Chapter XI. The Mean Man
 

Certainly it seemed a good place to fish, in Lemby Creek, for there were many shady pools near the banks--pools that looked as though fish swam in them, just waiting to be caught.

As Harry and Bert looked more closely at the boy Nan had pointed out to them, they saw that he carried a string of fish, as well as the pole.

"Oh, he's caught some!" cried Bert. "Let's ask how he does it."

"And where he caught them," suggested Harry.

"I will," agreed Bert. "Hey there, Will!" he called. "Where'd you get the fish?"

The farm boy, who had seen the houseboat, and who was hurrying toward her, waved his hand as Bert called to him. Then, as he came nearer across the green meadow through which the creek ran, he shouted:

"Plenty of fish all around you. Just throw in from the boat, and you'll get all you want."

"What kind of bait do you use?" asked Mr. Bobbsey, for neither Bert nor Harry had thought to inquire about that, and the right kind of bait is as much needed in catching fish, as is water itself.

"Grasshoppers are best just now," answered Will.

"And we've been fishing with worms!" said Bert. "No wonder!"

"Oh, worms are all right most times," Will went on. "But the fish are hungry for grasshoppers now. I'll give you some. I've got lots left."

He came to the edge of the creek, and Mr. Bobbsey, who was steering the boat, sent it in close to shore.

"We might as well tie up here for the night, I think," he said. "That will give you boys a chance to talk to Will, and learn how to catch fish."

A little later the houseboat was rubbing along the grassy bank, and the water was so deep close to shore that there was really no need of putting out the board, called the "gangplank," for any one to get off. Mr. Bobbsey, knowing that Flossie and Freddie could not make the little jump needed to take them ashore, called to Captain White to run out a small board instead of the regular large one.

"Come on, Harry!" called Bert. "We'll get some of those grasshoppers."

He started down the stairs leading from the deck, intending to go ashore, but his mother touched him on the arm, and said, in a low voice:

"Why don't you ask that boy to come on board?"

"Why?" asked Bert.

"Well, I was just going to give you children some of the corn muffins Dinah has just baked, and perhaps Will would like---"

"Oh, of course! Now I understand!" cried Bert. "Of course. I say, Will!" he went on, calling down from the upper deck, "can't you come aboard? We're going to have some of Dinah's corn muffins, and maybe you'd like to sample one."

Somewhat to the surprise of Mrs. Bobbsey, as well as to the wonderment of Bert and Harry, Will did not seem eager to accept the invitation.

"I'd like to come on board, very much," he said, looking back of him, and on all sides, as though he feared some one was after him. "But you see I haven't got much time. I ought to be back at the farm now. Mr. Hardee set me to hoeing a patch of corn, and I'm supposed to be back in time to feed the horses before supper. And it's almost supper time now."

"Well, we don't want you to be late," said Mrs. Bobbsey. "Here, Bert," she said, as Dinah came out of the kitchen with a big plate of muffins, "you take some of these to Will, and you can walk along a little way with him, and talk about fishing. Then he won't be late.

"But don't go too far," she added, "for supper will soon be ready."

"We won't!" promised Bert. Taking some of the delicious corn muffins, the two boys hurried ashore, Snap, the dog, barking joyously, bounding along with them. Flossie and Freddie did not care to go ashore just then, as the little girl twin was playing with her doll, and her brother was trying to make Snoop do one of the tricks that the circus lady had taught the cat in Cuba.

Mrs. Bobbsey went down to the dining-room, to talk to Dinah about the evening meal, while Mr. Bobbsey and Captain White got out the ropes with which to tie the houseboat fast to some trees on the bank of the creek.

Meanwhile Bert and Harry walked along with Will.

"Have some muffins," invited Bert politely, passing his new friend some of the corn cakes that Dinah knew so well how to bake.

"Thanks! They're good!" said Will, as he bit into one.

"Say, you have some fine fish!" exclaimed Harry, half enviously. "Where'd you catch them?"

"Oh, up the creek aways--near where I was hoeing corn. You can have 'em, if you want 'em."

"What! Do you mean to give them to us?" asked Bert in surprise. "After all the work you had catching them?"

"Oh, it wasn't any work catching 'em," said Will quickly. "It was fun. But it won't be any fun taking 'em home, for Mr. Hardee will be mad."

"Why?" asked Harry, as he began eating a second muffin.

"Well, he'll say I was catching fish instead of hoeing corn. But I caught all these in the noon hour, when I'm supposed to have a little time off. But he wouldn't believe that, so there's no use taking the fish home. You can have 'em. There's some pretty big sunnies, and a couple o' nice perch."

"Sure you don't want them?" asked Bert.

"No. I'd be glad to give 'em to you. And here's some grasshoppers I didn't use. They'll be good to fish with to-morrow."

"Thanks," said Bert, as he took the tin box Will held out. Inside could be heard a queer little "ticking" noise, as the grasshoppers leaped up against the cover.

"Say, these are sure some fine fish!" exclaimed Will.

"Oh, you'll catch just as nice ones to-morrow," the country boy said. "I'll have to run now, or I'll be late at the farm."

"Good-bye!" called Bert and Harry as Will hurried off along the edge of the creek. "See you to-morrow, maybe."

Will had no idea that he would see his friends then. He knew he had a hard day's work in prospect for the next day--weeding a large patch of onions that were so far away from the creek that he would have no chance, even at his noon hour, of going down to the water for a cool little swim.

Will did not know what queer things were going to happen to him very soon, nor did any of the Bobbseys realize what a part they were to play in the life of poor, friendless Will Watson.

"He's a nice boy, isn't he?" asked Harry of Bert, as they turned back toward the boat, with their fish and bait.

"Yes, I like him a lot. It's too bad he has to work so hard on the farm."

"Yes, it sure is."

Talking of the luck they expected to have the next day, fishing, the cousins soon reached the Bluebird. There they found their father and Captain White waiting for them.

"We've decided to move the boat farther down the creek before we tie up for the night," said Mr. Bobbsey, "but we didn't want to go before you boys came back."

"Are you going to start up the engine again?" asked Bert. "If you are, I wish you'd let me try to do it."

"No, you are too small to go near gasoline motors," said his father. "Besides, we are not going to use the engine. We'll just push the boat along with poles from the bank. We're not going very far, but your mother thought it would be nicer to spend the night in a more open place."

"Yes," said Mrs. Bobbsey, "I thought perhaps some animals might jump out of the trees on our deck."

The trees on shore were very close to the boat, some of the branches overhanging the railing. At the mention of animals, Bert's eyes opened wider.

"Say, if I had a gun I could shoot them, if they came aboard," he said, his eyes glistening.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed his mother. "I'd rather have an animal on board than let you have a gun. You might get shot."

"I--I could squirt water on 'em with my fire engine!" shouted Freddie, who had given up trying to make Snoop do any tricks.

"Oh, we had enough of your engine, little fat fireman," said Mr. Bobbsey with a laugh. "Now then, if you're all ready, we'll move the boat."

It was rather hard work to start the Bluebird, but once it had begun to move, it went more easily through the water. Captain White had one pushing pole, Mr. Bobbsey another, and Bert and Harry used one between them. Soon the houseboat moved out from the narrow part of the creek, and from under the trees, to a place where wide meadows were found on either side. A little farther, going around a bend in the stream, the Bobbseys came in sight of a farmhouse, a barn and several other buildings near it.

"Oh, look!" cried Nan. "Somebody lives there."

"Yes, that's Mr. Hardee's farm, I think," said Mr. Bobbsey. "We can tie up our boat here, and then, if we want some milk or eggs, we can easily get them."

"I needs some aigs," spoke Dinah. "Done used de lastest one in dem muffins."

"Then we'll make the boat fast here," decided Mr. Bobbsey. "With your corn muffins, Dinah, and the fish Will gave us, we'll have a fine supper. As soon as the boat is fast you and Harry can clean the fish, Bert."

Beyond the broad expanse which lay between the wide meadows, the creek had narrowed again opposite the farmhouse and barn. In fact, it was so narrow, that if there had been another houseboat on the stream, there would have been trouble for the Bluebird to pass. This narrow part was not, however, very long, and beyond it the creek broadened out again.

Mr. Bobbsey and Captain White had just finished fastening the ropes from the boat to some stakes driven into the ground, when Mrs. Bobbsey, who had come up from the dining-room, called out:

"Oh, look, Richard!"

"What is it?" asked her husband.

"That man! See! I'm afraid he is going to give that boy a whipping. And see, it's Will--the boy who gave Bert the fish!"

Mr. Bobbsey looked to where his wife pointed, and saw, coming out of the barn, a grizzled farmer, leading by the arm a boy whom Mr. Bobbsey at once recognized as Will Watson. Keeping a tight grip on the lad's arm with one hand, the farmer raised his other hand, in which was a long horsewhip.

Then he cried:

"I'll teach you to waste your time goin' fishin'! I'll teach you! Th' idea o' fishin' when I set you to hoein' corn! Wastin' my time! I'll learn you!"

"Oh, but, Mr. Hardee!" cried poor Will. "I only fished in the noon hour when I'm not supposed to work!"

"Not supposed to work!" cried the mean man, as he brought the whip down on Will's shoulders. "You're supposed t' work here all th' while I tell you--'cept when you're asleep! I'll teach you!" and again the cruel whip swished down.

"Oh, Richard!" cried Mrs. Bobbsey faintly, as she covered her eyes with her hands. "Can't you stop that?"