FOUR IS A CROWD
by Bob Bolin

You can’t get away from earthly quarrels

     One thing was fairly certain. Men would die before the sun could set on Penthar, this world of a distant solar system.

     Henry Whittle did not want to be a victim. He enjoyed the warm winds and eating fruit from trees in a nearby forest. There were also small animals that could be hunted for food.

     He had been a pilot aboard the ship and had not expected the crash after dodging a meteor. Like the others, he was forced to make the best of things.

     Their wrecked spaceship lay over a hill. Nobody could fix it, not even Captain Brinker, even though he was a trouble-shooting space mechanic. But even this and his dark good looks and authoritative manner could not help him now.

     Henry scooted his fat little body over a rock and doused his feet in a bubbling mountain stream of water, scarcely heeding the quarrel that had developed between the ship maintenance man Ganther and Captain Brinker. Their quarrel had started because of the woman Mena Shakley.

     Ganther was a powerful man, a blond-headed giant, built like a wrestler. He would be a strong contender for Mena’s hand, while Captain Brinker might be a close match. Their voices drifted to Henry from a distant higher ground.

     “Why fight over me?” Mena cried out in a defiant voice. She had been the ship’s explorations planner in their search for different worlds where Earth people might settle. But she proved to be more than that now because of her undeniable beauty. Her auburn hair glistened in the sun and her lithe body only made her seem more beautiful.

     “This world, which we named Penthat, is not big enough for three men and one woman!” Ganther uttered loudly.

     “He’s right,” Captain Brinker said angrily. “But what I want as the captain should be of utmost importance.”

     “Well, naturally we’ll have to stay here from now on,” Mena argued hotly. “But should I not have the right to pick the man I want to spend the rest of my life with?”

     “Sure!” Ganther bellowed, “But I don’t imagine that fat little man, Henry Whittle, will win your hand, fair lady! Not with me around! And I’m a better man than that captain.”

     Henry pulled his feet out of the stream and slipped into his shoes. He could see them coming toward him now, with Mena leading. There was little doubt to him that she was thrilled by the idea of men fighting over her. He got to his feet to face them.

     “Are you in on this?” Captain Brinker asked. “Mena insists she has the right to pick one of us for her life companion.”

     Henry smiled anxiously. “Can’t say as I am! Not that I don’t like this nice woman. She would be a real prize. Perhaps you two had better decide who gets her.”

     “You mean that you don’t care about me?” Mena asked sharply.

     “Aw, shut up!” Ganther said to her. “He wouldn’t have a chance against either of us, anyway!”

     Henry reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. “Gentlemen!” he declared. “Suppose we settle this peacefully. The little lady shouldn’t mind since she obviously hasn’t made a choice. I’ll flip this coin and it will decide the winner.”

     “Sounds fair enough,” Captain Brinker agreed.

     “I suppose so,” Ganther grumbled.

     “Then it’s settled,” Henry answered. He flipped the coin to the ground, but quickly covered it with his right foot. “One of you call it,” he said, smiling.

     “Okay,” Captain Brinker said. “It’s heads!”

     Henry removed his foot. “By golly, it is heads!” he declared, knowing that it really wouldn’t settle anything. “Looks like you won the woman’s hand, Captain!”

     Brinker started over toward the slightly alarmed Mena. Ganther grabbed the captain by the left shoulder and whirled him around.

     “Not so fast! I think it was a frame-up between you and the little fatty!”

    They grabbed each other and rolled madly across the ground. Henry ran over and managed to kick them apart, careful not to get in the struggle.

     “Listen here, you knot-heads!” he bellowed. “Why not settle this as gentlemen? With weapons?”

     “Good idea!” Ganther said, getting to his feet. “We can get guns off our wrecked ship.”

     “Fair enough,” Captain Brinker agreed, scowling. “Only you will be the one to die, Ganther. Go get the weapons, Henry.”

     “Gladly!” Henry said. He went over the wrecked ship to retrieve the weapons. “Wait just a minute!”

     He returned with two undamaged ray guns.

     “We’ll settle this fairly,” he said, handing a weapon to each man. “It will be the old-fashioned way, in a duel. Walk away from each other until I have counted to ten. When I reach ten, whirl and fire. Got it?”

     “Don’t worry, little fat man,” Ganther snarled. “After I kill Brinker, you will be the next one on the list!”

     “Just start counting,” the Captain said.

     “Please, don’t!” Mena pleaded, trying to separate the antagonists.

     “Shut up!” Ganther snapped, pushing her away.

     “Might as well settle this now,” Captain Brinker agreed.

     Henry began his methodical count. “One, two, three, four, five!”

     Mena tried to clamp her hand over his mouth, but he jerked away.

     “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he managed to say.

     The two men whirled and fired their weapons wildly. Ganther fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Brinker stood shakily on his feet, still firing. Ganther raised his right arm and fired again. The ray caught the captain between the eyes. He pitched forward to the ground. The silence that followed in the valley was now complete.

     Mena started shaking with uncontrollable sobs, suddenly realizing that the two had died fighting for her. Then her eyes blazed with indignation. “You caused them both to die!” she cried out.

     “Yes,” he admitted. “And now we are the only ones left. It was bound to happen. Let’s just say my brain was superior to their brains. Any other way, I might not have survived.”

     “Do you think I will ever take up with you?” she yelled huffily.

     “Who else?” he answered, smiling.

(Extended ending contributed by Webmaster Eric Thiel)

    “There are always options”, Mena replied, picking up Ganther’s weapon and firing directly through Whittle’s heart, and again through his superior brain just to make sure. “I like this one better.” 

CONTENTS