The travelers arrive at the Brandywine Bridge to find it locked on both sides with a huge spiked gate.
Some hobbits come to the gate from two houses on either side, one of whom recognizes Merry.
They apologize, but they can't let the travelers in. They have orders from the Chief at Bag End.
Frodo assumes they mean Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins's son (since the Sackville-Bagginses are the ones who bought Bag End when Frodo departed on his quest).
When Merry and Pippin climb the gate, a man comes out of one of the guard houses.
It's Bill Ferny, the nasty fellow who spied on them for the Black Riders as they reached Bree in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Merry uses his drawn sword to threaten Bill Ferny, who throws the gate key at him and runs away.
Hob, the friendly gate-keeping hobbit, tells Merry that they are not allowed to have guests.
Merry doesn't understand—is it a famine? What's going on?
Hob answers, no, the harvest's been good enough.
But there have been a whole group of "gatherers" (6.8.27) who have been taking the Shire-folk's products and storing them away for some unknown purpose.
The guard hobbits give Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin a room, but they have to eat the food in their saddlebags. There isn't even any pipe-weed to share.
The foursome goes to sleep totally bummed by the state of affairs.
The next morning, Frodo and the travelers decide to go to Hobbiton to see what's going on with this Chief.
But someone has already apparently warned the Chief.
So by the time the travelers get to the village of Frogmorton, about 22 miles from the Brandywine Bridge, they find a gang of armed Shirriffs waiting for them.
The Shirriff-leader wants to arrest Frodo for "Gate-breaking, and Tearing up of Rules, and Assaulting Gate-keepers, and Trespassing, and Sleeping in Shire-buildings without Leave, and Bribing Guards with Food" (6.8.39).
Sam announces that he wants to punch their Chief right in his pimply face. Yep, sounds about right.
The Shirriff tells Sam to be quiet while the Shirriffs bring them to "the Lockholes" (6.8.43), a prison in Bywater.
Frodo laughs and says he'll go exactly where he wants, thank you very much.
And where he wants to go just now is Bag End. The Shirriffs can come along if they'd like.
Sam recognizes one of the Shirriffs, Robin Smallburrow.
He asks Robin Smallburrow why the inn (the Floating Log) is closed.
Apparently, the Chief is controlling all the hobbits' movements, keeping them from getting together in groups.
Robin Smallburrow confides that he doesn't even want to be a Shirriff, but if any hobbit stands up for himself, he'll get dragged into prison.
The travelers head to Hobbiton with the Shirriffs escorting them (though it's clear at this point that the Shirriffs aren't the ones in control).
Finally, after fourteen miles of hard marching, the Shirriffs give up in exhaustion.
They let Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam make their own way to Bag End.
The hobbits reach the village of Bywater by nightfall and find that it has changed quite a bit since they last saw it.
Trees have been cut down, houses are missing, and in the distance, they see "a tall black chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air" (6.8.74).
The inn, The Green Dragon, has broken windows, and there are six "squint-eyed and sallow-faced" (6.8.77) men leaning against the inn wall.
(Remember that particular word choice? Tolkien uses it to describe an unpleasant Southerner skulking around The Prancing Pony in the first book, e.g. "squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow" [The Fellowship of the Ring 1.9.48] and "squinty-eyed southerner" [The Fellowship of the Ring 1.9.67].)
Merry notes that these guys look "like many that [he] saw at Isengard" (6.8.79).
Of course, these ruffians try to bully Frodo, Merry, Sam, and Pippin.
Pippin is so outraged at the manner in which these guys address the Ring-bearer that he pulls aside his cloak and shows them his armor of Gondor.
He and Merry flash their swords and tell these bullies to get lost. They promptly run away. We guess they're not used to being challenged.
Frodo wants them to choose the pacifist's route; he doesn't want to kill anyone.
But Merry proposes an alternative: "Raise the Shire! [...] Now! Wake all our people! they hate all this, you can see" (6.8.107).
Merry plans to blow the horn of Rohan, while Sam gallops off to Tom Cotton's home to find some lads who will help.
(Does this sound familiar? It should: it's the same alarm that goes up when the Black Riders attack Crickhollow in The Fellowship of the Ring Book 1, Chapter 11. We've come full circle.)
Sam arrives at Farmer Cotton's home to say that he and Frodo are back, and they've come to raise the Shire.
Farmer Cotton is ready and willing to join in, so Sam goes to check that Rosie Cotton (along with Mrs. Cotton, and Nibs Cotton) is all right.
Rosie welcomes him: "Hullo, Sam! [...] Where've you been? They said you were dead; but I've been expecting you since the Spring" (6.8.123).
Rosie tells Sam to go do his duty protecting the Shire, but then he should come back to her.
When Sam gets back to his friends, he finds all of Bywater ready for action.
Frodo asks Farmer Cotton how many ruffians there are.
Around fifty in Hobbiton, but there are more throughout the Shire.
They always leave twenty or so to guard Bag End, and they have used all kinds of weapons—whips, knives, clubs—to subdue the hobbits. These are some seriously Bad Dudes.
Paladin Took, Pippin's father, has been keeping guard on Tookland.
He has even had to shoot several of the ruffians to keep them away from the Tuckborough Smials.
Still, while the inside of the Tuckborough Smials may be free of ruffians, the outside is not.
No one gets in or out of Tuckborough, because the ruffians have a pretty close guard around the place.
Unsurprisingly, Pippin immediately sets off with around six hobbits on ponies to help his family in Tuckborough.
Frodo still asks, "I wish for no killing; not even of the ruffians, unless it must be done, to prevent them from hurting hobbits" (6.8.142).
Merry agrees, and sets off to make plans.
At last, a band of twenty ruffians arrive to find a barrier on the road.
They laugh and threaten all of the assembled hobbits with the Lockholes, threatening Farmer Cotton especially.
Merry to the rescue. He comes forward and threatens to shoot them if they lay a hand on Farmer Cotton.
The leader of the ruffians is so certain that the hobbits can't win that he chooses to stand and fight.
But as soon as he jumps at Merry with a knife, he falls dead with four arrows in him.
The rest of the ruffians quickly surrender. Do not mess with hobbits, people.
Sam sets off to see his Gaffer, who has, indeed, been turned out of his house and stuck in some new building he hates.
Farmer Cotton explains what has been happening in the Shire to Frodo and Merry.
Apparently, it all started with Lotho Sackville-Baggins (a.k.a. "Pimple" [6.8.166]).
Lotho started out as a wealthy hobbit, but nothing was enough for him. He invested boatloads of money in businesses so that he could make money to buy more businesses.
Eventually, he started taking Shire products and exporting them to the outside world.
He made so many sales that he forced the hobbits to work in his mills and leaf-plantations and factories, making things that he could sell Outside.
When the hobbits protested this treatment, Lotho imported a bunch of men into the Shire, and they immediately began hacking down trees and building whatever they wanted.
Plus, they started bullying the hobbits to boot.
When the Mayor of Michel Delving, Will Whitfoot, tried to protest, the ruffians locked him up.
Soon, any hobbit who tried to protest got locked up.
But things have gotten even worse since a guy named Sharkey arrived.
Sharkey is the real Chief, now, and "there's no longer even any bad sense in it. They cut down trees and let 'em lie, they burn houses and build no more" (6.8.170). And all this for no apparent reason.
Sam comes bursting in during this discussion, followed by his Gaffer.
The next morning, they receive a message from Tookland that the ruffians watching Tuckborough have all been driven off.
Pippin is leading all of the hobbits he can find to help in Hobbiton.
Merry comes riding in to say that there is a big band of about a hundred ruffians coming this way, burning the Shire as they come.
Finally, it comes to a blows.
Almost seventy ruffians die, and nineteen hobbits, which is nineteen too many, if we may say.
This tussle becomes known as the Battle of Bywater, and it's the first battle in the Shire in almost 300 years.
Lots of hobbits do well (especially the Cottons) but the two biggest heroes of the day are "Captains Meriadoc and Peregrin" (6.8.196).
Of course Frodo is in the battle, but he doesn't draw his sword. He's had enough violence, we dare say.
Mostly what he does is prevent the angry hobbits from killing the men who surrender.
Afterwards, they have to go to Bag End to find the Chief.
As they walk there, they pass a huge, horrible new industrial mill. The building of it has wrecked the entire neighborhood.
When they reach Bag End, they find it filled with filth. It doesn't look like anyone has lived there for a long time.
Merry wonders where Lotho is hiding, so he comments, "Let's get out! [...] If I had known all the mischief he had caused, I should have stuffed my pouch down Saruman's throat" (6.8.214).
In a dramatic reveal, Saruman steps out of the shadows and greets the travelers, looking amused and malicious like the big jerk he is.
The evil wizard mocks them for thinking that their home would go untouched.
Finally, Frodo puts it together: Sharkey is Saruman. Saruman is Sharkey.
Smug Saruman confirms that Sharkey was the name the orcs gave him in Isengard (he doesn't know that sharkû is an Orkish word for "old man," which is hardly a term of endearment).
Saruman jeers, "One ill turn deserves another" (6.8.220). They destroyed his home, so now he'll destroy theirs.
Frodo commands him to go and not come back.
The assembled hobbits, on the other hand, all want to kill him.
Saruman announces grandly that he'd be glad to die, since his blood will curse the Shire.
But Frodo assures them that the washed up old wizard is lying. He has no power left, and it's not a good thing to answer revenge with more revenge.