The night wore on and the crowd grew and dwindled. Long before the piano player placed his upturned stool on top of the console, Xander bid his goodnights and scurried off to meet his sweetheart. Willow nursed a beer and swapped stories with Larry and Clem, always carefully diverting the conversation away from herself. When the two men rambled off onto topics not of her interest, she skillfully redirected them to the ones she was curious about: namely Tara and the Sheriff.
"'Ol Warren was mighty smitten with Miss Maclay when he first arrived here," Clem revealed. "But she wouldn't give him the time of day."
"Damn right!" Larry slurred, slapping his palm onto the table for emphasis.
"He did not take it well. I think he decided right then to get back at her. He started cozying up to Mayor Wilkins. Donnie was courting the Mayor's daughter at the time, and Warren stole her from him just out of spite. He's determined to ruin the Maclays."
"Well, can't someone do anything?" Willow hissed.
"Like what?" Larry asked, his voice suddenly meek and resigned. "Anyone tries and they just land wind up dead or in jail."
Before Willow could respond she saw movement from the back room, and the banker and mortician filed past her. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the Sheriff and preacher conversed quietly beside the bar. She had to will herself not to bolt for the door when she saw the Sheriff point at her and the preacher nod his head. A moment later, Mears exited the saloon while the preacher hung back and ambled over to Willow.
"Excuse me... Mr. Smith, is it?"
"That's right," the redhead answered flatly, casually moving her right hand to rest by her hip.
"Sheriff Mears tells me you're new in town, but... you look rather familiar. Have we met before?"
Willow didn't bother to look at the man but continued to stare directly ahead. Her fingers curled around the hem of her coat, poised to flip it back and reach underneath.
"Don't believe so."
"Ever been to Saint Louis?"
"Can't say as I have."
"I'm fairly certain I've seen your face somewhere. Oh well... it will come to me eventually. I have an excellent memory. Good evening to you all."
Willow waited until she heard the swinging doors creak behind the man before she relaxed her shoulders and shakily reached for her glass. Clem looked curiously at the retreating figure then back to Will.
"Wow. That was weird."
"Yeah," Willow replied nonchalantly, sipping her beer. ‘That was too damn close,' she thought. ‘If he knows who I am... it's not safe for me here... good thing I'm leaving first thing.'
"I don't trust that guy. Hell, my longjohn's are holier than he is," Larry bellowed as he hauled himself to his feet and stretched. "Come on Clem, let's go follow him."
Willow stood and raised her empty mug in salute as the two staggered out of the saloon, leaning into each other for support.
"Goodnight Miss Maclay!" Clem called back over his shoulder.
"Goodnight Clem, Larry."
In the sudden quiet, Willow turned and saw that not only was she the last customer in the bar, but that Tara was standing only a few feet away from her. Willow froze, all of her earlier confidence evaporated as she looked at the blonde, who smiled warmly despite her obvious exhaustion. Before either could speak, a loud rip followed by an even louder thud drew their attention to where Donnie lay in a heap on the floor, tangled up in the red curtain. Tara rushed to his side, Willow close on her heels. Together they extricated him from his velvet cocoon.
"'M sorry Tare," he slurred, weeping and sniffling as his head lolled from side to side. "They made me... I din' wanna... that... fucking Warren!"
Donnie thrashed out and tried to push himself up off the floor, but his legs gave out underneath him. The two women stood and looked at each other. After a glance at the stairs, Tara cast an apologetic grimace at Willow, who nodded. Each grabbed one of Donnie's wrists and draped an arm across her shoulders. Laboring under the weight, they dragged him to his feet.
"Come on... Donnie... you... have to... walk," Tara pleaded, a hint of irritation rising in her voice as the three lurched erratically toward the staircase.
Willow firmly gripped Donnie's wrist in one hand and wrapped her other arm around his back, inhaling sharply as she felt it rest underneath Tara's. It took all of her concentration to focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other and hauling Donnie's bulk up each rung. With every step however, she could feel Tara's side pressing against her knuckles, tempting her to flex her fingers into the blonde's soft hip. They paused at the top to catch their breath and readjust their grips. The back of Tara's hand rubbed up against the side of Willow's ribcage, and the redhead jumped.
"Sorry," the blonde mumbled and turned her head, but not before Willow saw the blush in her cheeks.
"S'okay," she replied as her stomach fluttered wildly.
They dragged the now completely unconscious Donnie to his room and dumped him onto the bed. Tara removed his boots and threw a blanket over him before ushering Willow back downstairs.
"Thank you for your help, Mr. Smith. My brother... he's been under a lot of pressure... he's not usually-"
"Hey... it's alright," Willow whispered softly. "You don't have to explain... but you do have to stop calling me ‘Mr. Smith.' It's just Will. Okay?"
"Okay... just Will," Tara grinned shyly. "But only if you call me Tara."
"Deal," Willow agreed, holding out her hand to shake on it. Tara extended her own and they grasped lightly. Willow swallowed hard as the blonde's thumb caressed the back of her hand, and she felt her palm start to sweat. She reluctantly pulled away and nodded her head toward the door.
"I should... go... let you close up, cause it's late and you're probably tired. Well, of course you're tired, working all day. And I have to get up early, so we should be in bed- beds!... I mean, you in your bed and me in mine... to sleep... cause it's late, and I'll be moving on early, and... I already said that, didn't I?"
"Oh... are you leaving so soon?"
"First thing in the morning," the redhead admitted sadly, her voice hitching and her eyes reading the disappointment in Tara's.
"Well, it was um, nice m-meeting you Will. I h-hope you have a s-safe journey. Maybe you'll p-pass through here again sometime?"
"I'd like that," Willow whispered.
A war was brewing in her head and, knowing she wouldn't be able to sleep for a while, Willow decided to check on her horse and cart before heading back to her room. Logically she knew she had to leave Dusty Hollow, that she'd wasted valuable time by stopping in the first place, and that the danger of her identity being discovered was too great. Her brain was screaming at her to stay on track, but every other part of her...
As she rounded the corner of the barn, the sound of voices suddenly broke through Willow's thoughts and brought her to a dead stop. Two men were inside, standing beside her cart and talking quietly. After a moment she recognized the figures and hesitantly inched closer, straining her ears to catch their conversation.
"-he wasn't sure, though," the Sheriff said.
"You think he's going be a problem? Cause Andrew and I-" Jonathan started.
"No need, if you're right about him leaving. You are sure he's leaving, right?"
"Yes, absolutely, that's what he said."
"Then there's nothing to worry about."
"Still, it's too bad Preacher Rayne couldn't remember where he'd seen him," the desk clerk mumbled.
"Will you stop worrying, already! I have everything under control. This time next week, Donnie will be a fading memory, Wilkins will own Maclay's Saloon... and Madam Darla will own Tara."
As the two men walked out, laughing, Willow flattened herself against the side of the barn. Her entire body quivered with rage as she watched them shake hands and go their separate ways. She ducked inside and paced furiously, struggling to calm her racing heartbeat and cool her head. With a heavy sigh, she flipped back her coat and holstered the revolver she'd drawn when the two men had emerged from the barn. Walking over to one of the stalls, she crossed her arms over the rail and gazed into big brown eyes.
"What am I gonna do, Miss Horsey? I can't go shoot a sheriff, even if he is an evil conniving son of a bitch. I gotta do something, though. I can't just ride off... but how can I stay here if they're watching me?"
The horse bobbed her head and whinnied.
"You're a lotta help."
The animal repeated the gesture and Willow absently looked behind her. Squinting into the darkness, her eyes rested on an object leaning against the far wall of the barn. An idea formed in her mind and a grin spread across her face. She crossed the floor and grunted as she hefted the weight, then walked around to the back of her cart. With one mighty swing of the sledgehammer, the rear axle snapped in two and the cart creaked and sagged. Willow returned the tool to the wall and brushed her hands together. Standing with her hands on her hips, she nodded at her handiwork.
"Well, Miss Horsey... that settles it. For at least a couple more days, we ain't goin' nowhere."