The Changelings

by Angie

Alternate Universe

Part of The Changeling Collection

Vin Tanner surveyed the town with a wary eye. It was a small, rough looking little frontier town. Several horses lined the various hitching posts along the main street. A couple of wagons were parked behind the dry goods store, no doubt buying supplies to get them further west. A bitter gall swept up from his stomach as he thought about the numbers of white settlers flooding the area.

As a child, Vin had known the love and attention of his beloved mother. His father had been killed in a shootout before the child was born. His mother died when he was barely five years old. Warmth infused him as he remembered the people who had found and cared for the sickly, frightened, half starved little boy with silky blond hair.

Elk Hunter had become his father and Running Doe his mother when he was taken into the tribe. Although he never forgot his mother, her soft, golden haired image had faded until the only face he could summon to mind was that of a woman with dark hair and skin and angular features. It hadn’t mattered that he was white, not then, not at first. They called him Wheat Hair and raised him like he had been born to them.

When he was ten, Elk Hunter led him to the medicine hut. The powerful shaman frightened the gangly boy but he stood silently as the two men spoke.

“My son has had a powerful vision. I want you to dream with him and help him to discern its meaning.” In payment for the service, he gave the shaman a fine yearling colt and a woven blanket.

Two days later, the child had been led through the village to the chief’s fire. The shaman waited until almost all of the tribe had gathered before he made his announcement. “The son of Elk Hunter has had a powerful vision. He is also gifted with an ancient ability. No more will he be called Wheat Hair, his new name is Eye of the Hawk, he has the ability to Change.”

Awe and shock swept the tribe. They all knew the old stories of people who were blessed by the spirits and were able to change their physical form at will. The hawk was a powerful spirit, hunter and protector, something to be proud of. Only a few of them had ever actually seen a person so gifted. The shaman also announced that the boy had the ability to sense the gift in others, truly a rare combination.

Pulling his mind back forcefully to the present, Vin considered the gift. Very few remained among the Indians with the gift, it was diluted by the number of half-breed children being sired by the white men upon their women and the fact that the red man was being driven off of the land. Occasionally, he sensed the gift in a white man, but it was usually only a spark, so deeply buried as to be unknown. He had awakened days before with the knowledge that a powerful Changer was in the area.

Tapping his heels lightly against the sides of the horse, he started down toward the town. As he got closer, he closed his eyes and let the sensation pull him along. In the midst of the strong current, he also sensed eddies, other gifted people in the area. He slid out of the saddle and hitched his horse in front of the dry goods store. He needed a few supplies. The portly woman behind the counter smiled warmly at him as he came in. He picked up a small bag of sugar and another of flour from a shelf and then reached for a small tin of lard. Selections in hand, he went to the counter. He had only a few dollars of white man’s money. Accepting his change, he gathered his purchase and carried it out to his horse. Peso blew and swished his tail anxiously, the stallion not caring for the close proximity of so many other horses. Vin tucked the supplies in the saddlebags and patted the animal for a minute.

Down the street, a man in a black duster stepped out of the saloon. In his teeth, he clenched a cheroot as he surveyed the street. His eyes paused here and there, gauging the danger of each person. As his eyes lit on the man in the hide coat, something inside him was jolted, surprising him. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment, rubbing at the three parallel scars on his chest. Tearing his eyes away from the young stranger, he shook himself and moved down the boardwalk. People yielded to him, parting before him like a school of small fish around a rock in the water.

A smile pulled at Vin’s cheeks. His inner eye could see the big black cat that inhabited the man’s soul. It was in the way the man moved and the way he observed his surroundings. He could almost see the nervous twitch of his tail as he pondered what had just happened. With just the right nudge, the man could be made to see the power that he held. Checking his saddlebags again, Vin crossed the street and went into the saloon.

In the dim interior of the saloon, one of the eddies he had detected earlier surfaced. Casually crossing to the bar, Vin let his mind drift over the people gathered around the tables. He told the bartender that he wanted a beer and slid a coin across the bar. Taking the mug, he turned around and rested one hip against the bar. Using all of his senses, he carefully scanned the room. He brushed over a couple of sparks until he touched the one strong enough to make the change. Vin almost chuckled at the image that he conjured as he stared at the red-coated man at the table. A banty rooster, fluffed up and full of color was the picture he saw as he watched the dark haired man playing cards. His inner eye told a different story, however, the man had a feline curled tightly in his soul. A small cat, a lynx or bobcat, was huddled inside of the fancy dressed body. Interesting.

Finishing his beer, Vin stepped out of the saloon and glanced up the boardwalk. At the far end of the block, he saw the black clad gunslinger watching him from under the brim of his hat. Nodding a greeting, Vin headed for the boarding house to see if he could arrange a room for a couple of days.

Chris Larabee watched the young man and fought the urge to rub the scars on his chest. As a child, a panther cub had mauled him. He had cornered the small animal in its den and, with the complete trust of a young child, pulled it out and tried to cuddle it in his arms. He thought it was the offspring of one of the barn cats, hidden here for safekeeping. As he turned to take the animal to the barn and release it with the others, the cat dug in its claws and hissed, scaring him into dropping it. His mother cleaned the deep scratches and his father scolded him furiously for picking up a strange animal. That night, he took ill with a fever, tossing and turning in his bed. He dreamed.

It was dark and warm where he lay curled up with his siblings. Their mother had gone out and brought back a fat rabbit. Full and safe, they tumbled and played in the den, their eyes having only just opened a couple of days before. When they tired out, they curled together for a thorough licking from their mother before going to sleep.

The dream changed. Lonely and scared, the small, black bundle of fur cried for someone to come. His little paw was caught in a rope trap and he dangled several inches above the ground. He was trying to get to the piece of rabbit meat hanging just out of reach when he sprang the trap. Heavy footfalls through the underbrush caused him to whine piteously and yip hopefully. Rough hands took hold of him and released him from the trap. He was tucked against a warm body for a while. In a couple of minutes, he was released near the den. His mother growled a warning at the human who had dared to touch her cub. The sturdy young man with the sky colored eyes Changed, becoming a grizzly bear. The two animals faced off for a moment before the bear turned and trumped into the woods.

Carolyn Larabee had sponged off the fevered body as her son cried out and thrashed in his bed. She was stunned momentarily by the animal sounds her son made in response to her touch. At one point, he flinched and went still. Fearing that he had succumbed to the fever, she screamed and jerked him up in her arms. Chris had gasped, becoming drenched in sweat as he clung to his mother. From that day on, whenever he was deeply asleep, he would see the black feline.

After arranging for a room for a couple of days, Vin explored the town. He had a tendency to blend into the background, so he was able to watch people without arousing suspicion. Boarding Peso in the livery, he felt another, strong eddy. Closing his eyes, he searched for the source. Every time he thought he had it figured out, it changed. Giving up for now, he finished brushing his mount and left the stall. Maybe he would figure it out later, he thought.

The disturbance started in the street, the ranch hands were drunk and decided that they didn’t like the way the black man looked at them. They followed him into the saloon. After a few more drinks to fortify their courage, they strode across the bar and yanked the man from his chair. No one in the room protested as they wrestled the unwilling man out into the street. With his hands swiftly bound behind his back, the black man was unable to make much more than a token resistance. He was dragged to the end of town where the immense tree stood, long since barren and dead, it was still sturdy enough for hanging a man.

Chris stepped out of the boarding house as the young man in the dun coat came out of the livery. Both of them were drawn to the group of men surging down the middle of the dusty road, dragging the resisting black man. Their gazes locked for a moment and an understanding passed between them. They followed the mob down the street, Vin checking the mare’s leg at his side. When they reached the cemetery, the black man was already standing precariously on a wobbly stool taken from the end of the boardwalk. The rope was tossed over the biggest branch and tied off.

“You all want to cut him down?” Vin called from the opening in the picket fence that surrounded the small cemetery.

“You best be moving along or we’re likely to string you up alongside of him,” their leader challenged. For a moment, neither group moved, sizing each other up. Finally, one man drew his pistol. Faster than anyone could realize, the dark clad gunslinger shot the man. The drunken mob spread out, the last man kicking the stool from under the black man’s legs.

Vin pulled his mare’s leg and took careful aim, his senses aiding him. The rope was already pulled taut by the man’s weight and it snapped when he fired, dropping the man to the ground. He rolled, seeking cover while the groups exchanged gunfire. In a moment, it was all over. The men who had been trying to lynch the black man lay dead or dying. Chris and Vin cautiously disarmed them before moving to check on the man they tried to hang. Vin pulled his knife and slashed the ropes.

“Thanks. I was beginning to think I was done for. Nathan Jackson,” the man said as he held out his hand. Vin took the proffered hand and pulled the man to his feet. As they stood, still touching, the blue-eyed man got a glimpse of the animal in Nathan’s soul.

Nathan felt something unfurl inside as he looked at the young man’s eyes. His breath caught in his chest before he smiled. The other man introduced himself and the three turned to leave the cemetery. By silent agreement, they made their way to the saloon. Chris bought them a round of drinks.

The man in the red coat fairly bristled when the three men turned to watch him as he dealt the cards. Keeping his smile firmly in place, he picked up his hand and checked it. Laying the cards down, he offered cards to the others at his table. When the hand was played, one man jumped to his feet and began to yell at the red-coated dealer.

“You’re a lousy cheat!”

“You are mistaken, sir. You are merely a lousy card player,” the southern accented voice replied. The accusing man drew his gun, taking his eyes off of the man for only an instant. When his eyes returned to his target, he saw the tiny derringer pointed at his face and beyond that, the open barrels of the sawed off rifle.

Stuttering slightly, the man slowly holstered his weapon and withdrew from the saloon. The others at the table relaxed slightly, hoping to ease the tension in the room. The man in the red coat turned to face the man in the tan coat.

“Thank you, sir, for your timely intervention. Although, I had the situation well in hand. Ezra Standish,” he said, offering his hand.

“Vin Tanner,” came the reply.

“Allow me to buy you a drink as compensation for your services?”

“Naw, already got one. Maybe another time?”

The agreement made by tipping his hat and Ezra gathered his winnings and left the saloon.

“Why did you help him? He might have been cheating them,” Chris asked.

“He wasn’t, I watched him deal the cards.”

Out on the boardwalk, the southerner practically ran to the boarding house. His breath was coming in short, rapid gasps and he knew he had only a limited amount of time to get out of sight. He had come west hoping to be free of this unusual side of his existence.

Ever since he could walk, Ezra had been fascinated with animals. His mother refused to let him keep a pet, only deepening his desire for one. While they were staying in Atlanta, he befriended a wild barn cat. He slipped the animal tidbits of food. His mother found out and sent the butler out to do away with the animal. She absolutely forbade him to have any kind of a cat. She offered to allow him a dog or, God forbid, a monkey, but absolutely no cats. When he screamed and cried and threatened to run away unless she relented, she finally told him the truth.

Maude and her husband Jasper were taking a picnic lunch near the river one afternoon. It was the first time the woman felt like being outside for any length of time since the birth of her son nearly six weeks ago. Baby Ezra was laying on the blanket, his little fist tucked firmly against his mouth. Her mother in law insisted that he would start sucking his thumb unless they kept him swaddled but the young first-time mother couldn’t bear to keep him wrapped all the time. Jasper persuaded Maude to come to the water and wade with him for a moment. The baby was sound asleep and she slipped off her shoes and stockings to join him for a little cooling refreshment.

The bobcat slowly approached the blanket, drawn by the smell of food in the basket. Her attention was drawn to the baby when it sighed and smacked its lips. The cat sniffed at the bare bit of skin at the nape of Ezra’s neck. Irresistibly drawn, she lay on top of the child and began to lick him.

Looking toward the blanket, Maude screamed at the sight of the cat laying on her baby. Jasper bolted out of the water and scared the animal away, gathering the sleeping baby and taking him to his wife. They both examined him for any sign that the animal had injured him and found four tiny puncture marks on the back of his neck. Terrified, they rushed the baby to the nearest doctor who assured them that the child had most likely not been harmed.

Ezra accepted the explanation, but it did nothing to quench his love for animals. He borrowed books from libraries whenever they settled down long enough for him to have time to read. He learned all he could about animals, and especially the bobcat. He learned that they were small and territorial. He learned to identify their tracks and the marks they made on trees. He didn’t understand his unusual affinity for the animal, he simply accepted it.

Upon reaching puberty, Ezra realized that he was not like other boys. He had unusually vivid dreams about stalking through the woods. In his dreams, he was a bobcat and he was free to run and climb and do all the things his mother would not allow him to do in the daylight. After Jasper’s death by drowning, Maude had taken to running cons to keep herself and her son in the style she had become accustomed to. She trained her son to play cards and read people. Small for his age and with an innocent face, he easily drew in the marks. One night, an older man threw down his cards and accused the pair of cheating. Maude leapt to her feet in her son’s defense and the man backhanded her. Even as Ezra backed away from the table, he felt something happening. He fled.

Maude locked herself in her stateroom and sobbed. She was beside herself with worry about Ezra, who had been missing for most of a week. When sleep finally claimed her, the balcony doors opened. The small cat crept stealthily into the room and leapt lightly to the bed. Curling up in the thick comforter, he slept. Maude awakened near dawn. Soft purring noises led her to lift her head and glance toward the foot of the bed. A bloodcurdling shriek burst from her lips. The bobcat lifted its head and opened its startlingly green eyes. In the space of three heartbeats, the woman recognized the body that housed her son’s soul.

“My God, Ezra?” She held out a trembling hand and the animal rubbed under it, purring in pleasure. After a few minutes, the cat leapt from the bed and walked across the room, prying the door to Ezra’s room open. A couple of minutes later, Ezra returned, in human form.

“Did you see what I can do?”

He had yet to learn to control it. The cat manifested itself whenever he was frightened. Adrenaline seemed to set off the Change and only let go when he was calmed down again. Locking the door behind him, he let himself go. The small bobcat paced in the confines of the room. As his heartbeat returned to normal, he curled up on the pillow and fell asleep. The Change always left him exhausted.

The stage rolled to a stop and a young man stepped off. His mother had died, leaving him a tidy sum of money. Bored with things in Boston, he decided to head west. In a dusty little town in Oklahoma, he purchased a saddle and a gun belt with a pair of ivory handled pistols. He had been staying a couple of nights in any town that piqued his interest. So far, he had always been eager to move on when the next stage came through. Something about this town felt different. His bags were tossed down and he carried them to the boarding house. JD Dunne unpacked his things and set out to explore the town.

In a room over the saloon, an angry man beat on one of the doors. “Eunice, are you in there?”

Inside the room, Buck sprang from the bed and began to struggle into his clothes. He got only as far as his union suit before the man began to throw his weight against the door. Gathering the rest of his things, he kissed the buxom blonde one last time before climbing out of the window. Several windows down the line, he found one open and climbed in. The unmistakable click of a hammer being thumbed froze the ladies man in his tracks.

“Easy now, I don’t mean you no trouble. I’m just passing through,” Buck said as he started to turn around.

“You won’t ever learn, will you Buck?” Chris asked as he reset the weapon and holstered it.

“Chris! You old war dog! What are you doing here? How in the world are you?” Buck exclaimed as he dropped his belongings and tugged his pants straight on his body. Without hesitation, he crossed the room and threw his arms around the blond gunslinger and thumped him soundly on the back.

“Narrow escape again, Buck?”

“Now, Chris, you know I don’t mean no harm,” Buck began.

“Just don’t come crying to me when one of those guys puts a load of rock salt in your behind. How have you been?”

The two men caught up while Buck pulled on his clothes. The blue-eyed scoundrel checked his appearance in the mirror as he ran his fingers through his dark, curly hair.

“Stopped a hanging earlier today,” Chris announced.

“No kidding! Anybody I know?”

“Nah, just some liquored up cowboys looking to mess with that black healer that lives over the livery. We took care of them quick enough.”


“Met a young fellow name of Vin Tanner. Nice guy.”

That evening, all six men were gathered in the saloon. Spread randomly around the room, they nonetheless oozed control. Vin was sitting with Nathan, sharing his knowledge of plants and herbs that he had garnered while living among the Indians. Buck and Chris were sharing a bottle and memories. Ezra was seated at the table on the low dais, playing cards with a couple of fellows. One of them was a very young looking kid wearing a bowler hat. The kid was talking almost nonstop and it looked for a while as if the gambler was going to strangle him to shut him up.

The batwing doors opened and a pair of Indians stepped in. Conversations all over the room came to a halt as people turned to stare pointedly at the men. On instinct, Vin rose to greet them. Right on his heels, Chris strode up to make sure they weren’t gong to cause trouble or be the cause of it.

“You gentlemen looking for someone?” Chris asked in a low and menacing tone.

“We were told that this town has a judge. We’re looking for someone to help us,” the older of the men said without flinching at the tone of voice the gunslinger had used.

“Help you with what?” Vin asked.

“Some men came and told us that we must leave our land. We purchased that land, poor though it is, fairly from the son of the white man who owned it. We need help,” the other Indian answered. “We would be willing to pay for protection until the judge can settle the dispute.”

“How much do you have in mind?” Chris asked. The older man produced a palm-sized nugget of gold fashioned in the shape of a mask.

After deciding the value of the gold, the men discussed how many men it would take to provide reasonable protection for the village. Buck volunteered to help, as did Nathan. Chris looked askance as Vin approached the gambler and invited him to help.

Ezra looked up from his cards and smiled at the man who had helped him earlier in the day. “What can I do for you, Mr. Tanner?” After listening to the offer, he nodded. “I shall be glad to offer my services for a short time. Perhaps I can have a look at the deeds to the property, I do know something about forgeries and such.” He neglected to mention that his mother had taught him everything he knew as part of conning people.

The next morning, the five men were saddled up and ready to ride out. Vin could hardly keep the grin from his face as the power of the others washed over him. He knew Chris was a powerful Changer, but he also sensed a similar strength from Nathan. Ezra seemed aware of what he was and that intrigued Vin but he couldn’t speak to the gambler until he knew him better. The fifth man in their group gave off only an intermittent flicker of power. Buck smiled and tipped his hat to each man as he was introduced.

As they were getting ready to ride off, a sixth horse hurdled around the corner of the livery. The young man who had been playing cards with Ezra the night before pulled the skittish horse to a stop.

“My name is JD Dunne and I can ride,” he said as he demonstrated with a flourish. “And I can shoot,” he added as he pulled one of his guns and aimed for a post some distance away. At the sound of the gun, the gelding reared, propelling the young man into the horse trough.

“And he can fly,” Ezra added.

“And he can swim,” Buck tossed in as the easterner came up spluttering.

They rode off, leaving JD behind, cursing and kicking up dust as he scolded the horse.

Heading for the Indian village, they came upon a man building a rock cairn along the side of the road. His horse stood placidly nearby. The group paused to watch for a moment. The hulk of a man glanced up at them and smiled.

“Welcome! What brings you all out this way?”

“Indians in the village say men are trying to force them off of their land,” Vin answered.

“Knew about that. That’s the reason I’m out here setting up markers. The boundary of their property starts right here. I’ve been setting up these marker cairns and they’re knocking them down as fast as I put them up. I’m Josiah, by the way,” he said as he offered out his hand.

A strong feeling of déjà vu swept over Chris as he made direct eye contact with the older man. He had to swallow a few times before his could coax his recalcitrant tongue into forming the words to introduce himself.

“Chris … Larabee, … pleasure to meet ya. We were just … heading out to see if … we could help to … protect the Indians until the judge hears the case.”

“I’ll ride in with you. They have sentries posted along the roads,” Josiah explained as he turned and added the last stone to the stack. He walked over to his horse and swung easily into the saddle. The others fell in behind him as Vin moved up to ride alongside.

“You been around these parts long?”

“Here and there, I’ve been lots of places. My daddy was a minister of the gospel and we traveled around, spreading the word. Spent a lot of time among the Indians. You?

“Grew up with them. They took me in after my ma passed.”

The two men exchanged knowing glances and then rode in silence. Buck nudged his mount up closer to Chris and leaned over to ask, “That kid seem a little odd to you?”

Chris looked at his oldest friend and smiled. He and Buck had known each other most of their lives. Nodding at Buck, he tossed a look toward the pair riding in front, “I don’t know what it is about him but I trust him. It’s kind of strange but ever since we made eye contact in town, I don’t know.”

“That’s good enough for me. Your instincts pulled our fat out of the fire more times than I care to remember. You remember that time, near Austin, when we met up with those two little doves …” Buck settled back in his saddle and strolled down memory lane, evoking an occasional chuckle from the blond.

Riding in the rear, Nathan glanced over at the southerner. It was difficult for him to hide his distaste for the man. Everything about him only served to remind the dark skinned man that his kind had once been slaves. Every nuance of Ezra’s behavior irritated him.

He could feel it rolling off of the other man in waves, hatred, and mistrust. Ezra squared his posture and directed his eyes ahead, staring at a spot on Vin Tanner’s shoulder. He could feel tendrils of his discomfort edging toward fear but he couldn’t fathom why the healer should be affecting him this way. He was accustomed to being hated by colored people, he couldn’t help the way he talked, reminding them of their former oppressors. He resisted the urge to tug on his cuffs, concentrating even harder on proper riding technique. His sensitive ears picked up every word Mr. Wilmington said and he soon became engaged in the man’s story of his sexual conquests.

As the party came over the slight hill, they could see the Indian settlement. Several small adobe huts lay in a haphazard cluster. Cooking fires burned here and there and women and children could be seen going about their morning routines. From farther across the little valley, they saw another disturbance. A horse was being dragged along, resisting and rearing, while its rider was being led behind an Indian pony. Even from a distance, it was easy to identify the kid from Boston.

JD had ridden the long way around and right into the Indian’s trap. A rope sprang up across the road at the last moment, catching him across the upper chest and knocking him from the saddle. By the time he regained his feet, the Indians were upon him. With his hands tied together, he was led behind the Indian’s horse toward the village.

Josiah turned to the others and asked, “Do you know him?”

“He’s harmless. Young kid from Boston out to make a name for himself. Would you ask them to let him go?” Vin asked.

Huffing and kicking at the dust, JD scowled when the brave untied his hands. He glared venomously at the man who returned his horse. Larabee and the others rode toward him, grinning and chuckling outright at his capture.

“Go home kid,” Chris told him as he dismounted.

“I want to stay and help!”

“Go home kid,” the blond repeated patiently.

“Look, while I was riding in here, I saw what you’re up against. You need every gun you can get. You need me!” JD yelled, his fists clenched as if to do battle.

“Then stay,” Chris said with a roll of his shoulder, dismissing the young man.

They hadn’t done much more than exchange names when another group rode in. Armed to the teeth, the group numbered around twenty. Their leader stepped down and handed his reins to another man before approaching the dark clad gunslinger.

“My name’s Les Harper. You men are trespassing on our property.”

“These men say it belongs to them,” Josiah returned calmly.

“Yeah, they would. They’re nothing more than thieving red skins. I gave them until tomorrow to get out,” the man said in a threatening tone.

“They have asked the territory judge to hear the case. We’re here to keep things calm until a decision is made,” Chris said.

“You would be better off if you all rode out of here. Me and the boys are going to run these squatters off at first light. If you’re here with them, you’re fair game. You’ve been warned,” the man told him before turning his back, blatantly inviting one of them to do something.

The confrontation started at daybreak. Chris and Josiah had planned with the Indians and set up their defenses as well as they could. Rocks and slingshots were placed where the people without weapons would be. While not necessarily fatal, the rocks would hurt and possibly disable. The battle was in full swing, Harper’s men rode in and tried to set fire to several of the outbuildings. A couple were wounded. Chris had spread his men out around the perimeter, trying to fortify the Indians.

From behind a low stone wall, Josiah took shots at Harper’s men as he saw them. A young brave, his wife heavy with their first child, leapt from behind a tree and took a shot at two men who were approaching his house with their flaming brands. A lucky shot took the young man down and he rolled on the ground, clutching his bleeding shoulder. From the safety of the house, his wife ran out and tried to pull him inside. In an instant, Harper’s men caught the woman.

Marching right down the middle of the main road, Harper strode into the town, using the pregnant woman for a shield. No shots were fired, everyone held their breath.

“Throw down your weapons and come out,” the man called. “Do it now or I’ll scalp her and that baby she’s carrying too!”

Slowly, by ones and twos, they threw down their weapons and came out of hiding. Chris and his men also came out, their hands in the air.

“Put the Indians in that big barn. Put these interfering white men in the smoke house over there,” Harper directed. He handed the woman off to another man so he could personally check that there were no hidden weapons on the Indians. One young woman had hidden a knife in her skirt. Harper found it and viciously backhanded her. “Take this one over there with the pregnant one, I may keep her for myself.”

Nathan’s hands clenched into fists as he saw the man slap Rain and separate her from the others. Four of Harper’s men were searching them and shoving them into the smoke house. The healer caught one last glimpse of the lovely woman before he had to duck under the low doorframe. It was fairly dark in the smoke house, the only light coming from the cracks between the boards. The six men looked at each other. No one spoke for a few minutes.

“Where is Ezra?” Chris finally asked. “I hope he’s not cooking up some harebrained scheme that will get people hurt.”

“They’ll lock those barn doors and burn that building, how much harm do you think that’ll do?” Nathan asked, venom dripping from every syllable.

Ezra wasn’t cooking up a scheme of rescue. Winged in the initial exchange of fire, he had hidden while he tried to stop the bleeding. He did get off a few shots but soon realized that their plan was doomed to failure. Sneaking back to where the horses were picketed, he planned to ride back to town and wire for the army or other reinforcements. As he was untying his reins from the line, he heard a stick snap. Whirling around, he found himself face to face with a man who was already swinging on him. The blow connected solidly with his jaw and he collapsed.

The door to the smoke house was thrown open and a body hurled through the opening. Buck just managed to catch Ezra, preventing him from landing head first against the ground or the far wall.

“Caught this one trying to get away. You sure know how to pick ‘em, Larabee,” the man teased.

As soon as the door closed, Chris turned angrily on the southerner. Ezra was just coming around, shaking his head and rubbing his jaw. The blond grabbed the smaller man by the upper arms and glared at him. The gambler’s green eyes widened in fear and he tried to pull free of the hurtful grip.

“Trying to run out on me, Standish? What kind of man abandons the people who need him most? Huh? I thought you wanted to help these people!”

Vin’s senses tingled across his skin as he realized that Ezra was absolutely petrified of Chris. Wave after wave of unadulterated terror rolled off of the gambler.

“Chris, let him go,” Vin urged softly.

“I’ll let him go all right! Go straight to Hell! I thought he wanted to help! He was supposed to be backing Josiah’s position!” Chris began to shake Ezra as he yelled.

The sharp spike of fear increased and Vin reached out to try to separate the two men. Ezra was trembling and struggling to be free. Suddenly, Chris let go and the gambler stumbled backwards into the corner. He slid to the ground and drew up his knees. His head was shaking so hard that they could see it in the wan light.

For an instant, Chris thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. Where the southerner had landed in the corner, he was now looking at a small bobcat. The animal was pressed against the boards, hissing and growling. Five of the six men stepped back, staring in horror at the enraged feline.

“Did you see that? He … he …,” JD stuttered until he fell silent.

The sixth man stepped toward the corner, holding his hand out and speaking softly. “It’s all right, Ezra. No one’s gonna hurt ya. Come here, let me look at you.”

“Ezra? You think Ezra turned into that … that bobcat?” Buck asked incredulously. Vin knelt down and inched his hand closer to the still hissing and snarling animal in the corner.

“You better leave it alone. It doesn’t look at all friendly,” Nathan warned. Vin continued to speak softly as he inched closer and closer to the frightened animal. With one final growl, Ezra shuddered under the light touch of the other man. Vin stroked from the top of his head to the end of his tail before sliding his hand around to pick up the small cat.

“Let me look at you. Calm down. It’s all right, Ezra,” Vin continued to soothe as he sat in the corner and ran his hands over the silky fur. When he touched one of Ezra’s hind legs, the cat jerked the leg and yowled in pain. Vin looked at the blood on his fingertips and dug in his pocket for his handkerchief. Seeing that the animal was hurt, Nathan moved forward to look closer.

“What is he? How can he do that?” JD asked, his voice thick with awe.

“He’s a Changer, like me. If I’m guessing right, fear brings it on. He’ll change back when he calms down and feels safe again,” Vin answered as he cradled Ezra against his chest and continued to make gentle passes over the spotted fur. In the silence that followed his statement, they could hear the cat purring loudly.

“What exactly do you mean by a Changer like you?” Chris asked, looking closely at the man he had been so comfortable with only the day before.

“Changelings are common in many cultures. The Indians here believe that it is a gift from the gods. In other parts of the world, it is a curse for disobedience. In Egypt, Changelings were actively sought as consorts and concubines,” Josiah explained as he inched closer and reached out to stroke the animal. “I spent several years struggling with my own abilities before I made peace with the animal in my soul.”

Vin smiled up at the older man. He could see the grizzly bear, powerful and deadly, shining in the blue eyes. At the same time, Josiah could see the proud and beautiful hawk in the younger man.

“Can he dig his way out of here and help us get out?” Chris asked.

“He’s hurt and scared. He doesn’t have a strong control over his ability,” Vin explained. “I could try and go out the smoke stack. If they don’t see me fly out, I can get to the horses, maybe start a stampede.”

“Fly?” JD asked. Vin gently lifted Ezra and handed him to Josiah. Pulling off his hide coat, he handed it to Chris. Meeting each one of their gazes evenly, he closed his eyes and called on the Change. Four gasps of shock and one murmur of awe and jealousy sounded as the men stared at the red tailed hawk sitting on the ground were Vin had been standing. Ezra made a soft meow at the bird and the hawk spread its wings and lifted off to settle on Josiah’s shoulder.

“Wow!” Buck said softly. Ezra stretched to sniff at the powerful bird. “Damn!” The startled ladies man breathed as he watched the bird touch its beak to the bobcat’s nose.

Being first to snap out of his shock, Chris moved to inspect the small chimney. “I don’t know, Vin. I can see daylight but it’s tight.” The red tailed hawk leapt from Josiah’s shoulder and glided to the edge of the fireplace. He hopped forward until he could look up the chimney. Fixing one small dark eye on the gunslinger, he gave a soft squawk and jumped up into the opening.

It was a very tight fit. Vin used his powerful claws to push against the rough walls, knocking soot loose as he went. Squirming and wiggling his wings and head, he inched up toward daylight. He paused, needing a moment to rest.

“He’s stuck,” Chris announced to the others. He had been listening to Vin’s progress. They could all hear the faint scrabbling sound the bird made as it struggled up the narrow venue. With a snarl and a growl, Ezra wrenched himself out of Josiah’s arms and began to inspect the ground near the back wall. When he bean to claw at the hard packed dirt, JD dropped to his knees to help.

Feeling slightly rested, Vin resumed his struggle up the chimney. A large chunk of mortar gave under his claw and dropped to the ashes below. Wiggling his wings again, he managed to move farther up toward to opening. When he emerged from the top, he looked more like a crow than a hawk. Perched on the rim of the chimney, he shook himself, trying to rid his feathers of the worst of the soot.

With JD raking away the loose dirt, Ezra quickly created an opening large enough for the young man to take hold of the bottom of the boards. Tugging with all he had, JD toppled over backwards when the board snapped. The small cat didn’t hesitate, it quickly snaked through the opening and disappeared.

“I hope he doesn’t take off and leave us here,” Nathan said. JD took the broken board and attacked the ground, digging and enlarging the hole.

Spreading his powerful wings, Vin took to the air. He soared over the treetops and came down where most of Harper’s men’s horses were tied. Landing in a tree, he surveyed the locations of the men. Flitting to the ground, he hopped behind a tree and Changed.

Running through the underbrush, Ezra headed for his mount. His heart was hammering in his chest as he watched Harper’s men building a fire and making torches. The men were too busy looting and ransacking the small adobe huts to notice the cat. The horses shied from the small predator. Ezra hoped that he could control his Change. Every other time, he required a couple of hours of sleep to recover. In the shelter of a large tree, he concentrated. A moment later, the gambler stumbled from the trees and made his way to his horse.

Digging furiously, JD enlarged the hole. Josiah helped him by snapping off more of the rotting boards. Chris had looked up the chimney and realized that Vin had somehow managed to escape. At least they had a fighting chance.

Harper’s men looked up as the horses thundered toward them. In the confusion of dodging the equine stampede, several of them dropped from the carefully fired bullets from Vin’s mare’s leg. One of the men, with just a little more common sense, waved a flaming brand and turned the herd. As the horses raced across the open valley, the men began to notice the gunfire.

Wiggling under the boards, JD’s clothing became snagged on the jagged edges. The sound of gunfire gave him a little jolt of energy and he dragged himself free. On his hands and knees, he peeked around the corner of the smokehouse. Seeing the confusion in the clearing, he got up and ran to open the door. Harper’s men had tossed the weapons they took into a pile a few feet from the door. JD ran over and gathered them up, sorting them out along his arms. Chris and Buck grabbed their belts and quickly buckled them around their hips. Suddenly, an explosion shook the clearing and dirt and debris rained down.

Looking through the tines of the slingshot, Ezra lit the fuse on another stick of dynamite. When the bulk of Harper’s men headed for the cover of one of the larger adobe huts, he lobbed the explosive. The stick landed just short of the front wall and exploded magnificently. When the dust cleared, only a couple of the men were moving. The gambler caught sight of Chris, running from the direction of the smokehouse. Nathan and Josiah were running for the barn, which was just starting to burn. The blond made eye contact with Ezra and nodded, the southerner touched his forehead in mock salute.

After rounding up the survivors, Les Harper not among them, Chris and the others took them to town and secured them in the jail. Mary Travis rushed out to say that the judge would probably arrive the next day. Tired and dirty, the men headed for the bathhouse. Bathed and dressed in clean clothes, they gathered at the saloon for a meal and a drink.

“That was an amazing bit of work, Vin,” Nathan complimented.

“Getting the horses moving was the easy part. Circling back around to get my gun was harder.”

“How’d you get to the dynamite?” Chris asked.

“I didn’t have the dynamite. I don’t know where it came from.”

“That would be me. I always keep a few sticks on hand for emergencies,” Ezra admitted.

All eyes turned to the southerner, who blushed under their gaze.

“Ezra, I’d like to apologize for the way … I acted … earlier … in the smokehouse,” Chris stammered as he stared at the amber liquid in his shot glass.

“No apology is necessary. I was planning to ride out. I thought I could wire for the army, they would have been too late to prevent a tragedy, but I was …”

“Fight or flight, Ezra. Instinct. You were frightened and hurt and you wanted to get away. It’s a natural reaction, nothing to be ashamed of,” Vin said, staring at the gambler.

“How did you learn to deal with it?” Ezra asked sincerely.

“Come on, I’ll tell you all about it,” Vin invited as he got up from the table. Ezra hesitantly rose, nodding to the others before following the other man out of the saloon.

The next day Judge Orin Travis arrived by stage. He immediately headed for the jail. All seven of the men were there, watching over the prisoners as Nathan tended to the wounded among them.

“Gentlemen, my daughter in law says that you prevented the slaughter of the Indians and brought the trouble makers back here to stand trial. Would any of you be interested in taking a job protecting the town? Can’t pay much, a dollar a day plus room and board, but you’d be the law hereabouts.”

Six pairs of eyes turned to Chris. Buck’s held only questioning, JD’s were bright with hope. Nathan and Ezra managed to keep a neutral expression while Josiah and Vin looked amused. After meeting each gaze, the blond turned to the judge.

“All of us?”

“If you all want the job. I’ll take anybody I can get right now.”

“You got yourself a deal,” Chris said, offering his hand to shake. After Travis shook hands with each of the others, he tucked his thumbs into his belt and turned to face the crowded cells.

“Well then, let’s see about having a trial for these unfortunate fools.”

Changelings II