For three days, 2 1/2-year-old Kevin Brown's chubby bare feet took him through acres of rugged North Texas pastures of grass taller than his head and around several ponds where bobcats and coyotes roam.
He probably slept and hid under thick bushes in some woods, frightened from a brief thunderstorm and the noise of rescue helicopters and searchers on foot, horseback and all-terrain vehicles.
When a helicopter pilot spotted Kevin on Sunday night, he was nearly a mile (a kilometer) from his home. Kevin was lying on his stomach at the edge of a pond as if he had been drinking, and the co-pilot jumped out, scooped him up and flew him to a hospital.
"This little fellow was gone 69 hours and 16 minutes. There's no way he should have been alive," Johnson County Sheriff Bob Alford said. "I don't know if you believe in God, but this is truly a miracle that this boy is alive."
The toddler was treated for sunburn, dehydration, minor cuts and insect bites.
Doctors also were trying to determine whether Kevin was abducted but are not revealing their findings until a child psychologist talks to him in a few days, Alford said, reports AP.
During the extensive search, many feared Kevin had been snatched from a road near his rural home because they found no signs of his yellow T-shirt or gray checkered shorts. Officials even got tips about a suspicious red truck in the area.
But the sheriff said he believes the child simply wandered off, because his diaper was so soiled and because he had fresh cuts as well as some that had started to heal, indicating he had been outside for several days.
"I really don't believe he was abducted; he simply eluded us," Alford said.
The ordeal began on Sept. 21 when Kevin and his 4-year-old brother Anthony were playing in the front yard of their mobile home. Their parents, Karla and Almond Brown, were inside with the windows and door open when Anthony entered, saying he had been bitten by a fire ant, Alford said.
The couple tended to the older child for as long as 15 minutes, then went outside and did not see Kevin, Alford said. After searching for about 30 minutes, the family called the sheriff's department, which arrived and quickly called other agencies.
When Alford arrived a couple of hours later at about 10:30 p.m., he saw a Rottweiler and three pit bulls nearby and feared the worst. He said deputies checked the dogs' mouths for blood and pieces of clothing and looked under houses for the boy's body but were relieved to find nothing.
By that time, a helicopter and more than three dozen officers had already been searching about a mile radius around the home. Another helicopter with heat-sensing equipment arrived about midnight.
The next day, 100 volunteers arrived and searched through pastures, some with thigh-high weeds.
Other friends made thousands of posters with his name and picture and put them up in several nearby towns, even sending and e-mailing them to other states and Mexico. Some took food to the couple's home.
"We tried to be strong for them, but it was so sad," said Vianney Ibarra, a family friend who helped search.
The parents didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
Authorities dragged and divers also searched the 10-feet to 15-feet (3-meter to 4.5-meter) deep ponds, and some ponds later were drained, Alford said.
By Sunday, the reward for Kevin's safe return had grown to $14,000 (Ђ11,000). The search had scaled back as it appeared the child had been kidnapped or had died in the remote area. But when a helicopter crew went out for a search early Sunday evening, Kevin was finally found.
Later, Kevin appeared to sleep in his father's arms as the couple stood beaming and crying outside the hospital before they returned home, their relatives and friends cheering around them. Karla Brown told reporters it was the happiest day of her life.
"We should have found him in two hours," Alford said. "Why we didn't, I'll never know."