Roaming the great plains of Nevada with the wind whipping through his mane, Marshall Featherstone was one with the earth. His ancestors had lived here, taming dogs and horses to work with them. Those days called to his animal side, the times before reservations and government dictated the fate of his people. Looking at his mate, Buck, a perfect, splotchy-paint horse, it felt damn near perfect. All their muscles and free mustang spirits were unleashed as they ran with a mass of untamed horses.
Not all the horses shifted to human form, most didn't, but Marshall loved that part--being free to explore their true totem and run with the real thing. He and Buck James both loved the wild and rugged land north of Vegas. Bright lights and big cities weren't for them. Yet, they'd wandered through most of their twenties and had yet to find the female to complete their life. They needed that final piece for them to set down roots and build a home. Marshall wanted a place to call home. Their nomadic days needed to come to an end.
A new noise spooked the horses. Beyond the thunder of hundreds of hooves, Marshall heard something cut the air. Spotlights came down on them, and the group angled in a new trajectory. Fear and panic were fragrant in their reactions. Looking to Buck, Marshall was concerned. The man was sensitive, but in mustang form, he gave in and went wild. He'd earned his nickname "Buck" from his horse behavior.
Other horses pushed into Buck, and one fell. The contact set off Buck, and he kicked and stomped, finally rearing like a rodeo horse trying to dump a rider. Marshall maneuvered out of the group as best he could and came around to his mate. It was unnatural horse behavior, but he couldn't leave his man. Nothing would separate them.
Losing sight of Buck sent Marshall's heart pounding. Glimpses helped but a larger horse bounded by and knocked Buck off balance and to the ground. The sounds of vehicles grew closer, and Marshall knew it was a government roundup.
Wild mustangs were dying from disease and lack of food. He could see the ribs of many of the true horses running along the path. The wild grasses were sparse, and the drought and wild fires out west weren't helping matters, but nature could be rough. Survival of the fittest was how animals lived. Breaking their spirit with saddles didn't mean salvation for this breed.
No matter what Uncle Sam wanted, no one was taking him and Buck. That would be too dangerous. Finally, Marshall found Buck, who was back on his hooves. Marshall moved in next to him. The bumps and bruises didn't show yet, but Buck's gait was off.
They should've known better than to shift and go out during the Hunter's Moon. Mustangs had no natural predators here, but they forgot that man was always the supreme hunter. In some way, man had to dominate every inch of earth and the animals on it.
Marshall picked up the pace and tried to get to the farthest right side of the group so they could veer off to avoid capture. As much as Buck tried, he couldn't keep up. They'd fall back and be caught for sure. If they were lucky, they could escape, but if they were discovered, Marshall didn't want to think about what might happen to them.
Generations had kept the secret of animal shifters, people so connected to their animal totem and the spirit of the wild they could become one with them. Shifting between animal and human form was a gift, and the government wouldn't let them waltz out of custody with that power.
Marshall and Buck would not be the ones to betray their legacy and expose their existence. Buck snorted, and Marshall knew the pain was getting to his lover. When Buck darted out of the group and off down a trail, Marshall followed and prayed no one else did. The herd mentality was sometimes hard to shake, but so many of the other horses were bounding toward the trap that Marshall and Buck broke free.
No one seemed to notice. No one followed.
Buck galloped down the path toward a fence. One of the boards was broken. Marshall turned as Buck crashed through at the weak spot and entered private property.
Marshall turned and trotted to the fence and followed Buck. They might get shot. Weird ranchers sometimes wielded rifles before they saw it was a harmless animal. Marshall waited for some old coot with no teeth and a long beard to rush out of the house. But the pair made it into the barn before anyone appeared. It was a good hiding spot. The government couldn't invade private property--well, they could and had, but for a couple of horses? It wasn't worth the potential lawsuit.
Inside, Buck shook his head and paced slowly. They were stronger in animal form, but sharing energy for healing was far more erotic in human form. Marshall nudged Buck's neck, and the connection helped. The energy sparked, but Marshall sensed Buck's pain. They needed to rest. This would be safe for now. If they were lucky, no one was home and they could stay the night.
The rustling of feathers made Marshall look to the back of the barn. He didn't see anything, but the noise seemed to be coming from farther back on property. Feet stomped the ground. Someone lived here and owned those animals. Maybe they were away? Or it was an old deaf guy who wouldn't be bothered to come out now. Marshall tried to be hopeful. He'd make sure he and Buck were gone by morning.
The pounding of hooves stopped, and Marshall knew the government had the horses in their gates. All those horses were now captives and fenced in for life. The quiet made Marshall's skin twitch. Only the bird sounds and Buck's heavy breathing filled the air now. Then a door slammed in the distance. Buck startled and exhaled loudly.
Buck's injury could be many things, a broken rib or just a bad bruise. Marshall needed to get Buck to human form and look at him, but as the footsteps grew closer, they had a bigger problem to deal with first. They could try to run but Buck wouldn't last long. There were other ranches, but would they find a safe one before Buck gave out? Marshall had trusted nature to guide him through is life. He had to trust again that they'd made it to the right place to survive.
Dealing with the human world was necessary and not unwelcome, but shifters had to be careful. They lived for the freedom and would die trying to protect each other. Whoever the rancher was, Marshall would die before he'd fall into government hands or let Buck be shot. The big debate was in what form to face the rancher. Human or horse?