“Look,” I said; “our pursuers are the zorats which escaped from the corral and followed after their companions.”
We must have passed the herders’ camp just before dawn, and later on in the morning we saw the 975, far ahead of us, where we had left it. I was greatly worried for fear the herders might have been there ahead of us and damaged it in some way, but when we reached it we found it in the same shape that we had left it; but we did not relinquish our zorats until I had started the engine and demonstrated to my own satisfaction that the 975 was in running order, then we turned them loose and they started grazing around us with their fellows.
I told Ero Shan and Banat to be prepared to fight either the port, starboard, or stern guns, if the necessity arose, and I kept Duare up forward with me, for she could fire the bow gun if we got into action, a thing none of us anticipated.
Banat wanted to return to Hor, where, he assured me, we would be well received, but I was fearful to risk Duare further, and Hor might again be in the hands of the Falsans. I told Banat, however, that I would approach Hor after dark, and that he could then make his way on foot to the city; and he agreed that that was fair enough.
“I should have liked, however, to have shown you some of the real hospitality of Hor.”
“We were witnesses to the hospitality of Hor,” I replied.
Banat laughed. “We are not such fools as the Falsans think us,” he said.
“Look!” said Duare excitedly. “There is a ship approaching.” We all looked then, and sure enough, off our starboard bow we could see a small scout ship racing toward us.
“The only way we can avoid a fight,” I said, “is by turning back, and I certainly don’t want to do that.”
“Then let’s fight,” said Duare.
“What do you think she is, Banat?” I asked.
He took a long look and then he replied, “She is one of those fast Hangor faltars, as we call them.” Faltar means pirate ship, and is a contraction of the combination of the two words fad meaning kill, and anotar, ship. “And they are fast,” he added. “I doubt if the 975 could run away from her.”
I swung around and headed right toward her, and as soon as we were within range Duare commenced firing chemical shells. She made a clean hit on the bow, right in front of the pilot’s seat; and then she sent a stream of t-rays for the mark. They were firing their bow gun, too, but they were not so fortunate as we, or else they didn’t have as good a gunner, for they scored nothing but clean misses.
We had both slowed down to permit greater accuracy in our fire, and were approaching each other slowly now, when suddenly the faltar veered to the left and I could tell instantly from her erratic maneuvering that the pilot had been hit. Their starboard gun was bearing on us now, but Duare had the whole side of their ship as a target, and our starboard gun could now also be brought to bear. Several chemical shells hit us. I could hear the plop of their bursting, and both Duare and Ero Shan, who was manning our starboard gun, scored hits with chemical shells, which they followed immediately with their deadly t-rays.
In the meantime Banat had run a torpedo into the starboard tube and now he launched it. It went straight for its target, and the explosion which followed nearly capsized the faltar, and put her completely out of commission.
It was a short fight, but a sweet one while it lasted. However, I was glad to turn away and resume our journey toward Hor, leaving the disabled Hangor ship still firing at us futilely.
We drew off a few miles and then got out and examined the hull of the 975. There were several places where the t-ray insulation had been dissolved, and these we patched up with new insulation before we proceeded.
I asked Banat if it were true that no one had ever crossed the mountains to the south, or seen any indications of a pass through them.
“As far as I know,” he said, “they have never been crossed, but on one or two occasions our herders have reported that when the clouds rose up, as you know they sometimes do, they have seen what appeared to be a low place in the range.”
“Have you any idea where it is?” I asked.
“It is about due south of Hor,” he replied. “That is where our best grazing land is.”
“Well, we’ll hope that the clouds rise up when we get there,” I said; “but whether they do or not, we are going to cross the southern range.”
“I wish you luck,” said Banat; “and you’ll need it, especially if you succeed in getting into the mountains at all.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The Cloud People,” he replied.
“Who are they?” I demanded. “I never heard of them.”
“They live in the mountains, always among the clouds. They come down and steal our cattle occasionally and when they do, every portion of their bodies is covered with fur garments, with only holes for their eyes and a hole to breathe through. They cannot stand our dry atmosphere. In olden times people used to think that they were a hairy race of men until our herdsmen killed one of them, when we discovered that their skin was extremely thin and without pores. It is believed that they must perspire through their noses and mouths. When the body of the one who was killed by our herders was exposed to the air the skin shriveled up as though it had been burned.”
“Why should we fear them?” I asked.
“There is a legend that they eat human flesh,” replied Banat. “Of course, that may be only a legend in which there is no truth. I do not know.”
“They wouldn’t stand much chance against the 975,” said Ero Shan.
“You may have to abandon the 975,” suggested Banat; “a lantar, you know, is not exactly built for mountain climbing.”
It was well after dark when we approached Hor. Banat importuned us again to come into the city. He said that at the gate it would be revealed whether the Falsans were still occupying Hor.
“As much as I’d like to,” I said, “I cannot take the chance. If the Falsans are guarding your gates, a single lucky shot might put us out of commission; and you well know that they would never let a strange lantar get away from them without some sort of a fight.”
“I suppose you are right,” he said; and then he thanked me again for aiding in his escape, and bidding us good-by, he started off on foot for the city and was soon lost in the darkness. That, perhaps, is the last time that I shall ever see the yorkokor Banat, the Pangan.
And now we moved slowly through the night toward the south, and our hearts were filled with thankfulness that we had come this far in safety, and our minds with conjecture as to what lay ahead of us in the fastnesses of the mountains which no man had ever crossed, the mountains in which dwelt the Cloud People who were supposed to eat human flesh.