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Steel Blues -- Mitch

In celebration of getting back the edits on Steel Blues, and thus moving one step closer to publication, another preview! A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece with Alma for a reader. Today I'm posting one of my favorite bits that Melissa wrote in the whole book, some backstory for Mitch. This Gilchrist Aviation team is competing in an air race.

They were last off the bus, to spare Jerry’s leg, but they got a nice cheer anyway, an announcer with a bullhorn calling their names.

“— Gilchrist Aviation. Pilot and owner Alma Gilchrist Segura, decorated pilot Lewis Segura, Great War ace Mitchell Sorley and passenger Dr. Jerry Ballard.”

Alma smiled and waved just like the starlets, and Mitch made himself do the same, grateful to finally duck into the shelter of the hanger. He was beginning to hate the casual way the race promoters called him an ace. It hadn’t been so bad right after the War, because then everyone remembered exactly what it meant. An ace was a man with at least five kills, five dead men or more; Mitch had seven, and he remembered every one.

“Right,” Alma said, hands on her hips. “Lewis, get us fueled up — make sure they get the supplemental tank full. Jerry, is there anything for passengers this morning?”

“Not that they’ve told us,” Jerry said.

“Good,” Alma said. “Ward off the reporters, will you? Mitch and I will start the preflight.”

Mitch nodded, and Alma’s gaze slid past him, fixing on something behind him. Mitch turned to see the referee coming to join them, and Alma sighed.

“Scratch that. Mitch, would you take the preflight? It looks like Mr. Nichols wants a word.”

“Sure,” Mitch said, and climbed aboard. He didn’t really mind doing the preflight check on his own. He liked having time with the plane, time to think through the flight plan, and he settled himself easily into the pilot’s seat. The leather was starting to come unstitched along the inner edge of the seat back, where everyone grabbed and pulled as they climbed in. They’d want to get that fixed, once it was over. He could get Frank the saddler out from town to take care of it, look over the rest of the planes at the same time….

He shook the thought away, and made himself pick up the clipboard. By now, he could do the routine in his sleep, but it was better to have the check. He went down the list, trying to concentrate, but the announcer’s words kept coming back. Mitchell Sorley, ace. Well, that’s what he was. He had the medal and the citations to prove it, seven kills in the air over Italy. And the Austrians were damn good — the best of them had trained with the German jadgstaffelen, and come back to teach their own squads the same methods, and they were flying the best planes they could get their hands on, just the same as everyone else.

They burned like everyone else, too. He’d had a knack for fire, though he never meant to aim for the fuel tanks. Five of the seven went down in flames, and nobody carried parachutes. Two of the pilots jumped, pinwheeling black against the sky to vanish in the trenches; the rest stayed with the burning mess, though he thought most of them were already dead. One had fought it all the way down, trailing smoke and flame, but he’d died before they could pull him from the wreck. Gil had said he couldn’t have lived, but that was still the one that bothered Mitch the most. All that effort, slipstreaming, turning, fighting the air to keep the flames at bay, and for nothing. The Italian pilots had called him Il Incendario, the Arsonist, behind his back, and the Americans had called him the Fireman to his face until Gil put a stop to it. Jeff — Jeff had managed to smash the squadron’s record of The Firemen’s Rag, and Mitch would be in his debt forever for that one.

He had wondered, after he was wounded, when he knew he was going to live and he had all the time in the hospital to think about it, if it was payback. Karma. There were worse things than burning.

“Got the weather?” Alma asked, sliding into the co-pilot’s seat, and for an instant Mitch couldn’t remember what the sky had been like that morning, could see only the cold blue of Italy. Cold blue, and the bright golden-brown of the enemy planes, each with its own heraldry, skull and crossbones and a knight’s plumed helmet and a six-pointed star…. “Mitch?”

It was cloudy out. He remembered that with a gasp. The sky here in San Angelo was covered with thin, pale clouds that would follow them east, though the forecast in the newspaper said the rain would peter out before it reached Little Rock. He made a show of looking at the clipboard, and shook his head. “I haven’t seen the latest.”

“Lewis will get it,” she said, and slid back the side window to call to him. Lewis lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and a few minutes later, Jerry brought the sheet up to the cockpit.

“They’re just about ready,” he said, handing it over, and in the same moment the referees shouted for the leaders to start their engines.

“Are you ok?” Alma asked.

Mitch grimaced. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

She gave a long look, honestly assessing, and Mitch forced himself to meet her look with a smile.

“I promise,” he said. “I can handle it.”

She hesitated a moment longer, then nodded. “Ok.”

The Terrier was heavy with the extra fuel, soggy on its wheels, waddling awkwardly into the turn that lined them up on the runway. Mitch eyed the length of it uneasily as he waited for the flag. It should be more than adequate, but the air was still and the weight of the supplemental tank sat uncomfortably toward the tail. Alma was frowning, too, making the same calculations, and Mitch gave her a shrug. It would be enough or it wouldn’t. He thought it would be. Just.

The flagman waved them on, and Mitch pushed the throttles forward, bringing up the power as quickly as he dared. The Terrier rumbled forward, the big engines howling; the tail lifted, and dropped again, and Mitch looked at the airspeed indicator. Close, but not there, not enough. He cursed the lack of headwind. If he couldn’t get more out of her, if he couldn’t get the tail to lift — They were almost at the point of no return, fly or die, crashing ignominiously off the end of the runway.

“Come on,” he said, under his breath. The speed was creeping up, the tail starting to lift. “Come on.”

“Mitch,” Alma said, quietly.

Now or never. Mitch ignored the airspeed, concentrating on the feel of the plane under him, the air on the wings. They were almost there, almost ready, the engines full open — and they were almost at the end of the graded strip. He felt the power building finally, the wings catching lift, the whole body lightening at last, and he eased back on the yoke just as the wheels left the graded dirt. The Terrier wobbled and flew.

He kept the angle shallow, catching his breath, letting the plane steady under them. It was a good thing they were in the desert, not someplace with trees ringing the field, or telephone lines…. But they were up and flying, the airspeed rising now, and he tugged the yoke back just a hair, increasing the angle of climb to something a bit more normal. She was still heavy, still awkward, but that would improve as the extra fuel burned off, and they wouldn’t be landing again until Little Rock.