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< Four Corner House - our online story

Chapter 11 - The House Turns
Chapter 10 - The Empty Quarter
Chapter 9 - View from the Mountain
Chapter 8 - The Order of the Leap
Chapter 7 - Springing the Trap
Chapter 6 - Raspadero Revealed
Chapter 5 - The Shaman of the Forest
Chapter 4 - Rescue and a Promise
Chapter 3 - In the Doldrums
Chapter 2 - A Marcopolon Phrasebook
Chapter 1 - Welcome to Four Corner House

Chapter 7 - Springing the Trap

Tom sped through the forest. His soft paws made hardly any noise as he bounded through the tangled undergrowth and over giant twisted roots. “If Jowls could see me now!” he thought, clearing a low branch in a single stride. Mr Leggs had just over an hour by way of head start; Tom did not think it would take very long to catch up to him; and sure enough, after twenty minutes of hard running, he saw the postman through the trees ahead, striding along the river bank with his bag slung over his shoulder and the tall walking-stick in his hand. Tom slowed to a trot and veered into the trees on the far side of the river. He wanted to keep Mr Leggs in sight without being seen himself.

It was a hot afternoon and all the birds and animals of the forest seemed to be asleep. Even the pesky eye-lickers had retired; at any rate, they were not troubling Mr Leggs as he marched confidently through the forest. “He wasn’t a postman for nothing,” Tom thought, impressed despite himself by the man’s energy for walking. “He looks like he could keep this up for hours…Well, so can I!” Once again he felt a twinge of regret that he did not have time to explore the sensations of being a jaguar; he would have like to stop and rub his head on some rough bark or a sharp twig, for example, just behind the ears, to feel for himself just what it was that cats so loved about being scratched on that spot. But Mr Leggs set a demanding pace, and Tom needed his concentration to remain in cover at all times, hidden from view, while always trotting alongside the postman.
Now that they were walking away from the dam, Tom had the reverse experience of the river, which instead of broadening out from a trickle to a modest stream, now narrowed from a modest stream to a trickle. He noticed things he had not seen while running the night before: canoes that had been drawn up on the banks and abandoned when the river became too shallow to navigate; wide sandbars that should have been deep underwater and were now criss-crossed by animal tracks; gaping holes in the dry river-bed that showed where crocodiles had once made their dens. All was quiet apart from the steady tramp of the postman and the crunch of his walking-stick as he drove the point into the earth at each stride with all the relish of a conqueror claiming piece after piece of land. As much as Tom disapproved of Mr Leggs, it would have been unfair to deny him the enjoyment he so obviously took in walking along like this, humming and laughing to himself, planting his stick, and craning his head every now and then to get a better look at when some bird of exotic plumage flashed by or he came to an especially splendid fern. “If he could live here, and be like this,” Tom thought, “well…that would be a different story.” But then he remembered how the dam was strangling the river and all the life that depended on it, and he narrowed his eyes and growled softly. “The Empty Quarter for you,” he thought.
There was, however, a problem which Tom had not foreseen. As the afternoon wore on, and the warmth and oven-like stillness of the air under the trees pressed in on him, he began to feel tired. It was much more than the pleasant, aching tiredness that stole over him after an afternoon of working the sails aboard the Hand of Friendship, or rock-climbing, or playing football with his friends. His head was beginning to throb and his paws were sore and he felt a little cramp in his shoulders. He had not slept now for nearly two whole days – days of hard travel and high emotions. What he wanted more than anything was to find a patch of warm sun and have a good stretch of all his muscles, and a snooze. It would not be difficult, he thought, to run a little ways ahead of Mr Leggs, then stop for a short rest – let Mr Leggs catch up, and be off again. “No point in wearing myself out,” Tom thought. Pleased with this plan, he picked up speed for a few minutes, until he had gained enough on the postman to reward himself with a rest. But he had not forgotten the shaman’s warning: he knew that he must not fall asleep, or he would never be able to change from his jaguar-form back into a human. Accordingly he chose a particularly lumpy and uncomfortable-looking spot to lie down on, so that he would not get too relaxed. He turned around to face back up the path, the better to see Mr Leggs coming, crossed his paws, and placed his sleek head on them.

But with his head down, it was difficult to keep his eyelids from drooping, first the left, then the right, a blink, two blinks, then a slow lowering of the blinds, just like bedtime at home…He heard the snap of a twig and leapt up. Mr Leggs! “Right, keep moving!” Tom purred to himself. He trotted off again. But the rest-break had not been very long, and he thought, “This time, I’ll run further ahead,” and loped away, following a wide bend in the river. “Of course I mustn’t fall asleep,” he thought, scraping some dry leaves together to make a sort of cushion. He lay down and lowered his head onto his paws. To his surprise, he found that someone was trying to push a large smooth round rock up under the back of his tongue; it swelled like a balloon and split his jaws apart till his mouth was open wider than his head. “I’m yawning!” he thought, amazed. “That’s the biggest yawn I’ve ever had! A proper feline yawn!” He blinked a few times and stretched luxuriously and dug his nose in the leaves until his head was practically covered, just like he did with his pillow at home…It was dark under the pillow, and cozy and quiet…Another yawn cracked his mouth, and he jumped at the sound of his own deep, involuntary growl. Which was just as well, for there was Mr Leggs again, rounding the bend, striking the earth with his stick and twisting the point a little each time…“Move on,” Tom groaned, dragging his body out of the leaf-bed. “Obviously I wasn’t going to sleep,” he reassured himself as he jogged along. “Just a nap, if anything…A cat-nap, of course; that’s what cats have…Although of course, I mustn’t have a nap either…Yaaw—wwnn…Maybe I should try climbing a tree. Cats like to rest in the boughs of a tree,” he said drowsily…
Snap! A twig! Mr Leggs! Tom sprang up and stared around. He was in a tree all right, but he could not remember actually climbing up…He did not know if he had been asleep! This thought struck him with terrible force. He looked wildly around. It was darker, and the air was a little cooler; but surely it had been getting darker and cooler for some time now. “How do you know if you’ve been asleep?” he asked himself desperately, leaping to the ground. The obvious answer, for a boy in jaguar form, was: You run up to a human, and press against his legs, and if you’re still a jaguar a few seconds later, well then, you’ve definitely been sleeping…But the only human in the vicinity was Mr Leggs, and as much as Tom wanted to know if his condition was permanent, he did not want to betray himself to Mr Leggs, if it was not…“I’m getting confused,” Tom thought, “that’s a sure sign I’m tired…But I already know I’m tired,” he thought a moment later. In a patch of soft mud he saw a set of jaguar tracks. “Oh no,” he thought in despair, “I’m running across my own trail…I’m going in circles…I’ve lost Mr Leggs! If only I could go to sleep for ten minutes! That would help clear my mind…” Slowly, only half-reluctantly, he sank to the ground. “And what if I did go to sleep already? What if I’m already a jaguar forever? Then it doesn’t even matter any more, if I doze off a little…No!” he roared, leaping to his feet. “What if I didn’t go to sleep? Then there’s still a chance…I have to get home, before Mr Leggs; that’s my mission…I have to get home, and find Mum or Dad, and see if I turn back into a person…” He drew a deep breath, shook himself from nose to tail, lowered his head, and bounded away. In a moment he had recovered the trail of Mr Leggs; it was not hard; Mr Leggs was sticking close to the river, just as the children had done when they came the other way. Tom raced past him, flitting from tree to tree so he would not be seen. “He knows the way,” Tom thought grimly. “I don’t need to stay close to him; I need to get home!” The level rays of the setting sun, filtered and broken by the trees, made bright squares of orange light appear on the tree-trunks, as if all the doors had been left open on a thousand tiny furnaces. “It’s beautiful,” Tom thought, jogging along, “as a jaguar I would see this every day…” But the idea filled him with hot sharp grief, for it was nothing more than the reverse of the thought of all the other things he might never see again, as a boy: his mother and father, his toys and books, his bedroom, wonderful Four Corner House itself, his friends, his teachers, and most of all, his companion on all adventures, Sally…“But at least Sally would visit me,” he thought miserably, as he stumbled over a root. And if jaguars could cry, Tom would have been crying then – from sheer exhaustion, from the fear that his mission would not succeed, from the sense that his true self was slipping away as his tired muscles hardened into the form of a jaguar.

All the time, as night fell, his jaguar-eyes had been adjusting to the dark, and he could see as clearly as ever. There was no mistaking the outline of that tree, up ahead, with its rope-swing of tough plaited creepers. Almost home…well, he would know in a few minutes…but he was practically asleep on his feet…The Door was through that curtain of dangling vines. With a supreme effort he pushed his long body through the curtain and bumped his head hard on the Door. It opened. He heard his claws scrabble on the smooth wooden treads of the staircase. His mother was standing in the hall at the bottom of the stairs; she turned around in surprise; and as Tom dropped at her feet, he saw Jowls in the next room, arching his back in alarm. “It’s all right, everyone,” he thought as sleep overtook him, “it’s just me really, Tom…”

Tom opened his eyes. He was lying on his back, in his own bed, in his room at home. The door was ajar and a faint light came from the hallway…Suddenly he bolted upright. “Am I still a jaguar?” he thought fearfully. He touched his face – his hands were hands again, not paws! His hair was hair, not fur! He burst into laughter and swung his feet out of the bed and wiggled his toes. “I’m a boy!” he thought gleefully. “I made it! Just in time!”
He hopped out of bed and went to study himself in the bathroom mirror. “That was a close one,” he murmured, more soberly, rubbing his cheek where it had scratched against a twig. “I must have fallen against Mum, or she must have reached down and touched me, just before I fell asleep. Phew!”
The house was quiet. Tom went back into his room. His eye fell on a note pinned to the cork noticeboard above his desk. It was from his parents:
                           Tom, please be more careful with
                            the forest shaman’s jaguar juice
                         from now on, and other potions too –
               you should know better! We have gone out for a bit,
                 could you and Sally make yourself some dinner?
                                     Love Mum and Dad
“Sounds like they don’t know how close I was to turning into a jaguar for good,” Tom thought. “All’s well that ends well…”
And then he remembered Mr Leggs, and his hair stood on end.
The postman! Where was he now? He was coming to Four Corner House to steal a treasure-map. Had he made it back to the house already? “How long have I been asleep?” Tom asked himself. The bedside clock said seven p.m., but this didn’t help, since he didn’t know what time he had come home. In any case, Tom reasoned, Mr Leggs had never been far behind; he must be very nearby. What if he had already crept into the house? What if he was in the map room now? Quickly Tom stole to the top of the stairs and listened. He knew the sounds of the house very well, and he was pretty sure that nobody was moving around. Just then he saw Jowls stroll through the hallway downstairs on his way to his food bowl. Tom relaxed; if there had been a stranger lurking in the house, Jowls would have been crouched in a corner somewhere, hiding. So Mr Leggs was still in the forest – though probably just outside the Door, waiting till he was sure the coast was clear. What would he do when he got inside?
“He’s coming to steal a treasure-map,” Tom thought, “so I’ll give him a treasure-map!” Both Tom and Sally were experienced map-makers, but there was not much time, and Tom knew he would have to keep things simple. He took a sheet of paper from his desk and made a sketch of the oasis, then drew a dotted line into the Empty Quarter, with an X at the end. It was not very convincing, but it might fool Mr Leggs; all that mattered was that the postman should wander a few hundred yards into the Quarter, for then he would certainly lose his way. “But let’s face it,” Tom said to himself, “even Jowls would know this map was a fake. I need something more…” He could drip tea on the pretend map to brown it, and make it look older…He could leave it jumbled up with some other maps, and hope that Mr Leggs found it…He could pretend to be hiding it when Mr Leggs came in; the postman would snatch it away from him, thinking he had captured the real thing…
Tom wandered around his room, looking for inspiration. Once again, his eye fell on the note that his parents had left for him. Tom studied it carefully. An idea was taking shape in his mind: Mr Leggs was much more likely to believe in something that Mr and Mrs Atlas said, than to be tricked by a simple X Marks the Spot drawing, no matter how much tea Tom poured on it. So, why not take the note from his parents, and adapt it a little bit…? He placed the note on his desk and bent over it with an eraser. By carefully rubbing out certain letters, he could make the message much more interesting to Mr Leggs:
                              Tom, please be more careful with
                              the forest shaman’s jaguar juice
                           from now on, and other potions too –
Now the note read:
                             Tom, please be more careful with
                                          t r e a s u re
                                           m a p s –
                   you should know better! We have gone out for a bit,
                      could you and Sally make yourself some dinner?
                                       Love Mum and Dad
Was that a light knock at Forest Door? Tom’s blood ran cold. There was no time to lose. Grabbing the map he had drawn and the note in his parents’ handwriting, he slipped downstairs and along the hall to Desert Door. He pinned both pieces of paper to the Door with a tack, then darted back towards the kitchen, ducking into the side-corridor to hide. There was another knock on Forest Door: Mr Leggs must be trying to see if there was anybody home…Sure enough, a moment later Forest Door opened a crack, and a figure stepped through. Tom, peering out from behind a mop, saw Mr Leggs creeping down the stairs. He was holding his walking-stick in one hand and a flashlight in the other, and talking to himself. “Now let’s see,” he whispered, “one of these doors must lead to the map room…Here? No, that’s the sitting-room…Ah ha! – No , that’s the kitchen…” He was working his way methodically along the hall, shining the flashlight into each room. Tom held his breath and flattened himself against the wall as best he could. What if Mr Leggs came down the side corridor?
“But what’s this?” croaked Mr Leggs triumphantly. “A note?” The beam of the flashlight had fallen on Desert Door and the two pieces of paper that Tom had pinned there. Mr Leggs hurried down the hall, plucked the note from the Door, and scanned it quickly. “ ‘Be more careful with treasure maps’ – ah ha! Well done, Leggsy my boy! And this? Ah! The map itself! Perfect!” He folded Tom’s drawing and stuffed it quickly into his pocket. Tom had to stifle a cheer: the trick had worked! “It must be through here,” Mr Leggs said, grasping the handle of Desert Door. “They’ll never even know it was me!” he chuckled to himself.
He yanked on the Door. Bright sunlight flooded into the hall; it was morning in the desert. A hot breath of wind carried a few grains of sand over the threshold. Tom hazarded a peek around the corner. The postman was standing in the doorway, his walking-stick firmly planted in the sand. Although it was difficult to see past him, Tom judged that there was nobody at the oasis. “This is it,” he heard Mr Leggs say, in a deep, wondering voice. “This is what I saw…ahh, I knew it was true! I knew it was real! How beautiful!” With that, he plunged into the desert, leaving the Door open behind him. Tom tiptoed into the hall and peered out. Mr Leggs was striding across the dunes, straight into the Empty Quarter, just as the map had told him to do. As Tom watched he disappeared through the gap between two high dunes. Already the desert wind was sculpting the dunes into a new shape, closing the gap between them.
“And that’s the last we’ll ever see of Mr Leggs,” Tom said. And he slammed the Desert Door shut.

Next week: Sally tries to rouse the goldfishers to help her destroy the dam – but will the river-dolphins show themselves…?