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A Tight Place! by Alexander Montgomery

 

ALONE--as a white man--on Diné Island! I didn't like it. I was young. I had never taken human life. My Archipelagian experience had lain hitherto amongst the Malayan peoples--reserved and punctilious. This sub-Papuan race, demonstrative and vociferous, I didn't understand, and didn't trust.

It was all very well in Ponderjohn's company. His reputation as a wizard was safeguard enough. But now he was gone--off to Lukol with a Yankee trader who had told him about a strange parrot.

"A new eclectus, my boy, if description goes for anything. I shall only be a couple of days away; and, meantime, let nobody near the collection, as you value your life. Those coleoptera alone are worth dying for."

Well, I didn't suppose my life was in much danger over his confounded beetles, but there were other things Tumora might take a fancy to, and about Mr. Tumora's disposition Ponderjohn and myself hadn't agreed. Your ethnologist, as a rule, is a bad general physiognomist. So accustomed is he to look for race-indications that he becomes more or less incapable of individual differentiation.

"Just the average Matabello-islander." Ponderjohn had said. "No better than the rest of them, and no worse."

I thought he was a good deal worse; and now, as I saw him sauntering over through the sago trees, I stowed the rifle and one revolver away in a corner, covered over with an atap-mat. The other pistol I loaded and put in my breast-pocket.

Tumora came in--through the roof! Diné houses are all roof, and the door is therefore, perforce, in the slope of the thatch. The chief looked all around--at the birds, the snakes, the insect-cases, the taxidermic implements on the little table. These things impressed him; they were the wizard's! But the wizard was away; so Tumora looked next at me, and wasn't impressed--a slight five-feet-nine to his burly six-two. He smiled with childish vanity, and straightened himself up in front of me--a portentous figure, with such a mass of muscle upon shoulder and arm as not even a pot-belly could render insignificant. His frizzy hair and beard were Papuan, pure, and, though his skin had hardly more than Malay depth of tint, his big, drop-ended nose again was Papuan. Malay enough to carry a kris, the hardwood club was clearly his accustomed weapon. Nearly four feet long, with a head like a decent-sized pumpkin--I found myself wondering whether I could shoot before it could reach me. The chief followed my look and hove the thing suddenly above his head. To and fro he shook it with one hand--twisted and twirled it this way and that, till his big biceps stood out nearly in a semicircle, and I realized that I would have about as much chance with him as a fly! But all I said was:

"That is nothing!"

The infantine Papuan nature showed up. With a pettish grin he let the club drop. Then he squatted on the floor and laughed. "Would I give him rum?"

"No, I wouldn't!" Boldly, this--but not without misgivings. "Would I show him my guns?" "My guns were gone with my 'father' to Lukol." That, my visitor frankly observed, was a lie! and as frankly I acknowledged it. Then we both laughed, and things began to look more promising. I offered the giant a quarter-pound cake of such tobacco as I had seen the Ké-men smoke--black as ink and strong as a team of bullocks. He smelt at it in a puzzled kind of way, then stowed it away in his hair. Next, of course, he was hungry; so I gave him sago-cakes and dried turtle--half a dozen of the one and about a pound of the other--and the way it all disappeared made me thankful he hadn't brought with him a "tail" of similar performers. The thought suggested the question--"Why had he come alone?"

"Because"--peering cautiously round and sinking his guttural voice to a whisper--"because he wanted to see the Weather-Spirit."

"The Weather-Spirit?"

"Ay; the little devil fastened in a box--that tells thy 'father' what wind is going to blow, and when the rain cometh!"

"Fastened in a box? Could he mean the aneroid barometer?" I brought it out.

"Yes!"--sheering off to the end of the hut and keeping a watchful eye on the instrument. "That was the box--would I make the Spirit speak?"

"It couldn't speak," I explained. "It could only point. This was its finger."

Tumora scratched his head, felt the lump of tobacco in his hair' drew it out, bit off a mouthful, and swallowed the horrible stuff as if it had been gingerbread!

Here was a fresh complication. This sort of thing would poison a rhinoceros! If Tumora died--well, Ponderjohn had described to me a few of the little amenities practised upon unfortunates who were merely suspected of harming a chief. I tried to explain to the animal that tobacco was to be smoked, not eaten, and for answer he grinned and took another mouthful. Then he cautiously approached the barometer--looked hard at the index for a few moments--suddenly swung up his club again and delivered himself in execrable Malay to the effect that I was an unworthy son of my "father," who spoke always truth! In short, I was a liar of the first water! "The Spirit could speak, and if I wouldn't ask it to do so"--the impending club said the rest!

Should I shoot him, out-of-hand? The time was to come--soon enough--when I would have dropped him without a wink, but I had never yet fired at Man! The momentousness of the act held my hand, and I temporized. "I would ask the Spirit to speak," I said, "But, as Tumora doubtless knew, spirits were occasionally--"

"Go on!" he snarled. "Go on!--make the Spirit say wise words!"

His deep-set eyes began to burn; his teeth gleamed viciously from the gloomy tangle of his beard; but the sweat-beads stood upon his scroll--marked forehead, his breath came in snorts, the brown of his devil's countenance was turning green.

"The tobacco!" I told myself, and, even with the thought, the fated wretch gulped down the remnant of the plug. But he was dangerous still; so, turning towards the barometer, I stretched out an arm over it and recited a verse or two of something--I forget what. Silence, then, for half a minute--broken only by the poisoned man's elephantine gaspings.

"The spirit--" I began--and turned--barely in time to duck beneath the tremendous swing with which the club knocked Ponder-john's choicest beetle-case to flinders, and nearly shook the house down as it landed like a round shot upon one of the marble-wood posts. Eight feet away I jumped, and jerked the pistol out. But it wasn't needed--the effort had finished Tumora. Twisting and groaning, he lay on the floor--wetted already with the sweat that poured from every inch of his agonized carcass.

I made the door fast, pocketed the pistol again, stooped over my enemy, and deliberately wrenched him by the nose--slapped him hard in the face--kicked him energetically in the ribs! Not out of petty revenge, but to make sure that he really was in that state of perfect indifference to contingencies characteristic of narcoto-irritant poisoning. Then I lit my pipe and constituted myself an Executive Council of One. This man had eaten a 4-oz. plug of the strongest tobacco in the world. His death--probable in any case--was certain if he were left to himself. Should I use, on his behalf, what medical knowledge I possessed?

"No!" I decided, as I looked up at the saucer-shaped dent of the club upon the massive house-post. "Better not give him the chance of repeating that little experiment! Let the law--which is to say the tobacco--take its course!"

Voices--many voices--outside. I opened the door. There was a small crowd around it--jabbering and hustling each other as is this people's way. Not all, though. One old man, shorter than the others, and lighter of colour, stood gravely forward as spokesman. He had made the Macassar voyage, wore a kris, and spoke the Bugis Malay intelligibly enough.

"Tumora was lost! The people were afraid! Had the white master seen the great chief whose name was Tumora-Diné?"

The "white master" brought him in, closed the door, and pointed to the deplorable object upon the floor. "Tumora had angered the Weather-Spirit of the white men, and the Spirit had turned his blood into water!"

"Apai Indai!" and the old man shrunk away towards the door. "It is even so! Wise are the white men! Great is their Spirit! Let thy servant go, lest he also--"

I threw open the door, and waited while he explained in the Diné tongue. In half a minute there wasn't a mop-head in sight--save one--a nearly black man, who surlily stood his ground. Tattooed from wrist to elbow in brilliant scarlet, he swung carelessly to and fro the short, cauliflower--headed club of the Aru Islands. There were Aru-men in Diné, I knew--fellows with more grit than the Diné-men, or less superstition. This man also I invited inside, and, still sulkily vigilant, he came.

I turned to the old man. "Tell this fellow," I began--and then came blankness!


"Hit you a short-armed blow on the back of the head as you turned," Ponderjohn said. "Lucky for you you've got an Irish skull! That tap would have crushed mine like an egg-shell."

"Thanks! But why didn't the fellow finish me when he had me down?"

"Well, from what I can make out, your pistol exploded as you fell, and he thought it was the spirit that had bewitched Tumora, so he bolted and left the chief here. They've only just taken him away. What in creation did you give the fellow?"

"Tobacco! He ate a quarter-pound of that black Amboyna!"

"Devil he did! Well--listen!"

The infernal din from the village took definite meaning now. The women were howling for the death of a chief.

 
 
 

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