Borrowed Bullets

Maxwell Smith

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Etext from

All-Story Weekly , June 22, 1918

THIS affair of Buffle's in Vistacia had to do with a pistol, although it was precipitated really by twenty thirty-five-cent galvanized iron buckets. And Buffle loathed guns.

Vistacia is the port on a little island off the east coast of Honduras. The gazetteer says that it exports bananas, coconuts, sarsaparilla, india rubber, and tortoise- shell. It was the fault of the bananas that Buffle had anything at all to do with Vistacia, the pistol, Salvatore Bravo, or the twenty pails.

The Equatorial Fruit Company wanted bananas, so it maintained Buffle and a couple of other Americans to see that the fruit was cut and loaded on ships. Buffle therefore bossed the fruit company's business at Vistacia, and lolled contented enough with his two assistants, Timpkins and Jordon. There, too, Salvatore Bravo had his place.

Salvatore would have folks believe that he was a Spaniard. But traces of Mexican stuck out all over him and his actions; his atmosphere was distinctly Mex. Back of him somewhere was a past—bad-man stuff and all that. Down near the end of the straggling one-street town Salvatore Bravo ran a saloon. Not much as saloons go; but then there was nothing very stable about Salvatore.

Across from Salvatore Bravo's salon stood the fruit company's edificio. The ground floor contained the office and a big room in which the bananas, hauled on narrow-gage from the swampy plantations, were checked as they went aboard ship.

Up-stairs were living quarters for Buffle, the superintendent, and his two aids.

Eight months back, in New Orleans, a friend—at that time—had asked Buffle if he wanted two hundred and seventy dollars a month, American gold, with nothing much to do except keep a couple of books, see that ships got cargoes of bananas, and remain half-sober. Whether he wanted it or nay, Buffle took the job.

It was a peaceful life until the fire. If it hadn't been for that the buckets wouldn't have entered into the argument. Without the buckets there would have been no talk of pistols.

The fire started a couple of hundred yards up from the fruit building and Bravo's salon. There was a breeze, and nothing but frame buildings in the way.

Watching the blaze draw nearer and nearer, Salvatore pranced on his front steps and cussed. Buffle tried a while to help the folks up-street, then bent himself to saving company property.

For just such a party Buffle had the twenty buckets. At the moment, furthermore, he had a score and a half of boatmen and banana handlers marshaled as a bucket brigade. They were busy wetting down the plant while he directed things from the upper veranda when the interruption came.

Buffle had noticed Salvatore Bravo getting madder than a hatter, but paid little attention because he knew excitability was the nature of the beast. Paid little attention, that is, until a gun went off near at hand.

A glance downward showed Buffle that Salvatore was flourishing the weapon. From a mingled flood of Spanish, Mexican, Portuguese and scraggy American, Buffle gathered that Salvatore was talking to him. On top of that he got it that the Mexican wanted the bomberos to save his building, and proposed to back the demand with bullets.

The American superintendent's gorge rose at sight of the gun. He had none himself and knew that even if he had he couldn't hit the island of Vistacia without help.

Among other things, as the hurried moments fled, Buffle wondered whether he might jump off the veranda and soften the fall on Salvatore Bravo's head. Then he thought of birds he had seen shot on the wing, and his spine tickled at the picture of himself landing just like that.

No; he wouldn't jump on Bravo. Anyhow, the Mexican was too far away.

And of course he couldn't run for cover. That wouldn't be upholding the traditions.

The only chance left, Buffle decided, was to kid Salvatore along by slipping him a handful of German promises.

“Let's get together on this, Bravo,” he called soothingly. “A few more turns with the buckets and my place will be wet through. After that you can have the whole shebang—I'll let you have the crew to do the job.”

Nom de Dios!” yelled the Mexican. “It will be too late. Pronto now, I want buckeets. Mañana, mañana—after— tomorrow—too late—all the same you say, American pig. See, I stop you damn men.”

The bucketeers were stalling to watch the play. As Bravo wound up his threat he sent a bullet flying over them. The dusky fire-crew ducked for cover.

“Now lookit” —Buffle was growing anxious— “you've got to cut this out, Salvatore. You aren't getting anywhere. Scaring these chaps like that has shut down the whole department. Call off the gun and—”

Caramba, let zee whole place burn,” shouted Bravo. “Male vista, I care not.”

Which was a lie. Salvatore Bravo stood to lose about a hundred dollars American if his whole joint was wiped out. To Salvatore, however, a hundred dollars American was a lot of money. He lied when he said he didn't care; so next he tried being nice.

“But, Señor Buffle, let me have but some of zee buckeets,” he pleaded. “Oh, señor, I am poor. See, the fire is near, señor. Please hurree.”

The fire was near. The next building, a scant eight feet from the saloon, was ablaze on the far side. Ten minutes at the most and Salvatore's place would be in flames, for the reposo-loving population had given up any effort to check the fire. It was so much simpler to let the town burn—frame buildings such as these were easily replaced.

Salvatore's position in the roadway also was becoming uncomfortable. Burning brands were showering about him, and the breeze, laden with the smoldering heat of the ruined buildings and the flame from the crest of the fire, was too remindful of a place Salvatore hoped to dodge later on if he had time for a priest.

To Buffle likewise it looked as though all his work to save the company's property had been in vain. The broiling sun and the blistering waves from the fire, now so close by, already had the water his bucket brigade had brought rising in steam.

“Half of the buckeets, onlee diez,” wheedled Bravo. “You can spare. You are across the calle, on the othaire side, but I— I—”

A window of the burning building behind him went out with a puff. Out of it whirled a tongue of flame, grasping at the new vent. With the flame flew a piece of molten glass—and it landed squarely on the back of Salvatore's neck. His howl of anguish lent momentary period to his plea.

Pain—physical and financial—struck a dominant note.

“Come, señor, come!” he screamed. “Call your men and we can save. Half of zee buckeets for mine, señor, and half for—”

“Not on your mangy and bloated life!” cried Buffle. “For all it means to me, you can burn up with your shack. Gwan, crawl into it and die! You get no buccos—no pozals—no buckeets. Savvy?”

Forgetting Bravo's menacing gun for the moment, the American leaned over the veranda railing and shook his fist. Salvatore dug a blazing fragment from the small of his back.

Madre de Dios! you tell me die— expirar” —the words sputtered on his lips— “but it is you that die. Malvado Gringo, I am going to kill— Caramba!

Something hard leaned against the rear of Salvatore's left ear and he had to delay his pleasure.

“It's getting damn hot here, Salvatore,”

said some one into the ear the pistol kissed, “but I've heard tell of a warmer place. Mebbe you have, too. Mover a piedad unless you want to join the gang there ahead of time. Vamos!

Hollering to his bomberos, Buffle swung himself to the street. With a whoop they took up their task, and soon buckets of water were swishing onto the building.

Salvatore was scurrying off, scattering words at his doomed salon, at Buffle, and at the superintendent's assistant, Timpkins.

“Great stuff, Tim.” Buffle shook both his rescuer's hands. “That greasy son of a gun aimed to shoot up this young man and let our place burn.”

Timpkins grinned as the fire licked over to Salvatore's.

“Why'n't don't you carry a gun?” He turned to Buffle. “That gentle person might have rattled and drilled you.”

Buffle laughed.

“I don't want a gun,” he said. “I don't like the pesky things.”

“Forget it,” advised Timpkins, “and gather one right now. Your next move is to find Bravo, plug him a couple of times, and chase him off the lot. It won't matter much to any one whether he goes under his own steam or in a box.”

The saloon by this time was a furnace. The building to leeward of it was on fire. The fruit company's was steaming and its paint was peeling, but otherwise it was undamaged. A few more minutes and the danger would be past.

“I guess he was just crazy at seeing his place go up,” said Buffle, charitably. “I don't believe he'll start anything.”

Two bullets splashed into the wall beside the Americans. Timpkins wheeled, but not in time to get a shot at the head and arm disappearing round a corner.

“No,” remarked Buffle's assistant, dryly, “he'd never think of doing anything like that. Not Salvatore Bravo, he wouldn't, nor any other of his breed.”

“Let me get a sight of that thug,” Buffle exploded. “Let me get my hands on him and I'll break every bone he's got.”

He moved to hunt Salvatore.

“Uh-huh,” grunted Timpkins, restraining his boss, “but how are you going to get even one hand on him? That isn't Salvatore's way. Fist-fighting is vulgar from his view-point. He considers it much safer and more gentlemanly to lay for you with a gun—or stick a knife under the left shoulder-blade on a dark night. Get a gun, Buffle, and snipe him first.”

Looking it over by and large, Buffle got it into his head that Timpkins was right. True, he didn't want to kill Salvatore Bravo, but, by jiminy, he'd show him.

Then he worried again. Suppose he did shuffle Bravo off and was slammed into the cuartel until the consul straightened things out? He knew that cuartel—through curiosity—with its scorpions, centipedes, hormigas and other crawlers.

No, no! He would take Mr. Consul into his confidence, so that when it did happen he could be sprung de un golpe—at once, without delay.

The consul had his office and home at the far end of the town, beyond where the fire had started. Buffle found him sitting under an awning, a tall, frosty glass within easy reach. Swinnerton, the consul, assumed this was a social call, and his Jamaican servant produced a twin to the cold glass for Buffle.

“See you saved the place,” yawned the consul. “Too bad the old town burned up.”

Buffle nodded absently. He wasn't quite as strong for the gunning expedition as he had been. He told himself again that he didn't want to slaughter Bravo—simply to bust his head off.

The consul's secretary, Belize don Covia, came along. Like many of Spanish blood in Central America, he had little use for Americans. He had heard of the squabble over the buckets and was glad to count it a victory over a gringo out of which Salvatore Bravo surely had been cheated.

Belize half-sneered as he nodded to Buffle.

“Aha,” he cooed suavely, “so you did, after all, save your property, Señor Buffle.”

The tone annoyed the Equatorial Fruit superintendent.

“Did you think we were going to let it burn?” he queried viciously.

“Oh, no; oh, no,” smiled Belize don Covia; “only I heard that you had—ah— some sort of contraversia—trouble, was it?”

Buffle threw away his last scruple. Darn it, this'd make anybody turn gunman.

“That reminds me of what I came here for,” he said. “There's a dirty Mexican person” —Buffle observed the rise of the secretary's eyebrows— “who wanted to shoot me this noon. He'd have done it likely if he'd had anything but half-breed Mexican nerve” —he saw that Belize accepted the insult— “and if somebody hadn't evened up the pistol odds. After that the greaser got behind a wall and tried a couple of shots, but, like himself, his aim was rotten.

“Now, Mack” —Buffle turned a shoulder on the secretary— “I just dropped in to tell you, since I'm an American citizen and you are United States consul, that I'm gonna get that bird, and get him quick! You'll admit it would be a brand of suicide to let him have the opening move every time, for he's a hole-in-the-wall fighter. So I'm bound out now to blow his top to pieces urgente.

“I came down to tell you this, Mack,” he concluded, “so you can look after my interests when I do the trick.”

Swinnerton looked wearily at the belligerent.

“It's far too hot for that.” he said. “Drink up and let's have another.”

“Another drink more or less won't interfere with what's coming to Salvatore Bravo,” responded Buffle, “for he's it.”

The narrowed, appraising eyes of Belize don Covia warmed Buffle to his idea. He enlarged on how wonderfully he intended to blast Salvatore to ribbons. Whereat the secretary decided it was time to tip a friend.

Excusar,” he bowed and rose. “I would see if perhaps I can be of help to some of the people burned out!”

He moved off down the calle to let Salvatore Bravo know that he had a legal right to shoot on sight because the gringo sabueso had threatened him.

With the departure of the Spaniard, Buffle began to weaken.

“Say, Mack, I've got to wreck that guy,” he confided, “but I do hate a gun.”

“Go knife him then,” grinned the consul, “or hit him with an ax. But,” he paused impressively, “if I were in your place I'd do it soon. Salvatore is listed as a bad man.”

The consul told a tale or two of Salvatore's wickedness—and laughed on the far side of his face while he talked. Salvatore, they said, had so many scalps that he had whittled the stocks clean off three guns making notches. One time, they said, Salvatore—

Swinnerton knew Buffle didn't have a gun, and volunteered to lend him one. He also knew Salvatore Bravo and just how much he meant. From his office he fished out what looked to the fruit man like a baby howitzer.

“Haven't you anything smaller?” asked Buffle, taking the huge automatic gingerly.

“This will be awkward on my hip.”

“Hip!” echoed the consul in surprise. “Salvatore will get you certain if you don't keep it handier than that. You can't get a better gun anywhere,” he explained. “It's a Belgian make, and cost me seventy-eight dollars. You have ten shots in it, and they can go like a machine gun.”

That old antipathy to firearms welled back on Buffle. Why couldn't Salvatore Bravo get pneumonia or fall off the dock or swallow a safety razor blade or join the church, he groaned.

“Ye-es” —Buffle fooled with the clip of cartridges, loading and emptying the pistol— “they say it's been a great summer up home. Mack; cool and everything. Would be great to see some human weather for a change, wouldn't it?”

Swinnerton hid a snicker. He produced a bandolier and slung it around Buffle so that the gun would hang in front.

“It'll be right close to you there,” he said. “No lost motion like reaching back.” He stepped back and looked the warrior over. “You'll do now. And don't forget” — he shook his head seriously— “as soon as you get an eye on Bravo, yank the gun and shoot.”

It was turning two o'clock when Buffle, accoutered for the fray, drained a parting fizz and wandered forth from the consul's office to wind up the feud. The ruins of what had been half of Vistacia lay smoking under a burnished sky, a sky so polished in its glariness that the sun seemed lost in a molten background. Offshore, the sea, with hardly a swell, threw back the reeking heat.

Into the bay the Hestia, by grace of the Equatorial Fruit Company, was nosing. She had picked up part of a cargo at Vistacia three days before, had run up to several other plantations, and was homeward bound for New Orleans with holds full of ripening bananas. She was stopping in again at Vistacia to drop Buffle's second assistant, Jordan, who had made the round to keep check on the cargo, and to pick up mail and possibly a passenger.

Half of the foot-long automatic was sticking out of the loosened holster as Buffle stalked warily down the calle. His right hand hovered within an inch of the butt. In his clenched left hand was an extra clip of shells ready for the magazine.

This was going to be a fast party, all right. It was until Buffle heard the Hestia's anchor go and saw her swing in the tide. That damaged all his determination.

Buffle's gun-shyness rose in ascendancy. The Hestia was the clincher. He made up his mind finally that guns were not his game; and he didn't see why he should play a game he didn't know.

Meantime he reckoned he'd have to look out for Salvatore Bravo, anyway. The Mexican, he figured, would be somewhere around the ashes of his salon. Timpkins and the other assistant, Jordan, he knew, would be at the company's almacen having a drink with the mate who had brought Jordan ashore. Very well! If Salvatore Bravo chose to get in his way—

Right there, Salvatore did. Buffle took the string of language to be a Mexican battle-cry. The yowling, coming from his left before he saw the Mexican, startled him so that he pulled the trigger before the gun was clear of the holster. The crashing report made him jump a foot. He tripped, rolled among some burned timbers, and lay doggo, thanking his stars he wasn't riddled.

One flash was all he got of Bravo. It left an impression of that able citizen dodging through the fire wreckage a lot away.

Now, Buffle cursed himself, he was in for it. Hadn't he fired the opening shot?

The Hestia's siren let go—the call to the mate to return aboard ship. Cold beads broke out on Buffle's brow, although he was lying on charred warm lumber under a sizzling sun.

Whew! He peered hither and yon for sight of the enemy. He heard the Hestia call again. Dammit, he'd have to get along.

Creeping from cover to cover, Buffle got under way. On the other side of the ruined buildings Salvatore Bravo sneaked along in the same direction.

Once Buffle got a peek at the Mexican. He flopped flat on his face. His pistol-arm jarred and the gun roared once more. Hair rising, he awaited the answering shots. He could have sworn bullets were chugging into him.

The office he saw was only a rod away. He dared everything—got up and ran. Charging onto the veranda, he swore at what he considered unnecessary delay in his execution. The door crashed behind him—and he was still in one piece.

Buffle mopped the perspiration. Certainly, Salvatore Bravo, gun-fighter and all-round bad man, was up to some snaky deviltry. He was waiting—waiting for what?

Timpkins, Jordan, and the mate of the Hestia clattered down-stairs. They rocked with laughter over the superintendent's heavy artillery.

“I said to get a gun,” commented Timpkins, “not a cannon.”

“Yes,” snarled Buffle pleasantly, “you said to get a gun, you did, and you sure started something. I've got the gun, and I've promised to kill a bird, and I'm not going to do it. I'd be fine waking up every night to wash the blood off myself, wouldn't I? And he's hanging around out there somewhere to drive holes in my back. It's a bet that Spanish secretary of Swinnerton's told him I was taking the train and hastened his preparations for a funeral—mine. If you hadn't suggested this gun business, Timpkins, I'd never have made the crack. I don't want to kill the greasy loon, and what's more I ain't.”

Buffle halted for breath. He waved the automatic.

“I'm going aboard the Hestia,” he announced deliberately, “and you can call it what you please. You know me and you know I'm not scared of this cheap gunman. I'd poke him all over the universe if he'd only get into the same room with me, but I'm positively not going to fuss with guns. It's crooked business, and sniping is no white man's job.

“If that greaser had been a white man he'd have come up on the porch and beaten me up until he got the buckets, or been beaten up himself and not got them. But, hell, he pulls a gun. And you” —Buffle glared at Timpkins— “you jack me up to get a gun, and what's the answer? I'm going aboard the Hestia and home where it's cool—where I won't have to pack this hunk of hardware.”

Neither the well-known Cheshire nor Flatbush cat ever had a more expansive grin than those which adorned Timpkins, Jordan, and the mate.

“This Salvatore Bravo is one of the worst,” remarked Timpkins, “but there's room you might locate him asleep—”

“That'll be all,” cut in Buffle. “We've been friends, so I'll say good-by; but my thoughts would stand censoring. So-long, Tim; I suppose you meant well. So-long, Jordan.” He shook hands with both. “Right with you, Charlie,” he told the mate—the Hestia's siren screeched imperatively— “I'll get my duds.”

While Buffle ran up to the living quarters, the others put their heads together and gurgled in glee. His Gladstone came crashing down-stairs with him a step behind. Gun in hand, he led the way to the back door. The beach on which lay the boat from the Hestia was a short dash away.

“Swinnerton said he paid seventy-eight dollars for this infernal machine,” Buffle explained, hesitating on the threshold. “He can get another if bloody nature craves one. I'm going to dump it in the drink and let him have the seventy-five.”

The others were right behind him as the superintendent for the Equatorial Fruit Company at Vistacia, because he was gunshy and refused to do a killing, started into an ex-superintendency. He squinted before stepping out. There was no evidence of Bravo; but Buffle, fearing an ambush, emerged on the veranda with the automatic extended at arm's length.

“Out in deep water,” he was saying; “good-by, gun,” when a startled shriek broke in. Hard on it came a babel of Spanish and Portuguese and Mexican with a sprinkling of native dialects, massed in expressions that rivaled the lamentations of lost souls.

Buffle's jaw dropped. There was Salvatore Bravo not forty paces away.

“Shoot,” yelled Buffle's companions in chorus. “Shoot.”

For the third time Buffle accidentally pulled the trigger. Like a stricken rabbit, Salvatore Bravo buckled in the middle, then shot rapidly behind an old packing- case on the beach.

Believing he had by some wild fluke winged his man, Buffle stood foolishly. It was a moment before his dazed senses got the drift of the wails rising from behind the box.

“Ah, dear Señor Buffle,” whined the Mexican, “escucheme vuestra merced— listen, do not shoot, I beg. Nom de mio madre, I did not mean your harm. I was bobamente—loco, what you Americanos call fooling. I pray you, señor. I am abandonar —going away from Vistacia, never to return.”

Out of the jumble it dawned on Buffle that Salvatore Bravo was a fake as a bad man, and he understood why his friends had laughed. His battle spirit came back.

Callese, Bravo,” shouted Buffle; “shut up and fight. Es tarde, comprender? Come on, Bravo, come out and combatir!

By way of emphasis he opened fire on the sky.

Santa Maria,” choked Bravo, “do not kill me. I am poor, señor—un hombre de paz. I am young, señor, to die.” Crescendo, he ended in a final plea: “I am married, señor—el mio esposa—el mio infantes.”

The crash of Buffle's gun as he emptied it drowned out the Mexican. Scared to his foundation, Bravo leaped to his feet and ran. Slipping in the new clip of cartridges,

Buffle followed. Out on a jetty went Salvatore Bravo. At the edge he took one despairing look backward, plunged into the water, and struck out for the Hestia.

Limp with the joy of it, Timpkins, Jordan, and Charlie, the mate of the steamer, sprawled helpless on the sand. Having hurled his last challenge and fired his last shot, Buffle turned and saw them. His own face spread.

“Some gunman,” said he. “What?”

The Hestia's siren spoke again— sharply.

“Hurry up, Buff,” Jordan strangled, “or she'll sail without you.”

“Let her sail.” Buffle jigged a crazy step. “Gee—I wish I had more shells.”