BY: DAVE BULLOCK
Air Force pilot Captain Jesse Hardin is thrilled when she’s offered the opportunity to test fly the top-secret prototype X-66 Rapier, the most advanced jet the world has never seen. However, her enthusiasm is soon tempered when she learns that a previous Rapier prototype, along with its two test pilots, vanished somewhere over the Pacific only a week before, and she’ll be flying the only other Rapier built. As Jesse begins flying the Rapier, she discovers that her backseat pilot is an imposter who plans to steal the airplane. Not knowing who to trust, Jesse decides the only way to protect the Rapier is to steal it herself…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Last Rapier by Dave Bullock, Captain Jesse Hardin of the US Air Force dreams one day of being a test pilot. She’s passed the training but missed out on getting an assignment. Now she has a chance to fly the Rapier, a new, experimental aircraft, but what she doesn’t know is that one Rapier has already been lost, presumed crashed at sea, and she is flying the only one left. But there are forces at work that are trying to steal the Rapier. Not knowing who to trust, Jesse decides that the only way to protect the plane is to steal it herself. But if the enemy’s plan goes through, Jesse’s chance to do that will be short lived. Can she outwit them and turn this around, or is she doomed to vanish like the last pilots who flew the other Rapier?
Filled with marvelous characters and heart-pounding suspense, this is one you won’t want to miss.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Last Rapier by Dave Bullock is the story of a young woman who longs to be a test pilot. Jesse Hardin is a captain in the air force, but what she really wants to do is to fly experimental aircraft. When she gets a chance to fly the new Rapier, she is ecstatic—until she discovers that another Rapier vanished on a test flight just a week before. As Jesse settles in to her new job, she begins to suspect that her backseat pilot is not who he says he is. Realizing that the other Rapier’s disappearing act might not have been an accident, Jesse decides that, in order to protect the plane, she may just have to take matters into her own hands and steal it herself.
I loved Jesse. She is strong, independent, and knows what she wants out of life. Intense as well intriguing, I simply couldn’t put The Last Rapier down.
A smile creased Jessica Hardin’s thirteen-year-old face when her big brother landed on his butt with another breath-losing grunt. As he’d done the previous two times the stubborn mare tossed him, Brad scrambled to his feet and took off for the corral’s railed fence.
At his back, the half-ton steed kicked her rear hooves high, peppering the clambering sixteen-year-old with clumps of dirt and dung, then pivoted in pursuit.
Jesse heard her father yell “Come on boy, run,” as the huge mount closed on the scampering teen.
To her left, ten-year-old Quentin jumped back as his brother leapt to the upper rail directly in front of him.
A second behind her prey, the mare streaked past with her heavily muscled haunch connecting just enough to drive Brad over the top in a volleyball arc.
He landed in a heap at Quentin’s boots.
Jessica jumped from the rails, relieved to hear Brad’s “Oomph” wasn’t accompanied by the sound of breaking bone. Glancing at her father, she caught him winking at Quentin as he bent over Brad with, “I could be wrong, but I get the feeling she don’t want you on her.”
Jesse and Quentin roared.
Spitting bits of stuff Jesse was sure he didn’t want identified, Brad got to his feet and gave both siblings an angry glare as he brushed himself, but only said, “I need some water.”
Her father gave the sore buckaroo’s shoulder a pat as the three male Hardins headed for the barn.
Jesse held back and turned to face the ornery animal now standing placidly on the other side of the rails with its large brown eyes staring into hers.
She glanced back and, seeing the threesome disappear into the barn, knew they would sit on the pickup’s tailgate sipping from the cooler for several minutes. That’s all the time I need, she thought, gingerly climbing the fence.
The mare moved closer, even turning her side to the rails. Jesse reached out for the loose reins, then slid her right leg over the saddle and fell onto it, her boots not quite reaching the stirrups. She held her breath a moment, waiting for a sign that she’d misread the horse’s mood, but sensed only acceptance.
Keeping one eye on the barn, several enjoyable minutes passed before she glimpsed Quentin stepping out.
He looked her way and then spun around, calling out, “Dad, you better get out here. Jesse’s at it again.”
Uh oh, time’s up, she realized.
Her father and Brad raced out, their heads turning to where Quentin was pointing. For a second or two, all three gawked at her sitting atop the horse calmly walking around the inside of the circular enclosure. Then, her father shouted “Jesse!” as he raced forward with her brothers in tow.
Pretending not to have heard him, she nudged the animal to a trot. When the trio reached the fence, she reined it to a stop directly across from the rails, leaned forward, and patted its neck with, “I told you she’s not mean, Dad. She just doesn’t like Brad.”
The mare whinnied as she shook her head and mane, seemingly in agreement.
Hank Hardin stared at Jesse sternly, but she caught the start of a slight smile at the corners of his mouth before he said, “You are one stubborn filly, just like your momma. Now get on down from there.” He turned to Brad then. “Think you can put her back in the paddock without getting killed?”
Brad didn’t answer as he squeezed through the rails, but she heard a whispered “Smartass” as he took the reins from her.
After she slipped through the rails, she turned to her father in an attempt to assuage his ire. “I knew you’d say no if I asked first—”
“You’re damn right I would’ve said no,” her father interrupted. “That animal could’ve killed you.”
“I just wanted to—”
He cut her off again. “You just wanted to make a point. Well, you made it. Now, get your butt up to the house and make some lunch. Get my point?”
An hour later, Jesse’s father and brothers, their stomachs filled with grilled ham and cheese, piled into the pickup and headed to town.
Angry at being left behind to clean up as punishment for risking her neck, Jesse stood at the sink, repeatedly wiping the same plate, her mind wandering. She found it difficult to stay focused lately, often wondering if her mother had had the same problem when she was her age.
Glancing out the window over the sink, she idly watched the top of the foot-tall pasture grass swaying in the light summer breeze and then looked up at the steep pine-covered slope beyond. She relished ranch life during the short green and warm summer. Framed by forested mountains, the rural valley’s rustic beauty drew scores of professional photographers and vacationers during those pleasurable temperate days. Some were so taken by it they moved there.
That euphoria generally lasted until they experienced their first Montana winter when fifty-below wind chills forced all but the hardiest to stay hunkered near fireplaces for long, dark months. Cabin fever sent most packing at the first hint of spring.
Growing up there, Jesse had never considered leaving. At least, not until recently, and that was where her mind kept taking her now. Thirteen had arrived with unsettling physical changes and new emotions she thought a mother’s guidance might have eased. Unfortunately, she’d had no such counsel.
Though she dearly loved her father and brothers, Jesse felt trapped by a preordained and seemingly inescapable future. Wife and matriarch had been her mother’s role in life until an aneurism eight years earlier, and Jesse knew that same lifestyle had been her grandmother’s and so on for as long as her kin had lived on the ranch they passed down like a sovereign fiefdom.
Today, her father ruled its four thousand acres, and she knew Brad and Quentin would one day share those reins. Her choices seemed to be either marrying a neighboring rancher, working at something considered respectable by pastoral Montana standards, or staying on at the ranch as the matronly aunt to her brothers’ future broods.
She flatly rejected all three options. However, at thirteen, she had no idea what to do instead. Her friends weren’t much help either. Most looked forward to the very future she dreaded, and the few who didn’t were certain they’d win the lottery or become the next country singing sensation—
Just then, an odd sound interrupted her daydreaming. It took her a moment to recognize it as an airplane motor. It sounds really low, she thought as she tossed the dishcloth in the sink and rushed for the back door.
Outside, the morning’s few menacing clouds had moved east, leaving the valley under a wide sheet of pale blue. She spun in circles, searching it. The sound was louder now, but the source wasn’t visible. Then the motor’s pitch changed, sputtered, and went silent. Oh my God, she thought, It’s crashing.
She ran farther into the yard and spun back toward the house just as a bright yellow biplane glided silently over the roof, its single propeller spinning slowly like a pinwheel. It passed no more than twenty feet above her, barely clearing the paddock fence before it set down in the foot-high grass, bounced a few times, and slowed quickly.
Jesse reached the wood rails just as the antique airplane came to a stop. She could see one man in the back seat of the aged two-seater.
He pulled his goggles up to his forehead then climbed out onto the lower left wing and jumped to the ground, waving an arm at her.
She was already through the rails, racing toward him. As the distance closed, she could see that he was older than her father and, despite the warm afternoon sun, wore a tattered brown leather jacket covered with colorful patches.
“Howdy,” he called out. “Sorry about landing in your field like this, but I didn’t have much choice. I think my fuel line’s clogged.”
Jesse stopped in front of him, breathlessly responding, “Good thing—there weren’t—any horses—in here.”
“You wouldn’t have some tools I could use to clear that line, would ya?”
“’Course, we got tools,” Jesse replied. “What do you think we do when something breaks around here?”
“Yer a feisty little thing,” the old aviator said with a smile. “Name’s Calhoun, Clyde Calhoun,” he added as he pulled his leather cap and goggles off a white-haired head and thrust a gloved hand toward her.
“I’m Jessica Hardin,” she responded as she firmly gripped the big hand, “but everyone calls me Jesse.”
“I’m right pleased to meet you, Miss Jesse.”
“The tool bag’s in the barn,” she said, turning away. “I’ll get it.”
After working on his engine only a moment, Calhoun handed her the bag. “Step back and let me give it a try.”
She watched him climb to the rear seat and don his cap and goggles. He leaned out and yelled, “Clear,” just before the propeller began spinning and the motor coughed once, belched black smoke, and rumbled to life.
Surprisingly, he looked down then and asked, “Want a ride, Miss Jesse?”
A wide smile spread across her face as she dropped the tool bag and leapt to the wing where he’d climbed up.
He stood, leaned forward, and helped buckle her into the front seat’s harness before handing her a leather cap and goggles. “You’ll need the cap to keep yer hair out of yer eyes and the goggles will let you see with the wind in yer face.” He pointed at a metal handle at the base of her seat and added, “If something goes wrong, and we gotta get out, just pull on that handle when I tell ya. It’ll disconnect yer harness and the parachute you’re sit’n on will open automatically once yer clear of the airplane.”
Wide-eyed, she shook her head and flatly responded, “I don’t wanna do that.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied, chuckling. “You ain’t gonna have to, but I still gotta explain it to ya.”
She pulled on the headgear, noting that she could barely see over the sides of the open-air cockpit, and then turned to him with a thumbs-up signal.
The old rotary piston motor roared, and they began picking up speed as they moved across the grassy meadow. After a few mildly jarring bounces, the airplane’s tail rose, and its nose dropped. She could see forward now, just enough to see the fence ahead. A few more bounces and they lifted into the sky, clearing the top rail by only a few feet.
Calhoun banked the airplane left as they climbed, giving her a never-seen-before view of the tops of the barn and house passing below.
Jesse raised both arms straight up and let out a loud “Yahooooo” as he rolled out of the turn and pulled straight back on the stick, sending them racing skyward. She was pinned to the seatback now, unable to lift even an arm from a pressure that reminded her of a ride at the county fair last year. She found she didn’t mind it all that much.
They climbed almost vertically for several hundred feet, and then the engine went quiet, and they rolled backward until she hung in the harness, floating for a brief instant. She felt her stomach flutter just before the nose fell back toward the ground and they started spinning.
After what she thought were two or three revolutions, she saw the control stick between her legs slammed forward, and one of the two pedals below her dangling feet was pushed in hard. With that, they were no longer spinning. She had never experienced such joy and found herself panting, beginning to feel a bit dizzy.
They continued almost straight down, and she briefly thought she might have to pull that handle and jump clear, but made no move to do so. He isn’t going to let that happen, she told herself. At that thought, the engine roared, and the control stick came back again. She felt that crushing pressure once more, even harder this time. Though her eyes were wide open, her vision dimmed, and she could feel her facial muscles being pulled down. The airplane’s nose came up just above the distant peaks as the pressure eased, and then he snapped the stick to the left and held it there. They rolled completely around several times, her eyes registering sky-ground-sky-ground-sky-ground until she lost track.
“How’re you doing?” he called out as they leveled.
Though a little woozy, fearing he might stop if she balked, she raised her thumbs-up signal again.
“Okay,” he said. “Take the stick in your right hand and put your other hand on the throttle. That’s the control lever on your left side. Push it forward to speed up and pull back to slow down.”
Jesse hesitated, and he must have sensed her unease. “Go on. You can do it, Jesse. It’s just like riding a horse. You have to make it do what you want it to do. Just breathe and fly the airplane.”
She took hold of the stick and throttle, concentrating on keeping the craft straight and level. He explained how to make a turn, though she couldn’t reach the pedals he was telling her to push on with her feet. Then, unable to stop herself, she pulled back hard on the stick as he’d done, hurtling them upward. After a few seconds though, she sensed the aircraft rapidly slowing and then shaking.
When its nose fell off to the right, Calhoun called out, “I’ve got it, Jesse. Let go of the controls.”
She did, and he pushed the throttle forward and let the airplane accelerate as it fell toward the ground. After he leveled again, he explained, “You ran out of airspeed because you forgot to add power before you pulled back. That put you in what we call a stall. Wanna try again?”
Her thumb went back up, and she took the controls. This time, she added full power before she pulled on the stick and found that the climb still stalled the airplane, but much higher, and he let her recover from the resulting dive.
Over the next half hour, he showed her how to do other maneuvers that thrilled her beyond measure. He called them names like barrel roll, loop, hammerhead, and split S. She never wanted to quit but, as they came out of a turn toward the house, she spotted her father’s truck coming along the road to the ranch. She pointed at it, and her ride ended three minutes later.
Her facial muscles ached from smiling as she leapt from the wing and reached up to hand him her headgear.
“You know, most folks don’t like that sort of flying, Jesse. A lot of ’em get sick, but look at you, kid. You loved it, didn’t you?”
“That was really fun, Mr. Calhoun. Thanks.”
The old pilot smiled warmly and nodded as he said, “I ain’t surprised. Take care, Miss Jesse.”
Picking up the tool bag, she smiled and backed away as he pushed the throttle forward. He waved an arm as he lifted off, and Jesse wheeled around to see her father and brothers sprinting across the field. She knew her dad had seen her climb out of the airplane and anticipated another angry response, but all he asked as he pulled up was, “Are you okay?”
With her brothers voicing their envy as the foursome walked back to the house, Jesse’s grin stretched wide. She’d just had her first epiphany and now knew exactly where her path in life would lead.
© 2018 by Dave Bullock