"Unless they alter their course and there's no reason why they
should, they'll reach your plantation in two days at the
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
"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
figh --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 them!"
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, flood, 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
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 with horror.
It was announced by a stampede of animals, timid and savage,
hurtling past each other; jaguars and pumas, no longer hunters,
themselves hunted, flashing by nimble stags of the pampas, bulky
tapirs, 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, Leiningen
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
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 besieged 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
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
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 dwindle.
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
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 besieged 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
stepping-stones, as they swam and sank, to the hordes ever
pressing onwards from behind.
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
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 off 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
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 hastening current.
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
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 further.
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
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
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 than 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 outwit them.
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
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 south.
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 dumbfounded 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
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 considerably
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
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 granaries.
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
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 they
reached the other side. Then they began to climb up this to make
straight for the helpless garrison.
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
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 prey.
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
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 plantation.
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 flooded.
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
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
"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 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
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 off towards the northwest corner of the trench.
With a bound he was over—and among the ants.
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
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
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 piranhas? 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...too 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
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
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 places 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
"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.