Hell and Back Again, by Bruce Golden

HONORABLE MENTION

sfreader 2017 story contest winner

Novelist, journalist, satirist, Bruce Golden’s short stories have been published more than a hundred times across a score of countries and 30 anthologies. Asimov’s Science Fiction described his second novel, “If Mickey Spillane had collaborated with both Frederik Pohl and Philip K. Dick, he might have produced Bruce Golden’s Better Than Chocolate”–and about his novel Evergreen, “If you can imagine Ursula Le Guin channeling H. Rider Haggard, you’ll have the barest conception of this stirring book, which centers around a mysterious artifact and the people in its thrall.” His latest book, Monster Town, is a satirical send-up of old hard-boiled detective stories featuring movie monsters of the black and white era. It’s currently in development for a possible TV series. You can find Bruce onlone at  http://goldentales.tripod.com

Hell and Back Again
by Bruce Golden

One sat cross-legged, the other two propped against an outcropping of gray and black-flecked granite.  A trio of horses stirred restlessly nearby, tethered to a dying sycamore.  The half-eaten remains of a jackrabbit hung from a spit over the withering fire.  Overhead a lone buzzard circled, undeterred by the menacing swarm of nimbi looming in the western sky.

“Come on, it’s your turn,” urged the first one, scratching an odious septic rash on his arm.

Ignoring the nag, his heavily scarred companion groused, “When’s he going to get here?  I’m tired of waiting.”

“Yeah, I’m getting hungry,” said the scarecrow-thin third fellow.

“You’re always hungry,” complained Scar.  “Eat some more rabbit.”

“It tastes like rat.”

“You would know.”

The expressive but rheumy eyes of the first fellow said he’d heard it all before.  He scratched some more and coughed.  Spitting out a foul wad he said, “He’ll get here when he gets here.  Make your play already.”

“All right, all right.  Hold your pus.  Here’s my move.”

Scar tossed aside his scarlet cloak, leaned over the four-sided board situated between them, and placed his inscribed chips just so.

Rheumy turned his head sideways and read, “Strife.”

“You always use that one,” mocked Scarecrow.

“I can’t help it if I always draw those letters.”

“A couple of triple letter scores, two, three… that’s 11 points,” tallied Rheumy.

Eleven,” chuckled Scarecrow derisively.

Scar raised his gauntlet-covered fist as if to backhand Scarecrow’s cracked lips, but restrained himself.  “Let’s see what you can do, scrawny.”

Scarecrow fingered his chips contemplatively, but withheld his move.  “Did you see the latest M. Night Shyamalan movie?  I laughed so hard I nearly cracked a rib.  It was a hoot.”

“A hoot?  Who talks like that?  What in the seven fiery torments of Hades is a hoot?”

“Damn you’re cranky today,” said Rheumy.  “That’s what happens when you sleep with your sword.”

Scarecrow sniggered.  “He woke up on the wrong side of his sword.  Get it?”

Scar shot Scarecrow a look that would have melted the armor off a Panzer.

“It’s a joke,” said Rheumy as if tired of playing conciliator, “just a joke.”

Scar sheathed his gaze and mumbled, “Yeah, you guys are funnier than a barrelful of fuming nitric acid.”

Quicker than Scarecrow could riposte, Rheumy farted explosively and all three burst out laughing.

“Okay, here we go,” said Scarecrow, his bony fingers placing five chips to intersect the “r” of the last word.  “Read it and weep, boys.  Drought.  Triple word score.  That’s 39 big points.”

Scar made a rude noise signifying he could care less and stood up to scan the horizon.

“Where the hell is he?  He’s always late.  We’re always waiting on him.”

Rheumy didn’t bother to answer.  Instead, he studied his own letter chips.

“You guys want to catch a flick later?” asked Scarecrow.  “I can already taste that butter-drenched theater popcorn.”

“Films are irrelevant,” responded Rheumy.  “Give me a good poetry reading anytime.”

Scar snorted, startling the already on-edge horses.

Rheumy went on.  “Celluloid, videotape, laser discs, they’ll melt.  Books will burn.  An entire book can’t be memorized–with apologies to Ray Bradbury–but a poem can be.  Poetry is truly eternal.”  He spread out his chips on the board.  “Scourge.  That’s 20 for me.”

Scarecrow nudged Scar.  “Who do you think would win in a fight between Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson?”

“Manson,” Scar replied assuredly.  “He’s one crazy bastard.  He’d crush Hitler.”

“I don’t know, Hitler was awfully wiry.”

“They say Manson had twice the strength of a normal man when he went berserk,” added Rheumy.

“Who’s they?” groused Scar.  “Everyone’s always saying they say this and they say that.  Who are they? That’s what I want to know.”

“Well,” began Rheumy, “nominally ‘they’ refers informally to people in general, the masses, or those regarded collectively as being in authority, or in-the-know.”

“What the blazes does–”

His retort was interrupted by the approach of pounding hooves.  Scar stood immediately, reaching for the ruby hilt of his sword.

“It’s about time,” he said, recognizing the incoming rider.  “I’m ready to kick some ass.”

The grim rider approached, slowing his ebony horse to an unwilling trot.  Skeletal fingers gripped the long-handled scythe resting across his saddle.  His grim face was shadowed by the hood of his coal black cloak, but his eyes were white hot.  He yanked on the reins.  His horse reared.

“Mount up.”  His voice echoed as if from a tomb.

The trio complied.

Scarecrow yanked his pitchfork from where he’d planted it.

Rheumy pick up his bow and quiver, leaving a trail of maggots in the dust.

Scar strode across their unfinished game, scattering the inscribed chips, and pulled himself atop his anxious, red-eyed sorrel.  “Where to?” he asked.

“Somewhere gluttonous I hope,” responded Scarecrow.

“I prefer a healthy clime,” replied Rheumy, barely getting the words out before he began to cough.  He covered his mouth with a gangrenous hand, but not before his pale horse stamped and whinnied.

They followed Grim, guiding their steeds to the edge of the spectral mesa where they’d camped.  Their leader took his scythe and gestured with it through the void towards a blue sphere in the distance.

“Them again?” Scar said, shaking his head.

“You’d think they’d learn,” replied Scarecrow from atop his malnourished beast.

“It’s their nature,” said Rheumy.  “They’ll never learn.”

Scar drew his sword, the blade shrieking from its scabbard like the death rattle of multitude.  “Let’s get to work.”

Grim turned in his saddle and flashed a murderous gaze at his comrades.

“Actually,” he said, his jagged teeth showing through a malevolent grin, “I was thinking of blowing off work today and going bowling.  Who’s with me?  I say we go knock some pins to hell and back again.”

His black horse reared high into the air and then, as one, the four horsemen spurred their mounts and galloped into the void.

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