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HOW SHASTA FOUGHT MUSHA-WUNK
So that was how it came to pass that Shasta was received by the Indians into their tribe, and was called by his own name, which he had never known. The moons went by, and by degrees he left off his wolf-ways and took on Indian ways instead. He learnt to walk upright, to eat cooked food and to talk the Indian tongue. To learn the last took him a long time. At first he could only make wolf noises, and would growl when he was angry, bark when he was excited, and howl when it was necessary to say things to the moon. But he had Shoshawnee for teacher, and Shoshawnee’s patience had no end. At first he was shy of the Indian boys, because they teased him when they had opportunity, and their elders’ backs were turned; but by degrees his shyness wore away, and he began to take part in their racing and riding.
Soon he could ride and run races with the best of them. Also, when it came to wrestling, they soon found that he was more than their match; for his life among the wolves had given an extraordinary strength to his muscles and suppleness to his body.
It was in a fight with Musha-Wunk that this quality of Shasta’s body first made itself known. Musha-Wunk was a bully, and one of the leaders of those who enjoyed teasing Shasta whenever they had a chance. So one day Musha-Wunk and his companions came upon Shasta when he was sitting by himself amongst the bunch-grass of the creek.
At first, when Musha-Wunk began to tease and probe him with a stick, Shasta pretended not to mind, and got up and walked away.
Even when Musha-Wunk followed and stabbed him again, he took it all in good part, and caught hold of the stick with a laugh. But Musha-Wunk snatched the stick away with a vicious pull and struck Shasta with it across the face.
What followed came so quickly that those who watched held their breath in astonishment. The leap of a wolf is so swift that it must be seen to be believed. When Shasta leaped on the bully, the other boys saw something that seemed to hurl itself through the air, strike savagely, and bound away. Musha-Wunk, taken utterly by surprise, went down under the blow. He was on his feet in an instant, but almost before he was up, Shasta had hurled himself on him again. This time Musha-Wunk seized him before he could leap away, and both boys rolled over together. Musha-Wunk was the heavier of the two. He had bigger bones and a more powerful body. If he could have held Shasta down, he would certainly have had the best of it. But to hold Shasta down was like sitting on a small volcano. There was a violent eruption of arms and legs, and Musha-Wunk was lifted into the air! While he was still struggling to his feet, Shasta was on him again.
It was the wolf in Shasta which urged him to these lightning attacks and counter-attacks which made the eyes blink. Once the wild beast spirit in him was fully roused, nothing could stand against it. The wolf-blood raced in his veins; the wolf-light flashed in his eyes. There broke out of his throat fierce sounds which certainly were not human. As he fought, he seemed to himself to be a wolf again, with the uncontrollable wolf-fury raging in his heart. Yet it was not merely wild rage that was in him. At the back of his mind, he knew that he was fighting for his freedom, for his self-respect. Once he allowed himself to be beaten by Musha-Wunk, he knew that the other boys would have no mercy upon him.
The time for gentleness and forbearance was gone by. The fight was none of his making. Musha-Wunk had forced it upon him, because he was a bully, and because he had judged Shasta to be a coward. The other boys stood round in a silent ring, watching the fight with glittering eyes. Their very silence showed how deeply they were moved; though, Indian- like, they gave no vent to their feeling by any outward sign. They were like a circle of animals, watching, with a fierce animal joy, a combat waged to the death. And presently a terror, as of death itself, came to Musha-Wunk, the bully, as he fought. He had thought that to conquer Shasta would be a very easy thing. He wanted to give him a good thrashing, see the blood flow, and leave the wolf-boy half dead at the finish. But now he knew, when too late, that he had roused something which it was not in his power to subdue. By his own folly and cruelty, he had drawn upon himself a vengeance which was not of men, but of the wolves. He ceased to take the offensive. All he wanted now was to defend himself as best he could against Shasta’s lightning attacks. It was when he tried to hold Shasta that the marvellous elasticity of the wolf-boy’s body showed itself. No matter how Musha-Wunk bent it this way and that, straining every muscle till the veins stood out on his throat, Shasta’s firm flesh and wonderful sinews resisted every effort to break him into submission. He twirled himself into the most astonishing positions, upsetting Musha-Wunk every time the bully seemed for a moment to have gained the upper hand.
The fight finished as suddenly as it had begun. Musha-Wunk had received so severe a punishing that at last he could bear it no longer. It was not his body alone that suffered. In his mind the terror was growing. It was a horrible feeling that what he fought was a boy outwardly only, and was in reality more than half a wolf! The sudden leap, the break away, the deadly leap again--this was how the wolves fought. It was not to be met in any familiar human way. Taking advantage of a moment when Shasta seemed to pause, Musha-Wunk turned and fled towards the camp.
The other Indian boys looked on in astonishment at this ending to the fight. They would hardly believe their eyes that the big and masterful Musha-Wunk should be defeated so utterly by the little wolf-boy that at last he should flee in terror. They gazed at Shasta, the victor, in awe, keeping a respectful distance for fear lest the wolf in him might turn suddenly upon them. It did not need Shasta’s quick eyes to perceive this fear upon them; his mind caught it as it oozed, in spite of themselves, into the air. Swift, as always, to act when his mind had once clearly seen a thing, he made a quick step forward, crouching as if to spring. To the alarmed Indian boys it seemed as if his whole body quivered with rage. In its crouching position it seemed to take on itself mysteriously the actual outlines of a wolf. Certainly the eyes between the long and shaggy locks of hair shot out a light that was not human, but of that deep brute world, old and savage, in the thick lair of the trees.
It was enough. Without waiting an instant longer, the whole band broke asunder and took to their heels in flight.
Shasta watched their departure with a joyful triumph. Now at last he had proved that the wolf-spirit in him was not to be broken, and that those who provoked or insulted it did so at their own peril. It was the upright, free spirit of the wild. And as such it was a good spirit, and belonged to the early freshness of the world. In Shasta, it would not attack or injure things as long as they left him alone. But once his freedom or peace were threatened, then he would resist with all the strength in his power.
When the last flying form had disappeared behind the rising ground, Shasta turned towards the trees. The excitement that was in him danced and bubbled in his blood. He was tired and sore in his body, but his heart was high--high as the tops of the spruces and the pines. He felt that he must go and tell his heart to the trees.
He went far into the forest, and then sat down. The trees were all about him--close on every side. It was as if they were crowding up to him to hear what he had to say. The big silence of them did not make him lonely or afraid. They were solemn and yet companionable, and full of wise “medicine”--which he understood, but could not put into speech.
The Indian camp was very far away now. Musha-Wunk and the others were little things that did not matter. It was the trees that mattered now--the trees and the wolves.
Only his fine ear could have detected that soft footfall coming down the trail! And when he turned his eyes, it did not surprise him that he looked straight into those of a big grey wolf.
What Shasta said to the wolf and what the wolf said to Shasta cannot be set down in words. Though it was neither Nitka nor Shoomoo, it was a wolf-brother of three seasons back, and the two recognized each other in some mysterious way. And so Shasta was able to learn all he wanted to know about the den upon the Bargloosh, and how his foster- parents fared. It was over nine months now since he had seen them, but, according to the wolf-brother, nothing was amiss. Upon the Bargloosh everything went much as it had gone in the old days when Shasta was a little naked man-cub, and had no notion of wearing clothes. The wolf-brother did not approve of the clothing Shasta wore, though it was only a little tanned buckskin tunic falling to the knee. For that was one of Shasta’s peculiarities, that though he suffered the upper part of his body to be clad, he would not allow them to interfere with the freedom of his legs. Moccasins he would only wear in winter, when the frost bit hard, or in the summer when he had a fit upon him to decorate his feet. Running-Laughing had made him the summer moccasins, and had embroidered them most cunningly with elk-teeth and porcupine quills. Shasta walked stiffly, with a sense of grandeur, when he wore the summer moccasins, looking down at his feet as if they belonged to some great medicine-man or important chief.
The wolf-brother sniffed at the tunic disapprovingly. The Indian smell of it upset him, and made his hackles rise. So Shasta, to please him, took it off, and let him see that it was only a loose skin that did not matter, and could easily be thrown away. After that things went more smoothly, and they talked companionably together in the shadow of the trees. And when the evening light began to be golden about the tops of the spruces, and the forest to stir, and shake off the drowsy weight of the afternoon, the wolf-brother departed as suddenly and softly as he had come, and Shasta, having watched him go regretfully, turned homewards to the camp.