Adventures of Three Hobbits: Part Three - By pipppinsqueak
PART 3: MERRY AND SAM
The next day they went on a little quicker. Frodo had explained more precisely to Merry the nature of the bridge being built and now he was eager to see it. Thoughts of Sam's "bit of high work" had worried Frodo over the past several days but he felt sure Andy's time estimates were accurate and that by now Sam's job would be done. They passed through Tighfield around noontime and took the path across the fields to the river to go first to the bridge. It was a windless day. The heat in the open fields under the clear sky closed in about them.
They met up with Andy first; sitting under the shade of an elm tree about a hundred yards up the field from the river, and in the middle of some intricate knot work on a small piece of rope. At Frodo's approach he got stiffly to his feet to greet him warmly and then turn to Merry. "Master Merry Brandybuck, it is, isn't it?" he said, offering his hand to Merry who was surprised to be recognized by a hobbit whom he had never met before as far as he could recall. "I met you at Hobbiton, years and years ago, it was, when you was a much smaller lad, of course, and visiting your uncle Bilbo and keeping your cousin here that busy, looking out for you!" He laughed and turned to Frodo "I was at the Gaffer's, over for a visit myself" he explained. "Well, Primrose will be that glad to have one more extra at the house, we've never got it full enough for her liking. She'd keep our young Sam forever if the Gaffer'd let her and if she could convince the lad to trade gardening for roping. But there's nowt much hope of that, is there?" He smiled ruefully, and then at the sound of raised voices down by the bridge added softly, "and after these past days like as not he'll never want to tie another rope again."
Frodo could hear Sam's brother yelling angrily and to his surprise he heard Sam yelling back. The high piping voice of the young hobbit carried more clearly across the field. Frodo saw him climbing down off the brace work of the bridge.
"I can't do it!" Sam shouted, his voice rising uncontrollably. "I don't care what you call me, I can't do it, and saying you'll tell the Gaffer don't help neither!" Sam jumped down from the brace work and stumbled to his knees. Anson went up to him but he shook off the helping hand. "Let me alone! I'm done, I'm leaving, you hear!" He was beside himself. Frodo had never heard him so angry and upset.
Andy threw down his rope in disgust. "When will that brother of his learn to let him work things out in his own time? I told Hamson to give it a rest `til I got back down there. Now he's ruined it for poor Sam for the day, and like as not for good. Excuse me," and he hurried down the slope to meet Sam as he stalked away from the river, head down, wiping tears of rage and humiliation from his eyes. When they were within a few paces of each other Sam stopped without looking up at his uncle and though he suffered Andy's hand on his shoulder, he turned away and hung his head when Andy spoke. His uncle stood with him for a few minutes speaking quietlyz; Frodo heard no reply - Sam would only shake his head vehemently every now and then. Finally, Andy gave Sam a quick hug and again speaking gently turned him and gestured up the slope towards Frodo and Merry. Sam looked up; his eyes met first Frodo's and then Merry's. His humiliation was now complete. He wouldn't go back to the bridge, and he couldn't get to his uncle's home without going past Merry and Frodo. He threw himself to the ground, hugged his knees under his chin, and turned his face from them.
"Give me a few minutes, will you Merry" said Frodo. As he walked the short way down to Sam he wondered what good any words he could say would do. Andy was heading back up; "I'll take Master Merry down to have a look at the bridge and meet the lads." He stopped. "Sam's only half done the high work. Finally got the courage to go out on the bridge the day before yesterday. Hamson got him all worked up; just like you heard him trying to do now, and out he went. It was slow work but he did all right until he slipped. He caught himself and no harm done. But he was that shook up and had a time making his way back. Wouldn't talk to Hamson for the rest of the day and hasn't been able t'go out since. Tried all yesterday morning and then I sent him home. Tried all this morning, but I couldn't send him home, he knew you'd be back any time and he wanted to get done, said he'd try again this afternoon. I wish I'd never sent for him. For his sake you understand. But then if he can find his courage, that'll be something." He sighed and looked hopefully at Frodo. "Well, Mr. Frodo, maybe you can help where I can't. He never stops talking about you."
Frodo walked slowly on and sat down next to Sam.
"Hullo, Sam", he said. "Your uncle's told me your troubles." Sam didn't answer. "I wish there was something I could say to help, but words aren't much use when you're trying to find your courage."
"Me brother seems to think they are, calling me every name he can think of. But no, it won't get me out on the bridge again, so maybe what he calls me is true at least. Maybe I am a coward. I'm that afraid of heights and water and all." He spoke thickly, with his forehead pressed to his knees, and his last words were a whisper.
"Oh, Sam," sighed Frodo, "I don't believe you're a coward - Andy told me how you went out on the bridge the other day. That was bravery. And he said how hard you've been trying to go out again. Being afraid doesn't make you a coward, not if you use all your strength to master your fear. But that's a strength that has to come from you. It doesn't come because you're called names or made to feel bad about yourself or told you have to do something." Sam hugged his knees tighter. "You get the strength to be brave from believing you must do whatever it is you're afraid to do, - for yourself or for someone else - no matter how afraid you are. If your heart tells you to do it, then your heart will make you brave."
"Well, me heart must not be telling me loud enough," he mumbled, "because I do want to do it, so's I can get it over with and go home."
"Maybe you have to find another reason," Frodo suggested gently, "that one might not be strong enough."
They sat quietly for many minutes, but Frodo couldn't think of anything else to say that didn't carry the possibility of making things worse. Finally Sam got to his feet. Down at the river Andy was up on the brace work and Merry was going a short way out onto the bridge itself, seeing for himself the different parts of the structure that Andy was obviously explaining to him.
"Why's Merry here?" Sam asked shortly.
"He's coming back to Hobbiton for a visit, he got himself in a bit a trouble and so I agreed to bring him back with me," said Frodo, silently regretting the aggravation Merry's presence must be causing Sam.
"Well, I'm going back to the house," said Sam, turning to go. He stopped and stared across the fields, "I'm not getting done today, and like as not I won't get done tomorrow neither, so you take Merry and go on back to Bag End without me Mr. Frodo. No sense waiting for me, to find courage I don't likely have." And he walked dejectedly away.
For the rest of the afternoon Frodo and Merry watched the work that could yet be done on the bridge without Sam's assistance. When they got back to the house Sam was out in the garden and stayed there until dinner was ready.
In the kitchen Primrose greeted Frodo warmly, shook hands with Merry and then turned to Andy, "It didn't go any better today, then?" she asked. He shook his head and went to the sink to wash up. Primrose turned back to her guests. "I didn't even know Sam had come back early at first, here I was in my kitchen, thinking about what I'd need from the garden tonight when I heard a sound out the window. And there's our Sam, digging around, and composting all the pea vines that are finished for the summer, he must've been back for at least a half hour by the looks of all the work he'd done. Well Primrose, I says to myself, it's not gone right again so just leave him be and let him work it out on his own for now, he'll talk when he's ready. Next thing I know here he is in my kitchen, bringing in the vegetables for dinner and saying we had two guests. Gave me a hug and went out again." She sighed and wiped her eyes. "Oh, I hope this is over soon", and smiling to her guests she bustled over to her stove to see to dinner.
Even with the little warning she had of her company Primrose had managed to prepare a generous dinner with many different dishes; plainer food, certainly, than Merry was used to at the Hall, with a greater emphasis on the root vegetables, but cooked with skill. He enjoyed it immensely and found his hosts interesting and amusing. Sam's spirits rallied when the food was served, though he remained quiet for the most part during the meal. Merry and Frodo relayed all the news worthy of repeating about the goings on in Buckland. And, showing only a hint of embarrassment and still no contrition, Merry regaled them with the tale of his recent intrigues with his young cousins and his comments on what he characterized as his "exile to Bag End" as punishment. Sam looked at Merry with veiled admiration and envy. Being a gardener he generally didn't approve of scrumping, even if he had yielded to the temptation a few times in his rather quiet youth. But Merry's organization of an expedition of youngsters on such a grand scale impressed him all the more so because he appeared to have avoided any real punishment; indeed, in Sam's eyes he had reaped a great reward.
* * *
Frodo purposefully slept late the next morning, and thus Merry did as well, and in that way missed his chance to go with the Gamgees down to the river. To his disappointment Frodo took him to explore the tiny village of Tighfield. They spent a boring and, to Merry's mind, aimless morning wandering about and did not return to Primrose and her excellent lunch until well into the afternoon. (As was their custom the Gamgee men had not returned for the midday meal, preferring to take a prepared lunch with them to eat at their leisure rather than suffer a noontime hike over the hot open fields.) Finally Merry was able to persuade Frodo that they should go down to the bridge, if it could be called persuasion. "I'm off to the rope bridge" he told Frodo, once lunch was over and they had determined that Primrose would accept no help with the washing up in her kitchen.
Frodo followed Merry with a feeling of trepidation that increased as they drew nearer to the bridge. The faint sound of raised voices made him fear that he and Merry would be unwelcome witnesses to another of Sam's defeats. But soon he realized that the shouts were of encouragement and they both quickened their pace. All the older Gamgees were standing on the brace work cheering Sam on as he made his cautious way back across the bridge. Andy turned to Frodo when he came up, "Well, he's done it, just fixed and checked the last rope on the other side and now he's on his way back. Aye, but it's been a trial. Took Anson finally telling Sam not to worry, that he would go out instead, if Sam couldn't. It wasn't a threat mind, just the fact. Anson's the lightest of us grown-ups, though still too heavy for the frame to be safe and all, but he doesn't know what fear is. Sam wouldn't have any of that, of course. Got right mad he did, at himself this time I reckon and a little bit at Anson, for saying he'd do something that foolish, and then he settled down a bit and got himself out there, and he managed it somehow these past few hours, only got stuck a few times with the fear, and never slipped once."
By the time Andy was finished Sam was back. He accepted a huge hug from his brother, cousin and uncle and smiled weakly but triumphantly at Frodo and Merry. Frodo grabbed him for a hug as well and felt him trembling. Then Sam climbed unsteadily down from the brace work to collapse on the grass, where he lay waiting for his heart to stop pounding, gazing with unfocussed eyes up at the high wispy clouds in what now seemed like a cheerful blue sky. Relief, and the small satisfaction he would allow himself to feel at having finally finished the high work, flowed over him. When he was recovered he sat up in the sun to dry the sweat that had soaked through his shirt and Frodo came to sit quietly with him. They watched Anson out on the bridge checking Sam's ropes and knots but making no adjustments. Up on the brace work Merry was trying to convince Hamson to let him go on the bridge, but with Anson on it already it was not safe for his weight as well. When Anson came off they let him go out. As the younger hobbit picked his way confidently across the bridge Sam felt some of his own sense of accomplishment fade. He could hear Andy on the brace work talking to his son. "That one's just like you my boy, not a fear in him, that's the kind to be working on a bridge. Not our poor Sam, I was that worried the fear would make him slip again, and what if he'd been hurt. But he's done and he's safe." Andy raised his voice and called "Come back, Master Merry, that's far enough, Anson hasn't checked the whole way." But Merry ignored him, went all the way to the other bank, waved, threw a few rocks in the river, and came back as quick as he could, grinning and laughing. Sam scowled.
* * *
That evening after dinner was done and Sam had finished helping his aunt with the cleaning up Andy asked Frodo if he would write a letter to the Gaffer for him. Everyone gathered at the kitchen table for this interesting event. Anson drew a jug of ale from the barrel in the cellar and filled mugs for everyone but Sam and Merry. But Andy winked at Frodo seated across the table from him, ready with quill and paper, then placed his own mug in front of his young nephew beside him. "There you be Sam, my lad, well earned and no mistake. Drink it slow, mind." Sam ducked his head and blushed. Merry's eyes brightened at Sam's good fortune and he was about to comment on another young hobbit's thirst when a warning look from Frodo made him satisfy himself with the mug of tea Primrose passed him.
Andy turned to Frodo and hesitantly began to dictate. The rest of the family took an active part, making suggestions for content and wording and arguing good-naturedly about what needed to go in the letter and what Sam could simply tell the family on his own. When this "letter by committee" was done Frodo read it back for final approval; despite the many suggestions and lengthy discussions not much had actually been written down:
I am returning Sam to you safe and sound, and I daresay he will be glad to be back with you and his sisters. He worked hard, and got the high work done and I couldn't be more pleased with him. Primrose says that she couldn't keep Sam out of her garden and it has never looked better. She will miss him very much; the lads will too, and me as well, but I am sure I won't be needing him again for bridge work. You know he is always welcome here for a visit whenever he wants, or rather, for as long as you can spare him. The girls too, we have not seen them since last fall.
We all send our love to you and the girls.
As the letter was read Sam blushed to the roots of his curly brown hair and unsuccessfully tried to subdue a broad smile.
Frodo handed the letter to Andy who signed it with a large, awkward "A" and sent Anson off to find an envelope. While they were waiting for the final ceremony of sealing the envelope Andy took his small leather purse from his vest pocket, counted out some copper pennies and made to hand them to Sam. "Here you are my lad, a small reward for a big job, and I wish it could be more."
Sam put his hands in his lap. "Thank you, uncle, but put it in the envelope with the letter, please, and then me dad can decide what to do with it. He's had extra work in the gardens with me gone and my sisters had to do more, too, so it shouldn't come only to me."
Andy shook his head and handed the letter back to Frodo. "Can you add a `p.s'. Mr. Frodo" he asked, and dictated, "I tried to give Sam some coins as a reward for a job well done, but he won't take them, and said the whole family should have a share and that you should decide."
Sam excused himself to bed shortly after. The effect of the ale had only increased his exhaustion from days of strain and nights of poor sleep - he could barely keep his eyes open. Andy told him to sleep late the next morning and as his brother, cousin and uncle would be up and off to the bridge early as usual Sam said farewell to them before stumbling off to his bed in Anson's room.
* * *
Sam slept deeply and dreamlessly and as if he would never wake up. Finally in the late morning his aunt called him to have some elevenses with Merry and Frodo. He sat bemusedly at the kitchen table, feeling still half in a dream, or as if he had finally come through a nightmare he hadn't known he'd been in. Primrose kissed the top of his head when she put his plate in front of him. "There now, Sam, don't you look different today, like a little boy again, but all grown up at the same time."
When their backpacks were ready, and after Sam had done a final check for any stray possessions he might have left behind in Anson's room, the three travelers gathered on the porch to say goodbye to Primrose. Sam gave her a long hug, and wondered at his sudden sadness at saying goodbye when he had looked forward to leaving since the day he arrived. He would have stayed longer now if he could but Frodo and Merry waited and his father was expecting him. When he finally released his aunt she smoothed the hair from his forehead, kissed his brow and said "Goodness, if you won't be all grown up soon like your brothers." She touched his cheek, "but you don't look like them, do you, they take after the Gaffer, but you are your mother all over, bless her." He smiled a bit sadly and hugged her tight again. "Good-bye, aunty", he said hoarsely.
* * *
Shortly after they set out the wind came up, the clouds blew in, and quickly they were overtaken by a brief squall of rain. The farmland and open fields they were crossing offered no trees to shelter under and the rain soaked them through. When the clouds blew off the sunlit drops on the trees and grasses and flowers dazzled them. The wind dropped and the earth and grass began to lightly steam in the rising heat of the day.
Merry found the atmosphere oppressive. Frodo was quiet, and who knew what Sam was thinking, trailing along behind them. "Time for a bit of fun," Merry thought and racing ahead to the small copse of pine trees at the end of their path through the field he disappeared from sight. Frodo smiled, he knew his young cousin was concocting some plan of intrigue. Sam hurried up to walk with Frodo. "Let's stop for lunch on the other side of that little woods" Frodo suggested, "we can gather wood for a fire, and choose either shade or sunlight to rest in while we eat."
The path narrowed as they entered the small woods forcing Sam to drop behind again. Merry could not be seen in the sudden gloom. There was a rustle in the trees ahead and to the right, and suddenly a pinecone flew out from that direction hitting Frodo on the top of the head. Two more followed, one striking his shoulder and the other going long and bouncing off Sam's face. "Hey!" Sam growled in annoyance, but Frodo laughed, dropped his pack, scooped up a few pinecones and took up the hunt after Merry, who was moving noiselessly between the trees ahead. Merry stopped, shed his own pack, quickly climbed the low branch of a tree near the path and lobbed another pinecone far down the path at Sam, who was now burdened with Frodo's abandoned pack. Merry pelted Frodo with cones as his cousin trotted up. When Frodo stopped under Merry's tree trying to locate his adversary Merry pounced, knocking him heavily to the ground. He tried to wrestle his larger cousin into submission but Frodo began to get the upper hand so Merry tickled him, struggled free of his grasp and laughing ran down the path, out of the woods and into the dazzling sun. Frodo scrambled to his feet and gave chase. With a furious sprint and a desperate lunge he tackled Merry to the ground. They struggled, laughing and gasping for breath for a minute, until Frodo was seated on Merry's stomach, pinning his hands above his head. "You're not big enough yet, Master Brandybuck" he chortled. Merry gave a last struggle and when he went limp Frodo released his grip and began to roll off him. With a wild laugh Merry rolled as well and pinned Frodo to the ground. "I'm big enough now, though" he shouted triumphantly and then let Frodo up.
Sam emerged from the woods, now carrying Merry's pack as well as Frodo's, a scowl of disapproval on his face. Merry leaped to his feet, took one last pinecone out of his pocket and lobbed it at Sam. He laughed wickedly, poised for flight. But Sam ignored the projectile, threw the packs to the ground and stalked back to the woods to gather fuel for a cooking fire.
* * *
They made camp in a clearing by the Brackenbourn River that night. Sam cooked their dinner. Merry showed no inclination to help. "Like as not he has no skill at it neither," grumbled Sam to himself as he dug out his pots. Frodo deferred to Sam's superior talent but lent a hand by building and tending the cooking fire and finding in the woods most of the herbs Sam needed.
Afterwards Sam took the pots down to the river for a scrub. Merry climbed a large and ancient willow tree that overhung the water far beyond Sam's head. He ventured as far as he dared out onto a sturdy overhanging branch to catch a better view of the sweep of the river. The day had turned out pleasant enough for him after all, if a trifle quiet; Sam was proving too taciturn an addition to the party for his liking and Merry longed for a bit more fun. He jumped up, caught the branch above him and swung back and forth on it for a moment, enjoying the small thrill of exposure to a possible fall. "Come on up, Frodo!" he yelled, "it's a beautiful view down the river and across the fields." Frodo clambered up the tree and out onto the branch next to Merry; he was surprised to see how far up he was when he looked back down at Sam standing in the shallows and scrubbing the pots; Sam's eyes were studiously averted from the two climbers.
The setting sun touched the river with gold and warmed Merry's face. He felt a sudden lightness in his heart, the product of a good dinner, his favorite cousin by his side and his first small adventure from home. With a laugh he leaped from the branch and caught the one above for another glorious swing. Frodo's branch dipped and sprang up with Merry's impetuous jump and Frodo was unbalanced. He fell with a cry of alarm and a huge splash into the river. The water closed over his head.
Sam charged frantically in after Frodo. The water would not be over Frodo's head if he were standing but it was deep enough that he felt panic rising as he struggled to get his feet under him. When he finally did Sam was beside him, almost up to his shoulders in the water, his eyes wide with fright. He dragged Frodo out. A good deal of the river had found its way into Frodo's lungs and stomach; he stood at the river's edge choking and coughing so hard that for a moment he thought he might be sick. Sam stood helplessly next to him, struggling to quell the wave of fear and anger that had swept over him at seeing Frodo suffer the type of fall he had dreaded for himself these past few weeks.
Merry scrambled down from the tree. Until Sam had dragged Frodo safely from the river he had stood stunned on his branch. But now he was laughing with relief and shouting words of apology. "Oh, Frodo!" he cried, "I am sorry, but you should have been hanging on tighter! You did look funny! What a great splash you made! But you're all right aren't you?"
Frodo was still too overcome to answer or to even hear Merry. But Sam was incensed. Here was Merry standing on the bank above them, laughing at Mr. Frodo's near drowning without so much as a decent apology or an attempt to help. As Frodo's coughing fit eased and he sat down on the river's edge to collect himself Sam clambered up the bank to Merry. The sight of Merry's still laughing face infuriated him.
"Mr. Frodo's nearly drownded!" he yelled almost hysterically. Another laugh burst from Merry - Sam's language was just too funny and he looked ridiculous in his dripping wet clothes. Now Sam abandoned all restraint. "You're nowt but a ninnyhammer, Merry Brandybuck!" he roared.
Merry was astonished. He had never been spoken to like that by anyone, let alone by the likes of a Sam Gamgee. "What did you call me?" he yelled, feeling his face flush with sudden anger. He took a step towards Sam and reflexively clenched his fists. Sam, misinterpreting Merry's intentions in the heat of his rage and not sorry for an excuse to put his feelings into action, swung at him defensively, connecting solidly with Merry's cheek and knocking him to the ground. Merry lay stunned for the moment as Sam stood over him breathing hard, with wide stance and cocked fists, ready for another swing. "Get up!" he yelled, but his arms were suddenly pinned tight to his sides as Frodo grabbed him from behind, lifting him almost off his feet. "Stop it, Sam" Frodo ordered grimly.
Furious, Merry rose slowly to his feet with his own hands clenched, eyeing his restrained target. "Try it, Merry" Frodo said calmly, "and I'll let him go." Merry paused for a long moment, considering the fire that still blazed in Sam's eyes, and then dropped his hands and turned away. Frodo held Sam tight many seconds longer until the tension drained from his body; then Sam jerked free, stalked across the clearing and threw himself to the ground at the base of a tree. He rested his arms on his crooked knees and buried his face, sobbing.
Merry's eye was already bruising and very tender. But a worse injury had been done to his pride and so Frodo examined Merry's face and listened patiently to his tirade against Sam and the perils of untrustworthy servants until he wound himself down. Once he was satisfied that Merry was calm and the injury to his eye minor Frodo got a cloth and a bowl of cool water and left Merry to bathe his wound. Then he walked in his wet and dripping clothes across the clearing to Sam, still sitting with his head buried in his arms under the tree. Sam was trembling, but whether it was from the chill of his own wet clothes or now suppressed tears Frodo could not tell. He stood over the miserable young hobbit feeling exasperated. "What was that all about?" he asked as gently as he could. Receiving no answer he continued, "Sam, you can't go calling people names and hitting them. Merry meant no harm, it was an accident and I was never in any real danger. I suppose it did look pretty funny to him, even though it was no treat for me."
Sam took a deep trembling breath and looked up at Frodo. "You go and get changed, Mr. Frodo, before you catch your death. I'll gather my things and get out of your road. I can find my own way home."
"What are you talking about, Sam?" Frodo asked in astonishment, "no-one's asking you to leave. Apologize to Merry and deal with it. You can't run away."
He reached down and grabbed Sam's hand to haul him to his feet but Sam gave a cry of pain and drew away. Frodo knelt and examined Sam's hand gently, bending his fingers and pressing on his knuckles, which were red and swollen and already beginning to bruise. "Well, Sam," said Frodo with a wry smile, "I'm not sure Merry came off much worse than you. There's a cracked knuckle or two there that will remind you of your hot-headedness for quite some time. Come on now," and he stood up.
But Sam stayed put. "I'm not apologizing to him. He got what he deserved; flinging you into the deep water and laughing like it was a joke." He felt his chest go tight again. "I was that scared and all, thinking you'd be floated away in the river, just like your poor parents long ago." His face reddened as he realized what he had said. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Frodo sat down on the grass next to him. "Sam, I can look after myself, you know," he said patiently, "and I can decide for myself whether or not I've been wronged."
Sam looked sullenly away. "Well, I won't say I'm sorry when I'm not".
They sat quietly for a few more minutes, but Sam would not give up any more of what troubled him. Finally Frodo stood up. "Get changed, Sam, and go collect the pots. We can decide in the morning what's to be done to fix things up."
When Sam had changed and washed the pots he took his blanket a short way from the campfire to sleep alone. Never once did he look at Merry.
* * *
Frodo sat up with Merry by the fire late into the night. "I am sorry, Frodo," Merry said "I didn't mean to tip you into the river. I jumped without thinking."
"I know that, Merry" Frodo replied, giving him an affectionate pat on the back, "but Sam doesn't, because he doesn't understand you." Frodo sighed, "and he's in no mood to give an apology. I might force one out of him that he doesn't mean, but how that will benefit either of you I can't tell, and I don't know how we're going to carry on if a sincere one is expected." He looked at Merry, "I don't doubt you deserve one, and it may come in time, but not now."
"That's a bit hard Frodo, asking me to carry on without an apology, especially from the likes of Sam."
Frodo was not pleased with this response. "Sam is my responsibility right now, just as you are, and I won't let him travel by himself back to Hobbiton, even if he does know the way. And you, Merry, if you feel you possess some innate superiority to him then perhaps that should include more understanding and forgiveness than Sam is able to show."
Merry looked at Frodo "So, I'm supposed to let your servant strike me and then pretend nothing happened. Why should I, when I've done nothing wrong?"
"I'm not master of Bag End and he is not yet my servant however much he may think he is." Frodo paused, and thought for a moment. "What you did Merry, jostling me out of the high tree into deep water and then laughing at me, was very wrong in Sam's eyes, both because of who I am and what he's been through these past few weeks. And to his way of thinking what he did in response was not so very bad, except for the fact that you are a Brandybuck, and not, say, a Cotton. I've heard Sam called names by his father, and his brothers, like the one he called you, and worse. He takes it all the time, and believes it, I daresay, and more's the harm. The Gaffer hasn't hit him for many years, but there was a brief time when he was just a little lad that it happened often enough. So put that with his growing tendency to assume the yet unappointed role of servant to me and what he did becomes more understandable, though not excusable." Frodo paused, gathering his thoughts. "It's because you're a Brandybuck and not a Cotton that Sam did what he did. You have a claim to me by kinship and friendship that he can never have, nor does he want it, I think, but he sees you abusing it to his simple way of thinking."
Merry shook his head in disbelief. He had always been proud to claim Frodo as his cousin, despite the reputation that attached to him as a Baggins and Bilbo's heir. Merry had no siblings and when he had been little, and Frodo had still lived at Brandy Hall he had often thought of him as his big brother. He still did, in fact. It was not a relationship that he had ever treated lightly, though he and Frodo treated each other very lightheartedly in the usual hobbit fashion. The thought that Sam Gamgee felt it was his place to pass judgment on him continued to be altogether irritating.
Seeing Merry's annoyance Frodo added "and you know, Merry, I was rather frightened. I can't swim, don't forget, and I didn't know how deep the water was. As for Sam, you must have realized he was quite terrified."
Merry looked at Frodo quizzically.
"He hates the water as well as heights, didn't you know?"
Merry pondered this and then said "but he ran into the water like it was nothing!" Frodo smiled at him ruefully and slowly Merry began to understand that Frodo's fall couldn't be turned into a joke after all.
After a few minutes Frodo chuckled. "So far this hasn't been the pleasant walk across the Shire you had hoped for."
"No" Merry replied with a small sigh, "though it has been an adventure of a sort, I think I'm the only Brandybuck of my generation to have been in a fist fight, I wonder what my parents will say?"
"It might be better if we don't bother them with it," Frodo cautioned, "after all, you wouldn't want them to think your cousin Frodo takes you on dangerous journeys and doesn't look out for you". He did not add the equally compelling argument that he would not want the news getting back to the Gaffer by way of irate Brandybuck parents.
Merry finally went to bed but Frodo lay awake for some time, staring up at the bright stars in the deep black and contemplating the rather startling events of the evening. Just before he dropped off to sleep he realized with amusement that only in the last few minutes had Sam begun to snore. "Ah well," thought Frodo, "it is the eavesdropper's reward to hear things he may never have wished to hear. In this case it may do him some good."
* * *
Merry and Frodo awoke the next morning to the smell of breakfast cooking. Sam had obviously been up for some time. The tea was made, the bacon almost crisp and the bread sliced ready for toasting. Merry waited until Frodo was up and eating with Sam before he joined them and then he silently poured himself a mug of tea. Sam glanced anxiously at Merry's eye; it was blue and purple, and slightly swollen. Tentatively he reached over and handed Merry a small bundle of herbs wrapped in a cloth.
"Here's a poultice for your sore eye, Merry," Sam said awkwardly, "the Gaffer taught me how to make them, the Gamgee's own special remedy, so to speak." Merry took it with a small smile but no word of thanks.
Silently they broke camp and set off. Merry seemed to have accepted that Sam would be remaining with them without making any apology. His aching eye subdued him and he tried to keep Frodo quietly to himself during the long day of hiking, but Frodo always contrived to spend a bit of time walking with Sam every now and then. Sam seemed content to have Frodo next to him, but was unable or unwilling to make any conversation.