They Don't Come Back

©2013 Rogue

"People head into those hills and they don't come back," he said. "Even the Mounties won't go there until summer, and even then they never find what they're looking for. Ya see, they don't always get their man."

Brendan shivered but Hal clapped him hard on the shoulder. "Don't let him get to you, Dude," he laughed. "He's just trying to scare you."

"Damned right I am," the old shopkeeper snorted. "You boys got no business going up there. The hills will swallow you whole and I'll be the one left talking to yer weeping old mammies wanting to know where you've gone."

Max leaned in between his two friends. "But we do have business, Old Timer." He dropped a crudely-folded map onto the counter and tapped a finger. "Right here. Maktuk."

"Maktuk?" the old man grumped. "There's nothing there, you crazy little shit. It's a ghost town. Been so more than fifty years."

"And that's exactly what we're here to see." Max draped his arms over Brendan and Hal's shoulders. "We've been exploring abandoned places since we were kids."

"Yer still kids. Now go home afore you get in trouble. I ain't playing around, Boys. I'm the last face a lot of folks see. Don't you understand?"

"What a way to go," Hal whispered to Brendan, but the old man must have heard him because his permanent scowl grew even darker. Hal cleared his throat. "We'll take our chances, and we understand and appreciate your concern. Tell me, though: when was the last time a party went out there?"

"Hm. I suspect...six, no, maybe seven years ago. Never came back. I still get calls asking after'em."

"I'll bet they didn't have these, though. Check it out: GPS, satellite phone with extra batteries and hand charger, emergency locator beacon with global coverage. And this..." He unsnapped his holster and showed off a gleaming grip. "Fully-charged .44 Magnum with hollow points -- polar bear buster. We'll get to Maktuk by the end of the week and will be back before you know it."

The old man seemed unconvinced. "The only thing you'll get is dead, Boy. The only way you're coming back will be when your stiff, blue corpse comes floating down on the snow melt."

"And then he'll stick you up there with all the others, won't he?" Max smirked, nodding to the row of mounted heads that stretched from one wall to the next.

Now the old man seemed genuinely incensed. "You're not a hunter, are you, Boy? Those up there are the ones worth remembering, the ones that put up a fight or who showed their wits. They're up there for the honor of their memory because they were smart, they were quick, they were the best!" He squinted at Max. "And as God is my witness, there's no place for your head up there, Boy!"

Brendan cleared his throat loudly. "Guys," he said, "we really shouldn't be antagonizing this nice man. Sir, I'm really sorry. My friends are a little, uh..."

"Little shits, eh?"

"Well, something, anyway, will you sell us what we need? We really didn't mean any insult. They guys are just playing around."

The old man tugged at his beard. "I'll sell you what you want, Son," he grumbled. "I can't sell you what you need, because what you need is sense. I'll tell you one last time. Folks go up there and they don't come back, not ever, and they had a lot more experience and a lot more fancy radios and things than you've got." His expression softened. "I'm serious, Son. Don't do it. Please."

Hal pulled at Brendan's sleeve. "We got it. Don't worry. We'll call you from Maktuk."

"Suit yourself," the old man sighed and his face returned to its angry-yeti state. "Cash only. No credit."

* * *

"What the hell?" Hal swatted the side of the box. "Come on, don't pull this shit on me."

"What's wrong?" Brendan said.

"Aw, it's the damned GPS. It just keeps jumping all over the place like it can't get a fix on where we are." He rolled his eyes at Brendan's reaction. "Don't worry. We just need to get it to a higher elevation or something. It'll be fine."

Both of them jumped, though, when they heard Max's excited cry of "Holy fucking shit!" They glanced at one another and then raced in the direction of the shout. They found Max standing against a big round outcropping of rock. His hands were pressed against the leeward side where there was no snow. "Guys, look at this! Jesus!"

"What?" Hal said in annoyance. "Dude, it's just a fucking rock."

"No way, Man!" He took off a glove and traced a finger along a seam. "Look at this. Quartzite!"


"So? That's why the old bastard back there didn't want us coming out here. Gold! There's gold in them-thar hills! Look here. See it?"

Brendan and Hal approached, squinting, and then their eyes widened when they spotted thin yellow streaks embedded in the rock. "Jesus shit! He's right! That...that's fucking gold!"

A round of high-fives and joyous whooping was cut off abruptly when Brendan suddenly threw up his hands. "Guys, shut up, quick!"

The others stared at him, puzzled. "Dude, what the fuck?"

"Listen. The old guy, he said that people come up here and don't come back."

"Aw, shut the hell up. He was just trying to scare us. He's like some Scooby-Doo villain."

"But what if he means it. I mean, he's got a fortune in gold up here and he doesn't want anyone to find it or talk about it. People don't come back. The Mounties can't find them. What would you do if you wanted to keep something like this a secret?"

Max's jaw fell. "Oh, man, you're right. What if the old guy is out there right now, drawing a bead on us with a rifle scope?"

The three of them went silent, turning their heads, peering around at the snow-covered hills and trees which suddenly seemed far more ominous. Hal's hand dropped nervously toward his holster. It was Brendan who finally spoke up. "We should go back."

"Back?" Hal snorted. "What, you want to walk right into that guy's door? He's probably got all those peopled buried in the back yard."

"Hal's right," Max said. "Hey, let me see that map. Look, there's a town about...what is that, twenty miles west? We'll head there and call the RCMP."

"And tell them what?"

Hal patted the rock. "We'll tell them to take us to a claims office, that's what we'll tell them. Guys, think about it. Nobody owns this land. That gold can be all ours."

"And if the old man's out there, watching us now? He could just follow our tracks."

Hal grinned and patted his holster but Max scoffed. "Hal, if the old guy's got a scope he could be a half a mile out and still pick us off. You saw all those trophies on his wall. He's probably a better shot than you."

"Then we're going to have to outrun him." Hal slung his pack onto his shoulders. "Let's move out."

They posted watches through the first night, though none of them slept very well, and set out at first light. It was nearing midday when Hal halted the party and peered at the map. "Wait a minute. This isn't right."


"This ridge on the map. It's not the same as this one."

"Sure it is." Max grabbed the map and stared at it closely. "Yeah, sure. We're right."

"No, I don't think so." Hal took the map back. "Dude, no way are we in the right spot."

"I think we are."

"I say we aren't. All right, let's see if Mr. GPS can settle this argument." He pulled the box from his pocket, poked the switch, and frowned. "Shit. It's still doing that weird thing. Anyone feel like climbing a tree to see if we can get a better signal?"

"I don't think we're going to get any signal," Brendan said nervously. "Guys, look at this." He showed them his compass, the needle of which was spinning like the blades of a propeller. "What the fuck is going on?"

"I don't know, but I'm calling the RCMP," Max said. He dropped his pack and fished out the satellite phone and jabbed at the buttons, then held it to his ear. Slowly his eyes widened and his jaw went slack. "I'm not getting anything. This thing is supposed to work anywhere but it's got nothing."

"What is this, the fucking Bermuda Triangle?" Brendan said, and then gasped. "What if it's not gold? What if it's uranium? This whole place could be radioactive! That's why none of the gear is working!"

Hal clapped his hands. "Whoa! Just calm down. Both of you, chill out. I don't know what's wrong with the gear, but we've got a fair idea of which way is west, and we've got to keep moving. We ought to be able to get to the town by tomorrow afternoon."

"But what if we don't reach the town? What if we're just going in circles?"

"We've got the map."

"But we don't know if we're in the right place."

"Then we keep walking until we find a landmark we can identify. Either way, we have to move. Standing here talking about it is just wasting daylight."

Max looked at the map and then pointed to the ridge. "I say we go up. From there we can get a visual on the terrain below and maybe figure out where we are on the map. And if we're lucky we can get a signal on the GPS up there, or at least be able to call for help."

The trek devoured much of the afternoon, and when they reached the top they still found no signals for their equipment. What they did find, though, was a cave. The entrance was near the crest, sheltered by an overhang of rock and hidden by trees from any view below. They wasted another quarter hour arguing whether to press on or to take shelter in the cave for the night, but in the end it was Brendan who made the decision simply to walk inside. The others followed, still bickering.

The interior of the cavern was a marvel, sculpted half from rock and half from ice. The latter admitted a pale blue illumination from above. "Whoa," Hal said in awe. "This is fucking amazing. It can't be natural -- guys, someone dug this."

"What?" Brendan said as he set down his pack. "You mean, a mine or something?"

"Yeah, probably. It didn't go anywhere though. See those little side-hallways? They only go in a couple of yards. Someone was testing the ground here but didn't find anything."

Brendan poked his flashlight into one of them and said, "You don't suppose whoever dug it is still around, do you?"

"Nah. They would have left some equipment here if they were still working it. We're safe."

"Hey, Max," Hal called, motioning his friend over to one of the rock walls. "What do you make of this?" He poked a finger against the surface, which gave a little, like a dry sponge. "You're the geology-guy. What kind of rock is this?"

Max squinted closely at it. "Damned if I know. It's almost like cork, but it can't be. Not here. Maybe some sort of fungus covering the wall."

"Ew," Hal said. "I hope it's not --"

He was interrupted by a terrified shout from Brendan, whose eyes were bugging from his head as he pointed at something overhead. Both Hal and Max stepped back and peered higher along the wall, and then both of them started screaming as well and could not stop.

Corpses, a dozen of them or so, were impaled in a tidy row against the wall some twenty feet up. Each one hung from a thick wooden stake spiked through the chest. Most of them were mummified, the clothing frozen to their shriveled flesh looking decades out of date. One, though, wearing a bright blue nylon snowsuit whose front was darkened by dried blood, still had its eyeballs.

The men kept screaming until they were startled into silence by a crunch from outside the cave. It was the sound of compacting snow, very close, and very loud.

"Jesus! It's him! The old guy. He's coming for us!"

Crunch. Louder. Closer.

"That's too heavy for one guy. It sounds like an army!"

Crunch. Closer still.

"Get back! Hide somewhere!"

They scrambled back and pushed into one of the test-bores. It was a bad choice; the hole was not very deep and offered very little protection. Still, they pressed as far into it as they could and peeked out nervously. Hal fumbled for the snap on his holster and popped it open.

The entrance to the cave grew dark, and as it did any fears of a crazy old man with a gun were swept away, replaced by something more primal. The startled cries caught in the throats of all three men.

The head that snaked into the cave bristled with horns. Eyes that glowed with an evil hue played over the interior before the beast advanced, lumbering through the opening on four immense legs. From its jaws dangled the dying limbs of an animal. It looked very much like a proud housecat that had caught himself a meadow-vole, but it was no rodent that fell to the cave floor when the beast ducked and opened its mouth. It was a bull moose, fully-grown, its body half crushed, that tumbled to the floor.

"Dude," Max whispered shakily. "That...that's a fucking dragon."

The nightmarish head rose abruptly and swung in their direction. All three froze, all holding their breaths, all trying to silence the hammering of their hearts, until the monster returned its attention to its catch. The moose began a pitiful lowing and pawed at the icy floor with its front hooves as the great snout studied it, nudging it idly this way and that, and then it was silenced as the dragon planted a forefoot on the hapless animal's hind legs and, with a nip and a jerk of its head, tore the moose's body in half.

"Oh god...oh god..." Brendan whimpered.

"Quiet! Stay still!" Hal's voice was just as shaky. Slowly, very slowly, his hand slid into his holster and withdrew the .44.

The dragon raised its head again and cocked it curiously. For a moment it stood poised, the moose's forequarters dripping in its jaws, before it tossed its head back and gulped down the full half-ton of meat in one swallow, antlers and all.

Hal gestured to the others, pointing at the cave entrance and then at the dragon. They stared at him in disbelief and shook their heads urgently but Hal rolled his eyes and made a targeting motion with the pistol.

The dragon's scales made a dry rasping sound as it settled down onto its belly and began to gnaw at the remains of its catch. Hal tensed, then with an urgent signal to the others to follow he scurried out into the open. Brendan gulped and would have followed had Max not grabbed his arm. Brendan turned back to see Max standing rock-still, his eyes as wide as saucers and his mouth open. Come on! Brendan mouthed silently, but Max only stared, his whole body shaking wildly.

Hal glanced back and paused, mouthing, What the fuck? at them, before a thunderous crash jarred him forward. When he turned around again he found that the dragon's tail had landed in front of the cave entrance and blocked any escape. The beast's head was turned, its fiery eyes gazing straight at Hal. Patiently it swallowed the last of the moose and licked once over its scaly lips. A rumble like an idling Diesel filled the cavern.

Hal's hand shot up and he aimed the pistol point blank at the dragon's head. "Die, motherfucker!" he shouted. Six shots rang out in rapid succession. Brendan watched aghast as the dragon's eyes clouded, a thick membrane dropping over them and deflecting two of the shots. The other four rang off of the thick scales and left not even a scratch behind.

The echo of the last shot died away, and the rumbling resumed. Again the beast's tongue slid over its scaly lips and the corners of its mouth drew upward in what looked horrifyingly like an expression of amusement.

"Shit," Hal gasped. "Guys, run!"

Those were his last words. The dragon's body did not move but its tail suddenly swept forward in an arc, catching Hal from behind and sending him sailing forward. He landed hard on the ice and rolled into a stunned heap. The dragon stood, arching its back grandly before it turned, forefeet thudding heavily down on either side of Hal. It kept up its low, bone-rattling rumble as it watched the tiny man gradually regain his senses.

Hal rolled first to his belly and then climbed painfully to his feet. Slowly his head rose, his gaze traveling up and up until it met with the dragon's. There was a pause, an agonizingly long one, which ended when the dragon suddenly lunged forward and snapped its jaws shut just inches from Hal's face with a sound like a cannon-shot. Hal responded with a terrified shriek and fell to his knees, yammering in terror. The dragon tilted its head, gazing at Hal first with one eye and then with the other. It nudged at him with its nose but that only made Hal shout more loudly. Finally it huffed a cloud of steam from its nostrils and dropped its head down, mouth open.

It was over in seconds. The great jaws closed around Hal, engulfing him completely, and the dragon threw back its head and gulped. Brendan felt his stomach knot up at the sight of the pitifully small bulge rolling down the beast's throat, and then it twisted even harder when he realized that while Hal was gone, Brendan could still hear him hollering deep inside, still alive.

The dragon licked its chops and then lowered its nose to the floor of the cave. Its nostrils flared as it sniffed at the ice, head sweeping methodically from side to side. Brendan tensed and pushed back against Max, who had begun to whimper. "Dude, be quiet!" he whispered.

The dragon's head came up. Twin jets of steam blew from its nostrils.

"Quiet!" Brendan gritted, but Max's gibbering was growing louder. His eyes were huge and vacant and darting all about. All at once he started to squirm, clambering past Brendan and clawing his way to the front of the crevice. Brendan tried to grab for his arm by Max shook free and stumbled out into the open, whining and wailing like a trapped animal.

The dragon's head jerked upward in surprise, and then swept down, sniffing inquisitively at the little man. Max, yowling, simply staggered blindly past the beast's enormous muzzle, a movement that seemed to surprise the dragon even further. It followed Max with its nose, nudging him from behind and making him stumble, and Max had nearly made it to the cave mouth when the dragon nipped his parka from behind and, with a toss of its head, sent Max sliding across the icy floor. He skipped and skittered all the way down to the half-frozen pool of moose blood, with the dragon trotting eagerly behind him. It lunged the last few yards, its forefeet slamming down hard to either side of Max and sending him into spasms of wailing and kicking. The dragon's tail lashed excitedly, crashing over and over again to either side as it batted at Max with its foreclaws, knocking him down every time he tried to get up, his keening cries echoing shrilly off of the cavern's walls and joining in chorus with the dragon's sonorous rumble.

Brendan noticed suddenly that while the beast was fixated on its plaything the cave entrance was now unobstructed. He tensed, but could not bring himself to leave Max, though, not while there was a glimmer of hope that his friend might somehow survive.

The dragon knocked Max down once more and then nipped at his belly. Brendan expected a horrible spray of gore but instead witnessed an explosion of feathers as the dragon ripped into Max's parka. The dragon shook its head and snapped at the billowing down, then ducked again and tore away at the parka until it fell away in tatters. It then rolled the wailing youth over and held him down with one toe while tearing away at his clothing, spitting out bits of sodden cloth. Brendan realized with dismay that the monster wasn't devouring Max. It was peeling him, like a cooked shrimp, tearing away at his clothing until Max was left squirming on the cave floor, naked save for his boots. Now the dragon turned and gathered the howling figure up in one great foreclaw, and like a capsizing battleship it dropped to its side and rolled belly-up. As Brendan watched, the dragon spread its hind legs and then carried Max down between them. Brendan could not see what it was doing but Max began to scream wildly, over and over.

Brendan broke and ran. Behind him the screams went on, frantic and agonized. They continued to echo behind him as he darted from the cave and half-fell, half-stumbled down the slope, and in his head for a long time after.

With no phone, tools, or map, Brendan knew that he had little chance of surviving for long in the wilderness, but he knew as well that he had no chance of survival at all if he did not keep moving. The image of the dragon sniffing around for them spurred him onward every time he stopped to catch his breath. The thing was clearly a hunter and it would not be long before it figured out that there had been three visitors in the cave and not just the two that it had killed.

Killed, or...worse. "Oh, God, Max, I'm so sorry," Brendan said out loud.

Blowing snow had covered the tracks they had left on their way in, but it was also covering the tracks he had left in his desperate flight from the cave. That was a blessing. Brendan called on every trick he could think of, every bit of survival training, every nature documentary he had ever watched, to try to throw the massive predator off of his trail. He doubled back frequently, wove through thick stands of trees, even swung Tarzan-like from the branches, heading all the while downhill. Somewhere at the bottom of the valley there had to be a river that he could follow. Running water always leads to civilization -- that was the old saying.

A shadow loomed ahead through trees, the shadow of something big. Brendan gasped and ducked behind a thick tree-trunk, hunkering down and listening intently. After a few tense moments he inched his way around until he could see more clearly. The shadow was not moving, nor did it belong to anything alive.

It was a cabin. Laughing with relief Brendan jumped from behind the tree and started running, but stopped short after only a few paces. It would not do to survive the horror in the cave only to be shot by some drunken hunter -- or worse, a nervous prospector who was bound to have better aim. Brendan crept forward more cautiously now, slinking from tree to tree and watching the windows of the cabin for any movement.

He saw none. No smoke curled from the chimney, no footprints on the doorstep. Still, Brendan took no chances and tiptoed up to the door. He hesitated a moment, debating whether he should knock or call out or simply rush in on whoever might be inside. Noise was a bad idea if he was being followed, so he gripped the rusted door-latch and pushed.

Nothing. Locked tight.

Biting his lip, Brendan ventured a timid knock. "Hello?" he whispered, and then again, "Hey!" There was no answer, and Brendan decided that the place was abandoned after all. It was shelter nonetheless, and if he was lucky there might perhaps be supplies inside, maybe even some way to call for help. He shoved determinedly at the door with his shoulder, harder and harder, but it would not budge. Swearing under his breath Brendan stepped back and then ran around to the back of the building to see if there was another way in.

There was no back to the cabin. The wall was caved in and the roof had been smashed down from above. Through the gaping hole Brendan could see a wooden chest and a moss-covered mattress piled against the front door, as though placed there by someone desperate to keep something out.

The beast had obviously been here before. That meant that Brendan was still in its hunting range. And it was growing dark.

Fresh fear rose in him and Brendan clambered into the wreckage, searching for something, anything that he might use. He found a moldering canvas backpack but the cans within were rusted together, anything in them that might once have been edible having rotted away long ago. There was a bedroll as well, mildewy and filled with the dried corpses of insects. The only serviceable thing he found was a shovel, rusted over but still sturdy enough for its intended purpose, and in the fading light he made his way from the ruined cabin and into a cut in the trees where the snow lay deep, and there he began to dig. The wilderness survival instructor had called it a "snow coffin," which seemed grimly appropriate for Brendan's situation. The light was almost fully gone before the shelter was ready, and he was barely able to crawl inside before his strength faded entirely and he fell into an exhausted sleep.

He woke with a jolt, startled not by any noise from outside but at the lack of it. No fluttering wings, no ravens quarrelling, not a rustle anywhere. The overwhelming silence lasted until shattered by the clatter of lumber falling against itself. Brendan caught his breath and raised his head just far enough that he could peer outside. He could see the cabin in the morning light, and something else that made him bite back a cry of terror.

It was here, hunkered down beside the remains of the cabin, pawing through the fallen timbers and sniffing intently at the things it found. It examined the bedroll, the backpack, everything that Brendan had touched. With a growl the beast batted aside chunks of the roof and searched beneath them, and then it began to circle the cabin, nose to the ground, searching for the scent. Brendan held his breath as it circled once, twice, then paused to peer around at the woods, and then with a huff it spread a monstrous pair of wings and leaped into the sky.

Brendan stayed in his snow coffin for the entire day and through the next night, but the dragon did not return. Only when the sun appeared again in the morning did he venture forth. He used the shovel to dig a deep hole in which to urinate, and when he did so he noticed how dark the stream was. Dehydration would rob him of his strength but he had no means of lighting a fire to melt the snow for drinking water. His only choice was to continue on. At least now he would have the sun to guide him. All he had to do was follow his shadow toward the west, and with luck he would find a road that would lead to the town that they had seen on the map. There would be food and water there, a hospital maybe -- what would he tell them? Would anyone believe such a wild tale?

The blow came from behind like an onrushing truck, sending Brendan sprawling face-first into a drift. An enormous weight landed hard on his back and drove him down into the snow. He felt himself being surrounded, the snow pressing in on him from all sides, and then he was being hauled out and shaken like a rag. As the snow fell away he realized with horror that he had been caught.

The dragon shook him again, clearing away the snow before it clenched its foreclaw tightly. Brendan's breath was squeezed out of him and he could manage only a hoarse squeak as he was held before the beast's studious gaze. It tilted him to one side, examining him closely, then tilted him the other way. It started its sonorous rumbling again and licked slowly over its lips.

"Don't eat me," Brendan wheezed.

Instead, the beast raised its head and then leaped into the sky, carrying Brendan along. The landscape fell rapidly away along with Brendan's stomach. The crushing grip did not relent as he was pulled up against the underside of the dragon's belly and his consciousness faded behind great black stars.

He came to just as his back was being slammed against an oddly cushioned surface, the impact knocking the wind from him and leaving him gagging. When he looked to his left he saw a bright blue nylon snowsuit whose front was darkened by dried blood, with three feet of a thick pine branch protruding from it.

The dragon held him firmly against the wall with its talons and brought its nose within inches of Brendan's. Its nostrils flared and drew in a deep breath, then blew it out in a warm gust that ruffled Brendan's hair before the beast drew its head back. Its fiery gaze held Brendan's own as the dragon patiently gnawed the end of a heavy tree branch into a sharp point. Brendan shivered and closed his eyes tightly, strangely grateful for the honor and praying that it would not hurt for long.

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