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Chapter X: How A Beggar Filled the Public Eye (Cont'd)
While they gasped and choked and sputtered and felt around wildly for that rogue of a beggar, he finished the job by picking up the cloak by its corners and shaking it vigorously in the faces of his suffering victims. Then he seized a stick which lay conveniently near, and began to rain blows down upon their heads, shoulders, and sides, all the time dancing first on one leg, then on the other, and crying,
"Villains! rascals! here are the hundred pounds I promised. How do you like them? I' faith, you'll get all that's in the bag."
Whack! whack! whack! whack! went the stick, emphasizing each word. Howls of pain might have gone up from the sufferers, but they had too much meal in their throats for that. Their one thought was to flee, and they stumbled off blindly down the road, the beggar following them a little way to give them a few parting love-taps.
"Fare ye well, my masters," he said finally turning the other way; "and when next I come along the Barnesdale road, I hope you will be able to tell gold from meal dust!"
With this he departed, an easy victor, and again went whistling on his way, while the three outlaws rubbed the meal out of their eyes and began to catch their breath again.
As soon as they could look around them clearly, they beheld Robin Hood leaning against a tree trunk and surveying them smilingly. He had recovered his own spirits in full measure, on seeing their plight.
"God save ye, gossips!" he said, "ye must, in sooth, have gone the wrong way and been to the mill, from the looks of your clothes."
Then when they looked shamefaced and answered never a word, he went on, in a soft voice,
"Did ye see aught of that bold beggar I sent you for, lately?"
"In sooth, master," responded Much the miller's son, "we heard more of him than we saw him. He filled us so full of meal that I shall sweat meal for a week. I was born in a mill, and had the smell of meal in my nostrils from my very birth, you might say, and yet never before did I see such a quantity of the stuff in so small space."
And he sneezed violently.
"How was that?" asked Robin demurely.
"Why we laid hold of the beggar, as you did order, when he offered to pay for his release out of the bag he carried upon his back."
"The same I coveted," quoth Robin as if to himself.
"So we agreed to this," went on Much, "and spread a cloak down, and he opened his bag and shook it thereon. Instantly a great cloud of meal filled the air, whereby we could neither see nor breathe; and in the midst of this cloud he vanished like a wizard."
"But not before he left certain black and blue spots, to be remembered by, I see," commented Robin.
"He was in league with the evil one," said one of the widow's sons, rubbing himself ruefully.
Then Robin laughed outright, and sat him down upon the gnarled root of a tree, to finish his merriment.
"Four bold outlaws, put to rout by a sorry beggar!" cried he. "I can laugh at ye, my men, for I am in the same boat with ye. But 'twould never do to have this tale get abroad—even in the greenwood—how that we could not hold our own with the odds in our favor. So let us have this little laugh all to ourselves, and no one else need be the wiser!"
The others saw the point of this, and felt better directly, despite their itching desire to get hold of the beggar again. And none of the four ever told of the adventure.
But the beggar must have boasted of it at the next tavern; or a little bird perched among the branches of a neighboring oak must have sung of it. For it got abroad, as such tales will, and was put into a right droll ballad which, I warrant you, the four outlaws did not like to hear.