But when their frozen bodies were found in a snowy field Monday — dead from drinking massive amounts of liquor — it set off an anguished search for whoever or whatever was responsible.
"If two kids are intoxicated to the point that they lay down on the prairie and die, there's some negligence there," Lake County Sheriff Bill Barron said Wednesday. "Somebody has got to be responsible for these two kids just laying down and dying. If it's the system, we're going to have to work on the system."
Frankie Sonneah Nicolai III and Justin Benoist apparently skipped school Friday afternoon, got their hands on a large quantity of liquor and ran off to drink it.
A friend who went searching for them Monday found their bodies about 100 yards apart in a field outside Ronan, on the Flathead Indian Reservation of northwestern Montana. Barron said they apparently died late Friday night or early Saturday.
In the reservation town of 1,800 people just south of Flathead Lake, residents were still reeling from the news and questioning how it could have come to this.
"Two young boys like that — it's a shock with them being so young," said Mike Freeman, a pharmacist in town. "People, when they talk about it, aren't pointing fingers, but they want to know what happened. The prevailing feeling is, `How can that happen to two young boys in our community?"'
Alcohol poisoning killed Frankie, the sheriff said. Frankie had a blood-alcohol level of 0.50 percent — more than six times Montana's 0.08 percent legal threshold for drunken driving, and well more than enough to kill an adult. Justin's reading was 0.20. He died of alcohol poisoning and hypothermia. Temperatures Friday night dropped to the mid-20s.
Barron said authorities were investigating whether an adult or adults gave liquor to the youths, who lived on the reservation. But initial indications were that the boys probably had taken it from homes where they knew it would be left out and easy to snatch.
"What we're finding is that they pilfered it from different places," the sheriff said.
Barron said he also was alarmed that his office had not been notified all weekend that the boys were missing.
Parents of both boys, however, did notify tribal police on Friday that the two had run away, and tribal police listed them as runaways on the national law enforcement computer system, said Lt. Les Clairmont. Tribal police normally notify the sheriff's office as well, but Clairmont did not know whether that had occurred this time.
Neither Frankie nor Justin had been in serious trouble before, Clairmont said.
Justin's 14-year-old brother, Tyler, died of smoke inhalation in a trailer house fire in nearby Pablo last November. Investigators said he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.23 percent and had passed out.
The boys' deaths angered area residents.
"It makes me sick," said resident Donna Lee Lowe. "I'm dumbfounded. The whole town should have been looking for these children. We might have saved their lives."
Justin and Frankie were in class until 1:25 p.m. Friday, but skipped the rest of the day. Authorities said there were indications the two had been drinking with others, and police were still attempting to question other children.
Ronan Middle School Superintendent Andy Holmlund said the school district alerts parents any time a student is tardy or absent, and tribal police are notified if there are indications the student might be in danger. There was no sign that Justin and Frankie might be in danger, he said.
"None — they were just skipping school," he said.