The adults burned more than half the morning jawin' about stuff and trying to convince the children to talk with their judge, jury, and executioner standing right there. Needless to say, it took much longer than it should have, but we eventually managed to get out to see the spring creek that the kids were known (by Miss Isabella, anyhow) to use. The creek was cold. In point of fact, it was really cold for July. The cold was more like a March cold snap.
But that wern't the clue-find of the day. I was havin' fun tossing rocks into the creek when the adults started to holler about tracks what led away from the ranch and deeper into the brush. Since they were kid tracks, they became the focus of attention, and everybody forgot the oddly cold creek (for now, anyhow).
The big group of us followed the tracks upriver to a neat little fort that the kids had built for themselves. I was pretty impressed. The fort was sort of a hunting camp with the way it hid itself from adult eyes. It was made out of leftover hay and bits n' bobs seconded from all over the ranch. This was no small endeavor, and would have taken a bunch of kids significant time to build, never mind sneak off to have fun in. I began to wonder how many of the kids were youngin's, and how many were like me. No matter how old, they had not been taught right. A campfire still smouldered from the previous evening and was not cold-out.
I did not have much time to ponder on this, though. A short search of the fort's environs led to another weird clue. It was another set of tracks leading yet further into the wilderness. This time, though, they wern't kid-tracks. Instead, they were long and narrow. Teacher, I admit to never having been especially good at making out the marks of critters and people on the ground, but I can say with conviction that no beast of the plain or of the wood made those marks. Looking at them made me think of steam and steel. I had to know what they were.
Conjectures were made aloud as to what they might be until it was decided to follow these, too. i would have prefered to stay a little longer. Not just because the little fort looked fun, but because we might find more clues there! Maybe?
The plains gave way to a copse of trees which gave way to a small wood. The trees here had been spared the axe and the saw. What we followed was more of a hunter's trail. This led to a sort of crossroads of these paths. We found a surprise here – a ranch hand!
He said that his name was Lucas. He also said that he had been out all night looking for the missing kids. He was also apparently the one who left the fire, because he said he built one when slept at the fort last night. 1
They did not truss him up and leave him for Bear like they should have. Apparently, they did not think that leaving a fire on the plain that way was something that should be punished. City people. Instead, the big group of us continued to follow the tracks. The long, weird, wet, and cold tracks rejoined the river and followed along it until <s>Mr. Hellstrome</s> Xander said that there was a "thermocline" in the water. I guess that's a fancy City way of saying that the water changed back to normal from really, really, cold.
They got boring (again) so i went back to the play-fort. While I was staring out bow-shot ranges to fend off the imaginary Yankees, I found more tracks, and followed them. See? I said that there wrre probably more clues!
Even for a paleface like me, it was easy to see that the tracks changed from the long narrow ones to those of a man in boots. That is to say, I actually tripped in them. I guessed that this meant that the man had taken some sort of long, thin things off his feet.
I gathered myself together and looked around to see if anyone had seen my error. No? Good.
I was surprised to find Lucas in another clearing. After looking at his feet and then seeing that he did not have any sort of sack or pack, I decided to listen to him rather than run. I am proud to say that I surprised him. Even though I could still smell the coke and smoke of the train in my shirt, he seemed as nose-blind as all the other adults I have met since leaving home. Since the usual method of tossing a pebble worked out so poorly last time, I made a bunch of noise to alert him. This worked, and he seemed surprised enough. Heh.
He said that he had been all over these lands since the disappearances began, and that the orthers were probably wasting their time. A bear cave, he said, was the only place left that he had not searched. I excitedly followed him until even I could see the cave, then pelted off at a run inside.
The cave was unnaturally cold, and more than a little damp. There was plenty of light for me to see by, though I am not sure any of the city folk could have. As I worked my way deeper in, I saw an opening in the 'roof' of the cave, which bathed a number of big ice blocks in light.
Confusion led to elation. I had found thirteen missing kids! That was six more than we even had known to look for! But … they were frozen in blocks of ice. The ice chilled my elation to dispair, though. Owl had them all, and even a mighty shaman of the Great Spirit would be unlikely to restore even one of these children.
Defeated, I turned to leave. But my Mustang- ride of emotions was not over yet…
1 I really should have noticed that this was out of place. I mean, if Lucas was one of the adults, how did he know about the fort that the rest of them did not seem to know about it?