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Chapter XIII: How the Outlaws Shot in King Harry's Tourney (Cont'd)
Forth he stood, planting his feet firmly, and wetting his fingers before plucking the string. For he was resolved to better his losing score of that day. And in truth he did so, for the shaft he loosed sped true, and landed on the black bull's-eye, though not in the exact center. Again he shot, and again he hit the black, on the opposite rim. The third shaft swerved downward and came within the second ring, some two fingers' breadths away. Nathless, a general cry went up, as this was the best shooting Clifton had done that day.
Will Scarlet was chosen to follow him, and now took his place and carefully chose three round and full-feathered arrows.
"Careful, my sweet coz!" quoth Robin in a low tone. "The knave has left wide space at the center for all of your darts."
But Robin gave Will the wrong caution, for over-much care spoiled his aim. His first shaft flew wide and lodged in the second ring even further away than the worst shot of Clifton.
"Your pardon, coz!" quoth Robin hastily. "Bid care go to the bottom of the sea, and do you loose your string before it sticks to your fingers!"
And Will profited by this hint, and loosed his next two shafts as freely as though they flew along a Sherwood glade. Each struck upon the bull's-eye, and one even nearer the center than his rival's mark. Yet the total score was adjudged in favor of Clifton. At this Will Scarlet bit his lip, but said no word, while the crowd shouted and waved yellow flags for very joy that the King's man had overcome the outlaw. They knew, also, that this demonstration would please the King.
The target was now cleared for the next two contestants—Geoffrey and Allan-a-Dale. Whereat, it was noticed that many ladies in the Queen's booths boldly flaunted Allan's colors, much to the honest pride which glowed in the cheeks of one who sat in their midst.
"In good truth," said more than one lady to Mistress Dale, "if thy husband can handle the longbow as skilfully as the harp, his rival has little show of winning!"
The saying augured well. Geoffrey had shot many good shafts that day; and indeed had risen from the ranks by virtue of them. But now each of his three shots, though well placed in triangular fashion around the rim of the bull's-eye, yet allowed an easy space for Allan to graze within. His shooting, moreover, was so prettily done, that he was right heartily applauded—the ladies and their gallants leading in the hand-clapping.
Now you must know that there had long been a friendly rivalry in Robin Hood's band as to who was the best shot, next after Robin himself. He and Will Stutely had lately decided their marksmanship, and Will had found that Robin's skill was now so great as to place the leader at the head of all good bowmen in the forest. But the second place lay between Little John and Stutely, and neither wished to yield to the other. So to-day they looked narrowly at their leader to see who should shoot third. Robin read their faces at a glance, and laughing merrily, broke off two straws and held them out.
"The long straw goes next!" he decided; and it fell to Stutely.
Elwyn the Welshman was to precede him; and his score was no whit better than Geoffrey's. But Stutely failed to profit by it. His besetting sin at archery had ever been an undue haste and carelessness. To-day these were increased by a certain moodiness, that Little John had outranked him. So his first two shafts flew swiftly, one after the other, to lodging places outside the Welshman's mark.
"Man! man!" cried Robin entreatingly, "you do forget the honor of the Queen, and the credit of Sherwood!"
"I ask your pardon, master!" quoth Will humbly enough, and loosing as he spoke his last shaft. It whistled down the course unerringly and struck in the exact center—the best shot yet made.