The Bravest Man in the World
There was once a young man so brave that nothing scared him, not bears, or
snakes, or flying arrows, or the shouting of thunder.
Not even ghosts scared him.
Outside the village one night, from down by the river, there was a whistling
and hooting like owls. "Listen," an old man said, "ghost talk. The ghosts are
talking about death and ghastly things, telling ghost stories." His words sent
a chill down the spines of the people listening around the fire, but the young
man felt only curious to see these ghosts.
He slipped away into the shadows and went toward the river, hoping
to find some skeletons sprawled under a tree, chatting in that whistling way
that he'd just heard.
He didn't see any ghosts, because the three who were there saw him first.
They were having their evening meal: the smells of chicken and fish that
drifted from the village. Ghosts don't eat; all they need to keep them alive is
the aroma of food.
So when they looked along the path and saw a young man creeping toward
them, they slid off in their canoes, gliding through the water quicker than
otters; ghost canoes have holes in them and go faster than the canoes of
people. Even the brave young man might have shuddered if he'd seen three
misty skeletons speeding along in holey canoes and if he'd heard the clunky
rustling sounds of paddling bones.
After a while the three ghosts stopped and pulled their canoes up the
"You know," one of them said, "I think I'll go and scare that young man for
spoiling our meal. I'll jump out at him on the path and dance around him
rattling my teeth."
"I'd like to do that too," said the second ghost.
"I'll go," said the third ghost. "I'm the biggest, so I'll give him the biggest
fright. I'll scare him silly."
"It's not how big you are," said the first ghost. "It's how scary you are."
"I suggest a wager," said the third. "Whoever scares that young man the
most wins the others' canoes."
"How about a bigger bet? How about our horses?"
"Horses it is."
So it was arranged. The next night the first ghost paddled up to the village to
give the young man the scare of his life. He walked along the path—pedaling
along in the air a foot or two above the ground, the way that ghosts do—to
the edge of the forest, where the path from the village reached the trees. He
sat on a branch and started whistling a well-known tune, swinging his legs in
time to the rhythm.
In no time at all the young man, as curious as the night before, came
creeping across from the village, peering into the trees.
The ghost continued whistling till the young man saw him and stopped.
Then—GOOOOR, GRAAAR, RRAAAAHHR! The ghost swung out of the tree
with a howl, rattling his teeth and whirling his crackling arms around as fast
as he could. Then he started frolicking around and making hooting noises.
The ghost waited for the young man to turn and run. But the young man only
listened and looked for a moment and then jumped forward and grabbed an
arm bone with one hand and an anklebone with the other. The ghost's
hooting turned to a howl as the young man bent his skeleton around into a
hoop and tied it up with some grass. Then he started rolling his hoop along
the path. The ghost moaned and whined with every clunky turn of the
bones. "Don't, don't!" he yelled.
They came to the river. The skeleton trundled along the path and splashed
over the edge.
"You look as if you need a good bath, ghost! Your ghost-wife will appreciate
it!" And the young man laughed.
Ghosts can't drown, of course, but this one thrashed around in the moonlit
river as if he thought he could. To the young man, it was a pretty sight, this
ghost taking a bath of glitter. After beating back and forth like a trapped
salmon for a minute or two, the ghost finally snapped the grass knot. He
staggered back upright and clunked out, dripping like a fish basket.
When the other ghosts heard what had happened, they rattled and shook
with laughter so much that they had the kind of accident that sometimes
happens to ghosts. They laughed their heads off. Two skulls rolled down the
bank and into the river. Two piles of bones skittered after them into the water,
feeling around on the sandy bottom till each found a wet skull and crammed
it back on. At first the big skeleton had the little one's skull on, which slipped
off; the smaller skeleton went tottering around wearing the tall ghost's skull. It
took a minute or two till they got sorted out with the right heads.
The next night the second ghost went to the village. When the young man
came along, the ghost jumped out of hiding and threw an arm around his
neck, hissing, "Dance with a ghost! Swing along with a skeleton!"
"I think I'd like that!" the young man calmly said, putting his arms around the
ghost. The ghost couldn't believe his ear sockets. He couldn't break free
either. The young man's hands had a tight grip on the dry bones of his
partner's as they started swaying from side to side. "I'm dancing with a
ghost," the young man sang.
"My partner's a skeleton. But what should we do for music and rhythm? I
know—your little echoey skull."
And as calmly as if he was taking a coat off a hook, the young man lifted the
skull off the neck and put it under his arm. Then, pulling a leg bone out from
under one of the knees, he began to hammer out a catchy rhythm on the
skull. "Dance with me, you dumb skull, you ghastly, ghostly glum skull. Let
me thump your drum skull, your empty little numb skull! What a haunting
rhythm I'm beating on where your brain was!"
The ghost groaned. "Don't, don't, my head hurts!"
"You don't have a head, former person full of bones, only a hollow skull. It
can't hurt. Ghosts can't feel pain."
"This ghost can. And don't whirl the rest of me around. Don't dance me so
hard. I've got dizziness in every bone!"
The young man was whirling the ghost around so fast that pieces started to
fly off. A finger bone flipped through the air. An ankle slid off into the bushes.
Faster and faster. One, two ribs jangled down into the dust. The ghost was in
pieces. The young man laughed, watching the ghost shambling and shuffling
around trying to reassemble himself.
The ghost howled. "I will tell my ghost-husband about your cruelty, and he
will come and scare you out of your wits."
So it was a ghost-woman that he had danced with! "Even better! I've danced
with a ghost-woman!" the young man cried as the ghost-woman limped off
down the path, a bone or two still missing.
When the ghost told her story, only one ghost laughed—the third one. He
knew how much he was going to terrify the young man and then win the bet.
The next night he rode off on his large skeleton horse to find the young man.
The young man was already on the path, waiting. "My horse and I have come
to kill you," said the ghost in his deepest, hollowest voice, making his
skeleton horse rear up over the young man.
"You cannot kill me," the young man said. "I'm a ghost in disguise—
a witch ghost with false eyes, false flesh, and false teeth. I'm an illusion. I
can scare you to pieces." And the young man moaned and howled like a
pack of wolves—HAROO! HAROOZLE! FAROOZLE! He crossed his eyes
and gnashed his teeth. He made piercing whistling sounds. It would have
sent a herd of buffalo thundering off in terror. The ghost started to moan and
shake, limbs going every way at once, like pieces of scribble. Then the horse
under him began trembling too, and after a few moments of terrible
shuddering, with the ribs of the horse banging like a gate, the ghost rider
toppled off with a clatter. Ghosts can't be knocked unconscious, but this one
decided to rest for a while and just sat there.
The young man was delighted. "A horse! I have a ghost-horse! Goodbye,
ghost!" And taking the skeleton horse by the bridle, he leaped on its back
and rode off down the path.
It was early morning in the village when some women carrying water saw a
man on a ghost-horse ride out of the mist. They screamed and ran, waking
everyone around them. People came peering dozily out of their tepees,
wondering what was going on. In the dawn mist they saw a ghost-horse with
a young man on it. A dream left in our heads from the night, each one
thought. They stood rubbing their eyes, waiting for the dream to fade. But it
didn't. The ghost-horse with its living rider came walking slowly through the
village, the young man looking around him with a big grin on his face, his
skeleton horse creaking under him from the unusual load. Everyone gaped as
the young man dismounted in front of his own tepee.
An old man went over—the one who had heard the ghosts talking a few
nights before. He wanted to touch it, to see if it really was a ghost-horse. He
patted the horse on the rump bone. It rattled. He nodded his head as if he
understood something. A few other brave people came across and stood
around. Soon the young man was telling his story, and soon people were
That night, around a great fire, the young man told all of the people how he
had sent three ghosts to flight and stolen a ghost-horse. When he had told it
all once, they asked him to tell it again.
"He is a very brave young man," people said to each other.
"He must be the bravest young man in the world."
"There has never been anyone so brave."
"No one will ever be able to do a braver thing than he has done."
They nodded their heads solemnly.
There were some children sitting around the fire too. After the first hour of
listening, they began to get bored. A little girl, who happened to be sitting
next to the young man, began playing with a piece of wood at the edge of the
fire. She didn't notice when a small wood spider dropped off and ran toward
the young man's foot. It ran up over his moccasin, then turned around to go
down again, and then decided to try farther up.
The young man felt a little tickle around his ankle. He looked down. A spider!
He screamed and put his arms over his head. "Aaaaargh! Get it off me! Get it
off me!" The little girl picked up the spider and put it on her hand, watching it
delightedly as it scampered across her palm.
"Look! Isn't it pretty?" she said, holding it out for him to admire.
"Take it away! Take it away!" shrieked the bravest man in the world.