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Chapter XI: How Robin Hood Fought Guy of Gisborne
"I dwell by dale and down," quoth he, "And Robin to take I'm sworn; And when I am called by my right name, I am Guy of good Gisborne."
Some weeks passed after the rescue of the widow's three sons; weeks spent by the Sheriff in the vain effort to entrap Robin Hood and his men. For Robin's name and deeds had come to the King's ears, in London town, and he sent word to the Sheriff to capture the outlaw, under penalty of losing his office. So the Sheriff tried every manner of means to surprise Robin Hood in the forest, but always without success. And he increased the price put upon Robin's head, in the hope that the best men of the kingdom could be induced to try their skill at a capture.
Now there was a certain Guy of Gisborne, a hireling knight of the King's army, who heard of Robin and of the price upon his head. Sir Guy was one of the best men at the bow and the sword in all the King's service. But his heart was black and treacherous. He obtained the King's leave forthwith to seek out the forester; and armed with the King's scroll he came before the Sheriff at Nottingham.
"I have come to capture Robin Hood," quoth he, "and mean to have him, dead or alive."
"Right gladly would I aid you," answered the Sheriff, "even if the King's seal were not sufficient warrant. How many men need you?"
"None," replied Sir Guy, "for I am convinced that forces of men can never come at the bold robber. I must needs go alone. But do you hold your men in readiness at Barnesdale, and when you hear a blast from this silver bugle, come quickly, for I shall have the sly Robin within my clutches."
"Very good," said the Sheriff. "Marry, it shall be done." And he set about giving orders, while Guy of Gisborne sallied forth disguised.
Now as luck would have it, Will Scarlet and Little John had gone to Barnesdale that very day to buy suits of Lincoln green for certain of the yeomen who had come out at the knees and elbows. But not deeming it best for both of them to run their necks into a noose, together, they parted just outside the town, and Will went within the gates, while John tarried and watched at the brow of the hill on the outside.
Presently whom should he see but this same Will flying madly forth from the gates again, closely pursued by the Sheriff and threescore men. Over the moat Will sprang, through the bushes and briars, across the swamp, over stocks and stones, up the woodland roads in long leaps like a scared jack rabbit. And after him puffed the Sheriff and his men, their force scattering out in the flight as one man would tumble head-first into a ditch, another mire up in the swamp, another trip over a rolling stone, and still others sit down on the roadside and gasp for wind like fish out of water.
Little John could not forbear laughing heartily at the scene, though he knew that 'twould be anything but a laughing matter if Will should stumble. And in truth one man was like to come upon him. It was William-a-Trent, the best runner among the Sheriff's men. He had come within twenty feet of Scarlet and was leaping upon him with long bounds like a greyhound, when John rose up quickly, drew his bow and let fly one of his fatal shafts. It would have been better for William-a-Trent to have been abed with sorrow—says the ballad—than to be that day in the greenwood slade to meet with Little John's arrow. He had run his last race.
The others halted a moment in consternation, when the shaft came hurtling down from the hill; but looking up they beheld none save Little John, and with a cry of fierce joy they turned upon him. Meanwhile Will Scarlet had reached the brow of the hill and sped down the other side.
"I'll just send one more little message of regret to the Sheriff," said Little John, "before I join Will."
But this foolhardy deed was his undoing, for just as the arrow left the string, the good yew bow that had never before failed him snapped in twain.
"Woe worth, woe worth thee, wicked wood, that ere thou grew on a tree!" cursed Little John, and planted his feet resolutely in the earth resolved to sell the path dearly; for the soldiers were now so close upon him that he dared not turn.
And a right good account of himself he gave that day, dealing with each man as he came up according to his merit. And so winded were the pursuers when they reached the top of the hill that he laid out the first ten of them right and left with huge blows of his brawny fist.
But if five men can do more than three, a score can overcome one.
A body of archers stood off at a prudent distance and covered Little John with their arrows.
"Now yield you!" panted the Sheriff. "Yield you, Little John, or Reynold Greenleaf, or whatever else name you carry this day! Yield you, or some few of these shafts will reach your heart!"
"Marry, my heart has been touched by your words ere now," said Little John; "and I yield me."
So the Sheriff's men laid hold of Little John and bound him fast with many cords, so fearful were they lest he should escape. And the Sheriff laughed aloud in glee, and thought of how he should avenge his stolen plate, and determined to make a good day's work of it.
"By the Saints!" he said, "you shall be drawn by dale and down, and hanged high on a hill in Barnesdale this very day."
"Hang and be hanged!" retorted the prisoner. "You may fail of your purpose if it be Heaven's will."
Back down the hill and across the moor went the company speedily, for they feared a rescue. And as they went the stragglers joined them. Here a man got up feebly out of the ditch and rubbed his pate and fell in like a chicken with the pip going for its dinner. Yonder came hobbling a man with a lame ankle, or another with his shins torn by the briars or another with his jacket all muddy from the marsh. So in truth it was a tatterdemalion crew that limped and straggled and wandered back into Barnesdale that day. Yet all were merry, for the Sheriff had promised them flagons of wine, and moreover they were to hang speedily the boldest outlaw in England, next to Robin Hood himself.