5. The Black Lining
Billy led them to an old brick building. The door creaked as Billy opened it and the two boys looked inside. Frodo didn't have a good view in from where he stood behind Billy, but almost immediately he saw Huck's face fall. Eager to see what could cause such a sudden change in demeanor, he took a step forward, finding a spot between the boys as Billy explained.
"A steamer hit his raft last night and killed his master, so he's ours." Billy sounded nonchalant, even a bit pleased.
Frodo was momentarily confused by Billy's final words. He saw before them, lying in the hay in this dark, uncomfortable building, a man. He was dirty, and his clothes were not nearly as fine as the family's. In fact, they weren't fine at all. The thing that stuck out the most, though, was his skin. It was dark, darker than that of any of the people he'd ever seen in Middle Earth. He had noticed others like him here, though. For the most part, they were all dressed rather poorly, as well. He wondered where they came from and what their relation was to the family. But at the word 'ours,' he began to get a vague inkling.
"We had to chain 'im," Billy added, and Frodo just made out shackles glinting in the sunlight that came through the doorway. His stomach turned. On a second thought, he wondered if this man might be dangerous, but he doubted that anyone would send children to handle a dangerous man.
"Hey! Get up!" Billy commanded he dark man, then continued to coax him up like some lazy child. As the man rose up on his elbow and shielded his eyes with his other hand, Frodo saw clear recognition in the man's eyes as they fell on Huck. "He looks a little rough," Billy was still telling them, "Me and you two gotta break him in a little bit." Frodo cringed at the suggestion and turned to look disbelieving at Billy. When he looked back, the dark man's attention was on him, probably drawn by the movement. Confusion flashed across the man's features, but his eyes quickly went back to Huck as he smiled and jumped up.
"Oh, Huck!" he said in a relieved tone, and Frodo found his voice to be quite pleasant, "It's so good to see you."
Almost before he'd finished the sentence, Huck straightened and put on a stern face. "Huck?" he asked in a tone that sounded almost indignant, "Who you callin' Huck?"
Simultaneously, Frodo's and the dark man's looks turned to confusion. The man's smile fell. Frodo wondered three things: how Huck and this man knew each other, why he would pretend not to, and why he would deny his own name. The last, Frodo quickly figured out and was confirmed by Huck's next words.
"Well, my name's..." Huck stopped. Frodo couldn't help a smile from crossing his face as he realized that Huck had forgotten his own lie. But he had to hand it to the boy when he saw how Huck got out of it. Huck turned to Billy. "Bet you can't spell my name," he said with a smile.
"I'll betcha that dare," Billy replied enthusiastically, completely oblivious to Huck's ploy. "It's G-O-R-G, J-X-O-N."
Frodo, the sophisticated, well-educated hobbit from Bag End, couldn't stifle the snort that forced itself from his nose as he heard this. Billy looked at him. "Sorry. Ah...bug," Frodo explained, pointing to his nose.
Huck had mouthed the letters as Billy said them, and he now smiled and nodded at Billy. "You done it all right." He turned to the dark man with a wide grin. "I'm George Jackson."
The man smiled and played along, having apparently finally caught on to the trick. "Pleased to meetcha, sir," he said with a polite nod.
His eyes fell on Frodo and the hobbit suddenly realized it was his turn. "I'm his brother, Fred," he said, smiling also.
"I'm pleased to meet you, too, sir," the man replied, though his smile was forced as he was trying to hide the confusion that Frodo could see clearly in his eyes.
"Come on out here," Billy told him, and the man obeyed. Frodo thought it odd that a grown man would so readily bend to the demands of a child, but this served to further congeal an idea that was forming in his head about what this all meant.
As he passed through the doorway, then between Billy and the two 'brothers,' the man looked at Frodo, then at Huck, as if to ask him the obvious question. Huck just gave him a look that Frodo took to mean, 'I'll explain later.'
Just then, a cart driven by two horses, with a great load of wood in the back, came down the dirt road a few dozen yards away. Billy ran out and stopped it. Frodo could hear him speaking to the driver, another dark man.
"Where you goin' with that?" Billy asked.
"On up to the house, sir," the man answered.
"Here, we'll take it," Billy told him, holding up a hand, "You go on back to work."
"Yes, sir," the man said, getting out and placing the reins in Billy's hand.
"George! Fred! Come on!" Billy yelled back to them.
As they walked toward the cart, Huck told Frodo, "This is my friend Jim."
"Jim?" Frodo said, remembering that Huck had been yelling the name at the riverbank, "Ah....My name is Frodo, but you had better call me Fred. It is a pleasure to meet you, Jim," Frodo told him, nodding slightly and putting out his hand as Huck had done when they met.
Jim smiled with surprise, and shook Frodo's hand. "My, my. Where are you from? The free states?" (This got a squint of confusion from Frodo) "Who have you found, Huck?"
"I don't reckon I know, Jim," Huck said, "He hasn't told me much."
"You haven't asked much," Frodo reminded him. They were almost at the cart, so they left it at that for the time being.
They soon found themselves riding down the dirt road into a yellow field. Billy had let Huck drive and, seeing as how there wasn't enough room for three in the front, Frodo had volunteered to ride in the back with Jim.
As they approached the field, Frodo looked over and saw a man on horseback, holding a gun, leading a train of dark people who were all carrying baskets of some kind. He wondered why the man wasn't carrying a load, as well. Or for that matter, why wasn't the horse? The man looked able-bodied enough and it seemed like they would be more productive if they strapped some baskets to the beast, since it could easily carry many times what a person could, especially the women and children that seemed to be part of the train. Frodo frowned. It didn't make sense.
They went on and Huck asked something that Frodo didn't know enough about this world to ask: why was everyone carrying guns? Frodo felt a tinge of gladness that this wasn't the norm, but that soon went away. He listened silently as Billy explained about the feud they had going. Frodo had never heard of such a thing. Well, he had, but not on this level. It was all so petty. They didn't even remember why they were fighting with this other family. Unbelievable. He and the rest of the Fellowship were being forced to risk their lives (one had already lost his!) to save their world from destruction, and these people were killing each other for absolutely no reason. Simply unbelievable. A sneer of disgust grew on Frodo's face, fortunately unseen by the others.
Then he saw something that made him jump out of his seat. A man was doubled over on the ground and another man was whipping him mercilessly. He looked frantically to the Jim and Huck, but they just watched quietly, flinching in sympathy when the blows hit the man.
"Isn't somebody going to do something?" he cried. Huck and Jim looked at him in wonder, but Billy finally looked over to the whipping.
"Hey, boss!" he yelled at the man with the whip, "You know Pa don't want you doin' that any more!"
"Any more?!" Frodo asked, but no one seemed able to come up with a good answer to that. The man with the whip looked at him, but his glare settled on Jim. Frodo saw something pass between them and he shuddered. It was a gaze that said, 'When I get you alone...'
Frodo was glad when the man walked away. Jim lowered his eyes, staring at the front of the cart. Frodo noticed that Huck wasn't pleased at all with what had just happened. He saw his friend's reaction and Frodo could tell that he felt bad, though he didn't know the full reason for it. Billy, on the other hand, looked completely normal, like this kind of thing happened all the time. Frodo realized finally that this kind of thing did happen all the time.
He'd heard of such things before, in some sketchy tales from lands beyond his knowledge. Slaves. But to enslave your own kind....He had found the dark underbelly of this happy, friendly home. The family bought their happy luxury with the pain of the dark people. It was more than he could fathom. How could the same people be so good to some and so evil to others, based solely on the color of their skin? It was this contradiction that made Frodo think these people may be even more dangerous than the evil Middle Earth was now facing.
It made him think, what if Middle Earth were like that? What if the light- haired elves of Lothlórien decided to enslave the dark-haired elves of Rivendell? What if the men of Rohan were slaves to the men of Gondor? What if his own cousins east of the Brandywine were subjugated by the hobbits of the west? It was all so ridiculous! How could a society function like that?
'My world may have many evils,' he thought, 'but at least it does not have this.'
When they got to their destination (another brick building), Billy jumped out and headed in. Frodo had slumped back in the cart, so that only the top of his head was visible over the sides. He was apparently forgotten by the others, as Jim leaned forward and grabbed Huck's arm.
"Huck," he said softly, but loudly enough that Frodo could hear easily, "Out on the river I had a taste of freedom. And now being a slave again, well, it feels so...so very bad." Frodo began to understand their story now. "Let's get on to Cairo, Huck. Please. Let's get on outta here." He sounded like a man trying to plead while keeping his dignity. Frodo smiled weakly. He would be glad if Jim, at least, could escape this torment.
"All you think about is yourself, Jim," Huck said. Frodo's smile disappeared. "But what about me? Don't I deserve somethin'? I ain't had it so good in all my life." As these words came out, Frodo felt his blood rising. How dare that boy say such things! He stood, intent on teaching Huck a thing or two about friendship, but at that moment, Billy ran out, beckoning them to go fishing with them. Huck jumped out of the cart, telling Jim, "I'm in no hurry to leave."
Frodo didn't want to leave Jim, but he had to say something to Huck. He gave Jim a reassuring look, then jumped out of the cart and followed Huck. As they headed up the ramp to the building, a man passed. It was the man with the whip, only he didn't have it now. He glared at the man, his eyes searing with hate.
Huck stopped in his tracks when the man passed. He looked worried, surprised to see the man here. Jim's eyes widened, then lowered as the man approached the cart. He told Jim to get out and Frodo saw Huck's despondent expression as he watched the man lead Jim off. Frodo saw the guilt in Huck's eyes and he knew he didn't need to lecture him. He had only known Huck for a short time, but he believed he had a good heart. His conscience would lead him to the right decision soon enough.
Huck took a few steps toward the building, but when he noticed Frodo wasn't following, he turned back. "You comin'?"
Frodo hesitated. "I really don't think I can."
"You don't like fishin'?" Huck asked disinterestedly.
The hobbit looked at him seriously. "It's not that. It's just...your whole world rather disgusts me." Huck was taken aback by this frankness, but before he could say anything, Frodo added, "I'm going to take a walk," and strode away.
A/N: Yes, I know Frodo doesn't know the English alphabet, but he doesn't know English, either. Just go with it.