I curled my toes around the narrow foot-rope, and dug my nails into the knot tying up the sail. No good; I bite my nails too much. On the up side, my teeth are good. I leaned into the wind and pulled at the knot with my teeth. Spitting fibers, I pulled the rope free.
Da’s first mate, Hank, met me on deck. He said, “You’re disgusting, Gail. Biting at ropes like a dog.”
“At least I don’t look like one.”
Da called me to his cabin. “Sir?” I said.
He said, “In here, call me Da.”
“You’re old enough now to think of your future.”
“Oh.” My heart sank. I bit my nails, wondering if he’d marry me off.
He cleared his throat: “I want you to be captain after me.”
He said, “The men know you – and I won’t live forever.”
I said, “You WILL live forever, Da – I order it.”
He grinned: “Whatever you say.”
We neared a familiar port. I held the lead line – mainly so I could sit apart from the rest and wonder if they’d really obey me one day. The cord ran through my hands and stopped. I stared for a second before realising the harbour floor had shifted. “Avast! Turn about!”
My friend Jim was on the wheel, and he pulled hard. The ship wailed as it turned too hard, but we made it safely. Jim, at least, obeyed me.
I still wanted to think, so I stayed on board while the rest went to spend their gold or line their pockets with other people’s purses. Da came back with a red-faced and slouching boy who wouldn’t meet my eye. He introduced my brother, Al.
Al said, “I’m gonna be captain.”
“No you ain’t!” I said.
He threw a punch and I threw it back, giving him a nice bloody nose with his own fist. Da sent me to the hold.
Da came to me: “I didn’t know about Al until now – and Hank said the men’d be ashamed to let a woman lead them. He knows the crew, Gail.”
I shook my head at him, too furious to speak.
Da said, “It’ll be better this way – you’ll see. We’ll find a place for you.”
Da left, and I fumed. The ship was mine, and no long-lost landlubber kid was going to take it from me. I was NOT going to be married off!
A dash of bilgewater poured into my face, waking me. I couldn’t help noticing the ship was heeling badly. Above me, thunder rolled. I watched as rats leapt and scuttled up the walls, leaving the bilgewater and I alone. Hm.
I climbed on top of some crates and held on.
The hatch opened and Al peered in, munching on a fresh red apple. My stomach growled.
“Our Da sent me to let you out,” he said. “There’s a big storm happening. I wouldn’t want my baby sister to get hurt.” He closed the hatch, and I heard the lock turn.
“Baby?” I muttered, and followed the rats upward. Da had long since taught me to undo any lock. If he said I was allowed out, I was free.
I was tugging on a line with Al when we were all tumbled by a rogue wave. Most of us were smart enough to hold on. Al wasn’t. I let go and dived for my landlubber half-brother, and caught hold of his curly red hair just before he was swept overboard.
When the wave was gone, I let go of Al’s hair and went to tie up the sails. He got up – slowly. We both knew I’d saved his life.
Al and I worked and I saw Da nod an apology to me. He’d taught me long ago that sometimes, a captain needs to turn a blind eye. I got that.
We made port at Tin Island – the place Da found me when I was just a kid. The orphanage stood majestically shining on a high hill.
Da summoned all hands. “As you are aware, I now know I have two able-bodied children. I intend to leave this ship to one of them. Here is the challenge: Whichever one gains the most gold in the next two weeks will be my heir. Are we agreed?” The crew cheered.
I gave Da a nod of thanks, and he grinned back. All I had to do was get more gold, and the crew’s hearts and minds were mine forever.
Da found me in the market and asked me to come with him. We walked all the way up the winding orphanage path, past children working. “Why bring me back to this hole?” I asked.
Da said, “Sometimes, our future is found in the past.”
He left me at the same place Ma dumped me.
My old mistress tried to sell me a “good, hard-working set of twins” and I said I’d think about it. I slipped the kids a few coins and fled.
I suddenly realised why Da had reminded me of my past. Rope in hand, I went back up the hill to the orphanage and climbed the back wall. The strongboxes were where I remembered them. Mistress had punished me once by making me count out all the gold coins in one trunk. Mistress’ Dobermans ran to attack, but the mum remembered me. I’d always treated her well.
I took as much gold as I could carry.
I presented my haul publicly, and promised the same again. Da hid his smile. I saw cogs turning in the heads of the crew, and knew I’d won.
Al took me aside: “This is a fool’s contest. What say we get rid of the greedy old man and take this ship as ours.”
He drew his sword. I grabbed his blade with my hand and kneed him in the groin. He pulled back, splitting my palm, and bashed my head with the hilt. I fell.
When I awoke, Hank was there. I blinked: “Why are we in the hold?”
“Because your brother bribed me to kill you while your Da was with him.”
I said, “You like bribes, then?”
Hank smiled and drew his sword.
I said, “Let me go, and I’ll tell you where I got all that gold.”
I went up on deck smiling.
Hank was honorable enough to leave my death for later. I hoped he enjoyed meeting my old mistress’ Doberman.
I hadn’t seen Al, and hoped he’d fled to make a different life for himself. But I had a bad feeling, and went to check on Da. I unpicked the lock and flung open the door to my exhausted Da and brother, each bleeding in a dozen places. I yelled my rage and attacked.
Da collapsed, and I ran to him instead of giving chase. “Gail, I’m so sorry – for everything.”
“Shut up,” I said, and bandaged him.
There was no sign of Al when we set sail. I privately hoped my old mistress found him.
“Where’s Hank?” Da asked.
I said, “Dog food.”
Da surprised me by officially passing across captaincy of his ship to me. The crew cheered – evidently, I was the last to know. I straightened up, accepting my new life. Jim winked, and I wondered if he was being disrespectful. He confused me. That could be an issue.
I made Da keep his cabin, but we were both on night watch so it didn’t matter. Not until we finished, and found a corpse locked in there.
Kip was just another member of the crew until I found him stabbed in the captain’s cabin. Who would do something like that?
Our cook ran out of the galley. “Who took my apples? They were for a pie for all of us. Where are they?”
Suddenly I knew: Al was a stowaway.
We searched the ship room by room and found another dead body – stabbed in the back. Al was a coward as well as a killer. But it got worse. The crew took Da and I and locked us inside Da’s cabin. “If you can’t protect us, we’ll take Al over you,” they said.
Jim didn’t look at me.
Da and I stood with clenched fists, waiting for Al’s visit. We heard him pass, but he didn’t visit – not even to gloat.
Al came to see us: “Will you obey my command?”
“Not a chance,” I said.
Da tried to stand in front of me, so he’d be killed first.
Al left us to stew all day. Someone snuck a dagger under the door, and I hid it under my shirt and hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“Gail?” said Da.
I said, “Mm?”
“Did I mention I was sorry about your brother? From about a day after we met?”
“I had gotten that feeling.”
Al woke us before dawn and threw us in the lifeboat. I saw a blur on the horizon, so we rowed for that.
We landed on the island and plunged fully-clothed into a trickle of fresh water near the beach. Before we’d drunk our fill, I faced a spear.
I stood up slowly, and Da and I raised our hands. The locals took us to their village, tied us up, and put us in a bamboo cage.
“Could be worse,” said Da. I said, “Oh yes? How?” “Umm. . . give me a minute. I’ll think of something.”
I woke from a cramped sleep as someone tugged on my bound hands. It was Jim. “Sorry you went through so much – I had to make Al trust me.”
Once my hands were free, I was able to cut through the other ropes. Da looked like he’d been crying. “What now, Captain?” they asked me.
“That landlubber took my ship. And my gold. And my crew. Let’s steal another ship from these friendly locals and take back what’s mine.”
With my dagger, Jim’s sword, and Da’s rage we had our choice of ships. Given the state of our hands, we took one with a sail.
We cut a good wake through the green waves, and I asked Jim how he’d found us. “I made a raft,” he said, “and hoped.” He looked at me funny.
“I can tell you want something,” I said. Jim said, “I was hoping to be your first mate. In every sense.”
Da hastily rearranged ropes.
We had no lights but my ship did, so she was easy to find. They’d weighed their sea anchor so we crept up alongside and climbed the sides.
I saw Al’s hateful curly hair immediately in front of me, and the bland faces of several crew members facing me – and therefore him.
My old crew didn’t blink as Jim and I drew our weapons and grabbed Al. When we had him tied, they cheered – and begged my forgiveness.
We cut the sail off our new boat and put Al on board before shoving it away and sailing off. He railed at us, and we turned away.
As we left, I grabbed a single red apple and tossed it after him. After all, he was my brother.
I named Jim as first mate, and my fickle crew rejoiced. But I knew how to make them loyal. Jim loudly asked me where I wanted to go.
I shouted back, “You know what they say – diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Let’s find friends for all of us.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” he said.