Just then the door swung open and a frowning man peered into the dark interior. He looked sea-roughened, but not like a common sailor. Someone with rank. A bosun at least, maybe an officer. When he saw the two drunkards, he strode up to their table.
"You buggers! I've better things to do than search all over the docks for you."
"Ah, Mr. Greenstreet!" The talkative one smiled stupidly. "Come and join us for a pint!"
"You were gone all night. You missed your watch."
The sleeping man picked up his head and squinted at the daylight.
"You're both sacked," Greenstreet went on. "You can come pick up your kit until three. After that I'll have it put out on the dock."
"Oh, come on, sir, you wouldn't short a man his wee bit of fun." The talkative man was almost whining. "We've been two months at sea!" The other man just glared silently.
"See Mr. Cheetham to get paid off."
"Paid off, eh?" The second man pulled himself slowly up from the table. He was over six feet tall and looked like he could pull up whole trees with one thick arm. He let out a string of curses. Perce hoped the woman sweeping the floor didn't understand English. The big man threw a punch. It was fast but sloppy. Greenstreet ducked most of it. Chairs scraped and glasses clinked all over the cantina as men cleared back out of the way.
"Should we help him out?" Perce asked tentatively. Perce didn't want his friend to think he was shy of fighting.
"Well, let's give the man his chance."
"But it's two on one, and they're twice his size."
"Watch. He might know what he's doing."
Billy was right. This man Greenstreet knew how to let a man blow off a bit and not get crazy and not get anyone hurt. It turned out to be hardly a fight at all. A little shoving, a lot of swearing. Then two Spanish men came out from behind the bar. One had a stick, the other a sock with lead pellets in the toe. The two drunk sailors backed off. Everything went back to normal.
"Don't bother the others when you come for your things." Greenstreet gave them a disgusted look and left.
"Come on." Perce grabbed his duffel bag.
"Where you going? I haven't finished my beer."
"Didn't you hear the man? There's two places just opened on a ship!"
"Well, for a raw pup you've got some wits after all," Billy said as he gulped the last swallow. Perce and Billy grabbed their kit and hurried outside. The man walked fast and was half a block away before they caught up to him.
"Sir—Mr., uh, Greenstreet—sir," Billy called out. The man turned.
"I'm William Bakewell. This is Perce Blackborow. We lost our ship in Montevideo. She ran aground," he added in case the man might think they had been fired themselves. "You'll be needing some new hands."
Greenstreet gave them a quick look-over. "Experience?" Bakewell explained that he had experience with both sail and steam. No navigation to speak of, but he could keep a course. He mentioned his two last ships, craftily avoiding the fact that they were his only two ships.
"And you?" Greenstreet turned to Perce. Next to Billy, he had little to offer. There were a hundred men within shouting distance with more skill and experience.
"Ordinary seaman, sir," he said quietly. "Very willing."
"Ernest Shackleton!" Perce said excitedly. "What I'd give just to meet him!" When Greenstreet had told them exactly what they were applying for, Perce could hardly believe it. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, under the command of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Billy hadn't heard much about Shackleton, although he was a legend in England.
"So he's the guy that didn't make it to the South Pole?"
"Well, yes, but—"
"And the Brit that did make it—what's his name?"
"Robert Scott," Perce reminded him.
"Yeah, Scott, he died on the way back, right?"
"And that Norwegian guy—Amundsen. He actually got there and came back alive. So he won the race."
"There's more to it than that," Perce said with exasperation. Americans were so bloody stuck on winning and losing. "Do you know how far it is to the South Pole and back?"
"Farther than anybody in their right mind would ever want to go!" Billy laughed.
"It's almost two thousand miles!" Perce said. "And when Shackleton went, back in 1909, he didn't even knew what to expect. No one had seen much beyond the coastline. That'd be like you setting off to walk across the United States, only you didn't even know if there were mountains or deserts or what to cross. Shackleton pioneered the way!"
Perce was surprised at how little Billy knew. In England, polar explorers were regarded as heroes. Magazines printed long stories about them, and people packed lecture halls to listen to them speak. Perce remembered his father reading the newspaper stories aloud to the family. How Shackleton led his men across endless miles of the Ross Ice Shelf, hauling heavy sleds with all their equipment. Sometimes the ice would crack beneath them, opening a huge crevasse hundreds of feet deep. They found an enormous glacier, a mountain of ice blocking the way. Shackleton and his men clawed their way up. For weeks they trudged across a high plateau where the air was so thin, they could barely breathe. It was freezing cold. Blizzard winds knocked them down. They walked for 660 miles. They were almost there, only ninety-seven miles from the South Pole, when Shackleton turned around.
He knew they didn't have enough food. They were already desperately hungry and exhausted. They suffered from frostbite. They were only covering six or eight miles a day. He knew they could reach the South Pole, but he didn't think he could get them all back alive. He could be the most famous explorer in the world, but instead he turned around.
Perce was eleven years old then, far too old to cry, but as he heard about the desperate struggle at the bottom of the world, he couldn't help it. "Two years after that, Scott made another try for the pole," Perce explained. "He followed Shackleton's route. It still wasn't easy, of course, but at least he knew what to expect. Scott did reach the South Pole but found out Amundsen had already been there by a different route. Then Scott and his men all died on the way back."