The Lone Charge of William B. Perkins

Stephen Crane

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 bullets.

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 them.

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

far-gathered hay.

"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 it.

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.