A very young Frodo meets someone entirely unexpected. (Written in 2009 for lilybaggins) (A LotR/Hidalgo crossover) One-shot.

A/N: This story was inspired by a picture Lilybaggins posted in her LiveJournal, of a very young Elijah Wood in a red cowboy hat and brightly colored cowboy outfit.

He Rides an Old Paint

The first thing he felt was a horse, nuzzling his ear. He burrowed deeper into his blankets. Fool horse. Weren't nearly time to wake up yet.

"Mister?" said a soft voice.

Frank sat bolt up right, his hand fumbling for his gun. But then he had to blink. What the heck was a kid doing here?

"What are you doing here, kid?" Frank blurted. "Where's your folks?"

The huge blue eyes filled with tears. "My parents are dead. I've been visiting my Uncle Bilbo in Hobbiton. But suddenly I woke up here. I've never seen one of the Big Folk before!"

Frank stared. The kid didn't look any taller than a three-year-old. But he looked and talked more like he was maybe quite a bit older, and he was wearing a nightshirt, like he'd just come from his bed. Frank looked closer; those ears beneath that mop of curls- they were surely pointed. And then his eyes fell on the kid's feet. "And I ain't never seen feet like those before, kid."

The boy looked down, and shrugged. "Everyone I know has feet like this." He suddenly bit his lip, and gave a half-smile. "I'm sorry, I was forgetting my manners." He gave a little bow. "Frodo Baggins at your service, sir."

Frank couldn't help but smile. "Well, Frodo, pleased to meet you. I'm Frank Hopkins and this here is my horse, Hidalgo."

The kid- Frodo- looked around curiously. "I've never seen a place like this before. The last thing I remember is going to bed in the guest room at Bag End." His worried face brightened. "That's it! Perhaps I'm dreaming!"

Frank heard the kid's stomach give a rumble. "Sounds like you could use some chow."

"Chow?"

"Breakfast. All I got's beans and coffee."

"I've never eaten in a dream before. But I do feel hungry."

Frank went over to the pot which had baked in the embers all night, and stirred up the beans, and then he dished some into a tin plate. Frodo ate them hungrily, though he refused the coffee, and only drank some water from Frank's canteen.

Frank looked at the small amount that was left for himself after the kid was through, and ate his own beans and drank his coffee without comment. He was beginning to wonder if he was the one dreaming. But he had to get on. He was supposed to meet Wild Bill Hickock in town tomorrow, see about joining up with his Wild West Show. What was he gonna do about the kid?

As they neared the town, Frank began to get worried. Folks in town saw this kid, they'd think he was some kind of freak. Why, Wild Bill might even decide to make a side show out of the poor kid! And he was such a sweet kid. Right now he was talking about his kin- he must really miss 'em.

"See, I live in Buckland with my Uncle Saradoc and my Aunt Esmeralda. Uncle Saradoc is really my first cousin- his father Rorimac was my mama's brother. And Aunt Esme is really my second cousin on the Took side. They don't have any children yet, so they took me in. But we are visiting my Uncle Bilbo Baggins. He's not really an uncle either- he's my first cousin once removed on my mother's side of the family, and my second cousin once removed on the Baggins side of the family. So we got to Bag End- that's Uncle Bilbo's home- yesterday. I was too young to remember the last time I was there."

Frank's head was reeling with the kid's friendly chatter- all this stuff about cousins removed and all was way over his head. But his voice was pleasant to listen to.

"Anyway, Uncle Bilbo was telling stories about Big Folk last night after supper, so I'm sure that must be why I am dreaming about you. Only I don't remember anyone quite like you in any of his stories. You aren't an Elf, and you don't seem to have a sword or anything like that..."

They came to a crossroads, and Frank looked at the signs. They were about a half mile out of town. He looked down at little Frodo riding in front of him. "Hey, kid. Frodo?"

Frodo stopped talking mid-sentence. "Yes, Mr. Frank?"

Frank chuckled. Sure was a polite little thing. "Folks're likely to stare, they get a good gander at you. I want you to wait here for me. Wait with Hidalgo; he's good company. I'll be back in little while." He slid out of the saddle and lifted Frodo down. Just then the kid's stomach rumbled again. "You hungry again already?"

Frodo nodded. "I think it's past time for second breakfast. It seems closer to maybe elevenses."

"Well, tell you what. I'm gonna go into the town, see if I can find some gear that'll make you look a little less- different. Then we'll go into the town and have a right good meal."

The kid nodded. Frank gave Hidalgo's nose a rub. "You look after the kid, you hear?"

An hour later, Frank couldn't believe his luck. He looked at the bundle he carried. The woman at the general store had been glad to sell him that kid's outfit for only a dollar. It had been special ordered for the Mayor's kid, but by the time it arrived he'd outgrown it, and no one else in town wanted it. It was a bit gaudy, but it would fit. Not the boots, though-the kid's hairy feet were too big for those. But she'd thrown in a pair of galoshes for only two bits more. Left him with three dollars and six bits- enough to buy a good lunch for the both of them and a place to bunk down for the night. Not too sure what he'd do with Frodo after that. It was hard to believe the kid was for real.

Maybe one of 'em was dreaming.

He got back to find Hidalgo cropping the grass at the side of the road, beneath an old tree. The kid was sitting on a branch just above the horse, swinging his hairy feet. Frank grinned and reached up and swung the kid down. "Here- look what I got you!"

Frodo was thrilled with that gaudy red hat, brightly colored shirt and bandana, and less pleased with the galoshes. But he obediently put them on, and they rode into town.

The town had a railroad depot and a Harvey House.

The six bits bought the two fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, butterbeans, biscuits and apple pie, and still left a nickel tip for the little blonde waitress in her crisp Harvey girl uniform. She was really taken with little Frodo, telling him how cute he was, and was helpful in telling them of an inexpensive nearby rooming house where they could get supper and spend the night.

Their table was by a window, and Frodo was both horrified and fascinated by the train when it pulled in. When the noise of its approach began, his little face went pale and his eyes became even wider.

"What is it, Mr. Frank?" His voice trembled, as he stared.

"It's a train, Frodo. Ain't you never seen one before?" Frank supposed there were a few places left in the country with no railroad, but he didn't figure there was many.

Frodo shook his head, and then gasped. "There are people getting out of it!"

"Yep. That's what the trains are for. People ride on 'em."

Frodo's expression of amazement was almost comical. But the two finished up their meal and left before the crowd of passengers could crowd into the restaurant. "Come on, kid. Let's go find that rooming house." They retrieved Hidalgo from the hitching post, and Frank followed the waitress's directions, as they ambled a few streets over to where the rooming house was. Frodo gawked at the houses and stores. "Everything is so big," he kept saying, over and over.

As they turned one corner, a blast of music and raucous laughter greeted their ears. Two cowpokes came stumbling out the swinging doors. "What kind of place is that?" Frodo asked.

"That's a saloon, kid."

" 'Saloon'?"

"A place where men go to drink and blow off steam."

"Oh! A tavern, like The River Rat in Bucklebury or The Green Dragon in Bywater. Uncle Sara says I'm too young for such places yet."

"Your uncle's pretty smart. You'd be too young to go in The Red Dog, too!"

They turned left, and there, as the waitress had told them, was a large white house with a picket fence and blue shutters on the windows and a split rail fence covered with morning glories. A sign on the fence said "Rooms to Let By the Night or the Week. Inquire at the Door."

The motherly woman in a green dress and yellow apron allowed as how, yes she did have a room available. Her face lit up at the sight of Frodo, and Frank did not correct her misapprehension that Frodo was his son. They were shown to a pleasant room on the second floor. It was sparsely furnished with a bed, a chair and a washstand. The bed was covered in a colorful quilt, there was a rag rug on the floor, and it was spotlessly clean.

The lady smiled as she showed them in. "Room is a dollar. I won't charge extra for the little boy. Board's twenty-five cents extra for you, and ten cents for the child. Supper is at six, and breakfast is at seven thirty. Pay in advance."

Frank nodded, and handed the woman two dollars. "I'll give you your change at supper, Mr. Hopkins."

"Okay." He glanced out the window, where he could see Hidalgo hitched to the fence. "Can I stable my horse? You can keep the change then."

She nodded. "Barn's around back. You'll have to see to him yourself. My husband's down at the depot; he works there."

"No problem." He turned. "Frodo, let's go take care of Hidalgo."

Frodo followed obediently, and Frank allowed him to help brush the mustang, though he couldn't reach very high.

"Hidalgo's a very pretty horse," said Frodo. "I like his markings."

"He's what we call a paint," said Frank.

Frodo giggled. "I guess that's because he looks like he got splashed with paint."

Frank laughed. "I never thought about it before, kid. But I reckon you're right."

The street was a pleasant one, with only a few houses, so the two of them took a stroll before returning to the rooming house for supper. There were two other boarders at the table, besides the landlady and her husband. One was a bespectacled young woman who turned out to be a schoolmarm, and who gave Frodo some rather odd and searching looks. The other was a traveling salesman, who kept trying to impress the schoolmarm. She was having none of it, though, and didn't so much as crack a smile at his flattery.

By the time they finished their supper of pot roast, carrots, potatoes and corn, with cake for dessert, Frodo was clearly sleepy. Frank carried him up to the room, and the kid roused enough to put on the nightshirt he'd been wearing when Frank first found him. But he wanted to carry the hat to bed with him. "Please, Mr. Frank!" No way he could say no when those big blue eyes looked up at him.

"Here," said Frank, after Frodo lay down upon the bed. He put the hat on over Frodo's face, the way he often slept with his own hat when on the trail. Frodo giggled, but then relaxed, and soon was snoring very softly. Frank lay down next to him, and drifted off himself, wondering what he was gonna do the next day. He couldn't keep the kid, that was for sure...

Dawn was peeking in the window when Frank woke up. Where was Frodo? He wouldn't have gone to the outhouse- they had a chamber pot under the bed. Maybe he was sleepwalking? That might account for the way Frank had found him. He dressed quickly, and went to search.

But he found no sign of his little friend, and rather than answer the landlady's questions, he retrieved Hidalgo from the barn, and left before breakfast. He was paid up, so she wouldn't care. She'd just think they'd decided to leave early. As he rode back into town, he kept his eyes open, but didn't see hide nor hair of Frodo. It all began to seem more and more unreal to him, and soon he had convinced himself he'd dreamed it all.

He headed for the hotel where he was supposed to meet Wild Bill.

-oo000oo-

Frodo had awakened in Bag End, remembering his strange dream.

But he was hard put to explain the presence of the red hat.