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PART IV: YONDER PEASANT, WHO IS HE?
They waited a moment, but there was no answer. The King rapped once more. They could hear someone moving about slowly. Finally, a voice spoke faintly through the door.
"Who is it?" was the hesitant query.
The King used his pleasantest voice. "We are friendly, and mean you no harm. It is very cold out here, and I have a young one with me."
The door cracked just the smallest bit; they could see the face of a Man outlined in the faint glow of a small fire. He looked careworn, and there was both fear and sorrow in the brown eyes. His brown hair and beard were shot with locks of grey, and he was bundled in drab and threadbare garments of a non-descript colour. He glanced at the King in puzzlement, and at Frodo with alarm.
"But he's a hobbit," he said. When he looked back at the King's face there was a touch of hostility. "What are you doing with a hobbit-child?" he asked. His wariness had turned to suspicion.
Frodo looked up at him, and suddenly realized that the Man was worried for him. "It is quite all right, sir! This is my friend." He was afraid if he told the Man this was the King he would frighten him.
The Man sniffed. "Some friend to bring you out in weather like this! Come in, come in out of the cold." He moved back opening the door more widely, and it was only then that he saw the sled. "What is that?"
The King smiled. "Just some things that might make the evening more pleasant--firewood, food, wine and blankets."
The Man stopped, his face a study in shock. He looked at the sled, and then in the faces of his visitors, as he came to a sudden realization. There was a brief silence, and then in a choked sob, he said, "You brought that for *me* didn't you?"
"Yes. We had more than enough for ourselves, it seemed right to share it. My name is Strider…"
The Man looked up again, startled, and studied the King's rugged face. "Why, it *is* you, Strider!"
It was the King's turn to be startled. "You know me?"
He shrugged. "I used to see you sometimes, in Bree. I doubt me that you'd've known me, though." He heaved a sigh, and then noticed Frodo-lad shivering. "Come in, come in out of the cold!" and he stepped back.
Frodo picked up the large basket from the sled, and the King turned and picked up an armload of the firewood, leaving the rest of it on the sled. Then he used a foot to close the door behind him.
As he carried the wood over to the small hearth, Frodo looked for a place to put the basket. There was no table--only two chairs and a small bedstead. He put the basket on one of the chairs, and turned to the Man with a small bow. "Frodo Gamgee at your service," he said politely.
The Man cleared his throat, "Er, Tom Appledore, Master Gamgee, at yours and your family's." His face reddened beneath the shaggy hair and beard.
Frodo watched as the King built up the fire. They had come in good time, for he could see that there were only a pitiful few sticks left of the wood the old Man had been gathering before. There was something in a pot, but there was scarcely enough heat to warm it--it was not giving off any aroma, and Frodo went over to look: water, with what appeared to be a few meagre chunks of turnip and carrot floating about in it.
" 'Tisn't much, young master," said the Man--Mr. Appledore, Frodo corrected himself. "But it's all I've left in my winter stores. 'Tis been a lean year." He limped up to look over Frodo's shoulder.
Frodo-lad smiled up at him. "Well, we'll make it stretch a bit, with what we've brought you!" He took the pot from the hearth and brought it over next to the basket. "Let's see: there's some 'taters, and more carrots, and some onions and beans. A bit of salt. We can add that and turn this into a fine soup, Mr. Appledore! And we can cut a bit of this lovely ham--it's sugar-cured ham from Newbury, it is! And some of the bread, for toasting…"
The King stood back from the fire, and smiled at Mr. Appledore. "It is as well to get out of the way of a hobbit cooking. Since we've no table, shall we spread this blanket on the floor? We may make a fine picnic here. It is very good to be in out of the cold, Mr. Appledore."
The old Man looked back with tears in his eyes. "You say that like I'm doing you a fine favour, when it's you what's brought me all this, Strider. I don't deserve to have no one be so good to me!"
"Here, let us sit down, while we wait upon our food," and the King sat down at one corner of the blanket, and after an instant, Mr. Appledore did the same.
"I got no plates," Mr. Appledore said, "and I only have one cup and one spoon…"
"We'll make do. I have eaten less well in the wilderness, sir."
Mr. Appledore shook his head. "You got no call to be 'sir-ring' me. I'm no one special."
As they finally sat to their make-shift meal, which their host ate eagerly, the King said, "How does it come that you live here, Mr. Appledore? For I know that of old this was a waystation for Rangers."
" An' you being a Ranger, you'd know that," was the reply. Their host looked worried. "But I got leave to stay here, I have!"
The King gave him a very direct look, and then nodded. "I know that you are telling the truth, yet I would know the rest of the story. How does a Bree-man such as yourself come to be living so far from home?"
Frodo saw tears spring to Mr. Appledore's eyes, and there was a look of such sorrow and regret there that it made his own eyes spark with tears. He blinked and rubbed a hand across them.
"Well, I see as there's nothing for it, then. But when you hear, you mayhap will be sorry for your kindness to me." He let out a deep breath…
"It were nigh on twenty-five years ago, when I lived in Bree, me and my old mother. My dad had died when I was little, and for years my ma did her best to take care o' me, but we was poor enough. My ma did mending and took in washing and it were hard, but we mostly had enough food to fill our bellies. Soon as I was old enough, I went to work myself.
I got myself a job in the stable at The Prancing Pony. Mr. Butterburr was a kind enough master, and paid fair, but a stable hand don't make much even so. But he gave me my lunch and supper, and some nights if there wasn't as much custom as they'd thought on, he'd let me take some supper home to ma. I was good friends with Bob Mugwort, who worked with me in the stable--I saw to the horses what come in, and he saw to the ponies, leastwise that was how it was supposed to be, but really we shared the work. And his brother Nob was friends with me, too. I didn't have too many friends among the other Big Folk, truth be told--I had no time for larking about, nor no money to spend, neither.
I was younger then, and I thought my life wasn't fair. Thought myself hard done by. I knew I'd never amount to much, nor would I ever be able to afford a wife, and I felt right sorry for myself a lot of the time.
Well, one day I suppose my grumbling come to the ears of Harry Goatleaf, 'cause he found me one day in the stable, and told me that he could find me better work.
O' course I was interested. He told me that a friend of his needed some carters, to do a bit of driving and delivering in the Shire. Then he told me what his friend would pay me--one trip would earn me as much as I'd've made in a year working at the Pony!
I suppose I should have thought on it more. Harry Goatleaf had never been very friendly to me afore, and I was not much liking the looks of the boss he introduced me to: a squint-eyed Southerner name of Krag. And the others that Harry was picking for the jobs were a rough lot. But I couldn't see past all the pretty silver coins Harry'd showed me, so I took up with them. My ma wasn't happy to see me leave, though I told her I'd be able to send her more money than she'd ever had afore. But she said 'I'd rather have my boy.'
And off we went, with a dozen empty waggons."
Frodo-lad was not sure he liked the way Mr. Appledore's story was going. He scooted a bit closer to Uncle Strider, who put an arm around his shoulders.
"Well, as I soon found out, we was in the Shire to do more than just delivering pipe-weed. I'd fallen in with a lot of ruffians and bullies, I had. But there weren't nothing for it then. I was too scared of the others to say much.
At first, there was some hobbits helping us. Most of 'em, I think was in the same boat I was--they didn't like having to drive carts for Men, nor what they had to do, but they was afraid to say them 'nay'. But there was a few hobbits what were just as much bullies as the ones what I come with. We met the boss hobbit--a pox-faced fella who talked like gentry. I didn't much like him, either, but I only saw him the one time. Mostly we got our orders from Krag. Krag seemed to think it was funny to make the hobbits afraid of us.
It didn't take long afore they started in not just delivering what we was given, but taking stuff. We'd tell 'em we was going to share it, but so far as I know it were carted off somewhere to the South--especially all the pipe-weed we could get hold of.
I couldn't make myself look happy about what we was doing, and the bullies was always trying to make me join in when they was--well, I don't like to say some o' what they got up to--
One day, we was told we was to start closing down the inns. We went to a town called Frogmorton. We had a hobbit with us, not the boss, but one who helped him--a pasty-faced miller with a sour disposition. There was this one hobbit he singled out there, and well, he set the Men on the poor fellow. I held back to the edges, but I couldn't stop it."
Frodo took a deep breath. This was hard to hear. He looked up at the King, whose face was grave as he studied Mr. Appledore. As for their host, his eyes were far away and haunted, and tears were falling unnoticed down his weathered cheeks.
"I'm sure they killed that poor hobbit, though he weren't dead when we left. I felt sick. And pretty soon, I *was* sick, listening to the others boasting of what they did. Lost my supper, I did, and they all began to mock me, that I had a weak stomach for the job. I told 'em I must've ate something as disagreed with me, but I don't think they believed me.
Next morning, they left me to watch our campsite when they went off to do some more of their 'gathering'. All I could think of was that poor hobbit, and thinking of how it would've felt if it had been my friend Bob back in Bree. I decided to get out while the getting was good.
I took off, and tried to make my way out of the Shire. It was hard--I had to avoid those Men that I'd come with, and I had to avoid hobbits, too. 'Cause there was hobbits who weren't under the Men's thumbs, and they was fighting back. I was hiding out in the hills up north one time, and stumbled into some of them. Took a hobbit's arrow in the leg--it never healed proper, that's why I limp. I finally managed to sneak across the Brandywine and slowly made my way back to Bree.
But I found the gates were shut to me when I asked to come in. Tam Thistlewool was on the gate, and he told me as I'd gone off with my new friends, I was no longer welcome. 'They killed your own cousin Rowlie, they did!' which was a shock, but not so much a shock as him telling me next that my old ma was dead as well. 'You broke her heart you did, going off like you did with that lot! Be off with you!'
I lived rough for a while, wandering about the Wild. I wondered how Rangers did it, for I found it a hard life. I thought mayhap if I came across any Rangers, I might ask to stay with them, but not a one did I see. Finally one day, I came across this hut, and thought to stay here a while. I been here ever since. Long about three or four years I'd been staying here, when Rangers came knocking. They told me that there was a King again, and that Ruffians had been run out of the Shire and Bree-land. They said they wasn't needing this place no more, and give me leave to stay here, but they told me never to cross the Brandywine into the Shire, as no Men could go there anymore--which is a good thing, considering.
I try to keep away from folks, especially hobbits, as it shames me to remember what I was a part of. I take care of myself; it's not so hard most of the time, to live--I can fish, and I have a little garden--but winter, well, winter's right hard. I do get lonesome sometimes in the winter…"
Mr. Appledore suddenly gave a choked sob. "It's hard, remembering," he wept.
Frodo leaned towards him, holding out a hand, which he lay on the Man's arm. "It's all right, Mr. Appledore. You never meant any harm, and you were frightened. But at least you were able to get away from those awful Ruffians before they made you do something horrible."
"Indeed," said the King. "I think it time your self-imposed exile comes to an end. You have suffered far more than a poor choice made in your youth would warrant."
The Man looked at them in wonder. "I don't deserve to have no one be so kind to me, but I thank you all the same, sir."
"Here," said Frodo-lad. He drew out his pocket-handkerchief and handed it to Mr. Appledore, who looked at it in surprise. It had probably been many years since he had seen such a thing, but he wiped his eyes and blew his nose after all.
The King reached into the basket, and drew out three pears, which were taken in equal delight by both Tom Appledore and by Frodo. "I hate to say this, Frodo-lad, but I am afraid we'll not make it back to the lodge in time for supper, with the weather as it is."
"Uncle Merry and Uncle Pippin will be worried!"
Just then, there came a sharp knock upon the door.
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