HE could not distinguish between a five-inch quick-firing gun and a
nickel-plated ice-pick, and so, naturally, he had been elected to fill the
position of war correspondent. The responsible party was the editor of the
"Minnesota Herald." Perkins had no information of war, and no particular
rapidity of mind for acquiring it, but he had that rank and fibrous quality
of courage which springs from the thick soil of Western America.
It was morning in Guantanamo Bay. If the marines encamped on the hill had
had time to turn their gaze seaward, they might have seen a small newspaper
despatch-boat wending its way toward the entrance of the
harbor over the blue, sunlit waters of the Caribbean. In the stern of this
tug Perkins was seated upon some coal bags, while the breeze gently ruffled
his greasy pajamas. He was staring at a brown line of entrenchments
surmounted by a flag, which was Camp McCalla. In the harbor were anchored
two or three grim, gray cruisers and a transport. As the tug steamed up the
radiant channel, Perkins could see men moving on shore near the charred
ruins of a village. Perkins was deeply moved; here already was more war than
he had ever known in Minnesota. Presently he, clothed in the essential
garments of a war correspondent, was rowed to the sandy beach. Marines in
yellow linen were handling an ammunition supply. They paid no attention to
the visitor, being morose from the inconveniences of two days and nights of
fighting. Perkins toiled up the zig-zag path to the top of the hill, and
looked with eager eyes at the trenches, the field-pieces, the funny little
Colts, the flag, the grim marines lying wearily on their arms. And still
more, he looked through the clear air over 1,000 yards of mysterious woods
from which emanated at inopportune times repeated flocks of Mauser
Perkins was delighted. He was filled with admiration for these jaded and
smoky men who lay so quietly in the trenches waiting for a resumption of
guerrilla enterprise. But he wished they would heed him. He wanted to talk
about it. Save for sharp inquiring glances, no one acknowledged his
Finally he approached two young lieutenants, and in his innocent Western
way he asked them if they would like a drink. The effect on the two young
lieutenants was immediate and astonishing. With one voice they answered,
"Yes, we would." Perkins almost wept with joy at this amiable response, and
he exclaimed that he would immediately board the tug and bring off a bottle
of Scotch. This attracted the officers, and in a burst of confidence one
explained that there had not been a drop in camp. Perkins lunged down the
hill, and fled to his boat, where in his exuberance he engaged in
a preliminary altercation with some whisky. Consequently he toiled again up
the hill in the blasting sun with his enthusiasm in no ways abated. The
parched officers were very gracious, and such was the state of mind of
Perkins that he did not note properly how serious and solemn was his
engagement with the whisky. And because of this fact, and because of his
antecedents, there happened the lone charge of William B. Perkins.
Now, as Perkins went down the hill, something happened. A private in
those high trenches found that a cartridge was clogged in his rifle. It then
becomes necessary with most kinds of rifles to explode the cartridge. The
private took the rifle to his captain, and explained the case. But it would
not do in that camp to fire a rifle for mechanical purposes and without
warning, because the eloquent sound would bring six hundred tired marines to
tension and high expectancy. So the captain turned, and in a loud voice
announced to the camp that he found it necessary to shoot into the air. The
communication rang sharply from voice to voice. Then the captain raised the
weapon and fired. Whereupon -- and whereupon -- a large line of guerrillas
lying in the bushes decided swiftly that their presence and position were
discovered, and swiftly they volleyed.
In a moment the woods and the hills were alive with the crack and sputter
of rifles. Men on the warships in the harbor heard the old familiar
flut-flut-fluttery-fluttery-flut-flut-flut from the entrenchments.
Incidentally the launch of the "Marblehead," commanded by one of our
headlong American ensigns, streaked for the strategic woods like a galloping
marine dragoon, peppering away with its blunderbuss in the box.
Perkins had arrived at the foot of the hill, where began the arrangement
of 150 marines that protected the short line of communication between the
main body and the beach. These men had all swarmed into line behind
fortifications improvised from the boxes of provisions. And to them were
gathering naked men who had been bathing, naked men who arrayed themselves
speedily in cartridge belts and rifles. The woods and the hills went
flut-flut-flut-fluttery-fluttery-flut-fllllluttery-flut. Under the boughs of
a beautiful tree lay five wounded men thinking vividly.
And now it befell Perkins to discover a Spaniard in the bush. The
distance was some five hundred yards. In a loud voice he announced his
perception. He also declared hoarsely, that if he only had a rifle, he would go and possess
himself of this particular enemy. Immediately an amiable lad shot in the arm
said: "Well, take mine." Perkins thus acquired a rifle and a clip of five
"Come on!" he shouted. This part of the battalion was lying very tight,
not yet being engaged, but not knowing when the business would swirl around
To Perkins they replied with a roar. "Come back here, you -- -- -- -- --
fool. Do you want to get shot by your own crowd? Come back, -- -- -- -- --
!" As a detail, it might be mentioned that the fire from a part of the hill
swept the journey upon which Perkins had started.
Now behold the solitary Perkins adrift in the storm of fighting, even as
a champagne jacket of straw is lost in a great surf. He found it out
quickly. Four seconds elapsed before he discovered that he was an alms-house
idiot plunging through hot, crackling thickets on a June morning in Cuba.
Sss-s-s-swing-sing-ing-pop went the lightning-swift metal grass-hoppers over
him and beside him. The beauties of rural Minnesota illuminated his
conscience with the gold of lazy corn, with the sleeping green of meadows,
with the cathedral gloom of pine forests. Sshsh-swing-pop! Perkins decided
that if he cared to extract himself from a tangle of imbecility he must
shoot. It was necessary that he should shoot. Nothing would save him but
shooting. It is a law that men thus decide when the waters of battle close
over their minds. So with a prayer that the Americans would not hit him in
the back nor the left side, and that the Spaniards would not hit him in the
front, he knelt like a supplicant alone in the desert of chaparral, and
emptied his magazine at his Spaniard before he discovered that his Spaniard
was a bit of dried palm branch.
Then Perkins flurried like a fish. His reason for being was a Spaniard in
the bush. When the Spaniard turned into a dried palm branch, he could no
longer furnish himself with one adequate reason.
Then did he dream frantically of some anthracite hiding-place, some
profound dungeon of peace where blind mules live placidly chewing the
"Sss-swing-win-pop! Prut-prut-prrrut!" Then a field-gun spoke.
"Boom-ra-swow-ow-ow-ow-pum." Then a Colt automatic began to bark.
"Crack-crk-crk-crk-crk-crk" endlessly. Raked, enfiladed, flanked,
surrounded, and overwhelmed, what hope was there for William B. Perkins of
the "Minnesota Herald"?
But war is a spirit. War provides for those that it loves. It provides
sometimes death and sometimes a singular and incredible safety. There were
few ways in which it was possible to preserve Perkins. One way was by means
of a steam-boiler.
Perkins espied near him an old, rusty steam-boiler lying in the bushes.
War only knows how it was there, but there it was, a temple shining
resplendent with safety. With a moan of haste, Perkins flung himself through
that hole which expressed the absence of the steam-pipe.
Then ensconced in his boiler, Perkins comfortably listened to the ring of
a fight which seemed to be in the air above him. Sometimes bullets struck their
strong, swift blow against the boiler's sides, but none entered to interfere
with Perkins's rest.
Time passed. The fight, short anyhow, dwindled to prut . . . prut . . .
prut-prut . . . prut. And when the silence came, Perkins might have been
seen cautiously protruding from the boiler. Presently he strolled back
toward the marine lines with his hat not able to fit his head for the new
lumps of wisdom that were on it.
The marines, with an annoyed air, were settling down again when an
apparitional figure came from the bushes. There was great excitement.
"It's that crazy man," they shouted, and as he drew near they gathered
tumultuously about him and demanded to know how he had accomplished
Perkins made a gesture, the gesture of a man escaping from an
unintentional mud-bath, the gesture of a man coming out of battle, and then
he told them.
The incredulity was immediate and general. "Yes, you did! What? In an old
boiler? An old boiler? Out in that brush? Well, we guess not." They did not
believe him until two days later, when a patrol happened to find the rusty
boiler, relic of some curious transaction in the ruin of the Cuban sugar
industry. The patrol then marveled at the truthfulness of war correspondents
until they were almost blind.
Soon after his adventure Perkins boarded the tug, wearing a countenance
of poignant thoughtfulness.