."
Willow frowned, thinking about the familiar way the Sheriff had addressed Tara, and how obviously cowed Donnie was by him. As several other men entered the saloon and headed straight for the back room, her new friends eagerly filled Willow in on them.
"That little weasel was Deputy Andrew, though most of the time he works in the bank. Word is he's smart - went to college and ever'thing - but he ain't got the sense God gave a turnip."
"That's the mortician. Folks say he spends so much time with corpses he's starting to look like one - him and his wife too. Everybody calls him Spike on account of when he first got here he had to remove a railroad spike outta some poor sap's head and he passed out. Nice guy though. Probably got the steadiest job in town."
"That's our new preacher, just arrived from St. Lou a couple of months ago. I think he spends more time in here than he does in church, and Larry claims he saw him sneaking out of Madam Darla's one night last week."
"I'm telling you it was him," the barber insisted. "I couldn't see his face too good, but I heard one of the girls call him Ethan."
"So how come none of you are back there?" Willow casually asked as she shuffled the deck. All three paused and stared at her.
"Well, you see Will, that's complicated," Xander spoke slowly, gesturing vaguely with his hands.
"We ain't got the money," Larry clarified.
"I like it out here," Clem added, smiling and nodding, ears flapping.
"It's also invitation only," Xander continued. "'Cept it's more like a command. And those commanded end up losing everything they have, and I mean everything: money, business, home... everything."
'Donnie,' Willow thought, looking toward the back room. When her eyes shifted over to the bar again, she saw Tara lift up a tray of glasses in one hand and pull aside the curtain.
"Donnie's gotta be close to staking the saloon by now," Larry assessed bitterly.
"Why don't he just say no? Decline the 'invitation'?" Willow speculated. Her eyes were still focused on the curtain, thus missing the worried looks that passed between the men. At length Xander spoke, his voice hushed but clear.
"Because it don't make no difference. If you got something they want... the Mayor... the Sheriff... they're gonna get it. The only difference is that the folks that say no ain't around anymore to complain."
"Donnie shoulda seen it coming," Larry spat. "He shoulda high-tailed it outta here when they first pegged him. Damn fool."
"I just feel bad for his sister." Clem shook his head sadly. "Say what you will about Donnie, but she doesn't deserve this. Such a sweet girl."
Willow felt a chill creep up her spine at the implication of Tara's predicament. She contemplated beating the hide off of Donnie... the Sheriff... hell, the Mayor too.
'What's she gonna do if Donnie loses it all?' she thought grimly. 'Where's she gonna go? Who's gonna take care of her?'
As Willow watched, the curtain parted and Tara stepped quickly behind the bar. In the moment before the blonde had turned her back to the room, Willow had seen her face and knew what was written in the pained expression.
'Donnie's playing... and he's losing.'