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They Never Came Home

Lois Duncan

  They Never Came Home

  Lois Duncan

  For Kerry Elizabeth


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  A Biography of Lois Duncan


  THE BOYS HAD BEEN gone for three days before the police were informed, and then Mr. Drayfus was apologetic.

  “It’s probably ridiculous to be concerned,” he admitted. “We didn’t even expect them until last night, and all sorts of things can happen to slow you down when you’re hiking. It’s just that ever since that storm Saturday my wife has been worried, and then last night, when Larry didn’t turn up, and with still no word this morning …”

  “That rain Saturday messed up a lot of camping expeditions.” The sergeant at the desk picked up a pencil and began to make notations. “When did you say they left, Mr. Drayfus? Friday evening?”

  “In the afternoon, right after school. They had all the equipment assembled the night before, so they were ready to take right off. The plan was that they would get back last night in time for dinner. With school this morning, they wanted to get a good night’s sleep.”

  The sergeant made a quick note. “And what age are the boys?”

  “My son, Larry—Lawrence, Jr.—is seventeen. The other boy, Dan Cotwell, is a year or so older. I believe he’s to start classes at the university in the fall.” Mr. Drayfus hesitated, frowning slightly. “Larry hasn’t done much camping. He’s never been exactly the type. But Dan has. We figured he’d know how to deal with things in any emergency.”

  “I’ll take their descriptions and phone the ranger station to keep an eye out for them.” The sergeant smiled reassuringly at the man across the desk from him. “I wouldn’t be too worried, Mr. Drayfus. This kind of thing happens all the time. There are plenty of trails in the Mogollons, and it’s easy to take a wrong turn or get slowed down by a twisted ankle or something. Teenage boys are a hardy breed. They’ll probably come wandering in today sometime.”

  “I’m sure you’re right. I’m not really worried.” Lawrence Drayfus returned the smile. “It’s more my wife. You know how women are when it comes to the kids. They never believe they’re able to take care of themselves.”

  “I know, all right. I’m married myself,” the sergeant said comfortably. “Your wife’s not the only mother who’s upset this weekend. There’s one young newlywed couple up there on a camping honeymoon. They were supposed to have got back last night also, and both sets of parents are having fits about them.”

  “I’m sure the boys will make it home by tonight,” Mr. Drayfus said. “But, if they’re not …”

  “You give me a call,” the sergeant told him. “If they’re still missing in the morning, we’ll start a concentrated search.”

  That was Monday.

  By Wednesday, no one was being casual. Every newspaper in the state carried photographs of Lawrence Drayfus, Jr. and Daniel Cotwell.

  At the shrill sound of the telephone, Joan Drayfus dropped the magazine she had been trying to read and crossed the room in quick steps to lift the receiver. It was the eighth time it had rung that morning, but repetition had not dimmed the combination of hope and fear that rose within her as she said, “Hello. Drayfus residence.”

  “Joan?” The voice was light and familiar. “It’s Anne. I’m calling between classes. I just wanted to see if there was any news.”

  “No, nothing. Not yet.” Joan drew a deep breath as her heart steadied into a more normal rhythm. She glanced across the room at her mother, who at the first ring, had come hurrying down the hall, and shook her head.

  “There’s nothing,” she said again, both to the woman in the doorway and to the girl at the other end of the line. “We’re just waiting.”

  “I bet you’re going crazy,” Anne said sympathetically. “Everybody at school is talking about it. The principal has excused most of the junior and senior boys to join the search party.”

  “I know. Dad phoned about an hour ago. He says there are more than a hundred volunteers out there. He feels terrible because he can’t do any climbing himself because of his heart.” She tried to make her tone bright. “Those newlyweds who were missing got home safely. What happened to them was that they couldn’t find their car. They finally ended up hiking all the way back down to the highway.”

  “Maybe something like that happened to Dan and Larry,” Anne said hopefully. “Well, we’re all pulling for you. Give my love to your folks.”

  “I will, Anne. And thanks for calling.” Joan replaced the receiver on the hook and turned to her mother. “That was Anne Tonjes. She sends her love.”

  “That’s nice of her. Larry must have a lot of friends. There have been so many calls.” Mrs. Drayfus left her place in the doorway and came into the room to sink down wearily into the closest armchair. “That phone hasn’t stopped ringing since breakfast.”

  “Can’t you lie down for a while, Mother?” Joan asked with concern. “I’m right here to get the telephone. You know I’ll call you the minute there’s anything to report.”

  “I know, dear. I wish I could rest. I can’t turn my mind off. I keep thinking of poor little Larry, up there in the mountains somewhere … maybe hurt …”

  “I can’t believe that anything too terrible has happened to them,” Joan said reassuringly. “Dan has been camping in those mountains for years. He’s not the kind to take risks, and both of the boys are strong and healthy.”

  “Larry’s no athlete,” Mrs. Drayfus reminded her. “He’s not a football hero like Dan.”

  “No, but he’s wiry,” Joan said. “He’s able to take care of himself. You like to think he’s delicate, Mother, but he isn’t really.” She went over to her mother and reached across the back of the chair to place her hands on the slumped shoulders. “Please, try to lie down for just a little while. I’m sure you didn’t sleep at all last night. Can’t you take one of those sedatives Dr. Cohn left for you?”

  “I suppose so. I guess I’m afraid of blacking myself out. What if a call should come—the call—and I can’t function? What if they do find them and Larry needs me?”

  “You’ll be of a lot more value to him if you’re rested and in good condition,” Joan said firmly. Even to her own ears she sounded more like the mother than the daughter.

  It was with relief that she saw her mother nod her head.

  “You’re right, Joan, I know. But, you will call me, won’t you, if there’s anything? You promise? Even if I’m sleeping?”

  “The very minute there’s any word at all,” Joan assured her.

  She went with her mother into the downstairs bedroom, turning down the spread, cocking the blinds against the morning light. The bottle of pills the doctor had left was on the bedside table, and she shook one out into her mother’s hand and went into the bathroom for a glass of water.

  “I’ll call you,” she promised again, and returned to the living room, as exhausted as though she herself had been climbing all night with the crew of rescuers.

  Taking the seat she had left when she rose to answer the telephone, she did not attempt to pick up her magazine. Instead, she sat quietly, staring out the picture window, across the lawn, still brown from the winter cold. At the corner of the house her mother’s beloved roses were beginning to bud, and beyond them the first green leaves were uncur
ling on the naked branches of the poplar trees. Farther still, rising to the north and west in craggy peaks, were the Mogollon Mountains.

  The mountains she could see were the beginning of the range that led into the Gila Wilderness. Larry’s up there now, Joan told herself, and—Dan. She focused her eyes on the distant peaks, the lower slopes softened by the morning sun. From this distance they looked so safe, so simple and familiar. There were well-traveled hiking trails and well-worn picnic areas where noisy families roasted hot dogs and gathered piñon nuts and pine cones. It didn’t seem possible that people could actually get lost there, and yet, she knew, people did. The honeymooners, for instance, who had not even been able to find their automobile, and they had been on the lower slopes. Beyond these slopes was the real wilderness, some of it still unexplored, where cliffs dropped off to valleys and melting snow turned trickling streams to rushing rivers.

  She had commented to her mother that the boys were strong, and it was true. Dan was six foot two, broad-shouldered and husky, with the trained muscles and stamina of a high school athlete. Larry, for all his slight appearance, had an agile, sure-footed toughness. But anyone could lose his footing in a rainstorm. Wet rocks were slippery, and if one fell and the other leaned off balance to grab him …

  I won’t think this way, Joan told herself grimly. I won’t let myself. They’re all right, both of them. They have to be!

  They have to be, she repeated, and her heart seemed to fly out of her chest as the telephone jangled shrilly behind her. By the time she had reached it and had said, “Oh, Mr. Martin. No … no, there’s no news. No, we haven’t heard anything,” she realized that her knees were folding beneath her.

  Her brother and Dan Cotwell were not all right. If they were, they would have come home.

  Frank Cotwell stepped out into a sudden clearing and found himself at the top of the world.

  The rock on which he stood was bare and flat, cut off cleanly in front like a lookout post, from which the rocky, tree-speckled slopes fell away on three sides, giving a startling view of the river below. Even at this distance he could see the strength of the current sweeping around the jagged edges of rocks, curling out from the shore in a rim of white foam.

  My God, he thought, what if they were stumbling along in the rain and stepped off here!

  For a moment he stood, too stunned by the horrible picture to look farther. Then, slowly, against his will, he moved to the edge of the rock and peered over into the canyon directly beneath.

  For a long moment he stood, gazing downward at the boulders and long-armed bushes that would have broken the course of a falling body before it reached the bank of the river. Then, with a breath of relief that was almost a sob, he raised his eyes and began combing the slopes of the distant hills.

  They had been out since before daybreak, and in late April, dawn came early in the mountains. Frank, at sixteen, had the same husky build as his older brother; he had done a lot of hiking and did not normally tire easily. He had left the rest of his search group resting while he made the climb to this lookout point. It was, he knew, the strain of worry that filled him now with such staggering weariness.

  It was simply not possible that Dan could be well and uninjured and not have returned home by this time. He was too good a woodsman to have become lost in mountains he had tramped through since childhood. Dan had a fine sense of direction and always carried a compass with him; he never took chances, and in desperation he could always have scaled one of the higher peaks and, gazing out to the south, oriented himself with the sight of the city.

  “Only fools get lost,” Frank could remember his telling him once. It was back when the papers were full of some Boy Scout troop that had reversed itself and gone the wrong way on an outing along the edge of the Wilderness Area. “There isn’t any excuse for it. It’s unnecessary. Fools get lost, and fools shouldn’t hike.”

  It was a comfort to think about Dan, solid and sensible, his eyes warm with amusement, a sprinkling of freckles lightening the lines of his square-jawed face. Dan could handle emergencies, no matter what they were. Of course, Larry …

  He stiffened instinctively when he thought of Larry. Frank did not like Larry Drayfus. It was an innate dislike, based upon nothing concrete. There had never been any unpleasantness between them. There was simply a nothingness—a complete lack of empathy—which blocked any communication.

  “I don’t know what you want to hang around with him for,” Frank had said once. “He’s a cold fish. He doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t even care enough about anything to make any enemies!”

  “That’s nothing to hold against him,” Dan said in amusement. “He’s a nice enough kid, even if he does keep to himself a lot. Everybody doesn’t josh around like we do, you know. Besides, he comes from a great family. You know there’s got to be good stuff in him.”

  “Oh, come off it,” Frank said irritably. “It’s not Larry you go over there to see, and you know it. It’s that sister of his. If she weren’t there, you’d never pick Larry Drayfus to buddy around with.”

  “Well, you might have something there.” Dan had grinned suddenly. “Joan Drayfus is a whole different person from her brother, I’ll have to admit.”

  “Well, I don’t see that either. She’s no glamor girl in my book. She’s too big! My God, Dan, she’s almost as tall as you are!”

  “Now, hold on there, little brother.” The grin faded. To Frank’s astonishment, all the teasing levity had vanished from his brother’s voice. “I don’t want to hear any slam stuff about Joanie. She’s one of the nicest girls in this town. You don’t have anything to judge by. You’ve never even dated a girl. I bet you’ve never even talked to one except to ask what the homework assignment is.”

  “Don’t blow a fuse, Dan!” Frank had been stunned by the outburst. “All I said was that she’s big! She is, too. You don’t have to get your back up—I wasn’t slamming her!”

  “Well, I like her big,” Dan had said shortly and clamped his mouth shut against further discussion.

  It was then that Frank had realized, with a strange twinge, the depth of his brother’s feelings for this tall, plain girl, whom he himself had, until now, regarded as only another in Dan’s large collection of girl friends. Dan was attractive to girls and had always had a string of them at his casual command, and they had furnished a lot of joking dinner table conversation. The Cotwells were a congenial, noisy clan, and for as long as he could remember the brothers—he and Dan and young Eddie, now twelve—had scuffled and argued and kidded each other with complete freedom. It was a closed thing, a family thing; no outsider could break into it. Among themselves there was no subject too sacred to be hashed over and laughed about.

  Until now.

  Now, suddenly, he could see by his brother’s face, by the darkening of the blue eyes and the tight, closed set of the stubborn mouth, that the subject of Joan Drayfus, of any of the Drayfus family, for that matter, was off limits.

  It was because of this that he had not said anything when Dan had announced that he was going camping with Larry.

  “We’re not going to try to go far,” he had said. “Just kind of stretch our legs after being cooped up all winter. Larry’s never done much hiking, so I don’t imagine he’ll be ready for too long a—hey, who the devil’s been using this sleeping bag?”

  “I think that’s the one Eddie took last fall on that Scout pack trip.” Frank stood watching him, hands in pockets.

  “He must have slept with his boots on. I’ll never get all the mud out of here!” Dan gave a grunt of disgust, and then, glancing up, caught something in his brother’s face that Frank had not meant him to see there.

  “Say, Frankie,” he said slowly, “you don’t mind my taking off like this, do you? I mean, with Larry? He suggested it—he’s never been up before, and his dad won’t let him try it without somebody along who’s had some experience—and I didn’t really think about your minding. I know you and I usually go up together for the firs
t campout of the year.”

  “Why should I care?” Frank made his voice brisk. “There’s the whole summer still ahead.”

  “I know, but—say, why don’t you come with us? We can use another old hand. If Larry folds up, like I’m afraid he will, we may have to drag him piggyback all the way home.”

  “I’ll leave you that jolly experience.” Frank greeted the invitation with a shrug. “I’ve got other fish to fry. Besides”—suddenly he could control himself no longer; from long habit, his real feelings burst forth—“I can’t see wasting a weekend on a punk like Drayfus. Sister or no sister, the guy’s not worth the effort. Wasn’t he one of the kids at that party at the Brownings’ last month, when the cops raided and found drugs?”

  “Don’t believe everything you hear,” Dan said shortly. “People like to talk. I’ve never seen Larry Drayfus take a beer or smoke a cigarette. If he was at that party, you can be sure he didn’t know there was anything going on there. Besides, from what I hear, there wasn’t anything going on. If there was dope of any kind there, it hadn’t even been opened.”

  “Because the police got there before anybody had had a chance to open it,” Frank began.

  “Oh, can it.” Dan turned back to the bedroll. “Go dig up that kid brother of ours and tell him to get here on the double, will you? He’s going to spend the evening scraping mud out of this thing.”

  Remembering the conversation, Frank ground his nails into the palms of his hands.

  I could have gone, he thought. I could have gone with him. He asked me; he wanted me. And I wanted to go. If I hadn’t been so stubborn, I would have gone; I’d be with him now. Whatever has happened, I’d be there to help him.

  Below him and to the right, a flash of color showed between the trees. In an instant, Frank was rigid with concentration. It was red. Dan hadn’t been wearing red. But, perhaps Larry …

  “Hello!” The cry tore from his throat. “Hello, down there!”

  “Is that you, Frank?” The voice that shouted back was deep and familiar, but it was not Dan’s voice. Not Larry’s.