The Return of the King (Page 98)

‘Hobbiton’s not their only place, is it?’ said Pippin.

‘No, more’s the pity,’ said Cotton. ‘There’s a good few down south in Longbottom and by Sarn Ford, I hear; and some more lurking in the Woody End; and they’ve sheds at Waymeet. And then there’s the Lockholes, as they call ’em: the old storage-tunnels at Michel Delving that they’ve made into prisons for those as stand up to them. Still I reckon there’s not above three hundred of them in the Shire all told, and maybe less. We can master them, if we stick together.’

‘Have they got any weapons?’ asked Merry.

‘Whips, knives, and clubs, enough for their dirty work: that’s all they’ve showed so far,’ said Cotton. ‘But I dare say they’ve got other gear, if it comes to fighting. Some have bows, anyway. They’ve shot one or two of our folk.’

‘There you are, Frodo!’ said Merry. ‘I knew we should have to fight. Well, they started the killing.’

‘Not exactly,’ said Cotton. ‘Leastways not the shooting. Tooks started that. You see, your dad, Mr. Peregrin, he’s never had no truck with this Lotho, not from the beginning: said that if anyone was going to play the chief at this time of day, it would be the right Thain of the Shire and no upstart. And when Lotho sent his Men they got no change out of him. Tooks are lucky, they’ve got those deep holes in the Green Hills, the Great Smials and all, and the ruffians can’t come at ’em; and they won’t let the ruffians come on their land. If they do, Tooks hunt ’em. Tooks shot three for prowling and robbing. After that the ruffians turned nastier. And they keep a pretty close watch on Tookland. No one gets in nor out of it now.’

‘Good for the Tooks!’ cried Pippin. ‘But someone is going to get in again, now. I am off to the Smials. Anyone coming with me to Tuckborough?’

Pippin rode off with half a dozen lads on ponies. ‘See you soon!’ he cried. ‘It’s only fourteen miles or so over the fields. I’ll bring you back an army of Tooks in the morning.’ Merry blew a horn-call after them as they rode off into the gathering night. The people cheered.

‘All the same,’ said Frodo to all those who stood near, ‘I wish for no killing; not even of the ruffians, unless it must be done, to prevent them from hurting hobbits.’

‘All right!’ said Merry. ‘But we shall be having a visit from the Hobbiton gang any time now, I think. They won’t come just to talk things over. We’ll try to deal with them neatly, but we must be prepared for the worst. Now I’ve got a plan.’

‘Very good,’ said Frodo. ‘You make the arrangements.’

Just then some hobbits, who had been sent out towards Hobbiton, came running in. ‘They’re coming!’ they said. ‘A score or more. But two have gone off west across country.’

‘To Waymeet, that’ll be,’ said Cotton, ‘to fetch more of the gang. Well, it’s fifteen mile each way. We needn’t trouble about them just yet.’

Merry hurried off to give orders. Farmer Cotton cleared the street, sending everyone indoors, except the older hobbits who had weapons of some sort. They had not long to wait. Soon they could hear loud voices, and then the tramping of heavy feet. Presently a whole squad of the ruffians came down the road. They saw the barrier and laughed. They did not imagine that there was anything in this little land that would stand up to twenty of their kind together.

The hobbits opened the barrier and stood aside. ‘Thank you!’ the Men jeered. ‘Now run home to bed before you’re whipped.’ Then they marched along the street shouting: ‘Put those lights out! Get indoors and stay there! Or we’ll take fifty of you to the Lockholes for a year. Get in! The Boss is losing his temper.’

No one paid any heed to their orders; but as the ruffians passed, they closed in quietly behind and followed them. When the Men reached the fire there was Farmer Cotton standing all alone warming his hands.

‘Who are you, and what d’you think you’re doing?’ said the ruffian-leader.

Farmer Cotton looked at him slowly. ‘I was just going to ask you that,’ he said. ‘This isn’t your country, and you’re not wanted.’

‘Well, you’re wanted anyhow,’ said the leader. ‘We want you. Take him lads! Lockholes for him, and give him something to keep him quiet!’

The Men took one step forward and stopped short. There rose a roar of voices all round them, and suddenly they were aware that Farmer Cotton was not all alone. They were surrounded. In the dark on the edge of the firelight stood a ring of hobbits that had crept up out of the shadows. There was nearly two hundred of them, all holding some weapon.

Merry stepped forward. ‘We have met before,’ he said to the leader, ‘and I warned you not to come back here. I warn you again: you are standing in the light and you are covered by archers. If you lay a finger on this farmer, or on anyone else, you will be shot at once. Lay down any weapons that you have!’

The leader looked round. He was trapped. But he was not scared, not now with a score of his fellows to back him. He knew too little of hobbits to understand his peril. Foolishly he decided to fight. It would be easy to break out.

‘At ’em, lads!’ he cried. ‘Let ’em have it!’

With a long knife in his left hand and a club in the other he made a rush at the ring, trying to burst out back towards Hobbiton. He aimed a savage blow at Merry who stood in his way. He fell dead with four arrows in him.

That was enough for the others. They gave in. Their weapons were taken from them, and they were roped together, and marched off to an empty hut that they had built themselves, and there they were tied hand and foot, and locked up under guard. The dead leader was dragged off and buried.

‘Seems almost too easy after all, don’t it?’ said Cotton. ‘I said we could master them. But we needed a call. You came back in the nick o’ time, Mr. Merry.’

‘There’s more to be done still,’ said Merry. ‘If you’re right in your reckoning, we haven’t dealt with a tithe of them yet. But it’s dark now. I think the next stroke must wait until morning. Then we must call on the Chief.’

‘Why not now?’ said Sam. ‘It’s not much more than six o’clock. And I want to see my gaffer. D’you know what’s come of him, Mr. Cotton?’

‘He’s not too well, and not too bad, Sam,’ said the farmer. ‘They dug up Bagshot Row, and that was a sad blow to him. He’s in one of them new houses that the Chief’s Men used to build while they still did any work other than burning and thieving: not above a mile from the end of Bywater. But he comes around to me, when he gets a chance, and I see he’s better fed than some of the poor bodies. All against The Rules, of course. I’d have had him with me, but that wasn’t allowed.’

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