All through that long winter Robin had lain hidden in the Barnesdale caves with the remains of the band of outlaws which had begun with Will of Cloudesley's advent and nigh ended with his death. At first there had been some quarreling and jealousy amongst them as to who should be the new captain.
There were, with Robin and his three recruits, twenty and two men all told. These had decided upon many tests between themselves in order to settle who should lead; and when there were tests of archery Robin had beaten them all.
Yet he had no wish to set himself at their head, having sped his arrows so well more for the reason that a good bowman cannot but aim well when his fingers are upon his weapon. So he had said modestly that they must reckon without him, and that he would gladly obey the man the others should choose.
Then there had been fresh bickerings, and they were once nearly discovered by the Sheriff's foresters, who by some means stumbled upon one of their underground passages.
The winter brought with it many privations; and they decided at length to leave Barnesdale and go into the county of Lincoln. They made their ragged clothes as much like those of the King's Foresters as they could and then set out.
One thing had been agreed on: that they must have some new clothes and induce other bold spirits to join with them, else Sherwood would be lost to them forever.
Robin had quite decided to cast in his lot with these men. He felt that
they would be loyal to each other, and he knew that the only traitors which this band had known were now no more. A bitter hatred of the Sheriff, of lying Carfax and of Royalty, as personified by the unjust, indolent Prince, had moulded Robin's character into steel, as it were.
Robin had counselled this journey to Lincoln. In the secret caves about Barnesdale, Will of Cloudesley had amassed and stored away much wealth. It was useless to them here in Nottingham; but in Lincoln one of them might go in to the market and buy sufficient Lincoln cloth and needles and thread to fit them all out.
Swords might also be obtained; and some shirts of chain mail, new bows and new arrows.
The band started away under cover of a crisp February night, and had come into sight of Lincoln within three days. They had just finished their morning meal of the third day when they were overtaken by a stoutish man whose clothing was of the most remarkable description. He wore a cloak which was so clouted and patched that the first part of it hung about him in a dozen folds. He had on his head three hats, one rammed tightly over the other, so that he cared neither for wind nor rain. On his back was a bag held by a thong of strong leather about his neck. In his right hand was a long crooked stick.
The outlaws had naturally hidden themselves at first sound of his footsteps. They watched him go by, and passed jests between themselves concerning him. Stuteley begged that he might be allowed to play a joke upon the fellow.
"Go after him by all means, if you will," said Robin; "but be polite, for I have it in my mind that this is a man known to me. I would that I could hear him speak."
"Follow me, Master, warily, and you shall hear him speak to a purpose!" cried little Stuteley.
When the stranger found that someone walked behind him, he quickened his pace. Stuteley called out to him, but he made no reply.
"Stand, as I bid you, fellow," cried little Stuteley again, "for you shall tarry and speak to me."
"By my troth," said the other, answering him at last, "I have no leisure for talk with you, friend. 'Tis very far to my lodging and the morning grows. Therefore, I will lose my dinner if I do not hasten."
"I have had no meat nor bread betwixt my lips this day," retorted Will Stuteley, coming up with him. "And I do not know where I may get any, for if I go to a tavern they will ask me for money, of which I have not one groat, unless you will lend me some until we do meet again?"
The clouted man replied very peevishly: "I have no money to lend you, friend; for I have lost the little I had in a foolish wager made at Nottingham. But you are a younger man than I, though you seem to be more lazy; so I can promise you a long fast if you wait until you have money from me."
Now, something in the man's tones roused memories in little Stuteley, yet he could not resolve them into shape. The fellow's face was so obscured by the three hats that one could scarcely get a peep at it.
"Since we have met this day," said Stuteley, wrathfully, "I will have money of you, even though it be but one penny. Therefore, lay aside your cloak and the bag about your neck; or I will tear it open. And should you offer to make any noise my arrows shall pierce your fat body like unto a cullender."
The man laughed discordantly; and again Stuteley thought he recognized him.
"Do you think, friend, that I have any fear of your arrows? Stand away or I will beat you into grist."
Stuteley bent his bow and set an arrow upon the cord, but not so quickly as to save himself from a mighty thwack from the man's cudgel. The little esquire sprang back, and in doing so dropped both bow and arrow. Nothing dismayed, he drew his sword, and engaged at once with the stranger.
Their blows fell about each other's bodies like hail, and Stuteley found that not all his Cumberland tricks could help him with so furious an opponent. His enemy had little skill, but plenty of strength and agility; his stick whirled and twirled, beating down Stuteley's guard time after time. He was, besides, a bigger man and much older.
Robin's esquire began to see that he had met a sturdy opponent, and even as this tardy knowledge came into his mind, the stranger gave him a crushing body blow, and he tumbled fairly to the ground. There Stuteley lay, with closed eyes and white face.
"'Tis a pity to rest so soon, friend," remarked the stranger, with irony. "Would it not be better to snatch my money from me, and take your ease afterwards in that tavern which you wot of?"
Stuteley answered nothing, but lay deadly still. Robin and the rest were too far behind to perceive what had happened. The strange-looking man turned away without bestowing another glance on his little enemy, and soon his quaint figure disappeared over the brow of the next hill.
Within a dozen minutes the outlaws came up and discovered poor Will Stuteley lying on the ground, faintly moaning. They bathed his head, but could find no wounds. Robin was much upset, and began to eagerly question his esquire so soon as he showed signs of returning to his wits.
"Tell me, little Will, what evil mischance has fallen to you?" asked Robin, with emotion.
Stuteley raised his head and looked about him in a dazed manner.
"I have been all through the county of Cumberland, Master," said he, at last, in a weak voice, "and I have wrestled and fenced with many; yet never since I was a child and under my father's hand have I been so put to it." He shut his eyes again; then opened them viciously. "I encountered with our fellow traveller and saw no reason to fear such a clown. Yet he has scratched my back so heartily that I do fear it never will be straight again."
"Nay, nay, Will. I'll nurse you well, be sure on't," murmured Robin, full of pity and despair.
"Dear Master, I speak but as I feel," continued Stuteley, half-shutting his eyes. "But the rascal has not gone far from us; and were some of you to hasten, doubtless he would be brought to book, and I might see him punished ere I die. Go you, old Warrenton, you are a stubborn fighter; and take John Berry and two of the rest."
"I'll e'en fetch him to you myself, malapert," said Warrenton.
"He is more deadly than your Lady in Yellow, I promise you," said Stuteley. "Be wary, and let at least six of you surround him."
"That would be wasting the time of five of us," answered old Warrenton, in an offhand way; "I will go alone."
"Let someone then prepare bandages for our Warrenton, and take my shirt for them. He will need such service."
Warrenton and Berry, with another, ran off at this. Robin saw that Stuteley was not so near his end as he affected to imagine; and made him more comfortable beneath a tree, covered him with a cloak, gave him some drink, and ministered to him considerately.
The old man-at-arms fully intended to capture their quarry alone; feeling to be on his mettle, as it were. So he ran as fast as he could before the other two; but not so fast as to catch up with the man he sought.
Presently he espied him far down the road; and, knowing a shorter path to Lincoln, whither he judged the man was bound, Warrenton called to the others and they struck away from the road.
They made their plans as they walked, and at length cut off the enemy. He did not look so formidable as Stuteley had painted him; and as he drew near they felt this was an easy business. Two of them sprang out upon him, and one, seizing his twisted stick, dragged it violently out of his hands. Warrenton flashed a dagger at his breast, saying sinisterly: "Friend, if you utter any alarm I will be your confessor and hangman. Come back with us forthwith and you may end your fight properly with our companion. He waits greedily for you."
"Give me the chance," answered the fellow, valiantly, "and I will fight with you all."
Berry and the other outlaw instantly gave him the frog's march backward along the road; but the villain struggled so fiercely that they presently began to tire.
"Now grant me my life," said their prisoner, "and I will give you good money to the sum of one hundred pieces. It is all my savings, which I promised to give into the hands of a wicked usurer in Lincoln."
"Well," said Berry, pausing, "this is a fair sum, and might heal our companion's wounds very comfortably. Hold him fast, comrades, whilst I go back for his staff. Without that he cannot do much harm."
Whilst he was gone the fellow began again. "I am a miller, friends," said he, much more at ease already, "and have but lately returned from doing a good bargain in wheat. Also, I am esteemed a fair archer, and, since I perceive that you are foresters all, this matter will tell with you
in my favor. I could draw you a pretty bow had I but the use of my arms."
"Nay, Master Miller, but we would sooner hold you tight, and take your skill for granted," answered the outlaw.
Berry came back and stuck the staff into the ground at a little distance.
"Now count out your pieces, Miller," said Warrenton.
There was a keen wind blowing and the miller turned about so as not to face it directly they gave him half-freedom. Warrenton said gruffly to him: "Count, Miller; count truly and honestly."
"Let me open my bag then," said the rogue. He unfastened it from his neck, and, setting it on the ground, took off his patched cloak. He placed his bag carefully upon it, holding the bag as though it were heavy indeed. Then he crouched down over it and fumbled at the leathern thong.
The outlaws had all gathered closely before him as he plunged in his fingers. In the bag were two pecks of fine meal; and as soon as the cunning miller had filled his hands full he suddenly drew them out and dashed the white powder fair into the eager faces of the men about him.
Then he snatched up the bag by the two corners and shook out the rest of the meal. It blew in a blinding cloud about Warrenton and the rest, and filled their eyes so utterly as to leave them all three at the miller's mercy.
He caught up his stick and began to belabor them soundly.
"Since I have dirtied your clothes, friends," cried he, between the blows, " 'tis only right that I should dust them for you! Here are my hundred 'pieces'; how like you them?"
Each word was accompanied by a tremendous thwack. He fell so heartily into the business as to become unwary. Robin and the rest, hearing the shouting and noise, came speeding down the road, with Stuteley recovered already. They chanced on a strange sight.
Berry, old Warrenton, and the outlaw were dancing about in an agony of rage, helpless and blind, and striking vain blows at empty air. The man with the three hats was belaboring them with his staff so thoroughly as to have become a man with no hat at all. They all were tumbled upon the road.
"Why all this haste?" roared he, not noticing Robin or the others. "Why will you not tarry for my money? 'Tis strange that no man will wait upon me this day, whilst I am in so generous a mood!" He sprang up and down, whacking them without ceasing. His feet encountered one of his many hats and ruthlessly kicked it aside.
"'Tis Much the Miller!" cried Robin, recognizing him by his voice. "'Tis the miller who helped to save me in Sherwood. Friend, you have never yet paid me my guinea, and I now do claim it of you."
Master Much ceased his occupation. He turned warily about to Robin. So soon as he had looked well at him, he dropped his stick and came over very frankly to him.
"So it's the gipsy?" said he, grinning all over his broad face. "And they have neither flayed you nor hanged you yet? And are these fellows with you?"
"We are the free men of Sherwood," said Robin, "and were coming to Lincoln to get ourselves new clothes and weapons. Also we had hoped to find other good men and true willing to join with us."
Much went up to Stuteley, and craved his pardon very handsomely at this. "Had I but looked at you, friend, I might have known you for the other gipsy, and these fellows for some of those who did save you both from Master Carfax. That is always my way: but never have I been so sorry for't as on this day, for now, through being too hasty, I have lost your good will."
"Nay, Master Miller, but that is not so," said Stuteley.
Warrenton and Berry at first were inclined to play with the miller as he had with them; but Robin pleaded so well for good fellowship that, after a little, peace was proclaimed.
Much, to atone for his misdeeds, undertook to do their business in Lincoln; and set himself busily to work on their behalf. He found them all comfortable and quiet quarters where they might stay unnoticed and unmolested, and Stuteley went with Robin to buy the cloth for their suits.
They stayed in and about the old town for nearly three weeks, until all were well equipped. Much asked that he might join with them and bring his friend Midge and a few other merry souls.
Robin explained to him that they had rules, which, although few and
simple, were strict, and that they had, at present, no especial leader, since all had elected to remain equal and free, observing the same laws and pledged to each other in loyalty unto death. A common bond of independence bound them.
"Why, then, Master, we are your men," said Much; "for we are all sick to death of the Normans and their high-handed ways, to tell truth; and right gladly will we take services with you."
"I am not the first or only man of our company," began Robin, smiling; but hasty Much interrupted him with a great oath.
"You shall be my captain, gipsy, I promise you! And captain of us Lincoln men; for you did beat me in archery before the Prince, so I am bound to own you as master. Here's my hand on it; and Midge's too. Come hither, Midge, and swear fealty to Robin of Locksley."
Robin recognized Midge for the ferret-faced man who had been with Much at the tourney. Both insisted on paying over to Stuteley the amount of the wager lost by them on that day.
The outlaws returned to Sherwood well satisfied; and at Barnesdale went on perfecting their plans and adding to their numbers. The day came at length for them to announce themselves.