She crouched, loose strands of black hair matted to her face from the dense, humid air. The moisture was so thick it created a fog that obscured her view through the giant green leaves. Xalbadora leaned her head forward slightly and closed her eyes.
The low, guttural sound came from five meters to her left, much higher in the trees and disguised by both foliage and fog. She remained rooted to her wide branch until the next call.
When it came, the guttural call stretched into a low growl.
She glanced up, attempting to catch a glimpse of the sun but the dense canopy blocked most of the light.
It’s early yet for hunting, but…
Xalba assessed her bag, full of roots and plants she could use for medicine, then her rifle. It was old, a pass down from her grandfather, but clean and fired straight.
Her eyes darted around. Climb the ten meters down, attempt to reach the limb of the tree behind her and add some distance, or climb up and try to get a better look. She secured the bag, scanned the tree limbs around her and began to pull herself up. The higher she climbed, the more frequently she heard the low sounds. Xalba paused on a branch nearly twenty meters up; when heard it again, it was still low and rolled into a growl that almost sounded like a moan. The fog was thinner here, but she could not see across the gap between the trees.
Stooping low and stepping carefully out on the branch, Xalba moved until she reached a point on the branch where she could sit and secure her legs around smaller branch extensions. The growling continued, not moving but increasing in volume with each of her movements. She lifted the rifle and peered through the scope to the direction of the animal. At first, only a glimpse of black and gold patches was visible when the leaves rustled. She lifted her head to glance across the divide, then angled her head to look through the scope again.
As soon as she repositioned, the cat moved, slipping out of the foliage and forward on the branch, perching with its shoulders drawn together and haunches taught and ready to spring. Xalba lowered the rifle and regarded the clouded leopard, its amber eyes locked on her green ones.
I won’t hurt you.