Leiningen Versus the Ants
by Carl Stephenson (1893-1954)
Approximate Word Count: 8881
Unless they alter their course and there's no reason why they should, they'll reach your plantation in two days at the latest."
Leiningen sucked placidly at a cigar about the size of a corncob and for a few seconds gazed without answering at the agitated District Commissioner. Then he took the cigar from his lips, and leaned slightly forward. With his bristling grey hair, bulky nose, and lucid eyes, he had the look of an aging and shabby eagle.
"Decent of you," he murmured, "paddling all this way just to give me the tip. But you're pulling my
leg of course when you say I must do a bunk. Why, even a herd of saurians couldn't drive me from
this plantation of mine."
The Brazilian official threw up lean and lanky arms and clawed the air with wildly distended fingers.
"Leiningen!" he shouted. "You're insane! They're not creatures you can fight--they're an
elemental--an 'act of God!' Ten miles long, two miles wide--ants, nothing but ants! And every single
one of them a fiend from hell; before you can spit three times they'll eat a full-grown buffalo to the
bones. I tell you if you don't clear out at once there'll he nothing left of you but a skeleton picked as
clean as your own plantation."
Leiningen grinned. "Act of God, my eye! Anyway, I'm not an old woman; I'm not going to run for it
just because an elemental's on the way. And don't think I'm the kind of fathead who tries to fend off
lightning with his fists either. I use my intelligence, old man. With me, the brain isn't a second
blindgut; I know what it's there for. When I began this model farm and plantation three years ago, I
took into account all that could conceivably happen to it. And now I'm ready for anything and
everything--including your ants."
The Brazilian rose heavily to his feet. "I've done my best," he gasped. "Your obstinacy endangers
not only yourself, but the lives of your four hundred workers. You don't know these ants!"
Leiningen accompanied him down to the river, where the Government launch was moored. The
vessel cast off. As it moved downstream, the exclamation mark neared the rail and began waving
its arms frantically. Long after the launch had disappeared round the bend, Leiningen thought he
could still hear that dimming imploring voice, "You don't know them, I tell you! You don't know
But the reported enemy was by no means unfamiliar to the planter. Before he started work on his
settlement, he had lived long enough in the country to see for himself the fearful devastations
sometimes wrought by these ravenous insects in their campaigns for food. But since then he had
planned measures of defence accordingly, and these, he was convinced? were in every way
adequate to withstand the approaching peril.
Moreover, during his three years as a planter, Leiningen had met and defeated drought, Hood,
plague and all other "acts of God" which had come against him-unlike his fellow-settlers in the
district, who had made little or no resistance. This unbroken success he attributed solely to the
observance of his lifelong motto: The human brain needs only to become fully aware of its powers
to conquer even the elements. Dullards reeled senselessly and aimlessly into the abyss; cranks,
however brilliant, lost their heads when circumstances suddenly altered or accelerated and ran into
stone walls, sluggards drifted with the current until they were caught in whirlpools and dragged
under. But such disasters, Leiningen contended, merely strengthened his argument that
intelligence, directed aright, invariably makes man the master of his fate.
Yes, Leiningen had always known how to grapple with life. Even here, in this Brazilian wilderness,
his brain had triumphed over every difficulty and danger it had so far encountered. First he had
vanquished primal forces by cunning and organization, then he had enlisted the resources of
modern science to increase miraculously the yield of his plantation. And now he was sure he would
prove more than a match for the "irresistible" ants.
That same evening, however, Leiningen assembled his workers. He had no intention of waiting till
the news reached their ears from other sources. Most of them had been born in the district; the cry
"The ants are coming!'" was to them an imperative signal for instant, panic-stricken flight, a spring
for life itself. But so great was the Indians' trust in Leiningen, in Leiningen's word, and in Leiningen's
wisdom, that they received his curt tidings, and his orders for the imminent struggle, with the
calmness with which they were given. They waited, unafraid, alert, as if for the beginning of a new
game or hunt which he had just described to them. The ants were indeed mighty, but not so mighty
as the boss. Let them come!
They came at noon the second day. Their approach was announced by the wild unrest of the
horses, scarcely controllable now either in stall or under rider, scenting from afar a vapor instinct
It was announced by a stampede of animals, timid and savage, hurtling past each other; jaguars
and pumas flashing by nimble stags of the pampas, bulky tapirs, no longer hunters, themselves
hunted, outpacing fleet kinkajous, maddened herds of cattle, heads lowered, nostrils snorting,
rushing through tribes of loping monkeys, chattering in a dementia of terror; then followed the
creeping and springing denizens of bush and steppe, big and little rodents, snakes, and lizards.
Pell-mell the rabble swarmed down the hill to the plantation, scattered right and left before the
barrier of the water-filled ditch, then sped onwards to the river, where, again hindered, they fled along its bank out of sight.
This water-filled ditch was one of the defence measures which Leiningen had long since prepared
against the advent of the ants. It encompassed three sides of the plantation like a huge horseshoe.
Twelve feet across, but not very deep, when dry it could hardly be described as an obstacle to
either man or beast. But the ends of the "horseshoe" ran into the river which formed the northern
boundary, and fourth side, of the plantation. And at the end nearer the house and outbuildings in
the middle of the plantation, Leiningen had constructed a dam by means of which water from the
river could be diverted into the ditch.
So now, by opening the dam, he was able to fling an imposing girdle of water, a huge quadrilateral
with the river as its base, completely around the plantation, like the moat encircling a medieval city.
Unless the ants were clever enough to build rafts. they had no hope of reaching the plantation,
The twelve-foot water ditch seemed to afford in itself all the security needed. But while awaiting the
arrival of the ants, Leiningen made a further improvement. The western section of the ditch ran
along the edge of a tamarind wood, and the branches of some great trees reached over the water.
Leiningen now had them lopped so that ants could not descend from them within the "moat."
The women and children, then the herds of cattle, were escorted by peons on rafts over the river, to
remain on the other side in absolute safety until the plunderers had departed. Leiningen gave this
instruction, not because he believed the non-combatants were in any danger, but in order to avoid
hampering the efficiency of the defenders. "Critical situations first become crises," he explained to
his men, "when oxen or women get excited "
Finally, he made a careful inspection of the "inner moat"--a smaller ditch lined with concrete, which
extended around the hill on which stood the ranch house, barns, stables and other buildings. Into
this concrete ditch emptied the inflow pipes from three great petrol tanks. If by some miracle the
ants managed to cross the water and reached the plantation, this "rampart of petrol,' would be an
absolutely impassable protection for the beseiged and their dwellings and stock. Such, at least,
was Leiningen's opinion.
He stationed his men at irregular distances along the water ditch, the first line of defence. Then he
lay down in his hammock and puffed drowsily away at his pipe until a peon came with the report
that the ants had been observed far away in the South.
Leiningen mounted his horse, which at the feel of its master seemed to forget its uneasiness, and
rode leisurely in the direction of the threatening offensive. The southern stretch of ditch--the upper
side of the quadrilateral--was nearly three miles long; from its center one could survey the entire
countryside. This was destined to be the scene of the outbreak of war between Leiningen's brain
and twenty square miles of life-destroying ants.
It was a sight one could never forget. Over the range of hills, as far as eye
could see, crept a darkening hem, ever longer and broader, until the shadow spread across the
slope from east to west, then downwards, downwards, uncannily swift, and all the green herbage of
that wide vista was being mown as by a giant sickle, leaving only the vast moving shadow,
extending, deepening, and moving rapidly nearer.
When Leiningen's men, behind their barrier of water, perceived the approach of the long-expected
foe, they gave vent to their suspense in screams and imprecations. But as the distance began to
lessen between the "sons of hell" and the water ditch, they relapsed into silence. Before the
advance of that awe-inspiring throng, their belief in the powers of the boss began to steadily
Even Leiningen himself, who had ridden up just in time to restore their loss of heart by a display of
unshakable calm, even he could not free himself from a qualm of malaise. Yonder were thousands
of millions of voracious jaws bearing down upon him and only a suddenly insignificant, narrow ditch
lay between him and his men and being gnawed to the bones "before you can spit three times."
Hadn't this brain for once taken on more than it could manage? If the blighters decided to rush the
ditch, fill it to the brim with their corpses, there'd still be more than enough to destroy every trace of
that cranium of his. The planter's chin jutted; they hadn't got him yet, and he'd see to it they never
would. While he could think at all, he'd flout both death and the devil.
The hostile army was approaching in perfect formation; no human battalions, however well-drilled,
could ever hope to rival the precision of that advance. Along a front that moved forward as uniformly
as a straight line, the ants drew nearer and nearer to the water ditch. Then, when they learned
through their scouts the nature of the obstacle, the two outlying wings of the army detached
themselves from the main body and marched down the western and eastern sides of the ditch.
This surrounding maneuver took rather more than an hour to accomplish; no doubt the ants
expected that at some point they would find a crossing.
During this outflanking movement by the wings, the army on the center and southern front remained
still. The besieged were therefore able to contemplate at their leisure the thumb-long, reddish black,
long-legged insects; some of the Indians believed they could see, too, intent on them, the brilliant,
cold eyes, and the razor-edged mandibles, of this host of infinity.
It is not easy for the average person to imagine that an animal, not to mention an insect, can think.
But now both the European brain of Leiningen and the primitive brains of the Indians began to stir
with the unpleasant foreboding that inside every single one of that deluge of insects dwelt a
thought. And that thought was: Ditch or no ditch, we'll get to your flesh!
Not until four o'clock did the wings reach the "horseshoe" ends of the ditch, only to find these ran
into the great river. Through some kind of secret telegraphy, the report must then have flashed very
swiftly indeed along the entire enemy line. And Leiningen, riding--no longer casually--along his side of the ditch,
noticed by energetic and widespread movements of troops that for some unknown reason the news
of the check had its greatest effect on the southern front, where the main army was massed.
Perhaps the failure to find a way over the ditch was persuading the ants to withdraw from the
plantation in search of spoils more easily attainable.
An immense flood of ants, about a hundred yards in width, was pouring in a glimmering-black
cataract down the far slope of the ditch. Many thousands were already drowning in the sluggish
creeping flow, but they were followed by troop after troop, who clambered over their sinking
comrades, and then themselves served as dying bridges to the reserves hurrying on in their rear.
Shoals of ants were being carried away by the current into the middle of the ditch, where gradually
they broke asunder and then, exhausted by their struggles, vanished below the surface.
Nevertheless, the wavering, floundering hundred-yard front was remorselessly if slowly advancing
towards the beseiged on the other bank. Leiningen had been wrong when he supposed the enemy
would first have to fill the ditch with their bodies before they could cross; instead, they merely
needed to act as steppingstones, as they swam and sank, to the hordes ever pressing onwards
Near Leiningen a few mounted herdsmen awaited his orders. He sent one to the weir-the river
must be dammed more strongly to increase the speed and power of the water coursing through the
A second peon was dispatched to the outhouses to bring spades and petrol sprinklers. A third rode
away to summon to the zone of the offensive all the men, except the observation posts, on the
near-by sections of the ditch, which were not yet actively threatened.
The ants were getting across far more quickly than Leiningen would have deemed possible.
Impelled by the mighty cascade behind them, they struggled nearer and nearer to the inner bank.
The momentum of the attack was so great that neither the tardy flow of the stream nor its
downward pull could exert its proper force; and into the gap left by every submerging insect,
hastened forward a dozen more.
When reinforcements reached Leiningen, the invaders were halfway over. The planter had to admit
to himself that it was only by a stroke of luck for him that the ants were attempting the crossing on
a relatively short front: had they assaulted simultaneously along the entire length of the ditch, the
outlook for the defenders would have been black indeed.
Even as it was, it could hardly be described as rosy, though the planter seemed quite unaware that
death in a gruesome form was drawing closer and closer. As the war between his brain and the
"act of God'' reached its climax, the very shadow of annihilation began to pale to Leiningen, who
now felt like a champion in a new Olympic game, a gigantic and thrilling contest, from which he
was determined to emerge victor. Such, indeed, was his aura of confidence that the Indians forgot
their stupefied fear of the peril only a yard or two away; under the planter's supervision, they began
fervidly digging up to the edge of the bank and throwing clods of earth and spadefuls of sand into
the midst of the hostile fleet.
The petrol sprinklers, hitherto used to destroy pests and blights on the plantation, were also
brought into action. Streams of evil-reeking oil now soared and fell over an enemy already in
disorder through the bombardment of earth and sand.
The ants responded to these vigorous and successful measures of defence by further developments
of their offensive. Entire clumps of huddling insects began to roll down the opposite bank into the
water. At the same time, Leiningen noticed that the ants were now attacking along an
ever-widening front. As the numbers both of his men and his petrol sprinklers were severely limited,
this rapid extension of the line of battle was becoming an overwhelming danger.
To add to his difficulties, the very clods of earth they flung into that black floating carpet often
whirled fragments toward the defenders' side, and here and there dark ribbons were already
mounting the inner bank. True, wherever a man saw these they could still be driven back into the
water by spadefuls of earth or jets of petrol. But the file of defenders was too sparse and scattered
to hold off at all points these landing parties, and though the peons toiled like madmen, their plight
became momentarily more perilous.
One man struck with his spade at an enemy clump, did not draw it back quickly enough from the
water; in a trice the wooden shaft swarmed with upward scurrying insects. With a curse, he
dropped the spade into the ditch; too late, they were already on his body. They lost no time;
wherever they encountered bare flesh they bit deeply; a few, bigger than the rest, carried in their
hind-quarters a sting which injected a burning and paralyzing venom. Screaming, frantic with pain,
the peon danced and twirled like a dervish.
Realizing that another such casualty, yes, perhaps this alone, might plunge his men into confusion
and destroy their morale, Leiningen roared in a bellow louder than the yells of the victim: "Into the
petrol, idiot! Douse your paws in the petrol!" The dervish ceased his pirouette as if transfixed, then
tore of his shirt and plunged his arm and the ants hanging to it up to the shoulder in one of the large
open tins of petrol. But even then the fierce mandibles did not slacken; another peon had to help
him squash and detach each separate insect.
Distracted by the episode, some defenders had turned away from the ditch. And now cries of fury,
a thudding of spades, and a wild trampling to and fro, showed that the ants had made full use of the
interval, though luckily only a few had managed to get across. The men set to work again
desperately with the barrage of earth and sand. Meanwhile an old Indian, who acted as
medicine-man to the plantation workers, gave the bitten peon a drink he had prepared some hours
before, which, he claimed, possessed the virtue of dissolving and weakening ants' venom.
Leiningen surveyed his position. A dispassionate observer would have estimated the odds against
him at a thousand to one. But then such an on-looker would have reckoned only by what he saw--the advance of myriad battalions of ants against
the futile efforts of a few defenders--and not by the unseen activity that can go on in a man's brain.
For Leiningen had not erred when he decided he would fight elemental with elemental. The water in
the ditch was beginning to rise; the stronger damming of the river was making itself apparent.
Visibly the swiftness and power of the masses of water increased, swirling into quicker and quicker
movement its living black surface, dispersing its pattern, carrying away more and more of it on the
Victory had been snatched from the very jaws of defeat. With a hysterical shout of joy, the peons
feverishly intensified their bombardment of earth clods and sand.
And now the wide cataract down the opposite bank was thinning and ceasing, as if the ants were
becoming aware that they could not attain their aim. They were scurrying back up the slope to
All the troops so far hurled into the ditch had been sacrificed in vain. Drowned and floundering
insects eddied in thousands along the flow, while Indians running on the bank destroyed every
swimmer that reached the side.
Not until the ditch curved towards the east did the scattered ranks assemble again in a coherent
mass. And now, exhausted and half-numbed, they were in no condition to ascend the bank.
Fusillades of clods drove them round the bend towards the mouth of the ditch and then into the
river, wherein they vanished without leaving a trace.
The news ran swiftly along the entire chain of outposts, and soon a long scattered line of laughing
men could be seen hastening along the ditch towards the scene of victory.
For once they seemed to have lost all their native reserve, for it was in wild abandon now they
celebrated the triumph--as if there were no longer thousands of millions of merciless, cold and
hungry eyes watching them from the opposite bank, watching and waiting.
The sun sank behind the rim of the tamarind wood and twilight deepened into night. It was not only
hoped but expected that the ants would remain quiet until dawn. "But to defeat any forlorn attempt
at a crossing, the flow of water through the ditch was powerfully increased by opening the dam still
In spite of this impregnable barrier, Leiningen was not yet altogether convinced that the ants would
not venture another surprise attack. He ordered his men to camp along the bank overnight. He also
detailed parties of them to patrol the ditch in two of his motor cars and ceaselessly to illuminate the
surface of the water with headlights and electric torches.
After having taken all the precautions he deemed necessary, the farmer ate his supper with
considerable appetite and went to bed. His slumbers were in no wise disturbed by the memory of
the waiting, live, twenty square miles.
Dawn found a thoroughly refreshed and active Leiningen riding along the edge of the ditch. The
planter saw before him a motionless and unaltered throng of besiegers. He studied the wide belt of water between them and the plantation, and
for a moment almost regretted that the fight had ended so soon and so simply. In the comforting,
matter-of-fact light of morning, it seemed to him now that the ants hadn't the ghost of a chance to
cross the ditch. Even if they plunged headlong into it on all three fronts at once, the force of the
now powerful current would inevitably sweep them away. He had got quite a thrill out of the fight--a
pity it was already over.
He rode along the eastern and southern sections of the ditch and found everything in order. He
reached the western section, opposite the tamarind wood, and here, contrary to the other battle
fronts, he found the enemy very busy indeed. The trunks and branches of the trees and the
creepers of the lianas, on the far bank of the ditch, fairly swarmed with industrious insects. But
instead of eating the leaves there and then, they were merely gnawing through the stalks, so that a
thick green shower fell steadily to the ground.
No doubt they were victualing columns sent out to obtain provender for the rest of the army. The
discovery did not surprise Leiningen. He did not need to be told that ants are intelligent, that certain
species even use others as milch cows, watchdogs and slaves. He was well aware of their power of
adaptation, their sense of discipline, their marvelous talent for organization.
His belief that a foray to supply the army was in progress was strengthened when he saw the
leaves that fell to the ground being dragged to the troops waiting outside the wood. Then all at once
he realized the aim that rain of green was intended to serve.
Each single leaf, pulled or pushed by dozens of toiling insects, was borne straight to the edge of
the ditch. Even as Macbeth watched the approach of Birnam Wood in the hands of his enemies,
Leiningen saw the tamarind wood move nearer and nearer in the mandibles of the ants. Unlike the
fey Scot, however, he did not lose his nerve; no witches had prophesied his doom, and if they had
he would have slept just as soundly. All the same, he was forced to admit to himself that the
situation was far more ominous than that of the day before.
He had thought it impossible for the ants to build rafts for themselves--well, here they were, coming
in thousands, more than enough to bridge the ditch. Leaves after leaves rustled down the slope into
the water, where the current drew them away from the bank and carried them into midstream. And
every single leaf carried several ants. This time the farmer did not trust to the alacrity of his
messengers. He galloped away, leaning from his saddle and yelling orders as he rushed past
outpost after outpost: "Bring petrol pumps to the southwest front! Issue spades to every man along
the line facing the wood!" And arrived at the eastern and southern sections, he dispatched every
man except the observation posts to the menaced west.
Then, as he rode past the stretch where the ants had failed to cross the day before, he witnessed a
brief but impressive scene. Down the slope of the distant hill there came towards him a singular
being, writhing rather man running, an animal-like blackened statue with shapeless head and four
quivering feet that knuckled under almost ceaselessly. When the creature reached the far bank of
the ditch and collapsed opposite Leiningen, he recognized it as a pampas stag, covered over and
over with ants.
It had strayed near the zone of the army. As usual, they had attacked its eyes first. Blinded, it had
reeled in the madness of hideous torment straight into the ranks of its persecutors, and now the
beast swayed to and fro in its death agony.
With a shot from his rifle Leiningen put it out of its misery. Then he pulled out his watch. He hadn't
a second to lose, but for life itself he could not have denied his curiosity the satisfaction of knowing
how long the ants would take--for personal reasons, so to speak. After six minutes the white
polished bones alone remained. That's how he himself would look before you can--Leiningen spat
once, and put spurs to his horse.
The sporting zest with which the excitement of the novel contest had inspired him the day before
had now vanished; in its place was a cold and violent purpose. He would send these vermin back to
the hell where they belonged, somehow, anyhow. Yes, but how was indeed the question; as things
stood at present it looked as if the devils would raze him and his men from the earth instead. He
had underestimated the might of the enemy; he really would have to bestir himself if he hoped to
The biggest danger now, he decided, was the point where the western section of the ditch curved
southwards. And arrived there, he found his worst expectations justified. The very power of the
current had huddled the leaves and their crews of ants so close together at the bend that the bridge
was almost ready.
True, streams of petrol and clumps of earth still prevented a landing. But the number of floating
leaves was increasing ever more swiftly. It could not be long now before a stretch of water a mile in
length was decked by a green pontoon over which the ants could rush in millions.
Leiningen galloped to the weir. The damming of the river was controlled by a wheel on its bank. The
planter ordered the man at the wheel first to lower the water in the ditch almost to vanishing point,
next to wait a moment, then suddenly to let the river in again. This maneuver of lowering and raising
the surface, of decreasing then increasing the flow of water through the ditch was to be repeated
over and over again until further notice.
This tactic was at first successful. The water in the ditch sank, and with it the film of leaves. The
green fleet nearly reached the bed and the troops on the far bank swarmed down the slope to it.
Then a violent flow of water at the original depth raced through the ditch, overwhelming leaves and
ants, and sweeping them along.
This intermittent rapid flushing prevented just in time the almost completed fording of the ditch. But
it also flung here and there squads of the enemy vanguard simultaneously up the inner bank. These
seemed to know their duty only too well, and lost no time accomplishing it. The air rang with the
curses of bitten Indians. They had removed their shirts and pants to detect the quicker the
upwards-hastening insects; when they saw one, they crushed it; and fortunately the onslaught as yet was only by skirmishers. Again and again, the
water sank and rose, carrying leaves and drowned ants away with it. It lowered once more nearly to
its bed; but this time the exhausted defenders waited in vain for the flush of destruction. Leiningen
sensed disaster; something must have gone wrong with the machinery of the dam. Then a sweating
peon tore up to him--
While the besieged were concentrating upon the defence of the stretch opposite the wood, the
seemingly unaffected line beyond the wood had become the theatre of decisive action. Here the
defenders' front was sparse and scattered; everyone who could be spared had hurried away to the
Just as the man at the weir had lowered the water almost to the bed of the ditch, the ants on a
wide front began another attempt at a direct crossing like that of the preceding day. Into the
emptied bed poured an irresistible throng. Rushing across the ditch, they attained the inner bank
before the slow-witted Indians fully grasped the situation. Their frantic screams dumfounded the
man at the weir. Before he could direct the river anew into the safeguarding bed he saw himself
surrounded by raging ants. He ran like the others, ran for his life.
When Leiningen heard this, he knew the plantation was doomed. He wasted no time bemoaning
the inevitable. For as long as there was the slightest chance of success, he had stood his ground,
and now any further resistance was both useless and dangerous. He fired three revolver shots into
the air--the prearranged signal for his men to retreat instantly within the "inner moat." Then he rode
towards the ranch house.
This was two miles from the point of invasion. There was therefore time enough to prepare the
second line of defence against the advent of the ants. Of the three great petrol cisterns near the
house, one had already been half emptied by the constant withdrawals needed for the pumps
during the fight at the water ditch. The remaining petrol in it was now drawn off through underground
pipes into the concrete trench which encircled the ranch house and its outbuildings.
And there, drifting in twos and threes, Leiningen's men reached him. Most of them were obviously
trying to preserve an air of calm and indifference, belied, however, by their restless glances and
knitted brows. One could see their belief in a favorable outcome of the struggle was already
The planter called his peons around him.
"Well, lads," he began, "we've lost the first round. But we'll smash the beggars yet, don't you worry.
Anyone who thinks otherwise can draw his pay here and now and push off. There are rafts enough
to spare on the river and plenty of time still to reach 'em."
Not a man stirred.
Leiningen acknowledged his silent vote of confidence with a laugh that was half a grunt. "That's the
stuff, lads. Too bad if you'd missed the rest of the show, eh? Well, the fun won't start till morning.
Once these blighters turn tail, there'll be plenty of work for everyone and higher wages all round.
And now run along and get something to eat; you've earned it all right."
In the excitement of the fight the greater part of the day had passed without the men once pausing
to snatch a bite. Now that the ants were for the time being out of sight, and the "wall of petrol" gave
a stronger feeling of security, hungry stomachs began to assert their claims.
The bridges over the concrete ditch were removed. Here and there solitary ants had reached the
ditch; they gazed at the petrol meditatively, then scurried back again. Apparently they had little
interest at the moment for what lay beyond the evil-reeking barrier; the abundant spoils of the
plantation were the main attraction. Soon the trees, shrubs and beds for miles around were hulled
with ants zealously gobbling the yield of long weary months of strenuous toil.
As twilight began to fall, a cordon of ants marched around the petrol trench, but as yet made no
move towards its brink. Leiningen posted sentries with headlights and electric torches, then
withdrew to his office, and began to reckon up his losses. He estimated these as large, but, in
comparison with his bank balance, by no means unbearable. He worked out in some detail a
scheme of intensive cultivation which would enable him, before very long, to more than compensate
himself for the damage now being wrought to his crops. It was with a contented mind that he finally
betook himself to bed where he slept deeply until dawn, undisturbed by any thought that next day
little more might be left of him than a glistening skeleton.
He rose with the sun and went out on the flat roof of his house. And a scene like one from Dante
lay around him; for miles in every direction there was nothing but a black, glittering multitude, a
multitude of rested, sated, but none the less voracious ants: yes, look as far as one might, one
could see nothing but that rustling black throng, except in the north, where the great river drew a
boundary they could not hope to pass. But even the high stone breakwater, along the bank of the
river, which Leiningen had built as a defence against inundations, was, like the paths, the shorn
trees and shrubs, the ground itself, black with ants.
So their greed was not glutted in razing that vast plantation? Not by a long shot; they were all the
more eager now on a rich and certain booty--four hundred men, numerous horses, and bursting
At first it seemed that the petrol trench would serve its purpose. The besiegers sensed the peril of
swimming it, and made no move to plunge blindly over its brink. Instead they devised a better
maneuver; they began to collect shreds of bark, twigs and dried leaves and dropped these into the
petrol. Everything green, which could have been similarly used, had long since been eaten. After a
time, though, a long procession could be seen bringing from the west the tamarind leaves used as
rafts the day before.
Since the petrol, unlike the water in the outer ditch, was perfectly still, the refuse stayed where it
was thrown. It was several hours before the ants succeeded in covering an appreciable part of the
surface. At length, however, they were ready to proceed to a direct attack.
Their storm troops swarmed down the concrete side, scrambled over the
supporting surface of twigs and leaves, and impelled these over the few remaining streaks of open
petrol until tlhey reached the other side. Then they began to climb up this to make straight for the
During the entire offensive, the planter sat peacefully, watching them with interest, but not stirring a
muscle. Moreover, he had ordered his men not to disturb in any way whatever the advancing horde.
So they squatted listlessly along the bank of the ditch and waited for a sign from the boss.
The petrol was now covered with ants. A few had climbed the inner concrete wall and were
scurrying towards the defenders.
"Everyone back from the ditch!" roared Leiningen. The men rushed away, without the slightest idea
of his plan. He stooped forward and cautiously dropped into the ditch a stone which split the floating
carpet and its living freight, to reveal a gleaming patch of petrol. A match spurted, sank down to the
oily surface--Leiningen sprang back; in a flash a towering rampart of fire encompassed the garrison.
This spectacular and instant repulse threw the Indians into ecstasy. They applauded, yelled and
stamped, like children at a pantomime. Had it not been for the awe in which they held the boss,
they would infallibly have carried him shoulder high.
It was some time before the petrol burned down to the bed of the ditch, and the wall of smoke and
flame began to lower. The ants had retreated in a wide circle from the devastation, and innumerable
charred fragments along the outer bank showed that the flames had spread from the holocaust in
the ditch well into the ranks beyond, where they had wrought havoc far and wide.
Yet the perseverance of the ants was by no means broken; indeed, each setback seemed only to
whet it. The concrete cooled, the flicker of the dying flames wavered and vanished, petrol from the
second tank poured into the trench--and the ants marched forward anew to the attack.
The foregoing scene repeated itself in every detail, except that on this occasion less time was
needed to bridge the ditch, for the petrol was now already filmed by a layer of ash. Once again they
withdrew; once again petrol flowed into the ditch. Would the creatures never learn that their
self-sacrifice was utterly senseless? It really was senseless, wasn't it? Yes, of course it was
senseless--provided the defenders had an unlimited supply of petrol.
When Leiningen reached this stage of reasoning, he felt for the first time since the arrival of the
ants that his confidence was deserting him. His skin began to creep; he loosened his collar. Once
the devils were over the trench there wasn't a chance in hell for him and his men. God, what a
prospect, to be eaten alive like that!
For the third time the flames immolated the attacking troops, and burned down to extinction. Yet
the ants were coming on again as if nothing had happened. And meanwhile Leiningen had made a
discovery that chilled him to the bone-petrol was no longer flowing into the ditch. Something must
be blocking the outflow pipe of the third and last cistern-a snake or a dead rat? Whatever it was,
the ants could be held off no longer, unless petrol could by some method be led from the cistern
into the ditch.
Then Leiningen remembered that in an outhouse nearby were two old disused fire engines. Spry as
never before in their lives, the peons dragged them out of the shed, connected their pumps to the
cistern, uncoiled and laid the hose. They were just in time to aim a stream of petrol at a column of
ants that had already crossed and drive them back down the incline into the ditch. Once more an
oily girdle surrounded the garrison, once more it was possible to hold the position--for the moment.
It was obvious, however, that this last resource meant only the postponement of defeat and death.
A few of the peons fell on their knees and began to pray; others, shrieking insanely, fired their
revolvers at the black, advancing masses, as if they felt their despair was pitiful enough to sway
fate itself to mercy.
At length, two of the men's nerves broke: Leiningen saw a naked Indian leap over the north side of
the petrol trench, quickly followed by a second. They sprinted with incredible speed towards the
river. But their fleetness did not save them; long before they could attain the rafts, the enemy
covered their bodies from head to foot.
In the agony of their torment, both sprang blindly into the wide river, where enemies no less sinister
awaited them. Wild screams of mortal anguish informed the breathless onlookers that crocodiles
and sword-toothed piranhas were no less ravenous than ants, and even nimbler in reaching their
In spite of this bloody warning, more and more men showed they were making up their minds to run
the blockade. Anything, even a fight midstream against alligators, seemed better than powerlessly
waiting for death to come and slowly consume their living bodies.
Leiningen flogged his brain till it reeled. Was there nothing on earth could sweep this devil's spawn
back into the hell from which it came?
Then out of the inferno of his bewilderment rose a terrifying inspiration. Yes, one hope remained,
and one alone. It might be possible to dam the great river completely, so that its waters would fill
not only the water ditch but overflow into the entire gigantic "saucer" of land in which lay the
The far bank of the river was too high for the waters to escape that way. The stone breakwater ran
between the river and the plantation; its only gaps occurred where the "horseshoe" ends of the
water ditch passed into the river. So its waters would not only be forced to inundate into the
plantation, they would also be held there by the breakwater until they rose to its own high level. In
half an hour, perhaps even earlier, the plantation and its hostile army of occupation would be
The ranch house and outbuildings stood upon rising ground. Their foundations were higher than the
breakwater, so the flood would not reach them. And any remaining ants trying to ascend the slope
could be repulsed by petrol.
It was possible--yes, if one could only get to the dam! A distance of nearly two miles lay between
the ranch house and the weir--two miles of ants. Those two peons had managed only a fifth of that
distance at the cost of their lives. Was there an Indian daring enough after that to run the gauntlet five times as far?
Hardly likely; and if there were, his prospect of getting back was almost nil.
No, there was only one thing for it, he'd have to make the attempt himself; he might just as well be
running as sitting still, anyway, when the ants finally got him. Besides, there was a bit of a chance.
Perhaps the ants weren't so almighty, after all; perhaps he had allowed the mass suggestion of that
evil black throng to hypnotize him, just as a snake fascinates and overpowers.
The ants were building their bridges. Leiningen got up on a chair. "Hey, lads, listen to me!" he
cried. Slowly and listlessly, from all sides of the trench, the men began to shuffle towards him, the
apathy of death already stamped on their faces.
"Listen, lads!" he shouted. "You're frightened of those beggars, but you're a damn sight more
frightened of me, and I'm proud of you. There's still a chance to save our lives--by flooding the
plantation from the river. Now one of you might manage to get as far as the weir--but he'd never
come back. Well, I'm not going to let you try it; if I did I'd be worse than one of those ants. No, I
called the tune, and now I'm going to pay the piper.
"The moment I'm over the ditch, set fire to the petrol. That'll allow time for the flood to do the trick.
Then all you have to do is wait here all snug and quiet till I'm back. Yes, I'm coming back, trust
me"--he grinned--"when I've finished my slimming-cure."
He pulled on high leather boots, drew heavy gauntlets over his hands, and stuffed the spaces
between breeches and boots, gauntlets and arms, shirt and neck, with rags soaked in petrol. With
close-fitting mosquito goggles he shielded his eyes, knowing too well the ants' dodge of first
robbing their victim of sight. Finally, he plugged his nostrils and ears with cotton-wool, and let the
peons drench his clothes with petrol.
He was about to set off, when the old Indian medicine man came up to him; he had a wondrous
salve, he said, prepared from a species of chafer whose odor was intolerable to ants. Yes, this odor
protected these chafers from the attacks of even the most murderous ants. The Indian smeared the
boss' boots, his gauntlets, and his face over and over with the extract.
Leiningen then remembered the paralyzing effect of ants' venom, and the Indian gave him a gourd
full of the medicine he had administered to the bitten peon at the water ditch. The planter drank it
down without noticing its bitter taste; his mind was already at the weir.
He started of towards the northwest corner of the trench. With a bound he was over--and among the
The beleaguered garrison had no opportunity to watch Leiningen's race against death. The ants
were climbing the inner bank again-the lurid ring of petrol blazed aloft. For the fourth time that day
the reflection from the fire shone on the sweating faces of the imprisoned men, and on the
reddish-black cuirasses of their oppressors. The red and blue, dark-edged flames leaped vividly
now, celebrating what? The funeral pyre of the four hundred, or of the hosts of destruction?
Leiningen ran. He ran in long, equal strides, with only one thought, one sensation, in his being--he
must get through. He dodged all trees and shrubs; except for the split seconds his soles touched
the ground the ants should have no opportunity to alight on him. That they would get to him soon,
despite the salve on his boots, the petrol in his clothes, he realized only too well, but he knew even
more surely that he must, and that he would, get to the weir.
Apparently the salve was some use after all; not until he reached halfway did he feel ants under his
clothes, and a few on his face. Mechanically, in his stride, he struck at them, scarcely conscious
of their bites. He saw he was drawing appreciably nearer the weir--the distance grew less and
less--sank to five hundred--three--two--one hundred yards.
Then he was at the weir and gripping the ant-hulled wheel. Hardly had he seized it when a horde of
infuriated ants flowed over his hands, arms and shoulders. He started the wheel--before it turned
once on its axis the swarm covered his face. Leiningen strained like a madman, his lips pressed
tight; if he opened them to draw breath. . . .
He turned and turned; slowly the dam lowered until it reached the bed of the river. Already the water
was overflowing the ditch. Another minute, and the river was pouring through the near-by gap in the
breakwater. The flooding of the plantation had begun.
Leiningen let go the wheel. Now, for the first time, he realized he was coated from head to foot with
a layer of ants. In spite of the petrol his clothes were full of them, several had got to his body or
were clinging to his face. Now that he had completed his task, he felt the smart raging over his
flesh from the bites of sawing and piercing insects.
Frantic with pain, he almost plunged into the river. To be ripped and splashed to shreds by
paranhas? Already he was running the return journey, knocking ants from his gloves and jacket,
brushing them from his bloodied face, squashing them to death under his clothes.
One of the creatures bit him just below the rim of his goggles; he managed to tear it away, but the
agony of the bite and its etching acid drilled into the eye nerves; he saw now through circles of fire
into a milky mist, then he ran for a time almost blinded, knowing that if he once tripped and fell....
The old Indian's brew didn't seem much good; it weakened the poison a bit, but didn't get rid of it.
His heart pounded as if it would burst; blood roared in his ears; a giant's fist battered his lungs.
Then he could see again, but the burning girdle of petrol appeared infinitely far away; he could not
last half that distance. Swift-changing pictures flashed through his head, episodes in his life, while
in another part of his brain a cool and impartial onlooker informed this ant-blurred, gasping,
exhausted bundle named Leiningen that such a rushing panorama of scenes from one's past is
seen only in the moment before death.
A stone in the path . . . to weak to avoid it . . . the planter stumbled and collapsed. He tried to rise .
. . he must be pinned under a rock . . . it was impossible . . . the slightest movement was
impossible . . . .
Then all at once he saw, starkly clear and huge, and, right before his
eyes, furred with ants, towering and swaying in its death agony, the pampas stag. In six
minutes--gnawed to the bones. God, he couldn't die like that! And something outside him seemed
to drag him to his feet. He tottered. He began to stagger forward again.
Through the blazing ring hurtled an apparition which, as soon as it reached the ground on the inner
side, fell full length and did not move. Leiningen, at the moment he made that leap through the
flames, lost consciousness for the first time in his life. As he lay there, with glazing eyes and
lacerated face, he appeared a man returned from the grave. The peons rushed to him, stripped off
his clothes, tore away the ants from a body that seemed almost one open wound; in some paces
the bones were showing. They carried him into the ranch house.
As the curtain of flames lowered, one could see in place of the illimitable host of ants an extensive
vista of water. The thwarted river had swept over the plantation, carrying with it the entire army. The
water had collected and mounted in the great "saucer," while the ants had in vain attempted to
reach the hill on which stood the ranch house. The girdle of flames held them back.
And so imprisoned between water and fire, they had been delivered into the annihilation that was
their god. And near the farther mouth of the water ditch, where the stone mole had its second gap,
the ocean swept the lost battalions into the river, to vanish forever.
The ring of fire dwindled as the water mounted to the petrol trench, and quenched the dimming
flames. The inundation rose higher and higher: because its outflow was impeded by the timber and
underbrush it had carried along with it, its surface required some time to reach the top of the high
stone breakwater and discharge over it the rest of the shattered army.
It swelled over ant-stippled shrubs and bushes, until it washed against the foot of the knoll whereon
the besieged had taken refuge. For a while an alluvial of ants tried again and again to attain this dry
land, only to be repulsed by streams of petrol back into the merciless flood.
Leiningen lay on his bed, his body swathed from head to foot in bandages. With fomentations and
salves, they had managed to stop the bleeding, and had dressed his many wounds. Now they
thronged around him, one question in every face. Would he recover? "He won't die," said the old
man who had bandaged him, "if he doesn't want to.''
The planter opened his eyes. "Everything in order?'' he asked.
"They're gone,'' said his nurse. "To hell." He held out to his master a gourd full of a powerful
sleeping draught. Leiningen gulped it down.
"I told you I'd come back," he murmured, "even if I am a bit streamlined." He grinned and shut his
eyes. He slept.
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