A zaldar is a most amazing appearing animal. It has a large, foolish-looking head, with big, oval eyes, and two long, pointed ears that stand perpetually upright as though the creature were always listening. It has no neck and its body is all rounded curves. Its hind legs resemble in shape those of a bear; its front legs are similar to an elephant’s, though, of course, on a much smaller scale. Along its spine rises a single row of bristles. It has no tail and no neck, and from its snout depends a long tassel of hair. Its upper jaw is equipped with broad, shovel-like teeth, which always protrude beyond its short, tiny lower jaw. Its skin is covered with short hair and a neutral mauve color, with large patches of violet, which, especially when it is lying down, make it almost invisible against the pastel shades of Amtorian scenery. When it feeds it drops down on its knees and scrapes up the turf with its shovel-like teeth, and then draws it into its mouth with a broad tongue. It also has to kneel down when it drinks, for, as I have said before, it has no neck. Notwithstanding its strange and clumsy appearance, it is very fast, and the herders, mounted on the zorats, soon disappeared with the entire herd into the mouth of the canyon, the herders evidently believing us to be raiders.
I should like to have had one of the zaldars for some fresh beef, but although the 975 could have overhauled the herd and I could have shot some of the beasts, I would not do so because I realized that they belonged to the Pangans.
As the canyon into which the herders had driven their charges seemed to be a large one, and as it lay directly south of Hor, I felt that we should explore it; and so I piloted the 975 into it.
We advanced but a short distance into the canyon when we saw fully a hundred herders lined up across the mouth of a narrow side canyon, into which they had evidently driven their herd. The men were all armed with r-ray rifles, and as soon as we came within sight, they dropped down behind the stone wall which served both as a fence to pen their herd and as a breastworks behind which to defend it.
We had been running without colors, as we really didn’t know what we were and couldn’t have decided until we had been able to see the colors of any potential enemy, when we would immediately have run up his colors on the flagstaff that rises above the pilot’s seat.
Positive that these were Pangan herders, and not wishing to get into a fight with them or anyone else, I now ran up the Pangan ensign.
A man stood up behind the breastwork then and shouted, “Who are you?”
“Friends,” I replied. “Come over. I want to talk to you.”
“Anyone can run up a Pangan ensign,” he replied. “What are your names?”
“You don’t know us,” I replied, “but we are friends of the yorkokor Banat, whom we have just left at Hor.”
“He was captured by the Hangors,” replied the man.
“I know it,” I said, “and so were we. We just escaped with Banat yesterday.”
The herder walked toward us then, but he kept his rifle ready. He was a nice-looking young fellow, with a fine face and a splendid physique. As he approached I opened the door and dropped to the ground. He stopped when he saw me, immediately suspicious.
“You’re no Pangan,” he said.
“I didn’t say that I was, but I fought with the Pangan fleet when it went to fight Hangor; and I was captured when the fleet was routed.”
“Are you sure that the yorkokor Banat is safe in Hor?” he demanded.
“We let him out last night near the gates,” I said; “and if Hor is not in the hands of the Falsans, he is safe. It was because of the fear that it might be that we did not go any closer to the city.”
“Then he is safe,” said the young fellow, “for the Falsans were defeated and sent home on foot.”
“We knew that,” I replied, “but things turn about so suddenly here in this country that we didn’t know but what they had returned and conquered Hor. You knew Banat?” I asked.
“I am his son, and this is his herd. I am in charge of it.”
Duare and Ero Shan had come out and joined us by this time and the young fellow looked them over curiously. “May I ask,” he said, “what you are doing up in these mountains?”
“Our country lies beyond them,” I explained, “and we are trying to find a pass to the other side.”
He shook his head. “There is none, and if there were, the Cloud People would get you before you could get through.”
“Your father told me that Pangan herders had sometimes seen a low place in the range when the clouds rose.”
“Yes, “ he said. “That is about ten miles down the valley; but if I were you, I’d turn back. If you are friends of my father, you can go and live in Hor, but if you keep on you will surely die. No man has ever crossed this range.”
“We are going to try it, nevertheless,” I told him; “but if we find we can’t make it, we’ll come back to Hor.”
“Then if you live I will see you there,” he said, “for you will never get through this range. I have been in it a little way in several places, and I can tell you that the cliffs and gorges are simply terrific.”
His men had followed him out and they were standing around listening to our conversation. Finally one of the older men spoke up. “I was up in that canyon ten miles from here about five years ago when the clouds rose higher than I have ever seen them. I could see sky beyond the low peaks. The canyon branches after you have gone into it about a mile and if there is any way to cross the range there, it would be up the righthand fork. That’s the one I’d take if I were going to try it.”
“Well, thanks for the information,” I said; “and now we must be on our way. Tell your father that we got this far at least.”
“How are you fixed for meat?”
“We haven’t any,” I replied.
He turned to one of his men. “Go and get a quarter of that zaldar we butchered yesterday,” he said; “and you go with him,” he said to another, “and help him with it, and bring along a bundle of smoked meat, too.”
I was certainly grateful for these additional provisions. I had no Pangan money to pay for them with, but I offered him some of our ammunition. He refused, saying that we might need it; and after the meat was brought we bade them good-by and started in search of the canyon that might lead us to Korva, or to death.