Author's Notes: The stick-and-ball game being played in this story is my poor attempt to recreate an early form of cricket, which someone tried to explain to me. I say "tried", because it still doesn't make much sense. Ah, well. Hopefully it sounds real enough in this story.
Ditch-jumping is a sport I read about in "The Wheel on the School", a lovely book, if you haven't run across it yet. The first chapter is rather slow and dreamy, but pretty soon you'll be gulping down the chapters at a run, if you're anything like we were when we read it aloud.
This story came out of nowhere, kind of like the fissures and cracks of Moria. If the ending seems too abrupt, well, you know what happened, don't you? And if you don't, go and read "The Fellowship of the Ring".
The characters and the world they inhabit are, for the most part, not mine. Sure wish they were.
*** The Leap ***
There were fissures and chasms in the walls and floor, and every now and then a crack would open right before their feet. The widest was more than seven feet across, and it was long before Pippin could summon enough courage to leap over the dreadful gap. The noise of churning water came up from far below, as if some great mill-wheel was turning in the depths. (from Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkien, "A Journey in the Dark")
'Miss!' Fredegar Bolger hissed as Merry grasped the stick more firmly, preparing to swing. 'You're gonna miss it! Miss!'
'If he misses, that'll be the last "out"! It'll be our turn!' another Bolger cousin chortled.
'He's going to miss!' Fatty Bolger crowed. 'He'll never hit it!'
Just as the ball was rolling towards him, a tugging hand and little voice broke his concentration. 'Merry!'
Merry swung just a shade too late and missed the ball, which rolled past him to strike the tree behind.
'Out!' Fatty cried triumphantly.
Merry put the stick down and said less patiently than usual, 'What is it, Pippin?'
Young Peregrin Took, visiting Budgeford in Bridgefields along with other Tooks and Brandybucks besides, for festivities to culminate in a Bolger wedding, released Merry's sleeve. 'Aren't you finished yet?' he asked. 'You said you would take me on an adventure!'
'No, Pippin, we're not quite finished, yet,' Merry said, kicking at the stick and walking out into the field as the Bolgers and Tooks came in to take their turn at hitting.
'Too bad, Merry,' Berilac said. 'I know you could have hit it had Pippin not jarred your arm.'
'I jarred your arm?' Pippin asked soberly.
Merry smiled and tousled his mop of curls. 'I'm afraid you did, but it doesn't matter. That Gundabar Bolger throws a wicked ball, it would have been hard to hit in any event.'
'I'm sorry, Merry,' Pippin said sadly.
'Don't worry, Pip,' Merry answered easily. 'Why don't you go sit over there and watch until the game's done, then we'll have our adventure.'
'I will,' Pippin promised. Merry saw him walk over to the tree where other small cousins were sitting, then turned his attention back to the game. The Brandybucks were down several runs, and could not afford to let the Bolgers and Tooks press any farther ahead.
After sitting and watching the game, and wrestling a bit with Doderic and Ilberic Brandybuck, Pippin became restless again. It seemed as if the game would go on forever.
Doderic had the same idea. 'Let's have our own adventure,' he said suddenly. 'Merry's never going to be free and it is nearly teatime!' He got off Ilberic, whose head he had been rubbing into the dirt, and said, 'Who wants to come with me?'
'I will!' Pippin said, jumping to his feet. 'Where shall we go?'
Combing dirt out of his hair with his fingers, Ilberic said, 'Let's follow our noses.'
Pippin looked at him critically. 'Yours looks rather flat at the moment.'
'That's Doderic's fault,' Ilberic said, lunging for his brother again, but Pippin got between them and pushed them apart.
'Don't start that again, or we'll never get anywhere.'
'You're right,' Doderic said. 'Lead on, my lad! You've the longest nose of us all, anyhow.'
Pippin decided to let the remark go in the interest of adventuring, but he'd find a way to pay Doderic later, he was sure. Frogs were plentiful at the moment, with the ponds and ditches brimming from the heavy rains of the past month, even with the clear weather they'd had this week.
They wandered from the meadow towards Whitfurrows, throwing stones into the ditch on one side just to see who could make the largest splash, telling outrageous stories, looking in vain for adventure.
Pippin's stomach growled suddenly, and Ilberic whined, 'I'm hungry. Shouldn't we be getting back? I don't want to miss tea.'
'We won't miss tea,' Pippin said cheerily. 'Merry and Merry will get in big trouble if we're not there for teatime.' He spoke, of course, of Meriadoc and his Brandybuck cousin Merimas.
'Serves them right,' Doderic grumbled, 'and Berilac, too.' Just then he brightened. 'Look,' he said, 'Isn't that a group of town lads up ahead?'
Pippin grinned. 'It certainly is! And what is it that they're doing?'
'Something more interesting than what we're doing, I warrant,' Ilberic said. Just then one of the lads leapt over the brimming ditch and the young Brandybuck gasped. 'Did you see that?' he said admiringly. 'How did he manage it?'
'He's got a long stick,' Pippin said, 'to help him get over.'
'That looks like fun!' Doderic said. 'Wonder if they'll let us play?'
'Come on!' Pippin said, and the three broke into a run.
The game was over, and the Tooks and Bolgers had soundly beaten the Brandybucks. 'You only won because you'd more on your team than we had!' Merimas Brandybuck shouted defiantly.
Gundy Bolger grabbed him by the neck to give him a knuckle rub on the head. 'Quality always tells,' he said smugly. 'You couldn't win had you twice our number.'
As Merimas twisted in his grasp, seeking to grab him and take him down to the ground, an adult voice interrupted the incipient wrestling match. 'Teatime!' Rosamunda Bolger caroled. 'Teatime! Time for tea! If you want some cake, then come with me!'
Fatty immediately laid down his stick and trotted to his mother. 'Here I am, Mum!' he said. 'What's for tea?'
'Six kinds of cake and ten kinds of sandwiches,' she smiled, and a general cheer went up. She took a good look at the lads and frowned. 'But you need quite a bit of washing up before you're presentable,' she scolded. 'What have you been doing, rolling in the mud?'
'We've only been playing, Auntie!' Gundy Bolger protested.
'Well, you get yourselves and your younger cousins washed up quickly, or we'll leave no cakes for you!' Rosamunda threatened, giving her son's nose a tweak before turning back to Budgeford Hall.
Fatty said, 'Yes'm!' sharp enough to her retreating back, but turned away with a wink to the others. He knew his mum always made enough tea treats for half the Shire to come to tea. Still, he was hungry and hurrying seemed a good idea.
'Come on, let's get those little cousins... where are the little cousins?' he said, looking towards the tree where of late two small Brandybucks and one small Took had been.
'They were right there!' Merry said.
Merimas met his gaze with an equal amount of dismay. 'Perhaps they went back to the Hall.'
'If we show up there without them...' Berilac said.
Merimas made a quick decision. 'I'll run back to the Hall,' he said, 'and see if they're there. Otherwise... Fatty, where would they be likely to go? Where do young Bolgers go when they're bored?'
'Down the road,' Fatty said promptly. 'The ditches are brimming right now, 'tis great fun to throw sticks in and watch them sail away.'
'Stick races,' Merry said. He supposed it could be exciting to have stick races in a ditch, if you didn't have the Brandywine flowing past your door. 'All right, Merry,' he said to Merimas, 'you go back to the Hall, but don't let the grown-ups know the little lads have gone missing, I'm sure we'll find them soon.'
'Right!' Merimas said, and took off running.
'If none of us turns up for tea, they're going to suspect something,' Berilac said.
'You're right,' Merry said. 'Gundy, you and Fatty come with Berilac and me. The rest of you head back and start washing up. Make a lot of splashing and noise, make it look as if all of us are there, but go as slow as you can and we'll slip in as soon as possible.'
'The girls are going to ask questions,' one of the Bolgers warned.
'Splash 'em,' Merry said mercilessly. 'They'll be too busy running and screaming to count noses. Now lead the way, Fatty.' Fatty thought of the waiting tea treats and sighed. He led off at a trot; the sooner they found the missing cousins, the sooner they'd have their tea.
The three errants had all had a chance to jump the ditch, hanging on to the long pole, and congratulated the town lads on their ingenuity. This was great fun, much better than watching Brandybucks being trounced by Tooks and Bolgers.
Then one of the town lads, older, nearly in his tweens, thought of a new game. 'I bet I can jump that ditch without the pole,' he bragged.
'O Tolly, don't be stupid,' a younger lad said. 'What if you fell in?'
'I'm not going to fall in,' Tolly said. 'Watch me!' He stood at the lip of the ditch, studying the opposite side, stuck his toes into the racing water, shuddered, and said. 'Wouldn't want to fall in there! So I'll just skip across!' He took a few steps back, and with a running start was up and over the ditch. All the other hobbit lads cheered.
'I can do that,' Doderic said, measuring the gap with his eye. 'Easy!'
'No, cousin, don't!' Pippin said, grabbing at his arm.
'Watch this,' Doderic said. 'From here to that rock is the same distance.' He stepped back a few paces, ran, and leaped. 'See?' ...and without giving his cousins time for further protest he ran at the ditch and leaped over.
One by one the lads jumped the ditch, and the excited cheers swelled with each success. Ilberic barely crossed the gap, landing with arms swinging wildly, teetering at the far edge, grabbed by Doderic and one of the town lads and hauled to safety. Only Pippin was left, hesitating on the far side, watching and listening to the water rushing by.
'Come on!' Tolly yelled, 'Everybody's done it! You're the last! Come on!' A sneer crossed his face. 'What's the matter? You scared?'
'Don't call my cousin scared!' Ilberic said. 'Pip's not scared of anything!'
'He is too scared,' Tolly taunted. 'Just look at his face. Scaredy-cat! Afraid of a little water?'
A few of the other town lads joined in the jeering.
'Pip!' Doderic shouted. 'You don't have to jump if you don't want to!'
'No, babes don't have to jump if they don't want to!' Tolly taunted. 'Why don't you go home? I think your diaper needs changing!'
'Pip, no!' Doderic shouted. 'Stay there! I'm coming back! Ilberic and I are both coming back!'
'We're probably late for tea as it is,' Ilberic said. 'Safer to use the pole to go back, I don't fancy jumping across again.'
'So you're scared too?' Tolly asked.
Ilberic suppressed the desire to wipe the sneer away from the town lad's face. 'No,' he said quietly. 'I'm just not stupid. It was a fun game, but not a very smart one.' He raised his voice. 'Pippin!' he called. 'Pass that pole over here, will you?'
Merry and Berilac, Fatty and Gundy trotted down the road, shouting for their missing cousins. Rounding a bend, they saw the little group of hobbits ahead.
'What are they doing?' Merry asked.
'Ditch-jumping,' Gundy said grimly as another ran at the ditch and sprang over. Only two figures remained on the road side of the ditch, all the others waited on the far side. 'Town lads love to do foolish things.'
'D'you think they've seen our lads?' Berilac asked. Just then the second-to-last figure made the jump, nearly falling backwards into the water but for the two who grabbed at him to haul him to safety.
Merry gave a gasp. 'That's Ilberic,' he said, shaken. 'Pip and Dod must be ditch-jumping, as well. Come on!' They broke into a run towards the little group.
Pippin walked back to the pole, town-lads' taunts ringing in his ears. He made a sudden decision; he was older than Ilberic, he ought to be able to do as well, or better. He straightened his shoulders, turned round, took another deep breath, and began to run at the ditch.
'No, Pippin!' Ilberic shouted. 'Don't!'
Pippin was a step away from the ditch when he heard his name called from behind. He missed the last step, launching himself into the air, off-balance, grabbed wildly at his cousins' reaching hands, and plunged into the rushing water. He tried to scream but his head went under; he choked on the water, kicked feebly, stared at the watery sunlight above, heard a rushing in his ears. He struggled to reach the surface, but the water pulled him along, and there was no air to breath, only water. His lungs gasped for air where there was none, and the bright waters grew dark about him.
'Pippin! No!' Merry screamed as he saw his young cousin run at the ditch. He saw Pippin stumble, his body tensed in a sympathetic effort to leap the distance with his young cousin, he saw Pippin fall short, the waters closing over his head, borne quickly towards his horrified cousins.
'Grab a pole!' Berilac shouted to the Bolger cousins, diving into the ditch, Merry close behind, as the water carried Pippin past. The two Brandybucks let the current carry them, swimming strongly with it to catch their cousin.
Berilac was first to reach Pippin; grabbing him by the hair, he struck out for the side of the ditch. Merry grabbed Pippin's collar from the other side, taking some of the limp weight. Looking up, Berilac saw Gundy Bolger running alongside with a pole; he got ahead of them, thrusting the pole over the water, and with a great lunge Berilac was able to grab hold. Merry missed the pole and was dragged past, letting go of Pippin so that the Bolgers could pull Berilac and Pippin to safety. He concentrated on reaching the side of the ditch, grasped at some tree roots, felt a firm tug at his hair, and then Fatty was helping him crawl out of the water.
'How's Pip?' he gasped. He hauled himself to his feet, staggering. Fatty took his arm, slinging it round his own shoulders, and together they stumbled as quickly as Merry could manage back to the little group.
Gundy was weeping, shaking his head. One of the town lads whispered in awe, 'He's dead. He's drownded.'
'Not breathing,' another said.
Berilac looked up. 'He breathed water, Merry, we've got to get it out of him again.'
'There's a log,' Merry said desperately. They lifted the limp body, carried it to the log, began to roll Pippin back and forth over it.
'Dead,' a town lad was repeating, when suddenly a spew of water came from the young hobbit's mouth and he was vomiting, and coughing, and choking. Merry had never heard such a beautiful sound in his entire young life.
'Come on, Pip, that's it, get it all out,' Berilac was saying encouragingly. 'Gundy, we'll make a lady-chair and carry him back to the Hall. Fatty, you run ahead, tell the grown-ups what's happened. Merry, are you all right? Help us get him up.'
'Come on, lads, let's go,' Tolly said to the rest of the town lads. They scattered quickly and were gone. The cousins slowly bore Pippin back towards the Hall, until the grown-ups reached them and took the limp hobbit from them. As it turned out, there were no cakes for tea that day.
Late that night, Pippin awakened to find Merry curled up beside him. 'Merry?' he said, confused.
Merry was instantly awake. 'They said I could stay with you,' he whispered. 'How are you?'
'I'm hungry,' Pippin said.
Merry chuckled. 'That's a good sign,' he said, sitting up and throwing back the covers. 'I'll go and let them know you're awake and someone will get you something.'
'Merry?' Pippin's voice stopped him before he got up from the bed.
'What is it, Pip?' Merry asked.
'We never had our adventure.' Pippin's voice held an aggrieved tone.
In spite of himself, Merry laughed. 'I don't know about you, Pip, but I had enough adventure for one day. ...and I know what we'll be doing tomorrow,' he continued.
'What?' Pippin asked, forgiving his cousin at once. He was always eager to greet the new day.
'We're going to have your first swimming lesson,' Merry said firmly. 'If you're to be going ditch-jumping, you'd better know what to do if you miss.'
Pippin stood hesitating at the edge of the crack, hearing the water rushing far below. This was far wider than the ditch he'd failed to jump not so many years ago. He fancied he could hear the taunts of the town lads echoing in his ears, but other voices were sounding, closer at hand, and he began to listen.
'Come on, Pip! You can do it!' Merry was saying.
'I'm holding out my staff,' came Gandalf's voice. 'Grab for it as you leap.'
'Take a running start,' Frodo said. 'You can do it, Pip, you jumped that last crack with room to spare.' Sam added his own words of support, privately regretting yet again the forgotten rope.
'We'll catch you, little one,' Boromir encouraged. He had his hands out and ready.
Pippin took a deep breath and nodded. He walked back from the crack, counting his paces, then stopped and turned. He met Merry's fearful eyes, an unspoken wish in his own, even an apology. If I don't make it...
'Come on, Pippin,' Merry whispered, his voice echoing in the cavernous dark.
Pippin took another deep breath, and raced for the edge.