Outside Dave’s Tavern in downtown Clayton, Iowa, Howie Archer pulled his collar up to ward off the wind. Down the street a ways he saw a pretty blond woman and a little girl walking away from him. The girl pulled on the woman’s arm to try and pet a dog along their way. Just seeing Sarah Hunter brought back old feelings of anger and hate towards the woman. As he opened the tavern door a white Ford pickup truck passed him, and stopped by the woman. Howie immediately recognized the driver helping the child into the truck…Sarah’s husband, Kent.
Across the street in the barbershop Roy exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned. You won’t believe what I see across the street.”
Roy was cutting Brian Darling’s hair, and spun the chair around so Brian could see out the picture window.
“Howie Archer,” Brian said. “I never expected to see him again. Remember that snowstorm years back when a family got stuck out on the highway at night?”
“Howie didn’t want to leave Dave’s Tavern, so he told Sarah he wouldn’t take the call, forcing her to take the tow truck out into the storm herself. Then, he showed up at the scene drunk. Sarah fired him and he attacked her.”
“I remember,” Roy said. “And, he was damn lucky Sarah shot the tire of his truck and not him. He damn near died walking back to town in that snowstorm.”
As they watched Howie enter the tavern, Roy sighed and said, “Can’t believe that fool is back in town. Must be here to see his brother.”
* * *
Red Taylor, the bartender looked up when the door opened into the historic old tavern that has been around since the town was established. A bright beam of sunlight shone on the dark distressed wood walls. Red recognized the face of the man entering. “Look, Howie’s back.” Everyone in the bar turned at once, shocked that Howie was back in town again, then greeted him like family.
Carl Taylor, a big man whose beer keg belly put constant tension on the snaps of his UAW union jacket, was the first to greet Howie. “It’s so good to see you, man,” he said as he shook Howie’s hand. “How’ve you been?”
When the “howdy do’s” were over, Howie had to satisfy his curiosity. “I thought I saw Sarah Crodin with a little girl just a few minutes ago. Who’s the kid?”
Red grunted, “That wasn’t Sarah. That’s her daughter Wendy and granddaughter Katie. Wendy’s the spitting image of Sarah, don’t you think? ‘Cept she don’t carry a gun.”
Everyone in the bar roared with laughter, pouring fuel on that old fire of hate and revenge Howie still carried inside him.
It’s time to take care of her, so I won’t be laughed at again. And, I have an idea how to get my revenge on her.
Raised by an abusive father, sensitivity had been beaten out of him, and hatred pounded into his soul. Revenge was his way of life.
“Hey,” Howie said to the gang in the tavern, “I need to go to Bluffton to take care of some business. Do you guys know anybody headed that way that I might ride along?”
In Bluffton Howie rented a white Ford 150 pickup, like the one he saw Kent Crodin driving. Relying on his military experience, he bought equipment and supplies from the army surplus store for the mission he planned. When he got back to Clayton he went to the Lock-and-Dam Historical House. For five bucks he walked out with the best book of local history in town. He spent the day studying it for a secluded out-of-the-way place. Later that week, on Friday when workers stopped in at Dave’s Tavern for a beer after work, Howie joined them.
“So, what’s the deal, Howie?” Carl asked. “Trying to walk off the beer you’re drinking?”
Howie studied Carl for a moment, then said, “I don’ get it.”
“Hiking’, you idiot! Damn, man. I see you go out of town every morning with a pack
on your back. That something you did in the army?”
Howie should have remembered how nosy Carl could be, and how he loved to tell everything he knew. “Yeah, it is. We stayed in shape hiking with a full pack. Old habits die hard, I guess. ”
Howie found a hideout, and hiked to it daily to stock it with supplies. Then he spent two days hanging around the elementary school to learn the routine of parents picking up their children. So that his friends wouldn’t be suspicion, Howie stopped by Dave’s Tavern to let the guys know he was leaving for a couple weeks, so they wouldn’t expect to see him around town.
The next day Howie joined the group of parents in the pick-up line at Katie’s school. Katie Ward, Sarah Crodin’s granddaughter, came running out of the building wearing a smile and her backpack. As Howie expected, she rushed up to his white truck just as she did her Grandfather’s. He opened the door, like her grandfather did, and she jumped into the truck. As soon as she saw Howie she said, “Hey! You’re not Papa!”
Howie immediately locked the doors and windows, then drove away.
Katie struggled with the door handle, and yelled at Howie, “Hey, let me out. You’re not my papa! Let me out! I want my papa to take me home!”
Howie took a backhanded swing at Katie, saying, “Shut up kid. You’re not going home until I break your grandma’s heart.” He missed, but when Katie dodged his swing she hit her head on the window and started crying. Howie didn’t mind. He drove off and headed out of town.
If Howie thought he’d scared the little girl to tears, he was wrong. Katie wasn’t cowering, she was scheming. Her grandma said that her intelligence, independence and mischievousness reminded her of Katie’s mother at her age. If there was a way to get away from this man, Katie would find it . . . or make one.
Kent Crodin, Katie’s grandpa, sat in a line of cars that moved like sections of a centipede inching its way to the school entrance as each section devoured one child at a time. Except he didn’t see his granddaughter. He waited and waited until he had to move along. Not seeing Katie anywhere , Kent parked his truck and searched inside the school. Teachers said they saw Katie leave with her backpack, but Kent couldn’t find her. Growing concerned, he called home immediately.
“Sarah, this is Kent. Did you pick up Katie at school? No? Okay, I’ll call Wendy.”
“Wendy, this is dad. Katie’s not here at school. Did you pick her up? No? How about Tony? His gut instincts told him something serious was wrong. “Wendy, we’ve got a problem here. Katie’s missing. You call the sheriff right away. I’ll wait for him here. If something’s happened to her, we’ve got to find her quick. It’s supposed to storm tonight. I don’t want her out in it.”
On his hikes to the German rock quarry, Howie had passed an old machine shed. The kind that artists buy for the old distressed wood. It was a perfect place to hide his truck. As he opened the shed doors he heard the truck door slam. He turned just in time to see Katie jump out of the truck and start running. Howie raced after her, caught her and picked her up under her arms. Squealing and kicking, one of her boots caught Howie in the groin, and he went down. Holding the squirming little girl prevented him from reaching low to ease the pain even army rangers can’t avoid.
“Okay, little girl. You asked for it.”
Howie took zip ties out of the glove compartment of the truck and used three to strap around her feet, and only one to tie her little arms behind her back. Howie used a dusty old rag to gag Katie which started her sneezing. She squirmed on the ground while Howie parked the truck in the shed. He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder, and started out for the cave that would be their home.
Under threatening skies and a blustery wind a crowd of family and friends, all wanting to help find Katie, gathered in front of the elementary school. No one should be outside in this storm. They had to find Katie quickly.
Sheriff J.R. Norvus was desperate. “Oh, my God. This is terrible.”
If the situation wasn’t so serious everyone would have laughed at J.R. Waving his arms and talking to no one in particular, he acted like a chicken with it’s head chopped off.
“This has never happened here. There’s no precedent or procedure to follow. What do we do?”
Kent Crodin laid his strong hand on JR’s shoulder to calm him and said, “J.R., let me handle the search. Go back to your office and man the phones in case someone spots Katie and calls in. Will that be okay?”
“Oh, yes. Yes. That sounds great . . . I could handle this you know, but teaming up like you suggest will probably be more efficient. Yes, yes, you lead the search. You’ll be good at that.”
Kent caught sight of Sarah and Wendy together, crying. As the matriarch, Sarah suspected someone wanted to hurt her family. Kent did his best to organize the search parties and instruct everyone to call the sheriff’s office if they found Katie. Boaters went with Norm to search the shoreline. Horseman went with Wendy’s husband, Tony, to search the west side land between the highway and the bluff. Everyone else started at the Cozy Inn and scoured the town in one long line from the river to the highway.
The cave, a remnant of rock slides when the quarry was in use, was cold, and damp, with a dusty smell. Howie picked it because it curved away from the entrance, leaving a pocket where he could have a fire without being detected.
When Howie cut the zip ties loose, Katie complained, “I’m cold!”
“Yeah, I know kid. I’ll build a fire.”
“I don’t like it here. It stinks, and it echoes. I want to go home. Please take me home?”
“You’re not going home.”
“Because your grandma has to pay.”
“It’s a long story, kid.”
“You know, if you say ‘why’ one more time I’ll stuff a rag in your mouth again.”
She struggled, but Howie held her long enough to put a gag in her mouth and tie her hands behind her back.
Without her annoying chatter distracting him, he made some tea and got military meals ready for them to eat. When he took her gag off, Howie didn’t offer any conversation that might start the “why” cycle again. Katie calmed down as she ate.
Folding her legs under her, Katie doodled in the dust with a stick. Then she started to talk.
“The first President was George Washington. John Adams was the second, Thomas Jefferson the third, and the fourth President was James Madison…”
The constant echo of her piercing little voice was more than Howie could handle.
“Enough!” he yelled. “I don’t want to hear your voice again, you hear?”
Katie pouted, hung her head and doodled in the dirt with her stick for a while. Then, without looking up she continued right where she had left off. “The fifth President was James Monroe. John Quincy Adams was the sixth, Andrew Jackson was seventh, Marin Van Buren was eight. Isn’t that funny? A man named Marin?”
“That’s not his name,” Howie said. “It’s Martin.”
Katie looked up from her doodling and said, “So, if you know the President’s name, you can’t be stupid.”
“Who do you think you’re calling stupid?”
“Well,” she said, “living in a cave is kind of stupid, isn’t it?”
“I don’t live in a cave!”
“How come you’re here then?”
“I’m here because of you, damn it!”
“Oooohhh! That’s bad.”
Howie sighed as he shook his head. Now what?
“What’s bad?” He said.
“Mommy makes us go to time out when we say that.”
“The ‘D’ word.”
“Well, what the hell am I supposed to say?”
“Oooohhh! You just hurt my heart.”
“I did what?”
“You said a word that hurt my heart.”
“Okay. What’s the word?”
“You know, where bad people go.”
“Look kid, there’s a heaven and there’s a hell. Everyone knows that.”
“But you’re not supposed to say it! Now you’ve got two time outs.”
“Listen, just do what you were doing to keep yourself busy.”
Katie smiled at Howie and asked, “I know all the presidents in order. Want to hear the rest?”
“No! I don’t. Do something else.”
“Ok. Did you know that the capital of Iowa is Des Moines? The capital of Illinois is Springfield. The capital of Wisconsin is Madison, and the capital of Minnesota is St. Paul. The capital of Alabama is Montgomery, and the capital of Alaska is Juneau. Phoenix is the capital of Arizona and Little Rock is the capital of Arkansas. The capital of . . .”
Howie had to get away so he left Katie and walked to the mouth of the cave where he couldn’t hear her. While he watched the storm he drifted deep into thought.
Kidnapping a little girl isn’t supposed to be this difficult. I should have stolen Sarah’s dog instead. Maybe killed it. Living with a six-year old is annoying. I wasn’t prepared for the constant chatter. Now I need to find a way to get rid of her.
By the end of the day no one in the search party had located Katie. Wendy didn’t know what to do first: console her distraught and tearful mother; encourage her husband Tony who was out searching for Katie; or collapse in fear and agony for the safety of her child.
When Howie returned to their camp site Katie was still naming the capitals of the 50 states.
“Carson City is the capital of Nevada, New Hampshire’s capital is Concord.”
Katie stopped and asked Howie, “Did you know that?”
Howie was totally uninterested. “Know what?”
That the capital of New Hampshire is Concord.”
“It’s a grape, silly. Concord is a grape, and they named their capital after a grape.”
“Really?” Howie said. “You know, you’re boring and annoying. Can’t you do something without bothering me?”
Looking down at her dust doodles Katie said, “You’ll never be a good daddy.”
“You’ll never be a good daddy. You’re just not made for it.”
Howie gritted his teeth as he held back his growing irritation. “What makes you think I wouldn’t make a good daddy?”
“Well, for one, you don’t like people or you wouldn’t live in a cave. If you were a good daddy you’d take me home to my Mommy. And, I think you can be mean. Can I have a drink now?”
He’d had enough. Howie started to walk away from the cave and leave the little irritating girl behind, but stopped at the mouth of the cave. As he looked at the trail down to the road it was quiet and lit by an almost full moon. Howie felt the silence calm him. His anger subsided. Remorse caused him to turn around and take care of the little girl he wanted to abandon.
As he entered the cave he was met with silence. The campsite was empty. He panicked! Scanning the area he spotted her small footprints in the dust and immediately followed them back into the cave.
Peeking out of a rolled sleeping bag, Katie watched Howie walk away from her. Quick as a cat she rolled out of the sleeping bag she was hiding in, hit the ground running, and escaped.
Even though Tony and his fellow riders had been across the pasture by the quarry many times the past twelve hours, they were at it again. There had been no sign of her along the river, and Tony felt they might have missed something in this pasture. He was desperate to find his daughter. When Tony saw Bennie get off his horse and pick up a small dusty shoe, he turned back and rode toward him.
“Hey Bennie,” he said. “What have you got there?”
“Oh, it’s just a shoe. Probably been out here a year or so.”
“Bennie,” Tony said as he looked at the shoe. “This is Katie’s shoe.”
Tony jumped off his horse, and all the men in the posse did the same. Shortly they heard someone holler, “Here she is, Tony. Found her!”
Tony couldn’t believe his eyes. Curled up and motionless on the ground behind a shrub Katie appeared to be sleeping. Dust puffed off her clothes when he shook her. She woke up, saw Tony and said, “I missed you Daddy.” It was such a blessing she was okay that Tony hugged her and cried his eyes out.
Roy sat in his barber chair looking out the picture window as another day passed in the small town of Clayton, Iowa. Hank, George, and Roland were sitting on the bench by the window, shootin’ the breeze.
Speculation about what happened to Katie was interrupted by the appearance of the sheriff’s cruiser passing by with the gumball flashing. Right behind them came Doc Bendenhoff, the local dentist. He pulled up in front of the barbershop, hopped out of his car and went up the steps to the barbershop with more energy than usual.
“They found her, guys!” Doc blurted out as he burst through the door of Roy’s barbershop. “They found her!”
“Where?” they all said in unison as they stared at Doc.
“In that pasture between the highway and the quarry. Ben found her shoe, they all searched and by golly, there she was asleep on the ground. Tony took her to the sheriff’s office to get her statement.”
“Who did it.”
“Don’t know yet. Katie said she was in a cold, damp, dusty cave.”
Roland turned to Roy saying, “Who would kidnap a little girl and keep her in a cave?”
“Only a hardcore criminal could do something like that,” Roy added.
The men talked on for a couple hours about the issue, but it was only speculation on their part. As Doc was about to leave, his phone rang. He answered, listened, than thanked the caller and hung up.
Looking at the group of guys in the barber shop, Doc said, “They found the cave and know who the kidnapper is. It was obvious to Deputy Farmer. He said there was enough gear in there that it looked like an episode of Survivor. No doubt finger prints will seal the deal. But the kicker was Katie telling the sheriff that the man wanted to hurt her grandma.”
Roy jumped out of his barber chair and declared, “Howie Archer.”
“Yep,” Doc nodded, “There’s an APB out on him as we speak. I doubt he’ll get far before they catch him.”
On her knees hugging her daughter tight, tears rolling down her cheeks, Wendy said, “Oh, Katie, honey, I’m so happy you’re home.”
“Mommy?” Katie said.
Katie put her hand on Wendy’s pregnant tummy and said, “I’ve changed my mind about your baby. I don’t want a brother anymore. Can you change it to a girl?”
Wendy leaned back and looked at her little girl, wondering where she got such an idea. “You’ve always wanted a brother. Why do you want our baby to be a girl?”
“Because boys grow up to be mean to girls.”
Smiling, Wendy hugged Katie again, saying “Oh, sweetie. Don’t you worry. Boys can be good like your daddy and papa.”
Katie squeezed her face into a serious look and said to her mom, “You know what, Mommy? That cave man said bad words, and he has three time outs coming.”