The Umbrella Thief by Kathryn Ramage

While Frodo was at his Aunt Dora's the next day, Pippin went out in search of young Sancho Proudfoot. Frodo disapproved of the wayward boy, but Pippin was rather fond of Sancho; Sancho reminded him of himself as he'd been at that age. Pippin also sympathized with Sancho. The boy was a first cousin once removed, the grandson of Thain Paladin's elder sister Saphira, and a Took through and through. The elderly, staid Proudfoots had little idea of what to do with their wild, red-haired grandchild, except indulge him, let him run, and hope he'd grow out of it.

Pippin had expected the boy to be out somewhere with his friend Wilcome, but when he went by the Proudfoots' smial, he found Sancho was at home.

"Pip! Hullo!" Sancho had been lying in the tall grass atop the smial, but he sat up and waved when Pippin came in at the gate. "I didn't know you were here! The last I'd heard, you were shut away at Tuckborough, moping over Merry Brandybuck."

"I've come out for Frodo's birthday," Pippin answered as he climbed up the slope and sat down beside his young cousin.

"Oh, him." Sancho made a face. "I know he's your special friend, but you spend so much time with him, Pip, it's made you old before your time. He's so serious. He reads books, and he's always on a chap for having a little fun! You're not as much fun as you used to be since you've started going around with Frodo Baggins."

"I suppose I've grown up a bit, that's all," Pippin replied, and realized with some surprise that it was true. In less than two years, he would come of age. "It'll happen to you too one day, my lad."

"Not for years and years, it won't!" Sancho insisted. "I'm only seventeen."

"You'd better make the best of your tweens while they last."

"Oh, I mean to. Even if I have to give it up for awhile, I'll just wait 'til I get to be a dotty old hobbit and I can do whatever I like again."

Pippin grinned. "Like Uncle Bilbo?"

"Yes, him, and others too. Nobody minds what old hobbits do. Nobody scolds them."

"What've you been up to lately, Sancho?" Pippin didn't like asking roundabout questions, but there was no other way to bring up the subject of the stolen umbrella. "Anything good?"

The boy's face brightened with enthusiasm. "You missed out on an awful jolly time, Pip. When Will and I were in the Cotmans' orchard the other day, having our fill of apples, that big dog of theirs came running up barking. He tried to jump up into the apple tree after us... so we helped." He laughed. "We got him up onto a branch so high he couldn't climb down. Afterwards, we thought of putting some of the Cotmans' pigs up into the trees too, but the little ones were too slippery and the big ones were too heavy--and they bite hard!. So all we could do was to let 'em run about. You should've been there to see!"

Pippin listened to Sancho's recitation of his recent tricks and pranks, and laughed with genuine appreciation, for some of them were very funny. It recalled his own childhood, when all that was important to him was running about with his best friend, Merry, having fun and finding mischief to get into--before he'd seen the world beyond the Shire, fought in a war, and had his heart broken. He felt rather envious of Sancho's "years and years" of carefree youth still ahead.

But Sancho made no mention of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Perhaps in his vast catalog of naughtiness, one little umbrella wasn't worth mentioning. Pippin couldn't ask directly about it--that would only make the boy suspicious and shut him right up--but he prompted Sancho for more stories and encouraged him to tell the wildest tales, until Prunella came out to call her grandson in for tea. When she saw Pippin, she invited him in too.

The tea cakes and sandwiches were simple and plentiful, for Mrs. Proudfoot was used to providing ample food for a growing young hobbit. Between bites, Pippin told Prunella and her husband Odo all the news from Tuckborough. During tea, it began to rain.

"Oh, dear..." As she refilled the teapot, Prunella gazed out of the kitchen window and regarded the darkening clouds with dismay. "It looks like it's going settle in over Hobbiton for the rest of the day, and I was hoping to go into Bywater before the shops closed. I can't go now."

"Whyever not, dearest?" asked Odo.

"I couldn't go out in a rainstorm like this, not without my umbrella. It's been missing for days now. You haven't seen it about, have you?"

"No, Pru. You must've left it somewhere."

As his grandparents had this exchange, Sancho ducked his head over his plate of cake. They didn't see, but Pippin noticed that the boy was smirking with ill-concealed amusement.

The tea party at Dora Baggins's smial that same afternoon was a more fancy affair, but the occasion was a special one. The old lady and her niece Peony Burrows had been busy all afternoon baking a big cake, plus plenty of cream tarts and scones, to celebrate Frodo's birthday. In accordance with the hobbit custom of giving gifts on one's birthday, Frodo brought presents for his aunt and for Milo and Peony, as well as a toy for each of the four Burrows children. Everyone had a splendid time.

When it began to rain, the ladies made sympathetic remarks about Frodo's walk home. Although they didn't fuss over his health as much as Sam did, they were very much aware that he wasn't well and worried for him.

"I wouldn't like to see you catch cold, Frodo dear, when you're so susceptible," said Dora. "I'd lend you my umbrella to see you home safe and dry, but I'm afraid I've mislaid it."

"Why don't you borrow mine, Frodo?" Peony offered. When it came time for Frodo to leave, they went into the cubby beside the front door, where cold-weather clothes and gear were stored, to search through the winter cloaks.

After looking through all the shelves and piles of woolens, Peony sank back to sit on her heels with a puzzled frown. "How very odd. I was sure it was in here. Perhaps Milo or one of the children took it."

"Aunt Dora's has gone missing too," Frodo observed.

"Of course, the poor old dear's surely left hers somewhere."

"At Aunt Prisca's the other day?"

"Yes, that's the most likely place."

"Was Lobelia there too?"

"She was... How did you know, Frodo?" Peony regarded him with the same puzzled expression.

"She told me so herself when she called at Bag End yesterday." Peony laughed incredulously, and Frodo acknowledged that Lobelia's visit had come as a surprise to him too. "Tell me, Peony: do you recall whether or not Lobelia had her umbrella with her when you saw her?

"As a matter of fact, she did," answered Peony. "She always carries it with her, rain or shine. I'm sure Aunt Dora had hers with her then too. You know how old ladies are about their umbrellas. Aunt Dora says you never know when you'll need one."

"There's some wisdom in that." Frodo looked at the rain spattering on the small, round windows on either side of the front door. "I'll just have to take my chances. Peony, will you do a favor for me? Let me know if you hear of anyone else who's lost an umbrella lately."

Peony did not find this a strange request; she had helped Frodo on his investigations before, and understood without his saying so explicitly that another was afoot.

The walk from the Old Baggins Place to Bag End was barely a mile, a pleasant stroll on a nice day. In the pouring rain, the lanes were muddy and full of puddles. Frodo walked swiftly, but didn't dare run lest he slip and fall. He was halfway home when he heard the splashing footsteps of someone else coming up the lane from the Hill in the opposite direction. Then he saw a figure heading rapidly toward him, and burst into a smile. Sam had come to find him, bringing an umbrella.

When he first saw Frodo, Sam looked relieved, then he began to fret over Frodo's bedraggled condition. "You should've stayed at Miss Dora's, Frodo," he scolded as he put an arm around Frodo and brought him under the shelter of the open umbrella. "You ought've known I'd come for you."

"I'm glad you did," Frodo answered, and leaned on his friend a little; wet and miserable as he was, Sam's fussing was extremely welcome.

"I don't wonder. Look at you--soaked to the bone!" Sam brushed the droplets from Frodo's face and off the ends of the damp curls that fell on his brow and around his ears, until Frodo gave him an impulsive kiss on the corner of his mouth. "Let's get you home, quick as can be, and into a hot bath afore dinner. We can't have you taking ill on your birthday!"

Arm still around Frodo, which was also very welcome, Sam brought him back up the lane toward Bag End at a swift pace, taking care that Frodo did not step in the deeper puddles.

"Did you have a good time at Miss Dora's today?"

"Yes, very nice, and I discovered a most curious thing." Frodo closed one hand over Sam's on the umbrella's handle. "You'd best hold tight to that, Sam. Hobbiton has an umbrella thief!"
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