A SWARM OF WILD BEES

By Albert W. Tolman

"How many bridges have I driven rivets on?" repeated the watchman, reflectively. "Let me see—just forty-seven—no, forty-eight! I forgot the Mogung cantilever. Never in Burma were you? Well, it's the only time I ever went abroad. It was something of a compliment for a young fellow of twenty-two to be sent on his company's first job abroad. I should have liked the trip first rate if Harry Lancy hadn't been going as foreman.

"Harry had risen from the ranks, and at twenty-five was considered one of the company's best men. I'd never worked under him; but I judged he'd be uppish and arbitrary, and knew I shouldn't like him. You notice such things when you've just come of age. As you get older, you begin to think less of your own feelings, and more of doing your work right.

"We landed at Rangoon about May 1st, went by rail to Mandalay, and from there travelled slowly up-country by construction-train to the Mogung Gorge. During the whole journey I didn't speak a hundred words to Lancy. Still, I don't think he suspected I had any grudge against him. If he did, he never let on, but treated me just like the others.

"The gorge was an awful hole, two hundred and fifty feet wide and two hundred deep, with the river dashing white over the ledges at its bottom. It was to be spanned by a cantilever bridge with an intermediate truss.

"We found our work all cut out for us. Every beam and girder was on the ground, numbered and ready. There were plenty of coolies for the ordinary labor. So we got busy at once. A temporary wire suspension-bridge was thrown across above the site of the cantilever, and work begun from both sides at the same time.

"From the outset I had determined to give Lancy no chance for fault-finding, but to have as little to do with him as I possibly could.

"Little by little our beam-trusses pushed out from each bank, and the gap between them grew narrower.

"One thing that interested me especially at first was the wild bees. For miles back into the hills their nests lined the walls of the gorge. Millions of them made it their thoroughfare to and from the flower-covered plains below us. Particularly at morning and night their hum, echoing through the ravine and mingling with the murmur of the river, sounded like the drone of distant machinery.

"These bees were black and small; but they made up in fierceness for what they lacked in size. Their stings were far more painful and poisonous than those of our bees here. Some of us, myself included, learned this by experience; and we didn't need more than one lesson.

"By the middle of June the ends of the opposite beams were about fifty feet apart.

"One hot morning, between ten and eleven, I was reaming out a rivet-hole in the tip of the last beam. I was feeling out of sorts that forenoon. Lancy had given his orders to me gruff and short, though, as a matter of fact, he was probably just as gruff with everybody else. But when you're looking for trouble, you know, you don't have much trouble finding it.

"I straddled the beam, my feet almost touching under it. It was hot in the unclouded sun, and the air was full of tropical scents. Insects hummed round me. Bright-colored butterflies floated by. Now and then a flock of shrieking birds swept up the gorge. On the steel behind me a dozen men were busy.

"I had almost finished the hole, when my ears caught a humming, gradually growing louder. I looked down. Several yards below hung a black mass about as big as a nail-keg. It was a nest of wild bees swarming.

"At first I felt curious, interested. Then I noticed that the bunch was rising directly toward me, and I began to feel alarmed, as I remembered their fearful stings. If they attacked me I should be in a bad fix.

"Slowly, with a revolving motion and an intense, spiteful sszzzzz-ing, the irregular mass kept rising. Its center seemed so solid that I wondered how the wings had room to beat. Its outside frayed off into separate bees, drawn inward by a common attraction.

"It was not a yard under me now. I dared not move, for I knew what concentrated misery the swarm held for the man who angered it. As I watched it floating nearer, my skin crept and my; brain was fascinated by that monotonous buzzing. Perhaps, if I sat perfectly quiet, it would pass and leave me unharmed.

"For a moment, apparently undecided, the ball hovered under me.
Then with a quickened motion, up it came, straight for my feet.

"I grew hot and cold. My flesh quivered with the imaginary stings of thousands of poisoned needles, as the fearful mass melted apart and settled in thick clusters on my shoes and legs!

"As I watched the crawling thousands come to rest, I simply choked with terror. What could I do? If I made the slightest motion to get up, they would swarm over me like lightning, and sting me to death.

"Twenty feet behind me one of my mates began to hammer, shaking the beam with his blows. I was afraid the jar might anger the bees into an attack.

"'Stop that pounding, Jim!' I begged huskily, as he ceased for a moment. The hammering stopped.

"Then exclamations of alarm and sympathy fell upon my ears, and presently all work on the steel was suspended. I could hear feet shuffling quietly back to the bank. Soon I was left alone on the truss, threatened with a death ten times more horrible than any tiger or snake could inflict.

"Not daring to move a muscle, not even to turn my head, I sat, as it seemed to me, for hours, perfectly rigid, staring straight forward at the red-painted end of the opposite beam, wavering in the heat fifty feet away. My brain was clear as glass, my senses keen. Low, excited voices babbled behind me. I could smell onions boiling in the cook's quarters, and hear his pans and dishes rattling.

"Every little while I turned my eyes downward, hoping to see the bees getting ready to leave. But my shoes and trousers were still buried inches deep under the sluggishly clinging black bodies.

"The brassy alarm-clock in the mess tent clanged out eleven. I had been sitting there only half an hour.

"The sun struck fiercely down on my head, scantily protected by my thin cap. A filmy white feather from some passing bird dropped before my face. I followed it past the hideous furry swelling on my feet, straight down through the breezeless air, till it dwindled to a white speck above the ledges two hundred feet below. That was where I should strike if I fell; but what torments I should suffer before I struck!

"The beam was hard and hot. I could not sit quiet forever. I stirred uneasily. An angry hum rose, and I stiffened. Some of the bees were above my knees. Suppose I should crush one between my leg and the steel! Suppose they should creep up and cover my body and head!

"A banging of pans began on the bank. Somebody had borrowed the cook's tinware in the hope of starting the swarm. A wave of unrest ran over the insects; but soon they settled into quiet again.

"The heat was affecting my head. I felt fretful, irritable. Why didn't somebody do something to help me? But what? My teeth chattered, a nervous chill shook me, and the bees buzzed at my shaking.

"The voices behind me stopped. Something was about to happen. I listened. Feet came stealing cautiously along the beam. What was going on?

"'Sit perfectly still.'

"It was Lancy's voice. What was he trying to do? I felt a consuming curiosity, but dared not turn my head. His voice came again:

"'Take a full breath; then shut your mouth.'

"What in the world had my mouth got to do with it? But I obeyed.

"A penetrating sulphurous scent stole through the thick air. Then right under my bee-swollen feet swung a small black kettle, suspended by a chain round its bail, and filled with a yellowish substance, burning bluely. It was brimstone, of which we had a supply for fastening bolts in the rocks. Lancy was trying to smoke the bees off.

"Back oscillated the kettle out of my sight. But the swarm had got the benefit of its contents and didn't like them. An ominous buzzing rose. Their wings lifted, then settled back. The scent was not strong enough to start them.

"I took another full breath. To me the strangling fumes had been sweet for the relief they promised. Once more the kettle swung under me, this time remaining a little longer. The smell was strong; with difficulty I repressed a coughing that threatened to shake me.

"This time the outer layer of bees rose slightly and hovered over the others. Some flew wildly and angrily about. A few dropped, stupefied. It would evidently take but little more to start the whole swarm. Lancy moved up close behind me.

"Again he swung the kettle under the bees. They had had enough. The entire mass left my legs. The greater number dropped down and hung a few feet below, but stray skirmishers flew confusedly about.

"So far, however, not a single bee had touched either of us. It looked as if we were to escape unharmed.

"Suddenly an unexpected disaster happened. One end of the bail pulled out, allowing the kettle to tilt down sidewise. Out fell the sulphur in a blue-burning, smoky stream. A moment later the chain slipped entirely off the bail; the kettle shot downward, leaving only a vanishing scent and a swarm of infuriated bees.

"Lancy grabbed my shoulder.

"'Quick! For your life!'

"I didn't need any urging; but I was stiff and slightly dizzy from the fumes, and it took me several seconds to get to my feet on the beam. Unfortunately, too, I crushed three or four bees that Were crawling stupidly on the steel.

"Then it seemed as if the whole swarm struck me at once. The sulphur may have half-stupefied them, but they hadn't forgotten how to sting.

"I'll never forget my walk along that narrow beam to the bank. The bees were all over me in a moment. My hands and face felt as if they were being punctured with red-hot splinters. Before I'd gone ten steps my eyes were closed so tight I couldn't see.

"I'd have gone off the beam head first if it hadn't been for Lancy. He had on gloves, and mosquito-netting over his head. But they crawled up his sleeves and down his neck, and stung him bad. Yet he didn't falter. With one hand stretched back and grasping mine, he walked cool and straight for the bank, as if he'd been on solid ground, instead of two hundred feet in the air.

"Blind and almost crazy from the stings, I stumbled along behind him. Every step was agony. I was almost tempted to jump from the beam and go down to be crushed to pulp on the boulders. The only thing that saved me was Lancy's hand, cool, firm and strong.

"'Steady! Steady!' he kept saying. I heard him through the shooting, burning pains, and it saved my reason. At last it didn't seem as if I could take another step.

"'Let go!' I cried, trying to get my hand loose; but he dragged me on.

"'In a minute,' said he; and all at once I felt the earth under my feet.

"I wasn't so far gone but I gave the hand I'd been holding a grip that squeezed the fingers together. It was all the thanks I could offer just then. Lancy squeezed back. Then everybody turned to and helped fight the bees off us.

"It was weeks before I got over those stings. Lancy had suffered, too, but of course not so badly. I don't know that he ever knew why I gripped his hand so hard. I was too much ashamed to tell him of the grudge I'd held. But I do know that after that I looked on him as one of my best friends. He'd saved my life, and a friend can't do much more for you than that."