Bell dropped the chicken head into a dish, sighing, and Daisy hung her head.
"I'm sorry, Ma."
"Never mind . . . can't be helped now. But next time make sure ye ask the butcher to dress it afore he weighs it. I reckon nothin' to paying for the weight of a head and feet I'm not goin' to eat. Bill Bracegirdle saw ye comin', lass."
Daisy ducked her head once more and Sam hid a smile as he bent to his slate at the other end of the large scrubbed wooden table. He painstakingly formed the letter 'A' with his stub of chalk and checked it against the one flowingly scripted on the small piece of paper on the table at his side. The young lad sighed when he compared them and wished the learning would go faster so that his letters would look as beautiful as Mr Bilbo's.
Bell took one of the yellow feet in her fingers and slit the skin around the joint, using the sharp knife to cut the sinews before bending the foot back, slicing through the bottom layer of skin and adding the severed foot to the head in the bowl. The second foot followed the first and Daisy rushed to dispose of the evidence.
Deciding that the point had been made, Bell relented when the girl returned. "Tis alright, lass. Everyone makes mistakes. It weren't yer first and it won't be yer last. Yer forgiven." The small sharp bladed knife was run down the skin of the neck from shoulder to end and Bell began to peel back the skin. Finding the joint between the bones at the windpipe she sliced the neck away and placed it in a fresh dish.
Her eldest daughter smiled in relief. "Thank you, Ma."
"Finish gratin' that stale bread fer the stuffin'," Bell instructed, as she turned the bird around and cut around the vent.
Daisy picked up the grater and the remains of the loaf and added crumbs to a growing mound in the basin.
Sam watched in interest as his mother slid her fingers inside the bird and moved them around a bit, then she seemed to grasp something right up at the neck end and began to slowly draw her hand out. With it came all the inner organs of the bird. Curiosity got the better of him and he left his seat to stand at his mother's elbow. Bell noticed his presence.
"There now, Sam. All that came out of that bird. And most of it we can't eat." She fished around in the mound of sweet smelling offal.
"Why not, Ma?" Sam asked curiously, watching as she severed the tiny heart and added it to the neck, sitting in a dish. That bit he recognised from the shape. It was the same shape as the beast heart they sometimes had . . . although it was much, much smaller.
Bell cut away the liver, carefully dissecting and discarding the gall bladder. "Well, a lot of this is used for digestin' its food so it's got half eaten stuff in it. Ye don't want to be eatin' that. And some of it is very nasty tastin'." She pointed to the tiny gall bladder she had just discarded. Bell added the gizzard and kidneys to the heap in the bowl and then waited while daisy removed the wooden board to dispose of the rest.
Sam's mother took up a waiting damp cloth and wiped around inside the now empty cavity. She slipped fingers in either side of the vent and pulled out two pads of fat, which she laid on one side to sit on the bird's breast when it was put in the oven.
Daisy returned and began to add warm water to the stuffing mixture, filling the room with the smell of sage and onion. Her mother looked up at the smell.
"I hope you added suet to that mix or it'll be a stodgy mess."
"I did, Ma," Daisy assured her mother hurriedly. She was not about to make any more mistakes today, especially with Sam watching.
Bell caught Sam frowning at the carcass. "What is it, lad?"
"What's that red mark on the thing on the side?"
His mother looked down in confusion, trying to find the source of his question. Sure enough, on one wing . . . about half way down the last set of bones, was a bruise. Bell rubbed it between her fingers, feeling the grating of broken bone.
"Poor thing had a broken wing. Mayhap that's why it were killed . . . farmer put it out of its misery."
Bell accepted the stuffing bowl from Daisy and began to fill the cavity, after folding the empty skin of the neck over the hole at the other end of the body.
They all jumped at a loud thumping on the door, and for a moment they were too stunned to react. Then Bell ran to open it, wiping her hands on her apron as she went. Whoever it was they were obviously agitated because they banged again before Bell could cover the short distance from the table. She flung open the door to find Master Bilbo leaning, gasping on the doorframe, his face red and covered in sweat.
"Why, whatever is it Mr Bilbo?" asked Bell, reaching out to help him across the threshold.
Bilbo waved her off, finally finding the breath to speak. "Frodo . . . Frodo fell. Think he's broken his arm . . . possibly his wrist." He took another deep breath. "Need one of your lads to . . . fetch doctor . . . if you can spare them."
Bell blinked. "They've all gone off to help Tom Cotton with his harvest. There's only me and Daisy and Sam. May's taken Marigold down to watch and Sam's too young to go runnin' about the Shire on his own."
Bilbo sagged against the doorframe. "I had forgotten. I can't leave the lad. I'll try further down the row." He made to leave but Bell stopped him, untying her apron and throwing it onto the corner of the table.
"They've all gone to harvest." With surprising strength she turned Bilbo around. "Ye go fetch the doctor and I'll go sit with Master Frodo."
Bilbo sighed with relief and managed a weak smile. "Thank you, Bell. You're a treasure and Hamfast is lucky to have you."
Bell blushed and pushed him lightly on the shoulders. "Get on with ye! He knows well enough what he's got. Now off ye go."
With one final, relieved smile Bilbo headed off down the path at a trot. Bell turned back to the smial to find her two children still open-mouthed. She stuck her hands on her hips.
"Would ye look at the pair of ye. Faces fit to catch flies." Two sets of jaws snapped shut and Sam ran up to his mother, brown eyes threatening tears.
"Are they goin' to kill Master Frodo?"
Bell knelt down and gathered him up. "Gracious no, lad. Whatever makes ye ask that. He's just broke an arm. He'll be fine."
Sam sobbed against her shoulder. "But they killed the chicken. I don't want them to kill Master Frodo."
Bell sighed and squeezed him before pushing him away to look into his tearful soft brown eyes. "They only do that with chicken's, love. The doctor will put a splint on young Master Frodo's arm to hold it still while it heals, and he'll be right as rain in a few weeks." She reached out and brushed away his tears with her fingers, leaning forward to kiss his forehead as the little face cleared.
"Now . . . ye'll have to help here while I go and sit with Master Frodo. Think ye can do that?"
Sam pulled himself up to his full height . . . which wasn't very much . . . even for a hobbit. "Yes, Ma."
Bell gave him one last squeeze and stood up, looking across the room at Daisy.
"Finish stuffin' that bird, then truss it and put it in the oven. Ye've seen me do it often enough and I won't shout if ye don't get it right this time." She turned Sam and pushed him back towards the table, still addressing her daughter. "When ye've done that ye and Sam start the vegetables. May can help if she comes back in time. Get them on to boil when the bird's near ready. And don't give Sam that sharp knife. He'll manage well enough with one of the others. Then clean out the gizzard and when ye put on the vegetables, put the giblets to simmer for the gravy."
Daisy blinked, her face filling with panic. "But I ain't never got a whole meal ready on my own. What if things ain't ready and the bird is cooked?"
"Then take the bird out and we'll eat it cold. It won't come to no harm. Just use a skewer like I showed ye to make sure it's cooked through."
Before Daisy could say more, Bell pulled the door shut and hurried off up the path to Bag End.
She found the door open and headed down the hall, trying to remember which of the many ones lining it led to Master Frodo's room. After a moment it became easy enough to find and Bell just followed the sound of soft sobbing. She found Frodo, lying atop his bed and curled on his side, his left arm cradled gingerly in his right.
The boy looked up when he heard her steps and sniffed, then turned his head into the pillows to hide his tears.
"There now, lad. Yer Uncle Bilbo's gone for the doctor and I've come to sit with ye 'til they get back. We've not been introduced. I'm Bell Gamgee from number three." She settled on the bed and combed her fingers through his thick chestnut curls and he turned huge blue eyes up to her.
His voice was a little shaky but she noted that his manners had been learned, for he gave a formal, "Pleased to meet you, Mistress Gamgee." Then he swallowed before adding, "Please . . . I'm awfully cold." And to confirm his statement his body gave a small shudder.
Of course he would be cold. His body had just had a nasty shock. "Ye silly hobbit, Bell Gamgee . . . anyone would think ye'd no young uns of yer own," she murmured. Rising, she set too making him comfortable and within a few minutes Frodo was tucked up in his bed, supported by a mound of pillows, with his clothes loosened. Bell laid a damp cloth on his brow and slipped a pillow gently beneath his left arm.
Frodo sighed in relief at the temporary reduction in his pain. The cornflower blue eyes, which had clenched shut as soon as she had moved him, opened once more. "Thank you, Mistress Gamgee."
"Yer welcome, lad." Bell settled on the bed once more and used another damp cloth to wipe his tearstained face. "However did ye manage to fall? Did ye trip?"
Frodo made to shake his head and stopped when the cool compress threatened to slip over his eyes. Bell adjusted it. "I fell out of a tree."
"A tree? Whatever were ye doin' up a tree?"
His reply was rather sheepish. "Reading."
Bell fought hard to suppress a smile. "Well now, I've found most people use a chair, although I confess I've seen 'em reading on the floor. But up a tree is a new one on me. Is it somethin' they do down over the river?"
She would believe just about anything about what they did down there. They were strange folk, those Brandybucks, and Bilbo had done right by the lad, bringing him back up to Hobbiton to live amongst proper folk.
Frodo gave a little laugh, wincing when the consequent movement of his chest and shoulder jostled his arm. "No. It's just something I do. Usually I don't have any trouble . . . and I hadn't climbed high. But the book slipped off my lap and when I reached to catch it I lost my balance."
"Well, tis a hard lesson to learn and mayhap I'm takin' a liberty . . . but I can't help feelin' it were a warnin' to ye to stay out of trees. T'ain't natural for a hobbit."
Frodo smiled. "You may be right."
Bell recognised the look in his eyes. She'd seen it in her young ones too often. He'd be back up a tree as soon as the splints came off. Well. It was none of her business.
"Would ye like a sip of water, lad? Ye look a mite feverish." Although Frodo's face was ashen beneath his summer tan Bell could see two points of pink colour in his cheeks and his face was bedewed with perspiration.
Frodo looked as though he were going to give a grateful, "Yes please." Then he looked down at his injured right arm and left wrist and back at Bell. "No thank you. I'm alright."
Bell sniffed and filled a cup from the jug at Frodo's bedside. This young Baggins was a stubborn one. "Nonsense. Yer burnin' up." She held the cup to his lips. "Pride's a good thing, in its place but the sick bed's no place for it." When Frodo made no move to open his lips she met his gaze squarely. "T'ain't no shame to accept help when yer poorly. Especially from folk's that love ye. Love needs room to show itself."
Now it was Frodo's turn to be surprised and he opened his mouth obediently, greedily sipping the cool water. Bell simply nodded in approval. He was stubborn but teachable.
They both looked to the door as the sound of a conversation and the soft slap of footsteps announced the return of Bilbo with the doctor. Frodo's face filled with relief when he saw his uncle.
The older gentlehobbit assessed his nephew and turned to Bell. "Bless you, Bell. I don't know how you managed it but he looks better already." He turned back to Frodo and smiled, reaching out to pat the lad's knee.
"I only made him comfortable," Bell announced, as she rose to give the doctor access to his patient. As she got to the door she turned, searching for those blue eyes. "Now ye mind what I said, Young Master. And I'll send Sam across with a bite to eat later. I doubt yer uncle will have the time to cook today."
Frodo smiled. "I will. And thank you."
Bell nodded in approval and turned back to her own brood.