Tara awoke disoriented, though it was due less to the unfamiliar room than to the fact that it was getting dark outside her window. Rising slowly, she stretched the stiffness out of her back and noted a light burning in the hallway. Opening the door to confirm that the sconces had been lit, she left the door open and went about making herself presentable: straightening her dress and winding her hair into a loose bun.
I must have napped more than an hour, she thought. Why did Will not wake me?
As she gave herself a final inspection and made to exit the room, she spied a piece of paper on the floor, just inside the doorway. She leaned over to retrieve it, and unfolded the parchment. Stepping further into the hall, she tilted the letter toward the source of light.
Tara smiled at the young man's thoughtfulness and tucked the note into the pocket of her skirt. She looked down the long hallway, but after a moment's indecision decided to use the door to her right. The fading evening light dimly illuminated the stairway through a window in the door at its base, and she was thankful for the handrail that ran along the wall. When she emerged she found herself on a smaller, uncovered version of the front porch, and turning to the right she saw the entrance to the kitchen. The door swung open silently, and she immediately smelled the delicious aroma of rabbit stew and fresh baked bread filling the room. She spied a stack of bowls on the counter next to the stove, but before she could take a step, she heard Will's voice coming from the dining room.
"I ain't tellin' you to lie, damn it. I'm just saying don't offer anything 'less it's asked. And for god's sakes try to behave yourselves."
Tara felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and anger rising from deep in her gut. What is he keeping from me now? She fought the urge to storm into the room and confront the redhead, but kept still and strained her ears, hearing a soft southern drawl reply to Will.
"What are you looking at me for? Mary's the one can't keep her hands to herself."
"Fine, well all of y'all...please? For me? I know it can't go on like this, but I'm scared of what's gonna happen when she finds out. I never been-no one's ever made me feel like she does."
Tara felt conflicted as she heard Will's voice taper off amidst a chorus of murmuring consent. She hated the thought that he was still being so secretive, but to hear him admit his feelings tugged at her heart, and she knew she couldn't call him out in front of his friends. Half turning, she opened the door again and closed it hard enough to announce her arrival, then stepped loudly over to the stove, where she noisily set aside a bowl and filled it with stew, banging the lid back down on the pot for good measure. When she walked into the dining room, there was not a sound, but every face turned her way.
Every face but one, she noted. Will seemed to be finding the rafters particularly interesting. Nodding her thanks as Gina stood up and offered her chair, Tara carefully set down the steaming bowl of stew. As she took her seat, she looked around to see everyone staring at her with bald curiosity. In addition to Granny Mare, Nancy, and Gina, there were six others she had yet to meet: a little girl she assumed was Carlotta; two women, one cradling an infant; and three men, one of them Chinese. Tara hoped she wouldn't have to eat under such intense scrutiny, as all of them had clearly finished already.
"Um," Will said, clearing his throat, "this is Tara. Tara, this is, uh...everybody. Why don't you enjoy your dinner and we can worry about names after?"
Tara smiled politely, and was grateful when the group began to disperse, some clearing away dishes while others headed for the game room. The stew tasted as good as it had smelled, and she found that her appetite had grown after two days of meager meals on the trail. Will hovered nearby, seemingly unsure of what to do with himself, and finally settled on pouring two glasses of lemonade from the pitcher on the table and passing one to Tara.
"Thank you," she said, taking a sip and wondering how best to broach the subject of Will's continued equivocation. She buttered a chunk of bread and smiled as Granny Mare and Carlotta walked through the room on their way upstairs, the latter insisting she wasn't at all tired and wanted to play poker. She could hear the clink of glasses and jovial laughter coming from the game room, and the familiar sounds made her think of the saloon. She couldn't help but wonder what was going on back home.
"Is your dinner okay?" Will asked.
Tara nodded, lifting her napkin to wipe her mouth. "It was wonderful, thank you."
"You looked kinda sad there," the redhead said.
"Do you think Donnie's okay?"
"I'm sure he's fine," Will answered sincerely. "Those cavalry fellows won't let anything happen, and we'll be back there before you know it."
"After you make your delivery," Tara stated, pushing aside her empty bowl and turning in her chair to regard the young man.
"Uh, yeah," Will replied, looking down at his glass.
"Will...what are you delivering?"
Before he could answer, they heard the front door slam open and heavy boots running through the main room and down the hall. Leila emerged, out of breath and eyes frantic.
"Will, it's gone!"
Tara turned from Leila to Will, who was still as a statue and paler than a ghost. To her shock, the redhead bolted from his chair and ran from the room, closely followed by Leila. Her curiosity piqued, Tara followed, quietly slipping up to where they stood outside the barn, staring at Will's cart. Or rather, into Will's cart, as the bed floor had been shifted back to reveal a hidden compartment...an empty one. Will looked stunned, gripping the side rail of the buckboard, his arms shaking. In the moonlight, Tara could see his bottom lip quivering.
"It was all there...how did...I had it...who could have," Will mumbled. He closed his eyes and smacked his fist onto the rail. "Damn it, Xander."
"Carpenter back in Dusty Hollow," Will said, walking around the back of the cart. "Son of a bitch!" the redhead shouted, slamming the bed board shut.
"What would a carpenter want with five hundred sticks of dynamite?"
"What?" Tara gasped, and the pair spun around in surprise.
Leila looked back and forth between the two and beat a hasty retreat back to the house. Will's legs crumpled and he sat down hard on the ground, his entire body seeming to go limp.
"It's gone. It's all gone. I can't...there's no time," he wailed, curling his legs up and dropping his face down into his crossed arms as he sobbed.
As furious as she was at the thought of Will transporting dynamite without telling her-even it hadn't really been there-Tara couldn't help feeling concerned for the young man. She inched closer and knelt down, facing him.
"Will, why did you have all that dynamite?"
"It doesn't matter now," he sniffled, his voice muffled by his sleeve. "I can't go back and get there in time."
"In time for what?" Tara asked softly.
"The train'll be through there already. I cut it too close, and they'll finish the tracks and it won't make no difference."
"You were going to blow up a train?" Tara demanded, aghast. Will's head popped up and he stared at her with wide eyes.
"Of course not! Just the trestle, before the train could come through."
Tara gaped back, dumbfounded. "But...why?"
"Why?" Will snapped. "Because it's their land, and we're just moving in and stealing it! Don't matter what big, fancy words they call it, or how they justify it-it's theft, plain and simple. Oh sure, they say 'we just wanna lay down some rail through here, that's all...you don't have to move or nothin'...oh, but would you sign this here paper that you can't read that says we bought it flat out? And then when the railroad comes through and the white man decides he likes the look of the place and moves in, you'll just have to go somewhere else.'"
Will had jumped up and started pacing halfway through his diatribe, and as he wound down, Tara stood up. Remembering what he'd told her about the Indians who'd taken him in as a child, and knowing how close they were to the Dakota territories, it wasn't hard for her to follow his rant. She understood his emotion, and even agreed with his sentiment, but she couldn't abide his solution.
"You can't honestly think blowing up a trestle would stop any of that, do you, Will? I know it's wrong, and unfair, but all you'd do is delay the inevitable, and probably end up in jail, if not dead."
"So what, I shouldn't even try?" the redhead demanded.
"Not like that, no," Tara replied. "I'm sorry, Will, but violence isn't the answer. Even if you succeeded, who do you think they'd blame? The very people you're trying to help. You could confess and they'd still use it as an excuse to clear them out faster."
Will remained silent for a long time, his face drooping sadly.
"I guess I never thought of that," he said at last, leaning heavily against the side of the cart.
They talked for a half hour, Will explaining how he'd come up with the idea and planned it all out. He'd managed to sneak handfuls of dynamite out of several rail yards before attracting attention and being dubbed 'the Red Bandit.' As his reputation grew he made one last heist, his biggest yet, from the rail yard in St. Louis, and was on his way to his destination when he made that fateful stop.
"Will, if you were in such a hurry, why did you stay in Dusty Hollow?" Tara asked.
"Something came up, seemed kinda more important," he replied, his eyes meeting Tara's for a moment before he glanced away, blushing.
Tara's heart leapt at the inference.
"I didn't want no one to get hurt, Tara...honest."
"I know you didn't, Will. You're a good man," she insisted. The redhead's brows furrowed.
"Not really," he mumbled, shoving his hands into his pants' pockets and digging his boot toe into the dirt.
Tara looped an arm through one of his and started walking them back towards the house. Halfway there, she grinned and bumped her shoulder into his.
"You know, I suspected you had some big secret, and all things considered, I'm glad it was just a cart full of dynamite. I was worried you had a wife and kids stashed away somewhere."
Will chuckled softly. "Nope, definitely don't got any of those."
"Yet?" Tara asked coyly, glancing sidelong at the redhead as they reached the porch.
"Right. Yet," Will said, looking away, but not before Tara caught his frown. She cocked her head, but he was already turning back to her, smiling. "How 'bout a game of poker? You can meet the rest of the folks."
Tara released Will's arm as they reached the door and he held it open for her. The more time she spent with the young man, the more mysterious he seemed. Every time she thought she'd figured him out, there would be something-an expression, a gesture-that made her think she didn't know him at all. Considering how little a time they'd actually known each other, it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but he could be so open one minute, and then completely closed off the next. Perhaps a friendly game with people who knew him would prove enlightening...and allow her to get back at him a little for the past several days.
"Sounds like fun."