After soliciting repeated promises from Tara that she would not turn the wagon around and head back to Dusty Hollow, Willow gratefully turned over the reins and climbed into the back for a nap. Exhausted, she fell into a deep slumber, lulled by the rocking of the buckboard. When she awoke, the sun was high in the sky, and she was startled to find the wagon stopped and Tara nowhere in sight. She jumped to her feet and scanned the landscape in a panic. Rolling green hills broke the horizon to the north and east, and the grasslands were dotted with shrubs and trees.
"Tara!" she cried out, her brain concocting sundry explanations for the blonde's absence. She could've been waiting for me to go to sleep so she could run off, or maybe she was kidnapped again-oh boy, that would really make her mad-or she could've been eaten by a bear-are there bears out here? "TARA!"
She heard a rustling off the trail to her left, and spun to see wide blue eyes peeking at her over the top of a shrub.
"Just a m-minute," the barmaid stammered, her head disappearing again.
Willow turned away quickly, rolled her eyes at her own stupidity, and realized with some discomfort that the call of nature was hollerin' awful loud at her too. Tara returned, a slight blush pinking her cheeks. Willow grimaced apologetically.
"Sorry, I just saw you were gone and uh...sorry. I'm just gonna..." Willow waved her hand in the direction of another cluster of bushes and beat a hasty retreat. Before dropping her drawers, she checked over her shoulder to ensure the blonde wasn't watching, but Tara seemed to be poking around in the bushes on the other side of the buckboard. Her business attended to, Willow trotted back to the wagon and offered Miss Horsey a drink of water from one of the buckets they'd filled at the stream that morning. By the time she returned the bucket to its place, Tara had come back, clutching her bonnet in one hand and smiling widely. As they took their seats side by side on the perch, Tara opened the bonnet to reveal several handfuls of plump blackberries.
"Ooh!" Willow exclaimed, helping herself to several. "Yum."
They rode on through to late afternoon, enjoying the changing scenery and the clear day. Despite the strong rays of the sun, the early fall breeze was cool. Will let the reins rest slack on his lap, allowing Miss Horsey to set her own pace. Despite the nagging thought that she should, Tara found it impossible to stay mad at the boy, even when the bruise at her temple began to throb. As the sun began its slow descent, they talked of travel; Tara asked Will about his adventures, and was regaled with increasingly wild stories of daring-do.
"You jumped off of a moving train," the blonde stated with no small amount of doubt evident in her voice.
"Had to. I'd only crawled into the car to take a snooze."
"How fast was it going?"
"Had to be thirty, forty miles an hour," the redhead said, puffing out his chest. "Soon as that whistle blew I woke up, swung open the freight door, and sure enough, Wheeling's barely a speck behind us."
"Why didn't you just stay on it?" Tara asked, her curiosity piqued even if she did question the story's authenticity.
"Well I did consider that, but you see, that train was headin' back to Pittsburgh, and I'd already been there," he winked.
Tara laughed with delight, while Will tossed a blackberry into the air and caught it in his mouth, grinning ear-to-ear before biting into the ripe fruit.
"You, um, you have some juice," Tara pointed at the redhead's chin. His smooth, naked chin, she mused, the odd thought pushing through the haze caused when Will wiped his chin off and sucked the juice from his stained fingers. "How old did you say you were?"
The young man's eyes widened and he looked away. "Sixteen?"
"Hm," Tara replied, her eyebrows raised. She reached for another berry and popped it in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Okay, he's gone from eighteen to seventeen and a half to sixteen. Even Donnie was getting a scraggly beard at sixteen. Oh god...what if he really is fourteen?
She reached blindly into the bonnet, which lay on the seat between them, and paused when her fingertips touched skin. They pulled their hands out at the same time, Will's fingers wrapped around the last blackberry, Tara's fingers wrapped around Will's wrist. She stared at the freckled hand...the long, graceful fingers. Her thumb and middle finger easily met around the slim wrist. They were deceptively strong hands, obviously used to work, but Tara couldn't help thinking of them as almost...dainty.
"Please...take it," Will said, indicating the berry with a nod of his head when Tara raised her eyes to his.
Tara shook her head, dispelling the thoughts that troubled her mind.
"I want you to have it," the boy said earnestly, mistaking her gesture and raising the berry, along with their still joined hands, closer to Tara. "Please?"
Tara thought about her brother and the boys she'd gone to school with. At fourteen, they were more likely to pull girls' hair and drop frogs down the back of their dresses than offer them their last berry. She could remember more than one occasion when Donnie had unapologetically scarfed down the last piece of pie without bothering to ask if anyone else wanted some.
Everyone develops at their own pace...that doesn't mean he's fourteen. So he's not all ill-mannered and rough and hairy. Maybe he's just not like other boys.
Her eyes glued to Will's, Tara dipped her head toward their hands. Will blinked and his mouth parted as Tara's lips plucked the berry from his fingers. She maintained her hold even when she lowered their hands to the seat between them.
"Thank you," she said softly.
"Thank you," Will echoed. He shook his head a little. "For uh, the berries...picking them."
"You're welcome," Tara said with a gracious smile. "We'll have to find some more."
Will nodded, raising a hand to shield his eyes as her squinted at the fading sun. The trail had followed a narrow river for the past few hours, but several miles ahead the two parted ways, the stream bending to the west while the trail continued north. Will pointed to a stand of trees at the divergence.
"Looks like a good place to stop for the night," he said, looking to Tara for her opinion. She nodded her agreement, and soon they reached the site.
Where the river bowed, a small lake had formed, and Tara offered to see to Miss Horsey while Will tied a hook and length of fishing twine to a fallen branch and set out to procure dinner. By the time he'd caught, gutted and cleaned two medium sized trout, Tara had a fire going and coffee brewing. While Will skewered the fish on two sturdy sticks and held them out over the fire, Tara scavenged the area for more blackberries, returning with a bonnet full of them just as Will was carefully placing the fish on two tin plates.
Their easy conversation over the course of the day dwindled with the last rays of daylight, and Tara found herself growing increasingly anxious. The previous night she'd been unable to consider the situation, but the fact remained that she was out in the middle of nowhere...alone...with a man.
Even if he is sixteen...or fourteen...oh, Anya would never let me hear the end of this. What was Donnie thinking? Of course, he's been a perfect gentlemen, other than several kisses...most of which I initiated. Oh my god. What must he think of me?
"I guess it's bedtime," Will announced, having put the cleaned dishes away and retrieved several blankets, which he spread on the ground near the fire.
"W-what?" Tara asked, standing up sharply, clutching a hand to her chest. He can't possibly expect-
"I don't know about you, but I'm dead tired," the redhead said with a smile. "The sooner we get to sleep, the sooner we can get on the road tomorrow. I think we can reach the ranch before the sun's too high."
Tara continued to stare at the bedroll on the ground. It hardly looked big enough for two, unless they lay very close together. Of all the presumptuous nerve!
"Mister Smith, I realize that our friendship has at times espoused a...romantic nature, which I admit I am just as responsible for as you. However, you go too far in your assumption of my character, and I simply will not stand for such impudence!"
Will's brow furrowed deeper as Tara spoke, his eyes finally bulging as he grasped her meaning and he looked in horror at the makeshift bed at his feet, then back at her.
"You thought I, we-no! No, this is-I figured you would take the wagon! It ain't that cold out, so you should be fine away from the fire...but if you want I'll take the wagon and you can have...," he waved his hand down at the bed, seemingly afraid to even look at it again. "I would never suggest any impropriety, Tara. You gotta believe me."
Seeing the young man's stricken demeanor-he appeared almost on the verge of tears-Tara trusted his word at once, though she found herself taking momentary umbrage that it hadn't even crossed his mind. That's good, Tara. Accuse him of being a rake, then feel insulted when he turns out not to be.
"I'm sorry, Will," she said apologetically. "And um, the wagon will be fine."
The redhead nodded and forced a slight smile. Tara cursed under her breath as she turned and walked back to the buckboard, where Will had already laid out blankets for her to sleep on. She smiled at his thoughtfulness and climbed into the bed, unlacing her boots and setting them off to the side. Looking over at the young man, who lay on his side, facing away from her, she felt a slight twinge and recognized it for what it was.
I want to be near him. Heaven help me, I want to fall asleep in his arms. Tara shuddered, and though she pulled a heavy blanket over her shoulder, she knew it had not been from cold. She lay down, her head pillowed on her arm, and the last thing she heard before succumbing to sleep was Will's sweet voice calling "good night."