12 Nov

Biological specialist Dhia Chae had her hands full with the invasion of the Bumaga prairie by hordes of saltant insects. The government entomologist had been touring the grain region for three weeks in a small chaise pulled by a cream-colored padnag. She was exhausted, visiting so many farms, searching for answers to the expected plague of leaping leafhoppers. Landowners, both large and small, spoke of their fears to the scientist with umber skin. Was there anything that could stop these orthopteran armies? Dhia had no satisfactory answer to their pleas for help.

It was early autumn and the time for grain harvesting was only days away. Yet there would be little to cut and gather if the insects moved through in full force.

Dhia caught sight of a lone walker tramping along the side of the road. She saw, from the back, a tall figure in a dark blue suit. Who would be moving about on foot on the flat plain? Dhia became intrigued.

As the chaise neared him, the hiker turned his head. He stopped, facing her directly and staring intently. There was no fear in the man, it appeared.

Dhia slowed the horse to a halt. “Do you need a ride?” she asked. “I am on the way to the district center at Xauk.”

A friendly smile burst over his long, narrow face. His pale green eyes gave off a warm sparkle. “Thank you,” he said in a full baritone. “That happens to be my destination too.”

As she made room for him, the young man climbed up beside her. The two studied each other a moment.

“You are a farmer?” inquired the insect biologist.

The other no longer smiled. “No. I own nothing. My business hereabouts concerns those who labor for the landowners at this time of year. I am a representative of the Harvesters’ Organization of Bumaga. Are you familiar with our movement, Miss?”

Her face flushed red. “Yes, I have read there’s such a campaign going on.”

“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the passenger. “My name is Thane Isan. I came to organize the migrant harvesters into a union that will deal on an equal level with the landowners of this district. The workers will be arriving here soon for the harvesting.”

Dhia made no response. She decided to say nothing about herself to the agitator, not even her name. A wall of ice seemed to fall between them. After long silence, he started to talk to her again.

“The migrant workers will be arriving in the Xauk area in a few days. I plan to enroll them in the H.O. and then sign labor agreements with the local farmers. It is going to be a hard struggle, that’s for certain. But our goal is to create a final, complete state of harmony on the land here in Bumaga.”

“Are you one of the believers in mutualism, then?” asked Dhia.

“Indeed,” he asserted, turning his long face toward her. “What do you think makes me come out onto the prairie in this dry heat? I want to help bring about a new society of cooperative amity. The land must be worked together, in common. Everyone has to help everyone else. Selfishness must be ended, once and for all. That is the dream I hold in my heart.”

Dhia, confused and embarrassed, changed the subject. “The plague of jumping orthopterans will be a terrible disaster. If it spreads here, there will be nothing left for anyone to harvest.”

“In the war against the pest, field workers will be needed,” mused the other. “Hired hands will be needed, won’t they?”

No response came from the entomologist.

Soon they reached the small town of Xauk, where Dhia dropped off her new acquaintance with hardly a word of farewell.

Dhia was obliged to report to the district administrator, Navian Elstra. She asked a passerby for directions to his office. “He is located beside the hoosegow,” mumbled the farmer, pointing to a brown brick building a short distance away.

She hitched the padnag to the iron rail in front of the district jail, then entered the public structure through a massive lead door.

Dhia identified herself to a uniformed deputy behind an ebonwood counter.

“The administrator has been expecting you all morning. Go right into his office, through that door.” She pointed toward the back of the front chamber.

As Dhia followed the instructions, the office door opened. A huge, stocky man with a mane of wavy white hair stepped out to greet her. An aura of grave authority radiated from the diamond bright eyes in his ruddy face. “Dr. Chae, welcome to Xauk. How was your journey?” He beamed her a knowing, diplomatic smile.

“I have had the opportunity to view crops along the way,” she replied. “It is clear to me that the saltants have sent early scouts into your district. The days to come hold much danger, unless steps are taken at once.”

The official was no longer smiling. “Yes, we must discuss this. Come into my office, please.”

When the two were seated, Elstra behind a wooden desk, the big man began to speak. “As you know, this is the largest district in all Bumaga in terms of area. As a result, we grow a broad variety of different crops. For instance, the southern portion through which you traveled is the belt of spelt. At the northern end, we lie within the hordean region of rye and barley. In the western part of the district, many farmers grow the small grain teff that is in great demand in the cities. And everyone grows avena for their houses. Our farmers ship out a great amount of sorghum in the form of dura and milo. For home consumption, poorer cultivators make do with ancient millet.”

“Yes, I understand how multifaceted the problem is,” said Dhia with feeling. “This new species of orthopterans is proving omnivorous in terms of crops. It eats whatever grows in its path. That is what makes it so horrific.”

The administrator suddenly frowned. “There are only a few days before our main harvest begins. We are anxious about the supply of workers, because agitators have been inciting strikes and stoppages in several neighboring districts. The near future is a threatening time. We need all the help available.”

“I shall study these saltants intensely,” promised the biologist. “There must be an answer to this plague. If only I can find it in time!”

“A room has been prepared for you at my own farm,” said the other. “There is no need for you to locate yourself anywhere else.”

“Thank you, sir. I will begin work as soon as possible.”

Thane Isan was also eager to start. That afternoon he hired a sorrel at a livery stable and set out for the northern sector of the district. His green eyes scanned the flat horizon, hunting for harvesters he might talk to. It did not take long to find groups of potential recruits.

Eight men gathered about him. They liked what he said about the benefits of a general, all-around contract with the prairie farmers. Stable wages, hours, and labor conditions would be the results, he promised them. A new, different atmosphere had to be created, one of mutual trust and assistance.

All eight harvesters decided to join the H.O. on the spot.

“When will a strike for such a contract start?” asked the oldest laborer.

Thane gave him a broad, sympathetic smile. “Within days, brother. When everyone is ready, the signal will go out. All the farmers will be desperate for working hands. That is when we surprise them.”

The organizer soon left, going on to a second group, then a third.

It was after finishing with the latter that the unexpected happened.

A squad of four uniformed horsemen came up from behind on the road, surrounding Thane on all sides. Their leader shouted in a rough, merciless voice. “You are under arrest, you agitator.”

The deputies in green-blue escorted the outsider back to Xauk, to a cellule in the district hoosegow. There was no trial, no hearing. Straight into jail went the social idealist.

“What shall I do now?” wondered the captured mutualist.

Dhia ate breakfast with Navian Elstra in a recessed nook of his roomy farmhouse.

“How did you rest last night, Dr. Chae?” he asked her as his house servant presented them with a towering stack of buckwheat griddle cakes.

“Fine, sir. But I want to work as soon as possible. My microscope is ready for use. I intend to visit about the region today, gathering early specimens from the advanced vanguard of the insect invasion.”

Elstra made an angry grimace. “This will be a trying period for all of us. No one can predict what route the leafhoppers might take. The farmers are all but defenseless. There is a high chance that many may be forced into bankruptcy when mortgage payments cannot be made.”

“They have borrowed money on their expected crops?”

“Yes. The only collateral they can offer our single district bank is their land. The orthopterans will bring a tide of foreclosures in their wake. There will be many ruined families where the pests pass. That appears to be inevitable.” He looked at her with jewel-sharp eyes.

A terrible scourge was about to hit, both of them realized.

Thane watched in surprise as a short, wiry man was thrust into his cellule and fell on the bare cement. Soon the two prisoners were completely alone.

The stranger in dark denim raised his head and looked about, amber eyes fastening on his fellow prisoner. Thane stepped nearer, helping the small figure to his feet, then leading him to a low stool to sit down on.

It took time for the little man to calm down and draw himself together. “Who are you?” he said to Thane. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before.”

The agitator, standing before him, tried to reassure the other. “My name is Thane Isan. You are right, I don’t come from this area. The mounted police considered me a dangerous vagrant and brought me in. I had no visible means of support, they claimed. At least that was the subterfuge they used. What was it that you were arrested for?”

The new prisoner did not answer quickly, cautiously studying the stranger from outside the area. “I am a small farmer on the western edge of Xauk District. My name is Aoy Bhe. Have you heard about the coming attack of leafhoppers? It is approaching closer and closer, and will shortly cross our borders. No one knows how to avert the predators. All my neighbors, like me, are mortgaged up to their necks. Ruin faces every single one of us. And who do you think will grab the farms when payments become impossible?”

Thane thought a moment. “The mortgage-holder, that is who. That could be the Xauk Bank. I saw their building on my way through town.”

“But who is the main investor with control over that bank?” demanded the farmer. When no reply came, he answered his own question. “Our district administrator, Navian Elstra. This plague will give him all the foreclosed acreage. He and his partners can then control the district’s agriculture through gigantic new plantations. The rest of us will become landless. I can foresee a vast migration from this area of destroyed small farmers.”

Thane thought over what he had just heard. He broke the silence with a different question for his new acquaintance. “Why were you arrested and locked up? What is your supposed offense?”

The farmer frowned. “It began about a year ago. It concerned the digging that I carried out alongside a creek that crosses my holding and what I tried to do afterwards.”

“What was that?” asked the mutualist with heightening interest.

“I found a site full of underground mineral tar. It is a dark substance that gives off strong, noxious fumes when set on fire. Are you familiar with the material?”

“Yes, I believe it is also called bitumen. You have it in this area?”

Aoy Bhe nodded yes. “They arrested me for breaking a regulation issued by the administrator forbidding the burning of mineral tar. That was considered a serious crime by our district boss.”

“But why were you doing it, may I ask?”

The two looked each other squarely in the eye.

“It goes back to the early history of the Bumaga prairie,” explained the little man. “Legend has it that when our people first came here to grow grain, they found the land saturated with the saltants they named the locustas and largostas. They were everywhere, and made agriculture impossible as long as they held control over the grassland. So what did the pioneers do?

“They experimented with various methods and devices. None proved to work, till mineral tar became the weapon used. In order to drive out the saltants, trenches were dug and filled with mineral tar. When these were set ablaze, the terrible fumes drove out all the pests. The predators left our region. All that remained were the harmless criquets that we hear making noise at night. Until this year, the major enemies of our crops did not return. But now, something new is beginning to develop. The old foes are back again.”

Thane had by now become noticeably excited. “You believe the old defensive method can still work today?”

“Why not?” returned the small farmer. “Why not? That was what I tried to prove on my own land. But look what happened to me.”

An abstracted, faraway look came to Thane’s face. “I know little about this question. But there is a biologist who has come to Xauk District. She must know a lot about the orthopterans and could give you good advice. Yes, it would be great if you talk with this entomologist.” In his mind’s eye, the mutualist envisioned the woman who had given him a ride into town. She had made a measurable impression on him.

Next morning, after a breakfast of gruel, a deputy motioned to the union organizer. “A lawyer has come from Sky City. It looks like he is going to bail you out. Isn’t that something? You are a lucky fellow, I have to admit that.” He used a long key to unlock the cellule door.

Thane glanced at the farmer as he walked out into the corridor. The two of them exchanged silent, meaningful looks.

“Come with me to the front office,” said the jailer as he closed and relocked the door.

By the time the prisoner reached his advocate, a decision had crystallized within his mind. First, he shook hands with the larger man in a dark business suit. “I knew the Harvesters’ Organization would send someone as soon as possible. But there is something besides my own release, of even greater importance, that must be done.”

“What is that?” said the startled lawyer.

“There is a farmer in the hoosegow with me who must also be bailed out of jail.”

“A farmer!”

Thane smiled. “I believe his liberty is vital to my mission.”

As the two men hiked along the back road toward Bhe’s farm, a plan became clear and defined in the mind of the organizer. He knew that he would have to take a risk, but it appeared necessary to him. A partnership with this small farmer was what he wanted. That contained promise for the future.

A small chaise appeared on the horizon and came toward them. As it moved nearer, Thane recognized who was driving, a person who could help Aoy and himself. When Dhia was immediately before them, she halted her padnag.

“Where are you headed?” she asked him. “Perhaps I can provide you and your companion a lift. It would be easy for me to turn around and ride back again with you two.”

Thane studied the face of the entomologist a second or so. “Let me introduce one of the farmers of this sector. This is Aoy Bhe. I am on my way to his place on the western end of the district. We have walked from Xauk and have a distance still to go. Would it take too much of your time to bring us there?”

Dhia beamed with sudden, unexpected joy. “Of course not. I have not been as far as the district border yet. A ride there could provide me information I can use in my work.”

It took several moments to make the nag understand the reversal of direction. Once the vehicle was pointed westward, the two men climbed aboard the chaise on opposite sides. The driver signaled the animal to proceed, snapping the reins.

Thane decided to explain what had happened to him. “I was arrested and imprisoned in Xauk, but a union lawyer bailed me out a little while ago. While in jail, I met Aoy. We were released together and were on our way to his holding.”

“What do you intend to do now?” she anxiously asked Thane. “Are you going to flee from the district perhaps?”

“No,” he answered. “There remains much that I can still do hereabouts. But first, let Aoy explain why he was arrested and thrown in the hoosegow.”

The farmer told her of the legend of how the first settlers used the fumes of mineral tar to rid the prairie of the predators of their day, the largostas and locustas.

“Since that early time, we have believed there is a final defense,” he concluded. “I was hoping to test this method against the present danger. I understand that these new saltants are larger, heavier, and fiercer than any seen in the past. My dream was to provide protection. Instead, I was accused of producing noisome, poisonous fumes and then taken to town by deputies. There were complaints against my burning. But now I am free and intend to try my experiment again. The saltants may arrive at any time. I want to be ready to repel them from my farm.”

Dhia wrinkled her brow as she drove the chaise onward. “You think that the bitumen in the tar will make the orthopterans turn about and flee?”

“It must work again, as it did for our ancestors,” insisted the farmer. “There is no alternative, as far as I can see.”

The scientist thought deeply. “Could I help you in this enterprise? My knowledge of insects is extensive.”

“Of course, Miss,” said Aoy with a grin.

Thane smiled inwardly.

The chaise soon arrived in sight of the run-down cottage of Aoy Bhe.

Each day that passed, the trio grew closer.

At first, Dhia drove over from the large farm of the administrator, giving no one any indication of her destination. She kept secret the project she had entered into. One morning, she announced that a move by her out of the land magnate’s house had become necessary. It took her little time to move her things to the small farmer’s cottage.

The two males dug tubs full of bitumen out of sand pits, then poured this material into trenches made on the west end of the farm.

In the evening, Thane explained to the others what his new dream for the future consisted of. “Small farmers and harvesters are natural allies, but neither has realized it. We face a common foe in the banks and mortgage-holders who would crush us both. Navian Elstra aims to enslave the small farmers, the way he controls farm labor. The administrator and his ilk must be defeated and driven away. Then, there can be peace and cooperation throughout all of Bumaga.”

Dhia looked into his pale green eyes. “That sounds like mutualism, I believe.”

“A new, broader variety,” smiled Thane. “My own kind, for now.”

“Tell us more about your philosophy,” asked Aoy. “I’d like to know how farmers and harvesters can live together in harmony.”

Deputies informed the administrator of the work being conducted, but he decided not to act immediately. His mind focused on the approaching plague of saltants. The invasion would clear the prairie of many smallholders, leaving their farms to those to whom they were in debt. But the daily reports were growing increasingly disturbing.

Bhe was visiting neighbors, talking at length with each of them. They all faced potential ruin and loss of their land. But something new was brewing among them.

More and more, the farmers were digging protective ditches and then filling them with dark material from the sand pits. “What is the significance of that?” wondered the administrator. And why were migrant laborers involved in excavating the trenches?

Something had to be done, the district official decided.

Aoy brought captured scouting orthopterans to the entomologist, who pointed out their great strength to her two partners.

“These insects are over six inches in length. Never before have such giants been seen in the region. Look how powerful their forewings are. They are straight, hard, and leathery. The hind wings are folded longitudinally and have very strong membranes. I’ve never seen such solid hind legs. No wonder these monsters can leap so high and so far!”

The two men stared down at the dead scouting saltant.

“The mouth is so large,” marveled Aoy. “A lot of damage will result from such a terrible bite.”

“We must be prepared to turn back this enemy,” said Thane in a low voice. “Otherwise, there shall be total, irreparable ruin.”

A company of armed deputies assembled in Xauk on the morning of invasion day. Under the command of Navian Elstra it advanced toward the farm of Aoy Bhe, the center of the seditious trouble.

Plumes of black smoke were rising into the pink sky of dawn. Thane and Aoy had been lighting bitumen in the trenches protecting the latter’s land. Farmers on both sides of them did the same. A wall of flame and fumes faced the approaching insects. “Will this prove an adequate defense?” wondered farmers and migrant workers alike.

Dhia remained at Aoy’s cottage, the central command post. She moved small pieces taken from a checkers set on a geodesic map of the Xauk District. Today the alliance of small farmers and harvesters had to win a desperate battle with the insects.

A teenage laborer ran up to Thane as he and Aoy were returning to the command cottage. “Many mounted deputies are on the road,” the youth gasped breathlessly. “They will soon be here.”

Thane looked at Aoy. He was able to read what was in his mind. “Send out word to assemble on this farm,” he ordered. “We make our stand here.”

So it came about that when Navian Elstro and his forces reached the entrance to the holding, their opponents had gathered together and formed a line of defense.

Deputies carrying firelocks faced unarmed workers and farmers. The forces of the administrator pointed their loaded weapons at the line of men marching toward them. At the center of the deputies, Elstra surveyed the situation. His dilated eyes sparkled like diamonds. He yelled out orders to the hundreds of men under his command. “Stand fast and be prepared to shoot. Your task is to arrest the leaders of these insurgents.”

All at once, Thane and Aoy moved forward together, challenging the deputies to act.

Elstra raised his right arm high in the air. “Position to fire!” he shouted with all the force of his voice. “Prepare to repel them all!”

As the deputies lowered their firelocks to shoot, an interruption came from an unexpected source. Dhia bolted through the line of farmers and harvesters, to where her two comrades stood. “Victory is ours,” she shouted to everyone. “The bitumen fumes are killing and driving back the insects, all of them.”

Thane and Aoy stared at her, then at each other.

The administrator stood petrified. Unseen by him, the deputies began to point their firelocks at the ground.

It took little time for the two sides facing each other to realize the meaning of what had happened. Farmers and laborers shook hands. Some embraced in joy. Smiles and laughter broke out among the united allies. Confusion and defeat reigned among the deputies.

The chief of the district police walked up to Navian Elstra. “We had better leave, sir, while that is still possible.”

After thinking a moment, the administrator gave a nod of approval. Stunned and disoriented, he rode in his drosky back to Xauk.

The whole district, then all of the Bumaga prairie, learned of the astounding success with bitumen. News spread by heliograph in all directions. Farmers everywhere purchased the black sand tar. The insects had been defeated.

But for Thane Isan, the consequences swiftly turned cruelly negative. A special messenger came from Harvesters’ Organization headquarters in Sky City. He delivered an official directive from the highest council of the movement for all the land of Bumaga. Thane shook as he read the words. He had been suspended from all activities and enjoined from speaking or acting in the name of the organization. No member was to accept any command from him or have contact with the former agent.

It was easy to understand why the dismissal happened. Bringing together small farmers and harvesters in a common front was unacceptable to strict ideologues back in Sky City. He had built an impure alliance, according to theorists of mutualism. Saving the prairie from ruin was not enough to save him.

Thane suffered a restless night in the cottage of Aoy, only falling asleep about dawn. When he awoke late that morning, his future looked lucidly clear.

At midday he announced a new project to Dhia and Aoy. “We must become developers of bitumen, producing supplies for the entire grain belt. New sites must be found. Facilities will have to be built to refine and distill sand tar. The three of us can be pioneers in chemical pest control for the Bumagan prairie.”

Laughing with spirit, the three launched into a new adventure none of them could have anticipated a short time before.


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