Crooks and Cucumbers

Andrew Conway

Nottingham had not been an easy town to play, Hal reflected as he trudged along the forest road leading his pony. The people had a mean, pinched look. They did not like to make eye contact, they did their best not to laugh at his jokes, and the edges of his crowd began to shuffle away before he started on his hat lines. His big finish trick, juggling three flaming torches while standing on a slack rope, barely raised a cheer, and his whole cucumber routine only got two or three laughs. He finally stumbled on a topic that the locals found funny. Any remark about taxes was greeted by laughter, but it was the embarrassed, looking-over-the-shoulder-in-case-the-grown-ups-see sort of laughter that did not make for big hats. Hal found out why when a couple of the Sheriff's men advised him to "Get along out of it, Sonny Boy, you're creating an ostruction." The people of the town clearly did not see eye to eye with the authorities on the subject of taxes, and the authorities did not want them reminded of this.

When a grim faced man had turned up at the inn where he was staying saying that he was "Looking for an itinerant juggler to assist with certain inquiries", one of the tapsters had tipped him off. It was not the first time he had had to make a quick exit. His youth had been spent in pursuits even less socially acceptable than juggling, and somehow he had never lost the knack of beating a hasty retreat without giving any outward appearance of running away. Within minutes he was leaving the town's north gate with his props, lute and other possessions packed securely on the back of his pony.

"Hold!" Hal blinked. The two men standing in the road ahead of him brandishing swords had not been there a moment before. Hal considered running away, but then noticed two more men emerging from the undergrowth with longbows, and decided that his best chance was that this band was merely larcenous and not murderous. After a week in Nottingham he did not have much worth stealing, anyway. The men were dressed in clothes that might once have been green, but was now so covered in dirt it was hard to tell. Their faces were burned brown by the sun, but they looked well fed, and had none of the pinched look of the Nottingham folk.

One of the archers, a giant of a man, fully six foot six with a longbow to match, stepped forward, and removed Hal's purse from his belt. Hal could not resist an audience, however adverse the conditions. "Hey", he said, reaching up behind the giant's ear, "you forgot this." He produced a small coin and flipped it in the air. The other three men were amused by this, but the tall one grabbed his right wrist suspiciously and turned his hand this was and that looking for more coins. The big one turned to the bags on the pony, and Hal reached with his left hand to the big man's backside, and produced another coin, which he tossed to one of the other men with a shrug. This produced roars of laughter from the other three bandits, and the giant whipped round to see what had caused it, but Hal was posing innocently by the time he had turned.

The other archer said to one of the swordsmen, "Alan, help John search those bags before this rogue bewitches him into a frog." Hal watched as the two men opened his packs and spread his gear on the road. As he suspected, there was not much of value to the robbers. They took the oil for his torches and his best pair of boots, a knife and all of his food except half a dozen cucumbers. Hal grimaced when the shorter of the two tucked his lute under his arm.

"Shall we take the pony, Robin?" asked the taller.

"What, are you hungry already, John?" said the leader. "It won't taste as good as venison, and if you try to ride it your feet would scrape the ground. Leave the pony." John shrugged and picked up the coiled slack rope.

"Not my rope!" Hal shouted. He ran over to the one called Robin, and fell to his knees. "Please, don't take my rope." He grabbed the bandit around the waist. "It's my livelihood, without it I shall starve." Robin kneed him in the chest, and he fell, and rolled into a cart rut.

"Eat cucumbers!" said Will, grinning.

"We could string him up with the rope," added John hopefully, but Robin jerked his head and the robbers vanished into the undergrowth as quickly as they had appeared. They were back at their camp before Robin noticed that his own purse was missing.

That evening Hal celebrated his new found wealth in the Goat and Compasses Inn in Mansfield. A little drunk, and in the mood to try out some material he had written that afternoon, he was juggling three turnips with a borrowed lute balanced on his chin. He tossed a turnip high, and as the lute's owner flinched caught the instrument in his hand and the turnip on the back of his neck. He strummed the lute. It was out of tune. He did not care. "Let me sing you a song," he said to the bemused patrons, "of Robin Hood, of the gay greenwood, an outlaw bold, who steals only from the rich, and gives to the poor and needy."