Willow and Donnie rode along in silence, the former lost in her thoughts, the latter patiently waiting for his passenger to say something. Willow had worked through the impending conversation in her head for a good fifteen minutes before finally knocking on the shuttered doors of the saloon, but now that she had to actually say it, her nerves had her twisted in knots. Her brief conversation with Tara had helped steel her resolve, but almost completely unhinged her as well.
'Damn blue eyes got my brain all muddled... so what if she was concerned... and kind... and lookin' like a vision standing there with the sun streamin' in and makin' her all glowy-like- DAMMIT! Enough of this poetic hogwash... you just gotta explain the situation to Donnie, convince him to get outta town and take Tara with him, and then it's back on the trail to finish what you started.'
Willow shook her head and muttered 'stupid' under her breath. Donnie cast a bemused sideways glance at his companion but made no comment. The redhead looked over and smiled sheepishly before again furrowing her brow at how to address the subject. Attaining Xander's help had been a simple matter by comparison.
"So you want me to stall," he'd summarized.
"Is that a problem?"
"Nope. If it helps you in your noble, yet incredibly foolhardy decision to thwart the Sheriff's plans - and thank you for sparing me the details - then I'm all for it. But Will? These guys are seriously dangerous... are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"Sure I'm sure. Don't I look sure?"
He'd looked doubtful, but shrugged his shoulders and agreed to take his time making the repairs. He ruefully admitted to Will that no one would question his incompetence, and that it could take as much or as little time as needed.
"One more thing, Xander. Do not under any circumstances let any open flames near that cart, okay? Cause... you know... it's wood and... it has sentimental value."
Again the carpenter had agreed without questioning, and Willow had left for the saloon.
"You know, Will, we ain't goin' all that far. If you got somethin' to say, you might wanna get talkin' already."
Startled out of her daze, Willow looked around at the unfamiliar terrain they traversed. At some point past town they had come to a small river, which the road crossed and ran parallel to. The open plain to the south gave way on the north side of the stream to thick prairie grasses that stood taller than a man, obstructing the redhead's view even from her height on the wagon's perch. The redhead had given up on looking at the scenery and retreated into her thoughts, and was now caught wondering where the trees had come from. To her left, Donnie chuckled.
"It ain't much, I know, but it's the closest thing to a forest we got around here."
"It's pretty," Willow apprised. An instant later her eyes widened as she realized what she'd said. 'Boys don't say trees are pretty - pull yourself together!' Dropping her voice a fraction she amended, "I mean, it's a pretty good forest, you know, except for the lack of trees."
Donnie grinned and snorted before again turning to contemplate Willow curiously. He shook his head a fraction and cleared his throat.
"So what's on your mind?"
Willow shifted on the seat and took a deep breath.
"Right. Me with the talking, cause I said I wanted to talk and that's why I'm here - well, not here as in town, which we aren't even in anymore - but here here, riding along with you, and - say, this is a real nice wagon you got, by the way... why I'll bet you could ride this clear 'cross the country without busting a single spoke."
"Will? No offense, but you're babbling."
"Am I? I mean, yes... I am... I do that. Some people tell me it's endearing."
"I find it kinda irritating myself," Donnie proclaimed with a grin.
"Okay, then I'll get to the point," Willow said. "You ever thought about loadin' up this here wagon and just... going... somewhere?"
"This is your point?" Donnie asked with more than a little confusion.
"I'm working up to it," Willow assured him.
"Go... somewhere?" Donnie repeated.
"Yeah, you know... somewhere... somewhere that's not Dusty Hollow?"
"Why would I wanna leave Dusty Hollow? I got a business here. I got family and friends."
"Well, sure you do. I'm not suggesting you go off and leave your family. You should take Tara too."
"But... wait a minute... we don't wanna go nowhere," Donnie protested.
"Donnie," Willow began, her voice soft but firm. "Sometimes it isn't a matter of what you want to do. Sometimes it's a matter of what's best... for everyone."
Donnie pulled hard on the reins and the wagon lurched to a stop. He turned to fully face Willow, anger and not a little fear evident in his eyes.
"Just what the hell is goin' on here, Will? First you ask me if I'm thinkin' about leavin' town, and now you're tellin' me I should take my sister and get out?"
"It's the Sheriff," Willow ruefully admitted with a sigh. Before she realized what was happening, Donnie had stood and grabbed her by the lapels, yanking her upright.
"Are you workin' for Warren?!" he snarled, his face inches from her own. "You tell that bastard he ain't runnin' the Maclays outta town, you got it?!"
"I'm... not," Willow gasped as she desperately tried to keep her toes in contact with the wagon below her. "Donnie... I... wanna... help."
Donnie released his hold and the redhead collapsed on the seat with a thump. As she straightened her jacket, Donnie hopped off the wagon and began pacing alongside it, nervously raking one hand through his short hair. Willow carefully climbed down and walked around the back of the cart to face the young man, who stopped walking and looked at her suspiciously.
"You really don't work for Mears? Or the Mayor?"
"I don't, Donnie... honest. But I overheard some things - some pretty rotten things - and I really think it'd be best if you cleared outta town as soon as possible."
"No," Donnie stated flatly, shaking his head for emphasis. "They ain't getting' rid of me. They'll have to kill me first."
"They will," Willow stated with finality, locking eyes with Donnie.
The young man exhaled deeply and leaned back against the wagon. He took off his hat and picked at the brim.
"Well, ain't that the damnedest thing," he quietly said after a moment's pause.
"That's not all," Willow continued hesitantly. She waited until Donnie had looked back up and she knew she had his attention. "They're gonna take the saloon-"
"You mean they're gonna try," Donnie insisted defiantly, curling his hands into fists. "My Pa built that saloon, and I'll burn it to the ground before I let Wilkins get his grubby paws on it!"
"But nothing, Will. I ain't runnin' from them. They been pushin' folks around long enough, but they ain't gonna push me no more! I'm gonna stay and fight 'em til them or me is in a pine box."
"And what then, Donnie?" Willow demanded, marching up to stand in front of the enraged man. While the redhead admired Donnie's courage, she was uncomfortably aware of what his recklessness could lead to. "Have you thought about that? What's gonna happen to Tara if you go off and get yourself killed?"
The young man opened his mouth to speak, paused, and shut it again. Willow could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he contemplated the question.
"Tara can take of herself," he finally said with a touch of sadness, bowing his head. "Hell, if anything she'll be better off not having to look after me."
"She won't be better off, Donnie," Willow snapped bitterly. "She'll be an unmarried woman with no family, no property, and no money. No one will be able to stop them."
"Stop who?" Donnie demanded, the panic seeping into his voice matching that of his expression, which grew darker as Willow averted her gaze and he realized. "What are they plannin' on doin' to Tara?"
"They're gonna give her to someone called 'Madam Darla'," she said quietly.
Donnie paled for a split second before going beet red with rage. He turned sharply and drove his fist into the sidewall of the wagon, splintering the wood. He leaned heavily against the cart, staring at his bloodied knuckles while Willow moved closer and spoke gently.
"I understand you wanting to stand up to them... I really do. But sometimes the deck is just too stacked, and it's better to cut your losses and run. There's no shame in it, Donnie."
The young man was silent for a long time, and Willow was almost satisfied that she's gotten through to him.
"I ain't goin' nowhere," he said at last through clenched teeth. "If I run, they're just gonna go after someone else, and it'll never stop. Someone's gotta stand up to them, and as I see it, it might as well be me."
Willow opened her mouth to protest, but Donnie silenced her with a raised hand and a shake of his head.
"I'm much obliged for your concern, Will, but my mind's made up. I'm staying and that's all there is to it. But... I'm gonna need your help with something."
"Name it," Willow replied, feeling simultaneously defeated and inspired by the young man's resolve.
"I need you to help me convince Tara to leave town."