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CHAPTER 7: A TASK COMPLETED
Luncheon was rather a quiet affair.
Sam, Merry and Pippin had emerged from the study, and Sam and Merry had greeted their wives in a cordial, but rather absent way. Pippin had picked up little Elanor on the way to the table, and hugged her tightly, seeming reluctant to relinquish her to the little wooden seat used to boost her up to the table. She gave him a puzzled look. He usually bounced her about a bit, and rode her in on his shoulders, and plunked her into her seat with a flourish.
Rose and Estella exchanged worried looks. It was obvious that something had shaken them up.
"Is everything all right, Sam?" Rose asked tentatively as she and Estella began to put the food on the table: a slaw of cabbages and carrots, cold sliced ham, a pot of beans, tiny potatoes boiled in their jackets and tossed with butter and parsley, and freshly baked bread.
Sam looked slightly startled at his wifeís question, and simply said, "We finished with the box, Rosie-wife. Thereís no problem now."
Rose narrowed her eyes at this, even while kissing her husband on top of the head as she placed the butter-dish on the table, and caught Estellaís eye once more. Neither of them had missed the evasion.
Estella seated herself, and reached for Merryís right hand to give it a squeeze. To her dismay, it felt chill to the touch. Not cold, not yet, not like it got in Rethe. "Merry?"
Merry gently moved his hand and picked up his fork. "These potatoes look lovely." He popped one into his mouth, and attempted to look as though there were nothing wrong.
"Themís the first of the new potatoes, Merry." said Sam quickly. "I grow them in old half-barrels, just to have the new potatoes."
Merry nodded. "They are certainly good. How do you grow them in barrels?"
And Sam and Merry began to talk over potato growing in great detail, as though there were nothing of more importance.
Pippin had yet to say a word, but was concentrating on his food single-mindedly.
Rose and Estella looked at one another again. If nothing else would indicate something wrong, Pippinís silence alone would have tipped them off.
The conversation continued to be about the food, with a determination to allow no other subject that would have made Miss Dora Baggins proud.
And yet it was not the happy and interested sort of chatter that hobbits are used to.
It helped a bit when little Wyn, sitting in her highchair, and uncharacteristically overlooked by her parents, decided that her beans were not only a finger-food, and something to adorn her face, but also excellent missiles.
"Oi!" said Pippin a bit crossly, as a bean suddenly hit him behind the ear. Normally he would have found this very funny. Estella, who had Perry in her lap, passed her son over to his father, and got up to find a wet cloth to clean up her daughter. Perry looked up at his father with a grin, and reached for MerryĎs nose.
Little Elanor had been watching with wide eyes. She looked anxiously between her father and her two "uncles," and then said sadly, "Daddy? Are you and Unca Merry and Unca Pip mad with me? Did I do something bad?"
Sam looked stricken. "Oh, Elanorelle! No! We are not angry at all!"
Merry and Pippin looked at one another guiltily. As Estella returned to her seat after cleaning up Wyn, Merry passed his son back to his mother, and stood up.
"I think perhaps your Dad and Pippin and I have been cooped up inside too long, Ellie-lass. We are a bit sad because we need to go outside and get some sunshine and fresh air."
Elanorís face brightened at this explanation, which she could understand. "You should go for a walk," she said sagely, "and maybe look at the kitties."
Pippin gave a little chuckle, and dropped a kiss on top of her head. "Such a wise little lass. I think you are absolutely right." And he stood up as well.
Sam glanced at Rose. He disliked the thought of going off and leaving the rest of the meal. It was not a very good example to the children. But sitting at the table glumly and upsetting everyone was worse. Rose gave him a nod.
He stood up as well. "I guess itís as good an idea as any. Pírhaps weíll just walk to Bywater and pay a visit to The Green Dragon. We might as well take our tea there, too."
As Sam, Merry, and Pippin made a quick exit, Frodo-lad, in his own high chair, suddenly gave out a squeal. He, too, had discovered the many uses of beans.
Rose and Estella cleared the table and washed the dishes in silence after luncheon. Each was too busy with her own worries about her husband and friends to engage in normal chatter. But when Estella had finished wiping and putting away the last dish, her eyes met Roseís, which echoed all of her own concerns.
Rose bit her bottom lip, the corners of her mouth turned downwards in a frown. "Iíve not seen my Sam so troubled since he began to heal after Mr. Frodo left."
"I know exactly what you mean," began Estella. "Thatís the last time I saw Merry so upset. Pippin, too, for that matter. And those two usually laugh when things disturb them."
Estella hung the dishcloth back up on the rack that hung next to the pantry. "So theyĎre off to The Green Dragon, then," she said with a sigh.
"Where else?" Rose chuckled. It was not a happy chuckle.
Estellaís eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips in disapproval. "Itís a bit early for them to be drinking! Weíve barely finished luncheon."
"Aye, but then, troubles donít always know how to tell time, do they?" Rose said wryly. She led Estella down the hall to where the children were all resting. "What do you reckon they found that has them so out of sorts?"
"Iím sure I donít know, Rose, but whatever it is, it canít be anything good. Not for them to have that sort of reaction. Why, Pippin barely even touched his food! And MerryÖ" Her brows furrowed together to form worry lines as she sighed unhappily. "He hasnít had one of those nightmares in a few weeks and I really was hoping he was getting better. I just hope that whatever they found in there doesnít bring them back or bring back the coldness in his arm. But I have a feeling it has something to do with their time away out of the Shire."
The thought brought Rose to an abrupt halt, her hand paused in mid-air before the door to her daughterís room. "Oh, Estella! It plumb near breaks my heart when Sam has one of them black dreams!" She leant her hand against the doorframe for support, her heart in her throat.
"Perhaps Iím wrong, Rose," Estella said, putting a reassuring hand on Roseís shoulder. "MmÖmaybe itís just another stack of sad letters about when Frodoís parents died or something."
Rose cocked one eyebrow at Estella doubtfully and then quietly opened the door to Elanorís room and checked to see if they were still asleep. Neither mother could help but smile at what they saw. Elanor was lying on her side sound asleep with little Wyn curled up in her arms. Their little heads were nestled next to each other.
They shut the door softly behind them and checked on their sons, both of whom were also mercifully still asleep. Estella tucked the blanket back around Perry, who had kicked it off in his sleep as usual. "Well, whatever it is, I hope they come back in better spirits than when they left."
"Mayhap we can do aught to help," said Rose as she rubbed Frodo-ladís back. "When the lads come home, we need to find a way to put the smiles back on their faces and get them to laugh with the children again."
Suddenly, she stopped rubbing her sonís back and turned to Estella, a large grin on her face.
Estella looked at her, puzzled.
"A taffy pull!" Rose cheerfully announced.
"Oh, Rose, thatís a wonderful idea!" exclaimed Estella happily but quietly so as not to wake their sons. "I donít know about Sam, but making a mess in the kitchen always puts Merry and Pippin in a good mood! Especially if it involves sweets!" She grinned, remembering how much fun theyíd had a few weeks before, baking sugar biscuits. Her flour supply had needed to be replenished, and the two of them had looked as though theyíd been caught in a blizzard.
"Well, Samís not much of one for messing the kitchen, but he never were one to say Ďnoí to a good taffy pull, and neither is Miss Elanor!"
Rose and Estella left the room feeling much lighter than when they had entered it. They were so pleased with their idea that they immediately went back into the kitchen and began to check the larder, to be sure they had all that would be needed for a taffy pull.
The three hobbits walked along the road to Bywater. A few other hobbits passed them on the road, and they returned the greetings politely enough.
As they approached the outskirts of Bywater, Sam, Merry, and Pippin looked at each other and nodded, and then turned their steps toward their favourite inn.
As they walked beneath the sign, with its rather cheerfully painted picture of a plump, grinning dragon of a rather improbable shade of green, Pippin looked up and touched the bottom of the sign with a tiny swell of pride, and a secret sense of satisfaction. Merry met his eye over Samís head, and gave him the tiniest of winks. Sam did not know, even Frodo had never known, that Merry and Pippin were silent partners in the inn since they had returned from their journey.* Twice a year, they were conscientiously offered their share of the profits by old Toby Harfoot the proprietor, and every time, they would return them to him, and tell him to invest them back into the business. Pippin often felt that of all the things they had done to set the Shire to rights after Saruman, getting The Dragon back in business had been the most important. It cheered him some just to remember it.
This time of day, the common room was not terribly busy. A few hobbits were having their luncheon there, and a few more were having drinks, but it was not as full as it would be in the evenings.
They found their favourite table unoccupied, and the three of them sat down immediately. Tobyís daughter Clover came over immediately.
"Good day, Captain Merry, Captain Pippin, Master Samwise. What can I get for you?"
Merry looked up, and said "A pitcher of malt beer will be fine, Clover."
"Anything to eat, sirs?" She cast a dimpled smile in their direction, and Sam smiled back. Clover had been stepping out with Rosieís brother, Nick Cotton - she might well be his sister-in-law one day.
"Bring us some brown bread and cheese, as well, then," Sam said. After all none of them had finished their luncheon, and beer on an almost empty stomach was not the best idea in the world.
Soon she returned, placing a pitcher filled with foaming brown beer and three tankards before them. She added a tray with a loaf of yeasty smelling rye bread, still hot and fresh from the oven, a half a round of cheese, and some pickled onions.
Sam did the honours, pouring the beer for all of them. He lifted his own, and his brown eyes grew moist. "To absent friends."
Merry and Pippin gave him a sad and understanding smile--chief among those absent friends were Frodo and Bilbo. But there were others--those whom they might see again sometime, such as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Faramir and …owyn and …omer--and those whom they would not: Gandalf and Boromir and Thťoden and Folco and others.
They each took a long pull at their beer, and then Merry reached over and absently tore off a chunk of the bread. Pippin picked off a small bit of cheese and started playing with it, before popping it into his mouth. Sam took up the small knife and cut a chunk of the cheese.
"Well, I suppose weíve done as he wouldíve wished," said Sam, finally.
"I think so," Merry replied. "He knows us pretty well."
"I think heíd be happy with what weíve decided," added Pippin, "and really, he did leave it to us to handle after all." He took a pull on his beer, and leant back. "But I may have a few words with Strider over that last -- thing. He had to have known." He pulled a face. He didnít want to name the chain any more than he had the Ring.
Merry nodded. "Of course he did. But it will keep until we see him again."
Sam glanced at the two cousins, and shook his head. Theyíd not forget, neither of them, and theyíd be on Strider like a dog on a bone when the time came. As for himself, heíd just as well forget that last bit altogether. Thereíd been a lot of good memories in that box, as well -- heĎd rather put his mind to them things.
He gave Merry a little half-smile. "And what do you suppose your fatheríll say, when you bring all them letters and things back to Buckland?"
Merry chuckled. "No doubt heíll be pleased and surprised. I know heíll be glad of Cousin Callaís sketchbook--he was saying only the other day it was a shame weíd not more of her work at Brandy Hall." He looked in his tankard, surprised to find it empty; he poured himself another beer from the pitcher.
Pippin glanced in his own tankard, and pushed it over to Merry, who obliged by filling it. Then Merry glanced at Sam with a questioning look. Sam grinned, drained his own, and put it down on the table. Merry filled it for him, and then looked in the pitcher. It was starting to get low.
They ate sporadically, and continued drinking their beer and talking, and their mood began to gradually lighten.
Just then, Sam heard a familiar voice call out: "Sam! And Captains Merry and Pippin! What a treat to see you here!"
It was Samís brother-in-law, Tom Cotton. Sam turned with a smile, and saw that he was accompanied by Jolly and Nick. Tom and Jolly headed their way, but Nick was already deep in conversation with the buxom Clover.
The two Cotton brothers came over to the table, their own tankards in hand, and large grins upon their faces.
Sam looked at Merry and Pippin, who nodded cheerily in agreement, and then gestured to his brothers-in-law to join them at their table. Tom immediately sat in the chair next to Sam while Jolly hooked a foot around a chair at a neighbouring table and dragged it over.
"Itís good to see you, Captain Merry and Captain Pippin! I didnít know you was visiting Sam!" said Jolly as he sat down.
Merry grinned, and said, "We just came over for a couple of days to tend to a small matter of business. I thought Estella and the children might like to visit with Rose and all." He winked, and said "And of course this pestiferous younger cousin of mine had to tag along."
"Oi!" said Pippin, smacking Merry smartly behind the head. Merry laughed, not even bothering to duck.
"And how are things with the Cottons?" Pippin asked over the laughter, as Merry rubbed the back of his head ruefully.
"Canít complain, canít complain," said Tom. He took a pull of his ale.
Jolly looked over to the bar, where Nick still stood, conversing with Clover and then glanced over at the wall on the other side. "How about a round of darts, if I might make so bold as to suggest it, sirs?" he asked.
Pippin drained the rest of the beer in his tankard, and said, "Iím game! How about the rest of you lot?"
They all stood up, and headed over to the area where the game was usually played, and Merry went and fetched the darts.
The target was about a hand span in width, a larger inner circle with the outer circles progressively becoming narrower.
"Tom," said Jolly, "have I ever told you about them targets down South?"
Tom shook his head, and Sam, Merry and Pippin laughed. Pippin spread his arms apart. "The targets were *this* big! And you were supposed to aim for the *centre* of all things!"
Tom looked incredulous. "Well, *thatís* too easy! Whereís the fun in that?" For hobbits gained more points by placing the darts within the narrower outer rings--a bullĎs eye was considered far too easy a throw.
It was Merry who replied with a roll of his eyes, "Men have *dreadful* aim! Once we realised what the rules were there, Pip and I knew how dead easy it was! Most of the Men thought we wouldnít know what we were doing--and there were all kinds of wagers being placed by some of our friends who *did* know."
Pippin sighed. "We could have cleaned up with the wagering ourselves if weĎd been allowed, but you know how Frodo was about that sort of thing!" But he clearly remembered one evening that Gimli, Legolas, Beregond, Menelcar, and Targon between them had raked in a minor fortune wagering on himself and Merry.
Sam chuckled. "Mr. Frodo never did approve of wagering. But he said as how them Men who lost money betting against you deserved it, for underestimating Hobbits!"
Jolly laughed. "Well, Captain Freddy didnít mind a wager! And there was one evening that him and Mr. Beri went head to head, with Men wagering on each of them!"
"Who won?" asked Merry. Heíd not heard this story.
"Well, it were a close thing, but Mr. Beri just barely did! My, wasnít that something to see--those Men watching with their eyes all bugged out!"
Tom chuckled. "Iím sure that was a sight to see--but are we going to play, or talk?"
Soon they were absorbed in the game. Nick came over finally, fetching all of them more beer, as Cloverís father, Toby, had recalled her to her duties.
They played several rounds, and consumed, perhaps, more beerthan they normally would have in an afternoon in addition to a large bowl of crisps, which old Toby sent out with his compliments. Pippin finally eked out Sam, with a shot that he admitted himself was lucky. As they were trying to decide if they should have another go, they suddenly realised the time.
"Oh mercy!" exclaimed Sam. "Weíd better head back to Bag End! Rosie will have my hide if weíre late!"
Merry shot a glance at his pocket watch. "Lawks! Youíre right, Sam! Estella would not be best pleased with *me*, either!"
So, giving their friends a hearty farewell, the three left The Green Dragon behind, and soon were walking arm in arm.
As they left the outskirts of Bywater, and headed up the Hobbiton road, Pippin raised his voice in songÖ
"A hobbit of habit is Nob oí the Lea,
And soon Sam and Merry joined in with the jolly chorus as they wended their way back to Bag End.
It was late afternoon by the time Sam, Merry and Pippin returned to Bag End, feeling somewhat better, and perhaps a bit pleasantly tipsy.
"Ah, youíre back then," Estella greeted them, kissing Merry as he came to the door. Merry gave her a genuine smile and kissed her in return. It was a relief for her to see that the grey cloud that had hung over them at luncheon was gone. "Rose is in the kitchen preparing afternoon tea. Iím afraid it wonít be ready for another half hour."
"Thatís fine, dear. We were talking on our way back and we have just one more thing that we have to do," replied Merry.
Estella gave him a worried look filled with apprehension.
"No, itís nothing like that!" he added quickly, wrapping his arms around her. "We just have to decide who a few of Frodoís things are going to go to, thatís all."
"I promise you, Estella, we will be much better behaved at afternoon tea than we were at luncheon," Pippin swore, giving her one of his cheeriest looks for good measure. Sam nodded in agreement.
Estella took one last apprehensive look at Sam, Merry, and Pippin, but was satisfied and let them pass back into the study to complete their task.
The three of them avoided looking at the fireplace, but sat down, and Merry drew forth the list they had been keeping.
"LetĎs see," he said, "These items--" and he paused to point out several of the first things on the list, "will all be heading to Brandy Hall." He furrowed his brows. "Seems an awful lot of these items are heading back to Buckland. Sam, are you sure--"
Sam interrupted Merry with a shake of his head. "Merry, Mr. Frodo spent most of his growing up in Buckland. And most of his closest kin are still in Buckland. Itís only proper that most of his thingsíd go back there, where they came from in the first place."
Pippin nodded. "Samís right, Merry. Itís not like we are trying to divide everything up evenly. We want to see each of these things go to the person who would appreciate it the most--and if that means some people get more than others, well, thatís just how it will fall out. I donít think anyone will cry íunfair!í at it; they will just be happy with what they get."
Merry looked back and forth between them, and finally nodded. "I just want to be fair."
Pippin chuckled. "Merry, youíd have to take lessons on how to be *unfair*."
Sam laughed, and Merry relaxed, and then glanced at the list once more.
"Well, at least we agree that where possible, the letters go back to their writersÖ"
Pippin snaked out a long arm and snagged one of the letters in question. "Almost. But I think I want this letter of yours to Bilbo--just to remember that youíve *always* been bossy, and didnít just save up all your bossiness for me." He grinned cheekily, and held the letter out of Merryís reach.
"Humph," responded Merry. "ĎBossy,í indeed! In *that* case, I want *this* Ö" and he, too, grabbed up a letter. "This one, by *you* to Bilbo, about the food under the bedÖ"
"Oi!" Pippin made to snatch it back, and laughing, Merry held it away.
"Itís only *fair*!" Merry exclaimed. Pippin made another grab. It looked as though the argument was going to degenerate into an amiable wrestling match. Sam cleared his throat loudly, and the two cousins jumped.
"Begging your pardon, Merry and Pippin, but seeing as how you both live at Crickhollow, and seeing as how thatís where both lettersíll end up, donít you think you might could settle this later?"
The two cousins caught one anotherís eye, and gave equally mischievous grins. Each rapidly pocketed the letter he was holding. It was clear that they would be able to entertain themselves with this particular argument for weeks on end. Sam shook his head. They did love a good wrangle.
Placatingly, Merry took up another envelope and handed it to Pippin. "Uncle Dinnyís been gone a good while Pip. I think you can have your essay back."
Pippin took it, and smiled. "Well, Iíll finally get a chance to show this to Mother and Father. Your uncle gave me a pretty good mark on it, considering it was my first essay. Mother may even want to stick it in her little box with my baby curls."
The three worked quietly through the list, only stopping once in a while when they came to something they had not previously decided on.
"Miss Doraís letters can go to Ponto, with the other Baggins correspondence," murmured Merry, and Pippin and Sam nodded.
A few moments later, Pippin stopped them again. "What about Folcoís letters? Would Freddy like those?"
Merry bit his lip, trying to decide.
Sam said, "Iím thinking that Mr. Griffo and Mistress Daisy would want them. He *was* their only child."
"Thatís true," said Merry. "And it would not surprise me if they give a few of them to Freddy themselves."
More silence, as they went on with their task, and then Merry said, "I think, Sam, that Frodo would have liked you to have the letters from Bilbo. Bilbo was very fond of you, after all."
Sam looked perplexed. "Iíd like that ever so much, but--well, wouldnít your parents want them? I know as your father worried ever so much about Mr. Frodo after Mr. Bilbo left. It might ease your parentsí minds to know Mr. Bilbo kept in touch all them years."
Pippin nodded. "Heís got a point, Merry. I remember one time hearing Uncle Sara being very angry with Bilbo, over leaving Frodo the way he did."
"Iíll tell you what, Sam," responded Merry. "Iíll take them back to Brandy Hall, and let my parents read them. But then I will return them to you to keep."
This seemed fair to everyone, and now they rapidly worked their way through everything else on the list.
"Thatís it, then. Thatís everything," said Pippin finally, as they placed a check mark next to the very last item on the list.
"Not quite, Pippin," said Sam. He reached down, and picked up the piece of velvet cloth with the barest tips of his fingers. "What do we do with this?"
Merry and Pippin looked at it with distaste. It was such a garish shade of red. "Throw it out," said Pippin, "for if you donít want it, nor do we."
"Seems mighty wasteful," said Sam doubtfully. "Mayhap my Rosie can figure out somewhat to do with it."
"Iím sure that she can," responded Merry. "And truly, that *is* everything, now! And we are all finished now, just in time for tea!"
Merry proved to be as good as his word. Afternoon tea was much cheerier than luncheon had been. With their task behind them, Sam, Merry, and Pippin were able to enjoy the meal with their families. Even though they had eaten at the Green Dragon, Pippin still felt it necessary to make up for only having had one helping of everything at luncheon by having three helpings of the seed cake, cucumber sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and brambleberry preserves that Rose and Estella had prepared for afternoon tea.
After Merry, Pippin, and Sam had finished the washing up, they went out to the front garden, where Rose and Estella were sitting on the bench next to the front step with their sons on their laps while Elanor pretended to have a tea party with Wyn on the grass. Sam and Merry stood behind their wives, while Pippin gave a good-natured shrug and then flopped down on the grass to watch Elanor and Wyn play.
"Now, Wyn, would you care for another cup of tea?" Elanor asked in her most grown up voice as she held the little watering can Sam had given her aloft and looked at her guest expectantly.
Little Wyn said nothing, but instead looked up at Elanor with large grey eyes and stuck the first two fingers of her right hand into her mouth. The corners of Elanorís mouth turned down as she gave a small sigh of frustration. It would be so much easier to have a tea party with Wyn once she learnt how to talk properly.
Elanor whisked the half a brown egg shell up from where she had placed it before Wyn, filled it impatiently with water from her little watering can, and then set it back on the soft grass in front of Wyn before filling her own half of the egg shell with the "tea" and taking a sip.
"You simply must try one of the seed cakes, Wyn. Mam and I journeyed all the way into Hobbiton to get them!" Elanor extended the battered pie tin they used for feeding the cat to Wyn. Wyn removed her hand from her mouth and extended the slobbery hand toward the pie tin and grabbed at it, tipping it unexpectedly out of Elanorís hand, and giggled.
Elanor gasped as she stared for a moment at the pie tin laying there on the grass. She smiled sweetly at little Wyn. "Mayhap you donít care for any seedcake, dear, but I do!" And she picked the tin back up and popped a large slice of imaginary seedcake into her mouth.
Although Merry tried, he could not suppress the chuckle that escaped him as he watched the tea party before him. That was all it took. While Rose and Estella barely managed to control themselves as only a mother can, Sam and Pippin could not hold their laughter back after that.
Elanor looked up, puzzled. "Whatís so funny?"
"Nothing, Elanorelle!" chuckled Sam, scooping his daughter up into his arms and kissing her on the nose. "We just feel somewhat silly after being cooped up in Mr. Frodoís study for so long."
"Oh," said Elanor, understanding clearly written on her face. "I wouldnít like being cooped up like that neither. Iíd much rather be out petting the kitties!"
"Thatís an excellent suggestion, Miss Elanor!" exclaimed Pippin with a grin. He sprang up from the grass and handed Wyn to Merry. "Thereís plenty of time before dinner. Why donít we go see the kitties right now?"
"Can we, Daddy?"
Samís eyes crinkled in a gentle smile as he looked at his beautiful little daughter. It was a shame that Mr. Frodo was not here to see what a treasure she was. "I donít see no reason why not!"
"Can Unca Pip and Unca Merry come, too?"
Merry looked up at Pippin and they nodded at each other. "Thereís nothing weíd like better!" Merry said.
"Iíll tell you what, Elanor. We havenít been fair to you, spending so much time this visit in the study instead of playing with you. Why donít we do whatever youíd like until itís time for dinner," suggested Pippin. "That is, if itís all right with your mother and father," he quickly added.
Elanor looked down at Rose, begging with as sweet a face as she knew how to make. Rose nodded her head and smiled. "Just so long as you behave." She leant over, gave her daughter a little kiss on the cheek, and then whispered in her ear. Elanor looked at her mother, eyes wide. Rose winked, and put her finger to her lips. Elanor giggled
Elanor grinned and clapped her hands together as she bounced up and down in Samís arms. "I will," she replied.
"I was talking to your uncles, dear," Rose said with a playful smile.
After such a trying time, going through Frodoís strongbox, all three hobbits found it very pleasant to sit in the garden shed, pet the kittens, and see the obvious delight on Elanorís face.
Eventually, the kittens all went back to their mother for their dinner.
"So what will it be now, Miss Elanor?" asked Pippin, Elanorís little hand swinging in his hand as Sam closed the door to the garden shed behind them and they began to walk back up to the smial.
Elanor took a moment to think before responding. "WellÖ" she began hesitantly.
"Yes?" Merry urged.
"What about a taffy pull?" she asked in a small voice full of hope. "Mam says I get too sticky." She bit her lip, and looked down. Maybe they would not guess that Mam had told her to ask about a taffy pull. She did not know why it was a secret, but she could keep one like a big lass.
Merry and Pippin looked carefully at Sam, who tilted his head and sighed at the prospect.
"We Ö did promise the lass," Pippin reminded him. The truth was, Pippin loved sweets, and taffy was one of his favourites.
"Aye. That you did," Sam admitted. "And a taffy pull might be fun at that. All right, Elanorelle. You may have your taffy pull!"
Elanor bounced up and down in delight. "Iíll go tell Mam and Auntie íStella!" she squealed, racing ahead of them and opening the front door.
Sam looked at his companions ruefully. Heíd no doubt that Rosie would not be happy with the idea of making such a mess. From Merryís expression, he could tell that Merry was thinking about his own wifeís reaction.
By the time the three entered the smial, Rose and Estella were waiting for them with crossed arms. Rose was tapping one of her feet.
"A *taffy* pull?" she said.
"Well, they did promise the lass anything she wanted," Sam reminded her. After all, it had worked for Pippin when *he* had said it.
"A taffy pull before supper?" Rose continued. "Samwise Gamgee, you can have your taffy pull. But just be warned, whatever mess is made, and there *will* be a mess, you can be sure of that with these two around," she said, indicating Merry and Pippin with her index finger, "you three will be cleaning up."
"Aye, Rosie. And thanks," Sam replied quietly.
"Youíll be needing lots of sugar then," Rose said as she went to get the sugar. "And some vinegar, too." Estella followed, and as they entered the larder to get the supplies they had already laid out handily, the two exchanged a giggle. Their husbands would never know they had already planned the taffy pull.
Soon they were all busily working away, in the practised manner of hobbits in a kitchen, all of them doing their tasks without confusion, though there was a bit of occasional conversation - ("Whew! This vinegar is strong! My eyes are watering something fierce!" "Pip! Get your fingers out of the sugar crock!" "Rose, would you bring me a cup of water, please?" "Mind your fingers, Ellie-lass!" "Merry - grab Wyn, before she pulls the cloth from the table!").
Once the taffy mixture was boiling, Estella tested it by dropping a small bit of the mixture into cold water. She held the droplet between her fingers and felt as it cracked. She smiled at all of the expectant faces. "Itís ready," she announced.
"Can I ladle it, please?" Elanor asked.
Sam shook his head as he began to ladle some of the mixture onto the waxed parchment spread on the kitchen counter. "Iím afraid itís a bit too hot for little fingers just yet. But you can take your turn pulling the taffy once itís cooled enough."
After the taffy mixture was cool enough, Pippin lifted one end of a small piece and gave it to Elanor and put the other end in Wynís little hand so Elanor could pull the sweet.
"Pippin!" Merry exclaimed.
"Oh, donít be such an old grump, Merry! Wyn will be fine, see?" said Pippin. Wyn just sat down on the floor and looked at her sticky hand as Elanor pulled the other end longer and longer and longer until it was almost the length of the kitchen table.
"I think thatís quite long enough!" exclaimed Estella. She quickly grabbed the kitchen scissors and snipped the taffy into bits as long as her thumb, placing each piece in a bit of the waxed parchment and handing them to Merry, who then twisted the ends of each parchment tightly.
Of course, Merry and Pippin were not satisfied watching the lasses have all the fun. Taffy pulling was something they had enjoyed many times when they were lads in Tuckborough, Buckland, and even when they visited Bilbo and Frodo at Bag End. It wasnít long before Merry grabbed one end of a large piece of the taffy mixture and Pippin grabbed the other.
"You stay where you are, Merry," said Pippin. He began to walk backwards, pulling the thick strand longer and longer until he was in the long hallway and then right out the front door! He was careful to hold his sticky brown hand high up over his head so that the sweet did not touch the ground. Elanor had to stop pulling her own piece of taffy because she was laughing so hard as she watched her silly Uncle Pippin.
Estella shook her head in resignation and quickly snipped long sections of the taffy onto a large piece of the waxed parchment with all of the skill and practise of one who had been through this many times before. Once that was done, she snipped the long sections into pieces small enough for little mouths and wrapped them in more of the waxed parchment.
Everyone was having a grand time taking turns pulling the taffy, snipping it into little pieces, and then twisting it into the waxed parchment. Soon, any remaining solemnity had been banished by the warmth of the laughter in the cosy kitchen.
At last all of the taffy was wrapped in parchment and each hobbit was given two pieces, although Merry pinched a third and Pippin a fourth. Even little Wyn got to have one piece, which she managed to make disappear very quickly. The rest they saved for after dinner.
As Sam, Merry, and Pippin rose from the kitchen table to clean up the mess, Pippinís foot brushed against the leg of his chair and felt a bit odd. He stopped and looked down.
"Whatís all the fuss about, Pip?" Merry asked, as everyone turned to stare at Pippin.
"The fuss, Merry, is about *your* daughter dropping her piece of taffy onto my foot!" explained Pippin in a perturbed voice.
Merry shrugged his shoulders. "So? This isnít the first time she has dropped food onto your big feet."
Pippin rolled his eyes at Merryís comment. "No, it is not the first time she has dropped food onto one of my feet," Pippin agreed. "However, it *is* the first time she has got a sticky piece of taffy caught in my foot hair!" he growled, raising his leg up until his foot was practically in Merryís face. "The last time I had taffy caught in my foot hair, Pearl had to *cut* it out!" he said indignantly.
"So, it grew back, didnít it?" smirked Merry.
Everyone erupted into laughter except Pippin, who was precariously balanced on one foot as he attempted to pick at the sticky mess in his foot hair.
"Donít worry, Pippin," Sam finally managed to say breathlessly. "Iím sure I still have a jar of that old black soap out in the shed."**
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