"More plans," one of the girls tutted softly.
"I think I know how I'm gonna get past that posse," Willow said. "Faith, did you talk to them? I mean, do they know who you are?"
"Nope, they were too busy hauling Warren away to pay me any notice. And I was too busy trying not to laugh to offer."
"Perfect," Willow said, backing away from the pair and pointing over her shoulder. "I just need to run upstairs right quick."
Donnie and Faith watched in confusion as the redhead raced up the stairs two at a time and went into Tara's room. Donnie joined Faith at the window, and together they monitored the slow progression of one group of cavalry down the street. At the rate they were going, they wouldn't get to Xander's for a while yet, but they noted that at each building, two of the men would enter while one stood guard at the door. There was no way past without being spotted. Donnie was contemplating telling Will to just hide out upstairs when he heard the redhead descending the staircase and glanced back. What he saw made him do a double take, blink repeatedly, rub his eyes, shake his head, and finally drop his jaw in the vicinity of the floor. To his side, Faith whistled one long, low note.
"W-Will?" Donnie stammered, his voice shaky.
"What do you think?" Willow replied, executing a twirl that fanned out the dress she wore, her trousers visible underneath until the long skirt flowed to a stop, its hem brushing the floor. "The way I figure it, since they seen Faith in here, and if you walk me over to Xander's-"
"They'll think it's me," Faith finished with a chuckle. "Oh, you'll need a bonnet!"
"Already got it," Willow said, holding it up and pulling it down over her head so that it completely hid her hair and most of her face. She fumbled with the ribbon until Faith scoffed and took over, tying a perfect bow.
Donnie continued to gape in obvious discomfort at the sight of the boy wearing his sister's dress.
"Are you sure about this, Will? I mean...it's kinda...weird."
"Don't be silly, Donnie," Faith said. "Remember that acting troupe that came through town several years back? They were all men."
"Well yeah," Donnie agreed half-heartedly. "But the ones playin' the lady roles...you could still tell they was men. No offense, Will, but in that get-up you really look like a girl."
Willow hid her smile at the irony of the situation. In truth, Donnie's reaction worried her. If he felt this way now, what would he think if he knew she really was a girl?
Not to mention Tara...no, Willow thought to herself. They ain't gonna know, 'cause as soon as things are set to rights, I'd best be goin' on my way. Better to hurt her a little now than to have her come to hate me.
"Can you think of another way?" Will asked Donnie. He didn't answer, which told her all she needed to know. "I got somethin' that needs to be done, and it can't wait no more. Now I can take Tara with me; I know a place a couple days ride from here where she'll be safe from Darla and her kind. Once I take care of my business, I can come back and help you take care of yours."
"What if it's too late by then?" Faith asked. "Once the cavalry leaves, Warren and my father are going to come after Donnie."
"So you keep 'em here. Make somethin' up. Tell 'em I threatened you. Hell, tell 'em Tara and I eloped and we'll be back in a week's time. They'll stick around, believe me."
"They want you that bad?" Donnie asked, and at Willow's nod, he took a step toward the redhead. "If you let any harm come to my sister, I'll tell them boys ever'thing and come after you myself."
"Fair enough," Willow replied seriously. "You think we can convince Tara to go?"
"We're gonna have to, cause her stayin' here is not an option right now. Darla's gonna be madder'n a mute at a hog callin' contest once she finds out Tara's missin,' and next time they might do more than just take her."
Willow held Donnie's gaze and nodded again, fully aware of what people like that were capable of. Donnie blew out a deep breath and hesitantly held out the crook of his arm. Willow placed her hand through it and Faith opened the door for them, keeping herself hidden inside.
The redhead kept her face down as they traversed the street and made haste to Xander's. The carpenter was watching for them, and after he did his own double take, he waved them around the side of the building, where Tara stood next to Will's cart, patting Miss Horsey's neck. She looked over the animal's back as her brother came into view, and her eyes widened as she took in the sight of the redhead. Miss Horsey turned toward the newcomers, leaving Tara's hand patting the air for several moments for she regained most of her senses.
"That's what your brother said," Willow chuckled, climbing into the back of the cart.
Donnie hopped onto the driver's perch and pulled Tara up. In her obvious state of fluster, she didn't question either of them, but she shifted in her seat to continue staring at Will. Donnie shook the reins, and Miss Horsey stepped off. They had barely gone a hundred feet when the officer Donnie recognized as Gates crossed the street to halt them.
"Mister Maclay? May I ask where you're headed at this time of night?"
"Just taking our hired girl home," Donnie gestured toward the back of the cart, where Willow was curled up with her head on a sack of grain, her bonnet obscuring most of her features. "Normally she'd walk, but she was understandably shaken up about a wanted criminal on the loose."
"Very well," Gates replied, sensing nothing out of the ordinary and waving them on.
Donnie waited until they were well out of town before pulling the wagon to a stop and jumping down from his seat. He peered down the trail, and in the dim light of the cloudy moon could see no one following them.
"All's clear," he whispered, and Willow leapt off the cart, yanking off her bonnet and tossing it into the back.
"Can you get back okay?" she asked Donnie in a hushed voice. Tara had climbed down from the wagon and walked around the side, her wide eyes still focused solely on Willow as the redhead squirmed to get the dress off over her regular clothes. She finally pulled it free, folded it neatly, and placed it on the discarded bonnet.
"Yeah, I'll be fine. You know where you're goin'?"
"Uh huh, but it's best if you don't. Don't worry, Donnie, I'll keep her safe."
Willow climbed onto the driver's perch, and with the sun behind her streaming through her brilliant red mane-which seemed to shimmer and blaze in the light-she held out her hand to Tara, who took it without question and allowed herself to be pulled up alongside her savior.
"You're coming with me," Will stated, and Tara threw her arms around the slim, yet surprisingly strong shoulders.
"Of course, my love," Tara gushed. "If you think it best, it must be so."
They embraced, their hearts beating as one, and kissed deeply.
"Wait a minute. I thought it was night? When did the sun rise?"
"Don't worry, Donnie, I'll keep her safe."
"Wait a minute," Tara said, shaking her head. "Where are you going?" she asked Willow, but didn't wait for an answer. "Keep who safe? What is going on?" she demanded, stressing each syllable.
"You're coming with me," Will stated.
"No, I'm not," Tara answered with equal determination.
"Not until one of you tells me what's happening...not tomorrow, not 'soon'...now."
"Tara, we don't have time for this!" Donnie hissed, when it was obvious that Will didn't know what to do. "Darla must've figured out you're gone by now, so 'less'n you wanna be kidnapped again, you'll git on up there and...git!"
Will took a step toward Tara, who backed up in answer.
"Tara, please!" the redhead implored, taking another step forward.
The blonde took another step back, and when she realized they had no intention of telling her anything, she started marching back to town. She'd taken all of seven steps when she heard them scrambling after her, and turned, assuming at least one of them had seen reason. All she saw in the darkness was the fist flying at her; all she heard was an apologetic 'sorry' in the instant before she blacked out.
The appalled girls began clamoring as one.
"She'll never know."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. She didn't see it coming."
"Then...won't she just blame both of us?"
Donnie and Willow looked worriedly at each other as they lay Tara's inert form on the ground. Willow spread several blankets over the wagon floor, and left another one folded for a pillow, and together they lifted Tara as gently as possible onto the makeshift bed. They both hopped down and looked at the blonde, whose only movement was her chest rising and falling.
"I'm just glad I won't be around when she wakes up," Donnie admitted with a shudder that Willow hoped was from the chill night air.
"I promise I'll never tell," Willow said.
"I promise I'll never tell, neither," Donnie echoed, spitting into his palm and holding out his hand.
Willow repeated the gesture and they shook hands. Donnie looked over his shoulder toward Dusty Hollow, allowing Willow to scrunch up her face and hastily wipe her hand on her pants.
"You'd best be on your way," Donnie said, and with a nod, Willow took her seat. "One week, right?"
"One week," Willow confirmed. She glanced down at Tara, then turned steely eyes on the trail ahead, and snapped the reins.