Daddy Twofoot was as good as his word, and came calling as Frodo was preparing breakfast. He had been awaiting Alver's arrival and now Frodo pulled a tray of bacon from the oven. "That arm's still stiff I see," Alver noted as Frodo set a bacon sandwich and mug of tea before him.
Taking as seat opposite, Frodo shrugged. "It could have been much worse. Speaking of which, have you heard anything of Bartimus and Daisy this morning? I intend to walk down there myself later." Whatever Doctor Proudfoot had dosed him with the previous afternoon, had dropped Frodo into a deep sleep that did not see him rousing until other folk were sitting down to second breakfast. No doubt Alver had been up and about for hours.
Alver paused to swallow before nodding. "The doctor says Bartimus is up, if a bit stiff. Daisy and Bell are to stay abed for another few days. Word of what happened got around and there's been a lot of talk in the village I can tell ye."
Frowning, Frodo set down his own sandwich, having taken only one bite. "What sort of talk?"
"There's none of it good, if ye ask me. They're sayin' that Orton Sandyman wants lockin' up…or stringin' up. Last I heard, there's more folk shoutin' for stringin' than hangin'.
Frodo pushed aside his plate, suddenly having lost his appetite. "You know, we can never be certain that Orton did it on purpose. That pony of his has always been on the skittish side."
Alver gave a disbelieving twitch of his, not inconsequential, nose. "Young Bartimus says Orton used the whip as he were comin' down the lane. That pony may be skittish, but a whip aint goin' to slow it down, that's fer sure."
"It all happened so fast, Daddy Twofoot. I saw the whip, but whether Orton actually used it, I honestly could not say. I was too busy getting out of the way."
"Aye, well, Bartimus says he saw it clear enough, and tis tellin' to many that Orton aint been seen out and about today. Ted made the deliveries to Olin Baker this mornin', and ye know that's usually Orton's job."
"Did Ted say anything about the incident?"
Alver pushed aside his empty plate. "Ha! Ye know Ted Sandyman as well as me. What do ye think?" Alver did not wait for Frodo's reply. "He just frowned down that long nose of his and told folk to mind to their own business." He patted his expansive tummy. "Which is what I'll be doin', now I've seen yer well enough. Will I see ye down the Ivy Bush tonight? There's talk of a meetin', and I heard Bartimus speakin' of bringin' a length of rope."
"Maybe." Frodo saw Alver to the kitchen door, then put on his jacket and took up his walking staff. He was no longer in any mood for breakfast. It was time to stretch stiff limbs.
Three hours later Frodo was standing outside Bywater Mill. Opening the gate to the tiny garden, he surveyed the many windows, but there was no sign of any of the mill's occupants. Drawing a deep breath, he knocked upon the arched door. Several flakes of paint showered the ground at his feet, a testament to the building's general state of disrepair. Feeling a little uncharitable, Frodo settled upon the thought that it was difficult to balance upon a ladder to paint, whilst drunk.
About to knock again, Frodo almost overbalanced himself, when the door was yanked open. Ted Sandyman was not drunk, but from the bloodshot state of his eyes it was clear that his sobriety was but a temporary state. No doubt he and his son would be making for the Green Dragon as soon as work was done, if they dared. Frodo had to give them credit for getting the job done at least. Hobbiton and its surroundings were never short of fresh milled flour.
Ted's scowl could have boiled milk. "What do you want, Baggins?"
Frodo resisted the temptation to add fuel to the already smouldering fire. "May I speak with you, Mister Sandyman?" He glanced up the lane, where one of the Shire's matrons was hurrying her brood along. "Inside."
Ted shrugged, his air of nonchalance spoiled when the action caused him to narrow his eyes and wince against what Frodo assumed was a hangover. Still feeling a mite uncharitable, Frodo bit back a smile at his obvious discomfort. The miller stepped aside. "If you must."
Frodo stepped into an unexpectedly spotless and tidy kitchen. Betony Sandyman stood in a corner, wiping already clean hands on a towel. Her voice was barely more than a whisper as she enquired of her husband, "Shall I make tea, Ted?"
"I don't think Mister Baggins will be stopping long." Ted sat at the table, arms folded, and Frodo noted that he was not invited to join his reluctant host. Rather than make a point of it, he remained standing, walking staff resting loosely in the crook of his arm.
Of Orton there was no sign, although Frodo had spotted the pony and cart in their accustomed shelter, and the water wheel was not turning, indicating that Ted's son was neither away from home nor working at the mill stones. Bywater Mill was one of the few buildings in the Shire that rose to more than one floor, and a steep wooden staircase climbed from the kitchen to a small landing, with doors opening off it. Frodo could imagine Orton standing with an ear to the other side of one of those doors, so he let his voice rise a little. "I take it you heard of the incident on Bywater Road yesterday afternoon?"
Betony's hand flew to her mouth but immediately dropped again, at a growl from her husband. Ted stared haughtily at Frodo. "If you mean the one where you and your friends were prancing about in the middle of the road, stopping honest working folk from getting on with their business, yes."
Frodo was finding it more and more difficult to keep his breathing slow and steady as he forced his grip on the staff to relax. "The road narrows there. You know that well enough. Most cart drivers take that into account and slow down."
"That's up to them. There's no law about it, and there's a verge for walkers."
"There is a steep bank and it is full of rabbit holes, as Orton also knows well enough," Frodo corrected with a glance up the stairs. "There are some who are suggesting that Orton may have deliberately driven at my friends and me."
Ted stood so suddenly that his chair toppled backwards and Betony shrank further into her corner. "Who says so? I'd like to see them prove it!" He leaned across the table to jab a finger into Frodo's chest. "Is it you, Baggins? Who's going to listen to the nephew of a liar at best and a thief at worst?"
"Who's there?" came a querulous voice from the closed door to their left.
"It's nothin', Da." Ted flicked a wrist and Betony slipped quickly from the kitchen, to tend her father-by-marriage.
Frodo stood his ground, refusing to be cowed by Ted's taunting. They were accusations he had learned to ignore over many years. Instead he kept his voice level. "I did not say that I had made the accusation, although I have my opinions. Bartimus is being more vocal about his opinions, however, and is not in a forgiving mood. Poor little Bell has a broken leg and Daisy could have lost their unborn bairn." Before Ted could interject Frodo ploughed on, "And Bartimus has spoken with others. You know how talk spreads in a village. They have planned a meeting at the Ivy Bush this evening. In my experience, when you combine hurt with drink, righteous anger can turn ugly."
Ted was not willing to let go of his bluster, however, his fists clenched so tight that the knuckles were white. "Are you saying that Brockbank lad is going to come, mob handed? They'll not get in here, I warn you. This mill has stood since before the Shire was founded. I'll send word to the Shirrifs, too. It's the Brockbanks' word over ours and my family have been respected in Bywater for many a generation."
Frodo suspected that any respect earned by earlier generations of the Sandyman family had long since been squandered away by the more recent ones. "Involvement of the Shirrif's could save Orton's life, that's true." He decided to play a card he rarely used. "You may not be alone in thinking Bilbo a fool but we Baggins' have been helping folk in Hobbiton for a long time. Despite your opinion, we have also earned a great deal of respect. If it comes down to my word against Orton's, who do you think will receive the most good will? Are you willing to risk losing the argument, because if you do, your son could end up in the Lockholes for several years." He paused ominously. "Or worse."
"Ted, please." Betony begged, carefully closing the door to Ryle's bedroom as she returned to the kitchen.
"You hold your tongue!" Ted shouted, jabbing a thick finger at her.
To Frodo's surprise, Betony chose to stand her ground this time, lifting her chin. "No, Ted. He's my son too. I've watched you turning him mean and selfish, and I've said nothing." She sent an apologetic glance Frodo's way. "And for that I'm as guilty as my husband. I should have stood up long ago."
Ted advanced, hand raised, and Betony flinched but still held her ground. Frodo was about to intervene when a voice called down from above. "No, dad!"
All turned, to discover a pale Orton standing at the top of the stairs. Ted thundered, "Get back in your room! I'll see to you later," but Orton ran down to join his mother instead.
"I'll not say Mam's right." He nodded to Frodo. "But maybe he is. That uncle of his may have been stupid when he was younger, but there's a lot of folk in Hobbiton beholden to the Baggins family. They'll come down on his side. You know they will." Orton scowled at Frodo. "I've no liking for the thought of spending the next few years in the Lockholes. I want to hear what he has to say."
Ted turned about, thrusting out his chin at Frodo. "Well, then. Let's have it. Aside from gloatin', what have you come for?"
Frodo set aside the fact that Orton had not claimed responsibility for his actions, nor made any apology. It was a beginning and he drew a silent breath of relief. "I came ahead of the others, in order to warn you. I'll not say I don't think you deserve to cool your heels in the Lockholes, Orton. You and I both know what happened on that road. But I'll not see you hanged by a mob. Mistress Betony, you have family in Stock, do you not?"
Betony's eyes widened, and her hands unclenched. "Yes! My cousins, the Grubs. They work on a farm down that way."
"Will they take in Orton, do you think?"
Ted was stubborn but he was not stupid, despite the years of alcohol abuse. "They'll take him in. Family is family, when all else is done."
Now it was Orton who baulked. "That's miles away, almost in Buckland. They're all but wild out there on the borders." He turned to his mother in appeal but she was looking at Frodo.
"Despite popular opinion in the West Farthing, the folk of the East Farthing and Buckland do not run around in rags, with bones in their hair," Frodo announced in exasperation. "It was not so long ago that you told me you considered an apprenticeship at Brandy Hall. Your own mother comes from the East Farthing." He smiled softly at the lady. "And she seems very civilised to me."
Betony clutched at her son's arm. "It won't be so bad, Orton. They even have a small mill there. Maybe you'll be able to work in it. And you'll be with family. That will put my mind at rest."
Ted lost none of his belligerence. "How do we know you won't send that mob after him?"
Frodo was growing weary of the distrust. "You don't. You will have to trust me. Of course, the Shire is not such a big place and word may reach Hobbiton one day, but I give you my word that news of Orton's whereabouts will never come from my lips. With any luck, by the time word does reach Bartimus, his temper will have cooled somewhat. I'll work on that for you... but it will be for his sake, not yours."
Although Orton scowled at the floor, Betony turned pleading eyes upon her husband. "Ted?"
Ted Sandyman threw up his hands. "Do what you want. I'll have nought more to do with it. If you're going you'd best go pack, lad. You've only a few hours to get a head start on the road."
Orton appeared torn, looking from father to mother, and Betony stroked his cheek. "Please, Orton. For me."
Orton sidled past his father, then darted back up the stairs. Betony did not meet her husband's cold gaze, only nodding quick thanks to Frodo before slipping into the pantry, no doubt to pack food for her son's journey. Frodo made for the door. "I'll go to that meeting and try to hold them off for as long as I can."
It was several hours later by the time Frodo followed a hubbub of voices to the open door of the Ivy Bush Inn. On such a fine summer evening there would usually be plenty of folk sitting outside with their beer, but today all were packed inside. Frodo felt sweat trickle between his shoulder blades as he stepped into the smoke-filled common room and pushed his way, as politely and yet determinedly as he could, toward the bar.
As he suspected he would be, Bartimus was holding forth to a large and attentive audience. Those who were not close enough to hear were having his words relayed by those at the front, and Frodo had no doubt they were being embellished on the way. He was not looking forward to trying to defuse the situation, and suspected that all he would be able to manage was a holding action, giving Orton Sandyman enough time to escape. His sweat owed more to fear than to the press of bodies crammed into the room.
He had not even time to order a mug of beer before his friend spotted him. "Hey, Frodo! You were there. You tell them I'm not making it up. You saw it all. Tell them what Orton did. Some of these clott heads don't believe me."
Several folk took exception to his description, but their complaints were lost in the general murmuring. Drawing a deep breath, Frodo arranged his features into a bland pleasantness and attempted to ignore the instruction. "Hello Barti."
The murmuring ceased and Frodo held back an urge to run, as all eyes turned to him. He managed to take some comfort in seeing his friend obviously fully recovered, but Bartimus' pallor of the previous day was now replaced by a hectic flush, that he suspected was composed of equal parts anger and beer.
Bartimus nudged him. "I've been telling them all how he deliberately tried to kill us. You were there. Tell them."
"Kill us? Well, I'm not entirely certain that was his intent." Ignoring the widening of Bartimus' eyes, Frodo pressed on. "He was certainly driving far too recklessly on that winding road, but it all happened so fast..."
"What!" Bartimus stepped back from Frodo and Mr Baggins began to wonder if their friendship would survive what he was about to do.
"I'm sorry, Barti. He was driving too fast and he should have stopped to see if we were alright, but I cannot speak for what was going through his mind…and neither can you." A wave of muttered conversation swept to the back of the room, and Frodo could see several younger hobbits frown, whether in anger or confusion he could not tell.
"Frodo, the Sandyman's have been against you for years. They're a bad lot, and everyone here knows it. You, of all people, should be able to guess what was going through his black mind." Bartimus sounded hurt now, and still Frodo would rather have that, than a lynching.
"That's just it though. I cannot say what is in another's mind and neither can you." Frodo raised his voice to fill the room. "Neither can any of us. Now, if you believe without a doubt that Orton tried to kill us, you should call the shirrifs."
A chorus of voices shouted out, "We don't need no shirrifs" and, "Them shirrif's is no bloody good."
"We can string him up ourselves."
"Aye. Afore he runs off."
"Cowards, the whole bunch."
"Drunk most of the time."
"Tight as a purse string too."
"Always over chargin' for their flour."
"'Tis time we were rid of the lot of 'em!"
"Aye. String 'em all up!"
Frodo felt, rather than saw, Sam Gamgee push through the growingly belligerent crowd to stand square, at his elbow. Frodo raised his hands for silence, trying not to wince when the action tugged at stitches. "We have laws for a reason. Nobody here has heard Orton's side. Maybe his pony did bolt. We should not make any rash decisions." He pointed at the mulish face of Bartimus' brother, Nevis. "How would you feel if you killed him, and then new evidence came out which showed that it was truly an accident. You can't give back a life once it's taken."
"That's about as likely as the Water flowing backwards. I'll take that chance," Nevis declared, hotly.
"Alright. Let us say that you are right and Orton really did have murder in his heart, do you have the stomach to tie a rope around his neck and pull it tight?" Nevis and one or two others began to blanch, so Frodo pressed on. "Can you honestly say that the sight of him kicking and struggling as the life is squeezed from him, won't give you nightmares for the rest of your life?"
Frodo noted that Bartimus was also looking a little subdued and one or two of the crowd were even beginning to turn green about the gills. "At the very least, we should ask the shirrif's to get his side of the story."
Despite his best efforts a voice shouted from the back, "I still say we string him up!" Soon others joined in and the chorus swelled once more.
Bartimus raised his arms, pleading for quiet, but he was drowned out.
Another voice called, "Come on, lads. Lets find a rope."
The room emptied, like dark water from a dam, and when Bartimus tried to hold back those nearest him, Frodo shook his head. "Let them go, Barti."
"What? You were the one defending Orton."
"I know, but he's probably long gone by now," Frodo replied on a sigh.
"Gone?" Bartimus' eyes widened in an odd mixture of relief and betrayal. "You warned him, didn't you?".
"I'm sorry. I had a feeling things were heading this way."
Now Sam spoke. "I found the shirrif's like you asked, Mr Frodo, and they're on their way. They've enough of a head start to beat that lot to the mill." His next words were soft enough only for Frodo's ears. "Although, if you ask me, Orton don't deserve to be let off."
"Thank you, Sam. I knew I could depend on you." Frodo met Bartimus' gaze. "I know you're angry. I was too. But despite any intentions Orton may or may not have had, could you really have lived with yourself if you'd been a party to taking his life? Could you have held little Ashlee in the same arms that had taken part in the killing of another?"
Bartimus looked down at his square hands for a moment, before dropping them to wipe upon his breeches. "When did you get so wise, Frodo Baggins?"
Frodo shrugged. "I seem to have grown up when I wasn't looking. But I truly don't think I'm any wiser than you. If I am honest, I would like to see Orton serve a long time in the lockups. But I was worried that he would not live for long enough to get there. I can understand you being angry. I was angry. But Bilbo once told me that it's the action taken in anger that most often goes awry. Orton Sandyman has known only ill treatment from his father for all of his life. We should pity him, and I don't know about you, but compassion sits much better in my mind than murder."
"Here you go, lads." Borden Brewer set three beers on the bar. "On the house. I reckon you need these."
It took several days for matters to settle. By the time the mob from the Ivy Bush reached Bywater Mill it was already less than half it's original number. Finding a couple of shirrifs posted at the garden gate caused more defections, especially when advised that Orton was not on the premises. The few remaining could not maintain their ire when faced with a tearful Betony Sandyman, begging mercy for her son. Of Ted there was no sign and it was only later discovered that he had been locked in the pantry, to avoid any hotheaded comment from him rousing the mob to violence once more.
By Yule Hobbiton had slid back into complacent drowsing, but not so Frodo. He felt a growing disquiet in his heart and took to drinking, perhaps, a little more wine than was good for him in the evenings. He could not shake the feeling that life was about to change for him, and it was nothing to do with the fact that he had noticed Sam walking out once or twice with Rose Cotton. He had come to rely upon his companionship.
In February of the following year Daisy and Bartimus were delivered of a healthy little lass, who they named Peony. The Gaffer pronounced that he did not approve of such a proud name; that simple wild flower names had always been good enough for the Gamgees lasses. Bartimus took his comments in good part, even as he pointed out that Peony was, in fact, a Brockbank. Daisy only rolled her eyes at the machinations of males.
Frodo doted on this little newcomer, even as a part of him wondered if it would ever be his lot to hold his own bairn one day. Whenever that thought grew too strong he would take up his walking staff, leave a note on the kitchen table for Sam, and head out into the night. Word got around that he was often to be found wondering the fields and woods at dead of night, his face upturned to the stars, and speculation grew on when, rather than if, Frodo Baggins would follow his mad uncle off into the wilds.
On one occasion in March, Daddy Twofoot spotted him from his window, standing in the lane at dawn. He was staring down at something in his hand, that he quickly stuffed in his pocket when Alver tapped him on the shoulder. "Here, lad! There's been a frost this night and ye'll catch yer death of cold standin' here. Get off home with ye. Yer face is fair blue and I reckon, if I tapped it, that nose of yours would drop clean off!"
It was on the evening of the tenth of April, that Frodo was sitting at his desk in the study. He was startled out of reverie by a light tapping upon his window. Opening the curtains, he gasped in surprise, for there was Gandalf the wizard.
The further 'adventures' of Frodo Baggins are told in his own words in the Red Book of Westmarch, so I shall not go into them here. Suffice it to say that it was almost four years before Aster Tunnelly fulfilled her wish to see the interior of Bag End. It was not to deliver the bairn of Frodo Baggins, however, but that of Sam and Rose Gamgee. Nor was this a Bag End as grand as it had been in the days before Mister Baggins moved to Crickhollow, for much had happened in the Shire by then, some of it very bad. Yet, it was still one of the grandest residences in the Shire, and the wags of the Ivy Bush were heard to comment that it was long past time its walls heard the ring of carefree children's laughter.