The Changelings II

by Angie

Alternate Universe

Part of The Changeling Collection

“I don’t know, Vin, I’ve never been able to do it unless something frightens me,” Ezra protested as he stared at the longhaired Changer.

“You just need to center yourself and let it come. It’s completely natural.”

“For you, maybe,” the southerner protested.

The pair was seated in a shady little glen they had found by accident. Vin was determined to help Ezra learn to control his gift. He remembered how it had been for him at first, how difficult to let go and let the animal take control.

“Take a deep breath, close your eyes and see the cat inside. Concentrate on it,” Vin said as the two men sat cross legged on the plush carpet of grass. After a couple of hours, they gave up for the day. They mounted their horses and headed back to town. Since taking up responsibility for the safety of the town, they had adapted to a more ordered lifestyle.

Closing his eyes, Vin let the currents wash over him. The energy given off by the others was strong enough for him to feel from a long way off. He and Josiah had spent hours together talking about their unique ability. Vin wondered how it happened. The older man explained how he had encountered the bear as he tried to free a cub from a trap as a teenager.

His missionary father had dragged the family out to the ‘frontier’ to minister to the red man. While out gathering firewood, he had happened upon a pit trap. In the bottom of the steep hole, a bawling bear cub looked up at him. Without stopping to consider the danger, he chopped down a cedar tree and removed the branches from one side. Lowering his makeshift ladder, he tried to coax the cub to climb out. The bear stood on its hind legs and put its forepaws on the trunk but didn’t seem to understand what was expected. Finally, in desperation, Josiah carefully climbed down. The animal shrank from him, forcing him to reach through the brush of the tree and drag it out. He pulled off his long sleeved outer shirt and fashioned a sling

It never occurred to the teenager that the mother bear might be close. As soon as he dropped to his knees to release the cub, the grizzly waddled out of the dense underbrush. Giving a warning cry, the enraged mother bear rose up to her full height and bared a magnificent set of teeth. Terror gripped Josiah. His hands shook so hard that he couldn’t get the knot loose to free the cub. The bear came closer, still grunting and growling at him. Finally, he grabbed the tails of the shirt and pulled, popping off all of the buttons and spilling the cub onto the ground. Blinking in surprise, the little bear looked up at him and then turned toward its mother. Squeaking in delight, it rolled onto its feet and tumbled over to where the big grizzly was now standing on all four feet. Frozen in place, Josiah didn’t even dare to breathe as the bear approached. Praying that it wouldn’t hurt too much, he was prepared to die.

A warm, wet snuffling touched his chest as the bear sniffed at him. The black nose moved up the center of his chest to his throat. The bear exhaled loudly, causing him to tremble. A raspy, warm tongue swiped his neck. Another warm exhaled breath blew across his ear. An eerie calm descended on the frightened teen and he raised his hand to touch the bear. She licked him again, across a scrape he’d gotten when he reached into the branches to drag out the cub. With a soft growl, she nudged him and then turned to leave. How long he sat there, too stunned to even move, he would never know. A cool breeze blew across him, chilling the sweat on his body and snapping him out of his shock.

“Have you ever had a dream about the hawk?” Josiah had asked.

“All the time,” Vin answered, irritated that he might never know how he came to have his gift.

“On the next full moon, perhaps you and I should find a place and call for the spirits,” the older man had suggested.

Upon arriving in town, they were greeted by Buck and JD, the older man chasing the youngest member of their little group. Buck was trying to get JD’s hat and JD was doing his best to keep it away from him. Vin could only shake his head and laugh at the antics of the pair. He got strong impressions from each of them but no clear image of what animal they had been chosen to become. Vin had yet to tell Chris about the exotic looking black panther that he saw in the gunslinger. Larabee had a dangerous air about him. The two had connected, solidly, at first, but it seemed that the blond was troubled to learn that the younger man could become a bird and soar into the sky at will. It also seemed to irritate him that the gambler couldn’t control his change into the small, spotted cat. For some reason, he wasn’t troubled by Josiah’s ability, probably because he had yet to see the massive grizzly bear.

“Hey Vin, Ezra, have a nice ride?” JD asked between panted breaths as he kept an eye out for Buck to come racing up to swipe his hat.

“It was a very pleasant ride, JD,” Ezra answered.

“Were you able to ‘do it?’

A disapproving look fell from both of the older men and JD hung his head. They had agreed not to mention the Changing ability in town for fear of being overheard. With his youthful exuberance, JD was the one most likely to slip up and say something.

“Alas, we did not manage it this time, JD,” the southerner replied gently, forgiving the kid.

“Maybe next time, huh Ezra?” Vin asked.

That night, Vin was deeply asleep when the vision came to him. As always, the dream started with him soaring above the treetops. His goal was in sight. The small cluster of buildings huddled together on the mesa floor was a constant source of food. The granary fed scores of mice, which in turn fed the predatory birds. He was careful to avoid the humans, too many of his kind had fallen, to become trophies on the walls. As he was circling the building, he spotted his prey. Tucking his wings, he began a rapid descent. At the last moment, a gunshot sounded, driving him out of his dream to leave him shaking and confused.

Blinking in the near darkness, Vin willed his heartbeat to calm. Rolling over and nudging one leg out from under the buffalo hide blanket, he tried to go back to sleep. He reasoned that the hawk had been shot and perhaps killed. But why then, did the dream come to him like that? Always the same, always as he was swooping in for the kill, the gunshot would wake him. Finally, he drifted off to sleep with no dreams of the hawk.

Above the saloon, the young gambler was also dreaming. His dreams were filled with strange scents and the scurry of small things. Leaping up the trunk of a rough barked tree, he climbed up to a branch that was parallel to the horizon. Curling into a tightly coiled ball, he waited. The small rabbit crept out of the underbrush and hesitantly approached the fresh tendrils of grass that had begun to poke up from the leaf litter. Wary, the little rabbit’s nose twitched as it stretched out its neck and nibbled on one tender leaf. Without making a sound, the little spotted cat leapt from the branch, landing on the back of the young jackrabbit. Even as the hind claws raked at him, he snapped the neck and held the body until the twitching ceased. Tonight, he would dine well.

In the room above the livery, Nathan Jackson rubbed at his forehead. He had been startled from a sound sleep by a vivid dream that left him shaking and bathed in sweat. He had dreamt that he was perched in a tree, watching a small bobcat as it pounced on an unsuspecting jackrabbit. He could have sworn that he heard the snap of the rabbit’s neck. Pushing out of his bed, he made his way to the pitcher of water and poured some in the basin. Splashing water on his face, he dried off and went back to his bed. An hour later, he was soundly asleep.

The full moon rolled around and Josiah invited Vin and the others to meet with him in the little glen where Ezra and Vin had been trying to teach the gambler to control his gift. The older man had acquired a variety of herbs and other plants that were used in various Indian rituals. Sweet sage and juniper would be crushed and sprinkled into the flames, the sweet odor would call the spirits. Cedar had its own aroma and would be added to the fire as needed. To their considerable surprise, the entire group elected to go along.

Gathered in the small clearing, Josiah lit the ceremonial fire. Some of the others shifted nervously as both the older man and Vin shed their shirts and sat bare-chested around the flame. JD shivered like he did when he heard scary ghost stories. Ezra was decidedly uneasy, squirming on the saddle blanket he had thrown down to sit on. Chris glared balefully at the fire but Vin sensed the fear rolling off of the blond. Buck was most at ease, leaning back against an old log as he folded his long legs under him. Nathan chose a spot a little farther away from the fire, where he could see everyone clearly. When Josiah began to chant softly, Vin’s eyes widened in wonder. Soon, he too was chanting, feeling the tension drain away.

Hesitantly, Josiah produced a small leather bota, like a canteen, filled with a fermented beverage. He knew from experience that it would lower the inhibitions of the person who consumed the liquid, making them more susceptible to suggestion. The Indians used it to induce a proper trance state for communing with the spirits. He offered it to Vin and the younger man took a swallow, passing it to Buck. The ladies man sniffed at the contents before passing the bag to JD, who took a generous swallow, tears coming to his eyes after he swallowed the fiery liquid. He passed it on to Ezra, who took only a small sip. Chris took the bag and handed it directly to Nathan without even smelling it. The healer sniffed at it before stuffing the cork back in the top and returning it to Josiah. The older man raised his hands above the flames and crushed the dried herbs, letting them fall into the fire and releasing their pungent smells. Vin immediately leaned forward and inhaled deeply.

“Brother Vin, relax and let your spirit go. Call on the mighty hawk that he might reveal to you how you came to be chosen for this gift of Change. Call to him and ask him to show you the truth,” Josiah intoned. The pale blue eyes fluttered as Vin felt the Change touch him. Chris fought the urge to recoil at the sight of the magnificent hawk suddenly sitting where the longhaired man had been only a moment ago. JD leaned forward, his eyes fairly sparkling with curiosity at the change in his friend. The hawk unfurled his wings and lifted off from the ground, the flames dancing as he stirred them. With a screeching cry, the hawk rose and circled the clearing, above the tops of the trees. Suddenly, he wheeled sharply and descended, plunging toward the startled group.

Nathan’s eyes widened as the bird drew up and landed on the ground directly in front of him. He stared at the bird as if seeing it for the first time. Awed, he stretched out his hand and stroked the right wing with his left hand. “I remember you,” he whispered.

“From where?” Chris demanded anxiously.

“A lonely little town in Texas, I wasn’t much more’n a boy. I watched the birds catching the mice that lived in the granary. One day, there was this beautiful hawk, he was kiting through the air until he spotted a big, ole mouse scurrying across the field. He came down, just like this one did just now. He didn’t see the hunter. Stupid man already had more trophies than a man ought to have and he wanted more. Shot the bird as it was reaching for the mouse. Tore a hole in the wing but it was still alive when he fetched it into his house,” Nathan explained as he continued to stroke the bird.

“He patched it up and put it in a cage. Said he was gonna train it to hunt for him like they did in England. He tried to tame it but the hawk kept trying to tear into him. One day, he brought the cage outside and hung it up. There was this scrawny kid, he was fascinated with the bird. All day, the kid sat on a barrel and stared at that cage. When the man come to take the cage inside, the boy asked what he was gonna do with it. The man said it wasn’t any of the boy’s business. Few days later, he puts the cage outside again. That little boy got it in his head to let that bird go. When I came around the corner of the shed, he was just about to fall offa that old barrel with the cage. I tried to catch him but I was too slow. The kid’s feet slipped and he hit the ground. The cage landed on top of him. Before I could get there, that hawk sunk his claws inta the kid’s chest. As soon as I touched the cage, the bottom come off and he flew away. A sickly lookin’ woman ran from one of them houses and scooped the boy up and took off with him. I took off, seein’ as that man was gonna be mad that we let his bird escape. Never saw the kid again. Heard tell that his ma died a few days later and they carted him off to an orphans home or something.”

In the silence that followed, the hawk screeched again and flapped his powerful wings, circling the clearing again. Buck reached out to steady JD, who was fidgeting with something he had found on the ground and nearly toppled over trying to watch the hawk. When the bird lit on the empty space next to Josiah, it immediately returned to its human form. With tears in his eyes, Vin ran his fingers over the nearly invisible scars that dotted his chest. Nathan stared in amazement at the younger man as he remembered the scrawny child.

“It was you, wasn’t it. You freed that hawk from the cage.”

“It was unhappy in the cage. I could feel it. It would have rather died than be cooped up like that for the rest of its life,” Vin explained.

“And for freeing it, it gave you a precious gift,” Josiah said with a warm smile. “Ezra, care to try your Change?”

The southerner jerked, shrinking away from the fire. “No, not tonight, Josiah.”

“Show us your Change,” JD challenged of the older man. After meeting the eyes of each man, Josiah nodded and came to his feet. He backed away from the fire, to allow room for the bear to move around. The air around him seemed to shimmer before the massive grizzly dropped to four feet and chuffed loudly. Vin reached eagerly for the bear, as did JD. Chris and Buck remained frozen in place, their hands resting on their guns and their heels dug into the ground to propel themselves away. Nathan continued to stare passively, too stunned to let anything show. Ezra was instantly awash with fear. Even as he tried to scramble away from the circle, he Changed.

“Oh, hell, Ezra come back!” Vin called as he jumped to his feet and raced after the small fleeing cat. JD tumbled over as he reached for the grizzly. Buck stared in awe as the young man wrapped his arms around the great furry neck.

In the dark, Vin chased Ezra, mindless of the branches tearing at him as he raced past the bushes. The bobcat, being unfamiliar with the area, reached a place where the river curved sharply and cut into the rocks, creating a corner. Vin slowed his approach, realizing that Ezra was trapped. He kept his hands widely spread, forcing the cat to retreat into the corner. Growling and hissing ferociously, Ezra shrank against the rocks. Vin spoke softly, letting his voice wash over the frightened animal, consoling the disoriented human inside.

“It’s alright, Ezra. Josiah won’t hurt ya. Come on outta there.” Slowly, the cat calmed and Vin reached in to pick him up. Draped across his forearm, he felt the contented purring against his wrist and hand. Picking his way carefully through the underbrush, he returned to the fire. Josiah and JD were wrestling on the ground, while Buck and Chris fussed at them to stop. “I found him,” Vin announced as he stepped back into the circle of light.

The grizzly bear pulled away from the young man and lumbered over to sniff at the bobcat. A low warning growl rolled from the small cat and the bear backed away. JD, still on his knees, reached out and ran his hand over the silky fur. He was intrigued at the brilliant green eyes that sparkled with the reflected tongues of fire. Vin gently spilled the cat into JD’s lap and moved to inspect the bear.

In the youngest man’s lap, Ezra hunkered down to keep watch on the bear. He didn’t mind the gentle finger that stroked lightly over his fur. A heavier hand touched him and he turned to see Buck leaning over to pet him. The older man’s finger found the spot just under his ear that made him completely relaxed with pleasure. After a few minutes of Ezra’s loud purring, JD yelped, startled. Ezra leapt from his lap, hissing as he came closer to the bear before rounding the fire pit and running into Chris’s hands. Snarling and hissing, he was lifted by the scruff of the neck and held in the air.

“Settle down! No one’s gonna hurt you, Ezra,” the blond gunslinger said firmly, giving the cat a shake. The little bobcat went limp, dangling several inches from the ground. Chris slowly lowered him to the grass between his feet and stroked him roughly. “Enough of this. I’m going back to town.” He surged to his feet and stalked away from the fire to where the horses were picketed.

“I better be gettin’ back too. Folks might be needin’ me,” Nathan said as he rose and followed Chris. Buck had finally recovered his voice and asked JD what caused him to yelp.

“He clawed me!” The young man cried indignantly as he rubbed at his thigh.

“You better come on back to town with me. Cat scratches have a nasty tendency to get infected,” Nathan called back to JD. An indignant sound burst from Ezra as he flicked his tail smartly. “Well, they do!” The healer answered back. Buck pushed up from the ground and followed the others.

Ezra made his way around the abandoned circle to the saddle blanket and curled up on it, winding his tail around his body and fluffing out his fur to hold in the heat. His front paws absently rubbed at the blanket for a moment before he rested his head on them and closed his emerald eyes. Josiah sat back on his haunches and Changed. He and Vin smiled at the bobcat as they settled down to enjoy a little peace and quiet. A couple of hours later, Ezra Changed and awoke, stretching and groaning at the stiffness of his muscles.

“Do it again, Ezra,” Vin urged softly.

“Really Vin, I am much too weary to try now,” the southerner protested as he brushed at the dirt from his clothing.

“Try! It gets easier each time.”

Huffing in disgust, Ezra shifted to sitting cross legged on the blanket and closed his eyes. He could see the animal in his mind and still feel him on the fringes of his consciousness. An odd flutter brushed over him and he recoiled from it, shuddering all over.

“You almost had it. I felt it start. You can learn to control it Ezra. Just like Josiah and I do.”

“Still easier said than done, I fear. Are the two of you planning to remain here all night? I’m going to return to town and seek the comfort of the arms of Morpheus in my own feather bed.”

“Yeah, we may as well go in with ya,” Vin said as he nudged Josiah awake.

That night, Vin slept more peacefully than he had in months. He remembered the discovery of the odd scratches on his chest when he arrived at the orphan’s home. The next few weeks of his life were a blur as grief shrouded the lost and lonely little boy he had been. The older children were brutal to newcomers and because of his slight stature, they were especially rough on the longhaired little boy. When he could take no more, he had run away, stealing away in the night. A few days later, lost, suffering sunstroke and desperately thirsty, he had been found by the Indians.

Several days later, Vin and Ezra met again to try to train the southerner to control his ability to Change. They had borrowed Josiah’s bota and Ezra drank deeply after extracting Vin’s promise not to allow him to do anything he would be embarrassed about later. Exhibiting a rare trust, Ezra allowed his mind to drift down until he found the small cat buried deeply in his psyche. It took a few tries for him to fully relinquish control.

Vin watched Ezra closely as the southerner seemed to relax and then jerked violently as though startled. Finally, a soft shimmer covered him and the small bobcat sat on the saddle blanket in the gambler’s place. The animal seemed puzzled that there was nothing to flee in the vicinity. Smiling his lopsided grin, Vin held out his fingers slowly. The cat sniffed at the proffered fingers and then rubbed his head against them, purring loudly.

“That’s great, Ezra! Now, try Changing back.”

The cat growled, low and unpleasant sounding, his tail flicking and twitching. Suddenly, a family of birds burst out of a hole in one of the trees, capturing Ezra’s attention. His pupils constricted as he focused on the flutter of wings and high pitched twitters. His body took on a stalking stance, his rear end rocking from side to side as his hind claws hooked in the blanket.

“Ezra! Pay attention! Change back, please,” Vin said. He knew that if the small cat took off after the birds, he would run until exhausted. An almost smile appeared on the feline face as Ezra stretched, his claws coming out and sharp teeth showing in a broad yawn. A minute later, the gambler sat before him again. “That was great!”

“Actually, it was rather an interesting experience. The motion of those birds was most mesmerizing. Tell me, do you have ‘animal’ instincts in your Changed form?”

“Sometimes, most of the time I’m just me. But I remember what it was like in the beginning, the smells and the sights, things I never noticed before. Took a while to get used to it all. Ready to try it again?”

“So soon? Are you certain there’s no danger in doing it so often?” Ezra had a great fear of being stuck in the animal form.

“The more you practice, the easier it is to control. The medicine man who taught me made me Change two or three times in a row every day for a while so I could do it quickly and smoothly without having to think about it. He said it could save my life some day.”

After a brief period of rest, Ezra did manage to Change again. Vin plucked a pussy willow from the marshy ground near the pond and used it to ‘play’ with the bobcat. Unable to help himself, Ezra pawed at the delightfully enticing object moving through the grass, pouncing on it. When the motion of his own agitated tail caught his eye, he jumped in the air and caught the tip in his mouth. Vin toppled over on his back laughing as Ezra growled in pain at biting his own tail. A moment later, the cat was gone, replaced by a chagrined and blushing gambler as he brushed bits of grass from his clothing.

Back to back Changes tired the southerner and he soon stretched out on the ground and dozed off. Vin was bored, so he Changed and flew around for a while, reveling in the feeling of freedom the sky afforded him.

Upon returning to town, Vin reported that Ezra was gaining control over his gift. Josiah beamed with pride at the young southerner. They celebrated with a drink in the saloon. As the others drifted away, Vin and Chris were left at the table together. Stretching his long legs under the table, Vin studied the blond gunslinger.

“How old were you?”

Startled hazel eyes turned on him. “When? What are you talking about?”

“When the panther marked you.”

The world seemed to pause for a moment around the two men before Chris exploded from the chair. “You don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about, Tanner. Just leave me alone.” That said, he stormed out of the saloon, his long duster tails flaring out with the speed of his steps. The batwing doors slapped soundly against the outer walls before swinging back to sway for a few minutes in the wake of his rage.

“Aww, hell,” Vin mumbled as he righted the chair Chris had turned over in his haste.

The sunlight sparkled on the moving surface of the water and JD stared at it, rapt. His unblinking gaze did not go unnoticed by his friend. Buck pulled a long stalk of grass and used it to tickle the end of JD’s nose, causing him to flinch and brush at his face.

“Cut it out, Buck! Can’t a guy even sit and enjoy the scenery without you bothering him?”

“Just seemed awfully far away there, kid.”

“I was just thinking about Vin and Ezra and Josiah. Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to turn into a bird and fly away? Although I wouldn’t have seen Ezra as a bobcat. More like a peacock.”

“Where did you see a peacock?” Buck asked as he sat up, suddenly interested in the conversation.

“Back east, my ma took me to a zoo one time. They had animals from all over the place. There was even an elephant from Africa! It was the biggest thing I had ever seen. They had monkeys from Madagascar and China. They had this big old timber wolf, and a lion with a big, red mane. He paced back and forth in his cage all the time.”

“The lion?” Buck asked.

“No, the wolf. He had worn a path in the dirt from pacing. The only time he stopped was when they threw the food in with him. Then he would growl and tear into it like there was no tomorrow. Shesh, he had big teeth and he ripped it apart,” JD shuddered slightly at the memory.

The young man’s words evoked a long buried memory for the ladies man. It was during the war. His group had taken several bad hits and were limping through the woods, trying to get back to the base camp. It was getting dark and they were scared. Their lieutenant had taken several lead balls in his side and leg and was bleeding to death but the sergeant refused to accept that. Several of the others were also limping on wounded limbs. Buck was one of the luckier ones, he had only a concussion. A bundle of bloody rags had been wrapped around his bleeding head wound. Having the use of both legs, he was the one ordered to carry the dying lieutenant.

They stumbled to a halt when they could no longer see to walk. The thick canopy of trees kept the quarter moon from shedding any light on their location. After building a small fire, the men huddled around it, sharing what little travel rations they had left. Buck took his turn at guard duty first so he could get some uninterrupted sleep afterwards. He heard the thin cries of the wolves and figured that they were in the next valley.

Over the course of the next couple of days, the group was decimated as the injured succumbed to their wounds. Finally, it was just Buck and a pair of grass-green privates. The pair had only recently come of age to join the fighting and had never seen the killing and maiming that happened on the battlefields. One of the boys was in deep shock, following like an obedient dog. The other was so afraid that he shied away from his own shadow. The three were holed up in a small cave. That night, as Buck lay sleeping, the wolves found them.

Bone tired and out of ammunition, the three men had only their bayonets for protection. Before they could even think of defending themselves, a group of enemy soldiers climbed over the ridge and came toward them. Buck and the able bodied private bolted past the animals and into the trees. A brief volley of gunfire sounded and Buck felt the impact strike his body. He fell into a small hollow and slipped into unconsciousness. When he awakened, his heart surged into his throat. Standing over him was a massive silver-gray wolf. From the proud stance of the body, he guessed it was the alpha, the pack leader. Buck shivered as the fever made him feel cold and his eyes closed. He hoped he wouldn’t feel it when they killed him.

When he wakened next, Buck felt warm. Something was rhythmically striking his shin and he forced his eyes open to see what it was. Shock gripped him at the sight of the four wolves draped across his body. One, a female, was wagging her tail as she panted, making it look like she was smiling at him. Another wolf approached him and he flinched at the warm, wet tongue that rasped across his sore scalp. He had somehow lost the bloody rags. A short, imperative bark sounded and immediately, all the wolves jumped up and raced away. A few minutes later, a patrol group found him and escorted him back to the base camp.

“Buck? Shesh, and you say I’m far away! Snap out of it,” JD said as he nudged the older man. “We better get back to town, I’ve got patrol in an hour.”

A sour mood enveloped Chris and he scowled at anyone foolish enough to come too close. He had been drinking from the same bottle of Red Eye whiskey for the past couple of hours and thinking. Vin’s comment had struck a nerve, a deep one. No one knew about the panther in his dreams, it wasn’t something he shared with others. Buck came sauntering in and pulled out a chair to sit down.

“Did I ask for company?”

“Damn, Chris, lighten up, will ya? Your as grouchy as an old cat with his tail in a mouse trap! What’s eating you?”

“Nothing. JD get out on his patrol?”

“Yeah, the kid rode out a few minutes ago. You seen Vin? I figured he’d be here with you.”

“Naw, ain’t seen him in a while.”

The two men sat in a companionable silence for a while. Ezra came in later and took a seat at the table on the raised dais. He signaled the bartender for a drink and began to build a card house on the battered felt tabletop. Before long, he had managed to garner an audience. People were even coming in from the boardwalk to see what he was doing. When the card creation collapsed, Ezra’s smile was bittersweet as he raked the cards together and straightened them amidst the scattered applause. Irritation washed over the blond gunslinger and he stalked across the saloon, calling over his shoulder as he reached the batwing doors, “Ezra, with me.” He didn’t see the obedient touch of fingers to imaginary hat brim, for he was already several steps beyond the doors.

Jogging to catch up with the blond, Ezra immediately fell into step at his side. At the jail, he paused while Chris opened the door and stepped inside. Chris walked over to the desk and sat down, beating his hat against his pant leg before dropping it on the top of the desk.

“Was there something you required of me?” Ezra asked politely.

“Sit down.”

“As you wish,” the southerner said as he pulled the chair away from the wall and sat.

“What’s it like, Ezra?”


“Changing, becoming an animal,” Chris ground out.

“Why ask me? Of the three people with the ability to Change, I am the one least able to give you an experienced answer.”

“Because I don’t want to hear it from them, I want to hear from you. Josiah thinks it’s some kind of wonderful blessing from above and Vin thinks it’s a spiritual gift. I want to know what you, Ezra P. Standish think of the ‘gift’ you’ve been cursed with.”

“Well, I did see it as a curse, at first. And then later as an inconvenience. No one wants to be different, Chris. Spending time with Josiah and Vin has allowed me to realize that it is neither a blessing nor a curse but simply an unusual ability. I don’t see it as a gift from above or anything quite as lofty as Josiah but it is a unique experience. Why do you ask?”

“Vin thinks I have the ‘gift,’ Chris answered, spitting the last word like something distasteful.

Not knowing how to respond to the comment without enraging the gunslinger, Ezra remained quiet. The tone of the blond man’s voice indicated that he wasn’t pleased with the news. After a few minutes of silent contemplation, Chris continued.

“I’ve had the dreams since I was just a little guy. I don’t even really remember much about what happened. So, what’s it like?”

“The first time it happened, I was terrified. I vaguely remember running through the tall grass and trees. Somehow, I managed to return to Mother. It only happened when something truly frightened me. Now that I feel some degree of mastery over it … it’s kind of exhilarating. Knowing that I can control it has alleviated some of my discomfort. Does that help?”

A brusque nod was the only answer Chris allowed. He still wasn’t happy about the prospect of turning into an animal, especially one as hated as a panther. His father’s voice still rang in his ears as the older man disparaged them as filthy demons. The death of his little sister at the hands of a rabid panther had all but driven his mother insane with grief. He could still hear the sobs sometimes when he closed his eyes.

Grace Larabee was the light of her father and mother’s lives. Blessed with honey blonde hair and sky blue eyes, the curly haired toddler was truly delightful to be around. She was just learning to walk, her wobbly baby steps unsteady on the hard-packed ground. Chris’s mother was hanging out the laundry while the toddler played around the clothesline posts. As was his chore, young Chris was cleaning out the chicken house. A horrified scream rent the air and he raced out of the small, dark shed in time to see the black cat drag his sister toward the woods.

The search parties scoured the hillsides for two days before they found the remains of the little girl. In all, three adult panthers were killed, along with a litter of young ones barely out of their den. The grass had barely begun to grow over the tiny grave when they moved away. Away from the memories and the horror.

Shame washed over the blond as he stared at the reflected sunlight hitting his spur. He was barely cognizant of the fact that the southerner had slipped away. A molten rage boiled up in his chest and he got up from the chair and headed for the livery. He had to get away, to think about things.

Days passed and Chris managed to quell his anger. Vin avoided any mention of Changing in the blond man’s presence. Gradually, things settled into routine. The Texan continued working with Ezra on the side until he could control his ability. Josiah had taken up residence in the back of the small chapel and was working on restoring it. From time to time, the others pitched in and helped. As they were working to replace a section of broken shingles on the roof, trouble arrived in town.

The fancy horse-drawn buggy came to a stop and a lovely young woman stepped down from it, shading herself with a parasol. Her hair was black as coal and her eyes were cold as ice as she surveyed the town. From their perch on the roof of the church, Vin, Josiah and JD watched.

Inside the office of the Clarion, Chris and Mary were discussing the recent happenings in the town. The blonde newspaper reporter/editor/publisher was plying the gunslinger with her feminine wiles. There was a spark of attraction between the two and they had been gravitating toward each other for the past few weeks. Deciding that he had given her all the information he was going to, Chris stood and made for the door. As they reached the boardwalk together, Mary had an idea.

“Would you like to have supper with us this evening? I know Billy would be thrilled to have someone else to talk to over the table.”

Catching the hopeful expression in her voice and posture, Chris allowed a small smile to touch his lips. Just as he was about to accept her invitation, another voice called his name.

“Chris? Chris Larabee? Well, fancy meeting you here! Whatever are you doing in this little backwater community?” The brunette woman’s gaze flicked over the blonde woman and then dismissively looked away.

“Ella? What are you doing here?”

“Oh, my husband bought a place a few hours from here.”

“Husband? You got married?”

“Widowed now, unfortunately. So, what are you doing with yourself?” Ella asked as she slipped her hand into the bend of his arm and steered him away from the scowling blonde woman.

Upon finding out that Chris was a peacekeeper, she asked him for his help. It seemed that some man was after her hand in marriage so he could take over the wealth her deceased husband had acquired. After checking with the judge, all seven men rode out to offer her their protection.

It was destined to end badly. Chris announced that he was going to remain behind with Ella after things were settled with Jack Averil. When Vin announced his suspicions, Chris blew him off. That very night, he began to notice things that made the Texan’s words ring true. Sliding the keys from Ella’s pocket, he opened the door to the small room that she had set up as a shrine. The sight of the burned locket left him weak in the knees as his rage boiled over. Ella slipped up behind him and he turned to confront her.

“Where did you get this?”

“She was no good for you. I had to get rid of her so we could be together,” Ella answered with an innocent smile.

His mind spun out of control, his scream of tortured agony ending in a deep, feline growl.

The ambush started at almost the same instant. Vin landed on the weather vane for a moment before flying into the barn and Changing. He leapt from the loft and ran for the bunk house the others were staying in. In the ensuing gun battle, several of Averil’s men were killed. A shriek of fear gave the men pause. The front door of the house opened and Ella ran out, being chased by a black blur of motion, sharp teeth and claws. Before the panther could pounce on the woman, a rifle shot took his legs out from under him and he rolled several feet with the momentum, coming to rest under the wagon Ezra and Josiah were using for cover. Vin quickly took out the shooter before he could deliver the fatal shot, realizing that the panther was Chris. In the silence that followed the death of the last of Averil’s men, thundering hoofbeats announced Ella’s escape. Vin sighted down the barrel of his rifle but he knew she was too far away for him to hit. Clutching the rifle tightly in his hands, he ran to the wagon. Falling to his knees, he reached for the injured panther.

“Don’t Vin! It’s hurting bad. Best to put it out of its misery!” Nathan warned.

“You can’t do that, Nathan,” Vin answered calmly as he dragged the wounded animal into his lap. “It’s Chris.”

Too stunned even to speak, the healer knelt and reached out to the bleeding wound on the panther’s side. A pain filled yowl caused him to draw back in fear. He studied the eyes of the animal closely. To his surprise, they were the same shade of green-gold as the gunslinger. Realizing that, he reached out again without fear.

Vin cradled the injured animal, soothing him with his hands and voice. He sensed the confusion and pain along with the waning rage. An overall weariness descended on the big cat and Vin motioned the others to back off. He continued to stroke the cat, talking too softly for the others to hear. A moment later, the cat Changed, becoming the blond man again. Without the thick coat of black fur to work around, Nathan was able to see the wound much more clearly and dove right in to begin his repairs.

“Did ya … did ya get her?” Chris gasped between pained breaths.

“No, I’m sorry, Chris, she was too far away. But we’ll get her.”

Buck knelt down beside Vin and reached for his oldest friend. He was still a little awed by what he had just seen. His mind whirled with images and memories.

Just after they had buried the remains of Sarah and Adam, Chris had disappeared. His horse remained in the small corral that had miraculously survived the fire. For three days he searched for his friend, fearing the worst, that he would take his own life. On the morning of the fourth day, he awoke to find Chris sprawled on the ground between the two patches of raw earth, unconscious. He remembered vividly hearing the screams of a cat in the nearby hills, scaring the horses until they nearly leapt the corral rails. He remembered other incidents since then where his friend had gone off for days on end and the tales of others about seeing a panther. At first he had dismissed the stories as greenhorns not knowing the difference between a wild dog and a panther, now it made sense.

“Buck? Can you help us get him inside?” Nathan asked again, nudging the ladies man.

For the next several weeks, Chris was oddly melancholy. His injury had drained him physically, the information he had acquired about the person who ordered the death of his family drained him emotionally. He was sitting on the boardwalk in a rocking chair, wrapped in a quilt when Vin returned from his search for Ella. From the hangdog expression, he guessed it wasn’t good news.

“I’m sorry, Chris, I couldn’t find her. I searched high and low,” Vin said as he leaned against the porch post. The blond tossed his head a little at the pun. The Changer could indeed search ‘high’ and low.

“I never got to thank you for before,” Chris said in a tired voice.

“For what?”

“For keeping them from shooting me again, at Ella’s place.”

“Don’t have so many friends that I can afford to let ‘em kill each other,” Vin said with a slight smile. Since the delicate subject had been broached, he felt it safe to ask. “What set you off? What brought on the Change?”

“Anger, I guess. I found this … shrine in a closet. Ella had things from my house … Sarah’s things … pictures. She admitted to having them killed and I just … snapped.”

“So Ezra Changed when he was afraid and you Change when you’re angry. It’s a wonder you all ain’t killed each other.”

“Can you teach me to control it like you did with Ezra?”

The Changelings III