Crane begins ‘‘A Mystery of Heroism’’ by setting the scene, describing the field of battle. At the top of a hill the artillerymen rush about, firing and reloading their guns, while below the hill the infantrymen of A company await their turn to fight. The infantrymen look onto ‘‘a fair little meadow,’’ and just beyond the meadow there is a house and a well decimated by the explosions of the battle. As the men of A company look on, they see the regiment’s bugler killed by one of the many exploding shells, while an officer rides by on his horse, cradling an injured arm.
Amid all this chaos, Fred Collins of A company tells his fellow soldiers that he is thirsty. ‘‘I bet there’s water in that there ol’ well yonder!’’ he says. However, the once pleasant meadow between Collins and the well is now being torn apart by a volley of enemy shells. What little is left of the house beyond the meadow is destroyed, and some of the artillerymen and their horses are being killed.
Collins’s fellow soldiers begin to tease him, telling him he should go ahead now and get a drink of water from the well, assuming that no one would be foolhardy enough to try such a stunt. Collins takes offense at their ribbing, threatening to do just that if they do not stop. Meanwhile, the regiment’s officers discuss the progress of the battle; one predicts that the enemy’s infantry will soon attack the hill.
Infuriated by the taunts of his comrades, Collins gets up, approaches his captain, who is talking with the colonel of the regiment, and asks permission to go get water from the well across the meadow. Astonished, the captain and colonel attempt to reason with him. The colonel asks, ‘‘Don’t you think that’s taking pretty big risks for a little drink of water.’’ Collins answers, ‘‘I dunno w’ether ’tis.’’ The colonel tells him that if he wants to go, he may do so, adding that he should take some of the other soldiers’ canteens with him to fill up as well.
Somewhat stunned that he has actually taken his threat this far, Collins moves about in a daze as his fellow soldiers prepare him for his trip to the well. He is too dazed to feel afraid and wonders if perhaps this absence of fear means that he is a hero. However, he rejects this notion, reasoning that
“Heroes had no shame in their lives, and, as for him, he remembered borrowing fifteen dollars from a friend and promising to pay it back the next day, and then avoiding that friend for ten months… Hero or not, he begins walking across the meadow toward the well.”
As Collins heads toward the well, a line of infantrymen emerges from a forest beyond the meadow and begins firing. Collins ‘‘could see nothing but flying arrows, flaming red.’’ He runs for the house, which he views ‘‘as a man submerged to the neck in a boiling surf might view the shore.’’ Finally reaching the well amid exploding shells and rifle bullets, he begins to fill the canteens. No longer dazed, he is now too terrified to wait for the canteens to fill up. He opts instead to fill a bucket he finds nearby and begins running back to A company.
Along the way, he assumes that he will be killed at any moment; he imagines how he will fall, the way he has seen fellow soldiers fall. Then Collins encounters the officer whose arm had been injured earlier. Having been hit by another shell, the man lies dying on the ground, with one leg trapped beneath his dead horse. He asks Collins for a drink of water. Too afraid to delay his return, at first Collins refuses, but then he turns back and attempts to give the officer a drink. In his terror, he spills water all over the officer’s face. He then rushes on to his regiment, which cheers his arrival. The bucket of water is first grabbed by two lieutenants, who begin fooling around with it, one deliberately jostling the other while he tries to drink. The bucket falls to the ground, spilling all the water.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Stephen Crane – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.