Adventures of Three Hobbits: Part Four - The End - by pippinsqueak
PART FOUR: PARTNERS IN CRIME
In the early evening they came to the village of Much Hemlock and stowed their packs at the elm tree Frodo and Sam had camped under on their outward journey. The heat of the day was waning slowly; night bugs coming out in the cooling air pestered the hobbits with their crazy flight about ears and faces. Across the field the windows of the Crow and Gate pub glowed warmly in the fading light and the evening breeze carried the distant sound of voices and song. Frodo was weary from his long walk with sullen companions.
"We're going to the pub," he said.
The pub was crowded and noisy. They took a small table in the quietest corner away from the bar and the front door. The barmaid who had served Frodo and Sam on their outward journey remembered them. "Well, here are the two travelers, heading for home, no doubt" she said, brushing a limp curl of hair from her warm forehead, "and they have picked up a third. He looks somewhat the worse for wear".
Merry's hand went to his swollen eye, but he smiled gamely up at the barmaid. Sam looking sullen said nothing. The barmaid pursed her lips thoughtfully as she noticed the bruised knuckles on Sam's right hand.
"I will have an ale" said Frodo, and then added quickly, before Sam could plead his case "and young Samwise may have half a mug. Master Merry will have a glass of your finest fruit juice."
But the crowd of regulars at a large table close by calling jovially for another round of drinks had drawn her attention. "I'll be back with your ales in a tick" she said distractedly, and hurried off, soon returning with three full mugs of ale, which she set quickly on the table. She was gone before Frodo protest. Merry quickly claimed a mug, raised it to Sam in a silent and triumphant toast, and drank. Sam scowled at him, but as he took a sip of his own ale his eyes glanced mischievously at Frodo, and he chuckled as he set down his drink.
"Oh, well" Frodo said with exaggerated resignation and secretly feeling relieved to see some form of communication between his charges, "I suppose one mug won't hurt you."
* * *
They slept late the next morning waking with the sun full in their faces and to the calls of the vendors at the village market plying their goods. Frodo had his business to conduct for Bilbo in the village and decided they would stop in Much Hemlock for another night. After a late breakfast, (or early elevenses) he set off, telling the young hobbits "I should be back no later than teatime. Don't wander too far, stay together and stay out of trouble. See if you can catch a fish or two for this evening."
Without a word Sam got his fishing tackle, line and hooks from his pack and with his hatchet cut two fishing poles for himself and Merry from a nearby ash tree. He silently handed Merry his gear and they each chose a secluded spot at the river. Sam's luck was better than Merry's; he hooked three large trout over the next few hours and impressed Merry with his skill in landing them, though the younger hobbit said nothing. But still he lent a hand with the third and largest one, which came off the hook as Sam finally got it onto the bank and would have flopped back to the river if Merry had not been so quick to grab it. Sam sharpened his small knife on his whet stone and cleaned his three fish and Merry's two, then wrapped them in cool leaves with some dill and thyme he gathered and placed them in the shade of their campsite.
When Sam was done Merry stood up from the shade of the tree where he had been idly watching. He stretched and caught sight of the pub across the field. "I could do with a drink," he said eagerly. It was mid afternoon and the heat was closing in on them now they had left the cool breezes of the river.
Sam's brown eyes widened. "But we can't go in the pub without Mr. Frodo, and like as not they won't serve us ale without his leave, and anyways, we shouldn't drink in the middle of the day. Besides, I haven't got any money." Running out of excuses he looked anxiously at Merry; in truth he wouldn't mind another whole mug, but he knew Mr. Frodo wouldn't approve, and he wasn't sure he wanted to go with Merry
"Never mind that," said Merry vaguely and set off across the field at a good pace. Sam hesitated; it wasn't in his power to dissuade Merry, and Mr. Frodo had told them to stay together and stay out of trouble - it seemed now he couldn't do both. With considerable misgivings (tempered by the thought that even if they were lucky enough to be served they would surely get no more than one mug) he loped off after Merry.
It was Saturday afternoon and the pub was as crowded and noisy as it had been the previous evening. Merry quickly claimed their small table of the night before. The same pretty barmaid caught Merry's eye across the room and raised three fingers in the air. Merry smiled, raised two fingers, and nodded.
When she brought their ales she said "Well now, I shouldn't be serving you lads if you're all alone. Where's your uncle gotten to?"
"Oh," said Sam "he's not Merry's un-" but Merry kicked him under the table.
"He'll be along soon," Merry reassured her "he told us to come ahead and save a table. He's just finishing up some business in the village." The barmaid eyed them suspiciously as Merry smiled innocently up at her, but she took Merry's money without a word.
Taking a sip of his ale and leaning back with a satisfied grin Merry said smugly, "see, Sam, just show some confidence, and it's easy".
After a time a group of farmers came into the pub. Sam recognized Farmer Mugword from Tighfield among them, and his face reddened. He was a longtime friend of the Gamgee family, knew both Andy and Hamfast well, and indeed had been Andy's guest for dinner one night the week before. Farmer Mugword scanned the room for a free table, spotted Sam and went over to him.
"Well, if it isn't young Master Samwise," he said drawing up a chair, "and what might you doing here?"
Flustered, Sam explained haltingly how they were traveling back to Hobbiton and stopping in Much Hemlock for a day.
"No, Sam" said the farmer with a chuckle, "I meant, what are you doing in a pub without your Mr. Frodo that Andy said was taking you back to Hobbiton. I'll have a word with the Gaffer about this, I will, next time I see him." But he winked as he said it.
Sam glanced at Merry for help, but he sat back smiling, with his arms crossed. He had almost finished his mug, he was quite certain they wouldn't convince the barmaid to serve them again and this old hobbit didn't know his family.
"Mr. Frodo's just delayed," Sam stammered, his face flushing brighter, "he'll be along shortly".
"I daresay," said Farmer Mugword with a knowing smile. His friends pulled chairs up to the small table, and ordered several jugs of ale to keep from having to bother the barmaid for more rounds. A lively discussion of the crops, the weather, and farming in general began. The farmers were greatly amused by Sam as he desperately joined the conversation to draw their attention from Merry who was sitting quietly and surreptitiously refilling his and Sam's mugs whenever the opportunity presented. Sam, with his young, high hobbit voice and compendious knowledge of all growing things provided a diversion (though perhaps not in the manner he had intended) that became increasingly entertaining as his talk grew more rambling and vague with the waning of the afternoon. More than once he found all the farmers regarding him with barely suppressed amusement as he lost the thread of his thought and rambled to a stop.
After a couple of hours, Farmer Mugword and his friends drained their mugs for the last time and stood up. "Well, Sam," he said, "thank you for a very interesting afternoon, but I think you had best go look for Mr. Frodo before he finds you where you shouldn't be". He laughed, slapped Sam on the back and then turned to Merry, "and you, young Master Brandybuck, you should know better than to help yourself without a `by your leave'; but no doubt tomorrow morning will teach you both a lesson". His friends roared at that as they walked across the room to the door. Farmer Mugword stopped at the door and whispered to the barmaid. She looked across the room at Sam and Merry and laughed.
"Ohhh, Sam, I think we'd better go," said Merry slowly. He got unsteadily to his feet and leaned with both hands on Sam's shoulders as he tried to find his balance. Sam staggered up and gazed blearily around the room; he couldn't seem to locate the door. With his hands still on Sam's shoulders and giggling madly all the while Merry guided Sam from behind across the crowded room. The barmaid had waited for them by the door and she opened it for them now, looking rather grim. Merry smiled inanely as he stumbled out. They collapsed onto the bench outside the pub and began to laugh hysterically.
"Merry," gasped Sam "how much did you give me to drink? I couldn't stop talking to those farmers. I'm sure I must have sounded a right fool".
"I didn't give you more than you would have, and why not? They knew what was going on all along. You did keep me busy topping you up, though."
"I was that nervous, thinking they'd find us out, an' all that talking made me thirsty," Sam explained.
The sun was westering; it was getting on to teatime and they hadn't had any lunch. Sam stood up, swaying slightly as squinted his eyes and looked around uncertainly in the bright sunlight. He seemed to have lost all sense of direction. "Where's the camp?" he asked vaguely, and then the thought that they were lost not more than a mile from their campsite struck him as extremely funny, and he collapsed in another fit of laughter. Merry stood and pointed decisively at it "yonder" he announced pompously, and sat heavily down again, snorting and chuckling.
Vendors and passers by eyed the young drunken strangers with a mixture of amusement and disapproval, but did not bother them as they continued to sit bemusedly in the warm sun. Finally, Sam turned his thoughts to tea. "Fish," he groaned "I don't think I can stomach no fish right now."
Merry was struck by a sudden thought. "Apples" he cried, "sweet, juicy apples, just waiting to be picked, in that orchard over there, come on Sam". He got shakily to his feet and trotted heavily off without waiting for a response. Sam hesitated, his brain not so completely muddled that he didn't know Merry was leading him even closer to potential disaster. But he couldn't stop Merry, and he didn't think he could find his way back to camp on his own. So he loped unsteadily after him, wondering vaguely what his old dad would say if he was caught drunk and scrumping apples. He realized he didn't seem to care.
A low fence bordered the apple orchard and the farmhouse that stood to the south of it. To the north it ran almost to the forest. They crawled under the fence where it bordered the road some distance from the farmhouse. Merry put his arm on Sam's shoulder to keep him low and out of sight and took him in a wide arc around the perimeter of the farm to the far end of the orchard to the north. They made slow progress - to Merry's great amusement Sam kept falling down.
An especially large and laden tree stood at the end of the orchard. Merry threw his tunic on the ground and began to climb. Standing underneath and looking high up at him Sam became so dizzy that he suddenly found himself lying on the ground. Merry lay along a high branch over Sam, shaking with laughter. The sight of Sam, suddenly lying flat there beneath him was hilarious. Sam closed his eyes and lay still. The warmth of the sun on his face, the smell of the dry grass, and the odd spinning movement of the earth lulled him. He began to doze. Merry giggled and dropped apples on him. With a snort and a shout Sam rolled out of the way and staggered to his feet. He took off his own tunic and piled the dropped apples onto it. Then he stood under Merry reaching his arms up. "More!" he laughed. Merry threw apples over Sam's head to make him chase after them. The apple picking degenerated into a wild game of catch as the young hobbits began to shout and laugh, forgetting where they were and what they were doing. The sound of barking dogs brought them up short.
"Dogs! Dogs, Merry!" Sam shouted spotting the beasts racing furiously towards them through the orchard. "Get down, get down!" he yelled with rising panic and standing under Merry held out his arms as if to catch him. "Go on!" said Merry, scrambling down as best he could. "I'll catch up to you."
"No, Merry," Sam fought back his fear, "I can't leave you to the dogs." Then he turned, saw that the three large mongrels were making good progress and losing his head pulled at Merry's pant legs which were now in reach, bringing him down on top of him. They scrambled up and pelted towards the forest a few hundred yards away. Merry in the lead jumped the farmer's fence nimbly but Sam was unable to decide whether to go over it or through it until the last second. He vaulted awkwardly and fell heavily, the wind knocked out of him. Flat on his face he pressed himself to the ground with fear; the dogs were very close now, maybe it would be better not to try to run away, "maybe I'll pretend to be dead", he thought drunkenly. Dimly he was aware of Merry yelling frantically "Sam, Sam, get up, come on!" And then Merry was pulling him to his feet and pushing him into the woods. "Run, run!" The dogs chased them down the dark forest path, barking wildly.
* * *
Farmer Puddifoot leaned against the fencepost outside his farmhouse, watching the whole scene with considerable amusement. He had been resting on his porch, gazing idly at the village, when he had seen the two young hobbits stagger out of the pub. When they made for his orchard his interest increased. He had let them get well into their game before letting the dogs loose. But now the entertainment was over, they had all disappeared into the woods.
He turned at the sound of a voice. "Farmer Puddifoot? Good afternoon, Frodo Baggins at your service. I'm looking a pair of lads, apparently delinquent and drunk and last seen heading for your fine orchard". Frodo held out his hand and the farmer shook it. "One of the rogues is my cousin, the other is my uncle's young servant."
"Aye, they were here", said the farmer suppressing a chuckle "having a game of catch with the apples from my best tree over there. So I set the dogs on them."
At Frodo's cry of alarm he laughed again. "Nay, Mr. Baggins, don't be concerned. My dogs don't bite; they'll just put a bit of fear in those lads and teach them a lesson. Better they learn it from my dogs, than from those that do more than bark. Can you hear them? They sound like they'll rip your throat out, but they've never hurt nobody, not without my command. Probably time I called them off." And with that he gave three piercing whistles. In a few moments the dogs came racing out of the woods.
"The lads left their tunics under the tree, if you want to fetch them. And take all the apples they've picked. It's certainly been a good year, and I'll not miss those few, especially as they're still a might green for eating." He shook Frodo's hand again and laughing followed his dogs around the back of the farmhouse.
As he gathered the tunics Frodo thought again of his own transgressions against Farmer Maggot. Of course he had been younger than these two and had not exacerbated the crime by conning drinks at the local pub first. But he thought with a smile that at least they now seemed to be working with a common purpose. As he walked off into the woods he wondered why Sam and Merry still hadn't come out. After a bit he heard them talking out of sight around a bend in the path; from the sound of their voices Sam was high up a tree and Merry on the ground. Remaining out of sight he stopped and listened.
* * *
Merry stood at the bottom of a tall pine tree peering up, trying to see Sam among the ladder of branches that rose up the trunk. He was certainly very high. "Come on, Sam, you can do it," Merry said encouragingly.
"I can't," Sam called down, close to tears, "I can't get my legs to move, I'm too high Merry". He sat straddling a branch, hugging the tree trunk tightly, heedless of the sharp edges of the bark digging into his cheek.
"If you climbed up, you can climb down." There was no answer and Merry sighed. "Hang on and I'll come back up".
"I don't even remember climbing up." Sam finally mumbled. "Them dogs was that close, I couldn't think of nothing but getting away, and with you puffing up behind me and all, I just kept climbing."
Merry climbed swiftly up. All right," he said, "look, put your foot here. Give me your foot and I'll guide you." He took Sam's foot and placed it on a lower branch, holding his leg steady while Sam swung the other over the branch he was straddling.
It was a long struggle for Merry to get Sam down. Though he had been the one feeding Sam drinks all afternoon he hadn't realized until now how drunk Sam was, nor had he appreciated how the fear of heights would immobilize him. It took ten minutes of calm and continuous encouragement to get Sam safely down. All the while Merry stayed close and vigilant, fearful Sam would lose his footing and fall.
When both of his feet were finally back on the forest floor Sam stumbled off the path into the bushes and was sick. He took a moment to collect himself, feeling weak and shaky, and suddenly sad and then walked slowly back to Merry. "Thanks for helping me down, Merry, I was stuck and no mistake." He looked at Merry's face - the swelling seemed a bit worse and the bruise was beginning to turn yellow and green in spots. "Oh, Merry," he said hoarsely, touching his cheek gently, "your poor eye looks so awful, I'm that sorry I hit you," and for some reason he began to cry.
Merry was embarrassed. "Yeah, that's okay, Sam," he said awkwardly, "I guess I had it coming in a way. Come on, we'd better get going". He put his hand on Sam's shoulder to steady him and they started down the path towards the field, and towards Frodo, still listening out of sight.
"Merry," said Sam, stopping and beginning to feel sick again, "our tunics are in that orchard and we can't fetch them now what with the dogs and all, and Mr. Frodo's bound to know we've been drinking. Everyone's still mad at you at the Hall. What if he sends you home and you don't get your visit. It was a mistake going to that pub, and that's a fact." He paused to steady his voice and try to focus his eyes on poor Merry's face. He thought how Merry had bravely dragged him away from the dogs, and patiently helped him down from the tree, even though Sam had hit him and never apologized. They began walking again. Sam staggered a bit and struggled to contain his sobs. With an effort of self-sacrifice he said "I can tell Mr. Frodo its all my fault, I'm on the outs with him what with your eye an' all, so its no matter if I makes it a bit worse". And saying this he rounded the curve in the path and walked right into Frodo.
"Nobody needs to tell me anything," Frodo said looking grim and handing them their tunics. Then he turned away to hide the smile he couldn't suppress. Merry and Sam looked at each other. In another time and place Merry might have found the look of horror that passed across Sam's face amusing, but for the moment he was completely occupied with quelling the wave of nausea that passed over him.
* * *
That night Merry and Sam went to bed early. Frodo had led them silently back to the campsite and because of their condition had neither lectured nor punished them. But he remained awake by the fire for some time, pondering the considerable responsibility he had unwittingly assumed in taking these two young lads under his charge. For the first time he appreciated fully Bilbo's courage and generosity in adopting him.
* * *
Some time after midnight Sam woke. He no longer felt drunk but his head throbbed and he was terribly thirsty. Getting quietly up he crept down to The Stream with his mug. The almost full moon on this clear night cast a faint light onto the woods on the opposite shore and its reflection shimmered on the silently flowing water. Sitting on the bank, massaging his sore head and drinking from his mug Sam became aware of the sound of singing across the river - a melancholy song sung by a clear, lilting voice in a language that was strange, but vaguely familiar. It was a moment before he placed it - Elvish. Many mornings Bilbo had taught Frodo the language of the elves while Sam took his lessons. Heart pounding, he peered towards the sound and thought he could see a figure half hidden in the woods on the opposite bank. It shone faintly, but not with the reflected light of the moon.
Sam scrambled to his feet. "It can't be an elf, Sam Gamgee," he said to himself "you're dreaming, or still drunk more likely". But desperately he wanted it to be true. Quickly he knelt at the edge of the bank and plunged his curly brown head into the river, sluicing water down his neck and gasping with the sudden cold. "There!" he said jumping to his feet and wiping the water from his eyes "see if that don't wake me up and make me see straight." Then he stood, taut and still, holding his breath without knowing it, peering across the river and listening intently. The singing continued. A softly glowing figure stepped out from behind a tree and turned towards Sam, almost as if it were aware of his longing to see it more clearly. The elf looked straight at him, and laughing with delight raised its hand in a gesture of greeting, then slipped away deeper into the woods.
Sam sat suddenly down on the grassy bank, thunderstruck. And there he remained under the moon's glow, calming his pounding heart and waiting futilely for the elf to return, until the chilling of his wet hair and damp shirt forced him back to his bed and blanket. "They'll never believe me," he muttered as he lay down, "I'm not sure I should believe me, but I do though."
* * *
Frodo heartlessly roused Sam and Merry early the next morning to be sure they experienced the full consequences of the previous day's transgression at the Crow and Gate. Sam rolled with a groan into a sitting position with his blanket around his shoulders and his forehead resting against his bent knees. He massaged his throbbing head. He had been having a wonderful dream about elves and now he was awake, feeling miserable and thickheaded. With a start he remembered his trip to the river in the middle of the night. After a moment's reflection he shook his head in disbelief. "It was nowt but the dream, you never saw an elf," he told himself with regret, "you've been wrapped snug in your blanket all night."
Merry climbed ponderously up the bank from the river and eased himself down next to Sam with a groan. "Here Sam", he said, "I found your mug down by the river." For many minutes longer Sam sat, pensively holding his mug, a small puzzled smile on his face.
* * *
Frodo cooked breakfast: bacon, and then tomatoes and bread fried in the drippings. Neither Merry nor Sam was hungry. Sam collected some bark from a nearby willow tree and steeped up his gaffer's headache remedy for himself and Merry, and they each forced down a mug of weak, sweet tea as well.
No one spoke much. Sam kept his thoughts to himself as he continued to ponder the elf. Try as he might he could not convince himself that it had been dream or a delusion of drunkenness, but he thought sadly that he would never really know for sure whether it had happened or no. "And like as not you won't get another peep at an elf for the rest of your days, Sam Gamgee" he sighed, and then admonished himself "see if that don't teach me to mind my drink".
Frodo made Merry help Sam with the washing up, and he did so without complaint. When they were done they sat together on the riverbank, talking quietly and Merry especially chuckled every now and then at some particularly humorous highlight of the previous day's misdeeds. But the state of their heads would quickly subdue them. Finally, Sam lay back and mumbled "Oh, Merry, no more pubs for a while, okay". Merry lay back beside him with his hands behind his head and began to quietly hum a drinking song they had heard in the pub the day before. Sam groaned.
Frodo did not let them rest much longer before they set out. High overcast clouds made for a hot, muggy day. Frodo set a good pace through the woods. Sam and Merry, glad at least to be out of sun, lagged further and further behind until Frodo disappeared from their sight down the winding forest path. They were both miserable. Their heads ached, their stomachs were unsettled and their thinking was muddled. A fork in the path brought them to a puzzled halt. The more traveled way to the right led north, and Hobbiton was to the south, but the left path was narrow and the branches of the shrubs and trees which partially blocked it gave no indication that Frodo had chosen it. Merry quickly dropped his pack and sat down, welcoming the excuse to rest. But Sam stood pondering the two paths for a few moments longer until Merry grabbed the back of his pack and pulled him down. "Time to rest!" he laughed, "Frodo will be back sooner or later, no sense in taking the wrong way and missing him when he comes."
So they sat, resting quietly. Sam shared the last of the willow bark tea from his water bottle with Merry. Suddenly feeling somewhat revived and very hungry Merry dug out the bit of food he still had, - three apples and half a loaf of rather dry bread. Sam didn't have anything with him. They had both hardly eaten since the previous morning - last night they had both been too drunk and sick, and this morning too hung over. But now they were ravenous. Merry borrowed Sam's knife and divided the little bit he had evenly between them. They quickly ate their meager elevenses.
Merry watched Sam as he sadly and unsuccessfully examined his well nibbled apple core for any trace of remaining fruit. "Sam," he said, his voice sounding oddly strained, "I haven't apologized to you for my part in what happened at the river the other day, for leaving it to you to help Frodo out of the water and laughing about it when it wasn't funny. I gave Frodo a real fright, I realize that now, but I didn't mean to, you know. And I didn't know how scared you were either."
Sam blushed fiercely. "That's okay", he mumbled and stood up quickly. "I'm going to go look for some berries or such for us," and he walked off down the overgrown path. In a few minutes he was back, empty-handed but grinning sheepishly. "Mr. Frodo's in a clearing not more'n a couple of hundred yards away, setting up camp and all. Let's go have some real lunch."
* * *
Frodo decided the lads had suffered enough and that they would go no further that day. Sam and Merry had a long nap after they had eaten, and the color slowly returned to their faces as they slept. They awoke late in the afternoon feeling almost normal. To Sam's dismay Frodo had made no preparations for tea so he set off with their three water bottles in his pack to find The Stream gurgling and chattering in the woods to the north. When he returned with the water and an armload of firewood Merry and Frodo were engaged in a fierce game of tag.
Sam sat and watched, cheering Mr. Frodo when he tagged Merry with a wild tackle that brought them both down hard onto the grass. After enduring Sam's partisan support for a good many minutes Merry finally trotted innocently over and then flung himself on Sam, pinning him to the ground on his back. "Samwise" he shouted, trying to sound stern, but betrayed by an irrepressible laugh, "I forbid this unfair favoritism, you must give me my due for skillful play!"
"I won't" cried Sam, feeling startled, and uncertain, and more than a little bit pleased, "if you're against Mr. Frodo then you don't have my support!"
Suddenly Frodo bowled Merry off Sam. "Leave my most excellent Sam alone!" he laughed and briefly wrestled with Merry on the grass until he defeated him.
Sam was smiling and blushing fiercely. He left them to carry on their game and set about building the fire in preparation for tea.
* * *
That evening they sat up late around the fire. The overcast sky made for a warm night. Neither Sam nor Merry were tired after their long afternoon naps.
"Will you tell a story, Mr. Frodo", Sam asked, "one of Mr. Bilbo's adventures perhaps?"
"Yes!" cried Merry eagerly "what have you got?"
It was soon settled that they would hear the tale of the three trolls that Bilbo, Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves had come across on their journey in search of Smaug. Sam knew this one by heart, but as he knew all Mr. Bilbo's tales by heart it was no matter to him and he enjoyed hearing it in Frodo's words. Frodo was soon exasperated however.
"Sam Gamgee" he cried "if you interrupt one more time to tell me I missed something, or got it in the wrong order, or that Gandalf or one of the dratted dwarves didn't quite say it the way I did, then I'll let you tell it and be done with it."
Sam would have felt hurt if he hadn't noticed the corners of Frodo's mouth twitching. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo", he said, his eyes widening innocently, "But Mr. Bilbo always says `practice makes perfect', and he says that if you don't have a mind to what you do wrong when you practice then you won't make perfect, so to speak. So I was just helping you to `make perfect', if you understand." He said this as seriously as he could and then slowly smiled. "But I'll carry on with the story if you like, Mr. Frodo, so as Merry can hear it proper and all."
"That's telling him, Sam!" said Merry with a great laugh, and he was promptly unseated by a shove from Frodo.
* * *
The three travelers arrived at Hobbiton late in the afternoon the next day. Merry wanted to see where Sam lived so they went first to Bagshot Row to drop off Sam. His sisters along with Sam's best friend Tom Cotton, and the Cotton twins, Rose and Jolly, were all taking their afternoon tea in the tidy front garden of Number Three. Shouts of delight greeted Sam as they walked through the front gate. His three sisters each gave him a hug of welcome and then to his surprise Sam found himself being embraced by Rosie. He shyly returned the hug. When he let go Rosie's arm lingered for a moment around his waist and as she drew away she slipped her hand briefly into his. Marigold giggled, prompting blushes from both of them. "Oh, Sam!" Rosie said with some concern and a trace of annoyance "you've gone and hurt your hand." She took it up again and examined the bruised knuckles.
"It's nothing," he replied dismissively, and in an attempt to turn her attention he introduced Merry to the Cottons, calling him "Master Merry Brandybuck". Tom shook hands hesitantly with Merry. He looked closely at his fading black eye and then turned with a puzzled look to Sam who was allowing Rosie to continue her examination of his hand.
Merry responded to Tom's unasked question before Sam was called upon for an explanation. "My black eye," he said to Tom, who turned back, "comes from misunderstanding that has been sorted out." Tom looked doubtful. "And that's the end of it," Merry added cheerfully. Tom nodded slowly.
"Well, Merry," said Frodo, "I think we had best be getting up to Bag End to see how Bilbo has been managing without me."
Just before they turned the corner off Bagshot Row the sound of shouts and laughter made Merry look back. Sam and the Cotton lads were tumbled on the grass in an enthusiastic tangle of three way wrestling.
* * *
The next morning Sam tentatively rang the front bell at Bag End, unsure whether, on the first day of Merry's visit, he would be expected or welcome for his usual morning lesson with Bilbo. But Bilbo showed no trace of surprise at his prompt arrival and in fact was very pleased to see him; his eyes danced as he ushered Sam into the dining room. Frodo had told him every detail of the triumphs and misadventures of both the lads. Bilbo had been extremely impressed and amused.
Frodo and Merry were seated at the dining table just finishing breakfast. As Merry watched Sam fetch his quill and papers from the cubby in the sideboard he suddenly apprehended his own peril. "Well, I'm off", he announced "I think I'll walk into Hobbiton before the day gets too hot and look up some old acquaintances." Frodo put his hand on Merry's shoulder to keep him in his seat. "Now Merry," he laughed, "don't forget the terms of your probation. I believe Bilbo stayed up half the night preparing a very interesting lesson for you this morning." Merry slumped back in his chair in resignation.
* * *
It was nearly eleven o'clock, well past Sam's usual hour for finishing his lesson and joining his father in the garden, when the Gaffer showed up to fetch his son. Frodo let him in. He and Bilbo had been quietly studying Elvish all morning and having not once been interrupted by Sam they had lost track of the time. The Gaffer followed Frodo into the dining room. Merry was seated next to Sam. He had long since finished the work Bilbo had done up for him and was patiently helping Sam with his lesson. Bilbo was sitting back in his chair watching with amusement and approval.
The Gaffer greeted Merry and Bilbo and said "come on now Sam, I'd'a thought you'd be happy to get back out in the garden." He turned to go and then stopped. "Well, now" he exclaimed, "If I ain't getting forgetful in my old age. I've a letter here from Andy I'd like you to read if you would Mr. Bilbo."
"Sam is able to read, you know!" exclaimed Bilbo with a trace of annoyance.
"Aye, so you say," said the Gaffer "but I'd feel better a-hearing it from you. And I wanted to bring it up anyways so as to hear from Mr. Frodo how my Sam behaved hisself on the trip. He's not saying much, and most times I can't make him stop talking."
Sam looked at Frodo anxiously. "There's really nothing worth reporting. I have no complaints to make to you about Sam's behavior," said Frodo truthfully. The Gaffer gave Merry a long look, his gaze lingering on Merry's eye, which to Sam's relief was looking almost completely healed, and then he turned back to Frodo, as if expecting more. "No complaints at all," Frodo repeated, " and Andy's letter will tell you about Sam's stay at Tighfield."
The Gaffer sat down at the table and handed the letter to Bilbo. Merry saw Sam turning red even before Bilbo had unsealed the letter. He left the coins in the envelope as he slowly read Andy's brief note and then he poured them into the Gaffer's hand. Hamfast looked at his son, "so you did do the high work, like you said." He shook his head in wonderment, "all right, Sam, then you should have this all to y'self, well done my lad," and he placed the coins in front of Sam.
"But you and the girls ought to have your share," Sam protested.
"Well, now that's for you to decide, not me," replied the Gaffer with a smile, "but you keep my share to yourself, son, or divide it with your sisters. I'm just glad to have you back safe and sound."