It’s not the first time Talisman has come across a human child in this part of his territory. But the sour scent tells him the girl is not well. She’s curled on her side beneath the scratching tree, her dark hair dull and matted, her eyes glassy, her chest nearly still beneath her thin, dirty clothing. Talisman bats at her with a soft paw the way he’s seen the humans do; the only reaction is a delayed shift of her eyes to his. He wills her to hold his gaze. One second. Two seconds. Her lids then fall closed as if keeping them open is too much effort. Has it been enough to convey trust? It’ll have to be. Night falls hard and cold in the desert and he’s loath to leave her unprotected from the coyotes and the grown humans, but she needs nourishment.
He calls for the human’s mother; surely she’ll not have gone far with her young one so ill, but his cries go unanswered. Still yowling, less and less often as he gets no response, Talisman stretches his body over hers to provide heat and to warn predators away; they’ll also sense the sour aroma on the wind.
Soon Talisman’s mate Kowloon arrives, mewing apologies for being too far afield to hear him. Her amber eyes widen in alarm as she quickly absorbs the situation.
“No grown human tends her?”
Talisman shakes his head.
Then a sound comes from the girl’s throat. “Gato,” she breathes.
Every inch of Kowloon freezes except her tail, which paints the scrubby grass in a slow swish.
Talisman’s throat vibrates to calm the girl…and his mate. Kowloon has bad memories of grown humans, so in a soft mew, trying not to break his soothing spell, he asks her to take his place while he finds the one the humans call Esperanza.
“Don’t worry,” Talisman purrs. “This girl is small and weak and too ill to hurt you.”
“I worry more for you,” Kowloon growls.
“Esperanza is good. I was sick once and she found me and poked me with something sharp like a claw but I got better. She leaves water in the desert for the mothers and children who travel in the night. I’ve seen her do it. The water is trapped in a big container but sometimes she’ll leave a bowl. Agua para los gatos, she said once, and her voice was as soothing as the water itself.”
Kowloon still has reservations, but she changes places with him to keep the girl warm. Talisman presses his forehead to Kowloon’s then slinks off toward the village. It’s better this way. Kowloon is a fierce fighter, and several times tangled with coyote pups who tried to hurt their kittens. She won’t let anything harm the girl.
Esperanza lives in a small house on the far edge of Talisman’s territory. Sometimes he hides in the brush and watches her tend her garden. Always with her eyes soft and smiling.
“Gato,” she says, when he hops up to the windowsill. She’s the only grown human he’ll allow so close. Her hands are rough but her touch is light and warm. “Gato, what is wrong?”
He mews one continuous note of alarm, telling her about the sick young girl, while holding her gaze with his. He hopes she’ll understand. Her mouth presses tight and her eyes narrow. “I will get my things and meet you outside.”
Soon they’re walking through the scrubby grass. Esperanza has a light attached to her head. Light makes Talisman jittery and he wants to hide. A much bigger light suddenly pops on over them and Talisman is all claws, clinging to the base of a small tree. Esperanza stops and puts a hand above her eyes.
Her words are angry now. Two grown human males appear from the dark and Talisman hisses low in his throat. They speak angry words back. Their language is different from hers. One grabs her arm. She jerks it away. Her bag spills as Talisman stalks forward. One human shines his big light on what’s spilled on the ground.
“Soy medica,” Esperanza says. “Doctor.”
The males look at each other and smile. Not a friendly smile. Talisman growls.
“Go on, Esperanza la medica,” one of them says, sweeping his arm forward. “Show us who you are looking for who needs doctoring.”
“El gato knew where to…”
But Talisman’s already gone. He must protect Kowloon, and the child. He’s fast, and strong, and he sees them, a lump of cat and girl beneath the scratching tree.
“Cover her,” Talisman pants, already using his claws and mouth to drag deadfall around the base of the tree. Kowloon helps. “She’s okay?”
“Sleeping,” Kowloon says. Then stops, whiskers twitching. “Humans are coming. I can smell them.”
“Cover her up good and hide with me.”
They huddle between the scent and the girl.
Talisman sees them. One male to either side of Esperanza, pushing her along. Each male has something shiny attached to his hip. She looks sad and lost. The fur rises on Talisman’s back. “On my count,” he says. “I’ll go left, you go right. One…two…NOW!”
They sink teeth and claws into flesh. They bite and scratch and growl. The men yelp and cry and attempt to slap them away. But they’re too fierce. So fierce that Talisman didn’t see when Esperanza rushed in and stole the shiny things from the men. But she’s screaming at them to leave el gatos alone.
Talisman turns his head just enough to see Esperanza raise one of those shiny things in the air. There’s a noise so loud Talisman leaps back and grabs Kowloon and they roll off into the grass. Talisman quickly rights himself to see Esperanza now pointing the shiny things at the men. They lift their hands to the star-filled sky.
“¡Váyase!” she yells. “If you are not running when I count three, I will shoot. What you do, with the women and children, is very bad.”
And they run. She watches them go, then puts the shiny things in her pockets and starts picking up the items from her spilled bag.
“Gatos,” she whispers. “Gatos, come. We will see to the girl.”