Thief - Part One - Being the Further Adventures of the Hobbit Boys or The Detective Agency of Baggins, Brandybuck and Took!

Thief - Part 1

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Bilbo, but I found this in my vegetable garden."

Gaffer Gamgee had a rake in one hand and the collar of Peregrin Took's jacket in the other. Peregrin was within the jacket, wriggling for all he was worth. But the Gaffer, after raising three boys of his own, was well able to restrain a squirming child.

"What was he doing in your garden, Master Hamfast? Playing hurly again?" Bilbo smiled affably. His young relations scampered about the Hill - or perhaps rampaged was a more apt term - oftentimes to the peril of the neighborhood. Peregrin, or Pippin as he was more commonly known, was a ferocious hurly player and if he couldn't find someone to play with, he played alone.

"Well, that's the thing, Mr. Bilbo," said the Gaffer. He seemed embarrassed. "I wouldn't so much mind if the boys was playing. But he wasn't."

Bilbo's smile faded. He turned to Pippin.

"What were you doing?" he asked.

"Nothing," Pippin said in an undertone.

"I hate to say this, Mr. Bilbo," the Gaffer interjected. "But he was after my carrots."

Pippin stopped squirming and stood in the Gaffer's grasp, his head bowed. He wasn't more than 9, but he was a caution and his parents were glad to relieve themselves of him and send him to Bag End at every opportunity. He was allowed to go as long as his older cousin, Meriadoc, was also visiting and it was Merry's job to keep an eye on the irascible Peregrin. That was no easy task because Pippin was small, fast, and very clever.

"Stealing?" That awful word, when it fell from Bilbo's lips, sounded like the blow of hammer on an anvil. Stealing. Bilbo was not unfamiliar with thievery, but he preferred that the victims not be his near neighbors. "Peregrin, were you stealing from the Gaffer's garden?"

There wasn't any use in lying - Master Gamgee had caught Master Took red handed, carrots and all. Pippin nodded. He refused to look up.

"Then I leave your punishment to the Gaffer," Bilbo said flatly. "It's one thing to steal from dragons. It's quite another to steal from the neighbors. Master Gamgee, I leave him to you."

Bilbo shut the door and turned around, shaking his head. He doubted whether this would hurt very much, or take very long. Hobbit children were very rarely struck, but the Gaffer was a formidable character - even Bilbo was a little daunted by him. It was highly unlikely that Pippin would set one toe in the Gaffer's garden, once that much vaunted gentleman was done with him.

"Who was that, uncle?"

Frodo was in the kitchen. It was just time for tea and he and Merry were rustling among the tea things, slicing cheese and making toast and setting out some of Bilbo's famous seedcakes.

Merry was 17 and a frequent visitor to Bag End. Unlike Pippin, he was always better able to manage himself and despite his being a Brandybuck (Hobbiton folk had a dim view of folk all the way over in Buckland), he was fast friends with the Gamgee clan.

"The Gaffer," said Bilbo. "It seems our Pip has been in the Gaffer's garden stealing carrots. Meriadoc, it's YOUR job to keep on eye on him, you know."

"I thought he was in his room, he must have slipped out the back."

Merry himself was at his wits end. Earlier that day Frodo and Bilbo had gone to Bywater to visit Frodo's only first cousin, Daisy Baggins-Boffin. Merry had spent the better part of his morning chasing Pippin around the house to keep him from playing hurly in the hallway. More than one of Bilbo's family heirlooms had come very near to grief as Pippin's hurly ball ricocheted here and there. Pippin thought this was great fun because he could hide places that Merry couldn't get into. Merry finally corralled him, relieved him of the hurly stick, and confined him to his room. By the time Bilbo and Frodo returned, Merry had a terrific headache.

"Where is he now?" Frodo wondered.

"I have left him in the care of the Gaffer, who will mete out his punishment."

Frodo was horrified. "Uncle, he'll beat him!" he protested. At the same age, Frodo had been wont to slip across the Brandywine and steal mushrooms from Farmer Maggot. It was almost a coming of age ritual among Buckland boys and girls, and even Merry had done it. But you only did it once because if the Farmer caught you, he gave you a sound thrashing, if you were a Baggins, a Brandybuck or the King of the Elves. And you never did it again.

Bilbo made a dismissive gesture and sat down to his tea. "Mr. Gamgee didn't raise that family by terrorizing them," he said. "He's much better able to handle this than I am. Or you two for that matter. Frodo, my lad, you are too lenient and I see by the glint in Merry's eyes that he'd like to throttle our Pip, so perhaps the Gaffer is the best choice of executioner."

The three hobbits sat down to tea, each with their own view of the matter. Bilbo was serene, Frodo could hardly enjoy himself for worrying about Pippin, and Merry sulked, feeling that he should have kept a better eye on his cousin and angered that Pippin was so thoughtless. But he too had been caught by Farmer Maggot once upon a time, and like Frodo, harbored a secret fear that Pippin even now was being racked and tortured.

Tea passed and no Pippin. Merry kept casting his eyes towards the kitchen garden door and finally Bilbo tapped him on the shoulder and nodded.

"Why not nip down to the Gaffer's and see if he hasn't stuck Pippin's head on a pike?" he suggested.

Merry didn't need to be told twice. Almost upsetting his chair, he leaped to his feet and was gone.

He walked down the lane, hands shoved in his pockets, muttering. He had very mixed feelings about Pippin. Of course he was his first cousin and as the saying went in the Shire, you didn't have to like your relations but you had to tolerate them. Pippin required a good deal of tolerance. And for some reason quite beyond Merry's ken, he had been the one nominated to do the tolerating.
Pippin's visits to Bag End had begun the previous year. Merry had been visiting Bag End all by himself since he was 8, and when he was 12, he was allowed to ride the long way from Buckland to Hobbiton, rather than have Bilbo or Frodo come pick him up. He made the mistake one day the previous year of dropping by the Great Smials of Tookland, mostly to show off his new pony. Pippin, then 8, had clamored to go with him to Hobbiton, and Merry was compelled to set the child on the saddle before him and convey him to Hobbiton. Pippin was a very energetic traveling companion. He squirmed, he asked questions, he pounded his heels on the pony's shoulders, and Merry had a headache by the time they reached Bilbo's door - the first of many headaches brought on by Pippin's high spirits.

But Pippin had an unquenchable spirit and feared nothing - at least nothing the Shire had to offer. He joined them on Bilbo's many tramps through the Shire, he carried his own pack, he could keep up and he never complained. And when he wasn't trying to break Bilbo's crockery or traumatize Mistress Gamgee's chickens, he could be terribly entertaining, regaling his relations with stories of his own invention (well, not quite, they were based largely on Bilbo's Great Adventure, only the hero was a half hobbit/half elf child named Perkweefin). Merry, who had some skill as an artist, was pressed into service to illustrate Perkweefin's adventures and many the rainy afternoon found the two of them huddled together, Pippin's yellow curls close to Merry's brown head, directing the artist in his endeavors, the artist asking, "And then what happened?"

By the time he reached the Gamgee's door, Merry's anger had cooled. Mistress Gamgee welcomed him in, and there was the culprit, enthroned at the Gamgee table with a mug of "silver tea" (mostly milk) and a plate of perisimmon cookies before him. He was still wiping his runny nose on the back of his sleeve, his face was streaked with tears. It was plain that a dire punishment had taken place. But peace seemed to be restored, Master Hamfast was inquiring of Master Took if he'd like more tea.

"Hullo, Merry," Sam said in greeting.
Sam, the youngest Gamgee boy, was two years older than Merry and the boys were friends. When he visited, Merry stabled his pony with the Gamgee's and as the saying goes, "There's many the fiver they'd won in the trots" at the pony races, for Merry's family kept fine ponies, and Sam was a good trainer. In fact the two boys had raised a pony together, which was under Sam's care, and which they intended to enter in the upcoming races.

"I've come to collect his nibs," Merry said.

"We're just after having our tea," said the Gaffer, and waved to the table, inviting Merry to sit. Though he had just had his tea, Merry knew it would be rude to refuse. And what hobbit ever refused a meal? Besides, Mistress Gamgee was famous for her persimmon cookies.

The Gamgees had three daughters at home: Daisy, who was 25, May, who was 21, and Marigold, who was 15. Daisy had her cap set on Frodo, who was a great favorite among the young ladies of Hobbiton. May fancied Merry, who was exceedingly handsome with his big brown eyes and curly brown hair, and his family was rich. Their mother, Belle, discouraged their infatuations for after all, Frodo and Merry were gentry and not likely to marry among the common folk. Marigold, the youngest girl, had known Merry for years and hardly thought of him as anyone other than Sam's friend; besides, she had noticed recently that Farmer Cotton's oldest son, Tolman had very gracious manners.

"Have some tea, Master Merry," May said coyly and set a mug in front of him.

Wordlessly, Pippin slipped from his chair and came to stand at Merry's shoulder. When he had been very young, he had the peculiar habit of needing a "lap fix" after a meal. At home at the Great Smials, he would either sit in his mother's lap, or his oldest sister's. At Bag End he had to settle for Merry or Frodo. This wasn't something he did very often any more, but Merry could tell straightaway that Pippin was in need of a "fix".

Merry offered an obliging knee, and Pippin sat thereon with his cousin's arm around him. He hadn't said a word and his spirits were very low. Merry wondered if the Gaffer had in fact beaten the daylights out of him.

Merry and Sam talked ponies for a bit, and then Merry said they must be off back to Bag End. May pressed a plate of persimmon cookies upon him to take to Mister Bilbo and Mister Frodo, and Daisy sent along some of her rhubarb preserves. (There was an advantage to being a young, handsome, single hobbit - women were inclined to send plates of food.) As he took his leave of Master Hamfast, Pippin finally broke his silence, shook his host's hand, apologized, and said he'd never steal again.

As they walked back up the lane, Merry put his hand Pippin's shoulder.

"So what happened?" he wondered. "He didn't hit you, did he?"

Pippin shook his head.

"Did he shout at you?"
Pippin shook his head again.
"Well, what did he do?"
Pippin was used to being shouted at and threatened. His family either tolerated, or ignored his antics. Bilbo waved him towards Frodo, no disciplinarian, who waved him towards Merry, who reverted to shouting. But the Gaffer had just looked at him. No one had never looked at him that way. Everyone else was too busy shouting, chasing, tolerating, waving or fretting. Master Hamfast gave him a look of such bitter disappointment it had cut Pippin to the quick. "How would you like it if someone stole from you?" said the Gaffer. "Is that the kind of neighbor you want to be or to have?"

And it hit Pippin all at once. There were consequences to his actions. What might be fun for him was not necessarily a source of entertainment to others. No one had ever put it like that before. Would he want to be treated like that? Have his things threatened? Have his garden pillaged? At that point, he had burst into tears. Master Hamfast offered him his handkerchief, Pippin blew his nose loudly, and they all sat down to tea.

"I'm sorry I'm such a nuisance," Pippin said to Merry in a sorrowful voice. It was clear he hadn't quite done crying, but was too much of a boy to want to break down in front of Merry.
"You're not a nuisance, Pip," Merry assured him. "You just don't think sometimes."

"Is Bilbo very mad?" Pippn was fearful he would be banned from Bag End.

"I think Bilbo is more concerned about the offense done to his neighbors. Why on earth would you steal carrots from the Gaffer's garden?"

"I've heard you and Frodo talk about Farmer Maggot!" Pippin said brightly.

"Yes, and he beat both of us. That stopped Frodo and it stopped me, too."

"I can tell you I'll never do THAT again."

"Good lad."

"Are YOU very mad at me, Merry?"

Merry thought about that.
"I was, but I'm not anymore."

"Does that mean you'll play hurly with me after dinner?"

It was late summer and the sun shone her face til almost 10 pm.
"We'll play til we can't see!" Merry promised him.

Peace reigned once more. Pippin's high spirits were not entirely quenched, but people seemed to spend less time shouting at him.

The next month found Merry and Pippin back at Bag End to celebrate Bilbo and Frodo's mutual birthday. There was a harvest fair at Hobbiton, and many of the folk had nurtured and coddled various fruits and vegetables to enter into a contest. The Gaffer was aiming for his 15th win in a row for his prize squash and `taters, though Sandyman, the Miller, was nipping at his heels with his own squash. Daisy Gamgee had entered her rhubarb preserves, and Merry and Sam planned on racing their pony, Star. Merry would ride - he was the bolder rider - but it was Sam who oversaw the training and feeding regimen. Pippin's sole and only job would be to cheer the racers and feed the pony carrots after the race - carrots which were NOT stolen.

So it came as a dreadful shock when Gaffer Gamgee came knocking at Bag End and it was a very downcast Gaffer at that.

"It's about my squash, Mr. Bilbo," said the Gaffer.

He needn't have said anymore. They all trooped down to #3 Bagshot Row.

The devastation was complete. The garden was trampled flat, the squash kicked into hundreds of golden, soggy pieces. There in a corner stood Star, his eyes huge with fright, blowing hard and wringing sweat. The fence was down and the pony was in danger of escaping, except for Pippin standing before the pony, arms held outstretched, trying to catch his lead rope.

Heedless of the demolished vegetables and seeing that the pony was about to bolt, Merry stepped in, and between him and Pippin they caught Star.

"What happened?" Merry wondered.

"I saw the pony loose on the Hill," Pippin said. "When I went to catch him he bolted and ran into the garden. The fence was all ready down."

Merry believed him, as did Frodo, for they had noticed the change in their irascible cousin. It was obvious though that neither Sam nor Master Hamfast were convinced and suspected that Pippin had been up to his old tricks.

Sam was too good a horse manager to let a pony wander loose, and as for the garden, the Gaffer's fencing was stout - even the cows couldn't get in. It had to have hobbit intervention - like perhaps a hobbit child riding around on a fast pony with nothing more than a halter? Perhaps trying to jump the fence? And catching a top rail and having the whole works down in a flash!

"I didn't do this!" Pippin protested as they led the pony back to his shed. Merry looked behind him. The Gaffer was now engaged in a heated conversation with Bilbo and Frodo.

"I know," Merry said. "But we're going to find out who did."

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