The Gold Situation
A short story by Chuck Allen
Jones was NOT in a pleasant mood. But, he had thought, it might be better to keep silent and try to occupy his mind with more...mundane... things. So far, this little stratagem had not worked very well. Not very well at all. Instead of voicing his opinions, Jones had decided to hang back a ways from his two remaining companions and think things over. And things were coming to a head. After all, the current situation was totally unacceptable.
For a while, Jones tried to distract himself by staring down the side of his horse and hypnotically watch the steady clop-clop of his horse's hooves on the dirt road. THAT had been only marginally distracting, so Jones then tried to enjoy the scenery around him and his party. But, to Jones, there wasn't much scenery to enjoy. The path he and his companions traveled on was at the bottom of a deep crevasse. Stark, gray cliff walls towered up on either side of him, and the low, heavy clouds above added to the feeling of oppressiveness. What this place needs, he figured, was a splash of color.
Not that anyone would appreciate it out here. Jones' path had rarely, if ever, been traversed by humanoids. Well, humans, at any rate. No one had a reason to, unless he or she had a death wish. And now that Kone was dead, even that reason was only a fool's errand. The only thing the Great-but-Dead dragon, Kone, would be killing was nostril hairs with its stinking carcass. And, of course, the people of Aerolus, his home village, would treat Jones like the hero he was. It would be his insidious luck, though, to be ambushed on the way back to the reward.
Jones glanced up at the riding pair in front of him, and he sneered. He could feel his mood drop another notch as he looked over at the rider on the right, Erik, to the powerful warrior on the left, Bill. Oh, he supposed Erik was okay. Personally, Jones felt rather indifferent toward the ranger. The tall, lanky man with dark, curly hair and long goatee had pretty much kept to himself ever since leaving Aerolus. Whenever Jones tried to carry on a conversation with Erik, Erik had simply and quickly spoken, and after a few moments, the dark-clad ranger would usually find and excuse to end the conversation and move on. Jones couldn't blame him--he had known many people in his life to be intimidated by his quick wit and charismatic personality. Jones felt that it was unfortunate that Erik would feel so inferior around him, but, hey, that's just the way things worked out sometimes. Presently, Erik seemed almost asleep at the saddle. His wide-brimmed hat was pulled low over his eyes, and his entire body sagged over the pommel.
Bill, on the other hand, was someone who made Jones' blood burn. Bill, the "oh-I'm-SO-great-a-warrior-so-you'd-better-stay-out-of-my-way" man. Bill was HUGE, Jones would give him that. He's a muscle-bound idiot, is what he is, Jones figured. And absolutely NO sense of humor, either. Jones tried the "Jones Charm" on him, but Bill had just slapped him upside the head and called him a "weasel". A WEASEL! Oh, Bill thought THAT was funny. Real funny, oaf. Sure, Bill could swing that battle axe at his side like a scythe of the Gods, but Jones thought the man lacked finesse, style. The "Jones Charm" had always worked on everybody--everybody always became fast friends with Jones. Except THIS guy. It was at Bill where Jones' anger was directed. But, as usual for Bill, the massive warrior blatantly ignored Jones, instead keeping a watchful eye on the cliff tops.
Jones sneered again. It was a little too late to start looking out for your companions NOW, you thick-headed egotist, Jones thought. Some leader you are, anyway, Bill. If you had the sense enough to listen to me before, there'd still be FOUR of us in this party. And, Jones' mind added bitterly, I would've had a FREE woman to please me at the return to the village.
That thought caused Jones to look back with a grimace to the roan mare tied to his brown riding horse. Yep, Amanda had been quite the looker before she had her side ripped off in Kone's lair. And for a cleric, Jones found her easy, gentle wisdom and down-to-earth attitude a pleasant change from those stiffs at the village who had always got all over his case when he "borrowed" stuff or "played his games." What was the deal with religion making those guys "holier than thou" with him? Now Jones was never particularly lucky, but he had always felt himself favored by the gods. Religion was never a necessary part of his life, other than quick prayers like "Hey, get me outta this one, an' there's a big donation for you at the next temple" or "Enough already!" Religion certainly didn't help Amanda, in the end.
Now, the dead cleric's body, the part not splattered all over the cave wall, had been carefully wrapped in her traveling cloak and laid over her horse for a proper burial at Aerolus. Jones found himself sighing as he looked back forward. Oh, Jones knew that Amanda had wanted him, really wanted him, and now her obsession with him and his beautifully sculpted body had gone on unfulfilled. And now he'd end up paying for the finest looking woman back at the village, and he really didn't have that much money to spare, what with the EXTREMELY unfair share situation with the dragon's spoils.
And that, Jones knew, was at the heart of the matter. He had practically killed the foul Kone by himself, and he was only getting just a meager portion of its loot! It was barely enough to buy himself ales for a week at the tavern, much less pay back some rather misunderstood gambling debts. How could Jones survive on such a mere pittance? He didn't know, but he DID know the whole thing STUNK of Bill's feeble leadership skills. And the more he thought about it, the more Jones knew that unless he acted quickly, the more he'd be screwed at reward time. So, prompting his horse, Dice, forward, he smoothly trotted up between Bill's heavily-muscled Warhorse (great name, Bill) and Erik's sleek Strider (equally clever, Erik). Jones' ingratiating smile also smoothly fell into place as he looked over at Bill. No sense letting Bill know how much he pisses you off, after all.
Erik only raised his head slightly at Jones before returning to his half-doze, but Bill got a rather evil glint in his hard, blue eyes as he flatly returned Jones' smile. Even sitting up as straight as he could, Jones only came up to Bill's shoulder, and Jones was certain Bill used his height, as usual, to try and intimidate Jones into silence. But Jones would not be silenced. This is GOLD we're talking about, you know.
"What?" Bill growled at Jones in that low voice that Jones thought for sure was fake. Only Jones had not as yet been able to uncover Bill's deception.
Jones cleared his throat. Damn, he thought, I didn't mean to do that! Determined to cover any nervousness the noise may have given away, Jones tried to talk as solemnly and forcefully as he could. Still, that booming resonance that seems to come so easily to the warrior still eluded Jones. But Jones thought he sounded nearly as good.
"I want to talk about the gold situation."
Bill was unimpressed, snorting deeply and hocking out a large wad of phlegm at Dice's feet. Apparently, Jones wasn't going to get a VOCAL response, so he continued boldly.
"I think I'm getting screwed here."
The horses continued down the path as it narrowed, causing Erik to pull slightly on the reins to bring Strider behind Bill and Jones. Although he still looked drowsy, Erik had positioned himself close enough to overhear every word of the debate in front of him. Bill squinted as he looked at Jones for, what it seemed to the smaller man, a long time before he responded.
"You do, huh?" The same low growl, like a caged lion ready to spring forth and kill at a moment's notice. Jones refused to acknowledge the fact that Bill frightened him sometimes. So he puffed out his chest, held his chin up, and looked down his nose at Bill. He didn't stop to realize that, with Bill so much higher up than him, Jones may look quite silly.
"Yes. That's right. I think that a one sixth share is TOTALLY unacceptable."
"We're all getting a one sixth share, Jones." Bill was simple enough to state the obvious. Clearly, behind that flabby muscle he called a brain, he had missed the point. Still, Jones had to tread carefully here. He did not like the way Bill's giant hand rested on the axe's grip at his side.
"Well," the sly man unconsciously cleared his throat again, "that may be good enough for you, but I feel I deserve more than a one sixth share."
There. Plainly stated for Bill's limited intellect. Surely, Bill could commiserate and understand Jones' logic.
"No," Bill bluntly answered at once. Jones felt his jaw go slack, but he fought against his dropping jaw and ultimately won. He briefly wondered if Bill thought Jones' eyes widened in surprise or rage. Jones hoped the latter. He wished that his next words didn't sound so much like a spoiled brat's.
"But, why?! Oh, c'mon!"
"Everyone gets his share. That's it. Live with it, Weasel."
Jones' teeth clenched under the undercutting blow, but he masked it quite well with "the Smile." Time to try some more "Jones Charm," it seemed. Bill was simply not thinking realistically. It was crazy talk, is what it was. According to the warrior's belief, each member of the party would get a share of Kone's ultimately disappointing "hoard," with Amanda's share going to her funeral. Another share would go to "the gods" in the form of various donations at the temples, because Bill thought "the gods" had helped them with the destruction of the vicious white dragon. Jones didn't know what to think of THAT. After all, he didn't see any bolt of lightning or unearthly flames leap from the heavens to help him kill the dragon. Yet Bill's final "share", to go to Aerolus (!), was completely incomprehensible to Jones. Furthermore, Bill was planning on declining the reward from the grateful people of Aerolus! Certainly, the fighter's brain, small as it was, had been addled in the fray. It MUST have been to think such nonsense. Nearly ALL of the treasure, well, okay, half of the treasure, was going to a dead woman, "the gods," and the people who were supposed to give US money. Jones was determined to get AT LEAST a one-third share. He deserved more, but he'd live with a one-third share.
"Look, my friend." Jones slowed down so he didn't have to explain this TWICE. "I say we each get a one-third share. Then we can arrange for a suitable (as in cheap, Jones added silently to himself) funeral for dearest and lovely Amanda. Then we can donate a suitable (as in small, Jones added silently again) donation to the temple. I think also that," Jones spoke through clenched teeth here, "foregoing the reward would be quite enough for the village."
"A one-sixth share is suitable for everyone, Weasel." Bill replied without missing a beat. Faintly, Jones heard a soft chuckle from Erik behind him.
"We think that's crazy!" Composure! Jones' mind screamed. Composure!
"'We', who?" Bill tapped the handle of his axe with an audible beat. "Only you seem to think something's wrong the shares."
Jones knew that the "we" slipped out. He had practiced being royalty in the mirror for so long that these things occasionally happened. Now was not a good time, however. He nearly lost his smile, but tried to quickly respond.
"Well, uh, I'm sure that Erik would like more gold, too."
Bill glowered at Jones, then he turned in the saddle to stare back at Erik. Jones glanced back at the ranger to see Erik grin and shrug noncommittally. Some help HE was. Bill returned to glowering at Jones. Oh, brother, this wasn't going well at all. Still, the lure of gold urged him on to another tactic. Jones put a hand into his side pouch as he widened his smile.
"What say we play a game for out mutual one-sixth shares? The winner'll get a one-third share, the loser, zip."
"No." Bill was not making this an easy scam at all. But Jones didn't become the Hero of Aerolus by backing down.
"Oh, c'mon, my large pal and buddy," Jones cajoled as he dug out two straws of unequal length from his pouch. He made a small show of cleverly putting the straws in his fist that he extended toward the warrior. "It's so simple, it hurts! You pull the long straw, you get the one-third share, It's easy!"
Bill growled in frustration. "Will you SHUT UP if I do this, Jones?"
Jones held up his free hand, nearly losing his balance on Dice. Stupid horse.
"Absolutely. Win or lose, I don't say a peep."
Again with the piercing, icy stare, making Jones' smile nearly crumble. But after a moment, Bill reached out a leather-gauntleted hand and pulled a straw out of Jones' fist. Jones' nearly giggled at his own cleverness at subtly breaking Bill's straw in two as the warrior pulled, then he quickly pulled the now longer straw out of his fist with his other hand (and quickly and just as subtly tossing away the damning evidence of his slyness). Carefully, Jones held up his now longer straw to Bill's shortened one.
"Wow. How about that? I won!" Careful not to get too excited, Jones, his brain cautioned. Erik cleared his throat behind the pair as Bill frowned at his luck. As the warrior and Jones turned back to Erik, the smaller man felt a sinking feeling inside his stomach. As sure as his luck, there it was...
"I think," Erik whispered, "that you may want to add this broken piece of straw to your piece, Bill." Somehow, the ranger had caught it in gloved fingers. Stupid wind!
Jones giggled nervously, swallowing several times but finding most of the saliva in his throat gone. Jones saw Bill begin to shake with a powerful rage, and Jones knew that he did not have much time to act.
Desperately, he cried, "But I deserve at least a one-third share! I killed the dragon!"
Bill's answering whisper was low and deadly. "You call hiding at the cave mouth killing the beast? Amanda DIED because YOU refused to engage the damn thing!"
"Obviously, your memory of the event is faulty," Jones snapped, going for broke. "It's easy to blame the little guy to cover your own cowardice!"
Bill's icy eyes widened in a red-rimmed outrage. Jones heard every knuckle on Bill's left fist crack like kindling wood as the warrior closed a massive fist.
"Weasel," the giant breathed, "I have lost patience with you."
Jones heard the sound of his nose flatten, saw the flashing colors in front of his eyes, and felt the rock strewn ground as he fell from his horse, but he never actually saw the fist. Wow, that Bill is quick. The dullard. Erik's mocking laughter helped Jones regain his feet moments later; blood poured from his ruined nose.
Still that gold situation was beginning to look just fine. At least, for now...