When Robin first came to live in Sherwood Forest he was rather sad, for he could not at once forget all he had lost. But he was not long lonely. When it became known that he had gone to live in the Green Wood, other poor men, who had been driven out of their homes by the Normans, joined him. They soon formed a band and were known as the "Merry Men."
Robin was no longer Robin of Huntingdon, but Robin of Sherwood Forest. Very soon people shortened Sherwood into Hood, though some say he was called Hood from the green hoods he and his men wore. How he came to have his name does not matter much. People almost forgot that he was really an earl, and he had become known, not only all over England, but in many far countries, as Robin Hood.
Robin Hood was captain of the band of Merry Men. Next to him came Little John. He was called Little John because he was so tall, just as Midge the miller's son was called Much because he was so small.
Robin loved Little John best of all his friends. Little John loved Robin better than any one else in all the world. Yet the first time they met they fought and knocked each other about dreadfully.
"How they came acquainted, I'll tell you in brief,
If you will but listen a while;
For this very jest, among all the rest,
I think it may cause you to smile."
It happened on a bright, sunshiny day in early spring. All through the winter Robin and his men had had a very dull time. Nearly all their fun and adventures happened with people travelling through the forest. As there were no trains, people had to travel on horseback. In winter the roads were so bad, and the weather so cold and wet, that most people stayed at home. So it was rather a quiet time for Robin and his men. They lived in great caves during the winter, and spent their time making stores of bows and arrows, and mending their boots and clothes.
This bright, sunshiny morning Robin felt dull and restless, so he took his bow and arrows, and started off through the forest in search of adventure.
He wandered on for some time without meeting any one. Presently he came to a river. It was wide and deep, swollen by the winter rains. It was crossed by a very slender, shaky bridge, so narrow, that if two people tried to pass each other on it, one would certainly fall into the water.
Robin began to cross the bridge, before he noticed that a great, tall man, the very tallest man he had ever seen, was crossing too from the other side.
"Go back and wait till I have come over," he called out as soon as he noticed the stranger.
The stranger laughed, and called out in reply, "I have as good a right to the bridge as you. You can go back till I get across."
This made Robin very angry. He was so accustomed to being obeyed that he was very much astonished too. Between anger and astonishment he hardly knew what he did.
He drew an arrow from his quiver and fitting it to his bow, called out again, "If you don't go back I'll shoot."
"If you do, I'll beat you till you are black and blue," replied the stranger.
"Quoth bold Robin Hood, Thou dost prate like an ass,
For, were I to bend my bow,
I could send a dart quite through thy proud heart,
Before thou couldst strike a blow."
"If I talk like an ass you talk like a coward," replied the stranger. "Do you call it fair to stand with your bow and arrow ready to shoot at me when I have only a stick to defend myself with? I tell you, you are a coward. You are afraid of the beating I would give you."
Robin was not a coward, and he was not afraid. So he threw his bow and arrows on the bank behind him.
"You are a big, boastful bully," he said. "Just wait there until I get a stick. I hope I may give you as good a beating as you deserve."
The stranger laughed. "I won't run away; don't be afraid," he said.
Robin Hood stepped to a thicket of trees and cut himself a good, thick oak stick. While he was doing this, he looked at the stranger, and saw that he was not only taller but much stronger than himself.
However that did not frighten Robin in the least. He was rather glad of it indeed. The stranger had said he was a coward. He meant to prove to him that he was not.
Back he came with a fine big stick in his hand and a smile on his face. The idea of a real good fight had made his bad temper fly away, for, like King Richard, Robin Hood was rather fond of a fight.
"We will fight on the bridge," said he, "and whoever first falls into the river has lost the battle."
"All right," said the stranger. "Whatever you like. I'm not afraid."
Then they fell to, with right good will.
It was very difficult to fight standing on such a narrow bridge. They kept swaying backwards and forwards trying to keep their balance. With every stroke the bridge bent and trembled beneath them as if it would break. All the same they managed to give each other some tremendous blows. First Robin gave the stranger such a bang that his very bones seemed to ring.
Bang! smash! their blows fell fast and thick as if they had been threshing corn
"Ah, ha!" said he, "I'll give you as good as I get," and crack he went at Robin's crown.
Bang, smash, crack, bang, they went at each other. Their blows fell fast and thick as if they had been threshing corn.
"The stranger gave Robin a knock on the crown,
Which caused the blood to appear,
Then Robin enraged, more fiercely engaged,
And followed with blows more severe.
So thick and fast did he lay it on him,
With a passionate fury and ire,
At every stroke he made him to smoke,
As if he had been all on fire."
When Robin's blows came so fast and furious, the stranger felt he could not stand it much longer. Gathering all his strength, with one mighty blow he sent Robin backwards, right into the river. Head over heels he went, and disappeared under the water.
The stranger very nearly fell in after him. He was so astonished at Robin's sudden disappearance that he could not think for a minute or two where he had vanished to. He knelt down on the bridge, and stared into the water. "Hallo, my good man," he called. "Hallo, where are you?"
He thought he had drowned Robin, and he had not meant to do that. All the same he could not help laughing. Robin had looked so funny as he tumbled into the water.
"I'm here," called Robin, from far down the river. "I'm all right. I'm just swimming with the tide."
The current was very strong and had carried him down the river a good way. He was, however, gradually making for the bank. Soon he caught hold of the overhanging branches of a tree and pulled himself out. The stranger came running to help him too.
"You are not an easy man to beat or to drown either," he said with a laugh, as he helped Robin on to dry land again.
"Well," said Robin, laughing too, "I must own that you are a brave man and a good fighter. It was a fair fight, and you have won the battle. I don't want to quarrel with you any more. Will you shake hands and be friends with me?"
"With all my heart," said the stranger. "It is a long time since I have met any one who could use a stick as you can."
So they shook hands like the best of friends, and quite forgot that a few minutes before they had been banging and battering each other as hard as they could.
Then Robin put his bugle horn to his mouth, and blew a loud, loud blast.
"The echoes of which through the valleys did ring,
At which his stout bowmen appeared,
And clothèd in green, most gay to be seen,
So up to their master they steered."
When the stranger saw all these fine men, dressed in green, and carrying bows and arrows, come running to Robin he was very much astonished. "O master dear, what has happened?" cried Will Stutely, the leader, as he ran up. "You have a great cut in your forehead, and you are soaked through and through," he added, laying his hand on Robin's arm.
"It is nothing," laughed Robin. "This young fellow and I have been having a fight. He cracked my crown and then tumbled me into the river."
When they heard that, Robin's men were very angry. "If he has tumbled our master into the river, we will tumble him in," said they. "We will see how he likes that," and they seized him, and would have dragged him to the water to drown him, but Robin called out, "Stop, stop, it was a fair fight. He is a brave man, and we are very good friends now."
Then turning to the stranger, Robin bowed politely to him, saying, "I beg you to forgive my men. They will not harm you now they know that you are my friend, for I am Robin Hood."
The stranger was very much astonished when he heard that he had actually been fighting with bold Robin Hood, of whom he had heard so many tales.
"If you will come and live with me and my Merry Men," went on Robin, "I will give you a suit of Lincoln green. I will teach you how to use bow and arrows as well as you use your good stick."
"I should like nothing better," replied the stranger. "My name is John Little, and I promise to serve you faithfully."
"John Little!" said Will Stutely laughing. "John Little! what a name for a man that height! John Little! why he is seven feet tall if he is an inch!"
Will laughed and laughed, till the tears ran down his face. He thought it was such a funny name for so big a man.
Robin laughed because Will laughed. Then John Little laughed because Robin laughed. Soon they were all laughing as hard as they could. The wind carried the sound of it away, till the folk in the villages round about said, "Hark, how Robin Hood and his Merry Men do laugh."
"Well," said Robin at last, "I have heard it said, 'Laugh and grow fat,' but if we don't get some dinner soon I think we will all grow very lean. Come along, my little John, I'm sure you must be hungry too."
"Little John," said Will Stutely, "that's the very name for him. We must christen him again, and I will be his godfather."
Back to their forest home they all went, laughing and talking as merrily as possible, taking John Little along with them. Dinner was waiting for them when they arrived. The head cook was looking anxiously through the trees saying, "I do wish Master Robin would come, or the roast venison will be too much cooked and the rabbits will be stewed to rags."
Just at that moment they appeared. The cook was struck dumb at the sight of the giant, stalking along beside Robin. "Where has master gotten that Maypole?" he said, laughing to himself, as he ran away to dish the dinner.
They had a very merry dinner. Robin found that John was not only a good fighter but that he had a wise head and a witty tongue. He was more and more delighted with his new companion.
But Will and the others had not forgotten that he was to be christened again. Seven of them came behind him, and in spite of all his kicking and struggling wrapped him up in a long, green cloak, pretending he was a baby.
It was a very noisy christening. The men all shouted and laughed. John Little laughed and screamed in turn, and kicked and struggled all the time.
"Hush, baby, hush," they said. But the seven foot baby wouldn't hush.
Then Will stepped up beside him and began to speak.
"This infant was called John Little, quoth he,
Which name shall be changed anon,
The words we'll transpose, so wherever he goes,
His name shall be called Little John."
They had some buckets of water ready. These they poured over poor Little John till he was as wet as Robin had been after he fell into the river. The men roared with laughter. Little John looked so funny as he rolled about on the grass, trying to get out of his long, wet, green robe. He looked just like a huge green caterpillar.
Robin laughed as much as any one. At last he said, "Now, Will, don't you think that is enough?"
"Not a bit," said Will. "You wouldn't let us duck him in the river when we had him there so we have brought the river to him."
At last all the buckets were empty, and the christening was over. Then all the men stood round in a ring and gave three cheers for Little John, Robin's new man.
"Then Robin he took the sweet pretty babe,
And clothed him from top to toe
In garments of green, most gay to be seen,
And gave him a curious long bow."
After that they sang, danced, and played the whole afternoon. Then when the sun sank and the long, cool shadows fell across the grass they all said "good night" and went off into their caves to sleep.
From that day Little John always lived with Robin. They became very, very great friends and Little John was next to Robin in command of the men.
"And so ever after as long as he lived,
Although he was proper and tall,
Yet, nevertheless, the truth to express,
Still Little John they did him call."