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Full Online Book HomeShort StoriesThe Bewitched Ball-sticks
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The Bewitched Ball-sticks Post by :haynesnpa Category :Short Stories Author :Mary Noailles Murfree Date :May 2011 Read :3596

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The Bewitched Ball-sticks

At no time in the history of mankind, except during that brief Paradisiac courtship in the Garden of Eden, has the heart of a lover been altogether unvexed by the presence, or even the sheer suspicion, of that baleful being commonly denominated "another." Here, however, it would seem that the field must needs be almost as clear. The aspect of the world was as if yet young; the swan, long ago driven from the rivers, still snowily drifted down the silver Tennessee; the deer, the bear, the buffalo, the wolf in countless hordes roamed at will throughout the dense primeval wildernesses; the line of Cherokee towns along the banks represented almost the only human habitations for many hundred miles, but to Tus-ka-sah the country seemed to groan under a surplus of population, for there yet dwelt right merrily at Ioco Town the youthful Amoyah, the gayest of all gay birds, and a painful sense of the superfluous pressed upon the brain at the very sight of him.

This trait of frivolity was to Tus-ka-sah the more revolting, since he himself was of a serious cast of mind and possessed of faculties, rare in an Indian, which are called "fine business capacity." He was esteemed at an English trading-house down on the Eupharsee River as the best "second man" in any of the towns; this phrase "second man" expressing the united functions of alderman, chief of police, chairman of boards of public improvements, and the various executive committees of civilization. His were municipal duties,--the apportionment of community labor, the supervision of the building of houses and the planting of crops, the distribution of public bounty, the transaction of any business of Ioco Town with visitors whom individual interest might bring thither. So well did he acquit himself when these errands involved questions of commercial policy that the English traders were wont to declare that Tus-ka-sah, the Terrapin, had "horse sense"--which certainly was remarkable in a terrapin!

His clear-headed qualities, however, valued commercially, seemed hardly calculated to adorn the fireside. In sensible cumbrous silence and disastrous eclipse he could only contemplate with dismayed aversion the palpable effect of Amoyah's gay sallies of wit, his fantastic lies, his vainglorious boastings, and his wonderful stories, which seemed always to enchant his audience, the household of the damsel to whom in civilized parlance they were both paying their addresses. These audiences were usually large, and far too lenient in the estimation of Tus-ka-sah. First there was present, of course, Amoyah himself, seeming a whole flock instead of one Pigeon. Then must be counted Altsasti, who although a widow was very young, and as slight, as lissome, as graceful as the "wreath" which her name signified. She was clad now in her winter dress of otter skins, all deftly sewn together so that the fur might lie one way, the better to enable the fabric to shed the rain; the petticoat was longer than the summer attire of doeskin, for although the tinkle of the metal "bell buttons" of her many garters might be heard as she moved, only the anklets were visible above her richly beaded moccasins. She seldom moved, however; sitting beside the fire on a buffalo rug, she monotonously strung rainbow-hued beads for hours at a time. Her glossy, straight black hair was threaded with a strand of opaque white beads passing through the coils, dressed high, and copiously anointed with bear's oil, and on her forehead she wore a single pendant wrought of the conch-shell, ivory-white and highly polished. She maintained a busy silence, but the others of the group--her father, sometimes her mother and grandmother and the younger sisters and brothers--preserved no such semblance of gravity, and indulged in appreciative chuckles responsive to Amoyah's jests, idly watching him with twinkling eyes as long as he would talk.

It would be difficult to say how long this might be, for there were no windows to the winter houses of the Cherokees; in point of architecture these structures resembled the great dome-shaped council-house, plastered within and without with red clay; the floor was some three feet lower than the surface of the ground outside, and the exit fashioned with a narrow winding passage before reaching the outlet of the door. The sun might rise or set; the night might come or go; no token how the hour waxed or waned could penetrate this seclusion. The replenishing of the fire on the chimneyless hearth in the centre of the floor afforded the only comment on the passage of time. Its glow gave to view the red walls; the curious designs of the painted interior of the buffalo hides stretched upon them, by way of decoration; the cane divans or couches that were contrived to run all around the circular apartment, and on which were spread skins of bear and panther and wolves, covering even the heads of the slumbering members of the household, for the Cherokees slept away much of the tedious winter weather.

The fire would show, too, how gayly bedight and feather-crested was Amoyah, wearing a choice garb of furs;--often, so great was his vanity, his face was elaborately painted as if for some splendid festive occasion, a dance or the ball-play, instead of merely to impress with his magnificence this simple domestic circle. Tus-ka-sah dated the events that followed from one night when this facial decoration of his rival was even more fantastic than usual. Like a fish was one side of the young Cherokee's profile; the other in glaring daubs of white and black and red craftily represented the head of a woodpecker. The effect in front was the face of a nondescript monster, that only a gleeful laughing eye, and now and then a flash of narrow white teeth, identified as the jovial Amoyah, the Pigeon of Ioco.

The snow lay on the ground without, he said as he shook a wreath of it from a fold of his fur and it fell hissing among the coals. The shadows were long, he told them, for the moon was up and the world was dimly white and duskily blue. The wind was abroad, and indeed they could hear the swirl of its invisible wings as it swooped past; the boughs of the trees clashed together and ice was in the Tennessee River. The winter had come, he declared.

Not yet, Tus-ka-sah pragmatically averred. There would be fine weather yet.

For the snowfall so early in the season was phenomenal and the red leaves were still clinging to the trees.

Had they been together among men Amoyah would not have cared enough for the subject to justify contention, but in the presence of women he would suffer no contradiction. He must needs be paramount,--the infinitely admired! He shook his head.

The winter had surely come, he insisted. Why, he argued, the bears knew,--they always knew! And already each had walked the round with his shadow.

For in the approach of winter, in the light of the first mystic, icicled moon, the night when it reaches its full, a grotesque pageant is afoot in that remote town of the bears, immemorially fabled to be hidden in the dense coverts of the Great Smoky Mountains,--the procession of the bears, each walking with his shadow, seven times around the illuminated spaces of the "beloved square."

The bears knew undoubtedly, the "second man," the man of facts and method and management, soberly admitted. But how did Amoyah know that already they had trodden those significant circles, each with his shadow? He smiled triumphant in his incontrovertible logic.

And now Amoyah's face was wonderful to view, whether as a fish on one side or a woodpecker on the other, with that most human expression of surprise and indignation and aversion as distinctly limned upon it as if in pigments, for he loved the "second man's" facts no more than the "second man" loved his fancies. How did he know, forsooth? Because, Amoyah hardily declared, he himself had witnessed the march,--he had been permitted to behold that weird and grotesque progress!

He took note of the blank silence that ensued upon this startling asseveration. Then emboldened to add circumstance to sheer statement he protested, "I attended the ceremony by invitation. I had a place in the line of march--I walked beside the Great Bear as his shadow!"

For, according to tradition, each bear, burly, upright in the moonlight, follows the others in Indian file, but at the side of each walks his shadow, and that shadow is not the semblance of a bear, but of a Cherokee Indian!

Now, as everybody has heard, the bears were once a band of Cherokee Indians, but wearying of the rigors and artificialities of tribal civilization they took to the woods, became bears, and have since dwelt in seclusion.

The thoughts, however, persistently reach out for the significance of the fact that in the tradition of this immemorial progress each creature is accompanied by the shadow, not of the thing that he is, but of the higher entity that he was designed to be.

Whether this inference is merely the mechanical deduction of a lesson, or a subtlety of moralizing, with a definite intention, on the part of the Cherokees, always past-masters in the intricacies of symbolism, it is difficult to determine, but the bears are certainly not alone in this illustration of retrogression, and memory may furnish many an image of a lost ideal to haunt the paths of beings of a higher plane.

The picture was before the eyes of all the fireside group,--the looming domes of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the clouds, white and opaline, hung in the intervals beneath the ultimate heights; the silences of the night were felt in the dense dark lonely forest that encompassed the open spaces of that mysterious city, with the conical thatched roofs of its winter houses and the sandy stretch of the "beloved square; "--and there was the line of bears, clumsy, heavy-footed, lumbering, ungainly, and beside each the feather-crested similitude of what he had been, alert, powerful, gifted with human ingenuity, the craft of weapons, mental endowment, and an immortal soul,--so they went in the wintry moonlight!

There was naught in this detail of the annual procession of the bears, always taking place before the period of their hibernation, that surprised or angered Tus-ka-sah; but that they should break from their ancient law, their established habit of exclusiveness, single out Amoyah (of all the people in the world), summon him to attend their tribal celebration, and participate in their parade, as the shadow of Eeon-a, the Great Bear,--this passed the bounds of the possibilities. This fantasy had not the shreds of verisimilitude!

Yet even while he argued within himself Tus-ka-sah noted the old warrior's gaze fix spellbound upon Amoyah, the hands of Altsasti petrify, the bead in one, the motionless thread in the other. The eyes of the more remote of the group, who were seated on rugs around the fire, glistened wide and startled, in the shadow, as Amoyah proceeded to relate how it had chanced.

A frosty morning he said it was, and he was out in the mountain a-hunting. He repeated the song which he had been singing, and the wind as it swirled about the house must have caught his voice and carried it far. It was a song chronicling the deeds of the Great Bear, and had a meaningless refrain, "_Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah! Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah!"_ But when he reached the advent upon the scene of the secondary hero, the Great Bear himself, very polite, speaking excellent Cherokee ("since we are alone," he said), very recognizant of the merits of Amoyah,--the fame of which indeed was represented to have resounded through the remotest seclusions of the ursine realm,--fiction though it all obviously was, the man of facts could no longer endure this magnification of his rival.

"The great Eeon-a said all that to you?" he sneered. "The fire-water at the trading-house makes your heart very strong and your tongue crooked. This sounds to me like the language of a simple seequa, not the Great Bear--a mere bit of an opossum!"

Amoyah paused with a sudden gasp. He was not without an aggressive temper, albeit, persuaded of his own perfection, he feared no rival, and least of all Tus-ka-sah.

"You, Tus-ka-sah," he retorted angrily, "have evidently strongly shaken hands with the discourse of the opossum, speaking its language like the animal itself, and also the wolfish English. You have too many tongues, and, more than all, the deceitful, forked tongue of the snake, which is not agreeable to the old beloved speech. For myself, the Great Bear made me welcome in the only language that does not make my heart weigh heavy,--the elegant Cherokee language."

The spellbound listeners had broken out with irritated protests against the interruption, and Tus-ka-sah said no more.

As the blasts went sonorously over the house and the flames swirled anew into the murky atmosphere of the interior, a weird, half-smothered voice suddenly invaded the restored quiet of the hearthstone: "_Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah! Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah!_"

Like an echo the barbaric chant vibrated through the room. One of the sleepers, a half-grown youth, had semi-consciously caught the familiar refrain and sang it in that strange uncanny voice of slumber. The tones gave fitting effect to the grotesque details of the supernatural adventure, and as Tus-ka-sah rose and surlily took his way toward the door his departure did not attract even casual notice from the listeners, hanging enthralled upon the words of the Great Eeon-a, so veraciously repeated for their behoof. Their eyes showed intent even in the murky gloom and glistened lustrous in the alternate fitful flare; the red walls seemed to recede and advance as the flames rose and fell; the sleeping boy on the broad bed-place stirred uneasily, flinging now and again a restless arm from out the panther skins in which he was enveloped, and ever and anon his cry, "_Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah! Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah!"_ punctuated the impressive dramatic tones of the raconteur.

The next instant Tus-ka-sah was in the utter darkness of the narrow tortuous little passage, but after threading this he came out of the doorway into the keen chill air of a snowy world, the scintillations of frosty stars, the languid, glamourous radiance of the yellow moon, low in the sky, and his accustomed mental atmosphere of the plainest of plain prose. His thoughts were with the group he had just left, and he marveled if no influence could be brought to reduce the prestige with which the immaterial chief of the bears, the fabled Eeon-a, had contrived to invest the illusory Amoyah.

Tus-ka-sah's expectations concerning the weather were promptly justified. A continual dripping from the roofs and trees pervaded the early hours of the morning, and soon the snow was all gone here in the valley; even the domes of the mountains so early whitened with drifts showed now a bare, dark, sketch-like outline against the horizon and above the garnet tint of the massed sere boughs of the forests of the slopes. A warm sun shone. Not a summer bird was yet lingering, but here and there a crisp red leaf winged the blue sky as gallantly as any crested cardinal of them all. The town of Ioco was now astir, and Tus-ka-sah noted how the softening of the air had brought out the inhabitants from their winter houses. Children played about the doorways; boys in canoes shot down the shimmering reaches of the river; warriors congregated in the council-house and the half-open buildings surrounding the "beloved square," and in its sunny sandy spaces sundry old men were placidly engaged in the game of "roll the bullet."

It was at this group that Tus-ka-sah looked with an intent gaze and a sort of indignant question in his manner, and presently an elderly Cherokee, one of the cheera-taghe of the town, detached himself from it and came toward him. Despite this show of alacrity Cheesto distinctly winced as he contemplated the sullen and averse mien of his client or parishioner, for the relation in which Tus-ka-sah stood toward him partook of the characteristics of both. The professional wiseacre, however, made shift to recover himself.

"I will tell you what you have come to tell me," the prophet said quickly. "The spell on Amoyah does not work."

Tus-ka-sah assented surlily, gazing meanwhile at the face of the conjurer. It was a face in which the eyes were set so close together as to suggest a squint, although they were not crossed. He had an uncertain and dilatory tread, the trait of one who hesitates, and decides in doubt, and forthwith repents; being in his prophetic character an appraiser of the probable, and the sport of the possible. He wore many beads in strings around his neck, and big earrings of silver, heavy and costly. His fur garments reached long and robe-like almost to his feet, the shaggy side of the pelt outward, the weather being damp, for when it was dry and cold it was customary to wear the fur turned inward.

The wise man had been recently unfortunate in his sorcery. The corn crop had been cut short by reason of a lack of rain which he had promised should fall in June. He had justified the drought, in the opinion of most of the Indians, by feigning illness and taking to his bed; for by these it was believed that if he had been able to be up and about his ordinary vocations the preposterous conduct of the weather must needs have been restrained. The fields about Ioco had suffered especially, and Tus-ka-sah, as the chief business man of that town, had manifested half veiled suspicions that the art of the conjurer was incompetent; this rendered Cheesto particularly solicitous to succeed when his magic had been invoked to reduce the attractions of Amoyah in the eyes of Altsasti and turn her heart toward Tus-ka-sah. For among the Indians the lives of the weather-prophets were not safe from the aggrieved agriculturists, and there are authentic cases in which the cheera-taghe suffered death by tribal law as false conjurers. Cheesto fixed an anxious gaze upon his interlocutor as Tus-ka-sah rehearsed, by way of illustrating how worthless were the charms wrought, the unsubstantial fiction that had so beguiled the fancy of Altsasti, and posed Amoyah in the splendid guise of the representative of the great Eeon-a in the shadow-march of the bears.

The fate of the over-wise is ever the sorrowful dispensation. The fool may be merry and irresponsible. Cheesto was at his wit's end. With that unlucky drought in June to confront him, and dealing with the sharp business man of Ioco, who exacted his due in the exchange of the Fates as rigorously as if in a merely mundane market, the jeopardy of the magician was great and his discredit almost assured.

Old Cheesto set his jaw firmly. Somehow, somewhere, something must be wrought that would place Amoyah at a disadvantage and bring ridicule upon him. No great matter, it might be said, to compass the change of a fickle woman's mind, to disconcert a giddy young man. But how? Cheesto was aweary of his own incantations and his ineffectual spells. He would fain lend Fate a muscular hand.

This thought was uppermost in his mind for several days, even when he went with the other cheera-taghe of Ioco to share in the conjurations and incantations of the preliminary ceremonials of the Ball-Play, without which success would never be anticipated, for a great match between the towns of Ioco and Niowee was impending.

This game was usually played in the mid-summer or fall, but it would seem that the unseasonable cold weather was well suited for such violent exercise and the severe physical training which preceded it, and although Amoyah noticed ice in the river as he dashed in for the ceremonial plunge which accompanies the incantations, he remembered the fact for a different reason than discomfort.

The eighty ball-players of Ioco stood in a row near the bank, submerged to the knees. They had gone in with a tumultuous rush, and with their faces painted, their heads crested with feathers, clad fantastically and gorgeously but scantily, they were holding their ball-sticks high in the air with an eager grasp,--all except Amoyah. Although still in his place in the line, he was looking over his shoulder with an amazed and startled gaze.

For there upon the bank, as if struck from his hand in the confusion and turmoil of first entering the water, lay his ball-sticks. He seemed about to return for them, as the implement of the game must be dipped also in the water at the appropriate moment of the incantation. But old Cheesto, the Rabbit, motioned him to forbear lest by this unprecedented quitting of the line during the ceremonial the efficacy of the spell be annulled; he himself stooped down and picked up the ball-sticks. Then, notwithstanding his age and his fierce rheumatism, notwithstanding his long and cumbrous robe of buffalo skin, the skirt of which he seemed to clutch with difficulty, he plunged into the icy water, waded out to the young man, handed him the ball-sticks, and regained the bank just as the other cheera-taghe standing at the margin of the river began the incantations supposed to influence the success of the competition.

This Indian game, which has left its name on one of the watercourses of Tennessee, Ball-Play Creek, required a level space of some five or six hundred yards in length but no other preparation of the ground. At one end, in the direction of Niowee, two tall poles were fixed firmly in the earth about three yards apart, and slanting outward. At the end toward Ioco a similar goal was prepared. Every time the ball should be thrown over either goal the play would count one for the proximate town, and the game was of twelve or twenty points according to compact, the catcher of the twentieth ball being entitled to especial honor. It was of course the object of each side to throw the ball over the goal toward their own town, and to prevent it from going in the direction of the town of the opposing faction.

All the morning crowds of Cherokees of all ages and both sexes had been gathering from the neighboring towns, and were congregated in the wide spaces about the course at Ioco. These fields had earlier been planted in corn, but the harvest had stripped the plain, and now the trampling of hundreds of feet erased all vestiges of the growth except for the yellow-gray tint of the stubble, spreading out on every side to the brown of the dense fallen leaves on the slopes where the forests began to climb the mountain sides. Here and there fires were kindled where some spectator felt the keen chill of the approaching winter, and more than one meal was in progress,--perhaps such groups had come from far. Pack-horses were in evidence laden with rich garments of fur, various peltry, blankets, valuable gear of every sort to be staked on the result of the game, and soon the men were betting heavily. All the various tones of the gamut were on the air,--the deep bass guttural laugh of the braves; the shrill callow yelping of boys; the absent-minded bawl of spoiled pappooses interested in the stir, but with an ever-recurrent recollection of the business of vocally disciplining their patient mothers; the keen treble chatter of women,--all were suddenly resolved into a strong dominant chord of sound as a tremendous shout arose upon the appearance of the ball-players of Ioco. Fresh from the river, they made a glittering show with the tossing feathers of their crested heads, their faces painted curiously and fantastically in white, the bright tints of their gaudy though scanty raiment, their bare arms and legs suppled with unguents and shining in the sun. This note of welcome had hardly died away and the echo of the encompassing mountains grown silent, when an agitated murmur of excitement went sibilantly through the throng.

A cloud of dust was approaching in the distance, heralding a band of men. A new sound invoked the echoes. The breath was held to hear it. The throb of a drum--faint--far. And here thunderously beating, hard at hand, overpowering all lesser sounds, the drums of loco responded. To the vibrations of these sonorous earthen cylinders, the sticks plied with a will on the heads of wet deerskins tightly stretched, the ball-players of Niowee advanced. In a diagonal direction and at a sturdy trot they came for a space,--a sudden halt ensued, and eighty pairs of muscular feet smote tumultuously on the ground. Then once more forward diagonally, at that swinging jaunty pace, and the stamping pause as before. The sound seemed to shake the ground, the impact of the feet with the earth was heard despite the turmoil of the drums; the stamping vibrations were felt in the midst of the stir of the crowds, and now in the nearer approach the individual faces could be distinguished, wildly painted; the athletic figures, gaudily clad and barbarically decorated; the ball-sticks, held aloft in a sort of rhythmic vibration as if quivering for a chance at the ball; and fourscore wild young voices howled defiance at loco Town, whose youth in return howled its municipal pride, failing only with failing breath.

They were all in the course at last. The judges, elderly warriors and absolutely impartial, chosen from towns which had no interest at stake in the match, were seated on a little knoll, commanding a view of the ground, but at a sufficient distance to be in no danger from a maladroit handling of the ball. This was made of deerskin, stuffed hard with hair, and sewn up with deer sinews. The ball-sticks, of which each player owned his pair, were also partly made of deerskin, the two scoops or ladles being fashioned of a network of thongs on a wooden hoop, each furnished with a handle of hickory three feet long, worked together with a thong of deerskin to catch the ball between the rackets,--it being of course prohibited to catch the ball in the hand.

The drums beat furiously; the word was given; the ball was flung high in the air in the middle of the course, and the next instant one hundred and sixty young athletes rushed together with a mighty shock the force of which seemed to shake the ground. Some fell and were trampled in the crush; others madly clutched one another, friend or foe, with the ill-aimed ball-sticks, inflicting a snapping hurt like a bite,--a wound by no means to be despised. One, an expert, sent the ball with an artful twirl through the air toward the Ioco goal, and in the midst of a shout that rent the sky the whole rout of players went frantically flying after it, whirling with an incredible swiftness and agility when it was caught midway, and hurled back toward Niowee with a force as if it had been flung from a catapult. Here and there individual players in the frenzied chase made wonderful records of leaps in their efforts to catch the ball, springing into the air with a surprising strength and elasticity, and a lightness as of creatures absolutely without weight.

A good match they were playing; for more than half an hour neither side was permitted by the other to score a single point. The ball seemed for a time as if it were awing forever, and would fall to the ground no more. The casualties were many; almost always after one of those sudden rushes together of both factions that had a tremendous momentum as of galloping squadrons, the ground would show as the moving masses receded half a dozen figures prone upon the course; one with a broken arm perhaps; another badly snapped by the inartistically plied ball-sticks of friend or foe and crawling off with a bloody pate; sometimes another lying quite still, evidently stunned and to be hastily dragged off the course by spectators, before another stampede of the ball-players crush the life out of the unconscious and prostrate wight. Nevertheless only the normal interest, which however was very great, appertained to the match until at a crisis a strange thing happened, inexplicable then, and perhaps never fully understood.

The ball was flying toward the Niowee goal and the whole field was in full run after it. The blow that had impelled it had been something tremendous. A shout of triumph was already welling up from the throat of all Niowee, for to prevent the scoring of a point in its favor it would seem that there must be a thing afoot whose fleetness could exceed the speed of a thing awing.

Amoyah, the deftest runner of all the Tennessee River country, was foremost in the crown of swift athletes; presently he was detached by degrees from it; now he was definitely in advance; and soon, spurting tremendously, he had so neared the Niowee goal that the ball just above must needs pass over it if a spring might not enable him to capture it at the last moment. As agile as a deer, and as light as a bird, he leaped into the air, both arms upstretched, holding the rackets aloft and ready. He was a far-famed player, and even now the Ioco spectators were shouting, Amoyah needs must win!

A mysterious silence fell suddenly. They all saw what had happened. There could be no mistake. The rackets parted at the propitious moment to receive the ball. The netting closed about it. And then, as if it had met with no impediment whatever, the ball passed through the stanch web of thongs and over the poles, and falling to the ground counted one for Niowee.

The spectators from that town in their astonishment forgot to shout. The onrushing crowd of players, bearing down upon Amoyah, having intended to force him to drop the ball, which he had seemed predestined to catch, or to throw it so ill as to deliver it into the power of Niowee still to secure the point, could not arrest their own momentum, and went over the startled and dumfounded player in a swift dash, leaving him prone upon the ground. He was on his feet in an instant, his physical faculties rallying promptly, but so bewildered and doubtful that he had but one definite mental process, the resolve to regain for Ioco the point he had so mysteriously lost. Twice afterward his fine playing focused the attention of the crowd. Twice their plaudits of his skill rang through the vibrating air. Then the ball, hardly checked by the web of his racket, passed through the ball-sticks, and all realized their bewitchment.

Amoyah heard the gossip afloat concerning the matter before he had well quitted the course. The Great Bear had torn the net of the ball-sticks with his claw, one brave was telling another as he passed, because Amoyah had unveraciously boasted that he had walked by invitation in the procession of the bears during their annual march with their shadows at their hidden mysterious town in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Amoyah paused, tired, excited, panting, and critically examined the web. Surely enough the interlacing thongs had parted in twain in two straight lines, invisible save on close inspection, as deftly and as evenly severed as if cut with a keen knife.

It was late in the day. The sun was now on a westering slant. The parties of spectators were breaking up, some to journey homeward, others going into the town with friends. The place that the crowd had occupied had that peculiarly dreary aspect characteristic of a deserted pleasure ground. Trampled heavily it was, and the charred remnant of a fire showed black here and there; broken bits of food were scattered in places where feasting had been; a great gourd that had held some gallons of water lay shattered on the ground at his feet; a group at a distance were doubtfully retracing their steps, searching for something they had lost; at the farthest limits a wolf like a dog, or a dog like a wolf, was gnawing at a bone, and snarling as he gnawed. It was all frowzy, jaded, forlorn.

Somehow suddenly he had a sense of freshness, an illumination, as it were a vision, of the early morning light striking through a network of bare trees upon the shimmering reaches of a river. And there on the bank lay his ball-sticks,--quite good and sound then, he would have staked his life. And now a picture was before him,--being a man of fancy, he thought in pictures,--a picture of old Cheesto the Rabbit holding the ball-sticks half hidden in the folds of his great fur robe and wading out into the ice-cold water to restore them. And old Cheesto, he reflected, was one of the cheera-taghe of Ioco, and could work a spell quite as well as the Great Bear, who had gone to bed for the winter two weeks ago, and had not heard of ball-sticks within the memory of man,--perhaps not since he was a Cherokee himself, and playing with the rest on the course at Tennessee Town.

In fact, old Cheesto, in common with many men not Cherokees, cared little for the public weal when it interfered with private interest. But he had not realized how much he had jeopardized the success of Ioco Town in cutting the netting of the ball-sticks. He had imagined the incompleteness of the racket would merely show Amoyah as incompetent, render his play futile and ineffective, and discredit him with both friend and foe. Never, however, had the play of any one man been so important and conspicuous as his to-day when the bewitched ball-sticks became the salient feature and the living tradition of the match between Ioco and Niowee. For despite these points, thus lost by supernatural agency to Niowee, the bewitchment of the ball-sticks only served to illustrate the superior skill of the Ioco team, and to embellish their victory.

Amoyah had nothing but his imagination to support his theory, but it seemed singularly credible to Altsasti, to whom he rehearsed it, finding her seated on the ground before the door of her winter house in great dreariness of spirit, that he should in playing so well have won nothing and merely jeopardized the game.

"I am afraid of that Great Bear," she declared, eying the ball-sticks askance as he came up.

Then revealing his theory of the spell that old Cheesto had wrought upon him in Tus-ka-sah's interest, Amoyah proposed a counter-spell which would defeat Tus-ka-sah.

"But Cheesto can still send you trouble if you have a wife," she argued.

"Ah, no," the specious Amoyah replied. "Everybody knows that a man's wife makes him all the trouble that he needs."

To save him from these woes devised by others Altsasti undertook to give him all the trouble he needed. But he seemed quite cheerful in the prospect, and as she cooked the supper within doors he sat at the entrance, much at home, singing, "_Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah! Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah!_"

Tus-ka-sah upbraided the magician with the result of this victory, by which he was defeated. And the wise man threw up eyes and hands at his ingratitude.

"I set the Great Bear after Amoyah for you! I made the Eeon-a acquainted with his boastful lies, and he bewitched Amoyah's ball-sticks that his fine play might come to nothing."

Very little to the purpose, the disaffected man of facts reflected, remembering the impression produced by his rival's display of skill. Somehow Amoyah seemed beyond the reach of logic. "Why did you not instead bewitch the woman?" Tus-ka-sah asked.

But this wiliest of the cheera-taghe shook his head.

"If she had been a _mere_ woman," he said. "But a widow is a witch herself."

"_Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah! Eeon-a, Ha-hoo-jah!"_ sang Amoyah at the door of the winter house.

Eeon-a, the Great Bear, made no sign and slept in peace at his town house in the mountains.

And since then, as always before, under the first icy moon of the winter the company of bears with their feather-crested shadows take up their mysterious march seven times around the "beloved square" of their ancient secluded town in the Great Smoky Mountains, which it is said may be seen to this day--by all who can find it!


(The end)
Mary Noailles Murfree's short story: The Bewitched Ball-Sticks

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