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Chapter 4. An Un-Expected Party
Hally came home not long after the midday meal (which was, as Rosemary had told the ruffians, made chiefly of acorn-flour griddle cakes), whistling as usual, bearing several rabbits he'd snared. Robin and Parsley ran to greet him, chattering about the ruffians' visit. He met Rosemary's eye with a lifted brow; she gave a quick nod and dismissive gesture, and he nodded in return, turning his attention back to the children.
Estella had seen the whole exchange, reading it accurately as "catch you up on the news when the children are asleep," and she resolved not to sleep, but rather pretend she was sleeping, for she had the feeling that there was more here than met the eye.
'...and Twig spat, ever so well as you'd taught him,' Robin was saying. 'I'd be hard pressed to spit as well, but do you know what I did instead?'
'What did you do?' Hally said, with apparently deep interest.
'I scolded him! I told him Mum don't let us spit in the yard,' Robin said proudly.
'As is true,' Rosemary said firmly. 'You're only to spit in the yard when I'm not there, and your dad is teaching the fine points of spitting to visiting relations!'
'But Twig would have known spitting already, having come from so deep in the woods where they don't have any manners.'
'O we have manners,' Estella interjected in her well-practiced husky, low-pitched voice, and she brandished a clenched fist. 'We knows how to keep a civil tongue in the heads of younger cousins, we does!'
'You tell him, Twig,' Hally said with a wink. 'And now that I think on it, I think it's time you learnt to skin and gut rabbits, for our dinner won't cook itself, and my Rosie won't cook the rabbits until we've made them ready!'
Estella barely held back a gulp, but forced her chin high. 'Don't see why you have to skin them first,' she said in her best churlish tone. 'We never do!'
'Well, we're a bit more civilised here, closer to the Stock Road, than you are deep in the woods,' Hally said. 'You'll have to make allowances.'
Estella grudged that she'd try, though it was a lot of bother, and then she bravely went to her lessons. She watched as Hally beheaded, skinned and cleaned the first rabbit, and then he turned the knife over to her. She took the knife and took up the second rabbit with a disdainful sniff, to cover the roiling in her innards, but soon was so interested in what she was doing--why, the skin came off almost as a glove might, of a piece--that she forgot to be sick.
Robin clamoured to try next, and soon he was holding up his rabbit's carcase as if it were a prize, his face beaming.
'Very good, lads!' Hally said. 'Now let's get this last rabbit taken care of, and soon supper will be on.' He handed the task over to Estella, and she managed without a quiver, nearly so quickly and efficiently as he'd been when he'd demonstrated the technique.
They washed the carcases and brought them to Rosemary, and she and little Parsley soon had them bubbling away in a pot, seasoned with herbs and some new onions from the kitchen garden.
'Mmm, herbs and stewed rabbit!' Robin shouted, only to be hushed by his mother.
'We don't want any lurking ruffians to hear,' she said as Hally turned towards her, and sobering he nodded, before deliberately grinning once more and picking up young Buckthorn, to throw him in the air and catch him again, a game the faunt seemed to relish. Estella scowled as she understood. The forest Bolgers were on the edge of hungering, and ruffians coming to share their meal, or steal it altogether, would be a terrible end to the day.
That night after the children were put to bed, Estella feigned weariness, though she was only half-pretending. 'All that gathering wood,' she said, 'and milking the two goats, and running races with Robin, and weeding, and skinning, and chopping--' for Hally had taught her how to chop wood the day after Freddy left, and she'd been chopping each day. Her sore muscles were hardening nicely, and she went to bed tired each night, a good sort of tired, and slept well.
This night she turned herself on her pallet before the kitchen fire until she found a comfortable position, and soon she had fallen into deep and even breathing.
The doors to the bedrooms were left open, and there was no hallway, but the bedrooms opened directly onto the main room, a sort of combination of sitting room and kitchen with a large hearth for warmth and cooking. Three bedrooms there were, Hally and Rosemary's (the babe slept there as well), a room for the two older boys, and one for the two girls. Estella didn't quite fit either, really, and there was no guest room, but she'd told them she didn't mind sleeping in front of the kitchen fire. It had been good enough for Freddy, after all! ...not to mention, as a backwoods cousin she was used to sleeping upon the floor... or ought to be used to such.
The doors were left open, as mentioned, so that Rosemary could hear if any of the children cried out in the middle of the night. Thus Estella, if she listened hard, was able to hear the parents' low-voiced conversation, at least the better part of it.
She nodded as Rosemary recounted the ruffians' visit, and held her breath to hear Hally's questions, and then his comment when his wife was done. 'You did well, Rosie,' he said. 'Well, indeed, and I thank you for your courage. I'd not have done half so well.'
'No need for you to swallow your pride,' Rosemary said. ' 'Twould be that hard, I think, to admit to the ruffians that you couldn't feed your family... though feed us you did, a fine meal indeed, what with no flour or meal to be had in the market.'
'No market,' Hally said, and Estella imagined him shaking his head. 'Not with the ruffians having gathered all the foodstuffs they could, and who'd be fool enough to display what they'd hidden away from those thieving Men? No, but we'll have to live off the land, unless...'
'So long as the rabbits keep putting their heads in your snares,' Rosemary said.
'And there are mushrooms,' Hally said, 'and wild roots, and soon the wild strawberries will be ripe, and I ought to be able to find a bee tree again this year, and then there are squirrels, and if we're lucky, perhaps a deer...'
'You'll have to be very careful if you're thinking of that,' Rosemary said. 'Lotho's claimed all the deer, and it's worth a hobbit's life to shoot one...'
'I'm rather hoping they'd turn the blind eye,' Hally said, 'especially after all of our flour you've fed them, in cakes and bread.'
'...in any event, if they stick their noses in, we'll just feed them on venison and then they won't have anything to report to their precious Boss, now, will they?'
'A goodly thought,' Rosemary answered, and yawned, and soon the talk petered out, and all was quiet, until Hally began to snore. It didn't take Estella long to fall asleep, for the day's exercise had tired her in truth, and even snoring could not keep her wakeful for long, once she had relaxed her will to stay awake.
Breakfast next morning was acorn cakes again, with leftover rabbit gravy spooned over, and the young hobbits ate it all up and would have asked for more, had there been any point in it.
They had just finished the washing up, and Hally had not yet shouldered his ax, when there was a loud, gruff hail from the yard.
Rosemary's head jerked up and she paused in her sweeping, her eyes wide with alarm. 'They never come two days running!' she gasped.
Hally took a deep, steadying breath. 'Perhaps they're wanting me to carve them whistles, or whatnot,' he said, but Estella could see he was worried. He took another deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and went to the door, pulling it open, shouting a cheerful greeting.
'Scar! What brings you here? I mean, what can we do for you? Welcome!' He stepped through the door, pulling it nearly closed behind him (as if that would keep his loved ones safe from the ruffians' ire, Estella thought to herself), but a moment later he was calling for Rosemary to "come quick!"
Rosemary hurried to the door, broom still in her hand, the older children crowding close to her skirts, Estella in their midst, and as the door swung open all of them gasped in unison at the sight that met their eyes.
Ruffians! Half a dozen or so, bearing burdens, and a waggon behind them with more.
'Where do you want these?' Scar said, indicating the Men behind him, heavy flour sacks on their shoulders.
'I--' Hally said, but could not manage any more.
Rosemary jumped into action. 'Here,' she said, stepping back through the door and pushing the children aside. 'The pantry, just off this way...!' Though her head was spinning at this unexpected visit, and accompaniment, she rose to the occasion. (And if it were a ruffians' trick, to see if she'd been truthful the previous day, well, they'd see for themselves that the pantry was empty save a few hanging sprigs of dried spices and half a sack of acorns. There was more food, an emergency supply, hidden behind the wood in the shed, but even that was dwindling.)
Open-mouthed, the hobbits watched the Men duck into the doorway, each bearing a heavy sack. 'Flour,' Scar said, and half a dozen sacks of flour were deposited in a neat pile in the pantry. This was fine-sifted wheat flour, and the next round brought barley flour, and then sacks of meal and grain. There were dried apples and sultanas, casks of lard, butter, and pickled vegetables, a side of bacon, several large hams, a generous supply of salteratus, yeast, salt, pepper, and other spices, tea, and even several large sacks of sugar!
Rosemary began to blink away tears as a large wheel of cheese was brought in, but it was the crates of chickens that really made her tears begin to flow. She held her apron to her streaming eyes and sobbed.
Scar, not understanding, said, 'Not to worry, Missus! We brought the grain to feed them; it's already in your pantry. 'Twon't take your Hally long to build them a pen, after all.'
'Oh,' Rosemary sobbed, getting hold of herself. 'But no, Scar, it's that... I don't know what to say to such kindness...!'
'Just say "thank you" and be done with it,' Mossy growled, for he was one of the burden bearers, and rather disgruntled with the whole affair. He was used to loading up a waggon from hobbits' stores, not the other way around! But Scar had assured them that it was not the Bolgers they were benefiting, but themselves. Rosemary was a dab hand at baking and cooking, and the ruffians had grown used to coming around and cadging a meal whenever they could get away from their regular duties of bullying and bothering the hobbits of Stock and its surroundings.
When they were only halfway done, Rosemary stirred up the fire, opened one of the sacks of flour, and began the makings of sweet cakes, fried quickly in hot fat and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Smelling the good smell of baking, the ruffians grew cheerier, and several even began to sing as they worked. (Rosemary quickly sent the children out to gather sticks, that they might not hear some of the words in the songs.)
When the unloading was finished, the pantry was bulging with good things and the chickens squawked in their crates, stacked out of the direct sun and awaiting Hally's coop. Everyone sat down together to feast upon Rosemary's cakes, and a merry time was had by all.
Estella could almost believe that Men were not so bad as she'd thought, until Rosemary had put the little ones down for a nap, and the Men began to tell the stories of how they'd gathered all this food, and more, in the first place. A bite of sweet cake turned to dust in her mouth, and she wished she could spit it out, but that the Men would notice.
Hally noticed first, and it was a good thing, for he scowled at her, then popped a large bite of cake into his mouth, then grinned--more grimace than grin, but Estella got the message. The cake stuck in her throat when she tried to swallow, and she choked. A solicitous Scar thumped her on the back.
'Sorry!' she gasped, hating him nevertheless. 'Went down wrong.'
'I should say,' Scar acknowledged, and then he rose. 'But the day's a wasting, and the Sun's at her zenith! We must away, we've other fish to be frying...'
With a chorus of gruff thanks, the ruffians piled into the waggon and were on their way.
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