"Stiles! Stiles!" Scott shouted, running into the depot office. "You have to see these horses!"
"Do I now?" Stiles asked, not looking up from his figures. Scott was often excited about horses, because Scott was a farmer all the way down to his bones. But Stiles had retained enough of his former city-boy ways to not be impressed by a particularly large or well-matched team of draft horses.
"I saw their heads peeking out of the boxcar window, and they're too beautiful to be working, that's for sure," Scott said, raising his eyebrows.
Stiles raised his in return, his interest piqued, and turned to Mr. Finstock, the station master, who waved them off. "You may as well get a good look at 'em," he said.
"Thanks, Mr. Finstock!" Stiles said, grabbing his hat and heading out to the just-arrived train. To be fair, Stiles had meant to casually look out the window as the passengers left the train, because he wanted to be the first to see their new teacher, who was arriving that very day with her brother. But he didn't want to seem too eager: it was strange for a boy in a Dakota farm town to want to go to college, and frankly there were enough things about Stiles that stood him apart from the other fellows.
Except Scott, of course, who was staying in school because Stiles was, and because his Ma said he might and that one more year of hired hands wasn't anything.
They turned the corner and saw a woman who had to be Teacher standing under the shelter, shading herself from the sun. She was tall, dark-haired and fashionably dressed—or at least, dressed as fancy as his classmate Lydia, which Stiles took to be fashionable because Lydia wouldn't be anything else. Several satchels and cases and a few trunks were piled onto a hand cart next to her, and she held a gentleman's jacket. When she saw Scott and Stiles, she turned to them with a warm smile.
"Hello," she said. "I'm Miss Hale. Will I be seeing you boys in my classroom this fall?"
"Yes, ma'am," Stiles replied. "I'm Stiles Stilinski and this is Scott McCall."
"Pleased to meet you," Miss Hale said, bowing her head slightly. "Are you the college-bound students I was told about?"
"Stiles is," Scott said, "but there isn't much call for a college degree on the farm. My Ma and I just reckon I should get in all the learning I can, while I can."
"That's very wise of you and your Ma," Miss Hale replied. "No reason at all you can't join my college preparatory classes."
"Thank you, Miss Hale," Scott said, and Stiles nodded.
"But I'm sure you're here to see them, and not me," she said, and nodded toward the train behind them.
Stiles turned, and coming out of one of the box cars was a young man in shirt sleeves, his vest and trousers matching the coat that Miss Hale was carrying. He was slowly and carefully leading a glossy brown Morgan down a ramp out of the box car and toward the stables. Horses were often nervous when they arrived at the depot, disoriented by their journey and the unfamiliar surroundings. But the man was talking to his horse, walking slow and steady, and the horse came along gentle as could be. Stiles had never seen anything like it—nor a horse as beautiful as that one, even back in Chicago.
The man trotted back from the stables to the car, likely to get another horse, and he waved.
"That's my brother Derek," Miss Hale said. "He raises horses. It's our family business."
"They're beautiful," Scott said, as they watched Mr. Hale lead a second, perfectly matched horse out of the car.
"We've only brought one team for now," she said. "In the fall our friend and our younger sister are arriving with the rest. No sense bringing them when we still need to build a house and stables."
Mr. Hale wore a hat with a wide brim, understandable on such a bright, hot day, so it wasn't until he was quite close to them that Stiles could make out his features. The family resemblance was noticeable—the siblings shared the same dark hair, bright hazel eyes, and bone structure. But while Miss Hale was all warm welcome, Mr. Hale's eyebrows were furrowed, his mouth pinched tight.
He was also infinitely more beautiful even than his fine horses. Stiles felt his stomach flip and his mouth go dry, and for once he couldn't think of a single thing to say.
Thankfully Miss Hale was laughing. "Derek, stop scowling! You're going to make these folks think you aren't friendly!"
Mr. Hale smoothed out his features, though it seemed to take some effort. "Sorry," he said.
"Scott and Stiles here were just admiring the horses," Miss Hale said. "They're going to be in my class in the fall."
"Good thing," Mr. Hale said, nodding. "Takes a smart man to raise a smart horse, our Pa always says."
"Yes, sir," Scott said.
"If you fellows could do me a favor and get out the word, we're looking to hire some help for the summer, get the house and stables put up. Seventy-five cents a day plus lunch."
"I could do for you, Mr. Hale," Stiles said quickly.
"You don't have to work your own claim?" he asked.
"No, sir," Stiles replied. "My Pa's the sheriff, so we just have a tree claim, doesn't take much minding. And Mr. Finstock only needs me a couple hours a week; he's taught me accounting so I come do his figures."
"Well, you are an enterprising young man, aren't you?" Miss Hale said.
Stiles shrugged. "Everything we can save for college," he said.
"You ever worked on a house?" Mr. Hale asked.
"Helped build your house in town," Stiles said. "And a bunch of the others, just after the Snowy Winter."
Mr Hale raised his eyebrows, and looked Stiles up and down.
Stiles stood up straight; he was nearly as tall as Mr. Hale and he'd put on some muscle in the years since he and Papa had come out to Dakota. Not as much as Mr. Hale, but more than he'd ever had in Chicago.
"Well, come to the house Monday at seven," Mr. Hale said, nodding sharply. "I should know what's what by then."
"Sure thing, Mr. Hale," Stiles replied, and tried to keep from grinning like an idiot.
Mr. Hale paused. "How old are you, anyway?"
"We're both seventeen," Stiles said.
"Well, I'm not much more than five years older than you," he replied, "so drop the mister, and just call me Hale."
"Derek!" Miss Hale said.
"Can't be answering to Mr. Hale all summer, Laura," he said, shaking his head. "Makes me feel like Pa."
She sighed. "You're as bad as Uncle Peter," she said.
"Well, I'd hope not," Hale said. "Now, if you'll excuse us, I'm going to get my sister out of this heat. Stiles, I'll see you Monday morning."
"You'll see him before that," Miss Hale said. "In church, on Sunday."
"Actually," Stiles said—and this was always the difficult moment—"since it's good weather, Scott and his Ma and my Pa and I will go to Mass over at the mission. Being as we're Catholic and all." He paused. "I hope that's not a problem."
"You'll have no problem with me," Hale said, without a moment's hesitation.
"Good," Stiles replied, relieved. "I'll see you Monday morning."
Hale shook both their hands, and escorted his sister around the side of the depot and into town.
"Gosh, Stiles," Scott said. "You're gonna spend the whole summer around those horses! Just think!"
"Yeah," Stiles said. "Just think."
Stiles went back to work, while Scott was off to the Argent general store. He'd timed his errand to the arrival of the train because he, too, was curious about the new teacher. Scott's girl, Allison, helped out at her father's store, but as her father was away for a week on business it would be a sight easier for Scott to talk to her. Not that Mr. Argent forbade their courtship, but he wasn't entirely pleased that the boy his daughter spent time with was a very young Catholic farmer whose mother's people were Mexican. Stiles would have been angry and resentful at such treatment but Scott pressed on, determined but cheerful, because Scott was an infinitely better person than Stiles was.
Stiles didn't have a girl; he'd never even been close to having one. Since he'd arrived in Beacon, he'd had a fancy for Lydia Martin, whose parents ran the hotel. But Lydia did not receive his attentions at all kindly. She'd had a beau all that time, a rich boy named Whittemore, but his family had sent him off to boarding school very suddenly. It should have left Lydia free and clear for Stiles to pursue, but somehow, that pursuit wasn't going according to plan.
Well, springtime in a farm town was busy anyway. Perhaps the summer, even with his new job, would provide more opportunities.
Stiles pocketed the fifty cents Mr. Finstock gave him for doing the accounting, and headed down the street to see Papa at the Sheriff's office. He was sitting alone on the porch, cleaning one of his guns while also keeping a watchful eye on the saloons across Main Street. Stiles helped himself to a cup of water and sat down next to him.
Papa glanced up, then back to his work. "Finstock is satisfied?" he asked, speaking Polish as they were alone.
"Yes, Papa," Stiles replied, in kind. "I have my fifty cents to put in the jar."
"Good, good," he said. "And you met your new teacher? They walked by a little while ago."
Stiles nodded. "She was nice. Some horses her brother's got," he said.
"Very handsome, I'm sure," Papa said, and for a wild moment Stiles thought he meant Mr. Hale himself.
"Mr. Hale hired me to help him build a house and stables out on their claim," Stiles said. "I thought it might help for college. Seventy-five cents plus dinner. I can pack your dinner in the mornings, I figure, and be home for supper."
Papa hummed, spinning the cylinder of his Colt, and then began to carefully reload it. "I'll want to meet this Mr. Hale first," he said. "If he spends too much time at the saloon, I'll not want you alone with him up at the claim."
"Brother of the teacher?" Stiles said. "He doesn't look the type, anyway."
"Can't always tell by looking."
"He didn't have the shakes from spending the day on the train," Stiles said. "And you should have seen him with those horses. Calm as anything."
"I'm sure he was," Papa said, slipping the revolver back into his holster and turning to Stiles. "When are you to start?"
"Then I'm sure I'll see him in town over the next four days," Papa said.
"Please, Papa, don't intimidate him. I can do the job and it's good money."
"Any man who would be intimidated by the sheriff looking into who his own son will be working for shouldn't be out on the prairies alone," Papa said, firmly. "I'd be irresponsible if I didn't seek him out."
Stiles sighed, and slumped back in his chair, biting his tongue to keep from reminding Papa that he was seventeen now, not ten, and might have developed some ability to assess people upon meeting them. He said only, "Yes, Papa. Reckon I'll go start supper now."
Papa clapped one hand on Stiles's shoulder. "I'm proud that you took the opportunity," Papa said.
"Thanks," Stiles replied, and they smiled at each other.
The small house the town gave them as part of Papa's salary stood next door to the sheriff's office. While he had a regular salary, because the county was still somewhat unorganized much of it was paid in kind—the house, a credit line at the Argent store and the drug store, milk and eggs and butter from a rotating set of farmers. Stiles tended a small garden plot behind the house, and the Widow McCall had shown him how to make and put up the preserves and pickles they kept in the cellar. Today Stiles picked some radishes and small, early tomatoes to go with the cottage cheese he'd set aside after dinner, and sliced a few green onions to scatter across the plate. That and some bread and butter would make a fine late May supper.
Maybe it was the prospect of work, of being grown-up enough to take a regular job for college money, or of the arrival of the teacher that was going to prepare him for that college, but Stiles felt a rare moment of reflection. It was a modest life that Papa and he had carved out for themselves on the prairie, after Mama died and everything had gone sideways in Chicago, but it was a good one. He was eager for what was next.
Then he looked out the window and saw Mr. Hale walking down the street toward the general store, his father following along behind, and the brief feeling of contentment shattered. He felt suddenly anxious that Papa would do or say something to put Mr. Hale off, and wondered when a simple carpentry job had become so important. He tried to be fatalistic; if it was to be, it would happen.
But oh, he wanted.