Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Guest blog: David Wesley Hill - 'At Drake's Command'

At Drake's Command
The Adventures of Peregrine James during the Second Circumnavigation of the World
Author: David Wesley Hill
Publisher: Temurlone Press | New York |
Pages: 424
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 0983611726
ISBN-13: 978-0-9836117-2-1
Publication Date: November 15, 2012
Cover Art: "The Golden Hinde off New Albion" by Simon Kozhin

Available from Amazon US.

About the Book

It was as fine a day to be whipped as any he'd ever seen but the good weather didn't make Peregrine James any happier with the situation he was in. Unfairly convicted of a crime he had not committed, the young cook was strung from the whipping post on the Plymouth quay side when he caught the eye of Francis Drake and managed to convince the charismatic sea captain to accept him among his crew. 

Soon England was receding in their wake and Perry was serving an unsavory collection of sea dogs as the small fleet of fragile wood ships sailed across the brine. Their destination was secret, known to Drake alone. Few sailors believed the public avowal that the expedition was headed for Alexandria to trade in currants. Some men suspected Drake planned a raid across Panama to attack the Spanish in the Pacific. Others were sure the real plan was to round the Cape of Storms to break the Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade. The only thing Perry knew for certain was that they were bound for danger and that he must live by his wits if he were to survive serving at Drake's command.

Excerpt from Chapter 11: Parrots of the Cape Verdes

January 17, 1578
Cape Blank, Africa

We were to remain at Cape Blank somewhat less than a week, until the 21st of January. Most of this time I worked alongside my crew mates aboard the pinnace, cleaning the small ship and making her seaworthy, but on the third morning I was assigned to a fishing party going out in a longboat into the channel, which abounded with mackerel and herring and the larger predators that hunted them. We pushed off just at dawn, rowing across water that was absolutely flat except for the ripples caused by the dipping of our oars. Then we let the boat drift as we readied our gear. My angle was a springy piece of ash seven feet long to which was attached a reel holding a hundred yards of line. We speared whole sprats and chunks of clam on our hooks but neither of these baits interested fish and after several hours we had taken aboard only one nondescript tunny.

I was sharing a bench with Peter Corder, who held his angle with his feet rather than with his hands, twitching his line with his toes in order to animate the bait.

Powell Jemes, an armorer, was another of those who had sailed with Drake during the famous raid on Nombre de Dios six years previously. He tarred his beard in two stiff spikes beneath his jaw and shaved his skull in order to display the design inked on the skin of his crown, the head of a serpent whose tail twisted down his neck onto his shoulders. Giving his angle a bored shake, Jemes said:

“I heard from Mr. Cuttill we will soon be throwing back our catch of Spaniards and Portugals.”

“It was a waste of effort to take such small vessels in the first place,” said Bill Lege.

“There you are wrong,” replied Peter Corder. “Do you not see? By taking the Spanish captive, we prevented advance word of our presence getting out along the coast. No matter how brisk the wind, a sailing ship will always be outrun by men on horseback.”

“Even so,” muttered Lege, “they are all poor craft and barely seaworthy. Nor can we crew them all.”

“Too many ships, too few sailors. That is often the problem,” Powell Jemes concurred. He curled his left spike of beard around a finger. “I remember we had the same situation in the Gulf of Darien back in seventy-two,” he mused. “After a month of raiding we had captured two Spanish coastal barks, one off Cartagena city and the other off Santa Marta. Both prizes were seaworthy and well furnished but neither was a fighter. The general wanted to sink one and to make the other into a storehouse, which would free their crews to reinforce our important ships, but he knew the men would object to mistreating such pretty vessels. So Drake called Tom Moone to his cabin.”

“Aye, I know this story,” said Lege.

“Do not reveal the ending since I have not heard it,” said Corder. “Go on, Jemes.”

“Where is the Gulf of Darien?” I asked.

“It is in the crook of the elbow between the Isthmus of Panama and the Spanish Main,” explained Bill Lege. 
“‘Tis a hellish maze of swamp and reef, lad. Pray to Christ you never visit.”

“As I was saying,” Jemes continued after I had received this geographical advice, “the general sent for Tom Moone, who at the time was the carpenter of the Swan, which was one of the ships in question. ‘Tom,’ said Drake, ‘go down secretly into the well in the middle of the second watch. Bore three holes with a spike-gimlet as near the keel as you can. Then lay something against it, that the force of the water entering the ship might make no noise nor be discovered by boiling up.’

“As you may imagine, gentlemen, Moone did not enjoy receiving these instructions. ‘Captain,’ he said with dismay, ‘the Swan is strong and has many voyages left in her. Besides, the rest of the company will be unhappy with me should they learn of my role in her sinking.’

“But there was no arguing with the general—“

“Aye, is there ever?” laughed Luke Adden.

“—and Moone did as he was bid. Drake waited until morning to let the ship fill somewhat and then ordered me to ferry him over to her from the admiral in a pinnace. Have I mentioned that Drake’s brother, John, was the Swan’s master?”

“The master?” said Peter Corder. “The general drowned his own brother’s ship? That was cold.”

“What happened next was colder.” Powell Jemes began winding both spikes of beard together while reflecting how best to tell the tale. “Drake invited John to come fishing—“

“No, he did not!”

“God’s truth, Mr. Corder. But his brother was too busy to join us so Drake had me row a little distance from the ship and we fished a quarter hour while waiting for John to get ready. Then the general pretended to notice that the Swan was riding low in the water. He turned to me and asked very casually, as if to make little of the question: ‘Powell, why do you think the bark is so deep?’

“‘I cannot hazard a guess, captain,’ I answered, since I was as much in the dark about what was going on as everyone except for Drake and Tom Moone. ‘She is a sound ship and empty of cargo,’ I said.

“There was no denying, however, the Swan’s gunwales were almost awash. So the general called to his brother, who sent a steward below to investigate. The man returned wet to the waist and crying that the scuttle was flooded. ‘I do not understand it,’ said John Drake. ‘We have not pumped twice in six weeks but now there is six feet of water in the hold.’

“‘It is indeed strange,’ agreed the general, feigning perplexity so well that we were all deceived. ‘Come, Powell,’ he told me, ‘let us go aboard the Swan and provide what assistance we may.’

“‘No, stay,’ said John. ‘We have enough men for our needs. Continue fishing, that we might have some part of your catch for dinner.’

“‘So be it,’ said Drake and we dropped our lines over the side and resumed angling as the Swan’s crew tried to save her. Every once in a while the general called out encouragement to the men, telling them to work the pump harder and offering suggestions as to where the leak might be found. But by three in the afternoon they had not freed above a foot and a half of water, nor had anyone discovered the holes drilled by Tom Moone. Finally it became clear the ship must be abandoned.

“‘Damned bad luck to lose so sweet a bark!’ the general said, clapping an arm around his brother in counterfeit sympathy. ‘Perhaps it would be best to start unloading her now before she goes under. Let everyone take what they lack or like and find berths on the other vessels. As for you, John, you may have my place as captain of the flagship until we capture a better prize for you to master.’”

“Why, that was a kind offer,” observed Peter Corder.

“Aye, was it not.” Powell Jemes shook his head appreciatively. “The general got exactly what he wanted and no one was the wiser. I stood right beside him in these very boots, and we watched that sweet ship settle to the bottom, and I did not think for a second he was gaming us. You have to respect the man.”

“Aye, no one surpasses the general in cunning,” agreed Bill Lege.

“Thank God for that,” said Corder. “A fool will not make us rich.”

“Aye, a fool will get us murdered or blown against a lee shore.”

“Christ save us from all evil destiny!” prayed Luke Adden.

I gave my angle an upward jerk and discovered that my bait had been stolen while I was absorbed in Powell Jemes’s anecdote. I had not liked the story, which seemed to demonstrate an implacable self interest more worthy of Thomas Doughty than Francis Drake. Perhaps I was as naive as Lackland claimed but it did not seem proper justice to use your own men and family with the same ease that you would use an enemy.

“How did the truth come out?” I asked when I had replaced my bait and returned my line to the depths.

“Oh, the trick was too good to keep secret. The general told the story himself although he waited until his brother was dead, which was not long afterward, God rest the poor bastard. Fever, I think. Or was that Drake’s other brother, Joseph? They both died on that deplorable coast—watch your angle, Perry!”

I stopped the pole just before it went into the water.


About the Author

David Wesley Hill is an award-winning fiction writer with more than thirty stories published in the U.S. and internationally. In 1997 he was presented with the Golden Bridge award at the International Conference on Science Fiction in Beijing, and in 1999 he placed second in the Writers of the Future contest. In 2007, 2009, and 2011 Mr. Hill was awarded residencies at the Blue Mountain Center, a writers and artists retreat in the Adirondacks. He studied under Joseph Heller and Jack Cady and received a Masters in creative writing from the City University of New York, as well as the De Jur Award, the school's highest literary honor. 

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