"What happened then, Miss?" one of the girls asked breathlessly.
Donnie saw the movement and shouted out a warning. In one smooth motion, Willow's hand shot out, grabbed the nearest bottle of gin, and whacked Andrew on the side of the head. He dropped like a stone, followed only a split second later by the mortician, who fainted clean away at the sight of Andrew's head gushing blood. Seeing his conspirators fall on either side, Warren turned to flee the room. Before he'd gone two steps, Donnie intercepted him with a strong right hook to the jaw.
The two men staggered through the curtain and out into the barroom, where the fight was joined by a dozen others coming to the aid of one side or the other; in some cases simply hashing out their own issues amidst the chaos. Willow saw Xander and Larry enter the fray before her eyes fell on Tara, standing at the far end of the room, clutching a tray to her chest.
"Tara!" Will shouted above the din, shoving a drunken brawler aside and craning her neck over the mob. "Get outta here!"
To her immense relief, the blonde heard and immediately headed for the front doors. Willow saw a glass sail across the room and shatter against the wall where Tara had been standing. Her ease was short-lived, however. Over the cacaphony of glass and wood breaking, fists colliding with faces, and curses, Willow heard one sound that made her blood run cold.
The redhead looked through one the large plate glass windows just in time to see Tara's terrified eyes staring back at her. A large man dressed all in black covered the screaming barmaid's mouth with one hand and dragged her to a waiting carriage, where he shoved her inside before climbing onto the seat and driving away in a cloud of dust. Willow frantically pushed her way through the crowd, indiscriminately throwing punches at anyone who got in her way. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as she crossed the floor, her vision blurring with tears. By the time she lurched through the swinging doors and onto the porch, the carriage was gone.
Willow's eyes followed the trail of settling dust to where it disappeared down Main Street and around a corner. Pulling out one Smith & Wesson, she checked the cylinder, spinning it sharply and slamming it closed. She stalked off the porch in a fury and took off at a dead run down the block, but barely made it twenty yards before skidding to a stop.
Willow sprinted back to the saloon, the sound of the cavalry horses' hooves thundering behind her. The fight was already starting to wind down when she raced up to Xander, who was in the midst of punching a rejuvenated Spike.
"I need my cart, now!"
"It's all hitched up and waiting for you by my shop," the carpenter replied, gingerly flexing his right hand and wincing.
"Thanks," Willow hissed, searching the room for Donnie, who was leaning heavily against the piano. Warren lay facedown in a heap at his feet, groaning miserably. Willow grabbed Donnie by the arm and dragged him through the back door.
"What're you doin' Will? Hey, did you see me beat the tar outta Warren?" Donnie grinned.
"Yeah, that was great," Willow said. "I gotta problem, Donnie. There's some men who're gonna be walkin' in here any second lookin' for me...lawmen."
Donnie regarded his friend seriously. He looked back at the door, and could hear an unfamiliar voice demanding information. Without another moment's hesitation, Donnie led Willow through the back gate, into the garden, past the stone wall, and into the sod house.
"Whadda they want you for?"
Willow took a deep breath.
"I'm the Red Bandit."
Her revelation was met with utter silence, and Willow wished there was more light streaming in through the small window to better gauge Donnie's reaction. Whatever she was expecting, however, it was not the hearty chuckle that seemed unnaturally loud in the small enclosure.
"Aw hell, Will, I knew that. Xander couldn't stop talkin' about it last night, though at the time I thought it was just the liquor."
"You ain't mad?"
"Nah, it ain't none of my business. 'Sides, I figure you ain't old enough to be no army deserter, so for all I know, none of that other stuff is true, neither."
Willow shifted uncomfortably. "Some of it is true, Donnie. I've broke some laws, but I swear it's for a good reason."
"Well then, that's good enough for me. You can't be all bad, riskin' your neck for me an' Tara-"
"Tara!" Willow exclaimed. "I nearly forgot, Donnie, they took her!"
"What?! Who? When?"
"Some big guy put her in a black carriage and headed north past the feed store. I was goin' after 'em when the cavalry showed up."
"Darla," Donnie seethed. "We gotta get her back!"
"I know that," Willow snapped. "But if I show my face out there now, I'm gonna get arrested. We need a plan."
One the girls groaned and shook her head. The storyteller stopped and stared hard at her.
Knowing they had to do something to throw off the cavalry, and keep the Sheriff from going after Donnie, Willow and Donnie crept quietly back up the pathway to the back door. Willow pressed her ear to the wood and listened as Lieutenant Finn interrogated the people inside. She heard footsteps approaching and flattened herself against the wall just before the door swung open.
"You there! What are doing out here?"
"Just visiting the privy," Donnie smoothly lied, stepping to the side to draw the officer's attention away from Willow's hiding place. "Have those roughnecks stopped tearing apart my saloon?"
The officer squinted past Donnie into the yard, which appeared empty. "You're the owner?"
"Yes, sir. I'm Donnie Maclay. I owe you gentlemen a drink for puttin' a stop to that brawl."
Willow waited for the two to head inside before creeping to the side of the yard and hopping over the short fence. She slithered along the wall and peeked around the corner. A cavalryman stood guard on the porch. Realizing there was no way past him, Willow went back through the garden behind the saloon and out the other side, keeping to the shadows as she made a long arch around the block. When she looked back down the street, the officer was peering into the saloon, and she sprinted across the deserted street.
She followed the directions Donnie had hastily given her until she was standing in front of an ornately decorated two-story building. With Donnie keeping the cavalry occupied, she and Tara would have to make a run for it, but luckily it wasn't too far from the saloon.
She could see lights flickering through the red draperies in the front windows as she edged up the walkway to the front porch, where she paused to look behind her. The street behind her was empty; and there was no sound coming from within the house. She pulled the chain and heard the clang of the bell inside. Snatching off her hat, she smoothed down her hair and tried to look nonchalant. Just as she was reaching for the chain again, the door swung open.
"Hi!" she said, then coughed and lowered her voice. "Hi, I um-"
"We're closed," the haughty brunette stated, shutting the door in Willow's face.
Willow blinked several times, shocked. She pulled the chain again, then a third time. After pounding on the door long enough for her knuckles to start aching, the door was jerked open, and she fell forward against the man standing in the threshold.
"The lady told you we're closed," he stated in a thick Irish accent.
"But...I've got money," Willow said, trying to peer around the large man. "Come on, give a guy a break."
"I said beat it, kid," the man said, shoving Willow in the chest and slamming the door.
Willow fell off the porch and landed on her back in the grass. She ripped out a clump of sod and threw it at the closed door. Her lips quivered and she fought down her tears, trying not to dwell on what might be happening to Tara at that very moment...what might happen if she didn't rescue the blonde from the house of vice.
The lights on the first floor went out as she struggled to her feet, determined to find some way inside. She walked around the side of the building, ducking down low to avoid the windows, and looking up at the second floor rooms, where some light still shone. The back of the house lay in darkness, and she felt along the wall for a trellis or something to climb up. She was nearing the far corner when her hand fell on something soft. She froze.
Realizing where her hand lay, Willow jerked it back and thanked the darkness for hiding her blush.
"What are you doing here?" Tara whispered.
With her eyes adjusting to the dim light, Willow could see the grin spread across Tara's face, and she looked up at the wall the see the drain spout Tara had climbed down. She was still staring at it in awed surprise when she felt soft lips brush her cheek in a tender kiss.
"My hero," Tara breathed.
Willow could have stood there for hours, simply gazing at the blonde, but she knew they had to leave before Tara's absence was discovered. Still, she couldn't stop herself from kissing Tara once more, her heart fluttering madly when Tara kissed her back.
"We need to go now," she said at last.
"I know," Tara replied, though neither stepped away from their embrace.
"They didn't...hurt you?" Willow whispered, her voice raspy with emotion.
"No," Tara shook her head. "But..."
"But what?" Willow gently coaxed when Tara did not continue.
"The whole time, all I could think of was getting back to you, and hoping you'd find me."
Willow took Tara's face in her hands and looked her square in the eye.
"I'll always find you."
Meanwhile, back at the saloon Donnie was fending off questions about Will Smith. Several patrons had already admitted to seeing the young man, but as yet no one had been able to reveal any more information. Xander, Clem and Larry had helpfully provided the cavalry with a description of their card game with the fugitive, down to the tiniest, most useless detail, but no one would admit to knowing where the redhead was. Everything was going smoothly until Warren began to stir. Donnie knew the Sheriff would spill the beans if he didn't think fast.
"That's the one who started it all!" Donnie shouted, pointing at the Mears.
"You son of a bitch, I'm gonna kill you!" Warren spat, lunging at Donnie.
Finn stopped him with a firm hand to the chest.
"Get your hands off me," the Sheriff sneered, slapping at Finn's arm. In a heartbeat, Warren's face was pressed against the nearest wall, his arm bent painfully behind his back. "I don't know who you are, son, but you're gonna regret this; I'm Sheriff of this town!"
Finn released his hold and spun Mears around.
"If you're the Sheriff, where's your badge?"
Warren pulled back his jacket and looked down at this vest, but the brass star was gone. Donnie watched in amazement as Larry palmed the piece of metal to Clem, who casually took off his hat to scratch his head, slipped the badge inside, and placed the hat firmly back in place. The maneuver had gone unseen by Warren and the cavalry.
"Someone must've taken it," Warren sputtered. "But I'm the Sheriff, ask anyone!"
As luck would have it, everyone still conscious enough to answer questions had ample reason to dislike Mears, and not a single one spoke up.
"Last I saw," Donnie told Finn, "that redheaded feller you're lookin' for was playin' cards with Warren here, and accused him of cheating. That's when Warren started the fight."
"That's a damned lie!" Mears retorted, again making a move toward Donnie.
Finn's lips curled in disgust and he nodded to two of his men, who each grabbed one of Warren's arms. The Lieutenant stared bullets at Mears.
"I don't know which is worse-impersonating a Sheriff or cheating at cards-but right now, I am the law in this town, and you would do well to keep your mouth shut."
Unfortunately for him, Warren was used to having things his way in Dusty Hollow, so he did the natural thing under the circumstances: he broke out of one officer's hold and aimed a punch at Riley's head. It never landed. Just before he blacked out, he heard Finn's booming voice.
"We will tear this town apart if we have to, but we are not leaving until we have Will Smith in custody!"