Over and over again the Sheriff of Nottingham tried to catch Robin Hood. Over and over again he failed. Each time he failed he grew more angry, till wicked anger filled all his heart, and he could think of nothing else.
At last he said to himself, "I will go to the King, and ask him to give me a great many soldiers, so that I can fight, Robin and his men, and kill them all."
King Richard had come back from the Holy Land, because, even far off there, he had heard of the wicked things Prince John was doing.
So one fine day the Sheriff of Nottingham set out for London to visit the King. It took him many days to reach London, for as there were no trains, he had to ride all the way. He took a great many servants with him, and soldiers too, in case they should meet any robbers on the road.
Late one evening he arrived in London, very tired indeed with his long journey.
Next day, after he had rested a little, he put on his best clothes. He put a thick gold chain round his neck and a lovely red cloak over his shoulders. He looked very fine indeed. Then he set off to visit the King in his palace.
There he told all his tale—how Robin robbed the rich and haughty Norman nobles, helped the poor Saxons, and, above all, how he killed and ate the King's deer in Sherwood Forest.
"Why, and what shall I do?" said the King. "Are you not Sheriff? Are there no laws? If you cannot make people keep the laws or punish them when they break them, you are no good Sheriff. Go back to Nottingham, and if, when I come, I find that you have not kept good order, and acted justly, I will take away your office and give it to a better man."
So the Sheriff returned home very sad indeed. Instead of giving him any help the King had been angry with him. What made him saddest was the thought of all the money he had spent in going to London. For the Sheriff of Nottingham was a greedy old man. He loved money almost as much as he hated Robin Hood.
All the long way home he kept thinking and thinking how he might get Robin into his power. At last he fell upon a plan.
He thought he would have a beautiful silver arrow made with a golden head. This arrow he would offer as a prize to the man who could shoot best. He knew Robin and his men would hear about this shooting-match, and would come to try to win the prize. He meant to have a great many soldiers ready, and, as soon as Robin and his men came into the town, the soldiers would seize them and put them into prison.
Long ago when people went to battle they had no guns or cannons. Instead, they fought with swords and spears, or bows and arrows. The English archers, as the men who used bows and arrows were called, were the best in all the world. They could shoot further and straighter than any one else. And of all the English archers Robin Hood was the best. He could shoot further and straighter than any one in the whole world.
As soon as the Sheriff arrived home he sent for a man who made arrows. He told him to make the most beautiful arrow that had ever been seen, as he was going to have a grand shooting-match, and must have a very splendid prize.
Then he sent messengers into the towns and villages round to tell all the archers about it. Next he sent for the captain of his soldiers. He told him that he hoped to seize Robin Hood at the shooting-match, and that he must gather together as many soldiers as he could. "We must have two for every one of Robin Hood's men," he said. "There must be no mistake this time."
Everything was arranged and the day fixed.
Among Robin's men there was a brave young man called David of Doncaster. He had not been very long with Robin, and had a sister who lived in Nottingham, and who was a servant in the Sheriff's house.
David often used to disguise himself and go into Nottingham to see his sister. One day she met him with a pale face. "David," she said, "you must not come here any more. Go, tell your master Robin Hood that the Sheriff means to kill him and all his men at the great shooting-match."
"What shooting-match?" asked David.
"Oh, have you not heard?" said his sister. "There is to be a great shooting-match next Tuesday. The prize is a silver arrow tipped with gold. But it is all a trick of the Sheriff's to get hold of Robin Hood. I heard him talking about it to the captain of the soldiers last night."
"Good-bye," said David, "I must go back to the forest to warn Robin as quickly as possible."
When he got back to the Green Wood he found that the news of the match had reached Robin. The men were all gathered together talking it over, and already preparing their bows and arrows.
"With that stepped forth the brave young man,
David of Doncaster:
Master, he said, be ruled by me,
From the Green Wood we'll not stir;
To tell the truth, I'm well informed
This match it is a wile;
The Sheriff, I wiss, devises this,
Us archers to beguile."
"You talk like a coward," said Robin. "If you are afraid, stay home with the women. As for me, I intend to try for this prize." Robin was so brave, that it made him careless of danger, and often led him into doing foolish things.
David was hurt that Robin should call him a coward, so he turned away without another word.
But in a minute Robin was sorry for what he had said. "Ho there! David," he called out. "I didn't mean it, my lad. Come back and tell us what you have heard."
When David had told them all he knew, they agreed that it would never do to walk straight into the trap which the Sheriff had prepared for them.
"Yet I should dearly like to go," said Robin.
"Well I don't see why we should not," said Little John. "Of course it would be very foolish to go as we are, dressed in Lincoln green. But why should we not all leave off our Lincoln green for one day, and dress ourselves each as differently as possible? No one would notice us then. We could go and come quite safely.
"One shall wear white, another red,
One yellow, another blue,
Thus in disguise, to the exercise
We'll gang, whate'er ensue."
"That is a very good plan," said Robin. "Do you not think so, David?" he added, laying a hand upon his shoulder, for he wanted to make David forget his unkind words.
"Why, yes, master, I think it will be very good fun," replied David, laughing, for he was very good tempered as well as brave, and had quite forgiven Robin already. "May I come too?"
"Yes, lad," said Robin. "You shall come with me. For we must not go all together," he continued, turning to the men. "We must go in twos and threes, and mix with the other people, or the Sheriff will soon guess who we are in spite of our clothes."
So it was all settled. The men had a merry time dressing up and arranging what they were to wear. Early on Tuesday morning they set off in twos and threes, going to Nottingham by different roads. They were soon lost among the crowds, who were all making their way to the place where the match was to be. All sorts of people were hurrying along, some to try for the prize, others to look on. Men, women, and children, old and young, rich and poor, were there. Every one had a holiday, even the schoolgirls and boys, and dressed in their best, they were all crowding along towards Nottingham.
From a window in his house the Sheriff kept looking and looking for Robin and his men, but no Lincoln green could he see. He was dreadfully disappointed. He kept saying to himself, "Surely he will come yet. Surely he will come."
The man who kept order and arranged everything about the match, and who was called the Master of the Lists, came to him and said, "Will you come now please, your honour, for it is time the match began? Every one is waiting for you and your lady."
"How many men have come to try for the prize?" asked the Sheriff.
"About eight hundred," replied the Master of the Lists.
"Is Robin Hood there, and any of his men, think you?"
"Nay," said the Master of the Lists, shaking his head, "not a man of his. There are many strangers, and a good number of King's foresters, but not a man in the Lincoln green of Robin Hood."
The Sheriff sighed. "He will surely come," he said. "Wait but a few minutes yet."
So the Master of the Lists waited for a few minutes. Then he came again to the Sheriff, and said, "We must indeed begin now. The people grow impatient. There are so many men to try for the prize, that if we do not begin at once, we cannot finish to-day."
"I suppose we must begin," sighed the Sheriff. "But I thought he would surely come."
He gave his wife his arm, and they took the seats of honour prepared for them, just behind where the archers stood to shoot their arrows.
Then the match began. It was a fine sight. The open space where it took place was like a great plain. At one end were set up fifty targets for the men to shoot at. These were painted different colours. The very middle of the target was painted white. Then came a red ring, then a black one, and last a yellow one.
At the opposite end of the plain, or lists as it was called, stood the archers. They had to try to send their arrows right into the middle of the target, and hit the white spot.
It was very exciting. All round, the people stood or sat, watching. Whenever any one hit the white, they cheered loudly. If any one missed the target altogether, they groaned. Those who missed the target were not allowed to shoot any more. The man who hit the white most often won the prize.
Robin and his men shot splendidly. Every time, Robin sent his arrow right into the very middle of the white part. His men sometimes hit the white, sometimes the red, but never got so far away from the middle of the target as the black or yellow.
"Some said, if Robin Hood was here,
And all his men to boot,
Sure none of them could pass these men,
So bravely they do shoot.
Ay, quoth the Sheriff, and scratched his head,
I thought he would have been here;
I thought he would, but though he's bold
He durst not now appear."
Robin had just been shooting. He was standing very close to where the Sheriff and his wife were sitting, and heard what the Sheriff said. It made him quite angry to think that any one would believe that he and his men had been frightened away. He longed to tell the Sheriff there and then that Robin Hood was standing beside him. He made up his mind to win the prize, and to let the Sheriff know somehow or other that he had done so.
The shooting went on, and the people grew more and more excited.
"Some cried Blue jacket, another cried Brown,
And the third cried Brave Yellow,
But the fourth man said, Yon man in Red
In this place has no fellow."
The man in red was Robin Hood himself. The man they called Brave Yellow was no other than brave David of Doncaster, who had shot nearly as well as Robin Hood.
At last the shooting came to an end. Of course Robin had won the prize. The people cheered loudly when he went up to the Sheriff's wife, who presented him with the arrow. She made a pretty little speech to him, and he thanked her politely, as he always did.
The Sheriff's wife, who presented him with the arrow
Then every one went home again. Robin and his men went back as they had come, by twos and threes, and by different roads, so no one suspected who they were, least of all the Sheriff.
That night the Sheriff's wife said to him, "What a nice-looking man that was who won the prize to-day. How well he shot too! I have never seen anything like it. Do you know, he reminded me very much of that pleasant young butcher you brought to see me some time ago."
"Eh! What!" said the Sheriff, "I hope not. I most sincerely hope not." The Sheriff had never dared to tell his wife that the pleasant butcher man was really Robin Hood.
When Robin and his men were all met again under the Green Wood Tree, they had a merry time. There was a grand supper waiting for them. Such laughing and talking there was; they had so many adventures to relate, such jokes to tell. The beautiful silver arrow was passed round, and every one admired it very much.
"Says Robin Hood, All my care is
How that yon Sheriff may
Know certainly that it was I
That bore his arrow away."
Then Little John said, "You took my advice about going to the match, perhaps you will let me give you a little more."
"Speak on, speak on, said Robin Hood,
Thy wit's both quick and sound;
I know no man amongst us can
For wit like thee be found."
"I advise you then," said Little John, "to write a letter to the Sheriff. Tell him that we were all there, and that you were the man in red who carried off the prize. Then when you have written the letter, send it to Nottingham."
"Very good advice," replied Robin; "but how are we going to send it? Our messenger could not get out of the town before the Sheriff had read the letter. He would certainly send after him to seize him and shut him up in prison. I cannot allow any of my men to put himself in danger for a mere whim of mine."
In those days, you see, there were no posts, or postmen. If you wanted to send a letter to any one, you had to pay a special messenger to carry it for you. It cost a great deal, so people hardly ever wrote letters at all. Indeed, very many people could neither read nor write them.
"Pugh!" said Little John, in answer to Robin, "it is easy enough. Write your letter, address it to the Sheriff, and I will stick it on to the end of an arrow, and shoot it into the town."
"Bravo! Bravo!" shouted every one. "Hurrah for Little John, clever Little John."
"The project it was well performed:
The Sheriff the letter had,
Which, when he read, he scratched his head,
And raved like one that's mad."