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Chapter I: How Robin Hood Became an Outlaw (Cont'd)
Toward the close of the same day, Rob paused hungry and weary at the cottage of a poor widow who dwelt upon the outskirts of the forest. Now this widow had often greeted him kindly in his boyhood days, giving him to eat and drink. So he boldly entered her door. The old dame was right glad to see him, and baked him cakes in the ashes, and had him rest and tell her his story. Then she shook her head.
"'Tis an evil wind that blows through Sherwood," she said. "The poor are despoiled and the rich ride over their bodies. My three sons have been outlawed for shooting King's deer to keep us from starving, and now hide in the wood. And they tell me that twoscore of as good men as ever drew bow are in hiding with them."
"Where are they, good mother?" cried Rob. "By my faith, I will join them."
"Nay, nay," replied the old woman at first. But when she saw that there was no other way, she said: "My sons will visit me to-night. Stay you here and see them if you must."
So Rob stayed willingly to see the widow's sons that night, for they were men after his own heart. And when they found that his mood was with them, they made him swear an oath of fealty, and told him the haunt of the band—a place he knew right well. Finally one of them said:
"But the band lacks a leader—one who can use his head as well as his hand. So we have agreed that he who has skill enough to go to Nottingham, an outlaw, and win the prize at archery, shall be our chief."
Rob sprang to his feet. "Said in good time!" cried he, "for I had started to that self-same Fair, and all the Foresters, and all the Sheriff's men in Christendom shall not stand between me and the center of their target!"
And though he was but barely grown he stood so straight and his eye flashed with such fire that the three brothers seized his hand and shouted:
"A Lockesley! a Lockesley! if you win the golden arrow you shall be chief of outlaws in Sherwood Forest!"
So Rob fell to planning how he could disguise himself to go to Nottingham town; for he knew that the Foresters had even then set a price on his head in the market-place.
It was even as Rob had surmised. The Sheriff of Nottingham posted a reward of two hundred pounds for the capture, dead or alive, of one Robert Fitzooth, outlaw. And the crowds thronging the streets upon that busy Fair day often paused to read the notice and talk together about the death of the Head Forester.
But what with wrestling bouts and bouts with quarter-staves, and wandering minstrels, there came up so many other things to talk about, that the reward was forgotten for the nonce, and only the Foresters and Sheriff's men watched the gates with diligence, the Sheriff indeed spurring them to effort by offers of largess. His hatred of the father had descended to the son.
The great event of the day came in the afternoon. It was the archer's contest for the golden arrow, and twenty men stepped forth to shoot. Among them was a beggar-man, a sorry looking fellow with leggings of different colors, and brown scratched face and hands. Over a tawny shock of hair he had a hood drawn, much like that of a monk. Slowly he limped to his place in the line, while the mob shouted in derision. But the contest was open to all comers, so no man said him nay.
Side by side with Rob—for it was he—stood a muscular fellow of swarthy visage and with one eye hid by a green bandage. Him also the crowd jeered, but he passed them by with indifference while he tried his bow with practiced hand.
A great crowd had assembled in the amphitheater enclosing the lists. All the gentry and populace of the surrounding country were gathered there in eager expectancy. The central box contained the lean but pompous Sheriff, his bejeweled wife, and their daughter, a supercilious young woman enough, who, it was openly hinted, was hoping to receive the golden arrow from the victor and thus be crowned queen of the day.
Next to the Sheriff's box was one occupied by the fat Bishop of Hereford; while in the other side was a box wherein sat a girl whose dark hair, dark eyes, and fair features caused Rob's heart to leap. 'Twas Maid Marian! She had come up for a visit from the Queen's court at London town, and now sat demurely by her father the Earl of Huntingdon. If Rob had been grimly resolved to win the arrow before, the sight of her sweet face multiplied his determination an hundredfold. He felt his muscles tightening into bands of steel, tense and true. Yet withal his heart would throb, making him quake in a most unaccountable way.
Then the trumpet sounded, and the crowd became silent while the herald announced the terms of the contest. The lists were open to all comers. The first target was to be placed at thirty ells distance, and all those who hit its center were allowed to shoot at the second target, placed ten ells farther off. The third target was to be removed yet farther, until the winner was proved. The winner was to receive the golden arrow, and a place with the King's Foresters. He it was also who crowned the queen of the day.
The trumpet sounded again, and the archers prepared to shoot. Rob looked to his string, while the crowd smiled and whispered at the odd figure he cut, with his vari-colored legs and little cape. But as the first man shot, they grew silent.