The Corporal And The Scorpion
( Originally Published 1902 )
IN the cemetery at Ewingville, N. J., was buried the body of Corporal Joseph Byrnes. The following singular incident has been related about this man.
Joe Byrnes, a farmer-boy, living near Trenton Junction, N. J., having enlisted in the Spanish-American War, and having seen no real fighting in it, thinking he would find the service he desired, enlisted in Company H, of the 27th Regiment, known as Colonel Bell's Tigers, and went with his regiment to. the Philippines. One day, just before regimental parade, the captain of his company called the corporals together, and said :
" There's a spare pair, of sergeant's chevrons in my tent, and I propose to hand them to one of you corporals after this review. It is my intention to give these chevrons to the corporal who maintains the finest file, whose file looks neatest, and the corporal who personally maintains throughout the review the best position of a soldier. Return to your street and make ready, corporals."
"Assembly ! " was sounded, and after the men were told off Company H marched to its position in the first battalion, and off the regiment went to the reviewing grounds to join the brigade. Company H was on the right of the regimental line, and when the grounds selected for the review were reached the company was posted by the adjutant in a clear enough space, but at a distance of a few feet was a rock surrounded by a clump of thick scrub. Joe had thrown his eyes to the right to see that his men were in good shape and had taken the position of a soldier. For probably five minutes the men stood at attention, not a muscle moving.
" Joe! Look !" whispered Martin Reynolds, who stood elbow to elbow with Corporal Byrnes.
" Silence!" commanded Corporal Byrnes in a whisper.
Reynolds began to tremble, and Joe could see out of the corner of his eye that Reynolds was deadly pale.
Quick, Joe! Look ! There comes a scorpion out from that rock and brush directly toward you," again whispered Reynolds.
" Silence, sir! I've been watching him," replied Corporal Byrnes.
" For your own sake, Joe, move ! He's coming directly toward your leg," pleaded Reynolds.
" Silence, I say," was the only reply of the corporal, given in a low whisper.
Slowly the deadly scorpion came dragging its elongated body through the grass. Nearer it came to Corporal Byrnes, but not a muscle of his face moved, although his eyes were following the deadly scorpion.
Closer and closer came the hideous creature till it reached the silent corporal's foot. Joe knew the scorpion's sting probably meant death or at least tarantism. Private Reynolds began to sway in the line, and just as the scorpion seized Corporal Byrnes' shoe in his two pairs of claws, preparatory to using his telum or sting, and injecting his deadly venom in Joe's foot, Reynolds fell to the ground in a dead faint.
Corporal Byrnes alone of the entire regiment knew what the matter was with Private Reynolds, but the corporal stirred not a muscle of his body. A hushed, even tread of four feet coming from the rear at double-quick was heard over the grass, and the stretcher-bearers placed Reynolds on the stretcher.
Corporal Byrnes remembered he had a rent in his khaki trousers just at his leggin's top. He felt the scorpion seize his shoe in its claws—just as Reynolds fell. Now he could feel the scorpion wriggling and turning, with his quick, jerky motion, and dragging his long, thin body up his trousers leg. Now he was at the leggin's top, Joe could tell by his touch. Now he had stopped.
" I hope he don't find that hole in my breeches," said Joe, half to himself, half aloud, as he stood as rigid as a young oak.
" Moses ! He's got it !" he added, almost in the next breath, as he felt the little animal's slimy body, partly dragged, partly wriggling through the rent in his trousers.
" He's crawling up my bare leg ! My, he's slimy ; " murmured the corporal.
The corporal knew that to move or excite the scorpion meant to be stung.
He also knew that to be stung meant death; at the best the poison injected by the venomous scorpion into his blood would almost instantly produce tarantism.
Slowly the scorpion crawled and dragged himself beneath the trousers up the corporal's leg. " Could he get out of the hole in my khaki trousers even though he should turn and go back?" thought Joe.
" If I move he will surely sting," he reflected.
Suddenly the general and his staff galloped to take up their positions for the review.
The bugle sounded : " Forward!"
The band struck up " Dixie."
" Mark time! Mark!" came the command.
With clock-like regularity the 400 pairs of feet in the battalion moved silently an inch to and fro, raised a quarter of an inch from the earth and then dropped back to the earth again—every pair of feet but one. That silent pair of feet belonged to Corporal Joe Byrnes. For him to move probably meant his death. To remain silent certainly meant to lose the sergeant's chevrons.
Instantly the captain noticed Joe's rigidity and he shot him a quick, sharp glance and made an impatient motion with his sword, intending to call to Corporal Byrnes to mark time.
"Can't," was all Joe said, and he was only heard by the private next to him. That same instant the bugle sounded.
"Forward! Column right ! March!"
As if hinged upon a gate-post and worked automatically, the 27th swung off into line—all but one soldier—Corporal Byrnes.
As if riveted to the spot, Corporal Byrnes stood alone in the clearing, in the position of a soldier, while his regiment made the circle past the mounted reviewing officers. The tall corporal, standing out alone, was the most conspicuous man on the field, and General Lawton, noticing him, remarked to his major-doctor that there was " something wrong with that soldier. Look at his admirable pose. Major, you ride over and learn his difficulty," added the general.
The surgeon-major approached Joe, but the corporal gave no salute. The surgeon could see at a glance that something was wrong, for Joe was deathly pale. Joe had been assigned to brigade headquarters for duty the week previous, and the major recognized him.
" What's the matter?" cried the major, quickly dismounting.
"Don't come any closer, major," said Joe, quietly. " There's a scorpion up my leg, and if you disturb him he'll sting me. Don't come closer, please, major."
" Good heavens, you don't mean it!" said the major, quickly turning to his saddle-bag and seizing his kit.
" There's a rent in my khaki through which he crawled, and he's now crawling on my thigh, major," added Corporal Byrnes, never moving a muscle.
" Stand fast, lad ! Stand fast ! Don't move and I'll save you," said the major, approaching Joe steathily, a pair of slender-bladed scissors in his hand. " Where is he now ?"
" Just above the leggin's top, sir."
" Ah, here it is. Stand fast now, corporal. I'll not disturb him, and in a jiffy the major had cut the trousers leg all around at the knee.
" He's starting down my leg, major. Look out for him," said the corporal quietly.
" Don't move, corporal, for if he stings you'll either die or have the St. Vitus's dance and "
" There he goes ! There, he's out ! " shouted the major, interrupting him-self, as the scorpion, with that animal's peculiar hop, jumped from Corporal Byrnes' leggin's top.
But Joe did not hear the major. He had fallen in a faint to the ground, and soon the stretcher-bearers laid him beside Private Martin Reynolds.
" Is he dead? Was he stung by that scorpion? " shouted Reynolds, when Joe was carried to the rear.
" I saw the scorpion approach him, major ; I saw him crawling up his leg, and Joe saw him, too, but he wouldn't move. He wanted to win the sergeant's chevrons the captain promised. He'd a' won the chevrons, major, only for the scorpion."
And when General Lawton heard the surgeon-major's story of why the corporal stood fast in the field, and Reynolds' story of Byrnes' risking the scorpion's sting for a sergeant's chevrons, he sent for the captain of Company H.
" Captain," said the general. " I wish you would give Corporal Byrnes those sergeant's chevrons. He's fairly earned them."
" It's too late, general. I've handed them to a corporal who followed his regiment, sir."
And so Corporal Joe Byrnes came home a corporal and died a corporal, of typhoid fever, but his comrades love to tell the story of how he took the chance of a scorpion's death-sting ,to win a sergeant's chevrons.
In every calling of life there are barriers to progress ; promotion can only be had by a triumph over many hindrances. In military life the perils seem to be multiplied almost without number. Heat, cold, rain, hard fare, fever, bullets of the enemy, the scorpion under the rock, all are watching for the life of the soldier and trying to keep him from his stripes. Even after poor "Joe" Byrnes had risked the sting of the serpent in his desire to do his duty and win his promotion, the typhoid fever caught him and brought him to his end.
In the great battle of life, when the serpents of Moral Evil threaten destruction, it would be well if men would be as calm and brave as Corporal Joe Byrnes was when the scorpion crawled upon his body.