Will peered around the corner of the feed store and paused for a moment before scurrying across the street, pulling Tara along by the hand.
"Will, what's this all about?"
"I'll explain everything, I promise," the young man answered as he continued to guide them in the direction of the saloon, keeping to the back of the buildings. "But first we gotta get someplace safe."
Tara felt the exhaustion of the day's events and struggled to keep up with the redhead, who continued to drag her through back lots, crouching low and darting his head around every few yards. Why were they skulking about like criminals? Why hadn't they just walked down the street? And why had Darla and her goon kidnapped her?
Actually, she pretty much knew the answer to the last question, as Darla had all but told her when they'd reached the whorehouse. The woman's overly pleasant 'welcome to your new home' had seemed appallingly inappropriate considering the circumstances.
'Welcome to your prison' would be more to the point, the blonde mused, shuddering at the thought. She'd long suspected that not every woman there was a willing participant, but to actually learn that fact firsthand, well...she realized that she'd been ridiculously na´ve. Darla had been in business going on five years now, and Tara knew that she kept company with the Mayor and several of the town's bigwigs. They had to know what was going on.
Tara ran into Will's back as he pulled to a stop at the fence surrounding her back yard. He climbed over, then turned and offered his arms. Tara crossed hers over her chest and looked him in the eyes.
"Tell me what's going on," she demanded.
Will's eyes darted toward the saloon, which seemed unusually dark and quiet for the time of night. He turned back to Tara and leaned across the fence, pulling her into a kiss that left her thoroughly discombobulated. He took her hands and squeezed them tightly.
"I swear, Tara, I'll tell you everything, but right now I need you to trust me."
Tara's concern softened her expression as she took in Will's demeanor. He looked like a frightened rabbit cornered by wolves. She'd seen the same expression on his face that first night he'd been in town, when the Sheriff had interrogated him.
"You're in trouble, aren't you?"
"Yes," he breathed.
Tara looked him in the eyes, and though she knew on some level that she should be wary-she hardly knew him, after all-there was something in his eyes, in the way he spoke, in the way he touched her that made her set caution aside.
"What can I do?"
He closed his eyes then, and murmured 'thank you' into her hands, which he lifted to his lips to place whisper-soft kisses upon. He helped Tara over the fence, freeing the back of her dress when it became tangled in the thick shrubbery.
"Go inside, find Donnie, and bring him back here. There may still be people inside, but don't let no one else know that I'm out here. In fact, don't let on that you know me at all, okay?"
"Okay," Tara nodded, brushing off her skirt and stepping purposefully up the path. She opened the back door and was startled to see Faith behind the bar, wiping down the surface and washing glasses while Donnie served drinks to a group of men in U.S. Cavalry uniforms, who seemed to have made themselves at home. They had pushed several tables together and were poring over a handful of maps and papers, but all eyes turned at the sound of the door creaking open.
"Tara, there you are!" Donnie exclaimed, his voice betraying a hint of nervousness. "Did you have a nice visit with Anya?"
Tara caught his raised eyebrows silently pleading for her to play along. Over his shoulder she could see a similar expression on Faith's face.
"I did, Donnie, thank you. She sends her regards."
"You live here, ma'am?" one of the men asked, and Tara surmised from the number of gold bars on his sleeves that he was in charge.
"My sister, Tara," Donnie explained before she could speak. He turned to her and continued, "These here men are trackin' the Red Bandit."
"Lieutenant Finn," the officer introduced himself with a stiff bow. "Have you seen this man?" he asked, holding out a wanted poster.
Tara took the paper in trembling hands and sucked in a breath. She looked up at Donnie, who nodded slightly.
"I...I'm not certain. There was a young man-"
"That Smith feller, right?" Donnie interjected. "That's what I told 'em. Saw him playin' cards with Warren, but he must've run off after the fight started."
"Mister Maclay, if you please," Lieutenant Finn snapped. "Miss Maclay, if you have any information regarding the whereabouts of this man, I implore you to tell us. Despite his youth, he is a dangerous criminal, I assure you."
Tara contemplated the artist's rendering, and could see a similarity in the wild-eyed glare of the subject and Will's own frightened countenance moments before. They were clearly one and the same, but what did it mean? Donnie did not seem at all surprised by this turn of events, and was in fact hiding the familiarity with which they were acquainted with Will Smith. Had Will told him something? Was it all a misunderstanding? Tara had always considered herself a law-abiding citizen, and the logical portion of her brain opined that she should tell the lieutenant what he wanted to know. If it was simply a case of mistaken identity it could be cleared up, with no harm done.
The larger part of her mind won out. Following the recent example of her own situation and her suspicions regarding the Mayor, she knew that those in authority did not always do the right thing themselves. Will had asked her to trust him, and she was acutely aware of just how much trust he had placed in her. He'd been nothing but kind and considerate toward her, and she felt utterly safe and protected when he was around. She handed the poster back.
"I'm sorry, I can't help you."
She saw Donnie exhale deeply, and the lieutenant shook his head and turned his attention back to his men.
"Miller should have the command center established in the Sheriff's office by now, and will interrogate the prisoner once he regains consciousness. Gates, your team will cover the west side of town...I want every building searched, and every occupant questioned. The rest of you are with me, we'll take the east side and meet back at the Sheriff's."
The men folded up their maps and headed out the doors. Tara realized with relief that they must have already searched the saloon, since none of the men stayed behind. As soon as the doors were closed, Tara grabbed her brother's arm.
"He's out back, come on!"
Donnie pulled Tara to a stop and held her shoulders.
"I'll go get him. I want you to go over to Xander and Anya's and wait for us there. Don't argue with me, Tara," he stated when she opened her mouth, ready to protest. "As soon as Warren gets a hold of one of his pals, Finn's gonna know we been lyin' to him. We'll be right behind you."
Tara nodded her acquiescence. She paused at the door and looked over her shoulder, but Donnie was already gone. Faith crossed the floor and handed Tara her shawl.
"It'll be okay," the brunette insisted.
Tara hoped her friend was right, but was more than a little unnerved by how everyone seemed to know more than she. It was as though she had been thrust onto a stage in mid-act, without knowing any of her lines or even what play they were performing. Under the circumstances, there seemed to be nothing to do but improvise.
I hope they know what they're doing. I hope I know what I'm doing.
Willow had bitten the nail on her right thumb down to the quick, and was pacing the path behind the wall in anxious impatience when she heard men's voices from the street. Daring to look out around the side of the building, she saw a few of the cavalrymen walking down the street, and quickly ducked back out of view. Soon she heard the sound of knocking on doors coming from either direction, and surmised that they had split up to cover both sides of town. Belatedly she heard boots crunching on gravel and spun around. Donnie covered her mouth to stifle her startled yelp.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Don't sneak up on a guy, Donnie."
"Sorry, Will. They're doing a house-by-house search. I sent Tara over to Xander's, but I don't know how we're gonna get you over there without bein' seen," Donnie said as they scampered up the path and into the saloon. Faith stood at one of the front windows, peeking through the slats of the tightly drawn shutters.
"Faith? What are you doing here?" Willow asked.
"And miss all the fun?" she replied with a grin. "I knew something was going to happen tonight, but this? This was more than I expected, Red-or should I say Red Bandit?"
"Damn it all! Is there anyone in this town who don't know who I am?" Willow fumed.
"Well, I'm pretty sure Tara didn't," Faith offered. "That is, before the Lieutenant showed her your picture."
Willow cringed and raised a hand to her forehead.
That's just...great. Now they all know my secret and...wait a minute.
Donnie and Faith looked at each other and back to the redhead, who had lowered her hand and was staring at Faith. Donnie scrunched up his face.
"Uh, Will, why're you eyeballin' my girl like that?"
Willow had a wicked grin on her face when she turned to Donnie.
"I think I know how I'm gonna get past that posse."