"I dwell by dale and down," quoth he,
"And Robin to take I'm sworn;
And when I am called by my right name,
I am Guy of good Gisborne."
Some weeks passed after the rescue of the widow's three sons; weeks spent by the Sheriff in the vain effort to entrap Robin Hood and his men. For Robin's name and deeds had come to the King's ears, in London town, and he sent word to the Sheriff to capture the outlaw, under penalty of losing his office. So the Sheriff tried every manner of means to surprise Robin Hood in the forest, but always without success. And he increased the price put upon Robin's head, in the hope that the best men of the kingdom could be induced to try their skill at a capture.
Now there was a certain Guy of Gisborne, a hireling knight of the King's army, who heard of Robin and of the price upon his head. Sir Guy was one of the best men at the bow and the sword in all the King's service. But his heart was black and treacherous. He obtained the King's leave forthwith to seek out the forester; and armed with the King's scroll he came before the Sheriff at Nottingham.
"I have come to capture Robin Hood," quoth he, "and mean to have him, dead or alive."
"Right gladly would I aid you," answered the Sheriff, "even if the King's seal were not sufficient warrant. How many men need you?"
"None," replied Sir Guy, "for I am convinced that forces of men can never come at the bold robber. I must needs go alone. But do you hold your men in readiness at Barnesdale, and when you hear a blast from this silver bugle, come quickly, for I shall have the sly Robin within my clutches."
"Very good," said the Sheriff. "Marry, it shall be done." And he set about giving orders, while Guy of Gisborne sallied forth disguised.
Now as luck would have it, Will Scarlet and Little John had gone to Barnesdale that very day to buy suits of Lincoln green for certain of the yeomen who had come out at the knees and elbows. But not deeming it best for both of them to run their necks into a noose, together, they parted just outside the town, and Will went within the gates, while John tarried and watched at the brow of the hill on the outside.
Presently whom should he see but this same Will flying madly forth from the gates again, closely pursued by the Sheriff and threescore men. Over the moat Will sprang, through the bushes and briars, across the swamp, over stocks and stones, up the woodland roads in long leaps like a scared jack rabbit. And after him puffed the Sheriff and his men, their force scattering out in the flight as one man would tumble head-first into a ditch, another mire up in the swamp, another trip over a rolling stone, and still others sit down on the roadside and gasp for wind like fish out of water.
Little John could not forbear laughing heartily at the scene, though he knew that 'twould be anything but a laughing matter if Will should stumble. And in truth one man was like to come upon him. It was William-a-Trent, the best runner among the Sheriff's men. He had come within twenty feet of Scarlet and was leaping upon him with long bounds like a greyhound, when John rose up quickly, drew his bow and let fly one of his fatal shafts. It would have been better for William-a-Trent to have been abed with sorrow—says the ballad—than to be that day in the greenwood slade to meet with Little John's arrow. He had run his last race.
The others halted a moment in consternation, when the shaft came hurtling down from the hill; but looking up they beheld none save Little John, and with a cry of fierce joy they turned upon him. Meanwhile Will Scarlet had reached the brow of the hill and sped down the other side.
"I'll just send one more little message of regret to the Sheriff," said Little John, "before I join Will."
But this foolhardy deed was his undoing, for just as the arrow left the string, the good yew bow that had never before failed him snapped in twain.
"Woe worth, woe worth thee, wicked wood, that ere thou grew on a tree!" cursed Little John, and planted his feet resolutely in the earth resolved to sell the path dearly; for the soldiers were now so close upon him that he dared not turn.
And a right good account of himself he gave that day, dealing with each man as he came up according to his merit. And so winded were the pursuers when they reached the top of the hill that he laid out the first ten of them right and left with huge blows of his brawny fist.
But if five men can do more than three, a score can overcome one.
A body of archers stood off at a prudent distance and covered Little John with their arrows.
"Now yield you!" panted the Sheriff. "Yield you, Little John, or Reynold Greenleaf, or whatever else name you carry this day! Yield you, or some few of these shafts will reach your heart!"
"Marry, my heart has been touched by your words ere now," said Little John; "and I yield me."
So the Sheriff's men laid hold of Little John and bound him fast with many cords, so fearful were they lest he should escape. And the Sheriff laughed aloud in glee, and thought of how he should avenge his stolen plate, and determined to make a good day's work of it.
"By the Saints!" he said, "you shall be drawn by dale and down, and hanged high on a hill in Barnesdale this very day."
"Hang and be hanged!" retorted the prisoner. "You may fail of your purpose if it be Heaven's will."
Back down the hill and across the moor went the company speedily, for they feared a rescue. And as they went the stragglers joined them. Here a man got up feebly out of the ditch and rubbed his pate and fell in like a chicken with the pip going for its dinner. Yonder came hobbling a man with a lame ankle, or another with his shins torn by the briars or another with his jacket all muddy from the marsh. So in truth it was a tatterdemalion crew that limped and straggled and wandered back into Barnesdale that day. Yet all were merry, for the Sheriff had promised them flagons of wine, and moreover they were to hang speedily the boldest outlaw in England, next to Robin Hood himself.
The gallows was quickly put up and a new rope provided.
"Now up with you!" commanded the Sheriff, "and let us see if your greenwood tricks will avail you to-morrow."
"I would that I had bold Robin's horn," muttered poor John; "methinks 'tis all up with me even as the Sheriff hath spoken."
In good sooth the time was dire and pressing. The rope was placed around the prisoner's neck and the men prepared to haul away.
"Are you ready?" called the Sheriff. "One—two—"
But before the "three" left his lips the faint sound of a silver bugle came floating over the hill.
"By my troth, that is Sir Guy of Gisborne's horn," quoth the Sheriff; "and he bade me not to delay answering its summons. He has caught Robin Hood."
"Pardon, Excellency," said one of his men; "but if he has caught Robin Hood, this is a merry day indeed. And let us save this fellow and build another gallows and hang them both together."
"That's a brave thought!" said the Sheriff slapping his knee. "Take the rascal down and bind him fast to the gallows-tree against our return."
So Little John was made fast to the gallows-tree, while the Sheriff and all his men who could march or hobble went out to get Robin Hood and bring him in for the double hanging.
Let us leave talking of Little John and the Sheriff, and see what has become of Robin Hood.
In the first place, he and Little John had come near having a quarrel that self-same morning because both had seen a curious looking yeoman, and each wanted to challenge him singly. But Robin would not give way to his lieutenant, and that is why John, in a huff, had gone with Will to Barnesdale.
Meanwhile Robin approached the curious looking stranger. He seemed to be a three-legged creature at first sight, but on coming nearer you would have seen that 'twas really naught but a poorly clad man, who for a freak had covered up his rags with a capul-hide, nothing more nor less than the sun-dried skin of a horse, complete with head, tail, and mane. The skin of the head made a helmet; while the tail gave the curious three-legged appearance.
"Good-morrow, good fellow," said Robin cheerily, "methinks by the bow you bear in your hand that you should be a good archer."
"Indifferent good," said the other returning his greeting; "but 'tis not of archery that I am thinking this morning, for I have lost my way and would fain find it again."
"By my faith, I could have believed 'twas your wits you'd lost!" thought Robin smiling. Then aloud: "I'll lead you through the wood," quoth he, "an you will tell me your business. For belike your speech is much gentler than your attire."
"Who are you to ask me my business?" asked the other roughly.
"I am one of the King's Rangers," replied Robin, "set here to guard his deer against curious looking strollers."
"Curious looking I may be," returned the other, "but no stroller. Hark ye, since you are a Ranger, I must e'en demand your service. I am on the King's business and seek an outlaw. Men call him Robin Hood. Are you one of his men?"—eyeing him keenly.
"Nay, God forbid!" said Robin; "but what want you with him?"
"That is another tale. But I'd rather meet with that proud outlaw than forty good pounds of the King's money."
Robin now saw how the land lay.
"Come with me, good yeoman," said he, "and belike, a little later in the day, I can show you Robin's haunts when he is at home. Meanwhile let us have some pastime under the greenwood tree. Let us first try the mastery at shooting arrows."
The other agreed, and they cut down two willow wands of a summer's growth that grew beneath a brier, and set them up at a distance of threescore yards.
"Lead on, good fellow," quoth Robin. "The first shot to you."
"Nay, by my faith," said the other, "I will follow your lead."
So Robin stepped forth and bent his bow carelessly and sent his shaft whizzing toward the wand, missing it by a scant inch. He of the horse-hide followed with more care yet was a good three-fingers' breadth away. On the second round, the stranger led off and landed cleverly within the small garland at the top of the wand; but Robin shot far better and clave the wand itself, clean at the middle.
"A blessing on your heart!" shouted Capul-Hide; "never saw I such shooting as that! Belike you are better than Robin Hood himself. But you have not yet told me your name."
"Nay, by my faith," quoth Robin, "I must keep it secret till you have told me your own."
"I do not disdain to tell it," said the other. "I dwell by dale and down, and to take bold Robin am I sworn. This would I tell him to his face, were he not so great a craven. When I am called by my right name, I am Guy of Gisborne."
This he said with a great show of pride, and he strutted back and forth, forgetful that he had just been beaten at archery.
Robin eyed him quietly. "Methinks I have heard of you elsewhere. Do you not bring men to the gallows for a living?"
"Aye, but only outlaws such as Robin Hood."
"But pray what harm has Robin Hood done you?"
"He is a highway robber," said Sir Guy, evading the question.
"Has he ever taken from the rich that he did not give again to the poor? Does he not protect the women and children and side with weak and helpless? Is not his greatest crime the shooting of a few King's deer?"
"Have done with your sophistry," said Sir Guy impatiently. "I am more than ever of opinion that you are one of Robin's men yourself."
"I have told you I am not," quoth Robin briefly. "But if I am to help you catch him, what is your plan?"
"Do you see this silver bugle?" said the other. "A long blast upon it will summon the Sheriff and all his men, when once I have Robin within my grasp. And if you show him to me, I'll give you the half of my forty pounds reward."
"I would not help hang a man for ten times forty pounds," said the outlaw. "Yet will I point out Robin to you for the reward I find at my sword's point. I myself am Robin Hood of Sherwood and Barnesdale."
"Then have at you!" cried the other springing swiftly into action. His sword leaped forth from beneath the horse's hide with the speed born of long practice, and before Robin had come to guard, the other had smitten at him full and foul. Robin eluded the lunge and drew his own weapon.
"A scurvy trick!" quoth he grimly, "to strike at a man unprepared."
Then neither spoke more, but fell sternly to work—lunge and thrust and ward and parry—for two full hours the weapons smote together sullenly, and neither Robin Hood nor Sir Guy would yield an inch. I promise you that if you could have looked forth on the fight from behind the trunk of some friendly tree, you would have seen deadly sport such as few men beheld in Sherwood Forest. For the fighters glared sullenly at each other, the fires of hatred burning in their eyes. One was fighting for his life; the other for a reward and the King's favor.
Still circled the bright blades swiftly in the air—now gleaming in the peaceful sunlight—again hissing like maddened serpents. Neither had yet touched the other, until Robin, in an unlucky moment, stumbled over the projecting root of a tree; when Sir Guy, instead of giving him the chance to recover himself, as any courteous knight would have done, struck quickly at the falling man and wounded him in the left side.
"Ah, dear Lady in Heaven," gasped Robin uttering his favorite prayer, "shield me now! 'Twas never a man's destiny to die before his day."
And adroitly he sprang up again, and came straight at the other with an awkward but unexpected stroke. The knight had raised his weapon high to give a final blow, when Robin reached beneath and across his guard. One swift lunge, and Sir Guy of Gisborne staggered backward with a deep groan, Robin's sword through his throat.
Robin looked at the slain man regretfully.
"You did bring it upon yourself," said he; "and traitor and hireling though you were, I would not willingly have killed you."
He looked to his own wound. It was not serious, and he soon staunched the blood and bound up the cut. Then he dragged the dead body into the bushes, and took off the horse's hide and put it upon himself. He placed his own cloak upon Sir Guy, and marked his face so none might tell who had been slain. Robin's own figure and face were not unlike the other's.
Pulling the capul-hide well over himself, so that the helmet hid most of his face, Robin seized the silver bugle and blew a long blast. It was the blast that saved the life of Little John, over in Barnesdale, for you and I have already seen how it caused the fond Sheriff to prick up his ears and stay the hanging, and go scurrying up over the hill and into the wood with his men in search of another victim.
In five-and-twenty minutes up came running a score of the Sheriff's best archers.
"Did you signal us, lording?" they asked, approaching Robin.
"Aye," said he, going to meet the puffing Sheriff.
"What news, what news, Sir Guy?" said that officer.
"Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne had a fight; and he that wears Robin's cloak lies under the covert yonder."
"The best news I have heard in all my life!" exclaimed the Sheriff rubbing his hands. "I would that we could have saved him for the hanging—though I cannot now complain."
"The hanging?" repeated Robin.
"Yes. This is our lucky day on the calendar. After you left me we narrowly missed running one of the fellows—I believe 'twas Will Scarlet—to earth; and another who came to his relief we were just about to hang, when your horn blew."
"Who was the other?" asked the disguised outlaw.
"Whom do you suppose?" laughed the Sheriff. "The best man in the greenwood, next to Robin Hood himself—Little John, Reynold Greenleaf!" For the Sheriff could not forget the name Little John had borne under his own roof at Nottingham.
"Little John!" thought Robin with a start. Verily that was a lucky blast of the bugle! "But I see you have not escaped without a scratch," continued the Sheriff, becoming talkative through pure glee. "Here, one of you men! Give Sir Guy of Gisborne your horse; while others of you bury that dog of an outlaw where he lies. And let us hasten back to Barnesdale and finish hanging the other."
So they put spurs to their horses, and as they rode Robin forced himself to talk merrily, while all the time he was planning the best way to succor Little John.
"A boon, Sheriff," he said as they reached the gates of the town.
"What is it, worthy sir? You have but to speak."
"I do not want any of your gold, for I have had a brave fight. But now that I have slain the master, let me put an end to the man; so it shall be said that Guy of Gisborne despatched the two greatest outlaws of England in one day."
"Have it as you will," said the Sheriff, "but you should have asked a knight's fee and double your reward, and it would have been yours. It isn't every man that can take Robin Hood." "No, Excellency," answered Robin. "I say it without boasting, that no man took Robin Hood yesterday and none shall take him to-morrow."
Then he approached Little John, who was still tied to the gallows-tree; and he said to the Sheriff's men, "Now stand you back here till I see if the prisoner has been shrived." And he stooped swiftly, and cut Little John's bonds, and thrust into his hands Sir Guy's bow and arrows, which he had been careful to take.
"'Tis I, Robin!" he whispered. But in truth, Little John knew it already, and had decided there was to be no hanging that day.
Then Robin blew three loud blasts upon his own horn, and drew forth his own bow; and before the astonished Sheriff and his men could come to arms the arrows were whistling in their midst in no uncertain fashion.
And look! Through the gates and over the walls came pouring another flight of arrows! Will Scarlet and Will Stutely had watched and planned a rescue ever since the Sheriff and Robin rode back down the hill. Now in good time they came; and the Sheriff's demoralized force turned tail and ran, while Robin and Little John stood under the harmless gallows, and sped swift arrows after them, and laughed to see them go.
Then they joined their comrades and hasted back to the good greenwood, and there rested. They had got enough sport for one day.