SLEEPY EYE, MINN. - Tony Hauser walked through the fierce wind Wednesday, crossing his farmyard to feed his 80 dairy cows as his German shepherds, Butch and Max, tailed along.

His mind flashed back to the March day in 1996 when both his first son, Daniel, and his family's distrust of conventional medicine were born.

"When he was ready to be born, the doctor hadn't shown up and he wasn't getting his air," Hauser said.

Complications from the lack of oxygen forced hospital personnel twice to revive Daniel, his father said.

"They told us he could have learning problems," Hauser said. "He's slower that way."

Hauser's family now stands in the midst of an ethical swirl even stronger than the 50-mph gusts that howled over the rolling farms here. In the two days since Colleen Hauser disappeared with Daniel out of fear that he'd be forced to undergo chemotherapy, the Hauser family has been feeling the strain.

The whereabouts of their missing mother and sibling don't dominate talk among the other children on the isolated farm, where there's work to be done before and after school.

"There's not much you can say and they don't say a whole lot," the elder Hauser said. "In the mornings, some of the kids help us out, then they're off to school and then it's back to work again. There's not a lot of time. At night, everybody's tired by then."

Still, Daniel's youngest siblings, 4-year-old Joseph and 16-month-old Elizabeth, are wondering.

"The younger ones ask about their mom," he said. "They miss her."

Close-knit and private

Neighbors say the Hausers are private people and are seldom seen at Carl's Corner, the diner in nearby Essig where people tend to gather, or the adjacent grain elevator. Up until recently, they've home-schooled their eight kids. They pay their bills on time and Colleen stops at the café about once a month to buy a takeout dinner to treat her family for its hard work.

"We're close-knit," said Hauser, 54. "You always have your little quarrels here and there -- with kids, that's normal."

He pointed to the level yard behind the family's light-brown house where the siblings like to play baseball together when the demands of farm life allow.

While 16-year-old Mary Ann and 14-year-old Jenny handle the bulk of the chores, Daniel, 13, usually handles the babysitting of the younger ones. His mild temperament makes him a natural with the little ones, his father said.

"He's quiet and slower in nature and doesn't get excited," his father said.

A tone of wonderment still creeps into Hauser's voice as he talks about Daniel's treatment and his sudden disappearance.

All along, Hauser said the family wanted to propose a slower schedule of chemotherapy that would be combined with the family's preferred approach of using diet and meditation as treatment. But doctors insisted on a more rigorous protocol.

"Where's the reasoning here?" he asked. "There is none."

When doctors said the tumor in Daniel's chest had grown back to where it was in January, Hauser said that "threw fear" into his wife and "on the spur of the moment," she bolted with Daniel rather than risk losing him to foster care.

Neighbors tight-lipped

Tony Hauser grew up on a farm a quarter mile from where he now lives. In fact, his brothers have adjacent farmsteads. He met Colleen at his brother's wedding in 1990. Colleen, the 10th of 12 kids, grew up on a farm a few miles south.

Colleen's mother, Arlene Schroepfer, said Daniel is part of a "wonderful" family. But like most people interviewed Wednesday, she was tight-lipped about the controversy surrounding her grandson.

"I'm not going to give any secrets away that anyone on the street doesn't know," she said on the stoop of her farmhouse.

"People are so damned tired of hearing about her, I'm not going to give you any more feed," Daniel's grandmother said.

She said she hasn't seen her daughter in a couple of weeks and had no idea where she and Daniel went.

"She's smart enough to know what she's supposed to do," Schroepfer said.

Even at Carl's Corner and the neighboring grain elevator, people were keeping their opinions to themselves.

"It's a many-sided issue and no one wants to pick sides," said a man at the elevator, who asked that his name not be used because it's such a small town. "We're all entitled to our opinions, but we don't have the right to judge until we're faced with the situation they're in."

'Any word?'

By late afternoon, the Hausers' phone had been taken off the hook. "If you'd like to make a call ..." the automated operator warned, as the children played in the living room.

Talking with the media had left Tony Hauser more drained than a day's work on the farm. He said lawyers had instructed him to quit talking to reporters or "they said they wouldn't represent me in an appeal."

A friend stopped by to say hello, bringing a plate of cut cantaloupe and an offer of some bratwurst.

She was surprised to find Tony in the house: "I thought you'd be in the barn."

"We should be," he said, "but we're not."

"Any word?" she asked.

"No, not yet."

"Well, I made some brats. They're already done, so they shouldn't take too long to heat up." • 612-673-4767 • 612-673-7168 Staff writers Tony Kennedy and Susan Hilliard contributed to this article.