SHARING We encourage sharing--forward to a friend!
Chapter IV: How Little John Entered the Sheriff's Service
List and hearken, gentlemen, All ye that now be here, Of Little John, that was Knight's-man, Good mirth ye now shall hear.
It had come around another Fair day at Nottingham town, and folk crowded there by all the gates. Goods of many kinds were displayed in gaily colored booths, and at every cross-street a free show was in progress. Here and there, stages had been erected for the play at quarter-staff, a highly popular sport.
There was a fellow, one Eric of Lincoln, who was thought to be the finest man with the staff for miles around. His feats were sung about in ballads through all the shire. A great boaster was he withal, and to-day he strutted about on one of these corner stages, and vaunted of his prowess, and offered to crack any man's crown for a shilling. Several had tried their skill with Eric, but he had soon sent them spinning in no gentle manner, amid the jeers and laughter of the onlookers.
A beggar-man sat over against Eric's stage and grinned every time a pate was cracked. He was an uncouth fellow, ragged and dirty and unshaven. Eric caught sight of his leering face at one of his boasts—for there was a lull in the game, because no man else wanted to come within reach of Eric's blows. Eric, I say, noticed the beggar-man grinning at him rather impudently, and turned toward him sharply.
"How now, you dirty villain!" quoth he, "mend your manners to your betters, or, by our Lady, I'll dust your rags for you."
The beggar-man still grinned. "I am always ready to mend my manners to my betters," said he, "but I am afraid you cannot teach me any better than you can dust my jacket."
"Come up! Come up!" roared the other, flourishing his staff.
"That will I," said the beggar, getting up slowly and with difficulty. "It will pleasure me hugely to take a braggart down a notch, an some good man will lend me a stout quarter-staff."
At this a score of idlers reached him their staves—being ready enough to see another man have his head cracked, even if they wished to save their own—and he took the stoutest and heaviest of all. He made a sorry enough figure as he climbed awkwardly upon the stage, but when he had gained it, he towered full half a head above the other, for all his awkwardness. Nathless, he held his stick so clumsily that the crowd laughed in great glee.
Now each man took his place and looked the other up and down, watching warily for an opening. Only a moment stood they thus, for Eric, intent on teaching this rash beggar a lesson and sweeping him speedily off the stage, launched forth boldly and gave the other a sounding crack on the shoulder. The beggar danced about, and made as though he would drop his staff from very pain, while the crowd roared and Eric raised himself for another crushing blow. But just then the awkward beggar came to life. Straightening himself like a flash, he dealt Eric a back-handed blow, the like of which he had never before seen. Down went the boaster to the floor with a sounding thump, and the fickle people yelled and laughed themselves purple; for it was a new sight to see Eric of Lincoln eating dust.
But he was up again almost as soon as he had fallen, and right quickly retreated to his own ringside to gather his wits and watch for an opening. He saw instantly that he had no easy antagonist, and he came in cautiously this time.
And now those who stood around saw the merriest game of quarter-staff that was ever played inside the walls of Nottingham town. Both men were on their guard and fenced with fine skill, being well matched in prowess. Again and again did Eric seek to force an opening under the other's guard, and just as often were his blows parried. The beggar stood sturdily in his tracks contenting himself with beating off the attack. For a long time their blows met like the steady crackling of some huge forest fire, and Eric strove to be wary, for he now knew that the other had no mean wits or mettle. But he grew right mad at last, and began to send down blows so fierce and fast that you would have sworn a great hail-storm was pounding on the shingles over your head. Yet he never so much as entered the tall beggar's guard.
Then at last the stranger saw his chance and changed his tune of fighting. With one upward stroke he sent Eric's staff whirling through the air. With another he tapped Eric on the head; and, with a third broad swing, ere the other could recover himself, he swept him clear off the stage, much as you would brush a fly off the window pane.
Now the people danced and shouted and made so much ado that the shop-keepers left their stalls and others came running from every direction. The victory of the queer beggar made him immensely popular. Eric had been a great bully, and many had suffered defeat and insult at his hands. So the ragged stranger found money and food and drink everywhere at his disposal, and he feasted right comfortably till the afternoon.