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Gallows Wake - first draft
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Secret Passages - unpublished content

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Gallows Wake
  by Helen Hollick


  (Excerpt from first draft)

Gibraltar
April, 1719

One


"Rot? How could there be rot? Master John Benson, back at Appledore, checked and repaired everything needing checking and repairing."

Jesamiah Acorne stood, arms folded, chin tucked to his chest, his leather three-corner hat pulled well forward over his eyes against the glare of the Gibraltar forenoon sun. He was seething with frustrated anger and failing to keep the annoyance from his voice.

"Benson? Don’t know ‘im. And where’s Appledore when it’s at ‘ome?" The master shipwright pulled the stub of a worn pencil from behind his ear and scribbled a few more calculations on the wedge of crumpled paper he held in his hand. "It’ll take us several weeks to find and fit a new main mast."

Jesamiah swallowed down a bellow of outrage.

"You can have rot and not know it, Cap’n." Chippy Harris, looking as grim as Jesamiah, said.

"You’re my ship’s carpenter. You should have known about it," came the snapped response.

The answering retort was as tart. "I told you about it as soon as I did know. It’s not easy to spot when it’s starting to take hold at the mast partners, ’specially where it passes down through the deck. Hard to see it there. Above and below, there were no sign back in Appledore. Benson would not have found it. Nor would I."

Jesamiah refrained from churlishly declaring, Well,you should have done. He knew, as well as anyone, that discovering rot, especially where it was well hidden, was nigh-on impossible even to an experienced eye.

Chippy Harris, ignoring his captain’s disgruntled expression took a breath and continued defending his reputation as a ship's carpenter, his arms waving about to emphasise his points. "We could not have seen every little details, not unless we’d taken everything apart, and if we’d done that we’d still be in Appledore harbour putting everything back to rights."

The shipwright sniffed loudly and tucking the pencil stub behind his ear, interrupted; "From our first quick look, t’ain’t too bad taken hold. We’ll know more when we strip ‘er down. We’ll need to strike the t’gallants and topmasts and all the yards, rigging and such, then pull the mast and put a new one in." He sniffed again and squinted at his rough notes and calculations. "A lot of work. Could easily eat up four, five, maybe six weeks if we have trouble getting a new mast."

"Six weeks!" Jesamiah spluttered. "I can’t wait around here for six weeks! Ain’t you got a suitable mast in that bloody great shed of yours over there?"

"I might ‘ave. Won’t know ‘til I look will I?"

"Well go and look for fok sake!"

The shipwright, refusing to match Jesamiah’s anger – the situation was nothing new to him – scratched at the stubbled whiskers on his chin. "Can’t do that Captain. We’re about to close for the day. M’wife’ll ‘ave my guts for ‘er garters if I get ‘ome late for supper."

Jesamiah swallowed a few choice words about wives, their garters and suppers. Asked instead, "What’s it going to bloody cost?"

The shipwright looked again, more solemnly, at the scribblings on the top sheet of his notebook. Showed it to Jesamiah, who whistled incredulously.

"’Struth! And they call honest men pirates! For that much," he said, thrusting his face closer to the shipwright’s, "I expect the work to be done in no more than three weeks. Savvy? Help him look for the right size mast first thing tomorrow, Harris."

He nodded a curt dismal to both his ship’s carpenter and the Gibraltarian shipwright, turned, thrust his hands deep into his buckram coat pockets and strode away, not trusting himself to glance along the wharf towards where his beloved Sea Witch was moored. The mainmast had developed rot. It would need replacing, there were no ifs or buts about it. The annoyance was that they had been five days out from Gibraltar but had needed to turn back, it being the nearest safe harbour.

Not that Jesamiah was entirely certain that Gibraltar, with its excess of Royal Navy officers, common sailors and the close proximity to his various enemies across the border with Spain, was that much of a safe harbour. The embryonic colony was a tiny promontory of land of less than three square miles, most of it uphill. The Ancient Greeks regarded the towering rocky outcrop as one pillar of a gateway guarding the entrance into the Mediterranean, its counterpart on the opposite shore of Morocco. The Royal Navy seemed to hold the same view about dominating this narrow, highly strategic sea lane from the Atlantic.

Any rights or wrongs of how and why Gibraltar was now owned by Britain, and predominantly populated by the British Navy, had been swept aside in 1713 and the signing of the treaty of Utrecht when Anne had reigned as Queen. Spain had ceded the territory as a compromise following the War of the Spanish Succession, although in Jesamiah’s mind one war with Spain or France, or both of them united together was no different than any other pointless skirmish, and who ceded what and why in the aftermath rarely held sway for long. For about as long as the next war started, in fact.

Which was why Gibraltar was swarming with the Navy and the harbour was clogged with frigates and warships. The presence intentional. ‘Gib’ is now ours,’ was the boasted proclamation from tar-grimed foremast jacks to braid-laced rear-admiral.

Jesamiah had no interest in the to-and-fro of politics, nor who said or did what within the machinations of governments or navies. He was uneasy near the Spanish, though. Too many of them, for varying reasons, wanted him dead by equally as varying obnoxious methods, and the British Navy tended to have as much of an unpleasant desire to hang pirates, even those who had signed their name in King George’s great Book of Amnesty.

No, Gibraltar was not a safe place for an ex-pirate. The next few weeks were not going to be very pleasant.

Copyright © Helen Hollick 2018