“I don’t see why you brought the faunt,” Gil said, looking at the place where young Berilac sat against the trunk of a rowan tree, his knuckle to his mouth. That was what the four-year-old always did when he wasn’t certain what was expected of him--gnawed at his knuckle. Perhaps better than sucking on his thumb, Gil supposed as he turned his attention back to their leader.
“We won’t be able to pull this off without him,” Frodo assured him. “If it was one of us they’d realized in a second that this was a diversion, and they’d send someone to check out the gardens to see if there were more of us, scrumping their vegetables. But if it’s a faunt who barely talks as yet, they’ll be all worried about him.” He turned to Brendilac. “All right--we’re ready for the kitten.”
“But, what if it just jumps down again, soon as we get it into the tree?” Brendi objected.
“That cat hasn’t figured out yet it can do so,” Frodo assured him. “He’s still too young. Once we get him on the limb, if anything he’ll go up higher--he won’t go down. Lots easier to go up than to get back down again. All right, Freddy--you watch the windows, and let us know if you see any movement.” He turned to the chosen tree at the edge of the lane, an apple hanging a bit over the hedge that bounded the farm’s orchard. It was too high to reach up to the lowest limbs, so he squirmed under the hedge and carefully climbed up into and along the limb until he could reach down. “Now, hand me Sprite,” he commanded in a low hiss.
Gil unfastened the cover to the carrying basket and looked down into the pale grey face of the kitten, its green eyes huge as it looked up suspiciously at a tree canopy it didn’t recognize. “Come on, you,” he said as he reached down and put his hand under its belly. “Come on, and you’ll get to do some climbing.”
Sprite was having none of it. He’d apparently hooked his claws into the wicker used to weave the basket during the trip from the Hall, and had no indication of being ejected into a place it didn’t know. After getting one paw released, Gil worked on the second, only to find that once he was done the first had again made as great a purchase as it had known when he started.
“Hurry up!” Frodo urged. “Freddy’s making signs! It’ll be no good if I’m seen up here!”
“He’s not cooperating!” Gil explained. He worked on the first paw again, only to realize the claws of the second paw were more firmly dug into the basket than ever. “Dogs and cats!” he spat. “Brendi, help me!”
Each of them worked on a paw, and soon they had the front paws disengaged, and then the back. Gil quickly passed the kitten up to Frodo, although Sprite, unhappy about being forced into a situation not of its own choosing, was now seeking to anchor himself to the lad’s hands. “Take the dratted thing!” Gil begged, and finally Frodo managed to hook his hands under the kitten’s chest and lift it up into the tree, setting it in a crotch where three branches went off in different directions. At last the kitten’s own uncertainty was working to their advantage as it hunkered down, glaring down at Gil, its claws clearly transferring its decision not to be moved to the branches. Frodo didn’t bother sliding back to the trunk, but fastening his own hands to the limb he lay along slipped off, allowed himself to dangle, then dropped the half foot to the ground on the outside of the hedge. He quickly used a fallen branch of leaves from the hedge itself to sweep the grass he’d flattened as he’d squirmed under into a standing position, then he turned to Berilac.
“Beri,” he said in a no-nonsense tone. “Sprite is stuck in the tree, do you understand?”
The faunt nodded.
“We can’t go home till he’s down again, and Willow’s fixing trout and almond cakes for lunch.”
“Want some trout,” the child said clearly. “I like trout.”
“And you like almond cake, too,” Frodo prompted.
The child nodded.
“You need help to get him down, and we have to go that way,” he said, pointing down the lane toward the Bucklebury Ferry. “And you can’t get any trout or almond cake until you can get someone to help you get him down.”
“You get him down,” suggested the child.
“I can’t--we need to go that way,” Frodo said. “But we can’t get any trout or almond cake until he’s down and back in the basket.” He kicked the open basket over on its side. He gave a nod at Gil and Brendi, and they stepped back. “Remember, Beri,” he repeated, a bit more loudly, “we can’t go back until the kitten is in the basket.” He grabbed the other lads’ shoulders and drew them away around the turn, leaving Beri there with the basket, looking up in consternation at Sprite, perched up in the apple tree.
“Do we go into the garden now?” Freddy asked as he joined them in the shade of the hedge some way beyond Beri. “We oughtn’t to, for they’re coming outside and they’ll most like see us.”
“Not until they’re busy with Beri and the kitten.”
“But how will they even notice him?” Gil asked, frustrated.
“They will,” Frodo assured. “Beri’s just working it out, but he’ll start crying soon, and loud. He’s very loud when he realizes he might be missing something he likes, like trout and almond cake.”
Brendi looked at their cousin with admiration. “Is that why you asked Willow if she’d cook those today?” he asked.
“Well, Uncle Rory brought home a whole string of trout yesterday--why not use them to our advantage?” Frodo began, and just then he stopped, a look of triumph on his face as Beri at last realized he’d been left alone by his cousins and they wouldn’t come back until the kitten was out of the tree, and began to wail.
Gil had to admit that when Frodo’d declared Berilac Brandybuck was the right one for this caper he’d been right--the faunt’s scream of rage and frustration was piercing. The four of them peered around the bush in time to see a farmer and his wife come running. Beri was pointing up into the tree at Sprite, who, upset at the noise had retreated back toward the trunk, and the goodwife, realizing the problem, was trying to reassure the child. The farmer had to go back to the entrance to the orchard and come back up the hedge to get to the place the kitten had now flattened itself against the trunk, but as the Hobbit reached up to try to pluck the kitten out of its perch it reached down and swiped at him, catching the back of the farmer’s hand and leaving a red line of broken skin behind.
Gil was watching, fascinated, when Frodo grabbed at him and drew him away. “Come on!” he was hissing. “Let’s not waste the time watching--it will take him some time to get that kitten out of the tree--believe me!” Gil found himself being dragged to the place they’d already determined would give them best access to the lines of tomato plants, whose fruits were just now reaching that plump, red perfection....
By the time they got back a ladder had been fetched, as well as a small throw of some sort, and Sprite, true to Frodo’s predictions, had climbed quite high in the apple tree, lodging himself in the midst of several shoots going off in different directions. The vocabulary of the farmer seeking to get the animal out of the tree was far wider than any of the lads had anticipated, and they absorbed some colorful phrases that Gil promised himself he’d use on Gomez back at the Hall, and soon. At last the fellow managed to get the thick cloth wrapped sufficiently around the kitten to trap its feet, and with a grunt of triumph he lifted the whole mess up free of the hampering shoots and leaves and quickly swaddled it, then carried the struggling bundle back down the tree where his wife held the basket opened and ready to receive its intended occupant.
Now there was a new struggle, for Sprite, having hooked his claws in the blanket, had no intention of letting go. “Oh, for pity’s sake, Clovis,” the goodwife said, exasperated with her husband’s growing frustration, “we can easily do without the wee blanket. Let the lad have it! Just put the whole thing into the basket and be done with it.”
Realizing this would relieve him of the entire situation, the farmer did just that, and his wife quickly had the basket closed and fastened before the kitten could realize it might escape yet again.
Frodo thumped Freddy on the shoulder, and with a final glance back at Frodo the older lad rose from where he’d been kneeling and peering around the bush to watch, and hurried out, calling, “Derry! Derry! Where are you?”
It was masterful, Gil thought, as he saw Freddy join the farmer and his wife, explaining he’d been walking with his brother, who’d insisted on carrying the kitten’s basket, and apparently the lad had stopped to look in at the wee thing and it must have escaped. “I didn’t even realize he wasn’t right there behind me,” he said. “Oh, thank you for watching him for me. Well, come along, Derry, for elevenses will be on the table before we get there if we don’t leave now. And we’re promised almond cake.”
Fred scooped up the basket and hurried to catch up with Berilac, who’d caught sight of Frodo peering around the hedge and was heading toward him as fast as his little legs could carry him. Grabbing the faunt’s hand, Fred allowed himself to be dragged along by the child, smiling with triumph as they came abreast the other lads and they all turned to hurry back toward the place where they’d left the small rowboat they’d used to cross the river in a copse of willow shrubs. And as they turned away from the farm hedge at last, Gil could swear he heard the farmer’s cries of dismay at finding all his ripe tomatoes had been taken by scrumpers. He grinned as he reached down to pick up little Beri so they could go more quickly.