The other day, my friend Victoria at raynotbrabdury tagged me with the “Spin a Story” challenge, which she explained is a version of a long-established writing exercise called “The Wheel”.
The rules are as follows:
- Pick any newspaper, magazine, or book of any style or genre.
- Choose 3 random words (best if done with your eyes closed).
- Create a story by using those 3 words or combinations of words. Provide the name of your source.
- Pingback to my post , so I can read and comment.
- Challenge as many as 5 additional Bloggers.
Y’all know how good I am at following the rules. I didn’t close my eyes. I didn’t choose my word combinations at random. A story idea has been bouncing around my overtaxed brain for months. A brand new library book, John Meacham’s The Soul of America, has been sitting on my shelf unopened waiting for me to get to it, and yesterday I cracked it open to sneak a peek at the table of contents. Parts of 3 chapter headings jumped out at me and simultaneously caused the careening pieces of that story to slam together into something resembling a coherent whole.
My three word combinations are the crisis of the old order, soul of flame and temper of steel, and long shadow. Meacham, in fact, borrowed at least two of the three phrases that jumped out at me from earlier sources. The first came from the title of Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1957 book The Crisis of the Old Order 1919 – 33 (The Age of Roosevelt, Vol 1). The second comes from a Theodore Roosevelt quote taken from his 1913 autobiography. Both of those phrases come from works or passages dealing with periods of strife in American history. My story deals with a character’s personal struggle with religious strife in our own time. “The Wheel”, indeed.
Several characters and events included in the story below have appeared in prior stories in my Copperhead County series so are hyperlinked. If you’re interested in reading them, just click the links. Regardless of how much you like or hate my story, please let me know in the comments below. I hope you enjoy.
A Fire on the Mountain
Bash locked his front door, adjusted the angle of his security cameras, and trudged around back to check the new chains on his shed. He looked at the camera hanging under its eave, grinned, and flipped it a bird while watching himself do so on his iPhone screen. With a bit more spring in his step, he walked to his driveway in time to see Colt arrive and heft his enormous frame backpack into the bed of his Avalanche. He closed and bolted the gate then hugged Colt, pounding his back. “Good to see you, brother! Thanks for coming with.”
“Hey Bash,” Colt wheezed, “don’t squeeze so tight. I’m still a little weak.”
Bash backed off, clapped his hand onto Colt’s shoulder, and squeezed gently. “Sorry, man, I’m just glad you’re okay,” he said as he climbed into the driver’s seat, “everyone’s been real worried about you.”
Colt slid in on the passenger side. “I appreciate the sentiment, brother, I do. I’m sure I’ll feel even better after a weekend in the woods.” As Bash turned onto the highway, Colt rolled his window down and inhaled deeply. “Ahh, nothing like the scent of magnolia blossoms after two weeks of breathing hospital air. So tell me. What’s the occasion?”
Bash twisted in his seat, reached behind the center console, flipped open his cooler, and fished around in the ice. “Well,” he said as he removed a dripping can of Coors and popped the tab before taking a long swig, “let’s go get Lantz first then set up camp. I’ll fill you both in later. You want a beer?”
Colt shook his head, frowning. “No, thanks. I’m taking a break.” He stuck his hand out the window and let it surf the warm, late afternoon breeze. “From everything.”
Bash cocked his head to the left, raised his right eyebrow, and shot Colt a sidelong glance. He took another drink. “What, from everything? You? Even weed?”
Colt sighed, stared straight ahead, and sighed again. “Yeah, man, even weed.”
Bash pulled into Lantz’s driveway and honked three times. Lantz stepped out, locked his door, tossed his tent into the bed of the Avalanche, opened the passenger door, and climbed in. “Colt!” he exclaimed, draping his left arm around Colt’s shoulders, “Good to see you, Bones! How ya doin’?”
Colt smiled and thumped Lantz’s back. “You’re one to talk, Kevin. Have you eaten anything this week?”
“Oh, plenty,” Lantz said as he reached into the cooler and removed a beer, “but nothing today. I just woke up ten minutes ago.” He cracked open the beer and drank half of it in three gulps. “Mmm, breakfast of champions!” He belched long and loud. All three men laughed.
After arriving at their chosen site on Pygmy Knob, Lantz set up the tent while Bash and Colt unloaded the Avalanche, gathered wood, then started a campfire as the last of the sunlight drained from the sky. They sat in their camp chairs, backs to the tent, facing the fire and the thick woods on the rising slope beyond it. Bash had his well-stocked, extra-large cooler in front of him and was using it as a table to roll a few joints. Lantz sat to Bash’s left, Colt to his right. Lantz held a Smith & Wesson .38 pistol in his left hand and was amusing himself by snapping the cylinder open, spinning it, and snapping it back into place with a flick of his wrist. Colt was honing a large hunting knife he’d brought along.
Bash removed two beers from the cooler and handed one to Lantz. They both drank. Bash lit a joint, took a drag, then passed it to Lantz. Bash held his smoke for a minute then expelled it slowly. “So,” he said, “someone’s been stealing my tools from my truck, my trailer, and my shed. I think it’s that crazy old man Champion who used to be preacher at Mt. Zion before Pastor Huddleston.”
Colt stopped honing his blade, sheathed it, and blew off his whetstone. “What makes you think that? Champion had some odd ideas, sure, but he never struck me as the type to trespass or steal.”
Lantz laid his gun in his lap, took a long pull off the joint then, without exhaling, chugged most of the can. He handed the joint back to Bash.
“Well,” Bash said, accepting the joint and inhaling, “ever since Scarlet Snake Lake got shut down for repairs after that crazy heat wave, there’s been rumors that Champion’s been living in the campsite up there.” He took another long drink of beer. “Several friends of mine who’ve been up here hunting said they’d seen him picking through trash cans and trying to get into the stalls at the Lakeshore Open Air Market.” He passed the joint back to Lantz, who inhaled then drank again.
Colt sniffed, patted the front of his faded denim vest, and retrieved his beloved, dog-eared, Pocket Merton. He leaned closer to the fire and began thumbing through the book.
Lantz tilted his head back, upended his beer can over his mouth, and shook the last few drops onto his tongue. He crushed the can, threw it into the fire, and blew the smoke out through his nose. He coughed, eyes watering copiously. “Oh yeah,” he exclaimed, “The Times-Rattler had a story just the other day about that—“
Colt glared at Lantz, filled his cheeks, and blew air through his pursed lips, cutting him off. “Pffshff! You mean the Times-TATTLER? That rag’s no better than an impulse aisle tabloid, man. That whack-a-doo new editor can’t even spell right, much less construct a grammatically correct paragraph. And what’s with that weekly centerfold about the glory of God and all that praise crap? That paper’s nothing but a bunch of ignorant, right-wing, Religious Right propaganda!” Colt spit into the fire then resumed flipping through his Pocket Merton
Bash had been mid-guzzle when Colt blew up. He choked, sprayed beer through his nose and mouth, then exploded with laughter. He wiped his face with his forearm, popped open another beer, and took a swig. “Dang, hoss,” he chuckled, “you sure you don’t want a few hits off this joint? You must be jonesin’ for real. I swear I’ve never seen you get mad before!” He took another beer out of the cooler and tossed it to Lantz.
Colt shook his head. “Nah, I’m good, thanks.”
Lantz caught his beer, took another drag off the joint, opened the beer, and downed it. He crumpled the can against his forehead and threw it into the fire. He sat straight up with his arms locked and hands clamped onto his knees. His eyes were wide open but slightly crossed, and he swayed a little to his left, a little to his right, then back to an upright position. He exhaled and belched. He offered the joint to Bash.
“No thanks, Kevin, you finish it. I’m going Champion hunting tonight. I don’t need to get messed up.” He handed Lantz another beer.
Lantz took it and drank. “Anyway, the story in the paper quoted a couple of guys who come up here digging for arrowheads and other artifacts. They said they seen Champion up here several times acting weird. He’d be pacing, waving his hands in the air, and yelling out crazy crap about the end times coming and he’s the chosen one of God who’s here to bring a sword and all that. They said he came running at them one day screaming how he’s the flame of God and he’s going to burn them where they stand.” He took another hit and another drink then sat there shaking his head. Then he sat bolt upright. “Did you guys hear that? There’s something in the trees up the hill over there!” He was staring intently past the fire.
Bash shivered and took another drink. “Crazy old man. He’s proof a person can get too much religion, I reckon. I heard it, Lantz, chill. It’s probably just a raccoon.”
Colt sat up and cleared his throat. “Y’all put too much faith in rumors and news. Here, listen to what Merton has to say about that.”
Bash laughed. “I really have missed you, Colt. What does Brother Merton have to say?”
“Nine-tenths of the news,” Colt read, “as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten-tenths.” Colt closed the book and locked eyes with Bash. “He wrote that 50 years ago or more! Anyway, what makes you think preacher Champion stole your tools? And why would he? More likely it’s a couple of local meth heads, junkies, or pill poppers.”
Lantz heard more rustling in the woods and broke out in a cold sweat. Eyes wide, he put his beer down, tucked the joint into the corner of his mouth, and eased his pistol out of its holster, peering into the woods.
“I saw Champion standing on the hill behind my house,” Bash said, “right outside the fence, staring at my shed the other day just before sundown. You know my place is only a ten minute walk down the river from Scarlet Snake Lake.”
“Still, Bash,” Colt said, shaking his head, “why would he steal your tools? How would he break into your shed? Hell, why would he even try to climb your fence?” Colt heard rustling leaves and a twig breaking, and he began scanning the tree line as well.
Bash finished the last of his beer. “I don’t know, man, I just haven’t seen anything else suspicious. That’s why I had all those cameras installed. Speaking of which…” He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and activated his security app. He scanned through all the live images but saw nothing out of the ordinary. “I thought maybe the thieves would come back when they saw my Avalanche wasn’t there tonight.”
There was a hissing sound, and something small flew into the dwindling fire. All three men stood up, and a loud explosion blew an immense shower of sparks, embers, and smoke into the air. Bash and Colt threw their forearms over their eyes, staggered backward, and tripped over their chairs. Lantz squeezed off a round before something went spannggg against his pistol, and he dropped it, shaking his hand and screaming “Oww, oww, sonofa! Someone shot me!”
Bash and Colt stood, and a gaunt, bald, bare-chested old man with a bushy white beard emerged from the woods on the other side of the fire. A slingshot was tucked into the front of his filthy khakis.
The man who had been Preacher Champion walked toward them, eyes blazing and arms raised, yelling at the top of his voice. “The Lord God has chosen me to put an end to the crisis of the old order, the unholy alliance between the Church and the Government!” Spittle flew from his lips, and the flames seemed to bend away from him. He continued shuffling toward them.
Lantz was staring gape-mouthed at the old man, clutching his wounded hand in front of his chest, and drooling. He snapped his mouth shut with an audible smacking sound. “Oh crap, oh crap,” he muttered as a dark stain began to seep down the front of his pants. Bash began edging back and to his left, toward his Avalanche, but Colt was transfixed, a faint smile playing on his lips.
Champion kept coming, still ranting, his voice booming in the small campsite. “My savior Jesus has granted unto me a soul of flame and temper of steel, and together we will burn brighter than the sun! Side by side we will at last banish the long shadow of the disrighteous and the hypocrites and their ruinous teachings of the false gospels of prosperity and Christianity lite!”
Bash grabbed Lantz’s left arm and began pulling him toward the Avalanche. Lantz was unable to take his eyes off Champion but allowed himself to be guided away. Champion kept coming, walking straight through the remnants of the fire toward Colt. Sparks flew upward, swirling around the old man like a shroud, and the hems of his khakis began to smolder.
Smiling, tears streaming down his face, Colt spread his arms wide and waited for the old man’s embrace.
If you’re interested in reading any or all of my Copperhead County stories, you can find them in my “Categories” dropdown menu under “Short Stories”. Thank you for reading.
Before I go, I tag:
Viola Blue at Ideas Become Words. Spice it up, girl!
Rachel Ann at FitfulFearfulPhantasmal. Bring the dark!
Little Gypsy Blue because I’d love to see what she can do with story.
Martha Kennedy at I’m a Wrtier, Yes I Am! because she can do anything better than I can.
Liz Charnes because she writes better stories than I do.
Good luck, y’all!