The Inspiration for Mountain Center, and an Excerpt from Venture Unleashed

This weekend I’m headed to beautiful McCall, Idaho for the High Mountain Open Judo Tournament. Our good friends from the McCall Judo Club are the best hosts, and we love the road trip. I first visited McCall with my team a few years ago, but before I’d ever been there, before I’d met any of them, their judo team inspired part of Venture Unleashed.

As soon as I moved to the Northwest, I started hearing about a tough, tight-knit judo team from an isolated town nestled in the mountains of Idaho. I made up a fighting center in the Mountains of Richland, and wove them into the original version of Venture back in 2005. I’ve since come to know the real McCall judo team. They’re wonderfully talented and funny, and in many ways a better story than my fiction. But here’s the bit of story they inspired, from Venture Unleashed.

Venture spread his blankets over the gray-white canvas. He silently said his prayers, then lay down, arranged his bag for a pillow, and breathed deeply, contentedly. He could feel the heat of the flames on his heavy eyelids. Dasher and Earnest sprawled nearby with blankets around their shoulders, playing cards. It was their first evening at Mountain Center, clear off in the Northern Quarter. They’d had to board the horses and carriage in nearby Twin Pines and hike the last few miles to this austere log camp in the wooded, hard-to-reach foothills of the Great Mountains. The small dormitory was full, so the only place for them to sleep was on the mat by the training room hearth. Venture, who slept on the hearth at home when the nights were especially cold, found it familiar and comforting. Maybe here, he’d finally be able to sleep right.

Behind him, Earnest laughed.

“Give me those!” Dasher demanded. “I think you forgot to shuffle.”

Venture’s sleep had been fitful ever since he’d stopped taking the tonic for his pain. On top of that, his training during the weeks of waiting for his injuries to fully heal hadn’t come close to burning up enough of his energy. He’d spent their stay at Three Ponds confined to repeating techniques over and over again on Earnest, with more finesse than force, to the point of near perfection. When it came time for sparring, he couldn’t participate. He had to make do with practicing some more on Earnest. And Earnest had an annoying habit of deciding, much too soon for Venture’s liking, that his body had done enough work. While he gave his body the rest Earnest insisted on, his mind continued to work. He watched Dasher intently and tried to learn from what he did.

It had been a full six weeks after they left Champions before Earnest allowed him to do any sparring, and then it was only with lighter, weaker boys. A month of this had passed, and no amount of resentful scowls, none of his matside pleading that he wanted a challenge, that he needed more, had swayed Earnest. All his old troubles, all his new worries, swirled around him and within him. When he wasn’t allowed to really fight, Venture was denied the freedom, the release that always came when it all faded away on the mat. In the thick of the battle, he was a fighter, nothing more and nothing less.

Tomorrow that terrible restlessness, the fear of becoming what he’d once been—a boy on the verge of being overcome by his own troubles—would end. Tomorrow Earnest would let him unleash his full capabilities on the fighters of Mountain Center. They were a tough bunch of competitors, isolated, with nothing to do but practice. If he could show Earnest he was ready, not just to push his body all the way again, but to take on these fighters, maybe Earnest would help him write Justice and ask him to apply to the Fighting Commission for an exemption to the age limit of nineteen, so he could participate in absolute fighting tournaments with the men.

Tomorrow, too, he’d have the chance to show Dasher that he was worthy of all the time he’d taken to teach him. Knowing this, and feeling more comfortable than he had since he left home, Venture said his prayers, then fell asleep hard and fast. He dreamed of the willow tree, of Jade’s hand in his, of the lightness of her laughter, of the dark, sweet hope of her lips meeting his.

“Should we wake him up?” Dasher said to Earnest.

Venture lay still on the mat with his back to them, willing the sun not to rise.

“Give him a few more minutes. He’s finally sleeping well.”

Venture was about to answer that he was awake, and would get himself upright in a minute, when Dasher spoke again. “Something bothering your boy, Earnest?”

He could hear Earnest stuffing things into his bag as he replied, “He’s always been like that—restless.”

“What’s on his mind?”

As Dasher spoke, Venture felt the flap of the blanket he was folding.

“He’s had a lot happen to him, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. One of these days he’ll tell me, I think, but in the meantime, he does all right in spite of it.”

“Everybody has his secrets,” Dasher said. Then he turned away from Earnest and Venture barely made out his whisper, “I know I do.”

Venture was up and seated in the dining hall for breakfast in no time. He longed to get to the mat, but he knew he needed to fuel up for it, too. And the biscuits and eggs were hot and the company was good.

Forty or so of the Mountain Center residents sat together on benches at long, rough pine tables. Being so isolated, the whole group was much like a family. The head coach’s young sons trained here, and his wife and older daughters, along with two hired girls, kept the kitchen and the dormitory. The little ones squirmed in their seats and ducked under the tables to tie knots in the fighters’ boot strings and giggle at their mock outrage. Venture scooped up a little boy about the same age as his niece, Tory and threatened to toss him into the rafters. Would she even remember him by the time he got back?

A path was shoveled through the snow to the training room, and as they made their way, the Mountains fighters looked to the sky above the clearing in the pines and debated whether they were due a fresh batch. But Venture headed straight for the training hall door. The log structure, a single training room, was much longer than it was wide. Inside, the walls were dark and unplastered, the windows heavily shuttered against the cold. Venture wasted no time in removing his boots and stripping down to his workout clothes. But there was over an hour of instruction to suffer through while they waited for their breakfast to digest.

Finally, they warmed up in preparation for a sparring session. At last there was an opponent across from him, there was the nod of acknowledgment, there was the feel of his weight, his balance on the ball of his foot as he stood poised. There were the men who must wait to rotate in next round, backs to the wall, arms crossed, eyes on them, prepared to move out of their way in an instant; men took little note of walls or bystanders in the midst of sparring. There was the hollow sound of the whistle, shrill and inviting like the space left waiting in him all this time.

Venture made good use of his new technical skills, and went five rounds in a row, beating each challenger soundly. He looked to the others close to his age, questioned with his eyes, You, next round? No, they shook their heads. Their chests heaved and their eyes pleaded, No more.

“You want to go?” he said to one of the men.

But Earnest said, “Not yet. That’s enough for today.”

Venture frowned at him and went to the wall, drenched in sweat, his muscles alive with that tired but strong feeling they got from hard work, that different-from-anything-else hard work of fighting. He was tired and hungry and thirsty in the way that he missed, in the exhilarating way that he craved.

Dasher persuaded one of the best fighters to give him another round, and the two of them had the whole mat to themselves. The rest of the fighters were done, every one of them exhausted. Not Dasher. Never Dasher. Venture watched Dasher, feeling, after his own performance, almost worthy of the honor of being his tag-along.

Dasher set up his opponent and threw him, once, twice, three times, each time with exactly the same foot sweep. It was a new variation he was working on, and this was one of the ways Dasher practiced and improved his technique. He limited himself to just that one technique so that he could learn to execute it no matter what his opponent did to prevent it. It was also one of the ways Dasher, with his distinctive brand of confidence, flirted at the line between showing his stuff and showing off.

No one could resist watching Dasher Starson at work. Dash knew it, and loved it, and that was clear, though he didn’t glance at them, didn’t cry out triumphantly and draw attention to each successful throw. As his audience grew, as their attention increased, so did the passion with which Dasher fought. The calm, controlled joy was evident on his face and in the way he moved.

The round wore on, and his opponent grew tired, but Dasher’s exuberance expanded until it completely overwhelmed the other fighter. Dasher foot-swept him again, one last time, as the whistle blew. He stood patiently before the fallen man and waited for him to rise, his hands resting on his hips, his shoulders squared. He didn’t smile, but his dark eyes danced under his heavy brows. Venture shook his head and thought, Now that’s a great fighter. No, I’m not even close to worthy, not even to be his tag-along. Not yet.

Venture toweled off his sweaty head and pulled on a sweater. It was going to be a cold walk to lunch.

“Hey, Champ!” Dasher called out.

Venture hesitated, glancing around. Champ?

“Yes, you.” Dasher came up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You looked great today.”

<<End of Excerpt>>

Find out more about Venture Unleashed, Book 2 of the Venture Series, here.

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About R. Russell

Author of the Unicorns of the Mist series and the Venture series.
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