Chapter XV.

22 May

The road, climbing ever higher, became rougher.

Afternoon began to melt into early evening. Behind the advancing caravan of vehicles, the greenish daystar fell toward the western horizon.

Saluna, from time-to-time, suffered sudden attacks of sorrow and tears. Whenever that happened, Gauge tried his best to distract her attention to their approaching attempt to get away. What were they going to use for food? That would be the biggest problem facing them. The caravan was not scheduled to stop to eat until the test location was reached.

“We will be traversing some mostly uninhabited wasteland, that is the truth,” admitted Gauge with candor. “But the only alternative for us is staying with Sud Lozon and his raptorials.”

For a short time, Saluma sat silently at the map table, staring at the border area on the edge of the chart of Avia.

“Yes,” she said, looking up at the man watching her. “There is no other way out. We have to make an attempt to get away.”

The pair picked up their bundles and moved to the side door of the cabin. Gauge opened it about an inch. He peered out, then swung it wider.

“There’s a curve in the road ahead,” he whispered. “That will be the optimum point for us to make a move to get away.”

Saluma moved up behind him, locking her right arm about his left.

“I’ll give the signal to jump out in a few seconds,” he told her. “We’re about there.”

Both held their breath until the wagonvan was at the angle of the curve.

That was when Gauge threw open the door, grabbed hold of her, and yelled “Jump!”

Did anyone observe us? was the question in both minds as they drew themselves up and began running into a grove of planer trees. The sharp curve in the road hopefully blocked the view of those driving the lorries behind them. But had anyone been looking backwards from the vehicles in front of their wagonvan? Had someone’s eyes by chance been witness to what they were attempting to do?

Saluma stumbled on some hidden tree roots, but Gauge helped her keep moving without losing balance. Each of them carried a backpack of what had been available to take along in flight. Fear spurred on their desperate rush to get as far as they could away from the caravan. They had to escape as quickly as they were able. Neither of them was able to imagine what perils might lie ahead. They were leaping wildly into the unknown.

Neither runner kept track of time or the direction being taken by them.

Finally, after minutes of effort, both recognized that exhaustion was slowing them down. Gauge raised his right arm as a sign of caution. “We mustn’t wear down our energy to nothing,” he said to her.

Their pace slowed to a jogging trot, then a walk.

Saluma began to pant and perspire, her companion noticed.

He stopped on the rim of a thick, leafy ravine. “Let’s sit down to rest.”

“I would rather proceed on,” she countered. “It will soon be night and we won’t be able to go forward as fast.”

Gauge had forgotten that the day was ending.

“Yes, you’re right,” he acknowledged, circling about the high ridge. “Just a little further, then we’ll settle for the night.”

A tiny pipit tuned a plaintive little melody as the fugitives found a large rocky ledge that offered overhead shelter. Dusky light filtered down from the darkening blue-green sky. Saluma pointed up at a leafy nest on a nearby tree.

“That was sewn together by a tailorbird,” she noted matter-of-factly. “They are more common in this zone of Avia than any other. It is hard to catch sight of them anywhere near settled communities.”

“Each region of the country is quite different,” noted Gauge, helping to remove the pack off her back. “We won’t see many wild raptors hereabouts, I believe. This is not their sort of country at all.”

The two knelled down in an area of short peppergrass. In seconds, they stretched out in restful comfort.

Saluma, her head resting on her bundle, stared fixedly at the Landian.

“Have you figured out how we are going to cross over the border?” she asked him. “I have no papers to show the guards on either side.”

Gauge frowned darkly. “It will be necessary to accomplish that task illegally, of course.”

Her bright yellow eyebrows went up a fraction of an inch. “I have been told that the fences on the Avian side are impenetrable.”

“It is a long frontier, Saluma. There must be a way through, somewhere along the length. We will have to search till we come upon a good place to try to cross.”

By now, the daystar had disappeared in the west. A large stockdove flew upward, as if pursuing the rapidly vanishing light. Saluma closed her eyes for a time. When she opened them again the sounds and signs of night were dominant.

Gauge had moved close to her, until only a span separated them.

Facing each other, neither stretched-out shape spoke to the other.

The air about them was cool now. From far away came the sad song of a wood warbler. A flicker, working on night shift, continued tapping and pecking on a hard trunk. The sounds of life had not disappeared completely.

Reaching out with both arms, Gauge took Saluma to himself in an embrace of pure emotion. She gave no sign of refusing his body in any way or form.

An interruption came from beyond the clinging pair.

“Who are you two?” bellowed a loud, sonorous voice.

Instant separation resulted, with both fugitives raising their startled heads.

A ring of men in skin coats stood around on the ledge.

Gauge helped Saluma get to her feet simultaneously with his own rise to a standing position.

Night trappers, both of them realized. They had been captured by a group of jaegers, tribal hunters of the border region. Their future was in the hands of local residents of the border zone.

“Are you trying to smuggle contraband into Avia?” demanded a young, muscular man with a peaked field hat.

Another jaeger made a suggestion. “Perhaps they are attempting to cross the other way.”

A half dozen sets of eyes stared through the dark, but neither of the fugitives spoke.

“Let’s take them to the laager,” said the first speaker. “Sachem Acub will wish to question these strangers. He will be able to make them tell the truth about who they are and what they are doing so near the frontier.”

Having left their home kraal for the summer season, the men of the Yestreen tribe went from one laager to the next, up and down the border region, in their pursuit of trapable game. About a week at one site was enough before proceeding to another area. The wild hare, squirrel, castor, hircus, addax, pronghorn, wapiti stag, and eohippus horse were their main targets, from the most common to the rarest. Moveable conoid tents served as temporary shelters at each separate laager that they decided to occupy.

The two prisoners were taken to the conoid of the hereditary tribal leader. The circular interior was lit by a series of portable light sacs hanging on the inner wall surface. Strange shadows filled the walls of the structure.

“The Sachem is still out on the trail with his band, but when he returns you will have to tell him what your business is in our territory.”

With that, their captor exited, leaving the pair alone in the tall conoid.

Gauge and Saluma kneeled down on the buckskin rug covering the bare ground.

“What is going to happen?” muttered the latter in a guarded tone. “Will the chief turn us over to the Auspex?”

He gazed tenderly into the sapphire eyes of his fellow captive.

“We must show patience, Saluma, and self-control.”

Voices sounded from outside. A group seemed to be approaching. Suddenly the flap at the entrance of the conoid opened and a man with gleaming white hair stepped in. He was dressed in hunter’s buckskin like that of the other jaegers.

The prisoners remained seated as the Sachem approached and addressed them.

“It is unusual to find strangers hiding in the forests at night. The sannups who uncovered the two of you believe that they have taken criminal smugglers into custody. Is that true?”

“You can search us and see that we carry no contraband,” asserted Gauge. “No, we are not smugglers. Our business here is quite different from that.”

The tribal chief stared at him in silence, then turned his gaze to Saluma.

“Why are you in the area with your friend?” asked the man icily.

“I am here to observe the bird life of this zone. That is my profession. I am a field watcher from the Mount Gyps ornithological reserve. My companion is an academic expert who is quite knowledgeable about the birds of our land. We have come here for scientific research. That is our sole aim and purpose.”

Acub glanced at Gauge for a second, as Saluma paused.

“There is nothing contrary to the law in any of our activities,” she concluded. “Our objective is to study the varieties of birds native to this border region. Our motive is simple scientific curiosity.”

The Sachem peered at her with unmoving, suspicious eyes.

“What were you planning to do tonight? My men found no sleeping equipment or any other camping necessities at all. How were you going to rest or feed yourselves? Tell me that.”

Gauge decided to participate in the developing fable. “We were part of a company that entered the zone today. Somehow, my companion and I lost our way. We are now unable to find our caravan. Immediate return is impossible for us until tomorrow, it appears.”

“Caravan?” said Acub with surprise. “The two of you were part of a caravan?”

“A large group accompanied us,” smiled Krave. “But all contact with them is now lost. We don’t even know what direction they may have gone in.”

The white-headed chief looked back and forth from one to the other.

“You can stay in our laager tonight. I will have a conoid put up for your use. But tomorrow morning we will be moving on to the next location on our schedule. That laager is right up against the frontier, as close as its possible to get.”

Saluma spoke. “Please take us with you. We should be able to find our way to the caravan from there. The border guards can help orient us in the right direction.”

“If that is your wish,” agreed Acub. All at once, his peacock blue eyes brightened.

“Are you people hungry, by chance?”

Both of them nodded yes.

“The reason I ask is because of what you said about hunting for birds. There are some tasty delicacies in these forests. My men use special cage traps to catch the kind for which there is kitchen demand. Why don’t we roust one of them over the campfire tonight? I am sure you will both find it delightful.”

The Sachem grinned with glee as he continued his train of thought about eating.

“Let me think. We have an hoatzin. That is a delicious little pheasant. Then, we also have several small beccaficos. Those tiny songsters are very popular among the jaegerish folk.”

Saluma felt a bitter taste in her throat.

“I am not too hungry,” she managed to say.

“We are too tired to eat tonight,” added Gauge, trying to smile at the tribal official.


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