The first tinge of golden rays bled through the brilliant blue of the morning sky, and Willow slowed Miss Horsey to a brisk walk. In her haste to put a fair distance between them and Dusty Hollow, she had pushed the animal harder than she was accustomed to. Miss Horsey had neither faltered nor complained, however, and Willow idly wondered if the horse sensed the urgency of the situation. The trail north was well worn and even, and if she had to venture a guess, Willow would say that they'd traveled a good forty miles. Still, it would be a day and a bit before they reached their first destination.
Willow rolled her neck and shoulders to dispel the tension she'd accumulated over the past hours. The adrenaline of the previous evening's events had carried her through the night, but morning found her bone weary. Over the swaying grasses she spied a copse of trees in the distance, and hoped there might be a stream nearby. A quick breakfast and a strong pot of coffee would be just the thing to rejuvenate her. She peered back at her passenger, who continued to sleep soundly, though Willow noted that the jarring ride had shifted her further toward the back of the cart, and the bruise at Tara's right temple was plainly visible.
Sure, knock her out. Great plan!
The redhead slowed Miss Horsey further as they made their way toward the trees. As they approached, she could hear the sound of rushing water growing louder.
"Whoa there," she called softly, and Miss Horsey stilled in sight of the stream. With another cursory glance at Tara, Willow climbed down from her perch and set about unhitching the animal from her harness. She indicated the water with a jerk of her head. "Go on then."
The horse stood and stared at Willow.
"What are you waiting for? Go on," she said, as the horse continued to look at her.
Not exactly at me, Willow thought to herself. More like...past me...over my shoulder.
Willow turned just in time to duck out of the way of the saddlebag aimed at her head. The force of the swing spun Tara full circle, and Willow jumped backwards as the blonde set herself for another try.
"Now Tara, I know you're mad," the redhead stated evenly, bobbing and weaving to avoid presenting an easy target. The barmaid followed step for step, tightening her grip on one of the leather pouches, the other swaying back and forth like a pendulum gathering momentum. "But if we could just talk about-hey!"
The heavy leather smacked Willow's left shoulder, knocking her sharply to the right. Only some fancy footwork kept her upright, and in Tara's next attempt, Willow deftly moved under the swing and lunged forward, into Tara's back. She caught the blonde around the waist with one arm and wrestled the saddlebag away with her free hand.
"Let go of me!" the irate woman said, her normally warm voice icy.
"You gonna take another swing at me?" Willow countered, not relaxing her hold at all.
"Yes!" Tara replied at once.
"Then I ain't lettin' go."
"Fine," Tara stated through gritted teeth.
She started marching back down the trail, dragging Willow with her. The redhead held on tighter to Tara's waist, but was only able to slow the latter's progress, not halt it. Willow tried digging in her heels, but they simply skidded over the hard-packed earth.
"Tara...come on! Can't we just talk about this? Will you...just...stop already!"
The blonde continued to trudge forward, leaning forward with the effort to counter Willow's weight, slight as it was.
"Don't be so damn stubborn!" Willow said, looking back to see Miss Horsey bobbing her head in what appeared to be amusement. "Fine, you want to walk home, be my guest!"
As soon as Willow let go, Tara fell face first onto the ground. She rolled onto her back and sat up, spitting out a mouthful of dust and glaring at the redhead, who glared back in return.
"It's fifty miles that way!" Willow shouted, poking her finger down the trail from whence they'd come. "So you better get started. Soon as the sun's up it'll be hotter than blazes, and there ain't nothin' between here and Dusty Hollow but weeds and coyotes!"
Tara stared hard, her face red with anger, and pushed herself to her feet. Willow watched with growing apprehension as the blonde curled her hands into fists. They stood five feet apart, and the redhead pondered making a run for the trees. She wasn't at all sure she could climb up one before Tara caught her, and even if she could, what then?
"You," Tara ground out. "You...scoundrel!"
"I can explain?"
"You know, yesterday started out like any other day," Tara said, her voice rising in what Willow could only assume was bordering on hysteria. "Making breakfast, washing up, doing laundry. And then...you show up and want me to help you and Donnie cheat at poker, and obviously that didn't go over so well, since the next thing I know everyone's fighting and I'm being kidnapped by the town's main whore. And then you come to rescue me, and...and you kissed me, but oh, no...can't tell Tara what's going on! And then! Then I find out from the cavalry that you're a wanted criminal, and that apparently I'm the last to know, since you've roped Donnie and Faith and Xander and who knows who else into helping you escape, but do you just escape? No! You have to go and kidnap me. For the second time in one night!"
"I know it sounds bad," Willow soothed, holding her hands out in front of her. She remembered Donnie's remark about 'ornery Tara' and no longer wished to see it. It was kinda scary, especially when the blonde raised one hand and gingerly touched her temple before directing furious eyes at Willow.
"You hit me!"
"Well now," Willow hedged.
"Who did it? You or Donnie?" Tara demanded.
"See, the important thing is that you're okay," Willow insisted, cringing under the ferocious glare. She saw something else in Tara's eyes that made her pause. There was something besides the anger: hurt. She didn't think it was a physical pain, but just to be certain, she gently asked "you are okay, right?"
"Like you care," Tara muttered, her head bowed, her shoulders slouching. She kicked at a clump of dirt.
"I do care!" Willow protested. "Dammit, Tara, don't you know I shoulda left town the day after I got here, but as soon as I found out what they was plannin', I couldn't. I got the law after me in five, maybe six states, and all I could think about-nothing else, nothing was as important as helping you. Nothing matters half as much."
"Then why didn't you tell me what you were doing?" Tara asked, her ire rising again. "You can't just go around kidnapping people."
"So," Willow started, relaxing a bit as Tara dropped her aggressive stance and crossed her arms over her chest, "if I'd told you that Wilkins and the Sheriff were planning to kill Donnie, take your land, and hand you over to...that woman...and that the only way to keep you safe was to get you out of town 'til we could figure out a way to take them down, you'd have come along willingly?"
Tara's forehead creased and she averted her eyes. "Um..."
"That's what I thought."
"But that doesn't give you the right-," Tara suddenly snapped her head up and rushed toward Willow. "They're going to kill Donnie? And you left him there? We have to go back!"
"He'll be fine," Willow insisted, trotting after Tara, who had raced over to the stream and was trying to drag an unwilling Miss Horsey away from the water. "He had to stay or they could've just taken the land as abandoned property. The cavalry will keep the peace, and they won't leave long as they think I'm comin' back."
"Are you going back?" Tara asked, giving up and patting the horse's flank. She studiously avoided looking at the redhead as she posed her query, but her curiosity was evident in her voice.
"Of course. I made a promise."
Tara finally let her gaze meet Willow's, and nodded at the sincerity.
"You keep your promises?"
"Always," Willow answered evenly.
"I don't like being kept in the dark," Tara warned.
"I'm sorry, Tara. We should have told you."
Tara nodded and stepped up to the redhead. She took Willow's hands in hers.
"Tell me who hit me."
Willow squirmed, but didn't break eye contact. "I can't do that."
"That would require breaking a promise," Willow said apologetically. She felt Tara squeeze her hands tightly, and she grinned and squeezed back. Tara's lips curled up on one side, and her eyes dropped to their joined hands. Willow realized too late what the barmaid was doing, and pulled her hands away, covering the gesture by pointing toward the wagon. "I was uh, gonna make some coffee and breakfast before we get back on the road. You hungry?"
"Mmhm," Tara murmured, an enigmatic smile on her face as she followed the redhead to the cart. Willow filled a bucket with oats for Miss Horsey while Tara built a small fire, and together they cooked up a kettle of oatmeal and large pot of coffee. Both were famished, and the meal passed in silence.
"So where are you taking me?" the blonde asked as they took their dishes to the stream for washing.
"Some folks I know got a spread another day's ride from here."
"They won't mind us showing up unannounced?"
"Nah, they always got plenty of room. It's kind of a collective farm. Officially it's the DCP, but they call it the Kitten Ranch."