Excerpt from Mariano’s Choice

Chapter 1 – Fili’s Pool. Taos 1827

She flashed into Mariano’s world like a meteor on a starry night. Wavy brown hair, startling blue-green eyes, dimples that magically appeared at the corners of her mouth whenever she smiled. Nothing in his fifteen years of life had dazzled him as much as the arrival of Señorita Filomena at the Hacienda de los Árboles a year ago. A brightness intense and unapproachable.

When Omar, the grizzle-browed stable manager, ordered him to serve as her groom on this glorious April morning, Mariano’s pulse raced. “She will be here soon, after breakfast,” Omar said. “The Don has called me to the casa grande. Remember all I have taught you. The Don expects the best for his daughter.” “Yes sir.” Mariano straightened in response to Omar’s rheumy-eyed stare, but as soon as the stable manager hobbled out of the barn, he practically danced his way to the stall where the señorita’s horse, a bay gelding named Prince, stood chewing hay. The horse cast a startled eye toward him as his hands fumbled to untie its halter rope. He led Prince to the tack room, opened the door, and stopped short.

Two days ago, while repairing a bridle inside this very room, he’d overheard the girl’s half-brother, Ricardo Castillo, call her an hija de puta. That snake-bite slur provoked uneasy laughter from Ricardo’s two crony cousins lounging next to the stall where Ricardo’s horse was kept. For Mariano, the venom, more than the words themselves, scared him. He had pressed himself against the tack room wall, scarcely breathing, until the three swaggered out of the barn.

Daughter of a whore? The girl had been brought to live in the big house by her doting father, Don Diego Castillo, when she was sixteen. “Fili,” the Don called her, the affection in his voice matched by the lavish gifts he gave her. No one knew who Fili’s mother might be, but she was certainly not the Don’s sickly wife, who ventured out of her room in the casa grande only often enough to scold her maid. Servants whispered about a beautiful Spanish woman kept in luxury at some secret location Don Diego visited during his trips away from the hacienda. But to call her a whore?

Mariano glanced around. What if the señorita’s half-brother wandered into the barn just now and asked him what he was doing? He would not want to explain to Ricardo Castillo why he was taking so much time trimming Prince’s black mane and tail, blackening his hooves and grooming his dark brown hide to the point that not one hair was out of place. Explain why he wanted everything to be perfect for her. The big gelding craned its head around to stare at him, as if to ask the same question. “Because the Señorita Filomena is coming to ride you,” Mariano whispered, stroking the horse’s velvet nose. He led Prince out of the barn’s inner gloom into the bracing light of the corral,where he administered yet another round of hide brushing and saddle polishing. Sun gleamed off the saddle’s leather pommel. The deep blue sky, washed clean by yesterday’s spring rain,promised an outing worthy of his preparations.

A movement at the front of the big house caught his eye. Mariano’s father stepped through the ornate double door and signaled to him. Even at fifty paces, Father appeared nervous. Mariano sighed. The Don’s house servant, Antonio Medina always appeared nervous. His graying head came close to scraping the ground as he bowed to usher Señorita Filomena through the open door and down the path toward the stable. After she passed, Father waggled a finger his way. A warning?

Mariano untied her horse, walked it a few steps from the tie rail and stood at attention, willing his hands to be still, stifling his own fluttering pulse. Her step had a spring to it, the long straight riding skirt no match for her body’s fluid energy. Rolled-up sleeves allowed him to glimpse her bare arms. Her torso, shaped into an hourglass by one of those mysterious, lace-up undergarments that rich women wore, pushed her young breasts alarmingly close to the opening in her blouse. Mariano tore his eyes away from the unnerving sight. As she drew near, dimples announced the beginning of a smile.

Smiling at me? He swallowed hard. No, at her horse. She is pleased.

She stopped beside him and reached out to stroke the gelding’s neck. Her scent floated to him, some exotic perfume. “My, how handsome you look, my Prince,” she said. She turned to Mariano. He could not—dared not—meet her eyes. Staring down at her riding boots planted in the dust of the corral, he caught sight of his own manure stained toes, strangers to shoes, splayed out toward the polished toes of her boots like shabby subjects groveling before royalty. Eyes downcast, he stood only two steps away. It might as well have been two miles.

He risked a quick glance into the startling turquoise pools of her eyes. “Señorita , perdóname…” He hesitated, then plunged ahead. “I am wondering, with your permission, of course, if I might ride along with you. Your horse might need attention, or your saddle cinch might, you know…” His voice trailed off. He wished his Spanish were more refined. Her laughter, to his relief, sounded kind. “Thank you, but I’ll be fine.” She cocked her head and added, “I’ll ride up into the canyon. Back after lunch.” She held up a small cloth sack that smelled of freshly made tortillas and tucked it into a saddle bag. “That pool just below the falls.”

He knew the spot. “Fili’s pool,” he said, then caught himself. Reckless of him to speak the diminutive of her name. Smiling, she raised her foot. He enfolded the soft boot with the enlaced fingers of his hands and boosted her up. Her leg, warm to the touch, brushed his arm. She settled onto the side saddle and hooked her right leg over the pommel. After adjusting her skirt, she lifted her hand in goodbye and reined away toward the canyon in the low hills to the south.

Her slender figure, long hair lifting in the breeze, held his gaze. He remained rooted in place even after she disappeared behind a copse of trees that lined the creek’s twisting turn into the mouth of the canyon. A thin plume of dust marked her progress. On the dry hillside to the west, a second plume spiraled up and followed hers, as if in pursuit. A dust devil. Common enough in the desert, but not this early in the day. He frowned, wishing it away.

Mild apprehension tugged at him. It was unusual for a rich man’s daughter to ride without an escort. It was the kind of behavior that raised eyebrows. But her father, Don Diego, seemed to indulge her. Is that why her half-brother hates her? Mariano pictured Ricardo Castillo’s narrow eyes, the twist in his thin lips whenever he looked at his half-sister. Words like “inheritance” and “illegitimate” floated through the servants’ quarters whenever they spoke of Ricardo’s animosity. Mariano pestered his father for explanations. He was told to mind his own business lest his curiosity about the young woman come to the attention of the Don. Or Ricardo.

Mariano forced his gaze away from the moving wisps of dust, hefted a spade from its resting place against the barn and began scooping horse droppings into a wheelbarrow. The rhythmic swing of the shovel calmed him. He smiled at how far he had come since starting work in the stables two years ago at age thirteen. Under Omar’s tutelage, he discovered he was good at handling horses, loved horses, in fact. From cleaning stalls and feeding the horses, he moved on to grooming, helping with their training, and eventually to serving the Don and his guests when they came to ride, adjusting their stirrups and cinches and helping them mount and dismount.

Back inside the barn he began grooming the sorrel stallion that Ricardo rode. As he worked, stroking the animal’s thick neck and taking in its rich horse smell, he imagined himself as a person of consequence, worthy of respect, instead of an invisible son of a humble servant. Would a time come when he might leave the hacienda and become his own man? A trainer of horses, perhaps even the owner of a livery stable in Taos, catering to the Americanos traveling to New Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail?

He wanted to be different from his father, Antonio Medina, who seemed resigned to being a peón, bowing his head, humbling himself, ever fearful of offending his patrón. Father had left Spain in 1810 to seek his fortune in the New World. Settling in Arroyo Hondo, a small town north of Taos, he had found only poverty and hardship. “Never forget, we are Spaniards,” he would say, clinging to that scrap of dignity as a beggar might hang onto his last, worn-out shirt.

Mariano’s mother died in Arroyo Hondo when he was five years old. Thinking of her drew a blank, a hole in his memory, little more than a warm feeling tinged with hurt and a strange kind of dread. He shook his head to clear it of any lingering thought of her.

The sorrel stallion winced and side-stepped, causing Mariano to pause in his brushing. His fingers found an open sore dug by Ricardo Castillo’s spur. Mariano spat. Piss on him! He

treats his horse as bad as he treats his half-sister. He daubed some of Omar’s healing salve on the wound and walked back outside.

Something gleamed on the ground where the señorita had mounted. A fine ivory comb studded with small jade stones. It must have fallen from her hair as she rode away. He picked it up, brushed away the dust and smiled in anticipation of returning it to her. He tried to think of a story, or a little joke, that would dimple her face when she returned. He took a deep breath of desert air and said her name aloud. “Fili.”

A loud voice from behind interrupted his reverie. “Peón, our horses.” He whirled around to see Ricardo opening the gate to the corral. Mariano thrust the comb behind his back. Had the patron’s son overheard Mariano say her name aloud? Seen him hide the comb? He held his breath. The comb bit into his hand. The Don’s son rooster-walked into the corral. Through the crown of his dark brown hair ran a red streak that drooped over the right side of his head like a cock’s comb. His mouth twisted into the kind of smile that made Mariano want to hide under a rock.Ricardo’s two cousins sidled up behind, tailored riding pants tucked into shiny boots, quirts dangling from their belts, hands unscathed by work. One was short and thin, like Mariano. The other was husky, with bulging forearms, his fine felt hat held aloft by ears that stuck out like signposts. Red-top, Skinny and Big Ears. Nick-names spoken aloud only when Mariano talked to horses. Their arrival twisted his stomach into a knot.

Ricardo Castillo turned to watch the thin spiral of dust left by Fili’s loping bay gelding. Then he pointed a manicured finger toward his sorrel stallion inside the barn. “Mine,” he said. “Those two, there and there, for my muchachos.” He beckoned and the three moved over to wait against the corral fence. Mariano thrust the comb into his pants pocket. He trotted to the stallion’s stall, his feet stirring up dust and horse smells. The stallion winced as he swung the blanket and saddle into place, grazing the still-oozing spur wound. He slipped on the bridle, led the horse out to the corral fence and tied the reins to the top rail.

The second horse, a rangy paint gelding, resisted the bridle, raising and lowering his muzzle to avoid the cold iron. Mariano paused to warm the bit with his hands. “Hurry!” Castillo said, his voice a knife edge. He pushed away from the fence, strode over and grabbed the paint’s halter rope, jerked its head down and snubbed it to the corral rail. The horse’s eyes rolled white. “The whore’s daughter will get away.” There it was again. Mariano willed himself to stay calm, to stop his hands from shaking. The pinto finally took the bit, mouthing the intruding metal with a slobber of greenish foam. The third horse made no trouble, and the three young men mounted up. They tested the stirrups, lifted their legs so Mariano could adjust the straps and check the cinches. They paid him no more attention than to a fence post. Their eyes were fixed on the disappearing dust cloud. They dug their spurs into the horses’ ribs and clattered off, sending their own powdery cloud into the pale blue sky. The dust blew back into Mariano’s face.

Mariano rushed to saddle a fast buckskin mare. Instead of following the riders, he loped toward a trail that cut across the piñon-juniper flats to the shallow canyon’s rim above Fili’s pool. He reined in, tied the panting mare to a squat pine and darted into a rocky outcrop on the slope above the canyon’s floor. Peering between two boulders, he spotted Señorita Filomena sitting on a flat rock next to the pool about fifty paces below, her face upturned, her bare feet drying in the sun. She wiggled her toes, closed her eyes, and leaned back on her elbows. Beside her rested the cloth lunch bag. Prince, picketed a few paces away on a small streamside meadow, yanked on a tuft of bunch grass, pulled it up by the roots and started chewing. Suddenly the bay’s jaw muscles paused, its ears jumped to alert, pointing downstream where the stream left the pool and trickled down through stair-steps of stone into a thicket of willows.

At the sound of bodies pushing through bushes, the clink of spurs, Fili sat up, twisting around. From his perch, Mariano saw them before she did, Ricardo’s red cock’s comb, the tight- lipped smiles of his two cousins. They strode out of the willows and clambered up over the rocks to surround her.

Fili pushed to her feet, backed up a step, then caught herself, planted her fists on her hips and looked her half-brother in the eye. She pointed her finger at him, shouted, “Leave me alone,” and something else Mariano couldn’t quite hear. Castillo stepped forward, gave her a shove. She staggered back, teetered on the edge of the pool. One more push and she toppled in. She went under briefly, then gained her feet on the smooth rock bottom. The water came up to just above her waist.

She clambered out of the pool, water flying off her hair, fists swinging. One caught Ricardo on the shoulder. He tried to duck, slipped, fell. “Perra, daughter of a whore,” he yelled. She swung a foot at his head. He grabbed the hem of her skirt, throwing her off balance. Big Ears grabbed her shoulders from behind. She wrenched away, her blouse and camisa tore, her breasts quivered into view, pale, exposed. She shouted something, more rage than words.

Mariano’s fingers dug into the rocks until his nails bled. He wanted to yell, run down the slope, throw a rock, anything. Castillo reached for her waistband and gave it such a vicious tug the buttons flew off. He yanked her skirt all the way down to her ankles and grabbed her flailing legs. Big Ears pulled her backward and she went down onto the hard surface. Castillo scrambled to his knees, leaned over her, slapped her face. She clawed at him, tried to kick him in the groin. They were on her now, all three of them, like coyotes diving in for a kill. Mariano jumped to his feet, forced out a “Leave her be.” His voice came out as an inaudible croak. He picked up a rock. They tore away her blouse and camisa, unhooked the front of the undergarment that bound her torso, and cast it aside. She writhed naked in their hands as they wrestled her to the pool’s edge. Her body twisted in mid-air before splashing down in a silvery spray. She sputtered up from the depths to a standing crouch, tried to cover herself with her hands, and searched for a way to escape.

Mariano scrambled down slope, rock in hand, stomach in a knot. Her frantic eyes found his. She screamed, rage replaced by fear. Those eyes! Haunted, pleading, terror-filled. Mariano’s impulse to rescue her evaporated in that panicked gaze. Inside his head a voice screamed, “Run! Get away!” He turned and bolted. His calloused feet leapt across the rocks and carried him out of the canyon onto the flat where his horse was tied. Fear gave him wings. Shame gave him speed. At his frantic approach, the buckskin mare pulled back on the halter rope. He managed to calm her, swing aboard and gallop back toward the barn. He shook his head to dispel the choking, baffling panic that had seized him when Fili’s frightened eyes had found his. But dread continued to flicker through the dark folds of his brain, spurring him on, sapping his will.

Fili! He must find someone to help. But who? Omar. He spotted the barn manager’s hunched form by the corral gate as the mare burst out of the sagebrush flats and raced toward the barn. Mariano pulled up in a haze of dust and flung himself out of the saddle. “Help! The Señorita! They are… She is… You must go to her…” Omar gripped Mariano’s shoulders, steadying him long enough for his story to spill out. “Did they see you?” “I don’t know…I think so, yes.” Omar’s faded brown eyes bored into him, then shifted away toward the arroyo. Mariano followed his gaze, stiffening at the sight of three riders galloping toward them out of the trees. He pushed away from Omar and leapt onto the winded mare. “Help her. Tell the Don” His throat burned. He wheeled the mare onto the road heading north. He rode for his life, his mind clotted by images of what might have happened to Fili, each made worse by not knowing. And by guilt, for leaving her. He looked back. The distance between him and his pursuers slowly closed.

They caught him as he rode into Arroyo Hondo, his buckskin mare spent. Red-top thundered up beside him, jerked him out of the saddle, flung him on the ground. They leapt from their mounts to surround him. Mariano scrambled to his feet, tried to run, but Big Ears grabbed one arm, El Flaco the other. Ricardo Castillo pulled on gloves, drew back his fist and slammed it into Mariano’s face. The blows came fast, one after another, into his face, his gut, his groin. Just before he lost consciousness he heard a shout, in English, from somewhere behind him. The last thing he saw was Ricardo’s fine glove spattered with blood. Then blackness.