All the southern half of the village was up, a hundred men strong, and waiting outside, a vague dark mass sprinkled with twinkling lanterns. The mass fell into columns by threes and fours to accommodate itself to the narrow road, and strode briskly along southward in the wake of the leaders. In a few minutes the Hogan cabin was reached.
"There's the bunk," said Mrs. Hogan; "there's where she was; it's where I laid her at seven o'clock; but where she is now, God only knows."
"Hand me a lantern," said Archy. He set it on the hard earth floor and knelt by it, pretending to examine the ground closely. "Here's her track," he said, touching the ground here and there and yonder with his finger. "Do you see?"
Several of the company dropped upon their knees and did their best to see. One or two thought they discerned something like a track; the others shook their heads and confessed that the smooth hard surface had no marks upon it which their eyes were sharp enough to discover. One said, "Maybe a child's foot could make a mark on it, but I don't see how."
Young Stillman stepped outside, held the light to the ground, turned leftward, and moved three steps, closely examining; then said, "I've got the direction--come along; take the lantern, somebody."
He strode off swiftly southward, the files following, swaying and bending in and out with the deep curves of the gorge. Thus a mile, and the mouth of the gorge was reached; before them stretched the sagebrush plain, dim, vast, and vague. Stillman called a halt, saying, "We mustn't start wrong, now; we must take the direction again."
He took a lantern and examined the ground for a matter of twenty yards; then said, "Come on; it's all right," and gave up the lantern. In and out among the sage-bushes he marched, a quarter of a mile, bearing gradually to the right; then took a new direction and made another great semicircle; then changed again and moved due west nearly half a mile--and stopped.
"She gave it up, here, poor little chap. Hold the lantern. You can see where she sat."
But this was in a slick alkali flat which was surfaced like steel, and no person in the party was quite hardy enough to claim an eyesight that could detect the track of a cushion on a veneer like that. The bereaved mother fell upon her knees and kissed the spot, lamenting.
"But where is she, then?" some one said. "She didn't stay here. We can see that much, anyway."
Stillman moved about in a circle around the place, with the lantern, pretending to hunt for tracks.
"Well!" he said presently, in an annoyed tone, "I don't understand it." He examined again. "No use. She was here--that's certain; she never walked away from here--and that's certain. It's a puzzle; I can't make it out."
The mother lost heart then.
"Oh, my God! oh, blessed Virgin! some flying beast has got her. I'll never see her again!"
"Ah, don't give up," said Archy. "We'll find her--don't give up."
"God bless you for the words, Archy Stillman!" and she seized his hand and kissed it fervently.
Peterson, the new-comer, whispered satirically in Ferguson's ear:
"Wonderful performance to find this place, wasn't it? Hardly worth while to come so far, though; any other supposititious place would have answered just as well--hey?"
Ferguson was not pleased with the innuendo. He said, with some warmth:
"Do you mean to insinuate that the child hasn't been here? I tell you the child has been here! Now if you want to get yourself into as tidy a little fuss as--"
"All right!" sang out Stillman. "Come, everybody, and look at this! It was right under our noses all the time, and we didn't see it."
There was a general plunge for the ground at the place where the child was alleged to have rested, and many eyes tried hard and hopefully to see the thing that Archy's finger was resting upon. There was a pause, then a several-barreled sigh of disappointment. Pat Riley and Ham Sandwich said, in the one breath:
"What is it, Archy? There's nothing here."
"Nothing? Do you call that nothing?" and he swiftly traced upon the ground a form with his finger.