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Chapter XIX: How the Sheriff Held Another Shooting Match (Cont'd)
The Sheriff thought he discovered, in the winner of the golden arrow, the person of Robin Hood without peradventure. So he sent word privately for his men-at-arms to close round the group. But Robin's men also got wind of the plan.
To keep up appearances, the Sheriff summoned the crowd to form in a circle; and after as much delay as possible the arrow was presented. The delay gave time enough for the soldiers to close in. As Robin received his prize, bowed awkwardly, and turned away, the Sheriff, letting his zeal get the better of his discretion, grasped him about the neck and called upon his men to arrest the traitor.
But the moment the Sheriff touched Robin, he received such a buffet on the side of his head that he let go instantly and fell back several paces. Turning to see who had struck him, he recognized Little John.
"Ah, rascal Greenleaf, I have you now!" he exclaimed springing at him. Just then, however, he met a new check.
"This is from another of your devoted servants!" said a voice which he knew to be that of Much the miller's son; and "Thwack!" went his open palm upon the Sheriff's cheek sending that worthy rolling over and over upon the ground.
By this time the conflict had become general, but the Sheriff's men suffered the disadvantage of being hampered by the crowd of innocent on-lookers, whom they could not tell from the outlaws and so dared not attack; while the other outlaws in the rear fell upon them and put them in confusion.
For a moment a fierce rain of blows ensued; then the clear bugle-note from Robin ordered a retreat. The two warders at the nearest gate tried to close it, but were shot dead in their tracks. David of Doncaster threw a third soldier into the moat; and out through the gate went the foresters in good order, keeping a respectful distance between themselves and the advancing soldiery, by means of their well-directed shafts.
But the fight was not to go easily this day, for the soldiery, smarting from their recent discomfiture at the widow's cottage, and knowing that the eyes of the whole shire were upon them, fought well, and pressed closely after the retreating outlaws. More than one ugly wound was given and received. No less than five of the Sheriff's men were killed outright, and a dozen others injured; while four of Robin's men were bleeding from severe flesh cuts.
Then Little John, who had fought by the side of his chief, suddenly fell forward with a slight moan. An arrow had pierced his knee. Robin seized the big fellow with almost superhuman strength.
Up he took him on his back, And bare him well a mile; Many a time he laid him down, And shot another while.
Meanwhile Little John grew weaker and closed his eyes; at last he sank to the ground, and feebly motioned Robin to let him lie. "Master Robin," said he, "have I not served you well, ever since we met upon the bridge?"
"Truer servant never man had," answered Robin.
"Then if ever you loved me, and for the sake of that service, draw your bright brown sword and strike off my head; never let me fall alive into the hand of the Sheriff of Nottingham."
"Not for all the gold in England would I do either of the things you suggest."
"God forbid!" cried Arthur-a-Bland, hurrying to the rescue. And packing his wounded kinsman upon his own broad shoulders, he soon brought him within the shelter of the forest.
Once there, the Sheriff's men did not follow; and Robin caused litters of boughs to be made for Little John and the other four wounded men. Quickly were they carried through the wood until the hermitage of Friar Tuck was reached, where their wounds were dressed. Little John's hurt was pronounced to be the most serious of any, but he was assured that in two or three weeks' time he could get about again; whereat the active giant groaned mightily.
That evening consternation came upon the hearts of the band. A careful roll-call was taken to see it all the yeomen had escaped, when it was found that Will Stutely was missing, and Maid Marian also was nowhere to be found. Robin was seized with dread. He knew that Marian had gone to the Fair, but felt that she would hardly come to grief. Her absence, however, portended some danger, and he feared that it was connected with Will Stutely. The Sheriff would hang him speedily and without mercy, if he were captured.
The rest of the band shared their leader's uneasiness, though they said no word. They knew that if Will were captured, the battle must be fought over again the next day, and Will must be saved at any cost. But no man flinched from the prospect.
That evening, while the Sheriff and his wife and daughter sat at meat in the Mansion House, the Sheriff boasted of how he would make an example of the captured outlaw; for Stutely had indeed fallen into his hands.
"He shall be strung high," he said, in a loud voice; "and none shall dare lift a finger. I now have Robin Hood's men on the run, and we shall soon see who is master in this shire. I am only sorry that we let them have the golden arrow."
As he spoke a missive sped through a window and fell clattering upon his plate, causing him to spring back in alarm.
It was the golden arrow, and on its feathered shaft was sewed a little note which read:
"This from one who will take no gifts from liars; and who henceforth will show no mercy. Look well to yourself. R.H."