22. Sorrow Shared
--old Shire proverb
The day after the buryings, many of the guests departed, but some of the closer relatives stayed to help pack everything up. Farmer Took and a small party of hobbits were to go back to the Branch in search of the ponies which had been dragged downstream; the bodies if left would foul the water. Others stayed to see to the dismantling of the pavilions and all the paraphernalia of celebration, to spare the grieving north-Tooks the chore. Willing hands joined in to aid in the work of the farm, as well, while the family got back on its feet from the double tragedy.
As Farmer Took heavily mounted to the seat of the wagon, he was hailed by a shout. He turned to see the Master of Buckland walking slowly across the yard.
'I would like to come, if I may,' Saradoc said.
Farmer Took wordlessly reached down to help the Master into the wagon, but as Saradoc settled himself, the farmer thought twice about it and spoke. 'Are you well enough?'
'I'm as well as can be,' Saradoc replied. 'There won't be overmuch excitement this trip, I shouldn't wonder.'
The farmer grunted, and chirruped to the ponies. Young Taddy was not well enough to do the job, having taken in enough water for pneumonia to be threatening. Sam and Rosie alternated by Merry's bedside, freeing up Pippin to sit with the lad, though he really ought to have been in bed himself.
When they got to the ford, the farmer put the brakes on the wagon, several of the hobbits shouldered ropes or shovels and jumped out to walk both banks of the Branch. Saradoc nodded to his host. 'I will stay and watch the ponies.'
Farmer Took only nodded in reply, but secretly he was relieved. They'd had enough without losing the Master of Buckland in the bargain due to heart strain.
Saradoc sat a long while in the wagon, listening to the gurgle of the water that only two days before had become a roar. Hearing a distant shout, he climbed down off the wagon and unhitched the ponies; hauling himself up on one he rode them along the bank, far downstream, to where a crowd of hobbits was gathering.
Farmer Took knelt in the mud by the bodies. He gently stroked the snip of white on the face of the pony nearest him. Ribbons still hung from the lank manes, and trailed from the tails in the gently lapping water. 'Ah, Snip,' the farmer said softly. 'Ye did your best, my lass. You always did your best.' Suddenly he covered his face and began to sob. 'My lass,' he said brokenly, 'My poor, poor lass.' Saradoc knew he was not talking about the pony.
The other hobbits turned away to give the farmer room for his grief. Saradoc slipped from the pony's back and Reginard Took stepped up to take the reins. The Master of Buckland put a hand on the farmer's shoulder. 'Come along,' he urged. 'There's enough lads to do this. Come away, Jotham.'
Tears were running down Young Jotham's face as he added, 'It's all right, Dad, I'll put Snip away for you. Haven't I always done?'
Farmer Took allowed the helping hands to lift him, to turn him away, to escort him upriver back to the ford. Saradoc found a convenient log to sit upon, and the two sat far enough away that the sound of the bells on the harness was dim as the harness was removed. They could hear only faintly the shouts of the sweating hobbits who tied ropes to each of the bodies in turn and had the ponies drag them away from the river to be buried. Finally the work party came back to the wagons, only the jingling harnesses draped over shoulders to show for their efforts. No one spoke during the slow ride back to Long Cleeve.
When they arrived back at the farmhouse, Saradoc felt a stab of dread. The healer's pony was tied up before the door. Farmer Took jumped down from the wagon, while Young Jotham hurried up to take the ponies' heads. Saradoc eased himself down a little more slowly. The warning pain in his chest from the other day had not completely gone.
The healer met them at the door, eyes sober though he tried to smile. 'That young Tad of yours is a fighter, Jotham,' he said. He put a hand on Farmer Took's shoulder and added, 'I will call again this evening.' He turned sharp eyes on the Master of Buckland. 'Master Brandybuck, I would like to see you in a chair, preferably with your feet up.'
'Oh, aye,' Saradoc replied. 'I was just going to do that.' Unfortunately Mistress Took was near enough the door to have heard the comment, and she and Esmeralda made sure the healer's advice was carried out.
He protested, 'I wanted to see Meriadoc first,' but was overruled.
'He's sleeping. Samwise will call us when he wakes.' He allowed them to sit him in a chair by the kitchen hearth, feet propped upon a stool. Young Rosie, Sam's sweet faced wife, brought him second breakfast. He hadn't had the heart to eat the early breakfast Diamond had pressed upon him.
He dozed in the chair and awoke with a start to find his son kneeling by his side. 'Meriadoc?'
'I was told you wanted to see me,' Merry said softly, rising to stand beside him. His father closed his eyes in relief at seeing his son in his right mind. 'Father?'
'I'm all right. Yes.' He reached up to grasp the hand that rested on his shoulder, pulled it down to his chest, buried his face against the arm, held tight. 'I'm all right.' he murmured again.
His son's arms encompassed him, and Merry whispered, 'I'm harder to lose than you think...' They wept together.
They stayed at Long Cleeve until Tad was pronounced out of danger. By that time Pippin's ribs were healed enough for him to ride without discomfort. Esmeralda and Saradoc had agreed to their nephew's plan to take Meriadoc to Tuckborough for a time. It would do him good to get away for awhile. After a visit to the graves to lay an armful of wildflowers at each, he and Merry stood in the yard, holding their ponies, while those yet remaining at the farm gathered to see them off. Diamond stepped up to give Merry a hug, looking up soberly, saying, 'Don't be a stranger, now. You'll still be a brother to me.'
Merry returned the hug, and she moved to Pippin, to embrace him next. 'Thank you for saving so many,' she whispered.
'I wish I could have done more,' he said softly. 'I wish I could have saved them all.' He felt her head nod against his chest, and her arms tightened about him. His eyes met those of Farmer and Mistress Took, and he lifted his chin. Mistress Took sucked in her breath and turned to her husband. They shared a long look, then turned back to Pippin. The farmer gave a deliberate nod.
Pippin smiled and looked down, gently disengaging her arms. 'I could stay here all day, but I'd hate to disappoint Socks. He's all saddled and ready to go and you know how he loves his outings.'
Diamond tried to smile, tried to answer with her usual sauciness. 'Go on with you, Master Peregrin,' she said weakly.
He nodded and grinned. 'I'll be back as soon as they kick me out of Tuckborough. Which oughtn't to take long.' He turned to the ponies. 'Coming, Merry?'
'I am ahead of you, for once,' Merry said from Jewel's back.
'Well don't get used to it! "For once" is about all you'll get!' Pippin retorted, swinging into the saddle. They raised their hands in answer to the farewells and turned to the road.
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