Barely distinguishable in the pre-dawn light that had a fading full moon in the sky, a final shovelful of dirt came arcing out of the hole, to land with a dull thump onto the heaping pile of dirt next to the excavation. Muttering evilly under his breath, Rowdy scrambled up the earth ramp he’d created on the side of the hole, still carrying his tool, and once he’d reached the surface, that man thrust the shovel hard into the dirt pile, blade-first, to leave that implement standing straight up. Ignoring the other two men watching him, Rowdy wiped the palms of his hands against the legs of his jeans, and standing right on the edge of the hole, the cowboy looked down into the pit with an expression of total disgust on his face.
Gil totally understood and shared his partner’s mood. It was just too goddamn early in the morning for this. Especially since neither of them had even yet had a chance for their first coffee of the day.
As Rowdy skidded his way back down the ramp into the hole, Gil bestowed a serious glower towards an anxious Rupert Giles next to him. The worried expression on the Englishman’s face seemed to be the only thing out of place. He was fully and properly dressed in his usual tweed suit that was perfectly clean and pressed. The tea-drinking bastard had even managed to shave, thought an outraged Gil, whose bewhiskered face closely resembling a bear now let loose a growl that any ursine creature would have been proud to produce.
“There better be one hell of a reason for all this.”
Nervously leaning away from Gil, the other man tentatively shrugged, and murmured, “I’m not sure if the infernal regions apply in this case--”
Interrupting Mr. Giles at that exact moment was Rowdy’s coaxing tone coming from the hole, “Come here, you little bastard, yeah, just a bit closer, yeah….GOTCHA!” Right after that triumphant whoop, very strange sounds began coming from the pit that were clearly not from the cowboy otherwise currently cussing a blue streak.
Resounding through the air were deep grunts, interspersed with barking yelps, that made both men take a cautious step back from the hole. Fascinated, they now watched Rowdy’s head, and then his upper body, show themselves as he stepped backwards up the dirt ramp. As more of the cowboy’s body appeared, it was easily seen that the man’s heaving form was being twisted and jerked around, as if he was pulling hard on something that clearly didn’t want to come along.
Nevertheless, to the accompaniment of a positively operatic level of obscenity, Rowdy finally reached the top of the ramp, and at last he yanked into sight his encumbrance.
Flat on his back, Xander Harris, eyes wide open with terror, continued his pitiful whines that had nothing of humanity in them, as his splayed hands scrabbled uselessly upwards at thin air while his entire body wrenched itself to and fro in a desperate endeavor to escape from Rowdy’s firm grip on Xander’s ankles. Grimly dragging the totally-nude teenager, whose modesty was not hidden all that much by an inch-thick layer of dirt covering his entire body, Rowdy started stepping backwards towards his horse.
Gil slowly turned to eye the Englishman, with the air of a volcano about to erupt.
Mr. Giles was himself determinedly concentrating on polishing his pince-nez with an handkerchief, until in the end he finally surrendered, and began to mumble, all while not looking at the other man, “I wasn’t there of course, but Miss Rosenberg confirmed that several months ago, the youth was attempting to make a pet out of a single, er, I believe its correct identification is Cynomys ludovicianus, and in the course of this, Xander received a rather severe bite on his thumb.”
“Why the hell would that--”
A tremendous shrug of total ignorance was made by Mr. Giles that cut off the guide’s disbelief, as the Oxford graduate continued speaking while putting away his handkerchief and replacing his glasses, and looking at Gil. “How the devil should I know? All that has been ascertained is that from then on, at specific times, he strips himself naked, falls to the ground, and crawls off to the nearest gathering place--”
Now it was Gil’s turn to interrupt, as the frowning man asked, “Does this happen every time the moon is full?”
The wagon train’s captain had his mouth fall open in astonishment, as he stared at the guide looking thoughtful and nodding to himself. “Well, yes, but how in the world--”
Gil told the other man, “The kid’s a looney.”
“A what?!” burst out from Mr. Giles, unable to believe his ears.
“The Injuns got stories of men getting bit or clawed by animals, and taking on their spirits. Seems to work the hardest during the nights of the full moon, so that’s the name the white trappers and hunters who first learned ‘bout it gave to those guys.” Gil shrugged, his face a little doubtful, as he went on. “’Course, I never actually met anybody this happened to, or knew anyone who did meet ‘em. Plus, all the stories I heard ‘bout was ‘em taking on being a bear, wolf, coyote, that kinda thing. I never heard of it happening exactly like this!” As Gil finished, his tone was one of sheer incredulity, as he waved his hand around their surroundings.
Mr. Giles had been listening to the guide, and the Englishman’s face had become redder and redder in outrage, until he finally declared, “That is complete and utter rot! I’m sure there’s some form of scientific explanation, not just for Xander’s experience, but for all those who’ve undergone that identical occurrence!”
“And that’d be….?”
“Er--,” said a suddenly uncertain Mr. Giles, who managed to rally, “--perhaps it’s some sort of brain-fever in conjunction with the moon’s tidal forces. After all, the brain is immersed in fluid, and since that orb can clearly influence the world’s oceans, there might be some kind of connection during its brightest--”
Just as an irritated Gil was about to liken the other man’s theory to equine waste products, both heard a howl of pure rage split the air, and they snapped their heads around to witness a most absurd event.
Plainly having gotten away from Rowdy, Xander had flipped over his body, to remain stomach-down as he scuttled back towards the hole on his hands and toes, all while being pursued by a furious Rowdy right on the teenager’s heels. As both Gil and Mr. Giles took a wary step back, Xander reached the hole and dove head-first into it, with Rowdy promptly jumping in right after him. During his leap, the cowboy had reached out a hand and snagged the shovel from its position in the dirt pile, yanking it out and brandishing this tool as Rowdy disappeared into the pit.
An instant later, the older men standing on the surface both winced at hearing a dull thuk! resonate in the air, as the flat of the shovel collided against the side of a skull.
After a few seconds’ pause, the fading moon in the sky was joined with another in the vicinity, as Xander’s pale buttocks were revealed when he was carried out of the hole, dangling limply face-down over Rowdy’s left shoulder.
Both men on the surface watching this sensibly kept their mouths shut over the recent events of the last minute, due to Rowdy’s fixed stare ahead, the grinding of his teeth being clearly audible, and the cowboy’s white-knuckled grip on the shovel he was still carrying in his right hand. Finally getting out of the pit once more, the man carrying his unconscious burden stalked towards his horse, and reaching that animal, he tossed the teenager onto the back of his mount behind the saddle, mounted, and grimly started heading back to the wagon train. All while still holding the shovel ready against another escape attempt.
Mr. Giles and Gil looked at each other, shrugged in shared wonder, and went to their own horses, following right after Rowdy. During all that, the first rays of dawn shone onto the land, making it easy for all of the men to guide their mounts through the numerous small holes pockmarking the ground around them. Concentrating on this, nobody bothered at all to look behind them, for which they should have been extremely thankful.
It would have been most unsetting for Mr. Giles, Gil, and Rowdy to have watched how several thousand prairie dogs had now simultaneously poked their fuzzy heads out of their den holes, with each and every one of those small rodents sorrowfully looking after their Lord and Master being carried away from their village, all these animals having tears brimming in their beady, black eyes.