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Chapter IX: How the Widow's Three Sons Were Rescued (Cont'd)
At the gallows foot they halted. The palmer whispered to them, as though offering last words of consolation; and the three men, with arms bound tightly behind their backs, ascended the scaffold, followed by their confessor.
Then Robin stepped to the edge of the scaffold, while the people grew still as death; for they desired to hear the last words uttered to the victims. But Robin's voice did not quaver forth weakly, as formerly, and his figure had stiffened bolt upright beneath the black robe that covered his rags.
"Hark ye, proud Sheriff!" he cried. "I was ne'er a hangman in all my life, nor do I now intend to begin that trade. Accurst be he who first set the fashion of hanging! I have but three more words to say. Listen to them!"
And forth from the robe he drew his horn and blew three loud blasts thereon. Then his keen hunting-knife flew forth and in a trice, Stout Will, Lester, and merry John were free men and had sprung forward and seized the halberds from the nearest soldiers guarding the gallows.
"Seize them! 'Tis Robin Hood!" screamed the Sheriff, "an hundred pounds if ye hold them, dead or alive!"
"I make it two hundred!" roared the fat Bishop.
But their voices were drowned in the uproar that ensued immediately after Robin blew his horn. He himself had drawn his sword and leaped down the stairs from the scaffold, followed by his three men. The guard had closed around them in vain effort to disarm them, when "A rescuer" shouted Will Stutely's clear voice on one side of them, and "A rescue!" bellowed Little John's on the other; and down through the terror-stricken crowd rushed fourscore men in Lincoln green, their force seeming twice that number in the confusion. With swords drawn they fell upon the guard from every side at once. There was a brief clash of hot weapons, then the guard scattered wildly, and Robin Hood's men formed in a compact mass around their leader and forced their way slowly down the market-place.
"Seize them! In the King's name!" shrieked the Sheriff. "Close the gates!"
In truth, the peril would have been even greater, had this last order been carried out. But Will Scarlet and Allan-a-Dale had foreseen that event, and had already overpowered the two warders.
So the gates stood wide open, and toward them the band of outlaws headed.
The soldiers rallied a force of twice their number and tried resolutely to pierce their center. But the retreating force turned thrice and sent such volleys of keen arrows from their good yew bows, that they kept a distance between the two forces.
And thus the gate was reached, and the long road leading up the hill, and at last the protecting greenwood itself. The soldiers dared come no farther. And the widow's three sons, I warrant you, supped more heartily that night than ever before in their whole lives.