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Chapter XX: How Will Stutely Was Rescued (Cont'd)
At last with a mighty onrush, Robin cleaved a way through the press to the scaffold itself, and not a second too soon; for two men with pikes had leaped upon the cart, and were in the act of thrusting down upon the palmer and Will Stutely. A mighty upward blow from Robin's good blade sent the pike flying from the hand of one, while a well-directed arrow from the outskirt pierced the other fellow's throat.
"God save you, master!" cried Will Stutely joyfully. "I had begun to fear that I would never see your face again."
"A rescue!" shouted the outlaws afresh, and the soldiery became fainthearted and 'gan to give back. But the field was not yet won, for they retreated in close order toward the East gate, resolved to hem the attackers within the city walls. Here again, however, they were in error, since the outlaws did not go out by their nearest gate. They made a sally in that direction, in order to mislead the soldiery, then abruptly turned and headed for the West gate, which was still guarded by Arthur-a-Bland.
The Sheriff's men raised an exultant shout at this, thinking they had the enemy trapped. Down they charged after them, but the outlaws made good their lead, and soon got through the gate and over the bridge which had been let down by Arthur-a-Bland.
Close upon their heels came the soldiers—so close, that Arthur had no time to close the gate again or raise the bridge. So he threw away his key and fell in with the yeomen, who now began their retreat up the long hill to the woods.
On this side the town, the road leading to the forest was long and almost unprotected. The greenwood men were therefore in some distress, for the archers shot at them from loop-holes in the walls, and the pikemen were reinforced by a company of mounted men from the castle. But the outlaws retreated stubbornly and now and again turned to hold their pursuers at bay by a volley of arrows. Stutely was in their midst, fighting with the energy of two; and the little palmer was there also, but took no part save to keep close to Robin's side and mutter silent words as though in prayer.
Robin put his horn to his lips to sound a rally, when a flying arrow from the enemy pierced his hand. The palmer gave a little cry and sprang forward. The Sheriff, who followed close with the men on horseback, also saw the wound and gave a great huzza.
"Ha! you will shoot no more bows for a season, master outlaw!" he shouted.
"You lie!" retorted Robin fiercely, wrenching the shaft from his hand despite the streaming blood; "I have saved one shot for you all this day. Here take it!"
And he fitted the same arrow, which had wounded him, upon the string of his bow and let it fly toward the Sheriff's head. The Sheriff fell forward upon his horse in mortal terror, but not so quickly as to escape unhurt. The sharp point laid bare a deep gash upon his scalp and must certainly have killed him if it had come closer.
The fall of the Sheriff discomfited his followers for the moment, and Robin's men took this chance to speed on up the hill. The palmer had whipped out a small white handkerchief and tried to staunch Robin's wound as they went. At sight of the palmer's hand, Robin turned with a start, and pushed back the other's hood.
"Marian!" he exclaimed, "you here!"
It was indeed Maid Marian, who had helped save Will, and been in the stress of battle from the first. Now she hung her head as though caught in wrong.
"I had to come, Robin," she said simply, "and I knew you would not let me come, else."
Their further talk was interrupted by an exclamation from Will Scarlet.
"By the saints, we are trapped!" he said, and pointed to the top of the hill, toward which they were pressing.
There from out a gray castle poured a troop of men, armed with pikes and axes, who shouted and came running down upon them. At the same instant, the Sheriff's men also renewed the pursuit.
"Alas!" cried poor Marian, "we are undone! There is no way of escape!"
"Courage, dear heart!" said Robin, drawing her close to him. But his own spirit sank as he looked about for some outlet.
Then—oh, joyful sight!—he recognized among the foremost of those coming from the castle the once doleful knight, Sir Richard of the Lea. He was smiling now, and greatly excited.
"A Hood! a Hood!" he cried; "a rescue! a rescue!" Never were there more welcome sights and sounds than these. With a great cheer the outlaws raced up the hill to meet their new friends; and soon the whole force had gained the shelter of the castle. Bang! went the bridge as it swung back, with great clanking of chains. Clash! went one great door upon the other, as they shut in the outlaw band, and shut out the Sheriff, who dashed up at the head of his men, his bandaged face streaked with blood and inflamed with rage.