Thief - Part Two - Is the squash squashed? What is this new devilry?
The sun rose the next day upon a Hill no happier than the one on which it had set the prior evening. Hobbits love to gossip, and it didn't take long for news of the tragedy at #3 Bagshot Row to spread, even unto Tuckborough. And loving to gossip and argue, the residents of Hobbiton were firmly divided into two camps: Those Who Knew He Did It, and Those Who Were Equally Sure He Didn't. The argument upon the side of Those Who Thought He Didn't was that Pippin was only 9 and how could he pull down the Gaffer's very substantial garden fence? Those Who Thought He Did had no argument on their side beyond his prior history of tricks and the fact that there were no other suspects.
The debate waged at the Ivy Bush. Many a Hobbiton resident might stop in of a morning for coffee or tea (few hobbits imbibed before noon and for some noon seemed an eternity away!).
"They say down at Tuckborough that his parents encourage his wild ways," said one wag.
"Aye, that they do," said another. "They say that Paladin hopes his tricks will weaken Her Ladyship's heart and that will get him one step nearer to being Thain."
Her Ladyship was Lalia the Great, widow of the previous Thain. She was a powerful, unpleasant woman of such vastness she could only be transported in a wheeled chair. While not really Thain, her personality was at least as huge as her girth and no one dared go against her. Her son, Ferumbras was by rights Thain, but he was weak willed and submissive. He had never married; what hobbit woman would want to share her household with such a one as Lalia? But when Lalia died (whenever that happy event would take place), Ferumbras would become Ferumbras III. And upon his death, Paladin Took, Pippin's father, would become Thain.
Ergo, it seemed reasonable to Hobbiton folk to assume that Peregin's parents encouraged his rambunctious ness. Maybe a stray hurly ball would catch Lalia in the head. Maybe his hiding in closets and leaping out at people would cause her heart to give out?
(They needn't have speculated about Peregrin's involvement in Lalia's demise. The year after Bilbo's party, Pippin's sister, Pearl, would lose control of the wheeled chair while attending Lalia on her morning airing on the front porch of the Great Smials. The whole works, chair and Lalia, would go bouncing down the front stair, and that would end Lalia's reign over the Great Smials. Some would say Pearl was merely careless. Others would say Lalia was pushed!)
Hamfast Gamgee and Samwise had been of the Those He Did It camp, but only briefly and only in the first flush of their anger. As Sam set about cleaning up the mess (his father hadn't the heart), reason replaced Sam's anger. Pippin was small for his age and the timbers of the garden fence were very stout. Pippin hadn't the strength to push them over. As for the Gaffer, he had looked at Pippin following the carrot incident and once a hobbit child was LOOKED at by the Gaffer, he minded his P's and Q's after that.
At Bag End, Bilbo sat his study. When he was engaged in his writings, he did not like to be disturbed. In truth he was seething with anger. He considered the Hill HIS domain and that someone had trespassed felt very much like a personal assault. He knew that Hobbiton folk looked upon him as a crackpot. Mad Baggins, they called him ever since he had returned from his Adventure (with the wizard, the dwarves, the Trolls, spiders, elves AND the gold. He usually omitted the Ring when retelling the tale). Even now he twirled the Ring over and over in his pocket, finding a certain solace in the cool perfection of that simple circle of gold. He used it from time to time, usually to avoid people he didn't like.
He was 109. That wasn't THAT old for a hobbit. Lalia the Great (some called her Lalia the Fat) was 116. He knew he looked very well for a hobbit of 109 - too well in fact and some people resented his vigor. If he was lucky enough to enjoy good health and a semblance of his youthful good looks, why should anyone resent him for it? But this wanton destruction of the Gaffer's garden - that was just the sort of thing that capped his growing irritation with the small mindedness of his people.
Frodo would be 31 on their mutual birthday. In two years he would come of age. His adopted nephew was a sensible, intelligent young hobbit, more than able to step in as the heir to Bag End should Bilbo's long life run out. Or should Bilbo elect, say, to go away.
He could hear the three cousins talking in the kitchen: the childish voice of Pippin, Merry's deeper tones, and Frodo's clear tenor, all discussing what had happened, what had Pippin seen, who might have done this, underscored with, "Yes, please, more jam," and "Pippin, wipe your face." Frodo had good friends in these two. Meriadoc was sensible. Pippin was a handful now, but showed signs of growing up into a courageous, spirited hobbit. Bilbo did not wish for Frodo to live as he had lived - Bilbo had not necessarily chosen bachelorhood, although AFTER his big adventure (with the wizard, dwarves, etc). he realized that had he a wife in those days, he would not have gone with Gandalf and the dwarves. He wanted Frodo to marry, and have a family and be happy. Pearl Took was a good candidate. She was seven years younger than Frodo and Bilbo was partial to Took women; his mother had been a Took after all. But he wouldn't want to see Frodo in an unhappy marriage and sometimes youthful exhuberance and good looks matured into regret and hard feelings.
His reveries were disturbed by a knock at the door. Frodo went to answer it.
"'Morning, Mr. Frodo." It was Sam Gamgee. "I thought maybe you ought to come look at this."
"What is it, Sam?"
"It's about the Gaffer's garden."
Frodo closed his eyes briefly. What else was wrong?
"What about it?" he wondered.
"Well, sir, I was clearing off the timbers and it looked like some of the uprights had been hacked with an axe. Down low - where they was pounded into the dirt."
Merry and Pippin came into the front hall as well. Merry had a damp cloth in his hand, and Pippin had jam on his face. He was resisting Merry's attempts to wipe the jam off his chin.
"An axe?" Merry repeated. "Let's go see!"
Pippin's jam smeared face was forgotten and they all trooped down the lane. Even Bilbo set aside his pen and followed.
The Gaffer's squash garden had been fenced with timbers and boards, and Sam showed the assembled Bagginses, Took and Brandybuck what he had been referring to. Some of the uprights had been cut halfway through and dirt piled against the cuts to hide the damage. They all knelt down to examine this new mystery.
"Obviously someone wanted to take the fence down and wasn't doing it all at once," Frodo observed. "These cuts aren't that fresh - see the wood isn't that weathered, but it's not as weathered as the outside."
"We keep our tools locked up," Sam said. "And only Mr. Bilbo and me have a key to HIS toolshed. So someone would have had to bring along his own axe."
Merry ran his fingers along the damaged wood. "When do you suppose someone did this?" he wondered.
"When and why," Bilbo replied. "The why isn't that hard to figure out - who didn't want Master Hamfast's squash in the competition, that's the real answer to all this."
"These cuts are a few days old," Sam observed.
"We didn't get here til yesterday morning," Merry replied. "That rules out Pippin."
Pippin put his fists on his hips and stamped a little hairy foot.
"I was ruled out to begin with!" he said defiantly.
"Who could have done this and not been seen?" Bilbo rubbed his chin thoughtfully. The Gaffer had four children living at home - his hole was rarely empty and the vegetable gardens were visible from the front door and windows.
"This part of the fence is farthest away from the house," Frodo said. "Maybe someone came up here at night and chose this spot because he wouldn't be heard. See? The gouges aren't that deep - whoever did this wasn't striking very hard. At least, not hard enough to be heard."
"Damage the fence, let the stock in," said Bilbo.
They were silent for a moment. It would have been a clever trick had it worked - weaken the fence, then run a convenient herd of sheep or cows into the garden. It would have looked like mere carelessness and no one would have known.
But though the end result was the same - the garden was destroyed - it was plain now that someone was behind this. A crime had been committed.
"How did the pony get loose?" Merry wondered.
"Someone would have had to turn him loose," Sam replied. Although he was mostly convinced now of Pippin's innocence, he couldn't help a glance in the young Took's direction.
Seeing Sam's doubt, Merry immediately placed a hand on his cousin's shoulder. There was no question in his mind - Pippin's antics might be aimed at hobbits, but never at an innocent beast (well, except Mistress Gamgee's chickens if his hurly ball happened to land in the chicken yard). Pippin would no more let the pony out than he would fly to the moon.
Still puzzled, Bilbo and his cousins returned to Bag End. The most mysterious things that ever occurred in the Shire usually had to do with broken windows from stray balls, would the beer at the Golden Perch be as good this year as last, and did you hear who got married? Folk might hear about strange going on in the Marish and in Buckland, as close as they were to the Old Forest and the borders of the Shire, but in Hobbiton, one did not go about damaging the neighbor's fences and trampling his garden.
Talking this over required more tea and maybe some toasted cheese sandwiches and apples to help them think.
They had hardly sat down when there came another knock at the door. It was Sam again, only this time, he asked for Merry.
"Come down to the pony shed with me," he said, and he looked very worried.
Merry panicked. Had something happened to Star? They were both very diligent about the pony, and spent many hours discussing feed and training.
The Gamgee's had a shed beside their hole on the west side of the Hill. Like all projects undertaken by a Gamgee, the construction was simple, stout and well finished. Merry half expected to see that someone had taken an axe to the shed, but it was worse than that.
"I should have looked at him yesterday, what with him running all over the hill," Sam said apologetically. "But my Gaffer was pretty upset so I spent a good part of the evening calming his nerves. I was grooming Star just now. Look."
One hand on the pony's rump, Sam pointed to the gaskin of Star's right hind leg. The flesh was torn and dried blood stained the surrounding hide.
"Is he lame?" Merry wondered.
"I haven't trotted him out yet."
"Did he get that running into the fence?"
Sam only shrugged. "Unless he tried to jump the fence. What did Pippin say?"
"He said he heard hooves and went to investigate. He didn't see the pony jump the fence. He said the fence was already down." He fetched a bucket and a cloth and held the pony's head while Merry soaked off the dried blood.
Star was a mettlesome pony, but Sam got his attention with a good grip on his right ear, so that Merry wouldn't be kicked as he examined the wound.
"Puncture wounds," he said. "See here?" He pointed to four neat wounds, two on other side of the torn flesh.
"Looks like dog bites to me," Sam said. "Let's see if he's all right."
They took him into the lane, and Sam trotted him up and down, towards Merry and away from Merry so they could assess if the pony had been lamed. Luckily, he was not.
There was no damage to his pen, either. The latches were secure and no one had tampered with the fencing. That meant someone would have had to turn him loose deliberately. Even so, they looked all around the walls of the shed to make sure they were still sound. It was Merry who found the next mystery.
There was a smear of dried blood on the wall a foot or two off the ground. The two boys looked at each other, completely bewildered.
"At least he's not lame," Merry said. "Do you really think those are dog bites?"
"Aye, I do. But no one around here keeps a dog that will worry stock. No one would dare."
They were both concerned now. Was someone after Star as well, to keep him from the races?
"The races are in two days," said Sam. "Maybe
we should sleep here at night just be sure someone isn't trying to do him a real injury."
"That's a good idea," Merry concurred. "Vegetables are one thing but anyone who would take it out on an animal will have to deal with me. I'll take first watch."
He trudged back up to Bag End. His tea had gotten cold, which meant that of course they'd have to brew another pot and maybe have some sausages to go with it. They had hardly sat down to THIRD breakfast and heard the tale he had to tell, when Sam came knocking again.
"Now what?" Bilbo, Frodo, Merry and Pippin all said together.
"It's the squash!" Sam's voice was shrill with excitement. "The Gaffer's squash!"
He was so befuddled he was sputtering, and they made him sit down and get hold of himself.
"I was cleaning up the garden and the squash - his prize squash - the vine has been CUT!" he gasped. "The Gaffer had several squashes in that garden, you know, you can't plant just one and hope that'll be the one. You have to plant a mess of them and tend them and see which one turns out the best. He marked off his best one with a little bit of string around the vine. I knew he hadn't the heart to clean all this up, you know, all the work he's put into it. So I was going to turn over the soil and collect the seeds from all the broken squashes and that one as well for next year. That's when I noticed it! The vine on his best squash was CUT clean through. All that mess is the other squashes. His prize squash wasn't trampled. It was stolen!"
The pieces were beginning to fall into place. Someone had weakened the gaffer's fence and hoped to STEAL the squash, and blame the crime on livestock - or possibly even Pippin. But something must have gone wrong for the criminal's little plot seemed to be slowly unraveling.
"Stolen, you say?" Bilbo repeated, and a bold gleam shone in his eye. "Well, there is one thing I know about and that's thieves."
"Why would someone steal the squash?" Pippin wondered. "Why not just smash it?"
"Because, my boy, it's the finest squash in the Shire," Bilbo replied. "And the thief hopes to enter it as HIS own squash. Because the thief knows that the Gaffer would have won the competition. And the thief wants to garner that glory for himself."
" So is the criminal whoever wins the squash contest?" Merry wondered. "Is that how we catch him?"
Bilbo scowled. Frodo knew the glint in his eye. It boded no good for whomsoever had dared to trespass upon the Hill.
"There is more going on here than the squash," said the old hobbit. "We have a pony with a dog bite as well. Someone is messing about up at #3 Bagshot Row, maybe only on account of the squash, maybe not. But we're not waiting til the contest to find our perpetrator. Come on, lads! Let's hunt some squash!"