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Chapter I: How Robin Hood Became an Outlaw (Cont'd)
Two years passed by. Rob's cousin Will was away at school; and Marian's father, who had learned of her friendship with Rob, had sent his daughter to the court of Queen Eleanor. So these years were lonely ones to the orphaned lad. The bluff old Squire was kind to him, but secretly could make nothing of one who went about brooding and as though seeking for something he had lost. The truth is that Rob missed his old life in the forest no less than his mother's gentleness, and his father's companionship. Every time he twanged the string of the long bow against his shoulder and heard the gray goose shaft sing, it told him of happy days that he could not recall.
One morning as Rob came in to breakfast, his uncle greeted him with, "I have news for you, Rob, my lad!" and the hearty old Squire finished his draught of ale and set his pewter tankard down with a crash.
"What may that be, Uncle Gamewell?" asked the young man.
"Here is a chance to exercise your good long bow and win a pretty prize. The Fair is on at Nottingham, and the Sheriff proclaims an archer's tournament. The best fellows are to have places with the King's Foresters, and the one who shoots straightest of all will win for prize a golden arrow—a useless bauble enough, but just the thing for your lady love, eh, Rob my boy?" Here the Squire laughed and whacked the table again with his tankard.
Rob's eyes sparkled. "'Twere indeed worth shooting for, uncle mine," he said. "I should dearly love to let arrow fly alongside another man. And a place among the Foresters is what I have long desired. Will you let me try?"
"To be sure," rejoined his uncle. "Well I know that your good mother would have had me make a clerk of you; but well I see that the greenwood is where you will pass your days. So, here's luck to you in the bout!" And the huge tankard came a third time into play.
The young man thanked his uncle for his good wishes, and set about making preparations for the journey. He traveled lightly; but his yew bow must needs have a new string, and his cloth-yard arrows must be of the straightest and soundest.
One fine morning, a few days after, Rob might have been seen passing by way of Lockesley through Sherwood Forest to Nottingham town. Briskly walked he and gaily, for his hopes were high and never an enemy had he in the wide world. But 'twas the very last morning in all his life when he was to lack an enemy! For, as he went his way through Sherwood, whistling a blithe tune, he came suddenly upon a group of Foresters, making merry beneath the spreading branches of an oak-tree. They had a huge meat pie before them and were washing down prodigious slices of it with nut brown ale.
One glance at the leader and Rob knew at once that he had found an enemy. 'Twas the man who had usurped his father's place as Head Forester, and who had roughly turned his mother out in the snow. But never a word said he for good or bad, and would have passed on his way, had not this man, clearing his throat with a huge gulp, bellowed out: "By my troth, here is a pretty little archer! Where go you, my lad, with that tupenny bow and toy arrows? Belike he would shoot at Nottingham Fair! Ho! Ho!"
A roar of laughter greeted this sally. Rob flushed, for he was mightily proud of his shooting.
"My bow is as good as yours," he retorted, "and my shafts will carry as straight and as far. So I'll not take lessons of any of ye."
They laughed again loudly at this, and the leader said with frown:
"Show us some of your skill, and if you can hit the mark here's twenty silver pennies for you. But if you hit it not you are in for a sound drubbing for your pertness."
"Pick your own target," quoth Rob in a fine rage. "I'll lay my head against that purse that I can hit it."
"It shall be as you say," retorted the Forester angrily, "your head for your sauciness that you hit not my target."
Now at a little rise in the wood a herd of deer came grazing by, distant full fivescore yards. They were King's deer, but at that distance seemed safe from any harm. The Head Forester pointed to them.
"If your young arm could speed a shaft for half that distance, I'd shoot with you."
"Done!" cried Rob. "My head against twenty pennies I'll cause yon fine fellow in the lead of them to breathe his last."
And without more ado he tried the string of his long bow, placed a shaft thereon, and drew it to his ear. A moment, and the quivering string sang death as the shaft whistled across the glade. Another moment and the leader of the herd leaped high in his tracks and fell prone, dyeing the sward with his heart's blood.
A murmur of amazement swept through the Foresters, and then a growl of rage. He that had wagered was angriest of all.
"Know you what you have done, rash youth?" he said. "You have killed a King's deer, and by the laws of King Harry your head remains forfeit. Talk not to me of pennies but get ye gone straight, and let me not look upon your face again."
Rob's blood boiled within him, and he uttered a rash speech. "I have looked upon your face once too often already, my fine Forester. 'Tis you who wear my father's shoes."
And with this he turned upon his heel and strode away.
The Forester heard his parting thrust with an oath. Red with rage he seized his bow, strung an arrow, and without warning launched it full af' Rob. Well was it for the latter that the Forester's foot turned on a twig at the critical instant, for as it was the arrow whizzed by his ear so close as to take a stray strand of his hair with it. Rob turned upon his assailant, now twoscore yards away.
"Ha!" said he. "You shoot not so straight as I, for all your bravado. Take this from the tupenny bow!"
Straight flew his answering shaft. The Head Forester gave one cry, then fell face downward and lay still. His life had avenged Rob's father, but the son was outlawed. Forward he ran through the forest, before the band could gather their scattered wits—still forward into the great greenwood. The swaying trees seemed to open their arms to the wanderer, and to welcome him home.