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A Victor At Chungke
by [?]

At Tennessee Town, on the Tennessee River, there used to be a great chungke-yard. It was laid off in a wide rectangular area nine hundred feet long, two feet lower than the surface of the ground, level as a floor, and covered with fine white sand. The ancient, curiously shaped chungke-stones, fashioned with much labor from the hardest rock, perfect despite immemorial use, kept with the strictest care, exempt by law from burial with the effects of the dead, were the property of this Cherokee town, and no more to be removed thence than the council-house,–the great rotunda at one side of the “beloved square,” built upon a mound in the centre of the village.

Surely no spot could seem more felicitously chosen for the favorite Indian game. The ground rose about the chungke-yard like the walls of an amphitheatre, on every side save the slope toward the “beloved square” and the river, furnishing an ideal position of vantage for spectators were they even more numerous than the hundreds of Cherokees of all ages that had gathered on the steep acclivities to overlook the game–some ranged on the terrace or turfy ridge around the chungke-yard, formed by the earth thrown out when the depressed area was delved down long ago, others disposed beneath the spreading trees, others still, precariously perched on clifty promontories beetling out from the sharp ascent. Above all, Chilhowee Mountain, aflare with the scarlet glow of its autumnal woods, touched the blue sky. The river, of a kindred blue, with a transient steely change under the shadow of a cloud, showed flashes of white foam, for the winds were rushing down from the Great Smoky Mountains, which were revealed for an instant in a clear hard azure against the pearl-tinted horizon–then again only a mirage, an illusion, a dream of stupendous ranges in the shimmering mist.

In the idle, sylvan, tribal life of that date, one hundred and fifty years ago, it might seem that there was scant duty recognized, imposing serious occupation, to debar the population of Tennessee Town from witnessing the long-drawn game, which was continued sometimes half the day by the same hardy young warriors, indefatigable despite the hot sun and the tense exercise, straining every muscle. A few old women, their minds intent upon the preparation of dinner, a few of the very young children, relishing their own pottering devices as of a finer flavor of sport, a few old men, like other old men elsewhere, with thoughts of the past so vivid that the present could show but a pallid aspect–these were absent, and were not missed. For the most part, however, the little dwellings were vacant. The usual groups of loungers had deserted the public buildings, which consisted of a bark-and-log house of three rooms, or divisions, at each angle of the “beloved square,” and in which were transacted the business affairs of the town;–one, painted red, was the “war-cabin,” whence arms, ammunition, etc., were distributed, the divisions implying distinctions as to rank among the warriors; another, painted white, was devoted to the priestcraft of the “beloved men”–head men of note, conjurers, and prophets; the cabin of the aged councilors faced the setting sun, as an intimation that their wars were ended and their day done; and in the fourth cabin met the “second men,” as the traders called the subordinate authorities who conducted municipal affairs, so to speak–the community labor of raising houses, and laying off and planting with maize and pompions the common fields to be tilled by the women, “who fret at the very shadow of a crow,” writes an old trader. All these cabins were now still and silent in the sun. The dome-shaped town-house, of a different style of architecture, plastered within and without with red clay, placed high on the artificial mound, and reached by an ascent of stairs which were cut in regular gradations in the earth, lacked its strange religious ceremonies; its secret colloguing council of chiefs with the two princes of the town; its visitors of distinction, ambassadors from other towns or Indian nations; its wreaths of tobacco sent forth from diplomatically smoked pipes; its strategic “talks;” its exchange of symbolic belts and strings of wampum and of swans’ wings–white, or painted red and black, as peace hovered or war impended–and other paraphernalia of the savage government. Even the trading-house showed a closed door, and the English trader, his pipe in his mouth, smoked with no latent significance, but merely to garner its nicotian solace, sat with a group of the elder braves and watched the barbaric sport with an interest as keen as if he had been born and bred an Indian instead of native to the far-away dales of Devonshire. Nay, he bet on the chances of the game with as reckless a nerve as a Cherokee,–always the perfect presentment of the gambler,–despite the thrift which characterized his transactions at the trading-house, where he was wont to drive a close bargain, and look with the discerning scrupulousness of an expert into the values of the dressing of a deerskin offered in barter. But the one pursuit was pleasure, and the other business. The deerskins which he was wearing were of phenomenal softness and beauty of finish, for the spare, dapper man was arrayed like the Indians, in fringed buckskin shirt and leggings; but he was experiencing a vague sentiment of contempt for his attire. He had been recently wearing a garb of good camlet-cloth and hose and a bravely cocked hat, for he was just returned from a journey to Charlestown, five hundred miles distant, where he had made a considerable stay, and his muscles and attitude were still adjusted to the pride of preferment and the consciousness of being unwontedly smart. Indeed, his pack-train, laden with powder and firearms, beads and cloth, cutlery and paints, for his traffic with the Indians under the license which he held from the British government, had but come in the previous day, and he had still the pulses of civilization beating in his veins.