Bartholomew, mouth full, remarks, “Benjamin, your mama sure makes good biscuits!”
Roland Haek looks down at his, “Butter would make them even better…”
Benjamin grins, well pleased that the other fellows enjoy his mother's cooking, “Well, no butter Roland, but I’ll pass on the compliments all the same.”
Bartholomew offers, “Coffee, Rolan’?”
“Cream and sugar?” the query is innocent enough, but it causes Bartholomew to raise an eyebrow and shoot a glance at Benjamin, who stifles a laugh.
“’Fraid not. Try it black,” was all he said.
Roland allows Bartholomew to pour him a mug full and determinedly raises it too his lips. Seconds later he jerks it away, spewing coffee.
“It’s scalding!!” he yelps.
“Just came off the fire…what’d you expect?” Bartholomew was quite matter of fact, but Benjamin suspected that he was having entirely too much fun pushing the younger lad towards maturity.
Benjamin begins rolling up his bed-roll, “I’ll feed the horses their oats.”
Being the leader of the expedition, Bartholomew gave the orders, “Then we saddle up and move out. Whether or not you’ve finished your coffee, Roland.”
Roland sets his mug down and starts rolling up his bedding. Bartholomew wanders over to Benjamin and speaks softly, “He’s doin’ something without being asked…you reckon we can put a little more fire in him before we return him to his ma?”
Benjamin shrugs, “We can try…but don’t over-do anything, Bart. Take it from me, the way you carry yourself is challenge enough.”
Wondering exactly what Benjamin meant by that, Bartholomew stares into the distance, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
Asa Bowen is talking to Mrs. Haek in her room, “That’s about it, ma’am. No one has seen him since about four o’clock yesterday.”
Mrs. Haek moans, “Oh my poor baby!!”
She buries her face in her handkerchief, sniffling, as the sheriff stands there not knowing how to handle the woman before him.
Aaron sits at his desk, head in hands. He looks tired.
Bowen paces back and forth in the small office, “The lady seems more cut up about her sons disappearance than about her husband’s death…”
Aaron looks up, “Well, being right on top of it, it is kind of understandable.”
Bowne nods, “I suppose…but she seemed very calm and detached for a lady in mourning when she arrived.”
Aaron demands, “What are you trying to say, Asa?”
“Oh, I don’t know…maybe she’s mixed up in all this someway.”
The door opens and Aaron’s tired face lights up. Asa grins and goes to his desk.
“Mornin’, Mrs. Burke.”
“Good-morning, Sheriff.” Sophia dimples as she is prone to do.
Aaron smiles up at his wife as she stands next to him, a basket in hand, “Mornin’, darlin’. Sorry I couldn’t come home last night.”
Sophia bends down and kisses him gently. Then she starts unpacking the basket.
“I brought you men some breakfast—I figured you’d need it. Did you find out what happened to that poor lady’s son?”
Both men sigh in unison. Aaron answers the question, “No…no one seems to have seen him. You’d think he would’a been noticed in those duds he had on too.”
Suddenly, Sohpia stops, a plate in mid-air.
Worried, Aaron leaps up, “Sophy? You all right?”
She smiles with a tiny laugh, “Yes...I just remembered…yesterday afternoon as I was sweeping the porch, Bartholomew and some other boys rode by…I really only had time to notice Bart—he is so broad that he’s unmistakable—before they were gone, but one of the other boys didn’t seem to have a hat on. I did notice that because all the boys around here wear hats.”
“So, you’re saying that Bartholomew kidnapped this Roland Haek?” Aaron demands loudly, too loudly, but his brain was working.
Sophia shakes her head, “I didn’t mean that! I just…”
Aaron laughs, “I know…Still, I’ll ride out to the home-place and see what Bartholomew was up to yesterday afternoon. You never know…he’s got a wild streak in him that worries me sometimes.”
Bartholomew out in front, the boys ride slowly along the edges of the expanisve rock. Roland is beginning to wilt.
“I’m terribly thirsty…” he begins.
Benjamin grins, “It is rather warm, but you’ll have to forget about either rest or water for a bit—look.”
As he speaks, he points toward Bartholomew who has dismounted. He is very intense on whatever he is looking at. The other two ride over toward him.
In response to Benjamin's questioning eyebrow, Bartholomew expounds on his find, “These tracks are about four days old and they lead north-west. Aaron seems to suspect that is where the Hadley Gang is holed up. Take a look at this set of tracks…notice the notch in the right rear shoe? I’ve seen this print going on and off the rock several times already, but here we have a concentration of hoof-prints—along with this notched print…I’ll bet that if we follow this down aways that we’ll find more horses joining in on the trail!”
Roland asks, “Do you think we should?”
He has leaned forward in his saddle, slight eagerness in his voice.
Bartholomew demands, “What are we here for except to get a better idea of where these bandit’s hideout?”
Slightly more cautious, Benjamin asks, “Bart…you reckon we ought to send one of us back to tell Sheriff Bowen?”
Bartholomew shakes his head, “Not quite yet…if my hunch proves true, then yes. But it’d be a shame to bother the sheriff over nothing.”
“You’re right.” Benjamin agrees; he casts a sweeping look about him.
Single file, with Bartholomew leading on foot, the boys begin to descend the northwest side of Rocky Plateau.
Phineas comes out of the barn covered in muck. He lunches himself forward when Aaron rides into the yard and dismounts.
“Aaron!! What’s the old married man doing out here?”
Aaron laughs gaily as he holds his disgustingly filthy brother off him.
“I came to talk to Bartholomew.”
Phineas throws a playful punch at his brother's middle, “Well, that’ll have to wait ‘cause Bartie ain’t here.”
Rodger and Julian come scurrying out of the house to see their brother.
“That’s right." Rodger grins, "He and Benjamin went off camping.”
“And left you at home? When did they leave?” Aaron queries.
Rodger laughs, “Oh, I didn’t want to go…Bartholomew said he had no idea how long they’d be gone and Pa ordered me a new book. I kind of want to be here went it comes.”
Phineas rolls his eyes over the book.
Julian answered the most pertinent question, “Bartholomew left after lunch yesterday.”
Aaron mused, “And he left town shortly after four o’clock…Do you know where he was going?”
The brothers looked at each other…they all shook their heads. George Burke rides in from the pastures; he had seen his son coming and naturally wanted to talk to him.
Aaron hails him, “Pa! You know where Bartholomew went camping?”
George shook his head, “He didn’t say, but I rather suspect that he was going to go to Rocky Plateau and put his ‘superior’ tracking skills to work. I’m not too worried about him though, because Benjamin does exercise a leveling effect on him. Hey, where you going?”
Aaron had jumped back into the saddle and readied his reigns as his father spoke.
“I have a hunch…thanks, Pa!”
George stares after his son with amazement, “Is Bartholomew in trouble?”
Rodger shrugs, “I don’t know…but Aaron kind of wanted to talk to him.”
Phineas adds, grinning down at his manure dabbed boots, “That’s why he came out.”
Bartholomew straightens from over some prints. The other two boys watch him carefully.
He nods, satisfied, “I was right…about four more horses joined up here on the left side…and five or so on the right. I’ll bet the we’ll find the stage coach horses’ tracks further down this path.”
Benjamin asks, “Shall I go back for the sheriff now?”
Bartholomew shakes his head, “Wait a bit longer and see if we can locate where the stage horses joined the party…”
Roland blurts out, “I’m burning up.”
Bartholomew looks up, “You’ve got a sunburn all right…I hadn’t been paying attention to you Roland, so I didn’t notice. Here, put my hat on.”
He handed the hat up and Roland placed it on his head. It came down over his ears and rested on his nose. Simultaneously, the boys burst into laughter…
Gasping for air, Benjamin says, “Maybe he ought to wear mine…my head isn’t as large as yours, Bart!”
Bartholomew agrees, “I reckon so…”
The exchange of hats is made and Roland takes a drink out of the canteen.
Benjamin encourages, “Don’t over-do the water now…it’ll make you sick.”
They proceed slowly, Bartholomew's nose practically glued to the ground. Eventually he gives a whoop, “Here’s where they met up with the stage horses!”
Suddenly, a rifle cracks. Roland stares around in terror while Bartholomew springs for his shotgun and Benjamin snatches the rifle out of his scabbard. They all gather behind some shrubs.
“I think we’ve found them!” Bartholomew's statement was calculated to lighten moods, his own included, but instead it sounded more insane than anything.
Benjamin grabs his friends shoulder, “I guess I ought to go get the sheriff now…only I hate to leave you guys with only one man knowing how to shoot.”
Roland pulls his head out of the dirt, a look of determination on his grubby face, “I’ll go get the Sheriff…I’ve been paying attention…I think I can get back the way we came.”
The other two roll over and look at him. Suddenly, Bartholomew slaps him on the shoulder.
“I’m glad to see you do have some fire in your belly afterall. Go on, now…don’t be stupid.”
Benjamin adds, “We’ll cover you, Roland…move fast and keep your head down.”
At the same time Roland starts for the horses at a crouched run, Bartholomew throws his more noticable baulk into a dash in the opposite direction. Benjamin lays down a whithering fire with his lever action rifle. Roland succeeds in making the horses and heads off.
Aaron has reached Rocky Plateau and is staring around him, having seen the place where the boy's had camped the night before. He tenses as he hears gunfire. After a moment he starts down the trail his brother had followed.
Suddenly, Aaron spots Roland. Meeting up, Aaron scolds, “So there you are! You’re ma is worried sick over you!”
Roland gasps, “I’m fine, but Bartholomew and Benjamin are pinned down! I was on my way to fetch the sheriff.”
Aaron spurts forward, throwing this over his shoulder, “Alright…keep going. Tell Sheriff Bowen to get here with as many men as he can as fast as he can!”
Roland yells, “Yes, sir!” in response as they part ways.
A sunburned Roland hangs out the window of the stage. He shakes hands soundly with his fellow campers.
“Roland, darling…do be careful…you will ruin your suit leaning out the window like that!” Mrs. Haek flutters.
Roland twinkles at his new friends and winks. Then he answers his mother, “Yes, ma’am. I hope I see you fellows again. Thank-you! Good-bye!”
Benjamin and Bartholomew wave and call out, “Good-bye, Roland!”
Bartholomew tacks on, “Come back anytime!" Then to Benjamin he grins, "All he needed was a man-to-man
challenge…hopefully he’ll stay manly.”
Benjamin nods, “I think he will…his first taste of responsibility was such a strong one that I doubt he’ll forget…”
The Haeks settle into their seats. Being the only two passenger, mother and son were seated opposite one another. Suddenly, Roland smiles very widely at his mother, tucks his arms behind his head, and declares…
“I think I shall learn to shoot…just like Father.”