After waiting about an hour at the Mercantile building, Vaughn hid his shotgun, locked up his truck, grabbed his empty gas can, and began a slow jog through the shin deep snow, south, toward the village of Buffalo Creek. The snow had stopped again. A lavender glow illuminated the cloudy horizon to the east. Vaughn marched, his feet crunching through the drifts with each straining step. It was around zero degrees, judging by the way the air froze in his nostrils with each inhalation. His toes soon lost feeling. He made it into the village just before his knees gave out. It was silent and dark. He searched around for a house with a light on or some other feature that might invite him to approach but everything was still.
Headlights appeared on the highway, coming down the hill towards him from the south. It was a sheriff deputy’s SUV. Vaughn was in violation of curfew but he was too cold and too tired to hide or flee. Where would he run to anyway? The woods? He wouldn’t make it very far. He stopped on the roadside and waited to surrender. The deputies’ flashers came on. The SUV slowed. The driver’s side window opened.
“What are you doing out here?” asked the deputy.
Vaughn wasn’t quite sure how to answer. He didn’t want to jeopardize Jess’s life.
“I ran out of fuel back up the road.”
” I thought so judging by that gas can you’re holding,” the deputy answered as he shifted into park. “What I meant was what are you doing out at this hour? I’m sure you’re aware there’s a dusk-till-dawn curfew.”
Vaughn’s brain raced around searching for a plausible excuse. “Uh…my wife forgot her medicine.” He sensed the deputy knew he was lying.
“Do you mind setting that can down and taking your hand out of your pocket for me?”
“No, not at all,” Vaughn replied.
“I do appreciate it. I have to be careful with the way things have been, lately. You understand?”
“No problem,” Vaughn answered.
“Are you armed?”
“Do you mind turning around for me, slowly?”
“No sir.” Vaughn complied.
“Can you stand right there for a second?” The deputy got out of his truck, walked up to Vaughn and frisked him from his wrists down to his frozen ankles.
“Are you arresting me?” Vaughn asked.
“I’m just being careful.”
“I get that. But are you arresting me?”
“Stay right here for a second. You can put your arms down.” The deputy got back into his SUV. Vaughn watched as he muttered something into his radio. The deputy paused to listen for a moment, then he turned back to Vaughn. “Get in,” he ordered, as he unlocked the passenger door. “You can bring your can.”
Vaughn walked around the front of the SUV and climbed in. The interior of the cab was loaded with two shotguns, a carbine rifle, a heads-up display, and tactical gear, including a gas mask and night vision. The dashboard flickered with a fruit cocktail of blinking indicator lights. It was warm and dry in the cab, which made it nirvana for Vaughn who was certain that frostbite was getting at his toes. He thought about the excruciating pain he would feel as they thawed and the sensation returned.
The deputy looked Vaughn over for a moment, studying his expressions and mannerisms. This made Vaughn uncomfortable. Vaughn expected to be asked for his papers but the deputy just shifted into drive and the truck started north. They only had to drive for a couple minutes.
“Where’s your car?”
“See it there? That pickup at the Mercantile.”
They pulled into the lot and the deputy motioned for Vaughn to get out. He stepped out after him and took a long look at Vaughn’s truck and the other set of tire tracks.
“Why don’t you stand right here against the bumper,” the deputy said as he circled to the back of the SUV.
Vaughn waited patiently while the deputy returned with his own gas can from the back of his truck. He offered it to Vaughn. Vaughn accepted the five gallons and took it over to his truck where he poured the contents in.
“I can’t believe you’re not arresting me,” Vaughn remarked as he poured.
“For breaking curfew.”
The deputy laughed. “That curfew’s a federal order, so let the feds enforce it. Now, I will say that if DHS or ATF or DSF or any of those other feds catch you out here, you’re probably going to jail for twenty-four hours.”
“I’m sure you’re right about that. I do appreciate the fuel, sir.”
The deputy glanced over at the tire tracks again. “Is there something you feel you need to tell me? If so, I’m here to help. Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Vaughn continued pouring without answering or raising his eyes.
“We’ve been getting a lot of reports of bandits and kidnappers lately. I’m sure you’ve heard of that.”
The last of the contents of the gas can dribbled into Vaughn’s tank. He wanted to reveal everything to the deputy but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I just need to get my wife her medicine,” Vaughn explained. “But thanks again for the gas. You probably saved my life.” Vaughn extended his hand and the deputy shook it.
“Like I said, I’m here to help. Take my card. I’m Deputy Pritchard. You can call that number. Now get home before you cross paths with one of those feds. You don’t want any trouble with them.”
Vaughn handed the deputy his empty can and put his in the back. He got in and started his truck. “Thanks again,” he shouted out the window as he backed up and turned onto the northbound lane. He watched the deputy fade into his rearview mirror as he drove north.
Vaughn’s drive was agonizing. He battled the relentless, dueling anguish for both Brooke’s and Jessica’s well-being. It was a drive made ever the more treacherous by the slippery, packed snow and his high speed. He reassured himself that Brooke would be fine even though he might find her in a fit of screaming. There was no way to know about Jessica, however.
Why didn’t my mother call? he wondered. Should I call the detective as soon as I get home? Should I call and tell him what happened? Nothing could be done about any of it until he got home. There wasn’t even cell reception as far out as he was. The drive would take him over an hour.
On the way home, the sun rose and the clouds dissolved. Vaughn passed a convoy of semi-trailers and army trucks on U.S. 285. They were painted khaki and were hauling storage pods and tanks sheathed in tan canvas with their guns poking out. A column of Humvees and MRAPS followed behind. It was headed towards Denver. Vaughn surmised they were shunning the more visible I25 corridor which was the more direct route from Fort Carson.
When he pulled into his driveway, Vaughn was disheartened to find that his mother’s car was not there. He scrambled into the house and, thankfully, found everything in the exact same state of disarray that he had left it. All was quiet. Brooke? He ran down the hallway to her room and eased open the door. She was still asleep. Thank god, he thought.
He returned to his despair over Jess. He had to decide what to do and how to set himself about doing it. He got Brooke up and fed her a breakfast of boiled egg noodles and powdered milk, which was nearly all that was left in the house to eat. He pondered opening one of his cans from his fruit cocktail hoard but that seemed extravagant.
There weren’t many options for Vaughn, and the ones he did have were not good. He thought about them as he watched Brooke dance after breakfast. She moved in clumsy circles with her tiny raised hands singing, “Ring Around-the-Rosie…we all fall down,” and her flexible little body collapsed in slow motion into a ball on the floor. Vaughn watched her as she performed the routine a dozen times. It amused him to think that both of them were entranced by a children’s rhyme about Bubonic Plague. He mustered a smile for her on each repetition, trying to ratchet himself back from the emotional brink. “When’s mommy coming home?” Brooke asked.
He decided there was only one option. “Soon, Princess,” he answered, hoping it was true.
Vaughn waited for the call from the kidnappers but it didn’t come. At nine a.m., he took out the two business cards he had been carrying. He stared at the pristine card for deputy Pritchard and the smudged card for the detective assigned to Jessica’s case. He put one in back in his pocket. He dialed the number on the other. Tthe detective answered. Vaughn explained over the phone the entire early morning episode.
“Why didn’t you tell the deputy what happened?” the detective asked.
“I was afraid,” Vaughn answered, honestly. “The kidnappers told me not to tell the police or something bad would happen to Jessica.”
“Well, you might have blown a real opportunity to catch them,” the detective answered.
“I don’t care if you catch them.”
“I don’t care if you catch them,” Vaughn repeated. “All I want is Jess back safe.”
“What kind of attitude is that? You want these guys going free out there? What if they kidnap someone else? What if they kidnap a public official next?”
“I don’t care about them. I just want Jess back.” Vaughn said. “So what should I do now? Are you going to investigate the site at the Mercantile? Could there be any clues there?”
The detective sighed. “We’ll send someone over to check it out. But next time, let us know right away when something like this happens.”
“I thought that’s what I was doing.”
“You’re not being completely open with us, Mr. Clayton. To be honest, that doesn’t reflect very well on you.”
“It’s not about me. It’s about my daughter’s mother.”
“Stay in touch.”
Vaughn dialed Jessica’s mother before he could talk himself out of it. Her voice turned flat with the news. He tried to assure her that it was going to be all right but it was of no use.
“What are the police doing about it?” she asked.
Vaughn wanted to say “nothing” but that would just upset her more. Instead, he answered, “They’re conducting their investigation.”
“Do you think she’s okay?”
“I’m sure they’re taking care of her.”
“What makes you sure?”
“Because she’s no good to them if she’s…”
Jessica’s mother went silent. Vaughn listened for several agonizing moments.
“Is that Mommy?” Brooke asked, tugging on Vaughn’s pant leg.
“Vaughn?” asked Jess’s mother.
“Yes, I’m here.”
Another silence followed. Vaughn looked down at little Brooke staring up at him with her saucer-like eyes and china-doll face. She reached to be picked up.
“I’ve heard about those kidnappings. They’re happening around out here too,” Vaughn’s mother-in-law said.
“I’m sure they’re happening in lots of places. These are crazy times.”
“You said once that if something was to happen to your family that…well…”
Vaughn knew what she meant. He knew he’d have to take matters into his own hands. The calls to the detective were a pointless exercise. “I know,” he answered.
“What are you going to do then?”
“I don’t know yet,” he answered, picking Brooke up and carrying her over to the kitchen to wipe her nose. “I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know anything about them.”
“Please get her back.”
“I’ll do everything I can.”
“How far will you go to get her back?”
Vaughn was aware of the likelihood that his conversation was being recorded. His response was measured.
“Whatever…whatever I have to do, I’ll do it.”
His call-waiting feature beeped. It was his mother.