Steve woke up to the soft sounds of waves hitting the bow mixed with the creaking of wood. He had almost gotten used to his rough fabric hammock, almost. As he sat up and rubbed his eyes, he noticed that only him and old Follock was still sleeping. The others, whom he had shared his night watch with, was nowhere to be seen.
He silently cursed himself for being a heavy sleeper before soundlessly leaping down onto the floor. He quickly put on his worn cotton blouse and vest followed by his leather boots. If Captain Johnson found him sleeping again he would be abandoned at next port sooner rather than later. He limped his way out of the sleeping quarters, still trying to put on his left boot, when he saw Sam storming towards him.
“Steve! There you are! I thought you started work with the rest hours ago!”
Sam was the closest to a friend Steve had and he was whispering to avoid waking up snoring Follock.
“I bet the others let me sleep intentionally … and I bet it was Barton’s idea,” Steve answered while gritting his teeth. Sam patted his back as to hurry and calm him at the same time.
“The Captain is speaking to the entire crew and he will notice us missing.”
With those words, both men ran as silently as possible above deck. Steve squeezed his eyes at the bright sun as the fresh air surrounded him. When his eyes adjusted to the sudden light, he could see the large group of crewmembers assembled just beneath the quarterdeck in front of the doors leading to Captain Johnson’s private chambers. Above his crew stood the Captain himself, just beside the helm. Sam and Steve managed to stealth their way into the group just as Johnson started speaking. Steve mouthed a silent “thank you” to Sam before turning his attention to the announcement.
“You are all gathered to be informed of the reason to the sudden change of plans,”
Johnson started. Steve had heard whispers among the crew. After weighing anchor in Havana, Johnson had commanded his galleon, their partner galleon and the merchants ship they escorted east, instead of west around Cape Bonavista as firstly planned. Many the men had found this peculiar and the lack of information delivered to the crew even more so.
Johnson was a middle-aged stout man with grey hairs starting to taint his forming beard. He wore his uniform proudly as his galleon sailed under the Union Jack. As he stood there surrounded by officers and soldiers in red, Captain Johnson formed a great example of why Steve chose to join the English Navy, proud and commanding as he stood.
“Officer Collins informed me of the possible troubles of rounding Cape Bonavista, the seas are crawling with Spanish privateers and pirate activity has increased the last months.”
Steve did not know what goods they escorted, yet it was valuable enough for the King to send two of the English fleet's best galleons to guard it. The merchant ship, called Valiant, looked small and insignificant between the two large warships. Steve knew of the officer standing at the helm of the other galleon named Boudicca. His name was Officer Abbott, yet many the men in both crews teasingly called him Officer Redhead, when he’s not listening that is. The mocking nickname was birthed more from his hot temper than his flaming auburn hair, yet it fit both, as well as his reputation in battle. Steve was content with sailing under Captain Johnson on The Triumph after hearing of common practised floggings of unruly crewmembers under Officer Abbott.
“As you know we are now heading east to reach our final destination Kingston. Yet to reach the King’s city we must sail by infested waters.”
Everyone knew what that meant, the Captain continued his speech despite the tension and worried looks shared between the addressed group.
"We have the honour of sharing company with Officer Collins aboard The Triumph. Our English brothers aboard Boudicca are commanded by no other than Officer Abbott himself! I guarantee you safety in the name of the King and his sixty loyal soldiers aboard our caravan. Stand tall and take pride in your service men! I do believe you will find the option of desertion rather difficult..."
His last comment broke out a laugh among the soldiers and officers alike, yet the crew stayed silent. Steve thought the same as every other crew member. They did not tell us before leaving port. They knew the crew would not agree to sailing that close to The Bahamas, not when the Island of Nassau was a few leagues north of it. Worse, they also knew that no man would dare speak up in the presence of Royal officers and top trained soldiers, who did nothing else that standing in the way and kicking sweeping buckets over to make life harder for the men working. Steve heard at least one other man curse the high horsed redcoats as the group split to return to each their own errands.
Later that day, Steve helped Sam with the rigging at the forecastle, the rope needed repair and Sam was the best man aboard for the job. As his friend oiled the dry rope Steve made sure to notice the entire procedure. It was never too late to learn despite this being far from his first sailing contract. It was easy to find work on patrolling vessels not far from New York, even when the pay was no bigger than scraps.
When he started working for the Navy, he was sent south and each trip became longer and harder. He was lucky Sam had taken him in, otherwise he might have been more of a burden to the crew than he would have liked and that never made anyone popular with the Captain. Steve might not be an experienced sailor but hard labor was never a problem for him. Long work days and heavy cargo had made him strong as a bull.
He was also taller than most of the other men aboard, which sometimes seemed to bother the commanding soldiers. A Corporal might be cocky when kicking over his cleaning bucket if Steve sat down while sweeping the deck, but when he then proceeded to stand up he towered several inches over the high ranking soldier of his Majesty King George. Then their mocking smile somehow always faltered. At least this little trick gained Steve several points among the other pissed off members of the crew.
The working men grew more and more paranoid with each passing day. Every morning seemed more tense than the one before, yet the soldiers did not seem to feel less confident of the safety of the caravan. Steve desperately didn’t want to thing them ignorant, but the silent thought spread like a wildfire. Even Barton dared not fool around anymore while everyone was this much on edge. The Captain got annoyed when the third account of an anxious
"Ship ohoy off the port beam!" Sounded from the crow's nest above them. It was simply a small schooner, bigger chance being a bounty hunter than a petty pirate. Captain Johnson shouted a series of insults at the men near him asking them to "kindly inform the crow in the nest that next time he informs me of a suspicious looking, petty boat I will personally send him to The Locker without having bloody pirates doing it for him!"
Before the three false alarms Captain Johnson had been more bold, uncaring and patrolling the deck with his head held high. When the anxiousness of the crew first started to form he had assured everyone that the caravan would be sailing close to the shore, avoiding open waters. Yet many had glanced nervously towards the shore to the starboard broadside, thinking it too far away. The anxiousness of the crew only birthed conflict so Johnson had wisely commandeered The Triumph closer to the shore as the 4th day came to a close. It helped little and Steve caught himself thinking how the hell people could get used to sail in dangerous waters like these all the time. Piracy up north were less extensive and threatening. Down here, even the Navy feared black flags. Steve silently cursed himself for talking Sam into southern contracts. One let to another and now he had gotten them into this mess. He made a mental note to apologise later, even though he knew Sam would brush it aside with a scoff.
The 5th day brought fog and thick, moist air with it, not helping the crew on edge. Even the cocky soldiers seemed to pick up the state of the working men and started to glance towards the hidden horizon. Steve kept a close eye on the shore at all times when working above deck. He noticed the many small rocky islands and bays along the shore, yet he felt a spark of rising panic every time the rockfilled shoreline disappeared in the fog. Navigation in these conditions were tricky as hell and Sam had heard the navigator cuss a long stream of expletives over breakfast, he had told Steve as much. What if they accidently got too far into open water? Maybe the fog would clear then? But what kind of vessels would lurk there, ready to spot them? The bad visibility kept them hidden in a vulnerable place. Almost like a coffin, Steve thought gloomingly, before distracting his mind with work yet again.
The fog still hadn’t disappeared the morn of the 6th day. Steve tried to not get bothered by it when looking out of the open gun ports, which providing some fresh air to the lower deck. He was given the exciting task of painting the shutters on the inside, the tart smell of the paint not bettering his gloomy mood in the slightest.
The weather was slightly cooler than normal, yet the wetness of the fog surrounded the caravan was making the air seem harder to breathe in. Steve had been up early that morning, so his assigned painting job was executed with a fair share of yawning. He was relieved when he was finally replaced by another crew member, the man just as put down over the task as Steve had been. After patting him on the back for encouragement, Steve went up the stairs. When he reached the top deck, he immediately noticed the fog thinner cover of the fog. It was finally clearing and he a tiny piece of anxiety disappeared with the mist.
The front sails of Valiant and Boudicca could be clearly spotted behind them, the hulls sailing clean through restful waters. He went to help Barton with sail repairments amidship. Steve still had ambivalent thoughts towards his comrade. Barton could be funny and nice to have around when the days seemed to stretch on forever. Yet the man did have a habit of talking every other crewmember into letting Steve sleep on in the mornings, just for the fun of it. Sam was sleeping on the other side if the cargo hold and had other matters to attend than checking on Steve every morning.
"You have to learn the skill of light sleeping mate ... Sooner rather than later."
He had simply stated. Steve supposed he was right so he couldn’t stay angry at the man. As they sat down working, their fingers in knots trying to get each piece of fabric to comply, they heard a shout. They turned towards the sound coming from the galleons forecastle, simply giving each other a funny, unassuming look, but the shouting continued. At last they ran to the very front of the ship to stand beside the shouting man. His eyes were wide in fear and his panicked rambling made less and less sense with every passing second.
"Be quiet man the Captain is still sleeping!"
Barton scolded him. Steve knew the man although he had never spoken to him, like Follock, he was a regular aboard this vessel. Now he clung to Steve's vest like his dear life depended on it. Steve desperately tried to loosen the man’s grip on his clothes but the man was devilishly strong in his panic. Finally, the endless rambling was collected enough to be considered a hysterical statement.
"I saw a ship right ... right there in the fog!"
The man stammered while pointing frantically at the empty air in front of the bow. Steve and Barton looked towards his given direction trying to spot out the ship the man was ranting about. There was nothing but thinning grey mist.
"I saw a black flag I swear! It was right there in a straight line from the bow! I swear on my cold wet grave!"
Now shouting began from the crow's nest, which sparked a reaction from the deck below. Men were running and the sound of barking commands and frantic arguments were getting louder.
"Be calm! By the devil you just had to light the fuse! do you have any idea what Johnson might ..."
Barton was violently shaking the man back and forth by now, assuming the man an idiot, but Steve grabbed at his sleeve and pointed.
The shouting man stumbled and ran as soon as Barton's grip on him loosened. Right in front of the bow a sailing ship appeared through the fog. The sails were dark brown and the ship was as black as the Jolly Roger dancing atop the tallest mast. The ship's bow carved through the water with deadly silence, as it almost hovered above the water in direction of their the port broadside of before vanishing again. Only now Steve became aware of the intensely cold chills travelling through his body, from his toes to his teeth. He clutched the railings with white knuckles and cramping fingers.
He looked to Barton and saw all colour drained from the man’s face. Gulping down air in spasmodic gasps, he heard more shouting behind them, as the crow's nest desperately tried to locate the vanished ship. The deck was in a state of panicked stillness. Fighting a soundless invisible enemy with limited visibility was nothing any of them had ever prepared for.
Suddenly a shot was heard from the port side, ringing sharply through traitorous stillness. Every man in ear-range jumped, some clutched their heads and dropped to the deck. Clint ducked instinctively and dragged the slower Steve down with him. Both men listened as the shot hit the water with a splash not far from The Triumph. After that, only their shallow breathing could be heard. A warning shot. From fucking where?!
"That's just ironic. Bloody pirates goin' to attack on the 6th day?"
He heard Barton whisper in steadfast dread. A thousand prayers hidden in his eyes. Steve felt his heart almost beat through his ribcage. They were both pressing their backs to the gunwall, trying to find assurance in the sturdy structure, even though both knew that wood would yield to metal and explosives.
"6 is the devil's number."
Steve gave Clint a stupidly astonished look. Why the hell was ironic symbolism the first thing running through this man's brain right now? Clint flashed a strained sarcastic smile, his breathing picking up. The fear in his eyes mirrored the horror in Steve's own as their ears filled with the shouts of men running to their battle stations.