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Chapter 75. Disaster nearly strikes
In our journeying, we have crossed a number of streams, or perhaps it is always the same stream, in many guises. Sometimes it is little more than a trickle, crossing the path – or lying in a bed much too large for the small amount of water, bare jumble of rocks, making for difficult footing. Sometimes the water fills the bed comfortably – or not so comfortably, for then the rocks are hidden and difficult to see, and one must feel one’s way across. Sometimes the water runs swift and deep, barring our path, and we must retrace our steps and find another way.
On second thought, I doubt these are all one and the same stream.
My Sam pauses each time we come to such running water. I think, at first, it is reluctance on his part to set foot in the water. But no, I am sure I have misjudged my hobbit… for at each pause, he encourages me to drink, and more often than not, I do. The two-footed travellers carry water with them, and refill their supplies along the way. It would be difficult for any of us, myself included, to carry enough water for a pony to drink!
We have been walking for hours, this night, when I smell water again, drawing nearer. I whicker softly and toss my head, for this water smells clean and fresh – it has not been running for long, in the air, under the sky, but smells icy cold, colder, even, than the air through which we are walking. It must be fed by springs, bubbling up from the ground, cold enough to make me shiver as I drink. Ah, but delicious! I nudge forward, against my Sam's shoulder, eager with anticipation of the treat.
‘Steady on, old lad,’ my Sam says to me, the words coming out in little puffs of white cloud, and there’s a shiver in his voice, as if all our walking is scarcely warming to him. My skin shudders under a stronger gust of the cold wind that never seems to cease, and I am glad for my shaggy coat.
Ahead, I hear the quiet splashing of our companions. Yes, the stream that crosses our path ahead is near. We continue, though I stretch my neck, prick my ears forward, and reach with my nose, eager for the first taste of that fresh-smelling water. Not far now, not far, and each step brings us closer.
My Samwise, however, does not seem to be so aware, and stumbles into the stream with a splash and startled exclamation. My head collar jerks cruelly at my nose, then the strap that goes behind my ears cuts painfully, and then suddenly all pull is gone and I am free…! But my Sam!
My Sam is lying, face-down, in the stream! Sam! Sam!
He struggles, but the weight of his pack is holding him down. His legs splash, in the shallows of the stream, but he has fallen forward and his head and shoulders are in rather deeper water. He tries to push himself up with his hands, but they slip on the rocks, propelling him face-first into the water once more, and his struggles grow feebler as my fear increases. Sam!
I push at him, I whicker, in my desperation I neigh at the top of my voice. Sam!
And the Fair One, following on silent feet behind us, is there, pulling at my Sam, lifting him and his heavy pack with deceptive ease, as if the two of them combined weigh no more than a mouthful of grass. He carries my Sam to the other side of the stream and lays him down on the bank, well above the level of the water.
I follow, my rope trailing in the stream, all thoughts of thirst forgotten.
The Fair One is kneeling now, before my Sam, chafing his hands and speaking quiet but urgent words of encouragement. I stop beside them, to nudge at my hobbit with my nose. O Sam… my Sam… I nibble along his sleeve, cold and wet. His breath comes in shudders, he coughs and splutters, his teeth are chattering too hard for him to form words.
And suddenly the others are there, gathering round us, the Master kneeling down to take my Sam in his arms, exclaiming. ‘Sam! You’re wet to the skin!’
And not-Merry holds Youngest firmly, the two of them standing aghast. ‘Let’s keep out of the way,’ he whispers to the younger cousin. ‘You know what they say about too many cooks…’
The Fair One is looking up at our Big Man, standing with Tall Hat at his side. ‘We must stop here, and risk the lighting of a fire,’ he says. ‘We have to get him dry, and warm…’
The other Big Man (the one with the shield) is already pulling at the straps of my Sam’s pack. ‘With luck, the clothes in his pack escaped soaking…’
‘Such luck nearly drowned him,’ the Fair One says. ‘His pack is too heavy – it held him down in the stream, after he lost his footing…’
‘The pony’s load is enough lighter, what with us eating away at our supplies for nearly a week now,’ Tall Hat says. ‘He can take on some of Samwise’s load.’
I nod vigorously, though no one seems to notice except Tall Hat, whose black eyes flash an approving look at me before he turns aside. ‘There,’ he says. ‘A little off the path – there is a sheltered place where we may camp, and we might even hazard a fire.’
‘Must hazard a fire, I deem,’ the other Big Man (the one with a shield) says. ‘It would be the death of this Halfling, wet and chilled to the bone as he is, not to kindle fire. At least there is wood hereabouts. Let us hope it is dry enough to burn.’
‘We will scrape kindling from the lower side of branches lying on the ground,’ our Big Man says. ‘I know something of making fire in the Wild, and if fire evades me, surely Legolas will be able to get a fire going.’
‘Or myself,’ the Dwarf rumbles. ‘Fire and I, we’ve been friends for a long time…’
Tall Hat’s eyes gleam at this, but he says only, ‘Then be quick about it and kindle a small fire, before our small friend congeals into a block of ice!’
‘We will camp for the rest of the night, and tomorrow,’ our Big Man says, as the Fair One lifts my Sam, and the Other Big Man (the one with the shield) lifts my Sam’s pack, and the two of them start toward the sheltered place Tall Hat indicated.
‘And a fire!’ Youngest whispers to worried-Merry, as the two of them turn to follow. ‘We’ll have a hot meal tonight!’
And Master takes my rope, and despite the seriousness of the situation, the sides of his mouth twitch as he slaps me on the neck. ‘Come along, Bill,’ he says. ‘Trust Pip to find the treasure in the troll cave.’
I have heard the old hobbit, the one we left behind in the Valley, say this kind of thing, but I still have no idea what it might mean.
Still, it is good to see Master smile, and to hear that fond tone of his, towards his younger cousins, once more. He has been entirely too quiet, the past day or two. I think that the cheer of a fire, and the prospect of hot food, will do him some good as well.
Thanks to AJ for coming up with a proper idiom when my brain was stuck!
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