Chapter 67. Errand of Mercy

Freddy and Budgie had planned to depart early in the morning on the third of October and make a slow, easy journey to Bywater, where they'd stay over the evening of the fifth of October, then arrive at Bag End just after the noontide. However, the best-laid plans of Men and Hobbits sometimes come a cropper, especially when a wheel loses a cotter pin and brings a coach to a ruinous halt partway to its destination.

They had put the Oatbarton road behind them, the ponies trotting briskly, the bells on the harness jingling a pleasant song. With just over three miles to the inn where they planned to stop for the night with only one more day of travel before them, there was a sharp crack and the coach jolted violently. 'Hold tight!' Freddy shouted, and then they were going over, thrown about as the world spun crazily around them.

The first rescuer, Hobby Grubb, reached them while the wheels on the upturned coach were still spinning slowly. He was travelling from Bywater to Frogmorton to visit relatives, and he saw as if in slow motion the coach tilt to one side and then roll like a carthorse turned out to pasture after a long, hot day of hauling. The driver flung himself free, but his hands were tangled in the lines and the panicked ponies dragged him a ways before Hobby reached them. At great risk to himself, he leaned from the saddle to catch the rein of the nearside lead pony, pulling his own mount down to a walk at the same time.

A farm lad bringing his cows home from pasture ran up then, gasping, and Hobby gave him the lines. 'Hold them,' he said tersely, and jumping down from the saddle, ran to where the driver lay panting in the dust of the road, scraped and battered.

'Don't mind me!' he gasped. 'Mr Freddy and Mr Budgie! In the coach!' Hobby nodded and vaulted into the saddle again, racing his pony to the overturned coach. He rode right up to the battered box and clambered from the saddle onto the side of the vehicle, peering through the window that now faced the sky. 'Hulloo!' he cried. 'Is anyone there?' A groan answered him. He peered in at the tumbled occupants. 'Hold tight!' he shouted. 'We'll have you out as soon as we can.' It would have to be through the window, he thought. The door was flat against the road.

A farmer and his sons came jogging up, ropes over their shoulders; a child had seen the mishap from their yard just down the road a ways and sounded the alarm. Now he handed his youngest boy atop the coach with one of the ropes. 'Can ye lower him down inside?' he asked. 'He can tell us what's what.' Hobby nodded and steadied the rope as the boy lowered himself through the window, easing himself carefully down so that he wouldn't drop on either of the hobbits lying within. Once inside he checked both occupants of the coach.

'They're alive!' he shouted up at the watching faces. 'I cannot tell how badly they're hurt.'

'What d'you think?' the farmer asked Hobby. 'Chop a hole in t'roof or pull them out through t'window?'

'Depends on how badly they've been hurt,' Hobby said. 'Is there a healer hereabouts?'

The farmer nodded. 'I sent my Ted off, soon's we saw the crash. They ought to be here anytime now.'

The driver came hobbling, leaning heavily upon the cowherd. 'Mr Freddy!' he shouted. 'Mr Budgie!'

'They're alive,' the farmer told him. 'Sit yersel' down afore ye fall down.'

'Budgie,' one of the injured hobbits muttered, moving his head from side to side.

'Steady now,' the farm lad told him. 'Help's on the way.' He'd checked for bleeding and found none that was serious, thankfully, but the left arm of the hobbit that hadn't spoken was obviously broken. He ran his hands down that hobbit's other limbs, and then checked the limbs of the one that had spoken, just the way he'd seen the healer do when his next-biggest brother had fallen from the roof while making repairs.

He heard his father call out in welcome. 'Horris!'

'The healer's arrived,' he said soothingly to the restless hobbit. 'Ye'll be out of here soon.'

Soon the healer's head appeared in the rectangle of sky above them. 'Got room?' Horris said.

'They're tumbled about for true,' the lad answered, 'but if ye watch where you set yer feet they'll be all right.' Horris nodded, turned himself about, and had soon lowered himself into the coach, the farmer lowering his supplies after him as soon as he'd alighted. He was a little old cricket of a hobbit, spry and quick, and it wasn't long before he had the broken arm set and splinted and had checked over both patients thoroughly.

By the time they'd got Mr Freddy and Mr Budgie out of the coach, they were working by torch and lantern light, and Mr Freddy was more than half-awake and fretting over the state of his companion. The rescuers carried the two hobbits and their driver to the farmhouse on makeshift litters and tucked them into the best bed. What need had the farmer and his wife, after all, of their bed, when they'd be up watching with the injured through the night? Any hobbit would have done the same.

Though Hobby was offered a bed as well, he declined. It was his old uncle's birthday on the morrow, after all, and he determined he'd be there for the birthday breakfast if he had to ride through the night to get there. The farmer's wife persuaded him to stay to supper, at least, and then the farm family sang him along on his way. What a tale he'd have to tell his relatives on the morrow!

Horris managed to get a sleeping draught into the restless hobbit; the best thing for him was to sleep through the night. He'd be stiff and sore enough in the morning. The healer then spent a good deal of time bathing and dressing the scrapes and abrasions sustained by the driver when he was dragged. In the meantime, the farmer and his neighbours attached lines to the coach so that a team of plough ponies could pull it to the side of the road where it would not present a hazard to any travelling by night, not a common occurrence, but always good to take care.

One of the fine coach-ponies was badly lame, strained by being pulled nearly off its feet when the coach overturned, before the singletreecame loose. The farmer's eldest son rubbed liniment into the trembling muscles and bedded the beast in a deep layer of straw while the next-oldest checked the remaining ponies, feeding and bedding them all the while crooning a soothing tune.

In the middle night, Budgie awakened, groggy and in pain from his broken arm. He would have sat up abruptly had he been able. As it was, he jerked partway upright before sinking back on the pillows with a groan.

'Let that be a lesson to you,' Horris said sternly. 'You're lucky to be among the living this night.'

'Mr Freddy,' the hobbit whispered.

'He's asleep, and don't you be waking him,' Horris warned. 'How are you feeling?'

'How do you think I'm feeling?' the broken-armed hobbit said irritably. He felt the splinted arm with his good hand. 'Simple or compound?' he asked.

'You're a healer?' Horris said.

'Budgerigar Smallfoot, at your service,' Budgie said.

'And at your family's,' Horris responded. 'Compound, but I was able to set it properly. It ought to heal true.'

Budgie nodded. 'How's Mr Freddy?' he asked. 'And the driver? Was either badly hurt?'

'Sleeping like a babe, the both of them,' Horris answered. 'I gave them each a draught earlier.'

'How's Mr Freddy's heart?' Budgie said.

'His heart?' Horris asked. 'Seemed fine, steady and strong. He has a problem?'

'He's recovering,' Budgie said, 'but I've been keeping a close eye on him.'

'Ah,' Horris said. 'Well, some rest won't do him any harm, nor you either.' He squeezed Budgie's good arm. 'Do you think you could manage a draught? That arm ought to be giving you a fair amount of discomfort by now.'

Budgie grinned wryly. 'Why do we call it "discomfort"?' he asked. 'I'd say "pain" is more like.'

Horris grinned back at him. 'I'd like you to eat something,' he said, 'and then I'll give you a draught to help you sleep and do something for that... pain.'

'Much obliged,' Budgie said. 'How's the coach? We're due in Bywater on the morrow.'

'You won't be taking it anywhere soon,' Horris said. 'We had to chop it to pieces, for all practical purposes, to get the two of you out.'

'Can we hire a coach?' Budgie said urgently. 'We have got to get to Bywater on the morrow, or the day after at the latest.'

Horris patted his good arm. 'I'll ask around,' he said soothingly. 'Perhaps they have something at one inn, or the other. We're halfway between inns here. At the least the farmer might be able to drive you to Bywater in the waggon, if the two of you are well enough on the morrow.'

'We had better be,' Budgie said grimly.

'What is it—a matter of life and death?' Horris joked, but Budgie did not laugh.

'Something like that,' he answered.

O - O - O

Freddy awakened the next day, hungry, stiff and sore, and groggy from the draught. 'Budgie?' he said, blinking his eyes open.

'Right here,' came Budgie's voice from beside him. He looked over, to see the healer tucked up on the other pillow, the driver beyond him in the big bed.

'Where are we?' Freddy asked.

'Farmhouse,' Budgie answered succinctly. 'Coach came a cropper and the good folk took us in.'

'What day is it?' Freddy said, sitting up abruptly and instantly regretting his haste.

'Steady, Freddy,' Budgie said. 'It's the fifth, and there's still time.'

Freddy easedhimself back down, but looked in dismay at the bright sunshine outside the window. 'How much time?' he fretted. 'It looks as if the day's half over already!'

'It is,' Horris said, entering with a tray. 'More than half over, in truth. It's near teatime.'

'But we're supposed to be in Bywater this evening,' Freddy said desperately, 'and in Hobbiton on the morrow!'

'You won't be in Bywater by this evening,' Horris said equably, 'but we'll do our best to get you to Hobbiton on the morrow, if you don't excite yourself too much and have to be confined to bed.' He laid the tray down on the chest of drawers and then helped Freddy sit up, propping him with pillows. 'Now I want you to eat every scrap of this good food, and then I'll check you over once more,' he said, putting the tray in Freddy's lap.

'What about me?' Budgie said. 'That smells awfully good.' Freddy glanced at him in disgust, and he smiled grimly. 'We won't be any good to Frodo if we're falling over from hunger and weariness, Freddy. Eat.'

'Your tray is coming, Budgie,' Horris said. 'Do you want one of the farmer's pretty daughters to feed you?'

'Save us!' Budgie said, rolling his eyes. 'I have a wife at home.'

'More's the pity,' Horris said cheerily. 'They're awfully pretty...'

'You just cut up my meat for me, I'll do the rest,' Budgie said. 'Unless you'd like one of them to feed you, Freddy?'

'Spare me,' Freddy said glumly then applied himself to his meal. The sooner he was done eating, the sooner he could be on his way to Bag End.

As it was, they left after sunset. The farmer drove them himself, in the farm waggon. It was a slow and bumpy ride. Budgie cradled his broken arm and stoically stood the bumps, but when the farmer pulled the waggon to a stop part way, to rest the ponies, the light of the lantern revealed drops of sweat on his face, and he seemed pale to Freddy. 'Are you well, Budgie?' he asked anxiously.

'Sam'll never believe I can take care of you at this rate,' Budgie muttered, 'much less his Mr Frodo.'

All the vexation in the world would not get them to Bywater any sooner, but Freddy could not help worrying. They reached Bywater after teatime, and Freddy was near despair. What must Frodo be thinking, if he were not already gripped in the shadows of the past?

Pulling up before the trough in the town square, the farmer turned about. 'Just let me water them, and we'll go on,' he said apologetically. 'I'm sorry it's taken this long to get here. They're good steady ponies, but they're plough ponies, not cart or carriage beasts.'

Freddy nodded tightly. The farmer had done his best, more than that, he'd driven through the night to accommodate their urgency. 'Of course,' he said. 'They need water after pulling us through the night and more than half the day.'

He tried not to fret while they waited their turn at the trough, though he itched to get down from the waggon and walk to Hobbiton and on up the Hill. Were he not so stiff and sore he might have chanced it. His heart was growing ever stronger, after all, or so Budgie kept reassuring him. Finally they were again on their way, the last few miles, to Hobbiton and the Hill beyond.

The ponies were very weary, and it was slow going up the Hill. The Sun was seeking her bed as they pulled up before Bag End, smoke was rising from the chimney and the smell of supper was in the air.

There was no use in pretending. Their original plan was useless. The farmer helped Freddy down from the waggon, and then Budgie. 'I thank you,' Freddy said, pressing a handful of silver into the gnarled hands.

'Ye're welcome, lad,' the farmer answered. 'I only hope we got ye here in time.'

'Very kind of you,' muttered Budgie as the door to Bag End opened, showing a bewildered Rose Gamgee.

'Mr Freddy?' she said. 'Budgie? We expected you yesterday...' She looked beyond to the farm waggon. Sam appeared behind her, holding Ellie.

'We had a little mishap with the coach,' Freddy said. 'Farmer Linseed was kind enough to bring us here.'

'Please, let me put up your ponies and stay the night,' Sam said, handing Ellie to Rose. 'They look about all in.'

'They've come a long ways and that's a fact,' Farmer Linseed agreed. 'Just tell me where to put 'em and I'll see to it.' Samwise directed him to the little stables just past Bag End. 'I'll walk with you,' he said, but Freddy caught at his arm.

'How's Frodo?' he asked urgently.

Sam stopped in surprise. 'That's right,' he said slowly, 'you wouldn't know. Mr Frodo's gone.'

Freddy blanched and swayed, and Sam caught him. 'I'll take care of the ponies just fine,' the farmer said hastily. 'You'd better get him inside.'

Sam brought Freddy into Bag End, settling him in the rocking chair in the kitchen, Budgie hovering close by. 'Tea, lots of sugar,' Budgie said. 'He's had a shock.'

With Ellie on one hip, Rose poured out tea, adding milk and a goodly amount of sugar. 'Here you are, Mr Freddy,' she said encouragingly, handing him the mug. 'You drink that up now.'

Freddy took the mug and held it as if he didn't know what to do with it. 'Gone?' he repeated. 'Frodo's gone?'

Rose put a gentle hand on his shoulder. 'Drink up, Mr Freddy,' she repeated softly.

Freddy raised a stricken face to Sam, his eyes bright with unshed tears. 'Gone?' he said again. 'When did he pass away? Why didn't you send word?'

'Pass away?' Sam said, dumbfounded. 'He didn't pass away, though he did pass over...' Slowly it dawned on him. 'Mr Freddy, he's not dead!' he said urgently. 'He took ship with the elves. I only got back an hour ago, myself, from the Havens, and when I didn't find you here I planned to send you a message on the morrow.'

'Took ship?' Freddy said. 'Sailed with the elves?' he repeated. The tears brimmed and began to spill down his cheeks.

'I'm sorry, Mr Freddy, I'd've sent you word sooner...' Sam said.

'No, no that's fine, Sammy,' Freddy said, still holding his untasted tea. 'He's all right then,' he added. 'Frodo's all right.'

'He is indeed, Mr Freddy,' Samwise said, understanding. 'Now drink your tea.'