The Changelings IV

by Angie

Alternate Universe

Part of The Changeling Collection

Buck was as proud as a peacock over the next few days as he worked with Vin and Josiah on his ability to Change. It didn’t hurt that they both told him that he was an excellent specimen of a wolf. Unfortunately, it only seemed to further aggravate the situation with Chris. The blond gunslinger tried and tried to let himself relax enough to initiate his Change. Each session left him more doubtful that he would ever learn to control his spirit animal.

It had been pretty quiet in town for the past few days when Vin suggested that he and Chris take a few days to get away from it all. They packed up enough supplies for several days and headed out.

“What was it like for you, at first?” Chris asked after they had been riding for several hours.

“It was a little scary at first. Did you know that birds have to learn to fly?” Chris only chuckled in response. “I was able to Change but I was afraid to fly. The holy man took me out to a mountaintop and made me perch on his arm. Down below, I could see a pair of eagles. They were just floating on the air currents. Their wings were unfurled and they were using their tail feathers to steer. A breeze came up the mountain and ruffled my feathers and I spread my wings. The next thing I knew, I was flying. It was the most breathtaking experience.”

They rode on in silence for the next hour before stopping to make camp for the night. Chris built a fire while Vin hunted fresh game for supper. The pair of rabbits and edible roots he carried back made for a wonderful meal.

Back in town, a make-shift western show arrived. With their brightly painted wagons and brighter costumes, they stirred the interest of everyone. Their trick rider, a handsomely dressed young man named Pace McCormick, challenged any and all to a race. His thoroughbred horse pranced and tossed his head in excitement at all of the people milling around. The prize for the winner of the race was a fancy new repeating rifle. JD urged the others to sign up for the race. Slapping his coin soundly on the table, the young man signed his name on the paper. Nathan refrained from joining the race, his horse was a stout and steady animal, not given to great bursts of speed.

The first race was between McCormick and one of the James’ ranch hands. The trick rider easily outdistanced the larger horse and won. The ranch hand was teased unmercifully by his friends. Another man climbed out of the wagon and began doing rope tricks. A large group of children and women stood around in open-mouthed awe at the way the man made the rope seem to come alive in his hands. They applauded as he completed the successively more difficult maneuvers. Buck snorted derisively at the man, nudging JD and shaking his head.

“You think you can do better?” Buck turned to the woman in the skimpy outfit and looked her up and down. She had a haughty set to her shoulders as she looked up at him from the road as he stood on the boardwalk.

“I didn’t say I could do better. I just don’t see how all that fancy rope slinging is going to help him catch anything except an audience,” Buck answered as he stepped down and leaned closer to the woman. “Could I interest you in a drink?”

While Buck and the woman were strolling for the saloon, JD looked on with interest at the next demonstration being set up. Four playing cards were placed in a stand in the middle of the street. Ezra’s interest was piqued and he stepped away from the wall he had been leaning against to stand on the edge of the boardwalk. Sledge McCormick stepped out and drew his pistol. He sighted down his arm and pulled the trigger. The first card, the ace of clubs, was pierced neatly in the center. He continued shooting, taking out all four cards in the same manner. A wicked grin curled Ezra’s mouth as he stepped down from the boardwalk.

“May I suggest another challenge for you, Sir?” the southerner asked as he approached the man amidst the polite smattering of applause.

“What do you have in mind?” Sledge asked, looking Ezra up and down.

It took several minutes to set up the challenge the southerner suggested and a larger crowd gathered. A single card was affixed to the center of a large board standing in the middle of the street. Josiah and Buck moved down and edged their way through the crowd so they had front row seats. Ezra pulled the Richards Conversion pistol from his underarm holster. With a knowing smile, he fired the first shot at the card. A new hole appeared, directly in the center of the card. Ezra switched hands and fired a second shot. A gentle gust of air carried the bullet slightly right of center and the hole was enlarged only a fraction, nearly imperceptible to the people watching. Switching back, he fired the third shot. In this way, he fired all six shots, hitting the hole in the card with each one. The other man stared in disbelief at the well dressed man in the bright red coat. He had been prepared to fire all six shots through the card but he knew that he couldn’t do it alternating hands. Shaking his head, he offered out his hand in surrender.

After a second race between the trick rider and another of the James’ hands, another display was set up. A wagon wheel was set up and cards attached at every other spoke. Sledge stepped out and unhooked a bullwhip from his belt. The crowd in the street backed away instinctively as the man cracked the whip in the dirt, drawing a loud ‘snap.’

Standing on the boardwalk, Nathan leapt in surprise at the sound. A cold sweat broke on his face and he trembled. JD noticed the tremor and moved to stand closer to the healer.

“Nathan, are you okay?” JD asked as he reached for the dark skinned man. Out in the street, the wagon wheel was set to turning slowly and Sledge snapped the whip again, neatly cutting the card in half. With each flick of his wrist, he destroyed the cards. Each snap of the whip caused the healer to flinch. JD’s quick mind made the connection and he steered Nathan away from the crowd. Pushing the taller man before him, they rounded the corner into a gangway between two buildings. Nathan sank to sit on a barrel, his eyes half closed and unfocused. His soft, threadbare shirt clung to the sweat on his skin.

Josiah scanned the crowd and noticed JD pushing Nathan away from the crowd. Edging around the outside of the group, he made his way around to where the pair disappeared. Rounding the corner, he stopped short at the sight that greeted him. JD was using his bowler hat to fan Nathan, who was sitting on the barrel shaking. The healer was drenched in sweat and slumped against the wall.

“Nate, are you okay?” Josiah asked softly.

“Huh? Oh, just fine,” Nathan whispered. Just then, McCormick wound the whip over head, making it whistle before slapping it against the ground with an audible snap. Nathan’s eyes rolled back and he toppled forward into JD’s arms. Josiah rushed in and gathered the healer over his shoulder. Together with JD, he hurried toward the boarding house. The crowd was too thick to attempt to make his way to the clinic and he didn’t want everyone to know that there was something wrong.

Ezra’s sharp eye caught Josiah’s retreat and the southerner nodded to Buck. The pair eased away from the crowd and around to the alley where they saw the older man carrying Nathan over his shoulder. By the time Josiah made it to JD’s room, the other two had caught up. Josiah tumbled Nathan gently onto the bed and pressed his fingers firmly to the pulse in his throat. The steady thrum beneath his fingers was only marginally reassuring. Nathan was still trembling.

Massah Catchings was angry. Everyone on the plantation was on pins and needles. The mistress was in labor, early. The midwife and two of the female slaves had been shut up in the master bedroom all day. Through the open windows, everyone could hear the woman’s screams of pain.

The baby was breech and the woman was unable to deliver it. As the cock crowed at the rising sun, Massah was sitting on the veranda getting drunk to numb his grief. The midwife had snuck away after delivering the news that his wife and the child were dead. One of the slaves knelt down and quietly asked permission to prepare the body for burial. The venomous glare chilled the woman to the bone.

After the funeral, things continued to be tense on the plantation. The slaves scurried to do their work and avoided contact with the anguished owner. Only those who worked in the house were unable to stay out of the way. Young Tillie was just trying to pour a glass of tea. One of the Massah’s great hounds bayed at something, startling the girl and causing her to break the glass.

“You worthless piece of trash! Look what you’ve done! That was one of my wife’s favorite glasses!” The man roared as he took hold of the girl by the upper arm. Drawing back his hand, he struck the helpless slave in the face, snapping her head around. Suddenly, he jerked the girl up and dragged her toward the barn. Her mother, one of the housekeeping slaves, ran from the house, screeching for her child. The man threw the girl down and reached for a length of rope hanging on a nearby hook. Drawing her hands together, he swiftly tied them and tossed the end of the rope up over a rafter. Tillie’s mother threw herself at the Massah, pleading and begging for the life of her daughter. A hard thrown fist connected with her jaw, sending her into a wall. She slid down to lay unmoving.

The entire plantation gathered to watch. Nathan felt the tight grip his father had on his shoulder as the first of the blows struck the hanging girl. With a twitch, Tillie opened her eyes and screamed. Blood seeped from the wound, being wicked away by the battered cotton material. The lashes that followed drew more screams, and more blood. All around him, Nathan could smell the sweat and fear swirling in the still air. His attention was drawn to the blood dripping from her toes. So focused was he on the pattern of the drops that he didn’t even realize when the screams stopped. Even the hardest among the overseers was sickened by the sight. Even after the child was dead, the deranged man continued to swing the whip. Finally, one of the foremen who had been there the longest stepped forward. Carefully avoiding the whip, he managed to take hold of the distraught man. Massah dropped the whip and tumbled into the arms of the man, sobbing brokenly.

The next thing Nathan remembered was kneeling over the small grave. Tillie, at five, had been close in age and a frequent playmate. The young boy held a bunch of wild flowers in his sweaty hand. Tears mixed with the sweat running down his face to be absorbed by his collar. A small tin can had been stuck in the dirt at the base of the simple wooden cross. He put the flowers in the can and sat back on his heels. Above his head, in the tree, he was being watched. The owl sensed the anguish of the child and felt sorrow for him. Spreading his wings, the owl floated down, lighting near the forlorn boy. He hopped closer, watching cautiously.

For the next week, Nathan spent a while by the grave each day, replacing the wilted wild flowers with fresh ones. He noticed the owl and was used to it coming down to watch him. Curiously, he reached out one day and brushed his fingertips over the bird. He listened to the soft sounds it made as it moved under his hand. The owl stepped up on his forearm and he lifted it to more closely study its face and eyes. He saw intelligence there in the round orbs. In his chest, his heart was racing. Shifting up from where he sat on his heels, he started to come to his feet.

Old Reuben followed the boy’s trail through the tall grass. The redbone hound was fond of the child, who would throw him a soup bone from his family’s supper sometimes. As he stepped out of the tall grass, he spied the Negro cemetery. There, on the ground by the newest grave, knelt the boy. Perched on his skinny arm was an owl. Lifting his head, he drew a deep breath and bayed at the boy. The owl, startled by his approach, took off, lighting safely up high in a near tree.

The owl’s talons broke the skin when it flew off of his arm. Nathan cradled the arm to his chest and looked around for the bird. Old Reuben hurried over to the boy and snuffled over his feet and legs. He could still smell the sadness in his playmate. Nathan spotted the owl in the tree and took a hesitant step in that direction. A moment later, he heard a voice calling his name. Turning toward home, he ran back into the tall grass and hurried home.

As Ezra closed the door behind him, there was a stirring on the bed. Nathan cried out and began to struggle off of the bed. Half muttered, unintelligible phrases rolled from his lips as he landed on his knees beside the bed. Josiah knelt down protectively over the healer, ready to restrain him if need be. After a couple of shuddering breaths, Nathan seemed to recover himself.

“Brother Nathan, are you feeling better?”

“Josiah? What happened?”

“You fainted,” JD announced. “You were all sweaty and shaking and then you just … your eyes rolled back in your head and you … fainted.”

“Perhaps some sustenance and a good, bracing drink might help restore your fortitude,” Ezra suggested.


While the rabbits and roots were cooking, Vin urged Chris to try to Change. He hoped that being away from the others and knowing that he was safe would allow the blond to open up. Chris managed to get deeply relaxed, so relaxed that he dropped off to sleep. Vin shook his head and got up silently to stir the food.

After supper, Chris stretched out on his bedroll and smoked a cheroot. Vin shrugged off his coat and decided to go for a flight. He found what he was looking for an hour later. Circling the area, he confirmed his landmarks and returned to camp. He Changed and walked into the circle of light. Peso and Pony nickered to him in greeting and he walked over to check on them. Knowing that there were predators in the area, he wanted to make certain that the horses were not unduly upset by them.

“Have a good time?” Chris asked when Vin dropped cross-legged on the bedroll.

“It’s a wonder feeling. I wish I could share it with you. Flying above the ground, floating on the currents, it’s … amazing.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” the blond replied acidly.


After a good, stiff drink and a platter of Inez’s burritos, Nathan was feeling much better. He appreciated that his friends didn’t press him for a reason for his odd behavior. That night, after the carnival people ventured to their campsite, he was able to walk the boardwalk again. He barely repressed the shudder when several of the children ran past with mock whips in their hands.

“It rouses old memories, doesn’t it?” Josiah asked softly from where he sat outside of the jail.

“Too many memories, Josiah. There was this one Massah, he used to brag about how he could pick a fly off of his horse’s ear without breaking his stride. He could make a whipping go on all day.”

“I’m sorry, my friend, for the ignorance and arrogance of my people who found it acceptable to treat men and women that way purely because of the color of their skin.”

“That whistling sound … it’s the thing I can’t get out of my head. The way the whip sang through the air before it connected. And then, the sound when it … she was just … a kid,” Nathan whispered.


Morning came with the sounds of birds and other of God’s creatures. Chris filled the coffee pot and started it brewing. Vin returned from his early dip in the river, flinging water droplets with each swing of his head. The pair shared a pan of biscuits and gravy with their coffee and cleaned up the camp.

“There’s something I want to show you,” Vin told Chris as they were saddling their horses.

Pony plodded along placidly behind Peso as Vin led them to whatever he had in mind. The gunslinger stared at the back of the hide coat. He had come to trust the younger man with the long hair. Something about the way the clear blue eyes reflected such honesty just connected for him. He just wished he had never learned about the unique ‘gift’ Vin possessed. It brought back too many painful memories and Chris had all the pain he thought he could bear. So deeply lost in thought, he didn’t realize that the horses had stopped. Vin had dismounted and was loosely tying Peso to a bush. Holding one finger across his lips, he indicated the need for silence. The two men crept silently along a deeply wooded ridge until they reached the top. Vin pointed to something moving in the dappled sunlight down below.

The panther cubs rolled and frolicked in the opening outside of their den. A long stalk of grass waved in the breeze and the female pounced on it. Not to be outdone, the male bounded over to jump on the female and the pair rolled around, growling and snarling. When they sprang apart, each dropped into a shady spot and panted, their little pink tongues showing in their open mouths. The male rolled over and stretched, his little pot belly distended from the meal of rabbit that his mother had brought that morning. The female, recharged after a brief rest, decided to go exploring. A scent was carried on the breeze and she headed over to investigate.

A look of horror crossed Chris’s face as the little panther began to scramble up the hill directly in front of them. Vin’s hand gripped his arm, keeping him from breaking and running. He suspected that she was just being curious, not that she had seen them or knew they were there. Frozen in place, they lay watching the little feline as she clawed at something interesting that she’d found. Vin pulled a twig from a bush and stuck it over the edge, teasing the little panther. She jumped and pounced on the end of the stick. Vin watched closely as the tension and fear drained out of the blond man’s face. Gradually, a smile pulled at the sides of his mouth as he watched Vin play with the little black cat. They were both so engrossed in playing with the female that neither heard the adult panther approach.

The man smell was thick in the air and the female panther dropped the dead possum and hurried toward her den. Her cubs were only a few days out of the den and she was worried for them. Keeping her lean form low to the ground, she stealthily snuck up on the ridge that sheltered her cubs. She avoided the horses when she scented them, knowing that she couldn’t take down anything that large. When she spotted the men lying on the hill, she growled, low and threatening.

Chris turned and locked eyes with the female panther. He reached for his gun only to find Vin’s hand preventing him from drawing. Neither man moved an inch. The female panther growled again, her tail swishing in her anger. Her ivory teeth and pink tongue provided a sharp contrast to the inky black of her fur. Vin could see that she was thin, her ribs showed clearly when she breathed. She was having trouble providing for her cubs. To add to the already tense situation, the female cub climbed over the lip of the hill and tumbled practically into Vin’s lap. The adult panther hunched down, prepared to spring to the defense of her cub. Even as Vin was cradling the little black ball of fur, Chris Changed.

The mother panther shifted her attention from the human holding her cub to the male panther towering over her. The male moved to stand in a protective position between her and the man. Gently, carefully, he reached down and picked up the cub, inwardly wincing at the squeak of pain the animal made. With all four of her little feet widely splayed, the little female hissed and tensed at being picked up by the strange male.

As soon as the cub was lifted from his lap, Vin Changed and took to the tree. He had to get in position to provide backup for the blond if the female attacked. Chris carefully lowered the cub and backed away. He resisted the urge to flick his tail in agitation, going instead for a calming look. The little female waddled over to her mother and bumped against her, seeking affection. The mother panther lowered her head and sniffed the cub, reassuring herself that she was alright. The hawk overhead screeched and the male panther looked up at him before turning and bolting into the underbrush.

Veering away from the horses, Chris followed the hawk for a few minutes before they stopped in a small clearing. The panther dropped on his side and panted. The hawk lit on a nearby tree limb and cocked his head as he watched the black cat. He sensed a vague unease in his friend.


The next morning, Nathan awoke and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His dreams had been filled with memories, both painful and pleasant. He remembered his father, Obediah, and other faces from his past. He remembered the kindly surgeon who had taken a shine to him during the war and the patient way the man had shown him things whenever he could. He thought long and hard about the horrors he had witnessed. Finally, sighing in resignation, he poured some water in his washbasin and prepared to shave.

Josiah and JD were already in the restaurant when he arrived. A waitress came over with a pot of coffee and filled a cup for Nathan and refreshed the other two cups. She took his order and hurried away.

“Did you get a restful night’s sleep?” Josiah asked as Nathan stirred some cream into his cup.

“First time in a long time that I woke up feelin’ more tired than when I laid down the night before.”

“Bad dreams?” JD asked.

“Not all bad … just … busy. I remembered things I ain’t thought about in a while,” the healer said softly as the waitress brought his plate.


As Chris lay panting, he picked up a scent. Lifting his head, he breathed in deeply as he tried to identify the delicious aroma. Something was warm and alive, something that caused his mouth to water and his stomach to growl in anticipation. Coming slowly to his feet, he stalked the scent through the underbrush. From his position above, Vin could see the animal his friend was after. A goat was blithely nibbling on the tender growth. Deciding to help Chris, he soared off of the limb and startled the animal into running directly into the panther.

Instinct kicked in and Chris leapt at the goat, latching on to the back of the goat’s neck. Wrapping his powerful front legs around the animal at the same time, he brought the goat down and held on through the death throes. The goat bawled and kicked out with his hard little hoofs as Chris tightened his grip and growled. Warm, life sustaining blood filled his mouth and he swallowed it eagerly. Gradually, the goat’s struggles slowed. One final sound broke the silence and the goat died. Chris continued to hold the animal for a minute to make certain it was dead before he let go. He pulled one paw back and noticed the blood on the claws from where he had gripped the goat’s shoulder. He licked the blood away, purring loudly as he did. From somewhere above, he heard the hawk call and he was pulled back from the strong instinct that was urging him on. Suddenly, he wasn’t as hungry. Glaring up at the bird in the tree, he growled. Vin took flight, heading back the way they had come. Not wanting the kill to go to waste, he took hold of it and began dragging it.

The mother panther retrieved the possum and brought it to her cubs. As soon as they finished it, she would seek another hiding place for them. The cubs pounced on the kill, snarling and pulling at the light colored fur. The female managed to break the skin with her sharp little teeth and was licking the trickle of blood. The mother looked up when she heard the hawk return and she pushed up to a stand to protect her cubs. A few minutes later, she heard something large coming along the trail she used to enter and leave her den. Growling in warning, she readied herself for a fight. The male panther was coming toward her, dragging a medium sized brown goat. Her stomach growled and her mouth watered as the scent of the kill drifted toward her on the breeze.

Chris paused at the edge of the clearing, waiting to see if the female would attack. When she flicked her ears and licked her muzzle, he dragged his kill closer. Standing barely an arm’s reach away from the female, Chris let the goat drop to the ground. The little male cub fearlessly approached, drawn by the strong scent of blood. Chris lowered his head to sniff at the brave little feline. The cub bristled and hissed at the strange male. Not to be intimidated by something so small, Chris stepped closer and lowered his nose again to sniff at the cub. To his surprise, the small male lifted his head and began to lick at the blood still clinging to his muzzle.


Around mid morning, the races started again. JD was the first one up. His mare, Dancer, was prancing nervously at the hitching post. The boardwalk was filling up with spectators to watch the next series of races. Ezra made his way along the walk, chatting with the townspeople and questioning them as to who they thought might actually beat the trick rider. He made bets here and there as it interested him. Finally, the barker announced the first race. JD vaulted into the saddle and steered his horse to the starting line. The trick rider also vaulted into the saddle, copying JD’s act of not touching the stirrups. The barker announced the racers and the scantily clad woman dropped a handkerchief to signal the start. The horses jumped forward, the trick rider easily outdistancing the younger man. They rounded the barrel at the far end of the street and it was obvious that JD had lost.

“Dang and dang, I can’t believe I lost!” JD ranted as he slid from the saddle. “This nag ran like she was sloshed!”

“It is entirely possible that your mare was not up to her usual high standard of performance,” Ezra offered from nearby.

“What makes you say that?” Buck asked as he gave Dancer the once over.

“I noticed that trick rider hanging around in the livery this morning and Yosemite was egging him about how quick some of our horses are.”

“He doped my horse? That’s it … I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!” JD growled as he turned and scanned the street.

“Perhaps a bit of sauce for the gander is in order, JD,” Ezra suggested.

“What have you got in mind, Ezra?” Buck asked.

That evening, after an early supper, Buck’s race came up. His gray gelding had been out of the livery all day and under close supervision so that no one could give him anything. Ezra stepped out of the restaurant with the trick rider, who he had just bought supper for. He and the young braggart had exchanged reminiscences of various cities they had both enjoyed. JD and Buck met the pair on the boardwalk.

“Are you ready to lose that fancy rifle?” Buck asked as he tucked his thumbs into his gun belt and rocked back on his heels.

“What makes you think you’re going to beat me?”

“Well, I hear Ipecac kicks in pretty quick,” Ezra said with a gold-toothed grin. The cocky trick rider paled slightly as his stomach began to roll. Cupping one hand over his mouth, he bolted for the gangway and to the outhouse behind the restaurant.

There was some manner of disturbance at the other end of town and Josiah was angered to realize that the barker and the woman had made off with the money they had collected as entry fees for the fixed races. Buck, JD and Ezra made their way to the fancy wagon and found the empty strongbox.

“Guess we’ll have to ride after them and retrieve the townspeople’s money,” Nathan suggested. Some fifteen minutes later, the five were on their way out of town.


Chris and Vin backed away from the female panther and her cubs and left them to their meal. Vin Changed and knelt down to try to help Chris. The magnificent male panther swayed slightly before leaning into the younger man.

“Ya did good, pard. There’s enough meat there to last her a few days and give her a chance to rest up before she moves on,” Vin said as he drew his fingers through the thick, ebony fur. Chris lolled against his friend, purring deep in his chest. “Now, we just gotta get ya changed back. Just think about your human form and let it happen.”

After a full minute, the feline shimmered and the gunslinger knelt on the ground in his place. Chris ran his hands over his chest and thighs in amazement as he stared at Vin. The joy shining in the pale blue eyes actually made him feel pretty good about what he’d done. A memory, long forgotten and buried like his sister slid into place. He remembered another panther cub and smiled.

It seemed like a good time to return to town and the pair mounted up for the ride back. As they were coming up on the town, two horses barreled past them. One of the riders was a well dressed man and the other appeared to be a woman. Exchanging a knowing glance, the pair pulled up and turned to follow. They trailed them to another camp a mile or so from the town.

“I told you not to get caught!” the woman hissed at the man when they finally stopped.

“Well, it wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t been for your stupid brother. He was just supposed to put the stuff in the feed bin and get out of there, not stay and carry on a conversation with the blacksmith!”

As Chris and Vin were sneaking up on the pair, the rest of the peacekeepers rode up on them. JD Changed and scurried over to tell the others what had happened and why they were chasing the man and woman. Spreading out, they tried to circle around the pair so they could catch them without resorting to a shootout. Even as Chris was preparing to give the signal for them to move in, Sledge came barreling into the camp and vaulted from the saddle.

“We gotta get out of here! That last guy Pace was supposed to ride against was a lawman!” he shouted before stopping to catch his breath.

“And he had six friends who didn’t take kindly to the way you drugged one of our horses,” Chris said in a low and lethal tone of voice. All three whirled to face the gunslinger and the barker grabbed the woman, putting his forearm around her throat and pushing his pistol into her ribs.

Josiah looked over toward Nathan and gave a maniacal grin. In a moment, he Changed and began to lumber slowly out of the woods. Sledge turned, dragging the woman around and aiming his gun at the approaching grizzly. Immediately, Chris shot the gun right out of the man’s hand, leaving him defenseless, for a moment. Shoving the woman out of his way, he pulled the whip from his belt and let it coil from his hand. The bear slowed, keeping just out of reach. The barker backed away as Sledge snapped the whip on the ground in warning.

From behind the trees, Nathan clenched his teeth. A second snap of the whip brought sweat to his forehead, which ran down into his eyes. With each successive crack of the bullwhip, the healer cringed until he heard the bear roar. His head snapped up and a deep shudder wracked his slender frame.

Something like clapping sounded from the direction the bear had come from and JD glanced over just in time to see an owl take flight. The dark bird of prey was not one he had ever seen in this part of the country. Just then, several shots rang out and JD turned his attention back to the clearing where the three strangers were standing. The barker was holding to a bleeding wound in his thigh and screaming in terror as Josiah walked past him. The trick rider was rolling on the ground from the simultaneous shots to his right arm and right leg. Ezra ducked apologetically. It seemed that he hadn’t realized that Buck already had his sights set on the man. The woman was shrieking hysterically as she tried to hide behind Chris.

They let Josiah snuffle at Sledge McCormick for a while before going to his rescue. In the mean time, they had bound the woman and Ezra and Buck tended to the injured barker. JD dashed out of hiding and announced that Vin ought to go after Nathan.

“What do you mean, go after him?” Chris asked grouchily. Something in the young man’s grin told him he wasn’t going to like the answer. JD turned and pointed toward the owl sitting in the highest branches of a nearby tree. Chris looked toward Vin and rolled his hazel eyes. The younger man slipped into the woods and flew out moments later. Josiah came out of the woods, still wearing the toothy grin, and looked down on the barker before growling softly and walking away. His deep bass laughter echoed in the small clearing.

Riding back to town, Chris continued to shake his head in amazement. Although still not in control of his ability, he was associated with six others with the same gift. He thought on the things Vin had told him about growing up with the gift and learning all the advantages that came with it. Peso nickered, drawing attention to the two men sitting on a large rock by the side of the road. Nathan looked a little green, if that were possible for the dark skinned man, but otherwise alright. The blond sensed that the two of them were going to need to get away together soon to discuss what had happened. The healer was a little shaky getting into the saddle and Josiah dropped back to stay close.

When they reached town, JD took the bag of money he had retrieved and began returning the entry fees to the people on the race list. The prisoners were secured in the jail, McCormick protesting loudly about how the lawmen had allowed the bear to ‘maul’ him before driving it away. Josiah gave a belly laugh and told the crowd standing closest that the man was just trying to distract them so he could try to get away.

Nathan tended to the wounded by rote, still somewhat in shock over what he had done and felt.

As the shudder had passed, he realized that he was flying. As soon as the terror subsided, a wave of pure joy and freedom surged through him. Wheeling on a gentle breeze, he had stretched out his talons and grasped the nearest branch. His natural sense of balance allowed him to remain on the branch but he realized that he had no idea how to take off again, how to land, or how to Change back into himself. With his excellent vision, he watched Josiah as he approached the downed man, even to noticing that the grizzly carefully kept his claws from hurting even as he scared the wits out of the man. He was relieved to see Vin alight nearby. He sensed that the younger man was there to help him, to teach him. Gathering his courage, Nathan had let go of the branch and used his powerful wings to take flight again. Changing back was easy, he was too tired to do anything except relax when Vin suggested it. Dazed and in shock, he had allowed himself to be settled on a boulder to await the arrival of the others.

For the next few days, Nathan avoided the others. He tended to the injured man and kept to the clinic the rest of the time. Vin had approached him, shyly offering to work with him so that he could control his new-found gift. The healer thanked him and said he wanted to think about it for a while first. The others respected his decision, each understanding from personal experience how it felt to be thrust into something so foreign. Chris sought out Vin, eager to learn how to control his ability.

Chris, Buck, Vin and JD headed out for a break a week later. In Wickestown, they found the means to unwind. While JD was making time with the lovely blonde Emily, the man who ran the town was making arrangements for another of the girls. Nora blanched at the sight of the man she was being given to. Lidia tried to dissuade Mr. Wickes, infuriating him into dragging the dark haired beauty away to his tent. As Buck was checking on JD and Emily, he heard a woman’s cry of pain.

Two of Wickes men held Buck while the bull of a man pummeled Wilmington’s gut. Chris stopped the fight with a single discharge of his rifle. They brought the battered girl back to town with them for Nathan to. No sooner had they gotten the girl settled than the rest of the girls from the town showed up, creating quite a stir. When the girls refused to return to Wickestown, the trouble started.

Nora stumbled into the saloon a few days later, practically collapsing into Chris’s arms as she announced that Wickes had taken Mary Travis. Heading out of the saloon to gather the others, Chris and Vin came upon Ezra as he was teaching ‘charm school manners’ to the other girls. As the green eyed man came down the stairs with a book balanced on his head, Vin’s mouth curled in a smile.

“What we need is a distraction,” Chris was saying as he followed the direction of the blue eyed gaze. Before he could finish his thought, Vin spoke.

“Sure walks graceful, don’t he?”

The plan was simple. Ezra, in a borrowed dress, went into the Wickestown saloon to create a diversion. Vin and JD Changed and searched for Mrs. Travis while the others neutralized Wickes’ security forces. The little raccoon went unnoticed as he snuck from tent to tent. The hawk flew over the tents, listening for signs of the missing woman.

Mary Travis tugged at her bonds, trying not to give in to the fear that was coursing through her very soul. Wickes sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her cheek and the line of her neck with the end of his riding crop. He taunted the blond woman.

“The only thing that separates you from my girls is luck,” he said as he lifted the material of her shirt with the crop to view the pale skin beneath.

In the saloon, one too many of the patrons made a grab for Ezra as he sang for them. Giving one a hearty shove and another a hard right hook, he incited a brawl. While the men were beating each other senseless, he escaped.

Hearing the sound of people moving around outside of the tent, Mary Travis started screaming. In a panic, Wickes punched her in the jaw, knocking her unconscious. Fearing that he might be trapped, the arrogant man snuck out.

JD pushed under the canvas of the tent and his inquisitive nose twitched. He easily detected the odor of the printer’s ink that clung to the woman he was seeking. Creeping forward, he climbed up and sniffed at Mary. Seeing that she was unconscious, he jumped off of the bed and began to chew on the ropes that held her. Just as he managed to free one of her hands, Wickes backed into the tent again. Seeing the animal chewing on the ropes, he growled in anger and stomped over, intending to strike the raccoon with his riding crop. JD chattered angrily as he jumped down and ducked under the canvas again.

One of the saloon patrons spotted Ezra dashing out of the tent and went after him. As Ezra rounded a corner and ducked into another tent, he Changed. Unaware that there were two women in the tent who had hidden there at the onset of the brawl, he was startled at their shrieks of fear. The little bobcat shied from the screams and darted under one of the beds and shot out from under the canvas. The man who was following the ‘woman’ in the purple dress instantly turned toward the direction of the screams. Throwing open the tent flap, he missed seeing the small feline as it escaped.

Seeing JD bursting from under the tent canvas, Vin sought to alert Chris to Mary’s location. The hawk screeched and dove toward the tent. The blond man looked up and spotted the bird and backed away from the direction he had been going to head for Vin. He ducked into the tent and spotted Mrs. Travis on the bed. Rushing to her side, he felt for a pulse. Her eyelids fluttered and she squirmed in fear of his touch.

“Shh, it’s alright Mary. Did he hurt you?”

“No, I’m fine,” she murmured as she fought back tears. When her hands were freed, she allowed the gunslinger to pull her into his arms. Shaking in fear, she clung to him for a moment.

Knowing that Chris had Mrs. Travis, Vin went to check on the others. While Buck was still taking out Wickes’ security forces, one of them got the drop on him. As he peered through a clothes line full of damp clothing, a hammer was thumbed down near his ear.

“Nice and easy now, step on through,” the man ordered. He never took his eyes off of the mustached man, and so, never saw the hawk descending. Vin extended both feet and grabbed for the gunman’s hat. His wings flapped, beating the man’s shoulders and startling him even more. Dropping the gun, he reached for the bird, his fingers only brushing over it lightly as it flew away. A hard thrown fist connected with his jaw, sending him to the ground unconscious. Buck grinned up at the hawk and tipped his hat in gratitude.

JD stepped out of one of the tents, pulling his clothing straight as he headed for the tent where Mary Travis was being held. He spotted Chris coming out with the blonde woman. Beyond Chris, he saw a large shape coming out of the corridor between the tents, Wickes.

“Stop right there,” Wickes commanded. From behind him, shots rang out and the man’s face contorted in pain and surprise. Lidia stood, arms outstretched and trembling, with a gun in her hands. Tears streamed down her face as she prepared to pull the trigger again. The double action pistol was heavy and she struggled to keep it at shoulder height as she watched the man slowly slump to the ground.

Buck and Nathan cautiously approached the woman with the gun. She flinched at the light touch but surrendered the gun. Chris wrapped an arm around Mary and drew her away from the body. Wickes pushed up from the ground and pulled the gun from his underarm holster. The sound of the gun’s hammer being thumbed caused Buck to draw and shoot the man again, killing him instantly.

Back in town, the girls from Wickestown decided to take their wares to San Francisco. Ezra was disappointed, as he had been lining up husbands for the ‘mail order’ brides he hoped to turn them into. Emily gifted JD with a kiss before climbing into the wagon.

That night, at the saloon, Buck was ribbing JD about ‘the one that got away.’ The conversation caused a question to pop into Nathan’s mind and he turned to look for Vin. Slipping from the saloon, he peered down the boardwalk to where he saw the young man sitting beside Chris in front of the jail. Stepping down from the boardwalk, he crossed the street. Both men were sitting in chairs tipped back against the wall as they shared a bottle of redeye between them.

“Nathan,” Chris greeted.

“Chris, Vin. Nice night,” Nathan said as he leaned against the hitching post and stared up at the cloudless night sky. The street fires illuminated their individual circles, a good thing since there was almost no moon in the sky.

“How you feeling, Nate?” Vin asked softly. “Somethin’ botherin’ ya?”

“Vin … I was just wondering … if you know. This ability … this Change … is it passed down?”

“You mean like, are you born with it?” Vin clarified.


“I don’t think so. I almost think that it’s somethin’ random. The Indians saw it as a gift from the spirits, not like it ran in a family.”

“Would you … be willin’ to … work with me? Teach me to control it?” Nathan asked hesitantly.

“I’d be honored,” Vin said with a gentle smile.

Nathan dove into the lessons with an enthusiasm that amazed Vin. Having no fear of the gift, the healer pushed himself to learn to control his Change. With Vin teaching him, he learned to fly and to land. He and Vin spent many pleasant hours kiting through the updrafts in the arroyos and on the desert.

It was Chris who suggested that they take a couple of days and get away as a group. The opportunity presented itself in the form of a group of prisoners that needed to be picked up near Vista City. Taking a wagon loaded lightly with supplies, they headed out. The first evening, they camped out. Leaving the others behind, Chris and Vin slipped off to work on his ability to Change. Staring down from the slight rise they had climbed, the blond man watched a pair of eagles fishing in the river. Focusing on them, he let himself relax as Vin had taught him. He felt the tingle spread all over his body. In that instant, he was again the awesome black panther.

Vin couldn’t suppress his grin as Chris turned his nose to the breeze. The long tail whipped in agitation as the sharp eyes scanned the surrounding trees and bushes. A low growl rolled in his throat as he looked back at his longhaired friend.

“Let’s head back to camp, Cowboy, and show the others what you’ve become.” The growl was louder as Vin found himself looking into hard hazel eyes. “Yeah, yeah, you don’t like being called Cowboy, I forgot.”

When they reached the camp, JD and Buck had both Changed and were playing together on the sandy bank that ran along the river. A series of quick, high pitched chittering noises burst from JD as Buck ruffled his fur with his nose. The wolf darted away when the raccoon started picking through his fur with tiny black hands. Stopping a few feet away, the wolf turned and gave a low, chuffing bark, inviting JD to come after him. Chris’s soft growl drew all eyes to the pair stepping out of the shadows of the trees. Buck and JD returned to the fire as Vin and Chris drew closer. Nathan and Josiah looked on from where they were preparing the evening meal. Ezra looked over from where he was grooming his mount. The horses were shying nervously at the smell of two predators.

“Incredible!” Ezra breathed as he dropped the brush beside his saddle bag and strode to the fire. He knelt and reached out a hand to touch the silky fur. Beneath the glossy black coat, he felt the smooth play of taut muscles. A broad yawn exposed a set of sharp, lethal looking teeth.

One by one, they approached the panther and touched or sniffed at him. Buck lifted one paw and swiped at the feline and then dashed away, inviting him to come and play. The cat leapt and took out after the wolf. The pair disappeared into the woods where barking and growling could be heard in the distance. JD, left alone at the fire, scurried over and climbed into Josiah’s lap, plucking at the beaded necklace around the graying man’s neck.

The next morning, Nathan and Vin Changed and took off, scouting the trail ahead. Josiah drove the wagon, keeping an eye on his flying companions with a hint of jealousy in his eyes. That afternoon, when they stopped to rest the horses, JD and Ezra Changed and spent a few minutes playing in the shade. The two animals were similar in size and ability as evidenced when JD raced up a tree and Ezra quickly followed. They frolicked in the branches for several minutes before Chris called them down.

They reached Vista City and picked up the prisoners. The four men glared balefully at the lawmen as they were escorted into the wagon. Now that they had witnesses, they couldn’t indulge in their abilities and had to be more careful. Josiah drove the wagon with either JD or Ezra at his side while the others rode alongside and behind the wagon. They stopped only to allow the men to relieve themselves and for a light meal in the afternoon. That night, they chained the men to the wheels of the wagon in pairs, wrist to ankle so that they might not try to escape. Buck and Ezra rode out under the guise of patrolling a perimeter so they could Change and bring down game for supper. When they returned an hour later, they had several rabbits and a fat catfish.

“Who got the fish?” Chris asked when they returned to camp.

“You should’ve seen him, he flipped it right out of the water!” Buck exclaimed, showing the motion the bobcat had used to catch the fish. A sharp look from the blond stopped the explanation before the man could innocently reveal too much.

After the meal, the prisoners were escorted to the water to wash and returned to their chains. Nathan and Vin took the first watch, leaving the others to rest. Midway through the night, they wakened Chris and Buck to take the next watch. Breakfast consisted of biscuits and coffee for all. The prisoners complained richly about the meager fare until Vin got close and started cleaning his nails with the point of his knife.

They stopped for a late lunch of jerky and water while the horses rested. Chris was pushing to get back to town so he could secure the prisoners. Riding into the evening, they returned to town just as dusk was falling. The prisoners were transferred to the jail cells to await their trial.

That evening, the men gathered in the saloon for a drink before getting some much needed rest. Buck was still teasing JD about Emily when the pair headed off for the boarding house. Ezra and Chris were the last ones out of the saloon in the wee hours of the morning.

When Buck awoke, he felt something cold and clammy against his thigh. Rolling over, his arm and shoulder came to rest on something else. Flipping back his blanket, he saw that the bed was dotted with small fish, small, dead fish. His nose began to register the fishy smell as he sat up and he noticed the small muddy footprints on the floor. Setting both feet on the floor, he bellowed for the culprit.

“John Dunne! You are really going to be sorry!”



Okay, now that I’ve got all the guys in their spirit animals, throw me an idea as to what you want to see them do or write a story yourself. Big thanks to those of you who responded so kindly to the stories as they came along and thanks to Michelle and all those who made suggestions.