Chapter Forty-Four

~o~

"Just ask a question, Jack," Barbossa interrupted.

"I thought I was. Was I not?"

"Fer the game! Let's get on with it."

"Alright then," Jack said. "Barbossa, would you rather chew a piece of toenail off the foot of one of the crew, or lick 'is armpit?"

"That's disgusting!" I said with a substantial yawn induced by the rum I'd consumed on an empty stomach. I laid my head on Barbossa's shoulder while he mulled over an answer.

"Which member of the crew?" he asked Jack at last.

"Does it matter?

"'Spose not..."

Blissfully, sleep took me before I heard whether or not Barbossa answered.

~o~

If I had felt cramped and stiff the morning before from waking at dawn upon the open beach of Isla Perdida, it was nothing compared to waking at dawn in the cave deep within the jungle. Damp, slightly muddled from drinking rum on an empty stomach the night before, and abruptly awake because of the return of hungry mosquitoes, I was the first to move. When I groaned and tried to extricate myself from where I was wedged in the rock crevice between Barbossa and Jack, who had slid sideways to snore upon my shoulder sometime during the night, each of the men stirred and likewise crawled ungracefully out of our stony refuge.

Once we were fully awake and had returned for water again to the nearby runoff tumbling down the cliff, we decided to pick up where we had left off hacking our way through the undergrowth along the cliff face in search of a way up.

Fortune would smile upon the three of us that morning, but only for a brief period of time; not ten minutes into hacking and slashing again at the dense foliage, we discovered a small clearing with a rocky yet climbable route that led up past the canopy. Knowing that we had nothing to lose by trying it to see if we could find a route inland from the summit of the small mountain we'd been trying to get past, we headed upward, Jack leading the way and Barbossa bringing up the rear.

The first part of the climb proved to be the least difficult, for although the faint trail was uneven, steep, and wet from the storm, it was easy for us to grab the nearest saplings to keep our balance. Once we neared the canopy, the route opened up more –not exactly a path, but more of perhaps a thinning of the underbrush from repeated use by game to get to the water source at the bottom.

We climbed in silence for the simple reasons that we did not have much to say to one another that early in the morning, and also because our efforts to struggle up the muddy and coarse trail were keeping us too winded to make small talk. It was more than once that each of us slipped and fell, and by the time we had reached an elevation of what I estimated to be a couple hundred feet, Barbossa, Jack and I were already accumulating a fair number of bruises, as well as a good deal of mud upon our boots and clothes. Progress was maddeningly slow because of the rain the night before, but we had no other choice than to push onward and upward, trying to reach a place where we might evaluate the far side of the island without being seen.

Eventually we stopped to rest, and I became concerned about the fact that Barbossa, who was still limping more than usual, was further behind me than I was behind Jack. I said nothing, but I knew that every foot we gained in altitude was more work for him.

"We should keep moving," Jack said at last, and I was thankful to him for making sure he'd given sufficient time for all three of us, Barbossa included, to catch our breath. Once more we began to climb, and our efforts were eventually rewarded by the tree line fading away on the inland side of the trail, leaving an upward-sloping rock face covered in low scrub. On the seaward side of the path, trees still blocked most of the view of the beach and the cove we had left behind, but an occasional break in the foliage gave us a glimpse of them far below.

"Can ye see the top yet, Jack?" came Barbossa's voice from behind on the trail.

"Nope –hang on...it looks like we're getting close," Jack called back down after hurrying ahead several more paces.

"Good," Barbossa huffed behind me. "You two go on –I'll catch up yet. The spirit be willin', but this leg of mine..." He sounded too winded to bother to complete his thought.

We wound our way around a bend, scrabbling at times nearly on all fours to keep a purchase on the path. I waited for a moment or two until I had seen Barbossa pass the same curve in the trail, and then began the tedious ascent once more.

A short while later, I caught up to Jack, who was sitting below a small ledge to one side of the trail, and I plunked myself wearilyg down on a rock next to him to wait for Barbossa.

"It would appear that we're nearly there," Jack said to me as I wiped the sweat away from my brow. "Let's just hope there's a way down once we get there."

Still winded from climbing, I nodded in agreement, turning to watch where I expected Barbossa to catch up with us any minute. A moment or two passed, and still he hadn't turned up.

"Give 'im a minute," Jack said, clearly in response to my repeated glances at the trail. "It's a rough climb any way you look at it, and Barbossa does have a few years on us, darling."

I glanced quickly at Jack, expecting a smirk upon his face, but by the weary expression he wore, it was apparent that he was only stating the truth. Still, after another few minutes without any sign of Barbossa, that expression slowly evolved into one of annoyed puzzlement.

"Where the bloody hell is the old goat?" he asked at last.

"Do you think something happened to him?" I asked, becoming concerned that Barbossa hadn't caught up with us even though we had given him plenty of extra time. We both stared at the empty trail for another full minute and a half.

Nothing.

Jack abruptly stood up to look.

Nothing.

I stood up to look and met Jack with a look of concern when the path remained empty. I drew breath to yell to Barbossa, but Jack's hand on my arm stopped me from calling out. He shook his head.

"We don't know who else might hear."

"But where is he?" I asked, worrying more as time continued to pass.

Jack, in response to my question, turned and reached toward the edge of the small cliff we'd been sitting under, and hauled himself up, standing up with one hand to shade his eyes once he'd gained the ledge.

"Do you see him?" I called up.

"What the hell is he doing?" Jack suddenly asked, not really speaking to me.

"What? Do you see him? What do you see?"

"The old rogue is running nearly arse over tea kettle back down the trail," Jack informed me from his vantage point. "Didn't know Barbossa could move so fast. What would make him do that?"

Apparently Jack found the answer when he looked a few degrees to the left, over the trees.

"No, no! That's my ship!"

Jack jumped from the ledge and landed heavily next to me, clearly agitated.

"The Pearl!" he cried, bolting past me back the way we had come.

"What?"

"The Pearl, she's in the cove!" came Jack's answer from somewhere down the trail.

Quickly I followed him in a barely controlled dash back down the jungle path.

"Bloody Barbossa must've spotted her before us!" came Jack's voice from around the bend ahead of me. "The sly bastard sent me to the top first . . . he pretended to be falling behind to buy time . . ."

An opening in the trees flashed by as I ran, slid and skidded, and sure enough, not only was the Black Pearl reefing sail in the cove, but it was Barbossa's colors that were whipping smartly in the sea breeze at the top of the mainmast.

I was considering the fact that it likely meant that Rabara's mutiny had ended up going badly, when I rounded the bend in the trail too quickly behind Jack, and my feet went out from under me in the mud, sending me sprawling feet first with no little momentum; enough momentum, in fact, that my slide carried me along in the mud and wet leaves right towards the edge of the trail. Flailing frantically, I managed to flip from my backside to my front, grabbing at anything and everything I passed to try and slow myself down.

Rocks pulled away from their moorings in the wet ground, leaves pulled away from brush, and small branches snapped within my grasp, unable to hold my weight. I felt several fingernails tear away as I tried unsuccessfully to dig my fingers into the wet ground, and I screamed as loud as I ever have as my feet shot past the edge of the cliff high above the bay.

~o~

And so my tale, having taken a lengthy course to arrive here, has come full circle to where I began my narrative: with me suspended at the end of an old tree root that protruded from the edge of the cliff I have mentioned.

I held on desperately and screamed for all I was worth.

"JACK!"

It was only a moment before the bandana'd head of my companion appeared briefly to peer down at where I was in a very precarious position, several feet below, and then disappeared again.

"JACK! Don't leave me here!" I screamed again, knowing that I wouldn't be able to hold on for very long. I made the mistake of looking down at the breakers that were crashing on the rocky base of the island, quite some distance below where my feet dangled.

Jack Sparrow poked his head over the side again, grimaced at me, and yelled down in return. "But he'll get to the Pearl first!"

"Damn the bloody Pearl, Jack! I need help now!" I cried out.

I knew that he was in a quandary as to what course of action to take where he stood at the top of the cliff over my head. While I know he realized, on some level, that he couldn't leave me hanging over the edge of the cliff, for the moment he was wrestling with the choice of leaving me to fend for myself, and getting to the Black Pearl first, or taking time to help me, and risking the very likely possibility that he would again lose his beloved ship to the one man who had taken it from him twice before.

The root I was clinging to pulled out of the dirt two or three inches, and I knew I didn't have time for him to wage war with himself over the decision much longer.

"JAA-AA-AACK!" I screamed again.

"He's going to steal my bloody ship!" Jack cried frantically, appearing at the top of the cliff again, and pointing behind him at the path that led to the bottom of the cliff.

"He's not going anywhere without me, you idiot!" I called up, hoping it was in fact true, and that Jack wouldn't take the insult to heart at that point.

Jack frowned, thinking this over, and then disappeared, apparently not as convinced as I was that I wouldn't be left behind on the island.

Thinking he'd abandoned me to deal with my troubles on my own, I scrutinized the cliff face over my head, trying to see if there might be some way to haul myself to the top.

There wasn't.

I quickly glanced to either side of me, hoping to find a more solid anchorage to grab hold of, but nothing even remotely sturdy presented itself. I began to despair that I was going to die there, smashed upon the rocks below when either my grasp or the flimsy root gave out.

I glanced below again, not at the waves crashing upon the waiting rocks, but at the cliff face itself, searching for a ledge or a tree or anything that might stop my inevitable plunge. A small rocky outcropping, quite narrow, lay some thirty feet or so below me, and it appeared that trying to drop down to it was my only hope of survival. True, I would likely sustain at least a broken leg, or two, but broken legs would mend. A fall any further would be the end of me.

Just when I was debating about whether or not I had the courage to actually let go of the root I clung to, something smacked me in the head, startling me at first, but then I nearly began to weep with relief. A sturdy vine now hung down next to me, and Jack's head peered back over the top of the cliff.

"If Barbossa kills Rabara before I get me hands on that thieving Spaniard, I'll hold you entirely responsible," he quipped.

"Fine by me," I replied, eyeing the vine with both relief and concern. "Are you sure it's strong enough?"

"Aye, but what choice do you have?" was Jack's solemn reply. "One hand at a time, Maddie. There's a brave lass."

I did as Jack instructed; with one hand holding fiercely to the root, I grabbed the vine with the other desperately.

"Easy, now," Jack said with soft encouragement. "Both hands on the vine, love, nice and easy."

I found myself frozen with fear, reluctant to let go of the root completely.

"I can't do it," I said, painfully aware of how slippery my palms were becoming.

"Yes, you can," Jack said, trying to be patient.

"Jack, I can't," I sobbed suddenly, terrified and beginning to panic.

"Do it now, damn it!" Jack hollered at me. "Grab the bloody vine, woman!"

I did as Jack ordered, and clung to the vine with all my might, swaying back and forth like a very reluctant pendulum.

"Good. Now hang on!"

Jack's instructions were really quite unnecessary; I hadn't planned on doing anything but.

Jack's head disappeared again, and suddenly I felt myself inching toward the top of the cliff, drawn there little by little as Jack hauled back on the vine. Small rivulets of dirt and debris trickled past me as I rose; I could feel them but not see them since I had my eyes closed tight, and I tried not to think about whether or not the vine was going to hold long enough.

Bit by bit I neared the edge of the cliff. Although it was only a few feet to the top, it felt like I was hanging from that vine for an eternity. Eventually though, Jack peered back over the edge to speak, and I was startled enough by how close his voice was that I opened my eyes to look up into his.

"Give me your hand, Maddie," he said firmly, reaching one down toward me.

I cringed at the thought of letting go of the vine, but my desire to have solid ground beneath me as soon as possible aided my release of the makeshift rope. I reached up with one hand, my other arm beginning to tremble with the effort of holding my own weight for so long, and felt Jack's hand clamp firmly around my wrist. I likewise grabbed his.

"Gotcha," he said softly, bracing himself and pulling back. "Let's stop hanging around and get back to my sh...iiiiiiiiiiip!"

Jack's purchase on the muddy edge had suddenly given way, and he shot past the edge, my hand sliding out of his grasp as he did so. The next thing I knew, I was hanging from the rocking vine again, a foot from the top, and Jack, scrabbling madly as he toppled, had grabbed the root I had just vacated.

He hung next to and slightly below me, his dark eyes wide with unhappy surprise, and widening even further when his jarring weight caused that root to slip another inch or two out of its mooring.

"Bugger!" he swore, glancing over his shoulder at the same view of the surf and the rocks as I had.

"Climb!" he ordered, after evaluating the vast distance between his boots and the ocean below. "Climb, climb, climb, climb, dammit, woman, climb!"

I climbed, inching my way hand over hand along the short span of vine between myself and the top. Making sure that the branch of scrubby brush nearby was sturdy before I trusted my weight to it, I hauled myself forward on my belly, swinging one leg up and over the top after the other, coming to lie in the mud, breathless and thankful for solid ground of any sort. I had paused for only a fleeting moment, but even so, Jack had not been idle in those few seconds. The very instant my weight had left the vine, Jack had grabbed it and had begun to climb, hot on my heels and quite anxious to join me on terra firma.

An odd thwacking noise caused me to glance sharply over my shoulder, just in time to see the vine which Jack had previously anchored to a large tree split in two and snake furiously along the ground.

"Aaauuurrrgh!"

I hadn't realized until that moment that Jack's voice could actually reach an octave higher than mine, and I threw myself flat on my stomach as I dove for the end of the disappearing vine.

It was alarmingly light.

"Jaaack!" I screamed, letting go of the useless vine and peering over the edge. One hand covered in sparkling rings was visible grasping at the edge of the cliff. I could already see that Jack's white-knuckled fingers were beginning to slip, and I grabbed at him, closing both hands around his wrist just as his grip of the rock failed.

Neither Jack nor I said anything as he hung precariously in my grip, and we both discovered that his weight was pulling me ever so slowly forward in the mud toward the edge again. I didn't dare let go of Jack to search for something to hang onto; I wasn't strong enough to hold him one-handed and I knew it.

"Maddie, let go," he called up suddenly.

"No! I won't let you fall!" I answered, wondering desperately how I could make it so.

I felt leaves and small rocks slowing edging past my ribs as my inexorable crawl towards the muddy edge continued.

"Let go! I'm going to try for that ledge!" he called up again.

"No! You'll break a leg! Maybe worse!"

"It's better than being smashed on those rocks!"

"Jack, I can't!"

"Better one than both of us, love!" he cried towards me. "Let go, Madeline, please?"

I knew Jack was right, but letting go of him at that moment would have been the hardest thing I'd ever had to do, if it weren't for the faded yellow sash that dropped over the cliff towards Jack at that precise moment. Shocked, I glanced sideways to see that Barbossa had his foot braced against a well-anchored rock and had the other end of the sash wound about his wrists for further support.

"Let go, lass," he said softly. "I've got 'im."

I did, and with great effort, Barbossa hauled back and dragged Jack, who had immediately grabbed the material dangling near his head, back up to the safety of the ground at the cliff's edge.

~o~