Adventure short story centers on a plantation owner called Leiningen and his stubborn refusal to abandon his plantation in the face of a seemingly unstoppable mass of army ants.
“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 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, 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 with horror.
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, Leiningen concluded.
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.