Meaning No Harm Part Two - Of Plum Trees and Ponies

On Monday Sam stopped in early at Bag End when the householders were barely up, to tell Bilbo he was going down to the Cotton's farm for a load of manure. Merry came from the kitchen, (with his hands and arms and even his face well dusted with flour from the biscuits he was rolling out) and his eyes danced mischievously at this news, but he only said hello and made no comment. Sam left quickly, slightly pink at the ears.

He walked fast down Hill Road trying to stay warm in the icy air, but even so, when he got to the bottom and left the sheltering mass of The Hill behind the sharp north wind pierced his winter coat and woollen breeches, and the chill settled into him. The long tramp on the frozen, frost-coated ground had his feet aching with the cold by the time he got to the lane leading to the Cotton's farm. It gave him good reason (though he really needed none) to stop in at the Cotton's kitchen and warm himself with a mug of tea, a muffin or two and the company to be had there. So the sun was almost at the top of its own journey when Sam rode back through Hobbiton on the farm cart. He waved and returned the shouts of greeting from the village lads he knew and took with good nature the teasing of those who had no jobs to do that day and were reveling in their freedom. But to Sam's way of thinking they were the proper ones to be pitied, with no job of work like his own, and so no prospect like he had of seeing his labour of just one day go on making brighter blooms and a better harvest in Mr. Bilbo's garden through the long summer.

At the bottom of The Hill Sam jumped down to ease the small pony's burden. She was a brown mare that he and young Tom had named Biscuit when she was just a foal and they were not much older. He had ridden her since he was a little lad and she was his favorite pony at the farm - a willing worker but with a streak of independence when the mood took her. Sam kept carrots in his pockets for her reward. Half way up the Hill at the steepest part he stopped to give the pony a rest and a treat. When the first carrot was gone she nuzzled the pocket of Sam's coat, guided by the smell of the small sack of carrots tucked away there. "Go on, you!" Sam laughed and affectionately pushed her head away. "You'll get those when you've earned them and not before."

Suddenly Biscuit started and tossed her head. Around the uphill corner pelted Pippin, calling to them as he came up. "Hello Sam! I saw you out the window! You've been an age getting back. We've been down to Hobbiton and back already this morning."

Sam murmured soothingly to Biscuit and then said, "hello, Pippin, mind you come up slow next time, this pony don't know you and didn't hear you neither."

Pippin nodded eagerly. He reached up to pat Biscuit gently on her soft muzzle and laughed as she lowered her head and curiously snuffled his curly brown hair. "Ponies are nice, aren't they? Father keeps ponies and I'm going to have one of my own next Yule if I show him I can take care of one properly." Sam nodded, and clucked to Biscuit. She strained in her traces and resumed the slow climb up the Hill. Pippin skipped along beside her, stretching to peer over her back at Sam on the other side. "I've got a pony at home to ride and help look after, though he's not mine really; he's Pearl's, she's my sister, but she doesn't care much for riding anymore. He's a good pony, too, but he's getting old."

When they got to Bag End Pippin gave Biscuit a final pat and suddenly remembered to hurry in for the lunch that had almost been on the table when he had spotted Sam from the parlour window. Sam took the cart around to the garden. He unhitched Biscuit, covered her with her blanket, fetched her a bucket of water, and poured a small ration of oats into her feed pail. Then he went home for his own meal.

An hour or so later Sam was back. The north wind had died down and the still air grew warm in the pale afternoon sun. Swallows dipped and dived over the garden. As he shoveled out the wagon, Sam paused every now and then to wipe the sweat from his brown face and to gaze bemusedly up at their playful flight. The wintry morning had turned to a spring day. He turned at the sound of voices and saw the four hobbits setting out from Bag End. Bilbo waved and came up to talk to him. The others followed.

"I see the Gaffer approved of your plans, Sam!" Bilbo's eyes twinkled.

"Yes sir, he did," Sam grinned, then turned serious, remembering what his dad had told him at lunch, "and he said I should ask you about them two oldest plum trees." He gestured to the small orchard of ten or so fruit trees at the end of the garden. "They're almost dead, Mr. Bilbo, and they don't bear much fruit anymore. What they do give is hardly fit to eat. The cold this past winter can't have done them much good neither. My Gaffer thinks we should cut them down and pull the stumps. We've got some saplings down at Number 3 and he'd be that pleased if you took your pick of them."

Bilbo looked at the two old trees set slightly apart from the others, and close to the hedge at the back that was grown tall and thick over the long years. Their gnarled, lichen-speckled branches stood in silhouette against the sky, and some were obviously brittle and lifeless. Bilbo's own father had planted the trees the year he built Bag End. As a lad Bilbo had sat in their highest strong branches under summer suns, feasting on warm plums and gazing down on the far away goings on in Hobbiton. He sighed. How many years ago? "What do you think, Sam?"

Sam leaned on his shovel and said regretfully, "that me dad's right. They're not dead yet, and it'll pain me to chop them down living and all, but it pains me more to see them die slow and struggle to put out a few blossoms each spring. I can do it tomorrow. I talked to Farmer Cotton already, and I can have Biscuit - the pony that is - for another day." He gestured to the little mare some ways off and enjoying the eager attention of Pippin under Merry's supervision. "She'll pull the stumps for me."

"All right, Sam. And then I'll come and choose a couple of replacements, shall I?" Bilbo looked thoughtfully at Frodo. "Or perhaps you should do that, my boy. After all, you will be the one to enjoy them to the end of their fruitful days."

Frodo smiled. "And Sam will help me."

A shout from Bilbo brought Merry and Pippin back from their visit with Biscuit. "Come along you two, we mustn't keep Dora waiting! As you said, Merry, the sooner we get there the sooner we can leave."

Merry pulled a face and staggered up behind Frodo, draping himself over his cousin's shoulders as if overcome with emotion. "Bilbo is far, far too kind to wee Pippin and myself, cousin Frodo, offering to share with us his precious time with Aunt Dora so we can spend a lovely afternoon in her dark, close parlour, listening to her news of this hobbit and that, and hearing the history of her every ache and pain. We are not worthy of such consideration, being too young to properly appreciate it. Abandon us instead to the misery of an afternoon in the cold, damp fields and woods."

Pippin stood gaping quizzically at Merry. Frodo laughed as he shrugged Merry off his back; Bilbo snorted appreciatively and nodded to Frodo, who said, "perhaps you are right, Merry, and are not yet ready for such trials, besides you argue your case well. Off you go on your tramp then. Bilbo and I will be back from Dora's by sundown."

* * *

So Merry and Pippin visited with Sam and the pony a short while, then ambled off through the fields and meadows. Late afternoon found them footsore and weary in Hobbiton, taking to the road now for the quickest way home. In the distance they spied Sam driving the pony cart away to Bywater. With a whoop, their tired feet were forgotten as they raced to catch him up.

"Where are you going with the pony, Sam?" called Pippin when he was barely within earshot. "I thought you were keeping her another day!"

Sam reined the pony in and waited for Pippin to come up. Merry was close behind. When they both stood panting at the side of the cart Sam explained, "I have to take her home to her barn tonight, and I'll come back for her early in the morning. There's no stable for her at Bag End, is there? It's too cold for her to spend the night in the open."

Without waiting for an invitation Pippin clambered up. "We'll come with you, won't we, Merry!" He sat down on the bench next to Sam and grinned up at him. "I would like to see the Cotton's farm."

Merry climbed eagerly in and pushed Pippin over to make room for himself. "Is that all right, Sam?"

Sam nodded, shifting over to make more room and satisfied to have company, but he warned, "it's a fair walk home, though."

Farmer Cotton was in the barn when they got there, and was well pleased to finally meet Merry and Pippin, of whom he had heard from time to time from Sam and his own Tom. Pippin eagerly demonstrated his skill with a pony by unhitching her and brushing her down with Merry's help. Sam and the farmer watched and chatted together, somewhat amused to have two young gentlehobbits very competently put the farm pony up for the night.

Darkness was coming on as they passed through Bywater on the long walk home. Bywater Pool sparkled under a moon waxing near full. Mists rising from the damp verge of the road filtered the warm glow from the windows of the Green Dragon. The inviting sound of laughter and song made the young hobbits long for their own snug homes. Wearily they trudged along, too tired for talk, and certainly too cold and hungry to dawdle or stop to rest.

* * *

Late that night, long after Merry and Pippin were fast asleep, Gandalf arrived at Bag End. Frodo was in his bed, too, and halfway down to a dream when he dimly heard the wizard's familiar tap at the door and the patter of Bilbo's anxious feet in the entrance hall. He smiled with relief and snuggled deeper under his quilt. The two old campaigners would wear away the night together and wouldn't be needing him. Still, their hushed and eager talk held his sleep at bay for a long while, though when sleep came finally it was deep and dreamless.

The next morning Pippin answered the door to Sam's knock, but he didn't tell him who had arrived in the night, heeding Frodo's warning that Sam might not come in if he did. Indeed, the sight of Gandalf in a deep chair by the parlour fire stopped Sam at the threshold. Gandalf inspired mostly wonder in the young gardener, tempered with a touch of fear kindled by Shiretalk. Some folk said the wizard was an unpredictable conjurer who'd turn a hobbit into a toad as carelessly as a cat would scratch a flea. Sam sincerely doubted that; after all Gandalf had spoken to him a few times before, and kindly enough. But still, Sam couldn't be sure, and now that he was older and his brothers had left home what would become of his sisters and dad if anything happened to him? But Mr. Bilbo had come back safe from his adventures with Gandalf, the greatest adventures any hobbit ever had, and he was fast friends with the wizard to this day. Mr. Bilbo would never let anything happen to him, and nor would Mr. Frodo, Sam felt sure. And besides, Sam wanted to see Gandalf. Gandalf knew elves; he went to Rivendell and Mirkwood and many places stranger and beyond, and he had told Sam of his journeys before.

So hesitantly Sam came in. He said his hello to Gandalf in a whisper with a shy nod, and was rewarded with a kindly, if appraising, smile. Then he sat at the table in the dining room, still and quiet, with a mug of tea and a plate of toast, (spread with the Cotton's honey), eager for a story from Gandalf; but the old wizard was content to listen to Bilbo prattle on with news of the Shire. He sat with hooded eyes, puffing slowly at his pipe.

If anything Gandalf's presence increased Pippin's usual giddiness. He was in perpetual movement from kitchen to window to table, now hanging over Merry's shoulder, now kneeling on his chair at the table to reach across plates for honey or toast or bacon. Merry was subdued but not daunted, and attentive to the conversation, joining in when he had something to say, and saying it well.

Gandalf tolerated Pippin's ways though Bilbo was irritable. Four hours sleep might explain it. When he had snapped at Pippin a fifth time for reaching across the table, Frodo sent him off to wash his hands and face and brush his hair. A concurring nod to Merry's questioning look sent him off to supervise. The room was suddenly silent. Frodo sat across from Bilbo, regarding his uncle thoughtfully. The old hobbit had gone quiet and was now studiously spreading more jam on his toast than he liked. Sam got up and started stacking the empty plates and mugs on a tray. Frodo began to help.

"What are your plans for today, Sam?" Frodo asked.

Sam hefted up his tray and paused, "well, Mr. Frodo, I'm going to cut down them plum trees and pull the stumps, like me dad said I should. Farmer Cotton's lending me the pony again today. I'll fetch her now, I suppose." Sam could have cut down the trees first, but he liked the pony's company for as long as he could have it.

Frodo followed him into the kitchen with a laden tray, nearly colliding with Pippin tearing wildly down the hall, closely pursued by a sodden and outraged Merry. Pippin shouted over his shoulder, as he darted behind Frodo, half laughing, half pleading. "I'm sorry Merry, the basin tipped, I didn't mean to soak you!"

"And I'm not meaning to tickle you!" Pippin tried to keep Frodo between himself and Merry, but Frodo was having none of it; holding his tray high, he deftly twisted away and Pippin made a dash for it. But Merry cornered him by the woodbox in the kitchen and tickled his neck and ribs mercilessly. Pippin collapsed onto the floor, squealing.

Bilbo came to the doorway. He stood with his hands on his hips, scowling at the two offenders. "Out! Both of you." He said testily, gesturing towards the front door. "If you can't behave indoors then misbehave outdoors out of my sight and hearing!" He turned and stalked back to the dining room. Subdued, Merry pulled Pippin to his feet, and grinned a bit sheepishly at no one in particular.

"You had best get out of Bilbo's way today," Frodo said with a glance down the hall. "Why don't you get changed, Merry, and take Pippin for a walk."

"Oh, come with us, Frodo!" Pippin tugged his hand.

"No! I am cleaning up the kitchen and then I need some time - some quiet time without you two, I'm afraid - with Bilbo and Gandalf. You will have to fend for yourselves today."

Pippin gave a tremendous pout and chased after Merry out of the kitchen.

Frodo leaned with folded arms against the worktop, watching Sam fill the sink with hot water from the kettle. He shook his head. "I don't know what to do with them today." His somber look startled Sam. "Bilbo and Gandalf say they have something rather important to discuss with me, but leaving those two at loose ends for a second day . . . ." his voice trailed off.

Sam turned from the sink, speaking eagerly. "Let them come with me, Mr. Frodo, to Farmer Cotton's farm and all, to fetch the pony. Pippin, Master Pippin, that is, he wouldn't leave that pony alone yesterday, and Mr. Merry goes where Pippin wants, or so it seems."

Frodo looked gratefully at Sam. "I wouldn't impose by asking, but I admit I would feel better if they were with you, Sam and not roaming all over Hobbiton bringing further disrepute to Bilbo's name. But I don't want them in your way and interfering with the work your Gaffer has set for you."

Sam picked up the tray of plates next to Frodo and said earnestly, "no, Mr. Frodo, of course not. Send them along with me, sir. They'll be fine. Though Mr. Merry don't want looking after, and he'll keep Pippin in line, and no mistake."

"Of course he will, as long as he doesn't step out of line with Pippin himself. If they do go with you then they will be less likely to get into mischief, but that's not your concern. They'll have to look out for themselves."

Merry and Pippin reappeared noisily with their cloaks on, jostling each other for position in the threshold.

"We two exiles are leaving, Frodo. When might we be permitted to return?' Merry asked dramatically.

"Oh, I suppose we'll let you back in at night fall." Frodo gave Sam a conspiratorial look. "And mind you stay out of Sam's way, he is fetching the pony from Farmer Cotton again today and has a lot of work to do cutting down those dying fruit trees and pulling the stumps."

Pippin turned to Sam. "Oh, let us come with you to get the pony, Sam! May I ride it back? I know how to ride bareback! Father says I can have a pony of my own if I prove I can take care of it, so you must let me help you with this one!"

* * *

Bilbo took a tray of tea things into the study and put it on the corner of his desk, out of Gandalf's way, who was already seated there, idly sifting through some papers. Gandalf sat back, watching the old hobbit rearrange the tea things until Bilbo finally gave him a self-conscious glance and a feeble smile, and sat down. They waited together quietly for Frodo to finish up in the kitchen. When he appeared Bilbo sprang up to pour them each a mug, with considerable agitation and fuss. Frodo drew his chair close. He looked curiously at the papers strewn on the desk, displaying both Bilbo's spidery hand and Gandalf's strong, ornate script. They had been busy during the night.

"Are those your notes for the party, uncle?" Frodo finally asked in a gentle attempt to stop Bilbo's dithering with the tea things. But Bilbo had slopped the tea. He was muttering to himself and meticulously (and uncharacteristically) blotting every drop from the desk, the floor and even his own breeches.

"Yes, they are my lad - lists for the party - the guests, the gifts, things to be sent for, food, drink, entertainment, all that sort of thing. There is so much to organize. But I am planning something else, my boy." He glanced at Frodo then away, speaking quickly. "I am sorry not to have told you sooner, but I needed Gandalf's advice in the matter before I made up my mind and it was no good consulting with you, because you would only worry." With a weak smile he handed Frodo a mug of tea. His hand was trembling. "I knew you wouldn't be able to advise me beyond saying that I must do what pleased me most, and not concern myself with how you get on. And anyway, Gandalf is really the only one who can counsel me in this." His eyes flickered from Frodo to Gandalf, who rewarded his rather puzzled look with an encouraging smile, "and he seems to have taken a special interest in what I decide to do though I don't quite know why . . ."

And so Bilbo rambled on, almost to himself, putting uncounted spoonfuls of sugar into his tea, taking cakes and buns onto his plate and then returning them to the serving dish, wiping his hands on his napkin when they didn't need wiping. As Frodo listened, understanding - confirmation really - of what his heart already knew, flooded over him, and he tried to chew and swallow with a mouth gone dry and a throat gone tight. He gulped his tea. Bilbo paused finally, smiling apologetically. "I'm not making much sense I'm afraid, trust an old hobbit to make a mess of this when it's really quite simple." He pursed his lips ruefully and said quietly, "but not easy." Bilbo fumbled for Frodo's hand, "my dear lad . . . " He faltered and dropped his gaze.

"You're going away," Frodo whispered, "you're leaving the Shire." His eyes widened as if in awe that the long anticipated decision had finally been made. He forced himself to say something - to reassure his uncle who had fallen suddenly silent at hearing Frodo guess what he had not had the heart to tell him. "I know it is what you've longed for all these years." He summoned a smile. "It's all right, Bilbo. In a way I have always known it would happen, I just didn't know when."

Gandalf shifted in his seat, leaning forward and resting an elbow on the corner of the desk. He watched Frodo intently, but he said nothing. Bilbo now clasped Frodo's hand with both of his, and looked at him with overbright eyes. "I underestimate you; my boy, no matter how high I raise my expectations, I always underestimate you."

Frodo shook his head. "I have lived with you twelve years, uncle, and you are not as close with your secrets as you like to think you are." He thought for a moment and then cocked his head with a small hint of playfulness. "So your birthday celebration will be a going away party as well, and my coming of age will be a true day of independence."

"Well, my lad, very likely it will be, indeed." Bilbo glanced at Gandalf, "I feel I have made up my mind about it all, but still I have those niggling doubts that are, I think, the result of being planted for sixty years in the same spot. I won't say I am going, Frodo, only that I mean to, and we will see if in the end my feet will take me where my heart wants to go."

* * *

So as best he could Frodo closed his heart to grief and regret, and spent the long morning hours going over all Bilbo's plans, and reassuring him that they were good, and secretly hoping that those outside the birthday celebration would never come to fruition. When Bilbo went to the kitchen to make more tea, and Gandalf stepped out to the porch for fresh air, Frodo was left alone without the sanctuary of their distracting talk, and then he could not stop himself from reflecting on his life with Bilbo. And he thought back, as well, to how he had come to live at Bag End all those years ago.

When the news first went around at Brandy Hall that Bilbo was adopting the Baggins orphan as his heir Frodo had found himself enduring his relatives' knowing smiles and their insinuating talk of his 'good fortune' - the rumours that Bag End was filled with Bilbo's dragon treasure were as alive in Buckland as they were in Hobbiton. To the least generous minded Frodo was gambling his comfortable life in Bucklebury on the chance of a rich inheritance, and buying it with a few years' companionship to his queer old uncle.

Bilbo's fortune was of no interest to Frodo and this presumption that it was simply confirmed his decision to leave and gave further proof that after nine years residence in Brandy Hall he was still no Brandybuck, and had not earned the tolerance one Brandybuck usually gave another when weighing their conduct and motives. But in Bilbo, 78 years his senior, Frodo had found a self-effacing uncle with insight, good humour, quick intelligence and, most importantly, a simple and sincere affection for him. Though Frodo did not understand what had suddenly prompted his uncle's offer of a home, he knew that he and Bilbo were akin in spirit even more than in blood, and he accepted his offer with gratitude and relief.

For experience had already proved to him that Brandy Hall had never been, and would never be, the home he needed. When he was approaching his tweens Frodo had for a time emulated his cousins of like age in their irresponsible behavior as they tested the limits of their freedom and of their parents' patience. His cousins delighted in boasting to one another of the punishments they endured for their misdeeds and then delighted again in risking even greater retribution for worse mischief. But Frodo's lesson had been much harder than theirs. When he was 19 years old Farmer Maggot beat him and set his dogs on him for a series of foolishly brazen raids on his mushroom field. The explanation Frodo gave to Old Rory and the few aunts and uncles who bothered to ask - that he had got the bruises and cuts on his arms and legs by falling out of a tree - was a blatant falsehood. And though every adult hobbit knows the mark of a willow switch well enough, none looked beyond the lie to wonder if the punishment had been earned, or if the wrongdoer needed something other than a beating to keep him on the proper path to adulthood.

So it was Frodo learned what he had really been trying to find out: that at the Hall there was no adult interested enough in him to censure his conduct and give him guidance. Bilbo was willing to do both. Indeed he provided both with an irascible affection that soon spoke to Frodo's heart, and finally broke that silence of nine years. And Bilbo restored Frodo to his proper place in the Shire and he thought of himself again as 'Frodo Baggins, Drogo's son, of Hobbiton' and to this he added 'heir to Bilbo Baggins'.

Now, sitting alone in the study Frodo thought how his inheritance was coming too soon. He would gladly have traded every penny of it to remain with Bilbo to the end of his uncle's days. But that decision was not his to make or to influence. He thought how Bilbo had committed himself to twelve more years in the Shire when he took Frodo in; Frodo could ask for no more than that.

He heard his uncle padding down the hall and quickly stood, turning his back to the door, gazing out the study window and wiping his suddenly stinging eyes. In came Bilbo behind him to quietly return the tea tray to the corner of the desk. Frodo felt his uncle's eyes on him and at the tentative touch of a hand on his shoulder Frodo turned to him, smiling. Bilbo looked careworn and old, somehow. He could feel his uncle's hand trembling on his shoulder.

Bilbo peered anxiously at his nephew and dropped his hand. "My dear lad, I do not mean to make you unhappy, you do understand, don't you?"

"Of course I do, Bilbo!" Frodo kept his tone easy. "But you must give me a few days to reconcile myself to the sudden idea of becoming the Master of Bag End in the autumn and its solitary occupant."

Bilbo looked about the room with a sigh. "I have been very content here all these years, especially since you came to live with me. Too content, perhaps. But Bag End is a fine place for a Baggins to be content in, Frodo. It will serve you well."

"I would not ask for more, uncle," Frodo said softly, "and though for myself I do not wish you to go, I know you must do what your heart tells you." Then suddenly, without strain or falseness, he laughed. "You cannot deny the Took within the Baggins, can you?"

Bilbo chuckled, "no my lad, it seems I cannot, though not for want of trying." He held Frodo's gaze and again became serious. "Of all the things I have done in my long life, even on my adventures with the dwarves, the best thing I ever did was to adopt you. Of that I have no doubt." He faltered and looked away. "And you must believe that I do regret leaving you like this, more than I can say."

Frodo hesitated a moment, then took the chance, "then take me with you, uncle." He composed his face into a look of conviction as Bilbo raised his eyes again to hold Frodo's. "I will go with you, if you will have me."

Bilbo shook his head, speaking firmly. "No, Frodo, your place is here still." Now his gaze softened, "you will be my heir and the Baggins of Bag End for the rest of your life, which will be long and happy, at least that is my hope. And even if you do not stay here forever, still you are not ready to leave the Shire," he sighed, "not yet." He held Frodo's eyes with his own as Frodo tried to look away. "You know that, Frodo, and you know as well that I do not mean to come back. I will not take you forever from a home you do not truly wish to leave."

Frodo bowed his head, feeling his uncle's gaze still on him. He could not deny his words. He was not ready to leave the Shire, not yet. The endless transformations of the seasons delighted him still, and he anticipated each one before the passing of the former. And still more he delighted in discovering who these young visiting cousins of his were, and he wondered who they were becoming and would one day be. Frodo sighed. But even so he still felt that the only place he really wanted to be was with Bilbo, and he told himself that he did want to see the wide world - someday. Adventure called him, but not loudly enough. In these past twelve years he had become bound to Hobbiton - his birthplace and the home his parents had chosen for him. He wished it was not so, and struggled in his heart against it, feeling his uncle's sad, patient eyes on him.

At a small, apologetic sound from the doorway Bilbo turned and exclaimed, "Gandalf, how long have you been standing there! Well, here is the tea waiting, and now that you have cleared your head with a sniff of the outdoors come and tell me what you think of this poem I have written." He looked at Frodo and said gently. "I think we have had enough of planning my birthday for this morning."

* * *

When the three young hobbits got back with Biscuit it was almost noon. Gandalf was sitting in the bentwood chair by the front door, smoking his long stemmed pipe, and so deep in thought he did not acknowledge their arrival. Shortly after, Frodo came out to the garden and asked Merry and Pippin to go in and help Bilbo with lunch.

"I thought we were banished for the day!" Merry exclaimed.

"All except for lunchtime. Imagine if your parents thought Bilbo was starving you!" He raised his eyebrows in mock horror. "I'll see you both when I get back."

Pippin looked curiously up at Frodo. "What do you mean, Frodo? Aren't you having lunch with us?" To even Pippin's young eyes his cousin seemed not quite right.

"No, I am going for a walk." He thrust his hands in his breeches pocket and turned to look at the road winding away from Bag End, speaking to it and to the garden. "I have spent the whole morning cooped up in a warm study with Gandalf and Bilbo, breathing in their pipe smoke and going over all the details and plans for Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party, and more. He is determined to do something very memorable once and for all." Frodo looked back at his two cousins. "So, off you go."

They went, slightly perplexed.

Sam hobbled Biscuit and took her a bucket of water, and then he stood, resting his arm on her broad back. Anxiously he watched his young master who stood silent in the middle of the vegetable garden, hugging his cloak close against air now grown warm, and looking upon Hobbiton with unfocussed eyes. Finally Frodo turned to meet Sam's gaze and smile sadly at his open look of concern. "What is it, Sam?"

Sam started, and realized he had been staring. "Nothing, Mr. Frodo," he said softly, "only you seemed in a bit of a brown study there, and a sad one at that, begging your pardon, and not looking like you'd just been planning a glorious party for Mr. Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday, and all."

"Well, we have spent the morning discussing some things more serious than birthday celebrations, as well". He walked up to Biscuit, and patted her on her soft muzzle, saying more cheerfully, "come on, Sam, if you're going home for your lunch I'll walk that far with you." They fell into step. "Thank-you for keeping Merry and Pippin occupied today, Sam; it's a relief to know they are not getting into mischief."

"I don't mind, Mr. Frodo, of course not. It's gotten lonely at times in the garden this past winter, being by myself most days, with no growing things to keep me company, so to speak." Sam paused; Frodo did not respond so he asked quietly, "would you want to come and pick out the sapling trees now, Mr. Frodo, or leave that 'til tomorrow?"

But Frodo was off in another reverie and Sam let him be. Frodo did not speak until they reached the junction to Bag Shot Row, when with brief words he took his leave of Sam, and made his slow way down the Hill, oblivious to his young gardener's worried eyes following him as he disappeared around the bend in the road.

* * *

Sam chopped the two old plum trees down quickly after lunch. Getting the stumps out took only an hour or so of digging, chopping, and levering by Sam and Merry, with Biscuit pulling under Pippin's encouragement. Sam was grateful for the help. He was left now with the last task of chopping up the trees for firewood, and as he had only the one axe there was nothing more for Merry and Pippin to do. He thought perhaps they should take Biscuit back, now that her job was done, and he could leave the chopping until tomorrow and have an early end to his workday. But Pippin had a better idea. He was delighted with Biscuit. She was a smaller pony than Pearl's and seemingly more good natured and quiet, so he asked, "Sam, if you're done with the pony can I take her for a ride with Merry? We won't go far, will we, Merry?"

Merry looked from Pippin to Sam, understanding somewhat the impertinence of Pippin's request, but he as well wanted a bit more fun this day. "You needn't worry Sam, Father keeps ponies, of course, so I know how to handle Biscuit and I'll keep an eye on Pippin."

Sam hesitated, rubbing his sweaty face with the back of his sleeve. She was not his pony to lend out as he wished. Still, Merry and Pippin had impressed Farmer Cotton with their skill the evening before. Sam, too, had no worries, at least with Merry. He thought gratefully how both had been willing and cheerful helpers in getting the stumps out. And, if they went off for another hour or two and then took Biscuit back to the Cottons with him it would be nigh on to their late teatime when they got back and Sam would have done all Frodo hoped, perhaps beyond expectation, in keeping them occupied for the day. He looked at the sun, halfway down the sky. "All right, Master Pippin, but mind you're back before sunset."

So he handed Merry the small sack of nobbly carrots he had brought from home that morning and gave them each a leg up onto the pony. She was used to being ridden without bridle or bit. Pippin sat in front clinging to her mane with Merry behind holding Pippin snug with one arm around him.

As Sam handed the lead to the halter up to Merry he gave him a quiet caution. "She's a good pony, but there's a streak of mischief in her when she's feeling frisky." Merry nodded. Sam held Biscuit's bridle and put his face close to hers, saying firmly, "mind yourself, and be good, none of your tricks now or Sam'll have a word or two with you, and no mistake."

Merry clucked to Biscuit and gave her a gentle kick. The pony hesitated. "Off you go, now!" Sam encouraged her with a gentle slap on her rump. She snorted, tossing her head as if unsure of leaving Sam behind, then started off down to the gate.

* * *

The cousins first made for Overhill, until they came to the bottom of the far side of The Hill, and then they bore east towards Bywater. The air was warm when they weren't in the shade and it carried the faint scent of flowering fruit trees and the rich smell of fresh plowed earth. Spring was hurrying along. It was a fine afternoon to spend on a pony, aimlessly exploring unfamiliar woods and meadows.

Biscuit proved to be a quiet pony, going along placidly, trotting with some reluctance and always ready to slow to a walk at the gentlest command. So, when an uneventful hour of rambling had taken them across the Stream and almost down to Bywater, Pippin managed to persuade Merry to let him ride Biscuit alone. They came to an open common meadow, bordered by pine trees to the east, and by fences running along unplowed fields to the north and here Pippin could safely ride Biscuit alone under Merry's watchful eye.

So now Merry sat on the fence as Pippin trotted away on the pony. From behind Merry could see his small cousin's legs splayed so widely over the pony's broad back that Pippin's thighs and knees could not grip tightly enough to stop his bottom from jogging up and down. Pippin leaned forward, clutching Biscuit's mane and the halter lead with both hands. His courage grew as they trotted successfully across the meadow. Impetuously he kicked his sharp heels into Biscuit's flanks, urging her into a gallop. She hesitated, then obliged.

From Merry's point of view Pippin stopped rhythmically bobbing up and down and now seemed in a perpetual jounce and fall that was constantly saved by Biscuit's moving back. Swiftly Merry stood up on the top fence rail and bellowed "Pippin! Whoa, whoa! Easy, easy!" Pippin risked one hand off the mane to wave away Merry's concern, came unbalanced and accidentally pulled the halter lead. Abruptly, Biscuit swerved and changed gait. Dumbstruck, Merry watched as hobbit and pony simply and inelegantly parted company. The beast came around with a snort and Pippin continued briefly on his journey towards the trees, flailing through the air and smacking flat into the ground on his chest and stomach. Merry imagined he could hear the distant impact; it looked so sudden and painful.

Down from the fence he leapt and raced towards his cousin - and towards Biscuit trotting friskily back to him. She stopped short at the sight of Merry's frantic charge and with a wild-eyed whinny turned tail, galloping for the woods and kicking up her heels. She disappeared into the gloom of the narrow woodland path.

Merry paid her no mind. He threw himself onto the ground beside Pippin. "Pippin! Pip! Are you all right?" Pippin lay spread-eagled on the long grass and soft earth. He turned his head to give Merry a weak smile and rolled over with a groan. "I flew off, Merry." Gingerly, he sat up, swaying slightly. "Did you see me?" he asked, subdued and almost awestruck. "All of a sudden she turned and I just flew and fell." His hand planed flat through the air and smacked onto the ground in a re-creation of his flight.

Merry put a steadying hand on Pippin's shoulder and peered into his eyes. "Are you sure you're all right, Pippin?" Nodding, Pippin took a deep breath and then simply sat there looking bemusedly down at his muddy jersey and breeches. Merry stood to lift him gently to his feet. He wiped a clump of dirt from Pippin's chin and brushed dry grass and such off his jersey, watching his pale cousin anxiously. Finally, Pippin shook his head to clear it, experimentally waved his arms in the air and jogged in place. Everything still worked. "I'm all right!" he confirmed with a laugh, then looked around. "Where's the pony?"

She had not come back. "Come on, we'll catch her," said Merry, "she went into the woods." They trotted towards the path, Pippin fully recovered now and calling sternly in his high piping voice, "Biscuit! Biscuit, oh you are a bad pony! Come and have a carrot!"

The woods were just a narrow windbreak between the fields and they soon emerged on the other side to find Biscuit tranquilly grazing in the middle of the next field. The lowering sun burnished her coat. Idly her tail flicked the flies from her back. Merry clucked to her and up came her head. She gazed benignly at him. He moved tentatively forward, murmuring encouragingly, and motioning to Pippin to stay back. He stretched out his hand and Biscuit stretched her neck towards it, nostrils flaring, head bobbing slightly as she searched for the scent of a carrot. But Merry hadn't thought to get one from the small sack in the pocket of his coat. He was close now, almost in reach of her halter and the trailing lead. With a shift of his weight he lunged. Swiftly Biscuit stepped back, turned and trotted off a few feet, snorting and swishing her tail. She came about to face the two hobbits, stomping a hoof and whinnying, as if inviting Merry to try again. He did, and when he was almost in reach of her then again she pranced away with another snort and a toss of her head. This was a fine game.

Pippin spoke sternly, like a small child admonishing an even smaller one. "Biscuit, come back now and be a good pony, or I'll tell Sam on you!" but his eyes danced with amusement and the suppressed laughter in his voice kept Merry from truly losing his temper. Merry tried a third time armed with a carrot. Briefly it lured her. Up she cautiously walked and her lips brushed the tip of the carrot in Merry's outstretched hand. He drew the carrot back slightly, wanting her to step forward into the reach of his free hand. Years of outmaneuvering overenthusiastic Cotton youngsters had made Biscuit too smart for that trick. She whinnied in annoyance and trotted away.

"Oh, what a bad pony you are!" Pippin cried, stamping a foot in exasperation. Now he chased wildly after her. She snorted and trotted away, tail high, turning her head from time to time to watch the small hobbit behind her. She began to trot around the field. "You come back now, Biscuit!" yelled Pippin.

Merry watched in amusement as they circled around him, Pippin chasing after Biscuit and Biscuit trotting away, keeping well ahead of her small pursuer. He knew Pippin would never catch her this way, but he knew enough about ponies to be sure this one wasn't going to run off, and was just having a bit of fun.

And so Biscuit trotted in a wide circle around Merry, snorting and tossing her head, slowing or stopping whenever Pippin slowed or stopped and breaking into a trot or a gallop whenever he tried to suddenly sprint up to her. After a while it was hard to tell who was chasing and who was being chased. Biscuit had worked herself around so Merry was always between her and Pippin, and they circled tighter and tighter as Pippin cut the corners of the circle to catch up. She was having a grand time trotting around and away - or was it towards? Merry noticed she seemed to be catching up to Pippin.

"Pippin!" he called excitedly. "Run towards the path in the wood." Pippin veered for the trees and turned around, trotting backwards to watch as Biscuit followed him. Merry shouted, "run down the path a ways and stop. I'll chase her in if she doesn't follow. We'll trap her between us. Be careful! Get out of her way if she tries to stampede you."

Pippin turned and scampered off, with Biscuit trotting hesitantly after him, confused a little now by the change in the game. When her playmate disappeared down the path she slowed, reconsidering, and made to turn back.

Arms raised, yelling encouragingly, Merry came up behind, "hup, hup Biscuit! Off you go, Biscuit! Forward, Biscuit!" She stopped short, confused again about which way to go. Then the distant sound of someone calling, off behind Merry, and the answering bark of a dog somewhat closer, made up her mind. She bolted down the woodland path. Merry raced in behind. "Here she comes, Pippin! Look sharp now."

"Whoa, Biscuit, Whoa!" came Pippin's answering cries almost an octave above normal with excitement and surprise, then, "she's turned around, Merry, she's going back to you." And here she came, trotting back, wide eyed, with her neck arched and tail held high. She slowed to a walk and snorted in annoyance as Merry approached.

"Easy, Biscuit, easy," Merry murmured. He held out a carrot and walked slowly up. The smell of pony sweat was strong in the still, cold air. Pippin jogged up behind her. "Talk to her, Pippin! Let her know you're there! You'll get a kick if you come any closer!"

Pippin stopped. "Go get the carrot, Biscuit," he encouraged her. Biscuit swung her head around, eyed Pippin just out of range of her heels, and seeming to realize the game was over, looked back to Merry and walked docilely up to take the carrot. Deftly he grabbed the halter lead with his free hand and stood next to her, stroking her damp neck and watching the flex of her huge cheek muscles crunching her treat.

They led Biscuit back to the first meadow. The sun was gone . The light quickly draining from the clear sky left a pale moon and early stars glittering down. Pippin shivered in the freshening breeze and said, "we're going to be late getting back with the pony." Merry nodded. They had better hurry, by his reckoning they were almost as far as Bywater by the back fields and so had close on to two miles to cover over unfamiliar terrain in the growing dark.

They climbed the fence and mounted Biscuit. Pippin trembled in the cold. He leaned back into Merry's warmth, snuggling into the protective arm Merry put around his belly to hold him tight against the night chill. Merry looked thoughtfully down at him. Pippin was dirty and bruised but otherwise no worse for wear, and as they trotted quickly along Merry now had time to give silent thanks for that. He felt Pippin twist around to look up at him. "Merry," he said haltingly, "we don't have to tell anyone about Biscuit getting away from us, do we? She's safe and we did well catching her."

"You're worried about what your dad might say, aren't you, Pip?'

Pippin tensed a bit with annoyance at his predicament. "Yes! And why does he need to know when there was no harm done?"

"Sam should be told, though, he trusted us with the pony, after all," Merry said reasonably.

"But she's fine." Now he resorted to the sensible tone and reasonable style of argument he would use with his mother when he wanted something. "And she's his favorite pony, Merry - he told me so. I think if we told him he would worry about what might have happened to her. That would not be very nice."

Again, Pippin twisted around to look up at his cousin. His muddy face seemed pale in the early moonlight. Merry hugged the small form tighter. "All right, Pippin," he agreed reluctantly, "what you say makes sense, I suppose."

"Promise you won't tell then?"

"I promise." But still, his heart was uneasy.

* * *

The plum trees had long been chopped into firewood. While the sun had dipped down to the horizon Sam stacked the wood in the pile by the shed, pausing at times to scan the lane and meadow for Biscuit. She did not come. He dug out the root holes and back filled them with a mixture of soil, mulch and manure. The sky turned deep, deep blue; evening came on.

Now in the fading light with his work done Sam again scanned the road rising up to Bag End and the meadow behind the garden. He cocked his head to listen, but only the faraway sounds of an axe thumping sharply against firewood, a dog barking happily, and laughter from the Ivy Bush drifted up in the clear still air. No clop of pony hooves or excited chatter heralded the arrival of Biscuit and her guardians.

Sam did not know what to do. It was almost dark and they were long overdue. He doubted Merry and Pippin were lost, but if they were then he should look for them, though he didn't know which way to go and like as not they would come back safe and sound by some other route while he was gone, and then he would have made himself later still in getting the pony back to Farmer Cotton. And no doubt Farmer Cotton was starting to worry by now, or leastways would start to worry long before Sam could be back with the pony, what with Merry and Pippin being so late already, and then the farmer would wonder as well about whether he could trust Sam with a pony or anything else. But there was no sense going to the Cottons' without the pony to try to explain, that solved nothing, better instead to look for them or to wait, however long that took. And now his sisters were holding dinner for the second time in a week. He wished he could go and tell them not to, but then he might have to explain to the Gaffer about Merry and Pippin being late with a pony he had lent them without Farmer Cotton's leave, and that wouldn't do. Anyways he had to either stay at Bag End or go look for them. Anything else wasn't much to the purpose. He hoped Mr. Frodo wouldn't come out to fetch Merry and Pippin before they got back. It would ruin the whole point of letting them go off with Biscuit if Mr. Frodo had to search for them, and bother Mr. Bilbo as well with worries of them being lost.

Sam wandered from the front of the garden to the back in his agitation, while these thoughts chased each other through his head and he tried to decide what to do and how to make things right. His growing worry was now mingled with anger- at Merry and Pippin for not being back, and at himself for trusting them with the pony. Finally he heard Pippin's lilting voice singing some silly parlour song, and the dull quick thud of Biscuit's trotting hooves on the turf in the meadow. The pony came through the break in the hedge at the bottom of the garden and stopped as Sam ran up to her.

Pippin called to the dim figure looming out of the gloom. "We're back, Sam! We've had wonderful fun, haven't we, Merry! Biscuit especially had a grand romp. Hasn't it gotten dark! We didn't mean to be late and we're sorry but Biscuit . . ."

Sam cut Pippin short. He was angry that Pippin's tone did not confirm his words of apology, and he was angry to have been so worried when, now that Biscuit was safe, he could see there'd been no need for it, and angry that he'd thought he could trust Merry to do what he promised when it seemed clear now that he couldn't. Altogether it made him gruffer than he meant to be.

"Yes, you're late," he growled, "and now you've made me late - in getting the pony to the Cottons, and in getting my own self home! Get down now so I can go!" He checked himself at the sound of the gate latching at the top of the garden and Frodo's voice calling cheerfully.

"Come along, Pippin, and you too, Merry! You don't have to wait for an invitation to come in. It's pitch dark. Surely that's enough to tell you your exile is at an end and it's time to get ready for dinner."

Pippin swung his leg over the pony, slid off and ran to Frodo, glad to get away from Sam's surprising temper. Merry got down; quickly he gave Sam a leg up onto the pony. "I'm sorry, Sam," he whispered, "we shouldn't have been late, I know, but . . ."

"Never mind, Mr. Merry," Sam answered in a low, hurried voice, "what's done is done, and 'sorry don't undo a deed,' as my dad likes to say." He was mindful of Frodo standing not far away, and perhaps within earshot of even their quiet voices. "I've got to get the pony home now. Good-night to you," and not waiting for a reply he gave Biscuit a gentle kick and turned her towards the garden gate. "Good night then, Mr. Frodo," he said quietly as he went by.

"See you tomorrow, Sam," Frodo called after him.

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