“Sh! Sh!” commanded the mother. “He shall not find you. Here, take this bag, Gigi. It will be safer with you. And here, creep under my skirts and keep close. He will never guess where you are!”
Mother Margherita spread out her generous draperies, which luckily were both long and wide, and Gigi crept under them, being wholly covered. The other boys huddled close, shivering with a not wholly unpleasant excitement. This was an adventure indeed for a holiday!
The rider drew nearer and nearer, lashing the poor donkey unmercifully. At last they could see his face, red and lowering.
“Halt!” he cried suddenly. “You in the cart there, halt!”
The oxen stopped. The cart came to a standstill. The boys huddled closer, and Gigi’s heart beat like a tambourine. He was sure that Tonio would hear it.
“What do you want?” asked Mother Margherita, and her usually kind voice was harsh.
“You seem to have a load of young cubs there,” shouted Tonio. “Have you got my boy, Gigi the Tumbler, among them? Some one has stolen the little monster.”
[Illustration: “Have you got my boy?”]
“What are you talking about!” answered Mother Margherita sharply. “I am a respectable countrywoman returning from market-day with my children. What business have I with tumblers and vagrants!”
“That I’ll see for myself, woman,” said Tonio, jumping unsteadily down from the donkey and approaching the cart. Tonio had been drinking, and his little eyes were red and fierce.
“Keep your hands off my children!” cried their plucky mother, brandishing her whip. But Tonio was not to be kept away.
“I will see them!” he snarled. He thrust his ugly face into those of the three boys, one after another, eyeing them sharply in the growing darkness. But there was little about these sun-browned, black-eyed youngsters to suggest the slender, fair-haired Gigi.
Tonio peered into the cart. He even thrust his long, lean hand into the straw that covered the floor, and felt about the corners, while the boys wriggled away from his touch like eels from a landing-net. Gigi held his breath. But Mother Margherita would not tamely endure all this.
“Get along, you vermin!” she cried, striking at his hands as he approached the forward end of the cart. “Can’t you see that the boy is not here? What would he be doing in my cart, anyway? I’ll trouble you to let us go on our way in peace. My man in the house down yonder will be out to help us with his crossbow and his dogs, if we scream a bit louder. Be off with you, and look for your boy in the village. Is it likely he would have come so far as this, the poor tired little lad?”
“The others are searching the village,” growled the Hunchback tipsily. “They’ll find him if he’s there. ’Tis likely you are right. And then! I must be there to help at the punishing. Oh! that will be sport!—Have any other teams passed you on the road?” he asked suddenly. “Have you overtaken no one on foot?”