Chapter Twenty-Six: Of Boffins, Gatherings, and Gamgees

Three days passed idyllically, and Frodo continued to recover speedily. He was soon taking short walks with Sam and Hazel outside, still leaning on Gavin's walking-stick, but not so unsteady as before.

"I feel like an old gaffer," grumbled Frodo while on one of these walks with Sam and Hazel, "leaning on a cane like this. I don't mind using a walking-stick, but not to lean on!" Then he sighed. "I'm sorry, Sam, that probably sounded dreadful. I don't mean to be ungrateful for Gavin's gift, of course. I do love it; it's the finest walking-stick I've ever had, I'm sure, and I look forward to using it on future rambles, but…"

Sam chuckled and patted his master's arm. "Don't worry, Mr. Frodo," he said consolingly. "At the rate you're goin', you'll be walkin' on your own again in no time."

Before Frodo could reply, Hazel, who had run ahead to greet a friend he saw passing by, turned and gave a shout. "Uncle Sam, Uncle Frodo! Tilda just told me that there's some sort o' to-do in town; a party or somesuch. Can we go see what it is?"

Frodo and Sam glanced at each other and quickened their pace slightly to catch up with the hobbitlad. "Would your mum mind, d'you think?" asked Sam doubtfully. "I know town's not far—"

"Not even a mile from 'ere!" put in Hazel helpfully.

"—but I don't know as she'd be pleased to know that Mr. Frodo walked all the way there," finished Sam. Too late he realized that he had just settled the matter himself; a glance at Frodo confirmed it.

Frodo's eyes sparkled mischievously. "We told her we'd be 'outside'," he reminded Sam. "We'll still be 'outside' if we go to town for a few minutes to see what's going on. Come on, Sam, what harm can it do? I'm feeling fine."

Sam could only endure the beseeching looks both Frodo and Hazel gave him for a moment. "All right," he sighed. "But if I 'ave to carry you back, Mr. Frodo, I'm not lettin' you out o' bed the rest o' the day."

"I have no intention of allowing—or requiring—you to carry me, Sam," Frodo replied with mock indignation. "I will manage quite fine by myself, thank you. Besides," he added with a grin, "I'm not sure you could carry me. I'm still taller than you, you know."

Hazel giggled, and taking hold of Sam's hand and Frodo's free one, he led them toward town. "Tilda said that the Overhill Boffins were come to visit the Boffins 'ere," he said, keeping his pace slow with difficulty. "Seems one of 'em just got married, or started courtin' someone, or summat."

Frodo and Sam exchanged a grin over Hazel's head. "Well, if the Boffins are involved, then it's sure to be an interesting party," Frodo remarked mildly, and Sam chuckled. Boffins were known to be the most sociable of all hobbit families; they enjoyed parties immensely, and as they were inclined to have large families, their gatherings usually ended up being rather crowded. They were boisterous, talkative and good-natured (and occasionally mischievous, too, as a good many of them were Took descendants), even more so than most hobbits naturally were; and well-liked by almost all as a result.

As the three hobbits entered the small town, they could hear the unmistakable sound of music and loud, cheerful conversation: a Boffin-gathering, undoubtedly.

A few minutes later this was confirmed. "It's them Boffins, all right," declared Hazel confidently. "Mr. Boffin—that's Mr. Faldo Boffin, as owns the general store—lives right on the edge of town there. That's 'is land, where all the noise is comin' from."

Frodo, Sam and Hazel were not alone in their interest; several other hobbits had paused in their errands and were heading toward Mr. Boffin's land to investigate the noise. While Shirefolk in general were not curious-natured, very few of them could resist an opportunity for good gossip.

Mr. Boffin was obviously a fairly wealthy hobbit: his smial was quite large compared to the modest dwellings on either side of it, and very well kept. It was built into a small, sloping hill, and at the back of it was a large open field, which reminded Frodo a little of his own Party Field. To be sure, it was a party field right now—several white and pale yellow-colored pavilions had been erected, and there appeared to be a veritable mass of hobbits in and around them, judging by the noise. There was a small path with a gate leading from the front steps around the side of the hill and into the field, and at the gate stood a jovial-looking gentlehobbit wearing a monocle—Mr. Boffin himself, Hazel informed his uncles.

"Welcome!" boomed the rather rotund Mr. Boffin as they approached. "There's room enough for all—come and join us!" He squinted through his monocle when he saw Hazel. "Why, little Master Gamgee, is it not? Not so little anymore, by the Shire! And who are these two young chaps you've brought along with you?"

"This is my Uncle Sam," began Hazel, grinning delightedly at Mr. Boffin's welcome. "And—"

"Ha! Another Gamgee, eh?" interrupted Mr. Boffin, shaking Sam's hand enthusiastically. "I'd recognize one of your stock anywhere. Another one of old Gaffer Gamgee's sons, is it?"

"Aye, sir," said Sam, a bit flustered by Mr. Boffin's heartiness. "D'you know me da, sir?"

"Used to live in Hobbiton m'self, when I was a tween—I tinkered a bit in gardening, and your da gave me the best advice of anyone I'd talked to on plantin' of all sorts. Potatoes, especially." His eyes twinkled merrily.

Sam went red with pleasure and could barely stammer a "thank you". Mr. Boffin clapped him warmly on the shoulder and moved his monocled gaze to Frodo. "Now, then," he said, "you haven't introduced this young'un to me, Hazel m'boy. Not another Gamgee, certain sure!"

Frodo grinned while Hazel giggled, "No, sir! Not a Gamgee. This is—er, Mr. Frodo Baggins. From Hobbiton like Sam…"

"Frodo Baggins, begad!" Mr. Boffin's monocle nearly slid from his nose as he hurried forward to shake Frodo's hand. "Not old Bilbo's heir!"

"Indeed, sir," Frodo replied, warming to the jovial old gentlehobbit immediately. "And I seem to remember you from my uncle's birthday party last year?"

"That's right!" roared Mr. Boffin, monocle finally falling off and swinging on its silver chain as he almost bruised Frodo's fingers in his enthusiastic grip. "By the Shire, never thought I'd be chatting with old Bilbo's heir on my own doorstep! Ha!" He replaced his monocle and released Frodo's hand. "Well, it's a pleasure, m'dear fellow, a pleasure!"

Frodo surreptitiously opened and closed his crushed hand behind his back and smiled at the amiable hobbit, trying to remember all he could from their brief meeting almost a year before. "Yes indeed, sir," he said. "And how is Mrs. Boffin? She's gotten over that fever she was suffering from last September, I trust?"

"Oh, aye! What a thoughtful thing to ask; old Bilbo raised you right, didn't he? She's right as rain now. My Lily is a Broadbelt, you know—strong stuff, they're made of. But she'll thank you kindly for asking—you can meet her out in the field, in fact! She was in that first pavilion, last time I saw her."

Hazel could barely contain his curiosity as he tried to see past Mr. Boffin's round form and into the field. He knew better than to interrupt, but he was itching to ask about the party. Fortunately, after another minute or two of polite conversation and another round of hand-shaking, Mr. Boffin opened the gate for them and turned to greet more party-goers.

"So you were right, Hazel," said Frodo as they entered the noisy field. "One of the Boffins is engaged to be married this fall."

"Aye, an' who'd 'ave thought it'd be Mr. Folco?" added Sam with a grin.

"I'm as surprised as you are, Sam! He always said he was going to be a bachelor along with me." He shook his head, chuckling. "I'm going to have to give him a tongue-lashing for changing his mind. I wonder who it is he's marrying?"

Hazel's reply was drowned in the noise as they had entered the largest pavilion, and he was immediately obliged to latch onto Frodo and Sam's hands to keep from being separated in the large crowd. Upwards of thirty talking, laughing, eating and drinking hobbits stood in groups by the long tables that lined the sides of the pavilion, or milled around greeting anyone and everyone. Frodo, Sam and Hazel were pulled into conversation several times by overeager guests who recognized at least one of them.

They had just managed to extricate themselves from an extremely friendly and talkative elderly couple when another voice reached them over the noise.

"Hoy, Frodo!"

They turned in the direction of the voice, weaving their way through the crowd until they found themselves in a miraculously quiet corner of the pavilion. A young hobbit couple was waiting for them, and the gentlehobbit who had called them stepped forward with an expression of delighted surprise on his face. "Why, Frodo, it is you! Whatever are you doing here?"

"Folco Boffin, you villain!" cried Frodo, laughing, as his friend embraced him. "How could you?"

Frodo stopped short as recognition hit both himself and Sam suddenly, and broad smiles of delight formed on their faces.

Folco laughed and stepped back to put an arm around the waist of the young hobbitlady who was with him. "I'm sorry, Frodo," he said with a grin that showed he was anything but. "I would have told you sooner, had I any idea. It was rather sudden." He cocked an eyebrow at the hobbitlass beside him and she giggled.

"Miss Willow!" Frodo exclaimed. He looked from the hobbitlass to Folco with eyebrows raised. "It's always wonderful to see you, though I wouldn't have expected to meet you again like this!"

Willow Loamsdown, a hobbitlass from the Southfarthing whom they'd first met at the Free Fair some years before, laughed. "Neither would I, Frodo," she said, glancing at Folco. "As he said, it was rather sudden."

Frodo shook his head in bemusement. "You remember Sam, don't you?"

Willow smiled. "Of course I do!" she said. "Hullo, Sam! How are you?"

Sam went slightly red but beamed at her. "Quite well, thank'ee, ma'am. Good to see you again!"

Folco cleared his throat loudly. "I hate to interrupt your exchange of pleasantries, but I have just noticed, Frodo, that you have an extra companion I don't think I've met." He peered at Hazel kindly.

Hazel had already decided that he liked this friendly young gentlehobbit, and he bowed with a smile. "Hazel Gamgee, sir, at your service," he said correctly. Miss Willow returned his smile kindly, and he blushed.

"Why, another Gamgee!" Folco turned to Sam. "You've not been hiding a fourth brother from me, have you, Sam?"

Sam grinned. "Not likely, Mr. Folco!" he said. "Nay, this 'ere's Hal's lad."

Folco bent down and shook Hazel's hand. "Well, I'm delighted to meet you, Hazel. Perhaps I'll get to see your dad while I'm here—haven't had a glimpse of him since he moved up here."

Hazel nodded enthusiastically, liking Folco more by the second. As Frodo and Sam started up a cheerful conversation with Folco and Willow, Hazel studied the couple. Folco was somewhere around Frodo's age, he guessed, with a tumble of chestnut-brown curls, a broad smile and grey eyes that sparkled merrily. Willow was almost a head shorter than Folco, with long light-brown hair and soft green eyes. She was obviously as friendly as her intended, and with her bubbling laughter and quick smile, she reminded Hazel a little bit both of his mother and his ever-cheerful Aunt Henna.

Deciding firmly that he very much liked Mr. Folco and Miss Willow, Hazel ceased his observations and began to pay attention to the conversation. Mr. Folco seemed to be explaining to Frodo the details of his sudden engagement.

"…but then—you remember when my grandmother up in Scary died, Frodo? I had to rush up there right away—she'd left me quite a bit, as it happened—and I wasn't able to return to Pincup until last month. Then Willow and I met up again, and about a week ago we decided that we'd better have some sort of understanding in case I was called away unexpectedly again." He grimaced. "I made the mistake of telling my sisters about it, and suddenly every Boffin from Brokenborings to Willowbottom knew about it, and everyone insisted I come up here to announce it publicly."

Frodo laughed. "As if you would ever disagree to having a party thrown for yourself," he said, and Folco grinned guiltily.

"Well, as it happens I have to admit I've been enjoying myself so far," he acknowledged. "Although it is getting a bit crowded in here. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to suffocate if I don't get some fresh air—anyone wish to accompany Miss Willow and I outside?"

Everyone agreed, and several minutes later they had escaped the stifling confines of the pavilion and were following Folco and Willow past the other pavilions to the edge of the field, where a large elm tree stood. They all collapsed gratefully in its shade, Frodo with a slight wince as his movements pulled at his wound; he admitted to himself that perhaps he'd been standing up just a bit too long.

Sam did not miss his momentary discomfort, and he immediately moved closer to Frodo and insisted that he sit back against the tree's trunk, taking the walking stick and resting it beside him. Frodo made a face at him but did not protest, and in fact had to suppress an audible sigh of relief when he relaxed against the tree's firm support.

Folco was watching him closely, grey eyes narrowed, and Frodo could almost see his mind working. "Frodo, what—" he began, but was cut off as Hazel leapt to his feet with a shout.

"Uncle Sam, Uncle Frodo, look! That's Uncle Hamson's cart there, on the road!"

From their position at the back of Mr. Boffin's hill, they were afforded a good view of the road winding its way into town, and sure enough approaching the hill they could see a wagon being drawn by two striking red roan ponies.

Frodo looked at Sam as Hazel let out a whoop and went racing after the cart. "Did you know Hamson would be coming?" he asked.

Sam shook his head, looking equally surprised but immensely pleased. "No, an' Hal didn't mention it, either," he said. "Must be a surprise visit!" He looked at Folco, who also appeared excited. "They'll want to see you, sir, an' Miss Willow, I'm sure!"

Frodo allowed Sam to give him a hand up. "You've not met Ham's two little ones yet, have you, Folco?" he asked. Folco shook his head. "Andwise is—what, three now, Sam? And Ivy was born just last year."

"I'd like to meet Hamson," said Willow, standing up. "Folco's told me a lot about him. He seems to be a good friend." She glanced at Frodo.

Frodo nodded with a smile. "He is," he agreed. "A very good friend."

The four hobbits made their way through the party field once more, through the gate (Mr. Boffin was now in deep conversation with several others and was not paying any heed to new arrivals or departures now) and out into the front yard. Hamson's cart was stopped in the road, and he had climbed down to pull Hazel into his arms.

"Why, Sam-lad!" he shouted when he saw them approach. "An' Mr. Frodo—Mr. Folco! Marm," he added hastily, seeing Willow. He set Hazel down, gave Sam a bone-crushing hug, shook Frodo and Folco's hands heartily and bowed politely to Willow.

Before Folco could make introductions, there was noise from the cart and they looked up to see a hobbitlady climbing down, a small child in her arms and another trailing behind her.

"Aunt Henna!" cried Hazel excitedly, rushing forward to hug her.

Henna Gamgee laughed and kissed the top of Hazel's curly head. She was quite young, not much older than Frodo, with dark brown curls and sparkling hazel eyes. "Hullo there, Hazel-lad," she said cheerfully. "My, but you've grown since the last time I saw you! Are you taller than your da now?"

Hazel giggled and turned to greet his young cousin. "Hallo, Andy!"

Three-year-old Andwise seemed very small compared to his older cousin, but he was sturdily built like his father and had the same mop of light brown curls. He looked up at Hazel and the hobbits behind him with round brown eyes. "'lo, Hazel," he said solemnly, inching a little closer to his mother.

Henna smiled at him and then looked up at the others, seeming to notice them for the first time. Hamson hastily made introductions, and Folco presented Willow to them both. Greetings (and congratulations for Folco and Willow) were exchanged amiably, and it was discovered that Hamson and Henna were in fact on their way to make a surprise visit to Hazel's home, much to his delight.

"I've not seen Hal for far too long," said Hamson. "An' when they last saw Ivy she was no more'n six months old." The infant, hearing her name, raised her head and gazed at the surrounding hobbits gravely. She favored her mother's darker curls and green-brown eyes, but the crooked smile she gave them all was clearly her father's.

While the adults hovered around Ivy, Hazel climbed into the back of the cart with little Andwise to fill his cousin in on all that had been happening. Andwise practically hero-worshipped Hazel, and listened with wide eyes as Hazel went into great detail about his encounter with the wolves, occasionally giving a squeak of fright.

Standing by the cart, Frodo and Sam were telling the same story to an equally captivated audience. Sam actually did most of the explaining, with Frodo hastily adding that he was just fine now and that there was nothing to worry about. He received five incredulous and concerned stares in response, and rolled his eyes.

"Well, if I know my sister-in-law, she won't be too pleased that her patient walked all the way down 'ere and back," said Hamson. Both Frodo and Sam cringed. "So you an' Sam-lad 'll have to ride in the cart."

Sam glanced at Frodo and whispered, "I might not be tall enough 'ta carry you, Mr. Frodo, but I think that Ham could, if you tried him!"

Frodo sighed. "I'm not about to try him, Sam, I assure you." He looked at Hamson who appeared to be expecting him to protest, and grinned. "Very well, Ham, I'm not going to argue, if that's what you're waiting for."

Hamson smiled in relief and nodded, and Sam glanced at the sky. "We'd best get goin' then, Mr. Frodo," he said. "We've been gone more'n an hour, an' we don't want to be in any more trouble than we already are."

Frodo hastily agreed, and Hamson went around to the back of the cart and moved some things around so that there was enough room. Then he said farewell to Folco and Willow, congratulating them again, and helped Henna into the front seat before climbing into it himself.

Folco clapped Frodo lightly on the shoulder. "We'll be here in town for a few more days," he said, "but don't you dare try coming all the way here to see us—you look like a stiff breeze would knock you flat as it is. Perhaps we'll call on the Gamgees tomorrow, if that's all right."

Sam turned. "I'm sure they'd like that."

"Perhaps Jessimine will let me out of bed for that visit," added Frodo hopefully.

"Not likely, Mr. Frodo," chuckled Sam, and Frodo sighed.

"Well, I hope to see you tomorrow, at any rate," said Frodo. He nodded at Willow. "Keep an eye on him, Miss Willow—I'll have you know that he has a penchant for mischief worse than mine."

Willow grinned as Folco began protesting indignantly. "I'll be careful," she promised. "I had noticed his, er, mischievous streak, actually."

Sam helped Frodo into the cart and then climbed up himself, Hazel and Andwise hastily scooting back to make more room. "Until tomorrow, then!" said Folco cheerfully.

They waved until they rounded a bend and could no longer see Willow and Folco, and then Frodo and Sam sat back against the sides of the cart. Sam surveyed his master with a critical eye. Frodo was too pale, there was sweat beading on his forehead and he was obviously sore and exhausted from being on his feet too long. Sensing his stare, Frodo looked up and their eyes met. They exchanged a grimace, obviously thinking the same thing.

Jessimine was going to throttle them both. With her bare hands.

TBC...

A/N: …Well, obviously the shortening of the chapters didn't speed me up any, although as many of you have noticed, I've not updated anything in quite a while. This is a combination of new obsession-forming, visitors, being out and about, and simple laziness. Also the fact that I've got seven stories going at once might have something to do with it. sigh However, this is the second update in as many days, and I'm going to get to work on the other five right away. I've also got a vague idea of the beginning, at least, of chapter twenty-seven, so I'll be starting that just about immediately, too. Again, I promise that I have not, and will not, abandon any of my stories… Hang in there!

Oh yes, and just to remind you… Aunt Henna and her children Andwise and Ivy, are not my inventions, but belong to the wonderful Obelia medusa, who kindly allowed me to borrow them. :-)

Hmm, not many of you this time around… everyone on vacation?

Aratlithiel1: Ah yes, I'm discovering that there are a lot of fellow-authors on LJ. Not that I've been there much myself lately, but it's nice to know nonetheless. :P Hope this chapter did not disappoint! (Thank you very much for the review of "Silver and Sable", by the way! Glad you enjoyed it.)

Elbereth: Everyone should have a Sam. Or any other Gamgee, really, it seems like. I'd take any of 'em. ;-)

Elwen: I like Jess too! She's become a favorite of mine, I think. Yes, Frodo deserved a laugh, didn't he? He doesn't get to laugh all that much, with all of us nasty authors out there making his life miserable.

Obelia medusa: Hey! You didn't even review the last chapter, you naughty jellyfish! waves sandbox shovel menacingly Well, anyway, how did you enjoy Aunt Henna and her brood? snicker Ah, it was nice to see Hamson again… I'm not sure if he'll stick around for the next chapter—I'd love to have him an' Halfred in the same room together again, perhaps brushing their hair together (brotherly bonding, you know!), but I'm gonna have to hurry things along and get Frodo and Sam back home pretty soon. I do know, however, that "Willow" will get her opportunity to smack Averill with a soup ladle next chapter. Or it'll be mentioned, at least. cackles

Anyway, I'll be talking—er, I mean, reporting to you soon, Commander!

Your humble obedient servant,

Lutnant Tathar

shirebound: Aww, thanks, Shirebound! Praise from the praiseworthy, as always. I really love writing cheerful, light-hearted hobbity scenes, which explains both this chapter and the last. ;) I hope you enjoyed it! (And I swear I will get caught up on reviewing your last updates… soo sorry for the delay! I'm trying, I really am!)