Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson

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Synopsis

Carl Stephenson's detailed adventure story "Leiningen Versus the Ants" was first published in Esquire magazine in 1938, but has since been reprinted in many anthologies.

The owner of a Brazilian plantation, Leiningen, listens to an agitated District Commissioner warn him about an approaching army of ants, “every single one . . . a fiend from hell.” When Leiningen is adamant that he will not abandon his land, so official throws up his arms, insisting that the plantation owner does not understand that the ants are an elemental force, an act of God. Nevertheless, certain that he will prove more than a match for the “irresistible” ants, Leiningen contends that he will defeat this elemental force with his intelligence.   

After the commissioner's departure, Leiningen assembles his loyal and trusting men and informs them of the advancing ants. At noon on the second day, their approach is announced by a terrorized stampede of all sorts of animals including jaguars and pumas, tapirs, monkeys, rodents, snakes, and lizards. 

At the end near the house and outbuildings, Leiningen has had a weir, or dam, constructed to divert the water. And while the ditch seems to be adequate security, Leiningen still exercises precautions such as moving the cattle and transporting the women and children to the compound of houses and outbuildings. Then he checks the inner moat, a smaller ditch in which pipes of petrol can flow.

As he surveys his property, Leiningen discerns “the darkening hem” that mows the countryside. The workers scream and curse, then relapse into silence. Even Leiningen hesitates, but he vows to fight both “death and the devil” as the hostile army of ants marches toward him.

Having reached the ditch, the ants break into two wings expecting to find a place to cross, an action that indicates their thinking abilities. After the ants reach the end of the ditch, they somehow communicate to the southern front.

Leiningen hopes that they may be persuaded to withdraw from his plantation. However, the ants cross by letting ones who have drowned act as stepping stones for the others. Fortunately, not all attempt to cross at once. Still, Leiningen feels the threat of a gruesome death.

He sends one of his herdsmen to the weir to have the river dammed more strongly. To increase the speed and power of the water coming into the ditch, a second peon is sent to bring spades and petrol sprinklers; a third is sent to the point of the offensive.

By the time reinforcements reach Leiningen, the ants are halfway over. As the war between the “act of God” and Leningen’s brain reaches its climax, the peons dig up to the edge of the bank, hurling dirt and sand into the midst of the hostile ants.

The ants' offensive is to attack with an ever-widening front, an action that poses an overwhelming danger to the limited number of men. When one man does not draw his shovel back quickly enough, the wooden handle swarms with scurrying insects that cover his body.  Screaming, the frantic peon writhes in pain.

In an effort to control the situation, Leiningen shouts, “Into the petrol, idiot! Douse your paws in the petrol.” While others attend to him, an old Indian medicine man gives him a drink he prepared before. 

Distracted by the men's actions, some of the ants turn away from the ditch. Eventually, Leiningen's plan of flooding the ditches works, carrying off masses of ants who scurry up the slope to safety.

While this retreat causes the Indians to celebrate, Leiningen remains unmoved because he knows the return of the ants after dawn is probable. So he has his men camp along the bank for the night while others patrol the ditch with headlights from vehicles and electric torches.

At dawn a rested Leiningen rides along the edge of the ditch, viewing a "throng of beseigers." As he studies the wide, swift-flowing passage of water between the ants and the plantation, Leiningen believes the battle is nearly over. But as he rides along...

(The entire section is 1,448 words.)