In the outskirts of Flagstaff, Shecker and Lally one, complaining of hunger, jump out of the truck and insist on stopping for food. However, Cotton orders Teft to keep driving. Fearing their abandonment, Shecker and Lally one run after the truck until Teft pulls over. Cotton then concedes that a meal might provide some energy for all of them; they will stop in Flagstaff. Arriving at an all-night bar and restaurant, the boys order hamburgers. While they are waiting, two bowlers approach them and ask what they are doing out so late. Despite the Bedwetters' efforts to formulate a believable story, in which they claim they are a band from Los Angeles named "Before Christ," the bowlers clearly do not believe them, forcing Cotton to tell the truth about their situation. Before Shecker can contribute anything to the conversation, which would only worsen the situation, Cotton tells the boys to head out to the car without waiting for their food. When they all pile into the truck again and start to drive, the bowlers follow them closely. Given that their car would be capable of out-performing the boys' rusty truck, Teft pulls over, as do the bowlers. The boys obey the bowlers' demand that they get out of the car. When the bowlers interrogate them, they are unable to provide a valid response as to why they were headed toward Albuquerque when their camp was located in the other direction, as well as to why there were no keys in the ignition. Teft responds to their threats to notify the local authorities by aiming the rifle straight at them, then turning to shoot and puncture one of their tires. The bowlers retreat to their car and the Bedwetters squeal off onto the road, reveling in their victory.
Realizing that the bowlers may report their license number to the police and have their truck tracked, Cotton orders Teft to drive faster. In the last few miles before their destination, the engine sputters and dies. They have run out of gas, and Teft, sorely discouraged, apologizes to the rest of the group.
Cotton becomes infuriated with the situation, and the entire group feels restless and agitated. Identifying their options, Cotton tells the Bedwetters that they must decide whether to continue with their mission or return home immediately; the latter option would provide a better chance of avoiding punishment. He initiates a vote, and, as a test of the Bedwetters' resolve and maturity, votes to return home, contrary to his true wish, while all the others vote to continue. The rest of the group meets his vote with objections, and, one by one, they head out with determination, leaving Cotton behind. Cotton recognizes the changes they have undergone, as well as their newfound self- reliance and independence from him. Swelling with pride and emotion, Cotton runs to catch up with the group.
The incident with the bowlers in Chapter 7 demonstrates the Bedwetters' ability to hold their own against two older, more experienced men. While the rifle provides the motivation for the bowlers' retreat, the situation requires Teft's bravery and audacity. In addition, this incident, as do many others in the novel, hints at the influence of Westerns and the culture of the American West. The setting for this incident echoes that of a classic Western. In a saloon, late at night, two older locals approach, intimidate, and hassle the out-of- towners. Dressed "in tight jeans and sassy western shirts and big belt buckles and long sideburns," the bowlers even physically resemble characters in many Westerns. Their dialect as well contributes to their characterization as ignorant bullies.
In the course of the novel each of the main's characters' eccentricities, which initially result in their isolation from the other campers and epitomize their differences, eventually serve to help the group in one way or another. For example, Teft's often-explosive personality, as well as his experience with the world of petty crime, contributes to his performance in Chapter 7. Swarthout implies that the other Bedwetters occasionally fear Teft during these moments in which his temper flares. However, in this particular instance, his behavior and quick thinking save the group from further trouble and win him praise and respect.
In Chapter 9, Cotton pretends that he no longer supports the continuation of their mission in order to test the rest of the group's resolve and independence. When they, one by one, decide to persevere, even with the absence of Cotton's support, he must realize that they have truly established their own sense of morality and purpose, as well as their own sense of self. However, Cotton accepts this realization with bittersweet emotions. While he has worked hard to instill a sense of leadership and initiative in each of the boys, he has also grown accustomed to his role as their leader. Swarthout writes, "For a thorn of loss pierced Cotton, and his eyes misted. It was true: they no longer needed him. Standing there, he combed through his red, matted hair. But after the pain a vast, ripe grape of joy burst in him and he had to hold on to keep from bounding after hem, whooping and hollering, I didn't mean it, I wasn't flaking out, I was just putting you over a barrel to see what you'd do and now I know! You're great, you guys, great!"
This passage hints at Cotton's selfless nature. He vicariously celebrates in the boys' independence, despite the sadness it signifies for him. In a way, Cotton has fulfilled his role at this point in the novel. Swarthout also employs this incident to foreshadow his death at the end of the novel. Because he has seen the Bedwetters' potential and has begun to have a significant amount of faith in their abilities and their sense of morality, he may then vanish from their lives, confident that his leadership has made an indelible impact on the way they will choose to live their lives.