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Chapter V: How the Sheriff Lost Three Good Servants and Found them Again (Cont'd)
Accordingly they set forth, Robin in his little butcher's cart, behind the lean mare, and the Sheriff mounted on a horse. Out of Nottingham town, through gates open wide, they proceeded, and took the hill road leading through Sherwood Forest. And as they went on and plunged deeper among the trees, Robin whistled blithely and sang snatches of tunes.
"Why are you so gay, fellow?" said the Sheriff, for, sooth to say, the silence of the woods was making him uneasy.
"I am whistling to keep my courage up," replied Robin.
"What is there to fear, when you have the Sheriff of Nottingham beside you?" quoth the other pompously.
Robin scratched his head.
"They do say that Robin Hood and his men care little for the Sheriff," he said.
"Pooh!" said the Sheriff. "I would not give that for their lives, if I could once lay hands upon them." And he snapped his fingers angrily. "But Robin Hood himself was on this very road the last time I came to town," said the other.
The Sheriff started at the crackling of a twig under his horse's feet, and looked around.
"Did you see him?" he asked.
"Aye, that did I! He wanted the use of this mare and cart to drive to Nottingham. He said he would fain turn butcher. But see!"
As he spoke he came to a turn in the road, and there before them stood a herd of the King's deer, feeding. Robin pointed to them and continued:
"There is my herd of cattle, good Master Sheriff! How do you like them? Are they not fat and fair to see?"
The Sheriff drew rein quickly. "Now fellow," quoth he, "I would I were well out of this forest, for I care not to see such herds as these, or such faces as yours. Choose your own way, therefore, whoever you be, and let me go mine."
"Nay," laughed Robin, seizing the Sheriff's bridle, "I have been at too much pains to cultivate your company to forego it now so easily. Besides I wish you to meet some of my friends and dine with me, since you have so lately entertained me at your board."
So saying he clapped a horn on his lips and winded three merry notes. The deer bounded away; and before the last of them was seen, there came a running and a rustling, and out from behind covert and tree came full twoscore of men, clad in Lincoln green, and bearing good yew bows in their hands and short swords at their sides. Up they ran to Robin Hood and doffed their caps to him respectfully, while the Sheriff sat still from very amazement.
"Welcome to the greenwood!" said one of the leaders, bending the knee with mock reverence before the Sheriff.
The Sheriff glared. It was Little John.
"Woe the worth, Reynold Greenleaf," he said, "you have betrayed me!"
"I make my vow," said Little John, "that you are to blame, master. I was misserved of my dinner, when I was at your house. But we shall set you down to a feast we hope you will enjoy."
"Well spoken, Little John," said Robin Hood. "Take you his bridle and let us do honor to the guest who has come to feast with us."
Then turning abruptly the whole company plunged into the heart of the forest.
After twisting and turning till the Sheriff's bewildered head sat dizzily upon his shoulders, the greenwood men passed through a narrow alley amid the trees which led to a goodly open space flanked by wide-spreading oaks. Under the largest of these a pleasant fire was crackling, and near it two fine harts lay ready for cooking. Around the blaze were gathered another company of yeomen quite as large as that which came with Robin Hood. Up sprang they as the latter advanced and saluted their leader with deference, but with hearty gladness to see him back again.
That merry wag Will Stutely was in command; and when he saw the palefaced Sheriff being led in like any culprit, he took his cloak and laid it humbly upon the ground and besought the Sheriff to alight upon it, as the ground of Sherwood was unused to such dignitaries.
"Bestir yourselves, good fellows!" cried Robin Hood; "and while our new cook, whom I see with us, is preparing a feast worthy of our high guest, let us have a few games to do him honor!"
Then while the whole glade was filled with the savory smell of roasting venison and fat capons, and brown pasties warmed beside the blaze, and mulled wine sent forth a cordial fragrance, Robin Hood placed the Sheriff upon a knoll beneath the largest oak and sat himself down by him.
First stepped forward several pairs of men armed with the quarter-staff, the widow's sons among them, and so skilfully did they thrust and parry and beat down guards, that the Sheriff, who loved a good game as well as any man, clapped his hands, forgetting where he was, and shouted, "Well struck! well struck! Never have I seen such blows at all the Fairs of Nottingham!"