Joanne Sheridan, Jacob Wilkins and Andrew Thornton
For their suggestions of Cumbria, Leonard and Footprints.
Leonard sat on the edge of his family’s estate watching the pattern the wind made in the ragged grass that was a trademark of the Cumbria landscape as it barged its way across the sloping hills. Thunder rumbled somewhere far off in the distance but the fact he could hear it at all meant the rain and lighting he could make out as a smudge on the horizon would be upon him within the hour. Usually he would love nothing more than to watch a storm announce itself to his corner of the world but today the rain was his greatest enemy. The rain would wash away the footprints he had found.
Underneath him his horse shifted impatiently from foot to foot, the snort she issued was visible in the crisp grey sky. Cold and impatient. Leonard unconsciously tugged his own scarf tighter around his neck.
“Come on then Nelly,” he nudged the mare into a steady trot, steering her towards the openings of the forest below. Leonard called the forest the Scar after the shape of the valley it snaked its way through. It wasn’t a real valley. At least not the narrow kind that cowboys wondered through in the movies before suffering an ambush. But the trees were surrounded on all sides by hills and Leonard had liked the idea when he was younger of being a cowboy. Nowadays he preferred the idea of being an explorer.
Which was why he had been so excited when he had found the footprints.
To begin with he had thought they had belonged to the foxes that occasionally snuck into the chicken shed for an easy meal, but they were far too big. Then he had made his own footprint next to that of the mystery animal and had been startled to see that the footprints were double the size of his own. He knew of no such beasts in these parts and, as is always the way with men of Leonards age, his imagination had begun to run wild with the exciting possibilities of bears, wolves and mountain lions.
The footprints had led out of estate and into the Scar. Leonard distractingly brushed a branch out of the way which came in at head height, earnestly looking around for another of the massive pawprints. What would he do when he caught up with the creature that had made them? He had come equipped with nothing more than his bow and arrows. Maybe that hadn’t been a good idea. But he was brave, like Indiana Jones brave.
“There!” the sudden shout spooked a bird out of the undergrowth and sent it fluttering into the treetops. Nelly nervously side stepped. Jumping out of his seat, Leonard crouched down beside the pawprint and examined it in closer detail. It had broken several branches during its getaway, confirming Leonards suspicion that it was a big animal. Carefully he pinched a bit of the soil between his fingers and sniffed it, like he’d seen all the great trackers do. Naturally he had no idea what he was meant to smell, but the excitement that bubbled in his stomach was enough to make him not care about his lack of tracking skill. Standing up quickly he gazed around looking for the next print. The path led into an overgrown thicket. Glancing at Nelly, Leonard realised he wouldn’t be able to take her any further.
“I’ll be back for you girl,” he murmured soothingly as he undid her girth so she would be more relaxed in his absence. After tying off her reigns to a sturdy looking branch he turned his attention back to the thicket.
There was no way he could go around it. Plus, the footprints disappeared into the dark centre and he worried if he spent ages walking round and tracing his way back to the opening at the other end, he would lose the trail altogether. Going over posed the same conundrum. Instead he made sure his jacket was done up and pushed his way through the overgrown bush.
After a few minutes, he lost sight of Nelly and the grey daylight. There was nothing but darkness punctured by the occasional dim stream of light that was let in through breaks in the canopy overhead. Leonard focused on the ground in front of him. The footprints were closer together in here where the creature had been forced to go a little slower due to the closeness of the foliage. Twigs tore at his hair and clothes. At one point, he miscalculated his step and to stop himself from falling had grabbed at the surrounding bracken, slicing open his palms. Suddenly the prints stopped. Leonard dropped to his knees and could just make out the signs of scuffed paw marks: the bush must have reached its end. Leonard lay on his belly and began to wriggle out of the bush in a similar way to his target.
It was a relief to finally be in the fresh air again. Thunder rolled. Yes, the rain would be upon him soon but he still had a few more precious minutes before he had to return home.
Scampering down the sloping bank where the footprints had headed he came up short when he came to a river. There were no bridges in sight so he picked up a stick and began to wade into the cold water. Carefully he pushed the long stick out in front of him, testing to see if there were any sudden deep parts. It took a frustratingly long time but soon he was free and bounding up the other side of the bank.
Leonard frantically looked around for any signs of other paw prints. He found an odd-looking shack, a lost glove and badger sect, but after 10 minutes of hopeless searching he let himself admit the truth. He’d lost the trail. As if sensing his sour mood, the rain began to fall. It was the type of rain that starts off slow and fat but become a torrential downfall within seconds. Calculating the odds, he decided to take shelter in the odd shack until the worst of it past before heading back to find Nelly.
It smelt of old boots and oil. Perhaps it was someone’s fishing hut where they stored their gear, though looking at its age and the gathering cobwebs, Leonard doubted anyone had been here in years. His curious eyes suddenly stopped their roving and returned to the floor. He swore he had seen…. A paw print!
Leonard froze, his breathing coming quicker, though whether it was due to excitement or fear he wasn’t entirely sure. A mix of both was probably healthy. Only then did he hear here it. It was a low growl. The type an animal creates when it is giving a warning to another animal. And it was coming from the shadowed back of the shed. Carefully Leonard began to creep closer, closer –
And the dream shattered. The boy paused.
“Leonard come inside right now, it’s about to tip down!”
Leonard pouted, scrunching his face up as if he were about to cry.
“Well play inside. What have I told you about messing around in Grandpas shed?”
The door was wrenched open and his mother bore down on him with the type of stare that made a child want to apologise for all the naughty things they’ve done but had kept a secret up until now.
“Oh there’s the cat.” Leonard glanced behind him to see the families black and white cat trot out of the shadows to brush itself against Leonard’s mother’s legs. Around its neck was a crudely made mane made from felt pipes. Leonard’s mother sighed.
“Come on. Before the rain really starts pouring.”
Leonard’s mum led him out of the shed and back the way he had come. They crossed the river, which was actually a dip in the garden that filled up with water in the bad weather season. They went past the massive over growth Leonard had fought through, which was a large rose bush that was his grandmothers pride and joy. Back to the ‘clearing’ where his noble hobby horse lay ruined in the mud. It must have fallen over from where Leonard had leaned it against the tree earlier. Finally, they walked up the path back towards Leonard’s grandparents stone cottage and the small strip of garden his mother told him he should never leave.