We finally had a good fire going and were broiling the steaks when we heard savage roars coming toward us from up the canyon. We were immediately on the alert, standing with our rifles ready, for I recognized the roars as those of the tharban, a lion-like Amtorian carnivore. But it wasn’t any tharban that came in sight first, but the strangest looking figure that I have ever seen—a human being entirely encased in furs, with only holes for its eyes and for breathing purposes.
“One of the Cloud People,” said Duare.
“And he is about to be not even that,” said Ero Shan.
When the Cloud Man saw us he hesitated, but then a terrific roar of the tharban sent him on again.
“Get the tharban,” I said, and raised my rifle. Ero Shan and I fired simultaneously and the great cat leaped high into the air with a piercing shriek and then Duare put another stream of r-rays into it as it hit the ground, but I think it was already dead. By that time the Cloud Man was right in front of us, and he stood looking at us, still hesitating.
“You had a close call,” I said. “I am glad that we were here to kill the tharban.”
He still stood looking at us in silence for a moment, and then he said, “Aren’t you going to kill me?”
“Of course not,” I said; “why should we?”
“All the plains people try to kill us,” he replied.
“Well, we won’t kill you,” I assured him; “and you are free to go whenever you wish to.”
“What are you doing up in these mountains?” he asked. “These belong to the Cloud People.”
“Our country is on the other side of these mountains,” I told him. “We were trying to find the way through. “.
Again he was silent; this time for a full minute. It is strange to stand looking at a man all muffled up like that and not to have any inkling of what is passing in his mind because his eyes and his face are hidden from you.
“My name is Mor,” he said presently. “You have saved my life and for that I will guide you through the Mountains of the Clouds. You cannot go through by night, but in the morning I will come for you;” and without another word he turned and walked away.
“We must have left the jinx behind,” said Duare.
“I think I buried him under the fertilizer back there in Hangor,” I said. “This is certainly a lucky break if it is true, but it is almost too good to be true.”
We ate our steaks and some dried fruit and vegetables which Duare had boiled in water for us, and then we went into the 975, locked the door, and threw ourselves down to sleep, utterly exhausted.
When morning came we were up early and while we were eating our breakfast we saw fully a hundred fur-clad Cloud Men coming down the canyon toward us. They stopped about a hundred yards from the 975 and one of them advanced.
“I am Mor,” he said; “do not be afraid. We have come to take you through the Mountains of the Clouds.”
“Those are about the pleasantest words I have heard for a long time,” said Duare, in an aside to me.
“Can we get through in this lantar?” I asked Mor.
“There will be one or two bad places,” he said, “but I think that you can get through with it. Can it climb?”
“It can climb,” I said, “almost anything but a vertical cliff.”
“Follow us,” said Mor. “You will have to stay very close, for you plains people cannot see very far in the clouds. Some of my men will walk on either side to warn you of danger. Pay close attention to them, for after we have climbed a way the least mistake you make may send you into a gorge thousands of feet deep.”
“I shall pay attention,” I assured him.
Mor walked directly in front of us and I kept the nose of the 975 almost touching him. The canyon rose steeply, but it was broad and level at this point and we had no difficulty at all, and in about half an hour we entered the clouds. From then on it was one of the most nerve-racking experiences that I have ever endured.
We climbed continually and Mor turned and twisted up what must have been one of the most God-awful trails in existence. We made numerous hairpin turns, and on several occasions the side of the 975 scraped the rocky wall while on the opposite side there was nothing but billowing clouds, through which, at the level of the lantar, I could see the tops of trees waving, and I knew that we must be on a narrow ledge, little wider than the ship.
After we had entered the clouds Mor and the other Cloud Men whom I could see had divested themselves of their furs, which they rolled into neat bundles and strapped on their backs. Now they were entirely naked and as entirely hairless. Their thin skins were of the color of a corpse, and as they climbed they panted like dogs and their tongues hung out of the corners of their mouths. Their eyes were very large and round and they had tiny noses, the combination giving them a most owl-like expression. I think they were quite the most hideous creatures that I have ever seen.
When I thought that we must be at the top of the highest mountain that had ever existed on any planet, we rolled onto a level surface and after a few minutes Mor raised his hand for us to stop.
He came back then and said, “We will rest here. This is our village.”
I looked about me, but saw nothing but clouds, or perhaps I should better say fog, through which the visibility was not over fifty feet, if that much. Presently women and children materialized out of it and came and talked with the men and looked at the lantar; but they seemed afraid of it and remained at a safe distance.
“How much farther,” I asked Mor, “before we will be down out of the clouds on the other side?”
“If we are lucky, we will reach the summit tonight,” he said; “and then late tomorrow you will be below the clouds on the other side.”
My heart sank. The rest of this day and another day tomorrow was not very pleasant to look forward to. Our nerves were almost a wreck already, but we lived through it and late the next day we came down below the clouds into a beautiful canyon.
Mor and his companions had donned their fur suits and surrounded the lantar. I told Ero Shan to bring the quarter of beef, and I got out to thank Mor and say good-by; and I offered the beef to him when Ero Shan brought it.
“You have plenty?” he asked.
“We can get along,” I replied, “with what food we have.”
“You cannot tell,” he said. “There are no herds on this side, only wild game, and sometimes rather difficult to get.”
“But I want to repay you for what you have done for us,” I said.
“No,” he said. “You owe us nothing. You saved my life; for that I can never repay you. And know,” he added, “that you are always welcome in the home of the Cloud People.”
I thanked him, and we bade them good-by then, and started off down the canyon.
“And these were the impossible mountains,” I said.
“And those were the man-eaters who would destroy and devour us,” said Duare.
“Banat would be surprised if he knew how easily we had accomplished the impossible,” remarked Ero Shan.
“And we have the tharban to thank,” I said. “That was certainly a lucky break for us; for without Mor’s gratitude we should never have come through. It would have been impossible to have found or negotiated that trail without his help and guidance.”
We went down the canyon to its mouth, where there opened before us a scene that was to us one of exquisite beauty, for I recognized distant landmarks of a terrain over which I had flown many times, and I knew that we had reached Korva; and in the distance I imagined that I could see the towers and spires of Sanara.
We had been gone a year or more. We had suffered appalling vicissitudes. We had survived unspeakable dangers. We had overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles, but at long last we were home.