Available in electronic and print formats as part of the Shifting Sands multi-author anthology.
The wrath of a woman scorned is bad, but a witch’s wrath is hell on earth. No one knows this better than the six men of Shifting Sands Ranch. When the owner’s witch of a wife flees the ranch, she takes with her one of the cowboys and leaves behind a curse that dooms the remaining inhabitants to a life that is anything but normal. Now, every month when the moon comes full, each man takes on the form of an animal.
Witches, shifters and ancient curses, such is life on the Shifting Sands.
© Copyright 2010 Ally Blue
Jud woke in the middle of his shift back to human. When he stopped feeling like he was two seconds from puking and his galloping heart settled into a trot, he aimed an eloquent stream of swear words at the ceiling fan overhead. This was why he usually stayed up to greet the dawn on the night of a shift. He hated being yanked from sleep by the none-too-pleasant feel of his body going from rat to human.
The pain in his side had gone away completely, so the cracked rib must’ve knitted during the shift. He lifted his right leg and cautiously wiggled his foot. It felt a little sore, and a bluish bruise spread from his toes to his ankle, but there was no real pain. The bones seemed to have healed well enough. Good thing, too. Limping all the way home on a lame foot would’ve sucked donkey balls.
Sitting up, he studied the room in which he found himself. Three of the walls were lined with windows, shaded by blinds that looked like they were made of river reeds. White-painted wood made up the fourth wall. A closed sliding glass door broke the line of the wooden wall a good ten feet to Jud’s right. To his left sat a glider wide enough for at least four people. Long white hairs—cat hairs, Jud thought, remembering Woody’s three-legged Persian—covered the blue cushions. A small top-loading freezer hummed in the far corner of the room. Beneath the wadded-up towel and the cardboard box Jud had mangled during his shift, a thin grayish-blue carpet covered a floor hard enough to be concrete.
After a moment’s thought, Jud realized he must’ve spent the night on Woody’s enclosed sun porch. Woody had converted the house’s original outdoor patio into a sunroom several months ago. The memory of Woody’s palpable pride when he’d shown Jud the pictures made him smile, in spite of the seriousness of his current situation.
Speaking of which…
Grasping the arm of the glider to steady himself, Jud pushed to his feet. The room spun around him for a moment before the post-shift vertigo settled into a familiar vague lightheadedness. To his relief, his bruised foot held his weight with no problem.
He glanced around, looking for anything at all he could wear. Woody’s clothes would be too big for him, but hanging on to an overly large pair of pants was a damn sight better than hoofing it back to the ranch in nothing but his skin.
The little room was cluttered with battered sci-fi novels, pet care magazines, gardening tools and bags of cat litter, but no clothes. Jud was about ready to say fuck it and take his chances cutting across farm country in the altogether when he remembered the towel his rat form had slept on. Cursing himself under his breath, he snatched the towel off the floor and wrapped it around his hips. It barely covered the necessary parts and his left thigh peeked out through the slit where the ends didn’t quite come together, but it would have to do. He could not let Woody catch him here. Especially like this.
A quick perusal of the room revealed no exit other than the sliding glass door. The door that led to the rest of the house.
Shit, I’m gonna have to go through the house to get out.
Jud looked around, but didn’t see a clock. It must be early, though. He always shifted back as soon as the horizon began to lighten, and the light filtering through the blinds was still gray and faint. With any luck Woody would still be asleep.
Hanging on to his towel with one hand, Jud padded to the sliding glass door and peered through it. The kitchen and living room beyond were dark and empty. He eased the door open, slipped through and crept toward the back door. It couldn’t be more than ten feet. Only ten feet between himself and freedom.
As he drew even with the kitchen table, his feet tangled in something warm and soft. He stumbled, caught his sore foot on a chair leg and went flying ass over teakettle. The chair clattered across the floor. Jud landed on the unforgiving wooden planks with a thud that knocked the wind out of him.
A pair of crystal blue eyes set in a sea of long white fur stared at him from inches away. “Mmmrrrrrow?”
“Damned cat,” Jud wheezed, glaring into the Persian’s placid feline face.
With a swish of her fluffy tail, the cat turned and made her three-legged way across the floor. She jumped into the battered old recliner, lapped at one delicate paw and swiped it behind her ears. Her smug gaze seemed to say mission accomplished.
Jud flipped her off. Like it was his fault she’d been shut out of what was clearly “her” porch all night.
“Jud?” Bare feet pounded across the floor toward him, long bare legs bent, and he found himself looking up at Woody’s concerned face. “Shit, are you okay?”
Crap. Fucking goddamn crap. Wondering how in the nine hells he was going to explain himself, Jud gave Woody his best approximation of a smile. “Yeah, fine. Tripped over your cat.”
Woody winced. “Sorry about that. Einstein loves to get underfoot.”
“Yeah, well. It’s ironic.” Woody shot the animal a fond smile. “Not to put too fine a point on it, she’s kind of stupid.”
No shit. What kind of cat doesn’t know a rat when it smells one? Jud snorted.
Woody slipped an arm around Jud’s ribcage. “Here, let me help you up.”
Jud allowed Woody to haul him upright, trying to ignore the effect Woody’s nearness was having on him. Why did the man have to be wearing those stupid, sexy Jersey knit boxer-briefs, anyway? The damned things clung to his body in a way that left not very fucking much to the imagination. Jud gritted his teeth and hung on to his towel with grim determination, hoping the developing tent would go away before Woody noticed.
Luckily, Woody’s full attention was focused on Jud’s face. Jud stared at Woody’s collarbone, unable to make himself meet Woody’s intense, searching gaze. “So. Um. I should go.”
Woody’s hands clamped onto Jud’s shoulders, holding him in place. “Please don’t. Not until we can talk, at least.”
Jud closed his eyes and hung his head. “Look, Woody, I know you’re wondering what I’m doing here, and why I’m…you know.” He indicated his barely-towel-covered nudity with a quick gesture. “But I really don’t think I can explain it right now, so if it’s okay I’d like to go home.”
“Hey. Look at me.”
Jud shook his head, eyes screwed firmly shut. It was a childish thing to do, he knew, but dammit, he could not look Woody in the eye right now. He couldn’t.
Woody’s big palm removed itself from Jud’s left shoulder. Firm fingers grasped his chin and lifted his face. Then warm, soft lips met his own, and damned if that didn’t make his eyelids fly up like a couple of defective window shades.