"Mercedes, come away from that window." I looked up at Aunt Josephine beside me. She was holding a small, round mirror up in front of her face with one hand and smoothing out the feathers on her hat with the other. "The driver has told me that we shall be arriving within the hour. I don't want you to be covered in this red dirt from the road when your father sees you."
I had been leaning my chin on my fist dully, staring out the window of the carriage, but now I sighed and sat up strait, scooting less than an inch further from the window. But I could still see all the land and mountains around us. There were three colors in that direction— reddish-tan, brown, and dark brown. Unless, of coarse, you counted the sky, whose turquoise-blue was the only color worth describing on these humid plains of Texas.
No, Texas was nothing like my home in Virginia, where everything was green and water plentiful. Oh yes, there were a few, grayish, brownish-green pushes here and there, but they hardly helped the landscape at all. In Virginia, such ugly, skinny little bushes would never be seen. Virginia was where I had lived with Aunt Josephine for the past four years. I dreaded returning to live with my father.
Father was a wealthy man down here in Texas, who owned one of the largest horse ranches in the West. The horses I enjoyed, but Father…… my fear of him could not be doused. He seemed always to have a cigar between his teeth and the few times that he did talk to me, it was always in that business-like tone of his and he was quick to anger if I showed any of the fear I had of him. My mother had died giving birth to me, and I could only assume that that was the reason for his coldness toward me. I had asked him once, when I was too young to know any better, if my mother had been beautiful. He had snapped at me to go to my room and not to bother him anymore. After living with him, Aunt Josephine had seemed Heaven, though she was strict and cared little about what became of me.
"Aunty," I said, turning to the elderly woman with the wizened face, "why must I go to live with my Father? He has never wanted me before."
Aunt Josephine's eyes closed in irritation and I could see the loose skin that dangled from her neck begin to quiver. "For goodness' sake, child!" She said, "do not ask so many questions! You are very fortunate that your father has asked for you. Mercy knows, the man has been lonely long enough. Now you mustn't speak so much around him. He may not be so patient with your quick tongue as I am."
I sighed and leaned on the windowsill again, letting the cool breeze blow on my sweating neck.
"Mercedes!" Josephine ordered sharply, "come away from that window!"
I tarried at the window another moment before obeying. It was in this moment that I spotted the outline of a small town ahead. "Oh, Aunty!" I exclaimed, "is that it?" I pointed out the window, but she refused to look.
"For pity's sake, child!" She took hold of my arm and pulled me away from the window. I suppose some of the red dirt from the road must have blown in my face and stuck to the perspiration there, because Josephine did not at all like what she saw. She pulled a handkerchief from her bag and gave it to me. "Clean yourself at once! I will not have you looking like a schoolboy when your father sees you."
I did as she asked and cleaned the dirt as best I could. Not five minutes later, I heard a snore and looked up to see that Aunt Josephine was sleeping, her chin resting on her chest.
I tossed the kerchief away carelessly and leaned back out the window, looking up at the sky, the most colorful thing for miles. The town ahead of us loomed closer with every passing minute and soon we were entering it. To my disappointment, it was not the town of our destination. It was smaller and had more Mexican residents than American. All the same, I scooted forward in my seat so that I could see all the colorful shops and people. One Mexican family was setting up a booth filled with beaded necklaces and earrings. Some faces turned to watch our carriage go by, perhaps knowing its destination without having to be informed. There was no doubt in my mind that such carriages as mine often passed through this town on its way to my father's.
Near the heart of town, I spied a group of cowboys herding some cattle into a fenced-off pasture. One of them saw me. He was closer to my carriage than the others and I could see his dirt-masked face more clearly. The brim of his hat shaded his eyes, but I knew that they were looking at me. Tilting his hat slightly, almost mockingly, he flashed me a cocky smile and winked.
I turned away and heard his quiet laugh as I did so. Aunt Josephine had told me about those cowboys. "Filthy, wild womanizers," she had called them. I looked over at her now, snoring sleepily, and laid my head back against my seat. I wondered when we would arrive at my father's house, and a shiver went through me, despite the Texan heat, as I thought of the new life ahead of me.
It was not until half an hour later that we reached the town of Guadalupe, so named for the black stones in the river that ran along the edge of town. Memories came flooding back to me as I saw all the people sitting on the porches of their homes, fanning themselves or drinking a glass of iced tea or lemonade. We passed a house I remembered as belonging to an old friend of mine. She and I had remained friends through letters, so I did at least feel a bit of excitement about seeing her again. But such excitement began to drain from me when my father's spacious house came into view. It was bigger than any other house around and had a fancy porch that wound all the way around it. I recognized two of the black slaves that stood on the porch. The two Negro women squinted and my carriage and one rushed into the house crying, "Mastah McBride! Mastah McBride! They's here!"
Another Negro, this one a tall man whom I remembered as being called Thomas, jogged over to us as our carriage pulled up in front of the house. I nudged Aunt Josephine awake as he opened the door and held out a hand to help me out.
I gave him my black, lace-gloved hand and used his for support when I stepped down, onto the dusty driveway. I took a few steps forward so that he could then help Aunt Josephine. I allowed my dark eyes to take in the view before me. The house was painted white, as I remembered it, and had black trimming. There was a flight of ten steps that led up to the wrap-around porch, and at the top of these stairs now stood my father.
He was wearing a crisp, black jacket over a white, ruffled shirt and a red neck scarf. His black boots almost seemed to be attached to his black pants, so dark were they. His brown beard, now flecked with gray, he kept neatly trimmed short, and his dark hair, also containing a bit of silver, was slicked back. His dark, blue eyes were as strict and dangerous as ever and I could feel my old childhood fears of him slowly creeping back into me, as though coldly welcoming me home. My father had not changed a bit.
No smile broke the dark, fierceness of his face as he came down the stairs, each step pounding in my ears and making my heart stop. "Josephine," he said, giving his sister a cold kiss on the cheek. He stepped away from her and motioned for two more of his slaves to help Thomas get out bags. "I trust you had a good trip?" But he seemed impatient, hoping to get these formalities over with as soon as possible.
"Oh, John!" Aunt Josephine said dramatically, her jowls shaking, "you cannot know what agonies my poor nerves have suffered! I pray that you will not ask me to make such a journey again to take this girl back!"
Now my father's eyes came to rest on me. I tried my best not to appear afraid of him, as I knew it would only kindle his temper. He looked at me as though I were a piece of merchandise, stroking his beard thoughtfully. I tried to match his gaze, but I soon gave up and had to look down. "Hm," I heard him mutter in thought. "Come here, Mercedes."
I could feel my heart stop and my lungs freeze, but I came forward all the same. His hand came up under my chin and he lifted my face up, tilting it every which way to see what he thought of it.
"She certainly is beautiful," he surmised, not to give a compliment, but to see what worth I had.
"She looks like Esmerelda," Aunt Josephine agreed.
I flinched as my father tore his hand from my chin violently and whipped around to face my aunt. "We will not speak of my wife here, Josephine!" he snapped.
My aunt frowned as my father turned back to me.
"I do not think I will need you to take her anymore, Josephine." He glanced over at her. "I can gain much if I give her to someone for a wife."
Just like trading a horse, I thought bitterly. I half-expected him to ask how old I was and what breed. Aunt Josephine must have thought that my age was a fact my father had forgotten, because she gasped. "She was not sixteen last week!"
"I know her age!" My father snapped. He turned to me. "Go to your room, Mercedes," he said. Then he turned back to Aunt Josephine to argue with her. I suppose he expected me to remember where my room was. Not wanting to anger him any further, I lifted the red and black skirt of my dress and walked up the stairs, into the house. I knew if I looked around a bit I could find it.
The smell of the house filled my nostrils and brought back memories I didn't think still existed in my mind. They were not all fond, either, though some were.
The house had a dark-stained, wooden floor that matched the wood of the winding staircases on either side of the entranceway that created an arch over it. Beyond the arch I saw the formal dining room and already I remembered where my room was. I crossed over the cream-colored rug on the floor and walked up the left staircase, my gloved hand on the sleek railing. I had once slid down this railing with my best friend, Isabella. Luckily my father had not been home at the time, but Jariah, one of the Negro women, had run in and warned us that it was not wise to play such games.
I reached the top of the stairs and found myself in a long, dark hallway. The hard part would be remembering which of the doors in this hallway was mine. After walking up and down the hallway at least five times, I decided to just sneak out the back door of the house and see if I could not find Isabella. Would I recognize her if I saw her?
I sneaked back down the stairs. I remembered where the back door was, because I had sneaked out so many times before. I knew that my father would probably be angry when he found that I had gone, but I decided that I would deal with that when the time came.
There was a special, little trick with this door, I recalled. The door handle had to be pushed in- hard – before being turned, which usually made a screeching noise. So I always muffled the sound by wrapping my fingers around the base of the door handle. I smiled in satisfaction as it opened just as I remembered it opening; a little hard at first, and then, all at once, it gave easily and the door swung open.
I looked around at the horse stables and corals that made up the land behind and to the side of this house. My father owned over two hundred horses. I wondered if many of them would be horses I had known. I lifted my skirts a bit and stepped down onto the red dirt, a puff of dust billowing around my foot. I crept around the side of the house and peaked out from behind the corner just in time to see my father and Aunt Josephine walk through the front door. I waited a moment, until I heard the click of the door closing, before dashing across the driveway and past the white gate. I stopped in the street, panting and smiling to myself triumphantly.
I looked down at my skirt and began patting the red dust off of it. Behind me was the market, buzzing with the voices of people. But above all those voices, I heard one that gave me goosebumps. "Why, it can't be Mercedes?"
I turned around and let out a cry of joy. In front of me stood an older version of my childhood friend. "Isabella!" I cried, throwing my arms around her.
She laughed joyfully and hugged me back. "Oh, Mercedes! It's so good to see you!"
"It's so good to see you!" I stepped away from her, holding her hands, so that I could see her more clearly. "Look at you!" I laughed. "You look like a woman!"
Isabella blushed. "Hardly. But look at you! I'll eat my own straw hat if you aren't the prettiest girl in all of Texas!"
I laughed and shook my head. "How did you know I was here?" I asked.
Isabella instantly took up our favorite position, linking arms and beginning to walk me through the streets of the marketplace. "Well, you forget how quickly word travels here. When I heard that you were coming back, well, I was just determined to find the day. I was just headed to Mr. McBride's place now to see if you'd arrived yet."
"Oh just. He does not know that I am gone yet. As always, he expects me to obey him the way his horses do."
"So you haven't forgotten how to sneak out of places." Isabella shook her head. The blonde hair that could be seen in ringlets, coming out of the back of her bonnet shone brightly in the Texan sun. "You always were sneaking around."
"You would too if you were me."
"True." Isabella was quiet for a moment, looking down at her feet. "Are you still afraid of him?"
I looked strait ahead. "I will always be afraid of him."
My friend nodded. "I think I will too. The whole town is afraid of him. Except for, perhaps, Tejano."
I was just about to ask who Tejano was, when a cloud of dust just on the outskirts of town arose and the sound of horses filled the air. All the people stopped what they were doing and looked on the oncoming horsemen in excitement. The young women, and old women for that matter, all talked excitedly and fixed their hair. Even Isabella began straitening out her blue dress. Everyone seemed to know what was going on. Most were even beginning to congregate around a large coral beyond the market.
"Come on!" Isabella cried, taking my hand and pulling me into the crowd. She pulled me all the way to the gate of the coral and then, placing her feet on the bottom plank of the fence and pulling herself up to stand on it, she smiled in anticipation.
I stayed on firm ground and looked on the scene with great curiosity. Soon, ten cowboys on horses began herding some two hundred cattle into the coral. The people watched and cheered as though it was the greatest thing they had ever beheld.
Soon the cattle were all in and the cowboys began to dismount, filling their canteens at a well. The crowd began to disappear, some going over to assist their heroes. Isabella, along with a few other girls, stayed where she was and watched the last two cowboys remaining in the coral as they rode around the edge of it, keeping the cattle in line.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
Isabella looked at me as though I were mad. "Don't you know who that is, Mercedes?!" She looked back up at one of the men.
My friend rolled her eyes in impatience. "That's Tejano! The most charming, brave, free man in the Southwest!"
"The Southwest?" One of the other girls cried breathlessly. "The world!"
I looked around me and it was very clear to me that every girl in Guadalupe was in love with this cowboy. They were all gazing at him with adoration and respect. He was riding past us now, so I looked up to see better what he looked like.
As his horse came closer, he pulled on the rains and it slowed slightly when it passed us. He tipped the brim of his brown hat and flashed a cocky smile. "Ladies," he said with a voice so smooth with charm that I wondered if he drank it for breakfast.
I gasped. It was the same man that had winked at me back in the last town I had passed through. He jumped off of his beast, a beautiful buckskin, and patted it on the rump. It took off like a shot, right into the stables near the coral. The man called Tejano glanced up in our direction and looked back down at his water canteen. He was just about to take a swig, when he looked back again. This time he looked only at me. He recognized me. I felt myself blush slightly as I looked away. He grinned to himself before drinking the last bit of water in his canteen. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and made his way over to the well to refill. All of the girls around me went over to help him.
Isabella stayed back with me. She jumped off of the fence and gazed on the rugged, dark cowboy dreamily. "Isn't he wonderful? No girl will ever tame him. He can take any heart he wants, but his will never be taken from him." She sighed.
"He sounds like an awful person to me."
"Oh, but he's wonderful! He's the best horseman anywhere! And there isn't a single girl in town he hasn't had a fling with."
I was shocked. "You mean he--"
"Oh no, no! He would never rid a girl of her morals. Only her pride. He knows that every girl wants him, so he takes great fun in showing them how weak they are. You know that women always say that they would never lower their morals for any man. I think he wants to prove to them that it is not true. No, all he does is kiss you, then he leaves again on one of his adventures and by the time he comes back you know that he's kissed many women and he pays you no mind at t'all. You just become one of the thousands."
"And you like this man!?"
"Oh, Mercedes!" Isabella cried out in exasperation. "You've never met him. You don't know him as I do! I gave him my heart two years ago, but I don't think I shall ever get it back. And so, since it is not mine to give, how shall I ever give it to another man?"
"Yet you aren't even a little angry with this man?"
Isabella smiled and hugged herself. "He probably doesn't even remember my name. And yet……" she shrugged, "that's what makes me love him so!"
I could not believe what I was hearing. "Well, at least you warned me. Now I know who to stay away from."
My friend giggled. "Oh, you just try, Mercedes! Weather you like it or not, you are a new woman in town whom he hasn't been acquainted with yet. He'll come find you."
"I don't like his way of 'getting acquainted'." I looked coldly on the handsome man as he hardly paid attention to the ladies around him. "What did you say his name was?"
I was surprised by her reply. "No one really knows."
"What? I thought you just told me."
"Well, I told you one of his names. He has many. The Texans call him Tejano, because he's a Texan man. The English call him Rollo, which means 'famous in the land'. The Indians call him Anoki, which means 'actor'. The Hindi families in the small towns around Guadalupe call him Alagan, meaning 'handsome', or Mohan, which is 'attractive'. And the Mexicans call him Hidalgo."
"Which means 'noble one'," I finished for her. My mother had been a Mexican woman and, from her sister, Aunt Maria, who had lived in my father's house before she died six years back, I had learned to speak fluent Spanish and everything I knew about my mother I also learned from her.
"So no one knows his real name?"
Isabella shook her head no.
"What name does he use for himself?"
"I suppose it depends on who he's talking to. He always referred to himself as Tejano with me. And even though I am English, I was born in Texas, which makes me a Texan in his eyes. So he uses his Texan name with me."
I looked once more up at the cowboy with so many names. He certainly was handsome, there could be no doubt about that. His hair, though drenched with sweat at the moment, was curly and dark, one lock of it always falling into his eye. He had a ready cocky, yet charming, smile and laughed often. His eyes were dark and mysterious. By his dark features and dark olive skin, darkened even more by the sun, I guessed he must have been at least half -Mexican.
He looked up and caught me watching. He nodded to me with that beautiful grin and lifted his hat from his head in an almost-teasing way. I folded my arms and turned away, marching back to the market and dragging Isabella with me.