The Changelings III

by Angie

Alternate Universe

Part of The Changeling Collection

“If you’re willing to try,” Vin had answered.

It would be a few weeks before Chris would be well enough to begin learning to Change. In the mean time, they worked on getting him used to the idea. In the relative safety of his room, Chris watched Ezra and Vin as they Changed. For the first time in his life, he touched a live hawk and felt the power in the animal. To his considerable irritation, Ezra was like an overgrown housecat. The southerner batted at the swaying curtains and attacked the fringes on the bedspread. Chris couldn’t keep from smiling at the playful antics. Most importantly, he learned that he would still be himself when he Changed.

If Vin thought it was difficult getting Ezra to let go enough to Change, it was nothing compared to Chris Larabee. The man was so used to being in complete control or appearing to be in control that it was almost impossible for him to relax enough to reach his spirit animal. Although he would never admit it, fear and loathing played a large part in the blond man’s inability to embrace the animal side of his psyche.

“I just can’t do this!” Chris hissed in frustration after trying for most of the morning. He was heartily irritated with the whole idea.

“You aren’t trying. You have to relax in order for it to happen,” Vin patiently explained. “Is there some reason you don’t want it to happen?”

“You’ve seen it! It’s a panther!”

“You’re afraid of it?”

“Hell no! I’m not afraid, I just …”

“Let’s give up for now, you’ve been trying too long as it is,” the Texan said gently.

As the two men were returning to town, they heard gunfire. Urging their horses on, they arrived in time to see a man tumble from his horse and lay still in the dusty street. The man’s horse, frightened by the gunfire, ran directly at Vin’s horse causing the normally imperturbable animal to rear up, unseating the Texan. Vin hit the ground and rolled, clutching his injured side. In addition to their friends, they were surprised to see two women rush out to the downed man. One of the women announced that she was taking the man prisoner. Ezra and JD took out after the others who had gotten away.

“That’s my bullet in him, mister. He’s got a hundred dollar bounty on him alive and I intend to be the one to collect it,” she asserted. Judge Travis stepped down from the boardwalk and approached the two women as Nathan knelt to examine the man.

“Looks deader than a beaver hat to me,” Buck suggested.

“He’ll live,” the healer said as he pressed a wad of cloth to the bleeding wound. The younger woman tossed a ‘told you so’ look at the mustached man.

“Who is he?” Travis asked.

While the judge was talking to the women, Nathan left the injured man to check on Vin. It took only a minute to discover the broken ribs and order him to the clinic to be treated.

After finding out who the man was, the judge ordered him secured in the jail. He wasn’t too thrilled about the two women who were determined to bring down Del Spivak and his gang on their own. When he heard about the way Katie Stokes questioned the injured man, he was even more concerned.

Chris, Josiah, Buck and JD rode out after the women the next day, determined to keep them from getting killed by the Spivak gang. Josiah immediately discovered the intense dislike young Mattie held for all religious men, as well as her fear of ropes. When they found the gang, they were camped out in a narrow, deep valley. Chris ordered the men to split up and left the women unattended on the ridge. In the ensuing gun battle, he missed them sneaking off to try to capture Spivak, who had slipped out at the first sign of trouble. Buck yelled for JD to go back and check on the girls.

JD didn’t find the Stokes’ at the top of the ridge and he trailed them around to where they were deep in discussion with Del Spivak. When he tried to take the man into custody, Mattie turned on him and shot him. Moments later, the others arrived and Del took off with two women. Buck pulled up to check on his young friend, telling Josiah and Chris to go after them while he took care of JD. The man escaped, while the women were caught and returned to town to stand trial.

In the clinic, Nathan worked feverishly to remove the bullet from JD’s side. Due to the distance they had been from town, he had lost quite a lot of blood before reaching help. The young man lay bathed in sweat, delirious with fever, oblivious to all around him. Casey Wells sat with him for several hours, until her aunt forced her to leave. Buck took up watch at the bedside and fell into an exhausted sleep.

It was miserably hot! He was looking for a place to cool off. His twitching nose picked up the scent of cool water and he followed it to the source. Dipping his little hands into the water, he sighed at the pleasant coolness before plunging his face in to get a drink. In the reflection of the water, he stared. Two tiny, coal black eyes peered back at him from a furry, masked face. Even as he slaked his thirst, he heard the heavy footfalls through the woods and quickly dashed away from the water and into the hollow of a tree.

A young woman and a small boy approached the water. Their musical voices chattered back and forth as the boy peeled off his clothing and stepped into the cool water. The woman smiled indulgently at the child as he played in the shallow pool. They shared a picnic lunch before stretching out on the blanket to rest. The boy awoke first and sat quietly, not willing to wake his mother from her much needed rest. His sharp little eyes detected movement at the water’s edge and he quivered with delight at watching the furry little animal with the banded tail. The animal was busily washing something in the water while watching around him. It seemed to JD that the raccoon was hungry and he reached into the picnic basket to see what they had left. Grapes, his most favorite snack! His mother had deliberately kept them out of sight, knowing that he would rather have eaten them instead of the sandwich for lunch. Plucking off a handful, he crept toward the water.

“Here you go little fellow. You want one of these? They’s really good. Here, don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt ya,” JD said softly, his thick Irish accent blurring the words. The little raccoon looked up in fear but settled almost immediately at the sweet scent of the fruit in the child’s hand. Nose twitching and hands wringing urgently, the raccoon stretched toward the boy. JD dropped a grape and it rolled toward the water. Immediately, it was snatched up and rolled all around to be sniffed and examined by the curious raccoon.

By the time Rachael Dunne awoke, JD had shared the entire bunch of grapes with the furry animal. Gasping in stunned disbelief, the young mother grabbed up a dead limb that had fallen from a nearby tree. Yelling loudly, she jumped to her feet and ran toward the pond. The raccoon shot out of JD’s lap and disappeared into the brush, chittering and scolding as he ran. The little boy looked up at his mother, tears rolling down his round little cheeks. He couldn’t understand why his mother chased off his new pet. The worried mother gathered the three-year-old into her arms and rushed him back to the blanket, examining him thoroughly. She worried about the small, bloodless gash in JD’s index finger.

“He bited me, Ma, but he didn’t mean to. He licked it all clean, see?” JD explained as he showed her that it wasn’t bleeding. It was the last time the young mother took the boy to the pond.

JD scurried across the landing and carefully made his way down the stairs. At the bottom, his quivering little nose told him that there was food close-by and he crept along the wall of the livery. The rich scents of the horses, the hay, the grain bins and the sharp odor of leather oil permeated the large open space. The sun was just coming up and an errant sunbeam shone through the open half door. It shed enough light for the small raccoon to spot the edge of the shiny coin laying unnoticed in the hay outside of the chestnut gelding’s stall. Chittering happily, he waddled over and plucked the coin up, rolling it over and over in his hands and sniffing it. The smell was familiar, the last hand to hold the coin was clearly someone known to him. Heavy footsteps came from the small room in the corner of the livery and an angry voice shouted.

“Git out of here! Go on! Git!” Yosemite stomped his feet and waved his hands at the small, round raccoon sitting outside of Chaucer’s stall. The gelding, startled at the loud voice and hands gesturing in broad circles, shied away, neighing in alarm.

Above the livery, Buck started awake and nearly fell off of the chair. He looked to the bed to check on JD and found the bed empty! Surging to his feet, he crossed the room to the small anteroom where the healer had his personal sleeping space.

“Nathan! JD’s gone!”

The words had a completely different connotation to the man who was trusted to heal and mend their wounds. Nathan toppled out of bed and shoved Buck out of the way as he hurried to the other bed. Gone, to the healer, meant dead, not physically missing. He turned on the other man, eyes wide with confusion. The door was still locked, the only way in or out of the room was through the window.

Scurrying away from the stamping feet and hooves, JD crawled through a hole leading into the tack room and out on the other side. Still chittering angrily at being driven away, he hunkered down in the corner stall. The young filly eyed him suspiciously but made no motion to bother him as long as he didn’t get too near. Feeling strangely weak and weary, the raccoon burrowed into the loose hay in the corner and went to sleep.

Buck and Nathan searched the clinic, not difficult since there were very few places for a body to hide, before heading out to get the others. Vin was in the saloon with Josiah and Chris, sharing a pot of coffee after breakfast at the restaurant. Ezra was on patrol and due back at any moment. In a rare twist of fate, he had bet Vin the patrol over a hand of cards the night before, not expecting to lose. The incident with JD had left all of them feeling off center, none more so than the southerner, and he lost the hand.

“JD’s gone!” Buck shouted as soon as he identified his friends. Stunned silence followed the announcement as the shock sank in. “Come on, you gotta help find him.”

Mourning loss was quickly superseded by stunned surprise as the three men leapt to their feet. Like a stampede of buffalo, they thundered across the rough wood floor and out to the street, looking up and down for a clue to JD’s location. Ezra rode in on the rented horse he was using while Chaucer recovered from a bruised knee. Unaware of the other’s panic, he guided the placid gelding to the livery and slipped out of the saddle. Yosemite came out of the tack room, pitchfork in hand, and greeted the young southerner.

“You were expecting trouble?” Ezra asked as he eyed the lethal looking implement.

“Spotted a damned raccoon in here a little while ago. It spooked your horse before squeezing through a whole and getting away,” the livery owner growled angrily.

Moving to the gate of Chaucer’s stall, he studied the animal thoroughly before deciding that he was no worse off for the scare. Turning back to the rented horse, he noticed that Dancer, JD’s mare was crowded in the near corner of her stall looking back at something on the hay. Stepping closer, his eyes widened in surprise as he recognized the injured youngest member of their group. He opened the stall door and gently coaxed the mare out. Just then, Josiah rushed into the livery and spotted Ezra.

“I’m glad you’re here. We need to find JD, he’s missing,” the older man said.

“I believe I found him. Can you give me a hand with him?”

Josiah rushed into the stall and dropped to his knees beside Ezra, running his hand lightly over the sweaty brow, brushing the dark hair out of the way.

“The horse didn’t kick him, did it?”

“I don’t think so, you know how Dancer loves the kid. What’s that in his hand?” Ezra pointed toward the hand that had opened slightly when Josiah moved JD. He plucked the coin from JD’s hand and looked at it before looking at the older man, surprised. “I dropped this as I was getting ready to ride out.” The coin was very old and held only sentimental value to the southerner. Josiah scooped JD up and headed for the clinic.

Buck came out from behind one of the buildings in time to see Josiah rounding the corner at the top of the stairs with JD’s limp form in his arms. He yelled for the others before running to find out what had happened. Nathan was right on his heels, having come out of the telegraph office upon hearing the yell. Chris and Vin came from opposite sides of the street and took a more leisurely pace to the clinic so as not to start a panic among the people already curiously watching Buck and Nathan.

As soon as Josiah let JD down on the bed, Nathan was there checking him for injury. He peeked carefully under the bandages at the bullet wound and was mildly surprised to find it healing nicely. The fever had finally gone, leaving the young man sleeping a deep, healing sleep. When the dark skinned man looked up, he found all five of the others gazing at him anxiously.

“He seems fine. Fever’s broke finally. Now, can someone tell me how he got out of here without anyone noticing?” Nathan asked as he got up to wash his hands.

“I was asleep at his side and I swear I didn’t hear a thing,” Buck swore emphatically.

“What alerted you to his absence?” Ezra asked.

“Yosemite was yelling and then one of the horses squealed, when I opened my eyes, he was gone!”

“Well, he seems fine now. Why don’t you all go on about your business and let him rest,” Nathan suggested.

When JD awakened, some twenty hours had passed. He felt weak as a kitten and he ached all over as he tried to turn from his back to his side. Firm hands lifted the blankets and helped him to settle before returning said blankets to hold him there.

“How are you feeling, son?” Josiah asked softly.

“Weird dreams … shiny things … water,” JD mumbled before nuzzling into his pillow again.

By the time JD was discharged from the clinic, he had absolutely no memory of the dreams but developed a strange attraction to shiny things.

Vin continued his lessons with Chris. Short of actually making the blond angry enough to Change, nothing was working. Something was preventing him from letting go and letting the panther out. There was a renewed urgency to teaching him some measure of control as the anniversary of his family’s murder was approaching. Chris was consuming more and more alcohol as he tried to blunt the pain he was feeling.

It was a pleasant enough day. The sun was warm but a breeze stirred up the dust and blew tumbleweeds between the buildings and down the street. JD rode in from his patrol and squinted at the sunlight glinting off of the fittings on the saddle of one of the horses at the hitching post. He was drawn to the shiny silver rivets and beads on the fringe of the blanket tied behind the saddle. An almost hypnotic haze came over the young man as he stared at the glinting specks.

Dancer came to a stop when JD gave her no directions. The reins slipped from his hands when she stretched her neck down to get a drink from the trough. Buck looked out of the open door of the jail and watched the young man. When it seemed that something might be wrong, he got up and went out to check.

“JD, are you alright?” Buck asked as he shook his friend’s arm.

Blinking and thoroughly startled, JD shied away from the ladies man, only barely swallowing his cry of alarm. “Buck! You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that!”

“I didn’t sneak up on ya, JD. You were sitting there like you were in a trance or something. Are you feeling alright?”

“I’m fine. I gotta get Dancer to the livery. See you later,” JD said as he roughly sawed the reins against the mare’s neck and kicked her into motion. He didn’t see the concerned expression on Buck’s face.

Chris hitched Pony to the rail outside of the saloon in the little town of Purgatory. He had ridden out of town in a drunken haze and automatically headed for the one place he knew he could drown his sorrows and drink himself into oblivion safely. Maria nodded a greeting as she moved among the tables in the darkened room. The bartender slapped a bottle and shot glass in front of him and swept away the coin laying in front of the gunslinger. Grabbing the bottle and glass, Chris staggered to a table in the dark recesses. He smelled her before he felt her hands squeezing the tense muscles of his shoulders.

“Senor Chris, it has been a long time,” her husky voice whispered in his ear. A grunt of acknowledgement was all he could manage.

Several hours later, Maria poured Chris into her bed. She rifled his pockets for a coin to pay one of he boys to tend to his horse. After tugging off his boots, she threw a light blanket over him and slipped away.

Wary blue eyes surveyed the close buildings. Vin tucked his jacket behind his hip so he could reach his gun if he needed to. At his back, he sensed Buck doing the same. A few pairs of curious eyes quickly scanned them and turned away. The livery, if the ramshackle building actually qualified to be called that, was little more than a lean-to with stalls. Pony called to the familiar horses and swished his tail as he shifted around in the enclosure.

“Well, he’s here,” Buck said as he stepped down from Steele’s back and led the horse over to Pony. He leaned over the stall gate to see if he could tell how long the horse had been there.

“Take care of your horse, senor?”

Buck looked down into the hopeful face of a boy who couldn’t be much more than six or seven. Judging from the filthy clothes, the boy was heavily dependent on the kindness of strangers. Vin stepped up and dug a coin from his pocket. In rapid-fire Spanish, he inquired about the black horse and where his owner could be found. The boy turned shy about giving away the gunslinger’s whereabouts, even if they said they were his friends. After another coin and some careful negotiation, Vin got directions. He and Buck removed their saddles and allowed the boy to lead their horses into empty stalls. The boy dragged a small crate into the stall and proceeded to brush the placid gray.

Slipping carefully amongst the buildings, they eventually located the room ‘Maria’ was renting. Guns drawn, they carefully peered in through the window. Buck parted the gauzy curtains with the barrel of his gun and scanned the room for any threat. Deep, regular snoring filled the small room but he couldn’t see clearly who was lying across the bed. Just as Vin was preparing to climb through the window, the door opened and the woman entered. She moved to the bed and checked on the man, clucking in an almost motherly way as she righted the twisted blanket. When she repositioned his head on the pillow, Vin recognized the spiky blond hair and rugged, unshaven face. Nodding to Buck, he parted the curtains again and stepped into the room. Maria rose to her feet, her eyes going to the gun belt hanging on the bedpost. Vin held his hands out, showing her that they were empty and that she was in no danger. Buck opened the door and stepped in, dividing her attention and driving her to the desperate act of diving for the gun. Vin quickly grabbed her, wrapping his arms around her from behind and imprisoning her arms. To her credit, she only let loose a squeak of surprise as she lashed out with her feet.

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Vin said calmly into the long, dark tresses.

“You are looking for Senor Chris?” Maria asked.

“We’re friends of his. We don’t mean him any harm,” Buck answered, turning on his special brand of ‘animal magnetism.’ The woman stopped struggling and went still in Vin’s arms. Buck leaned over the blond man and tapped his cheek.

“Come on, you old war dog, up and at ‘em. Chris? Can you hear me, pard?”

Chris twitched, tossing his head to the side and swatting at the annoying hand. When Buck continued to tap and jostle him, the blond came up swinging.

“Leave me the hell alone, damn it! Wanna sleep,” Chris mumbled around a thick tongue.

“He will sleep for many hours, senor. You might want to take a room and try again tomorrow afternoon,” Maria suggested.

“You seem to know him,” Buck said, more of a statement than a question.

“Si, he comes here every couple of months. Sometimes he drinks himself to sleep and other times … well he is a man of strong desires,” she said with a blushing smile. Vin, too, blushed as he followed her train of thought.

“We’ll come back around tomorrow afternoon, then, Ma’am,” Buck said as he tipped his hat to her and backed out of the room. Vin nodded to Maria and hurried after the ladies man.

The next day, Chris got an early start on his next binge. He woke up just after Maria slipped away. Staggering into the saloon, he bought another bottle of whiskey and began throwing back shots. That’s where Buck and Vin found him when they went looking. Too inebriated to make much of a struggle, Chris stumbled along with his friends when they led him to a nearby river. Pausing only long enough to remove boots and belts, they dragged the blond into the water. After the fourth or fifth dunking, Chris sobered enough to resist. The next time he was dunked, he came up swinging. Buck and Vin stepped back, letting him fall on his ass in the water. He turned to his hands and knees and crawled up out of the water, fighting the gentle pull of the current. After stopping in Purgatory long enough to pick up a few supplies and their horses, they headed for home.

As dusk was throwing gray shadows over the landscape, the trio halted for the night. Chris tumbled from the saddle and collapsed next to a large rock, resting his aching head on his folded arms. Vin brought out the supplies and Buck built a fire. Fed and sprawled out on their bedrolls, they stared at the stars. The thin cry of a wolf was carried on the wind and answered from farther away. Buck felt something stir in his chest and he shifted on his blanket, reaching for the reassuring presence of his gun.

“Why’d you run?” Vin asked after a long silence.

“Didn’t run,” Chris denied.

“Looked like you ran to me. Musta hurt awful bad.”

“What would you know about it?”

“Jus’ thought you might want to talk about it is all,” Vin answered as he rolled to his side and stared at the blond.

“She was just a little thing. My Pa called her his muffin.”

“Who?” Vin asked, noticing that Buck had rolled over and taken an interest.

“My sister. She was just learning to walk.”

“What happened to her?” Buck asked.

“Panther got her.”

With three words, it all made sense. Vin could understand the loathing expression he had seen on Chris’s face when he discussed his Changed form. It was unusual for a spirit animal to kill, so there had to be a lot more to the story than the blond man knew.

“It was a hard winter. My Pa said lots of animals were dying because there wasn’t enough food. He said it was the cycle of things. Wasn’t until later that we found out that they were rabid. The one that got Grace was, anyway.”

“That why you hate ‘em so much?” Vin asked.

“How can I … become … something so … vile?”

A long, pregnant silence hung in the air as Vin struggled with an answer. Finally, he hit upon an idea. “Is that how you see Josiah, as something vile?”

“No! I didn’t say that! Josiah is a good and gentle man he would never …”

“Grizzly bears have been known to kill. Hell, Ezra’s little cat could get rabies and attack someone. Is that really how you see us?”

Chris rolled over and looked beyond the fire to the longhaired man. Intense emotions scrolled across the blue eyes that held his gaze. He looked over toward Buck and saw the same depth of emotion burning there.

“Don’t look at me like that! You don’t know what it’s like!”

Buck turned away and went back to staring at the stars. The uneasy silence wrapped around them again and they went to sleep, trusting the fire to keep away any predatory animals. In the morning, Chris was badly hung over and truly miserable on the ride back to town. He, very much like his spirit animal, growled at anyone who bothered him. When they reached the town, Ezra met them at the livery, he seemed bothered by something.

“What’s wrong, Ezra, find someone you couldn’t beat at cards?” Buck teased.

“No, no, nothing like that. It would seem that we are the victims of someone with sticky fingers. In the past few days, people have noticed a variety of things missing from their homes and places of business here in the town.”

“What things?” Chris asked, finally taking an interest in the conversation.

“Small things, for example, my cufflinks, Josiah’s rosary, Mary Travis’s earrings have all gone missing just in the last few hours.”

“Don’t sound like much to get worked up about,” Vin said as he stepped down from his saddle and began to loosen the cinch. “Anything else?”

“Buttons,” Ezra added.

“Buttons?” Buck asked.

“Mrs. Potter noticed that several articles of clothing in her store are missing the buttons. It’s really strange that we should fall under such petty thievery,” the southerner mused. “It just rankles a person.”

A knowing grin curled the blond gunslinger’s lips. He had no doubt that the younger man was indeed rankled by the loss of his cufflinks. He suggested that they keep a closer watch during the night patrols and headed for the bath house, hoping that a hot bath would ease the throbbing in his skull.

Sitting on the stool next to the steaming tub of water, Chris pulled off his boots. The clasp on one of his spurs was worn down and the spur slipped free of the boot, landing on the floor with a jingle. He left it there thinking to pick it up after, when bending over wouldn’t make him feel like his head would fall off. Sliding into the delicious, hot water, he felt the pain and tension drain away. While he was enjoying his little respite, someone else was watching.

Beady black eyes stared at the shiny spindle on the spur lying on the floor. Casting a wary glance up to the tub, he carefully crept closer to the prize. The spur beckoned to him and he stretched out one little black hand to reach for it. The boot had fallen partly on it, preventing him from making a quick getaway. A soft sound rose up in his throat as he tugged the spur out from under the boot.

A small sound roused Chris from his relaxed state. Instantly, he was on the look out for danger. Carefully reaching for the gun hanging on the peg beside the tub, he looked around. A soft thump drew his attention to the floor and to a banded tail hurrying across the floor. Just that quick, he realized that the raccoon had taken off with his spur. Pushing up with his feet against the end of the tub, he pointed his gun and pulled the trigger.

The explosion of sound startled the raccoon but nothing prepared him for the pain the bullet graze caused. Splinters of the iron gray wood peppered his fur as he squeezed through the hole in the wall. He managed to keep hold of his treasure as he wiggled out from under the building and along the back alley to the place where he kept all of his baubles.

The sound of gunfire from the bath house brought the other men running. Chris had already gotten out of the tub and pulled his pants on over his still wet body. He was breathing hard as he whirled on Buck and Vin. The two men quickly scanned the curtained area before Vin spotted the new hole in the wall.

“What happened?” Buck asked.

“Damn raccoon took off with my spur!” Chris hissed as he jammed the tails of his shirt into his pants. “Missed the damned thing, though.”

“I think you winged him, Chris,” Vin said as he held up bloody fingers.

“I just hope we find the little bastard before he dies so I can get my spur back!”

The men were busy crawling around on their knees looking under the bath house and the boardwalk when Ruthie came running out of the boarding house. She had been refilling the lanterns in the rooms for her father.

“Mr. Jackson, you gotta come quick, it’s JD, he’s hurt!” Ruthie yelled before turning and running back into the doorway and up the stairs. Immediately, all of the others raced to follow her. It sounded like a stampede of wild Indian ponies running up the stairs and down the hallway. The door to the young man’s room stood open and the horrified young woman stood just inside, crying. Nathan surged past her and knelt to check JD.

“Is he?” Buck asked nervously.

“Alive, looks like something winged him on his back. Help me get him up on the bed, would ya Josiah? Ruthie, can you run and ask your momma to put on a big pan of water to heat? That’s a girl,” he called after her as she fled the room. The older man leaned down and gently lifted JD from the floor. With Nathan helping, he settled the young man on his stomach across his bed. Something fell from his hand to the floor and Vin bent down to pick it up.

“Looks like we found your spur, Chris,” he said as he held it out to the blond.

“How did JD manage to get hurt chasing a raccoon?” Buck asked as he patted JD’s shoulder.

“I fear that he wasn’t chasing the raccoon but rather that he is the raccoon,” Ezra said as he picked up an old shoe from the floor of the open closet. Tipping the shoe, he poured several trinkets into his palm. Josiah’s rosary spilled out and hung from the southerner’s curled thumb. The sun shining through the window made the handful of baubles glitter like diamonds.

Buck glared angrily up at Vin. “Did you know he was like you?”

“I sensed the ability in him, yes. It wasn’t strong so I saw no reason to mention it,” Vin answered calmly. “Just like I sense the ability in you and in Nathan, it doesn’t mean you can Change, it just means that the spark is there.”

“Can we discuss this some other time,” Nathan said crossly. “If you aren’t helping, get on out of here. Vin, would you mind going to see if Mrs. Landon got that water heated and see if she has some clean rags I can use to clean this up.”

As soon as the first cloth touched the jagged furrow in his back, JD began to squirm. Buck and Josiah tightened their grip on him and soothed him as much as they could. Ezra piled the items he had found on the dresser and was standing well out of the way as he watched. This was one of the very things he feared about his ability. He wondered if he would be mistaken for a wild bobcat and shot on sight. The very thought of becoming a trophy on someone’s wall made him shudder.

“He’s lucky, the bullet didn’t burrow in. I’ll just put a few stitches in the deepest part of the graze and cover the rest with clean bandages. It should heal up without any problem,” Nathan said as he took up his needle and thread. JD felt the first touch of the needle and began to protest vocally.

“Hey! What are you doing? Buck, what happened? Hey, is that blood? Is that my blood?”

“Just be still and let Nathan finish tending to you and then we’ll explain everything to you,” Buck said as he eased up on the tight grip he’d had on JD’s hands. When bandaged, they helped him to turn onto his back and the healer immediately placed a mug of herbal tea into his hands. The young man wrinkled his nose at it but emptied the cup under the watchful eyes of the older men.

“Now, will someone tell me what happened?” JD asked as he handed the mug back.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Vin asked.

“I came up here to take a nap. I’ve been feeling tired lately for some reason,” JD answered.

Even as the worried look blossomed on Buck’s face, Vin continued his questions. “Have you been going out at night?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“Because we found these in your closet,” Ezra said as he held out the missing items.

“These are … that’s Josiah’s rosary … and your cufflinks … and the buttons from Mrs. Potter’s store, how’d they get in here?” JD asked as his voice rose in near panic.

“JD, I was in the bath house just a little while ago. I heard something and looked down to see a raccoon making off with my spur. I shot at the damned thing but it got away. When we found you up here just a little while later, we found this in your hand,” Chris said as he held out the broken spur. JD shied away from the item as if it would burn him.

“Maybe I found it and carried it up here before whatever happened that knocked me out.”

“I don’t think so, JD. I think you Changed. I think you’ve been doing it for the past few nights and that’s why you feel so tired,” Vin said softly.

“No! No! It … it can’t be. I … I don’t know how to … Change,” JD protested.

“JD,” Ezra called as he stepped closer. In his hand he had his pocket watch. The shiny gold casing sparkled in the sunlight. Opening the watch cover, he let the sun play over the crystal, casting a reflected light in the young man’s brown eyes. The effect was almost immediate, JD’s expression went blank except for a hunger that shone in his eyes as he stared at the watch. A moment later, instead of JD sitting on the bed, a raccoon sat staring at the shiny prize. Ignoring the gasps and shocked faces, the little black hands reached out and caressed the watch.

“Amazing!” Josiah said softly as he held out his hands to the furry animal. The raccoon, JD, eagerly accepted being picked up and explored the buttons of the older man’s shirt and then chattered with delight at finding the beads that held the cross around his neck.

“Buck? Are you alright?” Chris asked, seeing his friend staring at Josiah and JD with a stunned expression on his face. The man looked as if his whole world had been rocked off of its axis.

“JD?” Buck said as he got up and moved closer. He held out his hand and the raccoon immediately took advantage of the human bridge to explore another person. He pawed at the bandana around Buck’s neck and dug into his shirt pockets searching for treasure.

“He probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it,” Vin said as he sat down and reached out to stroke the banded tail that was draped over Buck’s arm.

“I saw him one day just staring into space. There were silver beads on one of the bedrolls and he was fascinated with them. I touched him and startled him,” Buck said as he let the raccoon crawl into Vin’s lap.

“I can teach him to control it, now that we know what triggers his change,” Vin said as he rubbed the raccoon on it’s tummy.

“What do we do with him? How will he change back?” Buck asked.

“Let me try something,” Vin said as he set the animal on the blanket and knelt beside the bed. “JD, listen to me now. I need ya to Change back. You can do it, think about Changing.”

A moment later, in place of the raccoon, JD sat on the bed, looking confused. “What happened?” He asked as he looked around. A massive yawn caught up with him and he allowed Vin to steer him into a reclining position.

“Get some sleep, kid, I’ll explain it to ya later,” he said with a grin.

Training JD to control his change was amazingly simple. Once he realized and accepted that the odd dreams were actually memories from his Changed form, he let his guard down and from there it was ‘like lickin’ butter off a knife.’ Chris still struggled against his ability to Change. It seemed that the memory of Grace’s death was going to imprison his spirit animal for a while longer.

The marble rolled around in Buck’s mind until it finally dropped into a hole one night and he sought Vin. Riding out after the younger man, Buck knew he had to have an answer to the question that had been rebounding in his head for the past few days.

“What animal do you see in me?” Buck asked as he rode alongside of Vin and Peso.

“It isn’t a strongly defined feeling. I wish I could tell you but I just don’t know. With some people, I can see the animal in their eyes. When I first laid eyes on Ezra, I imagined a banty rooster.”

Buck threw back his head and laughed at the mental image conjured by Vin’s words. He could just see the younger man as a fluffed out, brightly colored rooster.

“But with some people, I just know that the ability is there, it just needs to be brought out. Were you marked by an animal when you were younger?” Vin asked when the laughter ended.

“Not that I remember. We moved around a lot when I was growing up, though. I’da probably forgot it if it did happen when I was real young.”

“When you dream, do you get a sense of an animal?”

“No, I hardly ever remember my dreams. My momma said that some people were just that way. She could always remember her dreams and it used to bother me.”

“Then I shall have to ask the spirits to show me your animal.”

“When? Not right now, right?” Buck was suddenly anxious and afraid of the subject he’d broached.

“When you’re ready to know, we’ll go out and sit down by a fire and figure it out together. Okay?” Vin asked as he looked at the man riding beside him.

“You got yourself a deal,” Buck said as he put his hand out and shook Vin’s firmly.

Having brought it up, Buck was unable to master the unease the subject stirred inside. He tried and tried to remember his dreams but only succeeded in waking up more tired than when he laid down. Watching how easily JD and Ezra made their Change, he became frustrated. The issue came to a head when he and Josiah were coming back from Red Rock after dropping off a prisoner.

It was a clear, cool night and they decided to camp out on the way back to town. Josiah had begun to spend time with Buck because he was rapidly becoming irritated with Vin. It seemed that he blamed the younger man for not being able to teach him to Change. Josiah seldom got ruffled about anything and was, therefore, a more suitable guide. As the men were settling down in their bedrolls, a wolf cry rolled out of the hills. Josiah smiled, he thought wolves were among the most beautiful of God’s creatures. The single cry was answered by a chorus of voices that neither man could excuse. A single wolf might not approach men and fire but a whole pack just might. Both men reached for their weapons and pulled them closer as they tried to settle down to sleep.

The alpha lifted his nose from the trail of the wounded male deer. They had almost brought him down earlier in the day but he managed to shake them off and limped away. The blood scent was getting stronger, they were close. His pack circled around, licking at the drips of blood on the leaf litter before looking to him to see what he would do. Not wanting to give up an easy meal, he put his nose down and picked up the trail again.

The buck limped through the brush, his quivering legs barely able to support his weight. He had been in his prime only a few summers ago and now he was facing death at the sharp teeth of the wolves. His front legs folded and he sank to the ground, needing to rest for a few minutes, to regain his strength. He heard the first wolf cry, carried on the breeze, it was a thin sound and he knew it was far away. The answering cries were much closer and he knew they were catching up.

The wolves were getting close. The blood drips were getting larger, the animal was pausing more often between steps. Finally, the scent grew sharp and the alpha growled a low warning to the others. They had better not lose the animal this time. Spreading out in a wide arc, they closed in on the massive deer.

A stick broke under the weight of the wolf and the deer’s head came up. Several growls gave away the locations of the animals closing the circle around him. Forcing his shaky legs to work, the deer sprang to his feet and ran for the edge of the woods. Out in the open, he would have no cover but he would also not have anything to slow down his panicked, final flight.

The alpha saw the buck surge to its feet and he barked a warning to the others. Suddenly, they were all barking and charging after the fleeing animal. Adrenaline powered the deer as it ran, full out across the open ground. Fear devoured instinct and the deer ran toward the fire.

Josiah heard something and opened his eyes to look around. As the sound came closer, he reached for his gun and called to Buck. A moment later, something large and heavy struck him. His head hit the ground and he slumped into unconsciousness. Buck rolled away from the large shape, even before he identified it as a massive mule deer. The horses, who were picketed nearby, shifted away from the tumbling body and jerked against the ropes that held them to the picket line. Buck heard the barking and growling and suddenly found himself surrounded.

Fear and adrenaline charged through his body and his heart leapt into his throat. The wolves eyes glowed green-gold in the firelight as they circled, growling in frustration at finding their hunt thwarted. The deer blew his final breaths loudly as his legs thrashed. A single sound rolled from his throat and he was dead. Buck backed up until he was directly over Josiah. With his free hand, he groped around on the ground and recovered the big Scofield pistol.

The alpha wolf sank back on his haunches. Something wasn’t right about the situation and he couldn’t figure out what it was. The rest of his pack continued to circle the campsite, not getting too close to the dangerous, metal clad feet of the horses. The other wolves eventually settled into small groups around the perimeter of the fire light.

Buck stood, sweat beading on his body in spite of the gentle breeze, and stared at the alpha wolf. He knew that if he pulled the trigger of his gun that he would likely be attacked by the others before he could get off another shot. He glanced at the mule deer as it twitched through the throes of death. When the other wolves seemed to ease off, he shifted his weight slightly so that he could ease the tension in his legs. The wolf panted, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, and waited to see what he would do. Never in his life had Buck wished so hard for someone to watch his back.

The wolf picked up the man’s scent on the breeze. Recognizing the scent, he cocked his head and stared more intently at the nervously shifting man. The wolf knew that the metal things in the man’s hand would hurt or kill him, so he didn’t try to get any closer. The other man’s scent was oddly skewed too, he smelled of man and something else. One of the groups of wolves, the younger ones, began to edge closer to the deer. A low warning growl sent them back and caused the man to become even more frightened. Trying a more subservient posture, the wolf slowly sank to lay on the ground, his tail wagging gently and stirring up dust.

“What game are you playing?” Buck mumbled to himself. “I’m all alone and outnumbered here. What are you waiting for?”

The wolf began to wiggle toward him, whining and making puppy barks. Buck’s hand tightened on the pistol but he couldn’t pull the trigger. The animal wanted something, he could feel it. Slowly, carefully, he let Josiah’s gun come to rest on the older man’s chest and lowered his own gun. The wolf continued to inch toward him, his ears perked forward and tail thumping on the dirt.

“If you’re planning to attack, I wish you’d get it over with,” Buck said under his breath. “This long, drawn out approach is killing me.”

The alpha reached Josiah’s outstretched hand and sniffed at it cautiously. Knowing that the man was injured and had not moved, he rubbed his head against the hand, trying to show that he meant no harm. Continuing toward the upright man, he finally reached his knee and rolled to his back, baring his throat and belly. Whining softly, he waited for the man to decide what to do.

Amazed and more than a little scared, Buck stretched out his empty hand and touched the wolf. The fur was soft and as his hand rested against the ribs, he felt the heart beating. Something inside him was released and he let the gun slip from his other hand so he could touch the animal with both hands. Suddenly, his perspective shifted and he found himself standing over the wolf, looking down at him, to see his own furry feet. Before his brain even registered the strangeness, he lowered his own nose and sniffed at the wolf. A warm, pink tongue stroked the underside of his muzzle as the alpha trembled beneath him. Buck Wilmington was a wolf!

A myriad of sensations assaulted his senses. Stepping away from the other wolf, he sniffed at Josiah. On instinct, he licked the rough whiskered cheek and whined softly. The other wolf came to his feet, his head lowered submissively. A large man, Buck was also a large wolf. He glanced around and noticed that the others were on their feet, watching curiously at the change of events. His nose caught another scent and he stretched out his neck to zero in on it. The deer, the dead animal drew him as surely as any fine restaurant meal or pretty face. Wobbling unsteadily on four legs, he crossed the campsite and lowered his nose to inhale the rich aroma. The other wolves moved in closer, watching him and watching their alpha. The alpha circled the deer and sniffed at the underside of the deer. Buck watched, unknowingly giving his permission, as the other wolf tore into the deer.

After feeding well on the deer, Buck and the alpha sat back on their haunches and sang loudly to the moon. Their voices blended together beautifully. The rest of the pack made short work of the rest of the deer, engorging themselves. A couple of the females edged closer to the other male wolf, curiously sniffing at him. A warning growl sent them back to the others.

A pleasant lassitude settled over Buck and he glanced longingly at his bedroll. Moments later, he was toppling into the blankets. A couple of the wolves came close enough to lap at the man’s face. Buck stroked them with his hands, unaware that he had returned to his human form. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and slept. Josiah had watched, coming to consciousness while Buck and the alpha were disemboweling the deer. From behind nearly closed eyes, he watched the interaction, including the Change back into human form. When the wolves were well away, he finally moved, crawling over to pull a blanket over Buck and push another log into the fire. His head hurt but his heart was overjoyed for his younger friend.

When the sun rose in the morning, Buck rolled over and smelled coffee perking. His eyes sprang open as he remembered that Josiah had been knocked out by the deer that crashed through their campsite. Throwing off his blanket, he rolled to his side and glanced around the camp. He slumped in relief at seeing the older man sitting on a log, juggling a small mirror and shaving. Laying the straight razor aside, he smiled down on Buck.

“Morning, Brother, how are you feeling this fine morning?”

Beyond Josiah, he could see the carcass of the deer so he knew it hadn’t been a dream. Easing his legs around, he reached for his boots and drew them on.

“Now you know what your spirit animal is. Really spectacular, by the way,” Josiah said in a teasing tone before turning back to his shaving.

“You saw it?”

“I came to while you were feasting on the deer. Damned thing nearly killed me. I just wish you’d left enough for a good meal before we head back to town.”

Looking sheepishly at the ground, Buck dragged his fingers through his hair. He then paused to study his hands, remembering how he had looked down and saw furry feet instead of fingers. A hard shudder raced through him and he looked back up toward Josiah. The older man had returned to his shaving.

They arrived back in town late in the afternoon. Buck couldn’t wait to find Vin and tell him about the events of their trip. The younger man merely smiled and congratulated him on making the discovery. Now that he looked closely, he could almost see the animal staring back at him from behind the violet eyes. A hawk, a grizzly bear, a bobcat, a panther, a raccoon and now a wolf, Vin couldn’t help but wonder what kind of animal Nathan would become if his spark were to be awakened.

The Changelings IV