M7FFA Entry

 

Enter Eden


by Carrie Byrd


NOTES: Thanks to Sally and Dayna for giving me their help and support. Other stories can be found at my fanfiction page at http://members.tripod.com/~Gryphon_Mage/index.html Comments and constructive criticisms are welcome. Flames, as always, will be extinguished.




The first thing Chris Larabee noticed when the stage pulled into town was not the passengers inside it but the two horses tied behind. Both were beautiful animals, one a palomino paint with gold splashes liberally mixed with the white and the other a showy pure palomino the color of newly minted gold. Both horses pranced restlessly behind the halted stage, tugging on the bridles that bound them in place.

"Good afternoon Mr. Larabee. I see I am not the only one taken by those two fine animals." Ezra's drawl was easily recognizable and Larabee did stir from his watchful position on the wooden walkway in front of the saloon.

"I'm most interested in who would own animals like that and why they'd be coming to Four Corners." Larabee's voice rumbled from under the shade of his black hat.

"Well, might I suggest that the best way to facilitate that knowledge is to watch the passengers that are disembarking?" Ezra asked.

"You can suggest all you want, but I gotta figure out what you said before I can do it."

"I was merely saying that the best way to figure out who those fine animals belonged to would be to see who gets off the stage."

"Well, why didn't ya just say that then?" Larabee demanded.

"I did." Ezra sighed. Over the past months he had gotten to know the men he rode with fairly well, and come to consider them allies, if not friends, but he did sometimes wish that they would expand their somewhat limited vocabularies. Ezra turned his attention back to the stage's passengers. Two seemed to be cowboys of the average sort, and he half expected them to claim saddles and the horses, although they were not the kind of men he would have expected to own such fine animals, but they quickly walked away from the stage and walked past them into the cool darkness of the saloon. Next came an elderly gentleman who looked as if he would have a hard time getting any animal to bear his generous weight, much less two such spirited animals, but he too moved quickly away from the stage after spotting hotel. A slim boy who wore leather pants that were tight around his narrow hips that were accentuated by the low slung gunbelt followed him and Ezra felt, rather than saw Chris tense up beside him.

"Great," the man muttered, "another would be gunslinger out to get himself killed." Ezra shook his head.

"I wouldn't be so sure that he's so green as you think, Mr. Larabee. After all, he looks better prepared for the wild west than Mr. Dunne was." Ezra smiled as he thought of the enthusiastic young sheriff. The smile faded quickly as he realized that no one had followed the slim boy off the stage.

"Surely those animals don't belong to that boy. There must be someone else still inside," Ezra murmered. He and Chris watched the stage with interest but no more passengers appeared. Instead, the boy turned to the stage driver and said a few quick words. The driver nodded and the boy smiled, nodding a thanks and ran quickly into the hotel where the heavy man had disappeared only a moment before. When he reemerged the hotels hired man, Jimmy, followed him and proceeded to assist the stage driver in removing two of the trunks that were strapped onto the roof of the stage. The boy gestured again and Jimmy nodded, and lifted the trunks easily onto his broad shoulders, heading back into the hotel.

Now the boy turned his attention back to the stage driver and reached up for a plain, clearly well used, saddle. Flipping the driver a coin from a pouch on the gun belt he walked to the back of the stage and untied the horses, taking the leads in his left and balancing the saddle on his right shoulder he headed for the livery.

Ezra shook his head in disbelief. "Mr. Larabee, I do believe I was too quick to judge. Apparently that boy is the one those horses belong to. I'm really quite amazed."

Chris didn't respond. Instead he stood slowly, pushing his hat back just enough to reveal his handsome, but slightly hardened features.

"I think it might be best to have a word with our gun totin' friend, Ezra. Looks like money with a death wish. Perhaps I can talk him into going back home to his parents."

"Perhaps so Mr. Larabee, but do try not to frighten the lad too badly." Chris chuckled and stepped off the dusty boardwalk into the even dustier street and headed for the livery."

"Where's Chris headed?" A gravelly voice sounded right beside the gambler's ear and Ezra found himself hard put not to jump. He turned to see Vin Tanner staring at the well dressed man. Ezra smiled at the tracker.

"I believe Mr. Larabee is going to the lievery in order to attempt to introduce himself to a young lad who just got off the stage. He believes the lad may be a little over eager and unprepared for the experience of the old west."

"J.D. all over again, huh?"

"Actually, I believe this lad may actually be a bit better prepared than young Mr. Dunne. He certainly dressed as if he was." Vin smiled his slow smile.

"I reckon maybe I'll head over and see if Chris can use a little help with the introductions."

"Yes well, I'll leave you to it. I myself feel the need of a little liquid refreshment." Ezra smiled and headed into the saloon. Vin took one last look at the gambler and headed after Chris towards the livery.




2.

Chris was finding himself wishing for a hand with his "introductions." He had followed the boy into the livery after watching him make arrangements to board the two horses, and then stood in the shadows watching as the young man made sure the stalls he had engaged were properly prepared. Just as he had stepped out of the shadows the boy had slipped out of the bulky poncho he was wearing and Chris was hit by the realization that this young boy was actually a not so young woman. A small gasp of surprise escaped his lips and the woman whirled around, spotting him before he could disappear back into the shadows.

"Who are you? What do you want?" Her voice was strong and clear and, at the moment, demanding. "Who are you?"

"I'm-I'm, I'm..." Chris found himself at a loss for words.

"You're you're you're who?" She shook her head impatiently. "Okay, you can't remember your name. What do you want?"

"Um..." Chris fumbled for words, unable to collect his thoughts under the glare of flashing blue eyes.

"He wanted to introduce himself. I guess you could call us the local welcoming committee." The woman jumped again, and Vin noticed that her hand twitched toward the gun on her belt and he realized that the next person to startle her might be the one she drew down on. "I'm Vin Tanner and that's Chris Larabee and I reckon the reason he seems so confused is 'cause he was thinkin' you were a boy."

"Well. I'm not. And as far as I know I never have been. I just happen to think that traveling in skirts is just about a stupid thing to do, especially out here." She studied the two men before her and offered the one who actually seemed to be able to speak coherently her hand.

"I'm Eden Lance." She smiled. "Nice to meet you."

"Those your horses." Vin nodded his shaggy head to the stalls behind her.

"Yeah. This," Ellen laid a hand on the paint, "is Eyre," and this, "placing her other hand on the palomino's neck "is Bronte. And I think your friend may be recovering." Eden smiled and extended her hand toward the blonde man who had stopped sputtering and was looking at her warily.

"Allow me to apologize if my unusual attire caught you off guard Mr. Larabee." Eden shrugged gracefully, "Skirts are really not practical for travel in this rugged terrain."

"I imagine not. You just caught me off guard is all. We don't get a lot of pretty ladies dressing up like men and doing such a convincing job of it." Chris took her hand and shook it with a lopsided smile.

"Well, I've had a surprising amount of practice. Too many men consider a single woman fair game. A man with a gun though, normally he gets left alone." Chris and Vin exchanged a glance when she called herself a single woman, the band on her left ring finger suggested something to the contrary, but what did they know?

"So," Eden gave her horses one last pat and smiled at the men, "where does a girl go to get a drink in this town?"

"A drink?" Chris looked at her in surprise.

"Yeah. As in liquid relief. What?" Eden looked at the expression on the two men's faces.

"The saloon really ain't a good place for a lady" Chris began.

"And most ladies don't dress like I do, act like I do, and quite frankly, I've never let it bother me." Eden smiled sweetly. "Now, point me towards the saloon please." Ellen followed their hands and spotted the saloon. "Thank you kindly. It's been...interesting, gentlemen."

The two men stared after the woman for a moment and then shared a shrug and followed her out of the stable.




3.

Ezra was sitting at his favorite table in the dusty saloon when the boy walked in. It only took a moment for him to realize that the "boy" was actually an attractive woman. Ezra smiled as he picked up his drink. "I wonder how Mr. Larabee reacted to that?" he murmured to himself.

He watched the girl as she got a glass and a bottle and retreated to a darkened corner of the saloon. He watched with interest as she looked very carefully around the saloon and settled into the chair that gave her the best view of the saloon. Satisfied that no one could walk up behind her she poured herself a drink and settled back into her seat just in time to see Chris and Vin walk into the saloon. Smiling from beneath hooded eyes she sat back to enjoy her drink.

Chris and Vin spotted the girl immediately but something about her stopped them from joining her at the corner table. Instead they made their way over to the table where Ezra sat flipping cards through his well-trained hands.

"Mr. Larabee. Can I assume that you managed to dissuade your young friend from doing anything foolish?" Chris glared at Ezra and flopped into one of the saloon's battered wooden chairs. The bartender hurried over with two beers for the new arrivals, who nodded curtly but did not waver in their covert observation of the young woman they had just encountered.

At least, they thought they were being covert, but Eden could feel theirs eyes watching her as she carefully nursed her drink and meditated on whether she should just buy the bottle and take it back to her room. Shaking her head she reached into the pocket of the loose poncho that had made it so easy for the men to mistake her sex and withdrew a small brown covered book. Quickly finding her bookmark she tucked her feet beneath her and began reading as she attempted to ignore the three men who were scrutinizing her so intensely.

Ezra watched as the girl took a thin paperback out of her poncho's inner pocket and settled in to read. Shaking his head he looked at his companions.

"Apparently this young lady has mistaken the saloon for a library. I suppose J.D. may actually have someone to discuss his dime novels with."

"Yeah? Who?" The young sheriff plopped down into a chair at the table and looked at Ezra interestedly. Following the gambler's gaze across the dusty barroom his bright brown eyes widened at the site of the young woman sitting in the corner and reading. As if she felt his eyes on her she looked up and glanced at the table, flashing a bright smile. It was a short-lived smile followed by a shadow of pain. Shaking her head the girl reached for her drink and tossed back the shot in on quick swallow. Reaching into her poncho once more she fished out a silver case and a pair of wire rimmed glasses. Slipping them on with a frown she blinked and shook her head, then picked up her book and resumed her reading.

"Who is she?" J.D.'s voice echoed the surprise that showed in his eyes.

"Just a girl who came in on the stage," Chris growled. J.D. looked disappointed.

"I believe our young friend may have been trying to ascertain if you had any more in-depth knowledge about the young woman in question," Ezra drawled. "For example, a moniker."

"A what?" J.D. looked confused.

"A name." Ezra clarified.

"Oh. Yeah."

"Name's Eden Lance and those two purty horses that came in with the stage were hers. S'all she told us," Vin said. Ezra raised an eyebrow. Horses like that usually implied money.

"Perhaps it would be amicable if I were to introduce myself to this lovely young woman." Chris looked at the gambler as if he could read his mind. Ezra smiled blandly and moved to get out of his chair, but not before the young woman stood and gathered her things, dropping a few coins on the table and nodding to the bartender as she made her way out into the late afternoon sunlight.




4.

Eden smiled as she walked into the hotel at 4 O'Clock sharp, stopping at the front desk to have a word with the manager, Mr. Grumbly.

"Miss Lance." The small man smiled nervously. "You're back precisely on time."

"Yes. I know. Is my room ready?" She watched the man fidget his hands her own itched with the urge to make him stop twitching.

"Yes, your in room 9 and your bath is drawn in your room in anticipation of your return. Will there be anything else for you this evening?" When she shook her head he sighed in relief. "Then just let us know when you're finished and we'll remove the bath."

Eden smiled at the man. "I'll be sure to do that. Thank you."

Taking the key the nervous manager handed her she trotted up the stairs into the slightly shabby but satisfactory room. Eden let herself into her room with a sigh and smiled to see the steam rising off the water in the metal tub. Apparently the manager had taken her request for very hot water seriously. It was nice to have money. Setting her book and her glasses carefully on the vanity she checked to make sure all of her luggage, including the two trunks she had seen to earlier had made it up. A quick survey told her that her two leather cases and her guitar had all made it into the room. Sighing she opened the first trunk and fished out her robe and a fresh set of clothing. Stripping out of her clothes Eden sank into the still hot water, eager to soak away the grime of several days' travel.




5.

The men were lounging around on the boardwalk, mainly discussing the new arrivals in town while Eden was trying to make herself more presentable and the first rumors of a new woman in town were reaching the ears of the towns most prominent woman, Mary Travis. Mary was finishing up the last details for the Friday edition of the Clarion so that it would be ready to go to press the next morning when she heard the news and decided to seek out Chris Larabee and see what he thought of the young woman.

Hurrying down the boardwalk she saw the men perched on the railings, on chairs pulled out of the saloon, or leaning on whatever happened to be handy.

"Good afternoon gentlemen." The men looked at her and smiled, murmuring their greetings. "I understand you met one of our new arrivals from this afternoon's stage, a young woman?" A general smile circled around the group. Having finally gotten the story of Eden's arrival from Vin, it was hard not to enjoy a joke at their leader's expense. At the same time the man that embarrassed Chris Larabee in front of Mary Travis might not live to enjoy the joke, so silence prevailed. Finally Vin spoke.

"Yes ma'am, we met her. She seems nice enough." Vin's voice was quiet, as always.

"What's her name? Did she say anything about whether she was planning to stay in Four Corners?" Mary persisted.

"Why don't you ask her yourself." Chris gestured across the street where the object of everyone's curiosity had emerged from the hotel. All eyes turned to follow Chris's gesture, and the men who hadn't seen her before smiled at the slim figure that appeared before them.

"Well now Chris, I don't know how you could have mistaken a pretty little thing like that for a boy," Buck exclaimed, earning a surprised look from Mary and a glare from Chris.

"You shoulda seen her before," he muttered. In truth, Ezra was also wondering how he and Chris could have mistaken the young woman for a lad. Short blonde hair was braided into two tails. Loose it would probably have barely reached her chin and already short curls had begun to escape the braids. Her hair gleamed with the same burnished gold as horses and Ezra wondered momentarily if they had been bought to match.

His belief that she was *someone* was reaffirmed with this second look at her. Her dove gray split skirt was finely tailored, as was the white blouse she wore. Her boots were of supple and presumably expensive leather, and she moved with a confidence and self-assurance that said she knew how to handle herself.

Chris Larabee was equally surprised at the transformation of the girl. She stood on the walkway in front of the hotel and cast her glance about the small town, assessing the people who bustled about their lives, preparing to go home to their families after busy days, or simply to find comfort in a restaurant meal or a bottle. She had removed her gunbelt, but the way she carried herself suggested that she was by no means harmless even without the gun. He suddenly wondered if she was hiding weapons on her somewhere.

Mary Travis was also watching the woman, and liked what she saw. The neatly tailored clothes and self-possession bespoke a good background, and Mary was eager to make the acquaintance of the newcomer. She was preparing to cross the dusty street when Eden's blue eyes fell on the group standing in front of the saloon and a smile flashed across her face and she crossed over to join them.




6.

Eden took several deep breaths as she approached the group and her fingers danced nervously against her thigh as she tried to force a smile. Suddenly, she glanced up and caught the reassuring smile of the man she had met earlier, Vin Tanner, and a smile, genuine this time, tugged at the corners of her mouth. Stepping onto the boardwalk she took in the group that she found herself facing and her courage almost faltered.

"Good evening." Eden almost jumped when the woman spoke. She hadn't noticed her before but now she turned her full attention on the older woman. Long blonde hair, pink dress, tiny lines around friendly blue eyes. The hand she was offering was slightly work hardened, and ink stains colored her palm. "I'm Mary Travis, editor of the Clarion, our paper."

Eden smiled and took the offered hand. "Eden Lance. It's nice to meet another newspaper woman so far into the west, Mrs. Travis." Mary looked at her in surprise.

"Another..." Mary's voice trailed off when Eden nodded.

"For a few years, actually. I only recently decided to leave my job and come west."

"Really? We should..." Mary was interrupted by Buck clearing his throat rather strenuously behind her. "Perhaps I should introduce you to these gentlemen Mrs. Lance."

"Miss, actually," Mary looked at the ring on Eden's hand in surprise, but nodded. "But you can all just call me Eden."

"Eden, then." Mary smiled and gestured to the man standing nearest her. "This is Buck Wilmington." Buck smiled.

"It's a pleasure little lady." His strong hand shook hers vigorously before Mary moved on to the next man.

"This is J.D. Dunne." Eden eyed the young man with surprise. She hadn't realized how young he was when she had seen him earlier in the saloon. He tipped his bowler to her politely.

"Ma'am." 'Ma'am!' she thought. 'I'm not that old!'

"This is Ezra Standish." Mary nodded to the well-dressed man, who took Eden's extended hand and bowed over it gracefully."

"Truly it a pleasure to meet such a lovely woman." His southern drawl was as charming as his manners, but it was his eyes that caught Eden's attention and nearly stole her breath away. A light, brilliant green, they seemed to have a voice all their own. And she would bet that he was good enough to just about do all his talking with them. She'd seen his in the saloon, and he had handled the cards like a pro, and combined with his carefully schooled features, Eden decided it was fair to hazard a comment."

"Charmed, I'm sure. Perhaps, Mr. Standish, I could persuade you to play a hand of cards with me later, if a professional such as yourself is willing to play against a rank amateur."

"Your wish is my command, Miss Lance," he said, quickly wiping the surprise from his face. She was more attentive than he, or any of them, had suspected. Mary watched the exchange with carefully concealed amusement, a smile escaping when the look of shock crossed Ezra's face. Mr. Standish did tend to underestimate people.

"I believe you already know Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee." Eden nodded her greeting.

"Ma'am," Vin drawled. Chris merely nodded.

"And this is our resident healer, Nathan Jackson." Eden looked at the black man in surprise, and then offered him her hand with a smile.

"It's pleasure, Mr. Jackson."

"And this," Mary said, gesturing to the last man, "is Josiah Sanchez." Eden smiled at the big man as he took her slim hand in his large one, completely engulfing it.

"Ma'am, it's lovely to meet someone who so well personifies so biblical a name. You are truly lovely, however." Eden blushed and the men stared at the former preacher in surprise.

"Thank you," Eden murmured, withdrawing her hand, "You're very kind." Mary laid a hand on the slim woman's arm to regain her attention.

"Perhaps you would care to join me at the hotel for a meal?" Eden looked at the woman in surprise.

"I'd like that." Eden smiled. "Lead the way. She turned and smiled at the seven men. "Nice to meet you, gentlemen." As they walked away they heard her say to Mary, "I sort of figured you for the cooking kind."

Mary laughed. "My son's visiting his grandparents, and I didn't feel like cooking for just myself, especially when I hoped to avail myself of your company. In fact I came looking for you. And..." the two women's voices blended indistinguishably as they wandered away from the men.




7.

The seven men watched as Mary led the newcomer towards the hotel.

"Whew. That is one pretty little filly." Buck let out a low whistle.

"She certainly is lovely, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra drawled. "I'm curious as to why such an obviously sophisticated lady would be in our fair town, however."

"That's a good question, Ezra." Chris looked at the spot where Eden had stood a moment before. "A very good question."

Vin looked at his friend. "You reckon there might be trouble?"

"Girl like that in a town like this?" Chris smiled, but there was no

humor to it. "I'd count on it."

The men settled into a companionable, if not peaceful silence, each lost in their own thoughts.




8.

"So, what brings you to Four Corners?" Mary asked.

Eden smiled. Barely into her chair and already asking questions.

"You sure don't beat around the bush, do you Mrs. Travis?" Mary blushed.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry, but..."

"But I don't look like the kind of girl who comes to a place like this? You'd be surprised." Eden smiled. "It's okay though, I'll answer your question. I've been living in the mountains in Kentucky for a good long while, and it suddenly became time to move on." She cast a glance at the simple silver band she wore on her left hand. "My fiancee was a sheriff in a small town like Four Corners, but greener. He had to deal with a lot of men who were running from something and saw a town like ours as the best place to hide. He got shot when he wouldn't look the other way and I got gone. There wasn't much keeping me there, and the memories were a bit much for me to handle so I took off."

"I'm so sorry." Mary looked at the girl sympathetically.

"Don't be. I knew the risks of loving a lawman, and I did it anyway. At least I got a chance to know what real love felt like." Eden shook her head as if to clear it of morbid musings. "And as for why I stopped here, it looked as good as any other place. Semi-settled, but not crowded. I couldn't live in a place packed up all tight with people." She shuddered. "I'm not big on crowds."

"What about you? You don't really look like the type either." Now it was Mary's turn to smile.

"I'm not, I guess, but my husband was. I-he- the paper was his, and I didn't want to give up his dream. So when he...was killed, I stayed anyway." Eden looked at Mary sympathetically but didn't say anything. After a short pause, Mary broke the silence.

"You said you'd worked on papers?"

Eden nodded. "For a good while, actually. I was the managing editor of the Nibroc Journal right up until the day I left. Before that I worked in the city. I went to college up by Boston, and I worked on the paper up there. Got tired of them telling I wasn't equipped to write anything but the society pages though."

"I see. Perhaps you'd like to work with me? I could always use a hand. If you're planning to stick around, that is?" Eden studied the woman across from her for a long moment. So far, so good. It seemed like a nice town, she hadn't pushed her luck asking too many questions, and she seemed nice enough too. Not to mention if she didn't work, she'd get bored awfully quick. She nodded sharply.

"I may take you up on that if I decide to stay. I'd like to sort of get a feel for the place first. Decide what I want to do."

"Well, I'd be happy to help you anyway I can."

"Well, can you recommend a guide to show me around the area. Not just the town, but all over. I'd like to ride out and get a feel for the territory."

"Vin Tanner would probably just suit you. He knows this area just as well as anyone around here." Eden smiled at the mention of the handsome man.

"What can you tell me about them anyway. That whole group seems pretty close knit. Are they some sort of gang?" Eden asked. Mary shook her head.

"They protect the town. My father-in-law, Judge Orin Travis, hired them to bring some order to Four Corners."

"What about the men themselves?"

"Well, they didn't know each other until they met up here, except for Chris and Buck, but they worked pretty well together right from the start. If you want to know about their stories, I suggest you ask them." Mary smiled as she remembered her first few conversations with Chris. "If they want you to know, they'll tell you."

"Well, I may do just that then." Eden smiled, and tried to stifle a yawn. "Well Mary, excuse me, but I must be more tired than I thought. It's been a long day. If you'll excuse me, I'd like to find Mr. Tanner and discuss the prospects of his being my guide and then I think I'll turn in." Eden stood and offered her hand. "I've enjoyed our conversation, perhaps we could continue it tomorrow. Oh, and if we could keep our conversation just between us..."

"Of course. Have a nice evening Eden." Mary followed her to the door of the restaurant and the two women parted company.




9.

Eden strolled down the boardwalk wondering where she would be most likely to find Vin when she bumped into a very solid form.

"Oh! Excuse me." Eden stumbled backwards and found herself looking up at Josiah Sanchez. "Mr. Sanchez, I'm so sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going."

"No harm done." Josiah looked at the girl with a smile. "Are you looking for anything in particular? You looked a little lost."

Eden flushed. "Actually, it's more of an anyone in particular. Mr. Tanner. I was told he would be a good person to engage as a guide," she explained.

"Ah yes. Mr Tanner is a fine guide. I believe he's in the saloon. I was just heading that way would you like me to check for you?" Josiah offered.

"That's alright, I can check myself." Eden walked toward the saloon, but Josiah laid a heavy hand on her arm.

"It might be best if you let me check. That ain't no place for ladies," he said.

Eden opened her mouth to argue and then shrugged. "I'd appreciate it if you would see if he has a moment then." Josiah nodded and left her standing on the boardwalk. While she waited she stared up at the stars, seeking out the familiar constellations.

"Awful nice night, ain't it ma'am?" Vin stepped up next to her, and followed her gaze. Eden turned to look at him. "Josiah said you were looking for me."

"Ah, yes I was. Mrs. Travis said that I might be able to hire you as a guide. I'd like to look around, but I don't fancy getting lost or getting shot cause I wondered onto the wrong man's property."

Vin smiled his slow smile. "I reckon I could help you out. What time you want to head out?"

"What time do you wake up?"




10.

Eden had Eyre saddled and ready to go when Vin met her in front of the livery. Vin led his horse out of the stables. Eden studied the animal carefully, black, with a white blaze across it's face it was a beautiful, sturdy animal.

"Nice horse." Vin smiled his thanks.

"Ready?" She nodded, and the two rode out in silence.




Vin studied the woman riding beside him carefully. This was his first chance to really study her and he intended to make use of it. She was a good rider, and her horse responded to her slightest touch, allowing her to guide it with ease. He could see now how Chris and Ezra could have mistaken her for a boy though. She wore faded denims and a plain with shirt under a form-concealing duster, beneath which she also wore a gun in a well-worn holster.

Her hat was the same dusty shade as her duster, but she had pushed it back off her head to enjoy the feel of the sun on her face. Her short, tightly braided hair gleamed the same burnished gold as the palomino splashes of her paint. She had a light dusting of freckles across her nose that, she had told him with a smile, would undoubtedly get worse by the end of the day. Her eyes were a smoky blue-grey, clear and bright in the early morning light. They gave away as little as Ezra's did, and he suspected that, like the gambler, she may have trained them to conceal her emotions and keep her thoughts private.

She was undoubtedly very pretty, with golden brown skin and smooth round cheeks. Her face had just enough character to keep it from being perfect, with a chin too wide to fit common standards of beauty, but gave her an air of confidence, and a nose that was just the slightest bit tip-tilted, which combined with the light in her eyes made her look rather decidedly as if she was plotting some mischeif.

Eden was not plotting mischief, at least, not at this particular moment, but she was trying very hard to pretend that she didn't notice the tracker's studious observation of her person. She decided to put his study of her to good use and studied him at the same time. He was handsome. In fact, all of the seven men Mary had told her protected 4 Corners were attractive. J.D. was too young, and Josiah too old, but the rest of them, well, even Tom would have been hard put to compete with them. She smiled to herself, 7 men this gorgeous would have been a precious commodity in Nibroc, where women outnumbered men 3 to 1.

She glanced at Vin again, and had to admit that it was a pleasant prospect. His light brown hair was a good bit longer than hers, curling loosely to his shoulders. If she unbraided hers, it would barely reach the top of her collar. His blue eyes were the same brilliant shade as the desert sky and his slow smile was genuine and sweet. He also evinced good sense in not commenting on the gun she wore slung low across her hip, and she showed him the same courtesy by not commenting on his unusual choice of weapon. She had only known one or two men who could use a mare's leg with any sort of accuracy, but looking at the tracker, she was guessing she might have to raise that number to three. He sat in his saddle with the comfort of one who was used to spending plenty of time a-horseback.

Eden sighed- the silence was becoming deafening. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Vin looked at her in surprise and she gestured to the land that stretched out before them. He smiled and nodded.

"It surely is. I love it out here. A man can be alone with his thoughts."

"And his demons," Eden murmured, almost too low for the former bounty hunter to hear. Vin looked at her in surprise, and seeing she didn't really want an answer, gave her on anyway.

"That too."




11.

It was nearly sundown when Vin and Eden rode back into town. Chris and Mary were standing in front of the Clarion offices talking when they rode up. As they pulled their horses to a stop Chris walked up to them and Vin could have sworn there was a look of relief in his icy blue eyes, but his first words were not too his friend, but to Eden.

"Recognize this poster?" Chris unfolded a battered piece of paper and handed it to her. Eden blushed.

"It's outdated. I've gotten my hair cut since then." She swung down from the paint and handed the paper back to him. "I've also been acquitted of my supposed crimes. Self-defense." She measured the man in black with her eyes. "I dare say you've killed some men in self-defense, Mr. Larabee. If you like, I can give you the name of the Judge who presided over my trial and you can contact him yourself."

"Yeah, why don't you do that."

"Very well, his name was Patrick Hasham of Gentry County in Kentucky. If you send them a telegram at Nibroc, he'll get it. They're none too fond of me right now, so you needn't worry that they'll cover for me. Are we finished?" Chris nodded. "Good. Mr. Tanner, I thank you for a lovely day and your charming company." Eden led her Eyre to the stable, where Bronte was already wickering a greeting.

Vin stared after her for a moment, and then at the poster Chris held, where her face was blazoned above the word, "Wanted."

"What did she do?" he asked softly.

"Killed a few men. I reckon I'll get after that judge and see if I can't get the whole story. Mary," Chris tipped his hat to the pretty widow and strode towards the telegraph office.

"Ma'am." Vin dismounted easily and led his horse to the livery.




12.

"So, did you kill those men it says you did?" Eden stiffened at the sound of the tracker's soft voice, but did not turn from where she stood grooming Eyre.

"Yes."

"Want to talk about it?"

"They deserved it. They killed my fiancee to shut him up, and tried to come after me. They managed to get to me once, caught me by surprise, so to speak, and" she broke off, and realized that the hand holding the curry comb was shaking, "and used every method they could think of to persuade me not to talk about what happened to Tom. It was horrifying. I'd caught them in the act, which was what had left me so surprised. And it didn't work, so when they came after me again, I was ready for them, and I...protected myself...I guess it was a little bit of revenge too." She shrugged. "Maybe I didn't have to kill 'em, maybe I could've found another way out of it." She shuddered. "But they were sick. They didn't deserve any mercy, as far as I was concerned."

Vin took her hand.

"What...what did they do to you?" Eden's eyes flashed, even as they filled with shame.

"Five men, one woman, what do you think?" Now Vin's eyes flashed, and he wished they were alive just so that he could kill them for her. "He wasn't even dead yet."

"What?"

"Tom. He wasn't dead. He just lay there bleeding to death and we couldn't do a thing to help each other." A sob escaped her lips. "And I ended up a wanted woman for shooting 5 upstanding citizens. Pigs." She spat the word out like she was trying to get a bad taste out of her mouth. "You gonna arrest me now? You or your friends?"

"No." Eden and Vin both spun to see Chris silhouetted in the doorway. "I telegraphed the judge. If you're telling the truth, you've got nothing to fear here."

"If? If?" Eden's voice broke near hysteria.

"She's telling the truth Chris." Vin spoke firmly and Larabee looked at his friend in surprise. It was normally Vin who was the mot suspicious of strangers.

"Well, it's mighty noble of you not to arrest me if," and her voice was laced with mocking, "I'm innocent. Real generous. Dropping the curry comb with a clatter she strode past Chris and into the dusk that had fallen over the small town.




13.

Vin looked at Chris with anger flashing in his normally mild blue eyes. "You heard that whole story, didn't you?" Chris nodded. "And you're still suspicious of her?"

"Listen Vin, I don't what's got into you, but it just don't make sense for a girl like her to be in a place like this."

"If her story's true, she has every reason to be here. After all, we're pretty much all here because we had some bad history to escape." Vin spoke quickly and Chris looked at him in surprise.

"What did you do, Vin, fall for her?" The tall bounty hunter looked at his friend and was surprised to feel a warm flush creeping up his cheeks even while he shook his head.

"No. But she seems like a good kid. And even if only part of her story's true she's been through enough to merit a little defending." Vin felt the anger flare in him at the memory of Eden's words. 'Five men, one woman...' he shook his head. "Let me know when you get that telegram." Picking up the curry comb Eden had dropped he placed it carefully on it's shelf and left the stable with Chris staring after him.




14.

Chris stared at the yellow slip of paper in his hand and tried to combat the feelings of guilt that welled up inside him. 'She was telling the truth, and I made her feel like scum anyway,' he grimaced at the thought. 'Damn, when did my conscience start growing again?' he wondered. He saw Vin staring at him from across the street, or, more accurately, at the slip of paper he held. Chris walked across the street and shoved the paper at his friend, wincing at the look of triumph mixed with relief.

"You wanna tell the rest of 'em the truth. We sat and jawed on her story the whole day, I reckon they oughta know she was telling the truth.""

"Where you going?" Vin asked.

"Gotta see someone about a...thing." Chris knew Vin would gloat in the same quiet way he did every thing. There was no reason to encourage him by telling him he was going to find Eden and apologize.

"All right then, I'll go tell 'em. Should I tell Mary too?"

"No, I'll do it. My fault for stirring things up." Chris straightened his hat and strode towards the hotel, where a slim figure was silhouetted against the shade in the deepening night.




15.

Eden started wildly when the knock sounded on her door. Taking a few steadying breaths she opened the door and found Chris Larabee standing in front of her, twirling his black hat nervously between his fingers.

"Mr. Larabee! This is a surprise," she said wryly.

"C-can I come in?" Chris asked.

"Well, it won't do much for my reputation, but then I reckon that's pretty much a lost cause anyway. Okay I guess." Eden stepped aside and ushered the man through the door and walked back to the open valise on her bed. "You'll have to excuse me if I don't stop working, I'd like to get packed."

"Going somewhere?" Chris looked at her in surprise, and she sighed deeply.

"Did you want something? Am I under arrest, perhaps?" Chris shook his head.

"I came to ----" Chris spoke quickly and Eden blinked as he muttered the last word unintelligibly.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I came to apologize, all right?" Chris growled the words. "I shouldn't have judged you and I shouldn't have allowed my suspicious nature to get the better of me."

"Thank you Mr. Larabee, that means a great deal." Eden picked up a shirt and began folding it to try and disguise the trembling of her hands.

"Now, would you mind telling me where you're going?" Chris gestured to the cases.

"Away." Eden through the shirt down in disgust, her nervous hands refusing to cooperate. "I sort of figured that I wouldn't be welcome her any more."

"Why not." Now Eden looked surprised. "Miss Lance, none of us are angels and the people in this town have seen more than their share of troubles. Nobody's going to blame you for what you did, and them that do ain't worth worrying about." Chris laid his hat down and put one hand on her arm.

"We need good people out here, and I can tell MaryMrs. Travis'd love to have another woman around here who's not afraid to get a little ink on her hands." He looked at her sincerely and she sighed. "'Sides, if I chase you off being all suspicious I'll have to deal with Vin, and he does get awful tiring once and a while, jawing at me over my mistakes." Eden giggled.

"What does he do, think at you? He can't possibly talk to you about them. I think he's got a policy about saying more than three sentences a day."

"More like a week, but he'd make me feel bad anyway." Eden sighed and looked at the mess around her.

"I hate packing." Chris looked at her. "I'll stay. But only because I feel sorry for you." She smiled suddenly. "Besides, I get the feeling it took a lot for you to come up here and apologize." Eden picked up the offending shirt again, now hopelessly wrinkled, and made a face before crumpling it up and shoving it into a drawer. "I'll worry about it later."

"Eden..." Chris began, "I mean Miss Lance..." and she shook her head.

"Eden," she said firmly. "if I'm going to stay, call me Eden." Chris nodded.

"Then I'd appreciate it if you'd call me Chris. Would you care to join me for dinner?" Eden looked at the man in nothing less than pure shock. Finally, she nodded slowly.

"I'd like that." He offered her his arm, and as they walked toward the restaurant Chris had the strangest feeling that he'd just made a really good deal, 'and maybe,' he thought, 'a friend. When the heck did I start making friends?' As they crossed the street he saw Vin standing in the shadows and realized that he'd started making friends again that first day they'd stood up for Nathan. Chris smiled in the darkness.





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