A gruff hand seized Sawyer’s shoulder, jolting him from a beach-inspired dream.
“You’re on,” said Hyde.
Peeling apart his sleepy lids, Sawyer spied the mountainous man dropping into his hammock slung below without even bothering to hide an expansive yawn. The nails attaching the strip of fabric to the ship’s posts groaned under Hyde’s weight, and the man’s briny musk rippled through the cramped quarters.
“Up,” whispered Sawyer.
Heaving from his recline, Sawyer ducked low, preventing his head from hitting the underside of the deck’s planks. He clambered out of bed while Hyde began snoring.
Seizing his boots from where he’d discarded them what felt like brief minutes ago, Sawyer tugged them over his breeches’ hem. He grabbed his coat from its peg, and thrust his arms into the sleeves as he made his way to the door.
The ship’s sway caught his initial stride, but he settled into the undulating gait within a pair of steps.
Mounting the ladder, he poked through the hatch. A night gust swept across the deck, rattling rigging and fluttering the tied down sails.
Emerging from the hold, Sawyer nodded to Jackson as the leather-faced sailor manned the rudder through the spoked wheel set up at the stern. Sawyer strode along the deck’s perimeter before ascending the platforms’ steps and joining the other man on watch.
“So far,” said Jackson.
Standing beside the stouter man, Sawyer gazed down the length of the ship, toward the bow and the ongoing night before them. Stars twinkled like watchful eyes through the masts and booms.
Sawyer pulled his coat close. “What’s our heading?”
“The Captain said to keep due West until morning,” said Jackson.
“Doesn’t that seem a little direct?”
Jackson shrugged. “Not my place to question the order.”
“We got away,” said Jackson. “No one’s going to catch us out here.”
Pivoting, Sawyer leaned against the back rail, watching the ship’s wake stir the darkened waters. Foam trailed off toward the lightening horizon like an arrow aimed at land. The ship rocked with the steady sail and swift current, and as night passed, indigo skies gave way to violet and peach.
Straightening from his slouch, Sawyer rubbed at his eyes as posts appeared, silhouetted by the rising morning. A second glance confirmed the masts, growing like weeds out of the sea.
“Jackson.” Without taking his gaze from the vessels behind them, Sawyer laid a hand on the other man’s shoulder.
“Tell me what you see.”
With an irritated mumble, Jackson shifted. He set one hand on the rail, the other on the wheel, keeping the ship on course. In his peripheral vision, Sawyer saw Jackson’s scowl ebb into raised brows.
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure,” said Sawyer.
They watched the gathering force in silence for a few moments. Sawyer began counting, reached twenty and stopped as the chasing ships dropped their sails and caught the morning’s offshore winds. A plume of smoke rose from one, an acknowledging puff from another, and then the signal worked through the armada.
“We better wake the Captain,” said Jackson.
“We better grow wings,” whispered Sawyer.
He stared at the taut fabric bringing their enemies closer with every gust while his stomach dropped to his feet like an anchor. After a final glare, Sawyer turned away and yanked on the warning bell posted by the wheel. The peal shattered the quiet. As the din echoed over the water, he heard pounding beneath the deck as the crew awoke.
In the cabin under his feet, the floorboards creaked. A heartbeat later a door opened and closed again with a clack. With a steady tread, the Captain ascended the stairs, thumbs looped at his belt beside a holstered pistol and saber.
Without a word, Sawyer pointed over their stern.
The Captain smirked. “The Admiral seems unhappy with us, boys.”
“Looks that way, Captain,” said Sawyer. “What are we going to do?”
Sawyer froze as the Captain caught him in an unwavering stare.
“We’re going to do as we promised, Sawyer. They’ve entrusted us.”
“Paid well for it too,” said Jackson.
The Captain snorted his agreement. “We’ve taken the job. We’ll get it done.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sawyer.
The Captain swiveled to face the dozen men on deck, standing in a loose clump awaiting orders.
“Get us underway.” He set his hands upon the ship’s railing, confidence washing off of him in waves. “We’ve got a message to deliver.”