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