HE was lost in the edge of the Adirondack Wilderness. It must have been the sound of the flail. Thud, thud, thud, came the beat of the dull, thumping strokes through the thick, opaque, gray fog. Willie was hardly four years old ; and when once he was a few rods away from the barn, off on the plain of monotonous, yellow stubble, he could not tell where he was, and could not detect the deceptive nature of the sound and its echo. He could see nothing ; whichever way he looked, wherever he walked, there were the same reverberations ; and the same narrow dome of watery gray was everywhere shutting close down around him. As he followed the muffled sound, in his efforts to get back to the barn, it seemed to retreat from him, and he ran faster to overtake it. He ran on and on, and so was lost.

That night and the next day a few neighbors, gathered from the adjoining farms, searched for Willie. They wandered about the fields and the margin of the woods, but found no trace of the lost child. It became apparent that a general search must be made.

The fog had cleared away on the second morning after Willie was lost, as about a hundred woodsmen and farmers and hunters, gathered from the farms and forest and settlement near by called Whiskey Hollow, stood and sat in grotesque groups around the little farm-house and barn, waiting the grand organization into line, preparatory to sweeping the woods and finding Willie.

During all the hours of the two previous nights, the lanterns and torches had been flashing in and out behind the logs and brush of the fallows ; and the patches of snow, that lingered in spite of the April rains, gave evidence that every foot of the adjacent clearing had been trampled over in the search. But the men were not yet satisfied that the search about the farm had been thorough. Standing by the house, they could see the field of the night’s work, — the level stubble of the grain-lot, and the broad, irregular hollow used as pasture and filled with stumps and logs and brush. Here and there could be seen men still busy poking sticks under the logs and working around bog-holes in the low ground. “ You see it stands to reason,” said Jim, addressing a group by the house, “that a little chap less than four years old could not get out of this clearing into the woods.”

A white-haired patriarch remarked with great confidence and solemnity, “ The boy is within half a mile of the house, and if I can have command of six men I will find him.” The patriarch continued to press his suggestion until he secured his company and started off, feeling that he carried a great weight of responsibility. He joined the log-pokers and bog-explorers, but nothing came of his search.

The morning was wearing away; the men, gathered from a great distance, were impatient of the delay to organize the line.

Willie had been out nearly fortyeight hours : could it be that he had passed beyond the stubble-field into the forest, nearly half a mile from the house ? If he had managed to cross the brook at the edge of the woods, he had the vast Adirondack Wilderness before him. It was time to search thoroughly and upon a large scale, it the boy was to be found alive.

But a reason for delay was whispered around, — the fortune - woman was coming. Soon a rough farm-wagon came up the road and through the yard-gate and stopped in front of the door of the farm-house. There was a hush of voices and a reverent look upon the part of some of the men, and a snicker and digging of their neighbors’ ribs upon the part of others, as a large, coarse-featured woman was helped out of the wagon by the driver of the team.

This female was the famous fortune-woman. Some of these dwellers on the edge of the wilderness were no better than the classic Greek and noble Roman of ancient times, for they believed in divination.

The fortune-woman went into the house where the mother of Willie sat, crying. The men crowded the room and windows and door. Some of the men looked solemn, some jeered. Out at the door Josh explained apologetically to the unbelievers that, “ inasmuch as some thinks as how she can tell, and some thinks as how she can’t, so it were thought better for to go and fetch her, so as that all might satisfactory themselves, and no fault found, and everything done for the little boy.”

After a brief séance with the teacup in the house, the fortune-woman, urged by the men, went “out of doors ” and walked up along the hollow with her teacup, experimenting to find the child. About half of the men straggled after her. Jim declared to the group who lingered at the house that he would sell out and leave, if the entire crowd disgraced the town by following after that “old she-devil.”

To a stranger coming upon the field at this time, the scene was curious and picturesque, and some of it unaccountable. In the background was a vast descending plain of evergreen forest, sloping away from the Adirondack highlands to the dim distance of the St. Lawrence Valley, where could be seen the white, thread-like line of the great river, and still beyond the Canada woods melting away to a measureless distance of airy blue. In the foreground was a vulgar old woman waddling along and snatching here and there a teacup full of water from the puddles formed by the melting snow ; and fifty vigorous men in awe-struck attitudes were gazing at her, and when she moved they followed after.

Odd as this grotesque performance seemed, it had in it a touch of the old heathenish grandeur belonging to the ancient superstitions. The same strange light that through all time has shone from human faces as souls reach after the great infinite unknown shone from the faces of some of these men. There were fine visages among them. Burly Josh and a hunter with dark, poetic eyes would have been a match for handsome, pious Æneas or the heroes of Hellas, who watched the flight of birds and believed in a fortune-woman at Delphos.

But the simple faith of these modern worshippers was not rewarded: after the Greek pattern, the oracle gave ambiguous responses. The old woman proclaimed, with her eyes snapping venomously, that there was “a big black baste a standin’ over the swate child.” She announced, with a swing of her right arm extending around half a circle, that “ the dear, innocent darlin’ was somewhere about off that way from the house.” She scolded the men sharply for their laziness, telling them they had not looked for the lost child, but were waiting around the house, “while the blessed baby starved and the big black baste stood over him.”

Dan caught at this and declared that the “ old hypocrite ” was no fool. She knew enough to understand that “ it was no way to find a lost boy to shell out a whole township of able-bodied men and set them to chase an old woman around a lot,”

The fortune-woman came back to the house, held a final grand séance with the teacup divinity, and declared that the “ swate child ” was within half a mile of the place, and if they would only look they would find him, and that if they did not look, within two days, “ the big black baste would devour the poor, neglected darlin’.” After this the fortune-woman was put into the wagon again, and Josh drove her home. It was fully in accordance with the known perversity of human nature, that the faith of the believers in her infallibility was not in the slightest degree shaken.

The company, having been increased by fresh arrivals to more than one hundred men, organized for the search. The colonel ranged the men in line about twenty feet apart, extending across the wide stubble-field and the pasture. The men were directed by the colonel to “dress to the left”; that is, as he explained it, for each to watch the man at the left and keep twenty feet from him and observe all the ground in marching.

The word was given, and the line, more than half a mile long, began to move sidewise or platoon fashion, sweeping from the road by the house across the clearing to the woods. It was a grand charge upon the great wilderness. The long platoon, under the instruction of their commander, swept the woods bordering the clearing, and then, doubling back, made semicircular curves, going deeper and deeper at each return into the primeval forest. The limit of their marching and countermarching in one direction was a river too broad to be crossed by fallen trees ; it was sure that Willie could not have crossed the river. The termination of the marches in the other direction was controlled by the judgment of the colonel. It was a magnificent tramp through the wild, wet woods, under the giant trees, each eye strained and expectant of the lost boy. Here and there, in advance of the line as it progressed, a partridge, aroused by the voices of the men, would start from the undergrowth and trip along for a few steps with her sharp, coquettish quit, quit, quit-, and then whir away to some adjacent hollow, to be soon again aroused by the advancing line.

The afternoon was wearing away. The woods had been thoroughly explored for about two miles from the clearing,—far beyond what it seemed possible for an infant less than four years old to penetrate.

The colonel said he could think of nothing more to be done. The men returned in straggling groups to the farm-house, tired, sad, hungry, and dispirited. There were many speculations whether Willie could be still alive, and if alive whether he could get through another night.

“ You see,” said Josh, “such a little feller, and three days and two nights a wettin’ and a freezin’ and a thawin’ and no grub, why he could n’t, don’t you see ? ”

It was never found out, not even at Whiskey Hollow, where the men unveiled all their iniquities, who the wretch was that first started the dark suggestion about the murder of little Willie. Dan became very angry when the men, fatigued and famished, straggling back to the farm-house from the disorganized line as above narrated, began to hint that “things was tremendous queer,” and that “them as lost could find,” and that John, Willie’s father, was a perfect hyena when he was “ mad.”

Dan, for the only time that day, became profane as he denounced the sneak, whoever it might be, who had started such a suggestion. He expressed the conviction that the fortunewoman had her foot in it in some way. Superstitious fools, he said, were likely to be suspicious.

But Dan’s anathemas did not stay the rising tide. As the searchers came back, suspicious glances were turned upon the father, who sat with his afflicted family at the house. Some of the searchers stealthily examined under the barn, believing that Willie had been “ knocked on the head ” with a flail and concealed under the floor.

But John, the father, was no coward, and he had neighbors and friends who believed in him. They told him of the suspicions arising against him. On the instant he called a meeting at the little hovel of a school-house, a few rods down the road. The hundred searchers gathered there and filled the room, sitting, lolling, and lying upon the benches. The father of the lost child, almost a stranger to most of the searchers, took his place at the teacher’s desk and confronted his accusers.

It was plain, direct work. Here were a hundred men who had exhausted all known means of finding the lost boy ; and more than fifty of them had said in effect to the man before them, “ We think you killed him.” All were looking at John ; he rose up and, facing the crowd with a dauntless eye, he made a speech.

If this were a story told by Homer or Herodotus, I suppose John’s speech would figure as a wonderful piece of eloquence ; for a man never had a grander opportunity to try his strength in persuading others than John had. But in fact there was nothing grand about the matter, except that here was a straightforward man with nerves of steel, who had been “ hard hit,” as Dan said, by the loss of his boy, and was now repelling with courage and almost scorn a thrust that might have killed a weaker man.

His speech was grammatically correct, cool, deliberate, and dignified. He said he had no knowledge of the black-hearted man who had originated so cruel a suspicion at such a time, and he did not wish to know who he was. He asked his hearers to consider how entirely without support in the known facts of the case the accusations were that had been suggested against him. It was a purely gratuitous assumption, with not a particle of evidence of any kind to establish it. He had understood that he was supposed to have killed his child in anger and then concealed the body. Such a thing could not have happened with him as killing his own child or any other child in that way, and if it had so happened he would not have concealed it. He only wished to brand this creation of some vile man, there present probably, as a lie. That was all he had to say upon that point.

In continuing his speech, when he alluded to what he had suffered in losing the boy he loved the best of anything on earth, there was a twitching of the muscles of his face, which, however, he instantly controlled as unworthy of him. He closed his speech by appealing to his friends, who had known him long and well, to come forward at this time and testify to his integrity.

As he ceased, the men rose up from the benches and conversed together freely of the probabilities about John. A group of three or four gathered around him, and, placing their hands upon his shoulders, told the crowd that they had known John for twenty years, and that he was incapable of murder or perfidy or deceit, and as honest a man as could be found in the county.

It was decided not to search any farther that day, as there was no prospect now that Willie would be found alive. The men went home, agreeing to come again after three days, by which time the sleet and light snow that had fallen would have all melted, and search for the body might be successfully made.

John went to his house. As he met his afflicted family and realized that little Willie was now gone, that the search was given up and his child was dead, his Spartan firmness yielded, and he wept such tears as strong, proud men weep when broken on the wheel of life. The last cruel stab at his moral nature and integrity hurt hard. He was a pure, upright man, a church-member, and without reproach.

As the three days were passing away that were to elapse before the search for the body should begin, it became apparent in the community that John’s Homeric speech had done no good. The wise heads of Whiskey Hollow declared that at the next search there would be first of all a thorough overhauling about the immediate premises. Their suspicions found some favor in the community. Some were discussing indignantly and some with tolerance the probability of John’s guilt. Even good Deacon Beezman, a magistrate who “ lived out on the main road ” and who was supposed to carry in his own person at least half of the integrity and intelligence of his neighborhood, declared that he would not spend more of his precious time in searching for the boy. He made it the chief point in the case that John “acted guilty.” He had noticed that this rustic Spartan sat in his house and read his newspaper with apparent interest as in ordinary times, on the day of the last search, and this indifference was evidence of his guilt. It was apparent that any color of proof, if there had been any such thing, might have served as a pretence for an arrest of the afflicted father.

The morning appointed as the time to seek for the body came. The excitement was high, and men came from great distances to join in the exploration.

Eight miles away, up across the river that flowed through the forest, dwelt Logan Bill, a hunter. At an early hour he left his cabin, and took his course down the stream toward the gatheringpoint. There was an April sun shining, but in the wilderness solitudes it was cold and dreary. He kept along the margin of the stream, to avoid the tangle of brush and fallen trees.

At nine o’clock Logan was still three miles from John’s clearing. He was passing through a hollow where the black spruce and pine made the forest gloomy. He came upon a bundle of clothing; he turned it over: it was Willie !

And thus alone in the wilderness Logan solved the mystery. Through three miles of trackless forest, under the sombre, sighing trees of the great woods, through the fog and falling rain and snow, the child had struggled on, feeling its way in the night along the margin of the river, until it grew weak and sick, and fell and died.

There was a choking in Logan’s throat as he lifted the cold little body and carried it onward down the stream, and noted the places where the infant must have climbed and scrambled in its little battle for life. It was a strange two hours to him as he bore the pure, beautiful, frozen corpse toward the settlement.

At eleven o’clock he reached the clearing. He saw the scattered groups of men gathered about John’s house and barn. Some of the men seemed to be searching about the barn to find the body of the boy they believed to be murdered. Logan felt his frame tremble and his temples throb, realizing as he did the weight of life and death wrapped in the burden that he bore. He spoke no word and made no gesture, but, holding the dead child in his arms, marched directly past the barn to the door-yard and up in front of the house. There he stopped, and stood and looked with agitated face at the farm-house door.

The shock of Logan’s sudden coming was so great that no one said, “ The body is found,” but all the men stopped talking, and some, pale and agitated, gathered in a close huddle around Logan and looked at the little, white, frosted face, and in hushed tones asked where Logan had found the body.

A blanket was brought and spread upon a dry place in the yard, and Logan laid his little burden upon it.

John came out and approached the spot where his little Willie was lying. There was a deeper hush as the crowd made way for the father ; and the rough men, some of whom were now crying, looked hard at John “to see how he would take it.” John stood and gazed unmoved and lion-like; not a muscle of his strong face quivered as he saw his boy. He called in a tone of authority for his family to come, and said to his wife in a clear, calm voice as she came trembling, weeping, fainting, “ Mother, look upon your son.”

He turned and surveyed the crowd with the same dauntless eye he had shown in making his Homeric speech at the school-house. To some of the company that eye was now a dagger.

John was cool, calm, and polite. He uttered no reproach, and was kind in his words to all. A half-hour passed. The crowd went away in groups, discussing the amazing wonder, “ how ever it could be that such a little feller as Willie could have got so far away from the house.”

The next day religious services were held, and in the afternoon little Willie was laid to rest upon a sunny knoll. John wept at the grave. A poisoned arrow was drawn from the strong man’s heart, and a great grief was there in its stead.

P. Denting.