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IT was daybreak. A bitter wind blew down the forest ways, tearing the few remaining leaves from the wintry trees, and driving those upon the ground in great wreaths and eddies into nooks and corners. The dawn came with dull, low light over the forest and seemed never to penetrate some of the deeper places, where the thickets of holly grew closer, or the bearded gray moss on giant oaks grew long.

Will of Stuteley, as he walked along a path, looked keenly this way and that into the gloomy tunnels on either side, for during the last three days he had seen a man, dressed as a palmer, lurking and glancing in a very unpalmer-like manner, just about this place, which the outlaws called Black Wood. Will was warmly dressed in a long brown capote, or cloak, which reached almost to his feet, with a hood which covered his head.

The first snows of the winter had already fallen, and most of Robin Hood's band had gone into their winter quarters. While frost and snow lay over the land, there was little traveling done in those days, and therefore a great part of the outlaws had gone to live with kinsmen or poor cottars in out-of-the-way places either in the forest or in villages not far distant. For a time they would dress as peasants, help in the little work that was done, and with this and what animals they trapped or caught, pay for their warmth and shelter until the spring came again.

Robin, with about a dozen of his principal men, lodged either in the secret caves which were to be found in many places through the wide forests, or, sometimes, one or other of the well-to-do forest yeomen, such as Piers the Lucky, Alan-a-Dale's foster brother, would invite Robin and his twelve to stay the winter in his hall. This year Sir Walter de Beauforest had invited him to pass the winter at a grange, or fortified barn, which lay in the forest not far from Sir Walter's manor-house at Cromwell, where Alan-a-Dale and his wife, the fair Alice, now lived in great happiness.

Robin had accepted Sir Waiter's invitation, but if the weather was open he never stayed long in one place, and now he was living in a secret bower which he and his men had made at Barrow Down, which lay a few miles east of Mansfield, in a desolate piece of country where were many standing stones, old earthworks and barrows, or graves of the ancient dead. It was in one of these latter that Robin and his men now lived, for they had scooped out the interior of it and made it snug and habitable.

Every morning Will Stuteley and others of the band, having broken their fast in the Barrow, would walk out over a certain distance round their place of hiding, to find whether there were any traces of their enemies having approached during the last few hours. The ground was scanned for strange footmarks, the bushes and trees for broken twigs, and the outlaws were as keen-sighted as Indians, and as experienced in all the sights and sounds which should show them whether strangers had been in the neighborhood during the hours of the night.

Suddenly Will stopped in the path down which he walked and looked at the ground. Then, after a keen glance round among the hazels and young oaks which grew near, he knelt and examined a little hollow where in the springtime storm water would run. There was the distinct mark of a slender foot in the yielding earth. He looked further and found two others of the same marks. They were quite freshly made, for the edges were keenly shown. Indeed, he felt sure that the person who had passed that way could not be far off. But who was it? The marks were those of a young lad or even of a girl. Whoever it was, the person was poor, for he could see marks which showed that the sole of one shoe was broken badly.

Stealthily he crept along, picking up the trail here and there. He had proceeded thus some fifty yards, finding that the footsteps led deep among some brambles, when all at once he stopped and listened. He heard a low sobbing somewhere in among the thickest part of the bushes. Very carefully he stole in the direction of the sound, making no noise, until as he turned about a tall hazel-tree he saw the figure of a girl a little way before him. She was picking berries from the bramble before her, and placing them in an old worn straw poke or basket which she carried.

As she plucked the berries she wept. Will could see the tears falling down her cheeks, yet it was with restraint that she sobbed, as if she feared to be heard. He saw how her hands were torn and bleeding from the brambles, and that her feet, pushed into her shoes, were uncovered and were blue with the frost.

He made a movement. She turned at the noise, her eyes wide with terror, her face white. Crushing the basket to her breast, she came and threw herself at the feet of Will.

"Oh," she said in a weak, pitiable voice, "slay me now, and do not seek my father! Slay me, and look no further! He is nigh to death and cannot speak!"

Her tears were stayed now, her hands were clasped and raised in appeal, and in the childish face, so thin and wan, was a look that seemed to say that the child had known a terrible sorrow and now looked for nothing but death. She was a Jewess, as Will was quick to note.

The honest woodman smiled, as being the quickest way to cheer the girl. It went to the old outlaw's heart to see such sorrow in the child's eyes and voice.

"My little lass," he said in his kindly voice, "I mean thee no harm. Why should I harm thee, clemmed with the cold as thou art? And why art thou culling those berries? Thy poor starved body craves better food than that."

He took her hands and lifted her up, and the child looked at him bewildered and dazed, as if she did not realize that kind words had been spoken where she had looked for brutal speech and action. She peered into Will's face and her looks softened.

"You — you are not — you do not know the man — the man Maibite!" she stammered.

"Malbęte?" said Will, and frowned. He remembered what Robin had told them of this man, and had heard from wandering men of other crimes and cruelties which this robber and murderer had committed. "Poor lass," he said; "is that wretch thy enemy, too?"

"Yes, sir, of my poor father?" said the girl, and her voice trembled. "My father fled from the massacre of our people at York — thou knowest of it?"

"Ay," said Will, and his brow became black and his eyes flashed in anger at the memory of the dreadful deed, when many innocent Jews had been baited by evil knights and the rabble, and having shut themselves up in the castle, had killed their wives and children and afterward themselves rather than fall into the hands of the "Christians." 

"What happened to thee and thy father?" asked Will.

"We hid in the castle until all the slaying was over," replied the girl, "and then a kindly man did get us forth and we fled secretly. My father wished to go to Nottingham, where there are some of our race who would aid us if they knew we were in need, but we have starved through these forests, and O sir, if you are a good man as you appear, save my father! He lies near here, and I fear — I fear whether — help may not be too late. But, oh, betray US not!"

"Take me to him, poor lass," said Will, and his kindly tone and look dissipated whatever suspicion still lingered in the heart of the poor little Jewess.

She led the way through the almost impenetrable bushes until they reached a chalky cliff, and here in a large cave, the opening of which was screened by hazel thickets, she showed him her father, an old and white-haired man, dressed in a poor gabardine torn by brambles and soiled by mire, lying on some bracken. The girl stood trembling as she looked from Will to her father and back again, as if, even now, she dreaded that she may have betrayed her dearest possession into the hands of a cruel enemy.

The old man awakened at their entry, opened his eyes, and in an instant the girl was on her knees beside him, her hands stroking his, and her eyes looking fondly into his face.

"Ah, little Ruth," said the old man, gazing fondly into her eyes, "I fear, dear, I cannot rise just yet. I am stiff, but it will pass soon, it will pass. And then we will go on. We shall reach the town in a few hours, and then my little Ruth will have food and fitting raiment. Your cheeks are pale and thin, dear, for you have hungered and suffered. But soon — ah, but whom have we here? Who is this? O Ruth, Ruth, are we betrayed?"

In the gloom of the cave he had not at first noticed the outlaw, and the despair with which he uttered the last few words showed with what terror his mind was filled for his daughter's sake. Will felt that this was a brave old man who would not reveal the suffering he felt to his daughter, but though he was himself very sick, yet buoyed up her courage.

"Have no fear, master," said Will, bending down on one knee, so that his eyes looked into the old Jew's face. "If I can aid thee and thy daughter I will gladly do so."

"I thank thee, woodman," said the Jew, and his voice trembled; "it is not for myself I fear, but for this my little maid, my one ewe lamb. She hath suffered sights and woes such as no child should see or know, and if she were safe I would be content."

Tears fell down the poor old Jew's face. In his present state of starvation and weakness he felt that he had not long to live; but the greatest anguish was to think that if he died his little daughter would be left desolate and friendless.

"What ye both need," said Will, his homely mind grasping the situation at once, "is food and warmth. I can give ye a little food now, but for warmth I must ask the counsel of my master."

Saying which, Will drew forth from his food-pouch some slices of bread and venison, which he gave to the girl, bidding her eat sparingly. But the girl instantly began to cut up the bread and meat into tiny pieces, and with these she fed her father before she touched the food herself. Though both she and her father had had little food for two days, they ate now with great restraint and very slowly.

Afterward Will offered them his pilgrim's leather flask, and when they had drunk some of the good wine which it contained, it was a joy to see how their eyes brightened, and their cheeks began to redden.

"Little Ruth," said the old man, when they had returned the flask to Will, "help me to get upon my knees."

When this had been done, with the aid of the outlaw, the girl also knelt, and to Will's great discomfiture, the Jew began to pray very fervently, giving thanks to God for having brought to them him that had delivered them out of death and misery. He called down such blessings on the head of Will the Bowman that the worthy fellow, for all that the light in the cave was but meagre, did not know where to look. When they had finished, Ruth seized the outlaw's hand and kissed it again and again while the tears poured down her cheeks, but her heart was too full to say a word of all the gratitude she felt.

"Now," said Will gruffly, "enough of these thanks and tears. Ye must bide here while I go to take counsel of my master what is best to be done."

"Who is thy master, brave woodman?" asked the Jew. "He is Robin Hood," replied Will.

"I have heard of him as a good man," said the old man. "Though an outlaw, he hath more pity and justice, as I hear tell, than many of those who are within the law. Do ye go to him, good outlaw," he went on, "with the greeting of Reuben of Stamford, and say that if he will aid me to get to my kinsmen of Nottingham, he shall have the gratitude of me and my people forever, and our aid wherever he shall desire it."

The old Jew spoke with dignity, as if used to giving commands, and Will answered:

"I will tell him; but if he aids thee 'twill be for no hope of thy gratitude or thy gold, but because it is always in his heart to help those in wretchedness."

"Bravely and proudly spoken, sir outlaw," said Reuben; "and if thy master is as kindly as thou art, I know he will not leave us to starve and perish miserably."

Will thereupon set off back to Barrow Down, and arriving at the big mound wherein the outlaws dwelled, he found Robin there and told him of the Jew.

"Thou hast done rightly, Will," said the outlaw. "Go thou with two horses and bring the Jew and his daughter to the Lyncher Lodge hereby, and I will question them concerning this ruffian, Richard Illbeast. I have heard of his evil deeds at York, and I think he is not far from Nottingham."

It was done as Robin had commanded, and Reuben and Ruth were lodged in a secret hut on the slope of Wearyall Hill, not far from where the outlaws were staying. Both father and daughter were very weak, and the old Jew was much wasted as the result of his sufferings, but with generous food and the warmth of good clothes and a huge fire, a few days saw them stronger in health and better in spirits. Their gratitude to Robin was unbounded, but it was expressed more by their shining eyes than by words.

When the old man felt stronger Robin asked him to tell how he had fallen into the wretched state in which Will Stuteley had found him, and Reuben willingly complied.

"Thou hast heard, doubtless, good outlaw," said the Jew, "that when the great and brave King Richard was crowned at Westminster last autumn, the rabble of that great city did turn upon the Jews and sack their houses and slay some of my poor people. And your king did punish the ringleaders of the mob who slew and robbed our people, by hanging some and branding others with hot irons. But when, a short month ago, he left the country with his knights and a great army, to go to Palestine upon the Crusade, thou knowest that in many towns the rioting against us began again. Many knights and lords were gathering to depart for the Crusade and a those who are here with me have slain themselves and their families," replied Ephraim. "Then die thou likewise!" said Illbeast, and at the words the rabble slew the kneeling Jews and spared not one. Then the mob poured into the castle, and we lay expecting every moment to be found and dragged forth. After some time they left the castle and rushed away to the cathedral where, as thou knowest, the king keeps the records of the loans made by my people to the Christians in those parts, and those parchments they burned utterly, so that now Alberic of Wisgar and the other evil knights are free of all their debts."

"How got you free?" asked Little John, who, with Will the Bowman, Scarlet and Arthur-a-Bland, were listening with Robin Hood.

"God, in answer to our prayers, softened the heart of a man-at-arms, who discovered us, but would not betray us for pity of our sufferings. He got food for us and soldiers' cloaks to disguise us, and on the second night he took us and let us out of the town by a privy gate, and directed us on our road to Nottingham."

"Know you what befell those ruffian knights and robbers?'' asked Robin.

"The soldier, whom God reward for his noble heart," said the old man, "told us that all had fled the town fearing the anger of the king's officers. The knights had quickly gone forward to the Crusade, while of the rabble and the robbers some had fled to Scotland or taken to the forests, and others lay hid in the town. And he said further that the king's justices would visit the ill-doing heavily upon the town, and that already the sheriff and principal merchants were quaking for fear. And now, sir outlaw," continued Reuben, "I have a boon to ask of thee. I have a daughter and a son in Nottingham, to whom we were hastening. They grieve for us as dead, and I would crave that you let one of your men go to their house and tell them that we are safe, and that we will be with them when it shall please you to let us go, and I am strong enough to set forth."

"Surely," said Robin, "that shall be done. Who will go of you and take the message to the Jew's people? What do you say, Will, as 'twas you who found them?"

"I will go with a good will," said Will Stuteley. "Give me thy message and tell me where I may find thy kinsfolk, and I will set out forthwith."

Both Reuben and Ruth were warm in their thanks, and having given Will the necessary directions and messages, Will departed to dress himself in a disguise which would prevent his being recognized by any of the citizens who may have seen him when they had been required to pay toll to the outlaws when passing through the forest.

That afternoon, therefore, a pilgrim in his long dark robe, his feet in ragged shoes, a scallop shell on his bonnet and a stout staff in his hand, might have been seen passing through Bridlesmith postern gate an hour before sunset, when the gates would close for the night. He took his way through the streets with a slow stride as befitted a pilgrim who had traveled far and was weary.

Will the Bowman did not think that there was any likelihood of his being recognized in his disguise, but though he seemed to keep his eyes bent humbly to the ground, he looked about keenly now and then to pick up landmarks, so as to know that he was going the right way to the house of Silas ben Reuben, one of the chief men in the Jewry of Nottingham, to whom he was to take the message from the old Jew.

At length Will entered the street of the Jewry, and began counting the number of doors from the corner, as he had been told to do by Reuben, since he was not to excite attention by asking any one for the house. The outlaw noticed that while several of the house doors were open, through which he could see women at work and children playing, others were fast locked and their shutters closed, as if the dwellers feared that what had happened to the Jews in other towns might happen to them also.

When at length he came to the ninth house, he knocked at the door, which was barred, and waited.

A wicket in the door was opened and a man's dark eyes peered out.

"What is it thou wantest?" was asked.

"I wish to see Siles ben Reuben," replied Will; "I have a message for him."

"What secret words or sign hast thou that thou art not a traitor, who would do to me and mine as has been done to others of our people?" came the stem reply through the wicket.

"I say to thee these words," went on the outlaw, and said certain Hebrew words which he had been told by Reuben.

Instantly the face disappeared from the wicket, bolts were drawn and the door swung open. "Enter, friend," said the Jew, a short, sturdily built man. The outlaw entered and the door was barred behind him. Then theJew led him into an inner room, and turning said:"I am he whom thou seekest. Say on."

"I come to tell thee," said the outlaw; "that thy father, Reuben of Stamford, and thy sister Ruth, are safe and well."

"Now, thanks be to God," said the man, and clasping his hands, he bowed his head and murmured words of prayer in some foreign tongue.

"Tell me how thou didst learn this," he said when he had finished his prayer; "and where they are, and how soon I may see them?"

Thereupon the outlaw told Silas the Jew the whole story of his discovery of little Ruth and her father, and of their sufferings as related by the old man. When he had finished the Jew thanked him for his kindness to Reuben and Ruth, and then went into another room. When he returned he bore in his hand a rich baldrick or belt, of green leather, with a pattern worked upon it of pearls and other precious stones.

"Thy kindness is beyond recompense," he said; "but I would have thee accept this from me as a proof of my thanks to thee."

"I thank thee, Jew," said Will, "but 'tis too rich a gift for me. It befits my master more. But if thou wouldst make a gift to me, give me a Spanish knife if thou hast one, for they are accounted of the best temper and make throughout Christendom."

"I will willingly give thy master this baldrick if he will take it of me," said the Jew, "and thou shalt have the best Spanish knife in my store."

He thereupon fetched such a knife and presented it to the outlaw, who tried the keen blade, and found that it was of the finest make.

It was becoming dark now, and the outlaw wished if possible to leave the town before the gates were shut. Arrangements, however, had to be settled with the Jew as to how and when he would send horses and men to meet Reuben and Ruth at a spot where Robin Hood and his men would take them from their present hiding-place. It was quite dark by the time all things were settled, and the Jew wished Will to stay the night with him, saying there was no one else in the house with him, as he had sent his wife, his sister and his children into a place of greater safety for fear of the rabble.

"I thank thee, Jew," said the outlaw; "but I would liefer sleep at a place I wot of, which is near the gate, so that I may slip out of the town at the break of day when they first open."

As the outlaw went along the narrow street of the Jewry after leaving the house of Silas, two men walking together passed him silently, looking at him furtively. They did not seem to have the dress of Jews, and he wondered at the silence of their footsteps. He slowed his own steps to allow them to get further ahead of him, but they also went more slowly, and kept at the distance of six paces before him. One of them looked swiftly behind from time to time. He knew then that they watched him, and that either because they knew he was of Robin's band, or because he had visited the Jew's house, they meant harm to him.

As he thought thus, he gripped the haft of his Spanish knife and stopped, determined to sell his life dearly if they also stopped and turned round upon him. At the same moment he felt a hand upon his arm, and a voice whispered in his ear:

"Friend of Silas ben Reuben, the spies dog thee. Come with me."

The outlaw saw a dark form beside him. A door opened noiselessly, and Will was pulled into what seemed to be a narrow winding passage. Along this the hand upon his arm led him for several yards until suddenly he felt the night air blowing upon his face, and he looked up and saw the stars.

"Go to the left," said the same voice in his ears; "'twill lead thee to the Fletcher Gate." "I thank thee, friend," said Will, and strode to the left.

A few steps took him into the narrow street which led to the gate named, and Will Stuteley hurried forward, thankful that by the aid of the unknown Jew he had been saved from capture. Without further delay the outlaw went to an inn which overlooked the town wall, and whose landlord asked no questions of his customers. There in the common room Will partook of a frugal supper, and then, ascending to the sleeping-chamber, a large room on the first floor where all the lodgers of the house would sleep when they sought repose, he threw himself in a corner on the straw which covered the floor and was soon sound asleep.

As time went on, others came up from the room below, found suitable places along the wall and composed themselves to sleep. Stuteley awoke as each came up, but having glanced at the newcomer by the light of the rush light which, stuck in a rough tin holder on one wall, gave a dim light about the apartment, he turned and slept again. Very soon the room became almost full, and the later comers had to step over the prostrate forms of snoring men to find places where they could sleep.

After a time, however, the house became quiet; no more men came up into the sleeping-room and the house seemed sunk in slumber. The wind moaned a little outside the house and crooned in the slits of the shutter at a window hole, and sometimes a sleeper would murmur or talk in his sleep with thick almost unintelligible words, or fling his arm about as if in a struggle, or groan as if in pain. The street without was dark and silent, cats slunk in the gutter which ran down the middle of the street, or a stray dog, padding through the streets, would come to a comer, sniff the wind and howl.

Before the first glint of dawn had showed itself in the cold street, Stuteley was awake. He loved not houses; their roofs seemed to press upon him, and when in the forest he was wont to issue from the bower or the hut in which he slept, and to walk out from time to time to look at the sky, to smell the odor of the forest, and to listen to the murmur of the wind in the sleeping trees. As he lay there in the dark he longed to be up and away in the cool air of the forest. He cautiously rose, therefore, and feeling his way over the sleeping men, he made his way to the door, where a ladder of rough wooden steps led to the room below.

As he strove to open the door he found that a man's body lay before it. He stirred him gently with his foot, thinking that the man would understand that he wished to open the door and would seek another place.

"A murrain on thee, fellow," came a voice beside the outlaw. "Why so early astir? The town gate will not open till I am there. Are ye some thief that seek to flee the city before men are about?"

"No thief am I," said Stuteley; "I am but a poor pilgrim who must fare to the holy shrine at Walsingham. And as I have far to go I must needs be early astir."

By this time the man before the door had risen and had himself opened the door and stood at the head of the stairs. Stuteley followed him and waited for him to descend, for the stairs were not wide enough for two men to pass. The man who had spoken also came forth, and in the faint dawn they glanced keenly at the outlaw. They were sturdy fellows and were dressed in sober tunic and hose, as if they were the servants of a well-to-do burgher.

"A pilgrim art thou?" said the one who had spoken already. He laughed in a scornful manner as he looked at Stuteley up and down. "A pilgrim's robe often covers a rogue's body."

Saying this he gestured to the stairs and Stuteley hastened to descend, feeling that he would better serve his purpose by appearing to be harmless than to answer with a bold speech. The other men followed closely upon his heels and all three entered the living room together. Two men sat at a table, and at sight of the two others behind Stuteley they rose and advanced. The foremost, a big man with a villainous cruel look, and the scar of an old wound across his cheek, came forward and said: "Who have you there?"

"A pilgrim, captain, as he doth declare himself." Stuteley saw that he had been caught. His hand leaped to his belt, but at the first movement the two men behind him had gripped his arms.

"Show his left hand," cried the captain — "that will show whether this pilgrim knows not another trade! Ah, I thought so!" he went on, as one of them thrust forth Stuteley's left hand, the forefinger of which showed where a corn or hardening had grown by reason of the arrow shot from the bow rubbing against the flesh. "This is our man — one of that ruffian Robin's band!"

Quick as thought the outlaw wrenched himself free and darted toward the door. He hoped that he might be swift enough to lift up the bar and dash out; but they were too quick for him. Even as he raised the heavy beam which rested in a socket on each side of the door, the four men were upon him. Still holding the bar, he swept round upon them and sent one man crashing to the floor, where he lay senseless. Then, using the beam as a weapon, he beat the others back for a moment. Suddenly, however, the big captain got behind one of his own men, and catching him by the shoulder, he thrust him against Stuteley. Down came the beam on the man's head, stretching him senseless; but before the outlaw could recover himself, the captain and the other man had rushed upon him and overpowered him, holding him down on the floor.

The landlord, roused by the noise, came rushing in, and the captain commanded him to bring ropes. Now the landlord knew Will Stuteley, who had often stayed in his house disguised as a beggar or a palmer, and felt very grieved that one of bold Robin Hood's band should be taken by the sheriff's men. He therefore affected to be very distraught, and ran about from place to place, pretending to look for rope, hoping that somehow Will might be able to get up if he were given time, and break away from his captors.

But it was all in vain. "A murrain on thy thick wits!" yelled the captain from where he kneeled holding one of Will's arms. "If thou findest not ropes in a twinkling, thou rogue, the sheriff shall hear of it."

"Oh, good captain!" cried the landlord, "I am all mazed, and know not where anything is. I be not used to these deeds of man-taking, for my house was ever a quiet one."

Seeing that it was no use to delay longer, the landlord found some rope, and soon Will's arms were strongly bound. While this was being done, the landlord managed to give a big meaning wink to the outlaw, by which he gave Will to know that he would be his friend and would send tidings of his capture to Robin. Then Will was jerked to his feet, and with mocking words was led off to prison.

The landlord sent a man to the forest as soon as the town gates were open. It was late in the day ere he fell in with one of Robin's band, and he told the outlaw, who happened to be Kit the Smith, how Will had been taken, but had slain two men with a door beam before he was overpowered. When Kit the Smith had brought the man to where Robin was seated, deep in the forest, they found that a good burgher, who had been befriended by Robin some time before, had already sent a man who told the outlaw that Stuteley had been tried before the sheriff that day, and that he would be hanged outside the town gate next morning at dawn.

"Already, as I set out," said the man, "I saw the timber being brought and the old gallows being repaired. 'Twas in honor, they said, of the first of Robin's men whom they had taken, but they thought now 'twould not be long ere many others of your band should hang from the gallowsbeam."

"What meant they by that?" asked Robin.

"Well, maister," replied the burgher's man, an honest, forthright-looking fellow; "they say that the sheriff hath took a crafty thief-catcher into his service, a man who hath been in many wars in France and Palestine, and who is wise in stratagems and ambuscades; and they say it will not be long ere he lays some trap which will take all your band."

"What manner of man is this thief-catcher?" asked Robin. "How is he named?"

"'Tis a tall big man, a swashbuckling boaster, with a loud hectoring voice and a great red face. Some name him him Captain Bush or Beat the Bush, but others call him the Butcher."

"Whence comes he?" asked Robin, who did not recognize this boastful captain.

"That no one knows," replied the man. "Some do say he is but a rogue himself, and that the king's justice would love to have him in irons. But he is in great favor with the sheriff just now, who takes his counsel in all he does."

Robin was greatly grieved to hear of poor Will being captured, and his voice had a stern tone in it as he turned to those of his band about him, and said:

"Lads, you hear the evil news. Poor Will the Bowman, good honest old Will, is taken and is like to die. What say you?"

"He must be rescued!" came the fierce cry. "If we have to pull down Nottingham town we will save him!"

The hard looks on the faces of the outlaws showed how resolute they were.

"Ye say truly, lads," said Robin. "Will shall be rescued and brought safely back amongst us, or else many a mother's son of Nottingham shall be slain."

Robin gave orders for the two townsmen to be entertained and kept in the camp until the morning, and the men willingly gave their word not to return to Nottingham. This Robin did so that no word should leak out of his attempted rescue; for he guessed that it would be a difficult task in any event to get Will Stuteley out of the hands of the sheriff and his new "ancient" or lieutenant, Captain Beat the Bush.

Meanwhile, in the sheriff's house in Nottingham, the sheriff was deep in counsel with his thief-taker. They had tried to question Will, but had naught but defiant answers from the brave outlaw, who had told them to do their worst with him, but that they should get no secrets from him.

"Take him away!" the sheriff had cried at last in a rage. "Prepare the gallows for him, and he shall swing at dawn tomorrow morn."

Without a word Will heard his doom and walked with proud look to his dungeon.

"Sir sheriff," said Captain Beat the Bush when they were alone, "I have that to propose which of a surety would enable us to learn the secret lair of the robber band of Robin Hood."

"Say on," replied the sheriff. "I would give a hundred pounds to have that rogue and his meinie scotched or slain."

"It is this," went on the captain, and his villainous face had a crafty look upon it. "Let this man go; he will fly like a bolt from a bow to his chief in the greenwood. Let two or three sly fellows follow him and keep him in sight until they know where the rogues lie hid. Then when we learn where is their lair, swiftly thou canst gather thy men, and led by me, we will surround them when they look not for attack and we will take them every one."

The sheriff frowned gloomily and shook his head. "Nay," he said, "I'll not lose this one that I have. He shall swing! Once let him go, and the rogue Robin is so full of wiles and stratagems that, Master Bush, thou mightest find thyself ambushed and put to scorn."

"Then," replied Captain Bush, "I have another plan, which will please your worship better. I have told thee how my spies have kept a watch upon the house of Silas ben Reuben, and how they saw this rogue enter there and converse some long time with the Jew. Now I doubt not that there is some evil plot between the Jew and this rogue Robin o' the Hood. Thou knowest thyself that the outlaw deals in necromancy and black magic, and I doubt not that he and that evil brood of Jews do plot to work some evil against us Christians."

"What will ye?" demanded the sheriff in a sudden burst of rage. "Would you stir up the people to bait and spoil the Jews? Do you plot to have me thrown out of my office, fined to the half of my estate, and every burgher of this town required to pay a third of his goods? That hath been done at York and at Lincoln by the king's justice. Thou rogue!" he ended, fury in his narrow eyes, "what evil plot hast thou against me? What knowest thou of Silas ben Reuben? Art thou, belike, one of those rogues whom the sheriff and merchants of York would gladly find so as to make thy skin pay for the penalties which the king's justice hath put upon them?"

Captain Bush was not expecting so fierce an outburst, and he looked crestfallen. Indeed, seeing the startled look in his eyes, one would have thought that the sheriff's last question had reached a surer mark than he suspected. The sheriff stalked up and down the room in his rage, and did not see the sudden fear in the other's eyes.

"I tell thee, my brave thief-taker," he cried in a raging scorn, "I'll have none of thy plots against the Jews. 'Tis easy enough for a nameless rogue such as thee to stir up a cry to spoil the Jews, and to lead a cut-throat mob of rascals to slay and loot and plunder. But when the king's justice comes to demand penalties it is not thy hide that smarts, nor thy cobwebby pocket that pays. Go, then, get thee from my sight, and see that the gallows is ready by dawn tomorrow, and name no more of thy rascally plots to me."

"As your worship and lordship pleases," said the captain in a soft tone. Then with ironical respect he bowed and swept his hat almost to the floor as he retired from the chamber, leaving the sheriff to fume and fret his anger away.

"The dolt! the sheep's-head!" said Captain Bush to himself as he stood outside and thought for a while. "When he is not so hot I will make the fool take back his words — for he is an ass that I can fool to the top of his bent. Yet, willy-nilly, I will keep watch on the house of Silas ben Reuben. I doubt not that old Reuben lives, and that Robin is hiding him. Old Reuben knows where his kinsman, Rabbi Eliezer, hath buried his vast treasure, and I will not let that doltish sheriff keep me from trying what a little torture will do to make old Reuben give up his secret. Silas the Jew, I doubt not, will send or go to meet his father and the girl, to take them to some safe place; my men shall follow, and at a fitting spot I will fall upon them, and hale them to some secret place and work my will upon them."

Thereupon the captain went forth into the marketplace and called to him a man who stood chewing a straw, and who looked even more villainous than himself, and said to him:

"Go, tell Cogg the Earless to keep strict watch upon the house of Silas the Jew. Today or tomorrow I think Silas will go forth; let him be followed whithersoever he may go. If, as I think, he will go to some inn to join others of his race with horses, send word to me by one of our fellows. Silas will go to the forest I doubt not, to meet an old man and a girl. I will come with others and we must take the old man alive to some secret place."

The man slunk off across the broad market square and disappeared in one of the narrow crooked lanes that led to the Jewry. Then Captain Bush went to the Northgate, and going forth found that the sheriff's men were busy putting up new beams on the little hill called Gallows Hill, which lay just beyond the town wall.

"Make it strong, lads," he cried, with a laugh, "for 'tis to hang the first of that evil band of robbers. And I doubt not that 'twill not be long ere others of his friends will swing from the same beam."

The sheriff's men said naught, but one or two winked at each other in mock of him. They liked not this upstart braggart who had suddenly been put over them, and they obeyed him unwillingly.

Next morning the dawn broke gloomy and chill. Thick clouds rolled slowly up across the sky, the wind blew bitterly from the east, and the smell of snow was in the air. Beside the gate of the town that looked upon the gaunt gallows-tree a poor old palmer sat as if waiting till the gate was opened, so that he could enter the town. He looked toward the gate and then at the gallows, and presently tears came into his eyes.

"Alas," he said, "that I should find my poor brother again after all these years, and only to hear that he is to be hanged within this hour."

This was the elder brother of good Will the Bowman, who, years before, had fled from the village of Birkencar because of having slain a man who cruelly oppressed him. He had made the long and dangerous journey to Rome, there to expiate his crime by prayer and fasting and penance; and then had gone further still upon the rough and perilous road to Jerusalem, where for two years he had stayed among the pagan Mussulmans. Then he had slowly made his way back to England, craving to see his younger brother again, whom he had greatly loved. Three days before, he had gone to Birkencar, and had heard how Will had fled to the greenwood with Robin Hood. He had come through the forest, and by asking villeins and poor men, he had learned that Robin Hood's band was wintering not far from Nottingham. Pushing on, he had reached Oilerton, and there, at a little inn, a woodman had told him, not knowing who he was, that Will Stuteley was to be hanged at dawn before the north gate of Nottingham. He had come on at once, walking through the forest by night, and had sat and dozed in the bitter wind before the door, so that he could get a sight of his brother and perhaps a word with him before he died.

As he thus sat, a short slim dark man came out of a little clump of bushes at the foot of the hill, and approached the old palmer.

"Tell me, good palmer," said he, "dost thou know whether Will the Bowman is to be hanged this morn?"

"Alas and alack!" said the old palmer, and his tears ran forth afresh, "it is true as ye say, and for ever woe is me. He is my younger brother whom I have longed to see these ten years, and I come but to see him hanged."

The little man looked keenly at the old man, as if for the moment he doubted his tale; but his grief was too real and his words rang too true to allow of doubt.

"I have heard," went on the old palmer, "that he ran to the greenwood with young Robert of Locksley — a brave lad, bold of speech and noble of heart when I knew him. And poor men and villeins have told me as I came through the forest that he hath not changed, but that he fled because he could not brook the oppression of proud priests and evil knights. He was ever a bold lad, and it gladdened my heart to hear their rough mouths say how he had ever befriended the poor and the oppressed. Oh, if he were here now! If he but knew the death poor Will must die, he would quickly send succor. With a few of his bold yeomen he would soon take him from those who have seized him."

"Ay, that is true," the dark man said, "that is true. If they were near unto this place they soon would set him free. But fare thee well, thou good old man, farewell, and thanks to thee."

So saying, the stranger, who was dressed in the rough and rusty garments of a woodman, strolled away and disappeared into the bushes again.

No sooner had he gone than voices were heard behind the stout wooden gates, iron-plated and rivet-studded, and soon with creaking and jarring the great double doors swung open, and twelve sheriff's men with drawn swords came forth. In their midst was Will Stuteley, bound with stout cords; but his look was bold and his head was held high as he walked, fettered though he was.

Behind walked the sheriff in his robe of office, and beside him was Captain Bush, a smile of triumph on his face. At a little distance behind them came a man with a ladder, accompanied by a small group of townspeople who followed the sheriff's men toward the gallows-tree.

Arrived there, they placed Will Stuteley beneath the arm of the high gallows, and at the word of command the ladder was reared against the post, and a man ran up it holding a rope in his hand.

Will Stuteley, while these preparations were being made, looked around over the bleak country. He had hoped to see the forms of the outlaws issuing from the dark wood which began on the top of the down beyond the hollow at the foot of the gallows hill; but there was no sign of life anywhere, except the figure of a poor old palmer who was running toward them. Will turned to where the sheriff stood, with Captain Bush beside him.

"Now, seeing that I needs must die, grant me one boon," said Will; "for my noble master never yet had a man that was hanged on the gallows-tree. Give me a sword all in my hand and let me be unbound, and with thee and thy men I'll fight till I lie dead on the ground."

The sheriff scornfully turned his back, and would not even condescend to reply to him.

"Thou mayest be the first, thou thieving varlet," sneered Captain Bush, stepping up and flicking his glove in the face of the bound outlaw; "but I caused this gallows to be made fresh and strong, because I think thy death will bring us luck, and that now it will not be long ere most of thy cut-throat comrades shall follow each other up that rope. When I put my wits to work, thy noble master shall smart, look you; for I owe him much for that which nothing shall wipe out between us!"

"I know not of what you charge my good chief," said Will proudly; "but if he hath harmed you, 'twas because thou weft a rascal, of that I am sure."

"Prate not with the robber," cried the sheriff, who was on tenterhooks until Will should be hanged, so greatly did he go in fear of the wiles and stratagems of Robin Hood. "Adjust the rope and end him!"

"Sir sheriff," cried Will; "let me not be hanged. Do but unbind my hands and I will die fighting with them alone. I crave no weapon, but let thy men's swords slay me!"

"I tell thee, rogue, thou shalt die by the rope," cried the sheriff in a rage; "ay, and thy master too, if it ever lie in my power."

At that moment, into the circle of sheriff's men pressed the poor old palmer, tears streaming down his cheeks. He came to Will and put both hands upon his shoulders.

"Dear Will," he said; "thou rememberest me? Heavy is my heart to find thee in this plight. Far have I wandered, but ever have I longed for the day when I should see thy face again, and now —"

The rough hand of Captain Bush was thrust between them, and next moment the palmer lay on the ground, half senseless. The captain kicked him as he lay.

"Here," he said, "take this rubbish away and cast it in the ditch there!"

But the old palmer got up slowly and with a last look at Will turned away and limped toward the sheriff.

"He is my younger brother, sir sheriff," said the old man. "I have come from the Holy City and my heart yearned to see him."

"Put the rope about the rascal's neck, and up with him!" shouted the sheriff, ignoring the trembling palmer before him.

"Farewell, dear brother," said Will. "Sorry I am that thou hast returned only to see me hung from the shameful tree. But my noble master will avenge me!"

Captain Bush turned and smote his fist heavily upon Will's mouth.

"Take that, thou thieving rascal and cut-throat," he cried, "for thy vain boasting· 'Twill not be long ere thy worthy master himself will need avenging."

The coiling rope descended from above upon the ground beside Will, and Captain Bush picked it up and placed the noose over Will's head. The outlaw looked with terrible eyes into the face of the other and said:

"I said thou wert a rascal, and if thou canst beat me thus when I am bound, I know thou art less than the lowest thief."

For answer the captain tightened the noose savagely about Will's neck, and, turning, he shouted to the sheriff's men to haul on the rope which was passed over the gallowsbeam, so that Will should be dragged off his feet and pulled up until he slowly strangled.

"To the rope, fellows," he cried hoarsely; "altogether! .... "

The word that would have jerked Will into the air was never uttered. A stone came flying straight and swiftly, and hit the captain full on the left temple. With a low groan he fell like a log at the feet of the outlaw. At the same time Little John leaped from a bush below the hill, and accompanied by Ket the Trow, from whose hand had come the stone that had laid Captain Bush low, he ran toward Will. Swiftly he cut the bonds about Will's hands and then dashing at a sheriff's man who was running toward him with uplifted sword he caught the fellow full in the breast with one fist, while with the other hand he tore the sword from his grasp.

"Here, Will," he said with a joyful laugh, "take thou this sword, and let us defend ourselves as best we may, for aid will come quickly if all goes well."

Back to back stood Will and Little John, while the sheriff, recovered from the stupefaction caused by the sudden events of the last few moments, found his voice and furiously bade his men seize the villain who had cut the prisoner loose.

The men advanced in a body against the two outlaws, urged by the angry cries of the sheriff, and their swords clanged against those of the two outlaws. For a few moments the attack was furious; then suddenly, like the boom of angry bees, three great arrows dashed among them. One quivered in the body of a man next to the sheriff, and the latter turned and saw fast coming over the down a troop of men in green with taut bows. At their head was a man dressed all in red, with a bow taller than himself, and as he ran he fitted a great arrow to it, that looked as long as a lance.

"Haste, haste," cried the sheriff. "Away! away!"

So fearful was he lest next moment he should feel that long arrow pierce his side that, without more ado, he picked up his robe and ran toward the city gate for dear life, followed swiftly by his men, except two. One lay still, having been slain by the first arrow; and over the body of the other Ket the Trow was kneeling. With the rope that was to have hung Will Stuteley, he was deftly binding the arms of the still unconscious Captain Bush.

Robin and his men ran up and there was much shaking of hands with Will Stuteley, and patting on the back and rough jests and cheering words between them all.

"I little thought," said Will, his honest eyes lit up with thankfulness as he looked from Robin's face to the faces of his fellows, "that I should get free of that rope. It was tight about my throat and I was praying, when — whang! — came the stone. Who threw it?"

He looked about him for a reply.

"'Twas I, master," came a voice from about their feet, whence they had not expected it to come. Looking down they saw Ket the Trow just finishing his task. "Master," he said as he rose from his knees, "I would not slay this fellow, for I thought thou wouldst sooner have him alive. He hath done thee much evil, and had it in his mind to do much more."

Robin stepped up and looked at the face of the unconscious man.

"'Tis Richard Illbeast!" he said. "Ket, clever lad, I thank thee! Now, justice shall be done to him at last."

For fear that the sheriff should get aid from the knights in the castle, Robin gave instant orders. A horse was quickly brought up from where it had been left in hiding by Little John, for use in case Will had been in need of it, and the body of the Jew-baiter was thrown across it. Then with quick strides the outlaws left the spot, and the gate-guard, looking from his chamber over the great doors, which he had closed by command of the sheriff as he hurried through, saw the outlaws disappear into the dark leafless forest on the further down.

When the band had threaded many secret ways until they had reached the depths of the forest, thus making pursuit almost impossible, Will Stuteley left the side of his brother the palmer, with whom he had been having much joyful talk, and went to Robin and told him that he had arranged that Silas should go that day two hours after noon, with men and horses to meet his father Reuben and his little sister Ruth, and that he had appointed a spot called the Hexgrove or Witchgrove, on the highroad by Papplewick, where they should meet. As time pressed, therefore, Robin called Iiet the Trow and told him to push forward quickly to Barrow Down, where he was to prepare the old man and the girl for the journey, and then he was to lead them to the Hexgrove, where Robin and his band would be waiting.

Having arranged this, Robin turned in the direction of the place indicated, and pursued his way with less haste. By this time Richard Illbeast had revived, and his evil eyes, as he realized where he was, told more than words the hatred in his heart against Robin and his men. His sullen looks glanced from face to face of the men walking beside the horse on which he lay bound, and in their stern looks as they met his he knew there was as little mercy for him as there would have been in his own heart if they had fallen into his hands.

Trained woodman as he was, Robin never traveled through the forest without having scouts thrown out on all sides of him, and to this habit of perpetual watching he had owed many a rich capture, and avoided many an ambush. When they were already half a mile from the Hexgrove, a scout came running up to Robin and said:

"Master, Dick the Reid (Red) saith there is a man in rich dress with six archers riding down the road at great speed. He will reach the Witch trees about the time thou reachest them."

Having given his message, at which Robin merely nodded, the scout disappeared again to take up his place ahead. Robin quickened the pace of the party and gave a quick eye at the figure of Richard Illbeast to see no bonds were loosened.

In a little while the band of outlaws were hiding in the dense leafless thickets on both sides of the grove. Very soon they heard the rapid beat of horses' hoofs, and round the turn of the track came a horseman, short and sturdy of build. He wore a rich black cloak, edged with fur, fastened on the right shoulder by a gold buckle in which shone a rich ruby. A white feather jutted from his black beaver hat, also fastened by a jewel. The horse he bestrode was a fine animal, richly caparisoned. If his dress had not bespoken the rider to be a man of authority and power, the masterful look on his heavy red face, with beetling eyebrows, thick jaw and stem eyes would have said plainly enough that this man was accustomed to wield wide powers of life and death. Yet there was also a dignity in his look and bearing which showed that he had good breeding.

Behind him were six archers, dressed in stiff jerkins, their legs also thrust in long leather boots reaching halfway up their thighs. Stout men and stalwart they were, with quick looks and an air of mastery. Robin's heart warmed to them. Such doughty fellows ever made him long to have them of his company.

At sight of the richly dressed man in front Robin had smiled to himself, for he knew him, and then, seeing how rapid was the pace at which they were riding toward where he and his fellows were hidden, he chuckled. When the horsemen were some six yards away Robin led the horse from out of the thickets into the road right in the path of the pounding horsemen.

Richard Illbeast, turning his face toward them, went a sickly pale. At the same time the leading horseman, reining his steed with a strong hand, came to a halt some few feet from Robin, and having shot one keen glance at the bound man he turned round and cried in a curt voice:

"There is our man! Seize him!" at the same time pointing to Richard Illbeast, who writhed in his bonds at the words.

Three of the archers spurred forward as if to lay hands on the bound man, when Robin drew back his horse and holding up his hand said:

"Softly, good fellows, not so fast. What I have I hold, and when I let it go, no man living shall have it."

"How now, fellow!" cried the man in the rich cloak. "I am marshal of the king's justice. I know not how thou hast captured this robber and cut-throat. Doubtless he has injured thee, and by good hap thou hast trussed him on thy horse. But now thou must give him up to me, and short shrift shall he have. He hath been adjudged worthy of death many times, and I will waste no more words over him or you. Want you any more than justice of him?"

Robin laughed as he looked in the face of the justice's marshal. The six archers gaped at such hardihood, nay, recklessness in a man who looked to be no better than a poor woodman. Men usually doffed the hat to Sir Laurence of Raby, the marshal of the king's justice, and bent the knee humbly, yet this saucy rogue did naught but laugh.

"Justice!" cried Robin scornfully. "I like thy words and thy ways but little. All the justice I have ever seen hath halted as if it were blind, and I like thy hasty even less than thy slow justice, sir marshal. I tell thee thou shalt not touch this man."

"Seize the prisoner and beat down the peasant if he resists," cried the marshal angrily.

The three archers leapt from their horses and came swiftly forward. When they were within the reach of an arm, Robin put his fingers to his mouth and whistled shrilly. There was the noise of snapping twigs, and next moment the three archers recoiled, for twenty stalwart outlaws with taut bows and gleaming arrow points stood on both sides of the road.

The marshal went almost purple with rage. "What!" he cried, "thou wouldst threaten the king's justice! On thy head be it, thou knave, thou robber!"

"Softly, good marshal," replied Robin with a laugh. "Ye know who I am, and ye know that I reckon the king's justice or his marshal at no more than the worth of a roasted pippin. Thy justice!" he laughed scornfully. "What is it? A thing ye sell to the rich lords and the evil-living prelates, while ye give naught of it to the poor whom they grind in the mire. Think ye if there were equal justice for rich and poor in this fair England of ours, that I and my fellows would be here? Justice! by the rood! I tell thee this, sir marshal, I know thee for a fair man and an honest one — hasty and hot perhaps, yet straight in deed except your will be crossed. But I tell thee, if thou wert as evil as others of thy fellows, thou shouldst hang now as high as this rogue here shall shortly hang, and on the same stout tree!"

The outlaw's voice rang out with a stern stark ring in it, and his dark eyes looked harshly in the face of the marshal. For a moment the latter's eyes were fierce; then his face cleared suddenly and he laughed:

"Thou rascal, I know thou wouldst! I know thee, Robin, and pity 'tis so stout a fellow is driven to the woods."

"Stay thou there, sir marshal," said Robin sternly, "and thou shalt see justice done as well and more cleanly by men who ye say are outside the law as thou canst do it, who sell the king's justice." Then, turning to Little John, he bade him release Richard Illbeast from the horse, and set him beneath a bough.

Just as this was done, out of the woods came riding the old Jew Reuben and his daughter, accompanied by Ket the Trow and four outlaws. The little girl, Ruth, cast her keen glance round the strange assembly, and suddenly caught sight of the evil face of Richard Illbeast. With a shriek she leapt from her horse, and running to Robin fell on her knees before him, crying out in a passion of words:

"That is he who slew our poor people! Oh, save my father! Save my father! Let him not hurt us!"

Then she rushed away and stood by the side of her father, clutching him with both hands, while with flashing eyes and trembling form she turned and defied the scowling looks of Richard Illbeast.

"Reuben of Stamford," Robin cried; "is this the man whom ye saw slaying thy people at York?"

"Ay," replied the old Jew; "it is indeed he. With his own hand I saw him slay not only the hale and strong, but old men and women and even — may conscience rack him for the deed — little children."

"And thou, sir marshal, what crimes hath thy justice to charge against this knave?"

"Oh, a many!" said the marshal. "But one will hang him as high as Haman. He slew Ingelram, the king's messenger, at Seaford, and robbed him of a purse of gold; he filched a pair of spurs from the house where the king slept at Gisors in France; he slew an old and simple citizen of Pontefract, and when he swore to pass beyond the sea as an outlaw and was followed by the sons of the citizen, he by a trick escaped them after slaying two and wounding , a third. But for the evil deeds done at York he hath been proclaimed far and wide, and my master the king's justice hath been much angered to learn that the miscreant had fled, who led the murdering and robbing of his majesty's loyal Jewish subjects. But enough, Robin! Up with him, and let us begone!"

Not a word spake Richard Illbeast, but he glared about with wild and evil eyes, and knew that the bitterness of death, which he had meted out to others so often, was his at last. And thus he died, with no appeal for mercy or pity, for he knew too well that he had never given either the one or the other to those who had craved it of him ere he slew them.

When all was done, the marshal bade good-bye to Robin with hearty words, saying quietly in his ear as he walked with him:

"Robin, 'tis not only the poor folk that have thought well of many of thy deeds, believe me. Thy justice is a wild justice, but like thy bolts, it hits the mark. I forgive thee much for that."

"Fare thee well, sir marshal," replied Robin. "I have had little to do with thy justice, but that little hath driven me into the forest as thou seest. Yet I would have thee remember to deal gently with poor men, for thou must bear this in mind, that many of them are pushed to do violent deeds because they cannot get justice from them whom God hath placed over them."

"I will not forget thy words, good Robin," said the marshal; "and may I live to see thee live in the king's peace ere long."

When, a little later, Silas and his men came up, the old Jew and Ruth were given into their charge, and Robin sent twelve of his men as a guard to convey them to the town of Godmanchester, where the Jews would take up their abode for the future.

The noise of Robin's deed was carried broadcast through the countryside. Men and women breathed again to think that so evil a man as Richard Illbeast was slain at last, and Robin's fame for brave and just deeds went far and wide.

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