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Chapter IX: How the Widow's Three Sons Were Rescued (Cont'd)
The old widow threw herself on the ground and embraced his knees.
"'Tis dire danger I am asking ye to face," she said weeping; "and yet I knew your brave true heart would answer me. Heaven help ye, good Master Robin, to answer a poor widow's prayers!"
Then Robin Hood sped straightway to the forest-camp, where he heard the details of the skirmish—how that his men had been out-numbered five to one, but got off safely, as they thought, until a count of their members had shown the loss of the widow's three sons.
"We must rescue them, my men!" quoth Robin, "even from out the shadow of the rope itself!"
Whereupon the band set to work to devise ways and means.
Robin walked apart a little way with his head leaned thoughtfully upon his breast—for he was sore troubled—when whom should he meet but an old begging palmer, one of a devout order which made pilgrimages and wandered from place to place, supported by charity.
This old fellow walked boldly up to Robin and asked alms of him; since Robin had been wont to aid members of his order.
"What news, what news, thou foolish old man?" said Robin, "what news, I do thee pray?"
"Three squires in Nottingham town," quoth the palmer, "are condemned to die. Belike that is greater news than the shire has had in some Sundays."
Then Robin's long-sought idea came to him like a flash.
"Come, change thine apparel with me, old man," he said, "and I'll give thee forty shillings in good silver to spend in beer or wine."
"O, thine apparel is good," the palmer protested, "and mine is ragged and torn. The holy church teaches that thou should'st ne'er laugh an old man to scorn."
"I am in simple earnest, I say. Come, change thine apparel with mine. Here are twenty pieces of good broad gold to feast they brethren right royally."
So the palmer was persuaded; and Robin put on the old man's hat, which stood full high in the crown; and his cloak, patched with black and blue and red, like Joseph's coat of many colors in its old age; and his breeches, which had been sewed over with so many patterns that the original was scarce discernible; and his tattered hose; and his shoes, cobbled above and below. And while as he made the change in dress he made so many whimsical comments also about a man's pride and the dress that makes a man, that the palmer was like to choke with cackling laughter.
I warrant you, the two were comical sights when they parted company that day. Nathless, Robin's own mother would not have known him, had she been living.
The next morning the whole town of Nottingham was early astir, and as soon as the gates were open country-folk began to pour in; for a triple hanging was not held there every day in the week, and the bustle almost equated a Fair day.
Robin Hood in his palmer's disguise was one of the first ones to enter the gates, and he strolled up and down and around the town as though he had never been there before in all his life. Presently he came to the market-place, and beheld thereon three gallows erected.
"Who are these builded for, my son?" asked he of a rough soldier standing by.
"For three of Robin Hood's men," answered the other. "And it were Robin himself, 'twould be thrice as high I warrant ye. But Robin is too smart to get within the Sheriff's clutches again."
The palmer crossed himself.
"They say that he is a bold fellow," he whined.
"Ha!" said the soldier, "he may be bold enough out behind stumps i' the forest, but the open market-place is another matter."
"Who is to hang these three poor wretches?" asked the palmer.
"That hath the Sheriff not decided. But here he comes now to answer his own questions." And the soldier came to stiff attention as the Sheriff and his body-guard stalked pompously up to inspect the gallows.
"O, Heaven save you, worshipful Sheriff!" said the palmer. "Heaven protect you! What will you give a silly old man to-day to be your hangman?"
"Who are you, fellow?" asked the Sheriff sharply.
"Naught save a poor old palmer. But I can shrive their souls and hang their bodies most devoutly."
"Very good," replied the other. "The fee to-day is thirteen pence; and I will add thereunto some suits of clothing for that ragged back of yours."
"God bless ye!" said the palmer. And he went with the soldier to the jail to prepare his three men for execution.
Just before the stroke of noon the doors of the prison opened and the procession of the condemned came forth. Down through the long lines of packed people they walked to the market-place, the palmer in the lead, and the widow's three sons marching firmly erect between soldiers.