2. The Farmer's Tale
So it had been, he thought, listening to the slow, steady rhythm of his ponies' hooves as they picked a cautious path along the causeway. The gentle sway of the wagon made the pale nimbi of his lanterns bob eerily above the strands of mist that crept up from the river. The chilling vapor washed across the roadway till it appeared the ponies must swim through it, their undulating croups barely visible above the murk.
Mrs. Maggot will be worriting all right, what with the night getting so thick.... He had said as much to young Mr. Merry and Mr. Frodo as he turned the wagon to head for home. Poor lass had been so frightened, yet she hadn't let on to their guests how hard it was for her to let him go out into the dark night, knowing that queer black fellow was still out there, somewhere.
Don't you go kidding yourself none, Will Maggot. You were plenty scared yourself.' Oh, he wouldn't deny it, but there was no way he would let on to his Ella just how frightened he had been, bad enough that the hair on his toes stood straight up when that funny customer had come sniffing around Bamfurlong, looking for Mr. Baggins.
That had made him angry too, it had, being made to feel that way. It didn't help none that he'd been taken aback when the stranger had come riding that big black horse of his right up to their doorstep, bold as could be. Farmer Maggot didn't take too kindly to strangers traipsing across his fields neither, and without so much as a by-your-leave! Told that fellow so too, not that it made much difference.
Still can't get over how Grip ran off like that, yelping like a bee-stung pup, he mused, watching his team's powerful muscles ripple as they smoothly controlled the short descent from the causeway. The river-mists had succeeded in drowning the dike in their dampening waves. To any eyes that might be there to see, the farm wagon seemed to float atop the foggy banks; illuminated by the wavering lantern light, Farmer Maggot made a strangely spectral figure. The normally garrulous crickets had stilled their voices; the clip-clop of hooves was all that remained to punctuate the eerie silence.
Odd...that's how it was just a'fore he came. He found himself looking over his shoulder, peering into the fog that rose ever higher behind him, like a great wave threatening to engulf the retreating wagon. It had been uncommonly hot for a September day; the morning rains had only served to make the air sultry. Unearthly quiet it had been too, leastwise until the geese had started screaming. Of course the old gander, angered by any intrusion into his little kingdom, had always been apt to raise a ruckus when strangers came around, but this sound had been different.
The placid swish of the ponies' tails seemed at odds with his own taut nerves, and suddenly he started to laugh. The ponies' ears flicked back, surprised by the incongruity of the sound. You'd do well to give heed to the good beasts, instead of your own foolish fancies, Will Maggot! He grinned sheepishly, recalling how shaken he'd been by the sight of the darkly cloaked apparition emerging from the mist on the Ferry lane. Hardy and Old Tom had stood by patiently, unperturbed by what turned out to be Mr. Merry, come searching for his tardy friends.
The last mile to his gate went by quickly, uneventfully. Farmer Maggot drove the team directly to the barn, grateful for their steady service that night. He'd not descended from the driving seat before the figures of his sons emerged from the house.
"Ma said you should go straight in - Nate and I will take care of the team." Milo took the reins from his father, who nodded his thanks.
"Be sure to give them a good rubdown; the lads have earned it." He paused at the ponies' heads to scratch Old Tom's forehead. Your namesake would know what to make of all this now, wouldn't he? The pony, oblivious to the unspoken question, nosed about his master's pockets, hoping to find a sweeter reward. Laughing, Farmer Maggot fished about in his pockets to find the lumps of sugar he knew were still there. Hardy was given his share too before Nate and Milo led the pair into the barn, leaving Farmer Maggot alone in the dark farmyard.
He turned to see the welcoming light that streamed through the kitchen's windows. Mrs. Maggot was there, waiting for him, with a mug of sweet mulled wine to counter the chilling effect of the damp night air, and her bright smile to warm his heart.
He downed the heady brew, grateful for the warmth that coursed its way through his body. True to her word, Mrs. Maggot had his pipe filled, ready for his pleasure. He looked up into his wife's loving eyes as she handed the pipe to him; but to her surprise he stood, setting the filled pipe carefully aside before slipping his arm around her generous curves.
"Time enough for that...later..."
I drew some of the inspiration for this from these two passages:
'... most of all I want to know what was the matter with old
Maggot, and why he spoke to me like that. He sounded almost as if he was
scared, if that is possible.' (Merry, speaking about the encounter with Farmer Maggot - LotR; FotR; Book One; Chapter V; A Conspiracy Unmasked)
'Old Maggot is a shrewd fellow,' said Merry. 'A lot goes on behind his round face that does not come out in his talk. I've heard that he used to go into the Old Forest at one time, and he has the reputation of knowing a good many strange things. (LotR; FotR; Book One; Chapter V; A Conspiracy Unmasked)
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