VII. Joel Goes A-Fishing
 

Joel sat on the back doorstep and kicked his heels disconsolately. Davie was lying down on Mamsie's bed, fast asleep. He was tired out picking rocks all the forenoon, and Polly had shut the door and said he mustn't be waked up. So there he lay, his arm thrown up over his flushed cheeks; and the long hot summer afternoon ahead of Joel, and he must spend it alone.

"All the birds have lots of themselves to play with," grumbled Joel, idly slinging a stone at a pack of chattering young ones who could not contain their pride at being able to fly so finely, but kept screaming every minute, "Look at me. Chee-chee-chee. See-me-chee-chee-chee!"

Now they cocked their little heads and stared down with their black beady eyes at Joel; when they saw it was he, they chirped and twittered worse than ever. "See me. Chee-chee-chee! Look-at-me-chee-chee-chee!"

"Stop it!" cried Joel, crossly, looking up at them; "Davie's abed, an' I haven't any one to play with, an' you have, lots an' lots." Then a smile broke out and ran all over his chubby face, and he flung another stone he had picked off as far as he could into the grass.

The little birds, glad to see him smile, fluttered their wings and flew off, screaming proudly, "See-me-chee-chee-chee!"

"I'm going fishing down to Cherry Brook," said Joel, left alone with not a bird in sight. Even the squirrels seemed to have business at a distance that afternoon; so he hopped off from his stone and ran to get his old tin pail and the remnant of an iron spoon that Polly had given the boys to dig worms with; and very soon he had a good quantity wriggling and squirming away, and he came shouting, flushed and happy, by the window where she sat sewing.

"I'm goin' fishin', Polly," he said, slinging his birch pole over his shoulder.

"All right," said Polly, nodding and smiling away at him. "Sh, Joel, don't make such a noise. You'll wake up Davie."

"Then he could go with me," declared Joel, on the edge of another whoop.

"No, indeed, Mister Joel," said Polly, with a decisive nod of her brown head, "you needn't think it. Davie's legs aren't so strong as yours, and he's all tired out."

"My legs are dreadful strong, Polly," said Joel, well pleased at Polly's words. And he set down his pail of angleworms, and the pole carefully beside it. "See, Polly," and he flopped over suddenly, turning two or three somersaults, to stand still on his head.

"Oh, Joel--Joel!" cried Polly, forgetting all about David, and dropping her work to her lap "don't. You mustn't do that. Stop it!"

"Pooh! that's nothing," said Joel, wiggling his legs far apart, and peering at her out of his sharp black eyes.

"Joel!" screamed Polly, "get up this minute, and don't you go upside down again! Mamsie wouldn't like it. Get up, I say!"

"Pooh! that's nothing," again declared Joel, slowly flopping over to lie still on the grass. Then he began to slap his legs up and down. "Ain't I dreadful strong, Polly? Ain't I?"

"And your face is dreadfully red," said Polly; "I shouldn't wonder if sometime you burst a blood vessel in you, if you do that perfectly awful thing."

"How could it burst?" cried Joel. "Tell me, Polly," bringing his legs down quite still to hear the answer. "Tell me, Polly."

"You'd know, I guess," answered Polly. "Don't, Joel, you make me feel as if I sh'd fly to even think of it, and here I ought to be sewing every single minute." Just then the bedroom door opened, and out walked David, dewy-eyed, and with very pink cheeks. "Did you call, Polly?" he asked; "I heard you say something."

"Now you've gone and waked Davie up," exclaimed Polly, in a tone of great vexation.

"Goody!" screamed Joel, "now you will let him go fishing, won't you?" And he jumped to his feet and ran to the window to thrust his stubby head over the sill. "Dave, Dave, come out an' see the lot o' worms I've dug."

"No," said Polly, feeling dreadfully at the sight of David's face, as it fell at her words. "I'm sorry, Davie, but you were real tired, an' Mamsie wouldn't like you to go off any this afternoon."

"It's only to Cherry Brook," cried Joel, loudly.

"Now, Polly Pepper, I think you're real mean to keep him in, an' we'd catch a whole lot o' fish, an' maybe have some for supper."

It was always Joel's ambition to catch a fish big enough to cook, but as the brook, a little tumbling stream over a few ragged rocks, on the edge of Deacon Brown's meadow lot, only held minnows, with an occasional turtle and frog, this had never as yet happened.

Phronsie laid down the bit of calico she was puckering up by drawing through it a needle to which a coarse thread was tied, and looked gravely at Joel. "You must not say so of my Polly," she said gravely, shaking her head.

Joel's black hair ducked beneath the window. "I didn't mean--" he mumbled. "Polly, I didn't, truly." Then he flung himself on the grass and burst into tears, kicking over the pail. The angleworms wriggled along till they got to the edge, then quietly took themselves off.

David drew a long sigh and folded his hands. "I'm not a bit tired, and I should like to go, Polly," he said.

"No, Davie dear," said Polly, kindly, "you'd be tired before you'd gone halfway. And Mamsie wouldn't like it. Do go back and lie down again on the bed."

"Oh, I can't," said little David, shrugging his shoulders, "it's all alone in there, Polly."

"Well, I can't leave my sewing, and you must have it dark, or else you won't go to sleep. Do try, Davie, that's a good boy."

But little Davie still shrugged his shoulders, and wouldn't even look at the bedroom door, but kept his back toward it.

"Dear me, Phronsie," cried Polly, in despair. "Now, if you'd go in and lie down by his side and hold his hand, maybe he'd go to sleep. He's half sick, and I don't want Mamsie to come home and find him so."

"I've got to sew, Polly," said Phronsie, with an important air, and holding up her mangy bit of calico, where all but one corner was in a pucker, "so I must stay right here and finish it. Truly, I must, Polly."

"O dear me!" exclaimed Polly, quickly, "then I don't know what is to be done. And Mamsie will come home, and then what will she say?" with another worried glance at David's flushed cheeks.

Phronsie drew a long breath and set another crooked stitch. "I'll go, Polly," at last she said, with a long sigh, putting the puckered calico bit, with the needle hanging, carefully on the floor by her side. Then she got slowly out of her little wooden chair.

"Now, that's a good girl," cried Polly, reaching out her arms to catch her, and nearly smothering her with kisses. "Whatever should I do without you, Phronsie, pet? I'm sure I don't know."

"You couldn't do without me, could you, Polly?" cried Phronsie, very much pleased as Polly let her go and flew back to her sewing again.

"No in-deed!" cried Polly, warmly. "There, take Davie's hand, and both of you go into the bedroom like good children, and shut the door and go to sleep. That's nice!" and she smiled approvingly at them as they disappeared.

Joel cried on and on, his tears trailing off into the grass, till at last, as Polly took no notice of him, he raised his head to look in at the window at her. She didn't seem to see him, but sewed on and on quite composedly, as if Joel were not there. So he finally jumped up, and seeing his tin pail overturned on its side, he hurried to investigate.

"Oh, my worms have all run off!" he shouted. "Polly, the bad old things have every single one of 'em run away!" and he beat the bottom of the pail with the broken iron spoon in his vexation.

"Joel Pepper!" cried Polly, a little red spot coming in either cheek as she flung down her work on the floor by Phronsie's calico bit, "that's twice you've made a most awful noise; now you'll wake Davie up again, you bad, naughty boy," and without stopping to think, she dashed out doors, and before Joel could hardly breathe, she seized his shoulders and shook him smartly.

"Oh, what have I done! What have I done!" she exclaimed, and throwing herself down on the grass, she covered her face with her hands, waving back and forth in distress.

"You shook me!" cried Joel, his black eyes sparkling in anger. "Now I'll beat you, Polly Pepper," and he raised the old broken iron spoon. There they were--two little Peppers--oh, dreadful, to tell it--and Mamsie away!

"You may, Joe," said Polly, brokenly, and rocking back and forth, while the big tears dripped down between her fingers, "for I've been bad to you, and Mamsie away." She could hardly speak for her sobs. "How could I! Oh, Joey, I'm so sorry. O dear--dear--dear!"

She went off now into such a gust of crying, that Joel forgot all about his anger. He threw away the spoon, and kneeling beside her, he put his arms about her neck. "Don't cry, Polly," he begged, "please don't."

"I can't help it, Joe," said Polly, struggling with her sobs. "O dear me! I can't ever forgive myself. I don't see how I came to do it. O dear me!"

At last Joel, in despair, jumped to his feet. "I'm going to get Grandma Bascom."

"Oh, no, you mustn't, Joe," cried Polly, bringing a very red face suddenly to view, the tears running in little rivers down her nose and cheeks. "There, see! I'm not going to cry any more. Come back, Joe," for he was starting off at a lively pace.

"Sure?" cried Joel, stopping a minute.

"Yes, I won't cry any more," cried poor Polly, swallowing very hard--"there, see, Joey dear," and she wiped off the last tear. "Now I'll help you dig some more worms," she said, racking her brains to think of something by which to make up to Joel for the shaking.

"Will you?" cried Joel, in delight. "Oh, Polly, how nice! Here's the spoon--here's the spoon," and he ran and picked it out of the long grass.

"Yes, I will," promised Polly, stifling a sigh as she thought of the work to be made up in some way on the coat seams.

"And I'll sit here and see you," remarked Joel, doubling up in an easy position on the grass, "'cause you see there isn't but one spoon, Polly. Now dig a good lot," he said with a restful stretch.

So Polly dug and dug away, being careful to select long, fat worms. And presently there was a good number all wriggling away in the bottom of the pail. And at last Joel hopped up and peered in. "Oh, Polly, what a lot! An' they're juicy ones, and a great deal better'n mine. Now I guess I'll catch some fish, an' you shall fry 'em for supper." He seized the pail, and slung the pole over his shoulder again, and trudged off.

"All right," said Polly, with a loving little pat, "and oh, Joey, I'm so sorry I was cross and shook you."

"I don't care," said Joel, pleasantly, "'cause you dug my worms for me, Polly," and he raced off.

But Polly went into the little brown house with a very sober face. And it wasn't till all the children, Ben and all, were abed that night, and she crept into Mamsie's arms and sobbed it all out on her breast, that she felt better and like being Polly again.

Joel rushed through the undergrowth and tangle of berry bushes, breaking through the wild grape vines that slapped him in the face and caught his pole; and, creeping and ducking under them, at last he struck the little path to the Cherry Brook, that gurgled its way along Farmer Brown's meadow. Underneath the cool trees it was dank and mossy, and he flung himself down to rest, first carefully setting his precious pail up against a big stone.

"I'm just goin' to catch the biggest fish you ever saw, Joel Pepper," he exclaimed to himself, for want of company. "Yes sir-ree," untwisting the string which, for want of a fishing line, he had tied to his pole. "Then I guess, when Polly sees it, she'll be glad. Now I'll get the very juiciest worm in the pail." So he went to the pail, and was just leaning over to investigate its depths, when he heard voices.

Joel knew in a minute whose they were, and he tried to scrabble his things together and run and hide them in the thick bushes, when the boys to whom the voices belonged broke through the undergrowth on the other side of the brook.

"It's the Pepper boy," said one of them in an awful whisper. Then they stood still a minute, all three staring at each other. At last Joel picked up his pole and started to march away.

"Hold on," called one of the boys, the biggest and dirtiest, and he jumped across the brook. Joel went steadily along as well as he could for the vines and stubby trees, determined not to turn back for anybody's call, at any rate that dirty Jim Belden.

But Jim gave him no chance to think, and the first thing he knew, Joel was seized roughly by the shoulder. "Gimme them worms," and Jim tugged at the handle of the pail.

"I won't; they're my worms," screamed Joel, hanging on for dear life; "so there, now! you go right away. Polly dug 'em, Polly dug 'em," he kept saying. But the scuffle was short, as the other boy raced up, and pulled too, so that pretty soon Joel was tumbled heels over head, into the brook, and the pail was in the hands of the biggest boy, who cried out joyfully, "Oh, see what a lot! now we'll go up to th' 'Pool.'" This was a deep spot a half mile or so away, where the stream widened. Mrs. Pepper never allowed the two boys to go there, unless Ben could go too, which was seldom indeed, and only looked upon as a very great treat.

Joel burst out in a great passion, as soon as he could scramble out of the brook, "Give me back my pail!" and he looked so very fierce, although he was so small, that without another word the other two ran away as fast as they could. Joel plunged after them, angrier every minute, and instead of turning off to the "Pool," Jim and the other boy ran straight across Deacon Brown's field.

"Oh, now he'll catch 'em," thought Joel, joyfully, without a thought of giving up the race. There was a man off in the further corner of the field. "Mr. Br-own," screamed Joel, shrilly. "Mr. Br-own!"

Jim and the other boy, seeing their mistake, turned off to the undergrowth. "Hold on there!" commanded Deacon Brown, in a dreadful voice. So there was nothing to do but stop.

But when he got to the spot where they stood rooted to the ground, there were no worms in the pail, they having been jiggled out in the chase. So Joel had to go back, and pick up his pole with the string hanging to it, and carry that home and his empty pail. "But that Jim Belden didn't have the worms, anyway," he said, with great satisfaction.