"Hey, buddy," I said in annoyance, "how about some privacy here, huh?"
"Oh, please, excuse me, kind sir," said the Big Guy. "Far be it from me to intrude on your modesty. I'll just be going on about my business, then, and leave you to deal with Khamûl and his friends by yourself, shall I?"
"I'd appreciate it," I said. The Big Guy gave me an elaborate bow, turned, and walked back into the woods.
My clothes had dried out by now, thankfully, and I took my time getting back into them, while I thought about Mister Sarcastic. I wasn't worried that he would carry out his threat to leave me to the tender mercies of Mr. Khamûl. I'd never heard of any group of the Big Folk camping out on this island, and I didn't think his presence here was a coincidence. He'd been following Miss Rushlight, just like Mr. Khamûl had, and now he was following me.
His accent was a puzzle, though. He didn't sound at all like one of the Big Folk from the Bree-land. If anything, he sounded like one of the elves from Rivendell. I could tell he wasn't an elf, though. If you've ever seen an elf by starlight -- and I have -- you know what I mean. The stars light them up a lot more brightly than they have any business doing.
In fact, it finally occurred to me that the one person Mister Sarcastic really reminded me of was my Uncle Lucky. Lucky Baggins had been a well-to-do member of the leisure class, collecting rent on his various properties, reading old books, and writing poetry. Then he had gone off for a year on a business venture with some dwarves, and when he got back, he found that his cousin Stinky had had him declared legally dead and grabbed everything he owned, including his well-appointed hole, Bag End. Uncle Lucky had taken Stinky to court, but a crooked judge had ruled against him. All he had left was the money he made from his business with the dwarves, and the legal fees had eaten most of that. He wound up moving in with his mother's family in the Great Smials in Tookland, and I'd see him whenever he visited us in Brandy Hall. He could tell all kinds of stories about the Old Days, and he'd help me and my cousin Ace pilfer stuff from the pantries. Eventually, though, he got tired of being the poor relation, and he hit the road. Nobody had heard from him for twenty years or so.
Then a metaphorical candle lit up the air above my head. I knew who Mister Sarcastic was! Uncle Lucky's stories had mentioned his people: the Rangers. According to Uncle Lucky, the Rangers were some leftover Westies who had hung on after the old North Kingdom went belly up. These days, they mostly worked as tour guides, leading groups from the Shire out to places like Norbury and Weathertop to ooh and aah over the old ruins.
When I'd finished shrugging my trenchcoat into place, I called out, "All right, buddy, you can come out now."
"Hey, we both know you're still out there," I called. "You aren't going to let me out of your sight as long as you think I've got the you-know-what."
I couldn't see the expression on his face as he stepped out of the woods, but I could guess what it was when he said, "Little smart-ass."
"Got any grub?" I replied. "I'm starving over here."
"You're a hobbit," he said. "You'd be starving in the middle of a banquet." He strode past me to the boat, and gave it a hard shove with his foot, pushing it back into the stream. The current caught it, and it went drifting off down the north branch of the Water. Then he walked past me, saying, "Food is this way," and headed back into the woods.
"Doc's not gonna be happy," I said as I saw the boat drift out of sight. I sighed and followed the Ranger. We were a few hundred feet into the woods when I saw a yellow light in the distance. As we came closer I saw it was a small campfire, and that the Big Guy had company. A small figure was seated near the fire looking into the flames, and it turned and stood up as the Ranger and I stepped into view.
"Hey, Deuce, how's tricks?"
It was Petals.