A Startled Ball of Fur
Something was moving down in the tall river grass of the jungle. I looked at Pedro, but his wrinkled face showed he knew no more than I. Again those tasseled tops of grass waved curiously, but the brooding stillness of the Mexican jungle remained unbroken. Expectantly we waited. It might have been many things. It might have been wild pig; those fierce little fearless devils that once had kept me perched in a mahogany tree throughout a long, sunny afternoon. Or it might have been alligator, or tapir, or even one of those half pygmy people of the poisoned darts. And since in jungle wisdom the unknown lies always close to the realm of danger, we kept very still behind our screen of low bamboo. And now all movement had ceased, and suddenly a cry, a kitten’s cry, thin and wailing, rose to our biding place.
Downstream a lurking alligator heard and cruised hopefully toward us as again, plaintive and despairing, came that whimpering cry. In two strides I was beside the riverbank and looking down upon a small, spotted face, from which two blue eyes blazed up in mingled fear and defiance. Behind me came Pedro’s grunt of surprise. “Tigritol A jaguar kitten!” Then he looked about in quick misgiving. “A poor place to meet the mother, senor.” But I was watching that startled ball of fur and life at my feet. He couldn’t have been more than two months old, perhaps less.
Watching me narrowly, he tried to draw back his lips and snarl and look very fierce, but he wasn’t quite equal to it, and finally, giving it up, he sank back on his haunches. I knelt beside him and held out my hand, but he raised a diminutive soft paw to tell me he was not to be trifled with. Very slowly I moved my hand nearer, and after a time his gesture of defiance faltered. Instead a look of interest crept into his eyes, and the bewhiskered nostrils twitched. Now he took a step forward, another step, and at last I felt his cold, wet nose touch my palm. Then a rough, red tongue emerged and scratched eagerly over my hand and along my wrist. It was tempting to accept this as a gesture of friendship, but I knew it was the taste of salt that drew him, probably the first this kitten had ever known, for he was still too young to have tasted blood.
For a time we watched each other, then very slowly I reached forward with my other hand and lifted him from the ground. He gave a faint hiss of fear, and I felt his claws close over my arm, but beyond that he made no move, and in another moment I was carrying him back toward camp. Disconsolately the alligator returned to his nap downstream. All the way back I could hear Pedro grumbling. What would the senor be doing with a jaguar kitten?